on Aug 2, 2016
Here is the final entry in this series. It’s a bit of a downer. Sorry. I edited it quite a bit trying to make it less depressing. But then I realized that while it’s a downer, it’s also honest, and honesty is the whole point of a postmortem. Let’s start with Arvind’s final thoughts:
I’ve already written about the need to promote your game in an earlier blog post. Now, it is time to discuss the result.
Releasing during a busy period.
There is no “ideal release date” in today’s market, considering that hundreds of games are released on Steam every day. We released the game about one month after finishing it, and we picked what we thought was the best release date in that immediate time period. Our finances simply didn’t allow delaying the game for any longer, so it is not like we could pick the best day out of the calendar year and wait until then.
Unfortunately, it seemed we were not the only ones who thought the release date was ideal. We also had the misfortune of releasing alongside Enter the Gungeon, also a roguelike shoot ‘em up, which became the “indie game people talk about for the next week”. Even though (a) Good Robot doesn’t share any similarities with EtG beyond the genre, and (b) no website or YouTube channel shares any data with us, I feel that it probably had some effect on our hurt our promotional chances.
Not distinctive enough at first glance.
Even though your game might be a really engaging experience unlike anything else on the market, most people will spend approximately one second looking at it before making a decision on whether to play it or not. This is especially true of game journalists and YouTubers, who get hundreds of games in their email inbox every day.
This is why you need a unique selling point – a pitch in one sentence or less that is supposed to hook the people and convey what your game is all about. For example: Unrest is a story based RPG set in ancient India, or Will Fight for Food is comedy mix of beat ‘em up, RPG, pro wrestling and whatever the hell I was smoking when I came up with the idea. Good Robot, even with the funny stuff that Rutskarn wrote for it, feels downright bland in comparison.
At first glance, all the components of Good Robot are things you have seen before. Robots, Shoot ‘em ups, Indie Roguelikes, our art style – Steam has a lot of those right now. Once you start playing Good Robot, the game is really fun and does a good job of differentiating itself. (Case in point: Our Steam reviews currently sit at 96% positive in 114 reviews.) However, to get to that point, you need to stand out in approximately one second or less that they will spend looking at your email or store page.
Sometimes a successful hook is as simple as “next game from famous game designer”, or “reboot of beloved classic”. Sometimes it is something that you can’t plan for, like “at the center of this week’s games twitter controversy”. This is where marketing budgets come into play – they help you achieve so much saturation that people will eventually look at the game you’re making.
For Good Robot, we used the humorous robot storyline to spice up our roguelike shoot ‘em up pitch. I suppose it didn’t stand out enough despite our best efforts, unless:
We were just unlucky.
If you are an independent creator who is self-publishing your book, film, game or youtube channel, you need a certain amount of luck to succeed. For example, my previous point about not standing out enough might have no basis in reality, simply because we weren’t the one email that was read out of the thousands in TotalBiscuit’s or Pewdiepie’s inboxOR any of the other Youtubers – trust me, we emailed a ton of them..
The weird thing is that now that the game is old news, the chances of it getting covered by any famous personality are even less, which means the ship might have sailed on Good Robot. That makes me quite sad, though I will try to make another game because I’m an idiot who really should have picked a more stable career by now.
It is also worth noting that there is a certain amount of guesswork involved here, I may very well be completely wrong about these things. However, I feel like getting this out of my system will spur some discussion and help me introspect.
Some of you might have read an article or two about how running your own company can negatively affect your health. Indie Game: The Movie showed it a little bit, except they were like “and then in the end they made a bunch of money and now everything’s okay!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Good Robot took a great amount of emotional toll on me while I was making it, and after it launched.
Once we started putting the final touches on the game, it was time to begin marketing it. I knew the need for an indie game to stand out, so in order to help us amplify our reach, I decided to also pay a PR company out of my own pocket to help promote the game. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure enough coverage to earn back the money. I knew that it was a risk, but I decided that it was worth taking here.
We needed to sell ~4500 copies to break even; a goal I thought was achievable given our previous titles and Shamus’ audience. Unfortunately, I made a huge mistake in that assessment, because the game has sold about half as much as of now. There is still time in the long term for Good Robot to make the money back, but for now the game was a net loss on my finances. That does not feel good.
On top of this, launching a game has a serious emotional toll attached to it. Even though the majority of the feedback was nice (thanks to everyone who took the time to do that, it means a lot), slowly the few insulting and trollish messages creep up on your mind. One such message individually is not that big of a deal, but collectively it is death by a thousand cuts for the mind. If you’re doing this for as long as I have, every negative post starts hurting and seriously ruins your day.
This means that every time I release a game, I have a “post release depression” period. Usually I’m okay after a week or two, but after the launch of Good Robot and the month and half of post launch support, I don’t think I have recovered as of now. I think I’ll be fine again eventually, but right now it feels like my love for making games has been beaten out of me.
The reason I shared this is that the mental part of game development is often overlooked in post mortems. As in most customer facing industries, game developers need to always appear cheerful and grateful when somebody asks them about their job. I’m using this post to get this out of my system as *this* is the biggest obstacle while making games for me.
I hope this post mortem was useful for you, and I hope to see you the next time I’m making a game. Oh god I hate this business but I also love it.
The Silver Lining
I have a bit of an advantage over Arvind, since I don’t have the same creative vulnerability. When Good Robot didn’t meet sales expectations, I could comfort myself with the realization that I had other projects in the works. It sucks when a creative effort doesn’t pay off – particularly when that effort represents months of work – but I don’t depend on game development to earn a living and I’ll have many other chances to entertain people this year.
Having said that, the final sales numbers are pretty disappointing. When Arvind said what we needed to break even, I thought it would be an easy number to hit. 4,500? I nearly hit that with the Witch Watch, which was a novel (old and busted) and not a videogame (new hotness) and which had no marketing at all. And it cost about 50% more than Good Robot. I couldn’t imagine that it would be difficult to move 4,000 units. But here we are.
Earlier Arvind said that he spent some money on a PR firm, and it turned out to not be worth it. I should add that I think our PR firm did their job. Because of them, quite a few YouTubers played our game, including people like Jesse Cox. We’d never have been able to make that happen on our own.
I’m in a strange place, being both developer and member of the gaming press. I’ve seen my share of press releases and marketing emails over the years. I know what a bad marketing firm looks like, and I know what a good one looks like. As a public service, I’d like to offer the following guide:
Shamus Young’s Guide to Marketing a Game via Email
So you’re in the marketing business. People give you money, and then it’s your job to go out and make sure their game is noticed, talked about, reviewed, streamed, and eventually (one hopes) purchased by the public. A big part of that job involves sending out emails to lots of members of the gaming press.
A good marketer knows that reviewers are busy people with a lot of games to sort through. (For our purposes, a “review” is a really broad concept. It might mean a formal review with a metacritic score, but it also might mean ending up on a schtick show like Zero Punctuation, or being played by a popular streamer, or used as fodder for a “screenshot gallery of the day”. Whatever. The goal is exposure.) When offering a game for review, the pitch shouldn’t be the same thing you use on the buying public, because the two have different needs.
Here are some guidelines for avoiding the common mistakes that make me press the “delete” button before I’m done reading:
- Send it to the right address. A good firm knows the private business email of a gaming site. A bad firm just uses the public-facing “contact” email and dumps their promotional message into the email box with all the spam, SEO hustlers, and random jabbering internet crazy people.
- The message should start with the title of game, followed by what genre it’s in and what platform(s) it’s available on. This email needs to be sorted to the proper reviewer, so that info needs to go first. Don’t make the editor read six paragraphs before you tell them that this game should go to the dude that reviews mobile games and not the chick that reviews online RPGs.
- There should be a SHORT pitch that explains what makes this game unique. This should not be the opening crawl! Bad is something like, “A thousand years ago, the kingdom of Backstoria was beset by the dragon Antahgonast. Now one brave hero, a young woman named Mayne Karachter must travel to the lands of Ohpan World to discover…” Ugh. Even the best story in the world would sound tedious when distilled down to a list of proper names. Moreover, reviewers read a lot of those and they tend to blend together in the mind. A good pitch is something like “A tactical turn-based RPG with dating sim elements”. (Or whatever.)
- Include some screenshots. DON’T send them a dozen jumbo 1080p images. Stuff like that goes in the press kit. (See below.) Remember, this isn’t a sales pitch. You just need the potential reviewer to understand what this game is like. Too many images makes this sorting process inconvenient. And reviewers are less likely to be dazzled by screenshots. They have played a lot of crappy games with exquisite screenshots. They’re busy and jaded and just want to know if this art style is something that would interest them / their audience.
- Include convenient instructions for getting a review copy. Some places just dump a Steam key at the end of the email. Usually they say “review copies available on request”. Maybe once in a long time they offer a direct download link, but I haven’t seen that in ages. It’s all fine, as long as it’s clear and simple. But if you don’t include instructions, don’t expect the reviewer to email back and ask, because that’s more trouble than just hitting the down arrow to look at the next game in their inbox.
I’ve passed on a lot of games because of this. This isn’t some official policy on my part. It’s just the default behavior I fall into. If I see a marketing email that looks interesting but it doesn’t make it clear how to get a review copy, then I put the game into my ever-growing Steam wishlist. I’ll end up playing it after a sale months later. In short, if you don’t offer a easy review copy then I’ll behave like a customer instead of a reviewer. And as a customer I’m extremely picky, patient, fickle, and cheap. I’m going to guess I’m not unique in this.
- A clear, obvious link to the press kit. This is a zip of a bunch of image assets that someone will need in order to cover the game: The company logo, the developer logo, the stylized title of the game, along with a generous collection of HD screenshots. The screenshots are often needless: Any reviewer worth their pageview numbers is going to take their own screenshots when they play through the game themselves. But these shots also serve as a “back of the box” style enticement to the prospective reviewer. Also, these shots are often used by the news mills so they can slap their stupid watermarks on everything and post the images without needing to fire up the game themselves. Yes, that’s lame, but it’s exposure. SOME game is going to end up in the “screenshot gallery of the day”, and it might as well be the one you’re promoting.
- This really ought to go without saying, but the promotional email should be tightly proofread. No spelling blunders. No bad grammar. No extraneous fluff. Keep it simple, short, and clear. You’d be surprised how many firms get this wrong. (Or perhaps, how many developers write bad copy and the marketing firm doesn’t intervene.)
After we hired our marketing firm, I went around and checked up on them. I asked some of my game journalist colleagues to let me know how the Good Robot message looked and if it got where it was supposed to go. And it did. They did their job.
I’ve worked with this firm before on the other end of things. They provide me with review copies of games from time to time. They’ve always been prompt, intelligent, and professional. These people are not screwups or cheats.
This means we weren’t ripped off. The firm we used made solid messages (which they showed to us for approval before sending) and even crafted different messages for different review sites. (For example: My name was more prominent if they were contacting people who might know me, while the Pyrodactyl / Unrest names were leveraged everywhere else.) I saw their work from both sides, and I didn’t see any serious mistakes.
In a strange way, this is kind of discouraging. Even with a good firm with good practices and good contacts, it can still be really hard to get your game noticed. The market is well and truly flooded. Speaking of that, Rutskarn has some things to say about entering this line of work…
Indie development is not a safe investment.
I’d like to preface this by pointing out that nothing I’m going to say is based solely on my experience. This is supported by every developer I’ve ever met, online or offline–and to gently foreshadow the tone of this section, I’d like to point out that I’ve personally shook hands with more active, involved indie developers than I’d ever even heard of before I started making games.
Lately this industry has developed a warm appreciation for independent developers, which is very pleasant to see. Even gamers who rarely look beyond a few AAA releases a year seem to enjoy and share indie success stories. But I think this exuberance bruises the truth a little bit, and if you’re thinking of making your own game, you need to know that. So let me address any new prospective game developers out there with a brief message:
Game making can be fun and artistically rewarding. And in a very real sense, it is no different than getting into painting or poetry or rap. People who love you will say, “Before you commit to doing it for a living, you better know what you’re doing.” Those people are not being nearly tough enough. What you actually need to know is that you can’t possibly “know what you’re doing” well enough to guarantee success.
For heaven’s sake, don’t think for a minute–for one MINUTE–that making games will fix any fiscal or practical problem in your life. You know how your heating bills went up and you’re looking to make a little extra money? How you’re losing hours at work and need a new source of income? How you’re hoping to switch careers and leave the craft store behind once and for all?
Betcha fifty bucks your game’s not going to fix any of that. Your next one won’t, either. The best you can say is that it’ll put credits on your resume in case you want to apply to an established studio, get paid peanuts to simulate bucket physics, and be unceremoniously laid off just in time for the Christmas release.
If you’re dreaming about dollar signs–and we all do–perform a little experiment. Ask yourself how much money you’d charge for your finished game–how much it’d take to make back your investment. Then go to Steam, search for that price point, and scroll through the listings. See how many polished rad expensive-looking games at that price point you’ve never even heard of.
Those are the ones that managed to get on Steam.
Imagine a lottery where you need to be incredibly gifted, dedicated, and endowed with free time to buy a ticket at all. That’s indie development.
Maybe–even hopefullly–all this sounds obvious to you. But you’ll be surprised how much wishful thinking develops, scumlike, after you’ve invested a lot of time and heart into a work. Release one game with real effort and money put into it and your perspective of the industry changes overnight. I mean, people very rightfully get outraged when indie devs go ballistic on YouTubers. There’s no excuse for frivolous takedown notices, lawsuits, or any of the other dirty shenanigans that make the news every now and then–certainly it’s never helped any of the developers–but I have to admit, after your first game launches it gets a lot easier to sympathize with people whose often (if not always) well-intentioned hard work is turned into grist for a mill of voyeuristic mockery and negativity. That’s particularly true when the mockers are making more money on their insulting video than the dev will ever see in sales.
But of course, that’s a fine line–right? There’s no clear line between YouTube reviewers pointing out that a game is a broken waste of money and guffawing vultures cashing in on some kid’s hopeful project. There’s no clear line between gamers and journalists expressing frustration with a game’s artistic statements and metajournalists half-assing semiotics to feed a content grinder. There’s no clear line between a grubby hack developer who exploits a broken system and a media-savvy self promoter. There’s no lines at all, just a lot of wearying negativity and bickering and entitlement and BS to deal with ON TOP OF the ponderous business of making and selling a videogame.
The industry is what it is. People will want to steal your game. People will pay for your game and then take their money back. Antisocial fourteen-year-olds will harass you if your game’s too sexist or not sexist enough. You almost certainly won’t make much money. You may not make ANY money–literally not a single penny.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s worth it anyway.
Final Thoughts from Shamus
For perspective: For the time I sunk into Good Robot I could have written about at least two novels like the Witch Watch, each of which would have made me far more money than Good Robot. Which is to say: Making games is riskier and less profitable than being a small-time indie author. It doesn’t get much worse than that. (Although to be fair, maybe I’m just a better author than game designer.)
And as rough as this was at time, I still find myself wanting to make games. Which is probably part of the problem.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for playing.
 OR any of the other Youtubers – trust me, we emailed a ton of them.