Blast From the Past
On 3 November 2013 I wrote about my second commercial game, Steam Marines. At that point the game had been in development for about a year and a half, and I projected that it would cost $160,000 USD across its development cycle. It fully released on 24 September 2014 and I can now say that the actual cost of the project was $97,913.88. This includes all my hardware and software costs, contractor payments, and my full time salary*.
Aside: *I should mention that I worked a lot during this 2.5 year period. A LOT. If I converted my annual salary to an hourly rate I was by far the lowest paid person who worked on the game. But not if I consider my full compensation – I only revenue share with the various distributor platforms that I sell Steam Marines on.
Don’t be wowed by that cut from $160,000 to ~$100,000. That was a combination of me being very conservative, worst-case-scenario with my initial budget and extremely aggressive with cost and cash effectiveness throughout the entire development cycle. If you have any kind of budget, five digits and up, you may be surprised how far you can make it stretch.
Aside: And I do not mean not paying or underpaying your contractors. Do not do this. I mean find parts of your game you can effectively implement in a less costly and/or time consuming way. Reuse assets. Do you really need X to have unique art? Do you really need 32435 character classes and nine hundred tilesets? Actively manage your scope and it will pay off, I promise you.
Also I did run into a large roadblock partway through development, and the initial schedule of 24 months was extended to 30 months. So even my planning for the worst still had the final release date slip.
How well did Steam Marines do? Well enough. I still can’t speak about specific platform numbers, but I can link you to the game’s SteamSpy page. I can tell you other things, too.
The Shock Wears Off After a While
I started working full time on Steam Marines 2 on 24 September 2014. Yes, that was Steam Marines’ full release date. It’s August 2016 at the moment, so I’ve been working on Steam Marines 2 for about 23 months now.
Aside: I did take a multi-month break at the end of 2015.
The development cost of Steam Marines 2 is a little fuzzy to calculate due to various reasons I’m not going to elaborate on here. But I can say that its development cost to date is around $100,000 USD which translates to approximately $4,347 a month. It’s still slated for another 25 months of development before full release.
Steam Marines basically paid for Steam Marines 2 development in 2015. Having revenue streams is nice. Have more revenue streams.
I’ve been gearing up for early alpha release on Itch.io which should land in a month or two, depending on how things shake out. Itch, while being fairly well praised by small developers, does not appear to be able to supply the funding for developers, even (or especially?) small ones. I’ve talked to about two dozen now and none of them make a living strictly from Itch; Their sales are actually abysmal, double digits if lucky.
So why alpha release on Itch only? I do have a Steam AppID for Steam Marines 2 already. I’ve been through the process before and it’s not difficult. There are four main reasons:
- I initially launched my public builds for Steam Marines on IndieDB. I first started selling via its sister site, Desura (I don’t recommend these sites these days.) The community was small, but focused. You could get limited but helpful feedback and iterate. Most massive issues you have can be sussed out and fixed before shoving your game into the much more vicious Steam crowd.
Aside: Steam Marines did well on Steam’s Early Access, but you really do need thick skin to deal with the vitriol you will almost inevitably receive. I don’t employ a Community Manager – I wear that hat. That means I get to read every review and comment myself. My ego has taken a lot of hits over the years.
- You can see if your price point is roughly correct or completely off the wall. The tentative alpha price for Steam Marines 2 is $25 USD. That is not inexpensive, but I didn’t set it arbitrarily high, either. I don’t mean you solicit feedback on if your price is any good or not. I mean you see if people actually buy your game at whatever price you think fits your game.
- Only one platform to update builds and keep in contact with really, really, really helps you be efficient. I literally closed down my official forums this year. I can be reached on the Steam forums, my Twitter, email, et cetera. I cannot overemphasize how important being able to focus is, especially when you’re trying to drum up sales, make fixes, add content, push builds, and do all of this with feedback flowing into your eyeballs.
- Itch allows me to set the revenue sharing any integer value between 0 and 100%, inclusive. I’m not setting it at 0%, but I’m not setting it at 30%, either.
Aside: Itch uses PayPal and/or Stripe as payment processors. For (US people anyway) they charge a transaction fee of $0.30 plus 2.9% of the charge. So in Steam Marines 2′s case it would be $0.30 + 0.029 * $25.00 = $1.025 (not sure if they round up or down), or in total about 4.1% on top of what you decide to give Itch.
I’d like to be able to sell ~6,700 copies of Steam Marines 2 for $25 each on Itch. That’s basically a pipe dream from the data I’ve been able to gather, but there’s my goal. Maybe I’ll sell like 2. It’s hard to say.
Based on my experience on Itch I’ll nudge the game in better directions before dipping my toes into Steam Early Access – unless I’m very pleasantly surprised by great sales numbers. But the earlier I can pivot in a good direction, if I need to, the better. Maybe the game does really, truly terribly and I think I need to adjust the development time. Maybe the game does really well and I need to adjust the development time.
Game development is funny like that.
Thanks for reading,