Lessons From Funding Super Splatters

In September of 2012 we funded Spiky Snail’s Super Splatters which released on Steam in June this year.

Spiky Snail had previously released The Splatters on XBLA, but the team (Niv and Sagi) did not feel that they had met all of their design goals and wanted to make the best possible version of their game. The game didn’t earn enough on XBLA, so they turned to us to help fund the development of a version that fully realized their vision. This version came to be named Super Splatters and would release on a different platform than The Splatters (Steam instead of XBLA).

The interesting part for us, other than helping a fellow indie of course, was to see whether a focus on design could meaningfully change a game’s financial destiny. If it did, it could have implications on the way people set priorities while making games, but we did not end up seeing the results we were hoping for.

Combined, The Splatters and Super Splattered earned over $100k so far, and Super Splatters recouped our investment 4 months after it launched. By any reasonable metric this is a very good outcome for a new team releasing their first game, just not enough to fully fund the team’s next game, which is what we hope for when we back a project.

Super Splatters is a highly polished game, it stands out in both visual style and gameplay, and has layered and deep mechanics that make it a compelling action puzzle game.  So what is it, if not just a bad roll of the dice that prevented this game from being more of a hit?

Obviously, there is no way to answer this question with any certainty, but all of us (Spiky Snail as well as Indie Fund) think that promotion was a meaningful obstacle to the game’s financial performance. One issue was the lack of effective pre-launch promotion. The other issue was how difficult it turned out to be to get press for a followup game.

Effective Pre-launch Promotion
There is too much to say about how to run an effective pre-launch promotion campaign, so I will avoid going into detail here. The basic idea is that in order for a game to have good word of mouth going at launch, you have to first build a community around it that is excited for the game’s launch. If you do that properly, the community will become your game’s strongest advocate and you will have successfully implemented a grassroots PR campaign.

For this to happen, you can not think of promotion as something you do as you get near your launch date. It has to be something you do hand-in-hand with your game’s development, long before it’s release. A year or more of slow-burn promotion is very common these days. SpyParty, Super Meat Boy, World of Goo, Antichamber, Monaco, The Witness, Grave, Nuclear Throne, Below, Super Time Force, Aztez, Overgrowth, all these games have done / are doing this, and I could list a million more examples. This is also true for pretty much all AAA games. You start hearing about them a very long time before release, and it’s effective for the same reason it’s effective for smaller games.

Spiky Snail did start promoting The Splatters long before its release (about 18 months prior), but they only did the “checklist stuff”, and did not bring enough of a creative element to their promotion. They made trailers, reached out to press, submitted to festivals (The Splatters was even an IGF finalist), showed in the Indie Megabooth, did the social media thing, etc.

These things are mandatory, but they are not enough. Developers have to put a lot more effort into standing out and being noticed these days. Capy is great at doing just that, and Nathan Vella recently gave a talk on the subject that I encourage every small developer to watch. (also embedded at the bottom of this post for convenience)

Promoting A Followup
A port of a game, an improved version, a sequel, an update, even DLC, these are all things we can lump into one category and just refer to them as a “followup”. Something related to your game that you release after the game is already out.

When you first release a game, you have an opportunity to create what is commonly referred to as “launch buzz”. The fact that there’s a new (and hopefully interesting) game to talk about gives you a multiplier on your ability to make news and get attention. If you release a hit game, this excitement and virality tends to apply to followups as well. When World of Goo was released on iOS two years after the original, and on Android the following year, all we did was throw up a blog post. World of Goo having been a hit on Wii and PC also helped us get features on the App Store and Google Play.

But if your game wasn’t a big hit, it tends to not work that way. Spiky Snail found that getting press for a followup to a non-hit game that released more than a year prior is extremely difficult. They even got outside help to assist with the promotion of the game prior to launch. People were generally a lot less interested.

Despite having spent a year refining the design, Super Splatters (PC) received reviews on only 6 sites that factor into metacritic scoring, compared with 32 for The Splatters (XBLA). This makes sense, intuitively, but it’s interesting to see how drastic the difference is.

Was It Worth It?
The answer to that depends on how Niv and Sagi feel about this project, not so much how we feel about it. According to Niv, the answer is a definite Yes. They got to take their first game and make it what it was meant to be, the realization of their vision. Something they are proud of, and rightfully so in my opinion. In the long term, pride in one’s work has real meaning; how much a single project earned does not.

Niv, Sagi, we all wish you the best with your upcoming endeavors!

  • Lukas

    I saw both the XBLA and the Steam game when they originally came out, and I watched trailers for both. Here’s why I didn’t buy either.

    One, both games look like a casual games that I’d rather play on an iPhone than on a console. Watching the trailers, purely from the gameplay, the games felt like iPhone ports to me. I now realize that they aren’t, but back when I saw the games, the only thing I knew about them I knew from watching the trailers.

    Two, from the trailers, it wasn’t clear to me how the games actually worked. Are they puzzle games? If so, what’s the puzzle? Are they sandbox games? What can I do in the sandbox? What’s the goal of the games? Just “splatter” things? What for? Is it Angry Birds with goo? What do I do in the games? Why is it fun?

    So I don’t think the problem was reach. I saw the game on both platforms, and watched the trailers. I think the two problems are that the games are on the wrong platforms, and that the trailers didn’t clearly communicate what the games are about.

  • Devon

    I also was very aware of the game but found the characters unlikable and gross. Now that I know more about the design I am more interested in it.

  • SpikySnail Games

    Lukas/Devon, that was the entire point of this post.

    Effective PR isn’t just about reach, it’s also about proper communication and I think Ron made it pretty clear in the post. I don’t necessarily agree that trailers should be descriptive, and we certainly had long debates on both of these trailers. But the kinds of confusions you mention are definitely a PR fail on our part.

    That’s exactly what we’re saying we should improve on (amongst other things) when considering our next project. In any case, thanks for chiming in.

    Niv

    • devon

      Good luck with the next project. I really think your tech and designs are interesting, even if I wasn’t attracted to the art and characters.

    • Lukas

      There’s certainly room for non-descriptive trailers, but if I only see the non-descriptive trailer and can’t easily find a movie that explains what the actual game is, I’m not going to buy it.

      First, because I know quite well what kinds of games I enjoy.

      Second, because there are so many great games available that it is easier to just find another game than to spend a lot of time investigating a game where the trailers make it hard for me to figure out whether I’ll like the game.

      At any rate, I agree with Devon. Technically, the game looks good, and the art direction and visual design are super polished. Please don’t get discouraged. You clearly have the skills required to create a huge hit.

  • JK

    I came to comment to say what everyone below me already mentioned.

    I only heard of this game through Gamasutra posting a link to this article, and then I read the previous article on this site and watched the trailer.

    I STILL don’t know what you really do in this game or what the objectives are. This had to be a major factor in the game’s marketing.

    • JK

      Sorry, SpikeSnail Games, I somehow didn’t see your comment below. But you get my drift anyway.

      Good luck with your future endeavours!

  • Aaron

    Thank you for your transparency in this matter. In general I felt like Indie Fund’s silence on this game combined with the less than fully transparent way that the DoubleFine projects were announced and even the nature of the projects suggested that the commitment to transparent discussion of operations was wavering. It’s good to know that you recognize that this disclosure is consistent with your ethos.