Chapter 4

The Business of Games

What if you wrote a game and nobody came?

By now you have probably convinced yourself that one way or another you are capable of writing a game. The question is, why should you?

There are two main reasons to write a game: personal satisfaction, and money. There are lots of auxilliary reasons, such as fame, glory, resume padding, and impressing girls, but these usually translate at some level to either personal satisfaction or money.

Since personal satisfaction is a personal thing, let's talk about money. Getting money for games is a good trick. If you think all you have to do is write the game and you will get rich, then you are laboring under a misconception. Very few game developers are getting rich right now. Most of them are still working hard, hoping their next game will be the one that hits big.

There are things you can do to maximize your profits from a game. the first, and most important, thing you can do is think about your market before you write your game. If you already know what kind of game you want to write, ask yourself questions:

  • Do I want to self publish or find a commercial publisher?
  • Can I fund development myself?
  • Can I convince somebody else to fund it?
  • Is there a market for this game?
  • What games compete with this game, and how are they doing?

If you don't already know what kind of game you are going to write, here are some even better questions you can ask yourself:

  • Are there any niches or gaping holes in the market I can fill?
  • Are there any marketing channels I can exploit?
  • What opportunities for guerilla marketing are available to me?

Self-publishing Through shareware

Many game developers start their careers by becoming shareware authors. This is how I became a game developer, and I think it is not only a good place to start, it is also a good market to fall back on when opportunities in the commercial marketplace are scarce. If you can get a high-paying job as a commercial game developer, that's great. If you aren't quite there yet, you might as well give shareware a try. You can always use shareware as a stepping stone to enter the commercial marketplace, and you may find shareware marketing can be very profitable and satisfying.

But what is shareware?

People argue about this all the time. My feeling is, it doesn't matter. If you give your customers something to try, and they send you money, then you are successfully marketing software, and you can label it anything you want. What you give people to try, and what you give them in return for their money, is up to you. Ideally, you want to give them a taste of your game (hopefully an addicting taste), and also give them a desire for more. Then you get the money. That's how it works.

Once you've figured this part out, the fun begins. You see, there are opportunities for shareware authors that have nothing to do with shareware. You can get your software on CD-ROM collections, on store shelves as "budget" software, on online services as pay-per-download offerings, and in books as value-added disks. You can get in distributor collections at swap meets, in catalog collections, in magazines, even on shopping networks on television. Once you own the rights to a game, there is no limit as to how you can sell it.

I suggest you look around you and see what opportunities are available. They change all the time. A few years ago, royalty paying low-cost retail (LCR) racks were common. Those have all but disappeared. But now new ideas for software distribution are springing up on the internet. Track down those sites and study them. Is this an opportunity waiting for you to exploit it?

High-end games vs. low-end games

If you spend four months writing a game and you make $20,000 from it, then you are in better shape than if you spend two years writing a game that earns you $100,000. This is a truth that goes right over the heads of a lot of game developers. Having a portfolio of small, fun, playable games that you can shop around is better than being a minor member of an ambitious team that has done one hit game in the past decade. Think about where you want your career to go, and what you want to be doing (and what you want to own) several years from now.

Long-term income

What is the shelf life of a typical high-budget retail game? Not long. Somewhere between two weeks and six months. Long-running games like Myst and Doom are the exception. A typical game will make most of its sales during the first quarter, a few more sales during the second quarter, and end up in the bargain bin in the third quarter. Expect to get one good royalty check, if you are lucky, and if your publisher is honest. Additional royalties will trickle in for the next year, then your game is done. Its life span has ended. If you want an income after that, you have to write another game.

Low-budget, value-priced games (those selling in the $6-$15 range) seem to have a longer shelf-life than the big budget games. I'm not sure why. The per-game profit is lower, of course, but the development and distribution costs are also much lower. This can be a good market for lone-wolf developers, especially since it is possible to simultaneously market a game as shareware and budget retail. If you go this route, try for after-sales of your retail game. Sell levels 1-10 on the shelf, and have the customer send you money for levels 11-20. Can you see how planning your marketing strategy can affect how you develop your game?

Doing research

To find publishers who sell high-end or low-end games, go to a software store and look around. Ask the sales clerk what titles are moving. Look at the CD-ROM collections and budget titles. Try to visualize where your game would fit in. Then look at the fine print on the back of the package. Who is packaging and distributing games that are similar to the game you want to write? Get the name of the publisher. Then try to find their web page. Email them. Tell them your concept and ask them if they would be interested. Ask them what plans they have for marketing software next year. Plan your game to fit into next year's market.

Remember, these ideas are primarily for people getting started in game development. If you are already an established game developer, you may want to move past the shareware and budget software markets. While these may not be the most lucrative markets, they are viable and tend to be a good place to start.

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what kind of game you want to write, let's get down to the business of writing it. Proceed to Chapter 5 for some tips on writing your first game.


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