With the release of my first Commercial Indie Game comes the release of my first Commercial Indie Game Postmortem. It's a rite of passage for indie developers, I think. Even small, unsuccessful ones such as myself. I'll be partially following the standard software development postmortem formula, which asks the three questions. What went right? What went wrong? How can we learn from this whole ordeal?
What Went Well
This is the fun part because I get to talk about all the good things! So let's talk about what went right.
I finished a game!
My main goal from all of this was to actually make a thing and release it. When you build a small-ish game there are lots forks in the road. You work on it for a while and add all the fun and exciting stuff and then you can pretty easily get bored and never finish it. The saying about the last 10% of a game taking 90% of the game's development time is entirely true. Games go from horrible and unplayable to good pretty suddenly, but the transition from "good" to "I can release this" is long and slow.
Another path that's easy to take without realizing is one where you infinitely rewrite portions of your game over and over. It's satisfying to a point, because you can see major changes and improving on your old busted functionality is always nice. However it's also a path to ruin since you can basically rewrite everything a million times over an never, ever be done. I tried to stay away from this mentality with ROTGK but I still ended up rewriting some basic things multiple times. I tell myself these were sound decisions and beneficial in the end, but I actually have no idea.
I released a game!
The second part of finishing a game is actually getting it out there. If you have $100 and some time you can put it up on Steam, and if you only have the time you can put it up on Itch (itch.io). Steam gets you a massive and fairly mainstream audience that you will have no idea how to tap into. Itch will give you a much, much smaller audience, but one that enjoys quirkier games. I almost feel like my game is too plain for Itch's more popular fare, but I really like their site, tools and pretty much everything about them as a company. Plus it's free and easy to throw a game up there so you may as well do it.
Also life is short. There's no point in worrying about how good something is or how many people will play it. If you want to create things there are avenues to put them out there and you should do it. Don't spend four years working on a game that could have been done in two. You'll regret it more if you don't release it, probably.
I'll also add that the first time I saw my game's page on Steam, or was able to search for it and have it show up in a list of results, was very satisfying. It changed my mentality from "I'm just some dope making a game" to "hey this is a real game, I guess?" and that's a cool transformation.
Some people bought, and I assume, played it!
I don't know if you know this but it's hard to get people to actually play your games. There are a lot of games out there and plenty of developers have name recognition, marketing budgets, time to devote to promoting their game, publishers or whatever other means. I have just my own time, and while I certainly understand the value of promotion, it's ... not my favorite way to spend my time. It was incredibly time consuming and I didn't even do a huge amount of it (more on that later).
Even so, getting your game out there will get you a couple sales as long as your game isn't a disaster. My initial goal was to sell one copy to someone I didn't know, with secondary goals of making back my Steam submission fee and making enough to pay for the next game's submission fee. I was successful in all three of those goals, so I guess the release was a success? My metrics are pretty bare but I think this counts.
Some websites covered it
I emailed a handful of sites I thought would cover it. It first got picked up by IndieGames.com, a small offshoot of GamaSutra dedicated covering indie games. That was super cool to see! It was also put into Unknown Pleasures on Rock Paper Shotgun, which is a weekly(ish) feature that showcases a handful of recently release but unknown indie games. Since I emailed a very small number of sites, my success rate was fairly high, so I'm pretty happy with these results. RPS is also one of my favorite gaming journalism sites so that was pretty awesome to me, personally.
RPS also moved the needle in a fairly significant way. The trailer that they posted has far more views than any other video I've put together and there was even a slight bump in sales for the second week after launch.
An awesome streamer played it
I spent a lot of time agonizing over streamers and while I do think my game is enjoyable (for the most part), it's maybe not super exciting to stream. Or maybe it is and I have no idea what I'm talking about? I'm sadly a few years too old to have ever gotten into the streaming thing. I think it's cool and I understand why people like them, but it's just not something I can get into with any regularity.
That said, I knew it was important to get streamers to play your game, so I set out looking for streamers who played roguelikes. Eventually I found this awesome guy named Nookrium who plays lots of strategy games and roguelikes and has a pretty dedicated following, though not a massive one. More importantly to me is he's a nice, respectful guy. He's cultivated his audience with his positivity and enthusiasm and the audience really reflects back on that. It was super important to me to find someone like that.
He wrote me back a little while later to say he'd check it out for his Roguelike Month feature, which was a couple of months after release, but obviously I wasn't going to say no. His video (as seen above) was great and some people in the comments even seemed to like the game. It's quite gratifying to know that someone spent their time playing your game on a thing that takes up their own time and contributes to their income. Honestly I probably needed him a lot more than he needed me, and my game didn't get anywhere near the views his more popular ones get. I'm truly grateful for his time and effort spend recording a 20 minute play-through of my game.
A very small number of people play it every day
One of my biggest inspirations for game design is Spelunky, which (I believe) pioneered the "Daily Challenge" that a lot of games with procedurally generated content now have. Since making Realm of the Ghost King's levels repeatable via a RNG seed wasn't a huge amount of work (though there was a lot of other stuff to consider), I added a Daily Challenge early on. Daily Challenges are mostly a great replay feature. I have hundreds of hours logged in Spelunky purely because I would start up the game every day for a few years just to play the Daily Challenge.
And I guess it worked! A small handful of people (myself included) pop on almost every day to play the Daily Challenge. It's not a huge group of people (three or four semi-regular names), but it's really cool to know I made something that's even a small part of someone's daily routine. Prior to release my assumption was that there'd be a small amount of people playing it around release and then it would slowly peter out until nobody really played it. It's six months after release and it's going stronger than I had hoped, and that's really been awesome to be a part of.
I updated a game!
This is something I wasn't necessarily planning, but I successfully released a fairly major update to the game six months after its initial released. Post-release I patched out some of the inevitable bugs and added some requested features, but the 1.1.0 free update added new characters, new unlocks, and I even made the level rendering a little nicer. I think part of it was a sort of long goodbye to the game. Since I had been working on it for so long and not working on it (or knowing it was waiting for me to get back to) was kind of strange.
I kind of doubt I'll ever release another major update for it. I'll patch issues and bugs as they are found, but 1.1.0 is probably the final state of the game, for better or worse. That's fine. I feel like it was a nice epilogue to the story.
What Went Poorly
My time as a software developer has taught me that the most effective way to find out why something went wrong is to keep asking "why?" every time a reason is given. It's called "5 Whys" but sometimes it takes more than five. This is usually done when you're doing a postmortem on a major outage or some sort of bug that cost you money. Realm of the Ghost King of course has its failings, but, honestly, given my goals, they're not too disappointing.
I took way too long to make it and release it
I touched on this earlier but I spent almost four years making this game and that's probably way too long. That includes some breaks where I didn't work on it for months at a time, but overall I did work on it pretty consistently. If I'm honest with myself I probably could have finished it in two years. I touched on why it took so long in the "what went right" section, and it's mainly those rewrites that didn't need to happen. I will say I left in a lot of bad code purely because I wanted to finish the game, and as a result a lot of the code is ugly, convoluted and not really reusable for another game.
Why so many rewrites? Again, if I'm honest with myself, it's because I wanted the game to be as good as it could be, but also because in the back of my mind I knew it would delay having to deal with a release. Releases are hard, but most of all getting feedback and having people play it is nerve-wracking. I've never really done this before! I'm hopeful I'll be better about the next one.
It didn't sell very well
This is, I guess, the main failing of the game. I could go into any number of reasons why. The main one is the game is kind of niche. It exists between the world of hardcore roguelikes such as Nethack or Brogue or Cogmind, and less Rogue-ish games like Spelunky or even Crypt of the Necrodancer that are more real-time or added procedural elements to a new genre. There's also the marketing angle, which is to say I had barely any.
There's also the potential that the game just isn't very good. I got feedback from a few people during development and it was generally positive so I'm more of the opinion that it exists in the world of "pretty good" or thereabouts. It's sort of a hard sell if your game is just "pretty good" because there are a ton of pretty good games out there, or even "okay" games that look nicer or otherwise have a more interesting hook. I don't really have a solution to this aside from "make better games". Make game prototypes quickly and trash them if people don't fall in love with the idea. If that's sustainable for you.
I'd also say there's no real hook to the game. My original idea was "roguelike where you can blow up the walls and stuff" which is fine for a game jam, but maybe not a selling point for a commercial game.
I can also touch on the game's name. Realm of the Ghost King is a fine name, though not a super interesting one. Naming things is hard! If you're tiny you probably want to pick a fairly unique name, which I... didn't. After I had already committed to the name I discovered Realm of the Mad God, a much more popular online game, which, um, also contains a Ghost King. This makes actually finding my game a little harder, and it's confusing. So when you finally come up with a name for your game, don't marry yourself to it before doing a little bit more research. Lesson learned.
Now for the juicy part. I said that the game didn't sell well, but exactly how not well did it sell? I often hear the whole "indies who sell 2000 copies consider it a failure" line, and I am shocked! I would have considered 2000 copies a massive success! Heck, even 500 copies would have been great.
(Also for what it's worth I understand this is for indies who are actually depending on game sales as their main source of income, so my game being a failure isn't a big deal.)
On Steam the game sold 121 copies from January 16th though July 5th, which includes the launch sale (10% off) and the Steam Summer Sale (25% off). Here are the numbers by the month:
- January: 72
- February: 17
- March: 9
- April: 4
- May: 2
- June: 14
- July: 3
There's not a ton to talk about. January was the launch window and then sales petered out to nearly nothing. The jump in June (and July, since that only accounts for 5 days) is due to the Steam Summer Sale.
Steam sells games by just existing. Everyone who plays PC games has Steam, and Steam makes it quite easy to buy them. Steam does encourage some odd behaviors though. Most people know your game will go on sale eventually, so they will just add it to their wishlist and wait until it's sufficiently on sale enough (which could be never). While Realm of the Ghost King isn't setting any sales records, it's been on nearly 800 wishlists (though it got removed from around 100 of them). If you assume the ratios are the same for most games, you end up with a wishlist audience that's 6x the size as your paying audience. However there's no real way to reach people who have wishlisted your game outside of putting it on sale. Steam will send people email about wishlisted items when they go on sale, but otherwise they just sit there, waiting to go on sale.
Itch is a great, great place to sell your games, but the exposure is far, far lower. For me it's been about 10x smaller than the Steam audience. As of right now I've sold 12 copies of the game via Itch! That's not really very many copies, even by my standards. The majority of the sales were during the first month or so of launch (9 copies in January and February) and just two were sold during the summer sale in late June when the game was 25% off (just like Steam).
Okay, so what did we learn from all this? Well, first off, marketing is important. So important. If you're not going to hire someone to do at least a little of your marketing you need to pretty much throw yourself into it the last few weeks before you launch and then continually after launch. I emailed a small handful of sites, sent keys to a few streamers, but I didn't dedicate nearly enough time to it. Also, I get it, making and releasing a game is probably way more fun than doing marketing if you're a game developer. You'll never really find an audience if you don't do it to some degree and that really does include being a crazy self-promoter at times. Also I don't have a lot of good advice beyond "dedicate lots of time and effort" because those are things I didn't do. I recommend doing as much of them as you can though.
Make a cool game that people think is amazing! This is, like, the most obvious thing, but if you want your game to be a success then it needs to be a thing people love. Something they pick up and don't want to put down. Or maybe it just looks really awesome and makes great screenshots or gifs. Either way, if your game looks cool or is super fun, that's a big help. If it's not, that's fine too, but there are a lot of other games out there that people will pay attention to instead.
Or maybe just make games for fun and enjoyment and don't worry about paying the bills with them? I don't have anything against charging for a game, even if you're not trying to make a living from it. Your time and effort are worth something for sure, but know what you're getting into when you start. It's perfectly fine to make games just because you love to make games. It's fine if your game only sells dozens of copies at best. You made some people happy, hopefully, and you built a neat thing, but either way you did it and you got it out there. That's the reward for me and it can be for you too.
Perhaps that's just a cop out for unsuccessful people, but I don't know. I don't regret my time spent making this game and I don't regret any of the decisions I made about the game, marketing or anything else. It's all been rewarding in different ways, and I learned a lot along the way. In the end it's been a great experience and I can't ask for much more than that.