Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as how indie developer Mike Sennott cultivated random elements in the branching narrative of Astronaut: The Best, how the developers of Meet Your Maker avoided crunch by adopting smart production practices, and how the team behind Dead Cells turned the game into a franchise by embracing people-first values.
In this edition, executive producer Geoff van den Ouden tells us why, for We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip, adopting no marketing strategy was the best strategy of all.
Hello everyone, I’m Geoff van den Ouden, executive producer from Total Mayhem Games. We’re the makers of the We Were Here series of co-op puzzle adventure games that started out with a free game released on Steam when the team was a group of students (and I was their university mentor). Since then we have released three commercial sequels, as well as expanding our release platforms to include PlayStation and Xbox.
A few weeks ago, we launched a new fifth game: We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip. Like our first game, it’s free (for a limited time at least), but also like our first game, we didn’t do any kind of marketing campaign before the launch.
Indie development is about what YOU want
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of our unusual marketing plan for The FriendShip, a little history. It’s always hard to say what led to the success of the original We Were Here game, since it was a student project (back in 2017) and we never approached it as a commercial product. We have always believed that a big part of it lies in the fact that the game was created with vision and a lot of passion. It wasn’t a copy of something that existed, or designed with monetization in mind. No, on the contrary: the fact that it’s a co-op game that requires both players to have and use a headset really narrows its chances for success. Yet it went on to find an audience that loves this kind of game and the way we made it.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and Total Mayhem Games was already an established game company with three games released and a fourth on its way. The team was very busy with the development of We Were Here Forever, while management and marketing were already thinking ahead about what would be next. The company and team was growing fast, but in order to maintain our indie status, it was really important to not only think about the upcoming release but also where the We Were Here series and studio eventually go. Normally you would say, go bigger and better as the series expands. But was that really what we wanted to do?
We Were Here Forever was our biggest project yet and the team was looking forward to a break from this immense project and planning on making changes to the development pipeline. So the next project needed to be much smaller, easier to manage and have some room for creativity and innovation. Initially, we wanted to do something (only) for the fans, maybe some free DLC. But after a few brainstorms and meetings, it felt like we were missing the opportunity to not only reach out to the fans, but to also include new players and give them a taste of what We Were Here has become without directly diving into a journey with a daunting scale. We called it Project Valentine (because we were originally considering a Valentine’s Day release) which later became ‘The FriendShip’. As you can see, we were already thinking about how to reach new players and market this new game from the moment we had a rough concept decided on.
We formed a ‘Strike Team’ to fill out the details of the concept and each department came up with a list of things they wanted to do. By combining all of that, we started to think more deeply about how we would launch this little creation of ours and make it really clear to everyone that this was We Were Here, but much smaller and with new mechanics—something we knew we would want to do more frequently in the future, alongside releasing bigger games in the main series.
At Total Mayhem Games, we value our independent status. We feel responsible for all the people that work with us, but at the same time, we love to innovate and do things differently compared to others. As Project Valentine was being developed, we knew we had to shape the strategy around this game in a way that would make sense. For instance, one of our 3D artists (Ruben) came up with the term ‘Expeditions’ to let players know this would be a much smaller We Were Here game. As for the announcement, we struggled a lot with figuring out a way of getting fans excited about something new and different, yet lowering expectations about its size. Then it came to us: what if we would unveil and launch at the same time, without anyone knowing in advance?
The currently in-vogue term for this is ‘shadow drop’: putting a product out without any prior marketing. Now, our headline is hyperbole of course—it’s not forbidden to release a game without trying to build up hype first. But it does go against basically every article, talk, or Twitter advice thread you’ll find on the internet, especially for indie games. The conventional wisdom says that you want to build up a big base of wishlisters and interested people who will buy the game on release day (and hopefully give a positive review where possible), thus boosting you in store algorithms and growing into a massive hype-ball which begins to gain momentum by itself. This is a good plan! It’s what we did for our last three We Were Here games, and it worked well.
So if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Well the good thing about solid and proven strategies is exactly that: they’re solid and proven. The downside, however, might sometimes be that everyone does exactly the same thing, so you don’t stand out from the crowd. In our case, we are also working on a series that has been here for a while. We wanted to prevent our fans from either feeling a sense of fatigue (because it felt like we were doing the same thing over and over again) or hype them up too much for a product that is meant to be smaller and somewhat different than the main series.
And then there are the new players. We had two strategies in mind to reach a new audience. The first is giving our fans, our ambassadors, a simple tool that helps them explain to their friends what’s fun about the We Were Here games. In order for this strategy to work, the game should be very accessible to new players (both from a commercial and game design perspective) as well as appealing to our fans.
The second strategy is making sure new players aren’t able to forget about you. You probably all have this one cool indie game that you heard about like six months ago and, after that, forgot all about it. Whatever happened to that game? Is it out yet? You thought it was cool but forgot to put it on your wishlist, right?
Because we had a game in development that we didn’t want to be too highly anticipated by the fans, we started thinking about how we could approach new players as directly as possible. Of course, the best way to discover a game is by it being directly available to you. The moment you hear about it, you can check it out without having to wait. This results in players not forgetting about your game and getting a lot of bang for your marketing bucks or efforts.
‘I love it when a plan comes together’
I can vividly remember the marketing meeting where we came up with the idea to do something different for the launch of the game. We were discussing some events we wanted to go to and had some difficulties exactly determining how the launch and an event would fit together. At some point we came up with the idea to actually cover up the entire booth we would have at WASD London for a few hours while the show opened, just to draw attention to the fact that we had a big announcement. And so we did.
On September 14 at 1:00 PM in London, we ‘shadow dropped’ We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip live in front of a large audience of consumers, press, partners, and creators, which materialized just a few minutes before the announcement, much to our relief. Meanwhile, the team back at the office activated all the store entries at the same time. Of course, we also had advertising campaigns planned, and some creators and press had been notified earlier (since gamescom) and received the game in advance, all under embargo. However, for the vast majority, this game came out of nowhere and was suddenly everywhere, with people playing it directly following the announcement. The best part of it all? The fans loved it and we have been seeing numbers of downloads and concurrent players like we have never seen before.
Taking an unconventional path like a shadow drop isn't a decision to make lightly, and it comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. Before diving into any disruptive strategy, it's crucial to balance the scales and examine what you stand to gain—and what you might be risking. We’ll share our personal calculus as an example:
- Gain attention for the We Were Here franchise from a broader audience: It's not just the die-hard fans who are engaged; new players get to discover us as well.
- Make it easy for new people to try the game: The 'shadow drop' lowers the entry barrier. The moment they hear about us, they can play the game for free!
- Can test new gameplay mechanics or other ideas with a larger audience: This approach lets us innovate in real-time, with a broad cross-section of players to give us feedback.
- Positive brand/studio association: Standing apart in an industry increasingly focused on monetization, offering a free, no-strings-attached experience not only differentiates us but is also genuinely appreciated by players.
- Goes against conventional indie marketing wisdom: Sometimes it's scary to go against the grain, and you're taking a risk by not building anticipation.
- Extra effort to set up with partners and stores: More planning behind the scenes can be logistically challenging.
- Risk of leaks spoiling the effect: In a hyper-connected world, keeping a secret is hard. To maximize the effect of the shadow drop, you do need to share materials with various press and partners, and this has to be done very carefully (see above point).
- No direct income (with caveats): With the game being free initially, immediate monetary returns are not guaranteed.
- You miss the chance to get feedback from your community during development: Traditional models usually involve public betas or early access stages, which are valuable for gathering input. Fans loved The FriendShip, but if there had been something in there spoiling the fun, we might have missed it because of the lack of a public beta, which could have torpedoed the effectiveness of the shadow drop strategy.
Weighing the pros and cons: not all are created equal
While at first glance, you might think five cons would outweigh four pros, it's crucial to remember that not all pros and cons carry the same weight. For us, the primary benefits—capturing a broader audience and making the game easily accessible—can't be understated. With a series of four titles under our belt and a warm, active community, venturing into new territories is vital for keeping the franchise fresh and engaging. Our unique model of intimate two-player co-op gameplay can be a higher barrier to entry than conventional single or multiplayer titles, so making The FriendShip freely available lowers that barrier considerably.
The downside of limited community engagement during development varies depending on your game's nature. For titles that hinge on early access periods and evolve based on community feedback, a 'shadow drop' could mean a lost chance for invaluable input. On the flip side, this approach protects against fans overhyping themselves and sets the stage for an impromptu "event," causing ripples of excitement that may even extend beyond your existing fan base.
Managing partners, stores, and press is a lot of work, but we had substantial experience in this area from releasing three other commercial titles. Without that experience, it’s more likely that mistakes could have been made. Our prior commercial success also gave us a buffer to support a free game launch.
The conclusion: a calculated gamble worth taking
So, what's the final verdict? Would we recommend the 'shadow drop' strategy for every game? Probably not. However, it can be a compelling option in the right circumstances.
To be transparent, crafting and launching The FriendShip was neither a walk in the park nor a simple rehash of previous efforts. From the get-go, we coordinated both the game and its unusual marketing strategy. This requires long-term planning, which is not always easy in the fast-moving world of video games. Making the game free was probably one of the key factors to our success, and if you’re a newer indie studio on your first or second game and need income, that’s likely not an option. Pitching this idea to an investor or publisher would have been a tough sell, given the risks and lack of direct income. But here's the thing: we are in this for the long haul. We believe that our vision and passion can propel both Total Mayhem Games and the We Were Here series to new heights, and that's a win-win for everyone involved.
There you have it—the thought process, the pros, the cons, and the outcomes. Right now, The FriendShip has 6 million downloads across all platforms, and we have seen increased sales on the other games. So, as far as we’re concerned, this shadow drop has already been a great success!
As unconventional as it may sound, sometimes the road less traveled offers the most exciting journey.