Below you’ll find the post-mortem for Midnight Hub’s first game “Lake Ridden“. Midnight Hub is a Swedish indie studio, founded in December of 2015, by Johan Bernhardsson (formerly at Minecraft), Erik Nilsson (formerly at Massive) and Sara Casén (formerly at Paradox). Lake Ridden was released on Steam/GOG/Humble on May the 10th in 2018. The game is a first-person puzzler, filled with story and beautiful nature. It takes roughly 7-9 hours to play, depending on how much of the extra story the player wants to explore.
The game sits on Steam’s extremely high rating; “Very Positive” and has a 90% positive score. Lake Ridden is all in all made by two game artists, two programmers/designers, one producer, and two musicians. It took us roughly two years to make, at the same time setting up a new studio from scratch. The game itself is made with Unity.
This post-mortem is compiled by the team in August of 2018, and put together by me (Sara – the producer). It’s important to know that much of what is written in this piece is from the perspective of a producer. We’ve also done all our own marketing, community management and sales (with the help of two PR firms around launch). If you’re looking for technical specifications from the development please feel free to reach out to our art director Erik Nilsson or our lead coder Johan Bernhardsson.
Lake Ridden is made by two coders/designers, two game artists, and one producer. On top of this we hired two composers to take care of all our voice and sound needs!
Running an indie studio and making your first game as a team is two different challenges, but since they very often overlap we’ll sometimes mention things in this post that addresses both the development of Lake Ridden but also touches on the challenges of creating and operating a games studio in 2018. Our goal with publishing this text is to contribute to the larger body of knowledge about games development out there, as well as take a moment ourselves to reflect on the enormous accomplishment that is creating something from nothing. At the end of this post, I’ll talk about the fact that our game, despite all love it has gotten from its fantastic players and the meticulous marketing effort we did, still four months post-release hasn’t sold close to what we anticipated. This will be a long read, so buckle up!
The development of Lake Ridden started in early 2016, at the same time we founded the studio. To minimize risk and increase success we co-founders created the studio around the skillset we have. We did not start the studio to fulfill one game idea, we quit our day jobs because we want to build a games studio. The game idea that lead to Lake Ridden was one of several pitches presented and the agreed upon by the team. Back in 2016, it was a small scoped horror game, where the player stepped into the shoes of young Marie, searching for her sister inside an abandoned house. This concept would change a lot as development went forward and we got feedback from other games developers on the state of the horror genre. Originally we wanted to make a horror game without gore and blood, with a lot of puzzles and story. But after visiting GDC17 it became very clear that many horror fans wanted gore in their games, and the people who really liked puzzles absolutely hated horror and gore. So one year after production began we decided to pivot the game and went full on with the mystery feeling, the puzzles, and the narrative, targeting the same audience that likes Myst, Ether One and (a much less bloody) The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
The Swedish indie studio was co-founded in late 2015 by game developers who’ve worked at Minecraft, Massive and Paradox. Lake Ridden is the first game from Midnight Hub.
Our team grew from three founders to recruiting an additional amazing junior 3D artist (Anton Sander) and an excellent junior coder/designer (Malin Sandgren). We also signed on a duo of talented musicians; Solid Sounds.Along the way, we secured a big investment, nominations in business awards and front page coverage on big sites like Polygon. Got admitted to one of Europe’s best business incubator. We exhibited demos of Lake Ridden at EGX and Nordic Game Conference, where we had lines of people waiting to play. The game’s visual style got a lot of attention and we had tweets that went viral. Let’s start things off by having a look on what we think went really well in creating Lake Ridden!
What Went Well
1. Excellent User Ratings. The game had an amazing 96% positive rating one month past release and still has the excellent Steam rating “Very Positive”. The game resonates really, really well with its target audience. Making a game is insanely hard. To push a game out into the wild is an amazing achievement alone, doing so and scoring such an awesome reception is absolutely fantastic! Even harder when it’s the first game by a new team. What makes this even more remarkable is that we chose to pivot the game from horror to puzzle-mystery one year into development. It’s extremely rare that a game that changes genre ever gets released. Of course, the game is not perfect by any means, but people rarely believe it’s made by just four developers in two years.
Lake Ridden sits on the Steam rating; Very Postive, with a 90% positive user score!
2. High Level of Craftsmanship. The game has very solid puzzle design that challenges the player to really think outside of the box. Reading the user reviews on Steam makes it very clear that a lot of players enjoy the puzzles, the music, the art, and the story. We implemented a lot of interesting design choices in the game like a sophisticated hint-system and a chapter system for saving. The art style of the game has proven to be highly marketable and each area of the game really has it’s own distinct feel to it. The voice actors did an amazing job, as well as the composers. Of course, there are some Steam reviews that rightfully point out things we could have done better (always happy to get feedback!). But all in all, it’s an extremely solid first game for a studio.
In the game the player solves puzzles, riddles, and mysteries, trying to find her lost sister. It was made to appeal to the same audience that liked Myst, Ether One and Firewatch.
3. Creating Inclusive Studio Culture. This one is not only tied to the project of Lake Ridden but since the development of our first game naturally shaped how we worked together, how we solved problems, had discussions and interacted on a daily basis in the team, we choose to list it in this post-mortem. We worked very hard on creating a studio culture that should feel inclusive and respectful for all. We want to build an alternative to crunch, elitism and office politics. Here are some examples of what we accomplished:
- An environment where it’s OK to be wrong. If you have good intentions anything can be talked about and solved.
- Everyone stated their levels of stress each week, so we could keep track of both the individuals and the team’s stress levels. When any team is put under pressure it has a way of ripping the team apart, but we managed to grow even closer during hectic periods since we could lean on each other for help and support.
- 35h work week. We measured the SCRUM points completed and was able to get the same amount of things done in 35h instead of the usual 40h. All while the stress number was staying the same or dropping. Everybody was actively encouraged to use this extra free time to see family or do exercise.
- We deliberately hired people who were very different but shared core values. We wanted to have many different perspectives represented in the team, to better understand our players and complement and challenge each other. This tremendously helped us solve problems and see different perspectives.
- We played and analyzed games together each Friday to help give the team a common vocabulary for speaking about games and game design. This greatly improved the understanding between disciplines and gave us the same references to use when talking about games (i.e “Let’s do the shadows the same way we saw they did in Alien: Isolation”).
- Feedback was encouraged and expected. We put great focus on the separation between whatever feature was critiqued and the person that made it. If you can separate the thing from its maker it’s much easier for everyone to learn and move the game forward.
One of the goals of founding the studio has been to create an environment where people can respect each other, don’t work overtime and help each other.
4. Game Testing With Real Life Players. We spent a great deal of time and money on testing the game on real people. We did this in two ways; on players at conferences and players that came into the office to play Lake Ridden. We closely watched people while exhibiting it on trade shows like EGX, asking them about things like what they felt about the suggested price (19,99€) to what games they usually played. That was complemented with user testing where we invited around 40 puzzle gamers (most of which we didn’t know personally) to the studio.
There we watched them play and asked them follow-up questions from a prepared protocol. We always had predefined hypotheses that we worked with during these game tests, like how long the ideal playtime for a level was, how many tries a player should make before solving a problem etc. If something deviated too much from the desired outcomes we compiled this feedback in an actionable way to the development team. This testing was absolutely invaluable to make sure Lake Ridden got such a good reception from puzzle gamers. In the late stages of the development, we also worked with the fantastic QA company Testology to find and squash traditional bugs as well.
Early concept art from Lake Ridden, back from 2016. The game was first announced as a horror game but changed direction after one year of development, none the less landing on a 96% positive Steam score during its first month available for purchase on Steam, GOG and Humble.
5. Rapid Reaction To Change. As mentioned before we pivoted the development after one year. One of our core ideas of Midnight Hub has been to be able to react to change if needed since few industries are so unpredictable and volatile as the games industry. Changing from a horror game to a puzzle game was a very difficult move to pull off none the less. Pivoting is a very scary and stressful thing to do, and most game projects or teams do not survive such a move. It forced us to do major reworks to the story, the game design, and the music. We still consider it a successful move since it was necessary and we survived to release a 96% positive game after making the switch.
6. Marketing, PR and Open Development. When founding Midnight Hub in late 2015 we knew that the games market was getting more and more crowded with each month. Between 2004-2015 a total of 7 000 games had been released on Steam, with almost 3 000 alone in 2015! So we knew we needed to work with marketing and visibility from day #1 to even have a chance to break through the noise. The first way we tackled this was to have one co-founder with a background in community management and marketing (me). We then formulated a marketing strategy to follow the development to maximize the chances that Lake Ridden would land a top spot on the Steam front page when released (our best bet to set off a snowball of sales). Here are just some of the marketing efforts we pushed along our two-year development (on an extremely frugal indie budget).
– Visited and exhibited the game at EGX17 Birmingham, GDC17, NGC17, EGX18 London and GDC18. We hired booths and took advantage of the fact that shows like EGX have PR firms contracted to help indies market their presence to journalist.
– Johan’s Twitter has 360 000 followers after his time at Minecraft. He continuously tweeted about the development.
– We contacted the press ourselves and managed to secure coverage on sites like Polygon, PC Gamer and tons of minor game news sites.
– We hired a professional trailer company to make a great story trailer for the game which was featured front page on IGN.
– Regular high-quality GIFs, one of which went viral with over 200 000 views.
– We worked with Facebook marketing to spread the word about the game prior to big shows where we would exhibit the game.
– Contracting two really good PR firms to help us secure reviews and coverage around release, both in USA and UK.
– Paying for influencers like Yogscast to play the game on their channel.
– Reaching out to Steam Curators and advertising on Keymailer.
– Competitions at conferences where people could sign up on our email list to win a free game.
– Open development where we often tweeted, facebooked and blogged about the development. We wrote several well-shared pieces about project management, portfolio building and studio culture that mentioned our game.
Early WIP shots from the process of establishing the art direction for the game. Our goal was to make nature a huge part of Lake Ridden’s identity.
7. The Launch of Lake Ridden. If you have followed the news you know Lake Ridden has not (yet) sold enough copies to support the studio Midnight Hub. We had to let everyone go in August of 2018. So you might be wondering how we could list the launch as something we’re proud of? Let’s look at what we managed to achieve during the launch of the game:
– Lake Ridden launched on May the 10th 2018. It rose the top of Steam’s front page chart “New & Trending”, and stayed there for five days, in countries like USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Finland, and Norway.
– The game secured major organic non-sponsored coverage when both Lirik and Forzen streamed an hour each on Twitch in front of an audience of almost 35 000 viewers.
– Lake Ridden was covered and reviewed by a lot of sites, included Gamereactor and Fandom. The overall reception was positive.
– We got over 2 500 requests for keys on Keymailer and ended up sending out 1 200 keys to credited streamers.
– Big name Twitter accounts like much of the original Mojang gang with over 500 000 followers and Rami Ismail tweeting about the game.
– Front page feature of Humble Bundle and GOG upon release.
– Release trailer coverage on Polygon and many other news sites.
We managed to do all of this without a publisher pushing our game. The only kind of coverage we did not manage to secure was release-day reviews on sites like PC Gamer, IGN etc and we were never shown at E3. After the release, we quickly fixed bugs, implemented controller support, monitoring social media for mentions of the game, answered all questions on our Steam page and handed out guides on how to tag the game with proper tags to players that enjoyed the game. The release in itself was something we’re extremely proud of, both in terms of coverage and the technical aspect (extremely few crashes ever reported).
Lake Ridden had a very successful launch supported by two PR firms, influencer videos, major review coverage and a continuous presence on multiple consumer events. The game ended up on Steam’s front page for five days, featured on the “New and Trending” Chart in USA, UK, Germany, and many more countries.
Overall, Lake Ridden is a great game, it had an absolutely fantastic launch and the team learned invaluable lessons while making it. Let’s have a look at what we struggled with, what we could have done differently. Please keep in mind it’s always easy to look back in hindsight.
What We Could Have Done Differently
1. Reality Testing the Concept of The Game Earlier. We should absolutely have tested the core concept for horror + puzzle earlier to get the feedback that it did not appeal to a core audience. The game idea did make sense for us as a team to work on, it appealed to our strengths and a team, and we believedthere was an opening on the current market for this kind of game. But looking back we should have tested this idea on real-life players much faster. That could have saved us a lot of work and we could have pivoted earlier.
Development screenshots from early on in the game. The art style in the bottom image was highly marketable and really stood out, but in the end, we needed to tune it a bit so the player was still able to see the ground clearly even in the dark shadows.
A suggestion would be to do a paper design of your game or super quick prototypes that you upload to sites like Itchio to gauge interest. At the same GDC17 where we showed of the game for the first time ever, we managed to secure front page placement at Polygon with a 10 minute long gameplay video. At this time we could not pass on such a big opportunity to start building awareness around the game, but chances are this video complicated the game’s development in the end. For the longest of time, this video was the first one people saw when they googled for Lake Ridden, leading people to believe the game was still a horror game after the pivot. An early gameplay trailer or coverage will cement a lot of the game’s sound, art, and design and make it hard to break free from that or change direction or impressions later on. On the other hand coverage like that is super rare to get as a small indie studio.
2. Sound and Music Talent Was Brought In Too Early. We wanted to learn from previous experiences and not treat music as the last thing you smack onto a games project. We hired an amazing duo very early to help us with sound, music, and voice acting. This in itself was great but became a challenge when we needed to change the direction after one year of development. It meant that a lot of the creepy music and mood that had already been set had to be reworked to fit a mystery-puzzle game instead. The final soundtrack of Lake Ridden has gotten a lot of praise among players, but it would have been better for the project if we had brought in sound & music later on when the vision for the game was much clearer.
Changing the game from a horror game with puzzles to a mystery game with puzzles and strong narrative was not an easy move to pull off, but we managed to pivot the game.
3. Trailer Driven Development. As mentioned previously we got an amazing opportunity to show gameplay of Lake Ridden on the front page of Polygon in 2017. After showing much of the game in that video we headed into creating the next area of the game. At the same time, we also contracted a really talented trailer studio to make a story trailer together with us. We knew we needed to have a new trailer ready by September 2017 when the game was to be exhibited at EGX Birmingham. The trailer studio was excellent, but since we did not have anything totally unseen from the game to show in the story trailer (and not enough resources to build a scene specifically for a trailer to later just throw away) we found ourselves in a pinch. So the solution became to shoot the upcoming Lake Ridden story trailer in the same area that we had started building right after the Polygon video went live. This lead to a situation where the layout of the new level was largely affected by what we wanted to show in the trailer. This was not the best choice since a lot of that level’s layout ended up driven by the development of the trailer. The layout of a level should always be driven by game design (or storytelling).
4. Huge Scope for an Indie Game by Four Developers. Lake Ridden is a huge game to make on just four developers. It’s an open world game with almost 35 puzzles, 7-9 hours of gameplay. The