Did I just waste 3 years?

By Posted on by Luke (developer)

I had trouble sleeping on Monday night.

My mind was circling around some staggering recent game industry stats, and some foreboding writings from prominent indie developers. And around the fact that, for the 3 years I've invested on this project, only 4 copies have sold so far.

Those four sales were from generous folks who already had free access to the game, but wanted to support its development (thank you guys). New sales, from new visitors to the site (1,016 since I put the game on sale in November) are currently at zero.

Zero. Yikes.

As bleak as that is, with previous unpaid players the game has had its fans. 368 people had created free accounts before it went on sale. Based on analytics, people have played about 1,080 hours, and many still play daily or weekly. The game has gotten positive feedback when shared on forums, reddit, etc.

1,016 is not a huge number of visitors in internet terms, and perhaps I just need to drive in more traffic. But 0% is not the most encouraging conversion rate!

Industry mayhem and the indie tidal wave

This has been covered elsewhere, but while I had my head down working, the game industry experienced a gigantic thermonuclear explosion. Sometimes referred to as the indie tsunami / indiepocalypse, it detonated in 2014 or so, right before I started on Infinitroid.

Below is the number of annual Steam releases, year-by-year, thru 2017:

(sources: Steam Spy and Grid Sage Games)

Not only the total number of games, but the rate of their release seems to be geometrically increasing! Holy crap. And while many of them are Unity shovelware, etc., many are polished games that a lot of effort went into. A tiny percentage are hits, but most are forgotten in the deluge.

Some prominent developers have been surprised by the relative lack of success of their recent releases--Mark Morris and Chris Delay from Introversion Games, after a string of successes, found their innnovative latest game Scanner Sombre to be a total flop (discussed in their video here). Edmund McMillen's The End Is Nigh sold quite modestly despite his past blockbusters like Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac, and his prominence in the indie world. Cliff Harris of Positech Games warns on his 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.

Like most gamers, I have a backlog of dozens of purchased-but-never-played Steam games picked up at ridiculously low prices from Humble Bundles, Steam sales, etc. Does the world need any more games at this point?

So, I'm pretty discouraged. I seem to have arrived very late to the party, and there are broken bottles and passed-out revelers everywhere. It's not inconceivable that Infinitroid might still have a shot (I think it does many things well, some of them quite unique) but the prospects are looking more bleak by the day.

Financial matters

As it stands, I've put in 2,600+ hours and written 62,176 lines of code (mostly C++). The game's made $27.92 in income, which nets out at about $0.01 per hour. Had I spent the time washing dishes at $7.25 / hour (a 725x more lucrative job) I'd have made a cool $19k!

I'm not a dumb guy--I got good SAT scores. I'm disciplined, I have a good work ethic, and I love what I do. I'm a lifelong learner, always evaluating my work and experimenting with new approaches. Should I be failing this badly?

Of course money isn't everything, and I've had a lot of fun building and sharing the game. But I did have some hope of creating something that a lot of people would check out and enjoy, and making some return on my time investment, perhaps enough to keep doing this as an independent career.

What's next

I don't like to spend too much time feeling sorry for myself or dwelling on the past, at least more than needed to learn from it--and it's perhaps too early to declare complete failure--so I plan to keep experimenting with marketing and finish the game in some form. But it doesn't look good right now, and I'm really questioning how much more of my time I want to keep pouring into this when there are other fun, potentially profitable things I could be doing with my remaining creative years that could make a positive difference in the world.

Abandoning the game completely doesn't seem like a sane option, after all the time I put in. I'm kinda floundering right now and not really sure what to do, but a few random thoughts I've had over the past few days:

  • Do the minimal work to wrap it up satisfactorily, release it, and be able to call it finished.
  • Put development on hold, and just focus on marketing for a while; try price drops, promotions, pay-what-you-want, free trials etc.; decide what's next based on the results of that.
  • Treat it as a purely hobby project: work on it when I feel like it, and only on the parts that are fun for me. It may take years to finish but perhaps it'll turn out something cool and unique in the end.
  • Make it into an ethical game experiment: reduce addictive qualities of the game, e.g. allow players to set the amount of time they want to spend on it and get a friendly reminder to stop at the end; try to make it benefit people's lives beyond just consuming their time (this has been on my mind a lot lately, something I had hoped I could foster in the game's story but haven't fully realized--more on this in a future post).
  • Continue as I have been, pour a lot more time in, improve graphics and music, add more levels and variety, and release a finished product I'm proud of, even if it's a total commercial flop (not sure I have the energy for it right now but it's still an option).

For the moment, I have an urge to put my creativity elsewhere, perhaps do some one-week or even one-day projects for a change, so we'll see. But, if anyone has any feedback, I'd appreciate it--on marketing, potential blind spots in my thinking here, how the game is presented, perspective on the industry right now, comforting words, tough love, etc.!

Thanks for listening.