Early Access without Steam?

Looking at 6 months of early access sales on itch.io for Nowhere Prophet

For most people Early Access is synonymous with Steam. But with me being a solo-developer and Steam being such a big and important marketplace, I did not want to start with my game there. So instead, I launched Nowhere Prophet on itch.io.

Now, 6 months later I can say it was the right decision. So far I’ve made more than $10,000 in gross revenue on and a noticeable amount of that is from voluntary tips and the kickstarter-like rewards I offer, things that would not have been possible on Steam.

However Steam still plays a role, even when you’re selling elsewhere. Nowhere Prophet has been on Steam ever since the death of greenlight and a visible chunk of traffic and purchases comes from Steam, but more importantly: The sales spikes on itch.io correlate with increased wishlist additions, a key factor for launch success on Steam.

So, read on to find out what I did and how it all shakes out. Including all the interesting numbers for Nowhere Prophet. And as a little bonus: I’ve got some sales data from other itch.io titles for comparison, so you can look forward to even more graphs!

The Basics

Nowhere Prophet is a roguelike deck-building game that I’ve started working on in May of 2014. It’s been a long and winding road but since the 10th of October 2017 the game has been available in what I’ve dubbed First Access on the indie game store itch.io.

It’s Early Access and Crowdfunding in one. That means you can buy and play the game while I’m still developing it. That’s the Early Access part. However you can also spend even more money than the $19.99 price tag to have something of yours (like your name, your face etc.) become a part of the game.

First Access Goals

I’ve decided to run a First Access phase for three key reasons:

  1. My Happiness

I’m a solo developer. That means I’ve been working on Nowhere Prophet mostly by myself. Granted there are a bunch of people helping out here and there but all in all it’s me against the world. And I’ve been doing that for long enough that development had become draining. I just knew I had to make the game ready for actual players. I had to get it out there. To see how it is received.

  1. Their Feedback

I want to make this game as good as I can and that means I need some help. Again, working on it by myself means I have only one constant point of view on the systems and content. There’s no back and forth within a team on the daily issues. And that’s not good enough. So another goal was to get some actually player feedback to inform the design going forward.

  1. Our Community

And lastly I wanted to start building a community around the game. Get people involved and excited. After all it’s consistently been one of the most rewarding things to see folks play the game at conventions so a lively community sounds like fun. It’s also helpful for spreading the word and making the launch a success, I hope.

I wrote an article on the first few weeks of the First Access, which also explains my reasons for going with itch over Steam. But now, let’s get into the numbers.

Gross Revenue

Let’s start with the most obvious graph, the sales of the last six months.

Note that these amounts (and all others, unless otherwise specified) are gross revenue. That is they are the money paid by the buyers to itch, without any deductions in place yet. The money that ends up in my hands is less than that. I’ll go over how this breaks down in a bit, but first, let’s look at the graph:

As you can see there’s a soft upwards movement in the valleys over time (until recently), but clearly more interesting are those spikes that are in there.

Let’s do some detective work on those dates.

The first one is obviously the launch spike, right at the gate. The second spike coincides with SplatterCatGaming’s two YouTube Videos showing off Nowhere Prophet. The one towards the end is from one backer that purchased the 350$ THE TALE option. And then there’s the towering spike in the middle of the graph, and that one’s clearly from the excellent Rock Paper Shotgun preview. There also is a slightly elevated plateau from when Pladd started streaming the game on Twitch (correctly named Follower Death Simulator 2018 on his streams) but that’s hard to pick out in the graph above.

Breaking down the impact of these sales periods is hard to do precisely, but here’s my best guess.

Revenue Spikes

First let’s look at a stretch without any spikes: The 70 days from 4th November to 12th of January. During that time period the sales stayed more or less level.

And these 70 days give us an average of revenue per day ($23.76). That’s going to be our baseline. Next we look at the general spike duration (~8 days) and track the revenue for each of the spikes for that time. And that gets us:

And lastly, we can do something pretty useless, but funny: Compare the “attributable revenue” from that spike with the number of views, followers or subscriptions. Let’s take a look at that.

SplatterCatGaming (YouTube)

SplatterCatGaming has 440,000 subscribers and both videos have a total of 95,141 views (82,391 for the first plus 12,750 for the second). Of course these are the numbers for now, not the numbers right after the 8 day period, but this is more for fun than anything really useful.

  • $0.0091 per view on the videos
  • $0.0020 per subscriber

Rock Paper Shotgun

To measure the “reach” of Rock Paper Shotgun I took a look at their Facebook page likes (98,505) and Twitter followers (191,000). Obviously these aren’t the best way to estimate the visits on the article but it’s something.

  • $0.0250 per Facebook like
  • $0.0129 per Twitter follower

Pladd (Twitch)

Pladd has a total of 3,120 followers on twitch. That makes for a whopping:

  • $0.1384 per Follower

Some more thoughts:

My game updates don’t seem to correlate with any spikes. I’ve heard from other teams that big updates can actually create a visible push in the sales numbers, even without coverage, but that is probably due to those team having good reach and more time to advertise their changes.

Also I think the active development is probably what contributes to that soft rise over time. However the recent drop off is harder to pin down – maybe I’ve reached saturation on itch?

Revenue by Region

Another thing I can do with the data is to look at how the purchases and revenue are spread across different countries. In total there’s purchases from 46 different countries.

It’s not surprising that the US makes up the bulk of the purchases. Germany comes second, probably because I’m a German developer and I’m well connected here. That’s followed by Great Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and then France.

If we split it by continent, with Canada and the US lumped into their own thing, the graph becomes a bit easier to read. And you can see, unsurprisingly that the majority of the sales come from North America and Europe.

Revenue by Reward

Alright, now for the key thing that’s different from regular First Access, and one of my main reasons for Itch: The Rewards!

Considering I invested about 2 days to design, plan, get feedback on the tier rewards, and about a day to set up the page, make the graphics, write the descriptions, we come out at $290,11 per day spent on the tiers. That’s decent.

But that does not include the time spent to communicate with backers nor the time spent working on the actual content. So this number again, is more fun than actually useful.

However what may be slightly more interesting:

I have reached out to all my 38 reward-level backers via e-mail, some of them multiple times, but so far the amount of replies (and thus the implementation and fulfillment) is just above 50%. That means almost half of all reward-tier backers never reached out to me with the details of their reward. This includes a few of the people who paid $80 for the THE FACE reward.

I’m still a bit baffled by this, but not overly surprised, since this seems to be the case for many kickstarters as well. One would think that this might be friends and family supporting the game but not wanting the reward but that doesn’t seem to be the case. All the non-responsive backers are e-mails I do not recognize.

Revenue by Source

And one final thing on the revenue: Itch.io allows buyers to tip the developer, by setting a custom price themselves. This means there’s three sources of revenue: The base price, the difference to a reward price an the tips. Here’s how those break down:

What I found surprising in that is the sheer amount of tips. I have made some experiments with donations in games in the past but with very little success. It feels as if the itch.io buyer community is very much pro indie and willing to support developers with a little extra, if they can. It’s much appreciated.

Steam Wishlists

Another interesting set of data is related to Steam. The Nowhere Prophet store page and the community page have been available on Steam since Mid 2017, about half a year prior to the Early Access.

During that time it had accumulated almost 500 wishlist additions without being very active there. That’s neat. But what’s even more interesting is if we take the wishlist additions (and deletions) during the First Access period and compare them to the itch.io purchases:

As you can see these two are linked! That means that when the game’s being bought during spikes, those people that don’t buy it probably wishlist it on Steam. That’s good to know. Especially since wishlists seem to be a good indicator for Steam launch success.

Revenue and Earnings

So, and as mentioned earlier all the numbers given so far are gross revenue. That is they are what comes in to itch. That’s not what actually ends up on my end. From the revenue you have to deduct VAT (where added, not all countries), payment provider fees and of course the itch store fees. The result are the net earnings.

For example, you sell something for $20. Based on that amount the itch fees and payment fees (based on the payment provider used by the buyer) are set. In countries where VAT (the height of which is based on the country of the buyer) is added, that is put on top.

Now depending on the payment model you selected (direct to you, or via dedicated payouts), Itch can either pay the VAT for you, deducting it from your revenue, or you pay VAT yourself. Regardless, what remains are your earnings.

With my share for itch set to 10%, the default, I come out with about 85% of the revenue. On Steam, with the platform share set to 30% and the VAT (again, where applicable) being deducted from the sale price (not put on top as with itch) that share will turn out to be around 65%.

Total Revenue

So, with all these numbers, where do I stand currently in regards to the moolah?

  • Purchases: 450
  • Gross Revenue: $10,201.93
  • Net Earnings: $8,704.60

That does look good. It certainly is better than I had expected. Granted I have set my expectation purposefully low but still, this is encouraging when it comes to a full launch on steam.

However these figures need some context to really make sense. So let’s compare them to other games on itch, and to the estimated Nowhere Prophet the development cost.

Cross-Game Comparison

Now what’s interesting is to see how all this that compares to other games sold on itch. Let’s look at Overland, Cultist Simulator, Solitune and two more games which I have some anonymous data on from some fellow indies.

At first glance it looks like Overland is a lot more successful, which isn’t really surprising – it’s been generating a good amount of buzz. However Overland has been available for two years now. This data gets a bit more interesting if you break that down to a graph of gross revenue per day since launch. Ideally I’d have compared the first six months for each game but that’d require appropriately detailed data.

Anyway, here you go:

That gives an interesting perspective and a surprisingly wide range. However what’s less surprising that even in this small cross-section you can already see how only a few games are really successful and then it quickly dips down. It’s the same in Steam and probably on any other digital marketplace.

However with that said, Nowhere Prophet seems to be in a good place. That’s reassuring.

Also, here’s some info on the games, to provide additional context.

Solitune

Launched in November 2016, Solitune is a small playable experience sold for $2 a piece. It’s also available on Steam.

Anoynmous 1

This game was also launched without Early Access in late 2017. It’s been available on a variety of platforms and interestingly their Itch.io sales amount to about 12% of total revenue.

Anonymous 2

This game’s Early Access was made available exclusively on itch starting mid 2017. It’s comparable to Nowhere Prophet in terms of genre and price. As a small note: The price of the game has varied over time.

Cultist Simulator

Launched in October 2017 it was available for an Early Access sale until end of February. Interestingly that creates a solid sales peak on the last days it was available. You can find out more about the numbers in this article.

Overland

Launched its First Access in the middle of April 2016, it’s probably one of the more successful titles. It’s not available elsewhere. Overland is an interesting data point because it’s a similar game and price point to Nowhere Prophet.

One point of note is that none of these games have offered kickstarter-like rewards and not all of them had been in Early Access.

Now it would be interesting to compare these figures to the development cost. Unfortunately that’s not something I can do for the other games, but it’s something I can do for Nowhere Prophet!

Do you even Break Even?

And something else we can do with the total earnings is: We can hold them against the development costs and do a projection for Steam.

Quoting Alexis Kennedy who roughly and anecdotally assumes itch to make up about 3% of the final Steam sales. That feels a tad optimistic, but it’s as good a number as any. So with that applied I could reasonably sell about 15,000 Units in a similar time period on Steam.

So where does that put me in regards to break even? To answer that we first have to figure out how much development has and will cost.

For my freelancers and assorted costs I have invoices that I can put down and that amount to about $65,000. But for my own (mostly unpaid work) it is a little trickier.

Luckily I have tracked the time I’ve spent on the game. And that comes out at a total of – oh god – 4275 hours, or about 534 working days so far. Since there’s going to be a few more months of hard work ahead, let’s just round up to a full 600 days of work and let’s put a daily rate of $300. That gets us to $180,000 for 3-4 years of development time. That wouldn’t be what you’d call a stellar yearly salary but what are you gonna do.

So add these two things together and the game will have cost about $245,000. Let’s just round that up to $250,000, a cool quarter mil.

(Note: I’m based in Germany so all my internal calculations are in Euro. To make this properly line up with US Dollars I’m assuming a conversion rate of $1.2 to 1.0€)

So?

With all these numbers laid out, how am I faring?

Let’s say I’ll get some more sales on itch to amount to $10,000 in earnings, that leaves a hole of $240,000. So how much would I have to sell on Steam to hit that?

Assuming a $19.99 price and 65% profit from that, that means $13 per unit sold. But wait, most people on Steam will probably buy during a sale – that’s the reality, so let’s take off another 20% so it’s more like $10 per unit.

That means I’d have to sell about 24,000 copies on Steam. That’s a good lot more than the currently projected 15,000, so… Uh… I guess that means I’ll have to pump those rookie numbers up and hope for some good coverage from press and influencers.

Results

Right, so that was a long and rambling article. What can I take away from all these numbers?

Success Story?

Firstly, after six months of First Access, did it meet my goals?

Yes, yes and no.

I’m definitely happier now that the game’s been out in the wild. It’s great seeing people interact, watching streamers engage with the game and seeing people share the game in reddit thread. Going to Discord also was a great decision. My forum is still pretty inactive and most of the activity is in the Discord chat.

Feedback has also been great. I have a few engaged players that help me fine tune the game and it’s been great hearing what people like and not like. For example I’ve started focusing more on adding depth to the unlockables, because I’ve found out that people want some more meat there.

However I have less of a community than I had hoped for. There are a few very active players that provide feedback and ideas, and there are bunch more fans that idle in the channel and that show up around the larger updates. However what it comes down to is: There’s not really any activity unless I’m around. And that’s unfortunately not quite what I would call a healthy community.

Surprising Surges!

Sales have been higher than expected. The itch.io featuring around launch and the game showing up at a good spot in the roguelike tag of the store are a constant source of visits. Also the spikes from the streamers that have picked up the game unprompted and the RPS article have been great.

However these have also been random. I have reached out to many press outlets around launch but with very little success. Almost all the coverage I have gotten has been chance encounters or them discovering the game. That’s not really heartening going forward, but that’s how I’ve experienced things so far. Granted I might just be bad at reaching out.

Small Sources.

One interesting thing is how consistently a few reddit threads and the steam page brings in traffic. It’s not a lot – just about 100 hits each month in total. But that’s good. Compared with the wishlist surges it probably pays to have the Steam page up as early as possible. Also note that itch shows me the traffic source for the purchases and I can tie 14 out of all 450 purchases to the Steam page. That’s neat.

Also the reddit threads are especially interesting since these are examples of fans sharing the game in an appropriate post. That’s been super motivating for me and since a few of these posts are in a slightly slow-moving subreddit (r/roguelikes) they’ve been bringing in traffic for a while now.

What’s next

Well, I keep working on the game, of course. I just detailed the roadmap for Q2 the other day (you can read more here) and I hope to have it in a final shape this year.

And that’s all I’ve got for now.

Thanks for reading and if you’ve got any questions, do ask! You can reach me on twitter (@mnerurkar). Also if you’re interested in digital card games, maybe go check out Nowhere Prophet, buy it on itch.io or just wishlist the game on Steam.


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