I get mail from time to time from aspiring indies, and recently I was asked an intriguing question: "The fact is that I have no idea what is the average number of sales for indie pc games... more like 10,000 or 30,000? More? Less? I know it's around 50 000 for XBLA titles but I have no clue for indie pc games. Even if I'm conscious that this number will dramatically change from one title to another, I would really appreciate to have real numbers to work with."
How To Find Sales Numbers For A Variety Of Games
You should take a look at the indie games blog and IndieGamer Forums -- there are sometimes some links there to sales numbers and aggregates, etc. Gamasutra is also a good resource, with information about sales numbers of many AAA games as well as some indie titles (Another good indie site is the IndieOtaku blog). A few specific posts I can point you to are the sales statistics category at Game Producer, or this one over here at The Bottom Feeder, an excellent blog by a longtime indie developer.
A PowerPoint slideshow called Indie Game Metrics 2009 has a ton of down-to-earth info. Of interest for potential indie developers on the PC: High-end sales are from 5,000 to 50,000 units sold on the PC. Middle-end sales are just from 1,000 to 5,000 units, and Low-end sales are 100-1,000 units sold. This is not nearly the sort of numbers that aspiring indie developers are hoping to hear, but these seem quite accurate from my experience and from talking to various other indies.
Kingmakers Vs Building On Each Past Success
XBLA numbers are misleading because that is a closed service with marketing implied. In other words, once you get on there, you are already getting a fair bit of exposure simply via Microsoft having hand-selected you and promoting the release through newsletters, blogs, etc, and even magazines. That's hugely valuable, and not something that you can count on unless your game is very, very good. They are basically playing "kingmaker" with a few specific games, and then ignoring the rest.
At any rate, Microsoft is very selective about what games they accept, but so are Steam and most other digital distribution sites. Steam first ignored AI War, then turned it down four months later after ongoing contacts from myself, then eventually agreed to take it on after a recommendation of the game to them by a notable fan in the games press (I can't say who).
In other words: we got lucky, in that we made fans that had some influence over the process. Our arrival on the various other digital distribution sites, including Impulse, were similarly either made possible by either a) some staff member in a position of influence falling in love with the game and recommending it up the chain, or b) the distributor seeing our existing success with other distributors and wanting to get in on the action.
Some few games are immediately noticed for how amazing they are, and get a ton of press and publicity off of that, and an immediate wave of sales. This is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I think, and anyway it's not something that has ever happened to me, so I can't give any specific advice there. My method has always been to take each incremental success that I've had, and use that to drive further success. If I'm doing well on one platform, but another platform is still giving me the cold shoulder, I talk about the public sales rank of my game on the first platform, etc (nothing that would break any NDAs).
In other words, unless you just get really lucky, you're going to have to put a lot of work into even just getting your games on all the various digital distribution sites. And even then you might hit a brick wall on one or more of them. At the time that AI War was accepted onto Steam, in late 2009, I believe that we were only the 79th or so indie game on their platform (since they started in 2004). Many other platforms have similarly low numbers of indie titles.
Press Popularity != Financial Success
There are a few thousand indie games that get completed every year, and the sad fact is that most of them sell only a few hundred copies or so through their own website, mostly to family and friends. There is a huge hurdle there at the start where nobody is your fan, no one knows who you are, and you seem to just be part of the background clutter of all the fairly-crappy indie games that are constantly coming out. And even some really "successful" indie games that are considered must-plays that most people have heard of don't sell as well as you might imagine. People tend to focus on the standout success of a minority of games, such as World of Goo or Braid, and assume that anything with a similar amount of press is similarly financially successful -- this is not so.
On the other hand, there are a variety of games that are only popular in a really specific niche, and get almost no press, but nevertheless sell well enough for their creators to do game creation as a fulltime job. So visibility in the press != financial success, although it certainly does help.
In the case of AI War, we were unusually successful with both the press and financially, and yet somehow we're still extremely niche and something that a lot of people have never heard of. (We were one of only a handful of indie games to make the Top 40 Best PC Games list on Metacritic, and we're in the top non-blockbuster sales bracket for PC indie games, as well as having off-and-on held the top-or-close indie game sales position on Impulse, Steam, and other platforms). AI War is not a blockbuster or even remotely close, in other words, and yet we were one of the most popular indie games of the year by a couple of measures.
That's something to chew on, if you think indie game development is a path to riches: AI War has been more financially successful than most indie titles, and yet if you're expecting sales on par with World of Goo or Braid, you'd certainly be absolutely crestfallen to have sales numbers even twice as good, possibly even 10x as good, as us. If you're hoping to get rich making indie games, know that you might get lucky and make it, but odds are not in your favor. If you're looking to make a living for yourself and maybe even a small staff, that is a lot more attainable but still something that only a minority of indie game developers achieve.
AI War's Sales Numbers
In the case of AI War, before we landed on Impulse in May 2009, we had literally 0 sales. We were getting maybe a couple of hundred hits per day to the site, maybe 30-50 unique visitors, and we had some downloads of the demo, but nobody was biting. Then we got on Impulse right at the end of the month, and bam -- suddenly we were up to around 10 sales per day with them, plus 1 or 2 on our own site. That was what got the ball rolling, and things have gone onwards and upwards from there.
Presently, on our "off" months (when we don't do any sort of discount promotions or what have you), we sell around 500-900 copies of AI War, and around 100-300 copies of The Zenith Remnant. On our "on" months when we do a discount promotion with one or multiple vendors, those numbers jump to around 3200-4400 copies of AI War, and around 1600 copies of The Zenith Remnant. These numbers are digital-only, not including our retail sales, the first results of which are not even in yet. But through digital-only sales, we've sold around 15,000 copies of AI War so far, and around 2,500 copies of The Zenith Remnant.
AI War is a very unusual title in that it is somewhat "evergreen." In other words, it's been 10 months since the game originally came out, and it's still selling quite well: better than ever, on average. Assuming nothing hugely changes, I expect do double our current sales numbers by the time the second expansion to AI War comes out.
What (Maybe) Creates "Evergreen" Titles
To properly address this in a scientific sense, I'd need a lot more data. It's possible that AI War's "evergreen" status is simply based on the fact that it is not a very well-known title despite the success it has had, and thus that as new people discover it our sales continue onwards. But, there are two main contributing factors, I think:
1. We make continuous (usually monthly) improvements and additions, keeping players interested.
2. We do semi-frequent (every few months or so) discount sales with our digital distribution partners, which is basically like "free" advertising that we are paying for with a lower profit per unit sold (but way more units sold).
I don't think that #2 would work as well without #1. #1 also keeps traffic to our site high, to the point where we get around 10,000 hits per day on average to our site now, which is certainly much improved from when we started out.
I love being an indie developer, and wouldn't want to do anything else if this career remains open to me (aside from trying being a novelist on the side, which is something I am sure I will return to in a few years). However, it's not an easy road. I've paid my dues with a good 15+ years of hobbyist game content/level/etc creation, and a solid 6 years of hobbyist game programming for titles of my own.
Then, after all that work, I happened to get fairly lucky in various ways so that AI War was able to become a success. AI War is a good game, make no mistake, and it wouldn't have found any success without being a good game. However, there are lots of good games that go unnoticed for various reasons, and that's where the luck factor comes in if you don't already have an "easy in" into the industry (I had none).
If you're wanting to become an indie developer, the best question to ask yourself is this: would I do this even if I never made a cent off of it? If the answer is yes, then go for it and see what happens. If the answer is no, you may want to seriously reconsider.
I did this sort of thing for a decade and a half without ever thinking of it as a viable career or anything I would charge money for -- it was just a hobby. Then for some reason it occurred to me in 2008 that I could probably make a living at this, and I decided to give it a go. Turns out I was right, but it wasn't until December 2009 that I started taking any money out of the AI War proceeds to pay myself (for anything beyond expense reimbursements). All the money up until that point was being spent on making sure that AI War 2.0 would be possible, on developing the first expansion, etc. So in a very real sense, the first 12 months of my work on AI War were all done for no pay whatsoever, and only in the months following that did I start getting paid.
That was cool with me because I wasn't purely in it for the money, I just wanted to make the best possible game I could and see if there was a living for me in doing more of that sort of thing. If your motivations lie along the same lines, then get cracking. Your first indie game might not make it, even your second or third or fourth might not, but if you love it for the sake of the created games themselves, it won't matter. If you get lucky on your first or your fifth try, and then get into a realm of profitability where you can hire yourself, that's just icing on the cake.
Final note: It's not that I think that indies should be willing to work for free. However, if you want to be a game designer / novelist / actor / football star, bear in mind that there are millions upon millions of other people who also want to. The average advance for a novelist is $10,000, and that's for 1-5 years of work, and only for the 0.01% of authors who actually ever get published at all. More people want to be novelists than game designers at the moment, so the competition is less stiff here so far. But the competition is tough enough that the likelihood of financial payoff is too low to make this worthwhile unless you love the creation process as an end unto itself.