The hilarious success story of Goat Simulator
The first Goat Simulator pitch didn't go so well: "There wasn't a game. It was just a person being really excited about goats," Coffee Stain Studios' Armin Ibrisagic tells the audience at GDC Europe.
"The second pitch was like keyboard-twister: Imagine every key on your keyboard controls something, so you control one limb with one key, the head with a key, the spine with a key, and make combinations. And it would be impossibly hard to eat grass. Which could be fun for, like, five minutes if you're drunk, but it needed a little bit more than that."
"What if you'd get points for doing stupid stuff like in skating, except you're a goat? And instead of skating, you would be headbutting and breaking windows and stuff," he reflects on the third pitch. The concept was there, but it still needed a bit more if its success was to follow Sanctum and Sanctum 2, the studio's popular tower defense hybrid game.
With no particular creative director at the studio, the team decided to work on a new, secret IP, but some team members continued to noodle with the goat idea. All the animators were busy on the new project, so some improvisation had to be done: "We actually bought all the graphical assets off the internet," Ibrisagic reveals. I think we bought the goat for $20 dollars on the internet. It was on sale, 75 percent off."
Ibrisagic posted the very first gameplay trailer, went to bed, and woke up to 80,000 views. By the time he made his five-minute walk to the office, there were 100,000. "It just became bigger and bigger and bigger, and at the end, I remember GameSpot made a video about why Goat Simulator needs to happen, that games can be stupid sometimes. People wrote really long emails to us to explain why this was important to the industry. We began to feel that maybe we could release this thing, and that maybe if we didn't someone might shoot me on the way to the office."
The team was forced to take the concept seriously, despite having had none of the cohesive meetings and conversations about Goat Simulator that it had formed around the Sanctum games previously. They had to define not only their own vision, but what players expected -- Ibrisagic recalls hearing from fans who could not wait to be chased by animal control as if by police in Grand Theft Auto, or who wrote about how cool it was going to be to control a tank as a goat.
When the team reached out about the possibility of releasing on Steam, they received a one-line email back: "DJ has started wearing a goat costume to the Bellevue office he's so excited about this game," it read. By that time, the Goat Simulator trailer had been viewed some five million times.
"We figured the game is only funny if we make it small, and stupid. We could have gone to a big publisher and asked for tons of money to do a $60 super-serious GTA game with lots of cutscenes, a 'satire of the game industry' -- we just felt our collective design vision was 'try really hard to make it look like you're not trying too hard," Ibrisagic says. "We needed to release it fast, and it needed to be in the spirit of what the trailer was."
The strategy was to add content rapidly, with little planning, so that players could do whatever they wanted. "One of the most important things we wanted to add was Steam workshop, but everything else was 'do whatever you want." A question from a journalist ("why can't I be a giraffe") led to the ability to unlock more goats, even though some of those "goats" are giraffes.
But as the release date appraoched, expectations mounted. "I was still getting so many emails asking if there were going to be tanks," Ibrisagic despaired. "People hadn't even played the game yet, but they were like, 'this is definitely the game of the year.'"
Goat Simulator saw its first showing at GDC in San Francisco on two computers, causing a foot traffic pileup. "Two people came up to me and literally threw money at us. They threw, like, $17. That was the first money we made from Goat Simulator." The game began trending worldwide on Twtter, camera crews came to the office. When release day appeared, people logged onto Steam one minute past midnight in their time zone and panicked when they didn't see the game. Ibrisagic was bombarded on Twitter with requests for what time the game would appear.
"If you're going to release a game on Steam and you don't know the exact time it's coming up, just make something up. You will save an entire workday of writing 'I don't know' to people on Twitter," he says.
Sales of the game exceeded all expectations. "I think we recouped our money within, like, ten minutes," he says. In five months, Goat Simulator outsold both Sanctum games combined, such strong performance that the team wanted to give back and decided on offering free DLC, despite the fact Sanctum and its sequel made about half their revenues from paid DLC. And the team participated in the "Games for GoatS" program with charity Heifer International, offering free Steam keys for the game (along with Escape Goat 2, which also participated) to donors.
Now, the team can invest in the secret IP and continue to support the existing ones comfortably. Patch 1.2 for Goat Simulator is coming soon, which will "surprise people just as much as they were surprised when they saw the trailer for the first time," he hopes. "When you get this press release from me in a couple months you better change your desk chair for a wheelbarrow, because you're going to shit bricks."
"There's also an announcement coming in a couple days that I'm not allowed to talk about," he adds.
The release of a small "joke game" assured security for the studio and helped fund its next IP, and many other similarly-ridiculous simulators are beginning to crop up on Steam as other developers hope the same approach will work for them. The more the merrier, Abrisagic believes.
"I really hope that more people make small and stupid games," he says. "There are so many comedy movies in the film industry, but in games we take ourselves super seriously all the time. Bear Simulator is totally not the same thing as Goat Simulator. Goats are domestic animals and bears are not."