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  • Student Team To Successful Indie Dev: The We Were Here Series

    [03.16.21]
    - Lucia de Visser
  • The end of the year is a good time for reflection, and as a team we've had a lot to reflect on over the last five years here at Total Mayhem Games. We're the developers behind the three We Were Here games, originally released on Steam and now also available on Xbox One and PlayStation. 

    A little history: Total Mayhem Games started out as a team of game dev students at the Dutch University of Applied Sciences, working on a co-op puzzle adventure project that would become We Were Here. We released it on Steam for free, and it was a hit. The response was so positive that we decided to form a company and develop a sequel. The three games of the We Were Here series have been downloaded and played by over 5 million people so far.

    We often hear people referring to us as ‘that student group', when we've actually been running a professional indie studio for more than four years now - we definitely aren't students anymore! It's a big jump to go into indie game development full time, and we thought that people might be interested in our experiences. How did we evolve from a group of game students to being a successful, sustainable company with a Rotterdam office and 21 full-time staff?

    It all started with We Were Here Too, the sequel to We Were Here and our first commercial title. We released it in 2018, almost exactly a year after we published We Were Here on Steam. Let's just say that releasing a game aiming to make money is a very different business to putting out a free game! We did some things right and some things wrong, and we'll get into the details later. The short version is that We Were Here Too did well enough to justify another sequel, which was We Were Here Together! That would be released a year and a half later - these are short cycles for building games and it took a lot of work and planning. But it's essential to the next thing we want to discuss...

    Going Commercial

    We couldn't release a school project commercially, so we released it for free to see what people thought. When people liked it (over 5 million of them to date in fact), we felt there might be an audience there, and decided to try releasing a commercial version. 

    We secured an investment after releasing We Were Here, because as a free game it obviously wasn't earning us anything, and we needed something to get us started as a real studio so we could work on We Were Here Too. Apart from paying studio rental and some other basics, we invested in a marketing partner close to the release of We Were Here Too. That company has experience working with indie studios and making the most of tight budgets, and by taking some of the weight off our own shoulders, it allowed us to focus more on our game. We made sure to release our first commercial title within a year - a lot of work! 

    This rapid development process was important because we wanted to build on the hype generated by people playing We Were Here. One advantage of our games is that they're attractive to streamers in a similar way to today's hit Among Us; they're social experiences with moments of tension and excitement, plus a healthy dose of humour. It's great fun to watch people banter as they try to solve puzzles, or see how people react when they realize they're trapped with the jester while their partner is oblivious to the danger. So we got quite a bit of streamer coverage of We Were Here, and we had loads of people playing the game because it was free. We wanted to release the first commercial We Were Here title before all the excitement had faded away.

    We put a lot of effort into getting the people who had played We Were Here or seen it on a stream excited about a new game and made sure they heard about it when it was released. For instance, we offered a loyalty discount at launch to everyone who played the original We Were Here. It's worth the time and energy to try and increase your early sales numbers - we got onto the first pages of Steam New and Trending (super exciting to see) and the Top Sellers categories due to good first day sales, and that of course then led to more sales!

    Another interesting sale related tidbit - We Were Here Too was part of a Humble Choice bundle (back when it was called Humble Monthly), and interesting that actually boosted our non-Humble Bundle sales after the event! This might be related to being a co-op game - perhaps some people got the game in the Humble Bundle, and then asked their friends to buy the game so they could play together? Either way, it was a pleasant surprise!

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