A Chat with the Master - The secrets behind the Subterrain's 94% Steam review score

As Master Yoda probably once said, “Learn from the master you should, nerdy one.” With our Steam review score at risk, I had a chat with the master SaeHoon from Pixellore to borrow his wisdom.

Hey, long time no talk!

It’s been almost six months since I last saw Saehoon at a small dinner gathering of Korean Steam developers held once a year if we’re lucky (unfortunately, no alcohol was involved…).  It was my first time meeting him in person and I got to have a conversation with him…  He seemed like a nice person and the next day we became Facebook friends.  We didn’t talk much after that except for a few occasions when I saw him post from time to time in a small private Korean Steam developer community with only about twenty-five members.  Yes, finding a Steam game developer is as hard as finding a Korean person who doesn’t like Kimchi.  Anyway, what made me break the silence was not because I wanted to ask him if he liked Kimchi.  It was because I wanted to discuss his game.  Well, a certain statistical aspect of it to be exact.

Dr.West, not East, is the protagonist of Subterrain. 

Don’t get me wrong.  His game is great.  I’m not an online stalker, but I’ve been keeping an eye on his game for some time now.  The zombie apocalyptic game recently released after being on Steam Early Access about seven months.  I even gave it a shot, which says a lot about the game because nowadays it’s very hard to find myself trying other indie games given the time available.  I just loved that grim atmosphere that reminded me of Xbox 360’s cult classic Dead Space.  Man, I’m getting old… 

But this is not about Dead Space nor my age.  This is about his game.  Whenever I paid a visit to his game’s Steam page, one thing always caught my eye.  Something very blue…  It was its insanely high Steam review score.

The game’s name is Subterrain, and it currently holds 94% positive review score on Steam. 

It will stay at 94% unless all the colonists on Earth mutate into monsters.


The Shock

We know good reviews don’t always translate into good sales but it definitely helps.  The first time I saw the Subterrain’s review score, with our game DICETINY currently hanging at 74~75% mark, I was overwhelmed with a mixed feeling of admiration and jealousy.

To me, the full launch seemed like a success, and I couldn’t help but think the unbelievably high review score (at least to me) had to be one of the reasons that drove the successful launch.

How?  Surely the number of reviews must be very few.  What?! 260?! Is that even possible?  My head hurts…. 

After two minutes passed he answered my Facebook message with a happy “Hello!”…   Without any icebreakers, I got right into the question.  “What are the secrets behind your high Steam review score?  94%?  Are you serious? TELL MEEEEE!!!” 

As Master Yoda probably once said, “Learn from the master you should, nerdy one.”  That’s advice you hear all the time, and something I always try to remind myself of whenever my ego is about to get the better of me.  Today he’s my master.  It’s obvious that your game has to be fun to get good reviews but often being fun is not enough, and it takes efforts to maintain that sweet blue color. So something told me there was more to it than the game itself, which was already quite good in any standard.  With adrenaline rushing through my veins and my blood-shot eyes gazing at the monitor, I waited for his answer for what seemed like an eternity.  And then…He finally began typing… 

Dear 94, will you hang out with me?  Why not?  Because you’re 75!


“We patched the game once or even twice a day”

The first sentence typed in the chat box shocked me the way I was shocked when Ronda Rousey was knocked out by Holly Holm. (Not a UFC fan, are you?)  It’s tough to do an update every two or three weeks but once or twice a day???  I didn’t even believe such a thing was possible.  Anyhow, I calmed myself down, tried to compose myself, and continue to read what came next in the message box.

“I literally spend all day fixing the bugs and applying changes based on user feedback.”  Pure sacrifice.  Sacrifice is a word you hear a lot when someone’s making something great, and it often comes along with game development.  "Most of the times, I try to finish those fixes within a day.“  He added that he did a patch at least once or even twice a day sometimes.  The fact that Pixellore is practically a one-man studio made his last comment very impressive, or some might even say…scary. 

If I had exercised every time Subterrain was patched, I wouldn't have had the beer belly.

So the lesson I learned from this was, listen to your fans and apply changes accordingly….fast!  I know there’s always this voice in the back of your head telling you your idea is the greatest in the world but things like bugs and other parts of the game that need polishing can be adjusted without affecting your core ideas.

"When you think about it.  The fans are all I have.  I thought to myself, if there was anyone who would help me make my game successful, that would be my fans.  It will be the end of my road if they lose trust in me.”  This kind of thinking marked the beginning of the daily update routine.  

He continued… 


Demo is a filter?

“On top of the frequent updates, I definitely think introducing a demo had something to do with the high review score.  Having a demo filtered out negative reviews.  Because if someone buys a game after playing its demo, that means they liked it hence it’s more likely that they will write a positive review.”  It totally made sense.  However, he didn’t forget to mention that there’s a darker side of having a demo.  "It made sales less dramatic as people can just play the demo instead on the spot without having to save their money for a later sale". 

DR.WEST, YOU HAVE A TWIN BROTHER?  Oh…it’s just your demo. My bad.


“Sure, suit yourself”

Seeing your review slowly turning into a bloody red number is any game developer’s nightmare.  It hasn’t happened to our game, and I hope it never happens. But whenever that last digit goes down, our hearts sink, and it’s time to go out for a drink.

My fingers still sweaty, mesmerized by his calming explanation, we finished our conversation talking about how ineffective conventional marketing activities such as a paid banner on a game website and other methods can be.  We finally called it a day but luckily I was agile enough to ask my last question right before he disappears into the horizon.   "Can I write about this on Gamasutra?“  I had been looking for a topic to write on the game developer’s heaven ever since the dawn of my career in the gaming industry but kept failing to come up with one until today’s chat.  After one minute of silence, he finally began typing.

"Sure, suit yourself”. 

, and he disappeared into the horizon……Actually, he just logged off.

Written by Mike Lee, the apprentice, under the approval by Saehoon Lee, the master.  Special thanks to Matt and Andy for proofreading and editing the article

As of April 18th, 2016, the review score of Dicetiny stands at 75%.  The review score of Subterrain stands at 94% and doesn’t show any sign of going down.  With Subetterain set to be showcased at Indie Megabooth in PAX EAST coming later this month, people suspect that that number may rise even higher.  Mike Lee and SaeHoon Lee are still in contact, ready to fight zombies any time.

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