Why is selling good games so hard? Book of Demons Early Access launch postmortem.

It seems like it was yesterday, but it’s actually been two months since we launched Book of Demons on Steam Early Access. Although most of our team at Thing Trunk has vast experience in game dev, this was the first Early Access launch for all of us. So how did it go and did we learn anything? Read on to learn all the pretty and all the ugly details.

The game

For those who have never heard of Book of Demons, it’s a dark fantasy hack and slash game set in a pop-up book world of Paperverse. It’s a game that draws both from the old and the new. On one hand, it’s a sentimental journey to the roots of the PC gaming from the ‘90s (you could call it a tribute to Diablo 1), and on the other, it’s our attempt to breathe new life into the H&S genre. The game features multiple twists and changes to the usual action RPG mechanics, such as the card system that unifies spells, skills, and items, or the significantly changed movement and fighting rules.

Warrior in maze.

Goals and expectations

Since this was our first Early Access we didn’t really know what to expect. There was a lot of anxiety among the team, as the game has been in production for over 3 years now.

Since we don’t have a publisher, all of the marketing and financial risk is resting entirely on the personal investments we have made. As you can probably imagine, this can be quite stressful.

To recoup the costs, we need to sell about 35 thousand copies of the game, but of course, we are hoping for more as we want to fund the ongoing development (Book of Demons is just the first installment in the Return 2 Games series). In theory, selling this much should be pretty easy. After all, hack & slash is a very popular genre, and games such as Grim Dawn, Torchlight, Path of Exile, Van Helsing are able to move hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies. With a little bit of luck, and a quality game appealing to the same audience, we should also be able to reach at least some level of similar success, right?

But the reality was just about to prove that nothing will be easy.

Building the hype

Realizing that times when good games didn’t need marketing were long gone, we started promoting our game almost exactly 9 months before the Early Access launch. Many of you will immediately think that it was too late, and you probably are right, but the reality is that in such a small team like ours (currently 7 people on site), doing marketing always takes a toll on the game itself. Even now, I’m writing this blogpost, while I feel I should be adding stuff to the game.

During those 9 months, we did everything, more or less, by the book.

From the top of my head: we did several trailers and teasers, issued regular press releases about major announcements, did some interviews, launched a rich website for the series and a development blog. We set up a presskit, a newsletter and we engaged with our small community on the social media. We reposted content such as screens, wallpapers, development updates on Reddit, N4G, IndieDB, Gamasutra. We launched a Sneak-Peek program for people who wanted to test the game before it was done, and we even attended some shows which resulted in us receiving a few fancy awards.

This might sound like a lot – and it was, especially in terms of the effort we had to make – but the truth is that we didn’t make much of dent. We managed to get some press coverage, even from some high profile magazines such as Rock Paper Shotgun or GameInformer, but it never really felt like it translated into any significant long-term rise of awareness about our game (at least we didn’t record any sustaining boost to the visits on our websites).

Obviously, our marketing efforts were not enough to compete with the big AAA titles, but at least the basics were covered and we weren’t about to launch as a total surprise to everyone. Perhaps if we marketed around a stronger hook, we could have built more hype and momentum, but this is something we will never know.

Day zero

Before I jump into the numbers, let me quickly summarize the marketing we did immediately before and during the launch. This was our biggest and most important event so far, so we worked hard to get everything right. We even added a full-time PR and marketing person (Tom) to the team to help with the workload (earlier we did marketing tasks during breaks from development and we outsourced some help mailing the gaming press during events – you can read about such an event here).

The goal was simple – get as much game coverage on the Internet during the early access launch as possible.

The last month before the release was especially intense as we were trying to get the press and YouTubers hyped and willing to cover the game on the day if the release. We sent hundreds of review codes (almost 400), and although we knew that not all of them would translate into coverage, we hoped that we’d manage to get at least some of the major outlets interested.

Gamespot did an exclusive first look video. The Escapist did a short editorial on our vision for the entire series and premiered our manifesto. We were featured on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and noticed by PC Gamer. We also received a lot of coverage from RPG and Indie sites (MMORPG.com, RPGFan Preview, RPGamer Impressions, IndieGames.com Early Access Pick, Gaming Trend Preview). We also got a couple of Let’s Plays made by popular YouTubers like Cryaotic (over 100k views!), quill18 or ZackScott.

I won’t be detailing the “regular” marketing stuff, like posting news about the game on social media (we had a small budget of about 500 USD for paid ads), forums or Reddit. Let’s just say that we tried about every channel we could think of, but I’m sure we missed at least a few places. The Internet is a very big place after all. Anyway, we were again featured in many places which was good, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to the coverage obtained by the usual gaming AAA giants such as Blizzard, or even in comparison to the several indie titles the press is constantly going nuts about (No Man’s Sky anyone?).

The numbers

We launched on 28th of July 2016 with 3 distribution channels in place: on Steam, in the Humble Store and doing direct sales from our website (powered by Humble Widget). Today we have two months’ worth of sales data. The graph below shows aggregate sales combining all the channels, but as you can imagine, Steam was the main driving force here.

As you can see we sold almost 7500 copies of the game in less than two months.

7500 copies in less than two months

The graph should look familiar to anyone who published a game on a big but saturated distribution channel. When a game launches, there is a big boost as the game is getting a lot of attention. This is due to several factors:

  • It’s new, so it’s being covered by the press and YouTubers
  • It’s getting featured placement in the stores (front page coverage on both Steam and Humble)
  • The game had a 25% launch discount which lasted one week

But once the launch visibility ends, and the press moves on to other games, the sales quickly fall. From these numbers you can see, that we clearly didn’t manage to keep the momentum going. Our efforts to boost sales so far have been effective to some extent (the bump in sales in the second half of the chart is our Pax attendance together with another 25% sale on Steam) but their effects weren’t long lasting.

So what next?

Certainly, selling the game at this pace will not result in us reaching our goals any time soon, but we are far from abandoning all hope and giving up 😉 From what I have learned from the excellent analytics articles by Sergey Galyonkin (editor of SteamSpy), our results are above the average of other games in early access. Also, games that launch after an early access period tend to do better than games that didn’t have an EA period.

We’re also not giving up on marketing efforts, as will be trying to build the sales volume with new events, centering around major game updates that are coming up. In the first major update we’ll be launching end-game features and a free demo (should land in October), in the second we’ll be adding a second character class (Mage) in November and then Rogue class in December. We’re also working on the Xbox version.

bod_steam_reviews

Another good news is that among players, we’re doing great.

Book of Demons is holding strong at about 94% positive reviews on Steam (even after the recent Steam changes) – and we’re doing everything we can to keep the satisfaction high. We have a lot of gamers who used to play other hack and slash games and most of them enjoy playing Book of Demons a lot. We even already have some die-hard fans! So it should just be a matter of reaching the right audience. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it once the game is complete and out early next year.

Are we doing it wrong?

Creating a good game and working your ass off to build-up sales slowly over time is one way to go about things, but recently we’ve started wondering if we’re doing the right thing. Think about No Man’s Sky. They sold millions of copies even though the game was universally criticized by both gamers and the press once it was out. So, if it’s financially better to overpromise and under-deliver, one has to wonder where our industry is heading. The saddest part for me personally is that the press didn’t stop covering No Man’s Sky even when the word was out and everybody knew that it was not what was promised.

Conclusion

The conclusion should probably be, that unless your game goes viral, or you’re not willing to base your marketing efforts on deceiving press and players, you should be preparing for a long run and a lot of hard work optimizing and building sales over time. This is what we are looking at right now and we hope our efforts will eventually pay off. The sales we got so far aren’t exactly great, but they’re covering our current expenses and thanks to our participation in Early Access our budget will be less strained while we’re completing the game. Not to mention all of the possibilities to polish the game and make more customers happy.

But still, we at Thing Trunk wouldn’t want to trade places with No Man’s Sky, as such tactic is very short-sighted. And we’re here for the long game 🙂

PS. If you think Book of Demons and the whole Return 2 Games series are awesome, please consider helping us and spread the word!

  • Goha

    Wow, what an honest post. It’s nice to look at the other side of the game. I wish you luck because the game is really good and deserves a large audience. I would like to help you, but.. how? I’m just drop not in a barrel, but even in an ocean 😛

    When I think about all those virals in internet, one thing is coming out to the first stage.. they are stupid. Stupid enough to be funny, funny enough to be shared.

    Your game is funny but with some reserve (remember that Legio grafitti? there could be more of such things in the game 😉 You could show that on your FB page). Announcements and news are nice addition to my FB wall, but hey! something is missing in them to become viral. They do not force me to action “hey! everyone must see that!”. I’m not an PR specialist but that’s my very simple point of view.

    You know, maybe some contests would help? Everyone likes contests! Art contest, literacy contest, lava bucket contest, “give us a stupid idea of what you would like to see in our game and we will do that thing, and your great name will appear in our game in credits!”-like contest, duck-story-in-a-single-photo contest etc etc. Contest which could go viral! What would go viral.. great prize (name in credits? who would not want that)!

    • Thanks for the wishes and all the ideas 🙂 Designing something to go viral doesn’t work most of the time, but once you get lucky, it can change everything 🙂

  • SilentMoebius

    Every feedback is good feedback. Thats the problem and the reason why “no mans sky” is selling. Some devs just dont care, or use it to their advantage. I bought games like “starbound” or “nether” because it had potential and in the end the devs abandoned their games and there are games like Dungeon defenders 2, its for 2 years in early access, its so rotten from the core that you think it could break apart, there are so many bugs which are more than a year old, there are game modes which are useless, heroes totally overpowered, you can buy them for real money or for ingame currency and i am like… wtf? The devs are adding stuff they can sell or extend their content by adding new heroes and maps but skills, achievements, mobs, maps, game modes, ther are all buggy!?

    One person maybe smart but most people are ignorant, you just have to grab your popcorn and read steam reviews. People “rate” games for hilarious things. Blizzard was for me the greatest when i was a kid but today they just give the people what they want, not whats good. If you cant reach max lvl within 5 hours gameplay than the game is not good. Its stupid, boring.

    Nearly no one “works” for their achieved things in a game anymore. They throw it at you. You have login bonuses, ingame cash shops, double xp weekends. Even in BUY2PLAY games you have cash shops which is ridicolous and people really think its ok to pay for cosmetics or extra bank/inventory space.

    In Guild Wars prophecies you had to spend probably weeks to reach endgame. In Guild Wars 2 you just click on lvl up tomes…

    And there is a game called “Pit People”, the closed beta test started today and i had so much fun right from the beginning. I had a big grin on my face while playing it. Their narration was as good as in their previous game. I played for 3 hours today and its awesome. I can compare this game to Book of demons! Simple game, great narration, awesome music, challenging. They build a game for their audience and they managed to surpass their previous game! How did they manage that? I dont know much about the devs but i love their games.

    There is a way of marketing which costs only time. Forums. Where big communitys gather. Big companys often hire people to “troll” the internet. Someone asks a question like “hey guys im looking for a game like diablo” and you have to be there to say, “hey! Try book of demons, i am playing the hell out of it. Its awesome!” I do that sometimes, when a lets player asks in his video for comments like “which game do you like most right now?” be there and say book of demons. But of course you shouldnt adress yourself as a thing trunk dev.

    You can do this with 2 people. One asks, the other answers. Its fishy but the whole world is doing this.

    Its great that you care for your project! You want to bring quality not quantity but that road is really hard. I will support you guys whenever i can. Because i am seeking this quality in games!

    • Thanks for your comment! A lot of what you wrote resonates with us, and is exactly why we started developing Return 2 Games. Most of the games released today, especially in the mobile space but PC as well, are optimized to drain money from the gamers and exploit their vulnerabilities. Fortunately there are also many examples that going the other way can also be successful (i.e. Legend of Grimrock). We just need a bit more work to get there, but I like to think that we’re on the right path 🙂

  • LinkJr

    I don’t actually follow many gaming outlets, and I actually had never heard of the game until Steam recommended it for me because I had played “Hand of Fate” recently (I guess some “card” tag must relate the two), and I really love the game, I think sometimes is just that you need to hit some unique feature to actually make your game appear in more sites, and have a little bit of luck too.

    Also I see you are working on a console version, I think this is one thing that could really help to popularize the game, many outlets don’t really feature PC content that much, more so when you consider it is an early access game, so it is a lot harder to stand out when you are indie and only on PC. Hopefully the full release, combined with a console version, will bring more awareness.

    I just wish the team all the best, I want to see the whole series up someday 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words! We’re currently applying for the XBox Preview program, as this would let us release the game on Xbox when it’s still during early access. We’re hoping there will be a bit of cross promotion between platforms.

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  • CatherineK

    I’m curious as to how big your following was prior to the actual launch. Do you have any sort of metrics on how much of your website/newsletter following actually converted to sales vs people finding you at /after launch? Do you have any way to track how the actual sales were converted from your advertising?

    Seems like an interesting game, I’ll be checking it out. Your philosophy seems to be similar to ours so keep at it, hit games are a lot like hit songs. Being good is a good start so you are ahead of the game, now lets hope you get lucky!

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      Good conversion tracking is something we are still trying to set up, but the last FB add we did was in pretty controlled conditions and we had about 50% ROI. The stats on Steam also look pretty good (store page conversion about 1%) and we hope to get it up once we release the free demo.

  • Szymon Chlewicki

    But you are still in Early access. Main marketing hit need to be after release when steam give you visibility and you do not have “early access” tag.
    We got similar in EA and after a year we are extremely happy.

    • Hope you are right 🙂 We’re keeping the main marketing push for the launch.

  • “The saddest part for me personally is that the press didn’t stop
    covering No Man’s Sky even when the word was out and everybody knew that
    it was not what was promised.”

    This is because (gaming) press is not here to please developers, but to generate clicks and ad views… So they’d rather write an article about a game everybody knows (with scandals, yeah!) with guaranteed clicks than about something nobody knows and most people will ignore.

    It’s a vicious circle, I know.

    • As part of the Games Press, I agree with your assessment on a base level. There’s a lot more nuance though.

      Before I continue – my publication did not cover No Man’s Sky beyond the review.

      But I do understand why others did. No Man’s Sky caused a myriad of emotions and people – want – to read about a game that does that, whether they are good emotions or bad ones. Think of it like good food – restaurants won’t pull the food from their menu until people stop eating it. The gaming press is no different and blaming it for that is just as silly as it would be to ask restaurants to stop selling their best wares.

      After the launch of a game, it’s the people that demand more, not the press that creates demand. They may contribute to keeping it alive, but that’s all it is.

  • Sinan Acar (chinomaker)

    Really good article. You may also do Twitch dev streams. I heard it helps.

  • So, this sounds like a really interesting concept that is exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in: Deck-building ARPG/roguelike, yes please!

    However, I’m not certain that your approach to marketing and awareness building is helping you as much as it could be. So, as a game developer, here’s my take on a few things that you talk about here… I’m totally not saying that this is how you should be doing everything, because there’s probably no way I’m right about everything, but the hope is that I can give you a different perspective and hopefully that might help a neat-looking game succeed 🙂

    1. Are you doing it wrong?
    Yes. Your expectations seem to be one of the major reasons for your discomfort. I don’t think talking about NMS is useful, I don’t think that expecting a tiny percentage of the sales of huge ARPGs is useful (especially when your game is different on a number of prime success comparisons for how people talk about those ARPGs). Thinking you need to lie about what your game does isn’t a good thing to take from NMS (mostly because I don’t think Hello Games lied, but that’s a different discussion) – it seems like you’re not really sure how to talk about Book of Demons as its own thing.

    2. You’re not actually talking about why I should love Book of Demons.
    Your steam page has a bunch of stuff about a roadmap and a future plan for the studio’s games and your ethos of development, etc. Why? None of that stuff matters if you can’t get this game selling well, right? I suspect that you’ve had some reasonable response from people when you talk about this sort of stuff, but what I suspect is happening is that people are responding to the passion you’re exuding because it matches a desire/nostalgia they have themselves. I’m not convinced that this helps you sell a specific game – maybe when you have a bunch of them and your studio has a specific reputation, but not for a first title. All the time you spend talking about non-BoD stuff on your marketing for BoD is wasted attention.

    3. Find out what people say about Book of Demons to get their friends to like it!
    This is what you should base your marketing copy around, more than anything else. I suspect there’s a lot of neat stuff you could be talking about as emotional experiences in the game that could help people convert better. Things like pointing out a bit of roguelike-ness to the perma-death you’ve got going on, roguelike fans are into this kind of game! More talk about the deck-building as experienced by the player: “Make hard choices – do you EXPLODE things with FIRECATASTROPHE or TANK massive damage with JADE ARMOR? You decide!” etc.

    4. All of this is about increasing conversion and attention stickyness…
    The exposure you’ve gotten is pretty good. RPS is a great site for this sort of game. But the lack of impact from that marketing means that your material isn’t as good at converting people as it could be. I dunno if that’s down to the game itself (it could be) or your copy, videos or whatever. But the bottom line is that you’ve got a lot of time and runway right now to experiment with how you talk about the game and hopefully find ways that increase your conversion. Think about it this way: You want to talk about the game in ways that will discover the people who will pester all their friends to play it. That means you need to know who you’re selling the game to – who *ARE* you selling the game to? Who isn’t paying attention?

    So yeah, this looks like a really interesting game and I’d love to see it (and you) succeed! But I feel like you’re making a bunch of assumptions around what to magically do to make marketing work. It’s not about ticking boxes, it never was.

    P.S. What’s with the unreadable runes at the top of your cards? (at least in the videos) Are there card titles displayed somewhere else?

    • Thanks for your comment and all the points! I know we suck at talking about the game – this is something we’ll be working on seriously. The entire team is very passionate about what we’re doing, but it’s hard for us make it visible on the outside. I didn’t want my post to sound like whining about low sales – we’re happy with what we have and eager to work harder to reach more people.
      PS. About the cards with runes at the top – you’re probably looking at a moment where a card is revealed. Before it is identified there are runes at the top, but afterwards it’s replaced with a short card name (full card name is in the tooltip).

      • Something that really helped us was listening to people describe Desktop Dungeons to each other at conventions. That directly informed how we spoke about the game and had an impact on both how much attention people paid as well as how many went on to buy the game.

        We also took a course on basic entrepreneurship (it was free and we won a thing, so hey) that included sales techniques. We got over feeling icky about trying to sell something, we loved this thing, selling it is okay! But we also learned that we would automatically talk about it in a justifying way – we’d list features that we’d worked hard on, or talk about the technical achievements or problems we’d had with other designs, etc. All of those things could be turned around to evoke emotional connections and to solve problems PLAYERS had instead. It was quite the switch! Saying “Procedurally generated dungeons!” became “Play for 10 minutes for the rest of your life! Explore a never-ending stream of new dungeons” – because the first one only means something to devs and people who are super familiar with proc gen games, the second one says what proc gen really gives you as a player.

        Thanks for the explanation of the titles, I saw after writing my comment that the titles were readable in screenshots 🙂 That’s a cool effect!

        • I know there’s no shame in trying to sell something, but it’s the style that matters, especially when you’re an Indie dev. Anyway, those are some very good hints, so I better start making notes! 🙂

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  • Alien426

    My two cents:
    1. You seem to treat Early Access like a release. I have never bought a game while it was on Early Access. To me it means: game is not final, might annoy me with bugs. I did get some games with bundles or from Kickstarter, but never installed them until they left Early Access.
    2. “deck-building” doesn’t scream Action RPG / Hack & Slash to me. Bright primary colors and papercraft don’t scream “dark fantasy” either.
    3. When you go to the games’ site (bookofdemons.com), you are redirected to return2games.com. It probably takes some time for visitors to find out that the game is just part of a series. And then the conclusion might be that Book Of Demons is not a full game. Is this just an episode? How much game do I get?

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  • Urthman

    You make a common mistake when you say No Man’s Sky was “universally criticized.” It got a lot of criticism, but there’s also a lot of people who like the game, and the vast majority of gamers don’t comment about games on the internet much, so we don’t know what they think about it. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the vocal minority are representative of your game’s audience or potential audience (maybe they are, but you don’t actually know).

    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to dismiss No Man’s Sky as a bad game in general. I’m sure it has a lot of die-hard fans that aren’t as vocal. What I wanted to say is that they sold hundreds of thousands of copies based on false advertising and hooking the press with features that were never there.

      Also, it’s a postmortem of the Early Access release event. I did a similar post after we announced the game (https://thingtrunk.com/bod-reveal-postmortem/ ) and I’m sure I will do one more once the game is out of Early Access. The idea is to start a discussion (I guess at least that succeeded 🙂 ) and document what we did marketing wise and what we got in return, so that other Inide devs can hopefully learn from our mistakes.

      • Urthman

        Yeah, but my real point is I think devs frequently make the mistake of assuming feedback from people who bother to post to game forums is representative of their player base in general. Qualitatively it’s useful to get feedback from anyone, but it’s not a valid way of trying to guess how many players like or don’t like something (e.g. whether a game is “universally” liked or disliked).

        • That’s true, but the only thing we know about the majority that is not vocal is that we really don’t know what they think. After all they’re choosing not to share their opinion 😉 I think it’s safer to assume that their opinion is somewhat similar to that of the vocal majority, especially if the non-verbal signals (like the number of refunds) are reinforcing that. In any case, as a developer we gather feedback on our game from multiple channels (forum, surveys, in-game feedback widget, opt-in gameplay statistics we receive) and we realize that this kind of data represents about 10% of the users. Sometimes we choose to ignore feedback we receive as our gut feeling tells us that it is skewed, but we really never can be sure. After all we can’t force all the players to tell us what they like and hate about the game.

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