As I finish this article in the wee hours of the morning, I am completely envious of you. That’s because by the time you read this, my game has been out at least a few hours, and you potentially know the answer to a question I’ve wondered about for almost two years: did my game make it? Did anyone care about The First Tree? Am I ready to cast the burden of game dev into the fires of Mordor and move on?
Ironically, I should've been working on my game instead of making this gif.
If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a story-driven exploration game about a fox looking for her missing cubs and uncovering a parallel story about a son reconnecting with his father in Alaska. You’re probably saying it’s a bit premature to know if it will be successful just from the first day of release, but the more I research game marketing, the more I realize how crucial those first couple days are. Now with Steam Direct, there’s a few new points about the indie market that I think all devs should consider, namely:
- The default state for all Steam releases is “buried.”
- Marketing and vying for visibility after launch is exponentially harder.
- You’re going to need a hook (and a bit of luck).
This isn’t really an official post-mortem of The First Tree, but I would totally consider it a marketing post-mortem. That’s because most of the marketing that makes a difference happens well before launch day. It’s your big chance to push that snowball down the hill and hopefully turn it into something gigantic. I’ll share what’s helped me with my marketing efforts, and what didn’t help that much. The best part is you can check my SteamSpy owners and number of reviews and determine for yourself if it just wasn’t enough. Hopefully this will help other devs know where they need to be before launch so they can dig themselves out of the default buried state.
(Note: Success as a game developer or any artist really is NOT dependent on money! Can’t stress this enough! For this article however, I’m eschewing the artistic and personal value of my game so I can focus on the mysterious world of indie marketing and share what I’ve learned.)
Background: My first game’s launch
I feel like you can learn 80% of how to successfully launch through reading and studying, but that other 20% is gained by just trying it yourself and seeing where the wind takes you (the Leaving Lyndow postmortem is an excellent example of this). My first game’s launch taught me so much, because I did almost everything wrong. Fortunately there’s a fanbase for slow paced, poetic, exploration games like Home is Where One Starts… which gave me enough revenue to fund The First Tree, but I still get bummed thinking how different launch day could’ve gone. Here’s my list of bozo decisions:
- I launched at midnight… because that’s what movies do, right?!
- I changed my launch date last minute just because.
- Practically no journalists or streamers published anything on launch day, even though I sent emails and keys.
- I didn’t have an email list, and my only real social media community was Twitter with ~200 followers.
- I waited to release popular requested features like subtitles, trading cards, etc.
For The First Tree, my goal was to “fail faster” and speed up production by making it short and simple, taking advantage of the Unity Asset Store, and never having a 0% day (if it sounds familiar, it’s from my previous article So Many Projects, So Little Time). Launching any type of game has only gotten harder since 2015 (much, much harder), so this should be an indication that focused marketing is a completely, necessary effort if you want get out of the buried state. But what do you focus on exactly?
Making Steam Visibility Great Again
Perhaps you’re familiar with the excellent postmortem of Airscape, where Daniel West talks about two spirals: the Death Spiral and the Life Spiral.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of releases are relinquished to the Death Spiral, just because the amount of choices is so great. Gamers aren’t limited by their wallets anymore, they’re limited by their time. Indies like us pine for the day when being on Steam meant visibility, which usually came from front page treatment in the New Releases tab. That tab is essentially gone now, and the only chance you have for that stellar visibility is the New and Trending tab.
We don’t know the specifics on how the New and Trending list picks its winners, but there is one, fantastic, wonderful talk that might help us. Matt Trobbiani talks about his launch of HackNet, his conversation with a Valve employee regarding the store page’s algorithms, how important conversion rates are, and why the first few hours of launch are do-or-die. Seriously, it’s worth every second of your time and might be my favorite game dev talk ever.
You might be asking “what about the Discovery/Recommended algorithms that are supposed to fix all of this visibility junk?” Well, the caveat there is it typically recommends the most successful titles in that niche. For me personally, Steam has tons of data to work with for my account, but it typically only recommends what’s been doing well sales-wise. Which is funny because I've already heard of it before—because it's popular! So to even benefit from that bit of Steam handiwork, you need to knock it out of the park on day one, nay, the first few hours of launch. The Death Spiral is the default state which leads to being buried, but my theory is that The Life Spiral always begins in the Popular New Releases tab. Getting there first will kickstart every other marketing aspiration, including Discovery Queue, prominent page placement during sales, recommended titles, etc.
It’s a lot like that joke about outrunning a bear: if a bear is chasing you in a campsite, you don’t have to outrun the bear, only your fellow campers. In this case, the bear is the Death Spiral, and the campers are other game releases. You can’t hope to be the most popular game release of the day, but that’s not necessary, you only need to beat the pack just enough to get on Steam’s radar. So that’s my minimum goal: get on the New and Trending list.
I believe these algorithmic black boxes for delivering personalized recommendations need to pass a certain threshold to do any good (at least with my teaser trailer on YouTube, it wasn’t until 80k views that my traffic shot up due to new Recommended For You links popping up). My plan is to pull out every attention-grabbing trick I have for day one. Gamers love Steam trading cards and achievements, so put them in there. An international audience wants English subtitles at the very least, so put them in there. Localization is a pain for a solo-dev, but translating the interface and the store page at least will help so just do it. Trailers might be your biggest weapon for the fight against obscurity, so I spent a ton of time polishing mine. I showed my game at PAX West, so I waited to launch until after for maximum exposure. The First Tree is a short game, so I’m pricing it accordingly and going with my gut (which also might increase impulse buys). I’m not going to focus on other platforms yet so the Steam release gets all the attention. Daniel West is right, being a good game isn’t enough anymore, and everything has to be perfect for a gamer to even consider spending money on your game.
I made a lot of gifs. Arguably too many.
I also took a page from the Ooblets dev’s book and built an audience with visuals-first development. I can’t tell how you much gifs have helped The First Tree’s marketing. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a direct correlation between the amount of gifs shared and a game’s financial success. Even beautiful still screenshots don’t hold a candle to them. It certainly wasn’t an avalanche of attention every time I posted something, but it added up over the past two years. I know everyone’s development style is different, and that white boxing and prototyping is important―but share visually appealing gifs ASAP! And do it consistently!
Most Helpful Social Media Sites
I posted quite a few gifs on a variety of sites, and here’s what helped most:
A lot of devs say Reddit sucks for marketing, and while I don’t totally disagree with that, everything else is a tiny blip on the radar compared to its impact (more specifically, two gifs on r/gaming). Maybe it helps that I’m woefully addicted to the site, but if you know a subreddit’s rules and try to keep your posts to 10% self-promotion, you’ll be fine. Don’t think I haven’t been irreversibly screwed though! The dream happened in December 2016 when a gif of my game’s footstep system made the #1 spot on r/all with 30k+ upvotes. It was insane, glorious, and overwhelming… and then it was gone. The mods had delisted it since they thought I posted too much about my game (hence my venting here). Even though it wasn’t up for long, just look at its impact on the graph below (and remember, this includes every other instance of a gif going viral on every other site). It resulted in 10k site views and 1000 email signups from that day alone.
Reddit and Imgur are pretty interconnected, but Imgur actually has a thriving gaming community all its own. Over the past two years I had 9 gifs make it to Most Viral, and that’s where the majority of my email signups came from. I would say about each viral gif landed me about 200 signups, with the lesser known gifs making me around 40 each. Unfortunately I lost the view counts on all my images, but (combined with reddit’s views) it was somewhere around 8 million total (about 4 million were from that one viral reddit post mentioned above). I got tons of useful feedback and comments from Imgur as well, so I heartily recommend sharing your stuff there!
There are two groups that have been great for sharing my game’s progress, and that’s Indie Game Developers and Indie Game Promo. They both reach a more international audience than the other platforms. I usually only posted during #screenshotsaturday on the Dev group, but the Promo group is usually fair game everyday. They also appreciate interesting game dev blog posts and articles, so give it a shot!
I thought my game’s visuals and premise lended itself well to Tumblr, so I set an account up pretty late in the game, and I’m glad I eventually did! The most successful posts were actually from different posters like Screenshot Daily, so I’m glad I had something there for people to refer back to. I probably would’ve done better if I posted way more; social media is not a lurking man’s game (and I am a huge lurker).
This may come as a shock, but I got a decent amount of traffic from 9gag. I threw one of my gifs on there on a whim, and it got about 6000 upvotes (no idea how that converts to traffic. It bumped up my daily visits by 100-200, and went back to normal three days later). Unfortunately URLs in the comments are automatically blocked, so actually communicating or sending someone a link is almost impossible. I did get a list of people to tag via comments on launch day (about 100 people), so there’s that. Can’t totally recommend it, and it’s hard to track the traffic, but it’s something to consider.
As a dev, you practically need a Twitter account to stay in touch with everyone, but as a marketing tool I rate it below the other options. I had one gif go viral (over 2.5k retweets), and that did help in catching journalists’ attention and gathering an extra 300 followers in one go, but usually Twitter is a drop-by-drop kind of accumulation. By far the biggest help was sharing gifs on Friday with the hashtag #madewithunity. I was retweeted by Unity several times to their 200k followers (which is also why most of my followers are fellow devs instead of interested customers). Twitter also allowed websites I had never thought of to find my game (two tweets from a Japanese gaming site have a combined 11k retweets. It turns out Japanese gamers love nature and foxes!).
Hopefully info like this can help all devs, but before you get too excited, please consider this: your game probably needs striking visuals and/or that mysterious “hook” factor to gain traction organically. I think The First Tree has gotten this far due to the colorful/cinematic graphics and how you play as a fox. Little did I know before starting my game that making a “fox game” comes bundled with legions of fox fans who are already interested in your product. My first game was much more abstract which naturally led to less attention and less of a hook. I think several devs have figured out this hook thing… Dream Daddy, West of Loathing, and Emily is Away Too had great hooks: they piqued your attention just because they were so unusual, and they had great financial success because of it.
At the end of this long tired road, here’s what I have to show for it (approx.):
- 12000 Steam wishlists
- 4700 Twitter followers
- 4400 mailing list subscribers (for a one-time launch email)
- 1300 Tumblr followers
I think this is enough to get on the New and Trending tab, and honestly, even if it isn’t, that’s OK, I’ve done my best and I’ve expended all of my energy making/marketing this game while working a busy full-time job, becoming a parent for the first time, and everything going wrong right before launch (did I mention my little girl got bit in the face by a dog, my car broke down, and my wife signed on to an urgent art gallery deal?). I guess what I’m saying is don’t kill yourself or neglect your family please. Seems like a reasonable request, but, you know, some people are addicted to crunch, even if they hate it.
I feel like the “resting face” for my brain the past two years has been daydreaming about The First Tree and imagining what launch day would be like. Whenever I would get my infant daughter in the middle of the night and rock her to sleep, my half-asleep brain would automatically go to my game. I regularly pour over SteamSpy like how an old guy checks the Wall Street Journal to look at stocks. I wish I could get out of the habit of counting imaginary sales I haven’t made yet, but I suppose that’s the life of an indie dev or any creative really. I think managing expectations is a good way to embrace launch day without going insane, but on the other hand I always liked what Paulo Coelho said about dreams: “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”