Advice on how we run our Indie Games Studio.

We just released our first multi-platform indie game Idioctopus and work is well underway on our next project. People have been asking about our studio, BadgerHammer, and how we make it work. So here we go. Warts and all.

It’s not all about games

To help you understand our current situation, I want to talk about how we got here.

fuckingartstudents

Me and NickH met over 20 years ago on our first day starting a degree in Fine Arts. NickH was building giant mechanical contraptions and I was making comedy shorts about Bomb Disposal. Together, we played old records in an empty basement bar, made a band and mucked about on a 486 bodging the editor in Micro Machines to make other kinds of games.

goldenEye

Like every other student on the planet, we were sessioning the hell out of Tekken and playing so much GoldenEye that I was seeing target reticles over real life security cameras.

After Uni we moved to Brighton and enjoyed about a year of unemployment benefits. We had infinite free time other than having to sign on every 2 weeks. We didn’t waste (that much of) it. We made loads of short films. We learned about design and how to program HTML and Flash by taking notes from books and magazines in Borders Bookstore. We also played every single PS1 game that came out that year by taking advantage of the “No Questions Asked” return policy at GAME. Seriously, we paid for one game at the start of the year with a bag of change and endlessly swapped it up for a new one.

The dawn of the internet

2001_render_3-compressor.gif

So around this time the internet suddenly became a really big deal. There were no graduates with internet skillsets coming for at least three years and agencies were gagging for generalists who could jump on that kinda stuff straight away. Luckily for us, we more or less had the skills, but more importantly, we could jump on that kinda stuff right away.

raisedbywolves

Simultaneously, we both landed jobs at top London advertising and digital agencies around the corner from each other. Now, this is important for what comes later. We learnt from the best in the business. They ran us through the mill, set us loose on top brands and taught us to understand the importance of a quality end product, deadlines and hard work. Without these 18 months being raised by wolves, busting our balls, commuting to London nothing else that follows would be possible.

From long shots to living the dream

British trains aren’t known for their punctuality and living a 14 hour day before you can start your real life takes its toll. We both took some time out to travel and see what else was out there.

trains

A brief period of mixed freelance work followed, but our advertising experience and connections lead to a 3 year stint handling all the online advertising for a start-up called Betfair. This was our studio in its first incarnation. We had a spare room in our shared house that we used as an office. At this time our roles were reversed, I was the programmer and Nick H the designer. Funny how things work out.

Eventually, we convinced them to make a promotional web game for the Rugby World Cup. See where we’re going? We were still making our own games at this point. Idioctopus included (no joke). Lots of these never saw the light of day and that’s going to have to be an article of its own.

excitedKid.gif

Anyway, back to the story. The rugby game got us some work making web games for Nickelodeon and LEGO. From here the blue chip web game work started flooding in, ending with a 5 year stint working exclusively for LEGO. One of my childhood dreams ticked off! So here we were making games for a living.

Wait you had it all! What happened?

Let me explain. We may have been working for these big boys. In fact, doing ALL the work. But we were an outsourced resource to a bigger studio who took all the credit and a fairly big portion of the cash. As the environment changed, we moved with it, like we did before and continue to. I was getting offered a lot of animation jobs and it turns out the workload vs pay on that kinda work is much better than games. Nick H started a family and needed a secure full-time wage.

Su-su-studio

After all that history here’s what you’ve been waiting to hear! Our indie “studio”, probably like most of you out there, is just two guys doing what we love for a hobby in our spare time. I do everything you can see, and NickH makes all the magic happen under the hood.

We do the best job we can and hope that, just maybe, we could end up making enough money to bankroll the next project. I use the free time between irregular freelance jobs and NickH has a regular half day off per week. It’s kinda like being in a band. We dedicate a few hours a week to make an entertainment product that we hope people will enjoy and see the value of paying their hard earned wages into. Most likely, even our close friends will ask for a free guest list.

Getting to the goddamn point!

So here’s what I wanted you to take away from this:

Work with someone you trust.

NickH has been my best friend for 20 years. He’s the only person I speak to pretty much every day (other than my wife). Find collaborators you can rely on. If you’re working with strangers. Pay them! Otherwise, someone will end up letting you down when paid work comes their way or there’ll be an argument about effort vs revenue share. Time to call legal… wait we can’t afford lawyers!

Make a perfect team.

Me and NickH are practically psychic.  Even though we’ve spent the last 10 years working across time zones, our workflow is through the roof, honed by 20 years of collaborating. We both have knowledge and experience of both sides of games production. We understand the value of each other’s contributions and the time and effort that they take. We also understand that life stuff can get in the way of game making sometimes.

whatswrong_nothing.jpg

Make a perfect team. The Revenge

We each have a very specific skill set. Over the years we both discovered the part of the job we loved. For me animation and illustration. For him coding and problem-solving. Find people who bring something to the table that isn’t already there. If your team is too big, step back and reassess. It’s harsh (I know you’re all mates too), but do you really need 3 character designers? Who’s doing your marketing? I’m sure as hell not doing it again!

Present yourself professionally

We’re professionals, we even made games professionally for a while. Right now it’s a hobby, but that doesn’t mean we have to act like amateurs. You might be working out of your mum’s spare room but no one knows that. Present yourself as a pro and get treated that way. Don’t tell lies to big yourself up tho! Seriously, you’ll get caught out.

Understand your limits

makegamequick

We’re two guys, very part time. Level design, testing, all of this stuff takes a lot more time than you think (if you want to do it well). If you’re a one man hobbyist, maybe you should think twice before you make your dream epic MMOJRPG. Maybe start with something a little smaller that will help you make the systems that you’ll need later for making that monster with your lottery millions.

Keep doing it!

Maybe you’re surprised we’re like the rest of you. Yes, making games is our hobby. Sure, we’d love for it to be our career. But until that happens we’re going to carry on doing it anyway, we’re going to try to do it well and we hope you enjoy what we make!

Nick Gripton is an animator, illustrator, art director & the visual half of the BadgerHammer indie games team.

Advertisements

Indies! You CAN do your own marketing! But should you?

I went on a journey into the dark world of marketing to discover if I had what it takes to market our indie game Idioctopus.

Eyes! More eyes!

It’s the classic question. How do you get your game in front of more people? Your Mum’s going to buy it. So who else is going to buy it? Is that hockey stick graph is just gonna drop off after 10 downloads?

sales

Social Media – A Really Boring Game

I started with getting our social media in order.  I thought gaining a large volume of Twitter followers was something that mattered. Now I’m pretty sure it isn’t. We’ve all seen those links. You know… Get a gazillion followers with this one sneaky trick (of paying $100). But the reality is that the quality of followers is better than quantity. I’d rather have 500 people following us who were genuinely interested in our games than a million sweatshop robot accounts.

10000followers

Getting quality followers is simple but needs time intensive work. By posting/retweeting relevant interesting content and using the right hashtags you can pick up a few. But the way I picked up the best was by being a real human being engaging in actual conversations with other Twitter users.

Sadly Twitter is full of people who follow you, then unfollow you as soon as you follow them. It’s a sad boring grind. I used CrowdFire to manage this once a week and started to be careful about who I followed back in order to save the effort of returning the unfollow later. Quite frankly, it’s depressing.

twitter

Apparently, you can post the fuck out of the social networks. I’ve read that it’s actually acceptable to post as much as 14 times a day on Twitter, twice on Facebook and 4 on Instagram. I didn’t want to post the same thing 14 times a day on Twitter, so I wrote and planned a campaign of more than a 100 unique tweets using 25 different images and 20 screenshots.

mediaSchedule

Now I felt like I was REALLY marketing! (I wasn’t) Posting this much can be painful. Using Buffer made life a hell of a lot easier because it scheduled to the 4 networks I wanted simultaneously. It has some useful features like finding better scheduling times based on previous engagements.

Sadly posting on social networks alone isn’t actually marketing. It’s important to keep these areas well groomed and alive.  But at the end of the day, you’re still only going to hook those people who are lucky enough to see your post whizzing by in their feed. After all that shit we’re still looking for those eyes!

Boredom Booster

About this time I saw Steve Escalante speak at a Gaming Event. Amongst other things I’ll bring up later, he was talking a lot about post boosting.

A few weeks before the launch I started doing some experiments with boosting different posts. Here’s what happened:

Facebook £300. Reach 264,000.

Twitter £100. Reach 38,000.

We were paying roughly £100 per 75k people who were exposed to our posts. Now to clarify, this just means it was on their screen for a fraction of a second. It doesn’t mean they actually looked at it.

marketing

Now let’s look at Engagements. Finding out what engagements actually are is pretty difficult. I think, loosely, it means a ghost farted in the general direction of your post.

On Facebook, there is no clear documentation to what an engagement is. But based on the goals I set for my ads, they seemed to perform well and I could see the results.

  • 18,000 Ad lift Recall
  • 286 Link clicks
  • 3350 Instagram likes (from a reach of 5600)

Twitter is clearly the loser.

  • ZERO likes
  • ZERO retweets
  • ZERO qualified impressions (a Tweet that is 100% in view for ANY amount of time).
  • 19 followers (it claimed all the followers in the period to be its own success, despite the fact it was around the usual amount)

The posts that got the best results were always a screenshot.

So we got some of those EYES. Now we’ve exposed ourselves to 300k people and we haven’t spent that much. The thing is I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing poker against the pros and I don’t even know the rules. Just like Vegas, keep an eye on your budget! It’s easy to get carried away.

Influencing the Uninfluenced Influencer

Again, I blame Steve Escalante for planting this evil seed. But what really got me rolling on this though were the GDC talks by Mike Rose.

database

I started a massive database of YouTubers, Twitch streamers and influencers who might be remotely interested in our game (thanks Mike, I’ll never get those days back). What harm could it do sending them a Steam code? At the very least some of them might play and enjoy it. Let me be clear, this wasn’t a small undertaking (honestly, it took me about 7 working days including sending the emails). There are a number of helpful lists out there already, but on closer inspection, around 50% of the accounts haven’t posted a video for over 6 months.

I sent a mail to each of them, using a template that I could personalise if I had something worth saying.

My email had the following things:

  • Quick intro to who we are and how we know them
  • One sentence description of the game
  • 2 Nice images of gameplay
  • Links to website and press kit

On retrospect I should have also added:

  • Link to YouTube gameplay video
  • Some notes about Embargo
  • Swap the image attachments for an inline gameplay gif

We got some nice results and a few really cute Let’s Plays from smaller/medium YouTubers. We were really happy with these. They all seemed to have a blast playing our game and we like that we’re clubbing together helping each other out. It feels cool to be in the small fry club. There’s no evidence it converted to any sales, but it’s all eyes on product at the end of the day.

You’ve Been Paped

As well as the influencers I made a big list of Press contacts. Where possible I emailed a real human who liked puzzles or indies rather than tips@ or contact@. Some interesting people responded, but we haven’t seen anything turn into a review, even the ones who had written about us before.

The last thing I did was write and send a few press releases. It’s pretty straightforward stuff and you can find out EVERYTHING you need to know from Emmy Jonassen (so I’m not going to repeat it). Although RobotSaid just died! Noooo!

Late Advice

I got a bit of advice way too late in the day from a PR company.

It’s so hard to cut through in the mobile/indie game space. The games that do okay have one of the following:

  •  an existing fan base
  • it’s a game version of a well-known brand, celebrity or IP
  • the devs have pedigree
  • it’s pushed by a big publisher and has LOTS of spend attached

Did it make any difference?

Here’s the thing. I felt like I’d done everything I had the power to do. But I’m a shit marketer. I didn’t have what it takes. None of this made a bit of difference.  What a punchline.

Edit: A few people have been asking for stats, so here they are.

In the first 2 weeks of our app release, paid installs looked like this:

  • iOS – 25  (2,183 Page View & 304k Impressions)
  • Android – 20
  • Steam – 16 (+350 wishlist adds – we’ll get you in the sales my pretties)
  • Itch.io – ZERO

The majority of these were in the first 2 days. Our graph still looks like this!

sales

At the end of the day

Marketing is a job, the same as coding, animating, whatever and there’s a reason for that. It’s not easy and it’s a big part of making a game that sells. There’s a reason Hollywood spends as much cash promoting movies as they do making them.

You’re gonna need to spend some money. Be it your own sweat equity, boosting posts, AdWords or paying someone to do it all. Personally, I’d rather get kicked in the nuts than do anything marketing related ever again.

kickedInTheNuts-compressor.gif

Nick Gripton is an animator, illustrator, art director & the visual half of the BadgerHammer indie games team.