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


At the time of writing, a quick check of stats on steamspy for player unknown:battlegrounds reveals this chart:

A very basic analysis suggests 500,000 copies this month, at $30, minus maybe 40% for refunds/taxes/steams cut gives us:  roughly $9million this month. Total sales stand at 3 million, for a total estimate of $53 million so far since release 3 months ago. Assuming a lifetime doubling of that 9conservative) that gives us about $100,000,000. income.

The developer is listed as bluehole inc, who apparently have about 90 staff:

So the average income per employee there is a million dollars. original team size was 35, so assume that half the money goes to equity holders and its split equally between the 35, that gives them roughly $1.4 million each. In practice thats bollocks, because more likely 80% would be going to the equity holders and I’d guess 90% of that belongs to maybe a handful, at best 4 people? (I have ZERO idea, this is my guesswork), which means company founders are probably getting about $22 million from the game. Include sequels, potential DLC, merchandise and so on, and you can probably round it up to 25 million.

Thats a fuck-ton of cash.

But the problem is, the chances of Joe Indie game developer achieving this are close enough to zero as makes no difference.  There are 348 pages of ‘top sellers’ on indie games on steam. Taking the mid point, and looking at the top game (I wont pick on it publicly, so lets not name it). Its an RPG with Zombies in apparently (that shouldn’t narrow it much :D). Steamspy says…. *drumroll*

3,500 owners. Top price has been $9.99, been out 9 months. Maximum conceivable income is $20,979 to the developer. In practice, as its been on sale, lets multiply that by 50% and get about $10,000.

This game isn’t exactly World Of Warcraft but it has a proper 3D graphics thing going on, positive reviews and a decent capsule graphic. lets depress ourselves with the numbers:

Assume the developer is a single person with no other costs and keeps all the money: $10,000 a year, or roughly 1% of the revenue/employee as PU:BG.

Assume they are the founders/owners/creators and keep all that sweet cash, they earned roughly 0.04% of the equiv person behind PU:BG.

Yes…these figures are very very rough, but I didn’t deliberately pick something bad, in fact I picked half way through the indie top sellers. Are we really thinking they sound so out of whack? This is a WINNER TAKES ALL market. You are either in the top 0.1% of indie game developers, or you are unemployed, with an expensive hobby where you make effectively free games.

This is nobodies ‘fault’. Steam didn’t cause it, Unity didn’t cause it. games got easier to make, and more people got access to PCs, development kits, computer skills and broadband. Its really no different from waiting tables whilst pretending to be an actress, or avoiding admitting you are unemployed by claiming to be a writer. There is virtually nothing I can do about this, and nothing you can do about this, but there is something we can collectively do to at least minimize the collateral damage:

Lets admit that the default position for an indie game developer is pretty much poverty. If you want to make money, maybe one day buy a house, start a family, have a pension, why are you making indie games? You KNOW you are almost certainly screwed right? or to put it another, simpler, TL;DR way:


Now, *some* people don’t flop, and do well. And that *might* be you, but I urge you, go into this job (like any other) with your eyes WIDE open. Your chances of success are incredibly, incredibly small. This is not a sensible career. This is not a wise career move. This is almost certainly personal financial suicide. You may (like me) feel compelled to make games regardless of success or failure, but ALWAYS know the odds. ALWAYS. (Han solo is wrong about his topic). I know people get inspired to make games by reading about the success of some developers (including me), and that’s great, but always know what you are doing. Do not remortgage your house to do this. Do not both quit your job and live off savings to do this when you have kids to support. Do not assume you are different or special.

Treat this as a disclaimer for my blog: You are reading the thoughts of a guy who was coding since age 11, has 36 years coding experience, has shipped over a dozen games, several of which made millions of dollars, got into indie dev VERY early, knows a lot of industry people, and has a relatively high public profile. And still almost NOBODY covered my latest game (in terms of gaming websites). Its extremely, extremely tough right now.



  1. Having this blog post and also Introversion today mentioning how their latest game’s sales have been incredibly low is pretty sobering. (

    I’m pretty fortunate to still be living at home with 0 expenses and savings from previous jobs, so I’m giving myself one shot at making the game I want to make, with the full expectation of having to find work once it’s finished.

  2. No shit, you’re either terraria, PUBG, minecraft (remember: Minecraft was a one-man hobby project before it blew out of proportion) etc or you’re lucky to have your game earn $30k (that might sound like a lot but that’s about what a minimum wage worker earns)… and that’s before taxes, this is the reality of a saturated market – you need luck, and preferably a metric shitload of marketing skill.

  3. yep can confirm, made a game, published, tried marketing, have racked up a whopping 26 downloads. Ok it was a hobby and I haven’t really marketed or anything but still like, really?

  4. My question then: how come there are these huge indie communities. So many developer and indie studios who mange build a sustainable business.

    To say that just because you don’t have a huge AAA buged and a massive team of developers your game will fail is a bad argument that has nothing to do with reality.

    What is reality is “making games is hard”. There is a lot of work involved and less than half of that is even making a compelling game. The hardest part is often finding an audience for your creation.

    I work in indie games and there are unbelievably many people who have managed to sustain themselves and their families by making games. None of tgese have made hundreds of millions (sometimes millions though). My friends and I pour our hearts and souls into the games we work on, it can be draining and sometimes we suffer but in the end we manage to live iff our art, do what we love and share our creativity with the world.

    It is an amzing community, everyone is very welcoming and helpful to new idie devs, and sharing knowledge on how to avoid pitfalls during development, marketing and all that.

    I think the core message of this article is dihartening and hurtful to aspiring creators.



    1. To Chris’s comment of having a community of successful and supportive developers: what you are seeing is something called survivorship bias.

      The indies that fail (and they massively outnumber the indies who earn enough to survive) do not often stay in the community. So what we are left with are two groups: successful people like Cliffski, myself, or possibly you, and new blood filled with passion and positivity.

      This can lead to the wrong expectations for indie devs. Cliff’s warning is not a NEW warning, but at least in my experience we who have been in indie games for over a decade post these kinds of warnings because seeing the young passionate people fail is SOUL CRUSHING to us. We want you all to succeed, and seeing our new friends fail really wears on you over the years.

      It’s literally why I moved on from marketing indie games to game hardware after about 14 years or so of what most people would call success. Even as someone with very successful clients and track records I would still fail my clients and friends about half the time.

    2. I’ve been making games professionally for 35 years, and I’m one of the rare indies who’s managed to make money at it. I have to say, while it is disheartening, it’s not untrue. Even as far back as the 1990s, something like 92% of all games published lost money. They made less in sales than they cost to develop. Today I’m sure the percentage is much higher than 92%.

      This is not unusual – most movies, books, magazines, music CDs, etc. make little or no money (or lose money), and the industries are mostly supported by the very small fraction of them that are big hits. Computer games are no different. Do try – I intend to keep on trying, and hope to make more profitable titles in the future as I have in the past. But do be aware that most people will fail to make any money at this, and have a backup plan for what you do next if that happens to you.

  5. Game dev here as well and we are doing well enough to get a livable paycheck, but yes, game dev is a very hard business and only some make it towards the top. Even there it still doesn’t amount to much after all of the fees and expenses that people need to pay.

    My suggestion to those that want to get into it, take your time with it as a side-job or be independently wealthy and live off of the interest while you make your passion game. I have seen so many games fail, even if they were deserving of being at the top.

    It is a tough business and I wish you all luck!

  6. Sounds completely realistic to me.

    Chances of having a hit game are similar to a hit movie, single or book.
    By all means try it, but don’t make it your only plan.

    I’ve been in and out of games for about twenty years and been very fortunate at that, but effort/passion/quality does not become sustainable success without a major dollop of luck.
    Of course if you don’t have those things you’ve got no chance at all, but having them just gives you a roll of the dice.

  7. Yeah I think essentially you have to try and de risk it by not putting your eggs in one basket. I switched from more lucrative career in ecomm/ games retail (got sick of bullshitters and politics) to game dev for an established indie, to support my personal learning and projects to make my own. Earning enough to pay the bills just about in day job, but hungry to learn more and get my own products out. Hopefully it works but either way it’s really fun. I don’t think people should be put off creating but just don’t think you’re gonna click your fingers and become a millionaire either

  8. With AAA games getting bigger and bigger and moving to live services in the hope of getting players engaged for months (if not years) and more companies and indie studios making games, is not even a problem of getting noticed is just that people don’t have enough time to play all those games so unless you become the “cool game of the month” that everybody has to try because everybody is talking about it your chances of making money are very limited.

    There is also a big snowball effect for games like PUB that somehow get mentioned and then everybody rushes to get it just to see what is it about. Something similar happened with NoManSky and others.

    I finished an indie game with a team of 20 people, with decent enough quality in its genre (merits a 6 or 7) and after 6 months it only sold 30,000 copies.

    I agree with Cliff, it is a winner takes all market right now and unless you can find a loyal niche and keep your costs down, you’re screwed.

  9. Let me just comment that video game industry doesn’t have WTA dynamics. In fact, the reason why it is so difficult to make money with video games is that this is a very tough industry due to very little power for indie developers. If you would think about it using a framework, for example Porters five forces, you could see that there is high threat of new entrants, high rivalry, high power of consumers and high threat of substitutes. The point is, you can think about the industry however you want, but just know that it’s not winner takes all. You just have to be creative and find a position for your company, your games that gives you an edge. And yes, it is likely your game will flop. You have to be sure video game development is what you want to do, because it is very, very tough industry to work in if you don’t have passion for it.

  10. I love being informed that my game will fail by a developer who’s never made a game that I find even remotely worth playing. Same for most of the devs agreeing with the article.

      1. Supply far outstrips demand if you dislike this guy’s games.

        Supply far outstrips demand if you like this guy’s games.

        You can dislike or ignore math and facts if you wish, but whether you like or dislike someone’s games really doesn’t change reality.

  11. The problem I think is pretty clear, 95% of indie games don’t deserve to do well. They are poorly conceived, poorly implemented and poorly marketed. They don’t deserve to succeed and they don’t. The big problem is that this swamp of mediocrity makes it harder for worthwhile games to get the exposure they deserve. The fault for this situation lies firmly at the feet of the app stores and game portals who care little for quality and more for their coffers so allow any old rubbish to be greenlit or approved for sale.

  12. “Don’t make indie games, you won’t make money.” Says the guy making indie games.

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I enjoy the blog. Yes I get that it is brutal and it’s good to temper expectations. However, what I keep coming back to is if you think it is this brutal why would you persist yourself mr cliffski? Obviously you think that it’s not THAT brutal or you would find another industry or retire.

    1. If you have 30+ years coding experience, a dozen shipped games, multiple popular games already on steam, no kids and no mortgage…yes its a decent industry. That doesn’t apply to most people though.

  13. Unfortunately all said in this article is true and confirmed, so unless you’re doing something else in your life to get income – don’t start your indie game dev career.

    We at GameArx learned it hard way, wasted investors money, then personal savings and then we realized that we have to pivot otherwise we’ll be homeless soon. So we started doing outsource. It helps us survive and continue making own games, but it’s not a profit, and the life we want, it’s a Survivalcraft. Maybe we’ll make a game about it someday :)

  14. I put alot of work into WordSmashing including getting a pro logo designed.

    Zero installs, one including myself!

    I even spent money on various ads e.g. around $40 on googles admob that will allegedly “automatically optimize bid per click for maximum expected install revenue”…. still zero installs.

    Now after marketing it to various people in person and ads IRL….
    Yes still zero installs apart from family lol.

    You have to be in it for the fun of it really…

  15. An excellent article. Absolutely go into this with eyes wide open.

    After 25 years in development I paused working for clients for two years to establish myself as an indie, living off of capital I had accumulated.

    I was very pessimistic in my projections, but I did not even hit these targets. It has been very depressing. On the upside, Democracy 3 is fantastic :-), very well modelled.

    1. Make your game Free and try to monetize it with ads. You probably won’t get much but it will be more than what you are getting now.

  16. True. I thought what you say here was common sense, but some people seem to not realize that.
    I have the chance to not fall in that trap: I make video games as a hobby, and have a real job on the side.
    I save and invest a lot of money in order to have enough income to live comfortably in a few years, then I’ll start to make video games full-time, and it won’t be a problem if they do not have the success of a few indies out there.

  17. Sounds like someone is desperately trying to dissuade other indie devs from becoming competitors.
    Feeling the heat, are we, Cliffski?

  18. this is why I try to support indie devs I like even if I don’t always play their games. I have enjoyed Democracy 3 quite a bit, but i only play it on the odd occassion. That being said, I always buy your products as soon as they release or whenever I become aware of them – why? Because I love what you do any I argue that every dollar helps. I try to buy games like yours for friends all of the time.

    Sadly, I see people much more willing to throw down $200 on Hearthstone card packs than $30 on an indie game and some DLC.

  19. The problem is most people don’t know what making a game actually entails and start off down that road making some 3D models, downloading Unity and C# and hoping the rest of the blanks fill themselves in.

    As I’ve come to learn the hard way – you have to be writer, artist, producer, developer, tester, marketing team, architect, coder, quality control, critic, devils advocate and most importantly PROJECT MANAGER all at once and that’s AFTER you have a properly developed and tested idea that appeals to a wide audience.

    Games didn’t get easier to make because of development frameworks like Unity or distribution platforms like Steam – games are as hard to make today as they have always been in my opinion – Unity made it easier for people to skip over the development stage easier and flood distribution platforms like Steam with complete junk which in turn lowers the level of crap accepted onto Steam to the point they are now shutting down Greenlight.

    Most indie developers are shit is the truth of it – the majority have a few months hobbyist experience in frameworks and an idea that is going nowhere except for in their head.

  20. I sell air conditioners during the day to pay bills and keep the kids fed, sheltered and warm.
    At night, after a tough day at work, its indie game development hobby time.

    I appreciate articles like this, thank you.

  21. Yeah, when I started in 2009, it was MUCH easier to get press. Now, the games press is flooded and they mostly cover what gets them clicks. Promoting discovery is not a priority. Steam killed me. People started emailing me and complaining that my games were not on Steam so they wouldn’t buy them. And $19.99 got too expensive for customers. Then I got out.

  22. There were over 5000 new games released on Steam last year. About 15 new games a day. That’s a lot of competition if you can’t make your game stand out. If you are just trying to clone or slightly improve someone else’s idea. However the top 20 games on Steam sold the same or more meaning that if you are at the top of the pyramid things haven’t changed or have actually improved. The key is what it takes to get to the top. While in 2009 it was possible for small games/companies to have a breakout hit and get there and make tons of money in the process, nowadays that is way more complicated.
    For example a game like Inside by Playdead, highly acclaimed last year and considered by many an “indie” game actually had a team of 30 to 40 people working on it for more than 4 years and a cost of many million dollars (i estimate between 5 to 10m).
    And they “only” sold 600,000 copies meaning they got their money back but probably not enough to finance another project of that magnitude by themselves. I think that probably doesn’t fit the definition of indie that most people have as a couple of guys working out of their garage but that’s what it takes to “make it” in this market.

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