Queer games by a geeky dyke

Rose Seed Replica postmortem - mistakes were made

2020-09-17 14:00

The game only sold 130 copies during the launch week. I made maybe 1000€. It's an abysmal financial failure, no matter how you look at it.

Making the game cost over 26000€ in the course of 3 years, minus various mishaps and time wasted on two game jams and all the side jobs needed to fund development. I funded the game with a 8600€ startup grant from the government, 14000€ from side jobs and the rest from my personal savings.

The rest of this article is the long version: What happened during development, what I did before and after the launch, what was good and what was bad, what went wrong and how I intend to continue from here.

The development process

"Delays are always a risk. Like, who knows when the next global recession hits and kills everyone's gaming budgets..."

Well, there were some good things there, but overall the development process wasn't great. The fact that I could identify and resolve the problems and get the game finished is promising, though.

The biggest failure here is no doubt the unrealistic schedule. I just had no idea that the game would be so hard to script and test, so I ended up making it way bigger than what made sense. Like, in the end, the schedule was so badly off that even without all the other problems, the game would still have been delayed by at least a year.

The only bright side about scheduling is that I got a bit better at it towards the end. Reserving 2 months for beta testing and all the release stuff was absolutely spot on. That's some progress at least.

Though, to be fair to myself, scheduling solo project is really hard. If you get sick or anything else unexpected happens to you, all the plans immediately get thrown out of the window because there's no one else to do the work. I learned this the hard way by getting sick and burning out a bit from the stress of all the plans falling apart. Luckily I gave up with the deadlines and took action to alleviate the stress early enough, so it didn't get as bad as it could have.

I guess I never mentioned this before, but there was actually another minorish health crisis at another point during the development process too. That is, my wrists had really started to hurt from too much computer use and kind of bad ergonomy. It had gotten to the point that working was literally painful, and no doubt real damage could have been done if I hadn't sucked it up and reduced working significantly in addition to fixing the ergonomy issues. It was another source of slowdown, but the price of ruining my body would have been a far higher than that of the delays.

So, yeah, there were a couple of unexpected causes of slowdown. However, there were also sources of slowdown that I caused myself by making bad design choices and bad judgment calls on how to spend my time. For example, going overboard with replay value by adding a ton of parallel routes that would diverge and converge in complex fashion was definitely a bad move. I mean, sure, it really is replay value, but it caused so much trouble and delay that it just wasn't worth it the way I did it.

Also, my decisions to join a couple of game jams and get too excited about my second game project were definitely questionable. Of course, that work didn't actually go completely to waste since I really can use most of it in my next game, but it still wasn't ideal to delay Rose Seed Replica even further. Delays are always a risk. Like, who knows when the next global recession hits and kills everyone's gaming budgets...

One of the big bright spots of the development department is that I got my time management issues sorted out and have been working like an absolute machine this and last year. Productivity and hours worked have been impressive, which is definitely a good thing since there'll be lots of use for that productivity very soon.

Preparing for the launch

"Gayming Magazine published a really awesome, hypey piece about the game and Steam curator Hella Yuri recommended the game soon after launch, but apart from that there was no response."

I made the Steam page visible 2 months before the release. Generally, the consensus in the internet seems to be that less than 3 months is a very bad idea, but I think it was actually just fine. The wishlisting rate had already dropped to near zero a week before the launch, so I don't think that it'd have helped much to keep the coming soon page visible longer.

And even if wanted, I couldn't have made it visible earlier because Steam wanted to audit the build of the game and everything before I could make the page visible. Like, because they apparently thought that the game was porn or something, for whatever reason.

Their own documentation clearly says that you only need to get the store page approved, not the whole game, so it's weird and kind of unfair, but it can't be helped. At least they approved the game in the end.

Anyway, right after the coming soon page was made visible, I announced the launch date on Twitter and Facebook, posted a promo video and stuff. I posted a new gameplay video pretty much every week, wrote a couple of blog posts, tweeted updates about how things were progressing and such. Nothing to complain about this, I think.

Of course, my videos could have been way flashier, but this is the curse of being a solo developer with no money, as well as the curse of making a game that isn't visually very flashy or action-packed. And, well, even if I could have somehow made a video with professional production quality every week, I don't think that it'd have helped that much in the end.

In addition to the usual social media stuff, I also sent review copies to various online LGBTQ magazines that cover games, indie game websites and relevant Steam curators. Gayming Magazine published a really awesome, hypey piece about the game and Steam curator Hella Yuri recommended the game soon after launch, but apart from that there was no response.

At the time of launch, the game had 268 wishlists, which isn't great. The common wisdom is that the number of copies it sells during its launch week is half of its wishlist count at launch, so I already had a pretty good idea of the outcome of the release by that time.

The launch itself

"I basically spent the entire week fixing bugs, posting about the game, replying to comments on social media, ignoring Steam review key hoaxes, monitoring all the aspects of the campaign and occasionally sleeping."

The technical side of the launch actually went pretty well. There were a couple of reports of bugs and people having issues with their antivirus giving false positives for the launcher, but it was pretty smooth sailing apart from that. No major mishaps from my part, industry standard conversion rate, better than industry standard refund rate and all that jazz.

Fixing the bugs did take longer than I expected, which kind of sucks since I lost some time that I could have used on marketing instead, but it couldn't be helped. Beta testers had done really good job finding bugs that had slipped through my own play testing, but some more complex ones had still slipped through the whole process. And them being complex meant that they were hard to reproduce and fix.

The marketing side of the launch could have worked better, but I pretty much did everything I reasonably could, given the time and resources I had. The launch day itself was relatively great. I had prepared an improved trailer video before the launch, and I announced it right after the game became available for purchase.

The launch Tweet got way more impressions, retweets and likes than any of my tweet ever, and the traffic during the first days was great. During the launch week, the wishlist count skyrocketed to nearly 3 times the amount at launch, so some people were clearly finding the game. However, it was clear from the beginning that the sales weren't great, and they proceeded to halve after the first two days too.

Soon after the launch announcement, I ran a Steam key giveaway with a kind blogger who specializes on the genre of the game and had always supported me. We timed the giveaway so that there'd still be plenty of time for people to buy the game on sale even if they didn't win. And the giveaway looked like a decent success really. No way I could have run it better with my minuscule social media following.

In addition, I of course tweeted about the release pretty much every day and was super transparent about all the numbers and such. I also tried to look for more relevant curators and press outlets, but with little success. In the end, I never got a response from any of the bigger sites during the launch week. No one covered or reviewed the game. Only one player posted a review on Steam.

I tried to run a Facebook ad for the game near the end of the launch week since I happened to get a perfectly timed ad credit offer. The ad generally got a positive reception from the audience, and two people even said that they bought the game, but that's nowhere near enough for 60 € or even the 20 € that I actually paid.

I don't know how much more I could have done. I guess I could have tried to send copies to random streamers too, but fixing bugs and dealing with all the other marketing work already took too much time. I basically spent the entire week fixing bugs, posting about the game, replying to comments on social media, ignoring Steam review key hoaxes, monitoring all the aspects of the campaign and occasionally sleeping.

Despite the traffic being great and the wishlist count increasing constantly, the sales never got better. At the end, the game had been bought 130 times and refunded 3 times. 810 people had it wishlisted.

Why exactly did the game fail?

"I wanted to make a game that the target audience would absolutely love, but in the end I seem to have failed at it."

I don't know for sure. If I had to guess, I'd say that it's the combination of me not being visible enough before the launch and the game not being absolutely stellar.

If I were charismatic and confident enough to actually make myself known and heard, I probably wouldn't be in this situation now. If I had had like 6000 followers on social media instead of 200, the outcome would have likely been different with the same product.

Perhaps I should plug myself more shamelessly everywhere and play the women in games and marginalized voices cards more, but I don't know. It just doesn't feel right. It shouldn't really matter who I am. I want to believe that my games sell if they're good and don't if they aren't.

And I strongly suspect that there's a truth to that. If the game had been absolutely stellar, no doubt it'd have gotten more reviews on Steam and people would have praised it more, even if I had released it with the same minuscule social media following that I have.

I don't think that the game is bad, though. It's the kind of game that I'd absolutely love to play myself, and the general opinion so far seems to be mildly positive among actual players too. But no one ever said anything along the lines of it being the best game they ever played or it having changed their lives or anything, so clearly it isn't stellar either.

I wanted to make a unique, quirky, genre-defying, adorable, positive, inclusive, non-violent, deep, flaming gay game that no one else could make. But, in the end, it probably ended up too quirky for its own good. I wanted to make a game that the target audience would absolutely love, but I sadly seem to have failed at it.

How bad of a failure was it?

"However, no matter how you look at it, the game needed to sell at least 7.5 times more copies to be profitable."

In terms of finance, which is the thing that matters the most if I want to continue making games, well, honestly speaking, it was abysmally bad.

I don't know the exact numbers yet, but mathematically speaking I should get close to 1000€ from the launch week sales. It isn't a lot, to put it mildly. Of course, theoretically speaking, the game could still sell way more copies since the launch week isn't the end of the story, but I'm not too hopeful about it.

As I'll explain in the next chapter, you can make all kind of cases about how much making the game actually cost. However, no matter how you look at it, the game needed to sell at least 8-9 times more copies to be profitable. Realistically speaking, if I wanted to make games full-time, my games would have to sell at least 17 times better than Rose Seed Replica did in its launch week.

If you like numbers, the next chapter elaborates a bit on how much making the game cost. Just skip it if you're happy with the 17 times multiplier I gave here.

How much did making the game cost?

"Let's face it: No matter how you look at it, my business model isn't anywhere near profitable."

In the beginning of the article I said that the game cost maybe 26000€ to make. If you're interested in what that sum encompasses exactly, here you have it.

The minimum living cost numbers used here are based on one year of data from my personal accounting data. I couldn't bother to dig through the archives to get the exact numbers for each year since the 600 €/month average is accurate enough for this purpose.

2017: +3500€ -3100€ (5 months)

  • - 3000€: minimum living costs
  • - 100€: founding, infrastructure and operating costs
  • + 3500€: startup grant

2018: +5500€ -8850€

  • - 7200€: minimum living costs
  • - 1350€: mandatory insurance
  • - 100€: infrastructure and operating costs
  • - 100€: steam direct fee
  • - 100€: audio equipment
  • + 4800€: startup grant
  • + 1750€: side jobs

2019: +7400€ -8600€

  • - 7200€: minimum living costs
  • - 1450€: mandatory insurance
  • - 150€: infrastructure and operating costs
  • + 7400€: side jobs

2020: +7200€ -9300€

  • - 7200€: minimum living costs
  • - 1450€: mandatory insurance (estimate)
  • - 450€: replaced dead drawing tablet and hard drive
  • - 200€: replaced dead monitor
  • - 150€: infrastructure and operating costs (estimate)
  • - 50€: marketing fees (estimate)
  • + 6000€: side jobs (estimate)
  • + 1200€: game sales (estimate)

Let's be generous and assume that making Rose Seed Replica only took 2 years and that one year was wasted because of side jobs and other projects. Based on that assumption and the cost structure above, let's say that making the game and maintaining the infrastructure it needed cost maybe 17000€. In reality it no doubt cost way more, but let's assume this anyway and hope that I'll be more efficient in the future.

-17000 +1200 = -15800

To be even more generous, let's subtract the 8300€ startup grant from the fees because it was essentially free funding. It's a once in a lifetime thing, so no such benefits for future games, but let's drop the development costs of Rose Seed Replica to 8700€ anyway:

-8700 +1200 = -7500

Let's face it: No matter how you look at it, my business model isn't anywhere near profitable.

Even in the most generous scenario, I'd have to make games over 8 times faster, while somehow still keeping the price tag at $15. It's not going to happen. Even the infamous asset flip gane companies would have trouble maintaining a pace like that.

How could I theoretically make this work?

"By being more charismatic and popular? By making better games faster and cheaper?"

Let's go back to the cost structure again. Just staying alive costs 7200 €/year. The cost of the mandatory insurance will increase to 1750 €/year soon since I won't be eligible to the discount for new entrepreneurs. Operating costs are maybe 150 €/year. Replacing breaking hardware would be maybe 200 €/year on average. Nothing else for me at all. I just want to live and make queer games.

So, how could I make 9300 €/year?

It'd be really, really tough by just selling games the way I tried. Even though the first game is always the hardest, the gap is so high that it's hard to believe that subsequent games would be able to make it work.

Let's make some assumptions again. Let's say that I could reduce the development time of a game to 1.5 years thanks to experience and having some reusable code from Rose Seed Replica and various game prototypes. Let's also assume that I could sell those games at $15, the same way I sold Rose Seed Replica. I really don't have that much faith in being able to make worthwhile games this quickly, but let's assume so anyway.

Let's also assume a hefty increase in sales. Like, let's say that my next game sold 500 copies and I got 7.50 €/copy on average. That'd be 3750 €/game, which would amount to 2500 €/year since a game would take 1.5 years to make.

So, how could I make additional 6800 €/year?

I guess I could also try to run a crowdfunding campaign for each game. Judging by a campaign I followed closely, it might help boost the sales a little bit. But since I'm still relatively unknown even after releasing Rose Seed Replica, I doubt I could realistically raise more than maybe 3000 €.

A portion of that 3000 € would likely come from people who would buy the game from Steam or Itch if there was no crowdfunding campaign, but let's assume here that the extra visibility for the campaign would somehow offset that. So, crowdfunding would be 3000 € extra divided by the time it takes to make the game. So, it'd amount to 2000 €/year.

So, how could I make additional 4800 €/year?

I guess starting a Patreon would be another thing that I could try. Let's assume that an average patron subscribes for maybe 6 €/month and I get maybe 4.25 € after taxes and Patreon's commision rate. So, that'd be 51 €/patron/year.

Now, given that there are only around 200 people following me on Twitter, and that's a completely free form of supporting me, how many people would my Patreon realistically attract? I have no idea, but let's be optimistic for a change an go for 20 patrons. That'd mean some 1000 €/year.

So, how could I make additional 3800 €/year?

Well, I honestly don't know. By being more charismatic and popular? By making better games faster and cheaper? Yeah, I really don't know, but I have to come up with something, I guess.

Am I bitter about the outcome?

"What leads somewhere is owning up to all your mistakes, cherishing all the good things you did, and using everything you learned to redefine yourself."

Absolutely not.

No one ever said that making games for a living would be easy. I alredy knew from the start that the vast majority of indie games fail. And I also knew that no entrepreneur is entitled to success, no matter how good they might be or how hard they might work. That's how things just are.

I worked hard, no doubt, but it doesn't matter. I made mistakes. It took too long to make the game. I didn't stay focused enough. I couldn't make the game brilliant enough. I couldn't reach the right people at the right times. The competitors were better. This is the harsh truth.

But bitterness leads nowhere.

What leads somewhere is owning up to all your mistakes, cherishing all the good things you did, and using everything you learned to redefine yourself.

Improvement is what leads somewhere.

But there's still nothing wrong about crying when things go wrong.

What next?

If I won't get lucky with side jobs, I'll perhaps have enough money to survive until the end of the year. After that, all bets are off, so I need to come up with something solid really quick.

Most likely I'll be spending the upcoming months developing a polished demo version of my next game. I might also start a Patreon if it looks like there'll be demand for that, but I don't know really. Either way, once the demo is ready, I'm probably going to run a crowdfunding campaign and see how it works.

If everything goes well, that and some lucky sidejobs will hopefully allow me to finish my second game. That's the best course of actions I can think of.

Perhaps, after my second game, sometime in 2022 maybe, I can afford to adopt that homeless cat that I so much wanted.

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