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Post Mortem of a PR Disaster

On Feb 5th we released Interstellar Marines in an Indiegala bundle. This is the second post about how the good intentions behind that turned into a PR disaster.

Background Information

This blog post of Feb 6th covers what happened in the first 24 hours after the release of Interstellar Marines in an Indiegala bundle. In this second post I want to look at the short and long term consequences of that bundle. 

It took some time to learn all the details of what we'd agreed on the bundle, as I wasn't involved in the discussion with Indiegala prior to release. It turned out we'd not agreed a price for the bundle, which in hindsight was a large source of the problems we encountered, and we'd agreed that the bundle would last for 15 days. That turned out to be a very long 20 days....

When we realised the depth of the community's reaction, we wrote this response as an apology to the community, and then stickied it. We knew we would get a lot of negative comments, but we wanted to show to our community that we had made a mistake, and apologise quickly and publicly. From a community management point of view we stickied it because we wanted it to act as a lightning rod, hopefully keeping the rest of the forums relatively clear. It partially succeeded in this.

We have also recently released this video, parts of which were recorded during that first 24 hours, as we wanted to show our community what had happened internally:


The Core Community and the Spearhead Edition

In the first 12 hours the upper tier bundle was priced at $3.99. We had hoped that Indiegala would be able to significantly raise the price of the upper tier as it contained the much more expensive Spearhead edition of Interstellar Marines, but unfortunately this did not happen. So after the first 12 hours the minimum price for the upper tier rose to around $6.50 - far short of the full $40 normal price.

This was the main reason our core community expressed for disagreeing with the bundle. The Spearhead edition is designed for those players who want to go the extra mile to support us, which is also why it is relatively expensive. By including the Spearhead edition in the upper bundle we devalued it. Had we agreed pricing with Indiegala that kept the upper bundle above $25, or even better simply not had the Spearhead edition in the bundle, we would probably have received much less negative feedback as we've been on Steam sales before at around that level.

Fortunately we have a good relationship with our core community, and although they were terribly upset, and certainly let us know about it, the large degree of mutual respect has meant community relations have not been as badly damaged as they could have been. On this point I have to stress openness and active community managers. We acted quickly, and myself and my co-CM were all over the forums answering questions. In situations like this high public visibility, rapid responses, honesty and good community managers are crucial.

The Trolls Come Out To Play

Our own forums were very quiet about the Indiegala bundle, with just one or two threads. The Steam forums, however, we're not. We very quickly noticed the most vitriolic posters were either people new to our forums, or had only made 1-2 posts previously. One or two of these posters hadn't even bought a copy of Interstellar Marines. 

On our forums there is a simple rule: you can provide positive or negative feedback provided it's not destructive. For example, saying you do not like feature X, because of reason Y, and you would like to suggest Z to replace it, is absolute gold dust for us. It helps us to make a better game. Saying you do not like feature X is also fine (though not as helpful). But saying the devs are a bunch of f*****s will result in a perma ban, as one member found out to his cost. We do this because we want the forums to be an open place where we can work with, and listen to, our community. 

The time the bundle was up put a huge strain on the above, and as a professional community manager it was at times very hard not to respond in kind to the types of posts and comments we were receiving from this small, but vocal, section of our community. We relied a lot on support from our colleagues, and there was more than once where I had to step back from the forums and go take the dog for a walk just to get some fresh air. It is also here that the time we had spent working on our community relations really paid off, because even though many of our community were very angry with us, they defended us against the trolls rather than siding with them.

Just to clear one thing up: there is a difference between someone who was simply angry at what we'd done, and someone who was out to take advantage of what was happening and cause trouble. It's the latter I'm referring to when I use the word "trolls".

The Gift That Kept On Giving

We had hoped the furore around the bundle would die down fairly quickly, especially with the quick reaction from us. Unfortunately it did not, and although the anger would sometimes seem to peter out, like a hydra it would rear its head again a day or two later. We realised after the first week this was just going to carry on until the bundle was finished.

Unfortunately there were two things which Indiegala did which also inadvertently fuelled the fire.

The first was we were taken off their front page after about 8-9 days and replaced with another bundle. At this point we breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the worst was behind us. A day or so later they put us back on the homepage. I've no idea why they did this, but it just rekindled the fire on our forums.

The second was the happy hour. Or rather, happy hours. To the best of my knowledge Indiegala ran three of these, with at least one at around 6 hours long. The effective result of these was more copies being sold for a lower nett price. That was the icing on the cake for us.

The End of the Bundle

The bundle ended up lasting for 20 days in total, which was 5 days longer than we'd agreed. It ended on Feb 24th, when we wrote a terse email to Indiegala asking them to take it down. They responded quickly, and the bundle came down a few hours later. There was no celebration, just a sense of relief from the team.

The Long Term Consequences

When we received the remaining Steam keys back from Indiegala, we calculated how many keys had been sold that had not been redeemed through a Steam retail activation. Very roughly, for every Indiegala key that has been redeemed, there are still around 1.5 keys that have not. 

Our belief is the vast majority of those keys are part of bundles that were bought by people who have not redeemed them as yet. Personally I've bought several bundles over the years where I've not redeemed some of the game keys. However, we do suspect key-selling sites have almost certainly purchased keys for themselves, even though that is against Indiegala's T&C's.

What did surprise us, and Kyle Redd alluded to this in a comment on the first blog post, is that our Steam sales did not go down. In fact they increased very slightly during the bundle. We believe this means being in the bundle gave us access to players who would likely not have purchased the game otherwise. It also seems to show that many Steam players do not visit Indiegala, or are not aware of it. We have not noticed any kind of slump in sales since the bundle, so it looks as if it has not hurt our long term sales, or if it has then the affect is small.

We have discussed trying to find a way to stop those keys that may have been bought by key-selling sites. But we were not able to find a way that did not impact legitimate purchasers, so that was scrapped.

Many members of our community asked that we reward the players who had bought their Spearheads through Steam rather than through the Indiegala bundle. We looked at this, but came to the conclusion it was not workable. We'd already been on Steam sales before-hand. with one sale at 66% off. That meant there were some people on Indiegala who had spent more to buy their Spearhead copy than some people on Steam - in fact one person spent $1600 on his bundle, and there were several above $100. So there was simply no clear way of being able to separate who should get what without severely cheesing off a number of players.

And of course the final part of this is what to do with the money? It'll be another month or two before we receive it from Indiegala. There are currently several ideas floating around, but no firm decision has been made. Personally I'd just like to see the whole lot given to charity.

Lessons Learned Part 2

  1. Always include anything that has been agreed by email in the contract. We'd agreed 15 days for the bundle in an email, but it was not included in the contract or schedules.
  2. Discuss anything that will affect the community with the community managers. Carsten and myself were not aware of the details of the deal, and if we had of been we'd have at least raised a red flag on the Spearhead inclusion.
  3. As a community manager, have some form of "switching off", if only for a few hours. Dealing with a lot of vitriol for a sustained period will affect you.
  4. Keep a record of what happens during these periods. We're lucky that we have an excellent in-house videographer, and he's the person who was recording the whole time. That has allowed us to produce the video documentary at the start of this blog. Recording what happens also allows you to look back and reflect later on.

Final Conclusion

The one good thing that came out of this bundle is we managed to raise some money for charity - and that's always a good result.

Although our community relations took a nose dive during the bundle, since then they have improved again. On this basis alone I cannot overstate the importance of an active community manager for your game - someone who is always there, working with, and for, the community.

So far we have noticed no short or long term affect on our Steam sales. This is contrary to what we were expecting, but is something we're obviously very happy about.

In summary then, things have ended up being a lot less damaging than we'd expected. 

Should you go into a bundle? Well, that depends on you and your game. But I would stress spending far more time than we did investigating the affect it will have on your community. 

And finally, thank you for taking the time to read this post :) I hope relating these experiences will perhaps help others in the future to avoid them, or at the very least be better prepared.

Paul Allen,
Community and PR Manager,
Zero Point Software

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