How much do indie PC devs make, anyways? (Part 8)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
It was November 2014 and I had finally finished the Battle Kitchen expansion for my game, "Cook, Serve, Delicious!" I had done it with hours to spare, releasing a buggy version of the game to meet the deadline of the Steam Daily Deal that I couldn't afford to miss. I went through a marathon of coding, was physically and mentally exhausted, and up to that point was the hardest challenge I had ever faced in my game making career.
“I won’t do this to myself next time. Next time, things will be different.”
I vividly recall this promise to myself as I sat in my chair, hands shaking as I completed another 48-hour round of coding. It was September 2017, one year since I initially delayed Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, one month since I had delayed it again from August, with hours left until Steam automatically released CSD 2, and the game was still not finished. I frantically uploaded another build for the testers to play for the next three hours until release. Errors were sent back. I checked to see if Steam was down, only to find my internet was completely down. Thirty minutes later I would find out that my internet provider had some unscheduled downtime. There was no ETA for a fix. I started gathering cables to grab my computer and run to a friend’s house to upload my game from there. I was losing precious coding time. If I didn’t upload a new build within the next two hours a beta version would be released that was completely broken.
How could this happen? How did I do this to myself again?
How Much do Indie Devs Make Anyways?
When I first started these series of articles eight years ago (how the time flies!) I never would have imagined I'd be where I am today. Up until CSD 2, I have had a great amount of success with CSD 1, grossing over $900,000 over the course of its release on Steam, mobile, and other platforms. CSD 2 has also been very successful, making more money in its first two weeks of release than CSD 1 made in its first five months on Steam, and I’ll cover more of the hard data later in this article.
Back when I first started this series, it was somewhat rare that indie devs gave out their financial figures, and I wanted to help change that by being as openly transparent as possible. Things have changed back and forth on that front, whether it’s Steam Spy constantly being under attack by new API changes at Steam or devs being much more willing to open their books and talk frankly on their successes and failures.
Today’s article will go over some of the financials so far, but also a franker assessment of what I went through on the path to launch, as I feel the need to do this for myself. This release has been unlike anything I have ever been through. I need to reflect on some things personally, and by writing this article maybe I can discover along with all of you why I was running through a gamut of emotions over the last few weeks pre and post launch during September 2017.
Dubbed the “Too Hot for E3 Announcement,” Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! was announced with a fun teaser trailer on July 2nd, 2015. It had no gameplay but contained all the art assets that would eventually be in the game. 2016 was the target. It would be one of several targets I would miss. (For more details on the promotion and announcement of CSD 2, see the previous article of this series.)
For nearly one year I did nothing but collaborate with my artist, Camille Kuo, on all the foods that would be in the game. For some foods, I would have to have 50+ reference photos and detailed instructions on how to draw it, and others I could get away with “only” 30+ reference photos. Days turned into weeks and months of pouring through YouTube videos of cooking and prepping food, cooking blogs, and so on. Finally, once a good chunk of the 180+ foods were drawn, I got to work.
There’s a lot of blame I could pass around as to why I missed 2016. Time management was difficult to do in the early stages of game development- the ideas you have are so nebulous and there’s not much form to what you have for such a long time that it’s easy to get lost as to how much time you actually need to finish a game. That’s been my experience, anyways.
Most of the development time between 2015 and 2017 is, quite honestly, a blur. Months fly by as I chewed away at the game’s many foods and restaurants I was implementing. I started doing a few programming streams where I would broadcast on Twitch as I coded the game, which was a fun way to connect with fans. Progress was being made, art and music was flowing in nicely, and I was starting to outline my launch strategies and plans for the future. Things were good.
There was a point where I had to delay the game from its 2016 release. I posted in a Tumblr blog that I’d be shooting for early 2017, and the fans couldn’t have been more supportive. It was an extremely tense day for me, but to have that support meant a lot, and I was able to move on and get back on track.
Things start to get hazy again as game development starts to mush up together, but as I was nearing the end of the year, I started to get frantic. I was not completing enough each day. My timelines kept getting pushed back by myself. My bank account was slowly being drained, and income from CSD 1 was not replenishing the budgets like it used to. The funds I had accumulated from CSD 1 were used to build my new office and on another game project that I had to shelve to get CSD 2 out the door. I couldn’t delay the game again, as financially it would kill me. I needed a publisher.
I reached out to Adult Swim Games, giving them my pitch and how this game would compliment their other chef-themed title, Battle Chef Brigade. My hope was that once I had a publisher I could start to relax a bit on the financial side. But days turned to weeks, and with no response I had a choice to make: should I continue to find a publisher, or go at it on my own? Ultimately I decided to hire the Indie Bros. as my PR team and act as my own publisher. I was fully invested in this, and there was no turning back now.
I’m not well. Something is wrong. That’s what kept going through my head, with weeks to go until I had planned to launch Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!
I didn’t feel sick, like I had come down with something. It was something I’ve never really felt before. After working weeks of non-stop coding and development, with erratic sleep and eating schedules, I knew it was catching up with me. I didn’t know what it was. It was something that did not feel right physically. But I had no time to rest, as I was the only person working on the game, programming wise, with two writers and a team of beta testers helping me on Discord. If I stopped working, the game stopped. I had no time. I was weeks away from launch, and I had so much left to do. I started sleeping in my office with an air mattress next to my desk so I could crash when I couldn’t think anymore.
That night I woke up choking and unable to breathe. After gasping for air for a few minutes, I sat up in my bed. That had never happened before. What was wrong with me?
I reassured myself that there would be plenty of time to rest after the game’s release. Upon reflection, I had been telling myself that for well over a year.
It was 3am on the week of launch, and my Discord server full of private beta testers started to ping me. Something was not right. Progress was not being saved correctly. This was something that I didn’t know, or had no way of knowing, until the Restaurant Designer was implemented, which was done with around 48 hours until launch. I pored through the code. I saw my mistake. It was a grave one, something that would set me back days to fix. Like most bugs, it was a stupid mistake, quite a costly one at that.
I would not make launch. Not with this to fix, and so many features to still add. It was impossible. I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. I emailed my PR team that I wouldn’t be making the release date.
Finally, I thought: a way out.
I grabbed my clothes and hit the shower, ready to sleep after about 30 hours of nonstop coding, nearing about six weeks of pure anxiety and panic every day. But something kept gnawing at me. It shouldn’t actually be that hard to fix. If I tried coding it the way I was thinking, I could get it done in the next few hours. This game doesn’t have to be delayed. It was a way out, but only if I was willing to lie to myself and the fans, I told myself. Calm was soon replaced with dread. This wasn’t a way out at all, this was just a few more hours less I had to implement about 20 vital features before launch.
I quickly sent a follow up email: I would get back to him before 4am with a final decision. But I already knew. If I was going to make launch, I was going to have to start cutting vital but not necessary features. Mouse support for menus was the first to go. It made sense to me at the time. So much of what I did had the illusion of making sense at the time.
It was launch day, and with my internet problems sorted, I released the game. Finally, after weeks of nonstop insane hours, I thought I was ready to rest.
God, how naïve I was!
The instant I crashed on my sofa, my phone was buzzing non-stop. Bugs galore. Gameplay in-balances. People angry at the lack of mouse support, calling the game Early Access despite being released as a fully released title. The reviews were pouring in, many of them negative. I had no time to rest. I had to address these issues. My window of time to respond to everyone was going to close up fast thanks to the multitude of releases each day on Steam. All the meanwhile, sales were shooting through the roof. I lost it, and completely broke down, unable to handle everything at once. Everything was somehow good and bad at the same time.
The game had its share of super fans since the first game, who were hyped up to an insane amount, screaming how I had ruined their favorite game with this new campaign that they didn’t like. That I had taken the money and ran, that I had lied in all of my development posts. I had mislead them to believe that it would be a sequel to their favorite game ever. This was not a game that they wanted to play, for the many reasons they listed in their Steam reviews. They also started to give thumbs down to all positive reviews and upvoted all negative reviews so that they were on top of the page in the Steam Store (this was before Steam implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening).
I gave a final plea to everyone in a small patch I released a day or so later: give me time, I will fix these issues. Please, understand where I’m coming from here, and I will make this right. It was an embarrassing post, and maybe the lowest part of my career. It had truly felt like I had failed everyone.
The day one news screen for the launch of CSD 2 (click pic for larger version)
I was churning out patches each week, with multiple fixes. I was keeping a close eye on the review aggregate on Steam as it dipped below 90% to 85, then 82%. If it got below 80%, it would change the review listing from “Very Positive” to “Mostly Positive” and color the score in an ugly shade of orange. In a frantic scramble to try and stem bad reviews, I started to respond to every single negative review on Steam, telling them how I was going to fix issues or that I had already fixed some of their negative points. I was able to flip a few bad reviews, at the cost of drowning myself in negativity for weeks at a time. My depression turned to anger. I wanted to lash out at some of these people. Did they not understand how hard I worked, how I’m going to make it all right, how unreasonable they were? These were all the thoughts in my head as I couldn’t shake off some of the people that just wouldn’t let it go. Reading this now, months after launch, I realize just how unreasonable I was during that time- how exactly is menu mouse support a big ask for a fully finished game? Why was I getting angry at people who had absolutely legitimate complaints about the game? At the time I just couldn’t see straight.
82%. 81%. 80%. It was going to go under, and I had run out of negative reviews to respond to. I watched each day, waiting for it to fall. But it never did, staying right at 80%. And a few weeks later after launch, after numerous patches, it started to climb up ever so slightly. I was pulling it off. But the time for the game’s biggest streaming audience and word-of-mouth talk was immediately over just two weeks later, as the streamers I saw playing CSD 2 quickly turned to Cuphead. It felt like the entire crowd just vanished.
By the end of September, the game had grossed over $300,000. I was hoping to make $100,000 by the end of the year. It had surpassed all expectations, and I made the announcement on Twitter.
I had beaten my own expectations, posted on Twitter about how happy I was, and yet I was immensely depressed. I had the weight of the game's problems on my shoulders. I started to despise working on it, as I sat there with my game while bigger games like Cuphead enjoyed universal praise thanks to its near flawless execution across the board. It almost felt like a weird form of jealousy, something I had not experienced in this way before. It scared me, because that is not who I am, and that only heightened my depression.
Responding to all the negative reviews was, from a business perspective, a great PR move. It showed others I meant it when I said I was going to fix the bugs and issues from the game, that I was in it for the long haul, and I wasn’t going to quit. But it killed my drive, my motivation, and it is something I would never recommend to anyone to do themselves. To surround yourself in a vat of bad reviews warps your perception of things. I suddenly felt like all the positive reviews were lies, just fans trying to make me feel better. It really felt like that.
Four things happened to me during that time that helped me get back to a more normal state. One was a glowing Kotaku article on the game, which made me cry. It was the exact thing I needed to help me convince myself that I wasn’t a complete failure.
The second thing was Baertaffy’s streams of the game daily, and to see him and a Twitch audience respond so positively to the game reminded me of the joys of game making that I felt like I hadn’t seen in a long time. I would watch them on my phone every night until I eventually fell asleep.
A week or so after launch, Dan Ryckert of Giant Bomb sent me a message on Twitter. He told me how much he loved my game and how he played it hours after work. I am a huge fan of Giant Bomb (in fact they gave me my first big break with CSD 1), and to hear this from one of the people I follow and enjoy content from daily brought me so much joy that I so desperately needed that I couldn’t respond fast enough, thanking him for reaching out. He changed my life in a different but similar way that Ryan Davis did so many years ago; to have that self-assurance that I was heading in the right direction from one of my favorite guys I follow was such a weight off of my shoulders that I honestly don’t think I could have pulled out of my funk as fast as I did without his words of encouragement.
My fourth moment was on the day after launch, as I was mired with about a million different things I needed to do, I got a private message from someone thanking me for releasing the game. She had experienced a traumatizing event earlier that week and was thankful for the game to help her escape for a little bit. It was emails like those that puts everything into perspective for me.
One year after launch, CSD 2 has sold 68,187 copies across all PC marketplaces, grossing $653,318 on Steam alone, not including the various copies distributed and payout via being part of the June Humble Monthly as that’s NDA’d. (Curiously, giving away so many copies in the Humble Monthly hasn’t changed the daily sales of CSD 2- if anything, there’s been a slight increase in daily revenue since the June Monthly bundle!)
It's still a bit early to say this, but I think CSD 2 may not reach the $900,000+ that Cook, Serve, Delicious! manage to rack up over four years. There are still some unknowns: I'm jumping into console development for the first time and I have no idea what to expect. I'm still unsure whether or not to jump into the mobile space again, as premium apps don't seem to do well at all anymore. CSD 1 was an anomaly- it released back when there were still limited releases on Steam, and was a better balanced game on the outset. Despite CSD 2 costing more to make (about $50k more) I think it's still a big success given the turmoil of releasing an indie game on Steam these days. I'm very happy with the results, and I think there's still an audience out there that we haven't even tapped into yet with consoles.
As for me, I’ve brought someone on as my first part time employee, and I have plans to build a game studio with a team in five years. I am in a good place, mentally and for the first time in a while, physically, as I’ve started an exercise regimen and have lost 40 pounds since March. I feel good, and only recently have I realized how long it had been since I felt like a normal person, without insane schedules or complete mental fatigue.
It took me a year, but I finally feel happy again.
I traveled to GDC in March and PAX for the first time in August, met with a ton of interesting and fun people, I’m finishing up console ports of CSD 2 and I’m starting production on my next game later this year. It’s been super fun outlining all the challenges and details of my newest project, and yet as I start penciling in deadlines and schedules for the new project, something gnaws at me every day, a question I don’t have an answer to: what if I have to go through all of this again?
I won’t do this to myself next time. Next time, things will be different.