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Opinion: A self-publishing PC adventure
Opinion: A self-publishing PC adventure
September 25, 2012 | By Aaron San Filippo

September 25, 2012 | By Aaron San Filippo
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    10 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing



In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Raven Software veteran and Flippfly co-founder Aaron San Filippo shares the challenges his studio is facing as it attempts to self-publish a PC title.

When we started Flippfly as a company, our thoughts were mostly on iOS: the developer ecosystem is thriving, the barrier to entry is super low, the hardware is awesome, and there are millions upon millions of potential customers. But through our experience with our first release, Monkey Drum, we came to realize a few things:
  1. It's really hard to build a community around an app and this is one of the things that's important to us.
  2. The landscape is really changing free-to-play rules the roost, and this isn't a model we want to focus our efforts on.
  3. The PC platform seems much more in-line with our long-term goals and values, and there is a thriving ecosystem here that's more than big enough to support a small developer like us.
So we decided that, starting with our first major game release, Race The Sun, our lead platform would be PC, and we would have a focus on self-publishing from our website. Recently, we opened up pre-orders on our website for the game, and I thought it'd be useful to share our experiences as we go.

We knew that self-publishing would come with some advantages and challenges:

Advantage: We get a bigger cut of the revenues than we do on iOS (more on this later).

Advantage: We have direct contact with every customer who buys a product, and can communicate our future products directly to them.

Advantage: When someone buys one of our products, our Flippfly branding is front-and-center, and we can funnel them into our community forums to make them feel like they're part of something bigger.

Advantage: We can publish updates as often, and as fast, as we want.

Advantage: We can play by our own rules as far as what's a passable product, how we handle payment, how our games can talk to each other, what we can link to, etc.

Challenge: Visibility is completely up to us (but we actually like it this way!).

Challenge: We need our own e-commerce setup, and it has to be easy to use, both for us and our customers.

Challenge #1: Visibility


This seems to be the biggest one by far. We're not a well-established developer of PC games (even though I spent seven years in AAA before this venture), and our only published product as a company so far is a children's educational music toy for iOS, so there really isn't a crossover audience there.

Here are some of the strategies we've used so far to attempt to get some eyes on us and our game during its development phase:

Development updates and social media participation

We've posted weekly development logs pretty much since we started the project, and then we tweet these, post them to Facebook, and occasionally link them from forums around the web.

This hasn't exactly lit the site on fire with traffic but it's kept us on track to make a solid weekly build, and we've gotten some very valuable feedback from the few people who do trickle in to play.

I've also made an effort to tweet screenshots with the #screenshotsaturday tag, which are automatically posted on ScreenshotSaturday.com free visibility!

Steam Greenlight page

When Steam announced that their new Greenlight service was live, we quickly put together some screenshots and a rough video, and got a page up the first day. This had the benefit of getting lots of eyes on the game. Although our goal is self-publishing, we would certainly love to be on Steam as well.

Admittedly, our presentation here is pretty rough, and we could've done a better job of preparing. The initial set of comments were brutal. Most of the posters seemed to think it's a Flash game, and many suggested we should be making this as an app, not a Steam game.

But we saw this experience as a huge positive: It's a great way to get un-biased reactions from typical Steam users. Getting straight-talk about what people think about your game is harder than you think, especially when they're friends and family, or well-wishers who come by our website!

Through this feedback, we decided to make some changes to the visual style, and go for a more unique grayscale palette with some post process that perhaps makes it stand out from the "app" look people were criticizing us for. When we posted some new screenshots, we saw a near instant change in the tone of many of the comments, and the number of favorites increased as well. All in all, this is the type of iteration we like to see happen!

The game concept itself

There have been a few very influential articles for us. One of them in particular is this gem by Tadhg Kelly called "You need a marketing story." His overall point is that to make yourself anything more than invisible, you need a story worth talking about a reason for people to care about your game beyond a list of bullet points.

It got us to asking ourselves: What is this game's differentiator? And we had to admit that other than the fact that it's a game with a hardcore focus (it's really fairly challenging) with a very simple premise (it's a high score-based infinite racer), we didn't really have much worth talking about.

Of course, I still believe that the #1 priority is making an excellent game. But, it should also be a game that surprises and delights people in ways they haven't seen before.

This was useful to come to grips with, because it encouraged us go back to the drawing board a bit, and come up with a single idea for the game related to social/multiplayer, that we feel will make it stand out in a unique way, and that really reenergized us to finish the game.

We haven't announced this feature yet, but I'll follow up on it in a future post with more details! We're definitely still learning about how to interact with the press and time our announcements for the best effect.

Playable "Alpha Demo" on Kongregate.com

From the beginning, we started posting Unity web builds of the game on our blog. Our thinking was that the early feedback would help improve the game, and maybe we'd create a bit of a buzz.

And now that we've developed the game to a point where we feel it's fairly fun and "feature complete" in its most basic form, we put up what we call an "Alpha Demo" on web portal Kongregate.com.

This version has about an hour's worth of player objectives and unlocks, and a fairly clear message that there's a "full version" available. It includes links to our website where people can pre-order, and asks users after a few rounds of play if they'd like to sign up to the mailing list for future updates on the game.

Our early opinion is that this was a good move: the game has had around 4,500 plays as of this writing, and currently sits at a 3.70 rating. The comments have been mostly positive and constructive, with a few people who obviously love the game. There have been about 15 newsletter sign-ups among the players after just a couple of days. This was all a nice reassurance for us that, yes, we're onto something here.

It's also very refreshing to be able to respond to comments, to thank our users personally, and to upload quick fixes any time we want. This is a world of difference from our experience on mobile so far.

Additionally, we're tracking usage statistics anonymously through Google Analytics, and this early testing data is telling us things like:
  • How many people are playing the game Right Now? (answer: 39)
  • How many people make it to the first "level up" and to subsequent levels, and how long does each level take them?
  • How many click the "full version info" button?
  • How long do they spend in the game on average?
  • Where are our users coming from geographically?
This is all very useful information for us. Even if we don't make a single sale from Kongregate users, the ability to fine-tune the first impressions and user flow in the game through an active audience is a luxury that we won't take for granted.

Our goal is to get the game up into the 4.0+ range, and we feel we have a plan and the tools to do that.

Visibility ideas

Beyond these plans, we've got some ideas we've been tossing around:
  • Twitter/Facebook integration? Do people do this in standalone PC games?
  • User-generated content: this seems a natural way to turn our fans into product evangelists.
  • Personal stories: We've had some interesting experiences, but haven't done a lot of "self marketing." We're thinking about our personal stories and how to present these to people.
  • Cross-marketing: Maybe there are some opportunities to get some visibility from other indie games or sites?
  • Traditional marketing spend: Are ads worth it with a $5-$10 PC game? We haven't done the math on this yet.
  • Press Releases: We'll definitely be connecting with the press as we go.
  • Contests etc.
I'll post a future update with our progress in this area! If anyone has any experiences they'd like to share, we'd love to hear them!

Challenge #2: e-Commerce:


Apple really spoiled us in that we didn't have to worry at all about product delivery, payment, sales taxes, returns, etc. We just upload our app and set the price, and they send us a check every month.

It turns out, there are lots of solutions for self-publishing that have about the same level of benefits. We chose a company called FastSpring for their combination of payment types accepted, royalty rates (they take less than 10 percent), and general reputation and customer service. They worked with us to set up a customized, secure store page that looks exactly like our Flippfly site, so from the user's point of view they've never really left our site.

Delivery

The only big question we had to deal with was how to deliver the actual product. Since we're not finished with the game yet, we needed to figure out how we would handle pre-orders.

FastSpring (understandably) doesn't care for the idea that we're just going to send a promise of the game when it's finished. After all, what if we got hit by a bus, or (perhaps more likely) got bored with the game and decided not to finish it?

So we decided that we would send an early build along with the pre-orders, which would be mostly identical to our "alpha demo" but without the "buy the full version" messaging. As we add more content, we'll send updates to our purchasers, right through the final release.

This raised the question of: How do we get the early product in the hands of our customers, and get them all updates as we go?

Initially, we were looking into the option of creating a key generator scheme, where there would be a public download link, and people would essentially be purchasing a key that they'd enter into the game to activate it.

In the end though, we decided that for now we would just send a totally unlocked early release version to FastSpring for direct customer download, and since we get the email addresses of everyone who's bought the game, we'll provide an update mechanism in the future.

We'd really like to have a setup like the Humble Bundle store, where you can simply log in and download everything you've purchased. I'll give you an update on this when we figure out exactly how we decide to handle it!

Customer options

We decided to take a page from Kickstarter, and offer multiple tiers of purchase:
  • For $5, you get a copy of the game
  • For $10, you get a copy of the game, a soundtrack, and custom wallpapers.
We may add more tiers as we go. If we find that some people are really getting into the game, maybe they would like a poster, or a miniature of the player ship, or even a customized controller? Our goal is to respond to what the community wants.

Community involvement

We're very determined to take full advantage of this platform, and involve our community however we can. We set up a forum for the game, and we've been answering questions and responding to requests on the Kongregate site.

We may setup a weekly survey and direct people to it from the demo version, and we've been considering ways to let our fans contribute content to the game itself. We want the project to have a long lifespan, and we're determined to encourage this however we can.

Thanks for reading! I hope it was helpful for someone. I'll post a follow-up soon with more about our ongoing development, how the pre-orders are going, and any new challenges and opportunities that come up. In the meantime, why not follow me on Twitter for more updates?

Further reading:
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]


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Comments


Tyvon Thomas
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This is an amazing article, not only full of interesting insights, but really useful information! I might have to bookmark this for future use. Thanks so much for posting it!

Lance Douglas
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Bookmarking this as well. Thanks for all the great info and links.

Max Mantegna
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Great article indeed, it's really hard to get honest and modest numbers from a studio that is pushing a game into the market as any other small/new studio would do. This kind of information is really scarce sometimes. Keep up with the updates and good luck with the sales!

Russ Menapace
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Do you have a direct link to the web player? I'm flashless, and Kongregate doesn't like that.

Aaron San Filippo
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Hmm, I'm not sure it's possible to link directly to to the Kong version!
You could try this site, looks like they snagged the file - no idea if it'll work without flash: http://www.minijuegos.com/Race-the-Sun/13084

Dave Troyer
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Good and helpful information for indies! Thank you!

Dave Wishnowski
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Thank you, Aaron, for this extremely helpful article! My team is experiencing the situation you just described and your advice is sure to save us some mistakes. Thanks again!

Aaron San Filippo
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I'm really glad it was helpful for you! Yeah I'm really amazed at how quickly the landscape is changing. Hopefully on PC things will be a little more stable, but time will tell.

Kyle Redd
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If you do go the route of Facebook and/or Twitter integration in your game, I would plead with you to ensure it is entirely optional and separable for those (like me) who will never use it. Don't make the mistake Capybara did with Sword & Sworcery that results in a permanent Twitter icon in the HUD that can't be removed or hidden.

Greg Quinn
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Interesting article.

Regarding if ads are worth it for $5 - $10 games, my experience is no.
After running several campaigns, on facebook and some gaming site networks, the CPC ended up hovering around the $0.75 - $1 mark. And that is just for somebody to view your game, they may not even be interested.

The better alternative is to list your game on Steam/Desura etc, where you get free exposure. Doing interviews with gaming sites also gives good exposure.. and best of all... it's free.


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