How much do indie PC devs make, anyways? (Part 6)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Two and a half years later, I’ve finally finished launching my game.
Just one year ago I had discussed launching my game, “Cook, Serve, Delicious!” onto Steam and mobile platforms, and how my career was finally starting to take shape. It had been a long, hard battle, but I was finally able to support myself in being a dev full time. Since then so many things have happened that I found myself once again devoting a whole year into supporting my game, learning all kinds of things along the way. Continuing my previous articles (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5, man how the time flies by!) I’ll break down my finances and see what worked, what didn’t work, and the process of launching not only on a new platform but a brand new free expansion, as well as the grand total amount of sales since first launching in October 2013.
Picking Up from January 2014
In my previous article I wrapped up things by mentioning my new CSD port to iPhone, which was launching that day. I also spoke of my somewhat depressing venture into trying to get CSD ported to consoles with no luck, and talked about announcing my next game in March and the final numbers of CSD up to that point: over 52,000 copies sold across all available platforms, and over $130,000 on Steam alone for the first three months.
While the March reveal didn’t happen for my next game (and has yet to happen as of this article), I’d like to bring the numbers up to speed. How did the iPhone version of CSD do?
The ol’ Mobile Market
I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations of the iPhone version of CSD. It was a port of the Android version made to work only on iPhone 5 (and while it would work on iPhone 4S it would completely crash on iPhone 4). Because of this I had to make the game “free” and have it unlocked via an in-app transaction so that everyone could try the game before buying.
The results aren’t too shabby. Around 1,810 copies were sold from launch in January 2014 thru January 2015, bringing a total of ~$3,760 after revenue share with Apple. It’s a fun little version of the game that’s cool to have in your pocket, and there wasn’t much overhead spent on the port to begin with (the main things being some UI elements made larger to read on the small iPhone screen and some gesture inputs made more “forgiving” than the iPad version.)
The iPad version did considerably better, with January 2014 thru January 2015 bringing in an additional ~$14,900 in profit after revenue share, which adds another ~4,460 units sold. While down from the previous year by nearly 30%, I’ve more or less halted major development on the mobile versions in order to focus more on the desktop version which was far and away the clear leader in sales.
Android managed to do fairly well with $9,605 in sales for 2014 after revenue share with Google (3,297 copies sold), way more than expected.
Once the iPhone version was released, I wondered if that would be the last platform CSD would debut on. It wasn’t too much longer that I found myself with an intriguing opportunity.
Cooking in the Next Generation
I received an email from YoYo Games, head of the Game Maker Studio engine that CSD is powered by, in Feb. 2014. It was an opportunity to have YoYo games port my game over to the Playstation 4 as part of their huge reveal at GDC in March. It looked like GM Studio was gearing up for console support across the board. It was hugely exciting, given that I already had a dire experience trying to get third parties to port the game and the idea that sometime soon I’d be able to self-publish on consoles was absolutely massive for me.
There was just one small problem: CSD didn’t have controller support. It was never planned to have any kind of controller support at all. While I had explored some options when shopping the game around to third parties it was mainly Photoshop mockups that I had no idea whether or not would work, nor had I ever coded for gamepads before.
So, with no clue on how to translate a keyboard/tablet centric game onto a gamepad, and exactly one week to figure it out and implement it into the game, I accepted. There was no way I could pass up that opportunity. At the same time, I had no idea if I could even deliver something like that within the time frame that I had. But dang if I wasn’t going to at least try (you can read some of the more technical details on how I mapped the game onto controllers here).
Thankfully I had barely made the deadline, with a fully controllable build of CSD via gamepad (but many areas of the menu locked off as I just didn’t have time to implement controller support for the whole game). There were a small selection of foods to choose from and the game would allow the player to play for a day before resetting buzz for the next player. It was quite a bit of fun to make.
Team YoYo Games at GDC
With GDC in full swing I took the opportunity to register as a developer for both Playstation and Xbox. Still, I didn’t know whether or not that was something I wanted to pursue with this game. I needed to see how controller support would work for the entire game. So I got busy porting controller support for the Steam build of CSD, and organizing a brand new build with all kinds of new features such as New Game +, Extreme Difficulty mode, and lots more.
The CSD Relaunch, Part 1
Building controller support and looking into ways of expanding the game was a very exciting way to test the waters on a relaunch of sorts- basically keeping CSD fresh and relevant six months after the release on Steam. I also wanted to do my first sale outside of major summer/winter sales, opting for a 30% discount for the week of April 14th.
I’ve always championed devs to value their game- don’t do heavy discounts unless you’re in a major promotional sale, don’t bundle heavily, and respect what your game should be worth. I did get some criticism from a few Steam users angry at the low discount (in fact only CSD and 8 other games out of 42 had discounts smaller than 50% off that week).
Still, it was completely worth it. For the week of April 14th thru the 21st CSD sold over 2,000 copies, netting $14,400 in gross sales. I was blown away, and couldn’t wait for the upcoming Summer Sale to begin, where I hoped that CSD would be once again featured as some kind of daily deal just like the Winter Sale.
Sadly CSD wasn’t chosen for the Summer Sale, instead staying at a 60% discount thru the entire event (June 19th thru the 30th) and netting nearly 4,000 copies sold at a ~$17,000 gross revenue income.
For lots more details on both of these sales, check out my Tumblr blog post from that July breaking down the figures a bit more and comparing the two.
After the Steam Summer Sale there wasn’t much time to rest…the Humble Bundle in July was fast approaching and a new opportunity was about to unfold.
Humble Bundle and I have had a long stretch of conversations as to which bundle CSD was right for, stemming from the previous year through the summer. There were a few employees “championing” the game at Humble but it couldn’t get enough force behind it to propel the game into the “major” bundles. I wasn’t that keen on bundling CSD into a smaller tier Humble Bundle like the Mobile bundle as I never found CSD to be a mobile game first: it was a PC game that was well suited for mobile. So I declined, as well as turning down all other bundle sites in the process. I knew that there had to be some time when my gamble would pay off. You only get one chance to debut in a bundle, and I wanted it to be special. As the months went by, I wondered if that would ever actually happen.
Finally, a new chance at a Humble Bundle was offered- it would be part of the Simulation 2 bundle, not a major Humble Bundle tier but a big one in terms of better revenue share and exposure (as most Humble Bundles have nearly a dozen games by the time it’s finished, whereas this bundle would only have six). It was the one chance I was waiting for. And so, the newest Humble Bundle Weekly went up on July 18th, and by the next week had sold over 87,000 copies with $427,386.45 in gross revenue for the entire bundle. For more info check out my blog post on Tumblr during the week of Humblin’ Bundlin’ here.
It was surprising to see the effect of the Humble Bundle on daily sales…they increased quite a bit after the bundle was over, and continued to be healthy afterwards. The Steam effect of friends recommending the game to others continued to be a major drive, especially with the large increase in players after the bundle.
Steam Curation, Reviews, and Tags
Valve’s additions to Steam’s featureset continued in 2014, with the Tag system introduced in Feb. and the new Curation lists debuting in September. Devs have posted their pros and cons with the systems, and for me personally I always saw increases in daily revenue as a result of the new systems. Some devs argued it only made the larger games bigger and the smaller games increasingly harder to find despite the opposite effects intended with these systems, nor do they help games that may not have performed well on the critical reviews front by critics and users alike, but for me I always welcomed CSD to be found in a new unique way. I always had intended to feature CSD discount coupons via Steam but never really found the right time to do so in 2014, so there’s still unique Steam opportunities to try out in 2015, not to mention whatever else Valve comes up with in managing the ever growing catalog of games on the platform.
What I was most proud of were the Steam user reviews, which number over 1,500 and brought the game’s rating to “Overwhelmingly Positive” with 1,521 good reviews and only 66 bad reviews. I’d have to imagine that the critical reception by Steam users drives sales significantly, especially with the new up front placement of the game’s reception on the Steam page (literally the second thing you read about the game after its description).
As the fall holiday drew near I wondered if there was anything else I could do to keep CSD relevant and fresh as the winter sales and major games started to line up. I knew CSD would be buried with all the new games coming out, but I wondered…how could I re-launch CSD once again? As I was watching a few CSD streams on Twitch and Youtube people wishing the game had some sort of local multiplayer support it was pretty clear…create an entirely new segment of the game focusing squarely on local multiplayer and leaderboard challenges. A quick glance of the code proved that something like this could be done in a short amount of time. And so on September 24th, I teased a new release of CSD with more details to come.
Cook, Serve, Delicious: Battle Kitchen Edition
I wanted to create the biggest expansion the game had received yet. Separated from the main campaign game, the Battle Kitchen expansion was announced as having all kinds of new features. There would be weekly challenges, strike modes, multiplayer tag teams matches, endurance modes, e-Sports modes, tournaments, and a roster of over 50 characters, half of which were characters from major indie games. Most of these features were coded and getting polished for release. Others existed in Photoshop only when announced on October 23rd. Still, I felt confident I would be able to meet all the additions that I had announced. In fact I had no doubts whatsoever.
It was such a joy to bring in cameo characters from games like Hotline Miami, Nuclear Throne, Rogue Legacy and tons more. Those three games were among the first devs I asked when putting together a “guest roster” for the character select screen (with the new characters used to differentiate players for both tag team matches and the leaderboards). Once they said yes, I was able to get a ton more devs on board. I was thrilled seeing such a huge guest roster in my small game…I just couldn’t believe it.
When I brought the indie devs on board, I knew I was forgoing any chance I had in making this premium DLC. This had to be a free expansion, otherwise devs could argue (and they’d have a legitimate argument) that I was using their characters to push sales of the new DLC without cutting them into any kind of revenue share. I didn’t really mind making it free DLC; the idea of a multiplayer expansion already depends on getting as many players in as possible, and lowering that bar to entry at all costs was vital in creating a healthy community of competition for the leaderboards.
My initial October date came and went as certain parts of the game proved harder to code than others. The hope that re-launching the game during October before the extremely dense November month of releases was gone. I was going to re-launch during a time that I felt was suicide for any indie dev trying to get their game noticed…the holiday season where nothing escapes the vortex of huge AAA releases. I wondered if a delay to the more barren January would be a better move.
Before I could make a decision, Valve contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in a Daily Deal position featuring the new expansion. It would move my initial release date in November a week up. There were still so many things to do, I was worried I wouldn’t make the deadline. Then again I recalled the similar situation in Feb. when YoYo Games asked me for a PS4 build of the game. I felt up to the challenge, not to mention that any help from Valve in getting exposure for November was worth going for. I readily accepted.
November 9th was the target date for both the release of the expansion and the discount with front page Steam Store exposure.
Confident from my last deadline I met back in Feb, I worked each day until about 8pm, not really feeling the huge amount of pressure that, looking back, I should have definitely felt by then. I knew that if worse came to worse I could pull an all nighter and stay up as long as I had to in making the game before the release on Sunday. I bought some high dosage caffeine pills and some Starbucks pure espresso shots just in case. By Weds. I knew I was going to have to cut some of the features out for a later release. By Friday, I wasn’t sure where I’d be in terms of how many features would make it. The next day, I was in pure panic mode. I had 24 hours to get it done before the Steam Daily Deal. By midnight I had taken the pills, chugged an espresso drink and got to work.
What followed was one of the most miserable experiences of game making I have ever, ever faced. By 3am I was completely spent, having coded for nearly 20 straight hours. There was absolutely no way I could stop; the entire game was taken apart to implement Battle Kitchen and, at the bare minimum, I had to put it back together for the game to even run. The extreme dose of caffeine kept me completely awake but my mind was pretty much shut down. It was the strangest experience I’ve ever felt; I was quite literally a zombie. I took additional pills and drinks at that time; by 5am my work had slowed to a crawl. At one point I couldn’t even do simple calls to place text on a screen, as I couldn’t remember how. I sat there in front of the screen, unable to type, the minutes ticking away, the deadline looming over me, and I nearly broke down. I had to scream in my pillow and take a cold shower just to squeeze any small amount of juice I had left.
The 12pm Sunday deadline hit. CSD: Battle Kitchen appeared on the Steam Store front page with the 50% off discount. The game was still hours from being ready.
I still had every intention of making this a patch for all players. But as I neared release, realizing I didn’t have any time to even test a majority of modes implemented aside from a quick run through, I made the last minute call to release the expansion as a beta program for those wanting to opt into the branch. I uploaded the build and collapsed into bed at 2pm, a few hours past deadline and not as a full release, but still, I had made it.
Twenty minutes later, my phone was buzzing off the hook. A quick glance showed a horrifying glimpse into the Steam CSD forums. The game was completely broken. There were glitches everywhere. Modes didn’t work. Characters didn’t unlock. One mode, the Endurance Challenge, would crash upon finishing…not as a simple bug under certain circumstances, but for all players simply trying to play it. Leaderboards were reversed so that the lowest scores were at the #1 position. Even worse, problems had seeped into the standard single player mode, which was exactly what I was trying to avoid in the first place (such as not even being able to read emails on the main menu screen).
There was no way I could sleep, and so I was back on my computer, trying to figure out the complete mess that had happened. An hour into bug-hunting, I knew this just wasn’t going to happen. I was in no shape to even try to analyze code, as my head was pounding and I couldn’t even think straight. Severely depressed, I posted on the forums that I had gone without sleep for nearly 30 hours now and couldn’t get to the patch until the next day. The messages of support were extremely beneficial in calming me down; I was in pieces and was so damn thankful that I didn’t attempt to release the game as a full patch that day.
By the end of Sunday someone had uploaded a YouTube vid of their Battle Kitchen experiences (BaerTaffy). While they had fun they encountered several bugs which had me wincing the entire time, and closed with the expected crash to desktop after playing Endurance mode. The commentator was surprised, then said something along the lines of, “well hey, it’s a beta so these things are to be expected.”
I found such deep comfort in what he said at that time. While the expansion was game breaking in many ways, a lot of people didn’t find it to be extremely troubling given the beta nature. The support given to me by others greatly helped as well. By 10pm I was able to sleep soundly, after a 40+ hour marathon of coding with no sleep, and didn’t wake up till 1pm the next day.
When I woke up, I felt rejuvenated. It was almost like I had a debilitating sickness the previous day, only to feel 100% awesome the next. I pulled up my chair and started analyzing code, and it shocked me to how much in poor shape it was. It was almost like a drunk person was coding for me the previous night, with so many stupid mistakes and missteps that I wanted to punch myself in the face. Four days later I was able to patch the game up to stable condition, and another four days after that had the expansion release out of beta for everyone, dubbed “part 1” of the two part expansion plan (which I initially didn’t plan to split apart to begin with, but more on that in a sec.)
The Daily Deal and Steam Winter Sale
The 48 hour 50% off Daily Deal brought in over 4,400+ copies sold, making $21,000 in gross sales. It was a huge success given the window of time to sell, the upcoming November Sale coming up, and the massive releases coming in just the next few days. I didn’t know what to expect given the huge amount of sales that some titles can pull off during Daily Deals, but looking back at the number in retrospect, it worked out quite well I think.
The November Steam Sale and the Winter sale didn’t feature CSD in any promotional deals, perhaps due to the close proximity of the Daily Deal, or perhaps because they felt there were other titles more suited for those spots. In any event, combined revenue of both sales ended up with over 10,000 copies sold and nearly $50,000 in gross revenue. I think the Battle Kitchen expansion helped play a large part in that role, keeping things new and interesting for players that can help both curate or even just recommend the game to others.
Battle Kitchen, Part 2
There’s still additional content I need to release to complete the “Battle Kitchen” expansion, which goes into beta this Friday with an all new “Mystery Box Mode.” I think that a large part of Battle Kitchen was a success. Weekly challenges are fun to make and have an average of about 800 players per week trying it (is that a good number? Honestly, I don’t know, but it’s good enough for me.) The Endurance mode is a huge success from a gameplay standpoint, inspiring a new “eSports Endurance” mode being added in December 2014. The character select screen is as epic as I was hoping for.
What didn’t work was surprisingly the biggest addition to the expansion: the idea of local multiplayer. The tag team events aren’t nearly as fun and chaotic as I had hoped. The premise of that mode was that two to four players would take on a challenge. Every 15 seconds, controls are severed from the player and the next player in line is given 5 seconds to see where they are before controls are handed off to them. So player 1 could be in the middle of a pasta order, then their time is up and it’s up to player 2 to finish the order. It’s (theoretically) fun to watch but not a whole lot of fun to play. As one person said during a livestream who had never played CSD before and was thrown into a tag-team co-op match, “this…sucks!” It was the absolute worst way to get introduced to the game, and that’s absolutely my fault.
It was interesting to see the amount of attention the single player content of Battle Kitchen got but not a whole lot of videos for multiplayer. I honestly don’t think there’s a huge demand for tournaments with the kind of content that’s available in Battle Kitchen anyways, nor did I think the VS. mode that I needed to implement would have created a whole lot of splash, which is why I opted to do an all new mode instead. After that, development on CSD will finally be over (aside from Weekly Challenges, which I will continue to update every Monday, with my goal being a full year of support), and my full attention will be towards my two unannounced games, one of which is coming this year.
The Future of CSD
With the code the way it is in CSD (after two years of new content, an iPad port, new Steam features, controller support, and then a new expansion, it gets pretty messy), it casts doubts as to how I’d be able to pull off a console port. I’d much rather tear down the code completely and rebuild it, but at that point, I don’t think I’d want to redo the game, I’d want to create something new. I’ve always felt that the players who love CSD love it in spite of itself; there’s so much I can do with a fresh slate and it’s just exciting to imagine what a sequel would bring. That said, I don’t have anything to announce right now in terms of console support or a sequel, but I think later this year something will come into focus as to what I’m making next.
This isn’t the end of my series of articles, but I feel this may be near the end of what CSD can bring in terms of huge revenue or experimentation of new platforms and features. Certainly it is near the end of my plans in bringing new and exciting content to the game to keep it as relevant as possible. I need to focus on my new games and get those polished for a reveal as soon as possible; April looks promising, but then again, every article I’ve managed to do closes with the hopes of a reveal of a new project, only for that date to pass by without an announcement. Things are totally different this time around, but hey, enough promises and more deliverin’, right?
The Grand Total
Just two and a half years ago, I questioned my decision to even make Cook, Serve, Delicious after that awful first weekend of release. Today, Cook, Serve, Delicious has grossed over $610,000 in sales across mobile, Steam, distro websites and my cut from the Humble Bundle, with over 100,000 copies sold. Steam accounts for 78% of that financial figure.
What an insane number. I just can’t believe it. That income allows me to fund my next two games outright and continue pursuing my dream of being a top tier indie dev. We made a lot of progress with Cook, Serve, Delicious, but I feel the biggest has yet to come considering the scope of my next two games. Thank you to everyone for the support, thank you to all the Youtube and Twitch streamers out there enjoying the game, thanks to the community for all the great reviews and thanks to anyone who bought the game and enjoyed it. And of course a huge thanks to Ryan Davis, who was the one to open up the door to this staggering amount of success. I will never, ever forget that.
I don’t know if this is just the beginning, or if this is the pinnacle of my success. I don’t know how my next two games, which are stylistically different from Cook, Serve, Delicious, will be received critically or commercially. I don’t know how console development will go. I don’t know how much longer Cook, Serve, Delicious will provide me with healthy daily income (as of right now it’s still selling great). What I do know is that we’ll find out all these answers together.
The future is completely uncertain, yet I couldn’t be more excited.