I recently read two very different and excellent articles on independent game development.

The first was from Owen Goss of Streaming Color Studios, in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his iPhone game Dapple.  He expressed frustration with the fact that although Dapple cost $32,000 to make, it has only made $535.19 in its first available month.

The second was from Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his PC/Mac game Geneforge 4.  Geneforge 4 cost $120,000 to make and after six months has only made back $111,412.

Neither of those sound very good, but Jeff is actually pretty happy with how Geneforge 4 is selling (although he admits that these sales are unexceptional).  Within another month or two at most, Geneforge 4 will have made back its costs and everything it makes from then on will be sweet, sweet, gravy.

So what’s the difference?  I think the difference is that (despite his protests to the contrary) Owen was hoping to strike it rich in the iPhone gold rush.  As soon as his app fell off the front page of the Apple Store his sales dropped to near zero, and getting articles about his game on Kotaku and Slashdot generated exactly 21 new sales.

Owen’s claim in his follow-up post that he desires to build a software company slowly over time doesn’t really match up with the type of game he made.  While Dapple is a clever little game (especially the two-player mode) it looks very generic – because it is.  It’s a color-matching game.  There are tons of color-matching games available for every conceivable platform.  The gaming industry is awash in them.  You simply cannot stand out in that genre, especially if you’re an indie.

Jeff has chosen a different route.  He makes turn-based, single-player RPGs.  This is a market that the big game companies aren’t serving sufficiently.  The lack of cutting-edge graphics has never hurt his sales – indeed, it makes his games very older-hardware/laptop friendly.  He has found an underserved market and intends to keep serving it until it goes away…which, since Jeff’s been in business for fifteen years now, it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to do.

Jeff also understood that when he chose to take this path, he would have to be in it for the long haul.  It’s taken six months for Geneforge 4 to make its costs back, but now every time it sells (and it will sell, for years) it’s gravy for Jeff.  And since he now has fifteen games out there, each one selling away, his overall income is high enough that he can make a living.  In his inimitably cynical style, he calls this “bottom feeding”.

Now, Jeff got lucky, true.  He found a market that he loved but wasn’t being served.  He finished his first game and started selling it just as the internet was getting started.  His development cycle (make a game in eight months, then spend two porting it to the PC) allows him to make a ton of games – at least one new one every year.  And the games outsell their costs, leading to profit.

But it can still be done nowadays – indeed, it can probably be done easier, because when Jeff started he was having to advertise his games on bulletin boards and over AOL.  There are plenty of underserved markets out there.  You can still stand out, make your mark, and make your money.

You just can’t do it with a color-matching game, which is what Owen found out.  I truly do wish him better luck next time.