StoneShard, 10 reasons for success
A couple of premises
I have heard it so many times that I don’t react to it anymore, I just shrug and dismiss: “You can’t pinpoint precisely the reasons behind a success in a videogame, they just did it perfectly and it sold like water in the desert, it’s some kind of magic, and it’s the beauty of the industry”.
Well, guess what, you are dead wrong, and I don’t believe in magic nor in mysticism in videogames.
Videogames are cultural products, like books and movies and, like them, there are some rules and some guidelines that will help you steer clear from failures. That, plus some more complicated issues…and these are mainly represented by the fact that human culture is constantly changing, shifting from different references to others and highlighting different connections in different eras. In a nutshell: what I write here will be total BS very soon.
So, a cultural product CAN BE deconstructed and analyzed to pinpoint why it was successful. And the more successful the product the clearer will probably be the factors in play.
Here the usual argument arises: “If we can pinpoint those factors it’s gonna be easy to repeat that! So you are wrong because that’s never so easy!” Exactly, and that is because repeating that is damn difficult and people struggle to understand how difficult it is because we are all still under the terrible lie that empowers ‘ideas’ as the main force behind success. We get the right idea, and then it’s only about implementation. Dead wrong. Ideas are a dime a dozen and implementation is everything. Even if you understand how Mario does it perfectly, you won’t have the genius to repeat that, as strange as it may sound it’s the bloody truth.
With that out of the way, I will now address another potential issue; I know, maybe kinda boring, but I have spent too many years between academics so, please, indulge me.
In a few words: is the success based on marketing or on merits of the cultural product? Here too I have heard the heresy repeated ad libitum: “If the product is good it will sell itself, no need for marketing”. People who recite this mantra usually end up self-publishing books (and gifting them to –horrified- relatives at Christmas) or selling a few hundred copies of whatever they think is “good” enough.
But, lo and behold, there is an ounce of truth in what they say. If the product is really good (and let’s say this kind of ‘good’ is usually exponentially grander than that average Joe thinks it should be) it can, by itself, do the heavy lifting of sales and it will, probably, need just competent marketing. Light a sparkle of interest in some key points and the product will do the rest.
Now, premises over, let’s start the show.
A game (not) out of nowhere
StoneShard came out with its Prologue demo in June 2018, just after the May Kickstarter, then in Early Access on February 2020.
The Prologue demo was reviewed by 2800 Steam players. The rule of thumb for games on sale goes like reviews * 100 / x = sales where is x is a number between 70 and 90. I am not sure about how that has to be adjusted for demos but I will go out on a limb and say that’s probably higher. A free demo won’t entice as many players to write a review as a game they paid for.
Now. As of 15 February 2020, the EA release of Stoneshard sits at 6000 reviews. While the EA release has a 78% (Mostly positive) good reviews the Prologue has 89% (Very Positive). We can expect people being more critical when they pay money, nothing to see here, we can go on.
The Prologue was noticed on the press and had a couple of hundred thousand views with Youtubers; good enough but nothing to write home about. Then the EA happened and all hell broke loose. Everybody is basically playing it between Twitchers and Youtubers versed in RPG and roguelikes and the press is hot on pursuit. Not bad.
How this happened leads me to think that StoneShard was a sleeper hit waiting to happen. I miserably failed at taking note about Stoneshard wishlist count before the EA release (and that’s a real shame since I know the Most Wihslisted Games on Steam list by heart) but I can safely assume the game was sitting in the top tiers of the chart. When Steam sprang the “EA release” email to the wishlisters the nice fellas at Ink Stains Games were basically looking at a jackpot happening.
This is what happened, and from all this, I am making a big assumption that is not scientific at all, but I think it makes sense. What made this huge success is the quality of the demo.
Being the demo also the first part of the actual game I strongly believe that the footage on Youtube, the streamers, the Steam stream and the general word of mouth that led to the mass of sales was based on that first prison ‘level’…one that I played five times before succeeding.
Going down the logic cascade I will assume that we have to look at the demo if we want to understand the success of StoneShard. And since the EA version is pretty faithful to the demo, it’s the overall quality of the game that is responsible for its success.
Now, I can hear you “all of this to tell us that?”. Yeah, but here is where the fun starts as, now we deconstruct that “quality of the game”, piece by piece and we marvel at the whole. And remember what I said before: just because we know how it is done it doesn’t mean that it is easy to repeat it. It’s freaking close to impossible.
Pieces on a playmat
You know your brain loves lists, we marketers know that, so here you go, let those endorphins run loose.
- Adventure-Loot-Economy loop.
StoneShard Prologue immediately hints at this loop. You go around, you kill things, explore, smash barrels and loot objects. Some of these you use, others you hoard to sell. You know there is going to be a shop somewhere (but there ain’t in the Prologue) so you do the Tetris game in your inventory.
Is this universally a good thing? No, but Stoneshard does it perfectly with an inventory that is easy to manage, juicy and with clear tooltips and objects you can interact with. The loop in itself is a well-established staple in the RPG (and ARPG) genre so it’s a safe and cozy place for the player; immediately recognizable, relatable and your brain is happy.
- A world full of candies.
This loop immediately tells the player that the devs are going deep in the world-building when it comes to objects. In the Prologue you read books to unlock skills, you drink and eat, you use stuff on other stuff, you heal yourself with different medicaments for different ailments. It’s not hoarding for the sole sake of selling, it’s way deeper than that. And it merges perfectly with…
- A step-by-step mechanic
You take a step, the enemy takes one, you move an object, the enemy makes a move, you activate a skill, the enemy… The whole mechanic makes for a very organized world in which things are completely under your control. It feels like you are always doing things on a grid that is both timed and spaced. And it has a nice rhythm to it, Crypt of the Necrodancer style. There is no space for chaos or fuzziness. A log is always there to tell you what happened precisely and you can plan ahead every single move. Again, this is not a universally good thing, but when you do it so neatly and precisely you score a point in your favor.
- Sweet randomization
Ok, nowadays everybody is into this. True but, again, you have to do it right to make it count and StoneShard does it kinda perfectly. As I said, I played the demo five times before beating it, and every time I lived a different experience, and that’s a biggie if you consider the fact that it’s a simple multi-level prison you have to escape. Random maps, random objects, random monster placement. This keeps you constantly on your toes as a real dungeon crawler should do, and that’s also because…
- Permadeath as it should be
In the demo, if you die that’s it, you get back to the beginning or to another later landmark, if you achieved to pass this said landmark. Couple this with how detailed is the health system and you have another winner point. Injuries have to be stabilized and bandaged or you will be in pain, loose blood, incur penalties and eventually die. If you don’t have the right stuff in your inventory you better think twice before getting into that dangerous fight. That’s tense, and that’s very good game design.
- Skills and abilities
Here too there is a sweet combination of making you play with them and showing their potential for the full game. You make progress at a nice pace, but you have to read books to unlock skills in the skill trees. You get to taste that nice devastating pyromancy, but you can see the list is long, and every skill has a hefty tree. Your RPG player’s brain is very tingled, very.
- Other candies, for the eyes
Pixel graphic is the big ‘yes yes’ nowadays, pretty much in every genre. Or not? It depends, especially on the quality and on how it blends with the theme. In Stoneshard the pixel graphic is the right choice as it blends with the right references (like the recent much-appreciated Graveyard Keeper). Pixel art was widely used to do RPGs and fantasy back in the days and we are somewhat more inclined to accept the liberties of such a style than in other more close-to-reality themes.
- A tactile and efficient experience
StoneShard’s interface is easy to understand with few, well iconized, buttons and nice panels that do what we expect them to. It’s the mark of excellence in GUI and it’s also a tactile experience that rhymes with the turn-based rhythm of the gameplay. It’s close to a clickfest but it stops just before becoming an annoying one.
- A boss to hint at many others
The demo includes one boss fight, a reasonably difficult one. And it is also a fun one with patterns, multiple threats, and space to use skills and spells. It’s a nice ending to a well-rounded experience. And if you fail it’s back to the landmark point. And guess what? You don’t mind doing that again as the gameplay is fun, the killing is joyful and the whole walking down the dungeon is a tense experience that you will want to bring to closure.
- It ends the right way
The demo is just (very) long enough, especially if you don’t succeed in the first run. This means it will sit there on your desktop for some time, reminding you of the EA coming up soon. It also ends with you meeting companions, which is always a nice move when you want to hint at a deeper adventure awaiting and new mechanics.
I don’t think I hold the secret of good game design or that I have cracked the StoneShard code. But if we analyze deeply a cultural product and we put it in perspective with our experience (both professional and as a consumer) I do think we can understand better the ‘magic’ happening behind a success.
I have studied game design, communication, and marketing; I have been a game journalist for twenty years now and I now work as PR Marketing in the Indie sector. I have learned to apply schemata, references and watch gaming experiences unfold. Still, in the end, what counts is the belief that something can be investigated that makes the difference. Good game design is neither a black box nor an opaque talent for a few initiates. Everything is learned and (almost) everything belongs to the realm of culture, rather than that of nature, and that’s what saved us a species.
And I am totally referring to the species of videogame professionals.