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Defender's Quest: By the Numbers

April 11, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Today I'd like to talk a little bit about the marketing strategy and sales results for Level Up Labs' latest game, Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten. Though our game was only released this January, we have already received significant critical acclaim and brisk sales beyond our wildest expectations, and wish to offer any information from our experience which might help other independent game developers succeed.

But before we get started, let me introduce myself -- my name's Lars Doucet, and I've spent the last six years as a freelance game developer and writer. I've worked on serious games for the MacArthur Foundation, Texas A&M, Rice, and Wake Forest Universities, as well as a (so-far unreleased) Facebook game for a major publisher.

My game design articles also appear frequently among Gamasutra's expert blogs. Our current team at Level Up Labs includes Anthony Pecorella, our lead designer and an employee of Kongregate, James Cavin, our writer and character artist, and Kevin Penkin, our musician.

Defender's Quest is a departure from my previous work making educational games like Super Energy Apocalypse and CellCraft. For this game, our team has done its best to combine the storytelling, melodrama, party-building, and metagame elements of a tactical JRPG with a tower defense-style battle system.

However, instead of ubiquitous "towers," players summon to battle individual characters from their party, each with their own personalized names, stats, equipment, and skill trees. Like a traditional RPG, characters level up between battles and gain strength. The player can also specialize each party member's skills to fill different strategic niches.

Plan A

We imagined a short, three to six month project, but after a few months, it became clear our ambitions for the project would take a lot longer. This was a big problem, due to the economy behind Flash games. Most revenue from Flash games comes from a primary sponsorship deal, where a sponsor (usually a games portal) pays to have their logo and a link to their site in all versions of the game, stripping all other outgoing links, in order to capture all the game's traffic and attention for the sponsor's benefit. Essentially, a sponsorship is an offer to buy your game's audience.

As the game spreads across the internet, it drives traffic to the sponsor -- so the better the game, the higher the traffic, and the more the sponsor will pay. No matter how good the game, however, every sponsor's payment has an upper limit. Practically, this means the longer you work, the less you earn per hour spent. Extra cash can be earned from ads, contests, secondary sponsorships, and microtransactions, but even with all these extras, the pay for this labor intensive work usually amounts to peanuts.

It's worth noting that microtransactions work best in multiplayer games, or Facebook games, but according to Anthony's experience at Kongregate, they generally do poorly on single-player games on Flash portals.

Andy Moore's famous SteamBirds: By the Numbers article and others like it reveal that top-quality games can expect a sponsorship of around $25,000, with a theoretical (albeit virtually unattainable) maximum somewhere around $50,000 if the game is literally the best Flash game ever, AND you're willing to accept draconian terms. And even if a team could expect these amounts, they would still be forced to cut corners to keep development time as short as possible.

This was our original plan -- create a high-quality game worthy of a top sponsorship in a short enough amount of time to make the effort worth it. But after sinking countless hours into the project, our only shot at this strategy was to slash features. Even then, we'd still have to be the best Flash game ever to nab a large enough sponsorship to provide a decent hourly wage for all four team members.

Plan B

Instead of hoping to make minimum wage for our efforts, Anthony and I doubled down on Defender's Quest. We decided to upgrade from a free Flash game to a full commercial release. This was risky -- commercial games are obviously judged by a higher standard than free games. Furthermore, Flash has the stigma of an "amateur" platform. Among the larger independent game development scene, there is also the sentiment that success is difficult or impossible without the aid of gatekeepers like Steam or the Humble Indie Bundle.

After much toil and sweat, we released the game on January 19th, 2012. This was a full 20 months after we started, more than three times longer than our original worst-case estimate. We spent the extra time polishing the game's story and battle mechanics, features particularly scrutinized by RPG fans.

We'll go into greater detail about our marketing strategy later in the article, but the basic approach was to sell the game on www.defendersquest.com, post a free demo, and then upload the demo to all the free Flash game portals, driving traffic back to our site.

The initial numbers have rolled in, and now I'm here to report on the results.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Eric Kinkead
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Congrats to your release!!!

Lars Doucet
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Thanks! Still not sure if we did something right or just got lucky!

Eric Kinkead
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You did something right Lars, you stuck with it and polished it up nicely!

Glenn Sturgeon
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I picked up the game from the Defendersquest site about 2 weeks ago.
Congratulations on the launch & success so far. The game is a great combo of TD & rpg with characters that are quite unique.(and likable.) The game is "well beyond the quality of alot of the games on gamersgate & steam", thats where you belong with this game. Maybe you will be on those sites when the gold version is done? I can only say i hope the best for LevelUpLabs and for continued success, with a game as good as Defenders Quest you deserve it.

Matt Hackett
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These are all extremely valuable insights, thank you so much for sharing Lars!

Lars Doucet
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No problem, Matt!

I see from your profile you're into HTML5 development - what part was most interesting/relevant to you? This is kind of just a huge info-dump, so I'm interested in what parts are actually useful to people.

E Zachary Knight
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As someone who is currently making a Flash game, I love the insight you have on how much different portals affected your sales. That is one of the things I am very interested in learning more about.

Lars Doucet
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Any questions in particular?

We had to trim a lot of content from the article, so I can share more details right here in the comments.

E Zachary Knight
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Nothing particular at the moment. You have provided quite a bit to think about right now. One thing I am researching at the moment is how Facebook would fit in my plans. My game is not meant to be a single player experience, so Facebook seems to be an important part of that. However, that influence may be lessening as time moves forward. Who knows how it will be in 6 months time.

James Hofmann
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Great article!

You've confirmed something about the Flash market that I've suspected for a long while - it's overlooked as a lead-generation tool.

Something that I wasn't sure about was whether maximizing the value on portals(high score, front page, etc.) was necessary to make that strategy work, but judging from your experience it seems like "make a good game" - and making an _honest_ game(with DEMO clearly indicated) comes before specifically tailoring the game to the needs of portals.

Bryson Whiteman
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Great article! Thanks for outlining your keys to success.

Jay McG
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Lars, incredible article, thanks so much from another indie dev, that launched at the same time as you... though not flash based, we have still found many similarities in strategies that worked or didnt work for us thus far. Thanks for sharing, this is invaluable for indie devs, and I'll be sure to look for you on Twitter!

Lars Doucet
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I'm @larsiusprime, what's your tag?

Colter Haycock
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As a Flash developer by day (real job) and a Flash developer by night (hobby/indie), I appreciate the information. I've always wondered why there aren't more Flash games out there sold like "normal" games. Once I saw DQ and realized it was Flash, I knew I had to buy it.

I know Kongregate is huge but I'm still surprised that most of your sales came from there. You guys seemed to have a good amount of very positive coverage on popular gaming sites; I expected your direct sales to be higher.

Congrats and I'm eagerly awaiting the expansion.

PS- The swords at the end are ridiculously overpriced :P

Lars Doucet
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It surprised me too. I'll have to compare to other's experience to arrive at more "scientific" conclusions, but based on what we've got, it seems like press leads to big single day spikes, but doesn't lead to sustained growth on it's own, whereas flash portals give you both spikes and long-tail growth.

I think this is because, on a news site, your game's on the front page, then drops off. Nobody binges through joystiq or RPS' archives on a daily basis, but players on flash portals do exactly that - they go through and find other games on the site to play. Not nearly as much as when you're featured, but it's still sustained, organic, traffic.

What press does give you beyond spikes is overall visibility, and general exposure in the community. Furthermore, our chances of getting on to Steam / HIB depend on cracking into their visible sphere, which I imagine has a lot to do with press.

Mustafa Hanif
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Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Lars you are one of the most awesome guy on the internet, no one shares so much info with so much details.

I am from Pakistan, and a game developer. I read every single word with precise detail so that no info escapes me. Thank you again, you wrote that "I hope it helps someone" .. Well it did atleast one person and its me.

I pray that you are cured of you illness. :)

Best wishes from Karachi.

Lars Doucet
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Thanks so much! Glad it's actually helpful to people.

Colm Larkin
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Congrats on the success & thanks for sharing numbers! Looks like you definitely made the right choice by charging for the game - don't think you'd have got a $70k (and counting) sponsorship. ++

Lars Doucet
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What's interesting is how the sponsorship model has affected the flash games community. On the one hand, it's forged a viable ecosystem, but its growth is stunted by the "sponsorship ceiling."

Most successful flash developers who don't charge for games follow what I call the "Nerdook Strategy", after the famous and awesome flash developer Nerdook (http://www.kongregate.com/accounts/nerdook)

In this strategy, you make short, simple games, and lots of them, releasing several a year. It works really well for some developers (like Nerdook). For dorks like me who absolutely HAVE to make these big elaborate things, though, sponsorships just can't cut it.

YC Sim
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Kinda awesome to have a strategy named after me. Congratulations on your release again, Lars, it's nice to see successful Flash games being released like this. Hopefully I can get a commercial release out the door sometime soon, too!

Damian Connolly
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Congrats on the game Lars, great writeup! Did you have any problems going to the gaming sites like RPS and Joystiq given that it's a flash game, which could be seen as less "professional"?

Great to see someone pushing AIR as a viable framework for indie dev!

Lars Doucet
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We really didn't!

Joystiq, RPS, Destructoid, all had no reservations and were really approachable, friendly, and didn't show any sign of condescending because of our platform. In fact, having a browser demo of the game probably made it easier for them to check the game out in 5 minutes, so if anything it probably helped us get press attention.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe Machinarium and The Binding of Isaac are also flash games? They might do some things to disguise it but I think that's the core technology they're using.

Chris Melby
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Thanks Lars, this is a great source of information. It addresses areas that I hadn't even thought about yet! :)

And Machiariam and Isaac are both Flash at the core.

Lars Doucet
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Also looks like Kyle Pulver's latest release, "Offspring Fling" is Adobe AIR underneath, too! I'm sharing some tips with him right now about how to compile the game for Linux.

David Paris
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Thanks for the in-depth facts and figures. I really appreciate it when people are candid about their results.
rn
rnAlso just plain looks fun, so I'll probably pick this up tonight and give it a play.

Linh Ngo
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Amazing insights into the Flash game market. I learned quite a bit. As Unity devs, we are considering our options in this arena, so this was invaluable. Thanks!

John Funtanilla
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Lars, you're the man! I was reading this article on my phone and had to get out the bed and on my computer just to post a proper comment.

I'm actually releasing my game Super Ski Runner (ironzilla.com/SSR) on April 20th for PC and Mac, and am doing a "Pay What You Want" model. Those who donate get the special Gold package. I'll be sharing my statistics after several months as well.

I'll be releasing a Flash demo of the game (doesn't have the Gold edition bonus content). What would you say your conversion rate of plays vs sales was? I know my game isn't as extensive as Defender's Quest, which is why I'm making it pay what you want. The developer of indie game Proun found some success with this model. What's your take on it?

Again, thanks for posting and congrats!

Lars Doucet
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Depending on how we figure, our particular conversion rate is somewhere between 2 and 3%.

We've got more detailed stats on this tigsource forum thread:
http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=25503.0

I think Pay What you Want is a great model, and I'd love to try it out in the near future, but I was a little gun-shy of trying it right out of the gate with my first commercial title.

Proun was an awesome game - I definitely bought it. I think they could have improved on their method in a few ways:

1) Offer a free demo (pay "0" for the non-bonus version was essentially the demo)
2) Make the gold version have lots of extra content (rather than just a few bonus tracks)
3) Set the minimum price around $1

That's just nitpicking though, they clearly did pretty well anyways.

Good luck with your game!

Saul Gonzalez
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The Proun developer himself called the "Pay what you want" experiment a failure. He said he was sure he would have made several times more money with a more traditional model.That said, I would agree that setting a minimum that's not $0 is important, as explained by Lars in another article.

(This post was meant to be a reply to John, made a mistake when posting)

Lars Doucet
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Minor update: An authoritative source that wishes to remain anonymous wrote to tell me that the Primary sponsorship game has changed over the last few years.

According to the source, primary sponsorships up to 100K - with reasonable terms - are not unheard of these days. The source mentioned that he/she knew of 6 titles that had cracked this barrier, but wasn't able to give any names or further details.

These numbers haven't been published widely, and I imagine flash portals have no incentive to make these figures public lest it drive up bids :)

So apparently the flash market is still growing and the sponsorship model can support larger, more robust games than it could a few years ago. In light of this information, for our next title I might consider putting our next title up for bids just to see what offers we get.

Even still, I'm glad we took the route we did, as there's still a fixed ceiling to a sponsorship payment.

Finally, there was no way for us to know this information when we made our decision, which I think further underscores the importance of developers sharing sales and revenue stats.

Adam Buffett
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Many thanks for sharing the experience and particularly the little details. One question... have you thought about putting this inside Facebook with a free demo, then a Facebook payment required to continue past the demo stage? Is something like that on the roadmap, or have you decided against it for some reason?

Steven An
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Dude thanks for posting this detailed information. GamaSutra needs more articles like this..

Patrick Kirk
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20 months development and 5 months sales and your income is $46,000 between 2 developers. Your article is great and shows a lot of insight. I wonder if you have any predictions on what your income over the next 2 years or so from that game will be?


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