In this article, I'd like to share a couple of discoveries we've made during the development of our latest game. I'd like to show you the power hidden inside a community and how important it is to promote your games outside of the internet. I also have two stories about our experiences from attending two major events, with very different outcomes. Lastly: how not to go bankrupt - with a bit of luck and faith.
This post is meant to be an additional contribution to the topic of Daniel West’s blogpost. Thank you Daniel for inspiring us.
It’s been 3 years now since we started to work on the game BLACKHOLE. We are a small team based in Czech Republic. We've mostly worked on the game part-time, but two of us worked full-time on the title for two years. BLACKHOLE was initially released on 27th February 2015 and we have been fighting for bigger sales of the game ever since then.
BLACKHOLE is our own take on modern hardcore platformers. It tells a story about a suicide mission to close a dangerous black hole near Earth. But here comes the twist: the spaceship with astronauts is sucked into that black hole and they discover a secret world behind the event horizon. The game features original gameplay mechanics about switching the perspective. Each level is designed to be unique and precise. Furthermore, it also features a full voice cast, plus the characters were based on Czech youtubers.
I think that the most important thing for every indie game developer is to build their own strong community. It doesn’t even have to be big. I mean, even a 100 people can make a difference in helping you with your game and with the initial sales.
Some developers don’t know how to build such an audience. We've learned that it's a good idea to find a common topic with your fans and to share thoughts, ideas and content that is related to the concept of your game (and you certainly don't have to limit yourself to just posting the game content, anything relevant goes). Many developers will argue that this doesn’t help boost your sales or raise your sales in the end - and they are probably right. That’s why it's a long-term investment worth considering right from the start. It’s the long-term collaboration between you, as a developer, and them, your players. They are following you for a reason. And even if they don’t want to buy your game at first – they could be helpful in a way. I'll get to that in a moment.
Managing the social aspect of the game development, making a community and building audience is hard work. Surprisingly, there are so many game devs who aren't even trying to embrace that. Maybe they expect that all of this will happen magically and automatically. Wrong.
You have to start from your friends and friends' friends.
During the game development, I personally had an opportunity to attend ALL the available events in the Czech Republic and present our game to people in person. Events like GAME EXPO, FOR GAMES 2014, 4FANS, PRAGOFEST, FESTIVAL OF FANTASY – all of them have their own “lineup for gamers” and they are happy to see developers share their games and stories. I'm aware that events like these don't happen in all countries around the world, so I’m sorry if you don’t have a chance to attend similar shows. But if you’re serious about making a game and you know about such events in your country, but still don't attend them, you're missing out on a very important chance to grow your community in the most effective way: making it personal.
It’s not only about the game. It’s about connections. If you want to market your game in 2015, you'll need help. You have to be good and you also need followers. What worked for us was to make sure the community felt like we cared about them. We had to build an idea that everybody who followed our development made the game stronger and more successful. That every thought, idea, comment, preview, review, interview was also success of the followers, not just ours. And that worked.
As I said before, this is a long-term investment. It’s not just about sharing one Facebook post a day. You have to think about what people want to see, share and respond to. You want them to be connected. Do live-streams, Q&A's, photos from the development, even though this can quickly become a full time job. Even if the posts get just 3 likes (or hundreds of them) – you have to be persistent. Be prepared for the fact that this will take a lot of time since you have to know the people, you have to research, write down ideas and work with the community every day.
Many developers will argue that working with the community of an indie platformer is a waste of both money and time. Don’t fall for that. Having a community isn't something for MOBA games and big budget triple A games only. Even you can benefit from that. For instance, the community will let you know if there's something wrong with your game, and you can use it to your advantage.
Building a community is the best “free” service to market your game in 2015. It’s also a great opportunity to make real friends. It will also boost the initial sales, since your followers will talk about your game and share it with others. They will also review it. And they will provide precious feedback so you can make your game better. All of this applies to the community of 10, 100 or 10 000 people. The size of a community is up to you and others.
When you are making a no-budget game with a goal of actually making a “high-budget” game, you have to be really convinced and loyal to the concept. And you'll need help.
When I shared our problems with our small community, it got bigger. When I shared our success with our small community, guess what? I saw that our community got bigger again. You already know it’s the story of development that sells the game to your followers. Of course, it’s also the game itself, but these followers are looking for something else than just buying an awesome game. They want to be involved in the development to make themselves a really important part of the process. And they are willing to prove it to you.
So what have we done? We've told our community: “We've almost run out of money so we can’t afford a PR agency for the launch of our game. Are you willing to help us with that?”
And we created a Nouncy campaign for that cause.
Note: It’s a great free tool. Use it!
Let's talk about the launch of the game in February. Back then, our community had only 1500 people together with Facebook and Twitter. Because I was scared of writing posts in English, I didn’t announce this Nouncy campaign to our foreign followers that much (my bad!). However, we still reached 220,564 people with 132 scheduled posts. As you can see, some bigger YouTubers & other media projects joined and helped us prepare for the launch.
We already knew that if we launched the game like that, it would be a disaster. Due to the lack of time, we haven't managed to prepare the review version of the game in time. We prepared for the fact that our launch wouldn't go as well as we firstly expected, but because we were almost out of money, we had to release the game. Then we decided to move to another solution - to do pre-orders for our followers and provide them with something special.
We have created this special collector’s edition of the game. It was limited to 500 units at first and the pre-order price was 24 USD. It contained a lot of content: the prototype of the game, photos, development diary, art-book with signatures of the cast & developers. This pack contained everything we expected our followers would want, for a little higher price than classic digital version of the game.
After that, we shared the news with our community. We told them that this was a great opportunity to get access to special bonus content in case they loved the idea of our game (of course we couldn't tell them that we were running out of money - we didn't want to be considered whiners).
Our local Facebook exploded. This physical collector’s edition also pushed local media to feature the game and share our story. That was nice, but we didn't actually need that. Why? Because we'd already sold out all of the units when media published the news. So we decided to do another round and set the limit to 1000 units. I’m glad we did that. It was a success. We got 1000 units pre-ordered and we could focus freely on spending our last money to finalize the game.
Point of the story: If you are indie, you are probably tight on budget. Find a creative way to connect with your audience and ASK THEM for help. When they help you on a local level, you don’t even have to be featured in the media to get what you want. The word of mouth is still the most effective marketing tool I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t work all the time, but for a certain type of things, it's more than effective.
I have to say that this part of the story from our development is really hard to write. That’s because it started as someone's good intention, but in the end it seems like a big „fraud“.
As I said before, we'd run out of money right before the game was supposed to be released. Fortunately, pre-orders in the Czech Republic covered the amount we spent on voiceovers, translations and some external workers; that has given us an opportunity to improvise.
Selling just 250 units on the first day of Steam launch looked as a failure compared to 1000 pre-orders in the Czech Republic. So we did the math and found out that even if we sold another 1000 units, we'd still be bankrupt.
We didn’t like the idea of making Kickstarter for the game since we wanted to focus on making our own game as good as we could without promising something we couldn't deliver (stretch goals, possibility of failure etc.). Instead of making a campaign for Kickstarter and distract ourselves from an actual development, we used my personal savings. It was at my risk. The whole team understood that – so they worked on BLACKHOLE free of charge.
We spent almost 30.000 USD from our savings to develop the game, most of that covered the translations, voiceover or external work like music and sound production. We also had to cover some software, hardware, licensing, pay electricity bills and a lot more.
What did we get from the first month of sales? It was just 5800 USD. That was a big problem. Don’t get me wrong, we were thankful for such an amount of money, but it was way below our expectations and that was frustrating.
At that time, we'd got some reviews from foreign media. All of them were great. But the game was not covered by big media outlets. Sure, the game was featured in a let's play by Giant Bomb and we got a 9 out of 10 from Destructoid, which was amazing – but after that? No media coverage with a large outreach.
This was a deadlock.
We had to promote the game, but at the same time, we needed to release patches & updates for the game (so the development had to keep going) and we needed to save some money to generate a low income for the people who had to work on all of this, FULL-TIME.
We got great scores on Steam from the community (97 % positive reviews!) and from the media – but we knew it’s all about exposure, we knew it’s about showing the game in the most convenient way and making the game look interesting at the first sight to convince people to play it. Even though some people like Total Biscuit stated that "there may not be an audience who wants to play another puzzle platformer", we don't believe that our game or Airspace is a type of game no one wants to buy or play. It's a combination of multiple factors.
Daniel West has mentioned the theory of Death Spiral and Life Spiral. I think our case is a combination of the both of them. We have a lot of videos and exposure, but at the same time, it is the ever-changing mood and interest of players, media and community engagement that makes it unpredictable.
To sum things up:
But we didn't want to give up. With the finished game in our hands. We decided to change our fate.
The first opportunity was to attend E3 and somehow contact the press outlets. That’s a humble goal, right? Presenting the game at E3 is really costly, but… we found this amazing KICKSTARTER!
The Indies Crash E3 promised to get a few selected indie game developers to E3. We decided to participate in the contest, so we used our social media to inform our fans about this contest and asked them to help us win.
The voting was based on a cookie clicker-esque game (the point was to gather the most points which you could obtain by clicking on certain buttons over and over again - so this quickly became a time consuming activity). Our fans spent countless numbers of hours by playing the game and some of them even donated via Indies Crash E3 donate system. Thanks to our dedicated community, we (and a couple of other developers) won.
The wait is finally over! Congratulations to this year's IndiesCrashE3 winners: CrossCode, Interstellaria, BLACKHOLE, RUiN, and Konstandin— Indies Crash E3 (@IndiesCrashE3) 29. Duben 2015
We were asked to bring some goodies for Indies Crash E3 Kickstarter donators. We also had to pay for the travel and accommodation (and our time off). Cha-ching! Even though we'd got "free" access to E3, everything else cost us 3500 USD. Another debt? Well, E3 was supposed to be a game-changing moment, so we decided to take another risk.
Here comes the twist: We didn't actually end up using the E3 passes from Indies Crash E3. We'd already got our own free passes to attend the show because our company’s media project got them. So we decided not to use the tickets from Indies Crash and offer them to another developer.
Since @BlackholeGame is already going to E3, they graciously let us give their pass to the next qualifier: The Hum: Abductions!— Indies Crash E3 (@IndiesCrashE3) 29. Duben 2015
The reason why we still participated in the contest was actually for a whole different reason. The Indies Crash E3 Kickstarter page had promised this:
“If this Kickstarter is successful, we'll let fans from around the world suggest their favorite indie game developers on our website. Then we'll get 5+ indies (depending on stretch-goals, we'll bring more) into the expo, and arrange interviews for them with tons of gaming journalists.”- Source – Kickstarter
“At the expo the indies will get to make major influential connections in the industry, discuss their games with the 45,000 in attendance, and hold interviews we schedule with gaming news outlets.”
We were really interested in the arranged interviews and getting to make connections with other media outlets since that was exactly what we were struggling with before.
Since the Kickstarter was successful and it was not the first time the Indies Crash E3 event happened, we assumed the organizers had experience with organizing the meetings. Despite that, they were not able to give us a precise location of the meeting two weeks before the event.
When we finally got to E3, we went to the meeting spot and found Jesse, one of the Indies Crash E3 organizers. We started to feel something strange was going on, since he was unable to tell us when the promised livestream Q&A would happen. It actually didn't happen, so we had to wait for over an hour to make special "thank you" video messages for their Kickstarter supporters as well as video interviews about our game (which were never published, since Jesse claimed to had lost the video files).
At the same time, we had discovered that two of the winners didn't attend the E3. We handed over our gifts for the supporters and took photos with our signatures. We asked what would happen next. The organizers told us that we'd have to wait for the press to come. So we sat and waited for three hours. Out of "tons of gaming journalists" that were promised, only one freelance journalist came to do an interview with us - but we don't even know if he was really a journalist since we couldn't find any articles from him on the internet.
It was a complete disaster.
Indies Crash E3 embraced our complaints and gave us a recommendation: "Go around the booths and make contacts." Well, I don’t want to be rude, but it’s easy to make contacts with other developers. THEY WANT TO BE IN CONNECTION WITH OTHERS.
Instead, we wanted to meet the press. And that’s what ruined the E3 for us. We could've managed to schedule some press meetings, but we rejected them and redirected them to Indies Crash E3. This experience was a nightmare. But we held it inside with a smile on our faces while we were at the exhibition.
But it was a really heavy and heartbreaking moment in my life.
Unfortunately, other developers (of the games RUiN, The Hum: Abductions and Interstellaria) were reconciled with the outcome of Indies Crash E3. They didn't get any coverage either, but they were grateful to had been at E3. I guess this would be easier if our financial state was stabilized.
So, what did we do?
What did we get? What happened?
What Indies Crash E3 got?
What does this picture mean?
That’s not even the game from the selection. We didn't have a chance to attend the PC Gaming Show. It would be awesome if we did.
The community was not pleased with how it ended for us. Organizers promised to connect us with press relatives – that didn't happen either. And if you ask them for the contacts now, they'll remain silent.
This is not supposed to be a story to hurt their good cause. This is a story about not trusting every Kickstarter project you see. We all know that Indies Crash E3 was not created as a fraud – but it seems to be a fraud right now. And the way it appears to the people is what makes a big difference.
At least we found a way to make money to pay for E3 and save our project. We were also invited to Steam Summer Sale, and it gave us an opportunity to generate better sales on Steam, so we did the math again and decided to save as much money as possible to survive.
It’s quite ironic that around the time E3 was happening we also decided to give the rest of our money to a PR agency. I have to say it turned out to be a really good one. They have seen potential in our game and they were willing to take a chance even though the game had already been released. We created a plan for updates, added more features to the game and supported more languages to make the game more accessible.
We are moving ahead, and one last story is coming. This one is about incredible faith of our community, players, developers and media. It was the end of July 2015, and just when we were recovering from the fail at E3, we missed our only chance to be at GAMESCOM 2015, which is the largest game event in Europe. INDIE MEGABOOTH had already closed the form for applying and we didn't have enough money to buy our own booth (that’d be ridiculous). We were reconciled with the fact we wouldn't be at GAMESCOM, but then, something unbelievable happened.
I got an email from one small indie startup called PLAYFIELD.IO and they had just launched a contest – 3 of the winning indie games would get a booth place at GAMESCOM accompanied by Shark Punch themselves and their amazing game.
This contest was spectacular. They provided enough information right from the start. We asked a lot about their technical and financial background – after Indies Crash E3, we were scared that this could be something similar. It wasn’t. They promised only a spot for 2 computers, accommodation for 2 people and cover the cost of the booth. They didn’t promise press attendance, they didn’t promise any other support or marketing effort.
So we did it once again. We gathered everyone we could and made a big push with our community. Everybody, and I mean everybody, around our project has helped. The votes were coming constantly from day one. We jumped up from the 50th place to 1st one in a single hour. That was quite shocking - and amazing. Our supportive fans have enjoyed BLACKHOLE so much that they supported our game even though it was released in February. They gathered a lot of votes for us so we won the 2nd place in the end!
People from Shark Punch were incredibly friendly. They even supported us in making the booth more spacey, helped us with decorating it and we even got space for a third computer! Altogether with Switchcars and Awakening of Heroes, we presented our game free of charge – thanks to our communities & their support.
And because we knew that PLAYFIELD wouldn't arrange any meetings with the media, we covered it with our PR agency. We scheduled a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of press relatives. It was fulfilling. It was entertaining. Most importantly, we saw once again that it was worth to mention our game.
Everyone, even the people who don’t like platformers so much, gave us amazing feedback. They were moved by our story, so they overcame their resentment toward puzzle platformers. And it worked the other way, too. The lovers of platformers enjoyed jumping and puzzle solving more than the story. This is a combination which works quite well. Unfortunately, you can’t see this right from the start nor from the videos and the screenshots. You have to play the game first.
We still haven’t got any massive coverage after GAMESCOM 2015, but we've got a massive feedback. For example, we have released the FREE DEMO, we've programmed the “easy mode” to make our game more accessible to people who want to experience the story, but don't enjoy puzzles so much. We also included an option enabling “less dialogues”, making the game more fluent for the people who want to focus more on the gameplay than story.
We know that it’s hard to make a game which will be worth featuring. We know that there is a huge game market – and you need to have a big amount of luck to be in such a small group of secured game developers. Even though it may seem cheesy, you need to follow your dream and be brave enough to do so. I know that my blog post can’t cover every detail and maybe since I talked about our game very briefly, it will be hard to understand what I’m trying to explain.
I think that many developers know that their game is good. Their marketing is also good. But it’s not only about generating the interest of media or players. It’s also about something more. Something that can’t be explained. What I want to show here is that you have to fight for your spotlight. There is a space for you. Okay, so you may not be covered by Total Biscuit or other youtubers. You may not get coverage by IGN or Gamespot. Maybe your game will sell badly right from the start. But you can fight it. You can go bankrupt at any time, but if you have fully decided to trust your game, keep trying. Push it again, and again, and again.
So, when did we go bankrupt? We didn’t, but we’re close to it. We are fighting for survival and we are still working on BLACKHOLE. If we are on a bad track (as many people have already told us), why are we, after all we've gone through, selling more and more copies each day?
Don’t force it too much, but don’t give up. And if you want to share ideas and collaborate with us, just contact me. We all want to be a part of something bigger and we all want to be successful. There are people out there who want to play your game, but they are just overwhelmed with all the games, so you have to make a much bigger effort to promote yourself and get noticed.
If we don't create the environment for ourselves – who will?
Thank you for reading,
Producer at FiolaSoft Studio