This post originally appeared on the old site on March 31, 2005.
Recently there's been a lot of negativity in the IndieGamer Forums. This is nothing new, but a lot of incorrect ideas are being thrown around. These ideas include statements such as "You have to be on the portals to be successful" and that "It was easier to be successful in the 90s". These are simply not true.
In one thread, one regular poster said:
At this point I like to point the n00bs at Dexterity's Brainwave as a counter-example. Brainwave has been ludicrously successful by our standards. It's $9.95, utter utter utter crap, and Steve P. reckoned once in a post that it had made him $10k-$12k over the years versus the 2 weeks he put into developing it.
I've never seen the game and I suspect it was not crap (especially for its time), but this gave me an idea. Everybody keeps focusing on the big hits like Bejeweled as examples of successful indie games. But how about looking in detail at a smaller game, a small success, a game that made money and shows how you can make money with small, simple games.
Therefore, I'll tell the story of my game FreeCell Plus. FreeCell Plus is one of my first products, released in 1996. It is one of my lowest selling games (now), but by comparison to some of the sales reports on Indiegamer, it was a huge success. It certainly is a very profitable game. Here I will tell you how FreeCell Plus came about, how it was developed, where it stands today, and how it shows that a small game with a targeted focus can be successful.
The Reason for the Game
It is December 1995. Windows 95 was just released a few months earlier in August. Bundled in Windows 95 was a new game in addition to the solitaire game that came with previous versions of Windows. Windows 95 came with a game called FreeCell. In these last few months of 1995 many people were seeing FreeCell for the first time on new computers with Windows 95.
But everybody didn't move to Windows 95 at once. In December 1995, most people were still using Windows 3.1. They saw Windows 95 on new machines, at work for example, but then came home to Windows 3.1. Windows 3.1 did not include FreeCell.
My Pretty Good Solitaire game had been on the market for awhile longer than Windows 95. It worked on Windows 3.1 and included FreeCell. A lot of people were finding it and buying it because it was a way that they could play FreeCell on Windows 3.1.
However, I started getting emails from people who wanted to play FreeCell and only FreeCell. They weren't interested in all the other games in Pretty Good Solitaire. At that time it only had 30 games (now it has 610 [now 640]), but at that time 30 games was a lot.
It occurred to me that there might be a market for a standalone FreeCell game for Windows 3.1. At that time, there were only two ways to play FreeCell on Windows 3.1. Buy Pretty Good Solitaire, or find a copy of the Microsoft Windows Entertainment Pack in stores. The Entertainment Pack had a FreeCell game that worked on Windows 3.1. But it sold only at retail and was hard to find in stores. It also had a bunch of other games that people might or might not be interested in. And that was it. If there were other Windows 3.1 FreeCell games available, they weren't obvious to someone searching the internet or online service file libraries of the time.
Therefore, there was a clear market need.
The Development of FreeCell Plus.
Armed with Visual Basic 3.0 and the code for Pretty Good Solitaire, I created the first version of FreeCell Plus in one day between Christmas and New Year's. Since the game was already written, it was just a matter of pulling out the game of FreeCell and creating a new interface for the new game. I also added a couple of other games, Sea Towers and Stalactites, so it would actually be 3 games in one.
FreeCell Plus is released.
On January 25, 1996 I released FreeCell Plus. At that time, that primarily meant uploading it to file libraries on AOL and Compuserve. I also had an AOL based web page for the game. Primary ordering was by mail order. The only online ordering was through Compuserve's SWREG service, a system where Compuserve members could buy the game and put the charge on their Compuserve bill (what a great service that was...sniff). It had a 30 day trial period, but never timed out. It sold for $12, plus $3 if you wanted a diskette.
FreeCell Plus sells!
FreeCell Plus got it first sale on February 4, 1996. In fact there were two of them, both through Compuserve, one from Norway, the other from South Carolina. The first mail order came in on February 26, 1996. In fact, FreeCell Plus sold very well. It became my #2 selling product in 1996. Clearly there was indeed a market need. As the internet caught on, I added internet ordering.
On March 8, 1997 I released a version 2.0 with 2 more games, that took another day or so to develop. On July 5, 1998 I released version 3.0 with 3 more games, again a day or so of work.
By 1998 it was clear, though, that the days of FreeCell Plus should be numbered. Most people had moved up to Windows 95 (or 98) and Windows 3.1 was now an obsolete operating system.
FreeCell Plus is replaced.
In September 1998 I replaced FreeCell Plus with a new game, FreeCell Wizard. FreeCell Wizard was very much like FreeCell Plus, except it added the feature of being able to create new FreeCell type games from properties set by a Wizard (this came directly out of Pretty Good Solitaire 98). And it was made for Windows 95 (32 bit code), rather than the 16 bit Windows 3.1 code of FreeCell Plus. I introduced FreeCell Wizard and planned to phase out FreeCell Plus. In 1999 or 2000, I removed the link to the FreeCell Plus page from the main page of my site.
The game refused to die!
But a funny thing happened: people kept on buying FreeCell Plus. Into the 2000s, Windows 3.1 is dead and buried. But apparently, there are still people out there running it. And they still want to play FreeCell. And they still kept buying FreeCell Plus. Despite the fact that the game was replaced by another game, its operating system was obsolete, it just kept going.
Where FreeCell Plus stands today.
The FreeCell Plus web page is still up and running. The content is essentially unchanged from 1998. However, there are no links to it from my major web pages. The only traffic the page gets is from search engines or from my freecell.org site. But it does get search engine traffic. Just go to Google, Yahoo, or MSN (take your pick) and search on "Windows 3.1 FreeCell" or "Freecell Windows 3.1". People looking for a Windows 3.1 FreeCell game still find FreeCell Plus today. And it still get sales (usually my wife says "another FreeCell Plus sale!" to me whenever she processes one). Based on some of the sales figures given at Indiegamer, it's still outselling a lot of people's games.
Summary of FreeCell Plus.
To summarize: Over the 9 years of FreeCell Plus's life, it's sold thousands of copies and earned in the upper five figures (considerably more than $50,000). Not bad for a game that took about a week's work to create and release. For two years, 1996 and 1997, it was my #2 selling game. It then got replaced by another game which went on to be even more successful and earned in the hundreds of thousands, so it had a baby that was even more successful than itself. Its baby continues to sell quite well and FreeCell Plus itself still gets a few sales. Its customers now all come from search engines from people looking specifically for a Windows 3.1 FreeCell game.
Total marketing spending was about $50. I once submitted it to various BBS systems and file libraries using an old service called Author Direct and that cost around $50. That's the only marketing I ever did for the game.
The Moral of FreeCell Plus.
FreeCell Plus shows how an indie game can be successful if it fills a market need. Note that the game was created because there was a market need. I did not just create a game for the heck of it and try to sell it. The market need came first. It also shows how a game will sell off of search engine traffic alone. No portals necessary. What you need is a game that is something people search for. FreeCell Plus has owned a search keyword ("freecell windows 3.1") for almost a decade.
Now note that people don't search for the game specifically. That is, people don't search for "freecell plus" (well, actually, a very few people do, but obviously they've heard of it before). If you have a big hit game, people might search on the game name (I'm sure lots of people search on "bejeweled" and lots of people do search on "pretty good solitaire"). But that only happens after the game gets huge brand awareness. That only happens for the handful of hit games. Let's face it, that's just not going to happen to you. Not until after you already are successful, anyway. But a whole lot of people search for games every day on the search engines. 95% of these people have probably never been to a portal and will probably never go to one. But they do know Google, Yahoo, and MSN. And they are looking for games there. A game can be successful like FreeCell Plus if you can find a search keyword that people are looking for. And FreeCell Plus also shows that the keyword does not need to have much traffic, either. Not many people are searching for "windows 3.1 freecell" these days (and it was never very high traffic, as when there were lots of Windows 3.1 machines, there were few people on the internet).
There are probably thousands of potential keywords that you could create games for. It is just a matter of targeting something that people are already looking for. It seems like a lot of indie game developers are trying to create demand for their games rather than creating games where demand already exists. You can succeed by creating demand, but probably not. It's easier and less risky to go where the demand already is. Find a keyword and own it. It's a profitable strategy. And look for ones that aren't already taken, as that really helps. FreeCell Plus had no competition for its keyword back when it counted and that helped.
I'm sure the negativity people will say that it can't be done today, that it may have worked in 1995 but won't in 2005. That's nonsense. In the Long Tail there's an embarassment of niches. Find one. Find a game that fits something people are looking for. Then you'll get free traffic from the search engines.