We all know that GameMaker: Studio permits just about anyone to make games and then port them to multiple platforms and that thanks to tools like this there has been a boom in indie gaming. Small studios and hobbyists are now able to get their games out to the world in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago, and there are more opportunities than ever to make a bit of money from your projects.
However, to a new developer or someone just breaking into publishing for the first time, making money from your work can seem a bit of a daunting task, and it can be difficult to know where to start. In this article we are going to briefly explore some of the options available to you and hopefully give you a starting point for the monetisation of your work.
Everyone hates advertising. I know that, you know that, even my cat knows that! But that doesn't mean it's something to avoid using in your game... If implemented correctly, advertising can create a fantastic passive income that requires little effort to set up and maintain - but it has to be set up right. Sticking ads into the game without any thought will inconvenience the player and may appear that you are desperate for cash or putting more importance on the ads than the game. This will turn the player off and make them uninstall your game in an instant.
So how should advertising be used in your projects? In general, advertising is most effective when it is placed in natural breaks in the gameplay, like when the game is paused, or when the game over screen comes up, or even when there is a level change. That's the only real trick to advertising - make sure that it's unobtrusive, doesn't interfere, and only appears when the player has a few moments of down-time from playing. For example, interstitial ads can be annoying when they are shown too often or at inappropriate times - I've seen games that actually pause the game to show an interstitial - but interstitials are also amongst the highest paying ads you can support, so have GameMaker only show them when the player has died, and consider having a counter so that they are only shown every 5th death or something. That way you won't tire your audience and they won't feel that they are being "milked" for cash.
Remember, the GameMaker advertising extensions permit you to pre-load interstitials and to add/move/remove banner ads at will, so use these functions to ensure that the ads are integrated seamlessly within your game.
This is another business model that a lot of people don't like. The phrase "In app purchases" conjures up free-to-play money grabs - like the game Dungeon Keeper by EA - but, as with advertising, when done right they work well and can earn you a nice income over the lifetime of your game.
A current example of in app purchases done right in my opinion is the game Hearthstone, by Blizzard. It's a table-top card game where you have to battle with opponents from across the world, and it's completely free. In fact, it's quite possible to play Hearthstone, and more importantly progress in Hearthstone, without spending a penny. There are daily challenges and other "quests" which will earn you cards, and you can also buy new ones using the in-game currency that you get from defeating opponents. However if you want to expand your deck faster, or are looking for that "killer" card, then you can spend some real money to get extra in-game currency and so buy new decks. The way that the game handles this is very clever, as the decks you get for playing are the same as those you get from paying, so the game remains balanced and fair for everyone, and it appears to work from a monetising stand point too, as it has been one of the highest grossing games on iOS of all time.
So, from this example we can take a couple of things and apply them to our smaller independent games:
Those two things can be applied on a general level to most games with an in app purchase system and will greatly enhance the income that you receive. The down side, however, is that in app purchases can be tricky to set up and require a bit more maintenance than advertising does... but don't be put off as GameMaker: Studio does have a complete set of functions you can use, and you can find help on the Knowledge Base or even from the Marketplace.
As mentioned above, advertising and in app purchases can be a big turn off to some players, so what alternative do you have, if any? You can fall back on the tried-and-true premium version of your indie game. A premium version simply means you offer the full game, ads and IAP free, for a fixed price - y'know, "old skool", the way games were always sold until the invention of the digital store, DLC, Early Access and Crowdfunding!
By offering a premium version of your indie game, you can remove in-game ads and forget about in app purchases, and with services like Itch.io, Steam, GoG and the GameMaker: Player, it has never been easier to offer full games at a decent price. Even on the mobile app stores you can offer a free, cut-down version and then link to your paid premium version, either in game or from the store pages. This can also be a great selling point for your game, as I've seen a number of developers use "IAP Free" and "Complete and Full" as slogans in their media campaigns.
This may not seem like a very viable alternative to most people, but donationware games can do well for the developer. It's a method that has been around since the days of the ZX Spectrum when people like Jeff Minter created games like LLamatron and asked people to "fling them a fiver" if they liked the game. Giving away your product for free and asking your fans to donate if they enjoyed it and want to see other, top-quality products like it worked for them and it can work for you, although it may not appear to be such a great idea at first.
Donationware works by informing your customers that they are not obliged to pay for your product in order to enjoy it, but can instead donate a few dollars to you if they enjoy what they play (a lot of people that publish to Itch.io do this). It may sound absurd, but it can work well, as people can often put a greater value on your work than you yourself would have. This is especially true if you have built a community around your game or studio through blog posts and beta downloads etc... as the user then has an interest in seeing you finish it and are grateful for the work you've done when you do. In fact, I'd say that getting donations depends on having a good community and great social skills, so you might want to release a couple of small 100% free games before starting to look for donations just to establish your studio name.
On a slightly broader note, this type of system has expanded into more modern versions, with things like Patreon and the Humble Bundle offering games and services for a donation or a pay-what-you-want basis. This has worked for many developers and is an expanding area so it's worth considering these alternative avenues for monetising too.
Note that I'm not including things like crowdfunding or Early Access in this article, simply because I feel that they are for funding the development of the game, and not for making the devs rich!
This last monetisation idea may surprise you, but no matter how big or small your studio is, you can create a line of merchandising for your games easily and with practically no cost. If your game has a marketable protagonist, or some other visual element that stands out, then you can create merchandising for it through sites like Zzazzle, Spreadshirt or FanGamer (how many GameMaker games can you spot there?). You can also create merchandising for your game logo, or your studio logo, or anything else that you think could be marketable. While the income from these sites may not be the best, it is another passive stream that requires little to set up and maintain, and so should still be considered.
Note that most of the item stores that you can sign up with will offer a massive range of products that you can personalise. My advice would be to not go wild and create everything from mouse-mats to glow in the dark earrings, but rather concentrate on a few basic items that you know people will want, ie: t-shirts and posters. That way you can have a few select items on display and the user won't be confused or think that you're over-reaching.
While I'd like to think that everyone making games is doing it for the love of art, I know that even if that were the case you still have to eat! So monetising your work in some way is incredibly important, and I hope this article has helped put a few new ideas on the table for you to consider. Any one of the ideas presented will help generate income for you, but the best approach will probably be a combination of one or more (or all!) of them, depending on your game and how you want to do things. So, good luck!