Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Casual Fortunes

Allen Varney | 30 Aug 2005 08:00
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Which American designer personally made the most money last year from computer games he or she designed? Not the most money for a company, mind you, nor for a studio or licensor, but individual, take-home, taxable income.

Was it a famous game god? John Carmack, Will Wright, Sid Meier, Warren Spector? Probably not. It was probably some guy you never heard of who wrote some little shareware game you never heard of. Those "casual games" - the puzzles and Mahjongg tilesets and card games and Breakout clones and match-three Bejeweled-type things - are downloaded, and sell, in numbers some game gods only dream about. Over the lengthy life of a successful casual game, the independent ("indie") designer can make serious, serious money - high six-figures and low sevens. Personally.

Many game designers hear this and shrug, as if you told them there's more money in, say, selling John Deere tractors. "So what? That's not really computer gaming." Casual games are so far off the industry radar, hardcore designers don't even bother to sneer.

If you compare their situations - big-time triple-A hardcore designer vs. indie shareware casual designer - snobbery is not only unjustifiable; it's borderline insane. Yet how many designers of major retail first-person shooters or real-time strategy games or massively multiplayer online roleplaying games ever think as follows:

"If I went indie and worked for myself creating casual games ...

I could make two or three games each year instead of one every two years, for a cost of thousands, not millions. ...

I'd work alone or with a couple of others, not on giant teams rife with politics. ...

I could be my own boss, pick my own projects, own my own intellectual property, set my own hours, and do the marketing right, instead of coping with my idiot publisher. ...

I could do something weird and innovative instead of just tweaking ten-year-old gameplay, and reach an audience ten times as large. ... My games might sell for years, not months, so I could actually polish them instead of shipping an untested beta in time for Christmas. ...

People might play my games obsessively for months or years, not blow through them in ten hours and move on. ...

And if I do absolutely everything right - which is under my own control - I could eventually earn two or three times my current salary. Or more. Personally."

Evidently not many designers ponder this, even for a moment - though it's all true. It is a curious situation.

Of course designers don't desert hardcore games because they are, themselves, hardcore. They put in sweatshop hours creating their next FPS or RTS or MMORPG, then knock off work and ... play an FPS or RTS or MMORPG. They design the games they love. That's great; it's just their monomania that's weird. Reading the interviews designers give to computer gaming magazines, you could easily conclude the only game style they consider worthwhile is adrenaline-soaked action. It's like thinking the only good trees are giant redwoods.

The Invisible Market
Meanwhile, out in the large and diverse casual ecosystem, you can download games about bridge construction, political strategy, space station management, gallery shooting, and - uhh - lawn mowing? There's Gish, where the hero is a 12-pound ball of tar, and Wik & the Fable of Souls, where you swing by your tongue. The mainstay puzzle and arcade games are still good, too: If you liked Clue or the old DOS game Sherlock, try Inspector Parker. To recall why you played Tetris until your thumbs bled, check out Revolved.

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