Quick background, I spent 3 years working on my RPG DON'T GIVE UP: A Cynical Tale, a semi-autobiographical and humorous game about my triumph over depression.
It's an adventure lite RPG with a focus on storytelling and charm. This postmortem will mostly be about my journey, not so much about the game itself, because I want this to be more personal than technical, and I've already probably written WAY too much.
Mostly a 2 man team! (music and illustrations were contracted)
I will talk about 3 things: The history behind the dev, what I did to try to make it a success and reflections on each, and results (release).
6 years ago I'd been laid off and decided to try my hand at making games. I've worked in the industry, and had been playing them all my life, so why not give it a shot? I made a couple of small mobile games, and after I felt confident enough, tried my hand at making a full length commercial platformer. Well, long story short, I made the big mistake of trying to outsource a studio of both artists and programmers. I was too trusting, maybe even naive, and things that were quoted to be a certain amount would end up tripling. To make things worse, when it was hinted that I was running out of funds it became apparent to me that there was no intent to at least provide the source code in order to have me pick up where I left off should I ever recover.
The game had not been able to be polished enough for me to really be able to find funding but I was in too deep to start a new dev. I couldn't program, and while I actually went to art school, I certainly didn't have the spectrum of experience to animate a platformer. So.
This in conjunction with many other things led to the beginning of "The Great Slump". Starting to work on DON'T GIVE UP was sort of like learning how to walk again after being knocked down by the world over and over. I'd never done pixel art before and started working through my depression by making some crappy pixel sprites based on Pokemon from the Gameboy days, and some really saturated areas and buildings. Eventually I had confidence in creating the sprites and attempted to do a ¾ view instead of the ugly 2D sidescrolling I'd started with.
I did this for months, and I actually had no idea what I was doing, so finally one day I said "Okay. I gotta actually start writing some stuff or I'm gonna have to find a way to fit all of these areas in the story". After working on a script that was I believe around 60 pages, I started reaching out my feelers for talent and eventually connected with an awesome man named Jarnik from Prague and we worked to make the first version of the game Cynical 7.
It was an okay game, but it could have been better, it was clear people liked it enough for it to have the potential to be a thing, so I decided not to quit, rework the combat and some of the pacing and we tried again with DON'T GIVE UP. This version was a lot more well received... and well after that, there was just no stopping me.
Eventually I was able to get a tiny amount of Kickstarter funding and a Humble Original deal to push the dev through. With what I considered to be a solid base game to push forward, it was time to continue finding its community throughout the course of its development.
The game is basically about the main character's quest to triumph over their inner demons. The storytelling is the real focal point of the game. For most of the game the player is progressing the story in a linear fashion with instanced battles at core plot points for the most part.
The combat system is simple enough for folks who aren't hardcore gamers to be successful with effort, while New Game + can offer a challenge to those who are. It's real time, and you'll find yourself dodging and blocking enemy attacks while launching your own in an attempt to essentially grant yourself a bonus turn and change the tide of battle.
The game is stuffed with a variety of charm including being able to trash talk your enemies before battle, over 100 unique NPCs with unique dialogue, over 100 objects you can inspect in the world, mini-dates, a main character who often has inner monologues with himself, and a lot more.
The game was based on true events so I was able to channel a pretty decent amount of authenticity into it.Things the game had going for it:
DON'T GIVE UP was always on a shoestring budget, even when the contract with Humble stood to bring in some extra cash, I decided to pour those funds immediately back into the game, primarily on music, polish, and features. The full budget for the game was < 30K USD.
DON'T GIVE UP's BIGGEST problem in my opinion has always been its reach. The internet is unpredictable, and while games that are gorgeous and AAA are always going to turn heads, it's particularly hard for indies to convince people to check out your story heavy game with no senior artist to catch eyes.
Despite having no marketing budget I pushed forward and made what I consider to be a major effort to develop a community. Here is a list of notable efforts I made. Below I'll talk about my efforts further and the effect I felt each one had:
The game was featured on Game Jolt for 3 days (demo phase), and throughout the course of devlog updates ended up amassing over 7K Followers
My Twitter started out at 200 something followers and has now crossed the finish line with over 1K
I've been active on Facebook, Tumblr, and a few indie developer forums
The game was featured on itch.io (demo phase)
The game had 2 Kickstarters (small amounts but both successful)
I attended DreamHack, PAX South, The Portland Retro Game Expo (twice), and XOXO Fest
I got distribution through Humble Bundle to (possibly?) 100's of thousands of subscribers
I was featured by a popular Let's Player
I have written over 200 press and influencers to try to cover the game (at times more than once over the course)
I have an official site dedicated to the game!
I had quite a few trailers (the demo, gameplay, pre-release, and release)
Posted on LOTS of Undertale everything
Before launch I setup an event to demo the game at my local arcade bar
Despite all of those efforts, if I'm honest MOST of them had little bearing on the community of the game itself. I'll go through each of them step by step and shed some light on what it was like for me and my personal take. Keep in mind while I'm going to be honest about my experiences this in no way reflects on the storefronts/venues as they have no control over how people respond to the project or choose to engage.
The Game Jolt feature put the game at the top of the banner on the front page of the site. They provided buttons to my Kickstarter and Game Jolt game page. Over the course of this I believe I accrued over 1K followers. I learned, however, through Kickstarters analytics, that my Game Jolt traffic accounted for less than $60 that went to my Kickstarter. My personal opinion? Lots of people who use Game Jolt or Itch.io are mostly looking for games to play for free. They're usually not looking to spend, which means they are probably not leaning toward investing in something that doesn't exist yet.
My Twitter has seen steady growth over the course of development. However, it's sad to say that I don't think that's personally due to any effort I put into posting there. I'd posted so much on Twitter; screen shots, updates, thoughts, even a few video vlogs. Everytime something cool or new was finished it went up on all my social media, but it almost NEVER resulted in new follows. Most of my new follows I think came from people who saw the game ELSEWHERE. Even releasing the game and dropping the release trailer that got 4.2K views didn't net me almost any follows. For an indie who has no marketing budget, it's hard for me to say that posting on Twitter isn't worth it, but in my case, it really was almost not worth the effort versus other things I could have done. For me Twitter is mainly a tool to keep your current fans up to date, not trying to find new ones.
I have been pretty active over the years on other social media and forums like TIGSource, Tumblr, and Facebook.
TIGSource is really kind of a ghost land these days in my experience unless you are creating something really exceptional. Not to put my game down, but it would take me many, many, many years before I could even attempt to make anything as detailed as Blasphemous or Children of Morta, but then again these projects definitely have more than 2 people working on them.
Tumblr has been a huge waste of time for me. My previous project I worked on used to easily garner 40ish likes or more on average, it was more detailed visually, but had not a sliver of the depth DON'T GIVE UP has. It was just an adventure platformer that didn't really focus on any character development and only ended up having one stage, and it still got more attention than my completed project. When I say my game is ugly people who have played it will usually respond "I like the art" or, "I think it's good", but I don't really mean ugly literally, I guess I really mean it doesn't look modern. It is proven that retro minimalist art can still do well in this age but in my opinion is diminishes your visibility odds even further. It's the, "If I have to give my attention to one game, why take a chance on the one that doesn't look as good?" And for this, DON'T GIVE UP rarely has an argument besides "You just have to try it", which in this vast sea of games is really not enough.
Facebook has been okay. My official page hasn't been able to grow for A WHILE, and release didn't change that. But posting on all the groups I was in was surprisingly positive. People were liking the game and sharing for a few days and even saying that they bought a copy! Sadly, it didn't really circle back to the Facebook page.
Being featured on Itch.io was cool, but it didn't have any noticeable impact. Games get uploaded on Itch.io FAST. By the time I put my game up it was pushed out of non-scrolling view in less than an hour! Itch.io was also cool enough to tweet the game as well, it got some interactions (not as much as my release post) which was cool, but I didn't really see any change on the site. The problem I have with Itch.io is I think interaction with your community could be a lot better. I would almost prefer just about any other platform to using it, Steam Discussion IMO is just superior.
The game had 2 Kickstarters. My goal for DON'T GIVE UP was not to get a buttload of cash so that I could live a cushy startup life from my home while I made my game over the course of 8 hour work days. I only wanted enough to give my own funds the boost it needed to be completable. I ultimately believed if people wanted the game it would make more; I also thought it would be a great way to get additional exposure. But it didn't, I'm not sure why- I've seen many games that are far less along, and far less visually attractive do leaps and bounds better. Knowing lots of people and having some form of virality obviously helps a lot with Kickstarter, something I just didn't have. Even though I only raised around 8K altogether, I will say a lot of that funding came directly through people discovering me on Kickstarter so it was extremely useful. Having completed a game, I would never start another project at a funding goal that didn't allow me to complete a project without diving into my own funds. My fire to make it in this industry made me willing to make that sacrifice and it's something only you can decide.
Throughout the game's development I attended 4 shows:
Portland Retro Game Expo
Portland Retro Game Expo was cool because my game has a retro feel to it. It's local and small, but was great for getting my feet wet and talking about my game.
DreamHack was okay, to be fair they are really kind and awesome enough to offer free booth space to the indies. Although the deal is less sweet when you have to travel from out of state. DreamHack is in a huge part, for folks who are into eSports. It's no secret that the indies weren't a highlight and still a growing part of their venue. Traffic was slow but that's no reflection on the people who invited me to attend. With my budget I probably could have invested the travel funds a bit differently.
PAX South was great. I was selected to be in rising, I know a lot of rough around the edges games can make it in there but still it felt good. More people obviously played my game than at the other venues, the feedback was good, and people were visibly jamming to the music on most of the playthroughs. I felt like my game was really, finally on its way to shine, but real life set in pretty quick afterward. I didn't really see any growth when I came back even though I totally did recognize a few followers that I'd met down there. However, the experience was still worth it. Why? Because I got to see people play the game dozens of times a day, seeing people play your game over and over in its development days will almost inevitably bring about some ideas you'd never thought of that will make something even better, or make you realize that something isn't as good as you thought it was and might actually be better removed. A fresh set of eyes on your game is PRICELESS, more so in large quantities.
XOXO Fest is another local, very exclusive event. I wasn't a headliner but a part of a local showcase, and with less than 600 attendees traffic was obviously not going to be bustling. The feedback that I got here was the best of all the venues I would say because the crowd was a lot more invested in the creators and not just the games. I left XOXO Fest feeling energized and confident as a creator!
After my Kickstarter I signed a deal to become a Humble Original, to be honest, in order to take the game where I wanted it to go this was a bit of a necessity. I won't say too much about this or the terms because I'm not sure if that would be proper etiquette. But basically, they get to have the game be exclusive to their bundle for a set amount of time and I'm able to create an expanded version and sell it later. When the game was released in the bundle, my abysmal wishlists did spike and it was helpful, but absolutely not as much as I had hoped for with a potential 400K subscribers, but it was better than I was doing on my own. The terms really weren't unreasonable.
I wrote over 200 press and influencers trying to just get them to try the game. Offering someone something for free just isn't really a selling point anymore. I really did my best and tried to target lots of folks who did let's plays of Undertale. Writing to press and being unknown is a masochistic game of sorts; I literally only ended up getting 1 let's player to play the game off of my emails, and a very rude review from a press site after release. Honestly, this is another thing that isn't really worth the effort, much like busting your butt on Twitter, but when you have no marketing budget, not really worth the effort is all you've got.
I had a let's play from a popular YouTuber named YuB, it actually came out of the blue and they didn't contact me until the video was actually up. It also led to a trickle down where some other mid ranged YouTubers checked it out. I was really excited when this happened, it was sort of the universe saying, you're not crazy and someone who has a crap ton of viewers thinks your game makes good content. This was quite helpful, and the video resulted in over 60 followers. I know this isn't a lot, but nowhere else was I able to garner that kind of surge, and that's over a video that got over 60K views. Being an indie is hard :P
Each time I hit a major milestone toward release I made a trailer. For the new major public versions, a gameplay version (in order to feed less narrative and show how the game plays), a pre-release trailer, and a release trailer where I revealed more of the game than I had in the 3 years.
Finally I posted on Undertale hubs anywhere I could: Reddit, Facebook Pages, Discords, etc. When people are always telling you that your game reminds them of Undertale, even if that wasn't your intent, you might as well try to use it to your advantage, right? People here and there were interested, but for the most part I think the thing with hardcore Undertale fans is that.... Well, they only want Undertale. They don't really want to bother with something else because it isn't Undertale, so you see, there's a big problem.
I'm a Portland dev so why not show the game somewhere in Portland?! We have a few arcade bars, and the one that let me show the game was REALLY helpful and supportive. The problem is, for one, Portland has a HUGE pinball crowd, and probably people looking to get drunk with friends aren't looking to play or process an RPG about quirky humor and depression. There's also a lot of people that aren't gamers who go to arcade bars for once in a while fun. That being said, I made some fun connections with folks and had some AMAZING conversations, and I'm certain I converted a couple of people into sales. It was worth it especially with launch just two days away.
Which finally brings us to the heart of this journey...
I want to note that about a month and a 1/2 before wrapping production I ran 2 in person QA sessions locally where people played the FULL game, gave me feedback, and reported bugs. (Partially to ensure I wasn't crazy and I'd created something good). I think it was around 14 people in all. ALL of that feedback and bug reports were fixed before launch!
Before release I obviously rallied all my troops and let everyone know, especially my Kickstarter backers that it was coming. I've posted probably an average of 2 updates a month since my project was funded keeping them in the loop almost every step of the way. I worked really hard to build trust with my backers and have them see how dedicated I was to delivering a good game. I'd hoped that of my 400ish backers that I would hopefully see at minimum 20-30 reviews on day one. I warmed myself up by looking at articles from other folks who had the release day jitters with things not ending up nearly as bad as they thought. My confidence began to rise, my game that I'd spent 3 years on was good enough to sell itself, sure it may not be destined for 5 digit sales, but surely a few thousand would be an easy task for such a labor of love.
Well. Reality often has a complicated sense of humor. I've only cried twice in the past 6-7 years, once was when I found it too hard to medicate my mood, and the other was the day after release.
As of today, approximately one month after launch, DON'T GIVE UP has sold a mere 235 units, which equates to $2082 USD in revenue. To put it in perspective, working for minimum wage for a month where I live would have surpassed my first month sales.
That being said, let's put my expectations into perspective. Despite not having made a cent off this game all I ever wanted was 3 things: to tell my story, to get my name out as a developer, and to have at least enough funds for the next prototype. As far as I'm concerned 10K in sales was my bar for success, or in other words my best case scenario hope, worst was somewhere around 5K. With these tools I felt like regardless of what happened beyond that I would have what I needed to keep the dream alive. To put it in context, where I live, even at minimum wage I could eclipse these in a month, but no need to beat it over the head. I think if you're even reading this you know how bad that is.
I am also really lucky to have someone in my corner who supports me doing what I love and believed in my vision. We get by okay because the field they have decided to be in allows for that. The morale of a supportive partner is... huge, I'm not saying that you should go out today and find yourself someone who will blindly support your indie dreams, but it was a huge pillar of motivation to carry on for me.
Well honestly, not much. Not in my specific situation anyway. I tapped every funding source I had, the soundtrack came out great, the game is a good length, I'm happy with the script, and even though the art isn't the greatest, I did it ALL myself. I got better along the way, and didn't cut corners. The final boss areas have the most complex sprites in terms of size and animation frames so I had tangible proof that I'd grown as a creator.
If I had the money I'd have had better sprite work for sure, even if it was just for the combat and the overworld remained the same. Secondly, I'd have invested in marketing, it exists for a reason, and while it isn't as vital as having an actual project worth playing, if you want reach, it practically almost is.
I don't think this would have made a total difference but IMO I released in quite possibly the worst week of the year for games, Goose Game, Link's Awakening remake, and Borderlands 3 and others all came out during that week. (This release date was planned far in advance and with the little fan base I had I decided putting out confusion or discrepancy in the release date was really not wise so I rolled with it).
I don't think it was wise for me to sink this much time into my first commercial game, for obvious reasons now, but also, it was just...... a lot. I wrote over 260 pages of dialogue, did all the art, social media, QA sessions, conventions, marketing (by marketing I mean blind emailing editors in vain) and a lot of other stuff. But I was raised on the SNES RPGs and that's when my love for what games could be really developed. I grew up poor, and could only get 1 used game per month, so I would always go for the SNES RPGs because they would get so much mileage. I HAD to make this game. Going forward I'm definitely making something more simple in depth.
Prepare to get sappy. Yes, the sales are as bad, but I don't need to let that dictate the gravity of my accomplishment. I created the game I wanted to make! Not only that, it turned out the way I wanted it to! I had a story to tell, and I told it. And while 1000's of people aren't playing it, there are people who have who enjoyed it, I've even been thanked numerous times for making this game. Every review I've gotten (even this scathing one) makes it clear that the story is emotional and the character development of the main character was done right, which is all my game aimed to do. To tell the story of my trials in a captivating way, so I say I've succeeded. I've earned the respect of my peers for taking the chance to do something I love, and yes, I know that respect doesn't pay bills, but there are a lot of people who are afraid to take that chance, and instead of having a period in their life where they'll get to truly do what they love for them, they'll play it safe, and only know the corporate rat race. No one can take this accomplishment from me. People can always say, yeah I worked here for X amount of years and so on, but I get to straight up say yeah I MADE A GAME. And, it'll likely be the same for you should you cross that finish line. (I'm sure this has a diminishing return after the first dev though)
And listen, 2K isn't a lot, but it's something, and it will certainly find its use, and the sales will (hopefully) continue to trickle in over time, so I see it as an asset going forward.
Well the journey isn't over! I've got a couple of features still coming up and currently waiting to hear back about approval for porting to Nintendo Switch! Who knows what the future holds?
Well, thanks for reading, if you want to support my work, obviously the best way to do that would be to check the game out for yourself if it's your cup of tea! Good luck fellow devs!