Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Postmortem: Vortex Attack's Publishing Venture (Part2)

Following the document from the first part (click to view)....

In the first post I was talking about the process I had to go through to release the game on Steam 'Early access'. I was about to tell you some interesting statistics from when I made the game public.

So these are the stats we got after publishing the game as "early access":
POST MORTEM EARLY ACCESS STATS (27 March to 27 April 2015):
For the first month it had had:
  • ~ 907,133 impressions (~717,448 first week)
  • ~23,320 page visits (~18.061 first week)
  • Sold: ~50 units (from which ~40 from the first week)
  • Steam keys redeemed: ~1650 activations (from the bundle)
A couple of weeks after 'early access' release day, there weren't many downloads, it was pretty much stalled. There were a few people involved in testing and balancing the ships, power-ups and enemies. I was also able to find usability issues and game exploits along with a few some other issues: in this sense, 'early access' was working great.

While I was working in all of this, I sent some friendly emails here and there about the game telling about this WIP version (Work in Progress) but some people reviewed the game as if it was final or close to final.

Our mistake: Sending emails to some people to just check the game out for hype or personal opinions. 
Result: Early judging. To be honest, reviews weren't that bad but they didn't reflect the final version. What is worse: those reviews would remain active forever, and people would find those later even with the whole (final) game released. That would confuse people and others will think is a unpolished game with poor graphics. Luckily I had the chance to send a second revision to a retro Magazine (view here) before it was finally published.

How to do it correctly: If you want to generate hype, show some screen shots but show as little as possible, just to awake some curiosity.
I believe is best to show your game in fairs: Let the people play it, you can tell them what is being changed and what is in early states. Most of them will understand what you say, some of them don't understand about game development and they will assume changes will be minor but if their experience is good enough they surely will have some interest in the final version. Let them play without your input, analyse how they play, what they don't understand and after a bit. Then, ask for feedback: what they like or dislike. Also, very important, don't lose them: ask for their email to notify them when the FINAL version is out. 

Also, very important, if you are showing your game online, in a magazine or anywhere you can't directly interact with the viewer; graphics should as close to final version as possible. In my case, game graphics were extremely un-detailed and primitive, almost as place-holders. I believe that many people received Vortex attack as a crappy little game. It doesn't matter how fun and smooth it plays, if their first visual impression is bad, it will remain bad for a long time, and that is pretty hard to revert!
So, in my case, lots of people got the wrong impression. Letting the people play the game too early might work well in fairs but not online, especially if they have to pay for what they see in screen, was it worth it? Most people didn't think it was (and of course it wasn't). So after this first impression people can recognize the logo of the game and will avoid it in the future.

Release version 1.0 day.

Time passed and I improved the game and updated to version 1.0 (in May), some of the upgrades were:
  • improved cover art*
  • balanced player's ships
  • added more ships to unlock (20 in total)
  • improved and balanced enemy AI
  • balanced the difficulty curve
  • balanced and created new bosses shooting patterns, AI and health.
  • game menus
  • corrected English and Spanish texts
But I also, worked in the engine to improve the experience overall:
  • game-pad redefining buttons code (it was very tricky)
  • fixed memory leaks bugs
  • improved performance
  • added a benchmark system to check system capabilities.

* This is the first cover art I made for Steam:
Again it was too simple and didn't say anything about the game.

So decided to have another go:
This wasn't looking good, it was too messy and looked a bit crap.

I needed a real illustrator that could make something better than what I could possibly do:

Fortunately, after a couple of weeks I found an artist to help me out, and he managed to send me the cover a week before release:
Artist's cover based in the primitive ship models. 

This cover job happened in April. Unfortunately, right after, we improved most of the enemy ships so the cover was already outdated when version 1.0 was out.

After all of this: I had to create a new video with the new game-play and its graphics, this is the best I came up with. This time, took me a couple of days and I wanted to show more the true spirit of the game craziness:


Note that I have been saying 'version 1.0' but not "final version". There were even more bits I wanted to improve but I convinced myself that I had to release the game back that date. I didn't want to keep going on updating forever like happened with Beekyr. Sadly, it turns out that after that day I released another 3 major updates in July, September and November. And then a another small (and final?) one in January 2016...

The release month was extremely stressful, I had to make sure the game and press kit looked as clean and up to date as possible. Also, I had to re-check everything in the game for a few times, making sure game didn't break, stress it, test it, play it with friends, send it over to testers, wait for their feedback and errors and go to sleep at 4.a.m most of the days

Also, that same week, I had to travel to talk about it and present the new Vortex Attack Arcade Machine in an festival called "ARCADE CON 1" in an Arcade Room called Arcade Vintage. Then, a week later go to another fair. Of course all the feedback I was receiving was very positive. I felt almost like a rock-star but dead tired.

The arcade machine in Arcade Vintage

But, everything is not all wonderful, dealing with all of this along with my also busy personal life with my son (<1 year old) was really hard. I had to sleep little time and become not very social for weeks to get things done. I had rough times with my partner but in the end it all ended up well.

Going back to the release day in Steam....
In the steam Store, admin page, I clicked the Release button what would un-tag the game as "Early Access", update the steam page with the final contents and place a banner of the game in front of 1.000.000 people.... This is a critical moment in the release of any game in Steam.. Especially if you have little budget for Marketing!

Want to see how did it go? Here are the statistics:
RELEASE VERSION (1.0) STATS (27 May to 27 June 2015):
For the first month we had:
  • ~1,168,000 impressions (~817,000 first week)
  • ~18,000 real visits (~11,500 first week)
  • Sold: ~150 units
  • Steam keys redeemed: ~220 activations

After these stats, I think you should know more about sending the press kits to the media:
A week before release, I sent the first wave of press notes and after a week a second wave to only the people that didn't read it already. There was quite a lot of opening rate on the emails. It was a near 30% and we even made it into IGN Spain. Unfortunately, most reviews were done by small sites. It appeared in Siliconera but it wasn't a review, just a direct copy from my press kit. Most reviews scored over 7.5/10 in many places except for one Italian site that gave a 6.5/10 because game was far too random (later fixed). One American video review that liked the game*1 but hated the graphics.

Our mistake: Releasing the game, once again, too early and to make it worse, sending the press kit to almost 700 contacts.
Result: Early judging again, this version was more approximate to the real final product but still needed many graphical tweaks. As result we had one reviews telling that some some ships (player and bosses) looked like place holder graphics*1 . I must admit there looked very flat and poor, I never got round to improve those graphics as I was super busy with the actual gameplay. I believed it was what it mattered mostly, but realized that graphics were more important for everybody... Anyway, I fixed those graphics later in version 1.1). But once I fixed all of that the review was already done, and media had no interest in publishing an updated review.
How to do it correctly: I should have waited for another couple of months more and probably uploaded this as the original and first "early access".
I believe now that Early access should be used for uploading betas. And I mean real Betas, with most of the final graphics and features, just testing and game-play to fix. And very important: avoid publishing if it has very primitive aspects of the game like mine had.

After this version, I didn't see a big impact in sales or downloads. There were certainly more downloads than before for a while but not the numbers I had in my head.... Trying to boost downloads, I decided to work in the game for 6 weeks more and add some cool features I had in my head:
  • online tournaments to the game with prizes and sponsors.
  • better ship's graphics and bosses.
  • steam trading cards, steam icons and backgrounds (this was suggested by some people)
Even with this update, sales didn't improve that much either, there wasn't any press kit sent or any extra visibility: this depended entirely on Steam or me posting in blogs or twitter. But a few days later after I was on holiday. I couldn't push for more sales and I didn't go online for a few weeks so sales didn't rise too much. I didn't feel guilty because I really needed those holidays!

Tournaments begin.

After my holidays, in September, the tournaments started and I tweeted about them quite a few times, but I didn't see any significant extra activity. I got cool sponsors that gave away lots of prizes (click to see them) but I believe not many people knew about the tournaments. Also, the button (inside the game) wasn't labelled. I found out that people are not very curious, most of them didn't click it. Note: I ended up adding button tags in a later update. (click to see this update)

I went very active in social networks: I personally spoke to some people about the tournament and they were happy to join (they are free!). In the end there only few participants, in fact 90% of the participants were the people I spoke to...  I still blame the button not being clear enough and that Kaleidogames not that well known outside my circles (even though I have about 4000 followers in twitter). I tried to make more noise but it's definitely not enough with so many studios also trying to make noise as well. Sadly, there were some amazing players that never made it to the tournaments. But I'm happy that the few players really played hard to improve their records.

Along with the tournaments I finally ended up improving the logo and cover art with the new ships graphics. I think it was greatly improved from the original!

Note: Original was pretty nice but that hand made feeling didn't look right for this specific game.
 Final poster, based in the final in-game graphics (1.1)

Before this last cover update.
I wanted to make the final version of ALL graphics, including player ships. So I spent a few days improving all graphics and animations from the game, this includes player ships, bosses, shoots, power-ups, vortices, enemies and particle effects.

You can see most graphic updates that player ships have suffered across all game development from September 2014 to November 2015 and how those abstract shapes became so more mature and detailed:
 Version from the first Alpha (October 2014)

 Version from the second Alpha, animates lines added. (November 2014)

  Version from Early Access, shapes and shadows tweaked (March 2014)

   Version from version 1.0, some detail added (May 2014)

   Final version from version 1.2, detail, ship parts and shadows improved (Sept 2015)
Includes some extra unlockable ships from higher levels.

With every graphics revision I was unconsciously convincing myself the graphics were fine. I was telling myself some excuses that made those graphics valid. Now, after seeing these updates I can clearly see they weren't good enough. If you are working in your own this will probably happen to you as well. Remember to be objective as possible, because if you aren't, the game will probably fail.
At this stage I was finally happy with the visuals (and the rest of the game) and I ended up sending another round of press kits  (~700 emails) but almost nobody answered (about 2-3?) or published anything.
Our mistake: Sending a second press kit for the same game.
Result: It doesn't matter how much better the updates are. The media won't appreciate any of this, they want new content not new revisions. They have NO interest in reviewing it again. This would happen if they feel this update would be interesting for the community. IE An update as a DLC in a popular game might be published but should not happen for a small indie game. Unless they personally know you, they might do in that case.
How to do it correctly: When sending a press kit, make sure that you will be sending a final version. Don't do it if you feel that you can improve the game, we all have limits but it is better to hold for a little longer if you will you can do better in a near future. If you think you will improve it, then I would like to emphasize: Keep the game unpublished or as 'early access' (if you already are) until you can display a fine product with the real final art.
I will say it a different way: keep yourself calm, don't rush to release a game too early. A good way to know if you are in good track is to stop working on the product and work on something else. This requires to not open the game or to see anything related with it and don't view any in game graphics. Then you will be able to regain some objectivity, this is a really hard thing to do but it might necessary when you work alone.When you work in a team, it might be a bit different.

Adding Steam's Big Picture to the game.
A friend noticed Vortex Attack wasn't appearing in "Steam's Big picture" because the game and menus had to be fully usable and playable with a game controller. And that was pretty important as many people use Steam this way!

Try to implement Steam's big picture ASAP, you will gain visibility.
Steam Big Picture: Converts Steam's client to full-screen and your PC will interact as if it were a game console. If users are using this mode in a TV room then controller support has to be total, that's why it's important. Check it out:
This is "Steam - BIG PICTURE". Pretty nice , isn't it?

Back to the fairs - Updating to the final versions

I took the game back again to Madrid Games Week 2015. This time game was polished and almost complete, with just a few tweaks left. People were instantly in love with the game*, I knew I was close to the final version but I decided to take more notes of any problems that were still in the game. At this stage I thought it wouldn't be any issues but turned out that I could improve some bits related to new players. The game requires the player to know something. Instructions were right in front of them, in the screen as a massive text banner, but they didn't see it because they were focused on gameplay. I ended up placing those instructions with some attractive images and stopping the game for a couple of seconds: that worked perfectly. This one of this biggest reasons why going to fairs feels like a massive play test.

*There will be always someone that won't get the game. If that number is low you shouldn't worry. There are some strange people in fairs!

Our mistake: Thinking that people read text on screen even though we only showed that text when they did something wrong.
Result: People get bothered by text on screen. No matter how important they are.
How to do it correctly: If you don't want to bother users, try to display the tutorial text ONLY when the user is playing incorrectly. But also, place that text in a clean environment and make sure nothing else is happening in gameplay: no bullets, enemies or auto-scroll should be there and stop them controlling the player for a second. Otherwise the text box will appear in the screen. It will become a pain but they will still won't read it! The only solution I came up with is to PAUSE the game while you transition the text in, and make very noticeable. They will know that box has just  appeared and then wait for a prudent time for them to read the text without having to rush. I believe this is the only way to display instructions in a frantic shmup game. If you put them in a different way, you might fail. (If you do it differently and you are positive it's working please let us know!)

After the fair, a few weeks later, I was presenting the game again in ParlaBytes 2015 , those kids that played my game a year earlier, came with many more friends just to play it in the Vortex Attack bartop. They wanted to play again... a lot!. Those were Vortex Attack's first fans, and now they were experts of the game.

Me and my first real fan, he's wearing a KaleidoGames t-shirt! Such a good feeling.
NOTE: I pixelated both faces as you can imagine, he is not old enough for me to put a photo from him freely on the internet and it's not fair on him to just disappear from this moment so I disappear too.

They played that last version and I didn't have to improve or fix anything; they had no requests.

Fairs aftermath
After every fair with the game in Steam, I was able to tell people about the game being already available to download, they bought the game from the fair or from home. Always getting a steam key or if they didn't want Steam, they would get a copy from itch.io which is DRM free but it has less features. This is specially good for home arcade machines.

People really had a lot of fun in all of the fairs. I ended up compiling a new video about their experiences:

Video : Vortex Attack in Fairs compilation

Sometimes, if I was going to expose the game in a fair with the Arcade Vintage crew, we would be displaying the game in two dedicated machines at once: a bartop and a full-sized arcade machine:

At this stage, I felt the game was complete, no more updates were necessary...

But, as usual, something else happened!

Tournament rules were being exploited and I had to fix them if I wanted to avoid funny/hacky hi-scores and also I tweaked gameplay more (for its thousand time) to fine tune it again. It was good but there is always a way to make it better. I couldn't miss the chance. Version 1.2 was here and this time I was convinced that was going to stay forever.

Also here is the main menu layout evolution:

I felt confident with the game again. I needed a boost of visibility. So I pressed the famous visibility button of steam for a round of visibility.

In Steam admin system there is a button that will place a banner of your game in Steam market somewhere in the screen in front of 500.000 users (or more if you are doing great ie: selling a lot). Normally this will take about 5h to complete and this doesn't mean players will click it or see it but it is a small bump in sales. It is intended to be used after a big update. Don't rely on those buttons too much, sometimes they can be disappointing as you can see:
  • ~662,000 impressions
  • ~2.740 real visits
  • Sold: <10 units
After this, nothing really that special has happened. The tournament ended happily and new players joined after it.

Sales stats
After reading all my stats you figure out how well the game has sold and when. It's interesting how the game is not currently stalled and it doesn't have the typical long tail.

Here is a sales statistics since "Early access" in April 2015 to January 2016:

Steam sales stats
The game still going with new players spending a fair amount of hours in the game. Some people have played it for a couple of hours and some others have played it for over 50. Also, I can tell the few people that are able to find the game and buy it are very happy with it. Vortex Attack currently has positive ratings with over 85% of total votes. For me this is insane but it makes me feel confident: KaleidoGames have created another fun game. This time has been a lot more successful. And after this experience, I have learned that I surely not making those mistakes again in the future. Also next game will reach a wider audience and graphics are currently developed by real professionals.

In January I made another round of upgrades including gameplay improvements, new stages , enemies and a new set of Steam banners (they call them capsules) and by the end of the month I was ready to publish them all:
With that I uploaded the latest upgrade, version 1.3, hoping to leave it like that forever. Always hoping some famous guy discovers the game and increases my visibility enough to sell a few  thousand copies, but chances are low as winning the lottery. To be honest I feel we should always keep our hopes and moral high otherwise it would be impossible to be an Indie Game Developer.

I hope you enjoyed this document as much as I did writing it.
If you want to take a look or contribute please get the game.
I'm sure you will like it, it is a shmup game, but I can assure you it's very playable and fun.

I will be pushing this game in the future for a little bit more, it well deserves it even if it doesn't have the support from the media. After all, it's not a mainstream game but an arcade one.
If you want to play it go to Arcade Vintage in Spain in Petrer, the game is permanently with a dedicated machine.

I hope you liked this post, it has been a pleasure sharing all of this with you guys, I hope you don't mess it up like I did and appreciate all the information I shared with you.

This is the end the post-mortem. I hope some you have found this information interesting!
If you want to contribute with more information or statistics post them underneath, we will appreciate them!

More info about the author:
KaleidoGames site: http://www.kaleidogames.com
Vortex Attack site: http://www.vortexattack.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaleidoGames 
Kaleidogames Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KaleidoGames-1537985409799803/?fref=ts
Vortex Attack Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VortexAttackArcade/?fref=ts 


  1. Great set of articles!! Thank you for the share.

  2. Nice article! This is really usefull as there are really a lot of lone wolves publishing in steam, but, as every game is different, having a clear log of early access development up to final version is a bless :-)

    Also, i totally agree on game showcase at fairs and exhibitions, people tend to be more positive and make more constructive criticism than online testers.

    Thanks, and good luck in your next project, i'd love to read about it ;-)