The Fiscal State of Indie Downloadable Games
Matt posted in Games, My Work, The Industry on February 17th, 2009
There are no official numbers for any digital distribution channels, but in looking at the only estimates I can find, on vgchartz.com, the sales outcome for most downloadable titles is pretty bleak. This goes against my philosophical stance of trusting a website that substitutes a z for an s, but they seem to be the only data that is readily available. So, here’s a link to the most up to date sales data through 2/13/09. Sorting that data by cumulative revenue, the top 10 is as follows: Texas Hold’em, Castle Crashers, Bankshot Billiards 2, Uno, Worms HD, Street Fighter 2 HF, Bomberman Live, Boom Boom Rocket, Castlevainia: SOTN, and PacMan CE. Four of those titles have been included in some sort of bundle, either with an Xbox console or the Xbox Live Unplugged bundle DVD game. Out of the 6 remaining, there’s only one original IP, Castle Crashers, which is doing amazingly well. I have to congratulate the Behemoth for not only putting together a kick ass game but for actually creating one that has really achieved the holy grail of indie game development by making a ton of money as well. Now comes the bad news.
If we look at all games that aren’t free, there are 184 titles. Just under half of them made less than $500,000. Now, half a million may seem like a large budget for an indie game, but you have to consider that Microsoft and/or a publisher is taking a cut. Assuming the split put forward here, and the developers are only taking 35% of that $500k, that’s $175k. Developing an Xbox Live title is most likely going to cost you more than $175k. It can vary widely, so I’m not going to speculate on the average cost, but I think it’s safe to say that well over half the titles on XBLA are not profitable.
But in looking at the upper end, Castle Crashers has over half a million units if vgchartz stats are accurate. It’s still fairly early in the lifecycle of the product, and it’s selling quite well currently, but I’d be surprised if they could break a million. The only titles that have so far are Uno and Aegis Wing. Aegis Wing is free, and Uno is a very popular card game and only costs $5 and is included in both the Xbox Live Arcade console and with the Xbox Vision Camera. 1 million in sales is nothing to scoff at, but it’s hardly the amazing cash out of some indie movie successes like the Blair Witch Project. (It cost $60,000 and grossed $140 million in the box office)
I think this is why publishers aren’t really all that keen about this space. Although there are movie companies like Lions Gate and Focus that focus on indie and smaller budget movies, the payoff for an indie film can be huge – enough to amortize the loss of many unsuccessful indie films. Although some indie movies have limited appeal, I think many indie or inexpensive movies can have audience sizes that are in line with many blockbusters. I think plenty of games sell multiple millions (the real blockbuster games break 10 million), but multiple millions is unheard of in the XBLA space. Aegis Wing is free and has only gotten 1.5 million downloads (according to vgchartz). That to me means that the average gamer isn’t really all that interested in smaller cheaper games, which is disappointing because that’s all indies can afford to make.
Another troubling fact is that if you look at the high sales games, most are remakes or rereleases. Ignoring the anomalous Castle Crashers and the various bundled games, Braid comes in as the first original game that’s not a remake or rerelease behind 6 other titles (and Castle Crashers and some bundled games of course). The trend continues in the top sellers. Two thirds of the top 30 games by revenue games are board/card/video game remakes or sequels to existing IPs. I imagine that sends the message to publishers that their best bet is to rerelease old stuff and not invest in new original products.
Anyway, I’m not trying to say that indie game development is doomed. Obviously if I thought that, I wouldn’t be trying my hand at it. But, I think it’s important to look at indie game for what it is. It’s a very fulfilling thing to work on, but a very difficult thing to make money from. Do I think Retro/Grade will be successful financially? Yes I do. If I didn’t, then I would make adjustments to make sure I thought that it would be. Am I the best judge of that? No, of course not. It’s my baby. Every parent thinks their baby is the cutest regardless of how hideous he/she is. Hahahahah Of course I think it’s fun and worth what we will charge for it. Will the general public? Only time will tell.
In the end though, everyone votes with their wallets, so if you want to continue to see lots of creative indie titles, be sure to keep buying them. That’s the only way to keep small developers doing creative and original games in business.