Selling indie games — part 1
Part 1 in a series on selling indie games, primarily based on my own experiences, supplemented with those of some other studios.
This a story about the sales of indie games and written articles on game websites. It’s goal is to provide you with some insights and some examples.
Little disclaimer: these are OUR experiences, yours may vary wildly and are not mutually exclusive. I personally have the utmost respect for all websites mentioned and do consider them important, no matter their impact on our sales. Their primary goal is not selling our game, but informing their readers. However, it’s interesting to share the (immediate) effects we were able to measure.
Two months after the launch of our latest game, Unexplored, we decided to create a new trailer. There really wasn’t any good reason for doing so, except me wanting to see if I could cut a game trailer to a waltz I’d written before.
We were pleased with the result and uploaded the trailer to our Steam-page, and that was it. Which was stupid, considering the fact that now only people already interested in the game would see it. It should lure in potential new players.
So, we drafted a press release. Which was hard, because, again, there was no real reason for it other than Please, put this fancy trailer on your website. However, our lead developer had recently made some changes to the UI (well, he hid it), and we decided to go with that.
The header Unexplored kills UI after player feedback was a bit of an exaggeration, to say the least, but it provided the excuse we needed to send the new trailer to 1,200 game websites.
After that, we just had to wait to see if someone would pick it up.
The trailer would probably end up on some small outlet with barely enough visitors to generate some views, let alone some actual sales.
Or, you know, on PC Gamer.
The article had some fun words…
…but we were very pleased with it for even more reasons. To understand why, you have to be aware of the decision we made months earlier.
Unexplored’s graphical style is functional but doesn’t appeal to everyone, the gameplay is silky smooth but not particularly groundbreaking, and being a roguelite, a crowded genre, we really needed something to make the game stand out.
You see, usually random generators use branching paths to create dungeons:
At its core, Unexplored uses an actual innovative, different idea, cycles:
By making the computer ‘think’ in cycles instead of branching paths, it actually mimics a human level designer. The results are great, levels feel much more handmade, compared to existing generated dungeons.
We decided to make this our core marketing message and even came up with a new term: Cyclic Dungeon Generation.
Back to the PC Gamer article a couple of months later. It more than just touched upon our generator:
I had our lead developer explain the whole theory in less than a minute, in front of a camera, as part of our marketing approach. The PC Gamer article featured that video as well.
So, our brand new trailer, some nice words, and the whole Cyclic Dungeon Generation-story were put in front of potentially millions of readers. I mean, just look at those numbers:
Surely, this was it! Our game would go mainstream, and I had a pretty sweet rev share deal…
Here’s our sales chart, the arrow indicating the date the article was published:
Enter: deception time. That spike is barely a hill, a far cry from the Mount Everest I was eagerly expecting. Put in actual numbers, this is the estimated increase in total sales, due to that wonderful PC Gamer-article:
To us, the less than stellar sales drive from the PC Gamer-article came as a surprise, especially since we had a polar opposite experience just a few weeks earlier.
First, a bit of background about the game: Most of Unexplored (design, art, code) is made by one man, our PCG-expert and Lead Developer, Joris Dormans. We had a writer, a couple of guys doing additional coding and me (music, audio, marketing).
We launched Unexplored as an Early Access game on Steam (which I believe is still perfect for non-linear, non-narrative games).
It did sell, but not tremendously, although the player feedback was something else entirely (and still is, considering the current 96% positive rating on our Steam-page).
In the weeks prior to the actual launch I pushed out more press releases and personal e-mails than I care to remember. All of them focusing on our core marketing message in a quote-friendly fashion, featuring a gameplay trailer, screenshots, Steam-keys, the likes.
That resulted in some coverage, but nothing great. And that’s exactly how our launch day went down.
Considering the fact that your Day One sales are the most you’ll ever get, this was disappointing.
Based on these 243 units, we were expecting to sell another ~100 units the next day and maybe reach 500 in the first week. Since we were selling for $10, even less during launch week, the game was on life-support. Plans for updates and extensions were iced. We weren’t very happy.
Then, this tweet:
It turned out, Adam Smith is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, a website I was fuming about mere hours before. Fuming, because I couldn’t understand that so far they had completely ignored our launch. If there was ONE large site I expected to cover Unexplored, it was the indie-friendly PC games website Rock Paper Shotgun.
And now they would.
Next day, next tweet:
Mr. Smith wasn’t kidding:
The reviewer really GOT our game. He loved it. The raving review ended with this line:
Unexplored is almost certainly going to be one of my favourite games of the year
Beside the Rock Paper Shotgun-article, we didn’t receive any coverage that day, in any form. Our modest frontpage feature didn’t change, but still, this is what Day #2 looked like in sales:
It’s impossible to say this with certainty, but at least to us, it looks like the RPS-article provided our sales with a much needed boost. It got Unexplored off life support and even provided the game with this little long-term bonus:
RPS’s Steam curator channel is one of the largest, boosting the visibility (ie. discoverability) of Unexplored on the store front for a long time.
A couple of weeks later, RPS decided to do an actual follow-up article. As part of a series called The Mechanic, the site dove deep into the inner workings of Unexplored’s Cyclic Dungeon Generator.
The effects of this article were very pronounced, especially since we didn’t receive any other coverage that week.
400 units may not be a lot for even a mid-sized studio. For 1.5 people, a turnover of $4,000 in four days is really good.
Then again, even before the PC Gamer-article, we had coverage which didn’t create spikes. Take Indiekings, by far the best game talkshow in the Netherlands, part of Gamekings, a popular Dutch TV-show/website/game-expo-powerhouse.
The host and I talked for an hour about indie games in general and Unexplored in particular (I’m the one with the glasses…).
The episodes tend to draw in 30 tot 50 thousand viewers. Based on those numbers, I was expecting to see some additional sales in our home country, The Netherlands.
There were none. This chart shows Unexplored’s sales in the Netherlands for a week, the arrow indicating the publication date of the show. (Again, I’m not dismissing the program in any way, I like it, I think it’s important.)
Another week, another example.
The Italian edition of Eurogamer, not the smallest of names in the industry. Months after launch, they reviewed Unexplored, kind of liked it and awarded it with a solid 8 out of 10.
These are our sales in Italy, that week:
However, in May two articles appeared that DID create a meaningful sales spike.
RPS did an article on our first (free) dlc on May 5, Vice’s Waypoint published a wonderful feature on our post-game sequence on May 6. There’s no way to tell which article was more important, but together they drove sales significantly:
Trying to get my head around why some articles caused these spikes, while others didn’t do anything, I asked other developers if they were willing to share some of their data. A couple did.
First, Wispfire, the people behind the amazing Herald, an adventure game set in colonial times. They had a bit of an unfortunate launch. Due to a misunderstanding of Steam’s inner workings, they launched weeks after their original intended date (coincidentally, they ended up launching the same day as Unexplored).
I remember them eagerly awaiting an article that was going to appear on Polygon, a website with a target audience that seemed like a great fit for Herald. Three weeks after launch they saw their game screen-wide on the frontpage of Polygon.
It was a long-read sort-of review, but since it wasn’t scored, and lacked a typical review summary, I doubt many readers made it all the way to the end. Even so, the subsequent effect on Herald’ sales, was, well, surprising.
Wispfire sold 13 units on day of the article, 2 more than the day before and the day after. Maybe all of those 13 units were the result of the Polygon-article, but I’d still reckon this was Wispfire’s ‘PC Gamer-moment’.
DoubleDutch, the studio behind the very successful Speedrunners, provided another three examples. These articles on larger websites appeared separate from each other, they were in fact the only coverage Speedrunners received in the weeks they were published. Sales spikes should be easy to spot, making the potential effect on unit sales easy to deduce.
DoubleDutch couldn’t find any sales spikes on or after the dates of any of these articles.
(Now, Speedrunners is much, much more successful than Unexplored, selling in the millions. Chances are that all of these articles actually DID contribute to unit sales to a certain degree, but that a high number of regular daily sales sort of just hid these additional sales from view.)
From what I have seen so far, it seems like the effects of written articles on sales of indie games are all over the place and thus pretty hard to predict. Of course, traditional factors like total reach and the composition of the target audiences explain a lot. But not all, far from it. That PC Gamer-article should have resulted in way more sales, if those were the defining factors.
Reading all these articles however, there seems to be one element, one ingredient, which is more important than anything else: the genuine enthusiasm of the writer.
In Unexplored’s case, all authors of articles that did drive sales really, really liked the game. They did not write run of the mill articles, but really tried to communicate why they thought Unexplored is a great game.
Waypoint’s editor-in-chief Austin Walker tweeted about it, discussed the game in Waypoint’s podcast and streamed a couple of hours of him playing (and, thank God, beating the game whilst streaming). His article ends with this paragraph:
When I first started playing Unexplored, I knew immediately that it would be one of my favorites of the year. But the special way that it offers players sense of closure only makes my feelings about it even stronger. Even in a year with so many incredible games, Unexplored is a gem. I just hope that it isn’t totally lost in the shuffle.
This kind of genuine enthusiasm is contagious and, apparently, has a far greater impact on sales than sheer numbers.
End of Part 1
Post scriptum: Just recently Unexplored was featured in another PC Gamer-article, as part of a story about innovative roguelikes. Unfortunately, it is not possible to measure the impact of that particular article because it was published on the first day of a weeklong discount. However, the author of said article appeared to have had a great time playing the game, and we feel it did help boost the sales — although to an unknown extent.
UPDATE: A lot of people have made interesting remarks on this article on twitter. I’ll share a couple of them, without comment.
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This article is based on parts of my talk at Devcom / Respawn in Cologne, earlier this year.
In the Part 2, I’ll share some of the data I collected on the impact of streamers/Youtubers/twitchers on sales of indie games.