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We were hoping we’d make rent. We didn’t expect to make a game that would show up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s “Best Games of 2018 so far” list. We didn’t expect that we’d be one of the best-rated horror games on itch.io either, but here we are. How’d we do it?
Hi, I’m Doc Burford (@forgetamnesia on Twitter). Together with my friends Jessica Harvey (@oysterFAKE) and Chris I. Brown (@Lazarus_Audio), we developed a game called Paratopic.
Last fall, I found myself frustrated in my own game development skills. I started thinking through some quick exercises I could experiment with to improve my technique, posted a few of them on Twitter, and one of them caught Jess’ eye. Jess hit me with a counter-proposal: why not make these vignettes into a small little game we could sell on itch, and each pay rent for the month? To get the game out in time, Jess offered to do the heavy lifting up front, building a framework that we could develop more content from. If people liked it, we’d make more, and Jess would help me with the skills I was looking to improve.
We were faced with a challenge: how do we make the development worthwhile as a small team of (initially) two people with no real existing footprint, especially on a budget of literally nothing?
Obviously, we would need to avoid doing something with a lot of competition. Plenty of indie games do walking simulators, games with almost no gameplay to speak of. We decided to make a sort of anti-walking sim, a game with the same narrative-heavy approach but a lot of different gameplay mechanics, like driving and photography. By building on what walking sims did, we’d create a project that differentiated itself from the rest of the market.
Jess and I agreed to do something free-form. Because we didn’t have infinite money (quite the opposite, we had zero money), we’d outline the game’s basic shots once we knew what we could do, stick to those, but allow ourselves a lot of room to experiment within that shot list. This experimentation led to some really cool moments, like a scene early on where a character’s facial details shift and distort, or another where a character’s head opens up like a flower, revealing another, smaller head inside. This improvisation aspect allowed us to get a feel for how to work together and see if our styles would really gel.
Early on, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about commercial possibility for the game. Because we assumed we wouldn’t make a lot of money from it, we just didn’t see the point. We decided to make something cool, unique, and interesting, but how it might perform commercially was never a big discussion.
We spent a lot of time talking about tone. I’d come in hoping to get a sense of anger, helplessness, and dread, because this is ultimately a game about poverty. Smuggler, for instance, drives a beat up El Camino-looking car, is clearly trapped in a dangerous job he hates, and lives in an apartment so small he doesn’t even have a toilet. Over time, we dialed back on the anger and focused more on dread. At the gas station, for instance, the attendant asks Smuggler who he’s traveling with, and Smuggler tries to dodge the question; if you look outside during the second gas station sequence, you can spot the silhouette of the monster who killed Birdwatcher earlier in the game.
Making the Game
It was important to us to make something that stood out and drew attention; from experience, the thing that gets the most shares isn’t exposition, but a screenshot. By making a game that looked interesting, we knew we’d be able to draw audience attention. It’s important to note that this doesn’t have to be great meshes or textures; it’s best to play to your strengths, whether that be awe-inspiring environments, detailed composition, odd shapes and colors, or even fancy shaders. Nostalgia also helped us out significantly; people rarely want to move away from a game they’re playing now to play a game just like it, but they’re happy to relive old sensations in new content.
So, we started building. The initial plan was to be done in October. Jess and I would hash things out, she’d go build a quick prototype in Unity, we’d talk about it, and she’d make changes based on how we thought things ought to go.
At some point, we decided we wanted to go with a retro horror vibe. We had a limited amount of time to dedicated to the game, so fancy, AAA art was off the table. We had an idea that we’d make the game a bit antagonistic, toying with player expectations, and we were rewarded by players who loved seeing the subversiveness in our game. We went for an old Playstation era games vibe, and I think it really worked out for us, but something was missing.
We needed sound. A totally silent game isn’t likely to get a lot of attention. Back in film school, our teachers barred us from using sound because it’s arguably more powerful than visuals when it comes to crafting an experience. A game might look good, but if the sound isn’t the best it can be, no one will love it. Every AAA game you love has great sound design, no exceptions. Not adequate sound design, great sound design. Pay attention to your sound design. I cannot stress this enough. Take the time to perfect it. Make distinct and memorable sounds. Tell your story with the soundtrack. Consider how audio shapes the player’s emotional experience every single step of the way.
We had to find someone. I nominated Chris, who ended up exceeding all expectations. Without his contributions to the game--Chris and Jess spent long nights talking about Unreal’s soundtrack in particular as influence for the game--Paratopic would not be the success that it was.
From there, we worked hard on the game until the day we shipped.
Focus on The Finish
One of the most important elements of our development process was polish. It’s impossible to overstate how vital polish is to making a game work. We look at it as something to scope for; at least half our development time was spent making things to delight the player and make the game feel better. People really liked one of our interactives, a sign that you could interact with in one level retains that interaction later on. On a subtler note, adding various tweens, animation details, and smoothing rough edges really helped make the game stand out.
There’s a story of director Hayao Miyazaki, upon hearing that Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut some scenes from Princess Mononoke, sent him a samurai sword with a note that said “no cuts.” Miyazaki’s genius is in creating a sense of rhythm and flow with his movies through seemingly-unnecessary moments, like watching characters cook and eat food. When building your game, consider the seemingly insignificant moments that can give your player a chance to breathe. That polish will go a long way toward making the finished product something people will enjoy.
Initially, development was very ad hoc once we figured out the game’s overarching structure, but we eventually settled onto sprint-based Agile development methodology. We hit a few rough patches whenever we deviated from our pre-production plans and project goals or played fast and loose with our sprints. Whenever we focused on what we wanted to achieve, things flowed much more smoothly. It’s not to say that experimentation didn’t have a place, because it did, but having good, solid deadlines during was when we made the most progress. It’s like a diet plan. A little cheating is okay, but too much cheating and you throw everything out of whack. Stick to the plan. When it comes to laying out your scope, know your beginning and know your ending. Get that spine in place, then build from there. If you don’t know your ending, you can’t make a great game.
Working on our artistic style was a challenge. We managed to entice a lot of people with art reminiscent of early Playstation and Dreamcast-style 3D. If you use third-party assets, it’s important to dig deep to find the appropriate ones, but--and this is vital--spend the time adapting them to fit your world, whether that’s art, sound, or even the backend. The more attention you devote to making a cohesive product, the more your audience will enjoy it. Consider your game as a whole, because your audience sure will.
Choosing a Platform
Early on, we figured that releasing on Steam wasn’t a real possibility. We felt it would be lost in a sea of abandonware, and the $100 fee for applying to Steam wouldn’t be offset by the game’s sales. After all, it’s a short, experimental game with a budget of precisely zero dollars. Itch seemed like a better bet; this was, after all, a small, experimental game we’re talking about.
Itch conferred a few advantages on us right away. Because it’s a place for experimental games, a lot of the projects people post are pretty rough and free, and that’s great if that’s what you want to do, but we stood out by putting a really polished project on sale. Obviously, polish is dictated by how much time you can devote to your development cycle, but if you can spend a little bit more time making a cool, small project, go for it! Polish goes a long way towards sales.
Itch’s business model really helped us too: you can set a minimum price for the game, but people are free to pay more if they’d like. Early on, we had quite a few people paying $10 or more, even though the game with the soundtrack was $8.49. If people like what you’re doing, and your game is reasonably priced, many of them are happy to offer more. Additionally, itch’s lower overhead means that there’s better profit share options for the team.
Lastly, itch’s frontpage and blog curation is way less intimidating than playing the algorithm on a platform like Steam, where you hope to hit a magic number that might showcase you for a little while. The folks at itch were kind enough to feature us on their blog shortly after our release, for which we were immensely grateful. It really helped get the word out about the game.
The people who buy games on itch tend to be more sympathetic to experimental, small-scale indie products. Steam users, for instance, seem to be more focused on bugs, fun-factor, and value, where itch consumers are usually excited to try unique games. Releasing in a place where our game was more likely to find a sympathetic audience helped us find people who were willing to champion our game to people who didn’t know.
With marketing, we didn’t do as well as we could have. It was a very ad hoc process, DMing various friends and acquaintances on Twitter to see if they might want to cover the game. We didn’t really have a big strategy for it because we weren’t really expecting it to do well.
We did a good job of championing everything about the game. We spent some of our time just marketing the game’s soundtrack, talking about how important it was to the game’s success, tweeting out links to it, and showcasing it in the game’s trailers.
That said, we didn’t pitch as hard as we could. After all, this was a game built on Pepsi, taquitos, and exactly zero dollars. We didn’t really sell it hard enough, we definitely didn’t push it hard enough, and we underestimated our overall potential. After all, how well could a game from developers with no Capital-B Brand sell on a small platform like itch? We were worried about being a small indie, publishing away from Steam, and figured we wouldn’t do that well.
I’m happy to report that we were wrong. Paratopic did way better than we’d guessed. A huge part of this was word of mouth. Having champions that fell in love with Paratopic and shared it with everyone who would listen was invaluable. It was a slow build, but through heavy marketing, especially through Twitter, we outdid our expectations.
Charge For Your Game: I know plenty of developers with really interesting, small experimental titles that deserve to be paid for. Most people are willing to part with $5 for a game on itch. Paratopic is about 45 minutes long. Not exactly a huge game by any standards, but it made enough for us to feel fairly paid for our time spent on the game.
Know What You Want to Make: I cannot stress this enough. Make something that you believe in wholeheartedly. If you’re just making something that’s like other popular things, chances are, no one’s going to care about it. I took a crazy idea about being murdered by a monster in a forest to Jess and we stuck with that from beginning to end. We didn’t try to research other popular games to emulate their success, we had a specific creative vision, and the three of us worked incredibly hard to make it happen.
Good Gifs: People really seem to love bite-sized chunks of gameplay more than trailers or still images. If you can parse the game’s details in a few seconds, it’s more likely to get your attention than if you can’t suss out what it does or if you have to spend three minutes to get an idea of how it works. Our best, most consistent advertising came in the form of our gif tweets.
Your goals when marketing a game are to convince someone that this game is an experience they need to try for themselves. We made a grimy game with a Playstation horror game aesthetic, capitalizing on fond memories of games like Silent Hill. Our gifs sold that vision to enthusiastic customers.
Know Your Audience: You can’t make a game for everyone and make them passionate about it, especially when you’re developing on a budget of taquitos and coffee for a few months. What you can do is focus your game specifically on an audience that might care about the game. Specificity helps here. We knew that itch.io would be a great place for arty games, so we targeted that audience specifically. When we talked about the game, we spent a lot of time making it clear that this was an experimental art game. As a result, people who like experimental art games were willing to give us a chance. A more muddled marketing cycle attempting to make it interesting to everyone probably would’ve failed.
Twitter Is Your Friend: Yeah, the fun is in game development, and marketing might not be fun, but if you can’t afford to make more games, what’s the point? Twitter is the best tool we’ve ever had for communicating with our audience with responsiveness. If you think someone might like your game, tell them about it! Tell them why it’s exciting, and ask them to help you share it around. Word of mouth is the biggest motivator in game sales; if your friends are playing a game, chances are, you’ll want to check it out, so the more individuals you can get personally invested in a game, the more champions you have, the better it will perform.
Ultimately, Paratopic did astonishingly well for a small indie title. We’re one of the top-rated paid horror games on itch.io right now. We’re about to release Paratopic on Steam. We found success by careful audience communication and a laser focus on a specific creative vision. There were things we could have done better, but for our first outing as a team, it was a rousing success, and we can’t wait to make more games for the world to enjoy.