Note: This was originally posted on the old site on June 21, 2003.
Somebody got to this site last week by searching for "how many sales does a shareware game get". Also, another person searched for "how much does shareware games sell". Both of these people probably left without an answer. But in the interest of giving people what they want, I'll answer the question for future searchers.
The answer is 42.
OK, seriously, the answer is somewhere between zero and several million, with the most likely answer being something close to the zero. So 42 is as reasonable an answer as any.
There are basically two myths about shareware game sales. The first myth is that all you have to do is copy a successful game and you'll make millions. That just doesn't happen. Copies don't sell well. I imagine that the vast majority of all the shareware Tetris clones out there have sold fewer than 42 copies each (and maybe all of them together have sold 42 copies). Best selling games always do something differently, they generally aren't clones.
The second myth is that nobody makes any money selling shareware games. This isn't true either. While the vast majority of shareware games sell only a few copies, there are quite a few successful shareware game developers.
What you need is some perspective on how many copies most games of any kind sell. Most retail games don't sell many copies either. As Brad Wardell says in his article On Being an Independent Game Developer, a successful PC game sells between 30,000 and 50,000 copies. That's retail. Hit games may sell 100,000, and it's only the really big hits like The Sims that go into the millions. Most games of all types don't sell many copies, so it isn't surprising that most shareware games don't either.
So a shareware game that sells a few thousand copies is a successful one. But there are some very successful ones. While Brad Wardell's article is a good one, he does make a false statement:
I’m not aware of any games that are available exclusively electronically that have sold more than 5,000 units.
Well, I guess it's actually a true statement, it's just that he must not be very aware of the shareware game market. I have several games that have sold much more than that, and I know of quite of few others who must be selling much more than that (else they wouldn't be making a living or affording to pay their employees). PopCap claims to have sold over a million copies. It's not impossible to sell this many, it's just highly unlikely.
Shareware games are a hit driven business. The hit games make almost all the sales and most games fail. However, many of the games that fail don't have to. While a lot of games fail because they are just bad games, a lot of games fail because their developers don't know enough about marketing. You have to realize that a good, well programmed game is only step 1. It gets you nowhere except into the field. A game needs to have good marketing as well.