Making games, making money


A friend who's been doing more game development as of late (thanks, Chip!) alerted me of an interesting Ludum Dare challenge, which can be summed up in one line:

Finish a game — Take it to market — Earn $1

It's a bit late for me to announce it now, midway through its course, but that's not the point of this article. Rather, I want to discuss something many an indie game developer has undoubtedly discovered to their dismay.

Making money from games is especially difficult. Let alone a living.

And it's not just games, either. Music, comics... you name it, if it's art or entertainment, making money at it can seem like an impossible task. This is all the more visible nowadays that gatekeepers are going the way of the dodo, and anyone who can create digital content can trivially sell it on a global market, sometimes even in physical form.

LD's October Challenge says "earn $1". That should be amended: earn $1 that doesn't come from a friend wanting to show support. In other words, make a genuine sale. And that's damn hard. But why?

I see two reasons: overabundance and the nature of digital content.

Wait, what? Like it or not, while initial production obviously costs money, subsequent digital distribution does not. And the general public understands that equation all too well. It's why people happily fund Kickstarter projects, then pirate the results. That's nothing new; during most of history, art has been funded through the patronage system, and that worked just fine. When people do pay for a digital copy, it's to support the artist, out of the goodness of their hearts. And yes, they'll do that. But you might as well ask for donations outright, because that's what they are. Don't have a public willing to donate? Then you don't have a public, period.

The overabundance problem is less obvious, mostly because it's easy to forget about it. But when you do remember, it's dizzying. My last statistics are ten months old; by now, YouTube users must be uploading more than 60 hours of video a minute, and the number of webcomics I read has passed 250. Steam's controversial Greenlight service carries 858 games after about six weeks of operation, and it comes with a hefty entry tax. E-books? Just look at this one tiny publisher.

That's your real problem right there: if you expect to make money from games, not only you're competing with countless other developers just like you, but also with all the other forms of entertainment out there, be them indie or mainstream. And we're all busy people in a recession.

Suffice to say, I have at least one friend who buys every Humble Indie Bundle on principle, with no expectation to actually play the games. I couldn't bring myself to do the same...

Should you bother at all, then? By all means, yes! Go the whole way. Bringing your game to market is the ultimate test. Having a stranger actually buy it -- the best possible validation of your work. But by the same token, don't be too upset if you fail to make even that one first dollar. And if you succeed in acquiring 1000 true fans, well, then count yourself among the lucky.

Me? I decided a while ago to not even bother. Not yet, anyway. After all, I've enjoyed much art for free in life; the least I can do is to try and give a little back.

Either way, don't stop creating.