How do we define a game as successful, and what does that say about us and the games we create?
The big publishers clearly regard return on investment as being a significant factor, and that's not an unreasonable attitude for companies who are committed to producing AAA games with budgets in the millions - they stand to lose a lot if the game is not commercially successful, so any measure of success must include whether the game allows the studio to continue making games in the future. Like a film studio, too many flops can kill a publisher.
But what of hobbyist games, or independent games that are released either freely or at a bare minimum? Certainly with CivClicker I had no sense of monetary reward as a yardstick of success. I was just happy that people who weren't me or my friends were playing and enjoying the game.
CivClicker's had over a million unique play sessions at this point, averaging over three hours each. By the criterion of "people who aren't just me and my friends playing", it's a successful game. By the standards of most commercial and even many indie game developers, it was a complete waste of time - it's made approximately enough money for me in tips to buy me a couple of pizzas and it has only vaguely approached the viral heights of the most popular in the genre.
Artistically it's of debatable merit, too. It's really just a complex Skinner box built out of hacky code, it doesn't tell much of a story, and the mechanics aren't even particularly well balanced. If it's art at all, it's a statement about how stripping a concept down to its bare bones can often still leave a satisfying experience. Is it artistically successful? Even I couldn't tell you that.
In the end I'm going to stick with my initial measure: did people have fun playing? My email inbox says yes. Good enough for me.
Feedback is really, really important to the game design process. As much as people might accuse me of being an auteur on certain aspects of my game design process, it's clear that games are developed for an audience - and if there's any true measure of whether a game is good or not, it's how strongly it resonates with that audience and how well it achieves its design goals (which, to my mind, should include at their core whether its intended audience enjoy playing).