[Post Mortem]: I thought I could ship at least 700 units to stay in business
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'm not having the best of time writing this post but I feel like I have to. I have been warned against going full time indie by everyone on the internet and by my friends and family. I believed I could make it, all I had to do was ship just 700 units of my game on steam. I'm not even close. And I've been in the industry for at least 7 years working for studios like Gameloft and Mobility-Games and as a freelancer and party-time indie dev. I've released a few games before on my own and I believed Steam to be the magical unicorn that has my back and fills up your pockets. Now, I'm not sure I'll still have a house past December. Here's my story.
I started making games back in 2006 on the game creator's forum using Basic and C++. Back in the day there were no affordable engines that an eastern european could get his hands on. I learned to code my own tools and games the hard way - through trial and error only relying on a few DirectX (and later on) OpenGL wrappers as the foundations for my engines. After more than 10 years of writing games I believed I had acquired enough know-how, knowledge and experience to make it in the industry on my own, on my own terms and on my own schedule. Never even thought about getting rich from my passion, just being able to survive.
How it all started
Two months ago I quit my job with enough money in the bank to sustain me for at least 4 months (past Christmas). I was hoping that my latest game would bank me enough cash to sustain me for 6 more months after that so I could work on one more game and then decide what to do. Worst case I would get a job again with a few months left to spare and try again later. What I never expected is not being able to survive the first 4 months with my game out and available.
Before I go even further, before you have a chance to move on from this post if you are EVER to take anything from my experience, remember this: Do your research outside of game development, learn and read the laws in your country and plan ahead in your accounting. I had enough money lined up for 4 months of development. The game only required 1 more month to be released but I planned for the worst and it wasn't enough. Do not quit your job without at least 3 times as much money as you think it's necessary, I cannot stress this enough.
While writing my resignation letter I was already getting the papers for my business ready. I had the money required to register it and I did my research on what it takes to start a business. I just didn't research what it takes to keep the business running. And I'm not talking about office costs. Just day-to-day beaurocracy stuff. All in all getting my business registered and approved cost me less than 100$. As soon as I had all the paperwork I hit the first hurdle. In my country beaurocracy is at an all-time high with almost-hidden fees and lots of additional paperwork. I even had to sign and pay for a document for our version of the IRS that says the following (loosely translated): If I receive a sum, via bank transfer, of 15 000 or more dollars (or euros) I am not using that money to do laundering and I will report the transaction to the IRS. This little obligatory declaration cost me 150$. That's more than the sum required to register the business. And I opted for an accountant for my business instead of doing everything myself and wasting more time and avoiding any possible headache's or miss-fillings on my side. The accountant costs me 30$ per month. The paperwork from the notary that gives him the right to file the paperwork is 80$. And I needed two such documents. That's 190 more dollars that I hadn't budgeted for. All in all just getting the business prepared ended up costing me about 550 more dollars than I was expecting. That's one month out of the 4 taken out.
Having my own place was supposed to be a blessing
At the beginning of the year I opted to buy an apartment for myself. After starting the business I used it as my office. The developer behind the apartment did not do his job properly and I found myself having to pay for many things out of pocket (like getting electricity). I found this out last week when the plug was pulled and I found myself having to move my belongings to my girlfriend's place. I'd sue him for all the damages and costs but I cannot afford a lawyer at this point. That's about 500-600 more dollars and another month taken out of my budget. I've got power and running water again for now. Notice how I'm already two months down and I haven't even began talking about how the game's doing financially.
Even though my savings were already cut in half I decided to go on. I would finish the game, release it on Steam, and pray I could hit my mark for November (300 copies sold). I wanted to sell 700 copies in total - enough to sustain myself for a little while.
Development went smooth
Finishing the game went as smoothly as it could have gone. At least my 10 year experience in writing games proved useful. I knew what to expect, what problems I would have and I finished everything that I had to finish two days earlier than expected. I had the steam repo's set up, I had the game tested on Linux and Windows and I had no major bugs. The beta I did on steam went smoothly and I fixed everything that was thrown at me. Come launch day I was excited to deliver the game to everyone I could on Steam and I even had a whole lot of luck picking a launch day with the lowest number of releases in November. It seemed like I would make it.
I had a few launches under my belt from games I didn't depend on. None were as stressful as this. From my experience in the two weeks before launch I knew steam's wishlist data updated once a day and sales weren't reported in real time. I expected them to update once a day. I launched at night, my time, with a few buyers lined up from a wonderful local game dev community I found on discord.
I launched Ebony Spire: Heresy on steam
I pressed the little green button on the dashboard and off it went! I was on the new releases list and people on discord were posting screenshots of them buying the game. I saw people on my steam friends list playing it. I counted 10 - 20 - 30 up to 50 sales from people I knew. I Hugged my girlfriend and said "Honey, I made it! Think we will have at least 150-200 copies sold by tomorrow morning! I can afford to do this full time". I kissed her as a happy successful developer for the last time.
Please note that I did all the marketing I could afford to do on my own and with a halved budget. I emailed 187 reviewers and news website. I tweeted out like mad and got about 50 retweets and >10K impressions on the launch tweet. Before release I even had a mention about the game on Rock Paper Shotgun's german website. I lowered my expectations but never thought the results would end up being so low.
Refreshing Steam's page after release proved cathartic! I found myself on the New and Trending list. Going over to store.steampowered.com/games had my game near the middle of the list. I took a screenshot. I was receiving praises on facebook and people were congratulating me. It really seemed like I made it. The game was featured on new and trending in categories like RPG, Linux, Indie on steam.
A few hours after launch I checked the sales page and it refreshed. I had 500 wishlists and 60 reported copies sold. I thought: Ha, Steam hasn't updated the data since the first hour after release. I'll see the actual numbers tomorrow morning. And I went to bed.
The morning after
I woke up and went straight for the computer. Checked the sales data and my jaw dropped. 68 copies sold. On launch day and after appearing in New and Trending. I couldn't believe it. My girlfriend realized what's going on and said: "Babe, you need to get a job. You won't make it". I thought it to be a mistake and over the entire day refreshed the sales page on my phone, on my tablet, on my computer. I was using google's instruments to filter articles and posts about the game by the hour. Lots of reddit mentions from bots. No big article to cover the launch. No youtube videos. No one I've sent the game to wrote, mentioned or even played the game. I was destroyed but I believed I still had a chance. I went to the discussion forums and checked out what the people were saying. A few mentioned non-critical bugs. And that's how the last 3 weeks since release began: Me doing almost daily patches and quality of life improvements to the game.
Three weeks of constant updates
I said to myself: Maybe if they will see me as a good developer, actively responding to criticism and fixing issues or problems that people mention they will love me and spread the word about my game. Buyers will certainly notice. The press will notice. And for the past 3 weeks I released update after update after update and even a big expansion. They wanted to turn the scanline off they could! They wanted to disable perma-death? I added an option there. They wanted procedural levels? Sure, no problem. Every small little detail that the buyers wanted I took a look at it and did my best to serve their needs.
3 weeks of constant development and updates later and I barely managed to ship 90 more units. A few articles popped up that praised the game. I even released a small 5 level demo on itch (can't afford to pay steam's 100$ fee to get a free version up on the platform). GamingOnLinux called it "[...]a rather great dungeon crawler, available on Linux right now". A few more reviews went live from smaller blogs that had only good things to say. The game seems to be fun and the people that play it seem to like it. I only have positive reviews on steam in 3 languages. But there's only 9 reviews there. Not even enough for steam to give it a "Positive" rating.
I've spent the last 3 weeks talking about the game on twitter, on discord and writing and e-mailing youtubers and press websites. I spent the last 3 weeks releasing patch, after patch, after patch, after patch. And my little community loves me for it. A few of them are really vocal about the game. But so far I'm barely, barely even half-way through the minimum amount of sales needed to be able to survive till January. I need 300 sales before the month ends so the payment that comes from Steam in December can cover my debts and living costs for that month and have a little extra for January. There are only 10 days left and I barely managed to ship around 160 copies in twice that time. I'm not going to make it and I do not know what I can do.
It's a constant stress and I don't think I can get out of the hole I dug myself into
At this point, I'm scared. I'm scared that I won't be able to pay my mortgage next month. I'm scared I won't be able to have anything left to eat. I'm scared my girlfriend won't be able to handle the stress I'm going through and be able to support me. I'm scared I'll loose the apartment I worked all my life to buy and I'm scared I'll end up on the street. I'm scared I'll loose my cat for good. And I'm scared that I will never take the risk to make my own game ever again.
It's been a soul crushing experience. And it's the end of the year. I banked on getting a job starting January. Almost no-one is in a rush to hire near the end of the year. I know I can get hired for a good salary again but I don't think it will happen this year. All I can do at this point is continue to improve the game and talk about it. The only thing I have at this point that makes me happy is seeing people playing my game on Steam. It's a coffee break game that you can finish in two hours. There are players with > 10 hours of game time in it. Those are my favorite people - they really enjoy it! But that's all I feel like I have left at this point.
I never wanted to make a big game or a successful one. I always wanted to be a bottom-feeder. Make a few low budget games to earn my bread and I would have been happy. I just want to make games and for people to play them. I wanted to have a small community of fans that look forward to my next release. And I wanted to please them. I never wanted or needed to sell >2000 copies and I thought: I've got this! I have a low mortgage, I live in a low-cost country. I need to move just 5% of what other (bigger) game devs are moving to survive. Now I'm thinking of selling my TV, PS4 and PSVR and a few older laptops I have. Maybe buy me a little more time.
So heed my story. I thought I had a good enough game in a good niche at a good price in an environment where I only needed a modest amount of sales to survive. I picked a really good launch date for my game. Everything seemed perfect and yet here I am writing this post. DO NOT GO FULL TIME UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD A HUGE HUGE FAILURE! MAKE SURE YOU CAN SURVIVE SELLING CLOSE TO 0 COPIES. I don't want anyone to feel what I'm feeling right now, especially if you love the industry, your job and making games in general.
And that's my story
I wanted to write it since I saw Enichan's tweets a few days ago but I waited until I got the 1.2 update of Ebony Spire out of beta and into the wild. I thought someone will cover the news of the expansion and see my efforts to please my community. I secretly hoped I wouldn't have to write this post. I sold 5 copies more after I released the big update. Please make sure to read this tweet while you're at it. It's Enichan's original twitter post on the subject. She's not joking. Pixeljam is not joking. Gregg is not joking. Chances are your game won't sell what you need it to sell.
As for me I'll keep updating my game. I won't have time to make a new one and put all my hopes in it. If I'm going down, I want to know I go down supporting my creation and the people that seem to love it. The game is called Ebony Spire: Heresy and I never thought I won't be able to survive this Christmas because of it.