Saturday, December 15, 2018

Aground Pre-Mortem: On the borderline, sales data, and the 70/30 Split

My latest game, Aground, is currently in Early Access. It is not dead - not by a long shot (hence PRE-mortem) - it continues to gain attention and sales every day. In fact, it is the closest game I've released to making a profit, but it's not quite there - hence the borderline. In this blog post, like in a post mortem, I'll break down sales stats for the game (thanks to Valve recently making it clear we could share them), expenses, what went right, what went wrong, and talk a bit about the standard 70/30 store split - as, if 88/12 became the standard, we would be making a profit.


I founded Fancy Fish Games in 2012, knowing I wanted make games even if I had to continue doing it as a hobby. Before Aground, we had released 9 free games and 4 commercial games with varying measures of success. We've never made enough on our games to make a profit or go full time, but with savings and freelance jobs that paid $50/hr, we were lucky enough to keep making games even without making a profit. However, it was starting to wear on me that I spent all that time and effort on good, well rated games and couldn't even make minimum wage. I was considering calling it quits and only making games as a hobby if Aground didn't do as well as it did.

In May 2017, I first came up with the idea for Aground, although the desire to make a sandbox game with more progression was there as early as 2013 after playing minecraft for the first time (if only I had actually started Aground back then...). Thinking I had an idea for the next great step for sandbox-style games, I made a prototype in June. The prototype got a mixed reception from testers and no responses from publishers, so thinking it was another failed experiment, I fixed up the prototype as best I could from the feedback I got and released the game for free in October. You can see this version of the game here: Not sure what to expect, I was surprised when it quickly became my highest rated free game (around a 9/10 or higher across different sites), with over a million plays and winning best of the month awards. My confidence in the project restored, I decided to go all in on it and run a Kickstarter to fund us until Early Access. You can read about this stage of development in this blog post if you want:


With the goal of completing the first planet and then launching the game on Early Access, we set the goal for the Kickstarter campaign at $10k and expected it to take 4 months of development time. With millions of plays, we were all expecting to blow that goal out of the water, or at least hit 200%. The reality of course is that while the Kickstarter was never in great danger of failing, we barely made it over our goal, making $13.5k. Additionally, the first planet took longer than we expected - we didn't release the early access version of the game for 5 months - so we were running on precious little funds. I wouldn't even call the first planet truly complete until our latest update, about a month ago. This was the first warning sign that even though the free version was super popular, it wouldn't necessarily translate into a successful commercial game (the free and paid markets are very different, and it's a poor conversion rate from free to paid).

We did end up making an additional $5k from late backers (via PayPal), but with our monthly expenses up to $5k a month, we were already $7k in the red by the time we launched on Early Access.

Early Access

Once we hit Early Access, we thought that things would finally start getting better. We were ready to see the red turn to green. So when we launched on August 8th and had only 69 sales the first day, we were worried - that was less than the first day of our most successful previous release I Can't Escape: Darkness (but to be fair, ICED had much better launch visibility back in 2015). However, instead of the long tail after launch we'd come to expect, with sales dropping off to nothing, they stayed consistent. I remember every day wondering… when will they drop? Can this really keep going? But it did. This could be because Aground is an Early Access game (we've never released an early access game before), but sales in the first two months remained at about 35 sales/day - with September actually being BETTER than August because of PAX West and three big youtube videos.

Then came October. I'm sure you've heard of the big October Bug by now, and like everyone else, our sales were halved, making on average 17 sales/day in October. After the bug was “fixed”, our sales recovered a bit, rising to ~21 sales/day. While it didn't fully recover, I think launch month and September were special cases, so it's probably not fair to expect it to go all the way back to 35 sales/day (of course, there were some permanent changes to the algorithm too). Honestly, from some stories we've heard, we've survived this algorithm change pretty well, perhaps because Aground sales are above the estimated median sales for a game on Steam right now. In a way, that is quite flattering - that Aground is doing better than half of the games released on Steam (I’ve heard estimates for the median being 1.5k-4k* sales total)... but it could also say more about the average game on Steam, and less about Aground.

* Estimates from this steam spy report [2017], and the median game from the csv in this achievement stat sales leak [2018].

No Launch Sale

I have not put Aground on sale at all currently, including at launch (unless you count a joke reverse black friday sale on, where Aground was actually more expensive than normal). Almost every game goes on sale at launch (you have to maximize that launch spike), and a few people thought I was crazy for this decision. I made it in part because I felt it wouldn't be fair to backers who paid full price just a few months prior, and because the game already felt very discounted at $10 (I plan to raise this to $15 at the full launch). While this could explain the relatively weak launch day, I don't think it really hurt our sales overall, and it kept the game from being devalued right from the beginning. If I do a sale before the full launch, I don't think it will be more than a token 10% off. Your early adopters are the ones most likely to be willing to buy the game at full price. I don’t believe in participating in this race to the bottom - at least not until the game gets old and you need to encourage people who might not have bought the game anyways to just get it.

Let’s Talk Numbers

Earlier, I said our expenses were about $5k a month. This mostly goes to Aaron (art) and Chase (music) - who are both accepting less than their standard rates because they believe in Aground. There are also some additional fees (like website hosting), marketing expenses, and a token $500/month to myself (which is way less than I should get and way less than I need to survive, but since I'm self publishing the game and have savings/other income, I decided I could live with that while in Early Access).

For revenue, we are currently averaging 21/sales a day, which is about 630 sales a month. Those have all been at full price (we haven't done a discount or bundle), so it seems at a glance like we're making $6,300 a month and are doing fine financially.

BUT that's not the end of the story. First, we lose about 5% to chargebacks/returns (which is actually pretty normal from what I've heard), and we lose another 5% on average to regional pricing. If you didn't know, Steam's default regional pricing is not one to one, Aground only costs 259 Russian Rubles, which is about $3.88 USD. I trust Steam's default regional pricing and knew about this, but it does mean that depending where your sales are coming from, you could get a lot less than $10 USD per sale. These take us down to $5,685.75 a month. Next, of course, Steam takes a cut. The industry standard for storefronts is to take 30% (I think this dates back to retail stores, where there is a cost in actual stocking). This leaves us with $3,980 a month, over $1k less than our expenses. We also sell the game on, and have been selling about 1-2 copies a day there, which isn't bad for itch, but not enough to make $5k a month.

We currently have over 3k sales (not including backers) and over 11k wishlists - perhaps from people waiting for a sale or the big full launch. Maybe it is just an issue of trust, and as people continue to see us releasing large and regular updates, they will be willing to take a risk on us.

The last interesting stat is that the median time played is over 6.5 hours, which is above average and shows that the game keeps people's attention.

The 30% Store Cut

There's been a lot of talk lately about whether digital storefronts actually need to take 30% to make a profit, with Epic Games offering a 88/12 split and Discord following suit with a 90/10 split. Nobody's talking about the fact that has always let you set the split to whatever you want with 90/10 being the default... but this is excellent news, as it might mean that the industry standard will change and everyone will adjust their splits accordingly.

This made me particularly excited. If Steam only took 12% like Epic Games, then we'd be making $5,003.46 a month (assuming sales continue as they have been the past 2 months) - a tiny profit over our monthly costs! I know it doesn’t sound like much. But after trying so hard to “make it” in this industry with little to no success, for nearly 7 years, it feels like a major milestone to us.

Of course, this might never happen, and what revenue split a store takes only really matters if that storefront is getting a lot of sales (I'd rather 21 sales a day with a 30% storefront cut than 1-2 sales a day with a 10% cut), but I strongly agree that storefronts taking a smaller cut would help smaller indies with their meager sales continue to do what they love and experiment with all sorts of new, interesting game ideas. I would really like this to become the industry standard for digital storefronts.

In Conclusion

Going forward, I think a lot depends on the full launch. We've had lots of people say they are interested in the game, but aren't willing to buy ANY game in Early Access, probably because it has such a bad reputation (who knows how many of the 11k wishlists fall into this category). And we are definitely going all the way to a full launch - even if it means losing $1k a month, we've already put so much into this game and there's less than a year left, so we have the savings to do it.

A part of me wonders, like with the Kickstarter launch and the Early Access launch, if I'm over-optimistic about the Full launch. Perhaps we'll transition to the full launch, get a small spike of sales, and then return to where we are currently without ever really turning a profit. Maybe that's just the way it is in this over-saturated market, especially with a retro pixel game that doesn't stun and amaze from the screenshots and videos.

But, regardless of the outcome, Aground has already done better than any of our previous games, in both revenue and reception - we currently have 105 reviews, 100% positive, putting us in the #10 slot on the hidden gems rankings - out of ALL GAMES ON STEAM (I’m not sure how much this site’s rankings matter, but it’s still nice to see). That's something to be proud of, and at the very least it means that I will finish Aground and make at least one more attempt at a large scale game before I re-consider calling it quits and only making games as a hobby.

It might seem crazy to you that I have a company that has never turned a profit, and that I can’t even pay myself minimum wage, but I’m doing what I love and the only people I have to answer to are the fans of my games. So, onwards we go, ever optimistic that a true success is around the next corner.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From Prototype to Kickstarter

Remember that Untitled prototype I talked about in my last blog post? It started as a simple idea, a cross between A Dark Room and Starbound, where you'd start out knowing very little and doing simple tasks like collecting wood, and slowly work your way up to a more complicated crafting and mining game with lots of systems and even space travel. This is the story of the beginning of the game Aground.

After finishing up a basic alpha version, I showed the prototype to friends, family, and various work in progress feedback threads, and the reaction was mixed. Some people loved it, some people thought it was boring, and the vast majority of players just didn't seem that interested in the game. While I thought the game was interesting, it wouldn't be the first time I enjoyed a game I made and others thought it was terrible *cough*ADventureLib*cough*.

Not sure what to do in order to improve the game, we tried contacting publishers for both monetary support and for feedback and testing. Once again, we got little interest.

Disheartened, we started wondering if Aground simply wasn't a good game. If the core's no good, no amount of additional features and work will improve it, and sometimes, as sad as it is, the best decision is to trash the project and start something new (it's bad to trash projects too early for some new and exciting idea, but it's also bad to sink tons of time and money into a project doomed to failure).

Not quite ready to give up on the idea, and having already spent a lot of time on the alpha version of the game, we decided to fix it up to the point we didn't mind sharing it publicly and post it for free. Worst case, at least it would be out there and the time we spent on the project wouldn't be for nothing. We launched this version of the game on October 24th.

After our experiences with the prototype, we had no expectations for the game. So, we were pleasantly surprised when we saw that the game was immediately well received. Aground quickly took off, and soon had more plays and a better rating than any of our past games! From disheartened, our motivation sky rocketed, and we realized we might have stumbled upon quite the gem.
It's important to remember that just because you haven't found your audience yet, that doesn't mean your audience doesn't exist.
We also learned something important. We were getting luke-warm feedback for the game because the people who we shared the game with weren't our target audience. Because the testers were mainly game developers and people I knew, it wasn't a good indicator of players on portals like Newgrounds and Kongregate. In a way, we got lucky that our last attempt before we gave up on the project found our audience, as there are many other potential audiences that don't frequent those sites. It's important to remember that just because you haven't found your audience yet, that doesn't mean your audience doesn't exist.

While we were only making money from ads and contest winnings (and not enough to support development), we now knew we had something special. With all of the feedback and excitement about the project, we finally had what we wanted before the launch. We used personal savings and went into full gear releasing updates to really make the game shine.

Today, after a big update, we launched a Kickstarter for Aground. Maybe this will be the end of Aground's evolution. Maybe the large audience from the free version will be unwilling or unable to convert to paid players. But I'm hopeful now, and perhaps what I needed most during this entire project was just to believe in it!

Thank you for reading, and I hope you're as excited about the future of Aground as I am!