Sunday, July 19, 2009

Getting a Thousand True Fans

Someone sent me a link to this article and said it was interesting. I agree, so I thought I'd pass it on ...

1000 True Fans

The basic idea behind it is really simple. In this day of advanced communications and powerful online distribution, all you need is a 1000 loyal fans to make a living. If you can come up with a loyal core that supports what you do, you can be a creator for a living. Since I believe very strongly that, if you work hard to provide something people want, you should be able to make a living off of it, this idea has a great appeal.

Spiderweb Software stays successful because it had built, over the years, a core of loyal fans. These fans are enormously important to me, and I'm hugely grateful to them.

However, the article plays awful fast and loose with the practical details of the thing.

The article suggests that, if you get 1000 fans and they each give you $100 a year for your work, you can make a living. This is true. However, my god, $100 a year from a given person is an ENORMOUS hurdle to jump over. I don't know what you're doing to get $100/year from people, but you won't be getting it from me. That's like, what, 4-5 Indie games or 5 books or 6-8 albums of music a year? Not happening.

No, I will give my own, much more practical rule:

You should try to get 4000 fans who pay you $25 a year for your work. Then you can make a living doing what you love.

I can see why the authors of the article didn't phrase it this way. It's because getting 4000 fans sounds much, much more daunting than getting 1000. And it is. But, practically, to make a decent living, that is your goal. And, if you're good and dedicated, it's an attainable one.

But remember, there's one other rule.

It's very difficult to get even one fan. Besides your mom.

The hard part is making a product that anyone will give you money for at all. There are very few people who enjoy blowing twenty bucks for nothing.

Four thousand people is a huge goal. But it is attainable. So get to work.


  1. I'm guessing a just as important - if not more important - issue here is that 1,000 true fans will do a bunch of your marketing for you: talking about your games in their blogs, posting about it on gaming forums, convincing their friends to try it out, etc..

    You can easily see how 1 true fan can indirectly bring you about $100 a year that way, if not more.

  2. Another useful aphorism is that if you're starting out, try to get to the point where your monthly income is $1000.

    If you can get there, you clearly have *something* worthwhile happening.

    From $1000/month, you could probably scale it up to a living wage through advertising or marketing or by building a bigger catalog of your 'product'.

  3. One loyal, dedicated fan reporting in.

  4. I don't know what you're doing to get $100/year from people, but you won't be getting it from me.

    I think this paragraph sums it up:

    A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

    In other words, a True Fan is someone whose bank account you shamelessly empty by exploiting their loyalty to the fullest. Speaking of which, how's that Fyora coffee mug coming along? ;)

  5. The true fans are also the ones who will pay for the privilege of beta testing. I'm thinking specifically of Stardock, who graciously allows everyone who preorders into that product's beta. And also of Taleworlds, who did something really unique by starting Mount&Blade out at a very low price while the game was still beta quality, and gradually upping it as they moved closer to release. With constant free upgrades for the early adopters, of course.

    Taleworlds notably built a fanatically enthusiastic community around an unfinished product. If you're just starting out and wondering how to build hype and get a few sales, it's worth considering. Once you have something playable and fun, sell a limited number of copies at $5, with the promise of free upgrades as long as you're in business. Do it again a little later at $10, etc. Assuming your product is good, you could build a fanbase and make a few bucks in the time you'd normally still be doing internal development and testing.

    The other business model I really like is that of Guild Wars. You buy the game, get unlimited free online play, and they regularly release new paid expansions. The casual players are happy with their single purchase, and the True Fans get new content to gobble up just as they've mastered the old stuff.

    This is some of the stuff I'm thinking about as I work on my first serious game.

  6. Released, past tense. Guild Wars 1 is over and done with, and it didn't sound like they were planning a similar business model with the sequel.

  7. I've been rather critical of the "1000 true fans" idea in the past, and still stand by my view. In fact, it seems like you don't even quite believe the "1000 true fans" idea.

    There are a lot of problems with the 1000 true fans idea. For example:
    - It's hard to produce $100 worth of media each year. I certainly can't do it. I've been working on my game for years. It will be sold for a lot less than $100 per copy. Based on my specific case, I'll be selling at about $5 per year of work.
    - If you have multiple people working in a group, you may need a whole lot more than $100,000 per year. Kelly's assumption seems to be a single person working alone.
    - Building a fan-base takes a long time. If it takes 10 years to build that many fans, then you've got ten years of sub-par income.
    - Most people aren't going to be "true fans" of anything. I certainly am not a "true fan" of anyone or anything. It's pointless for us (the people creating things) to fight over a relatively small segment of the population.
    - Why are we focusing on the segment of the population willing to become "true fans"? The "fair weather fan" (i.e. people who buy your stuff when it's good and appeals to them, don't buy it when it's not) is a much larger segment of the population and are more valuable simply due to the fact that they're a much larger section of the population. I like a lot of the stuff Blizzard and Valve does, and I've paid them for their games in the past. But, I certainly do not want to buy all their stuff. Isn't it unrealistic to expect that people are going to buy *everything* you create? Not even Blizzard or Valve can do that. I'd be willing to bet that both of these companies have earned a lot more money from their fair-weather fans than from their "true fans".

    The only good thing that I can say about Kevin Kelly's idea is that it's good to create stuff that's so good that people will become fans (rather than just creating shovelware).

    In the end, I think Kelly's idea has gotten far more press than it should've, and I think that's because it has a deceptive simplicity to it that appeals strongly to arm-chair pundits.

  8. Right, new Guild Wars stuff hasn't been released for a couple years now, around the same time they announced Guild Wars 2. I don't have sales figures or a crystal ball, but I think they could've kept it going for at least another year. As it is, they've left a pretty long gap between new releases, which is unfortunate.

    Guild Wars 2 won't have a subscription fee, and I can't imagine why they wouldn't release expansions. Every successful MMORPG in the history of forever has done it.

  9. Most people aren't going to be "true fans" of anything. I certainly am not a "true fan" of anyone or anything.

    That surprises me a bit. I'm not absolutely fanatical about anything, but I fit the True Fan description to varying degrees for a handful of different bands -- I go to all the concerts I can, and of course I buy everything they release.

    The milder version of that isn't "don't produce crap" so much as "build a good community." From direct interaction with fans to making your game heavily moddable, there are plenty of things you can do to further that agenda.

    There's a big social difference between the latest pop singer (or a game developer like EA) on the one hand, and a friendly indie band/developer on the other. If you're an indie developer acting like a Big Faceless Corporate Entity, you're not taking advantage of your inherent strengths.

  10. I'm a fan of Spiderweb Software, who over the years have given you I think something like $500 for what seems to be a disproportionate amount of fun. In a sense that feeling that I 'owe you' something makes me more predisposed to pay for the next thing.

    That, to me, means something more than branding. It's more complex than that, and not many developers provide it. Thanks, Jeff!

  11. Two points:

    1) Everyone that subscribes to WoW is a "true fan," giving them over $100 a year. Just buying all the boxes now costs about that much. There's lots of true fans out there. Not everyone is a true fan of something, but I think many of the successful people (in music, in games, in books) have their true fans. You don't need to be a True Fan yourself.

    2) If you only sell $5 worth of product, then maybe you should look at more or different products. Package your game differently -- sell expansion packs, customization tools, t-shirts and coffee mugs. Micropayments and DLC are making it easier to offer more than $100 of goods on a base product that itself is very cheap (or even free like webcomics).

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