Why haven't you heard of this 'hit game'?
Oh, we can definitely think of a reason.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s. Welcome to another ‘summer holiday’ edition!]
Sometimes we worry that writing about why games succeed in the GameDiscoverCo newsletter is a road to vapid prognosticating. A lot of the time, big games ‘just happen’, independently of actual advice.
We thought of a way to answer that question! We worked with Matthew Burns (co-creator of Eliza and The Writer Will Do Something) for a satirical ‘you too can have a hit game!’ interview, a continuation of our alternative ‘summer holiday’ newsletters.
Matthew explained to me that he “wanted to capture the frustration of having your own game that you're trying to make successful, and reading an interview with someone who seems to have just had it magically happen for them.” That, my friends, is who you’ll meet below.
[IMPORTANT NOTE: we’ll be very clear - the reason you haven’t heard of the below game? It doesn’t exist. But ugh, turns out it’s surprisingly believable. We’ll return after the ‘insight’ for a round-up of the (actual!) video game discovery & platform news.]
Pickle Fighters - the bitterly surprising road to ‘success’!
We’re so excited this week to feature a chat with Chad Blastovic, founder of Demented Lemur Studios, who recently shipped the smash hit indie deckbuilding Metroidvania roguelite Pickle Fighters - 2,000,000 copies sold already, in just 8 weeks!
We felt the best way to get across the majesty of his vision and execution was to interview him one on one. So that’s just what we did:
Q: Hey Chad - how’s it going? Are you calming down and de-stressing from the pressure of such a high-profile launch?
A: I’m trying to stay humble, but I admit it’s hard when your game is tearing up the charts! I used to be one of those people who said, “don’t equate your level of fame and success with your sense of personal worth.” But now that it’s happened for me, I’m not so sure.
Maybe it’s actually awesome to have your self-esteem determined by other people and by factors that aren’t totally in your control… and maybe when fans love my game, it means they love me, personally! Wanting to be loved is why we’re all here, right?
Q: Tell us a little bit about the unique launch announcement you put together for Pickle Fighters - how did that idea come together, and why do you think it resonated with people so well?
A: As any indie dev will tell you, it’s hard to get people to notice you, and it’s even harder to get people to care. That’s how the team and I came up with the whole “Chad breaks into a pickle factory and falls into a giant pickle vat” viral stunt to announce the game.
I mean, it may not have been totally premeditated, but I really did fall into the vat. That wasn’t CG or anything. They say you never want to be the main character of Twitter, but who can argue with the results we got from that?
Sure, the hot pickling liquid and stirring equipment hurt a lot, and the factory is suing me, and there’s an outstanding warrant for my arrest, among other things my lawyer says I shouldn’t talk about. But you do what you have to, if you want to make it in this business.
Q: We’re expecting that through development, you had some smart ways to get noticed, from specific streamers to Steam pre-launch highlights that really ratcheted up your wishlist numbers. Take us through some of the highlights.
A: If you aren’t putting yourself out there every day in every way, you might as well not exist! So, we created 5 TikToks each day and streamed every night from 4pm-10pm on Twitch, YouTube, and MyFreeGameDevCams.
We also have an official Discord server, Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn page, Mastodon instance, and Second Life sim, plus a presence on MySpace, Ello, LiveJournal, and Peach. Word of advice on that: don’t just repost content from one service to another! People will notice. It’s best to shape your content specifically for each platform.
We were also fortunate to make some deals with highly respected gaming influencers including Borgle (6 million subs), Plubber (5.5m), and Cool Dad (2m). Of course everyone knows these folks, and because they’re trustworthy sources of information as well as incredibly famous, we had lots of fans from day one.
The combo of super viral-ready factors gave rise to a lot of organic impressions from specific things that happened, like #borglepicklegate. Don’t look that one up if you’re at work.
Q: Some might say that Pickle Fighters has too many genres mashed together in it. But clearly, it’s working for you! Can you explain how the game works and why the public are responding to it so well?
A: It’s actually a pretty simple game. You select a pickle from over 30 different starting types and use your deck-based abilities to make your way through a series of procedurally-generated dungeons, gaining fermentation if you play well, while keeping an eye on your salt, moisture, and temperature levels.
We don’t stop you from making weird builds, like combining dill herb with Korean chili pepper flakes. Everyone wants to have their own unique pickle and show it off, so there’s a user-generated content aspect at play here too.
Of course, there are the other player-controlled pickles in the same dungeons who are waiting to disrupt your own runs, with mold or container breakage or whatever, so you have to watch out. At the end of the game, only one pickle out of the initial 100 is declared the winner.
Q: Wait, your game is a battle royale too?
A: Yeah, it is. It’s also a low-stakes sandwich-making simulator! You know, for the ‘wholesome games’ crowd.
Q: What’s some of the favorite community reactions to the game’s release that you’ve seen so far?
A: Just the other day, we announced that we were going to announce the release date for our Onions & Eggs expansion, which is part of our 3-part roadmap for Season 1, Episode 1, Chapter 0 - Prologue.
There was all kinds of speculation on when we would announce the announce, and SmuckerPunch even found my physical address and staked out my house for 10 hours shouting, “announce the announce already!” while occasionally throwing gherkins at the windows. He made a hilarious YouTube video out of that (427,410 views), so that’s been really wonderful to see.
Q: What advice do you have for our audience on the three things you absolutely must - and must not - do to have a hit game in today’s crowded, crowded marketplace?
A: First, you should look at the market, see what’s selling well these days. But your game should also be totally unique. Second, you definitely need to spend a lot of time and effort on marketing. But you should also just focus on making the best game possible!
Finally, you should definitely listen to feedback from potential publishing partners. But, you should also stick to your guns on your creative vision. When it comes down to it, all you really gotta do is make a game that everyone likes and wants!
Unity, Ironsource and ‘that CEO interview’…
One advantage of being on holiday is that we can just wait for the news cycle to complete, before rounding up all the best coverage on the subject! And we’re doing just that for Unity’s surprise merger with Israeli mobile monetization firm IronSource.
Given that Unity is the pre-eminent game engine in the PC & console space, plenty of eyes were on this deal. The initial Unity announce has a clear pitch: “What if creators had an engine for live games that by default enabled them to gain early indicators of success for their games through user acquisition of their prototype, and gave them a feedback loop to improve their games based on real player interactions as early in the process as possible?”
And if you’re in the F2P mobile space, there’s much logic here - as MobileDevMemo explains very clearly: “While the Unity and ironSource stock prices were victims of the broader tech re-rating and sell-off that is currently gripping public markets, [Apple’s App Tracking Transparency change] has created frictions within the mobile advertising ecosystem that indisputably challenge these companies’ operating models.”
Don’t forget that Unity already generates more revenue from its mobile ad offerings than its engine. And one big prize was ironSource’s mediation platform, LevelPlay, which allows you to analyze ROI, then pick & choose ad networks to get the cheapest new users for your F2P iOS and Android games. Good stuff, if you’re in that space.
But then Unity CEO John Riccitiello did an interview with PocketGamer.biz where he answered a question about ‘thinking about monetization earlier in the process’ as follows: “Ferrari and some of the other high-end car manufacturers still use clay and carving knives. It’s a very small portion of the gaming industry that works that way, and some of these people are my favourite people in the world to fight with – they’re the most beautiful and pure, brilliant people. They’re also some of the biggest fucking idiots.”
Riccitiello went on to say things that I often say in this very newsletter: “developers would throw their game over the wall to the publicist and sales force with literally no interaction beforehand”, and they shouldn’t be doing that. But the vehemence of his initial comments reverberated in ways he might never have suspected.
Neon White’s Ben Esposito might have hit the nail on the head:
As GameDeveloper.com handily explains, a lot of people making smaller or non-F2P games got mad at Unity, a game engine they rely on. Why? Primarily because there’s a lack of trust due to Unity’s corporate size, recent layoffs that included an ‘engine game’ team, & F2P ad-centricity. (Also, ironSource had a history of adware on PC at one point, which didn’t help.)
So what happened next? Unity reps said their CEO was quoted “out of context”. And then Riccitello came back this weekend with a more detailed statement on his Twitter. He does apologize, but you still might not be impressed with it:
My main takeaway from his statement? Riccitiello is trying to draw a big line between games as pastime/art - where “a handful of friends” are enjoying your game, and those commercially minded devs who want “player $ to buy the game or in-game items.” Look - there’s no clean break between the two models, and I’m slightly insulted you are making one, JR.
And while he’s discussing “getting an early read on what players think of their game”, he’s really - in my view - discussing tuning monetization and retention to allow you to acquire users profitably on mobile via ads. Look at the LevelPlay homepage if you don’t believe me - it’s DAU, ARPDAU, and eCPM up the wazoo.
What I’m not hearing is ‘we value our regular PC and console devs trying to do premium or premium+DLC games’. And sure - if you look at the dollar value of those companies to Unity, they just aren’t as important as mobile. And perhaps they seem ‘backward’, monetization wise.
But if I was Unity, I might have considered splitting the messaging differently. You can explain - honestly - that mobile monetization is the chief focus of the merger. But you can add that PC and console devs are still very important to the company, and Unity can help them build, test and scale GaaS _and non-GaaS games too. (If that’s actually, uhh, true.)
What we ended up with is an even bigger ‘you’re dumb not to be making mobile F2P games’ vibe. This is largely true from a $-centric mogul point of view - Riccitiello certainly has the real estate to prove that. But it resonates super badly with the ‘we want to make profitable games’ PC/console crew. Oh dear.
The game discovery news round-up..
Finishing up, let’s take a look at some of the most notable game discovery and platform news of the past few days, as follows:
Sony introduced PlayStation Stars, a new loyalty program where “you’ll earn rewards by completing a variety of campaigns and activities”. Rewards include PSN wallet funds, PlayStation Store products & digital collectibles which are “definitely not NFTs”, Sony said to the Washington Post about 4 times, heh.
TwitchCon just happened in Amsterdam, and here’s Twitch CEO Emmett Shear’s keynote video in under 8 mins. As noted on Twitter by the GM of Elgato, key announces included: “Twitch paid out $1 billion+ to streamers in 2021; 55% revshare will open to all Affiliates; the min threshold for payouts will halve to $50.”
Over on HowToMarketAGame, the dev survey of Steam Next Fest game performance in June has debuted. Notably: games featured in the ‘main’ widget for popular demos added between 15,000 and 43,000 wishlists duing Next Fest. To make it, Chris estimates you either needed 150k+ total wishlists pre-Festival - or to be adding 3,000 wishlists in the week before Next Fest.
NPD’s Mat Piscatella put this fascinating quote out there: “The slowdown in big, mass market friendly new premium game releases has become a significant market challenge over the last few months. The consumer demand is there, but it's not being satiated.” Not enough big, $60-$70 games? Megan Fox adds: “They've undermined AAAA to the point now that bits of the market might start breaking off”, and suggests these gamers might “diffuse into F2P and subscription services.”
Switch eShop weirdness abounds: Mini Metro got an incredibly blatant eShop clone - possibly just someone grabbing this Unity Asset Store gameplay clone and putting out a Switch version. And somebody pointed us to eShop game Membrane, which is priced at $250 (?!) and is now ‘99% off at $2.50’. Sigh - perhaps more rules and active moderation needed, Nintendo?
Garena Free Fire has been a massive F2P mobile hit as a PUBG clone-ish battle royale. And Gamemakers has a chat to the authors of a free Naavik report about how the game - which has had over 1 billion downloads - has thrived until recently. Recommended if you want to understand how global F2P hits work.
A couple of new PlayStation Plus details: the ‘new in July’ Game Catalog line-up for PS+ top tiers includes Stray, FFVII Remake Intergrade, The Avengers, and more - though not many indies (get on that, Sony!) And the ‘Ubisoft+ Classics’ tier you get with PS++ - slightly confusing - is adding some Assassin’s Creed games.
Here’s an excellent postmortem of the Kickstarter for Kitori Academy (above), a cozy/whimsical magical life sim game which ended up raising around 3x its $35k goal. The devs leveraged pre-KS email signups, cross-promotion and streamer reach-out with the crowdfunding announce trailer to excellent effect. (And the game has 10k Steam followers already - impressive!)
Keeping an eye on Chinese gov game approvals,. looks like a monthly cadence may be back, as “67 online games, including titles belonging to developers Youzu Interactive and iDreamSky” got approved. But: “Industry giants Tencent and NetEase did not receive licences in the July batch, nor in the two previous batches in April and June.” Wuhwoh.
Finally, the pandemic certainly made some physical collecting hobbies get a little over-the-top. But Pokemon card collectors got THIS excited? Wowsers:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]