IF economics

Hi there,

I think it’s safe to say that nobody here makes interactive fiction to get rich. I just read today’s blogpost by @zarf where he alludes to the fact that writing original IF games for profit is “tricky at best”. Indeed.

As I was reading that, I happened to remember a rule of thumb for guessing Steam sales from number of reviews, and spent some time looking at IF games (both parser and choice-based) on Steam. I started with Thaumistry and Anchorhead, continued with a sampling of Choice of Games games, added Sorcery!, and kept going until I had about a dozen.

I took the numbers publicly available on Steam, made many assumptions, and put it all into my unsure calculator. This tool gives me the ability to use ranges instead of single numbers. It’s still a back-of-a-napking calculation, but at least the uncertainties are acknowledged in the input as well as the output.

The resulting table is accessible here.

Most of the results are unsurprising:

  • You don’t get rich with IF.
  • Parser-based IF sells much worse than choice-based IF.
  • Better graphics generally leads to higher revenue (but of course it also leads to a higher budget).
  • If you want a lot of people to play your game, make it free.

And then there were things that I find interesting:

  • At the level of sales you can expect with most IF games (especially parser games), price doesn’t seem to matter. Games with a higher price didn’t do significantly worse than cheaper games. I guess the niche is so small, people don’t mind shelling out.
  • It is, in fact, possible to have a free-to-play IF game (with in-app purchases), and it’s not doing too bad.
  • Choice of Robots seems to have done really well on Steam. Better than games with several times higher budgets.
  • The parser disadvantage is even more pronounced than I thought. Not even very nice graphics and animations help when a game is parser-based.

I hope this is helpful to some of you out there, and I hope it’s not too discouraging. I know most authors of IF do it as a hobby. I think this analysis shows that it’s not completely crazy to think you could make some money (just don’t quit your job to write IF just yet).

I’m hoping that the IF community stays indie and mostly non-commercial. But I also hope that some of us can find ways to make sustainable living from our work. There are strategies that seem to work, and there’s more people could try. If we want another infocom, one of us needs to figure out how to make a sustainable business from IF again.

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I don’t know if it’s any more accurate than counting reviews (although FWIW several sources seem to agree that reviews * 50 is a reasonable approximation), but steamspy.com does list approximate ranges for numbers of owners of a game. I think it bases it on people who have set their games profile to public. Might be an interesting comparison, anyway.

You can also look at SteamDB for a more accurate release date, if you’re interested.

Parser IF is what I was talking about. As you note, CoG has built a solid market for their games, and visual novels have their own strong (but very crowded) market.

That’s a good idea to look at steamspy and SteamDB, at least as a sanity check.

As for reviews * 50, I saw that rule of thumb, but looking at some of the underlying analyses (like this one), it seems it’s just a case of someone collapsing a large range into a median. I’m using 30~150 because that’s what the range looks like, and that gives me a good idea of, well, the range of possibilities.

I got that: you linked to Thaumistry, Anchorhead and Hadean Lands in that aside. Just to be clear, none of this is meant to contest your claim. You obviously know a lot more about this topic than I do. I just wanted to have a broader look.

I was pleasantly surprised by the CoG numbers. And I only selected a few of the many Steam games by CoG. Plus I know that Steam is only one of their platforms. If I read the numbers correctly, it means that an average CoG game brings enough revenue (from Steam alone) to support a US family for about a third of the year.

I did not look at visual novels, and I think I should have. (I looked at Subsurface Circular, which is graphically much more expensive than the average visual novel.)

Parser games are beyond niche, in my experience. Literally no one I know outside of this forum plays them, whether IRL or online. When I mention them, the response is usually something like “What? People still play those? Why?!” with IRL people grimacing while they ask it. Pretty much nobody has heard of Zork.

How come? What harm would there be in people actually getting paid for the work they do? Any genre of game you see out there, there are still indie devs making cheap or free games in that genre, so I doubt the indie community would go anywhere even if IF somehow became mainstream.

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Yeah. If you want to make money on your game, you almost have to have some kind of graphics. Visual Novels are pretty marketable despite usually being less-complicated on the text programming front. A wall of description text doesn’t motivate people to open their wallets, despite the fact that people will pay to read books. There are a few choice-style narratives on the Kindle Store, but I don’t know how successful those are.

Usually the path for an IF author to become commercial lies in writing and narrative design for larger graphical games, or to go the CoG path (which is a huge undertaking - one CoG title can involve the word-count of 3-5 non-interactive novels or more) or to develop a huge fan following and be funded on Patreon.

Itch.io also allows creators to monetize their works for sale or via donations. I think I’ve made a total of $4 on games I’ve posted there via donation!

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Ah, careful. The parser/non-parser divide seems more critical than the graphics/no-graphics divide. Again, look at Choice of Games.

This is still a crude way of carving up the data, obviously. I’m not saying that a choice-based all-text game is likely to succeed on Steam. But there’s a market there which Dan Fabulich was able to either locate or build.

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Yes, Choice of Games is the happy and rare anomaly in the text-only commercial game front.
Inkle Studios is another, but most of their titles involve visuals and audio as well, especially 80 Days which could be considered a choice narrative with the globe as a spherical map for navigation.

Oh, I agree with you. The three sentences just after the one you quote above hopefully make it clear.

IMO, a significant confounding factor is that parser IF games tend to be puzzle-adventure games, whereas choice-based IF games typically feature no puzzles, or just a few fairly easy ones.

I cut my teeth on puzzle-adventure games and I quite enjoy them, but IMO puzzle-adventure games (both point-and-click adventures and parser-based text adventures) have a really tough market, because puzzle lovers tend to enjoy harder puzzles that are inaccessible to newbies. If you’re lucky enough to develop a customer base, and you listen to your customers, you’ll inevitably start developing games that newbies can’t effectively play.

You can do work to combat this, including “easy mode,” in-game hints, etc. but historically point-and-click adventure developers have regarded hints as an add-on profit opportunity, effectively charging newbies extra to play, which is IMO the wrong way to think about it. Charge extra for “hard mode.”

If I were to start another line of text-only IF games today, it wouldn’t be a publishing house for parser-based text-adventure puzzlefests; I’d start a line of text-based point-and-click adventures, with user interfaces that look like the sort of thing Robin Johnson has done in Detectiveland or Zarf’s Seltani, and ship layered, progressive hints as part of the product.

(I think a text-based point-and-click UI could possibly work with an optional limited parser.)

I mention all this because I’m sure I’d have no time to implement anything like this in the next year or two, but I would love it if someone were to steal my ideas and run with it!

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Of course, one thing missing in this discussion is that Choices and Episode have been making $75,000-$100,000 daily for years.

Edit: I wonder if part of the problem with parser games is that they maintain their worth indefinitely and that there are so many free ones. I’ve been playing them more or less non-stop for five years and I still despair about being able to find and play all the good ones. Jcompton keeps adding quality Apple II games that I’ve never even heard of to IFDB.

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Thinking about this in terms of pure puzzle games (specifically vaguely Sokobanish ones) rather than puzzle-adventures, I do think some indies have succeeded financially with brutally difficult puzzle games (though I don’t know what their sales figures are). Thinking of three of them:
Stephen Lavelle, with Stephen’s Sausage Roll, had built up an audience with a lot of free games. Then he spent years making Sausage Roll, and some of the time was getting hype about how this was the best puzzle game ever, including IIRC from Jonathan Blow. Then it released for a huge price point for the time and a teaser that didn’t reveal much but it also was the best puzzle game ever.

Snakebird… actually I’m not sure how well Snakebird did, or how it did it, but it had the reputation of “This is the game if you like brutally hard puzzlers like Stephen’s Sausage Roll.” And it was successful enough, and hard enough, that the developers released Snakebird Primer whose idea was “Snakebird but easier.”

Baba Is You. I believe this built up a lot of buzz by having a prototype blow everyone away in a game jam, and then fulfilled all the promise of the prototype. And is also very big, though very tolerant of not finishing all of it. It also eases you in more smoothly than the other two, though this is partly necessary due to mechanics.

Hmmm, if there’s a moral to be drawn from this, the most accessible way to success might be “Blow everyone away with an amazing jam prototype and then follow through on it”? Easier said than done.

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Right. I only looked at Steam, but I’m aware that most text-heavy games these days are played on mobile.

Choices and Episode games are still IF, of course, but in my mind they are a different kind of animal, for two reasons:

  1. Their art budget can easily go into six figures.
  2. They are unapologetically free-to-play / IAP-based, with everything that comes with that.

That is not to diminish their role and reach. They’re just not something the average IF author would consider, I think.

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@dfabulich’s idea of text-based point-and-click adventures reminds me of another area of games that are text-heavy but that I avoided in my analysis: games like A Legionary’s Life, WarSim or SanctuaryRPG. These games often have simulationist mechanics, but are presented mostly in text. And there are long stretches of pre-written text to be simply read by the player. This might be stretching the idea of IF, I know. But it might be worth noting that these games are doing very well (according to my highly scientific calculations):

The simulation brings a level of replayability and “toy” (as opposed to “challenge”) to the mix. Otherwise, though, they have similar problems as other IF: not very pretty screenshots, walls of text.

I am of course extremely biased to think/hope this might be one of the successful ways for IF (I’m doing something similar in my spare time).

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IMO this data set is too small to draw any conclusions. And to take this as a financial advice, you have to lowball rather than going for average or high estimates.

There is a site that scraped all of Steam and applied same rule of thumb: https://games-stats.com/steam/?tag=interactive-fiction - it’s interesting to compare the guesses.

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The text-based tag is also of interest:

https://games-stats.com/steam/?tag=text-based

Does anyone know anything about hackmud? It sounds like a game where you make things happen by typing commands.

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Interesting! Thanks for posting this, filiph, and also thanks for the link to your “unsure calculator”, which seems pretty cool.

Regarding this point, yes, I think there’s something to it. At least it seems that some specialized genres, for example some old-school RPGs, hardcore turn-based strategy games, Visual Novels, and RPG Maker games can “get away with” a price of about 20$ (which also leaves a lot of room for sales).
But the fanbase even for those niche genres is considerably larger than for parser-based IF, and I don’t know how well they actually do.

Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software, who creates “super-low-budget, old-school, turn-based, text-heavy RPGs” (his description), writes from time to time on his blog about indie game pricing and makes similar points.

Here’s a selection of articles which cover some aspects of that:
from 2009, 2009, 2011, 2014(*), 2019(**)

(*) On this one, Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye commented:

My games were $15, then we got on Steam and there was a huge demand for our stuff and it seemed like we were charging too much. So due to this (and pressure from Steam) I lowered my prices to $10. For awhile, it seemed to work. Our sales skyrocketed, then slowed.
So for our last game I raised my prices back up to $15. The result? Not one complaint. NOT ONE. The sales numbers? Exactly the same.

(**) This one also talks about budgeting and graphics.

I guess the gist (or TL,DR) of those posts is: while one cannot escape the general trends and the expectations created by the usual prices on a market (very hard to sell an Indie game on Steam for 30$, for example), there is a place for niche games which have a loyal fanbase.

I think the posts make for an interesting read, even though some of them are very old by Internet standards, and the game market is always changing.

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I added a ton of cool art, music, and a graphical interface to PataNoir, and it still didn’t sell. It didn’t even do well compared to my parser based competitors. It is definitely more a parser/non-parser divide than graphics vs. non-graphics.

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Edit: I wonder if part of the problem with parser games is that they maintain their worth indefinitely and that there are so many free ones. I’ve been playing them more or less non-stop for five years and I still despair about being able to find and play all the good ones. Jcompton keeps adding quality Apple II games that I’ve never even heard of to IFDB.

I’ve seen this argument come up a few times but people still buy books despite there being a ton of great novels in the public domain. I totally get the hesitation to charge for stuff but I think there’s a lot of people in the IF community that would be happy to pay for games and support developers if it was an option. There’s been quite a few times where I pay a couple of dollars for a game on Itch even when it’s Pay What You Want and I know I’m not the exception because I have a few tabletop rpgs on there that I’ve made money from. It’s not a lot but I’m also not a known game designer.

EDIT: Does Stories Untold count as a text adventure? I only played the demo and it has very high production values but it also seems like it sold very well

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