This article is inspired by another article by a fellow indie game developer: https://refreshertowel.games/2021/04/13/recounting-a-successful-failure-the-spaceslingers-post-mortem/
We had pretty similar goals and to my knowledge achieved pretty similar results, so I thought I’d link to his article here.
TRF was never meant to be a commercial project for me, I changed it to be commercial rather late into its development approximately 8 months before release to be exact.
There were upsides and downsides to this move. The upside was I became much more focused on the development of TRF, achieving more than I thought I would with the game, and with the hope burning in the background that maybe, just maybe, I could actually earn some money from doing this. The downside of this move was, that same hope I had burning in the background, was gradually creeping in and applying more pressure for TRF to do well. This pressure, over time, made me start to despise working on the game, and definitely development became more of a chore/job than a hobby.
Most days involved me working about 5-6 hours a day programming, and then trying to find something to share on Twitter each day, whether that was a simple screenshot, or a short GIF of something I had added to the game recently. These rather long hours meant that even when I wasn’t working on the game directly, I was usually thinking about how to market the game or promote it in some fashion.
- I invested too much emotionally in TRF.
- If you want to do game dev as an enjoyable hobby, you should avoid putting your game on Steam, and instead use less stressful platforms such as Itch. There is less paperwork, less evaluations, and less criticism.
Twitter was my primary means of marketing or talking about TRF. I also joined some indie-developer Discord servers where I could chat about and promote my game. These were a good help, and I recommend that if you are working on your Indie Game, that you join an Indie Dev Discord server where you can talk with others who are working on their games.
Was Twitter effective? To a degree. I never achieved wide-success on Twitter, even with my daily GIFs and screenshots. I hit a peak of about 130 followers by the time TRF released, which was after promoting the game on Twitter for many months. Others seem to reach thousands of followers relatively quickly, and I can’t tell you what causes this, but definitely you want to do more than just promote yourself. Involve yourself in what others are doing, like and ReTweet fellow indie dev posts. If someone comments on your tweet, absolutely interact with them.
I would not use Twitter as my primary means of marketing though, you should try and build up at least some connections with people in the indie dev world. Being in communication with streamers, Youtubers and writers for indie review sites is definitely a wise thing to do. Indie games are being released constantly, and everyone who covers indie games, is no doubt flooded with requests for them to review or feature their game. One of the best ways you can make your game stand-out is to have some connection to a content creator, whether they make videos or they write. They’re much more likely to make content for your game if they know you, and you aren’t just a random email they’ve received. The Discord servers I mentioned previously are a good way to build some connections in the Indie Dev world.
This is something I failed to do with TRF, instead relying mostly on Twitter. The truth is, more sales came from a Twitch streamer I know who gets about 50 viewers on his stream and streamed TRF 2 or 3 times, than came from me tweeting about my game constantly over a period of months.
The Steam Games Festivals, or Steam NEXT as I believe they are called now, are great ways to generate interest and get a good marketing boost for your game. TRF participated in 2 of these (at a time when it was allowed), and each one gave a large boost to the amount of views the game got, as well as the amount of wishlists it received.
Ultimately, I think the goal of what you want to be aiming for here, is have a good connection with a variety of content creators, if those creators don’t know you, they will probably ignore you. They are the ones who will get the public to buy your game, not you. These content creators are the closest you’ll get to a marketing team, and marketing is super important for an indie dev.
- Build Connections with content creators, whether they’re streamers, YouTubers or writers.
- Don’t use Twitter as your main marketing source, it’s good for events like #screenshotsaturday and #indiedevhour but you can’t rely on it to sell your game. Very few people will click through to Steam and buy your game.
- If you are on Twitter, make sure to engage with others, don’t just use it to promote your game and leave, support them, and interact with anyone who interacts with you.
- Join an Indie Developer Discord server, or at least hang out in a community with developers and those associated with the scene.
- You can try sites like Keymailer, but I had limited success with them. I had more success with content creators I already knew.
- Steam Curators will probably take your game and run, without writing a review for you. Ideally search out smaller curators that are specifically tailored to your games genre or style. TRF for instance, received coverage from a racing game curator.
- Join a Steam Game Festival (Steam NEXT) near your launch. They were by far the biggest boost in marketing I received pre-launch.
- Have some form of presskit ready, or at least easily accessible. Some content creators like to have somewhere they can visit with assets they can use, or information they might need, it’s best to have 1 place with all this information for them, such as a website, or at the very least a ZIP archive with all the information inside.
- While Indie Dev Discords and the #screenshotsaturday and #indiedevhour events on Twitter are good for interacting with others in the Indie Dev scene, they will not get you customers. The general public don’t hang out or look at those places. This is why you need outreach to content creators, they are your connection to the public.
- Yes, in my opinion, marketing relies on your interaction with content creators. I believe that they will bring in the sales to your game, not you yourself. Content Creators are the “middle-man” who connect you as a developer to the player-base, at least until they buy your game that is. As an indie dev, the content creators you work with are your “marketing team”.
- Marketing is more important than you could possibly imagine.
WISHLISTS ON STEAM AND LAUNCH SALES
Wishlists on Steam are a good way to judge how your game will perform at launch. There are various numbers that fly around so you can estimate how many sales you will get at launch. These are of course, just a guide. Every game will have a different conversion ratio. The average seems to be around 15-20% of wishlists will become sales within the first 2 weeks, TRF ended up slightly below this average.
TRF launched with 330 wishlists on Steam. With TRF selling less than 15% of its wishlists in its first 2 weeks, it should give you an idea of how many copies the game sold. A few more copies were gradually sold over the start of November, but quickly died off. Sales wouldn’t pick up again until the 2020 Winter Sale in mid-December.
Since then, TRF has sold almost exclusively during Steam sales. I think this is due to the fact that Steam run sales so frequently, that people know your game will be discounted sooner or later. So expect sales to be small when there is no discount running on your game. You probably won’t be selling your game at its full price much.
- Expect to sell around 10-20% of your wishlists at your launch. (If you have a launch discount especially)
- Don’t expect to sell your game at full price very often, people would rather wait for a sale and save money.
- Steam has a pretty neat dashboard with graphs showing wishlists, don’t spend your development time staring at it.
Much like the article I linked to at the top of this page, I’d like to address the topic of Indie Game pricing.
I had also heard that you should “price your game high, because it means you trust in your product and you know its quality”.
While I believe that is true, and I think selling almost any game at $3 or less at launch would be a mistake, I’m not of the opinion that every game should be sold at $15+. While yes, working on a game for 3 years (like I did with TRF) and then selling it for $5 a pop may seem like a kick in the teeth to an indie developer, at the end of the day, that is the realistic price that people will pay.
Several times I’ve had mentioned to me that TRF is good/fun for the price. I know what I had when the game released, so I opted for a lower-end price point of $5 for a game you’re likely to put a couple of hours into, or more if you have a lot of friends to play with locally. Not to mention that I feel selling the game at a higher price point would have put more pressure on me to please my audience and players. As it is, selling a game for the price you truly think it’s worth, gives you a bit of peace of mind as a developer.
The only caution I would put here, is to make sure you don’t price your game too low. I feel it’s better to lower the price of a game than it is to raise it.
- You probably know the worth of your own game. If you’re unsure, aim a little higher than you think.
- You can over-price, as well as undervalue your game. So don’t just set the price high because it might make your game ‘look good’. Steam does have a refund policy, and people will use it. But not before giving your game a bad review.
- Personally I believe it causes less problems to lower the price of a game after launch, than it does to raise the price of the game.
So in conclusion, how do I feel about the launch and performance of TRF?
Ultimately I would sum it up in one sentence: A personal success, a commercial failure.
The personal success comes from the fact that a few years ago I would never have dreamed I would have a game on Steam, and that other people around the world would be enjoying something that I created, and that in a few rare cases, others would say I had done a good job.
The commercial failure comes from the fact that the game is just that. In terms of finances, the game did not recover its costs, and that’s not even taking into account the hundreds, if not thousands of hours I put into the game. Genuinely, if I work out how much revenue TRF has made, against how many hours I put into it, we’re looking at an hourly rate of pay of less than $0.10 an hour.
Is there anything I feel I specifically did wrong with TRF? I think the main issue was feature-creep and overscope. I aimed to put too much into the game, it was my passion project, and every little idea that came to my head I wanted to put into it. And I did. This caused the entirety of the game to be less polished than I wanted, which caused anxiety post-launch as the bug reports flooded in. In hindsight, I should have built a smaller game that I could finish to a high-standard, and then add post-launch content. Rather than launching an unpolished game, and then spend months patching out bugs that no doubt left a bad first impression on players.
- I’m proud that I was able to bring a game to Steam, and that some people were able to enjoy it.
- The game failed to recoup its costs, and did not earn enough to keep a cat alive for a year, let alone a human.
- I should have built a smaller game and reined in my ideas. I made the game too large and introduced bugs near launch, which left a bad first impression on players.
So that’s all, maybe I’ll make another game in the future and put it on Steam, but that’s for another time.
Thanks for reading,