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How a tiny game that should have failed grossed $800,000

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The unlikely story of an indie sleeper hit

Five years ago, I made my first commercial game, a minimalist RTS called Auralux.

By most accounts, it should have been a quiet failure. It was created by a single student developer. It had no viral spectator appeal and never received much press attention. It was a mobile game with an unusually steep difficulty curve, no social features and a free-to-play model that deviated from the usual formula. When I first released it, I told my friends that I’d consider it a success if it earned enough money to pay for dinner at the campus burrito joint.

Auralux has grossed more than $800,000 since launch, and it’s been downloaded more than 1.8 million times. Considering the modest expectations I had, those numbers astound me. Even now, I have trouble getting my head around them.

A lot of that money never reached me, of course. After splitting the proceeds with app stores, my development partners and the government I saw about a quarter of every dollar that Auralux earned, and that arrived gradually over the course of five years. It was still a life-changing sum that gave me the financial freedom to quit my job, go indie full-time and spend time experimenting on risky projects like early VR games.

Essentially, Auralux has funded my career as an indie game designer. Now, almost five years after the first release, with the game’s sequel freshly announced, it seems worthwhile to look back on how Auralux got to this point.

Background

In 2010, I was a senior in college, and Auralux was just another side project: a slow, simple RTS with a space-y and cerebral vibe. I grew up on strategy games like Command & Conquer, and I loved recent indie games like Eufloria, but none of them quite captured what I loved about the genre. For Auralux, I wanted to boil down the genre to the parts I liked the most.

In many ways, the game was defined by my limitations as a developer. I aimed for an abstract, minimalist aesthetic to make development easier. I had no art skills, so I borrowed public domain images from NASA. I couldn’t afford music, so I found a Creative Commons album instead. This was the typical process for a hobbyist game, but Auralux was shaping up better than my previous work.

Eventually, I decided that I’d try releasing it as a commercial title for $5. Even if it didn’t sell, I figured it would look good when I started applying for jobs. By January 2011, it was ready for release.

Why I Owe My Indie Game Career To Reddit

Even in the golden age of 2011, getting noticed was not easy for a new indie developer. But I had found beta testers and development advice on Reddit, and that gave me an idea for how to escape the trap of obscurity and give back to the community at the same time.

I decided to offer the game for free, no strings attached, for 24 hours as a gift of thanks for the Reddit community’s support. I had no way to actually limit downloads to Reddit users, but I didn’t have much to lose at this point.

I posted the announcement, and it promptly hit the top of the front page. On that first day, the game saw almost 60,000 downloads. Without that first burst of attention and support from the Reddit community, I probably would’ve just moved on to another game. So, thanks Reddit!

To some extent, this incredible reaction on Reddit was a matter of lucky timing. I wouldn’t be able to get the same reception today. For one thing, Reddit has since become much more strict about self-promotion. But even more importantly, its audience is more jaded. "Indie" isn’t a selling point anymore, and freely giving away a student-made PC game would probably look more desperate than daring. This is one reason why I think the "Indiepocalypse," although overstated, is at least partially real.

I was thrilled, but the Reddit effect only led to a couple hundred sales. Much better than my expectations, but nothing life-changing. What really mattered were the new opportunities that the exposure had unlocked for me. After the Reddit thread, several game studios contacted me, wanting to bring Auralux to other platforms. This was new territory for me, and I was a little overwhelmed, but I eventually decided to partner with a small team called War Drum Studios to build the mobile version of Auralux.

Slow Rollout

War Drum quickly got started on Auralux’s mobile version, but they were also busy porting the Grand Theft Auto games to mobile. GTA was a higher priority, naturally, and Auralux languished for a while before they could return to finish it. A year and a half passed quietly, with negligible sales on the old PC version. The Reddit surge was all but forgotten.

It was June 2012 before the first mobile version came out, and even then it was limited to a small subset of Android tablets. Over the next year, the game gradually made it onto iOS and a wider set of devices, languages, and regions. After each launch, the game got a small boost of players, but it was never dramatic. There was no momentous tipping point. The single biggest event came when Google featured the game on the Play Store in May 2013, pointing the money hose at us, and we saw a spike in the revenue graph.

early sales

That was great, but I knew that sales would fall off sharply. I had been taught that mobile games like Auralux would earn most of their sales up-front, with a negligible tail. To my surprise, that’s not what happened.

Defying Gravity

The drop to zero never came. Instead, sales reached a comfortable plateau and stayed there for more than two years.

later sales

Some of this can be attributed to the game’s business model. Auralux is available for free on mobile with a few levels, sort of like a free demo, and players can buy packs of extra levels for $1 to $2 per pack.

As with most F2P games, this tends to spread out a player’s purchases over some span of time. But unlike most F2P games, there’s a small cap on how much the player can spend, so I’d still expect the revenue graph to taper off more dramatically. We weren’t relying on long-term, high-spending whales.

We also made an effort, thanks primarily to War Drum, to send out occasional updates with new features and level packs for the game. This certainly helped maintain interest, but the spikes in downloads and sales from updates were pretty small, and the updates were barely publicized. Plus, we stopped doing updates more than 18 months ago, and sales have remained steady. The updates were helpful, but they don’t explain why the game has held up so well over time.

Instead, we think Auralux is sustaining itself through plain old word-of-mouth. This isn’t the explosive, exponential, "going viral" word-of-mouth. There’s hardly a trace of it on Twitch or Twitter, and Auralux never really had any kind of "you have to see this" appeal. Instead, people are simply having fun and, in time, they tell their friends. That’s it. If there’s some greater secret to the game’s momentum, I don’t know what it is.

Market Analysis

I have to wonder how many other slow-burning successes there are, hidden beneath the tumult and turbulence of the games market. The most visible successes are loud and viral and fun, like Goat Simulator, or else just so enormous that you can’t miss them, like Candy Crush.

Auralux is almost quaint in comparison. It’s quiet, humble and unassuming. It got some critical boosts from Reddit and Google along the way, but the bulk of its success was slow and steady and straightforward. And it’s still going strong.

Auralux suggests that a certain kind of old-fashioned game development might still be viable. It didn’t rely on gameplay gimmicks, or exploitative monetization. Instead, it respected the players, and they rewarded it in turn.

It’s been said that the game industry "is not about making good games right now — the consumer doesn't care enough." I don’t think that’s true. Yes, the indie game business is increasingly crowded and unforgiving, but that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on the kind of games we love, the kind that got us into this business in the first place. The "make a good game and sell it" business model might be simplistic, but at a fundamental level, there's still truth in it. It never really went away. And I don’t think it ever will.

E McNeill is the designer of Auralux and its upcoming sequel, Auralux: Constellations. He is also the creator of VR games Darknet and Tactera.