Toiling In Obscurity: Post-Mortem Of An Indie PC Game Launch

It's been almost a month since we unveiled Zafehouse: Diaries to the world. It was one of the most important moments in my life, the foundations of which, measured in skills, experience and courage, were built over several years — despite actual development measuring just 12 months. Now, three weeks on, the game hasn't taken the world by storm. In fact, a search of any major gaming site would suggest Zafehouse: Diaries doesn't exist at all.

Of course, we didn't create Zafehouse: Diaries to be the next Minecraft. It was game built out of a desire to treat the zombie genre with some respect and to focus on the delicious nuggets that arose — surprisingly — from the original Zafehouse. And so we made a hardcore, old school turn-based strategy that catered for the lone player.

Is Zafehouse: Diaries the perfect game? No, we're not under the illusion it's the greatest game ever. But we know it's a good game — a great game to some — so why hasn't it provoked the attention we thought it would?

Here are the conclusions I've drawn.

What We Got Wrong

  • Lack of coverage: It's my belief this has hurt us the most, in terms of initial sales and ongoing interest. We knew we'd never hit the front pages of IGN or Gamespot, but some of the smaller, more niche sites appear to be ignoring us for reasons we don't entirely understand. This has been frustrating and disappointing, but it just means we have to pay more attention to (and be smarter with) our press in the future, as more traditional avenues haven't worked at all.
  • A bug too far: The first few versions of the game were not as stable as we'd have liked. We tested the game as much as we could within our capabilities, but a two-man studio just doesn't have the same quality assurance resources as a publisher or even a medium-tier indie. Going forward, we'll be more likely to do open betas and that sort of thing, but even with the most comprehensive of bug reports, many hardware and software-specific issues are near impossible to debug without being in front of the problem machine and stepping through the code. When you mix that with the need to create new content and features, time just disappears before your eyes.
  • More content, please: We thought we knew what players wanted before we released the game, but it wasn't until we had people really getting into it that it became clear what they actually wanted. To our credit, we got some things right, but one feature we believed would be reasonably popular — diary editing and sharing — turned out to be of little interest. So, we're focused now on creating new game modes, items, dilemmas and core features to make Zafehouse: Diaries feel as meaty as possible. Quite a few of these elements were planned for expansions, but we feel we owe it to players to provide this content now, seeing as the diary aspects haven't been embraced.
  • A zombie game? No thanks: The zombie genre is a tired one. You could make the best damn game ever, but if it has zombies, it's just one extra (and particularly sturdy) barrier you have to overcome. Unless you're doing something that looks immediately innovative, like ZombiU or DayZ, you're just asking for grief.

What We Got Right

  • Unique, original, fresh: The reviews and feedback we've had so far repeat these words (or similar ones). One reviewer was kind enough to compare us favourably to indie darling FTL. At the very least, we know we made a good game and that means we have the potential to make something as good, or even better, when we do embark on the development process once more. We're still entirely devoted to Zafehouse: Diaries right now and every bit of positive (or constructive criticism) we receive just boosts our confidence and desire to expand the game.
  • Slow, but steady sales: We haven't made mega-bucks, or even minor mega-bucks, but sales have been steady, if low. For a game that's had little international media coverage (or local, outside of Kotaku), the number of sales we've managed so far is actually quite astounding.
  • Ridiculous conversion rate: One way to measure the success of a game, beyond sales, is the conversion rate between people who play the demo and buy the game. So far, we're tracking at about 19 per cent, which is a massive number. For comparison, some games are lucky to hit five per cent.
  • Steam... eventually: With the recent green-lighting of 20 games, we've now jumped to 73 per cent of the way to the top 100. Voting has dropped off considerably, but we're still getting a sustaining trickle, so Steam, once an unknown, is slowly becoming a certainty. You know, as long as Valve doesn't change the formula!
  • Continuing interest: Despite falling off the front page and new releases tab of Desura, we've managed to stay within the top 100-200 games. That signals to us that people remain interested in the game and we have a duty to keep them interested with new content, updates and expansions.

A few weeks ago, with initial interest high on both Steam Greenlight and Desura, we felt we'd done well. But that burst of activity has cooled and the attention we thought we'd generate with certain gaming sites hasn't eventuated. Oddly, this was the part I was the most confident about, being in the media myself, but now I realise we should have paid much more attention to promotion and marketing.

The picture I've painted looks a sad one, but that isn't the case. It's very possible we'll be on Steam within six months, perhaps sooner and the game has a small, but growing, cult audience. We can see now it will be a slow burn and one day, hopefully, we'll be discovered by someone, somewhere, with a bit more pull than we can muster ourselves.

Logan Booker is the weekend editor for Kotaku, Gizmodo and Lifehacker Australia, but during the days that don't begin with an "S", he's a full-time indie developer working on Zafehouse: Diaries. You can learn more about the game on the official website, Steam Greenlight or Desura.


Comments

    That's what I wonder about with Indie games. I feel sorry for devs when their game goes unnoticed or fades away like nothing happened.

    Went to purchase, its still $15 though

      This is something we hear often, but we've also had players asking why it's *only* $15. It's easier to lower the price of a game than it is to increase it, so until we feel $15 isn't justified, it won't be going down any time soon.

      But I understand how you feel (I buy games too) and if you're happy to wait for a sale or price drop, that's cool.

        Have you considered sending a keys out to a few of the online press peeps? Giantbomb will seemingly to give anything indie a fair look provided they think it's good enough.

    See if you can get in a Indie bundle

    Me and my brother (my brother and I?) are in a similar situation, only it's our little animation venture, not games. We spent 3-4 months making a video, put it on YouTube and watched. Didn't exactly take the world by storm. $20 of free money from adwords was pumped into it which increased views to about 400, but we noticed it was a featured video on the side of the page when searching for certain relevant things (I'm not here to advertise, so we'll exclude the search terms), which we didn't have to pay or do anything for. This has gotten us a heap more views which is great, and should help us get our next video noticed a bit more.

    I'm not saying to rely on something randomly coming along to help you, but it's really nice when it does and really starts putting the wheels in motion.

    While I was one of the ones that bought it, I personally believe the asking price is about $5-$10 too high, even on sale it was too expensive for what was accomplished. Try a 50% off sale for a week and check to see if sales climb, if they do, its the cost holding the game back.

    I think game sites have sort of skewed expectations a little for a lot of people. All we ever hear about are the extremes, the big successes and the dismal failures so people start to think making a game equals instant recognition and acclaim. However, for each one we hear about, there are a 100 more in the background, plodding along, trying to pick up new players.

    Hang in there Logan. It sounds like you're already doing well with the game and it may just be the reality that Zafehouse is going to be one of those cult classics that a certain demographic likes. The important thing to remember is to be true to yourself and your fans and resist the urge to start diluting your concepts just to pick up more players, unless of course, it adds to the game.

    Last edited 22/10/12 1:30 am

    The promotion of a video game can be as important as the quality of the game itself. Best of luck Logan, the game looks solid and you have the support of the Kotaku community.

    Look at the greenlit games on Steam, DayZ, War Z or whatever the other one is called, and you'll see that people still want zombie games. The problem is that people keep churning out SHITTY zombie games by the dozen. I liked your game, but I had to shelve it due to the constant gamebreaking bugs. I couldn't finish a game unless I basically made my people commit suicide early on. The bugs would kill it before it close to the rescue date.

    I know you lost one sale for sure because of the bugs. My wife was going to buy a copy for her PC as well. When she saw how many times it screwed up for me, she decided not to.

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