In additional to my own projects and freelance jobs, one of my goals this year is to build a humble - but steady - stream of income from selling game assets online via the various game dev asset stores. A few reasons make this appealing:
- When I do freelance work, I find myself drawing a lot of the exact same stuff for different people. Partly this is because people come to me because they see that I do something well, so they want something like that. They like my terrain, so they'd like some terrain too. Why not skip the step where I do the work over again but slightly differently and just sell them that terrain they liked? I don't have to do as much work, they don't have to pay as much (and I'm finding myself more and more in a position where my rates are higher than many game dev hopefuls are willing/able to pay).
- Not to be too cynical about it, but most freelance projects I've worked on have never shipped. That kinda sucks because no one gets to see the art and, of course, the project didn't ship. But it's also kinda okay because I think we live in an age where game development can be a legitimate hobby. It's not unlike the guy who has a day job and buys Warhammer minitures and paints them on the weekend; game development can be a fun creative outlet. It can be like buying a lottery ticket in that the point is not to win but to imagine winning. Unless our friend painting Warhammer minis is wealthy indeed then he's not going to be commissioning a sculptor to make custom pieces, he's going to want to go to the hobby store or game con to buy something cool that's available. It is totally legitimate for the same to apply to game assets.
- Another perspective on this is "in a gold rush, sell shovels". I have the skill and experience to handle most aspects of development and likely connections enough to find ways to handle the rest, and I'm working on learning the code side. Still, straight-up creating a game from scratch and hoping it'll return on invested time is a risky proposition in this age where thousands and thousands of devs are cranking out product. Yeah, I'm pretty confident in my ability to create something unique and compelling, but I'm not a student living on potatoes and lentils anymore. "Shakespeare's gotta get paid, son."
I started selling assets on a bit of a whim. To give the really fast version of the story (edit: "or, actually somewhat rambling version of the story"), I was playing a ton of Dominions 4 (anyone into that? Amazing game) -- and Dominions 4 has fairly ugly maps so I was like, man, I'm so annoyed by this that I'm going to go ahead draw my own map. Spoiler alert: I never actually finish one. But I stumble into something else entirely. Read on!
It's functional, but man, that terrain is an odd brown-green. But I find the hand-drawn map look really compelling somehow. (Also interesting: people will make maps in games like Age of Wonders or Heroes of Might and Magic and convert the image to a Dominions 4 map. All you really need is an image, then you define province centers, types, and connections - and that's it.) So I started drawing a map based on one of the prettier maps to come with the game. This one is based on Vancouver; if you know the city, hopefully you get a kick out of it:
The project got a bit out of hand however. The map was kinda pixel-arty but also really huge. Plus downtown Vancouver doesn't actually lend itself to a well balanced map so I'm not convinced it'd have worked out that well. So I started hand-painted a completely fantastical map, using really strong colours and painterly rendering:
Similar to the Vancouver map, this thing was really huge. So my thought was, why not take this painterly style and turn it into tiles that could be re-used so I wouldn't have to work so damn hard on this thing? A few experiments were performed:
Compelling. Let's keep going with this.
Then I find myself asking, what's the point of making these nice painterly tiles if no one but me is going to use them? I shared an image on twitter, and it seemed pretty popular:
Honestly, if that many people are into those tiles, then surely I could sell them or something. Thus I entered ... The Unity Asset Store.
I researched the competition, looked at how they marketed, how they priced, and at what was and wasn't available. It seemed that painterly terrain tiles at a strategic scale was an untapped niche. So I polished up a set of tiles and launched this:
(This is a screenshot from today, their layout was slightly different in September of 2015.) ... And thus launched my glorious tiles to the public!
Number of sales in September 2015: 1.
Oh. Maybe that was a bit of a bust. Well, it was a decent experience.
Number of sales in October of 2015: 11.
Hey, maybe it just takes time! I guess this got featured on the official stream as a new release? Cool!
Number of sales in November of 2015: 2.
Or maybe it's still a bust.
Still, a few nice people emailed me about doing some fixes and tweaks. It wasn't much work, so I updated the package a couple times. Then someone requested hex versions of the tiles. My thought was, man, what a load of work that'll be. But I like helping people out -- do I put it in the same package? Maybe not, because hexes would be incompatible with squares. And doing a few experiments it turned out that doing hexes only involved trimming the corners off the squares and cleaning up the edges; super easy. So in January of 2016, I released the hex tile pack which looks a little something like this:
These starting selling well. In fact, the hex tile sets have always outsold the square tiles from between a factor of 3 and 10.
Consider this: The 2D art section of the Unity Asset store is flush with particular kinds of assets: platformer tiles, mobile game backgrounds, and WoW/DOTA style icons. You know who isn't served by these? Old school RPGers and wargamers. Guess who tends to 1. have programming knowledge, 2. have money to blow on hobbies: Old school RPGers and wargamers.
We're on to something here!
I've since released a bunch more tilesets in both square and hex format, covering some more biomes as well as medieval-fantasy locations. I attempted a branching out into painterly RPG item art, but that's been a bit of a failure. I've got more asset experiments to run especially now that I am established on the store with good reviews and have time to invest in more asset creation. I should share a few general observations with this experience.
- Reputation matters. Getting a pile of 5-star reviews next to your product is obviously a good move. It doesn't require obsequious pandering to customers, or pulling cheap tricks to cheat reviews. All you need is a dedication to quality and to handle yourself with polite professionalism.
- Exposure takes time. This is a very low-capital enterprise so it's not like I'm dropping money on advertisements or sponsorship. It takes time for that right person to find my work and - dedication to quality - they might just like it enough to recommend it to others.
- There's money in the low end. 2D game assets are especially accessible to people just learning game programming and a lot of people are learning game programming. These people could never pay my rates to do custom art, but they'll definitely drop ten bucks to make their RPG overworld look prettier with little effort. It also seems like a Unity tutorial for grid-based games featured my assets, which was a good boost in sales in this range.
- There are niches that badly want to be served. As said, there's a ton of art out there for 2D platformers, some bad, much very good. But I think ya gotta look at the store and see what isn't there to find some really interesting opportunities. I've got to do more with this.
- Sales are remarkably steady over time. This market isn't getting saturated, at least not with what I'm doing, and sales seem to only go up over time -- even for these assets released over a year ago! 2D games and simpler games will always be around.
Now what? More stuff!
First: More assets. So many people were asking for smooth tile transitions that I sat back and made a whole new terrain set that was build around that idea (plus I played a ton of Sid Meier's Colonization over the holidays so I felt compelled to draw something similar to that). So this should be coming out any day now:
(The gif was a thought that it'd be a good marketing gimmick to show how to layer the assets. Unfortunately the Unity Asset store doesn't accept gifs. Edit: They don't animate properly here either, it seems. Sorry!)
In terms of marketing I should also start a mailing list for my assets. Probably via Mailchimp because it's so easy.
If I'm feeling a bit more aggressive I could push for deals with people who write tutorials: use my assets in your tutorial, or have me make custom assets for your tutorial and you can link to my spot on the store! 'Course I don't love being pushy like that, but we'll see.
Also, of particular interest is the idea of expanding market reach.
Expanding Market Reach
My primary asset storefront has been the Unity Asset Store. This was a good move - I think it's safe to say that it's the best asset marketplace on the internet right now due to sheer population and good support from Unity. Still, as long as I've got the asset packages and marketing done, is it not worth putting material on other game asset storefronts even if they give a mere fraction of the Unity Store payout? Yes!
So I started a spreadsheet. I searched for game asset stores in google and found a few prominent hits, discarding those that did not accept submissions and those that looked absolutely terrible. I'll note thoughts and info on each below.
- Alexa ranking: 905
- Rev split: the standard 70-to-you / 30-to-them.
The top dog, for sure. I've discussed my experience with them above, but to repeat: all in all a good experience. Takes between one and two weeks for submissions to process, fairly easy to use store management frontend. Requires uploading assets as Unity packages, which can be slightly awkward if you don't know Unity but is very easy to learn. Tutorials and FAQs for everything are extremely abundant.
- Alexa ranking: 2293
- Rev split: 45/55, plus minimum $1 for restricted license, min $15 for expanded (read: commercial) license; license minimums also go to them.
This is an old site with a huge market base used more often for stuff like stock photos, WordPress themes, and other such things. They clearly precede the Apple Store / Steam standard 70/30 cut model.
I would be tempted by what appears to be an enormous reach and usebase, but their pricing model makes me really, really unhappy. It's a worse deal for creators then any other site and they don't sell me on what they're offering for such a cut. Well, they DO offer better rates if you distribute exclusively through their store, but again, no other asset store makes such demands. The minimum pricing also hurts, especially for my practice of selling small batches of assets in the $10 range. If I wanted to sell my standard tile package for $10 -- well, I couldn't. Because to distribute with that license requires a minimum pricing of $15. And that $15 goes to Graphic River while anything over that will provide me with a 45% cut. Say I combined 3 sets of tiles into a $30 package. Take $15 for the min commercial license price, then I get 45% -- that'd be around $7 ... Which is what I would make selling a single $10 asset pack on Unity.
These guys gotta get with the times. Or maybe they sell huge volume? I don't know, and I'm not going to find out.
- Alexa ranking: 3397
- Rev split: 70/30.
I looked into this but did not actually use it for several reasons, foremost being that Unreal is heavily geared toward higher-end 3D games as opposed to 2D games. Yes, you can do 2D. But it doesn't look like many people are, and there are almost no assets for 2D games on the Unreal Marketplace. The submission process looks rather laborious. Assets much be packages via Unreal and there are somewhat stricter requirements than Unity. All aspects of submissions appear to go directly to an Unreal Marketplace contact rather than via a storefront management UI. I expect the process is slower than Unity, but results are likely more professional overall.
Still, the angle here seems to be 3D shooters and the like, not low-end 2D games. I don't think it'd be a good fit for me. Plus I don't want to learn Unreal as well because I simply don't see myself ever using it in my own work.
From here, we're definitely getting into small players. It's still worth examining what they're up to, I think.
- Alexa ranking: 21902
- Rev split: 70/30
This is a storefront attached to a game engine, not unlike Unity and Unreal. I presume it has a much lower userbase however. But I won't hold that against them - they are, at least, much more focused on simpler 2D games from the looks of it. What turned me off here is the requirement that a creator pay a non-refundable $25 "seller activation fee". I suppose it's not unlike the Steam Greenlight $100 fee meant to try to keep out the wave of spammy garbage, but (as with Valve) I'm not happy that they're directly offloading the moderation cost of their platform onto the users thereof in this manner. If you're running a storefront, part of that 30% cut is presumably for figuring out how to keep the garbage off your store.
(Don't even get me started on airline baggage fees.)
- Alexa ranking: 48026
- Rev split: 95/5 (!?)
This is a weird one. It was super easy to get started here, their storefront tools are amazing, super slick, easy to use. You just drag and drop everything and it just works. It's superior usability compared to any other storefront I've used. Almost too easy, it feels, because I put my assets into a zip file and uploaded them with no submission process. I swear, someone is going to run a scam here and someone is going to get sued. Still, what a pleasant creator experience!
Only made one sale in a few weeks, so it seems like market reach on the site is miniscule. It's too bad because it's very slick.
I've got a few more of the small online asset stores to investigate - including that attached to this very site - but I haven't dug in yet so that'll have to wait.
From here, the adventure continues! Edit: Oh yeah, does anyone out there know any other good game asset stores? Or perhaps have some strong opinions? I'd love to hear 'em.
- Alexa ranking: 48026
- Alexa ranking: 21902
- Alexa ranking: 3397
- Alexa ranking: 2293
- Alexa ranking: 905