An Interesting time in Indie + delays

Hello! A quick update today to let people know I’m still alive and also explain a minor delay we’ve taken on.

But first, a topic interesting to me: comparing indie hype to reality.

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, Steam Spy is a pretty accurate site for sales figures. It’s not perfect, and it’s not data directly from Steam, so it can’t account for refunds, free weekends, comparing full price sales to deep discounts, and so on, but it is accurate enough for relative comparisons.

This post is mostly interested in which games have been genuine hits, and which ones have not, and some of these are pretty surprising.

Click below to read more.

Here’s some examples of games that got huge press, tons of hype and critical acclaim:

Superhot (released 1.5 months ago): 177k copies at $25
The Witness (maker of Braid, released 3 months ago): 98k copies at $40
Firewatch (released 2 months ago): 240k at $20
SOMA (maker of Amnesia, released 7 months ago): 132k copies at $30
Volume (maker of Thomas Was Alone, released 7 months ago) 56k copies at $20
Hyper Light Drifter (released 1 week ago): 87k copies at $20

And here’s some games that (before release) you’d never heard of:

Undertale (released ~7 months ago): 1.4m copies at $10
Stardew Valley (released 2 weeks ago): 911k copies at $15
Factorio (released 1 month ago): 300k copies at $20
Enter the Gungeon (released 1 week ago): 109k copies at $14
The Long Dark (released 7 months ago): 600k copies at $20
Banished (released 2 years ago, still in the top 100 on Steam): 1.4m copies at $20
Risk of Rain (released 3 years ago): 1.3m copies at $10

So what’s interesting about this? Let’s be clear, selling 100,000 copies of a game for $10 or up is fantastic, especially for indie. And in the case of something like The Witness, at $40 you have to take into account that 100,000 copies is functionally the same as 400k copies of a $10 game.

But the biggest thing that strikes me is there’s no clear correlation between hype, press coverage and sales. Not only did all the games in the first category get tons of press, it was almost all glowing praise, and these games were made by known developers with experience and name recognition (except for HLD).

The interesting thing about the second category is that none of these games had any of the advantages of the first category. Undertale was out several days before anyone noticed, and even then the news stories didn’t say “Undertale: Greatest Game of this Generation”, they mostly said “You should try this quirky retro game” before really taking off with the player base. Meanwhile, games like Superhot did get hyperbole, such as “Revolutionizing the First Person Shooter” before it even came out, but it didn’t make nearly the same impact.

What to take away from this?

It seems as though your hits and misses are entirely up to the whims of the public and nobody knows whether a game will take off or not. Youtubers, Kotaku, game shows and IGF awards will help you sell more than 5,000 copies, but it’s hard to say how much more, and previously making a hit game seems to have little to no influence on your next game’s success. And how many of the above games had publishers?

Another interesting point is that most of the games in the first category were made by a team of people with prior experience. Most of the games in the second category were first-time games made by tiny teams or a single person with very little experience. The basic conclusion: players just care about the game. It’s an idea that I’ve seen a lot of developers really poo-pooing lately, that you can’t just release a good game on Steam anymore and succeed. Or is the truth that you can’t just release a mediocre game on Steam anymore? Whether Killers is a good game or a mediocre game remains to be seen, and well, seems to be up to the players.

The genre appears to have almost nothing to do with sales, and neither does pixel art vs fully immersive 3D. Almost every game on this list is different, and that may be a hint in itself: as much as we’re told about risk aversion, players do want to have new experiences. They may not need it to be strange and revolutionary, but they do want it to be fresh. Not a single sequel on this list.

It’s easy to argue that as more people make games the market is getting more competitive, and the less room there is for individual developers, but I’m not sure the reality of successful games supports that. Who would have guessed Factorio would be a bigger hit than the Witness, or that Stardew Valley would blow away a game with as much hype as Superhot? And while 87,000 copies of Hyper Light Drifter in one week is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, they were quickly lapped by Enter the Gungeon which came out of nowhere, and is sitting above Ubisoft’s The Division on the top sellers list right now.

In fact, more than half of the games in the top 20 on Steam are currently indie titles. Not exactly an apocalypse.

edit: one week after writing this, a detailed analysis of indie sales and trends came out on SteamSpy. In it, the breakdown showed that the median lifetime sales on indie games has dropped from 30k to 20k copies, and that the median number of copies sold in April 2016 compared to April 2015 is about half, while the number of games available is significantly more. Check out the full write-up here. But the most important data shown was that if you’re in the top sales list you can do great on Steam! Maybe even better than before. But if you’re not in that top percent… prepare to suck it.

“Indiepocalypse” implies the end of indie, but what we’re really seeing is the opposite. There’s way too many choices for a gamer to play and even AAA with enormous budgets and marketing can’t compete with the sheer volume of releases each month. “Indiepocalypse” is misleading and doesn’t represent the real issue.

As a side note, here’s some wild speculation: there’s almost no bar to making games anymore. Literally anyone with a PC can do it. But I personally feel like what we’re going to see is a whole lot of developers trying their luck and finding out they can’t live on 20,000 copies at a time, and the number of developers will drop again. Just a guess on my part.

All of this doesn’t imply that press and hype is meaningless. You can find plenty of examples like Rocket League or No Man’s Sky where press has undoubtedly played a huge role. This gist: games can succeed on Steam with or without hype before release. They can even far outsell their hyped counterparts. For now, the game’s not rigged.

Before I wrap this up, I just want to point out that I’m not dogging anyone’s work or favorite game. Some of my favorite games are financial failures. I’m looking at the actual trends and drawing some conclusions from the data. And I’m not a genius with figures and trends. My conclusions are just guesses based on paying close attention to the industry.

Disagree with those? It’s cool, let me know why in the comments.

What about Killers and Thieves?

I’ve been giving the game to various playtesters in the last month or two. It’s always the most humbling experience, combining the realization that you’ve still got a lot of work to do with pants-shitting terror when somebody just doesn’t get it, and now you’re worried that you’ve wasted the last few years of your life.

More specifically though, the best advice I’ve gotten is that while all the systems are there, the content might not be enough to sustain a release, even in early access. As a result, I’ve taken an extra month or two to add more content. What this means for you is that when the game releases it should have about 5-6 hours of playable story instead of 2-3, and I imagine most of you will be fine with that change.

Looking forward to getting it in your hands soon enough!


An Interesting time in Indie + delays

12 thoughts on “An Interesting time in Indie + delays

  1. You also have to take into consideration the proportions. Choose a time interval and classify all games released in it as `had hype` and `did not have hype`, and possibly `had medium hype`. Then try to find the correlation again. My guess is that, since hype is hard to get, the vast majority of games didn’t get any. So if 10 out of a thousand got comparable income to hyped games that is not such great news. Or maybe we can find out that hype helps bad games get a reasonable income and good games make money regardless of hype. I have no idea what the results would be, but would be interesting to see.


    1. I’d love to someday see an in-depth breakdown of this, but even then I’m not sure we could ever pull concrete information from it. We know that marketing the heck out of a mediocre product will get better returns than no promotion at all. But how do we know whether a game will find an audience? You can’t survey 10,000 people and end up making Stardew Valley. And you can pour millions into marketing and focus testing and still end up with Medal of Honor or the Ghostbusters remake. Success, at this point in time, still feels like lightning in a bottle to me. For every 300 games that come out, one of them sticks. If you didn’t get it this time, keep trying…

      In any case, that’s my personal take on this right now. I’m sure my opinion will change over time 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!


  2. Mveli says:

    Not sure why, but you kind of make sense of an economic time-conscious person, who values his time and does not want to have his last few years wasted. This was also evident during your previous post about how game devs are treated unfairly, which you removed and then you explained hat you were nervous about the release. Therefore, you clearly want your game to be sold. And that’s okay, if you approach it as an enterpreneur and not as a gamer-fanatic. I myself know few of those and they have been working on their projects for years, and let me tell you, one of them says he will be ok even if in the end he gets 10 or less players online.

    Well, I don’t want to sound rude, but games are worthless. They are but a portal in the world of fantasies, similar to other known drugs. Games are drugs. They do not have any real economic value such as agriculture (without food you could not work and produce an ecnonomic unit) or other forms of real economy (everything we need is produced by hands, not gambled on securities market). Games are air. Yes, it takes skill and time and some technology to produce them which may explain their economic value (mostly elecricity and Internet bills plus IT college education in case you had one as an investment), but the same can be said about porn, it takes a camera and a team of worthless non-human beings to create a “product”. So are the games. I mean I am the one who works in the freelance field. I write a lot. Is my profession worthless? It probably is, as I barely produce anything of real economic value, except students may pass the defense of a thesis or other academic paper with my help and enter the labour market with a degree. Am I a parasite? Yes and no. No, because I work in the open market and do not get my money out of public budget. And so don’t you. But I am a social parasite, sort of. I do not produce nothing of real economic value, and so don’t you. And I am a strong believer that half-parasites should not expect financial benefits. If they get it, fine, but they should not worry too much, given the fact that they work in the bullshit field to begin with.

    But since you are so nervous about the financial outcome of your project, iright, I guess I can promiseyou I will support you rather than torrent this game, even though I am a strict beleiver that games should be free, but I will make an exception for Killers and Thieves.


    1. I do think I get what you’re saying, that we’re just make entertainment and shouldn’t expect riches. I’ve never felt entitled to a huge payout, but I want to provide a good life for my wife, my daughter and myself. Making games is what I know how to do better than anything else. As I get older the value of time changes and I start worrying about being able to afford retirement. Despite this, I wouldn’t know how to make a cynical game just for income. I wouldn’t be good at it. Killers and Thieves isn’t a mainstream kind of game, but I hope it connects with lots of people. I like to try and understand why some games are more successful than others.

      I’m not sure I agree that games have no economic value. People pay for entertainment because they need it in their life, for their mental or emotional health, or just to pass the time comfortably. I don’t take my work as seriously as builders, farmers or doctors, but are books and movies and games truly worthless?

      Thanks for the comment, and offering to buy the game. I appreciate the sentiment and hope it doesn’t disappoint!


      1. Mveli says:

        I see your point. Yes, people need entertainment in their lives given the liberal leftist world order we live in. We cannot image our lives without movies, bs music, tasty unnatural foods and loads of other drugs and time wasters. But my point was real economic value. Just that. I mean simply becasue something sells does not mean it has an economic value (you might have heard about used panties market, for instance), which depends on how a good or a service (usually a good, less likely a service) is needed by society to function properly. We could live without movies, music, games, parties and other forms of entertainment. We could not live without food, shelter, clothing. And damn our lives would be complicated without the wheel and as a result, different forms of travel.


    2. How does this relate to the post in any way? You just came in saying “What you do is worthless”. Having a different opinion whether its agreeing or disagreeing is great, but you did none of that. Especially that last paragraph, which you’re talking about pirating and that games should be free. What was the point of this and the rest of your statement?

      I also think you need to look up what economic means. Entertainment has a very high economic value and its been this way throughout human history.


      1. Mveli says:

        I fail to see how all this is related to you anyway, but since you asked, the point of my post was not merely agree or disagree with K&T developer, but to point out his recent posts over video game commercial sucess, which I expressed my opinion on, regarding the economic value of video games and entertainment as a whole. I am not going to argue with comment over my knowledge in economics, since you clearly lack the understanding beyond consumption, which is not economics as a whole. To consume we need to produce, and an aesthetic product does not support economy. But who am I to argue with the brilliant Keynesian mind such as yourself.


  3. @Meveli You’re right, you expressed how games are worthless and how they have no economic value, but the post is about the correlation between game success and hype. None of what you said relates to the relationship between game success and hype or anything about killers and thieves. Your post is about economic value and your personal feelings about liberal hippies and their love of enjoying life.

    Are video games a good or service? Yes. Are consumers willing to pay for it? Yes. Video games generate billions a year which means it has very high economic value. Am I arguing that video games are worth more than food? No, I am not and I agree with you that there are more important things out there than video games or anything with entertainment. I admit that I don’t know much about economics, but your personal opinion about economic value has nothing to do with this.

    I responded to you because of your unclear intentions and negative tone with your comment. I didn’t see how that related to the post and/or killers and thieves. I also responded because of this statement “But since you are so nervous about the financial outcome of your project, iright, I guess I can promiseyou I will support you rather than torrent this game, even though I am a strict beleiver that games should be free, but I will make an exception for Killers and Thieves.”. I don’t see why you needed to say it like this? You could have just said “I’ll support you”.

    I can see with that condescending tone in your response to me means a discussion with you will be fun, so I’m not going to reply to you after this. Enjoy your day.

    Now back on topic! Some of the games you posted about not having hype have been available for a long time and slowly gained those figures through word of mouth which created hype. Enter the Gungeon was published by the same company that published Broforce, Hotline Miami, The Talos Principle, and more. Which all of those games are very popular, so maybe this played a part in its success?Piggybacking off of other games hype works too (think minecraft and its popularizing procedural generation, voxels, and survival gameplay). I also think that just releasing something at the right time (luck) or under the right situation equals success.

    I’ve been following this game since I first heard about it through an article on a gaming site. I enjoy reading your devblogs. Being an artist I would have liked a post on the art direction/creation for the game. I’ve wanted to have a game where you control a thieves guild for a long time and I’m looking forward to playing this game when its released.


    1. says:

      My post was not offtopic since I clearly mentioned several times that this was my anwer not only to that particular post but the devs previous post on video game [commercial] success. Current post is also strongly related to [commercial] success, so my expression on the definition of economic value (and I can give a fish about what liberals or conservatives think of that) was anything but offtopic.


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