The glory and power that is achieved through independent game design: making Something Went Wrong

Yesterday morning I released a new game called Something Went Wrong. It’s a little, self-contained RPG that involves lots of competition and a bit of backstabbery. For more info about the game itself, see this post. I spoke about it on Reddit as well as here, and this little game has garnered a good bit of interest, for which I’m quite grateful. A few discussions were also spawned about the model I chose to release this under – a free game with a paid-for product that has additional material. Actually, quite a large number of people (6 if you’re interested, which is a good sized group for me) inquired about sales figures, why I chose this model to release it and independent development in general.

EDIT: Here are some updated numbers from two weeks and a day further down the road.

Rather than post my thoughts all over the web in different forums and also in bits and pieces, I thought I’d compile everything here in this post for easy access. Here’s what it’s really like, at least in my case, to make a 19 page game and try to sell it online.  Here’s a brief look at how much time goes into making a short game, how I actually create it, and then what it does in terms of sales and free downloads. This is just one case, over a very short amount of time.

First, I had to make the game. The idea is something I’ve been toying with for quite some time. Often the game sessions that I enjoy the most are those when things just go horribly, unforeseeable wrong – not by design, but by rolls of the dice and a few bad decisions. The characters and the GM then have to deal with the aftermath. This happened to my 1st level assassin character in the Palladium campaign I was involved with. He’s survived a few combats quite handily, but almost lost his life on three separate events to a river. Things just kept going wrong.

So that idea sat in my skull for almost a year, until I was stuck in a car for 10 hours driving from DC to Boston. I started toying with it and a few days after my trip, sketched out the rules. This is stage 1.

Stage 1 – development and coffee

Sometimes ideas pop into my head nearly fully formed and all I have to do is write the stuff down and work out the tricky bits of the mechanics. Other times, I have a good idea that takes a lot of development time. Something Went Wrong was the former. I had the idea a year ago, spent an hour or two thinking about it a year later and then started writing.

I tend to do this at night as I have a day job and a family. This involves lots of coffee, a few nights of getting less than my standard six hours of sleep and then a day or two to recover, usually over a weekend.

Stage 2 – writing and legal

Now that I have a textual sketch laid out, it’s time to sit down and do the hard work. With this game, I decided to try something a little different, which affected how I developed it as well. I’m a big fan of Creative Commons licensing. I really think the way things should go is in the direction of open and free content. To this end, I wanted to try an experiment. I was going to write this product as something free and easily accessible.

Often when I write a game, I’ll try to take into context how I’ll be formatting it later. Graphics, borders, fonts, etc. This time, I just opened up word and wrote. I spent roughly 4 hours over two days putting together the complete game system, which only came to 13 pages and involved a few random tables. Then I organized the thing for another 2 hours or so. Total development time so far? 1 second to have the idea, a year to let it sit in the back of my head, but really about 8 hours of thinking, writing and organizing.

With the CC model I’d chosen, this would be licensed as CC-BY, which basically means anyone can do anything with it, as long as they credit me as the original source. I also chose to really develop two products. An unformatted, “raw” PDF that would be the game itself – all the rules, text and tables anyone would need to play it. This bare bones PDF would be available for free to anyone who wanted it.

Second, I’d develop a more visually appealing PDF with artwork, formatting, a table of contents and some extra in-game content as well. This would be my “gold” edition, which I would sell for a small amount of money.

This model really appeals to me. I don’t like taking people’s money for something they won’t like. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’d much rather allow anyone to have the game, comment on it and either choose to play it or cast it aside as they see fit, with no cost to them. I think this makes for much better business sense. Then, if they decide that they like it, would like to have a nicer product with more goodies and also support the author (me) at the same time, they can spend a few bucks.

As for piracy – well, both products are CC-BY licensed. If someone posts the gold edition of Something Went Wrong on to a bittorent site or passes it around to friends I’m not going to shed any tears or feel a moment’s anger. I haven’t lost anything in someone doing this. Hell, I may just gain a few fans, folks who somewhere down the line may shell out a few dollars for something I do.

Stage Three – throwing myself to the wolves

Okay, I’ve got a 13 page PDF now of the basic rules and 8 hours sunk into this thing. Now it’s time to get dangerous. First, I run it past a few trusted friends and do a bit of play testing. Sink in 4 more hours. If things aren’t horribly broken after that, it’s public eye time.

This is the hardest part of writing games. I uploaded the PDF to my google drive, opened permissions wide and posted it on Reddit, saying essentially “here is my beating heart, please tell me what you think”. Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but it is a little nerve-wracking to take something you’ve created, that you are invested in, and throw it out to the internet at large.

It’s also the single cheapest and easiest way to get feedback and editing on 13 pages of text.

Thankfully, the internet was on the whole accepting of this and I got a lot of valuable feedback. That’s another 3 hours or so of reading, responding and revising. Our time total is now up to 15 hours, and I have 13 pages of unformatted, but revised and mostly edited text to show for it.

Stage Four – revise and release

Now that I have my feedback and it’s mostly positive, I’m feeling pretty happy with what I’ve done. I then sink another 3 hours into doing some basic layout to make it look prettier, scanning it again for spelling mistakes, fighting with word and/or acrobat and finally, I have two PDFs sitting on my desktop. SWW-free.pdf and SWW-gold.pdf.

Off to DriveThruRPG I go to upload them, write up a hopefully decent synopsis for readers and then I publish an article here and another post on Reddit saying “It’s here!”

I do all of this, which takes another hour and I’ve now sunk 16 hours into this project, over the course of about two weeks (not counting the initial idea a year ago). Now it’s out in the public in a big and very real way. People may be spending money on this, so it had better be worth at least two bucks.

Stage Five – feedback, updates and sales figures

I find with most of my PDFs and books, I do the majority of sales (or free downloads) in the first week or two that it’s available, and then everything trickles off dramatically to a few sales/downloads a month. I don’t expect this to be much different. So take the numbers below as a good indication of how the first few weeks will go, even though they are for a 48 hour period. Things will start slowing down later today, I suspect and then really taper off mid-September.

Click to make larger. Purchase to increase my take home pay.

As of this moment, 338 individuals have downloaded the free version of Something Went Wrong from DriveThruRPG. An additional 71 people have downloaded it from 16 people have downloaded the Gold edition, which sells for $2 a pop, earning me a gross of $24. No, you’re not reading that wrong. 4 folks who got the gold edition are either reviewers for DriveThruRPG who get free PDFs, or possibly one of the five or six folks I sent download codes too. If past behavior is any indication, of those 4 free downloads, I suspect 2 of them are reviewers and I’ll probably not see any actual reviews on DriveThruRPG. I’ve found that for roughly every 20 free downloads, I garner 1 review, if things are going well.

$24 is my gross, but DriveThruRPG gets 35% of my sales through them, so my actual take home from this is $15.60.  I’ve worked roughly 16 hours on this project, and it’s been in the wild for 2 days. If you take the time I put into it (16 hours) divided by my profit (so far) I’m making about $1.02 per hour for actually writing, producing, updating and publishing this little game. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that I’m closing in on someone handing me a $20 bill for doing something I really, honestly enjoy doing. Oh, lets not forget that as a small business, I also pay taxes on all of my earnings too.

Then there’s the unknown factor as well. It may just happen that someone with a lot of clout among fans in the industry mentions this little game. Perhaps on a blog, or hell maybe Wil Wheaton gives it a shout out. Then I may find myself earning enough to pay for a trip to next year’s Gen-Con.

Obviously many of us are not doing this as our day jobs. Personally, the money that I make from publishing RPGs is a nice perk to something that is more than a hobby but less than a career. I find myself driven to do this – that is, if I didn’t make a red cent on the whole thing, I’d still be writing these games and putting them out there. It’s nice that I do make some money, as it allows me to do things like purchase stock art for future projects, hire the occasional artist, get a game or two to review on this site and also defrays the cost of things like hosting, buying food for my family and generally living.

Lets take a look at another RPG product I put out. Argyle & Crew is a sock puppet based RPG that retails for $2.99 in PDF form. It’s been available for sale since September of last year. How’s it done? I’ve sold a total of 1,298 units. I’ve made a gross of $446.39 and I’ve actually taken home $264.15.  That’s a bit over $0.20 a copy in profit for a $2.99 PDF. How the hell did that happen? A lot of the sales recorded were actually for charity events in various bundles, which is money I don’t see, but it goes to a good cause. Argyle & Crew is also my all time, best selling PDF.


If you’re at all interested in doing this for a living, my advice to you is… have a day job. People do successfully run gaming companies for a living, but the vast majority of us do not. Freelancers seldom make enough money to survive, and small business folks in this industry are eking it out too. Then there are little things like health benefits, paid vacations and whatnot.

Can it be done? Absolutely. Will it be you, or me? Probably not – depending on your drive, the realities of the market, the products that you actually produce and any number of other factors. Can you have fun doing this? Hell yes!

4 thoughts on “The glory and power that is achieved through independent game design: making Something Went Wrong

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences in developing an RPG and also your candor in the financial aspects. I’m also working on a system (purely as a hobby) but I’ve considered the same business model; free basic version, full-blown art and extras version for a small fee. Fortunately I’m something of an artist so that’s just more fun for me.
    I hesitate to think of the hours I waste (revel!) in pursuing this but, hey, it keeps me out of trouble.


  2. You know you’re on to something when you can waste hours on it, look back, and realize that it wasn’t a waste at all.

    You’re flexing your creative muscles, using your brain, enjoying the time you spend doing it and as a bonus not getting in to trouble.

    Sounds perfect to me!


  3. As a self publisher too I look at this all as a labor of love. I made my game with the hopes of simply having a copy I could put on my bookshelf. After all the costs involved of producing a 303 page rpg book, I am finally getting my head above water. I did a Kickstarter which covered about 80% of the costs. Since then I have sold 3 hardcovers, 16 softcovers, and 24 PDF versions. That means that after months and months of work I am looking at about $50 profit. That is $50 more than i ever hoped to make, so I call it a major win.


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