The title says it all. Recent discussion over the upcoming apple app-store triggered someone to tweet to me that a lot of devs probably are too scared to sell their games direct online, and just don’t know where to start. I’m going to tell you.
(The reason I know what I’m talking about is that I’ve sold tens of thousands of games direct online, since I started in 1998, I’ve used at least 6 different payment providers and 3 different webhosts, I’ve sold more than a dozen games myself, plus dealt with almost every online portal)

1) Sell separate demo and full versions.
You can make the full version bigger, and save bandwidth on the demo. Plus it’s harder to pirate this way. Just maintain 2 builds, it won’t kill you.

2) Don’t handle payments directly.
Do you REALLY want to take phone orders 24/7 365 days a year? Unless you REALLY know what you are doing, sign up to a payment provider like BMTMicro or Plimus or Fastspring. They will handle credit card payments, paypal, debit cards, cheques, orders by phone and fax… You will never have to worry about that stuff. they take a percentage of the sales price for all this. It IS worth it. You can set up an account with these services right now. Most have zero sign up fees, and it can be done almost instantly.

3) Get a proper domain, proper webhost, and proper mailing list provider.
This stuff is cheap, if you are serious. Hosting on some cheap shared virtual server, and hoping your email address never gets blacklisted is more hassle that it’s worth. I use hostgator for websites and use ymlp to handle mailing lists. Get a mailing list together, stick a sign up form on your website, it’s easy.(they give you the code to paste into your site). A lot of people use amazons cloud hosting stuff, which is apparently trivial to setup.

4) Don’t worry about product fulfilment or sales taxes etc
People sometimes stress about how they generate download links, time them out, work out what taxes to charge, handle currency conversions…. Forget it. A payment company like those listed handles ALL of this. They just credit your bank account each month with the money. It is no different to being on steam or impulse etc, the only difference is you get all of the customers details (except their payment details, and you don’t want them. That way you know they are secure). They even keep the customer database which you can manage with a web interface. You can set things up to populate your own database using xml posts from each sale, if you really want to.

5) Get the word out about your game.
You need to send press releases. Don’t panic, a service like ymlp can do this for you too. if you really don’t know who to send them to, you can use services like this. . They are also worth the money. This is the flipside. the benefit of portals is they have an audience sat there ready. This is the bit where you build your own audience. It takes ages, but anyone can do it if their game is any good.

6) Ignore the download sites.
Tucows, download.com… Who cares. These sites generate no visitors and no money. If you are really bored, make a PAD file and submit to them, but you will have to be very very bored.

A lot of people, clever, serious, capable and nice people, are terrified or very negative about selling direct online. They often say that the sales from steam or bigfishgames so massively dwarf their direct sales that they don’t see the point. Here is why this is short sighted:

1) You keep over 90% of the direct sales money. Not 70%, not 80% but 90%.

2) You get the customers email address. You can email them when you release a sequel, or a new game, or some DLC.

3) If the big portals remove your game, squeeze the royalty rate, or refuse to take your next game, you are still in business. If your business relies 100% on being on a specific portal, you are just one phone call away from flipping burgers for a living.

4) Direct sales grow over time. It took me maybe 5 years before I could live from my direct sales, and was able to quit my job.  Are you prepared to make an investment now that will pay off in the long run?  Are you not even prepared to put an hour or two a week into developing the direct sales part of your business? If the answer is no, make sure you have a good business case for that. Not an emotional one. Direct sales are an insurance policy.

If Gratuitous Space Battles had been turned down by every single portal, It would still have made more in direct sales than I earned in my last job. And those thousands of buyers are quite likely to buy my next game direct too. That helps me sleep at night.

You back up your files, so why don’t you have backup sales channels?

25 Responses to “How to sell your game online without using an app-store”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Brown, Lewie Procter, cliffski, Bruno T. Raymundo, Jack Nilssen and others. Jack Nilssen said: RT @cliffski: How to sell your game online without using an app-store http://bit.ly/c6LBmp My guide to staying truly independent. […]

  2. Andy Moore says:

    I really should start backing up my files.

  3. After all, the word indie is short for independent – and too many indies are woefully dependent upon Apple’s App store, Steam, D2D, etc.

    Thankfully there are folks like you with the cojones to break out on your own and TRULY be an indie, to truly be self-reliant. Thanks for an inspiring post. Typically indies are inundated with negativity in terms of dashing all hope that anyone will buy their game without the “help” of the big portals and all their steam-powered push power. There isn’t an indie around who hasn’t been told this at least once: “I won’t buy it unless it is on steam.” Comments like that really get me down.

    Yours is definitely an example of the right way to run an indie game business and I intend to follow in your footsteps. If you can pull it off, maybe I can too.

  4. GamingHorror says:

    This also strikes me as odd, that people (developers specifically) are re-inforcing themselves that “there’s no market for that” and so on. They envy those who apparantly made it (but who are still very quick to admit they are just barely getting by), and I look at those and it leaves me wondering how much more they could be making if they actually promoted their products properly, connected with their community, and so on. But they are too afraid, or even ashamed, to do that. Or they think they have no time for that. Plenty of excuses going around.

    At some point every indie has to cross over this chasm from “I get a little money and that’s nice” to “I’m going to run this as a business and will do everything I can to grow it”. Somewhere in between there’s a lot of people too afraid to take a leap of faith, and/or learn the ropes of doing business. It’s so much easier to be grateful for the little you get, and then keep on hacking out code.

    I think it needs a special breed of Indie to actually cross the chasm, and that’s those who are able and willing not only to code but also to manage (the freelancers, their peers, their community), to do public relations (blog, comment, tweet, send newsletters) and marketing (advertise, create videos, create demos, free samples), to do research (new opportunities, new ideas, how other indies and businesses are doing) and just basically running a business with everything that goes with it.

    Thanks for the post, it perfectly summarizes the minimum steps one needs to take into account to get a chance at being successful selling one’s own software directly to customers.

  5. Kdansky says:

    I am sure that I am not the only person who buys directly if that is possible, and only uses Steam when there is no lazy direct option or during Sales. Torchlight and GSB offered an easy direct payment option without additional account creation (I’ve got the usual paypal/amazon/google things, but I really don’t want one Account per publisher), and both made an extra 2-3€ off of that which Steam didn’t get.

  6. dude says:

    1) Use an app-store. That’s why they exist now. Because of this pain you are describing.

  7. jim says:

    My game only runs on Android. My sales are dismal, only a few dozen on the Android Market monthly. Would you help me on commission?

    “Back Seat Driver”

  8. Joe Altmaier says:

    Brilliant! And a boost to timid game developers such as myself. Marketing is a hill that I fear climbing, and tutorials like this help me immeasurable. Thank you.

  9. dude says:

    @Breakdance McFunkypants: Uhm, no. That’s not what indie means in the context of game development. The full term is “Independent Game Developer”, meaning you aren’t using the resources of a big publisher like activision/etc to promote/package/etc your game. Don’t be silly. A distribution channel has nothing to do with being indie. That would be like saying you’re not longer an indie developer if you have your game on the shelf at future shop. OMG UR DEPENDENT ON RETAIL! YOU AREN’T INDIE! Pfft.

  10. Tim Fowers says:

    We just used paypal for payments – is it worth using Pilmus etc for the additional payment types? I’m sure we’ve lost some sales, but is that larger than the much smaller cut paypal takes?

  11. cliffski says:

    If you already have everything else in place, customer database, ability to mail out discount codes, secure order tracking and supplying downlaod links etc, then possibly not. You are missing out on other payment types, as well as phone orders, and the nebulous value of people knowing there is a phone order option, who nevertheless order online.

    You have to balance that out against the extra margin involved in using a payment provider.

    I’m more of the POV that fear of doing all that extra stuff shouldnt stop you selling direct, rather than neccesarily that its a bad idea to do all that, if you are able to.

  12. Tim Fowers says:

    Yeah, we’ve been able to put together a pretty robust solution on our own. So it is really about the marginal difference. The big payment system I covet is mobile, but it’s going to be a 50% cut for a long time.

    We use an online activation system – it’s had a low level of support issues, no piracy we know of.(The pirates just packed up our demo and distributed it)

    The main nut we can’t crack is effective advertising. Our flash demo has given us a strong long tail of sales, but our ad efforts have been “less effective”.

  13. […] Cliffski’s Blog — How to sell your game online without using an app-store “The title says it all. Recent discussion over the upcoming apple app-store triggered someone to tweet to me that a lot of devs probably are too scared to sell their games direct online, and just don’t know where to start. I’m going to tell you.” […]

  14. […] Cliffski on how to set up for direct sales, and why you should: http://positech.co.uk/cliffsblog/?p=884 […]

  15. […] How To Sell Your Gamer Online Without Using An App-Store (Positech Games) […]

  16. […] To help out, Cliff Harris explains how indies are to survive without becoming dependent upon the app… It’s pretty much a reiteration of everything they should be doing RIGHT NOW, anyway. Filed Under: Biz, Game Development – Comments: Be the First to Comment […]

  17. Greg Tedder says:

    Nice article. I wish I had read this years ago. I have hobbied around with development for years always failing in marketing my product. Your answers to number 5 and 6 take a clear edge off my earned pessimism and I look forward to giving them a shot in the coming months. I don’t have to quit my day job, I would just like to have a profitable hobby. :)

  18. richtaur says:

    Just some anal retentive stuff, sorry. First, please don’t start an article with “The title says it all.” because it’s … incorrect. If it were true, it would be the only words in the article … /nitpick

    I also don’t think it’s an issue of developers being “scared,” but rather it being a huge PITA to sell shit directly. I really *like* just signing up with someone like Google and being able to say “here, just take care of all the payment horse shit for me.” Cuz I want to spend my time making games, not messing with banks and accounts and crap.

    Anyway, nice article and a very useful resource!

  19. Dmitry says:

    Thank you for the link to ymlp! I was looking for a cheaper way to send a newsletter to my quite large subscription base, and so far this is the best option I’ve seen.

  20. ninjao says:

    I agree with you, however I wouldn’t say putting games on steam is such a drasticly bad move. Sales are sales. I do agree that direct sales are vastly more important.

    Either way what doesn’t really exist is a free listing of all indie games where indie devs can submit their games for free with direct links to their own checkout/webpages, sorted in categories and by tags.

    So thats what I did, if you are an Indie dev i would love it if you submitted your game to fjoome.com

  21. mbonez says:

    Hi, thanks for the awesome article. i have a stupid question : do i need to start a company in order to sell my game online ?? ( i live in Jordan,BTW ) .

  22. Eric says:

    Wouldn’t a better solution be to offer your game everywhere? If you want to collect personal details, make it possible for people to enter a game-key (and their email or details) on your website to receive extras, prizes or something.

    Best of all worlds.

  23. Aletta says:

    OK – now I feel better about my latest project. You’re right, lots of people are afraid to step out and do their own thing. My philosophy is “if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you can do it”. I started one business 11 years ago, basically on a hope and a prayer, and it succeeded. So, now I am working on my new project, a game to teach/learn manners, etiquette and social graces. I wear all the hats, and now have put on my salesman’s hat. Its a whole new ballgame for me, but I am up for the challenge. Now to work on convincing the population that everyone could do with a brush-up on their personal presentation to others – it really has a direct effect on how successful you become in life. All of you who read this can check the game out at http://www.finishingschoolgame.com. It is so much cheaper than a formal etiquette class, and as one commenter put it, more fun than reading a book. And yes, I am a full-fledged indie trying to make a go of it through direct sales. Learning a lot along the way.