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

The impossible question: How many copies can you sell?

If you aren’t already aware, I’m the guy who made the Democracy series of games. They are my top selling games so far. Because they have done well, my natural timid brutishness makes me think I’ve ‘maxxed out’ their sales, but the occasional binge reading of Peter Thiel books or articles on silicon valley websites makes me wonder just what percentage of the market I have reached with that game.

A quick look at steamspy will tell you that there are currently this many owners of Democracy 3: ( I make no official comment as to their accuracy :D).

So lets assume  assume its vaguely right and 370,000 people have bought it. Lets also assume that given the various discounts over the years, on average people have paid 50% of the face price of $24.95, so that gives a total income (gross) of $4.6 million. Sweet. Assume roughly 70% of that for the developer is $3.2 million before taxes. Thats a big hit in indie game terms, but exactly HOW big is it? Lets look at a few other stats, with the same data.
Space engineers has the same price, but 1.2 million owners, theoretically thats around $10.4 million for the devs. Jesus. Even more crazy but how high can we go? And are the games in any way comparable?

Space Engineers supports 15 different languages, Democracy 3 supports a lot less, and not too well either. Is this something I should improve perhaps? On the other hand, it has no DLC, whereas there are 3 expansions for D3, so I’m not comparing apples with apples here. Plus, is the market for a deep political game like D3 the same as space engineers?
Well lets look at other politics games on steamspy:

The Political Machine 2012: 87,000 * $3.99. $347k max 170k gross, 0.03 x Democracy 3.

Tropico 4: 1,200,000 * 19.95.  24 million max, 12 million gross, 3x Democracy 3.

Tropico 5: 383,000 * 39.99. Thats $15 million max, 7.5 million gross.  2x Democracy 3.

CIV V. 7,000,000 * $30. Thats $210 million max, $105 million gross,  22x Democracy 3.372

The production cost of Democracy 3 vs all of those games is obviously way lower, but lets assume, for arguments sake, that the total potential market for Democracy 3 is one tenth that of Civ V, given that we can reach EVERYONE who might buy it. Thats $10 mill gross, or in other words roughly $4.2 million of developer revenue sat out there waiting. Hmmm…

Its VERY easy to live in a developer bubble where you assume that because you’ve written 100 blog posts about your game and read 20 reviews, seen 100 lets plays, that EVERYONE knows about the game. Get this for context… I was chatting to one of my closest buddies recently. He is my age, he plays games, but isn’t much of a geek. He didn’t know what twitter was or how it worked.


God knows how many bazillion dollars of free PR, and this guy had never heard of one of the largest more pervasive companies on the planet. Such people exist. More than you think. When you have conversations like that, it makes you realize just how trivial the number of people playing your game is. Lets assume steamspy is spot on (and ignore everyone who bought it off other sites), and say that 372,000 people own Democracy 3. Lets show them on the map:


There you go. That’s the entire population of Belize. Wohoo. There are a lot more people to sell my game to.
Right now, my facebook ad campaign for Democracy 3 tells me my target group contains 8,600,000 people, based on the countries, demographics and specific interests that I selected. That’s people who use facebook, which isn’t everyone. Assuming one tenth of those people *will* actually buy the game if I can get them to take a look at it, then thats an extra 488,000 copies to sell. In other words, I’m half way through selling Democracy 3.

Nuts isn’t it.


  • Some of these people may already have pirated the game.
  • Some of these people may have tried a demo or seen a video and not like the game
  • Some of them may only be prepared to, or able to pay a price below which it make no sense for me to sell (due to alienating higher price customers). The $0.99 buyers.

I’ve already hopefully screened out everyone else. They are all pc-owning strategy game loving English speaking desktop pc users in targeted countries, of the target age. Lets say that even given all of that, that in fact 10% is wildly optimistic and say just ONE per cent are actually interested… thats another 48,000 copies at an average of $12 a copy. That’s a Tesla model S with all the optional extras :D.


6 thoughts on The impossible question: How many copies can you sell?

  1. My friend has a business doing translations. I think he can do english->chinese,swedish,french and finnish. He does mostly stuff for Microsoft and some other big corps. I can ask him to contact you if those are something you’re missing. (Though I’d guesstimate the player demo. of the game is probably older teen/adult and you’d think most of them already know english well enough atleast in the nordic countries so on that basis I don’t think it’s that appealing to do translations for those countries unless the decent portion of the demographic is say less than 15 yo)

    Hard to say though, after all I didn’t have trouble enjoying english adventure games immediately (i mean, if there’s some fixed words, you could just have right click / ‘apple force touch’ menu that pulls list of translations for the word from the net). I know 10 year olds are already into simulation games and such (I was into them immediately when I got my first computer).

    So now thinking about this a bit more, perhaps there could be a limited market for translated versions at that 7-15 year old group if the game isn’t mostly single words but has more complex descriptions.

    Further, there might be older people (I know some 45+ yo may not have good enough .. but does this game appeal to such?) with limited english skills.

    I think you’d have to look at your data and the price of translations to figure out the answers.

  2. I just took a glimpse of the D3 game on youtube. This is just my personal opinion: The game looks as appealing as blank Excel spreadsheet.

    So it’s a bit like if you played Civ 1 but removed all the “nice touches” such as the pieces of music, the animations, city screen etc.

    I’m pretty sure this will cost more than you’d make back (if done in one go, might be more feasible if done incrementally over say 10 years) but I’d make all the graphics hand drawn bitmap (skeuomorphism etc), then add a lot of historical videos poured from archives all over the world of some events when player creates some kind of situation which has happened in past etc.

    Have the UI style change based on what kind of country you’re running. Yeah all kinds of “non-sense” but that’s the kind of stuff why I think Civ1,MOO1 are better than the sequels – clearly the guy who did those was a genius not only about balancing the game but in creating style of graphics that appealed to emotions etc.

  3. Localization with D3 seems to be easy in some ways, but difficult in others. I would assume that you would need to make countries associated with each localization to make it effective. I don’t know how much work that would require, and if the target markets would support the extra work to make the country and handle the translation.

    Do you have analytics that show you conversions on your advertisements? You should be able to track your click-throughs on your ads and see how many of those lead to direct sales. Of course, there is also an indirect gain that you get from people having heard of the game from seeing your ads for it.

    Truthfully, I wonder how effective it would be to push D3 as a politics simulator during election season. Get press coverage and exposure to people who are interested in the politics side, and might not be gamers.

    Regarding it being “as appealing as [a] blank Excel spreadsheet,” [sarcasm] I think that he might have a point. You need to implement D3 with the GSB2 engine so that users will be able to have stimulating visuals. [/sarcasm]

  4. If you lower the price you are likely to sell more copies. Selling more copies is also more likely to drive further sales in the future (Democracy 4?).

    One would have to think that lowering the price over time makes some sense, even if you end up selling it very cheap (but never forgetting the ‘real’ price, i.e. buying a $5 item is different to buying a $20 item at 75% off).

    I also see a range of publishers using a model whereby the game is heavily discounted, more or less free, but the expansions remain relatively still high priced, because once you actually like a game, they might well be worth picking up. And many people have ‘completionist’ tendencies.

    (None of this applicable to me. I paid full price for both, but didn’t actually much like it!)

  5. “Its VERY easy to live in a developer bubble where you assume that because you’ve written 100 blog posts about your game and read 20 reviews, seen 100 lets plays, that EVERYONE knows about the game.”

    Best bit of advice I’ve heard on this is from music producer Rick Rubin: at the point where you are absolutely sick fed up of talking about your music, that’s the moment when the majority of people are only just starting to hear about it.

  6. There’s actually a really big market for a game like Democracy that you may not even have thought about.

    Because it is a dynamic economic and policy simulator that would be very useful in policy formulation and economic debates – particularly if you correct the accounting so it works with floating exchange rate zones, is stock/flow consistent and models several countries at the same time.

    Drop me a note if you fancy talking about it.

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