Years in the Making: The Long Game of Boyfriend Dungeon
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This article was originally posted on itch.io. Kitfox Games is a vocal supporter of the itch.io ethos and purpose, which is to support and empower alternative and inclusive games and their creators.
Boyfriend Dungeon has gotten a lot of attention. More than any of our previous games. Press, fans, news, PAX, YouTubers, etc. It seemed like it “blew up” when we launched our Kickstarter on August 15th and got funded in just 6 hours. In this crowded time, when there’s more beautiful and more innovative games than ever before, it’s hard to get attention, but we did it, this time.
If you haven't heard of it, Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon-crawler about dating your weapons, which turn into beautiful people. Fall in love to level them up. We recently reached our Kickstarter goal of $50k in ~6 hours, and ended up with $272k CAD, or 415%. Hooray. We also have been covered by many major outlets, including GQ, Polygon, RPS, etc.
I don’t want to waste your time bragging — it’s not like Boyfriend Dungeon is the next Minecraft or anything! Plenty of people have still never heard of the game ! If you haven't, that's fine. But I want you to understand:
- We worked hard, hoping a “blow up” might happen.
- But most of that work is invisible to fans & peers. From the outside it looks like we just sat there.
- We didn’t know if any of our efforts would work. Usually they don’t.
- And that’s totally normal.
Contrary to popular belief, these do not actually 'sell themselves'.
Overnight successes don’t exist, from what I’ve seen. There’s usually years and years of work behind the scenes and then MAYBE your game blows up, but mostly not. Plenty of people work for years and their game still doesn’t blow up — that’s certainly what happened for our previous games. I guess it’s possible SOME game out there enjoyed overnight success. Maybe they had a good game idea, made that game, and enjoyed sudden fame and prosperity. But that isn’t the story of Boyfriend Dungeon.
What do I mean by “worked hard”? I mean, even BEFORE all this nonsense in the past month, our hard work included:
- five years of building our community via high-quality social media, especially Twitter (++visibility)
- prior releases of pretty cool games, 10 on itch.io, 3 on Steam, one on GOG, PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch (++legit)
- a previous successful Kickstarter with only minor complaints from backers (++trust)
- we built an announcement teaser, Steam Coming Soon page, and website11 months ago and emailed all 3 to 300+ press (++visibility)
- we took that teaser and showed it at PAX South and PAX East alongside our other games (++visibility)
- we’ve been maintaining and growing a Kitfox newsletter for five years at 12+ gaming events (++visibility)
- we regularly accept tons of interview requests, whether written, podcast, or video (++visibility)
- regularly appearing on panels, doing multiple talks at conventions like GDC, and sharing knowledge (++visibility and ++trust)
And that doesn’t even start on the actual work we put into the Kickstarter itself. So let's talk about that, next.
Sometimes people ask how to coordinate their PR/marketing campaigns. So I’m going to try to write it all down in a sensible chronological looking list but really it’s a bit more chaotic than this. But this is how it went, generally:
- Rough-draft the Kickstarter page, come up with trailer idea
- We start to improve the parts of the game (art, animations, features, menus, content) that the trailer will use. This takes forever.
- We hire Sunder from Particle Beam to make a “magical transformation sequence” for Talwar — this becomes a key piece of marketing art
- We continue improving the game itself. We revamp the combat to be 12-directional, so this takes most of July. We don’t have time to improve everything — so we pick and choose to finish what will actually be shown in the trailer, and the rest looks broken.
- We decide we will launch the Kickstarter August 15th (using this method)
- We get our transformation sequence finalized (thanks Sunder!)
- We put a trailer rough-draft on the Kickstarter page and send it to 50+ friends and mentors for their feedback/opinions (begging for harsh honesty)
- We also more shyly post it in our Discord, to get community input
- We improve the timings, audio, content, and tiers as needed based on feedback (many of our wordings were confusing)
- Victoria, our community manager, starts hinting at a big announcement on our social media channels and opens up a press list sign up
- We post the finalized trailer to YouTube in a private/secret link
- Victoria emails 300+ press with the link to the trailer & Kickstarter, PLUS reveal info about our previously secret 5th weapon, Glaive and the mysterious cat figure, Pocket
- During this time, I am traveling, giving a talk on creative direction in Taiwan?? I was very stressed about leaving during this delicate time, but I have a great team that I trust…
- Victoria emails 300+ press again with a reminder of our impending launch and new trailer and character reveal
- Victoria emails streamers & YouTubers about the Kickstarter, if they covered our past games, inviting them to talk about our Kickstarter when it launches
- We continue improving the game itself, because we have a PAX coming up at the end of August
- We hold a launch livestream
- We press LAUNCH
- We make the trailer publicly visible
- Victoria posts our ‘official’ launch announcement on Discord, Twitter, FB, Instagram
- The team and I each email 100+ friends and family, post on our personal social media, etc
- We discover that, this time, the effort has all been worth it and hey we got some press coverage and Twitter excitement (Boyfriend Dungeon became a trending topic at one point)
The main point is that there’s weeks or months of preparation, but a lot of it was … sending thousands of emails, which obviously nobody can easily see from the outside. We spend hours crafting those press emails — debating the wording, picking the right gif, having the best headline, etc. I guess it was worth it, this time. Or maybe we just got lucky this time.
Either way, we owe our community a LOT of gratitude, for years to come. Plus the game we promised we'd make them, I guess.
With hindsight bias, it’s easy to say “of course the game would blow up! Boyfriend Dungeon is the most viral game idea you’ve ever had”! But… it’s easy to feel that, and be wrong. In the moment, you’re never sure. Even with our announcement trailer doing well 11 months ago, we weren’t sure if it was a slow news day and a fluke. We went ahead anyway, hoping.
So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. We’ll keep working hard to stay visible and relevant. Maybe this is the peak. It’s possible that by the time the game comes out, all of this momentum will be lost and we’ll release to silence and crickets.
But the odds are stacked in our favor, now. That’s the unfair cycle. The better you do, the better you do. I like to think that if I had suggested Boyfriend Dungeon back in 2013 instead of Shattered Planet, it would have “blown up” as much as it did now — after all, Hatoful Boyfriend came out in English in 2012. But maybe without those five years of work, and our built-up community, and a butterfly that flapped its wings somewhere, it just couldn’t have happened. We’ll never know.
The Kickstarter funded going from 5 weapons up to 9.
Anyway, I’m primarily a game designer and creative director, not a marketer, so maybe this is all old news, but… I hope it helps someone. Making a good game is hard, and sometimes it can feel like you don’t have the time or energy to also do marketing on top of that… but maybe this can help you channel what energy you DO have into the right things.
The way I see it, “marketing” is the cold gross term for just trying to get players to play my game. Not just so Kitfox can survive financially in capitalism, but to make the game itself worthwhile. I make games so people can play them. It breaks my heart when excellent, beautiful games don’t get the recognition and attention they deserve. It’d be great if I could focus more on the craft of game design and assume players will follow... but I'm not there, yet. Maybe I never will be.
We can’t wait to upload Boyfriend Dungeon to itch.io when the time comes. So I’m going to close out this post with a signal boost to a few games I think are underrated and that everyone should go play on itch.io:
Good luck, friends ❤