Hitbox Team has posted a thorough article (opens in new tab) describing the financial expenses and returns from its 2012 sidescroller Dustforce . The story begins in 2010, when the then two-person team built the first prototype, caught the eye of Steam, and won $100,000 in a contest.
"$100,000 USD is a significant amount of money, but is it enough?" asks the post, which offers perspective on indie game budgets with the simple equation: "Minimum cost to make a game = cost of living × time needed × team size." It's a useful perspective, because game budgets—especially Kickstarter goals as of late—can appear astronomical as lump sums, but look far less impressive when stretched out over time.
"Time is money, as they say, and we needed roughly a year and a half to finish Dustforce," continues the post. "How much does a year cost? We were all living in different areas of the world at the time (Brisbane, Tokyo, New York, and Cincinnati)—on average, it would cost us around $20k per person per year to live frugally. A lot of the prize money went to paying existing bills, debts, and traveling expenses. Between three people (the fourth lived off his own savings), the remaining money would last about one and a half years.
"This was just enough time to finish the game, but it was cutting it a bit close—you don't want to finish the project with zero dollars in the bank. It can take up to 90 days to receive the first payment from sales, and of course it's possible that the game might not sell well at all, so it would be ideal to leave a few months of money in reserve."
$20K a year in New York and Tokyo? That's living very frugally, I'd say, but Dustforce turned out to be worth the time, earning the four developers $295K to split after accounting for all other expenses (the total revenue of the game was $668,490). That's about $73K each, but it took a year to get there—the graph above shows the game's first 60 days on Steam and just how dramatic the sales drop-off is.
Later, it would spike again, selling 17,462 copies during a Steam Midweek Madness sale. Then there was its Humble Bundle inclusion, which earned $153,915 and caused another bump in Steam sales, presumably from word-of-mouth recommendations.
For the complete—and very fascinating—breakdown of Dustforce's expenses, revenue, and profit, head over to the post on Hitbox's site (opens in new tab) .