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  • Postmortem: Spaceslingers

    [05.11.21]
    - Drew McIntosh

  • THOUGHTS ON MARKETING

    Firstly, I think there's a lot that can be said for effective marketing and this was a completely new area for me. As a hobbyist dev, the most marketing I ever did was post in the game dev forums that I frequent "Hey I made a game".

    Clearly that wouldn't be good enough for a commercial launch, so I started trying to learn how to market. The internet is filled with tons of useful (and not-so-useful) information about marketing.

    One of the more curious phenomena I encountered was the struggling dev turned marketing pro. People who, at one point, were trying to make and sell games, but then realised there's a vast market of indie devs desperate for marketing advice, so they turned around and started selling advice to that market instead of selling their game to the general public. They're most often youtubers and they have a huge back catalogue of 10-minute videos that are lightly edited where they talk about different marketing tactics/situations/whatevers. Most of what they discuss is fairly light on actionable advice and heavy on generic and pretty obvious statements. These people are good for motivation if you need a dose of "You can do it!" but generally shouldn't be followed for actual marketing advice.

    Instead, I found https://howtomarketagame.com/Mike Rose's twitter feed (from NoMoreRobots), the GameDiscoverability newsletterDerek Lieu's game trailer adviceGDC videos, and, of course, Gamasutra to be the best resources. I didn't find all these resources straight up and it was a pretty long and confusing journey to get to this point, but I think they each capture unique viewpoints and segments of the marketing industry in relation to game development and provide solid actionable advice. If I had been following all of them from the start, I might've been able to tweak the sales needle a little more than I did with Spaceslingers.

    Some things to comment on about my marketing approach:

    1. If I had a small budget, I would've spent it on three things: Better artwork in-game (I'm proud of what I achieved on my own as a non-artist, but it definitely could've been better). A commissioned trailer (again, I did what I could with what I had, but I am not a video editor and the whole process was a massive struggle plus I don't think it showcases the game very well). And finally, a commissioned Steam page capsule (once again, me no do art too good, a proper Steam capsule would've increased my click-through rate which would've meant more exposure and more chances for people to purchase the game).
    2. I marketed too much to fellow devs. This is a massive pitfall for new developers and it doesn't help you at all. Market on twitter, reddit, and discord, wherever you can find, but don't market on game dev forums. You can post updates and stuff, or engage in chat, but don't "market" there.
    3. I struggled mightily keeping up with a consistent stream of updates. This wasn't to say I didn't have updates to show, just that the way I went about showing them wasn't methodical or planned. Having a consistent posting schedule, with a checklist to follow to make sure I wasn't being dumb and forgetting important stuff, would probably have helped a lot.
    4. I expected too much from too little. Each time I posted something, I would put a lot of effort into it (even if it didn't necessarily show, lol) and then sit back and expect it to continue "marketing" for a while. I think it's much better to push out smaller constant updates, so you aren't wasting as much time creating showcasey things and are more just keeping your game in people's view so they start remembering it.
    5. Targeted marketing is key. I sent out a "fair" amount of keys (roughly 100, if I remember correctly) to reviewers, youtubers, streamers, etc. A lot of these ended up on the black market being resold, which sucked, but also basically none of them ended up with any coverage. The only coverage I got was two pieces on space.com (which was super cool but didn't lead to many sales) and a few "aggregation" sites. Everything I sent out was personalised to the person I was sending it to, but not necessarily targeted towards their content (beyond "indie games"). All, that is, except for space.com, the one place that had a similar theme to the game. And that is where I got the most coverage. So targeting is key.

    Anyway, enough recapping of marketing, I already did that pretty extensively in part one.


    THOUGHTS ON THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS

    I decided to make Spaceslingers because I thought it was small enough in scope that I could get it done quickly, while still liking the concept enough that I thought it was a pretty cool game. Turned out I was wrong about getting it done quickly (it took around 7 months), and people also didn't click with the concept as much as I did. Here are a few thoughts on that.

    • thought that the realistic gravity and "roughly true" space stuff that was in the game would be a good enough hook but it definitely wasn't enough. Perhaps it could've been if I was more effective at communicating the premise.
    • The genre I picked (it's half speedrun, half physics puzzle game) was terrible from the start. Steam gamers aren't really into that sort of thing very much and the intersection between space lovers and speedrun puzzle lovers is extremely small. I should've picked a different genre (in other words, a different game).
      • This and the previous point come down to one thing: Market Research. I should've done a lot more of that before I started on Spaceslingers. I would've realised that puzzle games have among the lowest profitability. I could've started judging the type of competition I would be against. I could've spent more time in the community of the genre I wanted to make to see what hits and what doesn't, etc, etc.
    • On to the next point. I decided to follow advice about "appropriate pricing", with the most common phrase I heard from marketers was that selling anything under $10 is a sign of lack of trust in your product and hurts all indie games in general. Now that might be true, but Steam gamers don't care, they will decide the price point and if you price yourself too high, you won't get sales. My price point of $7.99 is clearly below the $10 mark, yet, I probably would've done better releasing at $5 or under.
      • That being said, it's a very tricky area to navigate because Steam takes their cut and taxes take their cut, and if you price too low, even if you sell a lot of copies, you might be making pennies on the dollar and end up in the same position I did with the higher price point.
    • I should've had more playtesters. Now, there's no big bugs that I've had complaints from or anything like that, but I didn't have a huge number of playtesters and I think I might've benefited some from having a wider range of people playing the game, especially non-hardcore gamers. Because it's a puzzle game, it's probably going to be picked up by a more casual audience and yet the game is brutally hard at some points. I was afraid that people would blow through the content if it was too easy (and I can guarantee, if I had of made it easier, hardcore gamers would've been able to finish it in less than an hour), but I think that might've been preferable than having the majority of people struggle in the long run.
    • I spent a lot of time making things as perfect as possible (and, despite that, I still have shuddering thoughts thinking about some of the code in the game). My thought process on this was that I would make the game good enough that it would sell naturally. I no longer think that. Or rather, I think that "good" is a subjective quality and how "good" you make something should very much depend on what your budget and time is. Should you make shovel-ware or asset-flips? Hell no, of course not. But if you want to make a profit, you have to think really hard about the amount of time you spend tweaking systems/graphics/etc. I redid the level select screen probably 8 times during the development period, as I settled into the artistic design for the game and I think I could've gotten away with redesigning it once at the end. I redesigned the ship maybe 5 times, black holes and white holes maybe 10 times, etc, etc, etc. All of this had no impact on the playability of the game and I think would've been better spent either shipping the game earlier or spending that extra time tweaking the trailer and Steam page way more. Honestly, I should've shipped way earlier regardless.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I genuinely think that Spaceslingers is a good game, otherwise I wouldn't have spent the time making it. I think it's a lot of fun. It's difficult but rewarding. It has a lot of cool little interactions in it. There's quite a bit of content. I had a lot of fun making it. But I also see a lot of my bad decisions more clearly in hindsight and have tried to learn what I can from them.

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