Raik is a text-based game I released in December 2015. It’s a Scots fantasia about anxiety. I work professionally mostly in theatre and poetry, but I do quite a bit of crossover work in games (mostly physical, public and other non-digital forms of games). I was interested to find out how well the self-producing strategies I’ve learned in other artforms could work in games, so I decided to do something like a commercial release: hiring an illustrator to give it a good cover, sending out press packs to try and get coverage, asking people to pay for the game. There’s a creatively thriving sector of independent games, working from obscure artgame-makers to quite wealthy full-time indie studios (a bit like so-called independent music, really), and I wanted to dip my toe in. Six months down the line, I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned with other very small-scale game-makers. I’m obsessed by how money works and how it interacts with the arts – partly because I’m trying to make a living, and partly because I think that if you don’t learn how to make the obscene money-system work for you then you’ll end up working for it. I love tiny games and small-scale makers, so I hope what I’ve learned helps you out.
How I Did Publicity
My game is not exactly a commercial heavy-hitter. It’s only 30 minutes long; it’s text-only; half of it is written in an obscure European language; and it’s about mental health and fantasy. Going into this, I knew that sales and coverage weren’t going to by high – instead, I needed to trade on the unique aspects of the game. I billed it extensively as “the first game in Scots”, hoping that that would be enough to grab interest in people’s inboxes, pulling them in with a discussion about the game’s themes. I commissioned an illustrator (Kitt Byrne) to do some lovely cover art, which would grab better attention on social media feeds (I think this was the best commercial decision I made, but I also love the result). And as well as selling it as an unusual game to the indie games community, I sold it as an unusual way to do poetry and Scots to the literary community.
I asked professional games friends for their advice on marketing a game, and also Googled “how to sell a game” a lot. The blogs I found most useful were Chris Priestman, Kieron Gillen and Retro Remakes. I made a very simple two-page presskit with details about the game, me, and Scots. I then made a list of every games journalist and website I thought might be interested, gouging this (out of date) list of websites from Pixel Prospector, Googling, and asking friends for good contacts. In each case, I wrote down some notes about why I thought my game might appeal to them in particular, so that I could personalise each email. Emailing people about my work is my least favourite job in all of the arts, and the one I’m worst at, and the one that has the highest mental cost for me, so I set aside two days to do this and made sure I had plenty of chocolate on hand. I sent around 30 emails, most of which did not get a reply, but two of these emails led directly to my two biggest pieces of coverage.
I decided to extend the experiment and release the game under a “Trust System Sliding Scale Pricing”. In my performance work, I do a lot of “Pay-What-You-Decide” gigs, because I like how accessible they are, and I find that I often get a larger audience and the same size of income as when I set a specific ticket price. In games, I’m a total unknown, so I thought that people were unlikely to download my game unless they could get it free or cheap, and I also like spreading a bit of consciousness about the economics of art. After a preamble about trying to make a living from my art, I wrote, “I’ve set £4 as a rough price for this game based on a triangulation of how long it took me, how much I hope to sell, how experienced I am, how the art market functions, how much I think folk are willing to pay, and sheer guesswork. (Mostly guesswork.) If you’re earning an average wage (UK: c£26k) then pay me that. If you’re earning more, pay me more. If you’re earning less, pay me less. If you’re earning less than the Living Wage (UK: c£16k) then don’t pay me anything, and I hope you enjoy the game. This system isn’t policed, and if you’ve got a better idea of how artists should make a living (I hope you do!) then pay whatever you think is right.”
Then I launched the game! This involved posting release notices on relevant forums, and doing a lot of tweeting and Facebooking for a few days. I didn’t directly ask friends to tweet about it for me (which I think is a totally reasonable thing to do, but I make a lot of art and don’t want to have to do this constantly, so I save up my asks for when I really need it), but lots of them did anyway, which was nice. Then I sat back and waited to get rich.
How Coverage Went
Because I had a pretty unique game, and because I did a halfway competent job of publicity, I got far more coverage for the game than I expected. I was covered in Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer in their indie games round-ups, got a small feature on IndieGames.com (which led to a lot of reposts from various reblogging websites and Twitter accounts), and had a big interview and feature video on Eurogamer. The Twitter and Facebook launch went exceptionally well, getting more interest than most of my publicity for theatre and poetry shows (I didn’t keep track of clicks and website visits though, whoops), with a few prominent games figures and journalists giving shout-outs to the game. This felt great!
On the other hand, most of the coverage referred to Raik as a “free game”. There’s an existing infrastructure for “free games”, and trying to get across the messaging that actually it was on a Trust System Sliding Scale price was too much to get into major games platforms. This is a shame, but I also could have foreseen it.
How Sales Went
Raik has been downloaded 861 times, and paid for 46 times.
I was not actually expecting to get rich. I was hoping to cover my costs and get a bit extra on top. I’ve made £206 and 50 pence (about $300 American money). That covers the illustration commission, but on top of that it does not even pay for a single professional day of press and publicity work, let alone the weeks I spent writing it.
On the other hand, that is twice the number of downloads I was aiming for: the game, and thus my wider work, got much wider coverage than I expected. More people have read my work than would have happened if I’d done this without putting serious publicity work in, and that feels good.
Here’s the graph of visits and views to the game’s page on Itch:
This is exactly the graph you’d expect: a big spike of interest followed by a long tail-off. The tail dwindled to 20 views a day by the end of March, 10 views a fay by the end of April, and is now down at 5. For what it’s worth, visitors referred from IndieGames.com were more likely to pay for the game than Rock Paper Shotgun, though the game was billed as primarily free on both sites: I don’t know why, and maybe this is within the margin of error. I didn’t keep accurate records, but from memory folk in launch week were as likely to be referred by social media as from one of these sites; in the long tail, folk are as likely to be referred by my professional website as by the archives of indie games sites, but those sites still do provide a decent number of clicks.
What I Learned
Trying to make money from a tiny game when you’re a complete unknown is a silly idea. If you want to make money from small games or artgames, you need to expect to spend years building up skills and reputation. This is the same as in the other artforms I work in.
That said, games is a bit more financially brutal than either theatre or poetry, which is funny, because poetry is already financially brutal. It is harder to get people to pay for games than for any other artform I work in. I could make more money for less work elsewhere. That said, in both theatre and poetry most of my money comes not from sales but from commissions and public funding: trying to make a living off sales in any small-scale artform is a mug’s game.
However, even if you’re extremely small-scale then treating your game professionally – making a presskit, doing professional publicity work – is actually worth it, and if your game is good or interesting enough it can lead to more attention for your work. I only spent 2-3 working days on publicity in total, and I’m glad I did.
A significant proportion of the people who actually paid for my game were people who already had an existing relationship with my work: they’d come to a show, or bought a book, or we were part of the same artistic community in some way. If people had a social connection to me, they were more likely to pay attention to my pricing model; most people felt free to ignore it.
That said, from talking to friends who’ve released similar-scale games on a “voluntary donation” model rather than a “trust system sliding scale” model, I think I got a better sold:downloaded ratio than I would have done if I’d just shaken a tip jar. It’s a bit galling to see so many people just ignore your text about pricing, but it might be worth it just to get a little extra cash and spread a little awareness about money.
I don’t think the game would have done so well if I didn’t already have a decent career in theatre and poetry: it meant I had an existing audience to market a new artform too. Leveraging all existing connections and communities was well worth it.
I could have done a lot more work. I have a tendency to just move on from a project after launch week – I don’t look after the long tail of sales, I don’t do lots of extra plugs and promotions later on, I didn’t in this case use the initial press I got to try and leverage extra press. This is because I find marketing miserable and gruelling: every day I spend doing this is a day I’m not actually making art (or writing funding applications, which is where I can actually make money), and whittles down my desire to make art a bit further. I wasn’t actually out to make money on this, but to learn: if I’d worked harder on sales, I could have sold a bit more. Maybe. But there would definitely have been diminishing returns. In theatre, I’m moving away from self-producing and towards working with professionals to do my sales and marketing for me, because I’m currently hiring a substandard employee (me). When I next do a game on a significant scale, I might do the same.
How I Feel About All This
I feel great! This post may sound cynical and mercenary, but that’s just because I’m letting my money brain out of the box for a while, to try and share learning with you. I had a great time making the game, I’m proud of the result, and it got much better coverage and playership than I expected. I’ve learned a lot that I can build on next time.
That said, if I was wanted to make my living primarily from games, I’d feel terrible. Essentially, I was able to subsidise my work on Raik through my other artistic work; if I wasn’t making a living from that, I would have been subsidising Raik through waitressing (or environmental management, which is what I actually did before going full-time artist). Games is a harder market than I expected, and at the small-scale end of things, it looks to be getting harder. It’s not just tiny makers like me who find it hard to make a buck, but also significant professional independent studios.
I can only make a living as an artist because of public funding. The majority of my income comes not from sales but from grants or via charities and institutions who hire me or commission me and who are themselves largely publicly-funded. I’m doing OK (I’m going to be writing up some more details of this soon), but even then I find the freelance hustle exhausting and not always conducive to good work: I’m actually escaping it for a while into the arms of academia, having successfully nabbed government funding to do a creative writing PhD for three years. If I were in a country (like America) where public funding is very scarce, or an industry (like games) where public funding is very scarce, I don’t know how I’d survive. I think the huge success of games at the mega-commercial scale makes it harder to advocate for public funding for games: I see this in theatre, even, where the success of West End musicals is used as a hammer to hit the subsidised sector, despite the vast majority of West End actors spending large sections of their career also in the subsidised sector.
It seems to me a miracle that artgames have been such a creative success so far. We have a huge wealth of cultural creation that is having an increasingly significant impact on the public imagination. I don’t know if that can keep going. My sense is that more and more game-makers are getting disillusioned, and that enthusiasm for artgames is decreasing (or at least hitting blunt reality) even as commercial games seem to make more and more money. I’m not sure what comes next. Art always seems to find a way, because it’s so central to human living – but who’s making that art, and how, and whether they can live: those are harder questions.
My favourite essay on how to make a buck from art is Why Your Music Is Worthless (And How To Sell It Anyway) by the Indelicates. They’re in music, another arts sector which has sod-all public funding and so has to find a way to live off sales, but their thinking applies very widely. Read it!