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

Indie game developers move on. Or they fail.

I’ve been asked if I am still working on Gratuitous Space Battles 2. And I am not. I’ve been accused of all sorts of stuff as a result. I wont repeat that here. What I want to talk about is the economics of this question, why people get angry, and why it makes sense that I am not working on Gratuitous Space Battles 2 right now.

First some facts. GSB2 started work around November 2013. It was released on the 16th April 2015. So the dev time was about 17 months.

Now the game was in beta for a while before release, with sales from my site, and is on sale also at GoG and the humble store, but most people wont have any idea how well it sells on any of those, so lets just look at the steam sales as reported by steam spy:

Owners 10,876. Assume average of 50% off maybe? so assume $10 a copy? so lets say it made $108,000 and add in another $50,000 from other sources. However steam take their cut so thats really only about $120,000. Actually thats a bit shy of the real figure, which is just over $150,000. So I guess some people (mostly kids) are screaming at me at this point for being a greedy scumbag and so on, because I am implying the game failed or I can’t afford to keep working on it.


The development & marketing cost for that game was $115,000. The *profit* so far is about $40,000. If I look at the hours I spent working on it, I earned about $12.74 per hour. That is assuming I stopped work on it when it shipped, even though I did not, and continued to add patches, fix bugs, add new features and polish existing ones for months after release. Something that made zero economic sense.

If you think $12.74 an hour is good for a software developer with more than twenty years experience you are flat out wrong. If you think that you can run a business in the UK earning £17,549 which is the sterling equivalent, you are flat out wrong.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 failed, partly because it was released into a sea of space strategy games that are so numerous I cannot possibly list them all. I still think its a darned good game and am very proud of the engine that was coded for it. I think it is superior in every way to the game that came before it. I’m sure it will continue to earn some money in the long run on steam, but not nearly enough to make it anything other than a relative flop.


And yet…people will still hurl abuse at me for moving on. Of course I am moving on, that is why I am still in business, and that is why I am able to pay the rent for the server on which this blog post resides. Some games are hits, some are flops. Almost all indie game studios have flops and it normally puts them out of business.  I am not asking for any sympathy, I do not want any, I am not blaming anyone but myself, and …oh for fucks sake, why even bother typing any further, as I know I will get nothing but abuse and vitriol for even posting this because many teenage gamers think that I should be working from now until my death bed to implement every possible idea, tweak, or change that they can imagine for the game because they paid $10 for it once.

That makes no economic sense, and when you harass and bully and scream at the devs of ‘your favorite games’ to do this, all you do is accelerate the date at which they go out of business and stop making games. If there is a way to turn off comments just on one post I’m going to do it here, but I expect abuse on twitter and so on anyway. Apparently thats what you have to put with for $$11.74 an hour in 2015.

FWIW positech overall is doing just fine, I’m developing a new game and publishing others. I am also personally fine, I just know many devs feel this way but are too scared to say so, I’m doing their venting for them :D


24 thoughts on Indie game developers move on. Or they fail.

  1. Hopefully I’m here in time to make the first comment a voice of support, at least. These sorts of problems – which to my mind stem from over-commoditisation of games, and the over-entitlement of many consumers – can be a vital issue for many devs. It’s compounded by the fact that indies in particular often don’t have strong enough business acumen (or don’t want to risk public image enough) to stand against such demands and vitriol, when in reality you *have* to make a business out of games development if you want it to be a long-standing source of income.

    (Is there a way we can make your blog required reading for all aspiring games developers? :-))

  2. Well this is awkward. I loved GSB1 (at least 20h on steam, which is a lot for me), but I had no idea GSB2 was in development, let alone that it had already been released.

    I check gaming websites regularly, I follow gamedev stuff on twitter (that’s how I found this post), I check out steam’s front page nearly every day, but I had no idea GSB2 existed. How is this even possible?

  3. I’m sure you feel it “failed”, but if you made a fun game that people enjoy, and you made some profit, then you succeeded.

    However, I consider myself plugged in and I’ve never heard ot this game, so maybe some more marketing is needed…?

  4. Two months ago I bought GSB2. I had fun playing it since then, The game has some glitches and some bugs, but it’s worths the 3.74 euro I spent!

    Cliff, thank you for GSB2!

  5. Jonah Falcon:
    “and you made some profit, then you succeeded.”

    No. Cliff just told you he made some income, but that’s not profit. That’s probably far less than it cost him to maintain his standard of living for the year and a half; I know London cost-of-living in the UK far too well, and assume where he is is somewhat cheaper but not truly low-priced.

    As an ex-game-dev working in the US I make nearly *ten times* what Cliff made, plus benefits. As much as I want to for self-fulfillment, for me to leave my day job to do what Cliff does at that kind of income level would be a betrayal of my family, beyond merely stupid. We pay our housecleaner more than Cliff’s hourly rate from GSB2.

    Once he’s making more than he’d make at a salaried job with his skills, you can talk about the excess income as “profit”.

  6. You don’t need to answer, but I guess the ‘income’ you mention doesn’t include residuals and income from your other endeavours – (i.e. continued sales of Democracy, GSB1, publishing Big Pharma) & $11.74 is just a sort of ‘take home wage’ calculated from the development time spent on GSB2?

      1. Cliffski,

        It seems like you calculated ROI on your posting wordcount and cut your losses there too. :-P

        We need to have you on SpaceGameJunkie again to talk about specifically this – “Indie Economics 101”.

        We see a lot of games that die on the vine because they didn’t factor in ((burn rate x dev time) + PR + licensing) properly when they set their funding targets. Also, it seems like a “good idea” to set neat features as stretch goals, but they don’t compare cost of adding the feature to the amount of additional funding that greenlights it.

        I have repeated your wisdom about “be prepared to spend the cost of development over again on PR” multiple times, because people ask me. And I tried doing a 1-man-show of PR once and it was a full time job for a few months – much more effort than I realized and much much less ROI than I anticipated.

        Tossing a game into the Steam list is no longer any sort of guarantee, because it’s become too fast and wide of a stream of titles. I struggle to keep up with just the space games, let alone other genres. And you have consumer confidence issues now because soooo much raw trash has managed to get shoveled onto the store. Unfortunately, while it’s not the only market for games, it’s the only market for games.

        So yeah, we should get together and cover this. It’s always a great pleasure to speak to you.


  7. I think the upsetting thing for me, isn’t the fact you are stopping supporting it, more than you left out the best feature of a fully expansion-ed up GSB-1(meaning i really liked the (turn based conquest mode in the GSB1 expansion).

    GSB2 would have been a sure fire buy for me personally had it had the same feature. Such a shame as i really enjoyed the first game with that expansion.

    Totally understand that Cliff needs to move on, but personally i feel this is more of a flaw of the product not being much better than GSB1 and with less features. i do saulte him for trying however.

    1. That was never in GSB1. It was an expansion added much later after development had finished. People do forget that. Its definitely not part of the base game.

      1. I get that mate, hence the “more than you left out the best feature of a fully expansion-ed up GSB-1” part of my post.

        Sorry if its seemed i was saying otherwise, thought i was clear on that.

        Eitherway – like i said, fully respect your decision. just wanted to express the reason i haven’t added to the sales numbers.

  8. Hey Cliff,

    Thanks a lot for sharing. I’ve been following the development of GSB2 through your blog posts it was very enlightening.

    I totally understand your need to move on. And reading the reviews of GSB2 (or even my games) is heartbreaking knowing the amount of work put into it.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a sequel to my game and always rejected it. I find it hard to justify the cost of a sequel vs improving on the original one. Even though my sales are abysmal, I still do it for the fun of it until I can commit to another project.

    Thanks for sharing and good luck with the next project :)

  9. Just wanted to say thanks for making a great game. I’m sorry it didn’t really work out as well as you’d hoped. It also sucks you take abuse from folks. Constructive critique is fine but people having unrealistic expectations or being shitty to you is uncalled for. People need to do more to not encourage that sort of thing and call it out when they see it.

  10. I would think that a game with an eager (if humble) following and healthy mod support like GSB2 would be an ideal scenario for an indie to be able to move on from. Was it worth supporting?

  11. “oh for fucks sake, why even bother typing any further, as I know I will get nothing but abuse and vitriol for even posting this because many teenage gamers think that I should be working from now until my death bed to implement every possible idea, tweak, or change that they can imagine for the game because they paid $10 for it once.”

    Cliff, you fucking rock. That was just a pure, utter joy to read.

  12. I have no idea how much actually you’ve spent on marketing but that sure was a waste. I never heard of the sequel. And I try to be up-to-date with indie games because I am a part of the industry. Yet no GSB2 in my news feed.

  13. I’ve just read the PC Gamer article, I’ve worked in the games industry for 20 years, I also work with a lot of indie devs and I commend you for standing your ground.

    There seems to be this perpetual demand or entitlement from players that $9.99 or whatever they paid entitles them to some sort of ‘forever’ service at the expense of the product and the developer making it – even if that means that the dev is losing money. The hate and abuse leveled at devs is unforgivable (death threats?)and lately I’ve lost faith in working in this type of industry, the transparency helps lessen that venom but only slightly, being able to say, enough is enough and stating the reasons why is important to help people understand that working every hour under the sun to update a game isn’t going to happen simply because its not always economically viable to do so. Unfortunately not everyone agrees, For the people who whine and complain about this stuff for games costing the same price as a Starbucks coffee they’ll pi$$ away in less than an hour need to go and boil their stupid heads.

  14. “Gratuitous Space Battles 2 failed, partly because it was released into a sea of space strategy games”

    I haven’t actually followed any other games in this genre so I’m wondering what the competition is.

    I was recently surprised how difficult it was to find backers for Infinity but reading some forums it sounded like a lot of people were quite “invested” in SC & Elite. What may be in work there is that once one has backed/bet-on some work in progress, there could be a bit of bias involved against late come competition even when if all the projects starter simultaneously, it would be obvious that the late come competition is actually better prospect. eg Infinity only got 330k while SC/ED got millions despite being further ahead in dev and visuals than SC & ED at time of kickstarter because it had started development back in ~2006.

  15. I don’t know if I quite understand what you’re saying though. You were able to fully support yourself from money that you made during development. You made a PROFIT of $40,000. That amount of profit off of something is a lot more than people who have a normal salary job. $40,000 profit in about a year and a half seems like a lot. Sure, you have to start making money soon after or that profit won’t be profit anymore, but the thing is, you made money, which is something a lot of people would like to do but can’t as easily.

    1. that ‘profit’ is before I take ANY salary. or pay company tax, or pay for webhosting, or an accountant, or any of the other things involved in running the business.

  16. I”m sorry i don’t get how you spent $ 115 000 on the game if you don’t include your salary, i thought you were working solo?

  17. Too many devs, too many games released and gamers not willing to pay full price anymore (sales!)

    IMHO, you cannot do continuous business as dev here.

    As a creative hobby for your own fun – it’s ok if you can deal with attitudes and harassment.

    Have you thought of switching into b2b apps?

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