Written by Alexander Jonassen
Graphs and editing by Tamara Gugelsberger
One year ago we launched Bonkies, and it has not sold well. One year after the launch, me and my team would like to share our thoughts on what went wrong in the time leading up to and during the release of our game. My name is Alexander Jonassen, and I work as a game designer and developer for the Norwegian game company Studio Gauntlet.
I guess you are picturing us as six broken developers, mourning by the grave of yet another failed indie title. Well… Almost, but not quite. This article is actually our first step in our last effort to give our game a fighting chance. Instead of the graveyard, imagine us instead dancing around with burning sticks, poking our game and hoping it will burst into flames like a phoenix!
So keep on reading, and we will share with you what we think went wrong with Bonkies and our future plans for the game. But first: What even is a Bonkie?
A Bonkie is a bionically enhanced astronaut monkey, equipped with a jetpack and a robot arm that can grab anyone and anything. Bonkies is a 2.5D local couch co-op game for up to 4 players where each player takes control of a Bonkie. The goal is to stack bricks of different shapes and sizes into displayed outlines before a timer runs out. The game has about 80 levels spread across 8 planets, and each planet introduces new types of bricks and gameplay mechanics.
Bonkies is quite challenging, and it has the ability to induce a really intense - at times almost painful - sensation for both the people playing the game, as well as anyone watching. This tension is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in other co-op games. I’m not gonna claim I’m 100 % sure how we created this experience, or that it was our intention to achieve it from the start, but it’s there, and we suspect it is due to the combination of 100 % physics based controls and gameplay, the game’s deceptively optimistic visuals, no checkpoints, and entropy constantly looming over you, threatening to topple your wiggly towers should you or anyone on your team slip up.
The game was released on Steam, GOG, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It does not support online play (except using Steam remote play).
Since Bonkies’ release in 2021, the game has sold about 4000 copies in total. While we thought these low numbers were embarrassing at first, we have accepted the facts, learned to own it, and can only try our best to learn from it. Hopefully our openness about our experiences can be of help to you.
I will not go into detail on how the game was developed. I will rather explain the things we have learned looking back at the decisions we made during development, now having been through an entire development cycle, publishing, marketing and existential crisis included. But no more walking around the porridge: What the heck went wrong?
Let’s go through all the obvious scapegoats that we tried pinning blame on first:
Scapegoat number 1) The pandemic and Bonkies’ lack of online features. Of course a cooperation game will not sell well during a pandemic. When no one is allowed to visit their friends, any local couch co-op would have a hard time selling. Well, other couch co-ops did quite well, for example It Takes Two, so maybe it wasn’t that simple.
Scapegoat number 2) The couch co-op genre. We were warned, by everyone, even experts from the industry, several times, but we didn’t listen. While couch co-op is of course a valid niche, it is a tough genre to operate in. First of all you require players to have friends on hand and a bunch of gamepads, and even when you’ve managed to reach such a player, your competition is Overcooked and (arguably) Mario Kart. The genre is also quite useless in terms of being a framework for gameplay - couch co-op could host all sorts of games - it is more like a description of the real world situation in which the gameplay takes place.
Anyways, no matter how tempting it is to blame Covid-19 or Ghost Town Games, we have come to the conclusion that the biggest culprit of Bonkies failing to sell is the way we ended up framing the game for the end user.
For context - Bonkies never tried to fill a specific hole in the market or fulfill some core human fantasy. It arose from a primordial game design soup, where the game gradually took shape as we learned to know it better. We had some guiding lights, though: Being children of the 90’s, we did aim to create something that could “gather friends physically for good times”, and as newly graduated industrial design engineers, we wanted the game to be innovative somehow. And so we iterated our way towards a fuzzy solution supposed to gather friends together. Bonkies actually started out as a competitive game, but ended up as a co-op, partly because we think cooperation is a value the world needs more of than competition.
As the game got closer to completion we, the developers, became quite good at the game. The levels started getting harder and harder, and while the final difficulty curve is fair for experienced players, some of the optional challenges are hellishly brutal. At the same time, we are doing game development in Norway, a country in which the game industry is in its infancy, and most game developers still rely on government support to realize their projects. In order to receive this funding, we needed to explain how your game stood out. Maybe we sealed our fate when we got the government grant after explaining how we were going to develop an innovative family friendly cooperation game that would help “bridge the growing gap between parents’ and children’s digital lives”. I’m not saying this money wasn’t useful, but in order to achieve them, it felt like we were forced to be dishonest about what Bonkies truly was. Or maybe it was just simpler to sell Bonkies as something that was going to save the world, instead of trusting that it being a kick ass entertainment product would suffice.
Bonkies also looks very cute! We adore its colorful NASA-like visual style, a style that regretfully really helps sell the idea of this being a family friendly game. Not only to the government, but to end users and ourselves as well. The cuteness is not a problem once you get to play the game, on the contrary: It is a soothing contrast to the tension filled gameplay. But up until the point where you actually sit there and play it, the cuteness clouds the fact that Bonkies is difficult.
So to summarize, leading up to the finalization of the game, we were torn between thinking about Bonkies as a difficult physics game for friends, and as a casual family fun time type of game. I think that, deep in our hearts, we have always known, or at least felt, that the game was incredibly challenging and should be sold as such, but we chose to believe it could be sold as a great family game too.
When we started marketing the game together with our publisher, we went for the family friendly angle, showcasing the game’s cute monkeys and whacky physics. In hindsight we realize this was a flawed strategy. And while it is of course tempting to blame scapegoat number 3, namely our publisher, we ought to have known our own game best, and been clearer on the right target audience. Problem was: we weren’t honest with ourselves about who that target audience really was.
We think the most severe consequences of the family friendly marketing strategy is that 1) Families are a tiny market segment, and even if a console gaming family bought it, they would probably find the game too challenging quite quickly, and never recommend it to anybody else. The most severe consequence, however, is that 2) our real target audience - which we’ve finally have concluded are friend groups of mid to high experience gamers, out for a hard core cooperation challenge - will not understand that Bonkies is for them. The game’s appearance in stores - everything from the capsule art, trailers and descriptions - screams casual family game.
It should of course have screamed The Dark Souls of… Know what? I’m not gonna go there, this article is cliché enough in itself.
So what do we do now? We know our target audience is experienced gamers out for a challenge with friends, and that our main competitors are games like Overcooked. Do we add an online feature, because our competition has it and players expect that today? Or do we remove the condescending chill mode? Maybe add some new planets and levels to renew interest?
No, we will not. Actually, we will never touch the Bonkies code ever again (partly because it is time to move on, partly because I’m scared of what will happen if I poked it). Right now, the game works flawlessly on all major platforms, has more content than most players will ever discover, and it both looks and plays really well. I’m not claiming the game is perfect or that it is better than all our competitors. I will claim, however, that Bonkies offers a unique, looming tension unlike any co-op experience out there. All of us at Studio Gauntlet are very proud of having made a game that offers this new kind of experience, and that is why we will make one last effort to give Bonkies a shot among its true target audience.
During the next few months, we will change how Bonkies appears in marketing materials to better match what the game actually is. That means rewriting all the texts and producing new images for all storefronts, both for the demo and for the final product, as well as making a new trailer (and all the extra fun stuff that comes with it, like navigating those awful platform holder backend web-portals).
While this is no trivial task, we hope to give Bonkies a well deserved fighting chance for the rest of its lifetime, and honestly we are very curious to learn from this, and to see if it has any effect at all on sales. It might be too late for Bonkies, but if we don’t do anything, it will definitely wither away, trapped in its misleading cloak of family friendliness.
If there is one thing I want you to take away from this, it is that honesty always pays. Deep down, you probably know who your game is for. Never try to sell it to anyone else. If you find yourself trying to trick someone into buying the game you’re making, whether that’s a government fund or your end users, it is time to take a break and think about what it really is you are making.
Instead of thinking that marketing your game in a certain way will make it reach a broader audience, think instead that by marketing it to the right audience, they will find it, love it, and share their knowledge about it to that broader audience.
Because if the release day comes, and you don’t fully understand what it is that you are selling, you run a risk of your true audience not understanding it either.