Developer Ryan Green noted in a blog post that since its launch over two months ago, That Dragon, Cancer has only sold an estimated 14k copies, according to SteamSpy. That's not that much for a team of eight across the past three years.
"Our studio has not yet seen a single dollar from sales," said Green. As for the existing revenue, he clarified "We decided to pay off all of our debt as soon as possible."
The developer suggested that the reasons sales were so low was because many folks chose to watch Let's Play videos of the two-hour game rather than purchase it. "We underestimated how many people would be satisfied with only watching the game instead of playing it themselves," Green lamented.
"If you compare the millions of views of the entirety of our game on YouTube to our sales as estimated on SteamSpy, you can hopefully see the disparity," he continued. "We have seen many people post our entire game on YouTube with little to no commentary. We've seen people decompile our game and post our soundtrack on YouTube. We've also seen many, many Let's Players post entire playthroughs of our game, posting links to all of their own social channels and all of their own merchandising and leaving out a link to our site."
"If a fraction of those who viewed a let's play or twitch stream of our game left us a $1 tip on our website (less than the cost of renting a movie), we would have the available funds to continue to work and create for the benefit of the gaming and the Let's Play community."
The developer at one point issued Content ID claims for the game, in part because That Dragon, Cancer composer Jon Hillman's work was being used without his permission.
"We paid Jon to create music for our game because we understand that he needs to be paid in order to spend time creating that music. If someone else uses his music without permission, we also believe he should have the right to determine the consequence. And if there is revenue being drawn from that use, we believe he should be compensated," Green explained.
This brought about a fair deal of backlash, resulting in Green removing the Content ID from Hillman's music and addressing the matter head on in his blog post.
"We did not intend to make copyright claims or to force anyone to take down their videos, we simply intended for Jon to be able to draw some income from the original soundtrack to our game that he poured his heart into," Green said.
"We have allowed our content, the fruit of our sweat and our tears, to be used by Let's Players and to your fans for free to create content with, and you are drawing a small amount of ad revenue from our content."
Though Let's Play video of full playthroughs have burned the developer, Green clarified that he's still a fan of Let's Play videos so long as they're handled responsibly and only show snippets of a larger product.
"We are asking that you return that favour by creating Let's Play videos that don't just rebroadcast the entirety of our content with minimal commentary, but instead use portions of our content as a context to share your own stories and start conversations with your viewers," he explained. "We would encourage you to link to our site and directly encourage viewers to support our work financially through buying the game, or donating a dollar or two to our studio if they believe that what we did has value. This small act will allow us to continue to work."
Despite its commercial struggles, Green and company are proud of the reception That Dragon, Cancer has received. It was not developed to make money, but rather to honour the life of Joel Green and his family's experience raising him.
"The last few months since we launched That Dragon, Cancer have been pretty incredible," Green beamed. "The mainstream culture, the gamer culture, and others have all embraced our story and been willing to listen to our heart as we released a project that we spent more than three years on. They're talking about Joel and sharing their own stories of loss and bringing comfort to each other. In every regard, the reach of our work continues to confound us."