It's tough. The mobile games market is heavily saturated with cheap $0.99 games and many freemium titles. Despite the name, freemium games make the most revenue-- Supercell, the makers of Clash of Clans is valued at roughly $5.5 billion. Freemium games make their money through viral feedback loops that reward players for in-game purchases. Heavily integrating item purchases and rewards into a game changes its design, and usually results in a game with less depth but more appeal to a wider, more casual audience. As a result, mobile games have earned a bad rap from many "serious" gamers. It's not unusual for a PC game on Steam to get bad reviews because it's a port of a mobile title.
Instead of making games on mobile, many developers now turn to Steam with the hope of earning higher revenues, which typically means just making enough to survive. Some developers can see a jump from $1k-3k a month on mobile to as much as $50k within their first week on Steam:
And Steam will have a few breakout indie hits every year that make their developers millions in revenue.
But Steam is changing. Of course word has gotten out that you can make some serious money on Steam, and Unity makes the barrier to entry pretty low. Steam continues to accept more games on their service, and it's already crowded. By getting your game on Steam you are no longer guaranteed success.
By opening their marketplace to more indie titles, Steam has seen a backlash of players complaining about being ripped off by paying for low quality titles. Future sales on the platform could be hurt as a result. To counter this, Steam recently instituted a refunds policy that can be redeemed for any game within 14 days of purchase and 2 hours of play time, no questions asked. As of its release, users can also request refunds for purchases dating back to 6 months. Yes, that means developers will need to refund money that was already paid to them by Steam. Only time will tell how this will affect indie developers in the long-term, but many anticipate it will have dire consequences for their revenues in the short-term.
As I said, the barrier to entry for making games today is fairly low. In the 90s and early 2000s, making a game was a highly technical endeavor, with teams having to write their own game engines or license an expensive one. But Unity and its assets store makes developing high quality games achievable for the smallest of teams. Artwork and design now take precedence over technical ingenuity. Most high quality titles I see have only 2 people full-time-- one artist, one coder-- with music and sound effects contracted out. And I even see amazing work where individuals are responsible for all art, code and music. So the biggest challenge today isn't building a game, but how to get the word out in an overly crowded market.
In the old world, players relied on traditional media outlets to learn about games. Gamers would read magazines like EGM and later websites like IGN. Today, gamers are increasingly ignoring the traditional news outlets and are discovering games by word-of-mouth on social networks and from high profile players on YouTube and Twitch. That's why Amazon paid $970 million in cash to buy Twitch, because it's a huge advertising platform for a > $46 billion industry.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of developers who think making a high quality game is enough to guarantee their success. "Build it and they will come" simply proves to be wrong after a game has launched, and countless good games only fail because of their lack of exposure. Many developers will stick their head in the ground for 1-2 years making a game, only popping up right before launch with a half-baked marketing plan. That means launching a poorly designed website, creating new Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and contacting bloggers and YouTubers last minute about their game. The indie devs who succeed are those who continuously send press material to bloggers and YouTubers, work to acquire followers on Twitter and Tumblr by posting updates, and keep engaged with their fans on Steam all throughout the 1-2 years of development. Marketing an indie game should not be an effort that starts right before launch, but sadly many developers do just that.
In the past, the challenge for game devs used to be the difficulties around developing and distributing games. Today, devs need to figure how to effectively market their games so that they can get enough exposure to succeed.