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Today I'd like to talk a little bit about the marketing strategy and sales results for Level Up Labs' latest game, Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten. Though our game was only released this January, we have already received significant critical acclaim and brisk sales beyond our wildest expectations, and wish to offer any information from our experience which might help other independent game developers succeed.
But before we get started, let me introduce myself -- my name's Lars Doucet, and I've spent the last six years as a freelance game developer and writer. I've worked on serious games for the MacArthur Foundation, Texas A&M, Rice, and Wake Forest Universities, as well as a (so-far unreleased) Facebook game for a major publisher.
My game design articles also appear frequently among Gamasutra's expert blogs. Our current team at Level Up Labs includes Anthony Pecorella, our lead designer and an employee of Kongregate, James Cavin, our writer and character artist, and Kevin Penkin, our musician.
Defender's Quest is a departure from my previous work making educational games like Super Energy Apocalypse and CellCraft. For this game, our team has done its best to combine the storytelling, melodrama, party-building, and metagame elements of a tactical JRPG with a tower defense-style battle system.
However, instead of ubiquitous "towers," players summon to battle individual characters from their party, each with their own personalized names, stats, equipment, and skill trees. Like a traditional RPG, characters level up between battles and gain strength. The player can also specialize each party member's skills to fill different strategic niches.
We imagined a short, three to six month project, but after a few months, it became clear our ambitions for the project would take a lot longer. This was a big problem, due to the economy behind Flash games. Most revenue from Flash games comes from a primary sponsorship deal, where a sponsor (usually a games portal) pays to have their logo and a link to their site in all versions of the game, stripping all other outgoing links, in order to capture all the game's traffic and attention for the sponsor's benefit. Essentially, a sponsorship is an offer to buy your game's audience.
As the game spreads across the internet, it drives traffic to the sponsor -- so the better the game, the higher the traffic, and the more the sponsor will pay. No matter how good the game, however, every sponsor's payment has an upper limit. Practically, this means the longer you work, the less you earn per hour spent. Extra cash can be earned from ads, contests, secondary sponsorships, and microtransactions, but even with all these extras, the pay for this labor intensive work usually amounts to peanuts.
It's worth noting that microtransactions work best in multiplayer games, or Facebook games, but according to Anthony's experience at Kongregate, they generally do poorly on single-player games on Flash portals.
Andy Moore's famous SteamBirds: By the Numbers article and others like it reveal that top-quality games can expect a sponsorship of around $25,000, with a theoretical (albeit virtually unattainable) maximum somewhere around $50,000 if the game is literally the best Flash game ever, AND you're willing to accept draconian terms. And even if a team could expect these amounts, they would still be forced to cut corners to keep development time as short as possible.
This was our original plan -- create a high-quality game worthy of a top sponsorship in a short enough amount of time to make the effort worth it. But after sinking countless hours into the project, our only shot at this strategy was to slash features. Even then, we'd still have to be the best Flash game ever to nab a large enough sponsorship to provide a decent hourly wage for all four team members.
Instead of hoping to make minimum wage for our efforts, Anthony and I doubled down on Defender's Quest. We decided to upgrade from a free Flash game to a full commercial release. This was risky -- commercial games are obviously judged by a higher standard than free games. Furthermore, Flash has the stigma of an "amateur" platform. Among the larger independent game development scene, there is also the sentiment that success is difficult or impossible without the aid of gatekeepers like Steam or the Humble Indie Bundle.
After much toil and sweat, we released the game on January 19th, 2012. This was a full 20 months after we started, more than three times longer than our original worst-case estimate. We spent the extra time polishing the game's story and battle mechanics, features particularly scrutinized by RPG fans.
We'll go into greater detail about our marketing strategy later in the article, but the basic approach was to sell the game on www.defendersquest.com, post a free demo, and then upload the demo to all the free Flash game portals, driving traffic back to our site.
The initial numbers have rolled in, and now I'm here to report on the results.