Marketing Chasm effectively in this, a month of Metroidvanias
Chasm is just one of the many roguelike, side-scrolling Metroidvanias that set their release date for this summer. Just as an example, when it was released on July 31, it would soon be going up against Salt and Sanctuary, which came out on August 2 for the Switch, and Dead Cells, which hit the Switch five days later.
With the crowded indie games market, this may seem like something that could detract from studio Bit Kid’s enthusiasm. It’s definitely something that Dan Adelman, the head of business and marketing for the game, noticed.
“A lot of it came down to chance,” he explained on a recent Gamasutra stream. “There's a little bit of leeway when we decided to launch, but our Kickstarter backers had been patiently waiting for so long that when we were done with the process - we really wanted to set our release date relatively close at hand.”
Adelman said that the studio even connected with some of the developers behind these other games to keep tabs on release dates. It’s all a part of the delicate process for marketing an indie like Chasm, which as previously mentioned, took six years to develop. Because the studio had Kickstarted it early on, they weren’t just releasing the game for themselves, but for the people who had been patiently waiting for it all that time. Even if they were going up against some steep competition, now was the best time to release Chasm.
Luckily, Adelman is an old hand at this. He worked at Nintendo for nine years, launching its digital distribution business. About four years ago, he left to be an independent contractor and work with projects that stood out to him, like Axiom Verge (another Metroidvania-inspired title). He’s been with Bit Kid for the past four years and as such, developed a specific strategy for marketing a game like this. It’s a balance of aggressive and passive marketing, playing up the procedural generation aspect, and generally being ready when the game was.
Kickstarter is your friend
Bit Kid first took to Kickstarter in 2013, which seems like ages ago in video game time. Back then, the indie market wasn’t as crowded and there weren’t nearly as many platforms just for them. Crowdfunding seemed like the answer to these problems. If you can’t find funding the traditional way, why not ask your consumers for it?
For a lot of developers, Kickstarter and similar platforms are so much more than for fundraising. Adelman describes it as “more about a community coming together to help a developer achieve their creative vision."
"Once we realized it's gonna be a long time before the game actually ships, we deliberately slowed down our marketing reach...you can't keep the heat on high all the time. At some point, there's fatigue and people start to tune it out."
So that’s how Adelman and Bit Kid used it. Sure it was used to raise initial funds (around $192,000 on a $150,000 goal), but it was also used to provide updates on development.
Early on, Adelman understood that regular updates were essential to keeping backers satisfied with the long development time, so the studio put out consistent monthly updates.
“It gets a bit worrisome when the updates start getting further and further apart,” Adelman explained. “I think people were very reassured that every month, we're able to say ‘here's what we're working on, here's what we're focused on.’”
Going through the Kickstarter’s updates archive it’s clear that Bit Kid mostly stuck to this. There are 75 updates in total, about one per month -- minus a few skipped months -- and each one details either a development update, a marketing push, or just some promotional material to get backers excited.
Putting out one of these updates was easier said than done. Since they were posted so frequently, Adelman said Bit Kid had to think through how to write about some of the less glamorous aspects of game development.
“Some of it was hard to communicate [like explaining] the plumbing and infrastructure of the world, which isn't very sexy,” he said. “We did the best we could.”
From his point of view, this all seemed to pay off. Backers were generally happy to see there was movement, even if it was slow. While some complained, he said most of them didn’t.
“People were very reassured when they saw ‘OK this is not vaporware, this isn't abandonware. There's progress being made.'”
Having an update posted once a month for around five years seems like a lot of marketing, but it was just the beginning of Adelman’s strategy. The next step was figuring out how much to do on top of the Kickstarter updates. That ended up varying over time.
Adelman didn’t want to be in marketing hyperdrive for the entirety of development. Doing so sounds exhausting and is almost impossible for a small studio on a limited budget. So doing things like giving out build keys to YouTube or Twitch influencers was essential to keeping interest alive, but that couldn’t be the level they worked towards all the time.
“With Chasm, once we realized it's gonna be a long time before the game actually ships, we deliberately slowed down our marketing reach,” he explained. “We stopped giving intermediate builds to YouTubers and Twitch streamers because you can't keep the heat on high all the time. At some point, there's fatigue and people start to tune it out.”
So the Kickstarter updates were Adelman’s base level, since it kept backers -- or the people who would form the foundation of Chasm's community -- interested. For everybody else, pacing was important. Go to trade shows or fan conventions to show off new builds and send them out to people with a lot of influence in the community. But don’t do it all the time.
He described it like cooking a frozen pot roast. “First you've got to let it come up to room temperature. Then you have to let it cook a bit. if you just put a frozen pot roast on a stove and put it on high heat right away, you're going to get this charred frozen thing that's not going to do very well.”
Game development is like building a tower
Chasm’s long development was a result of two things: the studio’s naivety at how long it would take from prototype and demo to full product, and the game director’s perfectionism.
"We stuck to the Miyamoto mantra: 'a rushed game will be bad forever. a late game will eventually release and be good.'"
Adelman said it took the team about 4-6 months to put a demo together for the Kickstarter. From there, they assumed it would just be a matter of building that out into a full game. They were wrong.
“They naively assumed that ‘it took this long to make this amount of content, so we'll scale linearly.’ What we all came to realize is that it's like building a tower. The taller the tower gets, the stronger and wider the foundation needs to be,” he explained.
Bit Kid did build out the game linearly, in a way, but they soon learned all the things that had to get added. Game director James Petruzzi would often find problems that needed fixing just as the game was getting to a point where it could be shipped.
“There were several points along the way where we could've said "it's done."... but James is really a stickler and he had a very strong vision of how he wanted this game to be and he didn't want to make compromises,” Adelman said.
However, all of that worked in their favor. It gave them content for the Kickstarter updates, certainly, but it ensured everybody was happy with the final product.
“We stuck to the Miyamoto mantra: ‘a rushed game will be bad forever. a late game will eventually release and be good.’”
While he admits the team initially underestimated how long Chasm would take to make, he says they couldn’t be happier with the product.
“It took a little bit longer to get here than we all anticipated, but I think we can look at the game and say ‘this is exactly what we set out to build.’”