Don't Monetize Your Games

by Sasa Stublic on 03/07/2015

So we published Sharp Minds. It's free, has no-ads and no in-app purchases. We got very good feedback and reviews for the game itself. People know it's my secondish game and I'm just starting my indie game career.

And while there are many questions that I'd ask someone who made a game like this, such as:

  • Hey, where did your idea for this new mechanics come from?
  • How did you construct so many puzzle levels?
  • Who created your graphics?
  • Where did you get your sound effects?
  • How long did it take you to make it?
  • etc...

I'm not asked these questions much. Not much compared to being asked 'What's your business model?' or 'How are you going to monetize it?'

My answer is 'I'm not monetizing it. Not yet!'

Until recently I might have been one of those people who would ask this question first. I was taught that this is the most important aspect of trying to be indie game developer; or game developer in general. I believed in this while making our first game.
I mean, you have to be able to sustain yourself if you're to make more games, right? I've read so many articles and guides on monetization. How it should be considered from the start. Woven into the game design itself. Part of the inner loop, outer loop, currencies and whatnot.

Well, I've come to disagree with all of it.

It is not the most important question.
It is not the most important aspect for a new indie developer.
It should not be considered during game design, but rather ignored altogether.

It simply does not apply to new indies. It does not apply to anyone who is starting out and trying to make a name for himself.

Instead, right now, I'm surprised how so many of us allowed our perception on this matter to be skewed this much.

And I'm having a hard time relaying this conviction of mine to other people.

Let's try to translate it into other human endeavours.

So, you meet a young aspiring tennis player. He tells you he's talented and has a great passion for the game. He wants to be Wimbledon champion one day. What are you curious about? What do you want to know first about his play?
Money, of course! You'll ask him 'How much will you earn in your next tournament?' 'What's the money like?'


You'll ask about his victories. You're curious about who's he played against and won. What's his greatest achievement. You'll want to see him play - see his skills in action!
Because it is about tennis, it is not about money. I'd bet that no tennis player whose primary goal was to earn money ever won any global tournaments.

We both know he might earn a lot of money if he proves himself in major events. Money won't be a big issue. He'll need to manage his sponsor contracts well to optimize earnings but he will be rewarded and his great skill will be monetized.

If he never gets really good at the game, no monetization scheme can help him. He better switch his career as soon as possible.

I could go on to present you examples from other professions, but I think you can do that yourself now. Imagine meeting a novelist trying to make a name. A painter. A singer.


Why are we so blind, even when it applies so firmly to our own profession? If you are a software developer who has just started learning to code and has really no projects behind his belt, what do you do? Do you go around asking money for your developer services? If you do it'd be a good joke. You need to learn first. Get a degree. Learn a programming language and get some experience even if it means working on some projects for free. Something to show to those whom you expect to pay for your skills.
Because you first need to become good at what you do, prove it to other people and then can you expect to get money for it.

So why, oh why do we think that it doesn't apply to making games?
If I'm just making my first game, it means:

  1. I have no name as a game developer
  2. My skills as a game developer suck
  3. I have no real proof prior to this project that I can make anything worthwhile

I think the problem mostly lies in (2). While it's completely normal and established that you can't win Wimbledon having never played a tennis match before, it is somehow conceivable that you are innately good at making games. Just because. I mean it's games right? You played tons of those and you found many flaws in them. You can do better. How hard can it be?

It's not only conceivable, it's rather prevalent feeling that people setting out to make games have. Me included.

Success stories in media taken out of context don't really help either. We read about people seemingly making their first product and become millionaires overnight. We ignore the fact that most of these stories are taken out of context. We ignore the fact that people behind those games are industry veterans. We ignore all those tens of thousands failed attempts at first games and take one incredible unexplainable overnight success as a rule, not exception. We see only successful, for those who failed are invisible (see Survivorship Bias) and because we all believe what we want to believe (see Confirmation Bias).

We also read all those guides and analysis of how Candy Crush Saga or Farmville optimized their monetization. Because it totally applies to our first indie game and our $0 marketing budget, right?

In my fifteen years in software business (b2b, non-entertainment) at top leadership positions I've seen the same pattern. Most successful business owners I met have had larger-than-life passion for their business and deep understanding of the very essence of it. I have yet to meet a successful entrepreneur with only passion for money or monetization.

It's obvious to me what I need. I need to become very proficient at game design. At developing and finishing games. At publishing and marketing them. At supporting the players and providing updates. At managing community.

No point in asking for money during all this. It's wrong, almost unethical. It's another point of friction between you and learning all these skills. It surely won't make you rich.

Then, after I have become skilled enough, built a name for myself and the team, had built games that lots of people played and enjoyed - then I'll be able to monetize.
Then, players will want to give me money and reward me for the value I provide to them.
Then, I'm guaranteed to get money for what I do. After that, learning about monetization will probably help me increase my earnings.

Think about it! Imagine you have a game on the store with 5 million downloads without any monetization model.

Do you really think, even for a second, that you wouldn't somehow be able to profit from it?

But in some twisted way, 'how to monetize' can be a higher priority than 'how to get 5 million downloads'. In a market this competitive and saturated? Really?

Result: hundreds and thousands of games on mobile stores with abysmal amount of downloads, but with good and carefully implemented monetization and advertising systems.

So my dear indie friends. Do not monetize your games! Do not waste time on monetization! ...not yet.
First get really good at making games. Prove yourself to players and community. Make good games, then make great games and money will follow.

I believe this with all my heart.