Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How Much Money Can an Indie Game Make? The 2010 Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 5, 2010

Minecraft continues to defy all expectations. It’s now selling as much as 10,000 copies per day (It actually spiked to over 25,000 one day, after a few days of the server being down).  It’s sold over 300,000 copies total as of several days ago. But just think about it. Thousands of sales.

Per. Day.

At about $13.50 USD per hit (depending on  exchange rate), and assuming a 15% transaction cost, that’s still around $11.50 per sale times 7,000 to 10,000 copies. Per Day.

Most indies I know would be thrilled to make half that much in an entire year for a single game.

Now, it’s a fluke. An inspirational fluke. It’s reset some expectations.  But an indie can’t just go out and expect that they could just sell “half as much” as Minecraft. In all likelihood, it ain’t happenin’. But it’s nice to know what’s possible. And while it’s the current poster child for runaway indie success (and every article about it, like this one, helps its success just a little bit more), its story is not entirely unique. Just of the largest magnitude that I’m aware of to date.

But let’s not focus on the aberration.  Let’s look at some more numbers:

Jeff Vogel explained that he sold a little under 4,000 copies of his science-fantasy RPG Geneforge 4 in a little over a year. And it’s a pretty typical game for him in terms of sales.

A quick look at the XBox Live Indie Games sales charts for 2009 shows that the top-selling game enjoys ten times the sales of the 17th best-selling indie game, at approximately the same price-point (the 18th best-selling game sold a little less than 1/10th as much, but its price was ten times higher, resulting in sales in the same ballpark by dollar amount). But in the “other sales” category, we see games that have only sold a few hundred copies.

I know many, many indie games that never sold a single copy. Or only sold a handful. Literally. You could count the sales on both hands. Many times, these indies give up in disgust. After putting hundreds of hours into a game, only to have it completely rejected on the market… it’s hard.

You can find some more indie sales statistics at GameProducer.com.  Many are painful. Some are inspiring.

I just wanted to point out what kinds of extreme variation exists in indie game sales.  When prospective indie game developers start asking about how much money they could expect to make on their game, they are putting forth a serious effort to try and understand the business so they can work around those expectations. You don’t want to spend $15,000 of your own money out-of-pocket (or out of your credit cards’ max limit) on a game with which you can’t expect to make more than $10,000.

But the problem is that it’s very much of a “how long is a piece of string?” type of question. There are a heck of a lot of variables at work, not the least of which is a factor of pure old-fashioned luck.

With all this in mind, I wanted to note again Mike Kasprzak’s October Challenge. I’ve found that this is inspiring a lot of people – from absolute newbies to some fairly high-profile indies – to jump in and try to get a game to market by the end of the month.  There’s no real “point” to winning the challenge other than bragging rights and personal satisfaction, but the pros all know that having a solid deadline in mind really makes a difference. I’m not even planning on releasing in October, but I’ve found that some of the thrill of this challenge is wearing off on me and helping me move towards my goal more quickly.

Even if the end of the month seems an impossible goal, I’d say shoot for the moon anyway. With whatever time, effort, and budget you can spare if it turns out you never sell a single copy. Maybe you won’t. Probably, you won’t sell many. Maybe you could be the next Minecraft.

But the thing is, the mainstream games biz has become stale. Not totally – there are still some great games coming out from big publishers through traditional channels that have been great fun.  But I do feel that the huge budgets and risk-aversion has caused the industry to lose a lot of the vibrancy and creativity it once possessed.  Indies are a major source of new blood and fresh ideas that we need. So I hope this challenge does inspire a bunch of creative, fun-loving people to take the plunge, break the ice, and begin their journey.

Good luck.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Thanks for the mention! We’ll see how it goes.

    The thing about Minecraft to keep in mind is that it’s been around for a while now. The stats can be a bit misleading if you think about them: 300k sales with about 10k daily? The game has been on sale for a LOT longer than 30 days, though. In fact, it’s been out for over a year.

    Not to say that the sales aren’t amazing, but like a lot of stories of this nature, this isn’t an overnight success story. Notch has been persistent and has gained a critical mass of followers. Definitely shows the advantage of the “release early, release often” philosophy, I think.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, I didn’t mean to neglect any of that. I’m kinda stunned when I thought he’d probably hit critical mass at ~ 3k sales per day, he went way over. Yeah, you can see that at 300k sales at the beginning of the month, that doesn’t come out to 10k sales / day for the last year.

    Another thing to note is that this is NOT his first game, either. And that the gameplay was heavily inspired by another indie game that didn’t do nearly as well.

    So yeah – it kinda goes back to the story about how many years of hard work and sacrifice it takes to become an “overnight” success. Notch is a brilliant, skilled indie (just look at his time-lapse development video from the last Ludlum Dare competition if you have any doubt).

  • Modran said,

    Even if you spread it over a year, it still amounts to 9k€ a month. That’s rather nice :).

    But yeah, Notch has become something of a 800 pound gorilla, and I hope other would be, young and innocent indies don’t take his results as what they can expect.

    But they should aim for it 🙂 !

  • Ruber Eaglenest said,

    You have pointed that, but I will like to subscribe:

    “It is the effort of one entire year selling the game.”

    Devs should not obviate the effort needed to maintain the span life a software product: marketing, maintain a community around, interviews, etc. Of course to have a GREAT idea with a GREAT implementation it is crucial. Simply Notch has hit the gold mind of the ideas.

  • Colm said,

    Overnight success takes years. 🙂

  • WCG said,

    What are the lessons here?

    Minecraft has blocky graphics – lovely, at least from a distance, but blocky. You don’t really need detailed artwork, not if the gameplay is there. It’s not that the graphics aren’t important (personally, I have trouble playing Dwarf Fortress with ASCII characters), but rather that lovely scenery can be obtained without spending millions on art. (Who knew that square pigs could be funny, rather than lame?)

    Minecraft is easy to play for beginners, but there’s an incredible amount that can be done in the game. It’s completely open-ended, and it can be as elaborate as you want. If you want simple, fine. If you want complex, also fine.

    Minecraft lets players CREATE things. Sure, you can battle monsters all night, if you want. But killing things is not the only point. Working on my fortress, while monsters growl and scream outside (and underneath), is just a great experience. Too few games let us CREATE anything.

    To a great extent, gameplay is up to you. At any time, you can set the game to “peaceful” if you just want to concentrate on some elaborate building process. You can explore, and the gameworld just expands with you. You can invent clever traps. And as the gameplay is up to you, so too is the “story,” if any.

    I don’t know if Minecraft will hold my interest long (but then, the game is still in alpha, so who knows?), but it was cheap enough that I’ve already gotten my money’s worth out of it – cheap enough to be a spur-of-the-moment purchase for many people, I suspect.

    All of this has come together with a great deal of luck, no doubt. But I’m glad to see this kind of game getting so much attention. There’s a lot to be learned from it, don’t you think?

  • Aryan said,


    I have a question. With so many avenues of distribution open to developers and tools that make it easy to make games. Could it be that most ‘Indie’ developers are not churning out games that appeal to the mainstream. I mean if nothing the casual games market I assume has a potential of atleast a few million sales for a small addictive game. I am including platforms like pc,xbox,android,iphone etc in the potential market.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    A couple of points:

    #1 – Easy to make games? In spite of Sophie Houlden’s little rant, games – at least those of commercial quality – are hard to make.

    #2 – Indies can’t compete directly with the big, high-budget companies targeting mainstream audiences. Doesn’t mean our games can’t appeal to the mainstream, but it does mean that we can’t make the kinds of games that are *proven* and consistent sellers. Those are already being made and sold by companies with 100x our resources.

    #3 – Potential, sure, but realized? Look at the sales numbers for the iPhone. The games in the top 3 or so slots in their category definitely sell TONS – millions, even. But you don’t have to go too far down the list before you find the games that are selling only a few thousand — a few hundred — or even worse.

    The potential is definitely there – there are many indies prospering right now. But ultimately, there are no easy answers. Or easy money.

  • spiralofhope said,

    I wrote a bit too much to fit into a comment..