I know there have been surveys and studies in the past that show how many indie games on steam have sold a very small number (like under 10) of copies. Its no secret that many indie games are total flops. Its also no secret that the indie games market has skewed in recent years to be more hit-driven than in the past. There are a relatively small number of games making huge sales and a LOT of games making virtually no sales. I think that a lot of devs attitudes to this are somewhat fatalistic, and probably counter-productive and I want to explain why.

The general, subconscious ‘common-sense” supposedly rational mental model to how work equals success looks something like this:

But in actual fact, it seems to me that the real graph, in the real world is actually a lot more like this: (excuse my quick crappy hand drawn mess)

Which is something we are absolutely not used to dealing with, because we do not naturally encounter anything like an exponential curve in our primitive ape-like brains. here is a great article explaining just how ‘against common’ sense this is:

(Scroll down to ‘All of This Could Happen Soon‘ to see an amazing animation that shows just how much exponential curves totally fuck with our brains).

This should be intuitively obvious. Our primitive ancestors did not ever have to deal with exponentials. We hunt for an hour and find a single wild squirrel to kill and eat (my knowledge of primitive man is…sketchy). We hunt for 2 hours, we find and kill 2 squirrels. At no point did we ever hunt for 8 hours and then find/kill 32,600 squirrels. This is not in our experience. In fact, its not been in human experience, in the day-to-day sense, until EXTREMELY recently. Until the internet, we had ‘natural barriers’ to extreme success. To be popular as an entertainer in Michigan, you needed to live in Michigan, or have a sales team/rep in Michigan, or at the very least in the USA. Now anybody can make and sell anything anywhere. The total audience size for your product is probably a few BILLION people. Sell a $20 video game and you can potentially make $40 billion. Its extremely unlikely…but its POSSIBLE.

And even if you never achieve that, you have to accept the fact that other people are doing it. Fortnite and Minecraft are not selling to hundreds of thousands, but to hundreds of millions of people. NOBODY is safe from the financial and marketing reach that those games have. That includes you.

To put it another way: the natural result of global reach due to the internet, is that the big can get bigger, and bigger and they can and WILL compete with you. There is no local home-team advantage. There are no barriers. We are in the age of exponential entertainment. EVERYBODY knows about Game of Thrones, The Avengers Movies, Harry Potter et al…

So thats just fab…but how does that help a struggling, probably failing, probably bankrupt indie dev?

You have to learn to embrace and enjoy exponential growth.

In practical terms, what it means is that every improvement to your product yields an increasing relative improvement in sales. It also means that the very earliest upgrades and improvements to your product are the least rewarding, in comparative terms. When you check out the graph above you can see that if we make linear steps to the right along the X axis, each step yields a higher and higher boost in sales.

To put it yet another way, the first patch for your game will boost sales by a tiny, almost unnoticeable amount. The 99th patch for your game will double its sales. Yes really.

I am fully on-board with this mentality because my latest game (a car factory tycoon game called Production Line) is about bottlenecks. Like all factories, a factory in production line will move at the speed of the slowest link in the chain. The first few improvements to your line will maybe only raise production from maybe 1 car/hour to 2 cars an hour. The final ironing out of bottlenecks will take you from maybe 250-300 cars an hour.

Think about the effort required to improve fortnite by 1% in terms of content, quality, or presentation. Now think about how to improve your game by 1%. Its probably not a MASSIVE difference. Game engines and game design are very similar whether a game is a smash hit or an also-ran. But a 1% boost in your games sales will buy you a coffee, whereas a 1% boost in fortnite sales buys Belgium.

The problem is…people give up. They put in ALL THAT EFFORT to update their game with less bugs, more polish, more features, or a tweaked balance/difficulty/onboarding process and they earn an extra cup of coffee a month. WHY BOTHER? That is 100% the way most rational humans think. They then abandon the game, and start a new one from scratch, or leave the industry.

Do Not Do This

Read every article you can about compound interest. Then read about the chess rice wager, or simply watch this video to understand exponential growth:

And yes…its seems MAD doesn’t it? Like there is NO WAY that simply doubling something regularly so rapidly builds a pile of rice so high it stretches to the edge of the solar system. Those numbers MUST BE WRONG.

A bit like…. the sales figures of minecraft and fortnite.

So back to indie games… the point of the update that only has the impact of earning you a cup of coffee, is that the extra player (just one) per month builds a bit of momentum. The next update gets you another cup of coffee/month PLUS the extra 1/4 shot of coffee from a partial signal boost from the extra player and so on and so on… until every time you update the game you get a huge boost in the success and sales. This can take a while, and MOST people give up.

I am currently working on update 81 for production line. You can read the list of updates to the game on steam here: https://steamcommunity.com/app/591370/allnews/

Its a very, very long list. Its also enabled me to run a lot of steam visibility rounds on the game. I think the last one was number eight, and every time I run them, they are being shown to a bigger, and bigger audience, which helps grow the game even more because now we have more sales and thus more eyeballs and thus more sales and thus more…

The average indie gamer with mediocre or disappointing sales is at the 3rd or fourth square on the chess board. they have their 16 grains of rice, and they go take a job at facebook which pays them 64 grains of rice, which is obviously a better deal. Meanwhile Tim Sweeny and notch are sat on a pile of rice larger than Everest wondering why everybody else gave up so early.

TL;DR: The first post-release update for your game is the least effective in driving sales. This should be mathematically obvious, as its being delivered to he smallest ever number of customers. Giving up at that point is common sense AND totally and utterly wrong.

3 Responses to “Why you definitely should polish & update your game”

  1. Progorion says:

    I just wanted to say thanks for the post!

  2. Mike G says:

    This post is mathematically obvious :P ??
    Cool ?

  3. Jamie says:

    I used to do this with a game of mine. I made improvements to it for years and years. It made no difference to its sales at all. 0 + 0 is still 0.

    If your ideas are good they will sell the more you work on them, if they are bad its like polishing a turd. This guy says pretty much the same here. He says he puts up a website and if it doesn’t take off within a few days, he shuts it down and tries something new.

    Billionaire Dan Pena’s Ultimate Advice for Students & Young People – HOW TO SUCCEED IN LIFE
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6zqatiur3A

    TBH I think Western billionaires are muscle behind the equality memes, (we are all equal, you didn’t succeed in life because you didn’t work as hard as they did), so the masses don’t vote to raise their taxes. The comments under the video are very amusing. They don’t believe him either.