How a Hobbyist Game Developer Launched a Game That Generates $2,500/mo

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, I'm Josh Ge, creator of the sci-fi roguelike Cogmind.

For over a decade I developed games purely as a hobby alongside other freelance work, but for nearly five years now I've been doing it full time, supported by players and fans.

I don't have any professional background in programming, just the skills I taught myself in the interest of bringing worlds to life, but now I do all my own programming, design, sound design, and most of the art. I have been sharing the entire journey via my blog, and I also moderate r/roguelikedev, the largest group of similar developers on the web where we share our techniques and approaches to pretty much all facets of game development.

Cogmind has been well received for its numerous innovations on an old genre of games that have otherwise not often been taking advantage of modern design principles. And despite its relatively high price, Cogmind already had over 4,000 players prior to its release on Steam — a popular gaming distribution platform — not long ago, a number that has been rapidly rising on the back of excellent reviews.

Cogmind Development Time Breakdown, Pre-Alpha

What motivated you to get started with Cogmind?

Cogmind is purely a passion project. It has to be, because honestly game development is extremely risky and there are so many better ways to make a living.

I love game development, and the idea was to rely on savings to complete the core game I had in mind, since I knew from experience on previous projects that I could finish it in a year or so. But it wasn't long before the fan base grew large enough that there was obviously enough commercial value to make it even bigger than originally planned. So why not!

Writing about the development process has been great — and not simply from a marketing perspective.

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Design-wise, back in 2011 I fell in love with this genre I'd never even heard of before ("roguelikes???"), but in playing them I noticed there were so many ways the experience could be improved, and pretty quickly found myself at the drawing board. For more background on how Cogmind came to be, and why I do it, check out the presentation I gave at the 2016 Roguelike Celebration in San Francisco.

What went into building the initial version of Cogmind?

The true first version of Cogmind wasn't even envisioned as a product for sale. Instead it was a game jam project built in a week for a 7-day roguelike competition.

I had spent the prior month planning it, but the coding was done in just a week, and this was the state in which the game was released while I went back to my other projects. This was a great way to force myself to take a game all the way from concept to fun to done, and it later proved the viability of the concept as I saw players enjoying it.

Technically, the "real" (i.e. commercial) initial version took two more years, built on top of this prototype, and wasn't released until May 2015. It took 3,331 hours to bring the prototype to the first public alpha state.

Cogmind Development Time Breakdown, Pre-Alpha

Before release, Cogmind wasn't bringing in any revenue, and I wasn't at all sure if it would actually work, so for a while I occasionally took freelance jobs on the side, gradually shifting over more and more time as the release date approached.

After another two years I then finally released the first Steam version in October 2017. By then I'd already clocked over 8,000 hours of work.

Technically Cogmind is mostly complete, but there are many more optional features that could be added. If the goal of this project was to make money I would've stopped by now and switched to another game, but I'd prefer to keep working on it seeing as there is plenty of support and so many more ideas that could be implemented.

I finally released the first Steam version in October 2017. By then I'd already clocked over 8,000 hours of work.

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Over the years my own tool has been the biggest help, something that I used from the very beginning and practically every day. I've actually released it for free, and many other developers and artists rely on it nowadays: REXPaint. I use it for mockups, map design, and art.

How have you attracted users and grown Cogmind?

Cogmind has already reached several major milestones throughout its history, all of which I've covered in detailed postmortems. This includes the first alpha release in 2015, the first anniversary the following year when I lowered the price to expand the audience, and the pre-Steam Beta release in 2017 when I lowered it to the final base price.

While each of these served to grow interest, the core audience was already building years before while I was working on hobby projects and occasionally blogging about them. With that fan base as the seed, during Cogmind's pre-alpha phase I started with a few outreach channels and gradually worked my way into more over time.

  • At the outset the my primary channel was the dev blog, which served as both a summary of progress and became increasingly useful over time as a collection of topical articles I could point to whenever someone (new or old) had a question. (This saves so much time!) Recently my blog was honored by Feedspot as one the web's Top 50 gamedev blogs, so it's certainly gotten a lot of attention over the years.
  • Twitter was the first type of social media I started using, and over the years it has definitely been the most effective for reaching new audience members when followers retweet my work, be it articles or GIFs demonstrating the latest features.
  • Early on I also began mirroring my blog content and other progress updates to a handful of forums with relevant audiences, i.e. where future players were likely to hang out. Copying may best general-interest blog articles to Gamasutra also generated a lot of attention — one of my articles was among the top 30 on the site last year, so it pays to find decent additional outlets for existing material. Sure, many people who read my articles in other places won't necessarily go on to buy my game, but 1) some of them will, and 2) the added name recognition is helpful for building a reputation in the long run.

I spend about a third of my time on what I call "community outreach" efforts — no ads, just good old-fashioned writing content that people want to read, being an approachable person in general, and interacting with everyone who wants to strike up a conversation.

A vital point regardless of channel is to keep up a stream of semi-regular updates! Disappearing for long periods of time (especially without an explanation!) throws away a lot of the hard work that went into building an audience in the first place. People lose trust, and interest wanes. I've seen many many (many!) devs screw this part up.

(Honestly I could write a book on this topic since I used to work in PR and have done so much more than this, but these are the fundamentals. I've previously written a somewhat longer and more specific summary here.)

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

My only revenue is from game sales, which average about $2,500/month and have been keeping up with costs, since I'm able to keep expenses quite low. Being able to do most everything myself helps here, as does living in a relatively inexpensive country.

Cogmind Monthly Revenue (Pre-Steam)

My plan has been to not bother with growing revenue until much later, instead focusing my efforts on building the core community and creating a good game to begin with. Now that it's reached a more complete state, I only recently put Cogmind on Steam, and future revenue is definitely going to trend higher as a result.

I've changed the price several times over the years, starting high and coming down about 15% each year. I explained the rationale for my somewhat unusual pricing decisions in this article, and I can say they've worked out quite well. As detailed in this most recent postmortem, in line with expectations the conversion rate rose each time I lowered the price.

Don't be afraid to go against the norms if you have compelling reasons to do so! A lot of my choices have gone against the grain, and certainly some people claimed my approaches were stupid and wouldn't work, but here we are...

What are your goals for the future?

Because revenue is steady and sufficient, I plan to simply continue developing additional features for a while, because there is always a huge untapped audience of potential players who have never even heard of Cogmind, and it's a lot easier for word to spread when a project is being actively developed.

I don't have any specific long-term goals other than to segue into another game project — likely a sequel — when the time feels right. My goal has never been (and never will be) to maximize profit, so that side of the business never enters the calculations. Of course, the advantage here is that indie projects clearly driven by passion rather than money also tend to earn a stronger following.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

This is a pretty "safe" project from my perspective, because I knew I already had all of the skills necessary to complete it. But while I haven't faced any significant obstacles, from a technical standpoint it would've been great if I had more experience with non-Windows platforms so I could support those as well.

The true first version of Cogmind wasn't even envisioned as a product for sale.

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Another big headache has been dealing with the business side of things (laws, taxes, banks), since I simply don't have an interest in it all — I want to build games as a creative outlet. That said, I'm not sure how I'd approach that differently in hindsight. I've done the best I can with what time and experience I have.

Would you do anything differently if you had to start over?

Overall there is very little I would've done differently, and the main reason for that is planning.

I spend plenty of time organizing my plans and making sure I have been, and will be, approaching tasks in the most efficient manner possible.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

In a general sense, two things:

  1. Writing about practically every aspect of the development process has been great — and not simply from a marketing perspective. It also provides a medium through which to help organize my thoughts, and in turn once I share the content with others their own reactions can often spark even more interesting ideas.
  2. Although for many years I've been into creating games, I was never into the business side, or even the marketing and community sides of things, despite how important all that is to commercial development. It was frequently reading conversations on r/gamedev that taught me a lot, and all the anecdotes and postmortems were great for building an understanding of what I was getting into and what needed to be done.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

To continue my previous answer: Whatever you're doing, find people experienced in that field and learn from them. The internet makes this so easy nowadays, so take advantage of it! Thorough research is a great way to save time in the long run.

Start with a prototype! Don't immediately start building the full-scale idea if it can be represented in a much more compact and easily implemented form. Try that first and see what works and what doesn't, because a fundamental redesign my be called for, and that's not something you want to do months or years into a project!

Have a reliable source of income (even if it's from an unrelated side job), or a foolproof budget and source of funds for your project, because running out of funding is a terrible way to go. Being forced to pause or slow progress while dealing with funding issues means a loss of momentum, which will have a negative impact in terms of both marketing and personal motivation. Most projects go over budget due to unforeseen circumstances, so there'd better be some padding in there!

I see people who do none of the above, and yeah that rarely goes well...

Where can we go to learn more?

I have hundreds of articles on my blog and r/roguelikedev FAQs, and I post updates and interesting bits of info fairly regularly on Twitter at @GridSageGames.

Cogmind is now on Steam, but I've also been selling direct from my website for over two years.

Thanks for the invitation to share on Indie Hackers, and I'm all for helping people, so anyone with questions feel free to ask in the comments below.

Josh Ge , Creator of Grid Sage Games

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    Hello Josh,
    fellow game developer here, this was an interesting read for me.
    Thanks for sharing your experience, I will have to read some of your blog posts too.

    Looking at the Cogmind website, I am wondering: Is there a free demo of Cogmind? I don't see any such thing there.

    1. 3

      Hi! I think you'll find plenty of useful info in my blog and other writings.

      All I have is the prototype from 2012 which is still available for download, but no demo, no. I decided not to bother with a demo since they aren't nearly as important or helpful as they used to be. Check out this old but popular video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QM6LoaqEnY

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        Interesting video, looks like I have to make some trailers for my games.

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          You definitely do! A good trailer is very much worth the time. I spent three weeks on mine (full time, so that's a... lot of hours), and on top of that cost also hired a good composer to do a custom track for it.

          I also have an article on the entire trailer-making process that might be of help to you! http://www.gridsagegames.com/blog/2015/06/making-cogminds-alpha-trailer/

          I am still using that trailer over two years later, haha.

  2. 3

    Glad to hear your experience. I'm heading in your direction and am hoping to achieve similar results some day. I've been working on a game in my spare time for the last year and a half and recently released it. My results so far are underwhelming, but I keep working on updates. I've learned much more after releasing it than while working on it.

    While this game is a labour of love, I hope to get at least 50$ MRR to consider it a commercial success. My ultimate goal is to be able to work on small games full time without the need for any of them to be a smash hit.

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      Yeah it's important to get practice with the entire process before trying to do it "for real." So many people want to quit their job and jump into their first commercial game and that's fine, just don't expect to make enough to get by on that alone xD.

      Small projects apparently aren't for me (too perfectionist, and Cogmind was supposed to be a "short" project and now look what it's become...), but I know devs who approach it like you're thinking and the key is to stick to tight deadlines and keep scope as small as possible. Eventually you'll be skilled enough to fit more and cooler content into the same dev cycle length, but in any case you need to be churning out projects at a decent rate so their lower price and lesser revenues can compound with each other over time. Eventually you might want to bring down "a year and a half" to 6-12 months or even less. Otherwise if you go much bigger and any of them flop you're suddenly out of funds! I went into this just thinking I'd see it through with my savings, and if revenue beyond that was insufficient I'd just go back to it being a hobby, but gladly it's been enough.

      It's a tough market though, for sure. It has to be rewarding in other ways otherwise it's easy to be disappointed. At least once you start selling your games that sure is a pretty neat feeling, that people would pay for your creations. Of course with that comes more responsibility in terms of customer support :)

      Good luck!

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        I also have problems with perfectionism (even wrote a blog post about it), my original deadline was one month. That is the reason why I intend to work on small projects (at least in the near future).

        Jumping in to work full time requires courage and I admire anyone who manages to do it. Unfortunately I have financial obligations that prevent me from doing this. So for now working in my spare time is the only way to go, which has obvious effects on my productivity and ability to keep deadlines. Hopefully, as you said, I will bring the production cycle down to a few months and be able to gain some traction.

        Thanks for the advice!

  3. 3

    Great to see another game developer on here! Good luck with Cogmind. I love the aesthetic! Also REXPaint is great. One time I was thinking about toying around writing an ASCII/ANSI editor for fun but then I found REXPaint and it blew me away!

    1. 2

      Hi Sam! Thanks and yeah I was looking around for other devs but IH has such a wide variety of projects that I hadn't yet found any :P

      Back in 2013 I found someone else's editor and planned to just use that, but it didn't have many features so I looked around and found like 4-5 more, also with small feature sets. Then I just said fine, I'll make my own! Still so much more I could (and will eventually) do with it, but it's definitely become the most functional ASCII/ANSI editor out there. I get plenty of use out of it, but releasing something that allows others to express their creativity has been quite rewarding in itself <3

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