How much does an average casual game make?

This is one of the most important questions for anyone interested in this business. After a year or so of puttering around in this genre, I’m still looking for a solid answer, but I’ll throw out a few opinions…

First, the use of the word ‘average’ in my question posed above is intentionally sloppy. The average can be either the median or the mean, and in this case, there’s a very big difference. If 10 casual games are released, with 9 of them earning $1000, and the last one earning $1 million, then the mean is just over $100K/game, but the median is only $1K. 9 of the 10 developers are likely NOT going to be happy with their measly $1000 for many months of work, and various costs that almost certainly add up to well over $1000.

The hypothetical I’ve just outlined is in fact, not that far from the truth. Casual games sales, so far as I can tell, are on a huge geometric curve.

The hits (Zuma, Bejewelled, JewelQuest, Luxor), will generate multiple millions in revenue over the course of a few years. Developed by small teams with low costs, the vast bulk of that revenue is pure profit.

But don’t quit your day job too fast. These hits are rare. I would venture that:

The average* casual game loses money.

*median

Most casual games are made by small developers spending $1-5K out of pocket on things like contract art and music, plus whatever value you attach to their own time that they’ve put in. If you put in a reasonable estimate of the value of the programmer’s time (say $10-20K for 3-12 months of part time work), I doubt many of the games recoup. Even looking at the out-of-pocket (i.e. cash) costs alone, many games lose money.

Example 1:
The Cursed Wheel – a competent, but undistinguished match-3. Distributed on Big Fish, Reflexive, GameFiesta, and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – a bit under $4K. Revenues – around $1K. Data here.

Example 2:
Xmas Bonus – a competent JewelQuest clone with a Christmas theme (released in December). Distributed on BigFish and Reflexive and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – about $500. Revenues – about $3.5K. Data here.

Example 3:
Cactus Bruce and the Corporate Monkeys – a cross between breakout and a bubble popper. Distributed on various (smaller) portals and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – ???. Revenues – ‘tens of thousands’ (probably about $20-40K, by my estimate). Note that this game had a 5 man team developing it, probably about 10 man-months of development, and salary costs probably well above revenues. Data here.

If you browse the Business forums at IndieGamer, you’ll find other similar examples.

My point is not to beat up on the games or developers listed above – I thank them for publicly sharing some of their sales/cost data. But I want to make clear that, while a few well-known hits make a lot of money, there are very likely far more small developers in this area losing money or at best earning a VERY low return on their own time.

9 Responses to “How much does an average casual game make?”

  1. james Says:

    No disrespect to either developer, but I wouldn’t call Xmas Bonus or The Cursed Wheel average, both titles are pretty poor… maybe even bottom of the barrel.

  2. Phil Steinmeyer Says:

    By the standards of pro developers, yes. By the standards of first-time indies (i.e. the developer segment heavily represented on IndieGamer), they’re probably about average.

    Or to put it another way, there are probably 500+ legitimate Casual Game creations by indie developers of all stripes in a given year. (That’s just the completed ones – projects started and not completed is a multiple of that). Big Fish publishes 365 of them.

    Probably 80-120 of them are ‘pro’ level (i.e. made by experienced developers who are trying to make a living at this and approaching things in a very professional, full-time manner). Of the remaining ~400 or so, XMas Bonus and Cursed Wheel are at least average, maybe even a bit above average.

    But yes, they’re well below the top echelon. Then again, the 80-120 top echelon attempts probably cost $50-200K each to make, versus $1-50K for the lower group.

  3. John Says:

    The point is that those games are at the median, if you note his qualification on average titles losing money. That doesn’t make them average on the fun-o-meter. It means that half the games were worse and half were better. The bottom of the barrel is HUGE compared to the top.

    As a personal data point, I have written and published a small indie game as well. I sold one copy in the first year. I think I just about broke even because I purchased a couple of sampled sounds. Yea, I’m part of that group at the bottom the barrel. One of the titles that makes the ones mentioned above look good in comparison. :)

    As a second data point, I helped out with a friend’s game by doing a launcher app and some play testing. He’s selling about a copy a month, so he’s above the median and making a (small) profit now, I think.

  4. Game Producer Says:

    James – would be interesting to know if you work for some game company? And perhaps willing to share some figures?

    Anyway, these numbers are good for *an average* (most games sell zero… or near zero). Btw, there was an article about this at the asharewarelife.com (http://www.asharewarelife.com/2005/11/how_many_sales_.html)

  5. Hooders Says:

    What is really boils down to is this – if you are going to make a game and have no real NEED to make a profit then go for it. Indie Game teams can then afford to try something different. If you want to make a living out of it and therefore need some PROFIT, make sure the game is bloody good or at least aim to make it so!

    I can see a lot more of the experienced development community moving into Indie Games and giving it a shot…

  6. PhilSteinmeyer.com » Blog Archive » Converting Web Traffic To Sales Says:

    […] Yes, others have drawn some traffic to their web sites and built a business. But they were generally pioneers of their genre, and have been going for 5-15 years. The half dozen-ish indies that can make a living this way are dwarfed by the hundreds who try to sell their game from their web site and fail (see some of the examples I posted yesterday). […]

  7. PhilSteinmeyer.com » Blog Archive » More on game profitability Says:

    […] Various follow-ups to my article from a couple days ago about the profitability (or lack thereof) of many/most casual and indie games, and another article I wrote on converting web traffic to sales. […]

  8. Bryan Murphree Says:

    1. Please fix your crossing of the definitions of mean and median. My 4th grade math teacher is rolling over in his grave.
    2. Anytime anyone speaks about the “average” of something, they’re always talking about the mean.

    Thank you.

  9. Addicting Entertainment » Blog Archive » Passive Web Gaming: My New Passion Says:

    […] look at these conversion numbers from a recent post by phil steinmeyer covering the net loss you’ll be taking as a casual game developer. (jeff tunnell is covering this ground too) in the game xmas bonus, they post the following statistics: […]

New comments are disabled.