Four years ago I started my career in video games by working with my idols Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, Mark Ferrari, and David Fox on their newest point-and-click adventure game Thimbleweed Park. I worked on character design and animations, and will always remember it as one of the best professional and personal experiences of my life.
At the end of that project I felt a great void inside me, and I took the next logical step of creating my own video games. Given my inexperience as a developer, it didn’t make much sense to begin my new career with a super-long project. I needed to learn the complete process of creating a video game, from its conception to launch, and the best way to achieve that was to create some short experiences, each around 30 minutes in length, and release them to the public.
So far I’ve published four games: Midnight Scenes: The Highway, The Librarian, Midnight Scenes: The Goodbye Note, and The Supper. The games are free, released in “Pay What You Want” mode — the buyer can choose the price — and available exclusively on itch.io, except The Supper, which launched simultaneously on Steam.
Against all my expectations, the games were great successes! Let’s review some figures:
- Midnight Scenes: The Highway was released in October 2017 and has been downloaded 35,514 times so far on itch.io.
- The Librarian was released in March 2018 and has been downloaded 44,228 times.
- My favorite, Midnight Scenes: The Goodbye Note, was released in October 2018 and has been downloaded 13,346 times.
- And finally, The Supper has been downloaded 9,240 times on itch.io and more than 80,000 times on Steam since its launch in February 2020.
After releasing these four “Pay What You Want” games, I decided it was time to start thinking about my first proper commercial product, which I’m currently working on. It’s an interactive tale based on the universe of The Librarian, and we plan to announce it in October.
Releasing a game with these characteristics requires much more busy work and detail-oriented thinking than a free game, and so I’ve teamed up with the talented Susanna Granell, who is currently running the “business side of things” and filling some creative roles while I focus on others.
Together we made the decision to release paid special editions of my short games on Steam with some extras, including art books, the original soundtracks, and localization for 7 new languages. This way, we could rehearse the actions we’ll have to take when releasing our new game: localization, statistical analysis, testing, bug fixing, and community management, among other things.
In terms of promotion, we only shared the special edition launch on our social networks. It’s something that always worked very well for my free games but hasn’t gone as well this time, as I’ll describe more below. It’s obvious that marketing is the weakest point in our business, so we’ll need to give it a big push when it comes to our new game.
Midnight Scenes 2: The Goodbye Note
These have been the results of the two special editions we’ve released so far on Steam:
- Midnight Scenes: The Highway (Special Edition) was released a month ago at a price of $1.99 and has sold less than 1,000 copies.
- The Librarian (Special Edition) was released a week ago at a price of $2.99 and has sold less than 500 copies.
Subtracting taxes and Steam’s cut leaves us with less than $1,500 net this first month. It’s hard to analyze whether these figures represent failure or success because they only represent a small slice of our player base; most people have already played the free versions. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions:
- The difference in visibility between a free product and a commercial one is very evident. Free games promote themselves. They easily become viral products that grab the attention of players as well as people in the gaming industry. For example, my free games were featured in major publications like Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer, and Edge, while the special editions have not garnered the same attention. It’s just another battlefield. Paid products are different beasts that require granular, more aggressive promotion.
- Another interesting conclusion is that localizing your game to several languages should, in theory, open the door to a broader player base, but that’s not true in our experience. It’s not as simple as translating your game and your Steam page; you need to design a specific promotion strategy for each market with its respective translation, which is cost prohibitive for most indies in terms of time and money.
- And finally, we saw something that every indie developer knows too well: discoverability is not one of Steam’s strong points. We’re confident there’s a niche of people out there who’d be interested in these short games but still don’t know they exist. Making good use of Steam’s tags helps, but proves insufficient on its own.
In an industry where it’s so difficult to stand out as an indie developer, I think it’s important that we talk about our experiences to help each other draw interesting conclusions. This has been our story so far, broadly speaking, and we hope to continue communicating the details of our experience in future posts.
Thanks for reading!
Octavi Navarro is a pixel artist and game developer from Barcelona. He worked on games like Thimbleweed Park and Photographs, and is the creator of the short games Midnight Scenes, The Librarian, and The Supper.