How Zach Bertok's first game turned him into a Full-time indie dev
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Old-school RPGs are hard to market.
- They don’t have sexy trailers filled with flashy gameplay.
- Screenshots of battle systems look dull and unattractive.
- There's the expectation that it’ll be a loooooong game, with overly deep story with simple gameplay.
- It’s a niche market with a particular language - only understood by those already familiar with RPGs.
For every success story like Undertale, Legends of Grimrock, or SanctuaryRPG, there's the many that barely get attention, even when they're practically free. Using SteamSpy for research, RPG genre Steam games made by indies during the Fall of 2016 barely moved more than 5000 copies.
Many of these indie developers work during the day, and craft their magnum opus of an RPG in the wee hours of the night.
So it surprised me in my interview with Zack Bertok of Thylacine Studios, when he told me he works full-time as a game developer on his old-school RPG series, Siralim.
Who this post is for
This article is specifically about marketing and growth for indie developers, from an indie developer. You too might be building games on your free time and working a day job.
If you aren’t a brand spanking new developer, you’ll still pick up some gems in this post.
A little bit about the interviewee:
Zack is a super friendly guy, and wicked smart. Since this is more of a marketing post, developers may want to ask him about game development directly. Feel free to chat with him in his forum or on Twitter.
Before we jump into the highlights of my interview with Zack, I want to share a bit about his games.
Quick rundown of Siralim
Siralim is an old-school RPG, with monster-collecting. It’s like Pokemon, only instead of being a trainer, you’re a wizard. Instead of cute monsters, you’re capturing the souls of demons - summoning them as part of your personal army to gain favor from the gods (and in the free DLC, even transform one of your monsters into a god). Forget about love, compassion, badges and poke-contests. Your job is to turn your monsters into an ultimate weapon of destruction, by customizing every little feature of your team.
Yes you're capturing monsters. But this ain't Pokemon. Screenshot by frivoc.
The first year and the first hundred fans
I asked Zack about the origins of Siralim.
Siralim didn’t come about because of market research. There was a gut feeling that there must be others who yearned for a game similar to Gameboy classic, Dragon Warrior Monsters (a monster-collecting side-story based on the Dragon Quest series.)
During development, he set up a Humble Widget on his site to gather his first fans. The Humble store initially didn’t even allow Siralim, because, in the words of Zack, it had “Microsoft Paint level graphics.”
From there, he shared his work on various subreddits, which got him his first fans. Not a load of fans, but enough to help him validate that this is something worth pursuing.
It took 272 days from putting the Humble Widget on his site, to getting Siralim on Steam Greenlight.
That’s when the ball started rolling and Siralim acquired it's first hundred fans.
A view of the monster ranch. Look at that special ability! Screenshot by BadIndieGamer.
From a marketer to indie developers:
Some do it with market research and making projections. Others build it slowly, and see if people are willing to pay for it. It's ALWAYS a bad idea to spend months/years working in isolation and expecting a fanfare of good results. Struggling to validate with people? I wrote a post about finding hidden communities here.
Ads (or don’t even BOTHER.)
During the first year, Zack invested in Facebook ads, Google ads, and Reddit ads. While ads are shortcuts to quickly growing your audience base, it’s a gamble. For Siralim, ads didn’t work.
“It’s never worth for an indie developer to invest in ads.” Zack shares.
From a marketer to indie developers: You need two things to make ads work.
1) A background in marketing and copywriting to understand what ‘clicks’ with customers
2) Enough money to experiment. (Can you afford to test ads at $100 a day for two months?)
I’ve lucked out in Facebook ad campaigns that made a profit in the first week.
Other campaigns, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent and became a sunk cost.
Unless you have the experience and money, you’re better off reinvesting ad dollars on freelancers who can help you market.
A commenter asked Zack, “Why isn’t this game on Mac?”
That’s all it took for Thylacine Studios to ship it in multiple platforms.
If you look at Siralim, you can find it everywhere: iOS, Android, Mac, PC, Linux, Windows Phone, PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. (Siralim 2 is getting Playstation 4 and PS Vita soon)
Siralim 2 battle scene. Screenshot by [Ex] Skyroyan.
In a niche market like old-school RPGs, there no longer is a definite ‘platform’ to play. By being in multiple storefronts, Zack is catering to the buyer.
Price differently? You bet.
There’s the belief that pricing based on the platform is unfair.
Siralim sold just fine.
The biggest surprise: Because of Siralim’s cloud save, many fans purchased multiple versions to play anywhere. Some played on Steam, then bought a iOS version or an Android version for on the go.
Regarding the pricing differences, Zack shared, “Overall, it boils down to what the market is. I would get 0 sales if I sold it for $15 for iOS/Android. But on other platforms [like Playstation and Steam], $15 is cheap.”
(btw - I purchased both!)
As a marketer: this is a beautiful fly-wheel effect. Let's look at the worse-case scenario. If a gamer saw that Siralim 2 is cheaper on mobile, they’ll buy it there to check it out. Being hooked on the game, they’ll forget that their original goal was to buy the cheap version and purchase the console version. It’s a win-win.
Being a Fan of Fans
In other games, gamers are crying, “ARE THE DEVS EVEN LISTENING?”
While in his forums, fans are praising Zack. At least once a month, there’s a new post thanking Thylacine Studios for this epic game.
In Zack’s words, “I’m a fan of my fans.”
One of the many gods of Siralim 2. Screenshot by jay_rab
He watches every Let’s Play of his games. He’s active in the Siralim subreddits and his own forum community. He even shared that some of the active fans have reached the two-year mark.
More importantly - his forum shapes his games. Conversations and debate lead to balance changes.
Creatures that are underpowered or overpowered - Zack purposely leaves it public on his forums, to actively generate discussion. Zack also keeps his fans in the loop - like how much trouble it is to update the iOS version, and a roadmap of the giant free DLC coming our way.
Zack believes that cultivating a great community brings the same people will come back later on and ultimately reward the company the long run.
Zack references Crate Entertainment, the team that made Grim Dawn.
In an industry flooded by hack-and-slash ARPGs, I believe Crate is one of the few companies that did it all correctly.. I've drawn a lot of inspiration from this company both from a business and game design standpoint. They're also very generous toward their players with fast content updates, low-cost and high-quality DLC, and transparent communication.
He appreciates Crate Entertainment so much that Siralim 2 includes a hidden boss called Zantai, named after one of their developers who tends to interact with the community the most.
From a marker's standpoint: Here's why this is effective.
First, it's presence. Fans frequently see indie devs pump-and-dump games. Zack solves the 'the devs aren't listening' complaint through active engagement.
Secondly, this is utilizing the psychological strategy that Harvard Business school dubbed Ikea Effect. Gamers are more invested in your work if they can contribute to it.
Finally, it's good relationship building. When you're good to your community, the community gives back. Youtubers, streamers, and even marketers who blogs everywhere (*cough*) are in there. The value can't be measured.
Zack Bertok is a indie game developer who made a game in a niche market, grew a very excited community, and is able to work full time on it. For any indie devs who are still working to turn their hobby into a career, it's possible.
You're invited to visit me at Seriousgamedevsonly.com, where I dish out marketing strategies for indie devs who want to develop a sustainable business. And go check out Siralim 2 so you can see what the fuss is about, tweet at Zack for being an awesome guy, share this with somebody and leave a comment. (That's a lot of asks. You don't have to do them all at once. I'll wait.)