Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

How to sell your game online without using an app-store

The title says it all. Recent discussion over the upcoming apple app-store triggered someone to tweet to me that a lot of devs probably are too scared to sell their games direct online, and just don’t know where to start. I’m going to tell you.
(The reason I know what I’m talking about is that I’ve sold tens of thousands of games direct online, since I started in 1998, I’ve used at least 6 different payment providers and 3 different webhosts, I’ve sold more than a dozen games myself, plus dealt with almost every online portal)

1) Sell separate demo and full versions.
You can make the full version bigger, and save bandwidth on the demo. Plus it’s harder to pirate this way. Just maintain 2 builds, it won’t kill you.

2) Don’t handle payments directly.
Do you REALLY want to take phone orders 24/7 365 days a year? Unless you REALLY know what you are doing, sign up to a payment provider like BMTMicro or Plimus or Fastspring. They will handle credit card payments, paypal, debit cards, cheques, orders by phone and fax… You will never have to worry about that stuff. they take a percentage of the sales price for all this. It IS worth it. You can set up an account with these services right now. Most have zero sign up fees, and it can be done almost instantly.

3) Get a proper domain, proper webhost, and proper mailing list provider.
This stuff is cheap, if you are serious. Hosting on some cheap shared virtual server, and hoping your email address never gets blacklisted is more hassle that it’s worth. I use hostgator for websites and use ymlp to handle mailing lists. Get a mailing list together, stick a sign up form on your website, it’s easy.(they give you the code to paste into your site). A lot of people use amazons cloud hosting stuff, which is apparently trivial to setup.

4) Don’t worry about product fulfilment or sales taxes etc
People sometimes stress about how they generate download links, time them out, work out what taxes to charge, handle currency conversions…. Forget it. A payment company like those listed handles ALL of this. They just credit your bank account each month with the money. It is no different to being on steam or impulse etc, the only difference is you get all of the customers details (except their payment details, and you don’t want them. That way you know they are secure). They even keep the customer database which you can manage with a web interface. You can set things up to populate your own database using xml posts from each sale, if you really want to.

5) Get the word out about your game.
You need to send press releases. Don’t panic, a service like ymlp can do this for you too. if you really don’t know who to send them to, you can use services like this. . They are also worth the money. This is the flipside. the benefit of portals is they have an audience sat there ready. This is the bit where you build your own audience. It takes ages, but anyone can do it if their game is any good.

6) Ignore the download sites.
Tucows,… Who cares. These sites generate no visitors and no money. If you are really bored, make a PAD file and submit to them, but you will have to be very very bored.

A lot of people, clever, serious, capable and nice people, are terrified or very negative about selling direct online. They often say that the sales from steam or bigfishgames so massively dwarf their direct sales that they don’t see the point. Here is why this is short sighted:

1) You keep over 90% of the direct sales money. Not 70%, not 80% but 90%.

2) You get the customers email address. You can email them when you release a sequel, or a new game, or some DLC.

3) If the big portals remove your game, squeeze the royalty rate, or refuse to take your next game, you are still in business. If your business relies 100% on being on a specific portal, you are just one phone call away from flipping burgers for a living.

4) Direct sales grow over time. It took me maybe 5 years before I could live from my direct sales, and was able to quit my job.  Are you prepared to make an investment now that will pay off in the long run?  Are you not even prepared to put an hour or two a week into developing the direct sales part of your business? If the answer is no, make sure you have a good business case for that. Not an emotional one. Direct sales are an insurance policy.

If Gratuitous Space Battles had been turned down by every single portal, It would still have made more in direct sales than I earned in my last job. And those thousands of buyers are quite likely to buy my next game direct too. That helps me sleep at night.

You back up your files, so why don’t you have backup sales channels?

The hypothetical endless-development indie game

There are basically two types of big budget studio-made PC game. The AAA singleplayer or multiplayer game, and the MMO. In some rare cases, the studio will hold over a big proportion of the budget to provide post release supprot to encourage continued playing of the non MMO game. The best examples of these are clearly Team Fortress 2 and Galactic Civilisations. Both games have had tons of post-release add-ons and support and patches. I think they may even rival GSB. (I’m only half kidding, GSB has had 47 post release improvement patches).

The majority of gamers, commentators and critics would describe this trend as being a “good thing”. I agree, I find it awesome. As games visual fidelity improves, and the rate of the improvement slows, we are increasingly finding that a four or even 6 year old fgame is perfectly playable, without cringing. I have recently become re-addicted to Call of Duty 2 multiplayer, and it’s a relief to see some people still playing that game everyday, enough for a decent game when I feel like it.

The problem with the ‘ongoing, maybe never-ending post-release support’ thing, is that it costs money. Valve are treating TF2 as their internal business test-bed, so sales are fairly irrelevant to them, but stardock can only pump money into GalCiv, or Elemental, until the money runs out. Paying a whole studfio with offices and pensions costs a lot of money.

And here is where I think it gets interesting. Take indie games like Minecraft or… GSB for example. Minecraft has made enough money to buy the moon, so it’s already achieved what I’m thinking of. GSB hasn’t done so yet. But the interesting thing is that, in theory, if GSB could break through it’s current threshold to have a high enough level of ongoing sales over time, it *could* become a permenantly supported and expanded and improved game. Effectively an MMO without the fees. Paying just my wages is far cheaper than an entire studio. Massively cheaper.

This is a bit of a pipe dream, but when you think about, you’ll see how it explains a lot of what I’ve been doing. There have been 4 expansion packs, and a campaign expansion is coming soon. The  existing expansions don’t bring in buckets of money, but they do keep the game in the news and in the minds of gamers, and help it to continue selling. If I was to publish daily sales figures, you would see them as laughable next to minecraft, but I don’t need $100,000 a day to keep working on GSB. I don’t even need 1% of that.

The likliehood is that the campaign will make *some* money, and hopefully tide me over for a while as I get stuck into my top secret next game. But in theory, if I could propel it slightly higher, could there be another year of continual improvements to GSB? The game could become truly awesome over that time. It’s not like there aren’t 500 new ideas for stuff to improve the game. Hmmmm.

metrics and accidental genius

Are metrics killing creativity?

Imagine a future where all TV is either watched digitally, or streamed online, and the TV networks have 100% certain data over what program is watched, when channels are changed, and a good idea of what adverts were shown. The precision of the data would be vastly better than we have now.

Now combine that with the current trend for intensive study of audience reactions. Lets say in 2020, no TV program will get commissioned without the pilot being screened to 500 people in MRI scanners, to observe their emotional response to each line, each character, each event, each word.

This is probably how zynga would make TV, and who can blame them? All the data shows that if you collect extensive metrics on everything, you can fine tune the design of entertainment to maximise the audience figures and the revenue. The problem is,  sometimes the first impressions are just wrong. Sometimes, people think character X sucks, in the pilot, but goes on to be the best thing about the show. Sometimes, series I is basically a bit hit-or-miss, but by series II or III, its an emmy-winning masterpiece.

The first attempt at anything, with a new crew and cast, is normally a bit wobbly. People don’t really know what they are doing, how the whole experience will ‘gel’ and what the character of the program will be. I remember thinking that the first series of QI, and the first series of ‘would I lie to you’ on BBC TV, were both a bit ‘meh’. Apparently, the first series or two of Dragons Den had low audience figures and were dull. All 3 are hugely popular now.

I’m glad sometimes stuff that might seem a bit ‘meh’ is allowed to work out the kinks. The metrics are screaming ‘KILL IT!’, but if there is someone really talented behind a project, who can really see it in their minds eye, those things often go on to be the best things around.

We all know that the beatles got turned down by many record companies and that the sims was turned down by everyone. What if its true that not only are the big money-men often wrong with their first impression, but all of us are often wrong too? Maybe we shouldn’t trust the metrics 100%?

Lots going on

There is a lot of stuff happening right now. Mac GSB on steam is imminent. I have released a bundle of the DLC for GSB getting all 4 packs for $9.99, which you can get here:

(That bundle might not last forever, so be quick)

I am working on campaign stuff, which is going well. I also fixed a GSB bug where limpet launchers and plasma torpedoes launched from the wrong place in multi-hardpoint slots. How did I not spot that one before eh?

In the news I notice this insanity:

Frankly, if your business model relies on preventing your competitors from advertising, then your product must suck. The best way to beat your rivals out-advertising you is to have a better product, better service, or even to spend a bit mroe on ads or make better ones. Reaching for the lawyers is a cynical, desperate and ultimately doomed move. Interflora don’t own a patent on the idea of selling flowers. If I owned shares in interflora I’d dump all of them immediately.

Shock! In-game ads do NOT work…

Check this out:

It looks like Microsoft paid over $200 million for an ad business that doesn’t make any money. I am SO amazed to hear that. Hold on…no I’m not.

Advertising is EVERWHERE. I’ve seen it on the back of bus tickets, on steps, and even on peoples clothes. You know the ONLY major potential location for ads we don’t actually get any? To my mind, it’s in the pages of books. Imagine turning the page of a novel and getting an ad for pepsi. It’s laughable. Novels are about being immersed in a new world. The objective is to forget about pepsi, car insurance and washing powder for the duration of the story. The same is true of most games.

Ads in the middle of games suck, and always have. There are so many problems associated with them, I haven’t sufficient time to list them. And yes, there are ads in TV shows and TV movies, and this is why DVD box sets are so popular. People HATE the ads.

Surely I am not the only one who saw this coming a light year away? All those constant shill news-stories about how ‘gamers LOVE in-game ads’ made it 100% obvious it was a business case disaster :D

I’m back from holiday :D