Indie Post-mortem - Captain Kaon (Part Two)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
After regaling you with the tale of how I made Captain Kaon I have returned to tell you how I managed and promoted the project. This is an important side of game development. It doesn’t matter how good you are at art, code, and design, if you cannot manage your time and promote your game it will languish in obscurity.
What went well
When you’re working from home alone you don’t have a producer on your back, which is mostly pretty great. But there’s always the worry you’ll end up watching too much TV and not getting enough work done. In the beginning I would worry about not getting up early enough, the regular 9 to 5 had become completely ingrained. In the end I realised that it was the amount of work I did that was important, not when I did it. As long as I get 8 hours of work done each day it doesn’t matter if I don’t start until lunch time.
After this initial wobble I was able to relax into a productive routine. This helped me maintain a healthy state of mind, which is something I’ve had problems with in the past. Like so many in the development community, years of crunch and grind had left me suffering with anxiety and depression. I almost became one of the many to leave the industry. Through Captain Kaon I’ve been able to find myself again and recapture the joy of game development.
I soon realised I would actually need to keep track of all of my levels and how far along they were. I used a simple spreadsheet that broke the levels down by sub task and was able to quantify the amount of work I still had left to do. This as an important step in the progression of the project and one that I managed to do before it had spiralled out of control. It helped me to define the work I still had left to do and properly evaluate the scale of the remaining task. At this point I realised it was far too big and I needed to start cutting a few things back.
Whilst the spreadsheet was useful, I should have done it earlier. It helped me re-evaluate the scale of Captain Kaon, but not before it had become bloated with half-finished features that shouldn’t have been started in the first place. By not taking the time to plan things, the game had grown out of control. I made the mistake of thinking that because I was the only person working on the game I would be able to keep track of everything in my head. This was of course silly, proper organisation isn’t just for big teams, it’s also important for one man teams working from home.
After release I found myself a little lost and listless. With everything focused on getting the game over the finishing line, I hadn’t planned for what to do when it was done. I expected to be patching in some bug fixes, but beyond that I hadn’t thought about how I would promote the game or any possible updates to it. I’d had a vague hope of getting my next project into Greenlight before Steam took the system out behind the tool shed and buried it, but this was unrealistic and soon postponed.
A project needs to be properly planned, regardless of scale and team size, and I need to do this from the beginning. There needs to be a record of all the expected tasks broken down and the time and costs recorded. This way I can judge how long the project should take and I will know if it is realistic. This will be the last time I have an ad hoc project.
Promoting the game
What went well
Promoting your game is where you will sink or swim and the area where I struggled. I realised after my Greenlight campaign that I wouldn’t get very far on my own, every time I e-mailed the press and bloggers it was just tumbleweed. Through my connections with the Brighton indie scene I found someone with good press contacts who could handle this side of promoting. He did a really good job of getting press coverage and I even got to do a cool podcast.
As part of the run up to release I got a booth at Rezzed, which was a bit expensive. The booth, hotel, t-shirts, badges, and food came to nearly £2k. This was a large chunk of my meagre budget to gamble on the show when I had no way of knowing if it would be effective. In the end I’m still not sure if it had any real effect in promoting the game, but it was a wonderful experience. I was able to watch a lot of different people play the game and take notes on improvements to make. I hung out with other devs and got some useful advice. I had a few interesting chats with students who are just about to join the industry. Plenty of people took leaflets and the badges were really popular, all but a handful were taken. In the end Rezzed was more like a holiday than a useful promotion, it was long and exhausting, but it got me away from the computer for a week. Ultimately, the highlight of the week was going to see my favourite band in Camden on the Saturday night.
The tricky thing with promoting is it all works on a cumulative effect. Everything you do, every vlog and post, has only a tiny influence. This means you need to do a lot before it has a meaningful effect. For a large studio or publisher this is easy, they have the funds for this. But for a small indie team it’s very difficult.
Because I was a team of one I didn’t have the time to dedicate to promoting Captain Kaon, and in the beginning I really didn’t know how. It’s a full time job and I was spending all my time developing game. I realised later that I should have been making monthly vlogs during development. They only needed to be five minute overviews of the changes I had made, but they would have gradually generated interest in the game and potential anticipation of its release. Unfortunately I was too caught up in making the game to think about telling anyone about it.
I also failed to use social media channels effectively, partly because I’m not very good at using them in my private life. I’ve made very few tweets or posts on Facebook. I found that when I posted there was little engagement and this was disheartening, making it less likely I would post again. It’s quite hard to ‘go viral’ if you’re not producing the posts to begin with.
For my next project I need to properly budget for promotion. I need to take the time at the end of each day to make a note of what I did and then turn it into something interesting that I can post on indieDB at the weekend. I need to be telling people what I’m doing long before I’m selling them the game. If I can keep producing interesting content people will keep coming back and I will slowly build a fan base that I can nurture.
The Aftermath of Release
What went well.
Not a lot. Post release was the calm after the storm, I had worked feverishly to get as many bugs out of the final build, then I just had to wait and see if the game would sell. I kept monitoring the steam community page every day to see if anyone had any issues, fortunately everything was mostly okay. There were lots of little issues so I kept updating the game with a steady stream of patches, this improved the polish of the game immensely.
I got a couple of nice reviews from people who connected with the game, one from a guy I’d had a nice chat with at Rezzed. This was a relief, it’s always a nervous time when you release a game and are waiting for the reviews, but even more so when you are the only person working on the game.
Sales were less than optimal. A cursory glance at Steamspy will tell you I have a little over 6K sales, which would be amazing if they were Steam purchases. Unfortunately most of them are from an Indiegala bundle deal I did during early access, which earnt only pennies. The reality is that I sold about 20 units in the first week and then 10 the next, and this was from 14k visitors. This is a conversion rate of a fraction of a percent. I don’t know what a normal conversion rate is, so I don’t know if this is low. It could be that there is something about my Steam page that puts people off. I’ve tried making changes to the videos, screenshots, and written blurb, nothing has had any effect. The only thing left I can think of is the Steam reviews. I haven’t had enough to get the ‘positive’ in the summary, and I suspect that it’s quite important. Perhaps over the coming months I will slowly pick up more reviews and I will start to see a positive effect.
Unfortunately not all of the reviews were good. The initial release was a little buggy as I’d run out of time and this was reflected in the reviews which often focused on these issues. Reviews seemed to fall in to two categories; people who connected with the game liked it and were forgiving of the bugs, people who didn’t like the game complained about the bugs.
Part of the reason the game was buggy was because I committed to doing the Mars campaign even though I didn’t realistically have time to do it. I spent the last three months of development trying to get the levels and features finished when I should have ripped it out and added it later as a free update. But this is a hard thing to do when you are personally invested in something and don’t have a producer gibing you stern looks. Had I taken Mars out I could have focused on making the rest of the game more polished.
After a couple of weeks of poor reviews and bug fixing I found myself have something of an existential crisis. I’ve always been someone whose confidence is a little brittle, but after release I started to wonder if I just wasn’t any good at making games. This has made it hard to continue on with making the game. It’s easy to focus on the mistakes you make and the wrong decisions and to then doubt yourself
I need to properly set aside some time, at least a couple of months to just bug fix at the end of the project. If it’s a decision between adding features and fixing bugs, you should always be fixing bugs. I should also have pushed back the release to give myself more time to get the game ready.
I need to make smaller games with a realistic view to potential sales. I don’t have a fan base and I’m not very good at promoting, I shouldn’t be taking on large projects.
Commercially and critically Captain Kaon was a failure, but as a developer and an individual I am much better than I was 4 years go. I can write better code, my art is improving, and mentally I’m healthier than I’ve been in years.
Captain Kaon has been an important first step and will hopefully be a platform for me to build on for years to come. And if the worst happens I can write on my CV that I made an entire game on my own.