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Breath of Death VII: The Beginning - A Post-mortem
by Robert Boyd on 09/24/10 04:26:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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


On September 23rd, just a little over 5 months after release, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, the Xbox Live Indie Games title I created as part of Zeboyd Games, passed the 30,000 sales mark, with a trial-to-purchase conversion rate of 66.7% - see below graphs:



To celebrate, here’s a post-mortem of the game – what we felt we did right and areas we could have improved.

Breath of Death VII: The Beginning Post-mortem

What went well:

#1 Team – Having the right team can make or break a project. Even if you’re one of the rare individuals who is simultaneously great at programming, art, and music, making an entire RPG all by yourself is a gigantic task. Having talented team members to divide the work and offer encouragement and suggestions is a huge advantage. Bill and I were on the same page from day one and this made the difficult task of making our first RPG much more manageable.

#2 Scope & Planning – There are so many RPG projects that get started and never get finished and a major reason for this is because the developers are thinking too big. Final Fantasy 6 style graphics, an epic 30 hour quest with multiple story branches, an innovative real time combat system – yeah, there’s no way that a small development group can realistically make something like that as their first project. With Breath of Death VII, we planned from the start to have a smaller game (around 5 hours) with retro visuals, and nothing too complicated in the gameplay department. It paid off – we finished the game in just under 3 months, whereas most indie RPG projects take years if they get finished at all.

#3 $1 Price Tag – Our initial inclination was to price Breath of Death VII at $3 or $5 since it’s an RPG and it’s much bigger in scope than the typical $1 game. However, by looking at sales trends on the XBox Live Indie Game marketplace, it quickly became evident that $1 games tend to be the most successful. Since we’re in this for the long haul, we felt that even if we could have potentially made more money with a higher price tag, a low price would help us to build up a fan base and garner us free publicity which would help with marketing our future games. It’s paid off – we’ve sold 30,000 copies at $1, whereas by my estimates Aphelion (another XBLIG RPG) has probably only sold about 2,000-4,000 copies at $3.

#4 Marketing – Most Indie developers fail to properly market their games before or after release. It’s an understandable failing – it’s difficult to get big media sites to take you seriously if you’re a small developer that nobody has heard of, they tend to ignore you. Despite this, we decided early on that we’d really try to market Breath of Death VII in every way we could short of actually buying advertising space. We put a trailer on youtube and, we posted about it on forums, talked about it on our website, and emailed reporters & reviewers.

Most of our marketing efforts fell on deaf ears, but some were very successful. RPGamer gave us a lot of publicity, with 2 reviews, an interview, and even a guest appearance on their weekly podcast. The Independent Charles show (a video review show on the UK XBox dashboard) was very positive and gave us quite the nice boost in Europe. But we really hit a homerun when a very positive article about the game showed up on Kotaku. Not only did this article give us hundreds of extra sales a day for about a week, but it also resulted in another high profile article showing up shortly thereafter on yahoo games which gave us a similarly huge boost.

Sadly, our marketing stunt of sending out fake boxed copies of our digital game to various media addresses didn’t pan out, but maybe we chose the wrong targets.

#5 Pacing – If there’s one thing that Breath of Death VII: The Beginning has received almost universal praise for it’s the pacing. Most turn-based RPGs are slow plodding affairs. Not ours. We made a decision early on to make sure each element of the gameplay contributed to a fast pace – from the random encounter limits to the lack of battle animations to the free healing after combat to the frequent LV-Ups to the fact that enemies get strong with each consecutive turn. Slow is boring. Fast is fun.

#6 Humor – Sure, there were some naysayers (mostly people who don’t like referential humor), but for the most part, people really enjoyed finding the various references to various games that we stuck in the game (my favorite probably being the Phantasy Star IV sight gag that you see when you leave the first town with Sara). The central joke of our main character being a mute but letting the player read his thoughts turned out to be a big hit as well.

#7 Budgeting – All told, we spent very little money to make Breath of Death VII. Licensing all of the music cost us under $100 total. Many of the songs were even offered to us for free. Beyond that, we just spent a little money to buy a 360 Memory Unit (for testing out the save/load system) and for our boxed copy marketing stunt. Even including the $100/year XBLIG membership cost, we probably spent under $200 total.

I’ve seen several examples of indie developers spend thousands of dollars on assets and tools and that’s just wrong. You can make a good game with free tools or inexpensive tools. Use free tools and split profits with your teammates rather than hire outside help – save big expenses for later games when you’re already making good money.

#8 Music – We were able to find some great songs that cost very little to license for Breath of Death VII. Not only that, but we found our Cthulhu Saves the World composer through Breath of Death (he did the battle theme & final dungeon theme).

#9 Playtesting – Although the temptation was strong after working so long to just put the game into review ASAP, we held back and stuck it in official playtesting for a while first. I’m glad we did – we got some great feedback from other developers that really helped us improve the game. Stuff like the visual cues when you’re losing in battle and including jokes when you examine objects like tombstones were a direct result of playtesting.

What we could have done better:

#1 More thorough debugging – Being our first game, our debugging process consisted of me playing through the game again and again until I stopped finding errors. Unfortunately, we missed a few major bugs and though we were able to quickly release a patch to fix them, I still feel bad for those players who got caught by a crash in the first week.

With Cthulhu Saves the World, we are going to be doing more thorough testing & debugging, complete with checklists to try to ensure that we don’t overlook obvious things.

#2 Better difficulty balancing – Although I think we did a great job on gameplay balance in general, there were two areas that I think we could have improved on. First, the beginning of the game is too easy – I think the big culprit is the fact that most battles early on don’t have enough enemies. Second, the castle dungeon is almost universally considered to be the hardest part of the game – I toned it down a bit from its initial pre-release incarnation, but I should have toned it down even further.

#3 Ailment Attacks – Ailment attacks are usually useless in most RPGs and I wanted to change that with Breath of Death VII, but I forgot one important thing. It doesn’t matter how good your ailment attacks are – nobody is going to use ailment attacks if you can quickly win every battle through direct force. I hope to change this with our next game and make some battles where ailment attacks have a chance to shine.

#4 Post-release obsession – Immediately after releasing Breath of Death VII, we were more than a little obsessive with checking google and websites to see what people were saying about our game.  What we should have done is to limit our searches and taken a break from development – not only would this have been healthier, but I think we would have started serious development on our next game quicker had we done that.

Conclusion: Making Breath of Death VII: The Beginning was a great experience for us. It taught us a lot about game development and has allowed us to gain contacts & fans that will help us when we release our future games. Oh and the money is nice too.

Sales are definitely down from what they once were, but I guess the surprising thing is that it’s still selling as good as it is now (around 50-100 sales/day) when the game has been out for over 5 months already. And to be honest, any sales the game makes now are just icing on a delicious cake – the game has already paid us handsomely for the work we put into it.

So there you have it, our first post-mortem! Thank you for all of your support and I hope you continue to support us and enjoy our games when we release our next RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World, in a few weeks.

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Bobby A
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Thanks for the article! Some really great info. My only suggestion would be to start QA earlier. By the comment "temptation was strong after working so long to just put the game into review ASAP..." I take it that you waited toward the end. The earlier, the better. I know a major publisher that shoots for 500 consecutive hours of bug-free playtesting before approving a release candidate!

Robert Boyd
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Yeah, the bulk of QA was in the last few weeks before release (although, of course, we did bugtesting throughout the project whenever we added a new feature or level).

500 consecutive hours of bug-free playtesting would have been overkill for a game of our scope, but it's a good idea in concept. A week of bug-free playtesting would probably be doable and a good idea.

Robert Boyd
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Just a couple of additions and fixes to the sales chart.

The first big sales spike after the launch that isn't marked is when Breath of Death VII was reviewed in episode 2 of the Independent Charles show on the UK dashboard. This resulted in a very noticeable increase in UK sales (we went from about 30/day in the UK to over 300 in one day).

The RPGFan review tag is in the wrong place and should be over to the right more over a smaller spike of about 50 extra sales. Instead of the RPGFan tag, there should be a Cthulhu Saves the World announced tag there - we got a bit of extra publicity when we announced our new game which resulted in a boost in sales for a few days.

Jamie Mann
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Thanks for that and congratulations - it's nice to see a story about someone having a well-deserved success on XBLIG. And if you're collecting reviews, here's (*plug*plug*) mine - along with around 1300 others :)

Ivica Aracic
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great post! thanks for sharing.

Denis Sinner
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nice to read!

Fox English
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Nice and thorough write-up. Yeah, I'm one of those people who don't really like referential humor as a sales product, stuff like Family Guy bores me, but it's nice to see a breakdown like this for an XBLIG game.

I do want to say a few things. First, if an indie developer wants to spend thousands of dollars on assets and tools to make the game they want to make, it's their money and their choice, it's not "wrong" - maybe not very wise, but not wrong. Just because you can make a game with free tools and cheap assets doesn't mean that you or anyone else have to.

Making a game is always a personal investment, even if it is just a hobby, even if you're not spending any actual money to make it, you're spending hours you could be working a job to do it (or resting in down time so you can do your best at your "real" job). It's a concept I barely remember from Economics - opportunity costs, "there is no such thing as a free lunch". For example, spending one month of free time to make a game assuming 20 hours a week at roughly... 15 dollars an hour for work quality (shooting kind of middle-low range here, as most new XBLIG indie developers are barely out of high school), that's 1200 dollars of income. It doesn't matter if it's in your or your teammates free time or not. It may not seem financially sound to spend extra cash on your untried product, but like I said, it's the developer's choice and usually made to make their end product that much better while spending less production time to do it.

This ties into the other comment I would like to bring up that is not necessarily directed at this blog. The choice for the $1 price tag. I really dislike seeing people repeat the sentiment that only 1 dollar games succeed on the service. The problem is that, realistically, most games on the XBLIG service I hate to say are not worth much more than $1, even the wildly popular ones that sell for more. Most developers there are scared off from making a full-sized title because of this ongoing rhetoric that only 1 dollar games will succeed, so they keep the scope, even of RPGs, to a very tiny fraction of their potential. Since you brought up Aphelion, I'd like to address your final comparison. Aphelion and Breath of Death VII are both examples of what I am saying despite their seemingly different approaches. While Aphelion may appear to have higher production values and a longer development time, the fact is it is a small episodic game with only a few hours of gameplay not much longer than Breath of Death VII that had a much smaller production value and shorter develpment time, and had a slew of turn-offs with its initial impression (from the trial). It was sold for more because of its perceived production value but in the end it didn't have the product value to match it. Just slapping the RPG genre onto a game doesn't increase its value, the game has to support itself as well.

Most XBLIG developers are in such a rush to release their games as well, they don't really take a professional mindset and release games that have no polish, very low duration, and buggy as hell. This doesn't really help the service's pricepoints much. Of course, XBLIG has only a trio of games on the other side of the scale, and not one of the 1200+ titles is a full-sized RPG to prove the point I'm trying to make. Until then I guess I really can't say much else.

Anyways, I apologize for the overall negativity in this comment, I promise it's not an attack, but as a fellow RPG developer on XBLIG I do want to say great job, and I am looking forward to seeing you push the envelope on future titles!

Robert Boyd
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I've never been a fan of assigning salaries up front for work done on a game project since those always feel so arbitrary to me. I have a day job that has a good hourly wage, but my hours are up to my employer - I can't just decide that I want to work at 10-12pm one night when I want extra money and get paid for it. However, with game development I can work whenever I feel like it or have spare time and have a weird and erratic schedule that would be very difficult to acquire with a regular job.

If you take the money that we've earned from this game and divide it by the number of hours we spent working on it, our virtual hourly wage ends up being very nice indeed so we're both pleased with that. Plus, we've gained other benefits beyond the immediate money - experience, a working RPG game engine, fans, a reputation for a quality game, and industry & media contacts - all of which should prove very beneficial in the future.

Fox English
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Yeah I am not much of a fan of assigning salaries up front either. That idea came from back when I was doing freelance art for awhile. There were/are many young artists that do not necessarily support themselves with the trade but still wanted to make a little money doing it and eventually dragged the median perceived value of commissioned art down, making it much more challenging for more professional freelance artists to be competitive and make a living. The argument was that these kids were making acceptable (not outstanding) art with 2 days of fulltime work on a commission but selling it for 5 dollars (and unlike games, this price was a one-shot deal), and the more serious artists used the salary argument to support why that is such a bad idea - basically saying "how much is your time worth to you?". It's just one of many decisions I think indie developers have to consider, there is no right or wrong, just a question of practicality.

I can't state enough I'm impressed by what you've done with BoD though, and I've learned a few things from your example. Your returns on this project have been amazing and I really hope that Cthulhu Saves the World does the same for you with all you've learned and gained. After my RPG is done this winter you've inspired me to make a 16-bit style RPG as well (something that won't take me a year to make) - it's a long overdue project.

Laurie Cheers
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Bottom line, for me (speaking as one of your customers who bought the game, having seen no advertising): Breath of Death is just really funny. Particularly in the trial portion.

Dan Roth
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I read a great analysis explaining why BoD VII succeeded and why the other major Xbox indie RPG, Aphelion, didn't. Check it out:

Robert Boyd
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As a followup, this post-mortem has really proven that you shouldn't stop marketing and talking about your games even though they may have come out a while ago. Last week, we were getting an average of 60 sales a day. However, due to the resurgence in visibility that we've gotten from various websites & twitter accounts picking up this post-mortem, our sales have jumped up drastically - Monday, we had 363 sales and Tuesday, we had 489 sales.

Rori Fett
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Was just about to say something along these lines - one of the most successfuly games I've seen in the indie games marketplace is Avatar Golf (and Easy Golf before it) because Matt (Barkers Crest) was so actively involved with the community. He took on board our ideas and he made us feel like he was making a game for us rather than just making a game he wanted us to buy.

I really enjoyed your game, haven't completed it but bought it just from word of mouth. Unlike some folks I ain't got a stick up my arse so could quite happily have a wee chuckle to myself at the humour in your game. Thanks for the analysis, if you want to get in touch with some of your community head on over to my usual internet haunt where we're trying to actively encourage our users and anyone else kicking about the interweb to be more supportive of developers like yourselves. You'll find a forum list in the top left hand corner and just follow through xbox 360> games> indie games and you're more than welcome to sign up and leave a wee comment or two. I'm sure if you do add your 'persona' to the forums it will make people more interested in trying your product.

Some developers seem to lack this personal touch (Luke aka radiangames for instance) doesn't seem entirely interested in speaking to the community and there's only so much support I feel we can offer folks like that. It's not a god-given right to sell games just because you've invested time into them, you've got to earn that and I'm pleased that you guys have done just that. Thanks again for taking the time to right up this report, hopefully see you over on avforums. Cheers again and all the best, Rorifett