Postmortem: Spaceslingers

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...


THE STATS

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 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.

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:

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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