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Mini Postmortem On A Steam Early Access Launch

I miss doing that what-went-right / what-went-wrong format! I'm doing it again, to discuss the launch of Energy Hook on Steam Early Access.

Jamie Fristrom, Blogger

August 17, 2015

8 Min Read

Hey everybody - let me tell you about my latest boneheaded mistakes so you can make all different mistakes with your launches.

I only released Energy Hook - a game about swinging from building to building, something I hadn't worked on since Spider-Man 2 - on Steam two days ago, and I've already made enough blunders to fill an article. Here goes:

What Went Wrong #1: Falling For Scammers

After I announced Energy Hook coming to Steam Early Access a few weeks ago, I started getting e-mails from people who wanted review keys. Getting a deluge of these sorts of e-mails is something my other indie friends have had to deal with, but usually for me it was a small enough burden that I could respond to each one individually and humbly.

This time I got a couple e-mails from people who said they ran really big foreign Youtube sites in Germany and Russia.

I thought to myself, "You only want keys? I'll do you one better! I was going to put localization off but I'll do it right now. That should impress you!" So I paid some friends to translate into Germany and Russian.

You guessed it, after the deal was done I thought - "Wait a minute. How do I know these guys are actually connected to the Youtube channels they say they are?" I checked their e-mails and sure enough, they didn't match the Youtube sites.

Wah wah wah.

What Went Right #1: Localized In Time For Early Access Launch

Although it didn't make a lot of sense to localize now - the game isn't done yet! More and different text is coming! The good news was that I managed to get the game localized in just a few days using the I2 Localization plug in. That plug-in is pretty sweet - it is good at searching through your UI for things that need to be localized. It also lets you keep a spreadsheet on Google drive that you can share with your translators, and then you can pull the translations into your game with a button press. It made me very happy.

Also, some friends volunteered to do the Swedish, French, and Polish versions for free. Kind of an odd collection of languages to start with, but I'll take it! 

I'm certain that having the game (and the store page) translated into those languages will help sales in those regions. Would my time have been better spent elsewhere? Maybe, but I don't regret it.

What Went Wrong #2: Handing Out The Wrong Keys

Keys are associated with different branches in Steam and I got their meanings backwards - I thought the keys for the default branch could also access the testing branch, but it's actually the other way around. So for preview copies I should have been sending out the testing keys, not the default keys.

This was a particularly bad mistake because eager previewers who used that first key couldn't then disown the game and activate the second key! They were stuck not being able to preview. One of them was kind enough to give me his steam id so I could add him to my development team and let him play the game that way, but who knows if the others were willing to give it a try or just gave up.

Fortunately, after I'd sent out a couple dozen of bad keys, a nagging voice in my head said, "Wait. Are you sure about this?" I mentioned it on Twitter and someone happily volunteered to test one of the keys - and sure enough, it didn't work. So I did manage to course correct and start getting the right keys out to the remaining journalists.

What is it they say? That 80% of the time what you worry about isn't the problem that bites you? This time I was glad I paid attention to what I was worrying about.

What Went Right #2: Other Press

I send personal e-mails to members of the press I know and have talked to before. Although I dropped the ball on appearing at any big trade shows this year (should chalk that up as another What Went Wrong) I decided I could maybe make my own trade show: I wrote the journalists I knew and asked if I could come by their offices and show them the game in person. The folks at Polygon took me up on it, and did a fantastic interview with me where I ummed and errred my way through a demo.

For members of the press I don't know, I finally automated my system. For sending out keys to my press list I used Yet Another Mail Merge (fortunately I'd figured out my key problem before then!); for members of the press who were contacting me, asking me for keys, I used Vlambeer's distribute() and told them to apply there. So I'm spending a lot less time answering e-mails from smaller press than I did with Sixty Second Shooter Prime.

What Went Wrong #3: Launching The Game Just Plain Didn't Work

So some of my Kickstarter backers and social media followers were gathered together for a launch party on twitch, and I said, "Okay, I'm doing it, I'm pressing the Release button," and I did ... and although Steam claimed the game was now released there was no price or Buy button.

Some party. It mostly consisted of me worrying about whether I needed to wait because maybe it would come online in a bit or what...

What Went Right #3: Using My Valve Connection

I posted to the Valve developer forums but an answer was not forthcoming.

Now, I have a friend who works at Valve. But at some level I both feel like I'm cheating if I try to get help through him, and also feel like I'm sort of abusing his friendship. But after a few hours had gone by I decided I better go for it and hope he'd forgive me. He put me in touch with the right person and they solved the problem.

I'm not sure what the take home lesson is here. Maybe it's "It Never Hurts To Ask" or maybe it's "Use Every Unfair Advantage You've Got"...

Maybe it's just, "Be lucky enough to have a friend who works at Valve." :P

What Went Wrong #4: Not enough lead time for an Ask Me Anything on Reddit

Two years ago, doing an AMA on /r/games was as simple as messaging the moderator and saying 'Hey, can I do an AMA?' Not anymore. Although I messaged a moderator I didn't hear back and decided just to go for it. So my Friday AMA was pulled by the moderators.

They later explained to me that I needed to use modmail to get in touch with them and work out exactly when we'd do it beforehand, so I did - but that meant I had to put off my AMA until Saturday. (I couldn't do next week because I've planned a camping trip. Nice timing, me.) Everyone says Reddit isn't as hopping on Saturday and that seemed to be the case; things were hopping on Friday before it was taken down, not so much today.

What Went Right #4: Twitter

I have been incredibly pleased with the amount of support I've gotten on Twitter. I'd complain about my problems and people would cheer me up; and when I posted my launch tweet there was a lot of retweeting.

Facebook and Google+ have been pretty useless for me as far as social media goes, but Twitter has always been great.

What Went Wrong #5: Launch Stress. Fear. Uncertainty

I think almost every creative person who tries to put their work Out There knows what this is like - there's a bunch of books on the topic, even, like *Uncertainty* by Jonathan Fields. There's a whole bunch of reasons to fear shipping such as ridicule and making fewer sales than you hoped. I have negative thoughts about the outcome and feel the stress in my gut. I've never put my reputation on the line like this! I've never invested so much of myself into a game! If people don't like this, they don't like me! Etcetera. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why don't we just find a steady low-stress job that makes more money?

And every time I made one of these boneheaded mistakes there's a voice in my head that says I should quit.

Whent Went Right #5: Putting One Foot In Front Of The Other

All in all, though, I'd rather face public ridicule and live on less money to be able to keep doing what I'm doing: making games I love on my own terms, and being able to spend plenty of time with my family and friends. Sometimes I wish I didn't have this need to be creative and put my work Out There (I think I totally get while Salinger stopped publishing and said that he just writes for himself) but another, more visceral part of me says, "No. I have to do this."

At least it's not all stressful! Most of the time when I'm working I'm in a flow state and happy - the months where I have to ship are just a price I have to pay for the good months. To that end, getting through those high anxiety shipping months, I do the same things they suggest in *Uncertainty* - continue taking care of myself (exercise, meditate, eat right, keep the apartment kind of clean); rely on my friends; keep putting one foot in front of the other; and reminding myself that, no matter what happens, I'm not going to regret doing this.


So! Hope that was helpful! You're probably too busy making your own games to play any, but if you get a chance, I hope you'll check out Energy Hook.

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Jamie Fristrom


Jamie Fristrom is a partner, technical director, and designer at Torpex Games and he's writing this in the third person. Prior to Schizoid, Jamie was a technical director and designer on Spider-Man 2, his biggest claim to fame being that he invented its dynamic, physical swinging system. Other games he's worked on include Spider-Man for PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, Tony Hawk for the Dreamcast, Die by the Sword for the PC, and the Magic Candle series of RPGs. Jamie wrote the "Manager in A Strange Land" column for Gamasutra, blogs at www.gamedevblog.com, and (he thinks) holds the world record for number of post-mortems written for Gamasutra and Game Developer.

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