July 23, 2015

Telepath Tactics: brass tacks and sales stats, Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed what Telepath Tactics cost to make; what sort of sales it needed in order to reimburse me for those costs; and how many additional units it needed to sell to allow me to meet my ultimate goal of leaving behind my day job and developing games full-time.

Bearing in mind that most of the game’s costs were paid up-front by its successful Kickstarter campaign, and that most sales were expected to come through various outside distribution networks, I concluded that I’d need to (a) sell about 1,455 copies to make back my out-of-pocket costs, and (b) sell roughly 7,375 copies to be able to quit my day job and make games full-time.

Initial sales numbers

With that in mind, how is Telepath Tactics doing so far? Three months after release, I have sold approximately 3,000 copies total across all platforms, with gross sales revenue upwards of $36,660.

Net sales revenue, which accounts for the cut taken by the various distribution platforms, is a good deal lower than the gross–note that net is the amount I actually receive. Valve prohibits developers from disclosing data regarding sales made on Steam, so I cannot reveal my net revenue or otherwise break down my total sales by distribution channel. Ultimately, however, the breakdown doesn’t really matter for my purposes: regardless of what the distribution is, I (1) succeeded in fully recouping my out-of-pocket expenses, (2) made a small profit, and (3) failed to make enough money at launch to support myself making a game full-time over the next two years.

Is that good?

In a word: no. SteamSpy estimates that the average RPG on Steam alone has more than 10 times that number of owners. But more importantly, these sales numbers don’t meet my ultimate goal of allowing me to move into game development as a sustainable full-time job.

Someone unfamiliar with the games industry might think that $36,660 is pretty good for just the first three months of a game’s life span–and it would be, if I were a developer who was able to pump out games every 6 months, or even every year. But Telepath Tactics began development in 2009–$36,660 is not anything close to a sustainable amount of revenue for a game with such a lengthy development cycle.

And unfortunately, the fact that it’s only been 3 months since release isn’t a reason to expect much more in the way of sales revenue. Games mostly behave like movies opening in theaters, with launch week analogous to a movie’s opening weekend: traditionally, the bulk of a game’s profits are made at (and shortly after) launch, with a mere drip-feed of sales following from that point onward.

True to form, sales of Telepath Tactics have thus far followed this “L” trajectory. The vast majority of all money made by the game was made in its first week, before the game dropped too far off of Steam and GOG’s respective “new releases” charts for prospective buyers to easily find it. Telepath Tactics is now in what is traditionally referred to as “the long tail”–the flat, horizontal part of the “L.”

There has been some reason to dispute the “long tail” model lately, as the emergence of bundles and major sales events over the past few years has managed to put some spikes into the long tail for digitally distributed video games. These events allow developers to wring out the proverbial towel and sometimes get significant sales spikes during otherwise fallow periods via a phenomenon that economists call “price discrimination.”

Following this theory, I participated in Steam’s summer sale. This gave the game an extremely modest bump in both sales and revenue during the first few days and last few days of the sale. Had Valve chosen Telepath Tactics to be a daily deal, the sales bump would likely have been much more significant; but they did not, and it was not.

Participating did not merely boost sales a bit–it also had negative effects. Selling Telepath Tactics at a significant discount attracted players who were less invested in the title, and several of them left negative reviews after playing the game for a short period of time. This hurt the game’s review rating, which pushed it further back in the charts, hurting its visibility–and thus, hurting full-price sales of the game going forward after the sale. Ultimately, participating in the Steam summer sale did not provide enough of a spike to make the difference between financial success and financial failure, and in the long term, it may even have been a net negative.


Telepath Tactics has received a bunch of critical praise from the print press for its clever mechanics and tight design–but from a commercial standpoint, it has not passed too terribly far beyond the minimal bar of “don’t actually lose money.” If it weren’t for the successful Kickstarter, Telepath Tactics would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red; and Kickstarter or no, if I’d needed to actually be paid for all those years I spent making the game, I would be left in a terrible financial position. (Thankfully, the game did have a successful Kickstarter, and I don’t care about back pay.)

I have some theories as to why it didn’t sell as well as I had hoped; I will explore those in a future post. For now, though, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I’ll be taking forward with me into future projects. While Telepath Tactics didn’t meet my primary goal of permitting me to leave my day job and develop my next game full-time, it did do some very valuable things for me: it exposed my work to a much larger audience; it made me progress toward accumulating 1,000 true fans (or 10,000 modest fans, or some agreeable combination of the two); and it provided me with a robust engine and some great pixel art assets that I can use to quickly develop and release future titles.

That last part is important–if I can get to a point where, reusing the existing engine and assets, I can develop and release one new RPG per year, then sales comparable to Telepath Tactics’s sales would actually be quite sustainable for me.

However, I’m not there yet–I don’t yet have development down to a formula that would permit such a volume of quick releases. And aside from which, I’m simply not ready to surrender to creative stagnation: I have too many exciting ideas about new directions I want to strike out in with RPG and strategy game design. Indeed, I already have a couple of secret projects in the works with some of those ideas; my hope is that I will be able to make them more commercially successful than I was Telepath Tactics.

I’ll be announcing more as soon as I have enough to show. Until then, you can keep an ear to the ground on Twitter, on the forums, or even here on the Sinister Design site itself. Thanks for reading, folks!

  • Enigma Dave

    I’m sorry this title didn’t push you into full time developer status. 🙁 I backed it on Kickstarter, told my SRPG loving friends about it, and reviewed it on Steam and GoG.

    As your body of work grows, I hope your dream of going full time gets closer and closer, you do great work.

  • CraigStern

    Thanks man! It’s fans like you who keep me plugging away at this. Don’t worry: I’ll make it eventually. 🙂

  • Nicholas Frame

    The kickstarter obviously helped quite a bit but does the fact that many “sales” of the game end up being paid out as rewards for the kickstarter impact sales significantly? I backed the kickstarter as well, but only at the level to get the game at release so I’m assuming I’m not included in your sales information. Is that true and if so, how much do you think that reduces the value of a successful kickstarter to a developer?

  • Dave Toulouse

    Let me jump in here as a fellow part-time indie dev. $36,000 in 3 months for me would be a a near-dream come true. My own results? About 1/3 of yours but in 6 months …

    It took me about a year to develop my last game and my first conclusion was that 1 year was way too much for the results I got. I wouldn’t waste too much time wondering why your game “only” made $36k in 3 months but I’d be looking at why it took 6 years to release the game.

    In my case it was because I didn’t spent enough time prototyping so I ended up spending a lot of time on stuff that didn’t make it in the final version. That’s a mistake I won’t be doing for my next project.

    Be careful when looking at the results from the Steam Summer sale too. So far this was my worst discount experience while I do way better during weeklong deals. The reason is simple, if you’re not at the top then the Summer Sale doesn’t provide any additional visibility as almost every games are part of this sale. So play carefully with weeklong deals every 8 weeks and if your numbers follow mine then by the end of the year that $36k should double if not more.

    Back to the time required to release a game, one way I tried to “fix” that was to cut back my day job to 4 days a week. Now, it’s not something everyone can do but it really did wonders for me. The older I’m getting the less I feel like putting countless hours during the evening after a full day of work. By having at least just 1 day a week I can fully concentrate on my own projects I managed to make a lot of progress I wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise. It do means a 20% salary cut but for the first time this year the revenue I’ll make from my games will compensate the loss.

    $36k in 3 months is really nice. Maybe just not for 6 years of work so that should point the first thing to fix here.

  • CraigStern

    I did not count Kickstarter funds as sales, that is true–those funds were effectively part of the game’s budget. Having that budget was essential to making the game.

    As a general rule in pretty much all areas of the business world, having money sooner is better than having that same amount of money later.

  • CraigStern

    Hm; I actually quite like the idea of cutting back to 4 days a week on my day job. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  • Francisco

    Bummer that you didn’t strike it rich overnight, but such is life (I’d really love to see at the world you’d make with full time, a team and no money worries) On the other hand is great to see that you have your shit together when it comes to crunch the numbers. And with the additional experience any future endeavors should only get better both financially and creatively from this point.
    There just aren’t enough Tactic-rpgs native for pc out there, youre doing god’s work.
    Oh! And great policy about sharing this kind of info with peps!

  • Pegasus Organs

    Here are a couple of common complaints that you probably should look at resolving going forward. Long battles without an option to save- this can be easily fixed with a suspend optional save, once you load back, the suspend save is deleted. Seems a lot of people really had issues with having to do massive battles in one sitting… The second is even more important for PC gamers, and that is zero character development. Essentially, you made a console strategy RPG, not a PC one. PC gamers adore fiddling with their characters stats, skills etc and removing that option to do that will hurt the game with long time PC RPGers. I wish you luck going forward and do suggest you consider these complaints as they seem to be the big, common ones I’ve seen.

  • Razoir

    To me, what your game lacked was not content or quality. You really do great work. I believe it was mainly an issue of wrapping, of atractiveness. Your mechanics are great, but the UI tying them is very basic, the texts are small and the overall style is not very clear. Your classes are great, very distinct gameplay-wise, but most of them look alike. What i mean here, is that someone looking quickly at your game will not immediately want to play, it will not rarely appear to him as being “fun”. ( while it really is ). Even the RPG maker-like graphics, while it makes the game easier to modify, are not attractive.

    I find it great that you can share such news with your fans, that really makes people feel closer to you. Continue the good work !