How do you make money from making games again?

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As 2014 draws to a close I’m coming to a difficult conclusion about doing what I love. I think my struggle to gain success from making games has finally after many years come to an end.

I won’t stop making games, I love the process and the result too much to do that, but I think making games as a means to pay bills etc for a lone developer is no longer viable.

For decades there’s been one core idea in my head “Make a hit game, get success” and it’s carried me along over many bumpy moments. They say hope is the cruelest of emotions, and in some way the allure of being a successful game developer is right up there with it. On the face of it, it seems very simple. You make what you love! you learn to code, you do some graphics or you find someone that can, you put it out to the world and success will follow! except anyone who has actually been down this road knows it’s far more complicated than that.

What’s interesting of course is that it’s never been easier to make games. There are a plethora of game making tools out there, XCode, Unity, Flash, GameMaker and you can make games in numerous coding languages. There are resources for graphics or to find graphic artists. It’s never been easier to make games, but equally never harder to make money from them. Why is that?

I started coding in a time where games came on cassettes, or big chunky cartridges. During those times game development was something akin to alchemy, it was a skill possessed by a select few with treasure waiting for whoever could do it. So I learned what I needed to learn and when Flash appeared I had discovered a great platform to make the dream come true. I set about making various Flash games and in 2008 had a hit game called Christmas Crunch. This game went on to have over 190 million plays, and paid the bills for a number of years.

Many game developers of my generation got their success from Flash games. It was a perfect storm of a great tool combined with great distribution options and great ways to promote your game. Because the game was packed in a single file it could easily be distributed across the web, and website owners wanted those games because they brought traffic to their site. Eventually those same site owners started “sponsoring” i.e licensing Flash games and placing their branding in the games. A whole market was spawned of websites sponsoring games, and everyone was happy.

The ratio between time/skill to make a game to how much money you could get in return was balanced perfectly. Spend 2 months making a Flash game, sell it for $5000, and make a few hundred more in ad revenue on top. Not a huge amount of money, but enough to live on, even in the expensive west.

This optimal time lasted about 5 years, until 3 events changed the industry. The first was social gaming on Facebook. Up until that point games where distributed across the web, across many websites. The social gaming tsunami was all about Facebook, which meant all the games were now centralised on one website, one gatekeeper. Also of course the nature of the types of games changed, social gaming brought us those wonderful (sarcasm most definitely implied) terms such as “Churn”, and “Gamification”. This was the moment when it stopped being about games, and started being about making money from games, and that in itself became a science. And because so much was being seen to be made everyone and their dog jumped on the bandwagon. It changed from being a job you did because you wanted to make a cool game, to an accounting session, the game part was only loosely connected.

The 2nd event was of course mobile, of the 3 events this one had the biggest impact. What the social gaming revolution started, mobile gaming finished. Until then digital distribution had been dabbled with, but getting games instantly (more or less) on your phone was what changed everything. But there was a problem. A problem which wasn’t overly apparent in the early days of the App stores, but is blatantly obvious now. The problem is what happens when you have millions of apps/games in a market, but only a very narrow way by which to find them. In a situation like this the quality of your product takes 2nd place to factors which have nothing to do with your product, ie how well you can promote it. And that comes down to money, because the more money you have the more you can promote something. No money, no promotion, no visibility, no downloads, no revenue. Reciprocally those that do have the funds, can rise to the top of the charts purely on promotion spend alone, and once they have the premium top slots in the charts, just being there assures people download the game and spend money. As long as you keep putting a percentage of your revenue earned back into promotion you are locked in. That’s not to say that games at the top of the App stores can’t be replaced, they can, but they can only be replaced by games who are willing to spend at least as much on promotion. And the money required to do this is huge, millions of dollars for the top chart places, and 10s of thousands for even the lower positions. Way out of the reach of most game developers.

To use a real world analogy. I like to think of it as a shop that sells paintings. But this shop has no shop window, instead it just has 1 door. Behind that door is a corridor, a very long corridor, miles long. Along the walls of the corridor are the paintings for sell, maybe a few feet apart. Peering through the door you can see maybe 4/5 on both sides before the rest just all fuse into a blur. You look at the ones closest to you and maybe you will buy maybe you won’t, but you really can’t be bothered to walk down that endless corridor, and anyway what’s the point? the paintings right next to you are the best ones right? the best selling? the ones that are making all the money! If I’m going to buy any, those are going to be what I will chose from.

Lastly we have a technology which hasn’t had the effect people said it would, instead it’s been more of a distraction and that’s HTML5 game development. I learned and made a HTML5 game in about 5 days last year, when very briefly there was a time when making HTML5 games mirrored the early Flash game market. You could make a game reasonably quickly and sell it for good money. However unlike the Flash games market which lasted a number of years, this same time for HTML5 gaming lasted about 10 months until the market became saturated with game developers looking to take advantage of the situation. HTML5 games are now worth next to nothing, like their Flash counterparts.

So that’s what happened. Unfortunately for me I made bad choices at just the wrong times which meant I missed out on taking advantage of the opportunities presented. I kept with what I knew which was Flash games for too long before finally jumping ship and moving over to mobile, but by then that ship had sailed. Even at this point I clung onto the mantra of “make a good game, make a good game” so I set about creating a way overly ambitious iOS asynchronous strategy game, and actually got it to a reasonably playable state before showing it to publishers who were not interested.

So this is my assessment of the gaming market from a lone game developers perspective. And remember what the criteria is for a lone developer (who actually has to live and pay bills). Does the money the game is likely to earn, justify the time/energy put into creating it.

  • The Flash game market is dead. There are some who have vested interests that might say that the Flash gaming market is alive and well, but that’s not true, it’s over.
  • HTML5 game market is dead.
  • Steam. I’ve not done anything on Steam. It’s always looked interesting and does look like a platform where perhaps quality interesting games can prevail, but even this platform seems to be suffering under the weight of games submitted to it, so I presume the same issues exist on there as they do on mobile.
  • Mobile game market. Dead from the perspective of “Can I make a game by myself (or perhaps with one other) that will make a decent income without taking forever to do it.” and my reply to that is no you can’t. It’s not dead from the perspective of a small team/company that can work on a high quality game, and then spend thousands on promotion (or has the contacts to convince someone else to do so). Even then it’s still a risk, but there’s a half decent chance of making a decent income from your game.

This is why I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve come too. I can make games but it’s just not viable anymore as a daily job.

I expect the above situations just to get worse and worse, until all platforms are dominated by a few gaming companies and the 2nd wave of lone developers will again pass into history, who knows if there will be a 3rd.

So what next? Well I’m still going to be making games. I’m turning Clan Kingdom into a tower defense (with some interesting ideas thrown in) game and i’ll release that in 2015, but i’m an ideas man, so i’m going to get on with those in my own time, more as a hobby than anything else, with no thought to how much money they will make or even if they will have 1 download, I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to make games for me.

But if I’m not making games to earn money how am I going to earn money? Well there’s the flip side of iOS development that’s App development, something I’ve not done before. After a bit of research there seems to be a lot of App contract work out there, and it seems to pay reasonably well.  The plan is to learn what I need to learn then see if I can get iOS app development work. That approach is also useful because like with games I’ve got a number of my own App ideas that I wouldn’t mind bringing to life and having App development skills will enable me to do that.

I’m totally happy to argue any of the above points, if you think I’m wrong and can explain why I’m wrong feel free to leave a comment or email me at hello@biggerplay.com.

I hope everyone has a great Christmas, and wish you all success in 2015!

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