Is a successful Web-based game something that pays for itself (bandwidth, infrastructure, etc.)? Is it something that provides adequate financial reward compared to the development effort? Is it something that generates enough popularity to generate marketing awareness for some other entity?
The answer really depends on the intent of the developer. A hobbyist may want a game to cover his expenses. An independent may want the game to generate some amount of revenue to justify his continued effort in it, ignoring the initial development effort (which was most likely done in spare time without any initial working capital). A traditional company will certainly measure success by the total return on investment, considering development and operating costs, but may consider a Web game a "success" if it exists more as a marketing toy to bring awareness to other products or services offered by the company.
I haven’t done serious research, but my experience is that most Web-based games are developed by hobbyists or independents, making the need for a "true return on investment" an afterthought when defining the game’s success.
But what of the intangible costs? What of the experience and knowledge obtained while developing and operating a game? Does this not have value?
A personal example:
I’ve probably spent somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 hours working on my game, CSFBL, since late 1999. It’s impossible to nail down an exact number, because I do it in my spare time. There have been weeks where 40 hours dedicated to it is an understatement, and weeks where 5 hours is stretching it. How do you quantify those hours? At a measly $25 an hour, that’s between $50k and $100k. It takes a lot for a Web-based game to generate that kind of revenue, and I’d bet most of those games that reached a "production" stage don’t accumulate that in their lifetime.
I’ll confess: CSFBL hasn’t brought in anywhere near that kind of money – and when you consider the expenses of the server and bandwidth, it has probably operated at a loss throughout its entire history [i]before you consider any compensation for my time[/i]. But, the knowledge I have gained from this has catapulted my ability to do other work (though not the work I’d like to do, which is Web games!). Has the indirect benefit of my game been enough to call it a success? Only I can judge that. Some days, I feel it has.
It would be interesting to hear other people’s experiences in this area.