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  • 'Good' Isn't Good Enough: Releasing an Indie Game in 2015

    - Daniel West
  • For the past three-and-a-half years or so, I've been working with a small team of students on an indie game called Airscape: The Fall of Gravity. We worked mostly part-time; I took on about a year of full-time work in the middle.

    As a quick introduction, Airscape is a 2D action platformer about a deep-sea octopus who has been kidnapped by a mechanical alien race, left to its own devices to survive in a crazy, gravity shifting world full of dangerous robot enemies.

    A screenshot of the first zone of Airscape. The difficulty ramps quite quickly from here!

    Airscape has won a few awards, including the PAX Australia Indie Showcase selection and the Intel Level Up competition. We've showed the game in the Indie MEGABOOTH three times, as well as appearing at numerous other trade events.

    Airscape finally went on sale on Steam and the Humble Store just over three weeks ago. As the review embargo lifted, we saw fairly consistent reviews of 70-80% - Airscape currently sits at around 75% on Metacritic. Not bad for a first effort from a team of students! Not amazing either - but we'll get to that later.

    Airscape was a total commercial failure. I've actually never heard of a game released on Steam (with some level of marketing) that has sold less copies than Airscape, although I'm sure they exist. Currently, the exact figure sits just shy of 150 copies sold across all distribution platforms. Even conservatively estimating 10% of lifetime sales at launch, we will barely break even on PR costs, never mind development costs. Thankfully, none of the team was financially reliant on the game doing well - all of us have good safety nets.

    Why did Airscape flop so badly? As always, the answer is complicated. I certainly don't know the whole truth but I'm going to do my best to spell out what happened, and what I think it means for other development teams hoping to release an indie game for PC.

    The marketing

    Early on in the development of Airscape, I realized that marketing would play a very important role if Airscape was ever going to be a success. I read every guide out there, asked for advice, and got a pretty good picture about the right things to do when it came to marketing a PC indie game. Starting with the launch, and with subsequent press pushes at major events like GDC, PAX East, Prime, Aus, etc, I reached out personally to all the media I could.

    I was met with almost universal disinterest. While this was disappointing at first, I realized that without something actionable (a game or Kickstarter launch, for instance) I couldn't really expect a lot of press attention. Even so, for the 2.5 years between the announcement and launch window, I did the best I could to spread the word. Here are some of the things I did marketing-wise for Airscape during this time:

    • Personally emailed press whenever there was reasonable news - announcement, new trailer, showing at a con, etc.

    • Exhibited at several events across the globe - GDC, PAX East, PAX Prime, PAX Aus, Denver Comic-Con, and more.

    • Submitted to a number of awards. The game was selected for two of them!

    • Was fairly active on social media.

    • Maintained a good-looking website, with presskit() integration.

    • Posted to Reddit, forums, and so on.

    As we moved towards the launch window, I figured the smartest move would be to hire a professional game PR company (obviously one with lots of indie experience) to promote the game. I knew that I didn't have all the answers when it came to PR so I removed myself from the equation by hiring a company with real-world know-how. I spent a decent amount of money on that, just to make absolutely sure that the marketing would be a success during the critical launch period.

    When the launch embargo lifted, we were again disappointed to see almost total disinterest from all major press outlets, streamers and journalists alike. There were a few notable exceptions, but overall, launch went by and the gaming press at large simply didn't acknowledge the game's release. I do not think the PR company failed in any way - you'll see why bit later.

    One of the exceptions. This video generated maybe 20 sales.

    Reviews of the game had been universally positive. Here then, perhaps, lied our salvation. Even more powerful than press marketing is the raw power of Steam's metric driven frontpage; surely a good game would find its way to the hallowed ‘popular new releases' column, especially during a time window specifically chosen to contain very few notable releases?

    Not so. After the brief stint on the frontpage that is guaranteed to all Steam games, Airscape vanished.

    Metrics showed that this front page stint generated very few sales, as did a multiple-day front page presence on the Humble Store. This is important, as you'll see shortly.

    At this point, I think it's fair to say that we can eliminate bad marketing as the main cause of the game's failure. Press were given ample opportunity to write about the game, and for the most part, thanks to the great work done by the PR company, they were made aware that it existed. Indeed, we actually heard back from many large press outlets saying they would not review or cover the game's launch. As mentioned before, it wasn't exactly a busy period so I think it would be incorrect to chalk it all up to bad timing.

    After a week or so, sales trickled down to roughly one copy per day. At the moment, it's about zero copies per day.


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