Tuesday, March 17, 2009

So Here's How Many Games I Sell.

I get a lot of questions from young, aspiring Indie developers, and the most common query is: How many copies of a game does Spiderweb Software sell? It's a really reasonable question. After all, making a game is a long and punishing process. It's entirely fair to want to know what the parameters of success are. Alas, this information is generally kept secret. I've never given this question a straight answer, with real numbers.

Until now.

I am going to give full sales results for our game Geneforge 4: Rebellion. I am not the first Indie developer to reveal this sort of information. However, most public sales figures come from projects that were either blockbusters or disastrous. But our games have never landed in either pool. I have been doing this for a living for almost fifteen years. I make good money, but I'm not a rich guy. At the same time, I have been unusually successful in this business, if for nothing else that I HAVE done it for a living for a long time.

So, young developer, beware. Even the numbers you are about to see are difficult to attain. You have to write a very solid game, of the sort that a million other people aren't making, and then get it noticed. Then, if you catch lightning in a bottle, this might be your reward.

I'll split the information into two parts. This part contains information on the game in question, the budget, and the basic sales numbers. Next week, I'll break down the data a little more and scatter some interesting opinions about being a small-scale game developer into the wind.

Why Did I Choose Geneforge 4?


Geneforge 4: Rebellion is the fourth chapter in my five-part Geneforge series. These games are old-school RPGs. They have very rough graphics and low budgets. On the bright side, they feature extremely large worlds, cool storylines, and a healthy dose of innovative design. The main hook for the Geneforge games is their open-endedness. There are tons of factions you can join, with entirely different paths to victory. You can complete the game using combat or stealth, alone or leading a horde of monsters. They're neat games. But, and I can't stress this enough, they're really low-budget, and they look it.

It's worthwhile at this point to go to the web site and look at the screenshots. Some of you might ask, "Why would anyone pay money for a game that looks like that?" The answer is, "I don't know, but they do."

I picked Geneforge 4 because it was very much an average performer for us. Some of our games have done worse. Some have done much better. Its sales were respectable, at about the minimum level I would require to consider its development a success. It's also worth pointing out that it did not get any distribution on third party sites, which is unusual for us these days. This made it easier to calculate sales for it, but also means that far fewer people played it than our other games.

Geneforge 4 was released for the Macintosh in November, 2006 (in time for Christmas) and PC Windows in February, 2007 (in time for there to be less competition). Unlike most of our games, it has never appeared for sale on another site (like RealArcade, MSN Games, etc.). All of the sales were directly from us. Geneforge 4 didn't get a lot of press, like most Indie games. Some web reviews, some news articles, a few banner ads, but news of it mainly spread by word of mouth.

How Much Did It Cost To Make It?

Spiderweb Software has three full-time employees, including me. I worked on Geneforge 4 full-time, doing coding and design. The other employees spent part of their time on the project, making graphics, helping with design details, and so on, so only part of their salaries counted toward Geneforge 4's budget. The game took about a year to make, including time for the Windows port, but it used a lot of code and graphics and sound assets from previous games.

Of course, while I am giving sales figures, I'm not going to reveal the salaries for everyone at Spiderweb Software. I will simply say that, between the salaries for the creators, the costs for freelancers to makes graphics, general business expenses for the year (insurance, internet, a new computer or two), and the printing costs for hint books, Geneforge 4 cost about $120K to make. If I had to do all of the code and graphics from scratch, this figure would have been around fifty percent higher.

Generally, when an Indie developer reveals the size of their budget, online commenters will go, "No way! It could never cost that much!" But time costs money. I work for a salary, and my time spent writing Geneforge 4 is time not spent earning money elsewhere. Salaries only don't count toward the budget if your time has no value. And time is the most valuable thing you have.

How Much Money Did It Make?

Of course, I can't say how much money Geneforge 4 is going to make overall. Its sales are pretty slow now, but it still sells. The game has always sold for $28. (That might seem very expensive for an Indie title. I will discuss the price at length in part two.) In addition, a hint book is available. The vast majority of copies of the hint book sell for $7. There are also some profits from CD sales, but it's only around a thousand bucks, so I left it out.

So let's look at the interesting numbers:

Total Copies Sold of Geneforge 4 as of March 13, 2009: 3979.
Total Gross Sales Geneforge 4 as of March 13, 2009: $111412.

Total Geneforge 4 Hint Books Sold as of March 13, 2009: 807.
Total Gross Sales Geneforge 4 Hint Books as of March 13, 2009: $5649.

As you can see, we don't sell a huge number of copies ourselves. Our other titles, which are also available from other outlets, sell much higher raw numbers. (The original Geneforge, for example, has sold jillions of copies, though we got far less cash for most of those.) So does this mean that hardly anyone played Geneforge 4? No, for two reasons.

First, there is every reason to believe that for every copy that sells, a lot of pirated copies get played. I would bet folding money that tens of thousands of people (pirates, free riders, scum) have enjoyed Geneforge 4 for free. It's been cracked aplenty.

Second, Geneforge 4, like all of my games, has a large demo. Probably too large for my own good. The free portion of the game is almost a full, self-contained game. So there are a ton of people who got to play a big chunk of it, say, "OK, that was enough," and move on. And I can't blame them. They have done no wrong. I'm the one who set the size of the demo, after all.

But I think the most important thing to note is that Geneforge 4, after a few years, is almost in the black, and it continues to sell. In the long run, the time spent on it will be quite profitable. Despite the crude graphics. Despite the high price.

And I think there are some lessons to be learned here. Next week, I'll talk about how I set the price, break down the figures for Mac and Windows sales, and give aspiring developers some friendly advice.

313 comments:

  1. It's true that your games look low budget, but they don't feel that way once you play them! I've been playing them since 97'-98' so I've stopped noticing all together.

    I'll be buying both Geneforge 4 & 5 once I finish my walk through the first three again, so feel free to tack that on there. :)

    I'm also sorry to hear about the software piracy. I don't know how common it was a decade ago, but the practice has definately pervaded our society to the point where most people do it without even thinking about it. Thieves, plain and simple. I'd do something about them if I could; they have no place in my world.

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  2. Have you considered porting some of your games to handheld devices or the iPhone? I would buy a port to the iPhone if the user interface and adjustments for the small screen size were handled well.

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  3. That's the thing you didn't mention in your entry - you have a super devoted fan base. I know I'm not the only person who checks spiderwebsoftware every few months to see what's coming out. I've been a loyal fan since I was younger than you care to imagine. As a fully fledged adult person, I feel like I'm doing a good thing supporting an indy developer (and getting some really sweet games out of the deal).

    Part of the reason I am such a loyal fan and never balk at the price tag is because the story and the features of each game are worth it. You've talked about game play before (I think it was a guest article for a game site, if I'm not mistaken), and how annoying it is to be the equivalent of a bowl of jello in the skills department until you've put in hours and hours of your life trying to level up so that you don't die of exposure when there's a gentle breeze.

    Part of why I love the Exile/Avernum/Geneforge games so much is because you can literally become god-like in a relatively short period of time, but get hours and hours of game play replaying the game as a soldier in one part of a war, a spy or anything else. It's like having several games in one. So who cares about the crappy graphics? It's not about that. It's not about the flash wow, or how hard it is to beat a level, it's about getting into the story, figuring out a strategy to beat a cunning opponent, or just the sheer joy of annihilating a room full of goblins with one well-placed spell.

    Man, this comment is excessively long as is, but the point I'm trying to make is that your games are so good because you understand why people play games. You get what makes a game fun and you consistently try to meet that desire with your games. Mission accomplished. I can't wait to see what's next.

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  4. I find the number on savings from code reused to be a huge surprise - as far as I can tell, the games use basicaly the same engine (a few tweaks here, a few there, but I'm sure the core is the same), and many art assets are also reused, yet all of that is worth only 60k, or rather just 50% of total expenses. I always thought that existing code/art would at least halve, if not even further decrease, your costs. Therefore, one must conclude it's not the actual programming that's taking the most of your time - is it the writing and actual level/encounter design? Or maybe all the various administrative/marketing tasks require the most time from your stuff. What would you characterise as your single biggest expense?


    On an unrelated observation, the hintbook doesn't look to be terribly profitable. You mentioned costs (though you didn't specify them), and the gross revenue from them looks to be almost negligeable compared to actual game sales. Do you consider this more of a service to the community perhaps?

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  5. Very interesting jeff. I would like to see more analysis of piracy rates - do you have any way to measure that the geneforge? Would you care to speculate on what you've lost to piracy / perhaps gained from exposure?

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  6. Thanks dude, I always wonder how other shareware authors do but they never tell.

    -- H. Allan. BH Projects.

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  7. Many thanks for doing this - a lot of people will be very interested in your figures. Likewise, I hope some of the early XNA developers post their own revenue from the Xbox Live Community Games channel when it becomes available in the next month or so.

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  8. Dear Mister Vogel, did you consider porting one of your games to iTouch?

    Because folks from Pangea Software seem to be saying here:


    http://www.tuaw.com/2009/03/14/tuaw-sxsw-the-iphone-gaming-panel/,


    that porting a Mac-native game is a relatively quick and painless affair and the financial threshold of entry to the AppStore is otherwise quite low.

    IMHO, your games would fit the platform very well indeed and alleviate the drought of quality RPGs on the AppStore.

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  9. I always enjoy reading stuff you write. From the games to your stuff on shareware. Keep the posts coming! :)

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  10. I am a loyal Geneforge player since the episode 3. I'm happy with the game, I'm happy with the support, I'm happy with the pricing.

    Very well done Spiderweb and thank you for the great time I've spent (and still spending) playing with Geneforge !

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  11. Here is a fresh look: I just looked (about 5 minutes each) at the demos of Genforce 1 and 4, yeah, they look dated, but dated also looks Baldur's Gate 2 which I replayed recently (however, the graphics in BG2 are still better).

    The games seems playable in Linux with Wine, this is how I tried them, maybe a bit slow and with some control issues, but I guess one can get accustomed with that.

    I am curious to see the second part, with the talk about prices, since I think $28 is too much, maybe something like at most half of this would look correct to me, but again, I looked only for a few minutes. Maybe I will make the time and try the demos for a longer time (but no way I will go for $28).

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  12. Hmmmm.

    1. I used to play Ultima Online and the graphics weren't that much better. And I still enjoyed the gameplay very much. While the 3D games (EQ, AC, WOW, etc) are good it still comes down to gameplay. IMO I stopped playing WOW a long time ago because I'm just frankly sick of grinding. If I had to choose between gameplay and grinding I'll take gameplay.

    2. Have you considered making the next iteration of the game a solo/multiplayer style game? E.g. the solo version of the game restricts from 1-5 areas and is the equivalent of a moderate sized demo. But to really access the game you need to upgrade to the multiplayer account.

    This would cut down on piracy, give you more options for selling to customers and perhaps build a bigger fanbase.

    I'm not suggesting that you orient the game into a MMO capable of handling thousands of players simultaneously. That sort of code and hardware necessary would be excessive overhead for your sales numbers. But being able to handle 32 players in a single instance, creating a lobby so like minded players can aggregate and setting up the code/hardware to handle the management, creation of instances and destruction of instances would go a long way.

    *shrug* just curious if you've thought of this. Which I assume you have.

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  13. Hmmm.

    "Total Copies Sold of Geneforge 4 as of March 13, 2009: 3979."

    Consider this:

    1. Let's say you have a multiplayer version of Geneforge 4 that connects to servers located at your business and that *require* connecting/using server based code on your server.

    2. Let's say you add sufficient value to Geneforge 4, or version 5 whichever, that attracts the current users to the multiplayer version.

    3. Let's say you charge an absolutely minimal fee for this online only premium content. The insane price of $1 per month, paid annually or a one time per year charge of $12.

    Or about equivalent to a large Starbucks latte with a pastry. :)

    If the monthly charge is:
    $1 - $47,748 income for first year.
    $2 - $95,496 income for first year.
    $3 - $143,244 income for first year.
    $4 - $190,992 income for first year.

    Each subsequent year would provide additional income. On a monthly/annual charge basis you could reach a point where you practically give the game away to maximize the monthly/annual fee.

    4. Another point is that if a subscription basis were implemented then either you could work on providing additional content to an existing game, a much less expensive proposition generally,or you could reduce the upfront price in the expectation of making more money over the longer term.

    *shrug* there are of course downsides to everything. But I've spent $60 of crappy games that looked good but had horrible gameplay. If someone told me that I could have a reasonably decent gameplay experience for $12 or $24 a year. *shrug*

    As an aside consider Blizzard's original Diablo game. It allowed under 10 players simultaneously, didn't have that great a graphics, which were isometric as well, had millions of players who would have gladly payed $12 a year to play.

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  14. >"Why would anyone pay money for a game that looks like that?" The answer is, "I don't know, but they do."

    There are still some people left who prefer depth, storyline and gameplay over graphics quality, and your games excel at these. Actually, I believe that the graphics craze of the past decade is gradually coming to an end and gamers are returning to the "old values". Good news for indies.

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  15. Long Tail ahoy.

    Jeff, is there a particular reason why Geneforge 4 wasn't offered via alternate services? Also, have you looked at Steam/Impulse/(shudder)Gamer's Gate (to be fair, they ditched their awful client, which removes my big beef with them; so maybe the shudder is more reflexive).

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  16. I'll second (or third, or whatever number we're up to) those asking about an iPhone version of Spiderweb games. I'd snap a few of those up in an instant.

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  17. Thanks for the insightful entry. Looking forward to part 2. I've often thought about pricing, subscription fees, etc.

    As for the graphics comment, a lot of us who grew up playing DOS games and then cut our teeth on the likes of Neverwinter Nights and Diablo prefer storyline and gameplay over in-your-face graphics. There are quite a few games out there that, cutting down on the graphics just a bit and focusing more on what the player is actually doing in the game, would improve the game so much more. Unfortunately, the big-name companies don't seem to think so. And even worse, not many of the new gamers (I would say born 1990's and later) think so either...

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  18. Cut your teeth on Neverwinter Nights and Diablo? Showing your age a bit, eh Larry?

    (says the guy who "cut his teeth" on Wizardry. RIP The Master, my super awesome ninja, lost during a botched transfer to Wiz 2: TKOD, because I didn't understand the significance of the little notch on the side of the 5.25 floppy, or the sticker that happened to be covering it when I took it out of the box. I digress).

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  19. I've been playing Spiderweb Games since Exile 1. I've bought multiple copies in a few cases to hand out to friends. I loved the first few games and I generally like the first game in each new series. I generally just play the demo of the other games because the gameplay is so similar that the storyline never hooks me. I truly look forward to the next "new" game, which I'm hoping is soon. I also hope Jeff will use one of the many freeware graphics engines available to update the look of his games. It'd be nice to move into the late 90's at least :)

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  20. For those of you all asking for multiplayer, do you all have any idea how much work that would involve? This is a major time investment for Jeff that would not have any clear pay-off.

    What are the gameplay advantages of making Jeff's game multiplayer? Geneforge and Avernum are not Diablo. Multiplayer is nice in combat, yes, but combat is only a small portion of the game. The story driven parts, as well as the puzzles, do not lend themselves to multiplayer. To make a multiplayer game, you are asking Jeff to create something outside of both his technical and his game design comfort zone.

    As for iPhone porting, this would also be a headache. Device input limitations seriously effect RPG gameplay, particularly with inventory management. Just look at the difference between the X-Box and the PC versions of Mass Effect. While this is certainly a better idea than multiplayer, it is unclear that it will work for his games.

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  21. As a previous commenter mentioned, I also question the business sense of continuing with the strategy guides. I know a lot of your fanbase consists of us old farts, but the younger audience just isn't buying guides given how easy it is to find that sort of information on the internet (heck, just look at the strategy discussions that take place in the Spiderweb forums).

    I could maybe see the value of these guides if you printed them out on demand (which is what I assume you do with CDs these days), instead of ordering up a batch and then sitting them. But then you do not get volume pricing. Have you just gotten good at estimated guide print runs, or do you just warehouse them in your basement like the Foglios'? Have you ever run out of a guide print run?

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  22. Walker:

    "As for iPhone porting, this would also be a headache. Device input limitations seriously effect RPG gameplay, particularly with inventory management."

    Not at all, actually. I am currently playing "The Quest" on iTouch, which is a port of the hardcore Pocket PC/Palm RPG that is something of a Might and Magic and the early Elder Scrolls hybrid, and there is no problem with inventory whatsoever.
    Unfortunately, it is also the only good full-featured RPG for on the Appstore, unless one counts Puzzle Quest.

    Text/icon readability and the controls would be the main challenges, I think.

    I can only hope that Mr. Vogel considers it. I have too much gaming backlog on my PC and too little time for computer gaming to pick his game for it, but I'd snap it in an instant for my iTouch.
    And people on that platform are still far more tolerant towards retro graphics than computer gamers.

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  23. Very nice article, cant wait for the second part, it helps me to figure out how it feels to make living as indie game dev, and its not that bad.

    The gross rate is not significant though for a release, would be better if you show your income per year from the releases, just a curiosity from me.


    Not too important, but... this blog is slashdotted already

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  24. From the author. Thank you very much for all of the kind comments. I read them all attentively.

    About the iPhone: I plan to make a full post on this eventually. For now, I'll sum up. It would take a lot of work to adapt one of our games to run on that tiny screen. The acceptable price point on the iPhone is really low (.99 to 1.99 usually). The platform doesn't seem really suited to long form 40 hour games like mine. And there is some indication that the gold rush is over. So I'm keeping it at arm's length for now.

    About multiplayer: Sadly, while I'm an all right designer, I'm only a so-so programmer. Writing a multiplayer game is a huge effort, requiring great investment of cash and technical skill. It's simply out of my reach. And there's monstrous competition. I have a niche I do very well in, and it would be very dangerous to try to expand out of it.

    Thanks again!

    - Jeff Vogel

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  25. @peacedog:
    I'm definitely one of the younger gamers still looking for gameplay over graphics, but that was the whole point =) I did fail to mention that it was the original NWN (oh the days of AOL), not the 2002 make by BioWare, though I like their NWN series very much also.

    As for multiplayer, I've always been more of a single player gamer myself. At most co-op, but co-op is much better implemented on consoles anyway, given the nature of the beast.

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  26. I'm not the biggest fan of graphics. For me, the gameplay itself is the biggest turn on or off in a game, so if it plays exceptionally well graphics can be ignored. It also goes in saying, a game like Metroid Prime I expect very nice graphics, it just wouldn't be right without it.

    If graphics are not your strength, then you have no choice but to pour your time into gameplay and story. I've never played your games, but if this is what you've done then I see no reason why you wouldn't sell as well as you have.

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  27. You could go a long way to helping promote your games by updating your website to make it look a little less 1993. Not to mention a few dozen other improvements you could make that might move your products on appearance and functionality alone. Hell, packaging all 5 games together for a small discount might do wonders.

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  28. Jeff,

    I was heavily addicted to your Exile series from 1994 on, and even created a web site devoted to it (Lorien, if your memory stretches that far back). Never quite got into Geneforge, but that's besides the point.

    Anyways, I just wanted to thank you for getting me into web development: your game inspired me to make the web site, and the community that built up around it got me into the internet and showed me how.

    I'm a full-time web developer now, and have you to thank.

    Just wanted to say thanks, and that it's great to hear you're still developing games (saw your link on Slashdot).

    -Jacob Hume

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  29. Out of curiosity, have your sales picked up since you were slashdotted?

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  30. Re: Slashdotted, heck yeah, I'll buy.

    I've been waiting for someone who writes intelligent games for the Mac to wave their hand and say "Hey, stop playing Civ IV and check this out instead!"

    The fact that you have a fanatical fan base and so much experience makes me willing to fork over $30. After all, that's how much I pay for the crap that EA puts out, and most of the time it's not even that great.

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  31. Sorry if I'm being dim here, but 111412 + 5649 = 117061 < 120000. So how is it in the black?

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  32. I did fail to mention that it was the original NWN (oh the days of AOL)

    You are still a young-un. Island of Kesmai on CompuServe predates that game by quite a bit. I impressed Bill Dalton (who worked on IOK and is currently technical lead at BioWare Austin) at Austin GDC by pointing out that I was an old IOK player.

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  33. Hello Mr. Vogel, my name is Keith Weatherby II. I don't know if you remember me. I worked for Andre Lamothe for a few months trying to get games on his compilations a few years back. I contacted you about a few of your games, and you politely refused.

    Anyway, this is quite interesting to me, as I am working on my own game which will be a niche product. Looking forward to part 2.

    I'm running a review site now at http://reviews.gamesafoot.com -- In the near future I'll probably be reviewing some spiderweb games. You don't happen to have an affiliate program set up do you?

    In any case, thanks for sharing your numbers.

    souldelay - I think he said "almost" in the black. Which means his sales will eventually surpass the budget and start making money for him.

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  34. @Uhfgood: I don't remember you contacting me, but I have a lot of respect for Andre Lamothe. If you put together more compilations, please contact me again. I might not have fully understood what was going on the first time.

    As for your review site, please feel free to drop me an E-mail at my business address ... spidweb@spiderwebsoftware.com.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  35. I'm glad that I stumbled upon your blog. I used to play a lot of Exile on my Mac LC-575, back in the day. I'm a big fan of RPGs.

    I'm looking forward to give Geneforge 5 a try.

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  36. I'm glad your games are selling enough for you to keep making them, but I am surprised it isn't higher. They are such amazing works, and good RPGs are so rare.

    I notice that you sold the recent Geneforge 5 through MagGameStore as well, since I'm a subscriber there. I hope that helps boost publicity and sales for Spiderweb Software.

    Great blog anyway, and I will keep reading.

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  37. I respect the fact that you have been able to provide great games for so long in a niche that I love. I hope the sales continue to grow.

    I must admit that I've been a little skeptical concerning the future of complex indie games. Not talking about "casual" games such as Bejeweled, but RPGs and such that you make.

    But hey, I figure that you'll always have an audience. Us "old school" gamers who grew up with C64 and Apple IIe computers often remember those older games more fondly than the newer ones released today.

    Keep cranking them out, Jeff!

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  38. There are two misconceptions/things I didn't stress enough in the article, and I'll just say them quickly before amplifying them in my next post.

    1. Spiderweb has three full-time employees. Two of them didn't work full-time on Geneforge 4, but they aren't part-timers in general.

    2. Geneforge 4, like all Geneforge games, didn't sell super-well. But we've has several games that did far better. So our overall business is healthier than my post might have made it appear.

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments! I sort of expected more hate.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  39. Jeff,

    Great post! I suspect your costs may have been greater than 120k, but it doesn't really matter. Have you ever considered lowering your costs? Steam has posted that by lowering their prices by 75% on a 'sale weekend' they actually make a lot more money.

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  40. Have you ever considered lowering your costs?

    Jeff regularly has a "October sadness" sale, ramping up the the Christmas season. I would be interesting to see how that affects numbers.

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  41. About multiplayer: Sadly, while I'm an all right designer

    You are good designer, Jeff. You just have a narrow range, and one that is not suited for multiplayer.

    I would love to see figures of how many people actually used the multiplayer features in Bioware's NWN on a regular basis. I doubt that a majority of the customer base ever tried it at all, and I suspect that an even smaller group stayed with it for more than a few sessions.

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  42. This was a great article.
    A game with pretty graphics is good, but has never been the highest selling point for me, I still play HOMM3.
    You sir, have just tempted me to download the demo.

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  43. There are some pretty apt responses on The Codex to this post:

    http://www.rpgcodex.net/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=30732

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  44. LOL, only as good as the last sale! LOL

    RT
    www.online-privacy.pro.tc

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  45. It looks like you've been reddited: http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/85lrp/so_heres_how_many_games_he_sells/

    It should boost your sales (despite the large pro-pirate faction on the site).

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  46. Jeff, your niche games are very good. The bad thing for me - I don't sense big differences, innovations between, say, geneforge 1 and 5. Think about it. People played avernum 1 and now you're working at 6th game. What new things you'll show them, how can you destroy boredom and achieve wow! effect? both for first-time players and veterans?

    For example, I've somehow hoped for big bosses. Ones that are many times bigger than player. Really scary. And I've got the same boring 1 square drakons (mighty? don't really look mighty), eyebeasts with size like my lvl1 fyora. Imagine how exciting can be fight with a huge bloating eye or with an overgrown plant, or with a rebel version of big evil robot.

    In fact, the most exciting fight in all GF5 for me was destroying all the rebels at okavano gate including 4 unbounds there. I think it was not thought possible cause I didn't got any reward (item or story) for this.

    Don't aim at HUGE [empty] areas. Make them interesting at every step, every pixel. I don't think you've played Vanguard MMORPG, but I'll bring it as example - it failed also because devs aimed at huge terrotories but were not able to produce quality content to fill these territories.

    Make the game "real". All things, even thievery - I can just unlock private door in GF, go inside, get all the owner things, go out of his room and he'll not even say anything. That is BS. He should already brought guards and got my a$$ kicked. But nope, I can even sell him his own things. I know it's hard to make characters look real, act real, but it's worth. It's what ppl remember long after final titles. We're playing your games not because graphics, cause of story, freedom of making decisions, living world.

    Relieve the monotony of game - not just "go clear another map", but escort NPC, try to run through area in time, get some puzzle solved etc. Create complex quests ppl will need brains to complete, not just bring swamp herbs to Aranov for moneys.

    Don't go the same route in Avy6, make it new, innovative. Anything from really scary bosses to adding skills, stances, combos to combat can help with that.

    About business things I think making your site the only way to sell game is real bad business decision. There are many examples of great specialists but bad businessmen. I'm sure you know about ZX Spectrum and Sir Clive Sinclair, it's creator. If you like creating games more than selling them, may be it's worth to find someone who'll sell as great as you make your games.

    But please, please, please, stay away from 3D and multiplayer.

    Your fan from Russia [land where bears walk on streets :)]

    ReplyDelete
  47. excellent read. I can tell you truly are an entrepreneur from your perspective on running a business.

    Maybe this is a large problem for indie shops, because the realities of running a business are not as interesting as making a really fun game.

    I am a developer and a entrepreneur as well, but not in games. And when I hear about "painful development", I realize that I am not cut out for your line of work. I wish you the best of luck.

    In your future articles, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to see Spiderweb's overall numbers (i.e. revenues, profits). I've always dreamt of doing what your doing and the more I understand the more I am interested.

    Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete
  48. Thanks so much for this very interesting post. I have been playing your games (and following your career) since Exile II. I'm also an indie mac dev myself. Very interesting! Great job and congrats on your success, Jeff.

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  49. These games suck ass. It's a wonder anyone even bothers to play them.

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  50. Hmm... I had hoped your games were doing better than that (on average). Thanks for sharing the numbers! Still nothing to look down on and much better than all your haters think you're doing :)

    Have you considered making a "casual RPG"? A few have grossed over 5x what Geneforge 4 did

    ReplyDelete
  51. Jeff, great article, I really look forward to the following parts, and to see what else you post in the future. Thanks for posting it.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Hi, I came here from slashdot. I hadn't heard of the game/series before. I'm a pre-indie game dev myself. I haven't released anything yet but I've been working 4-5 months on a game. I was just wondering, how much money have you spent on your artwork? Does it intentionally have this style? I'd love if you could at least answer that first question :)

    I have a comment about your opinion of pirates. I don't think you should be thankful for them but I think you should have a different attitude about them: Think of it as free marketing. If you made your game harder to steal, would they have bought it? No, they would have moved on to something easier to steal. If they like what they play, they'll tell their friends. Some of which may pay for the game. Even if their friends don't buy it, they, too, will tell their friends. If you think this is BS, you should at least try to have some positive attitude about the situation. You'll go nuts otherwise because even HUGE companies haven't solved the problem.

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    ReplyDelete
  53. Wow, the internet is a small place.

    Thank you. I've played a few of your emos. I loved the Avernum demos, but I could never afford to actually buy it. I've never used a cracked copy. I had too much respect for it, and the demos were very long and playable.

    I was pretty hooked on Avernum 1 and 2 for a while. I didn't think I was going to like it, but the storylines, rules, and overall gameplay and world design.

    It takes some doing to actually make someone yelp in fear only using such old-school graphics and game interface.

    ReplyDelete
  54. Howdy. I've been following your business and buying your games since Exile 3.

    I'd be really interested in hearing your thoughts on Steam and similar services. I *think* it makes piracy more difficult, and it makes purchasing easier for me. I am a big Steam fan.

    Other indie games have seen large sales because of Steam. A few games I love would never have survived without it.

    Obviously you wouldn't have to spend time implementing your own sales system as well. So, I'd love to see your games on Steam someday.

    So, as others have mentioned, what do you think of systems like Steam? Any possibility of getting your games on it someday?

    ReplyDelete
  55. Another thing I was going to mention, when I did the work for Lamothe, I believe it was both Avernum and Geneforge (the first ones I think), that I played. I've never claimed to be an rpg player, in fact I claimed to have not like rpg's because of the leveling up and pointless sidequests. (Also I have a thing against anime and manga, even though your art style isn't that). But somehow I managed to get into the demos of both of those games quite easy, and had a good time doing it. And now when I am doing a review site am eager to get back to those games.

    ReplyDelete
  56. "Geneforge 4, like all Geneforge games, didn't sell super-well. But we've has several games that did far better. So our overall business is healthier than my post might have made it appear."

    This makes me exceedingly happy. And encouraged for the future of Spiderweb Software games.

    ReplyDelete
  57. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  58. For the itunes kinda thing, perhaps you could make special shorter adventures for that platform. Like only a few hours (since its a much lower price point). You could break up a longer adventure into more parts and sell each part, like more episodic.

    ReplyDelete
  59. @inc
    What you're suggesting is that there should simply be new, bigger boss models which for Jeff, costs a lot of money since making new graphics from scratch costs a lot of money.

    Thievery is already implemented in a way since all items which do not belong to you are marked with the (NY) tag meaning it's not yours and if you take it you will be caught and potentially attacked by angry townsfolk.

    Of course Jeff can always make new puzzles and invigorating boss fights and he has displayed this consistently throughout his games. Exile 3 with the golem factory strikes me as one of his most creative and difficult dungeons to play, the sidequest for the Black Halberd also requiring logic and thought.

    The Geneforge series also marks another creative aspect to the 'empty field' problem. There is a mechanics/stealth/leadership option, a combat option and sometimes even a mix between the two.

    I would also describe myself as a veteran of Jeff's games having also experienced his games since Exile 1. The thing which is so compelling about his games is the wonderful environments and stories he builds through his text, the occasional joke and the fact you can simply go almost anywhere and do almost anything. As an avid RPG gamer, there is nothing more satisfying than nigh-ultimate power and Jeff grants us the rare ability to simply raze the world we are in.

    I am also curious about one other thing and that is the amount of demo downloads you get off your website. This is also a good indicator of how popular your games are and the rate of piracy on your games.

    ReplyDelete
  60. I'm curious as to whether this is just a marketing stunt for a game sold only through a site produced by the publisher.
    Interesting approach to market a game on Digg and Reddit through advertising how indie it is and how little money it makes, then have your fan base discuss how good it is in the comments. It almost makes me want to buy it.
    I wonder how many sales the digg/reddit effect will produce?

    Good luck with that mate.

    ReplyDelete
  61. "If they like what they play, they'll tell their friends. Some of which may pay for the game."

    No. They also just won't pay and have some lame ass "justification" too. "He's part of a big game company that is screwing us over...Uh, no, wait. He's got a bazillion dollars and won't miss...Uh, no, wait again. I can't afford $28 to buy it to run on my new multi-$k machine I just built. Yeah, that's it."

    ReplyDelete
  62. I've never been a big consumer of indie games until they started to a appear on Steam. Every weekend Steam has 1 or 2 specials where they do a major discount on games. For a game that is $28 I might be hesitant, but if it drops to $9.99 I wouldn't twice about buying it.

    ReplyDelete
  63. @Walker

    I wasn't trying to make myself seem older...You seem to have missed the point. I'm just saying that games like these are not limited to an audience of over 40's. There, I said it.

    ReplyDelete
  64. Nice, I always thought your games were doing well, but now I have the proof.
    Being a small shareware developer myself (you can see some sales stats for one of my games here) I agree on your decisions.
    I've been thinking about multiplayer, iphone, flash, and many other things lately, but if normal downloadables still work, why change? I prefer to spend my time designing new games than learning new platforms!

    ReplyDelete
  65. Wow, I'm so glad you have this blog, Jeff. I've been playing your games since the 90s, when I was just a kid growing up in the game-starved world of Macs. I'm sure you hear this all the time, but finishing Exile III ranks in my top five all-time gaming experiences and I'm a huge game nerd.

    I'll admit that when I was young I pirated them, but when I grew up and got a nice fancy job I went back and paid for every single one. (Same with Ambrosia's games, which I also lived in during my formative years.)

    Now I'm an indie designer in the Mac/iPhone world and this article is of professional interest to me as well as personal. (I also liked your article about indie vs. shareware. Definitely a different atmosphere around it these days. It's almost like a "real" job!)

    Also, you're right to stay out of the iPhone market. It's a good platform for toys, terrible platform for games of substance. Besides, some of us still like buying software for our Macs. :)

    ReplyDelete
  66. You're right about the terrible low budget graphics. The exile series was much nicer.

    I stopped buying when spiderweb changed to those ugly fake 3d tiles.

    ReplyDelete
  67. @Kattana: Yeah, that's the hate I was hoping for.

    There is no change, no matter how good, that won't make some people angry. If I stuck with Exile-level graphics, I would so not be in business right now.

    - Jeff Vogel

    ReplyDelete
  68. I played one game - Avernum , and found the story ,world and quest incredibly rich ,detailed and amazing . The other parts were lacking though (combat, UI, graphics, sounds) and were spoiling overall experience as you had take good with the bad

    Now I think $28 is incredibly expensive nowdays for something with such low production values and part of the reasons sales are low. I personally almost never buy new game- for triple AAA titles I wait till they drop to $30 or buy them used. I mean I just bought tf2 for $10 ( arguably one of the best multiplayer FPS in last 2 years), how can you expect people to pay 3 times that?

    You could expend market quite a bit by getting somewhere like steam as a budget title (of 9.99). Fixing graphics would help a lot too

    ReplyDelete
  69. While I also am one of the dudes that prefer top-down view in this kind of games, I'm not bitter about your going isometric.
    I also agree that the current game lineup might not be that suitable for a mobile platform.
    You could, however, create a game that used most of the assets already available and that CAN work on a mobile platform. Think something like a "light" roguelike. Or maybe a simple strategy game, kinda like those SRPGs on handheld consoles - Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics and such.
    In fact, those concepts would be perfectly viable for a new PC/Mac franchise as well...
    Finally, while I said I'm not bitter about your going isometric, I think it's about time you switched to a ... crisper graphics style.
    I'm not sure how much of the competition you check out, but for example the graphics of Eschalon: Book 1 look much clearer, more colorful and frankly just better than those of your games.
    I didn't like that game itself, but the graphics, while not completely out of your league (like if I would point to Diablo 3 graphics or someting) are kinda nice.
    When the time is right and the old assets have earned their worth is of course yours to decide, though.

    Best of luck for all feature endevours, in any event. Oh, and, I have to admit, I actually have a backlog on your games, but I will buy the next as soon as reallife(tm) leaves me a little breathing room. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  70. Count me as one of the fans of Spiderweb games since Blades of Exile. I haven't gotten all of them since then but a lot of them, with plans to get the rest as I get to them. Anyway, I hope you enjoy blogging, don't let the haters ruin your day, you know some people aren't happy unless they've made someone else miserable for some reason.

    ReplyDelete
  71. You didn't exactly answer the question directly though, did you? LOL

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  72. I have to say, I've always wondered how well indie games do nowadays, and it's good to know people aren't forgetting about them.

    While I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of the Geneforge graphics, (I actually prefer the ones you used in the first few Avernums and the Nethergate remake) it's not the graphics I'm looking for. There aren't really many games nowadays that show the sheer amount of effort and devotion that these do.

    Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I prefer a good story and believable world to graphics and gimmicky gameplay elements. The graphics'll get worse with age, and the gimmicks will be overused, but things like story and character don't age or weather.

    I think, over the years, I've replayed the first three Avernums something like five or six times each. I can't think of a single AAA title where I've done the same.

    ReplyDelete
  73. Great, article! Unfortunately i am one of those people who is really charmed by your games, but does not have enough time to play through the demo and then buy (and play!) the full game.

    Personally, i am charmed by the 2D graphics and the overall feel of the game. It's plays like an interactive fantasy book, especially since the quality of the of in-game text and conversations is high. You are an excellent writer with a fantastic sense of humor.

    I have been following you now and then (mostly after i got your newsletter) over the last 5 years and i have deep respect for how you managed to become a succesful indie developer. You have inspired me to quit my job as a lawyer and start my own web-startup (i had to live like a bum over the last year, thanks very much! ;) But lcukily things are looking good now!)

    Anyway, great product, great guy behind it. Good luck and keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
  74. i would pay $28 for a native linux version. Not for a windows version that runs using Wine.

    ReplyDelete
  75. I really think you give youself a hard time about the graphic's in your games, Jeff. They don't stand a twig's chance against the hurricane that is mainstream games graphic's, true, but they really aren't all that bad. Geneforge 5 is pretty and nice, especially with the new resolution's and quite honestly their very good. You seem to focus to much on the negative aspects of the graphic's of your games.

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  76. Jeff,

    I started playing your games after being impressed with your writing on IGN a couple of years back. Now I've played 3 of your more recent additions of Geneforge and Avernum, loving them all. You are a great writer. Don't let the haters get you down; they probably only enjoy blowing things up in call of duty and bioshock. I go for intelligence.

    ReplyDelete
  77. I wish there was a way to test the pricepoint to see if you would have double the sales at half the price. Looking forward to part two to find out why you stick to the higher price!

    ReplyDelete
  78. For the the amount of game you get I don't find $28 the least bit expensive. I've spent far more on games that were far shorter (Bioshock for example, an amazing 12 hours but no where near the time I can sink into a game like Geneforge). I don't find the graphix bad. I'll take them over s*** 3D graphics like you see in FATE anyday.

    ReplyDelete
  79. wow, This sounds like a series of games to check out. I've found it hard to discover games that have game play more than graphics. I prefer the god view simply because I'm in that 10% of people who get dizzy playing first person 3d games.

    Should you want extra graphics textures I used to be a pretty darn good graphics designer.

    I loved the look/feel of Abes Odyssey, Arcarnum and Balders Gate. They achieved a lot within their limitations.

    ReplyDelete
  80. Thanks one final time for all of the comments. I just posted part two of my rantings, and I address a lot of the comments and questions people have had. Hope it is of some interest.

    - Jeff Vogel

    ReplyDelete
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  82. I have been a fan of your games since I found the exile series as a little kid, before avernum and geneforge even started, over the course of the decade or two that I have been playing these games, i have bought 3 full games, and i have pirated many of the others. I used to just play the demo and move on, because i didn't have the money to spend on games, and occasionaly buy one when i had the money. Now I still don't have the money to spend on games, so I pirate keygens for them.

    I Think that many people assume that if the people didn't pirate these games, they would buy them, and the developers would get their money. this simply isn't true for many pirates however. I have also always talked well of siperweb software's games to my friends, and I know of at least 3 people whom i introduced to the games who have bought at least one of them. so i have helped out spiderwebsoftware more then if i had just quit playing the games cause i wasn't going to spend 30$ on them. I know that what i do is illegal, but i don't think its as bad as alot of people make it out to be. I wouldn't pay the money either way, and im a walking advertisement for spiderweb software this way.

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  84. When I first played a Spiderweb Software game, it was Nethergate. It was a great game and at the time it looked pretty decent on my computer because I just didn't need insane graphics back in the day -- and the isometric view was plenty.

    That being said, for whatever reason I prefer the older isometric look of your games and their interfaces, like the first Avernum and Nethergate, to how they look now like in Geneforge.

    That also being said, your games are still good games regardless of what the hell they look like. So they sell well pretty much because they PLAY well. Which is what you should be going for, as an indie developer, I believe.

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