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

Random ups and downs of releasing games

I really don’t get how indies put so much time and effort into their first game. The ones who get into debt amaze me even more. the ones who mortgage/sell their house scare the crap out of me. Don’t do this.
I’ve made lots of games, here is how they went:

  • Asteroid Miner: Meh…sold a few hundred copies, was exciting to see it in a box.
  • Starship Tycoon…sold a few hundred copies, also some retail deals, tempted to quit day job… and does! That was a mistake!
  • Rocky Racers… mediocre flop.
  • Kombat kars… mediocre flop.
  • Planetary Defense…not bad considering development time was super short (a few months).
  • Kudos…surprise hit. did really well. 3rd party publishing deals that paid actual royalties!
  • Kudos 2… even better. Seriously good sales. hit $20k in one month. unbelievable.
  • Democracy…not bad, not enough to quit job, but really not bad.
  • Democracy 2: Really good, enough to quit job. *quits job AGAIN*. pays off mortgage.
  • Gratuitous Space Battles: OMG teh fountain of money. Buys new house.
  • Gratuitous Tank Battles. Meh: pretty good, but nowhere near as good as GSB.
  • Democracy 3: LOLLERSKATES. Orders brand new car & stupidly expensive laptop. Starts flying business class. Eventually buys stupidly flash electric car.
  • GSB2: Yikes, that didn’t go down well. Ouch. what did I do wrong?
  • Democracy 3:Africa. Fuck. Americans REALLY don’t care about Africa then? Barely breaks even.
  • Production Line: LOL. Almost physically crushed by stampede of pre-orders.

My point is…holy crap you never know what will happen next. Your next game could flop, it could be huge. I *really* think that GSB2 is underappreciated and am surprised it flopped. I’m still amazed at how many people like political strategy games. YOU NEVER KNOW. So be cautious, and experiment a bit. if I’d bet my house on Asteroid Miner, I’d be renting a bedsit whilst still working in IT support trying to pay off debts. I’ve never borrowed money to make a game, I’ve never remortgaged, I’ve never worked for more than 18 months on a single game before putting it on sale.

That might be a bit clinical and unromantic, but its worked for me. Your life is not a feel-good Hollywood movie starring Tom Cruise. Don’t get stuck in confirmation bias. Many indie games fail. Some fail HARD.

12 thoughts on Random ups and downs of releasing games

  1. Democracy not bad, Democracy 2 good, Democracy 3 very good.

    Kudos not bad, Kudos 2 good — time to revisit that one next?

  2. This is really good to see Cliff. You’ve done amazingly well. Thanks for sharing, warts and all. :)

  3. Risk management should really be the core of any business and indie games are no different, it’s shocking to read comments on Gamasutra about how making games is fun and the business side is icky.
    Personally I love thinking about the business side, it feels good to know that even if my next game sells 0 copies I won’t be out on the street.

    I hope to one day reach “LOLLERSKATES” level.

  4. As to Democracy 3: Africa… though I can’t speak for all Americans, I think the answer is pretty much “nope, we don’t.” I imagine that Europeans care about Africa about the same as North Americans care about South and Central America and the Caribbean islands… and vice versa. It’s proximity, both geographically and politically.

    As to everything else… yep! Exactly. My mantra now is “quantity of sufficient quality.” You stand a much better chance of success making three good games than taking the same amount of time to make one great game. Especially since “great” is so much in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Considering it’s a rollercoaster, how would you recommend for people to start their indie journey?
    Making a game while working isn’t always possible, mostly due to time constraints, and while it]s not easier than ever to make and publish a game, it’s also harder than ever to get yourself seen.

    1. Yeah good question. Personally I *did* do the ‘make a game at evenings and weekends’ thing. I guess the other option is to go with an indie publisher, or start with a very simple game. Most peoples first games are over-ambitious.

  6. Any chance you could add insight on the games you helped publish into the list? Pharma & Political Animals?

  7. You make it sound as if the succes of a game is totally random! I would be very interested in more details about ‘why’ a game sold well or not. Is there any research done about a game before you decide to make it?

  8. I’m surprised more people didn’t buy Democracy 3: Africa. I’m American and I bought it and love it. I still play Democracy 1& 2 and Kudos 2.

  9. You don’t mention Rock Legend at all. I know you mentioned before that it tanked but I’m pretty sure there were a lot of people, like me, that really liked it. Haven’t played in a long time but that’s only because i don’t have a PC at home now. And I don’t think I can download it from the website and play in parallels now?!?

  10. The moment I saw Production Line I thought it would be a hit – it amazes me there are not more games scratching the Factorio itch (I know there are others, but none of them are quite right, IMO).

  11. Love seeing stuff like this. It blows me away seeing folks do exactly what you outlined… massive amount of time (3-5 years)… debt… etc…

    I’m thinking about what my next project will be and working on finding something I can fit within a short window before sale is critical. I dig that you’ve managed to push so many projects out while sticking to an 18 month window.

    Best wishes on Production Line! Out of all of those projects It’s taken me this long to discover ya!

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