How Much Do Premium Indie Games Really Make?

Hello, loyal readers! If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve been teasing a money post for quite some time. The fateful day has arrived! Spreadsheets, I summon thee!

If this is the first time you’re reading this blog, thanks for tuning in! My name is Frank DiCola, and I’m the CEO of Game Revenant. I was the artist and animator for Where Shadows Slumber, a premium indie puzzle adventure game that released late last year on the App Store and Google Play. We have a whole archive of posts going back two years if you want to take a look at our design process! However, this post is dedicated entirely to examining the financials of our launch window on the global mobile market.

Why put this information out for the world to see? Well, something that impressed me about Monument Valley back when it originally launched was how open the developers were about their income & expenses. Jack and I vowed to do something similar once Where Shadows Slumber launched. Of course, at the time, I hoped to also make as much money as Monument Valley, but as you’ll see below that didn’t exactly pan out. Even so, I expect this blog post will be really informative for indie developers who are just starting out. I wish I could tell you once your game hits the store, you’ll be rolling in money. But it’s probably better for you to hear the truth, in plain black in white.

This blog post will chronologically address the income and expenses related to publishing Where Shadows Slumber, covering the following:

  • Our pre-marketing budget
  • Our development costs
  • The revenue Where Shadows Slumber made
  • Our break-even point
  • The marketing effort going forward

This is going to be a dry one if you came here for art, programming, music, or other fun game design stuff. The part no one tells you about running your own indie studio is that you spend a lot of time examining old bank account statements and crunching numbers in Excel to get your taxes in on time. Read this post if you want to know what it’s like spending money to promote your game!

DISCLAIMER: The income and expenses here are 100% related to Where Shadows Slumber. Costs related to running a business (paying an accountant, office supplies) are not included in this post!


2016: The Early Days

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve heard us talk endlessly about how we started our development with a demo / vertical slice version of the game. Because that didn’t launch until late 2016, this year was mostly spent in heads-down development mode. And since Jack and I were working together on the game for free (well, for future revenue share) there were no salary-related expenses either.

In fact, there were so few expenses in 2016, I can just list them in a sentence: we paid for an IndieCade submission, bought a standing display banner, entered into the PAX East Indie Showcase, bought the Where Shadows Slumber domain name, and started an Apple developer license, for a grand total of $402.15 for the year.

2016 Expenses: $ 402.15

2016 Income: $ 0.00

With nothing to sell, and no ads in our (unexpectedly popular) free Demo, we didn’t pull in any money during 2016. That’s fine though, because we weren’t expecting to make anything that year! Things get exciting in 2017, though…

2017: Hitting The Road

This was the year we started to really spend money on the game’s development, as well as pre-marketing. We spent a few thousand dollars, so it’s worth going category-by-category to discuss where we allocated money. The largest categories by far were Contract Labor and Travel Expenses, as you can see below:

Our Advertising budget was mostly spent on physical stuff we hand out at shows, like drop cards and Where Shadows Slumber buttons. The reason Contract Labor cost us so much is because Alba and Noah came in during the end of this year to make the game’s audio (worth it!), but we also paid our friend Zak Moy to make the logo and got our Demo professionally translated into multiple languages.

The number you see quoted here for Events actually reflects event submissions, as the only event that really cost money was the original PlayNYC at Terminal 5. You can see how team Meals really stack up over time, but the big culprit for doing events is Travel Expenses – it’s hard to get hotels and train tickets for cheap! Between travel, hospitality, and then stuff like parking and Uber receipts, we racked up a small fortune in travel expenses. The totals for this year were:

2017 Expenses: $ 10,456.74

2017 Income: $ 0.00

Once again, we didn’t do anything that would generate income. The game would still need another 9 months of development before it was ready for prime-time, and Game Revenant didn’t sell anything related to Where Shadows Slumber like T-shirts or plushies. No income yet, none expected!

2018: Finally… Money!

2018 was the year we finished development and launched the game on the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon App Store. Our marketing efforts before launch consisted of a ton of travel, as you can see below. Contract Labor and Travel Expenses dominate once again, making up nearly $12,000 of the budget!

The Contract Labor section is dedicated entirely to paying our hard-working musicians, and the other categories fall into predictable camps (internet ads and swag for Advertising, full game translation for Professional Services, and Event fees for spots at Play NYC and Gameacon) The reason we racked up so much in Travel Expenses is because in 2018 we went to MAGFest, SXSW, and PAX East. Actually, most of the cost is from SXSW because of the flights to and from Austin. Driving to shows is really important!

2018 Expenses: $ 15,105.04

2018 Income: $ 21,229.24

We finally had some income now that the game was made available to the general public! While it felt good to have income for once, the total amount was sort of underwhelming. Premium games are a dying breed, and we knew that going in. Lots of people told us to fill the game with scummy ads and videos instead of charging up front, but we didn’t want to do that to you. Integrity comes at a steep cost though – our income from 2018 left us still at a deficit, meaning the game cost more to make than it made in revenue! I’ll talk more about that in the next section, but first let’s examine some details about the launch.

Breakdown of sales by percentage of revenue earned in 2018.
iOS (96.05%) Android (3.5%) Amazon (0.45%)

We launched on iOS on September 20th and then on Google Play on November 20th of 2018. I expected the App Store to make more money than Google Play, but since we released two months earlier on the App Store these numbers are a bit skewed. Apple got a head start, no fair! Even so, my gut tells me that Google Play will continue to under-perform the App Store as time goes on. As you can see in the Tasty Circle chart above, iOS dominated our sales and it wasn’t even close.

But what really disappointed me was the abysmal performance we had on the Amazon App Store – I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. The number shown there is from two sales, one of which is me. (I needed to get the game onto our Kindle and that was the quickest way)

The area graph above gives you an idea of the bumps in sales we got, as well as their impact. Don’t be mislead – although the line is hugging the bottom of the graph and sales are poor, we get a tiny amount of money each day. I don’t think we ever had a day where no one bought the game, which is good.

We hoped the buzz from Launch Week, where we were featured on top of the Games Tab, would extend forever. But once we left that prime-time slot, sales plummeted and never recovered. We were able to boost sales with events like the Halloween Sale and Cyber Monday, where the game was offered at a discount. Then we got surprised with the Game of the Day announcement in early December. Kudos to Apple – they really did a lot to promote our tiny indie game, and I’m sure they’ll include it in a few articles sporadically throughout the coming year. But it’s really hard to get eyes on the game without them holding our hand, as much as I hate to admit that.

(There isn’t enough interesting data to show from Google Play yet, so I’ll have to put a chart up for that sometime later this year once there’s more to see.)

2019: Break Even, Break Out

Starting on January 1st, 2019, Where Shadows Slumber needed $4,734.69 to hit our break-even point. It doesn’t pay to list that number in terms of “units required to break-even” because sometimes the game is on sale, and other times people buy the game in other currencies that don’t convert neatly into $5. Here’s a better way to put it into perspective: Apple is going to send us $2,764.77 on January 31st, and Google already put $879.87 in the company account on January 15th. So we’re already down to just $1,090.05 before we break even, which I predict will be reached by the end of February.

Of course, breaking even is pretty lame since sales are just barely trickling in at this point. Ideally, we would have broken even a long time ago and found a nice rhythm where our daily sales can lead to a good projection for each quarter’s revenue. We’ll break even without any extra effort just because people are randomly finding out about the game – but in order to break out of this slump, it’s going to require more effort. One cause for optimism is that we haven’t launched in China yet, though a publishing deal has been in place since 2017. (Not their fault at all, obviously!) Now that the blockade on new government approvals seems to be ending, we’ll get up-and-running in that country hopefully by Q3 2019.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I recently told the team my plan to re-invest the money Where Shadows Slumber made back into marketing so we can escape the doldrums. Only this time, that money won’t have to be paid back to the company. Game Revenant isn’t in debt or danger of bankruptcy, so we can use this money to boost the game. Then, each quarter’s revenue will go directly toward profit sharing so that everyone (including myself) can finally get some money in their bank accounts.

So, if you haven’t purchased our game yet, please do so! Hopefully our next financial report will be a bit more exciting. For those of you who are already super-fans, be on the lookout for some related merchandise coming from us in the coming weeks…

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Where Shadows Slumber is now available for purchase on the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon App Store!

Find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

4 thoughts on “How Much Do Premium Indie Games Really Make?

  1. Dear, Frank

    I am very sad and disappointed to know the result of the sales of your excellent game Where Shadows Slumber.
    I arrive at the conclusion that the Android platform sucks. I’ve been involved with your game since the demo and later with the beta version. I am really passionate about your work and would be frustrated to know that you stopped developing games or that you will no longer publish your games on the Android platform.
    Unfortunately the vast majority of Android users do not buy games or applications. Only use the free games or download pirate games.

    I’m a Psychiatrist Ph.D in Hypnotherapy. I know the importance of puzzle games and logic games for the human brain. I spent 2k US dollars on games on the Android platform.

    I’d like to finalize by saying that Where Shadows Slumber It’s one of the best puzzle games in the world! It is certainly among my three favorites. Your game is a thousand times more original than Monument Valley. Your game has a richer story and smarter puzzles.

    Thank you very much for existing and for making our lives happier!

    Best Regards!

    Like

    • [ ^_^] Thanks so much for your kind words! Let’s give Android a bit more time, hopefully those customers will come around as the game racks up 5-star reviews. I wish everyone spent as much money as you did, LOL!

      I appreciate that you’ve been following us since the early days. Sometimes it feels like no one reads this blog, so thanks for leaving this comment! You really brightened my morning.

      -Frank

      Like

  2. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for sharing! I think I remember Monument Valley saying that 5% of the installs on Android we’re legit purchases. I guess between that and seeing some of your metrics it gives a good argument for releasing on iOS first, or almost exclusively, if going premium that is. As an android user it makes me sad. Knowing what you know now, do you think you would still go the premium route? I’ve been working on a puzzle game for a couple years now, and I want it to be premium because that is how I like to play games, but fear the current climate of mobile gaming. And you can’t really do rewarded ads, like watch this and get that, all you can do is really interrupt gameplay between levels. That just feels wrong! I would love to hear your input on this.

    Best of luck with the sales!
    – Andrew

    Like

    • I should note that the Android numbers are straight sales from Google Play – we don’t have outside analytics to tell us whether or not the game was pirated.

      I would still release on both platforms, but I think premium is just too hard as an indie. My advice to you would be to make the game free and put the paywall somewhere inside the app. (Super Mario Run did something similar) If we ever get this game live in China, that’s the model we were told to use.

      Basically that means everyone gets your ‘demo’ and then they still need to buy your game. I can’t say it will lead to tons of sales, but you’ll at least get more traffic. I was worried that was scummy, but now I wonder if we should pivot and do that with WSS. It’s tough because the game is already live on both storefronts. But if you look at our free 2016 Demo and the traffic it got, it’s a shame that this hasn’t transferred to our final product.

      Like

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