What Defines “Success” In the Games Industry?

What Defines “Success” In the Games Industry?

Success in the video games industry is usually measured by sales numbers. The faster those numbers are racked up, the greater the perceived success. Roughly 5.6 million copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops sold in 24 hours? Congratulations Activision, you have a smash hit on your hands! Medal of Honor sold a measly 500,000 units in one day? Ohhh, better start digging in your medicine cabinet for those cyanide pills, EA. No, long-term sales mean nothing: All that matters is the flash and bang that immediately follows a game’s release. Right?

Fifty-fifty split on “Yes! Of course!” and “No! Stop making crazy generalizations, you idiots!” For big-budget games like Black Ops and Medal of Honor, the first week of sales is immensely important. These are the games that cost millions to produce, advertise and distribute. Sure, a game will continue to sell for months or years after its initial release, but after initial week-long push, the hype surrounding the game cools, and–more importantly–used copies become available, which yields no profit for the publisher. So if EA did in fact sweat a little over Medal of Honor‘s comparatively lackluster debut, it had a right to do so.

However, we need to stop using sales numbers as the sole measurement of a game’s success. What is death for a big budget title is a boon for an indie developer or distributor. An example is Carpe Fulgur, a small company that recently localized Recettear, an odd but lovable indie Japanese role-playing game for the PC. Since being made part of an “Indie Story Pack” on Steam, Recettear has since broken the magical mark of 100,000 copies sold.

“This is a fairly monumental number,” Carpe Fulgur’s founder, Andrew “SpaceDrake” Dice, wrote in his blog. “There aren’t many games in general that can claim to have broken that kind of sales figure, never mind independently-developed-and-published titles. It’s the kind of figure that, on some level, I thought we could never conceivably reach, under any circumstances, ever. Not as a brand-new startup with no advertising budget.”

But even 100,000 copies sold is no guarantee of long-term security, even for an independent company. SpaceDrake realistically outlines what, exactly, 100,000 copies sold means for his company, and for small developers in general. First and foremost, he emphasizes, “We don’t have money coming out of our ears.” But the success of Recettear does mean that Carpe Fulgur will be able to pay its employees and live to fight another day, now that it has found its niche. Writes SpaceDrake, “100,000 copies of Recettear sold proves that the market for imported indie games (not to mention Japanese-style RPGs on the PC) isn’t just there, it’s famished for content, and that Carpe Fulgur knows how to serve that market.”

Success isn’t just about the numbers a studio can rack up. Obviously, those numbers are still a big part of the definition: No money, no paid employees, no funding for future projects. But even a small studio’s mere survival can be considered a measure of success–particularly if that studio takes a page from Carpe Fulgur and serves a dedicated audience without choking on loan debts.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. So true… I run a small game studio, and to make enough sales so that we can continue on with our own original titles would be my idea of a success.
    This would also allow us to break away from being solely dependent on outsourcing to other studios although in truth we would realistically have to always have some contract work on the go to keep food on the table.

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