These inventive strategies can rescue your gaming studio from financial hardship.
Game development is expensive. Many studios — especially smaller developers — often grapple with money issues. When budgetary challenges strike, knowing where to turn can be difficult. Thankfully, you can leverage your studio’s resources and talent to generate extra income. Explore these creative avenues to help your titles reach gamers.
If you encounter financial hurdles, your game development efforts might grind to a halt. That means projects will freeze, teams may sit idle, and contractor hours need to be reduced. Cost-saving measures can be helpful, but bringing money in is essential. You might consider outsourcing your manpower to other companies — turning employees into de facto contractors when they’re not tackling in-house projects. Your team may specialize in many areas:
These skills lend themselves to many different pursuits. Capitalizing on these abilities is key. For example, a company (or even studio) might need extra development muscle. Perhaps another studio needs help on the media end in the form of digital advertisements, video promotions, or TV commercials. Marketing and creative communications are common pain points for many organizations, so if your studio excels in these areas, then, by all means, pounce at the opportunity. You’re not restricted to working within the gaming industry, either, since hard skills are transferable anywhere.
One learns a lot from developing games in a studio environment, and some studio heads have entered the academic realm to pass down this knowledge. Sean Han Tani, the maker of Anodyne 2, explained how teaching has boosted his studio’s success:
“That being said, my living, savings, and retirement costs have always been covered by game sales, but I did take a part-time job as a game design and music teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2016 to this May for extra income to help support our studio.”
This, coupled with shorter development cycles and smaller teams, helped vault Sean’s team to success. Anodyne 2 grew to be a hit, granting financial security to the studio for years. This route is useful for smaller studios who can devote more time to outside endeavors. Someone in Sean’s position would be more likely able to present to a class or seminar, than would a major studio’s CEO. Your expertise can be profitable.
It doesn’t have to be you or your team doing the work. Your studio space can do the work for you by being rented out. Even smaller studios have dedicated spaces for sound recording, green screening, and motion capture. These are exceptional selling points. Creative spaces attract the attention of other studios, especially indie teams that may lack the resources to build their own.
Companies outside the gaming and media realms may have little use for such permanent, on-site spaces. However, priorities change, and creative projects arise. You can swoop in and become the ad-hoc agency they need while charging for access.
How do you price this? The amount of time needed can be a good barometer, especially when it comes to fee structuring. Charging per hour is optimal when a company spends less time in your studio. It may be best to charge a per diem once the hours cross a certain threshold. You can even charge per session, especially for audio recording, video production, or animating. Ideal rates will depend on your costs and needed funding for your team’s projects. If your operating costs are lower, you could charge competitively to beat out competitors.
Not only can you devote your workspace to outside pursuits, you can also throw the entire weight of your studio’s labor into external projects. If you absolutely cannot operate without extra money, it might be necessary to suspend studio gaming projects. This certainly isn’t preferable from a progress or morale standpoint. In these instances, tapping into your teams’ strengths (and passions) is essential. Defining scope is crucial with studio-to-studio collaborations. Once you know what you’re doing — and in what time frame — determining pricing becomes much easier.
Charging a bulk rate is possible but introduces the chance of scope creep, meaning the project can slowly grow bigger while your earnings remain the same. Flat rates can introduce similar risks but can be structured in tiers. For example, once a certain time threshold is reached, the project cost increases by a set amount (and so on). This is often a good compromise. Ultimately, sticking to hourly rates best ensures your team won’t be taken advantage of. Extra deliverables will incur extra costs. Overall pricing can vary wildly depending on project complexity.
When pulling your team away from development, you can’t abandon your existing gamers. It’s important to provide core support and community management during this time. This means not every staff member can devote all of their time to outside interests. Losing developers externally means sacrificing internal productivity. While this isn’t advisable in the long term, the short-term financial benefits can be worthwhile. If you have multiple developers assigned to outside duties, consider rotating staff allocations. This will keep your teams working, as opposed to bogging down operations in one area. Sharing the workload keeps development afloat.
Say you devote only a smaller team to an outside project. You may elect to charge a blended rate for services rendered — where the hourly salaries of all employees involved are averaged. Say we have the following team members working on an external project (Salaries via PayScale):
Averaged, we have a project base rate of $21.10 per hour. This rate can be billed as-is to the client, or subjected to a contracting markup (typically 50%). You should often apply higher multipliers to these charges, especially if you want your team to share a piece of the pie. Such rates aren’t out of bounds as your employees essentially become project mercenaries. Depending on the seniority of team members involved — and departments — costs can fluctuate. Some collaborations can take months, thus jacking up the project-based income. These prices must cover studio overhead and support your own deliverables.
Companies can become your clients and may be willing to pay thousands per project without much thought. Large projects can be huge moneymakers. However, smaller projects can generate good money without demanding too much of your team’s time. If you outsource just a single team member, they should bring home money both for themselves and the studio. You can then funnel these profits back into your game’s production. This breathes life into your team efforts while incentivizing outside collaboration.
Every studio has its own strengths and weaknesses. Allocating your team during off-hours will accomplish two things: it generates studio income while offsetting staffing costs in the interim. This extra money is the lifeblood of your development effort and ultimately keeps teams working on their game components.
Remember, your teams want to work on their games more than anything. Splitting time between internal and external projects offers a compromise while your coffers are replenished.
While many of your game’s components will be proprietary (and closed source), there may be some components you can offer to the gaming community. We’re going to focus on these digital assets, since physical items, like merchandise, can require a costly investment. These components from your existing games are important but aren’t the “secret sauce” behind your success. You can publicly sell these and generate extra money without giving up too much. Some examples include:
You can sell these individually or bundle them together into different packages. Outside developers and even companies might find these extremely useful. While we might not expect large sums from selling these assets, every contribution injects life into your pending game. Even mini to mid-sized mobile games (like Angry Birds) can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $700,000 to develop.
Ideally, you’ll focus on the assets which are most profitable. This will become apparent after your first sales roll in. Various marketplaces like the following are prime selling platforms:
Selling your assets on popular platforms is the quickest way to earn extra money. Exposure and reputation can help further drive sales. This applies to both 2D and 3D components where specialized marketplaces draw willing buyers.
On the Unity Asset Store, your asset bundles can fetch serious money if they’re top-rated. Consider Gaia Pro, a wildly popular environment generator with over 1,201 product reviews. The tool sells for $287 and has grossed roughly $344,687 since its release. The Store’s top paid assets range anywhere from $4.99 to $300. There’s plenty of demand, and developers are willing to pay for quality assets.
Experienced sellers on Unity’s platform have expressed how low-quality, unnoticed assets can fail spectacularly on the Asset Store. However, distributing a “must-have” asset in response to developer needs can supercharge your sales. It’s not unheard of for developers to earn $20,000 or more every month. Even if your assets are fantastic, it will take some time to get noticed and climb in the popularity rankings.
Market research is therefore crucial prior to asset distribution. Submitting within popular categories may offer both risk and reward. The demand is there, but so is the competition. There are over 33,395 three dimensional assets available through Unity at the time of writing. Conversely, there are only 2,725 templates currently available, a category dominated by paid offerings.
Targeting categories like these could be fruitful. Take the time to learn what developers need and what they’re buying. Just two years ago, the Unity Asset Store claimed over twelve million annual downloads. The marketplace also hosts “tens of thousands of creators”. Unity’s impressive community suggests that in-demand asset bundles can catch fire.
We’re not suggesting that sales from Unity’s store, or their competitors, will single-handedly fund your game development. However, this cash flow can rejuvenate stalled projects.
Sound effects and soundtracks are additional income avenues. Spotify launched its video game music portal back in 2016, which draws avid listeners. Note that this option does largely depends on the notoriety of your older games, their composers, or the visibility of Spotify’s playlists themselves. People can actively seek out your soundtracks or stumble upon them. Scale matters massively here. Music rights holders earn anywhere from $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream. Other popular platforms have their own payment structures:
Courtesy of Visual Capitalist
Listener count will determine your income. With Google Play Music — on the middle of the spectrum — it takes over 217,000 streams to earn one month’s minimum wage. This amounts to approximately $1,472. If your prior games have any nostalgic clout, their original soundtracks will likely draw a larger crowd (and more listeners). That’s not to say you need a Jeremy Soule level score, but achieving success similar to Celeste’s could be very profitable. Games like Chrono Trigger, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Stardew Valley, and Undertale are also renowned for their soundtracks. The trick is having a soundtrack that pulls at the heartstrings and transcends your budget. If you’ve accrued numerous downloads from prior games, those soundtracks might be good starting points. Bigger composers will draw more listeners as well.
Note that portions of these profits will go to your composer if you’ve hired outside talent. Composer or freelancer ownership rights might prevent you from uploading their work. You’ll have to affirm who holds these rights before publishing publicly. Music can often be challenging to sell. Many developers favor custom music, and games that don’t launch publicly are commonly music-free since composition is a final step in the process. Conversely, sound effects are an easier sell, since they’re needed early on. Remember that you’re competing against a deluge of similar assets.
However low the income may be, does not mean it’s not worth the effort. Spotify and its competitors help you make money passively. Post your music, watch plays counts climb, and shift your focus to high-earning outlets. DIY Musician offers a great tutorial on playlist submissions here.
Games, especially online titles, need capable hardware to function properly. Multiplayer games rely on servers. They also demand managed resources on the backend to run effectively. If your studio is large enough to have the underutilized infrastructure, you could offer resources to other companies for a monthly rate. However, odds are you’ve chosen external hosting through Amazon GameLift, Multiplay, or G-Portal. This solution isn’t likely to bring in a ton of money, but it’s certainly an option.
There’s no question that generating extra cash requires major brainstorming. However, there are many ways that your studio can earn income, both actively and passively. Your strategies will evolve based on experimentation and market demands. If your game development is on life support, these solutions could very well save it.