It's been two weeks now since I released The Salt Keep, so this feels like as good a time as any to give a bit of an update on the release, what I've learned from it so far, and what I'm still hoping to learn. A two-week postmortem, if you will.
HOW IT'S GOING
So far, the release has gone better than I expected. I didn't have any preexisting following in the interactive fiction genre, which is fairly niche to begin with, so I didn't have very extravagant expectations, yet a fairly significant number of people (to me, at least) are interested enough to buy a paid version, and the reception has been positive. That's enough for me to call it a success.
My only other significant release is a browser-based idle game, The Idle Class, which came together gradually through feedback posts on the extremely active and helpful incremental games subreddit. The audience is different, the style of game is very different, and there's no cost barrier, so while it prepared me for this in some ways, it also just came into being through an entirely different process. In turn, I really didn't know what to expect for this release, and I was prepared (logically, I mean, not emotionally) for the possibility of an abject failure in which I announce the release and literally not one person even looks at it. It could happen, right? Who knows.
Given all that, and the experiences I've read from some other indie devs, I'm feeling pretty good about how it's going.
SOME THINGS I'VE LEARNED SO FAR
Pretty much every aspect of this project has been a learning experience for me, as I'm a newcomer to most of them. Some big takeaways:
- The app stores (iOS App Store and Google Play Store) are complicated. I gave myself a lot of time to get situated on them given that this was my first release on either. It was probably more than I needed, because I was anxious about it, but I'm glad I did. Lots of things aren't clearly explained and you don't find out until you arrive at them. Approval processes are opaque and you don't know how long they'll take. Even the actual stores page don't have any way (that I could find, at least) to preview them before the actual launch of your game. I did an unannounced soft launch a few days before the game was officially released just so I could see what the landing pages looked like, and I ended up replacing half the screenshots. I'm extremely glad I had the time to do that.
- Paid apps do better on iOS. I'm still early on, so this could change, and it seems to be common knowledge in general, but I really didn't think it was going to apply to a game in a genre like this. I imagined that it was the case primarily for games called something like Candy Match: War of Zombie Birds that sit on top of the app rankings and print so much money that they have to launder it through Kate Upton ads. Still, even for a relatively niche genre, people interested in the full version seem to be coming primarily from the App Store, and by a pretty huge margin of nearly four times the audience on Android. I didn't see that coming.
- Indie game marketing is a manual process. This probably seems pretty obvious to most people on this site (except you hotshots out there with publishers or whatever), but marketing is hard. I still don't know anything about it. The only thing that has really made sense to me in this process is just getting more involved in the community surrounding my genre (interactive fiction, primarily), and even that has been kind of hard because it's so decentralized. I've spread out wildly across social media of all kinds over the last few months, and I'm not really sure how to maintain it all, but it seems like the only way to actually communicate with people who share an interest in this stuff.
- Don't do a closed beta again. This one is very much a "your results may vary" kind of situation, but I thought I was being very smart by doing a closed beta limited to people I knew personally. It's almost difficult to find my way back to that reasoning, but I think I imagined it was kind of "safer" relative to how anxious I was about the release. What I didn't anticipate was how many new questions it would introduce for me -- "is this person going to finish before the end," "why hasn't this person responded," and so on -- and how taxing those were in a way they absolutely would not have been had I just opened the beta to strangers. It ultimately went fine, but rather than being "safer," I think I really just introduced new social complexities that didn't need to be there.
SOME THINGS I STILL DON'T KNOW
Lots of stuff! Basically everything. One of the great doubts that haunts every aspect of a project like this is wondering if you've done the best thing in any given case. Even for things that go well, you don't know if they could have gone better had you done something different. Maybe you didn't word your post title well enough and it could have been a viral sensation, or maybe you posted at the wrong time and just missed The Most Important Interactive Fiction Influencer seeing it, or maybe, you know, there's some big secret to how all this stuff works that everybody knows except you and they've all entered into a big conspiratorial agreement not to tell you. Who can say?
A couple of more specific things:
- How much people actually like it. One thing I really didn't expect about this entire development process is the sparsity of feedback. I recognize that I have a major bias here given my own general anxieties -- in other words, feedback is not really as sparse as I feel like it is -- and I was also probably spoiled by the development process of The Idle Class, which was readily met with tons of feedback, partly because of the particular Reddit community where I posted it, and very much because of how much quicker and simpler it is to engage with than a narrative game. That said, an unexpected factor throughout development was how kind of "in the dark" I've felt, uncertain about what exactly is going on and what people are thinking. A healthier mind than my own would probably look at a purchased copy of the full game and say, "that's some kind of positive endorsement," but that's not the mind I have. So, if you have picked up the full version, please, for the sake of my calcified and rotting brain: leave a rating and review somewhere.
- How to get professional coverage. I started contacting various outlets a while before release hoping to get some kind of coverage. First of all, I recognize that this is probably not the kind of game you're likely going to see on front page Kotaku or Polygon -- I'm not a fool, okay! -- but I expected to hear back from some smaller, more niche publications, even if just for them to say, "we're not interested." I have actually made a few good contacts, but most of the publications have been fully unresponsive. I'm an unknown, so I completely understand why an email would just get tossed, but I have no idea what to do about it. Like the points above, I find myself entirely in the dark, with a vast array of possible explanations that can't be narrowed down: maybe I needed a different subject line, or maybe the body was too long, or maybe my email address is bad, or maybe there was no possible way it would go anywhere but the trash. I have no idea!
So, that's my two-week postmortem. I'll do another update further down the line if it seems there's anything significant to add. All in all, it feels good to have finally put this thing out, and so far, everything has gone pretty smoothly and is looking pretty good. Given all that, I wonder who decided to call these things a "postmortem?" Kind of morbid, I think.