They will betray you!
As G.B. Rober is getting ever closer to being done, I’m getting reminded how incredibly stressful it is to release a commercial videogame, despite my best efforts to not have it stress me out as much. Especially when you’re on your own and really poor, your options to get help with more complicated stuff are limited and the work just piles up and there never seems to be enough time to do everything that needs to be done. In an effort to clear my head a bit and also to share some Ideas that came to my mind over the past few weeks, I’m going to try and write a bunch of posts about my current state and how I experience the reality of making a commercial videogame on my own, while living off of Welfare in Germany.
A few weeks ago, I was doing some research on building a good steam store page and was also looking into how well wish list entries translate into actual sales. This was both to figure out what to do with G.B. Rober, but also to take a closer look at Splinter Zone’s release and maybe trying to figure out what exactly went well and what didn’t. Looking at business advice for Indiegames is always strange, because it’s usually geared towards a very specific kind of developer. And I don’t mean just the kinds of games they are making, but also their material conditions. These posts are usually either written by folks who are/were commercially successful, or only these people are interviewed for them. Another thing that’s fairly common is that all the people who are talking about this stuff come themselves from a position of relative financial stability and affluence. So whatever kind of advice they’re giving, is pretty much coloured by these circumstances and though some things they talk about could be considered, good helpful advice (like things to keep in mind when setting up your storepage, when to publish it vs. when to release the game), a lot is also not very applicable to folks like me (very poor and mostly working on my own).
As an example, let’s take this Article by Jake Birkett about wishlist conversion rates on Steam and the kind of inferences you can draw from them. Keep in mind that post was written in 2018, so not all of it might be true today, but considering that you can easily find it on the Internet, I’m pretty sure a lot of people who are looking for this kind of information today, will eventually stumble over it.
First of all, I do find the decision to make grand, sweeping statements and projections about Steam wishlist conversion rates, based on a sample size of a grand total of 14 games, kind of curious, considering the sheer amount of games that get released on Steam every day (and already have been back then).
Even if you assume that this is enough to make safe assumptions on how games on Steam do, it still treats commercial game development itself as a black box. It basically assumes that if you do everything within that box correctly, then your average conversion rate (whatever average means in this situation) is such and such and therefore you can assume a certain amount of money from it.
The problem with treating game development as a Black Box in this situation is that the process of creating and releasing a game is highly dependent on the individual situation and conditions for each corresponding developer.
Just from my own experiences with Splinter Zone, which came out in 2017, I can say that this model just doesn’t apply to my game.
I don’t want to dig too deep into the specifics, but basically every calculation and projection this model makes, is completely off with Splinter Zone. Splinter Zone’s numbers were and are much lower and honestly, if they were even close to what this article assumes to be the “average numbers” for games on Steam, then I wouldn’t still have to rely on Welfare to pay my bills.
For an “underperforming” game such as Splinter Zone, these models are completely useless, because they do not help me at all in figuring out why the game’s numbers have been so low and what I could do to maybe change that, or if there even is a way to improve these numbers. Since it treats games and the process of their creation as a nebulous thing that just happens, all it can say about games that lie outside of its model is that, well they lie outside of it. In case of a game underperforming, this obviously means that you, as a developer, have failed.
Where I “failed”, how I “failed” and if I actually failed at all, can’t be answered by this and therefore the model itself is useless both as a way of projecting your own commercial success, but also as a way to analyze your own game’s performance.
All you can gain from it, is basically a very vague “your game/marketing wasn’t good enough”, which is about as helpful, as saying that “you just have to make a good game and it will sell."
It is game development in the way of a shopping list: All you need to do is do these things that are on the list (which aren’t mentioned anywhere), and you can expect to get X amount of money out of it.
It assumes that markets are static entities and that each actor on said market is working under the same conditions, which is evidently not true . It ignores that a lot of small creators on Steam are individual actors that don’t have the resources to get the kind of attention you need in order to have a game have an “average” commercial performance on Steam. All this already shows that “average” in this case, doesn’t actually mean average, but “average game that is being made under roughly the same conditions as the ones that have been used to make these assumptions”.
If you’re in a similar boat as me. You make games mostly on your own, your disposable income is next to non-existent and the kinds of games you make happen to be in a kind of crowded genre: Please, please ignore 90% of advice about selling games on Steam you find on the Internet. Most of it, doesn’t acknowledge that you actually exist and therefore whatever information it has, is most likely not applicable to your situation.
Pieces like this really frustrate me, because they always create this notion, that if your work doesn’t fit into these categories and if your numbers aren’t as good as those, that whatever you did is worthless, because you failed. And while telling you what a commercial failure you are, it also doesn’t give any pointers as to how you could maybe improve. It’s the worst kind of teaching: Telling you, you did something wrong, when it’s not actually 100% sure if you actually made a mistake, and also without telling you what exactly it is that you did wrong and what you could do to improve.
All of this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to earn money with your games, or that you should be “realistic” about earning a living with it (I’d still like to, but more on that maybe in a later post), but more to make sure that you understand your own situation and set your goals and expectations accordingly. Even under the best circumstances, you can’t predict how a game will do, especially if you’re a small creator. There is so much that could influence these results that lies completely out of your control. So what I’m trying to do instead (and it’s still hard, because brains are weird) is give myself a set of goals, that are independent on any kind of numbers. I’ll try and do my best, but I do not want to lose sleep, thinking whether or not the first paragraph on my game’s steam page is the reason why my wishlist conversion rate is only 9% instead 14%, or whatever.
And whatever numbers your game makes, it’s still valuable and you as a person are valuable, don’t let business indies tell you otherwise.