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!