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Indies going all in with self-publishing: an Ethan: Meteor Hunter post mortem
by Olivier Penot on 12/04/13 07:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

It’s been more than a month since the release of our first game, Ethan: Meteor Hunter, on PC and PlayStation 3. And, well, we’ve been a bit quiet right? Even the tumblr stopped! This past month has been a bit hard for us, as, spoiler alert, sales didn’t quite meet our expectations. But let’s get back a bit, shall we?

Who are we and what are we talking about?

Seaven Studio is a newborn from some ashes of Hydravision, which closed down in September 2012. Since that day, seven former employees decided to go all in and put all of their time (no holidays at all), money (living on unemployment benefits, no salary) and energy (that’s coffee) into a new 100% independent video game studio, self publishing and self funding its games: Seaven Studio.

Ethan: Meteor Hunter is a project we bought back from Hydravision with our savings as we started working on it there. Main design was almost done, we changed things here and there to make it more enjoyable from what was decided over at Hydravision by our former bosses.

What went right

  • We started a company AND finished a game from what we got from Hydravision AND released it simultaneously on PC & PlayStation 3 (gotcha TRCs) in SCEE AND SCEA, 100% self published and self funded
  • We haven’t killed one each other (yet).
  • Game is enjoyable    
    • Press likes it: average note is 7/10, some gave us 8/10 and only one 4/10 and two 6/10, way better than the 5/10 we were used to at Hydravision
    • Sometimes described as “Super Meat Boy meets Braid” which is very nice
  • Gamers love it (or they’re all very polite):
    • 98% Greenlight comments are positive or very positive
    • Gamers at show were sticking around to finish the demo    
    • At one livestream made with French Team Mortal Gaming, a fan even wrote on her shirt about the game, which is super cool
  • Press coverage:
    • 360+ mentions of Ethan since early May 2013
    • Including Alpha Demo appreciated by RockPaperShotgun and a great article from Joystiq, mentions from Polygon (1, 2, 3)
    • Lot of nice/excellent previews
    • 30+ reviews of Ethan, only missing the very big website (Kotaku, RPS, Joystiq, etc…)    
    • Youtubers side is good too, contacted 200+ of them but same as press, most famous/big ones didn’t reply back

We’re happy on that side from what we would have expected from Hydravision era and also considering we were basically unknown at all.

Publishing

  • 5 different public shows attended: Rezzed, Develop (indie showcase finalist), Gamescom, Eurogamer Expo & Paris Games Week
  • Great great way of meeting players: chatting about what’s good or not about the game. We have changed our tutorial after each show in order to improve it. We added for example the side buttons for better & less frustrating objects positioning.
  • Met a lot of very friendly indie guys (Red Solstice, Hammer Labs hiding from security before Sony Party, shared a room with SwingSwingSubmarine rrrr, Mi-Clos, RunningWithScissors, Nyamyam, etc..)
  • Side note: global publishing budget is 50k€ (18 languages translation, Q&A for PlayStation 3, Age rating, Launch trailer, attending shows with travel and accommodation costs)
  • Couple of articles on PlayStation Blog US & Europe
  • Front of different stores & website for launch (PS Store SCEA, PS Store SCEE, GoG, Eurogamer.fr & GameSideStory

Getting the word out and beeing present at most shows is pretty satisfying; we’ve really done the maximum we could, considering we’re 9 people. Only regret is not been present at PAX, too late to book! Overall we feel like we have a good game gamers enjoy it and we couldn’t have done more to get the word out about the game as a new born studio. Good game with good marketing is what it needs, right?

What went wrong

  • Sales

Well, let’s talk about actual sales numbers. Within a month, we have sold on PC:

127 units

Missing a few 0s, right? When we saw Flippfly post on Race the Sun and its 771 sales we were a bit astonished and were thinking that with all of the shows we’ve been to, all of the communication we done the past months etc.. we should be fine. How naïve we were… Unfortunately we are not allowed to say anything about PlayStation 3 sales, but we are not happy with them at all either, so it doesn’t seem to be a platform problem… Just missing Steam, obviously? With all of games released now on Steam, it doesn’t seem to be as important as it was. Still, can’t be worse than 127 units!

  • Building a community & Steam Greenlight

When we started our communication about Ethan, we planned to have Steam Greenlight in the center of it. We wanted it to be our central hub for communication with the community, rather than setting up our own forum which would have need gamers to set up another account etc… to be where most of our targeted gamers are and already have a Steam account.

I don’t know about other devs but it didn’t work out at all for us. It seems like people spend 30s on each page, vote and then move on. Some stay a bit and leave a comment but we rarely had great chat with gamers over there. We released an Alpha Demo when we announced the game in order to get feedbacks from the community. To this day, demo was downloaded about 2500 times for a 26 000 unique visitors, giving a 9% rate, which is not so bad I’d guess but only a couple of actual feedbacks from it! We definitely need to improve things on this side.

We are still not greenlit and now about 85% way to the top 100… Our major concern about Greenlight is that, imagine gamers who voted “No” back in May and then tried our game at Gamescom in August and loved it? They can’t change their vote unfortunatelyYou can, my bad.

Oddly enough, we didn’t see any spike on Steam Greenlight when we were at showcases (and God knows how much we asked people to upvote us!), let’s have a look:

First July spike? One of my friends forwarded our page to the whole Just Dance team in Paris! Thanks guys! Second mid-august spike? A french youtuber did a video on our Alpha Demo (here). The very small bump right before September 1st is the Rock Paper Shotgun article, enjoying the Alpha demo. The last two spikes around October 1st are a live stream we did with the french team and a tweet asking to upvote us! Hard to tell when was Rezzed, Gamescom or even release of the game hu?

  • Translation on 19 languages

Our core value is gamers proximity, making them part of the development of the game (thus the Alpha Demo). It just made sense then to translate the game to as many languages as possible in order to be closer to as many gamers as possible. Turns out, I’m not sure we had more coverage from these countries and sales are definitely not encouraging us to do the same (Russia aside) if we’re lacking out of money. Not to mention all of the many funny characters to support  : )

  • Good value and focus on Gameplay are not appealing

We put the game at 10$ = 7,5€ which feels for us super fair with 3 worlds and 50 levels and strong replay value with time attacks, leaderboards and secret cheeses unlocking secret levels! That means between 7 to 10 hours of pretty good fun. Bref, we knew it wasn’t the perfect game so we wanted gamers to feel like they didn’t waste their money by having a great value. Did not really worked out. Maybe we should have had it at 13$ and always -20% off ?

Also, having a strong gameplay feature and good variations throughout the game was essential for us.. We strongly believed these two would drive sales but having a good experience (graphics/sounds) seems to be more important even if the length of the game is 2 or 3 hours. Most reviews pointed the lack of “soul” in the game: we should have spent some time on that instead of adding more levels.

Our ideas on why it didn’t sell (at all):

  • Release window

Releasing a puzzle platformer a month after GTA V and a month before next gen consoles is not the greatest idea. Story of the release date is totally linked to GTA V by the way: when we started the company, we wanted to release mid September and  before next gen as our engine was already compatible PlayStation 3 and self publishing has always been allowed there. So it just made sense. Then, obviously, GTA V got delayed to mid September, and we aimed end of August. Just like all of the other games and especially Rayman Legends, a direct competitor. At some point we were considering releasing PC version beginning of August and PS3 in October but we figured it was more powerful to release both versions at the same time. Turned out early August was pretty strong in terms of indie release too.

  • Art / Experience

Finally, the art style was “okay” and clean for us but we didn’t think it would hurt. It would appear the art and the mouse (which is supposed to be a rat, erm) don’t appeal and are not connected with our brutal gameplay. We were pretty satisfied too considering the progress made since the Hydravision prototype:

Conclusion

Are we in this indie bubble where one-good-but-normal-game (= not Stanley Parable) can only sell with sales and bundles, not full price? Not to mention not being on Steam… Or are we just feeling this console transition too where sales always slow down?

So our question is simple: why didn’t you buy the game? Let us know so we don’t do the same mistake(s) next time, if we manage to have a next time.

More about the game over here and upvote us on Greenlight over there.


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Comments


David Klingler
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Nice post-mortem, Olivier.

To answer your question directly: I haven't bought the game partly because I'm just cheap, but mainly because I actually didn't know of it until this post. I may buy it in the future because it's not the game itself that turns me away. I like good gameplay mechanics, and I think it's good that that was a focus of yours. What turns me away is my own bank account haha. I can afford a dollar to support a kickstarter (did that today for Dino Run 2), but $10 is unfortunately steep for me personally right now. Perhaps I should skip some meals this week so I could buy it!

"Missing a few 0s, right?" was a great line by the way; I'm going to use that one.

Simon Love
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Congrats on publishing the game, that is not an easy feat!

I keep up to date with Greenlight suggestions (not actively seeking them out however) but I never heard of the game before now.

Looking at the trailers, I have no idea what I'm buying. The time-stopping, platform placement mechanic looks cool but immediately it tells me that high-speed platforming action will need to be paused constantly.

Comparing it to Braid is fair, however Braid's mechanics were integrated into the main experience seamlessly. Pausing to figure out the next step was also an integral part of the gameplay experience.

The main point in my opinion is that the game is called "Ethan : Meteor Hunter", yet Meteor hunting doesn't seem to be a part of the gameplay. I imagine meteors are the little green collectibles everywhere?

It's like if Super Mario Bros. was called "Mario : Coin Collector".

My words might sound harsh but I'm simply answering the question you've asked as honestly as possible.

Cheers! Going to upvote it now.

Robert Green
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You might be asking "why didnít you buy the game?", but the much better question would be "why should I have?"
This is all going to come across as very critical, but like David and Simon, I had never heard of the game until now. Also, I'd say that the name doesn't tell me anything interesting about the game, the lead character is a rat (not my favourite animal, nor anyone else's), the art style is competent but unexceptional, etc.
In addition, if I look it up on metacritic, I'd likely find over a hundred higher rated PC games that have come out this year alone. This is a bigger problem than the price, because I can afford $10, but I barely have enough spare time to play all the really well reviewed steam games that I've already bought.

Josef Wienerroither
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Never heard about the game - so just a short comment:

Right after starting the youtube video, i was unhappy with your main hero's look and overall design. It was a real downturner. Later on during the video i found your level design and look very pleasing. But presentation ( mainly music and i presume sped up gameplay capture ? ) far too stressfull ( well - i sit here right with my morning coffee, so mabye it's simply too early for stress ;-) ). That's it about my imperssions, puzzled by your low sales count though ...

Shannon Rowe
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As others have said, this is also the first time I've heard of the game. I buy a lot of indie titles so I'd like to give some feedback about my (entirely subjective) decision process which will hopefully help:

- Gaming media is my first stage of awareness about a title. If I keep seeing the game mentioned on one or more of my fave gaming sites (Shacknews, Polygon, RPS, etc), or something in the tagline of an article interests me, I will then become curious enough to read the article. So the more widespread press you can get (which is not always something that can be controlled, I know) the better. Also the tagline is important. "Ethan: Meteor Hunter to be released next week" wouldn't tell me anything or get me clicking, unless I already knew of the game and was looking for more info. "Indie platform puzzler will have you hunting meteors from next week" however would, because the first three words would spark my genre interest.
- If the genre/concept/theme appeals to me, I will seek out and read more information about the title. Review scores are not so important to me, unless I see consistently negative reviews. Mostly I am looking to hear something about a feature or mechanic or whatever that speaks to me and my tastes. So hyping up what's unique and cool about the title's gameplay would serve best to further whet my appetite. Characters and theme and plot not so much - those would be considered bonuses to the key issue of gameplay, rather than selling points that I would care much about in a review.
- Once I'm definitely interested, I'll either buy it right away if it's within my instabuy budget threshold, or wishlist it for a sale or wait for it to be part of a bundle with other titles I'm interested in

So to break this down for Ethan: Meteor Hunter. Firstly, the title does not engage me subjectively at all. The game may well have been featured on Shacknews for all I know, and I'd have scrolled right past it purely because of that title. It's all down to personal taste, much like people in bookstores will make snap decisions based on the colour of the cover, then the blurb, then maybe from scanning the first two pages, and at any point in that subjective process the book could get rejected no matter how suited to the reader it might actually be. "Meteor Hunter" alone without the character prefix might have worked better on me, or "Ethan's Journey" or any of a number of more evocative titles.

Perhaps too if you'd had more widespread and sustained coverage across the particular sites I usually read, the game would have caught my eye long enough to click on the article and read more. Again, I know this is difficult to control with external media. Now that you've published this article, however, I have become aware of your game because I have a separate interest in reading game dev post-mortems. I have now watched the video and the gameplay evident there has sparked my interest. So at this point I'll look into the game in more detail on other sites, and if I continue to like what I see, I'll probably wishlist it and buy it at some point, as the price currently exceeds my personal instabuy threshold. So this article has been a good, if belated move for promoting your game.

I've rambled a bit, trying to give an approximate idea of what goes on in my head when making game awareness and purchasing decisions, so hopefully some of that is illuminating and may also be comparable to the way other consumers think. At the end of the day though, the key points are: 1) Widespread media coverage - the more the better; 2) Targeting specific consumer tastes within that coverage - e.g. appealing to platform puzzler fans first, before promoting characters and themes etc; 3) Branding is important for getting that first sniff of interest - the title and perhaps the theme could have been more evocative. Hope that helps!

Tomas Augustinovic
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First time I heard about this game was now... Although I would probably not buy it anyway, since i'm not a big fan of these kinds of puzzle/platform/physics games. Must say it's nicely done though so you should be proud with the outcome despite the weak sales.

Edgar Cebolledo
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As others have mentioned, I had no idea this game existed until now, and I've only watched the trailer, but it doesn't look very exciting to play, the part where you have to move the blocks somehow doesn't fit with the rest of the gameplay, as other have mentioned too, I either want a quick paced platformer or a slow puzzle platformer that makes you think.

The trailer make it look also like physics based, and very close to Little Big Planet, in fact without the time stopping puzzle think it looks like it can be done in LBP, so why buy another one?.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Along with all these other comments, I've never heard of the game, but I can also see myself passing it up on the title alone. It's really hard to brand something with the name of a character unless it's a very well known character. I think a good example of this is "John Carter" which was a huge flop and a lot of people pointed out that they didn't know anything about the movie from the title.

Hopefully you can do something to turn this around at least a little bit. It can be really hard to market a game, but maybe there are other avenues you can still explore.

Olivier Penot
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Thank you guys for the support and comments, it does really help to see clearer on what we need to improve for next game. Mario: Coin Collector will be our WIP title for it! Love it!

Simon Love
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That's a day-one purchase for sure! :)

Rasmus Rasmussen
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First off, congrats on the game! Any release is something to celebrate. Second, like everyone else, I had not heard of this game before this post.

After watching the trailer, I thought to myself: hey, this looks pretty cool! I don't care what animal Ethan happens to be, so that has no effect on my judgment. The high intensity gameplay is a plus, but contrasted with the paused puzzle elements, I definitely see a conflict. I would have preferred even more intensity, and leaving the puzzles to be solved in real time. The stop and go aspect takes away from my overall impression. That said, I only rarely play platformers at all, so I am probably not the target audience - which leads me to ask, who did you have in mind when designing it (in terms of age groups etc)?

The reason I ask about the intended demographic also relates to the price tag. If you are aiming at a younger audience, like kids for whom $10 is a good chunk of cash, then it's too expensive. If you are aiming at a more mature group, then the game might fail to connect on a different level - like some of the other commenters, who were turned off by the fact that Ethan is a rat, or the loud music, or what have you.

Off I go now, to give you a vote!

Amir Barak
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I have heard of this game through GOG when it launched. Was interested in it until I read the description. I dunno, it felt really flat and impersonal (the description). I think for this kind of game a demo would be greatly appreciated and a text description/trailer that told more of the world and the character than the mechanics (which are fairly obvious to be honest).

In my opinion Mr. Bree is a really good example of a recently released title that really sells you on its personal story (wonder how their sales are going...).

Thomas Happ
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I think this is really depressing. The reason I didn't download it was that I spend all my free time developing games . . . sigh . . . But also, I hadn't heard of it. Maybe tons of press coverage isn't enough? How much did you spend on advertising?

Benjamin Quintero
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@Olivier I think "haven't heard of it" is a pretty common thread you are seeing. In spite of all the press coverage you mentioned, and the conference events you've been to, and the marketing you've tried to push out there, you still failed to inform what is arguably some of the most informed people in gaming.

To be honest, this is not your fault. This is a sign of large issues with gaming; over saturation. These days it seems like anyone with a PC and free copy of Unity or UDK or Game Maker can call himself a game developer. That is not to discount the work that you've done, but it does put into perspective that you are not only competing with games like Super Meat Boy or Braid. You are competing against every high school kid with a little PC knowledge and too much time on his hands as well. And his pet projects might be broken and maybe even free, but it's also making the water very muddy. I myself have not heard of this game or the 120 other games that likely released on the same day across PC, consoles, mobile, or tablet. We are fractured and over populated. As a result only the Alphas eat the meat, everyone else is lucky to be alive.

PC's have become #SteamOrDie and consoles are getting there as well. The more open the platform becomes the more like PC it will be. Everyone might be able to publish but consumers will only bother to search the top 10 on the front curation page. What makes PC such a waste land and consoles (and Steam) so desirable is the one thing that will be lost when it is opened to everyone... And to quote The Incredibles, "..and when everyone is special, no one is..."

Vincent Gao
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I don't see games made by "high school kid" are the competitors if they just have "a little PC knowledge and too much time". If the industry competition is the problem, as Oliver said, Rayman should be the competitor. I do think competition makes this harder, but not necessarily be a bad thing. ... and when everyone is special, you need to be more special...

Veerdhawal Khanvilkar
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I had played the alpha demo about 1-2 months back which i came across through RPS but then i forgot about it. I liked the gameplay very much and my team even had a small discussion on how cool it was gameplaywise. For me the character is not as important in a platformer as is the mechanics and on that front the gameplay is solid. The problem for me was even though I knew about the game I didn't know it was released. So maybe if in the demo I had the option of subscribing to some kind of news or updates about the game or track it somehow then the launch update would have directly landed on my email and I would have been instantly noted about it.

Dane MacMahon
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I never heard of it until now.

And I am not a "Steam or nothing" guy, I check Amazon, GOG and Gamersgate pretty regularly as well, and prefer DRM free. I just haven't heard of your game at all.

Now that I have... well I'm a little wary of platformers, to be honest. I enjoyed VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy as nice callback experiences to my SNES days but I only want to play so many games in that vein. I will look at yours now that I know about it, but at some point it's a flooded market. Seems like there is a new PC platformer on PC every other day right now.

Declan Kolakowski
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Great post-mortem. Keep on hitting! Keep making games.

I'd never heard of your game before I read this article. So, as ever, I'd say your marketing never goes as far as you think it does. But, looking at your game it doesn't really appeal to me. It maybe has a bit of an image problem. I feel like I've seen this graphically style and these mechanics before. The freezing time and moving stuff mechanic looks very unique (now I think about it) but in your trailer (which I imagine is what people may the post attention to) it is completely brushed under the rug. It looks like you were so keen to make the game look fast-paced, mechanic focused and packed with showing off the content you'd made that you didn't really focus on why your game was unique. It would of being great to have a 10-15 second segment where things slowed down and that mechanic was explained and why you could do really cool and inventive things with it.

So yeah, I guess the whole thing is just not very relatable. Puzzle-indie-platformer is sort of combination that fills me with horror these days, its starting to become as bad as "zombie game" - the moment I hear those words I get immediately turned off a product. Perhaps if you had sold it on some sort of story, or character rather than just "Look at all our content, look at our mechanics, look at the past paced exciting game play, are you having fun yet!?" - this meteor guy looks pretty cool but I can't see anything in your material that explains anything about him or why he's a character we should engage with. Good luck anyway. I hope it does better in the future!

Chris Sorrell
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I think your game's title could be a big part of the problem. It's not memorable, does little to convey what the game is about, and nothing to intrigue or hook your audience.

If you want people to know your main character is a mouse then his name should suggest that, e.g. 'Ethan Cheeseman' or better still, a punchier, less everyday sounding name, perhaps 'Max' or 'Hank'. ...'Hank Cheeseman: Meteor Hunter' is starting to sound better. ...But still 'Meteor Hunter' sounds odd and/or a bit dull - does he spend his nights scouring the night sky with a telescope? Probably not. ...Without knowing more about your game it's hard to be too specific, but just making it something that sounds intriguing and dynamic would help: 'Nib Trapraider and the Rocks of Doom', 'Joe Stilton: Night of the Meteor', 'Gouda McQueen: Cheese Hunter', etc.

These are just quick suggestions (and thinking up a good name takes time), but hopefully convey the point...

Without a strong name, your game lacks identity and without identity it lacks market presence. Ideally a name should capture the full creative 'essence' of your game. A dull name makes it too easy to anticipate a dull game.

Scott Lavigne
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Checklist version of thoughts:

-Do any mechanics relate to his tail? It's very prominent, so I assume it'd be relevant, but the trailer doesn't seem to show as much.

-It looks like you chose a rat/mouse due to scale for some levels' settings. I understand the connection (if this is the case), but I'd say that rats/mice have a bad enough rap that it's definitely worth going with something more fantastic.

-Are meteors just the coins of the game? Do you have a bit of a plot that utilizes this? Do any mechanics make use of the setting you've put (are the coins often mobile like a meteor might be? are they embedded in the ground and require a power attack or something to dislodge?)?

-Don't just tell me it's hard; show me it's hard. A lot of the trailer seemed very run-of-the-mill. You do not need to ease your viewers into the difficulty of the game. Players interested in a difficult game will recognize the difficulty on their own and be able to pay attention to the artistic/whatever else aspects you want to highlight as you go through.

Related to this, if I ever see a pause mechanic in a platformer, I immediately think the pace will either be slow or awkward, and probably write it off at that point. Good difficult platformers are ones that move quickly. Any sort of pause mechanic breaks this pacing. The only time I think I could slide with a pause mechanic is if you only pause for very brief periods (forced to be brief), but even then, you run into control issues, I think. Almost all platformers I've played that do one hand on mouse, one on keyboard have felt pretty awkward (you want more buttons than just directions, but you never want to have fingers off of directions for a platformer and your mouse buttons are likely already tied up for whatever you're using the mouse for). I haven't played your game, though, so maybe you do something cool with it.

This game seems suited to something like the Vita where you could even have the environment manipulation be real time. I wouldn't expect great sales there either, though. Vita doesn't have a huge install base, and the people interested in a platformer requiring that much dexterity are probably few and far between already.

So, why didn't I buy the game? I had never heard of it. Now that I have heard of it, it doesn't actually look very difficult from the trailer/prototype comparison, something you made a point to advertise, and I have no interest in a medium-speed platformer with a low skill ceiling. I don't like the character either (reasons listed above). You also advertised it as a puzzle-platformer. At this point, this term is a detriment, even if accurate due to the amount of low-effort indie platformers put out after Braid, many of which are hallways that require no effort from the player to succeed. I wouldn't think anything of it on its own, but compounded with the other ways I'm already let down while watching footage (gameplay not seeming as difficult as you think it is, not being crazy about the character, etc.), it sets off a flag.

Not trying to be harsh, but I wanted to be honest.

Lucio Gama
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As others, I never heard of this game until now. And would like to, aside from every aspect already mentioned, comment on another problem:

First thing I did when starting reading this, was to look up the game on youtube, and watch an walkthrough of it. I didn't even watched the whole video, stopped right at the beginning. The tutorial itself feels very bland - and boring.

You don't need to tell the player how to jump - just place something high, that forces him to jump over it.
After you showed how the player can move stones, and how to rotate them - there's no need to keep with more signs telling the player what to do next - let the player think a bit!

But the way it is now, by the 5th or 6th sign, I was bored to hell, and stopped the video right there. Now, if just by watching a video I was like that - imagine playing the actual game...!

There is on youtube a video about Megaman X, and how brilliant it is introducing the game mechanics. You should watch it (beware: the video has tons of cursing!), it helps a lot thinking on better ways to teach the player how to play :)

Josh Foreman
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1. Don't remember hearing about it.
2. But maybe I did and the bland title made is slip past my brain.
3. What this guy said: "This is a bigger problem than the price, because I can afford $10, but I barely have enough spare time to play all the really well reviewed steam games that I've already bought."


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