Monday, March 30, 2009

A New Article on IGN RPG Vault.

My latest View From the Bottom article, the first in a long time, is now up on IGN RPG Vault. It's called "We're All Charity Cases Now," and it's about how we makers of single-player games should be adjusting to a world where people only pay for our games if they want to.

Adjusting needs to be done, and, little by little, people are getting there.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why I'm Missing the iPhone Gold Rush

One of the questions I get asked most these days is, "When are your games coming out for the iPhone?" I'm getting this a LOT. I'm not going to do it. But, when you get so many people knocking down your door for something, you'd better come up with a good reason for saying no.

Here's My Game ... Do I Get Rich Now?

When you write games, new platforms become available all the time. Then you have to decide whether to write games for them or not. XBox Live was one such platform. XBox Community Games is another. And WiiWare. And, of course, the iPhone.

When you jump onto a new platform early, the platform might take off, or it might not. If it doesn't, your time was probably wasted. If it does become a success, though, you can get in on a Gold Rush. Some early adopters of the risky platform can end up with tons of money. Pure, joyous greed attracts competitors. Because they're late to the party, some of them make a bunch of money, and a lot more don't.

XBox Live had a real gold rush. Some early games, like Uno, sold sick numbers of copies. But these days, getting a game on XBox Live can mean a ton of hassle and, if the sales estimates at VGChartz are even remotely close to right, there is the real possibility of not doing so good there.

Fart Noises = Millions of Dollars!

The iPhone is in a crazy gold rush phase, and everyone is standing up and taking notice. When someone can make a ton of money on an app that makes your iPhone fart, that should be your first warning of unsustainable sales.

Some early games have done crazy good. But there are starting to be signs that Indie games on the iPhone won't make a fortune. And it'll only get tougher.

As For Me ...

Which brings us back to me. I write big, deep role-playing games. The sort of game that lends itself to long sessions, not something you fiddle with for fifteen minutes on the bus. It would take real work for me to adapt one of my games to the iPhone, and, even then, I don't think it's the sort of thing that would attract a real audience.

There's a lesson for young developers. Make sure your game fits the way people will want to play it. PC Games = Longer sessions. iPhone Games = Ping. Zap! Done.

And, on top of that, the acceptable price point for iPhone games with any depth is now in the area of $4.99. Five bucks! And, if you charge that, forum-dwelling snots from all over the Internets will bitch you out in your ratings for being so greedy. I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I can make a living charging that little for my niche games. It's certainly not something I want to risk months of development on. And I honestly suspect that price point won't support a healthy game development industry. I hope I'm wrong.

(Honestly. The whining in the user reviews for a lot of the five dollar games is amazing. What? Do people think game developers live on air? Jesus.)

When it comes to my business, I am made of pure cowardice. It's hard to make a living doing this, so I have a really hard time doing anything new and exciting and risky. I'll never get rich (as if my games could ever be enough in demand to make me rich), but I can still buy my kids food.

So I will spend my time supporting two platforms that have a proven history in the gaming arena, platforms that have lately been tragically underserved by developers. They're called Windows and Macintosh. Take a look at them sometime. I think there's money to be made there.

Monday, March 23, 2009

How Many Games I Sell, Part Two

The first part of this column, in which I gave the full sales figures for one of my games, Geneforge 4: Rebellion, attracted a fair amount of attention on the Internets. This pleased me. I really want this blog to be a useful discussion point for people interested in Indie computer gaming, and I'm off to an acceptable start. I'm not really doing this for sales. And, if anyone is curious, I only sold three or four more copies of Geneforge 4 last week than I probably would have otherwise. But that's all right, because it's not why I made this blog.

So, on to some more information and conclusions about the previous post.

Platform Sales Breakdown

We release all of our games for Macintosh first and then port them to Windows. The Windows version almost always comes out about three months later.

So far, the Windows/Mac sales of Geneforge 4 break down to about 55/45. Before that, it was about 60/40. Now it's about 50/50. Macintosh market share went way up over the last couple years, and this has helped our sales a lot.

Releasing games for two platforms has always been the key to our profitability. Porting games is free money, and it's awesome. I suppose this is the sort of thing we should keep secret, as it'll only get us more competition on the Macintosh. But, on the other hand, more games makes the Macintosh more viable as a gaming platform and thus attracts more potential customers for me. So I don't worry about it. Write Mac games! Please!

Was Geneforge 4: Rebellion a Success?

Picking Geneforge 4 as the game I released sales figures for was the right choice, as it really was in the middle in terms of sales for us. However, it created a false impression of how Spiderweb Software is doing. This business is more profitable than it seemed from looking at that one case.

Geneforge 4 cost about $120K and has made about $117K. Given current sales rates, it should be in the black in at most 2-3 months. After that, everything it earns is pure, tasty profit. And we will sell it in bundles (we sell a Geneforge 4-5 bundle already, and a Geneforge 1-5 CD is coming), making more money. So I don't regret the time spent writing it at all.

And it gets better. What was my reward for the year spent writing Geneforge 4? It wasn't just the cash. I also own the game! That means, in ten years or so, I can return to it, give it better graphics and interface, add a bonus 2-3 dungeons, and release it to a new generation of gamers. I've done it before, with my games Exile 1-3, Blades of Exile, and Nethergate, and the resulting products, since I didn't need to write them from scratch, were immensely profitable.

Don't underestimate the value of owning your own intellectual property.

Can This Success Be Replicated By Others?

Yes. But it is difficult.

I had two advantages with Geneforge 4. First, I already had a large and loyal fan base. New developers don't have that. Every game I write attracts a sizable new batch of fans, but the existing base is what makes much of our money.

Second, I was writing for a market, fans of single-player RPGs, that is painfully underserved. When you write your Indie game, you have to write a very good game, so good that it'll get the customer to pry the credit card out of the wallet. But, just as importantly, you have to write something that they can't get easier and cheaper elsewhere.

There are very few single-player RPGs these days, so I have a good market. But if you're writing another Bejeweled clone, even a really good one, you got your work cut out for you.

There is totally room for new developers to build a business. But you have to be good, and you have to be unique.

Is $28 a Good Price?

I think so.

A lot of people have commented that I should lower the game's price to $10. The idea that this would increase my profits is, I feel, purest nonsense. Bearing in mind that the percentage cost of credit card processing increases as the price goes down, and, to make the same profits from Geneforge 4, I would have had to triple my sales. Triple! As in, go from a conversation rate of about 1.5% to almost 5%. This is just not realistic.

Or, to put it another way, Geneforge 4 was the game where we raised our prices to $28. Our sales did not go down from Geneforge 3 (which was $25). They went up. A lot. And Avernum 5 ($28) sold a lot more than Avernum 4 ($25).

The Indie games market seems, pricewise, to be on a full speed race to the bottom. I will deal with this in more depth in a later post, but take this one thing away: I charge a fair price. I write big, good games (with 30-40 hours of gameplay, easy), and they easily provide enough fun to more than justify the $28. I will not be shamed into charging less, not when my dollars and cents bottom line is telling me that it's working.

Do Geneforge 4's Graphics Suck?


Does It Matter?


Look, graphics are expensive. Really expensive. We keep our costs low, and our games thus become profitable quickly. We've had some games that did worse than others, but I've never, in fifteen years, written a game that lost money.

And here's the sad truth. Suppose I spent a bunch of money, busted my hump, and wrote a game with graphics as good as, say, Eschalon. Then people who really care about graphics wouldn't look at my game and go, "Wow! He's really doing good now!" They'd go, "His graphics suck. They haven't improved at all." And then they'd go play Fallout 3.

Don't get me wrong. My next game, Avernum 6, will look much nicer than Geneforge 5. I've been working really hard on it, and there are a lot of improvements there. And the next game after that, which will have an all-new engine, will look even better. And you know something? Everyone will still say they look like crap. Big budget games will ALWAYS look better. I can't compete there, there's no hope, so I don't try very hard.

And, once again, I make good money overall. So who knows? Maybe I'm onto something. After all, I'm more profitable than Electronic Arts right now.

In Closing

Thanks everyone for the comments, kind and otherwise. I hope all of this was interesting and helpful. I plan to keep plugging away on this stuff on at least a weekly basis, hopefully in shorter posts.

Keep watching the skies, and support your local Indie.

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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watchmen - A Brief Note.

Ticket sales for Watchmen went down about 67 percent for its second weekend. This, for a big, expensive movie, is so not good. But I am very grateful that Warner Bros. blew so much money and effort to give me an evening of single-minded nerdjoy. And, if they had it to do all over again, I bet they would have told me and those like me to get bent and made a movie with 50% less plot and 50% more fightin'.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Nerd Goes On About Watchmen

So now most of us nerds have had the chance to see and digest the Watchmen movie. And, if the rumors about the film's word-of-mouth are true, not many more people will be off to see it in the upcoming weeks. So I think it's safe to give a spoiler-free opinion, because I can really sympathize with what the filmmakers were trying to do.

First, geek-cred. The Watchmen comic is part of my DNA. I had a brain tumor removed when I was 19. To help the hospital time pass, a friend loaned me two graphic novels. The Cowboy Wally Show by Kyle Baker (a classic in its own right) and Watchmen by Alan Moore. They were the first of many, many comics I read as a sort of grown-up. Let's just say I have an emotional attachment.

And I really, really enjoyed the movie. As many little nitpicks and disappointments as I had, it was still fifty times better than I had any right to expect the movie to turn out. The director, Zack Snyder, really wanted to be faithful to the work.

And, if it turns out to be a flop in the long run, that is why.

Watchmen is insanely dense and complicated. It takes several readings to really grasp everything that's going on. To be in any way faithful to the work, you have to make something far more complex and challenging than what I think most people expect. Or want. Instead of making a more profitable movie, they tried to keep me happy. For what it's worth, I appreciate it. And I can really sympathize.

When I write a game, I am always imagining two voices in my head, shouting at me. On one side is the gamer. The RPG lover. The sort of person I am. On the other side is the normal person. The casual gamer. The person who isn't hugely familiar with gaming but is giving me a shot. I want to please both. I want to make everyone happy. But frequently it's a zero-sum game. The pleasure for one sometimes comes at the expense of the other. What can I give to each side to make them want to play?

So, movie review. Watchmen. Worth seeing. One and a half thumbs up. If you haven't read the book, approach it like a really good noir mystery. It'll be a little confusing the first time through, but it does all make sense.

And read the book. It's not just nerd-good. It's good-good.

Oh, and no. I didn't miss the squid. Fans of the comic know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shareware is dead. Long live shareware.

The first thing I want to do in my official position as author of this blog is thank whoever first came up with the idea of using the word Indie to describe what I do. Indie developer. Indie game design. Whoever did this, you deserve the Nobel Prize in Awesomeness.

I will explain.

When I started this business in 1994, when the web barely existed and I did most of my business over AOL, CompuServe, and BBSes, what i wrote was called Shareware. From the Latin roots 'ware', meaning "Loser" and 'share', meaning "Big, Fat".

Sometimes, people would ask me what I did for a living. I said that I wrote shareware. Then one of two things happened. Either they didn't know what shareware was, in which case they looked at me with bovine incomprehension. Or they did know what shareware was, in which case they'd ask, "Ah. And what do you do for a living?" And then, in both cases, I'd say, "Actually, I squeegee car windows downtown for spare change." And this would make them nod approvingly, because it was far more plausible.

Shareware doesn't really exist anymore. Selling software by freely distributing a demo is standard operating procedure now. (Go read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on shareware. Doesn't that describe all software now?) And now I despise the term 'shareware,' because of the connotations of shoddiness and amateurishness the term carries. But that left me needing a new way to describe myself.

Now, when someone asks what I do, I say, "I run an Indie game company." And it is completely sweet.

Isn't that a great word? Indie! It has this aura of cutting-edge and danger about it. Like Indie rockers. Like I'm Kurt Cobain, if he never left his basement or something. Indie means I'm cool, and independent, and fighting The Man. And it even goes a long way to explain why my games look like they were made on basically a zero budget. Because they were. But it's all right. Because I'm Indie. MAN!

It's even in the header of this blog.

I suspect it sounds like I'm attaching too much importance to this, but I'm really not. If you want to do something for a long time, self-respect is important. Feeling like a bottom-feeder gets to you after a while. I'm doing something cool and difficult. I want a term that reflects that.

So, "Indie" guy? Thanks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Welcome To Jeff's Ego Pit!

(Tap. Tap.) Is this thing on?

Hello. I am Jeff Vogel, and this is my blog. I have noticed, over the last few years, that many other successful Indie game writers have their own blogs. They tend to be full of interesting thoughts. I have lots of interesting thoughts too. About game design, about running a games business, about things I feel are funny, and so on. So here they are. I hope some people read them, and that this isn't a gigantic waste of time.

I run a profitable independent game company, and I have done so since 1994. This is a very long time to do this sort of thing. Indie game development, despite the occasional glorious success like Castle Crashers or Braid, is a really tough field to make money in. But I have managed, even though I make RPGs with laughably low budgets and simple graphics. Or, perhaps, BECAUSE I have laughably low budgets and simple graphics.

My blog's title represents what I feel is the highest aspiration of the Indie developer: to be a bottom feeder who has found a reliable food supply. A few Indie developers strike it rich, but most of us who do this for a living survive by finding a small, neglected market (retro single-player RPGs in my case) and workin' it like we mean it.

As time goes on, I will write about running an Indie game business, the process of making the games, and pithy comments on new and successful titles. In addition, I will repost some of the old Grumpy Gamer columns that have been lost forever to time. Most of them are outdated and lame, but some of them are still good and relevant. Along the way, I hope to give some information and tips that fans or aspiring designers might find interesting.

Finally, if you have read this far, I thank you, and my self-esteem thanks you.

On to the show.