By Drew McIntosh [05.11.21]
Find the original post here: https://refreshertowel.games/2021/04/13/recounting-a-successful-failure-the-spaceslingers-post-mortem/
This is the part two of my original post A Pre-Post Mortem About Marketing, if you haven't read that, I highly recommend you do so as I won't be covering the same material here and a lot of people found the original post helpful.
So what does a successful failure look like? Well, first, let's talk about success.
I had two pretty clear goals in mind when it came to launching Spaceslingers. Goal 1 was to learn the process of launching a commercial game through Steam. I've made many games over my last 15 years (on and off) of hobbyist game dev, but I had never made something that I had tried to sell and, as I started along the path of graduating from amateur to professional indie dev, that's a very clear and obvious hurdle that needs to be leapt over. I released the game, so that's this goal achieved.
Goal 2 was to make back the money I had to spend in order to make the game. I wasn't looking for profit, I was looking to break even in direct dollars that came out of my bank account. I managed to make the game with $0 in external costs (besides, of course, the cost of my time), so I essentially had to make back the Steam fee and I was in the clear for this goal. Did I do it? Yes, but juuuuust barely.
So I managed to achieve both my goals and I'm genuinely happy with that result. I learnt a LOT that I can apply in the future, which was really the meta-goal of both of my actual goals and I think I know where and how to improve for the next one.
However, this is where the failure comes in. When developers think of a game being a success, they are generally thinking in terms of how much money it made. Critical acclaim, everyone loving your game, achieving internally set goals...All of that is great, of course, but that won't pay the bills by itself. If I had to rely on the income from Spaceslingers to live by, I would've died a cold, lonely death from starvation a long time. This is not what would generally be called a success.
Before we forge ahead, let me briefly explain what Spaceslingers is so the article is a little less abstract. Spaceslingers is a physics based puzzle game revolving around delivering packages to target planets using gravitational slingshots. The game uses the actual formula for gravity F=G*M*m/r2 (almost all space games don't use this, they instead use the Patched Conic method, which essentially boils down to only calculating two bodies at once) and avoids the N-body problem by...well, brute forcing it in a small enough arena. It also has interstellar bodies that are both real and proposed, such as blackholes, wormholes and whiteholes.
Now that's out of the way, let's go over some points I came to learn as I trod the (well-beaten, at this point) path towards professional indie development...
First, let's get the stats out of the way. Here's some of the publicly available data about the game:
SteamDB is one of the only public sites that shows some stats for Spaceslingers (that I could find) and as you can see, the number of players is very low, with the peak being two and the blue morse code along the bottom of the graph being little periods of 1 players.
The owner estimations are also hilariously off, so remember to take that with a grain of salt if you're ever looking through info on games. I got a 100% positive rating, which is true, but means nothing unless people are finding and playing the game (and also, with the small number of reviews I've gotten, all it would take is a bad review or two to highly skew that number in a different direction).
So I did not sell many copies at all. Now, avoiding NDA breaking situations, let's look at a cropped version of my actual sales history:
The first burst is obviously the launch. I launched with a price-point of $7.99 US ($10.99 in my home currency of AUD) and a 10% discount. It definitely felt good to see copies selling but it was also immediately clear that things weren't looking super sunny on the sales front.
The second two spikes are Christmas period, which I had no sale going on for and I can't really account for any reason beyond people doing some Christmas shopping. By this point, I had very clearly come to the understanding that the game was not going to make much money at all, but again, it was nice to see some more sales.
The third, flat period actually encompasses another sale, a 35% off sale, which moved the needle not at all. People often talk about the long tail of sales, but unless some magic voodoo happens, I think I gave birth to a tail-less variety of game (though, I think this is more common than is commonly discussed). So what went wrong?
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 newsletter, Derek Lieu's game trailer advice, GDC 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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I 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.
THE FINAL TAKEAWAYS
As I said a lot of this stuff is easier to see in hindsight. Going through the process was 100% worth it for my personal growth as a developer because of how much I learned (and that was really my goal), but it definitely should have come at a lesser cost of time.
So for all the indie devs reading this. My final points are:
- Twitter isn't great for marketing, but it's ok at gauging interest in stuff. Reddit is pretty good for marketing, but there are some strict rules you need to follow about self-promotion which can hinder your advertising efforts. Don't do facebook, it's kinda useless.
- In the same vein, twitter actively suppresses tweets with links to external websites, so don't use it to sell your game. Treat twitter like a gamedev conference, to find industry people who might be able to amplify your voice, not general gamers. A subreddit, a discord channel, or a mailing list (or better yet all three) is where you want to be trying to drive interested people.
- Make a short, snappy, sweet game that you can pump out quickly for your first release. Don't make a bad game, but make a good game that isn't super-complex to make. Make it quick and price it accordingly, use it to learn how to navigate the steam ecosystem.
- Marketing starts from before you even decide what project you should seriously commit to. Prototype heavily and post stuff on twitter to see what the interactions are like. Now is the time to use your fellow gamedevs for feedback on ideas. Once you find a prototype that seems to shine to other people, do some market research on the genre/hook. Use that to decide if it's worth pursuing or not.
- No amount of marketing can make a really bad game sell well, but good marketing can make an average to good game sell better and can push an amazing game into stratospheric heights.
- Once you have an idea that you are going to pursue, don't keep it secret. The earlier you start building an audience the better. Things tend to snowball and followers beget followers. You might be at 10 followers for three months, then at 50 for a month, then at 200 for a few weeks, etc, etc. It all depends on how active you are and how cool your stuff is. But no one can follow what they don't know about.
- In correlation with the above, post as though you have an audience. It might feel weird, but no one cares. Talk into the void as though the void will talk back and eventually, it will.
- Budget your time, it's worth more than you think it is. The quicker you can get something done, the quicker you can move on to the next project, and the more chances you have of making something that truly does well.
- Don't become married to ideas, they are common and you should feel comfortable mutating them or dropping them.
- Finally, ignore everything I've said. Or not. Each game is unique and requires unique strategies to make them sing to the public. There's some basic groundwork you can do to start the ball rolling, but after that, try to think outside the box. The more interesting and unique your marketing materials can be, the better your chance of standing out from the crowd (and boy howdy is there a crowd these days). Some games get by on their art, others on their premise (Baba Is You, as an example) but no two games follow the exact same steps for marketing, and you shouldn't either. You are you, and no-one else can lay claim to that. Make weird, great games that EA wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. That's what our job is as indie developers, to make the interesting breakthroughs and experiments that help push the industry forward. Do your unique thing and do it well!
If you've read this far, I commend you. You've definitely got something, even if it's just an attention span. I hope you've found all this info helpful!
If you feel like it, follow me on twitter @refreshertowel to keep up with other stuff I post, check out Spaceslingers on Steam to see what all the fuss is about, or check out my latest project, Alchementalist, a spell-crafting roguelike dungeon crawler that allows you to manipulate the elements to create ever more crazy environmental effects!
Until next time, adieu!
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