I self published Immortal Darkness: Curse of The Pale King about a year ago, in October 2018. I published the game the same week as the Steam Halloween sale and the same week that RDR2 came out. Needless to say, my game debuted to utter indifference. No one knew about my game or cared enough about it to check it out, and it was quickly lost amid the swirl of everything going on that week. And it really only got worse from there.
Before I get into the unpleasant details, first a bit of back story, and what went right with the project..
Making the game was relatively easy. A process I understand very well and feel comfortable doing. The entire project was bootstrapped and self funded, and built by a two person team, myself and my old friend and business partner Damon. I did all the coding, production, sound design, QA, and business stuff, and Damon did all the art and game design. The project itself went really well. Development was smooth and as efficient as it could be with the limited resources at hand, and the two-man-band nature of the project. We scraped enough cash together to hire some contractors towards the end of the project, to help us finish, but apart from that it was pretty much just the two of us. The game took us 2.5 years to make start to finish, mostly part-time, but would have taken longer without the help of the wonderful contractors and friends who pitched in and helped the project over the finish line. Best of all, no one fell out with anyone (much), and old friendships remain strong, while new friendships were made. That’s the good stuff.
The project was exhausting. Probably the most exhausting project I’ve worked on, and I’ve worked on some real doozies over the years. It wasn’t the death march, terrible project sort of exhaustion, it was the good old fashioned, worn out, burned out, too much to do kind. I had to wear many hats while making the game, and most of the responsibility for ultimately getting the game wrapped up and on Steam, was on my shoulders. The constant hustle needed to pull the project off, took its toll on me as I spun plates continually, trying to wrap things up and do things as quickly and as cheaply as I could, all without sacrificing the game’s vision or quality. By the end, we were broke and tired and faced with the unpleasant realization that now the game was finished, a whole new set of skills and a whole new pile of money was needed to get the game in front of players. Both of those things were in short supply, and so this hugely critical part of making and publishing the game, namely marketing and selling it, was completely neglected.
We managed to scrape together a few thousand dollars as a token spend on marketing, hiring a marketing friend to help out, and a couple of Twitch streamers to play our game, the latter being a complete waste of money. We bought some ads on various gaming websites, and even mailed out some exclusive and valuable merch (tiny hand forged miniature Shade swords from the game), to a handful of “influencers” who had agreed to give us some love. They didn’t, and all of the other stuff we tried barely moved the needle at all. It was just good money flushed away.
The first few weeks and sales were OK, but tailed off quickly, and we ended up selling a few hundred copies the first month. After that, the game did pretty much nothing, with a handful of sales each week, and so began a painful cycle. We had over 7K wishlists and every time we put the game on sale, we sold a hundred more copies, and converted a few wishlists into sales. It was a massive disappointment, despite being a cynical old programmer, and having a fairly realistic grasp on the realities of making and selling them. But this was different. I’d put so much of myself personally into the project, that it was like being run over by a truck. I’d managed to convince myself, against my better judgment, that this game was a gilt-edged lottery ticket into the game lotto. The disappointment was crushing for both Damon and I, and we spent a few months post launch, feeling like we’d just wasted a lot of money and time. Damon buried himself back in his day job and I struggled to find the motivation to fix bugs and engage the handful of passionate players we had. Over the past year we did 4 major updates to the game, adding game controller support, key-mapping, and fixing all sorts of other stuff, making the game as solid as possible, and none of it has really made any difference to sales or exposure.
I tried showing the game to publishers over the Summer, and they all said the same thing. Great game, but we can’t re-publish a game that’s already out there, because it’s old and stale, and definitely has no prior sales to justify the risk. Same story with porting to consoles, with people showing interest until they see the Steam sales. Personally I have no motivation or interest in doing the ports myself... or posting to social media about the game, or even trying to salvage and market it at all. This apathy on my part is probably the saddest part of this whole sorry tale.
Financially, the story is a simple one. We made the game on the cheap, with the final cost coming in around $35K, which in the world of game dev is laughably small. To date, with all the sales and updates and marketing and hair pulling, the game has made around $16K (gross), and sales are now at 1 or 2 copies a month.
So what happened? Why isn't the game selling? Did we just spend 2.5 years making a really crappy game?
I think about this stuff a lot. Certainly the game is not what you call mass market, and falls a little awkwardly between genres. It's an RPG dungeon crawler, easy on the RPG, that's fairly slow-paced and tactical, and plays like an old-fashioned, single player, action adventure game with an elaborate and involved storyline. Yeah, not everyone’s cup-of-tea, but the people who do like it, really like it a lot. In fact, pretty much all the feedback and reviews have been positive, so I think the game is OK, and certainly not a shit-show or a pile of crap. So what's the problem?
I made some critical mistakes with this game, and I think it comes down to a couple of major things;
First, I kept the game in stealth mode right up until release. I didn’t try to build a community at all, thinking instead that I could do that post launch. We were a scrappy, two man team, building a cool game against all the odd, and we had a great story to tell, but didn’t. No one knew about us or what we were doing, and so when the game finally came out, there was no one there to care less. That was a mistake, and a missed opportunity to be authentic and accessible and to build a community around that story. This is probably one of the biggest takeaways from the whole project. Community is critical for a small, independent game without a marketing budget to even remotely succeed. Trying to build a community for your game post launch, as the game ages and withers away on Steam, with zero surfacing or visibility, is just about impossible, particularly without marketing money or a lucky break.
Second, I thought I could self publish, market, and sell the game myself. This was another huge mistake on my part, and maybe it was down to ego or hubris, I don’t know. I’m a programmer by trade and that’s what I do best. I’m also a pretty good producer, project manager, and people wrangler, but marketing and the hustle of selling a game is something quite new and unfamiliar to me. I’ve been involved with making many, many games over the years, but my role has always been fairly one dimensional; in the trenches, head down in development and production, and once my part was done, that was it. I never had to deal with all the stuff that happens once the game was made. You mean I have to actually sell the game? Oh, shit, how the hell do I do that?
So what would I do differently?
If I could have a do-over, I would first find and woo a great publisher for the game, probably after finishing the prototype. With a publisher’s backing and expertise, the game could have been made quicker and maybe even experienced a little bit of time in the sunshine. Second, I would try and build a community around the game and the dev process early on. That’s a really big, important one. Being authentic, accessible and consistently engaging with your fans early on has massive benefits later as the game matures and is ultimately published to an already interested and eager community.
I try and take away as much positive stuff from any experience, and this is no exception. The game wasn’t a commercial success, but it is absolutely the game that Damon and I set out to make. It embodies everything we love about D&D and table top gaming, and we poured every ounce of our creativity, experience and expertise into making it. That makes it all worthwhile. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this old dog has learned a lot of important stuff the past 3 years, and I intend to apply what I’ve learned to my next project. Onward and upwards, as they say!
If you're curious about the game, you can check it out on Steam or visit the game's official website. Cheers!