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

What income can you get from your old indie PC games?

There are a whole lot of different strategies for running a pc games business. I know people trying a bunch of different strategies and here are a few:

  • Publisher-funding model. Get publishing deals, and charge enough for the development milestones that you make a profit regardless of whether the final game makes a profit or not.
  • Patron model. Using patreon, or kickstarter or other methods, build up a loyal fanbase that pays you money to make games, regardless of whether they play them, or buy them in any quantity.
  • Straight sales model. Self-fund games, release them to the world as self published titles and hope the royalties exceed the development costs on a continual basis.
  • The big hit model. Go all-in, on a big title you bet your entire financial resources on, including remortgaging house/car etc. Assume that scale brings its own bonuses, and that the huge payoff outweighs the risk.
  • The continual release model. Release multiple games each year, maybe one a month, hoping that over time, the long tail builds up a relatively stable income.
  • The searching-for-a-hit model. Similar to continual release, but in this case the aim is to hope to strike it big with a sudden hit. Always be poised to drop everything and ramp up any game that gains initial traction.

Unless you didn’t already know, my method is the straight sale model. I’m pretty conventional in that I think the model where you just make the best games you feel comfortable with, from a risk POV, and aim to have them sell enough to result in a profit… is the most ‘normal’ and sensible way to do things. This plays to my strengths, because I’m not scared of risk, but not nuts, and also not a people-person as you need to be with patreons etc, and as a self-code-engine guy, I’m not churning out quick asset flips hoping for a hit.


Because of the sheer bloody-minded determination to stick around, it turns out I have been making commercial aimed games since 1997, and therefore I have ended up with a big bunch of older titles that still run on most PCs, and can still generate revenue. have I perhaps become the ‘long-tail-indie’ just out of sheer hanging around? Could it be that actually positech games is self-sustaining on the basis of really old games, that although they do not sell much each, combined they add up to a tidy sum?

I’ll be honest, I have no idea how much those older games make without digging into the data, but I thought either way it might be interesting, so here goes.

Kudos 2 (2008)

This was the first game I made that made proper ‘omgz’ money. I got a cheqck one month for $20,000 and it was on the basis of that game, selling on about 15 different casual games portals. This was amazing. It was however, a long time ago now… 2008 apparently. This was certainly not my first game, mobygames catalogs a bunch of earlier ones, but it was the first one to make enough money that its worth even looking at the numbers.

Kudos 2 is unusual in that its not on steam. I also actually made it free on itch last year, but people tend to follow old buy links, and I still sell copies through BMT micro. Lets look at the last 365 days income from Kudos 2 for BMTMicro:

269 copies for a total of $1,463.69

Not bad, but this is pretty much the only income for the game. I accept donations on itch for it, and earned another $49

Gratuitous Space Battles (2009)

I always think of this as the game that was released on steam the day I moved house. That was a stressful day. Anyway… its old now (2009), and its on steam, and sold through BMT Micro, and also sold through apple on various devices. Lets check the last 365 days data:

Steam net income: ~$8,700 Apple sales: $0 BMT sales: ~$120

I actually forgot that apple sales were zero now because apple decided anybody who wanted to play 32bit games on devices they bought and paid for could go fuck themselves and revoked that ability, so there you go. Just one of many reasons I despise the company. But anyway… its about nine thousand dollars in the last year. Which for a game released 13 years ago is… pretty amazing?

Gratuitous Tank Battles (2011)

This is a game I often consider a flop, but its not really because it made a decent return at the time. However, its a game I have kind of forgotten about, after I made a single expansion pack. Its now 11 years old, so how is it doing?

Steam net income ~$550 BMT sales: ~$14

Whoah what the hell? Are those number correct? Yes they are! pretty bad. But why? I think its because the total peak sales of Gratuitous Tank Battles never managed to hit a real escape velocity. When it comes to long-tails for games, I get the impression that there are basically two scenarios:

The ‘Meh’ game.

This sort of game sells some copies, and maybe makes a profit, but it never really ‘takes off’. You don’t see dozens of youtubers covering it, there are not more reviews on websites than you can count. The community for the game never really gets going. Its not a watercooler discussion topic. People see its released…some buy it. And then its over. Gone. Done. The end.

The ‘Hit’ Game.

This doesn’t have to be Minecraft. It can just be a game that hit a certain threshold. I don’t know what that threshold is, but my best guess is $1-1.5million gross sales on steam. Once you hit that sort of level, you have a ‘community’. There are people posting online about the game every day. People who ask questions get community answers. People make mods, and the game thus expands. There is justification for DLC, which leads to more news, more coverage and more players, and you get a flywheel effect.

GSB and Kudos 2 hit the ‘hit game’ level. Kudos 2 is now so old its become irrelevant, but amazingly GSB still sells a non trivial number of units each year, and makes comfortably more than beer or coffee money.


I think a lot of developers get frustrated that they are constantly in a grind, always having to desperately work on a new game to hopefully release it in time to survive the drop in royalties from the last one. Residual income from old games is almost zero, so you are constantly working away like a developer on a production line, never getting to relax.

I suspect many of these developers are at 90% between ‘meh’ and hit, but the problem is, being 90% of the way is not enough. Its pushing really hard on that flywheel, and feeling absolutely despondent, because you simply cannot see that point in the future where the momentum takes over. Its very, very easy to think things will never change, and that extra effort on a ‘failed’ game is simply not worth it. I totally understand why people do not push things that extra mile, when it feels like you have been pushing for the last 99 miles and got nowhere.

FWIW I think this applies to almost all endeavors, but especially creative ones that require popularity. I used to be in struggling heavy rock bands, and the constant putting up of posters and handing out of flyers for gigs, in the seemingly futile, pointless effort to get a few people to show up is soul-crushing and demotivating.

But in a sense, that explains why so many fail. Only dumb optimism or sheer bloodyminded obsession with success can possibly explain why some people still go out every single night and stick up those posters or give out those flyers, or keep tweeting and blogging about their video game. It always looks hopeless, totally and utterly futile, and impossible odds, and never gets you anywhere…until it does.

Gratuitous Tank Battles website stats

I’ve been casting my geeky eye over the google analytics data for the gratuitous tank battles website. Here are some assorted stats…

Looking at data for the last 60 days, the site had:

Visits: 67,440

Pages per visit: 1.49

Bounce Rate: 74.78%

TBH, only one of those stats is worth caring about (the top one), and only then, marginally. Bounce rate and Pages per visit are horrendously skewed by the content of those pages. If you pack them with text and video, people will get their fill of data with just one page. These are not stats worth worrying about. The visits stats is marginally more helpful, but it massively depends where they come from, obviously. I’ve sponsored a few small flash games which brings in a TON of traffic, but most of it is pretty ‘low quality’, kids without credit cards looking for more free games. The sheer volume means it can be worth it though. I find it more helpful to concentrate just on highly engaged visitors, such as those spending more than 60 seconds on the site. That gives me:

Visits: 4,723

Which are the only site visitors I really care about. This means I need to know where they came from. In this case the two big easily identified source areas seem to be google adwords and google organic search, which are roughly equal. The problem is, this isn’t showing me my flash sponsorship traffic correctly, so I need to do some analytics cleverness to detect when the ?ref= parameter is passed which tells me which flash game sent me the click. when i look for those clicks I find they supplied…

Visits: 2,977

Which is clearly the lions share of those above. Of course, all this means is those visitors spent time on the site, unfortunately I don’t have any easy way to tell that they are the same people buying the game, especially if they drift off and buy it on steam, or next month. However, I am quite motivated by the long tail effect here. There are hits coming in from long forgotten sponsorship deals from ages ago. That doesn’t happen with banner adverts which are obviously immediate. This can be a pain in the neck, because banner ads can be scheduled and also ramped up and cut back to fit your budget, whereas free game sponsorship is a bit of an all-or-nothing, no-idea-when sort of deal.

Even so, I think I’ll keep experimenting with it. Unlike my foray into stumbleupon and facebook ads, I think this may actually have a reasonable (on a good day) Return-on-investment

Gratuitous Tank Battles: The Western Front Released

OK, here it is at last, I’m happy to announce the release of an expansion pack for Gratuitous Tank Battles we call ‘The Western Front‘. This is a World War 2 themed expansion for the game that adds a whole bunch of classic WW2 tanks such as the Tiger and the Sherman. There are also eight new maps to battle over, in a completely new singleplayer campaign (there is a new screen which lets you select the ‘classic’ campaign or this one. The new maps also come with new textures and props for use in your own custom scenarios. Here is the trailer:

Something new and different about these maps is that the first four are locked to the 1914-1945 technology era, meaning no lasers, no shields, no mechs. You can play them as completely straight WW2 style battles. As before, obviously you get to take the role of attacker or defender, and we have included both American and German AI attacking armies for you to play against, if you prefer the predictability of scripted attackers.

Enjoy! and for those who are gripped by a sudden urge to buy it immediately, you can grab it direct from positech here. You can see some groovy screenshots and other promotional happenings here.

Or wait a little while and it will be up on steam, and no doubt some other portals soon. Let me know what you think in the comments. Also, if you think it looks good, then please tweet about it, or link to it on facebook, or whatever cool and hip web forums you hipsters visit. Maybe even reddit?

Press types may want to grab the presskit, with screenshots from here.


Tower defense game design

I recently spent some time looking at a bunch of tower defense games, and it saddened me to see how little innovation most people attempt in that genre, although I guess that is something pretty generally applicable to all genres, and most peoples first game. I might be lucky, in that I always have an urge to put some sort of ‘spin’ on any game I make, i am never happy to just do ‘a game in this genre’ and leave it at that. It’s worth remembering, as a game designers, that the player will always be asking themselves ‘why do I need to play this, when I can just go play the classic tower defense game X’.  You really need to have an answer to that question.

With regards to Gratuitous Tank Battles, which is my first ever tower defense game, I probably overdid it a bit in terms of trying to innovate. They say you should only innovate in one direction at a time, but I think life is too short for that. What I tried to do was question all of the ‘design assumptions’ of the genre.

The first assumption is that the player is the defender. Obviously the clue is in the title, but why wouldn’t a ‘tower attack game’ work? I think GTB shows that it can work. There was already a game released that did this, although it was essentially just escort missions, thankfully, because it was released just as I was half way through making GTB.

The second assumption is that the towers are invulnerable. I think this is arbitrary and crazy. It adds an extra level of excitement and gameplay to Gratuitous Tank Battles to know that you can’t just place a big gun somewhere and know you have that site covered. This seemed like a major change, and a change for the better to me.

The third assumption was that the towers are of fixed designer-decreed configuration, and can receive a linear upgrade path mid-battle. People really expect that in a TD game, and not including it does un-nerve people, but it adds a whole new layer to the game in terms of unit customization. Also, that ties in nicely with the design of Gratuitous Space Battles, where it was the major focus.

Another assumption was that the attackers come in a pre-set path, linked to a radar which gives you advance warning, also that they come in waves. All of this is totally arbitrary. There are not stone tablets decreeing the rules of tower defense design, you can do whatever you like. I broke all three of those assumptions about attacking waves, and personally I think that adaptive AI for the attackers (and defenders) totally changes the nature o the game and vastly expands the play-time available. This is one of the assumptions I was most proud to break.

There are other changes to GTB that make it a non conventional TD, such as the setting, the level editor and map/unit sharing online, but I think the key to making the game work and be interesting was that I looked at the ‘set-in-stone’ assumptions and basically kicked them all out. I find that this works amazingly well in game design. Some assumptions are there for a reason, but many are not, and when they are broken, once we get used it, we love it. The Sims can be turn based (see Kudos) A game can have no ‘game world’ at all (see Democracy) A space battle RTS can have no player control (see GSB) and there are much bigger examples too:

The object of an FPS can be not to kill (See Thief), health packs can be made redundant, with auto-regenerating health (wasn’t that Call of Duty 4?). Base building doesn’t have to be in every RTS game (again, not sure who started that).

The ‘classic’ design of a genre is a mere starting point. When you design a game, you need to question every aspect of it, and make sure you have a rock-solid defense of why it ‘has to be that way’.