First, I want to thank Thomas Reisenegger of ICO Partners for sharing this promotion on his Twitter, and for his excellent suggestion to write this post.
POLYGOD is a rogue-like, randomly generated FPS with a brutal difficulty curve and epic boss fights by South African developer, Amplify Games. The lead developer, Dominic Obojkovits, previously worked on procedurally generated action-RPG, Pixel Boy.
I want to make a quick note to point out that POLYGOD really is brutal. This word wasn’t chosen to sound cool. I have yet to get past the first level. I’m a diamond ranked player in Overwatch and I’ve beat every boss in Dark Souls 3. Again, I haven’t completed the FIRST level of this game.
POLYGOD recently launched on Steam as an early access title on October 13th.
Preparing For Early Access
Shortly after Dominic approached me for Marketing and PR Services, we started talking about POLYGOD and what other games helped inspire it. Two games came up: Risk of Rain and The Binding of Isaac. While both games have been incredibly successful, I’m not very familiar with Risk of Rain (at least I’m not nearly as familiar as I am with The Binding of Isaac), so whenever we spoke on this subject, BoI always stood out to me.
After these discussions, I started thinking of ways that we could get in front of players who love rogue-likes and who embrace difficult games as a challenge. There were many variables to take into account, so we had to get creative with our approach.
First, this isn’t the best time of year to release an indie game on Steam. We were getting close to the holiday season with our launch date and it seems like every week we are getting AAA launches and/or big news stories. In fact, we ended up launching POLYGOD the same day as another monster indie title, Shadow Warrior 2.
Second, I joined the project very late. I began working with Amplify Games in late August, so I had a little over a month until the game actually launched. With that in mind, I also had to make the Amplify Games/POLYGOD website from the ground up in that short period.
All together, the odds were stacked against us. We started the process late, we were launching at a very competitive time of year and we had a little over a month to make something happen.
I also want to point out that we could have simply done the basics and planned for the full release. However, this approach would have most likely failed. I say this because many of you already know from posts like this one, that you only get one launch and if you’re launching as an early access title, that’s it. If we were lazy, or didn’t take the early access launch seriously, we could have possibly been dead on arrival.
Just because we were limited on time didn’t mean that we should abandon things. For example, we still had to do our research. If we skipped this step, we wouldn’t have identified the BoI community as a significant segment of our target market and we wouldn’t have come up with a nifty launch promotion. Lack of time just means you have to work smarter.
To conduct this research, we started by identifying some similar games to POLYGOD. These could be similar via genre, art style, difficulty etc.
After listing these games out, I researched launch month coverage for each title. I did this by searching in Google news for “game title” and used advanced search to only pull results for the month that the game had released.
I grabbed all links from these search results by using the Chrome extension, Linkclump. This quickly allowed me to grab all publications that covered these games within their launch month and export the results to a CSV file. After doing this, I uploaded the CSV file to Google sheets and cleaned it up, then copy/pasted results to a master spreadsheet that included results for all other games.
This ultimately ended up in our official press list. To further build our press list, I used woovit and import.io to build lists of YouTubers and Twitch streamers that had covered the above-mentioned games.
After doing rounds of this for each game, I added them all to the master press list and used the Google Spreadsheet add-on, “remove duplicates” to remove all duplicate press sites, YouTubers and Twitch streamers.
This resulted in a press list that has 57 US publications and over 350 YouTubers and streamers. Keep in mind that none of these results are duplicates.
The above may sound like a lot of work, however, in using tools like Woovit, Import.io, Linkclump and various Google services, the process was made much faster.
Once the competitive research was complete, I started to think of how we could get people in our press list excited enough to cover POLYGOD. Releasing an early access title isn’t good enough. If I were a writer at a moderately sized publication, I would insta-archive an indie who is simply releasing an early access title. I would only cover stories that I believe my readers would want to stick around to read.
Similarly, if I were a moderately sized YouTuber or Twitch streamer, there wouldn’t be enough incentive for me to cover an indie early access game, especially this time of year.
Random Side Note:
I want to make a point that I believe this is where many indie studios mess up. At this point, most of us understand basics. Do your research, make a press list, come up with a nice pitch, gather marketing material (a nice trailer, screenshots etc.) and communicate your new game to press and content creators. However, with more people understanding the basics of communication, there is bound to be too much of it, so we need to start thinking outside of the box to make our communication more valuable to the people we're speaking to.
Put yourself in the shoes of whom you’re speaking to. If you want a member of the press to cover your game, what incentive are you giving them to help them with what they are trying to do? A member of the press is someone who loves games enough to cover them for a living. To continue to do what they love to do, they need to make money. To make money, they have to write stories that are interesting enough to gather an audience (aka impressions), so the publication they write for can sell these impressions to advertisers for advertising dollars. In return for writing an interesting story that gathers an audience, the writer gets a paycheck to continue to do what they love, readers get an interesting story, publications get paid from advertisers and advertisers get in front of a large audience that’s gathered to read an interesting story.
It’s the circle of life. To fit into this circle, you need to help the writer come up with an interesting story. Your game existing is not always enough.
Similarly, if you’re pitching your game to a content creator, they are going through a similar situation. They want to play games that are fun to watch, so their viewers stay around and subscribe/donate/tip/buy them food etc. This is why getting a key to your game is so substantial. This is also why a nice GIF embedded in your email to them is substantial. You’re showing them that your game looks fun in a visual form and you’re giving them quick access to play it for themselves.
Back to The Postmortem
While thinking of ideas, The Binding of Isaac wouldn’t leave my head. The game has tons and tons of owners (almost 3 million owners via SteamSpy) and the audience is incredibly passionate and dedicated. Because POLYGOD was going to launch to early access, I believed it was imperative that we built a targeted community of players that love the rogue-like genre, as they would be perfect to help POLYGOD improve as a game during it’s time in early access, so getting in front of die-hard BoI players would be amazing.
While looking at the BoI Steam page, I noticed all of the achievements and that there were achievements with an incredibly low percentage of completions (around 1%). This was our die-hard crowd. Once we identified this as the segmented audience that we wanted to target, we needed a way to get them to notice POLYGOD. There’s little to no chance this was going to happen via Steam. Eventually, I believed the best way to do this would be to simply give them a key to POLYGOD for free.
The Binding of Isaac Promotion Details
The promotion went like this. If you completed certain BoI achievements, you could reach out to us and we would give you 1 free key to POLYGOD. I had my expectations low, so I believed we could handle this being a manual process (we decided to do this manually to save us from getting scammed for thousands and thousands of keys).
What Went Right
After sending out our press release and 400+ emails, I sat back and hoped for the best, but kept my expectations low.
Another Random Side Note:
Yes, I sent out over 400 emails and yes, they were personalized. No, it didn’t take me days to do this. In fact, it took about a half-hour to an hour. I did this by using Google sheets add-on, Mail Merge. Mail Merge allows you to send out personalized emails in bulk. You can send up to 50 emails per day for free, or pay $30 (one time fee) to send out up to 1,500 emails per day. No, they haven’t paid me anything to include this in the post. I just love sharing any gained knowledge or cool tools I find because it makes me happy.
The emails I sent out were all tracked, so shortly after sending out all the emails, I pulled up a report of all the people that opened the email and was surprised to see hundreds of them had already been opened.
A little while later, we were picked up by Eurogamer and then it snowballed. We ended up getting coverage from these sites (including, but not limited to):
Along with press coverage, we were picked up in various Binding of Isaac communities (the BoI sub-Reddit picked up the story before I had time to make the post myself ^__^) and did great. We didn’t recieve one negative comment (which is an achievement I’ll hold on to forever) and many players expressed strong interest in the game, even though they didn’t have the required achievements from BoI.
We were also picked up by a modest amount of YouTubers and were included in The Roundtable Podcast with BaerTaffy, RockLeeSmile, MathasGames and michaelalfox. Even though they didn’t play POLYGOD on their individual YouTube channels, it was nice to know that they know POLYGOD exists.
Another cool thing we noticed was players tweeting about their excitement in getting a key and some even reached out to content creators to try and get them to play the game (to clarify, we had nothing to do with this).
All in all, it was a whirlwind of coverage and excitement within The Binding of Isaac community (which is exactly who we wanted to target) and we ended up giving out roughly 1,800 keys. While this may sound like a lot (because it is), we are incredibly happy to have given these keys out. We now have 1,800 owners that can contribute to our community at anytime and help in making POLYGOD that much better.
In fact, the Amplify Games team has already started posting updates that the community has directly contributed to.
What Went Wrong
Expectations were a bit too low. I say this because I would have never thought we would have had over 1,800 people reach out to us for keys. I thought the story would have been picked up by a couple publications and died off within a day or two. However, the promotion stayed active for a full week (the same duration as our Steam launch sale). The problem there is that the lead developer was the sole person responding to these key requests, which meant during the promotion, little to no work was getting done to POLYGOD, which was obviously not the best thing.
Once again, the process had to be manual. We were made aware that there are software programs that can unlock all achievements on Steam for any game with a few clicks. However, this is obvious if you are looking at achievements manually because it shows them all as being unlocked at the same time (which is what we considered to be a red flag). If we made the process automated in some way, we probably would have ended up giving out thousands and thousands of keys for the wrong reasons.
While sales weren’t the only goal, it’s a requirement to live, so yeah, it was and will always be a major goal. The game ended up selling a couple hundred copies within the first week. On one hand, we reached our audience and POLYGOD is now on the radar of many media sites and influencers. On top of that, we did it during an incredibly competitive time of year.
However, the game was free for a moment. This could possibly lower the perceived value and potentially hurt long-term sales. I don’t believe this is the case, but it’s a possibility.
Even though POLYGOD has yet to sell billions of copies, I look at the launch as a success. We were covered by some of the largest gaming sites in the world and many influencers and players who we are targeting now know POLYGOD. If we didn’t run this promotion and just stuck to the basics, we most likely wouldn’t have been picked up by larger media sites and we wouldn’t have made the radar of some larger influencers and the BoI player community. This isn’t to say that we couldn’t have thought of another way to promote the game but we were short on time.
I also want to point out that this entire process ended up costing $0 (aside from fees for my services).
I guess the takeaway from this could be to take the basics (indie game marketing and PR basics) and build on them. Games are releasing faster than ever. We all need to think of how we can help the people we are speaking to. If you want to get coverage from media sites, how can you add value to them? If you want to get coverage from YouTubers and streamers, how can you add value to them? The answer isn’t always money. If you’re creative, you can get it done with little to no money.