Hello, I am a bizdev from a small indie studio Narrative Nine. We have recently launched our first project, a Visual Novel called “Lighthouse of guiding flames” — and obviously made a lot of mistakes.
Having enough prior experience with trading processes and international business (at least that’s what I thought), we still ran into a number of silly startup mistakes. The fact is that the features of the internal publishing kitchen in game development are not covered in any way. I totally get that, since otherwise publishers would be popping up left and right, but what, then, would a small, independent studio do to get any knowledge? The answer is, making mistakes.
Of course, each launch of an individual game is unique, but there is a certain set of “recommendations” that always work. This is not a rulebook but actual experience based on our own mistakes.
Number 1. Keep calm.
This is one of the most important things you should do. Keep calm, don’t get too excited when it comes to commerce. I know it’s hard. But you need to take a distance from the project to avoid marketing scam and traps of distribution services. There would be a lot of “bros” willing to help you for mere $100–300 without any obligations or contracts, and this is so hard to avoid when you are too engrossed in the process.
Number 2. Marketing is a serious job.
Well, this one I knew beforehand, marketing takes time. The thing is, when you have a number of people in your team multitasking (true for most indie teams, actually) it is so hard to make everything in time and make sure your subcontractors meet their deadlines too. So, this is where you screw up. Marketing as a profession exists for a reason. If you don’t have enough resources for that kind of staff, then leave AT LEAST 1 month (much more for a kickstarter) fully free of any other work before the release.
Number 3. The first discount trap.
TL;DR — It’s bullshit.
It doesn’t work.
I mean, seriously, let’s analyze: the first purchases you get are obviously from your already established audience, they aim to buy your product regardless of said discount. Why? Because they want to support you. By making a discount you lose 10–15% of your initial sales without any reason at all. This is where the «Rule Number 1» should take effect, because some of «well known distribution services» suggest you to make a launch discount with words like «We see that this is a good solution that works for most developers, this is what you really need». And the funny thing is that you can’t predict the consequences of that decision (if this is your first ever launch). After the launch discount you will most likely lose the option to run discounts for at least «several» (!) months, that includes seasonal sales. Yes, this trap has a false bottom. Not only you lose the money from your fans’ purchases, but also get a discount “debuff”. I believe there are cases where it could be of use (though still dubious), but one needs to be pretty bold to use such an option.
Number 4. Steam is not your bro.
Don’t get the wrong idea, Steam is a great service and anything. But there is a common misconception that Steam is a friend and indie developer paradise. Wrong. Steam — is a business first and foremost, as well as any other distributor, which in many cases makes the life of an indie developer harder. By «harder» I don’t mean quality control or restrictions, but the fee they take from you and the amount of help they provide for that price. First of all, your project must already be popular, otherwise Steam won’t go to your party. By my calculations you need at least 10 reviews to begin with, and 40 more after that to get featured at sections with any retention. After that nobody cares if your game is good or not, you will be fine, because you are granted an opportunity to make «cards» adored by collectors. I don’t blame Steam for its mechanics, there are thousands of indie releases each season, it’s just at this point you might as well consider launching on as many other platforms and services as possible including Itchio or even consoles.
Number 5. Make a special team.
Suppose we still run in Steam. First of all, we need to be prepared to get 10 reviews for a starter. Please note: The ratings of the curators will not be taken into account, as well as the ratings of any copies received for free. And also keep in mind that getting ratings from your friends is hellishly difficult, but with ordinary buyers this is a “mission impossible.” People are lazy. Your game needs to be extremely funny, have “spicy” content, be shared by famous people or to be at least a B+ to get any user reviews. And you still need 10 reviews whatever it costs. With that you can establish your “round table”, a group of reliable supporters who will definitely help you boost your meta in the first days. No, you must do it if you don’t want your game to sink to the bottom of unlucky indie abyss.
Thank you for reading!
This absolutely is not a book of secrets, but these were the issues I encountered during our first project. Do you have your own unlucky story or a different point of view? Share it in the comments below!
Speaking of which, our team is still afloat and we’d love to provide more helpful content for developers in the future. Right now, we are working on a high-quality Visual Novel with an artist from DDLC. It covers the importance of art in our lives and the woes of a world without it, so follow our twitter at twitter.com/9narrative to never miss an update!