Monday, August 26, 2019

I Am the Cheapest Bastard In Indie Games

A Queen's Wish screenshot. Note that I use game art that I like to look at. This is necessary because I'll be staring at it for years, and I don't want to go mad.

A week ago, I put up a blog post called "Why All My Games Look Like Crap." It really blew up. A lot of people read it. Some were highly supportive. Others took precious time out of their days to let me know I am a gigantic, gigantic bozo.

Thanks to all! When you're trying to get attention for a small indie game, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Basically, my blog post said, "Some people like my art, but I am still super-bad at art. Always have been. Fixing the problem costs time and cash, and I don't have any of either to spare. So that's why our games look bad."

I got a lot of questions about this. Good questions. Why can't I afford art direction? How much does art cost? Why don't I do this or that smart thing? So that's why I'm writing this. I want to answer the good questions.

So I am going to say some stuff about making and budgeting video games and why I am a bozo and why I am cursed to be a bozo forever. Along the way, I'm going to explain to you the whole indie games biz, from soup to nuts. If you like indie games, I think you might find how I survive interesting.

You see, I am the cheapest bastard in indie games.

I don't have this much money. And, please, I beg you, support and the good work they do.

I've Been Doing This For 25 Years

Some people really get annoyed when I bring this up. It's as if having long experience and a huge body of work gives my words some sort of weight and my advice some value.

Well, it does. Do you realize how few people have turned a good profit for that long in this blood sport business? I am rarer than a unicorn made of bigfoots!

The indie games business is hard, one of the toughest there is.

Why Is It So Hard To Make Money In Indie Games?

What do you think the going rate for the best indie games ever made is?

Did you guess 'Free'? You're right! Go to the Epic Game Store every week and they'll hand you the best indie games, games way better than mine, for free!

That not enough? Join the Humble Monthly Bundle. For just $12/month, they'll send you 6-7 games every month, plus you can also download over 60(!) games in their "Humble Trove." They're good games.

So the competition is intense, and you can never ever match your superiors on price, ie free. That makes for tough business, friend.

Award-winning. Critical darling. Huge hit. Free. How do you plan to compete?

So How Can You Survive?

Simple. You provide something nobody else can ever provide. Something cool and distinctive that people will rather pay money for your game than get someone else's for free.

Consider me. I'm an OK programmer. I'm not good at art and visual stuff, and I haven't been since I was a kid.

But I can write well. I make good settings and stories, my spelling and grammar are ok, I make addicting game systems, and my systems and stories blend really well. THAT is the product I sell.

I'm in the business of selling Jeff Vogel games. And just like Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir, or vice versa, nobody else can make a Jeff Vogel game. Larian Studios is a great company with great resources that makes great products. However, no matter how hard they try, they can never make a game one of my fans will mistake for one of mine.

Fortunately for me, there are people who really like Jeff Vogel games, and only we sell them. So we have a business.

However, that's not all it takes to stay in business. I can get people to buy my games, sure. But I need to turn a profit.

That is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

You can find a dedicated fan base for any imaginable art style. That's indie games, baby!

Let's See Some Numbers

I got into this kerfuffle talking about how my games look ugly, and I'll get back to that. First, though, let's look at budgets.

Our next game is Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. We spent about 20 months on it. For it to have a chance to pay for the time we spent creating it, it needs to make, after Steam and and Apple and and Kickstarter take their cuts, about $200000 US.

(It will take years for the game to earn this money, but we'll be earning money from back catalog at the same time, so it evens out.)

Why that amount? Because that is what long experience has told us we are most likely to get. Low-budget high-text, thinky RPGs don't become giant hits, but we have a loyal audience, so we'll get decent sales.

Then we take out, say, $60000 for business expenses and insurance. Then we spend X dollars on art (the key factor we are discussing here). We use what is left to pay our salaries (to get baubles like food, clothing, and shelter).

So our earnings for 20 months of hard work is, let's say, $140000 minus art expenses. Keep your eye on the ball.

Twenty Months? That's Not Very Long To Write a Game

No! It's not! Whenever I ship I game, I immediately begin the race against time to write another game before our bank account runs out. Twenty months is actually an unusually long time for us, but Queen's Wish is an all-new games system and engine, so it needs it. I normally need 12-14 months.

By the way, for people who asked me why I don't just learn to do better art myself, this is why. To learn to do better art, I'd need to spend at least 6-12 months. (To think it takes less is insulting to artists.) I just don't have the time to not be writing games.

I made the frames and button background for this interface. It was years before someone say, "Um, Jeff, are you sure this isn't a little too green?"

So Back To Art

After I wrote the last blog post, a lot of people wanted to make sure that, "Oh yeah, pal. No matter how bad your art is? It's WAY worse than that." The most common complaint I got is that there is no unified style and color palette. My art looks like it was cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Well, I've got news for you. Our art WAS literally cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Here's the thing. Many people don't notice this. Some notice, but it doesn't bother them. But for skilled artists and people with an eye for this sort of thing, looking at the icons I use makes their faces do this ...

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Sorry about that.

How I "Art Direct"

When I do what might laughably be called "art design", my first step is to cobble together any floor/terrain objects that will function. I pull art from old games, from, from sites that license icons for cheap, from anywhere I can get icons that will function. I use Photoshop trickery to make it blend as much as possible.

Eventually, I will reach a point where I need stuff that I can't use online resources for, stuff that needs to be custom-made for how I want the game to look. Then I go to freelancers.

I pay for bespoke art for terrain types with different looks that need to fit the engine, like tables and statues. Also, for terrain that I have my own unique formats for, like walls and doors and gates.

My artists work very hard to make sure the icons they do blend well with each other and look great. They do awesome work. Then I defile it by mixing it in with all the other weird stuff I find. If anything looks bad in my games, blame me! Seriously!

Doing the art this way costs around $40000. That leaves $100000 of earnings. For 20 months of work, that's pretty thin, but I'll live with it. I'll make up for it with the next two games in the series, which will take a lot less time to write. (Plus, eventually, remasters. I will be squeezing pennies out of Queen's Wish for literally decades.) So it's fine.

So that is where the weird mix of styles in my games comes from. Suppose I wanted to have unified art, all one style guide, all one look, everything done from scratch to give the game one pure look. I'm not a total idiot. I know it's possible. This is why I don't do it ...

This is a literal screenshot of the first computer game I ever owned.

Here! Have Some Hard Numbers!

Queen's Wish is a big game! Five nations and biomes! A surface and underworld! Multiple sets of furniture, all kinds of environments. The game currently has, to make the different regions look distinct and give enough visual variety, well over 1000 terrain icons. (An icon here is defined to be a 48x48 tile. Some terrains require multiple icons. Each wall type, for example, is assembled from 60 icons.)

Now suppose I do all this from scratch for the game. I need to hire freelancers. So I have to assemble a team of them that work in the desired style, that all make art that blend well, that are available and reliable, that are willing to commit to a job this big, and aren't too expensive. (If you think this is easy, you have a lot to learn. Assembling this team takes a lot of my non-existent time.)

So I hire Fredrika Freelancer (F.F.) for short. F.F. charges $25/hour.

(That’s a really fair price. If you’re paying less, someone else is going to hire her away from you. On the other hand, many freelancers charge $50/hour or more, but F.F. likes me and gives me a break. She probably lives in a country where the U.S. dollar goes farther. If you live in Brooklyn, I can't afford you.)

I ask F.F. to do, say, a stone pillar, about 20 pixels wide and 70 pixels high.

She builds it in her 3-D program. Textures it. Shadows it. Sizes it properly. Renders it. Sends it to me. I request some changes. She makes them. (I'm really easy to work with. I almost never ask for more than one round of changes. Believe it or not, freelancers tend to really like working with me.) I get the art. This probably will take about two hours.

So, if I'm lucky, I get this pillar done for $50. Yay! One terrain type down.

999 more to go.

But for Queen's Wish, I want 4 different pillars, to give distinct looks to four different cultures. Suppose on opengameart, I find a set of public domain pillar icons that basically work. They aren't great, but they function. If I download them, I save $200.

$200!!! That's folding money! You know how much money that is? That's enough money to buy 200 donuts! WITH SPRINKLES!

But That's Not All!

So do a little math and tell me how much money I'll need to shell out to get all 1000 terrain icons done, how much money will be chipped out of my $140000. And then remember that's just terrain! Then I need creature art, and an interface, and portraits, and color paintings, and sfx, and item icons, and ability icons, and ...

RPGs are art-intensive!

Are you seeing why I go cheap whenever I can? Freelancers charge money because they DESERVE it. They are talented people in a hard job. But they are selling the art ala carte, and I'm too much of a doofus to be able to afford too much of it.

To art everything being done from scratch with a unified style and a consistent, pleasing color palette and all the other good things artists like, if I'm lucky and get a lot of charity and really scale back what I want, I can easily end up spending $150000. Again, I can't do it myself. I'm a writer, not an artist, and RPGs absolutely need certain sorts of assets.

So here is the math: Doing art the cheap bastard way, I spend $40000. Doing it the good way, I spend around $150000. 150000 – 40000 = 110000

So to justify the extra art cost, I need to sell $110000 more worth of games just to break even. Remember that number.

We should be grateful that indie games have expanded what a game can look like and still break through. It wasn't like this a decade ago. 

Or I Could Hire An Employee

I don't have to use freelancers, of course. I could hire an artist full-time for 20 months. Suppose I do a big search and find someone whose style I like and who wants to work for me. How much will that count, taking benefits and taxes into account?

Many who are unfamiliar with this industry are surprised to find that artists are some of the highest paid people. Good, reliable artists are rare! Check out this site, for salary estimates.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good artist who wants the job, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get him or her for $150000.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good person, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get this person for $150000-180000.

(LOL! This is probably way too low, especially if I want the person to live in Seattle so I can work with them face to face, which I do. I will be paying under the median at this rate.)

I don't want to do this. I'm an introvert, and one of the reasons I got into this business was so that I could work alone. But I'll do it. For the Sake Of Art. You, the customer, deserve it. I will never let you down!

Again, my cheap bastard art is $40000. If I hire a full-time art director/artist, I need to increase sales by $110000-140000.

Where Does the Extra Art-Buying Money Come From, By The Way?

So can I even spend the extra $110000+ to begin with?

I don't have that much cash on hand. Nowhere near. To launch this project, I need to take a bank loan or raid my retirement fund. Then, if I don't break even, I'm in big trouble.

OK. I Need To Increase Sales By $110000

I know. This blog post is a long slog. Here's the punchline! Remember, most indie games are sold at deep discount now. After the store's cut, I'll probably average about $8 a sale.

To make that $200000 I think I can earn, I'll need to make about 25000 sales. For an indie game, this is a LOT. But give me a few years and let me luck into a Steam daily deal or a Humble Bundle and I can manage it.

But to break even on my all-new art project, to earn that extra $110000, my still very low-budget indie turn-based-retro-word-heavy RPG needs to sell about 40000 copies.

That increase may not sound like so much more, but it is a LOT. Ask any indie developer. 40000 copies is a HUGELY aggressive number. (So is 25000, but, again, I have an established fan base. Every sale I get requires more work than the sale before it.)

That is just to break even. If we don't hit that number? We can easily lose the entire business, poof, all sacrificed for the sake of a nice, unified art style.

And that is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

All my best art direction is done when my eyes are covered with slices of cucumber.

But ... But ... I Thought Indie Games Made You Rich!

Yeah. Sometimes you get a hit. Then you get a pile of money. Then you hire a bunch of employees and make a real company. Then one of two things happen. You write a new, expensive game and it's a mistake and fails and everything explodes. Or you keep writing good games and grow until GiantMegaCorp gives you hundreds of millions of dollars for your company and you fly free and take a big vacation and buy a Tesla and realize you have no idea what to do with your life.

However, most indie developers are like most small business owners. We're humble folks scraping by and doing what we can.

That is why I am writing these too-many words. If you want to have a small business or make a living as a humble artist, I have kind words for you, because I really want you to succeed.

The Inspirational Ending!

I got yelled at a lot for the previous article. It was basically a massive expression of contempt at me for being such a hack that I was content writing such ugly games.

(And if you want to get Extremely Mad Online and dunk on me more, it's cool. Whatever is fun. Shine on, you crazy diamond.)

But here’s the thing! If you want to be a game writer, or creator, or small businessperson, you should find my story to be inspiring!

I write games so ugly that I am showered with contempt, and yet I make money! I’ll have a full, lifelong career! If I can have so many flaws and still succeed, you can too!

Figure out what you are really good at doing. Sell that. Make your dream real. Get it out the door, whatever it takes, whatever corners you have to cut. If you’re better than me (and who isn’t, really), you have a chance.

Good luck!


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.


  1. I'm experimenting with the comments settings for this blog. Blogger has very poor spam filters, so I'm trying to enable comments in a way that we don't get flooded with nonsense. Right now, if you have a Google account, you should be able to post. If the spam returns, we'll turn off comments again.

  2. I can't resist adding one more note.

    It was been a full decade since we have had a serious recession. I feel like a lot I've been hearing about financing companies comes from a mindset of never having really experienced a bad economy, with poor scared customers and tight credit.

    When making a business decision, ask "What happens if my sales suddenly drop 10%? 30%? 50%? What will that look like?"

    1. Hi, I’m also an indie game developer in Seattle and I’ve been at it six years myself. You mentioned the recession in your comment and I’m curious as to what your experience was during that time. I assume it affected sales. Did costs change?

  3. Hi! I'm a big fan of your work!

    Now, out of curiosity, have you tried the opposite? Working for a big gaming company as a writer or alike?

  4. You've had me buying your games since I found an Exile III shareware in 5th grade around 1997! Keep preaching it you beautiful cheap bastard! Can't wait for the Queen's Wish.

  5. Been buying and playing since Exile II :). Once, I lost the printed hint guide and you were nice enough to mail me a new one for free. I was about 10 at the time! Thanks for your hard work, Jeff! Excited for Queen's Wish.

  6. Gotta agree with all this. It's a reason, now that I'm in a situation where I feel like my best method of producing anything is to make a game... (This was WAY down the list of options.) I'm going with a thing that I could conceivably do my own pixel art for. And I'm not planning to do any more than I absolutely have to.

    I'm only even able to do that because I finally hit upon a type of game that fits within my extremely limited capabilities. It was born, as the best of motivation does, out of spite. It's going to take me years, and I'd be lucky to earn back minimum wage for the time spent. But after I make one, I can probably do a few more with the same assets.

    Hell, I'm basically making a choose-your-own-adventure book with speed bumps. As few moving parts as possible, to cut down on bugs and testing time. The only graphically ambitious element is a map and a wee avatar.

    So, yeah, I'm going to make something even LESS visually impressive! :D

  7. I literally don't know which game of yours I first played, it's entirely possible that it was Blades of Exile. Looking forward to Queen's Wish!

    I wonder how many sales today are guilt/indulgence fees for playing a hacked version ~20 years ago, lol. I'm pretty sure I paid, but I can't say with 100% certainty. Hmm.

  8. Keep on keeping on! I fully intend to pounce on Queen's Wish like a kitten on a lizard, just like I've done with all your releases since I discovered Geneforge 2. (guilty secret. i'd probably play a game on watching paint dry if you made it.)

  9. Not a real quote: "I got an incredible amount of internet hate for my last article... so now I'm opening up comments on my blog, too!" -- Wow. That's an impressive display of total fearlessness.

    Actual quote: "But I can write well. I make good settings and stories, my spelling and grammar are ok, I make addicting game systems, and my systems and stories blend really well. THAT is the product I sell" -- After your last article, I was fumbling around trying to sum up my feelings on not really liking the Spiderweb standard look, but enjoying all your games. This would be why. I shoulda said something about exactly these qualities. It's pretty impressive to have at hand such a precise breakdown of the strengths of your work, actually; maybe another benefit of being a veteran developer.

  10. As an immigrant who lives in Canada and has a lot of friends who invest in small business, I totally agree with you. Small business is f*cking tough and you have to save every buck. Few of my friends' small business breaks even btw, even when they are all hard-working people.

    It's just...very tough, nowadays every business has a plentiful of supply and demand is like shit, and you really need to have a niche to make a living. And it's hard to keep that niche for many years.

    I wish I could do the same but I could never make up my mind to do indie games. It's just too competitive. I'll probably work full-time and just make indies for fun, just for myself and a bunch of people who have like minds.

  11. Just to add something. I feel like a lot of young people are not aware that we have economic cycles, and to live through the winter is even a tougher skill for all kinds of businesses.

    You just can't make money if other people are poor, strapped off their job and house. So everyone, people or business alike, should keep some money for the rainy days.

    My homegrown economic theory tells me that the next recession is very close and could hit harder than the one back in 2008. Back in 2008 we still have China to serve as the backup engine, now there is no backup engine at all. It's scary.

    Sorry that I post something not related to gaming, but just have to say this...

  12. thanks a lot for this blog post, as well as the earlier one about your art style. you have a wealth of important experience and know how to articulate it well.

    long-time fan of the Spiderweb games - i would go as far as saying they were formative for me. it's odd for me to say that, since i ended up making games myself, and they are quite different experiences. but what connects us is the 'indie' ethos and the freedom to be weird. :)

  13. Hey Jeff - I'm an old Grumpy gamer fan - still loving your writing. Looking forward to the new game and more blogs!

  14. I played all of your Avernum games and a few Exiles. I'm currently playing the first Avadon. Frankly, I don't see your art as crap. Maybe that's because my favourite game of all time is Ultima V? Your RPGs are a joy to play with. I love the interface and the fact that I can play without spending hours of learning how to do it. I tried other "indie" RPGS and I couldn't find anything like your games. I also played Divine Divinity Original Sin: I liked it, but I prefer Avernum (really).

  15. I admire your business sense - to stay in this game for so long takes a lot. I mean, we've seen lots of major, AAA, publisher-backed studios rise and fall in that time, and you're still here.

    One thing that (somewhat) surprises me, is that your style of business defies the usual capitalistic expectations, especially when it comes to "artsy" areas of commerce, like games/movies/music. A certain visible amount of growth is expected after each release, each release is expected to be bigger and better, bringing even more money, so that the next one can be even more so (usually, until something goes wrong, and there is a flop). More importantly, people expect *visible* growth: better graphics, bigger world. If the story is more complex, it's not apparent to public at large at a first glance, even though (I know!) complex stories cost a lot (in time and money) to develop.

    While (visible, graphical) growth can be seen in your games in the long term, it's barely noticeable if you look at the last 4-5 games, and Queen's Wish, for many, is seen as a step back.

    I'm not saying it's wrong (once again, you're still here, making games, which means it works, and that's proof enough), but it looks strange on the outside. I'm guessing you're not putting all profits from one game toward another, because you're not young and single, and can't afford such risk. You're also not looking for outside investors, because you'd have to put up with their demands (although I imagine some more niche publishers like Slitherine might be interested - you do have some name recognition, after all, and that worth a lot: studio I work at released just one (big) game so far, and I think we already had some offers to buy us).

  16. Stardew Valley had extremely low-budget graphics and it looked beautiful. It's not about art, it's about art-direction. Queen's Wish is hideous and a billion dollars clearly wouldn't be able to change that. It's not a money problem at this point at all.

    1. No, more money would fix this nicely. Jeff can't be a good art director, and he admits that. For some bucks, he could HIRE someone to be art director, and that would fix things. But hiring and art director AND artists would increase budget way too much.

    2. Stardew Valley took 4 years of development time, much of that time crunching. Your average Spiderweb game takes about a year.

    3. Then maybe Spiderweb should extend development time a bit to make things look decent. Queen's Wish is well below what I'd imagine should be the minimum standard of graphical quality for a video game. I figured everyone did what I did and donated to the Kickstarter to give Jeff the money needed to make a game that looked even better than the 2018 Avernum 3, but wow did that not go the way I expected. Even just some basic lighting effects like the ones in the first Avernum 3 rewrite would go a massive way in improving the look and atmosphere of the game as-is, but nope - one light for everything!

    4. Sooooo did you actually read the blog posts or what?

  17. How much email marketing do you do? For that matter, why isn't there a signup form right here so I can get updates on your future games and maybe buy them?

  18. GAN growth is quite promising nowadays. Hopefully, you'll be able to generate game art in the same style (or several styles) providing just sketches.

  19. Keep up the good work :)
    From a fan who's in GiantMegaCorp and too scared to make the leap into self employment: you're an inspiration!

  20. I've really enjoyed reading the first article you wrote on graphics and this. I haven't read any of your writing previously but I will now keep an eye out for it in future.

    I agree 100% with your thinking. Profit and survival needs to come first.

    I would love to play one of your games. These articles have been a great advertisement. Which one do you recommend to start with?

    1. There are demos for all his games (I think), so you can try them as you wish.

      Personally I'd say Avernum: escape from the pit.

  21. Thanks for the insight. Best of luck to you and your family! (Came here from Gamasutra)

  22. I have to be honest and say that I never played your games and am not much of an RPG fan. I do commend you on your success. Very inspirational how you made it all work. I was wondering if maybe you could do an article sometime about how one grow into your position. You've said before that it boils down to luck, but perhaps there are more stable ways to think off? Thanks for the article - and don't mind the salty haters!

  23. I would just like to point out that someone writes Minecraft shaders and pulls down 45k US per month doing that. See "Sonic Ether."

    Maybe some of your fans would prefer supporting you monthly on Patreon versus buying games when they come out?

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Hey Jeff, your games look like crap and I enjoyed the crap out of Avernum. Keep up the good work!

  26. This business straight talk is 100% solid gold. Thank you for taking the time to post this. I found this informative, insightful and inspiring.

  27. Exile II was very formative for me in the late 90s (and also I & III & Blades, but I played II as shareware first). You showed how deep RPGs could be, and it was by reskinning your sprites that I learned how to do pixel art (really badly). Thank you.

    Please keep doing what you do best, you wonderful cheap bastard -- you are a treasure.

  28. I have always loved your art style. Set it apart. Keep it up.

  29. Inspiring and real! You just found a new customer, I’m excited to check out some ugly games with good writing!

  30. Thank you, that was very insightful me for being someone who had a dream of "making a cool game" long time a ago) Too bad I can't take you r whole catalogue on the go, but I understand the costs of porting.

  31. I had dunked a lot on the art style/direction of QW, but at least this post does a way better job of explaining why it's that way. On the other hand it doesn't explain why the art direction was better, both in term of style and coherence, in your previous titles.

    1. And way better explaining job than the last post, I mean.

      Also the idea of writing those post for marketing seemed to have worked, at least.

  32. 40000 dollars for one game is a big amount of money. You can hire really competent artist in eastern europe on full job. Paying 50€ for icon is crazy. It is price for portrait. 1500 dollars per month is a very good salary for artist in Russia.

  33. Thanks for Post. EagleSaver purchases the widest variety of video games. Whether you want to sell older Nintendo, PlayStation or Xbox games.

  34. Tried to comment on previous blog post. Your new game looks quite good visually. 2d graphics do not need to be fancy to look good, they need to be clean, at least imho :)

  35. Oh, and for the record, I have bought some of your games, but have never managed to get around to playing, and don't know that I ever will. But the games were cheap enough on a sale, so why on earth not. And if steam was smart it would do more to promote cheap indie games that carry a certain reputation, because like me, many people will buy them just because they can, just to have them.

  36. I like your games and never gave the business side of what you do a second thought until I found your blog. It's interesting stuff. I have a whole new respect for what goes into what I waste my free time on. Thanks!

    BE SMART AND BECOME RICH IN LESS THAN 3DAYS....It all depends on how fast you can be to get the new PROGRAMMED blank ATM card that is capable of hacking into any ATM machine,anywhere in the world. I got to know about this BLANK ATM CARD when I was searching for job online about a month ago..It has really changed my life for good and now I can say I'm rich and I can never be poor again. The least money I get in a day with it is about $50,000.(fifty thousand USD) Every now and then I keeping pumping money into my account. Though is illegal,there is no risk of being caught ,because it has been programmed in such a way that it is not traceable,it also has a technique that makes it impossible for the CCTVs to detect you..For details on how to get yours today, email the hackers on :email the hackers on

  38. Authentic comments have stopped and the spam is coming in, so I'm locking the thread. Thanks!