Release – PC October 24,2016
Before I jump into post mortem, I want a say a few things up front.
Four Realms is primarily a personal project with a budget of basically zero. This is perhaps the biggest mistake, but will definitely explain some of the choices made on the project.
Hugebot! is a garage developer. What do I mean by garage? Well, indie developers can really be just about anybody. What’s it take to be independent? Not published by somebody? Well, hello EA! Not big? How big is big? Is Bethesda big? By garage developer I mean any game developer who has a budget that is at or near zero. Nobody’s getting paid, and you don’t have enough money for advertising. It’s a team with computers. So if you are bigger developer, this info is likely not relevant to you.
Still reading? We’ll start with the good, since it’s short and easy. Then dive into the bad, which be long, terrible, tedious, and forehead smacking bad. But good information for any garage developer truly looking learn.
What Went Right?
Got on Steam
OK, so this is not really a challenge anymore since you can just pay the fee. But I wanted to take a moment and highlight how important Steam is. The number of views, sales, and general interactions with players and press are many orders of magnitude higher than on any other site. As a garage dev, just getting on Steam is your greatest marketing tool.
For the sake of information here’s some thoughts on other game sale sites.
Good Old Games – They turned down Four Realms and I still feel miffed. But that may be a good way to tell if you need to go back and make your game prettier.
Humble Store – I actually like this site a lot. Well timed sales, friendly staff. However, if you are not in a bundle don’t expect a lot of marketing.
Itch – I love the concept of itch, but I didn’t get a single visitor there that I didn’t specifically link to it. Now this isn’t a big deal when it’s your only option, you have to sell somewhere. But I felt the time versus return was negative on this one. I have the feeling this site would have done better if Four Realms was a free game. I really wanted to like it, but was ultimately disappointed.
Other Sites – I’m bundling other game sites into one here. I looked at several. But most had requirements that are not developer friendly. And many in fact seemed predatory to small developers. Make sure you read contracts before you sign.
I did not add Four Realms to any bundles. I think this has helped keep the game from devaluing. However, with so many other bundles out there. Any game that isn’t super cheap is going to struggle.
Now, this is not to say every bundle is bad. But most are just predatory sites cashing in on a fad. Trust me, these sites are not good for anyone.
Being a small project responding quickly to customers was obviously easier for such a small release. But it can’t be understated enough that being friendly, prompt, and involved with your community will help the game.
Being there to answer questions, ease problems, and put a human face behind the project helped in a variety of ways. It netted sales from interested players, it even turned a negative review to neutral.
What Went Wrong?
The art on Four Realms is not bad. For me, this was a huge success. Not being a professional artist by training, getting any praise was great.
However, not bad is also not good. The cold hard fact of games, especially with how crowded the market is, is that you have to be gorgeous. Before anything else in your game is done, it must look great. This will be your first line of attack for marketing. The first thing players see. Having a bug free, original, and fun game is all important, but secondary to the visuals.
Consider testing and getting feedback on your visuals early in development before you start building the game broadly.
Also worth noting. As you can see Four Realms is a game about anthropomorphic animals. People will come into various genres with certain expectations. Most people took one look at the game and assumed it was a kids game. If they gave it a second glance they thought it was for furries. I would say neither of these are correct and unfortunately gave the wrong impression of the game.
For those that don’t know, marketing is getting the word out about your game and advertising is paying someone to get the word out about your game. This is a double loss for almost every garage developer.
The trick is you can’t really do basic marketing without already having existed and being successful. Sure, there are developers who are exceptions to this rule, but make no mistake, they are exceptions.
That leaves advertising. If you are a true garage developer, you can’t afford any. Any amount less than $50k is likely not going to have an affect.
If you are trying to make a financially viable game, this is your biggest problem (assuming your game looks great.) And Four Realms, like many a garage developer, had this exact issue.
For the sake of information dumping I’m going to go over devlogs and social media so you can see what worked and didn’t work for Four Realms.
Facebook – Likely great if you are established, otherwise don’t expect much. You should be doing this just to lay a foundation in case you do have success, but I wouldn’t spend too much time over analyzing it.
Twitter – Similar to Facebook, great if you are established. I did have some marketing success on the system, but time versus return is roughly zero. I would like to point out that the number of followers you have means about nothing. It’s the number of fan followers that you have that means anything.
TIG – I ran a devlog on TIG for the length of the game. While TIG is a great way to connect with other devs. I found that writing a blog on it more or less a waste of time. If you do get interested parties, they will be interested, but they will be so few and far between that it amounts to about nothing. If you do use it, try just using just the Townhall section for marketing.
Reddit – This is a hard one to evaluate. I did get some feedback from some sub reddits, but it was a lot of work to get that feedback. Now, when you can’t get any feedback, something is better than nothing. But Reddit can be a mixed bag, so use it carefully. I personally would continue to use it early as a way of evaluating visuals and basics.
Personal Blog – I also ran the same blog on hugebot.com plus extra details on the game development for those crazily interested in the game. Again, I think the value came out to basically nothing. However, I did have fun putting out the extra details, and the hard core fans seemed to dig the extra information. I feel this falls in similar category as FB and Twitter. You kind of need it to lay a foundation, but temper your expectations.
IndieDB – I also ran the same blog posts on IndieDB as I did for TIG and hugebot.com. I found this to be the most successful of marketing I could do. Certainly a large portion of those who looked at the game were devs. But I did get to connect with some players. And found some small success running a giveaway on the site. As a garage dev this is the one site I would highly recommend.
As a side note. In general the timing of your release and any marketing should fall between late winter and early summer. Clearly, this is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s where the small games live. I made mistake of doing most of my marketing late summer, which is really the worst time to do it.
During the development the story and world were all playing second fiddle to the gameplay. Missions were kept generic to match the procedural nature of the world. And to be quite honest. It wasn’t a primary goal of the game.
It turns out for financially oriented games, this is a bad idea. Most gamers playing anything over the most casual of game are looking to connect to the story. Even more so than unique gameplay.
Also, most reviewers are people who like three things: writing, reading, and games. They will all almost instantly view the game through the narrative scope first, before anything else. So if the story doesn’t jive, expect to struggle to find reviews or good reviews.
Too Different (and Complex)
Four Realms is ultimately a mix of several mechanical genres, mainly platforming, deck building, and strategy. It required gamers to think creatively on their solutions. Many gamers and reviewers expressed a dislike for this odd mix of styles. One of the core goals of Four Realms was to make something unlike anything else. And in that regard it was successful. However, if you are trying to make a financially viable game, well, that’s not a great idea.
This an interesting caveat to games that I will delve into in a future post. But here is the short version of it. People crave different, but just a little different. This is the key to finding a really successful project. It’s that sweetspot where it’s new enough to challenge, but not so new to be off putting.
Engine of Choice
Four Realms is built using Construct 2 (C2). An engine I loved at first, but would not go back to. Now every engine has it’s issues. And a big reason C2 was chosen was it was cheaper than Unity at the start of the project. Also the prebuilt 2D functionality was great. And I still really like a lot of the features and the editor.
But perhaps the biggest issue was not looking at the end production. C2 is an HTML5 engine, while it can export to native desktop, it’s not meant to. The engine failed to support basic web based interfaces when exported, which led to non functional metric systems. It also had major performance issues for some players systems due to it’s export process requiring a third party open software. So, when you go looking at an engine to choose, see what games have shipped on your final platform before committing.
Almost No Press
I am eternally grateful to those few small sites that did cover Four Realms. It’s hard to make a sale without some third party endorsement. But that being said, the vast majority of sites ignored Four Realms.
I wish I could give better reason as to why. But when yelling into the void you don’t hear much back. I tried many pitches and follow ups. But likely it was the result of the many other mistakes made on the game.
Of those few small connections, very few were made from the cold email. I think the classic approach of sending emails is dated and ineffectual, but I’m not sure what a better approach is.
Gave Keys to Fake Press
I only gave away a few before I caught on. But it’s hard to not get wrapped up in the excitement and need for press. Four Realms was so greatly ignored by most press sites that I was desperate for any coverage and some scammers go decent lengths to seem legitimate. So be wary, it’s never so easy to get press for your game.
Well, there you have it. I did just about everything you could think of wrong for this game. So is it a failure? You’ll notice I wrote most of this post through the lens of trying to be financially viable. I did this mainly because I believe it’s the view most developers are looking for. After all it’s pretty easy to be happy with a purely personal project. But for reference here are the goals of Four Realms in priority order.
- Be a completely unique and new experience that encourages creative player expression.
- Be a financially stable and balanced game.
- Be a socially relevant game enjoyed by gamers.
I would call the first goal a success. Those that played it and understood it would probably say this is true. You can point out similarities and references, but the whole is something quite different.
The second goal is a complete failure. Four Realms did not come near balancing the books on the investment made on it.
The third goal is also a failure. I set a modest goal of a thousand sales for this one. I had read somewhere that to have an impact your art should affect a thousand people. And obviously Four Realms did not make that number.
Thanks for reading, I hope you find this information dump helpful. If you have any questions, suggestions, or feedback. Please let me know.