A dozen creators get candid about cash
“Paratopic is a game literally about the horror of being poor,” Doc Burford, writer and designer of the IGF-winning title, tells me over the phone. “I was trying to juggle freelance writing while making the game, and I ended up going to the hospital and being diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White [syndrome, a heart condition].” Chronic health, piecemeal social welfare, and financial precariousness produced cascading struggles for Burford whose story, if not exactly typical, shows the circumstances people can wind up in when determinedly pursuing what they love: making video games.
Burford’s situation stands in sharp relief to the enduring image of the indie auteur, those who struck critical and commercial gold following 2008’s “indie boom.” Despite the era’s failures numerically dwarfing its successes, we still seem fixated on this long-standing stereotype. Truthfully, many indie developers — from the makers of weird alternative games to more traditional entertainment products — sit somewhere in the middle. The lucky ones are able to make a living from their work but often carry deep funding worries. Others supplement game making with side hustles or entirely avoid the pressure of financial success by making games in their spare time while building other, potentially more stable careers.
Some of the people I spoke to were anxious about a video game industry they perceive to be in flux. Apple Arcade and Xbox Game Pass are ushering in a new subscription model, similar to Netflix and Spotify, which could profoundly alter how we value games, despite offering a short-term cash injection for those it supports. Elsewhere, changes to Steam’s discoverability algorithms have significantly impacted some game makers’ incomes. The burden arguably falls greatest on indie’s new wave, which has emerged as a result of the increasing accessibility of video game tools. More people are making stranger, cooler games than ever before, but it’s seemingly never been harder to make a living.
The following 12 testimonies detail appropriately varied situations — the hopes and fears of these indie game makers — and how, ultimately, they’re able to continue sustaining themselves.
Being disabled and living in Kansas, a state that is super red, isn’t great because they don’t really have the financial support for disabled people. For most of Paratopic’s development, I was doing freelance games writing, and I had a Patreon for other esoteric games writing. I was living with family, paying them $250 a month in rent — that’s half of what I pay now — and I didn’t have to pay utilities. Could I have made it without living there? Probably not. But at the same time, I was not getting by. I was eating a meal a day. I ended up getting diabetes. I was working 20-hour days in February 2018, and that’s how I discovered I had a congenital heart defect. The physical cost of poverty and untreated disability is enormous, especially in the United States.
We thought we were going to make a few grand on Paratopic, and we ended up making enough that I could justify moving out for an entire year to get my own place. I wouldn’t have to worry about food and rent. Did it make a lot? No, we priced it five bucks. [Since GDC this year], I’ve had a funding deal, which enables me to make a game at over the poverty line. That’s stable for a year or two. I also now have people hitting me up for freelance narrative design work. The freelance gigs individually pay a lot more, but the stability I have from funding is a huge [peace] of mind. Right now, for the kinds of games I’m making and the scale at which I’m making them, it’s enough to live on. It’s not enough to get medical insurance.
I was a master’s student when I started making games in 2013. The program was well funded, and I made Medication Meditation as part of my thesis. I wasn’t a student for a bit, and I had a few different jobs while I was applying for grants. I was teaching a class at OCAD University, yoga, and middle schoolers how to program video games. One day a week, I would wake up at 5:30AM, teach yoga for two hours, go to my undergraduate class at 8:30AM, and then in the afternoon, go to the middle school. I never lived off any commercial sales. Now, I’m a PhD student, and I’m going into the fourth year at the University of California. Most of my money comes from teaching and TAing at my university.
I started working on Ritual of the Moon in 2014, and I applied for a Canadian arts grant in 2015 receiving $10,000 CA. With such small funding, people are just getting honorariums for their work. None of us are getting paid what our time is worth, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to be working on it close to full time or even part time. I know it’s unheard of to sell a mobile game for more than $3 [Ritual of the Moon retails for $9.99], but I spent so much time on it, and I think it’s really precious. We’re pricing things so low that things do become really unsustainable, and the expectations are that everything should have everything for free and not care about who made it and how much work it took.
Instead of going to school, I applied for residencies and got into the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). In 2013, I got a super powerful computer with all the money they gave me, so I’ve been making games since then. It’s all my income.
My first game I was paid to do was Gardenarium in 2013. I got a really small amount, like a grand or something. Montreal used to be way cheaper. My room was $200 a month, so I was able to stretch a grand quite a long way. I’d say I made $2,000 in sales from Gardenarium, which isn’t a lot of money, certainly not comfortable. But I was making it work. At the same time, I was VJing. I made a comic book. So there [were] little bits of money coming in from other sources. I got by. Little by little, museums and galleries were like, “Can we show your game? We’ll give you $300.” And I was like, “Okay cool, that’s my rent,” so I just rode that train for a little while. That lasted for maybe three years.
Fast-forward, and I’ve done some work the NFB again as well as other contracts with the Manchester International Festival and the V&A Museum. At the moment, it’s going well, and the foreseeable future’s good, too. Canadian arts funding is pretty awesome. Basically, 100 percent of my core income comes from that and UK arts funding.
I was a software engineer from 1997 to 2012. When I quit my job in 2012, I’d been tinkering with Gorogoa for a while. Crucially, I’d managed to save up a bunch of money. This is kind of my secret: work as a software engineer for 15 years living relatively frugally. I didn’t have a car, and I have a rent-controlled apartment in the Bay Area, so I was able to save a few years’ worth of living expenses. I spent all of that plus all of my retirement savings. This is why I’m cautious about telling my story. I don’t think I made good decisions.
After I ran out of money, I got some more from Indie Fund, and I got some personal loans from friends and family, and then finally got picked up by Annapurna. The game was successful financially because I get most of the royalties after the publisher and platforms, but I’m still rebuilding my retirement and savings so I can survive the next project failing. If it had been a four-person team, it would have been different. Having no dependents also helped. I had no one’s life to blow up except mine.
There’s a lot of self-deception, which goes into working on a project like this. I didn’t have a plan B. I would sometimes wake up in a panic during the middle of the night. I haven’t thought about it in a while because I guess once Annapurna came along, I had more security. But looking back, I was worried a lot of the time. The possibility of a real disaster was always looming. You just kind of yo-yo between too much confidence and panic.
I graduated in 2016, and then I applied for an art fund, which I got. And with that, I was able to work on my games full time for a year. I got my first chunk of funding in 2016 from the Creative Industries Fund NL for roughly €15,000. I was still living in a student room so my costs and rent were very low, which is why I was able to live. I worked as a waitress for a couple of months, and then I sold computers for six months. At first, it felt like I was taking a huge step back, but I’m actually really grateful I had that work. It took me out of the video game bubble. Not everyone cares about video games.
I applied for this startup entrepreneur funding, which I still have now. This [new funding] is from the government of Utrecht, and they want to support startup companies and give out either one, two, or three years of funding, and I got two years. However, it’s not a high income. The catch is all the money I make I have to pay back, so it becomes a loan if I become successful. I’ve not made enough money on Rosa’s Garden to live on yet.
Things are definitely getting tougher, even in the last year. With the newer changes in the Steam algorithms, there’s no traffic on the platform anymore. The sales were something we all looked forward to consistently because we knew we didn’t necessarily have to do marketing around them, but now the sales don’t have the numbers they used to have. I live on around $2,000 a month, and in good Steam sales, I’ve made close to five or six thousand, total, but the last sale I made that much was in December last year, and that was the biggest one, too. Ever since, it’s been maybe a thousand dollars in a sale. It was a substantial drop. [Steam] really changed something, and it hurt everybody.
Part of the reason I’m living in Connecticut is because I couldn’t afford to live in a city anymore. It’s in the middle of the woods, and I’m 15 minutes from the town. You need a car to do anything. If you want to do this for a living, you have to readjust your entire life. Thankfully, the economic situation has changed now, though. Contract work has started picking up this year.
I’ve been deriving at least part of my income from game making for the last six years. Before that, I was in college tempted by Flash game sponsorships as well as Humble Bundles and gigantic console storefront sales, those gold rush myths perpetuated by Indie Game: The Movie. I didn’t think everyone made tons of money, but I thought it was possible to make a living. My costs are low, around $20,000-30,000 per year, and I have a safety net due to my family having STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). I’ve not yet relied on that net explicitly, but it being there does take a lot of potential stress away.
That being said, my living, savings, and retirement costs have always been covered by game sales, but I did take a part-time job as a game design and music teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2016 to this May for extra income to help support our studio. With some of our games now on console and Anodyne 2 having sold well, we’re safe for a few years. Making and releasing games costs money so I follow a development methodology I call “economic lo-fi” to produce commercial games with small teams and short dev cycles, which helps reduce overall financial risk.
Four years ago, I left a video game studio to become a freelance video game artist and art director. In France, we have a very cool social welfare system so I had some security. This is when I made Sacramento. In 2017, I was really busy with contract work. Maybe I had to learn how to say no, but I was super scared that maybe after a few months, I’d have no work. If you’re a freelancer, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. The first year, I had to deal with this fear. I feel like every freelancer has to live with this.
I worked on Sacramento and Stones of Solace when I was inspired. It’s an artistic process and very different from when I have to work and plan things. I was doing them for me and then for the players. It’s organic. I work on them when I have time between contracts or sometimes on weekends. I want to relax when I’m working on them. The rule is no pressure.
Five years of video game studies ended in 2016. After that, I had a six-month period of preparing for a job in Halifax. In the meantime, I was working on Vignettes. I ended up moving to Halifax for a year and a half on a humongous salary by video game standards. It was $70,000 a year. My parents supported me through my studies, and it’s that kind of rolling privilege that once it gets going, it cascades into a bunch of other privileges. The games I made during my student years when I didn’t have to worry about income are the reason I got the job in Halifax. Then, since April this year, I’ve been working almost full time freelance on a game called Nuts.
I started working on Vignettes in 2014 when I was still a student. We had a clear-headed approach because we knew it was a shot in the dark publishing on the Apple [App] Store. We budgeted how much time we could work on it by the savings we both had. We recouped our expenses and ended up with the equivalent of the French minimum wage in sales for at least four to six months.
My work situation is complicated in that I do Baba Is You stuff but then I also have a day job. I work on Noita with the Nolla Games team, and then I’m also working on my master’s thesis with the University of Helsinki. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to live in a student apartment so my rent has been significantly lower than it would have otherwise been. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to sustain myself with the income I got from Environmental Station Alpha if I lived in a full-priced apartment. The rent was roughly €250.
I was working on Baba Is You an unhealthy amount. For me, the dynamic was very often my day job, and then when I got home, I relaxed by working on Baba Is You. Now that it’s been released, I’ve been spending more time studying.
I get very frustrated with this narrative, which always wants to be super neat: “Oh, this person made a bunch of money, and you can, too. Here’s how they did it.” Or the other way round: “Games will never make money. You can never survive doing this.”
With the first Frog Detective game, I was at [game development collective] League of Geeks so it was a triple combo of university, making Frog Detective, and working at a games studio. I was exhausted and often actually couldn’t make it into work because I was so burnt out from everything along with my hypersomnia and chronic fatigue. League of Geeks were really helpful, but I always just felt this immense guilt for not being able to do what I wanted to do.
We released the first Frog Detective in November, and it made around $7,000 in its first month, which was quite a lot for us. [Bruxner created the game with her partner Thomas Bowker.] By the time I left my job at League of Geeks in April this year, we didn’t have funding, but there were a few places, which said, “We’ll give you an offer soon.” We were paid a lump sum [from Super Hot Presents] in advance. Our other source of income comes from Film Victoria, which is a government organization based in Melbourne. It gives out money to film, TV, and games. We got one of their release grants, which is up to $30,000 AUD for marketing a game close to release. We have that for Frog Detective 2.
I was working full time as an architectural assistant at a cool practice in London for six months, and before that, I had a very commercial architecture job. You know, we talk about crunch in the video game industry, but in architecture, it’s so bad. Unpaid overtime is standard. I quit my job to make games full time before I’d even released Where The Goats Are [a precursor to The Stillness of the Wind]. I had about £5,000 saved up in my bank account, which equated to about five months of living. So when I quit my job, I knew I had that long to make something happen. It sounds so stupid talking about it now.
The first investor which bit was Indie Fund. They gave me was $20,000, about £15,000 at the time, which paid for my time for six months. That’s how long I thought the game would take to make, but it also paid for a writer, musician, and sound designers. After I got the funding, Fellow Traveller signed me.
I got the project done, but I asked for the absolute minimum, and that meant living a very frugal life. I was paying myself the bare minimum to make rent and buy food. I was in London and lucky to be sharing a flat with my girlfriend, but £1,000 with London rent doesn’t go very far. Because it was such a cheap game to make, it didn’t need to sell millions to turn a profit. If I’d spent $100,000 on the game, I wouldn’t have seen a penny at this point. It’s paying my rent, but that’s only because I have no employees. If I had even one, then it wouldn’t be enough to keep the studio open so to speak.
These stories illustrate the various ways to fund, sustain, and ultimately make indie games during a period of significant industry upheaval. Some developers are fortunate enough to secure arts funding or outside investment, while others take the significant risk of using their savings to finance projects. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to create indie games. But perhaps just by fostering an atmosphere of transparency and openness, those thinking of taking the plunge or experiencing difficulties might have a better idea of what to do next.