Ever since I released my first commercial game, the temptation to monetize my most fun hobby has been violently oscillating. I wrote a little bit about this in my post-mortem for my game Six Cards Under, a previously-paid-but-free-now game I released back in October.
Sometimes I feel like commercial gamedev is my own personal lottery ticket.
If I try enough, I’ll eventually win, right?
My first commercial game has sold about 600 units so far on Steam since its release in November, for a total of around 1500 dollars. This puts its gross hourly rate at about 7.5 dollars per hour.
This is . . . not terrible, right? If I just keep making better and better commercial games, I’ll eventually make enough money to quit my job, buy a house, and own my time, right?
And gamedev is even better than the lottery, because it’s skill-based. Supergiant games can and will release another smash hit, because they’re good at what they do. The guy who made DUSK will probably continue to release bangers because he’s good at what he does. If you train hard enough and with enough volume, you’ll eventually get huge . . . right??
And if I make a free game that blows up, then. . .
I have to monetize that, right? When Putrid S4ND got me +100 twitter followers, I had to explore that in a commercial setting, right? It’s not much but it’s the most I’d ever gotten! If I didn’t, that’d be leaving money on the table!
But what’s the point? I already have a full time job!
Why even charge money for my games though? It’ll take a long time for me to get good enough at gamedev to live off of it. Do I really want to penny-pinch my way to a couple extra grand a year? Why did I even charge money for PUTRID SHOT ULTRA?
After taxes and steam’s cut, I’ll have made just around 1k. Was that really worth denying tens of thousands of people the opportunity to play my game?
My free games have so many players, I’m basically a bad person if I charge money for a game
My free games Planet D4RK and TRYH4RD have over 80000 plays combined, with hundreds of adoring comments. A small speedrunning community formed around Planet D4RK, and I still get DMs begging for a TRYH4RD sequel. Someone found my youtube account with 5 subscribers and commented on a completely unrelated video of mine asking if I would please release TRYH4RD 2!
By charging money for my games, I’m basically a horrible person, right? I’m like the worst capitalist ever. I already have enough. I make plenty of money at my cushy tech job, have an amazing work life balance, and I still for some reason feel the need to charge money for my games.
That’s just gross excess, isn’t it? I’m no better than the rich CEO that still takes surplus value from his workers. Even if I make it big, so what? Say I made 100k on a game. Why is that a good thing? I already have enough, why do I need more?
Are you saying people don’t deserve to be paid for their labor? You really are a horrible person!
No, that’s different. Those developers need the money, some of them are literally starving. They deserve more for their labor. But I’m different, I already have a job that I can live off of, I don’t need more money.
So you’re saying you’re better than those devs?
Not at all, oh god what’s happening
You think you’re a savior, giving your games out for free.
Your games aren’t even good. The only reason people play them is because they’re free.
You think you’re better than the devs that depend on their games for income.
You think you’re above charging for your game.
You’re greedy, you have more than enough and you’re still unsatisfied.
You want adoring fans that will throw their money at you and tell you you’re a good person.
And it repeats
Ever since PUTRID SHOT ULTRA, I’ve been cycling through the above again and again. I went as far as to make all my itch content free because I convinced myself that I don’t need this money and that I was being greedy.
I’m working on a new game now: A roguelike deckbuilder, because some marketing consultant told me it would make money (though I’ve now learned that apparently it should have been a lo-fi horror game).
The game feels genuinely good. It’s got a new twist on the formula, and it’s got a really extendable core gameplay loop. I could easily crank out 5 zones with a few stages each, a few dozen passive items, and 20-30 cards in 6-7 months. The game looks way better than my other games too. The art style is way more cohesive and higher resolution that I’ve done in the past. I fixed a bunch of issues in my engine and added some neat post-processing and lighting effects too.
All I’m saying is: If I wanted to, I could dump the next 6 months of my hobby time into this game and probably sell at least 5x as much as my last commercial game.
But goddamn, I don’t want to. Or do I? I have no idea. If I made 5 grand on this game, would that make a meaningful impact on my life? I could just donate it, but like, I can donate my money right now if I wanted to.
But also it’s so satisfying having people enjoy your work enough to pay for it. It feels like the ultimate victory under capitalism. Instead of wage labor, I’ve created something with my own two hands, and others have willingly and publically recognized the value of my work.
But also I’m so sick of making this game already. Or am I? Some days I love working on it. Other days I’m like “let’s just descope everything to 1 zone, 10 cards, 1 boss and call it a day”. But then I’m like: what if the game does well? Did I miss my chance to make it big? What if I release it for free and a ton of people love it? I could have made some money right? I should release a steam version after that, right?
Why do I make games?
I still don’t know. I know I love coding, and making games gives me the chance to just vomit gallons upon gallons of untested, unproven, uncensored code without any oversight. That’s pretty neat!
I also love seeing whatever code I write manifest into something interactive. I write software tools for engineers at my day job, so it scratches a similar itch I guess.
I also love when people play my games, but it feels weirdly dirty to have such an external and fickle motivator.
No, that’s a lie. It doesn’t feel dirty to love when people play your games. It feels terrifying. The thought of pouring my soul into something over the course of a year, and then releasing it to radio silence terrifies me.
A few years ago, I released a game called Jingnon’s Ascent (yes that’s what it’s actually called).
I spent over a year on this game. This was my magnum opus. I still boot it up from time to time and think “wow, I knocked this out of the park”. Sure, the game has the classic “new dev” jank to it, but to this day I’m still impressed by how fun it is.
The game got probably 20-30 downloads, and even fewer plays. I fell into a pretty deep depression after releasing that game.
Releasing free games is my ultimate defense
There’s nothing wrong with releasing free games, but sometimes I feel like I make free games not because of some altruistic creative spirit inside of me, but because I know that as long as it’s
playable in a browser
then someone will play it. If I charge money for it, maybe I strike gold and make a ton of money. Maybe I make just a little bit of money and feel bad about myself. But if it’s free, none of that matters, and I get to avoid the emptiness for just a little longer.
I don’t know if I’ll make another commercial game. I feel like I need to. Like, I need to put my name in the hat, I need just one more scratch-off and then I’ll win big. But that’s a shitty way to look at a hobby that I really love.
At the very least, I know I’ll keep making games! That’s kinda neat.
I know no one really reads this blog, but this post felt good to write. I wonder how many other devs feel this way? If this post resonated with you at all, feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or dm me on twitter. I love hearing how other indies feel about their most time-consuming hobby.