Important note: I don't have any good graphs or flow charts for this blog so I am going to annotate it with the greatest movie abut entrepreneurship and marketing: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
So nobody bought your game? Nobody wrote about all the work you put into it? Only one random internet man with 32 subscribers streamed your game? Let me guess, when you sum up the hours worked on your game and divide it by your total revenue it turned out you worked for $2.11 an hour for 4000 hours? You couldn't afford to quit your job? You won’t be able to buy an island?
I know you think this is a bad thing. You are probably writing up your post mortem about how this is the Indiepocalypse’s fault or F2P and something about asset flippers. Before you write that barn burner of a blog, here are some alternative things to do with all that energy.
It is your first game and you are a new business owner. The day you released your game was actually the first day of your company was open for business (not the umpteen months you spent building it.) Most ventures don’t turn a profit for years. Phil Knight the founder of Nike spent 5 years selling running shoes out of his car at track meets before he made enough to quit his accounting job and work full time. This is normal in the business world. There is even a term for it… sweat equity. It refers to the unpaid effort that you put into your venture before you make profits. It is totally unrealistic to think that the moment you release your game your work is done and you just sit back and years of work will just be repaid within a few months.
Think about this as if it were the restaurant business. A restaurateur spend tens of thousands of dollars up front on equipment, rent, interior decorating, and staff. It is not until the first customers step in that the restaurateur starts her business. Every night she has to attract more customers than the previous one.
If restaurateurs gave up like so many indie game developers, they would shut down after the first month of business because the critics stopped reviewing her restaurant. But they don't do that. Restaurateurs expect to spends several years slowly building up a loyal customer base to pay off their initial investment.
Now that you have released your first game, the doors of your restaurant are open. Now begins the work of building up goodwill and true fans one customer at a time. The indie game success is actually built on loyal fans and word-of-mouth not by the number of articles that were written or how long you were on the best selling list on the Steam store. It is nearly impossible to build build a fan base on previews and screenshots and no game they can actually play. Nobody becomes a fan until they play your game. Now that the game is out, it is time to get started.
This is the first tip because it is the single most important thing you need to do to improve your chances at repeat business. Read this whole article on why you need to build an email list. The short story is that mailing lists are the most effective way for you to keep in contact with your fans. Twitter doesn’t work (again, read why not.)
Nobody is just going to give you their email address. You have to offer something up in return. This is referred to as a “lead magnet.” Add a second playable character that is only unlockable when they sign up for your mailing list. Give them a bonus level with lots of coins. Give them a pair of special in-game glasses that allows them to see all the secret passages. It must be something that is valuable and enhances the game for the most die-hard fan.
Even though fewer people downloaded your game than were in your high school marching band, there is a chance that one of those people really really liked it. They are a true fan. Don’t let them slip away. You need them to be an evangelist for you and to help you get more players. All the other tips I am giving you below will increase the number of people playing your game but only a mailing list can hold on to them. Without a mailing list, all your efforts to build a fanbase will be like trying to collect rain with a sieve.
If you want a more detailed "How To" for email marketing, read my Game Email Marketing 101 guide.
The time spent making your first few games is similar to the Beatles time in Hamburg Germany. Before the Beatles were a phenomenon, they spent two years playing nearly empty clubs. While they were toiling in obscurity, they figured out what the crowd liked, slowly built up a following, and parlayed it into their first recording session. Sure your first game proved that you can strum all the notes, but you need to learn how to play to a crowd. Accept that!
Check to see how people are playing your game. Maybe people quit after the first level because it is too hard. If people don’t play your game for very long, they are not going to review it and they definitely are not going to recommend it to their friends.
Analytics is also important to add because you will find out what parts of the game people actually do or do not like. In Wizard Golf RPG I spent a lot of time implementing a gold skull collectible that worked kind of like the Mario 64 stars. Through data tracking and talking to players I found most didn’t understand it and also didn’t care about collecting them. Knowing what people actually care about will help you understand what to implement in your next game.
I know it seems ridiculous to spend any more time on a “failed” game. But, remember this is sweat equity. You are probably getting a lot of comments and emails from people who downloaded your game and have suggestions or bugs. These are the few people who, despite everything, actually paid for your game. Show them your love. Respond to EVERY SINGLE EMAIL quickly and with just enough personality to prove that you are a human being. Respond to every tweet, forum post, and comment on articles about your game. Don’t be bitter. Sound friendly and welcoming. Your few early adopters will see this dedication and see you as a standout dev. This is how people become fans of your work.
When I released Zombie King I responded to every email the second I got them. Players were shocked that I was real and not some corporate shill. Since you probably don't have that many people emailing you, be generous with your time. Most developers just don’t offer this personal level of customer support and it will distinguish you from the pack. I found my most die-hard fans during the early bug-fixing phase and they continue to evangelize my other games to this day.
Also, no matter how mean the person is leaving the comments, don’t be negative. Smile and say thanks. A forum troll left a message like “this game seems pretty simple and dumb.” I responded honestly about who I was and what I was trying to do and did not let on that I was offended by his comment. The troll totally turned around and said he actually liked my game. Some people are mean when they think they are shouting into the void. When you answer back and prove that you are not the void, they quickly reverse course. Also if what they say is legitimate, take their suggestions and work it into the next patch and then credit them by their forum handle in your release notes. You just made yourself a life-time fan.
But, if the guy is still a jerk after you tried to be nice, ignore him and don’t engage. It isn’t worth your time.
This industry is pretty small and runs on relationships. Always send an email and a tweet thanking the streamer or journalist who covered your game. They spent time digesting and writing about your game so they will remember you. Just be nice (even if they wrote a bad review) because you want them to write about your next game.
Chances are your copywriting can be improved. The tags and keywords you picked are not attracting customers. Your screenshots can be flashier.
Every week record your store statistics in a spreadsheet. Keep track of how many store page views and how many purchases occurred. Then tweak things like the screenshots, short description, and keywords. See if there are any changes in the stats. Just be sure to change only one detail at a time. If something does work, it is hard to determine what change did the trick.
Oh, and unless your game is a strategy game, for the love of God, remove screenshots of your GUI and start screen. Nobody buys games because of menus.
Many indie devs just are not tenacious enough about their game post release. You potentially spent years making this and then give up after the first month? Keep adding, keep polishing and keep telling people about your game.
More than likely you have game modes that you cut out of your final game because you ran out of time. Now is the time to add it. After you update your game, post in the forums, send another round of emails to the press and store curators.
Also add features that are new to the platform. For example, if Apple has a new feature on their phone, support it and there is a chance you will get featured. For Steam, make sure add achievements and cards. People search for those things.
Hide pumpkins in your game for Halloween, make a snow level for Christmas, and fireworks for the Summer. Sometimes these limited time modes get noticed by the store and can result in a feature. People who wish-listed your game might be willing to jump if it means a one-time chance at unlocking new modes.
I know you probably did this while your game was in development and they ignored you. The reason is because there are so many dreamers and wannabes in indie games. I get asked for advice all the time and I know that most of the people I give it to will never release a game. Forums are filled with people saying “I have been meaning to make my first game but always lose motivation” Or “I have a really good idea for an open-world procedurally-generated rogue-like MMO with vehicle sections and dual-wielding-weapons that you can customize with our extensive crafting system.” Yet they will never ever release anything.
However, you released a game. I hope you understand how much more awesome that makes you than the 99% of people who just make excuses. You are now a fellow soldier in the collective indie game foxhole. We can now swap war stories and bond over it. You can give me advice! It is much easier to network after you released a game because you are the type of person who releases games.
If you see a famous dev mention a problem that you overcame, reach out and mention your game and what experience you had. Helping someone goes much further than asking for something from them.
I know you want the cash now, but you must think long term. If you stick with it and release and continue to market your games and your mailing list, in 5 years you will have amassed a huge following. Releasing a remastered version of your first game will reintroduce your (now) legions of fans to a revamped game that required significantly less development work than an entirely new game.
As you read this your game is marketing for you. 24 hours a day it just sits out there appearing in searches to the millions of people using Steam. I know it might not be making a lot of money, but it is attracting some attention. Over time it could turn out to be like the VHS release of Blade Runner: a box office failure that earned a cult following through repeated viewings.
It might be tempting to put your game in one of the super-discounted game bundles to get some attention, but don’t do it yet. The bundles are amazing lead generators but the real benefit comes when it introduces fans to your games and allows you to up-sell them on your back catalog. If you don’t have a back catalog to up-sell, you are just giving your game away. So wait until you have released at least 3 games before entering your game in a bundle.
Sometimes no matter how much you add to your released game, it will still be a dud. Here is how to make the most of your next game.
See the above point about the Beatles. You are still in Hamburg. Just make sure you have a mailing list sign up offer in the second game too. Don’t take too long to release this game either. Don’t go bigger with this game. Keep costs down. Be approachable to the few people who buy game #2.
Making games is hard stuff and you will fail again.
One option is to take the core mechanic of your first game and make a super-simple score-based arcade game out of it and sell it on the app store for $1 and then discount it by 50%. Then, heavily cross promote your first game within this arcade version. The opening screen should point to the full version of the game. When the players get a new high score complement them on their awesome abilities and remind them that the full version really puts their skills to the test.
Basically this second game is a lead generator for your first one. If someone loves this core mechanic (and signs up for your mailing list) they will be more than willing to buy the full-price, expanded version of your game.
Note this tactic only works if the original core mechanic was fun.
Indie devs don’t make enough sequels and it is a real lost opportunity. A sequel subtly says that the first one was so solid that it warrants making a second one. Development on the sequel will also be much faster since you will be able to reuse more of the code in the first one.
You can also make an alternative design of your first game. There was probably a point during development where you were wondering if you should make the game linear hand-made content or go for a roguelike procedurally generated one. Well now you can explore the path not taken.
Remember to keep things lean and focus on the core things that made your first game fun. This is where it is helpful to have recorded statistics so you can see what people did and didn’t like. Also use your email list to ask your fans what their favorite things were in the first game. Make this game for them.
Also remember to heavily cross promote the original game within your sequel.
You first game probably didn’t get any press the first time. This is because journalists get pummeled with so many games by fly-by-night developers creating vaporware that they don't bother. The press would rather focus on well-known developers creating games their readers know about.
Since this is your second game, you are now well-known. The press will be more willing to write previews because they know you can deliver.
Similarly, when the press writes about your second game, the first sentence will be “The next game from <your name>, creator of <your first game> is working on something new!” That sentence alone is so much more credible for readers. It also advertises your first game.
Please don’t give up after your first game. Somewhere someone set the expectation that your entire future must hang on a single game and that one game would determine if you are worthy of being an indie developer or not.
The press loves to write about developers whose first game is a hit because it is a rags to ritches story. But in general that first time success is a fluke and a stroke of luck for that one person. It is not the norm and it is not how most businesses actually work. The cold reality is you actually need to earn your customers one at a time over the long haul across several games.
The internet has a collective consciousness made up of forums, twitter, and writers. And that collective is very slow moving and it takes a lot of effort to convince it that you are worthy. It takes time for your name or your company to build up a reputation as a quality creator that is worth spending money on. Even if you develop a high-quality game the first time, it likely will not be enough to influence that collective consciousness. You must release several games in order to build that up. Again, it doesn’t happen with a single title.
Even though you think your first game failed, you have come so far. You built a lot of infrastructure for your first game. You have a press kit. You have an LLC, you have a presence on the store. You have a ton of code now that you can repurpose.
The second, third, even tenth game will go much smoother. Don’t start over completely and abandon what you did first just because it didn’t return its initial investment.
If you are reading this and haven’t started on your first game yet, be smart about it. Plan enough financial and emotional runway to release at least 3 games. You probably have a huge dream game you want to make. Split it into 3 smaller pieces that you release in 1/3 of the time. Release faster and more frequently. Be more public. Set your expectation to know that the first game is not going to earn its money back. But the first game's purpose is not to make money, it is to say to the world "I make good stuff and I am open for business!"
In a future blog I will be writing about the “Stair Step” approach and how you can release games faster so that they are the right scope and compound into a better probability that you will have success. Find out when my next blog goes live by subscribing to my email list.