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The Journey of Lost Caves, and Learning from my Past Failures as an Indie Dev

My development journey of Lost Caves, my first significant PC release, and how I overcame my previous failures on an earlier project.

    On May, 2016, I released my first significant title, Galastar, onto iOS devices. It honestly feels like an eternity ago. Galastar is a small arcade-style shoot’em up that I conceived of back in 2009, and began development of in 2011. Again, development started in 2011, and ended in 2016. This game took five years to develop. That’s ridiculous, especially for a game as small as Galastar. 

    Galastar is far from a complicated game. It started development during my infantile years as a developer, so the concepts were not too difficult to implement. Why did it take so long to develop, though? Simple, I was a teenager with a short attention span (And maybe a liiiiiiiittle too much homework). 

    More often than not, I’d stop development of Galastar to do something with more instant gratification, like Minecraft. I’d go weeks, sometimes even months without ever touching my project, and just letting it gather virtual dust on my computer. Often my dad would rightfully nag at me to work on it and to finish it, instead of letting it sit there. 

    Finally, during my Freshman year of college, I began to haul ass on it, and eventually released it. Guess what happened next? It flopped. Sure, people in my inner circle and maybe people from a couple degrees of separation played it, and they enjoyed it, but it got no further than that for the most part. The game never even breached 1,000 downloads. It spiked on the first day, and that was it. I don’t know what I expected, to be honest. I spent virtually none of my time actually marketing the game. I didn’t talk to any press, and I didn’t even have a website for it. The game may as well not exist outside of my inner circle of friends who downloaded it. 

    That all being said, getting a game published at all (especially through a process as gruesome as iOS publishing) is an achievement in its own right.

    Regardless, I still failed in more than one aspect in the development. I spent way too much time not working on it, and I didn’t market it almost at all outside of my inner circle.

    For the following one-and-a-half years I hit a streak of depression. Galastar was done, so now what? After having a project in the works for five years, suddenly having nothing to work on left a big hole in me. 

    Well, there was another project I’ve wanted to work on ever since I started development of Galastar. An exploratory platformer called Lost Caves. The problem was that I really didn’t have a good engine to develop it in. GameSalad, the engine I used for Galastar, wasn’t particularly stellar at handling 2D side scrollers (Which I learned after making a prototype in 2014), and I was slowly moving away from Game Maker, the first game engine I ever used. I was kind of stuck. 

    Finally I found what I was looking for in 2017, my Junior year at SCAD. My programming professor taught a 2D game design course using Unity. I’ve known about Unity for a very long time, but I’ve never used it extensively. I was a bit weary about even taking the course, since I was still not confident in my abilities as a programmer, and Unity is heavy on the code. Nevertheless, I took a chance, and I signed up for it.

    It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    Shockingly enough, I learned the ropes of Unity extremely quickly. It all just seemed to come naturally. Finally, I could seriously work on Lost Caves, a project I’ve wanted to do for six years. I worked my ass off on it during that class, and even stayed up very late the night before the project deadline just to add a boss to the game, even though I knew I was guaranteed an A, even without it. I wasn’t making this project for a grade. I was making this for me.

    The following day, I presented my project to the rest of the class. The game, like I predicted, got an A, with my professor being very impressed. When I first pitched the idea of an exploratory platformer all about collecting treasure to open doors to him and the class, he was rather weary of it and not completely sold on the concept. I knew what I had was something good though, and I proved it to him (after making a few adjustments as per some suggestions). This project was far from over, though. This was way more than just some college assignment.

    The months following, I continued to work on Lost Caves in my free time. I submitted it to an event at my college where they showed off the works of students who were studying game development. Certain projects would be rewarded in different categories. I submitted mine to the 2D games category. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot to come from it. I was going against another project that actually a mini contest in my 2D game design class. Maybe I would get “Best Art” or something? I didn’t really see myself winning “Best 2D Game” though. 

    Soon enough, the Awards Ceremony starts. I’m there with my Dad, and they’re announcing winners for the different categories. They soon got to the “2D Games” part of the awards. Turns out there was just one category for it, “Best 2D Game”. I wasn’t counting on it, but part of me was hoping that my game would win.

    Never had I been more happy to hear the words “Lost Caves by Adam Smith” exit someone’s mouth.

    A rush of excitement came over me. My 2D game design professor was even the one who announced it. I went up to the stage, got a picture, and received a plaque from him with my name on it. Now I knew for sure that this game was something worth developing.

    For the remainder of my time at SCAD, I continued working on Lost Caves in my free time. It was even shown at a small tech expo in Savannah, Georgia. The kind words I received from people who played it meant a lot to me. One of the event organizers even considered it to be the best game out of all of the others that were shown.

    Even after I graduated college, I worked on this game. But something was wrong, I just didn’t know it yet. I was beginning to fall into the same pitfall as Galastar. While not as extreme, I would still go great lengths of time without working on the project. I wanted to work on it, but I just couldn’t motivate myself. I’d work on it here and there, but only in short bursts, and not for a very extended period of time.

    Along came late spring, 2020. I’m talking about my game in a Discord group I’m in, who have been following the game’s development since 2017. One of the members of the Discord asked a couple simple questions about the game. He probably thought nothing of it, but it was a huge wake up call for me.

“How much of the work is complete?”

“and how long as it taken you to get this far?”

    two-and-a-half years hard passed, and I felt like I only scratched the surface of what I wanted to do. The fact that I was constantly suffering from developer’s block didn’t help, either. Given how large I wanted this game to be, I also never thought of a release window. It just seemed so far away. If I didn’t get at least a general release window nailed down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to consistently work on it. That’s what happened with Galastar. With that in mind, I made the decision to release the game by the end of the year. I had all Summer and Fall to work on it. I also lowered the scope of the game for the release, although I planned to add more content post-release. 

    I had a release window nailed down, December 2020, and I was now committed to meeting that deadline. I made the internal decision to never go one day without working on Lost Caves. Even if it was something small and minor, like a sprite, or a simple bug fix. I needed to keep my head in the game. Lest I fall for the same pitfalls as I did with Galastar. During that time, I also began to write weekly devlogs on itch.io, and began work on a website. A real website, with paid hosting and a domain. None of that .wixsite nonsense. I began to take this game very seriously.

    Lost Caves was no longer a hobby, it was a lifestyle.

    Every day, I’d work on it to some degree, often spending hours of my time on it. At this point, I already had a full-time job as a Game Designer for a government contractor. I’d do game design at work for them, and I’d then do it at home for me. Thanks to this commitment, progress was being made at a significant rate. Every week, I’d write about my progress in a devlog as a way to keep myself in check. I also made the internal deadline of making the game feature complete before the end of the summer. I met that goal, and that meant only one thing.

    The game had now reached beta.

    September 29th was when that shift was made. The game was done, but not finished. All that was left was tweaks, bug fixing, and improvements where needed. I made a ton of progress thanks to my decision to consistently work on Lost Caves, no matter how big or small the amount of work was. What was next on my agenda was sending the game out to beta testers to get their feedback.

    I won’t lie, I was extremely nervous about the feedback I’d get from beta testers. I was worried the game’s chief mechanic and gameplay loop of treasure collection would quickly become boring. Thankfully, I was wrong about that. There was something else wrong with it though. It was abysmally difficult.

    That may sound scary, but honestly, fixing a game that’s too hard is way easier than fixing a game that’s too easy. Just remove the parts of the game that make it too hard until you get a more balanced and fair experience, and that’s what I did. It turns out that I may have gone too far though and made the game too easy by introducing too many crutches. Thankfully that wasn’t hard to fix. 

    By mid-November, I finally reached a point in the game’s development to where I could finally get footage and compile a trailer. I made a trailer a year-and-a-half before that for the aforementioned tech expo, but it wasn’t very exciting, and didn’t show off some of the new additions to the game, so I made a new one from scratch, using a revised version of the game’s main theme that I composed, and dropped the trailer on November 25th.

    After that, it was time for me to take the next big step in Lost Caves’ journey: marketing. Marketing for games was something I had little to no experience in. My lack of marketing skills was largely what led to Galastar flopping, so I was determined to not make that same mistake twice. I did some reading online, and began looking for press to contact. 

    I tried finding reviewers and YouTubers who had covered similar games to mine, and I tried contacting them. I was getting nothing back, though. Was my pitch bad? Does sending out itch.io keys make me look bad? Turns out I was right about both. After realizing that, I focused on revising my pitch, and also making the Steam page for Lost Caves. Having a Steam presence would definitely make people take my game more seriously than if it were on just itch.io, which has zero quality control. Despite these efforts, though, I felt like I was getting nowhere. More often than not I’d get into slumps of mild depression because I was getting no responses to my emails.

    Along comes Thomas Brush, developer of Pinstripe and Neversong. I interned under him a couple of years ago to help port Pinstripe to iOS, and he was back to request my services again, this time with pay. Actually, it was more than just pay. He was even offering to help me market Lost Caves. Thomas is a seasoned developer, who obviously has found his success. I realized his help may be just what I needed. I soon took his offer on porting Pinstripe to iOS once again, in exchange for a nice sum of cash, and help with marketing Lost Caves. He gave me a lot of good advice, but one of them kind of concerned me. 

    He said that I needed more time to market the game. In my head, I was planning on releasing the game on the 29th, but that was only a couple weeks away, and I still had no confirmed coverage. I really didn’t want to push back the game’s release date, because I felt like I would have failed my December release window that I promised myself way back in June. I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I released it on December if I got no confirmed press, especially with December being super competitive thanks to the holidays. With that in mind, I pushed the release by a month, January 29th, 2021. I was upset, but the game was still complete by December, I just needed to market it, so I still technically reached my goal that I set in June. After that, I spent almost every day looking for press and YouTubers and sending out emails. 

    During the week of Christmas while I was off from work, I refined my pitch email to be easy to read with clear bullet points, and a catchy subject line. Surely enough, that worked to my benefit, and I started receiving responses from people. I even managed to secure a couple of streamers to play the game before launch!

    Things were finally looking up. My countless hours of searching for people to cover my game and sending them emails were finally paying off! My wishlist count for Lost Caves began to slowly rise. I tried to regularly engage with people on Twitter by posting about my game almost every day on there too. Thomas himself even offered to play the game at launch!         

    With over eight confirmations of coverage, I knew I was on the right track. Galastar failed because I didn’t work on it consistently, and that I didn’t market it. I aimed to not make those mistakes again, and the results of that are truly paying off. I don’t know if Lost Caves will become some big hit, and I’m not necessarily counting on it. This game really feels like my magnum opus though, and the fact that I was able to overcome the issues that I failed with Galastar makes it all the better…

Right now, Lost Caves is available on Steam for only $0.99! I’d love it if you checked it out and gave your thoughts on it!

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1499190/Lost_Caves/

 

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