Saturday, April 21, 2018

Primordia Sales Data

With the untimely death of Steam Spy, independent developers have lost one of the few free sources of game sales data. My friend Vincewith his transparency about The Age of Decadence, a game I adore—has convinced me that developers need to fill that gap by sharing their own data with others who might need it. In that spirit, here are some facts on Primordia.

Primordia has sold just about 200,000 copies for a total of a bit over $600,000 from December 2012 until now.  (Note that there is some lag time here because I receive sales data from the publisher a month after the publisher receives it from Steam and GOG, which is itself delayed a month for Steam and as much as a quarter for GOG.)  That means that the average (mean) sales price is about three bucks, 30% of the listed price of $9.99.

Of those sales, around 40,000 were from junk bundles that yielded almost no money (~$7,000 or something ludicrous like that). Unfortunately, Primordia was never included in the one bundle that makes some economic sense (the Humble Bundle). Of the remaining 160,000 sales that I consider more meaningful, about 46,000 were through GOG, 7,000 through the App Store (for the iOS port), with almost all of the remaining 107,000 through Steam (a very, very trivial number were sold directly by the publisher through BMT Micro).

Primordia sold well at launch (about 43k non-bundle copies in its first year), and has had a long tail (21k, 19k, 22k, 39k copies in each of the next four years, excluding iPhone sales).  But the overwhelming majority of the copies were sold, even during the first year, in the seasonal sales on Steam and GOG.  The only other time considerable copies were sold was during non-seasonal themed sales in which Primordia and a small number of other games were featured. Sales span multiple months, making it hard for me to break the data down. But in 2017, for instance, during months in which Primordia was discounted at least some of the time, we tended to move around 6,000 copies, while during non-discounted months, we moved around 150 copies.

In terms of the proceeds, of the $600,000, the first 30% went to distributors (GOG, Steam, and the bundlers). A further cut was taken by the publisher. What remained was divided among the three of us who developed the game (Victor, James, and me), not quite evenly initially but evenly now.  My own share has worked out to about $110,000 (for a game that took two and a half years to develop, and which I have tried to continue supporting for another five), which is to say 18% of the gross sales. Those proceeds have been divided about (1) a third to taxes; (2) a third to support (a) other developers through Kickstarter and charities and (b) our own development of Fallen Gods and Cloudscape (no out-of-pocket expenses for Strangeland); and (3) a third as “take-home” income.

I have always viewed Primordia as a surprising, resounding success commercially and, more importantly, in terms of player engagement. A devil’s advocate, or my own sometimes pessimistic self, might say that Primordia proves that it makes little economic sense to develop such games. After all, even assuming we could churn out a game that sold as well as Primordia every two years  or so, that would yield less than the median salary for an American game designer (different sites put that median between $60,000 and $85,000, plus benefits). And what if it sold less? As far as I know, Primordia is the third-best-selling game made in Adventure Game Studio, below Gemini Rue and the Cat Lady but above the rest, despite many of these being truly excellent games. Probability suggests that our next title might not be as fortunate. Faced with this math, and with an ever-growing field of excellent indie games on Steam, one could be discouraged.

Instead of being discouraged, I’ve spent even longer working on my next game, an RPG (Fallen Gods) in a market much more saturated than retro point-and-click adventures. To me, far from being in an omigod were going to need to bury millions of E.T. cartridges in the desert panic, matters are much more positive. As the song goes: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” This is a golden age for developing games. 

When I started out trying to make games in the 1990s, they had to be coded more or less from scratch, and it was extremely hard to connect with artists interested in, and capable of, making game graphics. Friends and I tried valiantly many times and got nowhere close to making a finished game; if we had, we would have had to try selling it as shareware. This wasn’t impossible—David Gray’s inspirational Hugo series of adventure games was made under just such conditions in the ’90s, and so were Jeff Vogel’s inspirational Exile series and Forgotten Sages’ amazing Gladiator (and dozens of other games I played to death back in those days). But it was a very steep climb. For me, the challenge was insurmountable.

Nowadays, Steam provides a huge sales portal to anyone who wants it and GOG provides a smaller, but more receptive, audience; Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and niche game forums provide direct contact with customers; a huge panoply of streamers, Steam curators, and gaming news sites provide broad outreach; positive Steam reviews provide a perpetual motion machine for indie developers, as every positive review draws in additional customers who leave reviews; and a variety of engines (Unity, Love2D, AGS, RPG Maker, ChoiceScript, Inform 7, Twine, etc., etc.) provide relatively easy means to develop relatively professional games.  Moreover, the internet brings together people who want to make games from all over the world, an embarrassment of riches in terms of possible collaborators. And with Google Translate, I (and any other developer) can communicate (after a fashion) with players posting comments in Hungarian, Farsi, Mandarin, etc., who I would otherwise never have had a chance to meet.

If you had told me when I was toiling away on my fifth failed adolescent effort to develop an adventure or an RPG that in a scant 20 years I’d be able to work with amazing people from all over the world in turnkey development environments and super-easy distribution channels, I doubt I would’ve believed it. If you had then told me that hundreds of thousands of people would have bought a game I worked on, I would’ve started getting upset that you were clearly making fun of me. And if you’d added that thousands of those players would have provided bottomless moral support in reviews, tweets, emails, posts, translations, plushies, paintings, songs, sculptures, etc., I would probably have started backing away slowly in the face of such obvious madness.

How lucky I am to be making games right now. And one of my greatest joys has been hearing that the creators of the amazing games like Paradigm, K’Nossos, and Neofeud were inspired by Primordia to bring their own great games into the world. Of course, I hope that Primordia’s tail keeps growing indefinitely, as in Wanda Gág’s The Funny Thing, and that Fallen Gods manages to enjoy the same support when, at last, I cross “RPG” off the same adolescent bucket list that had “adventure” on it until December 2012. But even if Primordia stopped being sold tomorrow, I would count it a grand success. Hopefully the data in this post will, in some small way, help others enjoy successes of their own.


  1. Thank you for writing this article.

    "no out-of-pocket expenses for Strangeland"
    I'm not a native English speaker. What does it means? Does it mean you're paying the development of Strangeland out of your own pocket or that you're using your revenue from Primordia to do it?

    1. He means that he isn't using his own money for development. Just the revenue generated by previously published games and/or what the investors invest into the project.

    2. We should be so lucky!

      All of our expenses are paid with my own* money. I wouldn't ask others to put their own crowdfunding money on the line for a risk I wouldn't take, and I would rather not cede control to a money-man, either. There are good reasons for developers to take those roads, but I don't need to, and don't want to.

      What I'm calling "out-of-pocket" expenses are instances where I pay for goods or services. On all the projects, I pay certain domain registration fees. On Fallen Gods, I pay everyone other than me *something* (no one is getting rich, but they all get paid); on Cloudlands, I paid for some concept art from an artist Vic wanted to work with, the very talented Corey Webster. On Primordia and Strangeland, none of the principals (Vic [art], James [code], and me [design]) got paid on the front end. We just split royalties. The same is true of Strangeland, except that there have been no royalties. So you could say that Strangeland is being developed "for free" which is another way of sayign Strangeland is being developed with unpaid labor.

      (* "My own" in this sense really means "the money our generous customers pay to play Primordia," since all of the money used to fund Cloudlands and Fallen Gods came from Primordia's sales. Hopefully we'll be able to repay that generosity with another game worthy of their attention.)

    3. Understood, thank you for your response!