I have been working in the VFX industry for twenty years and as an artist, I've always found it difficult to work with the technical tools, especially for environment creation, so over the years I have developed a lot of art-friendly tools to make my job easier. I started porting some of my tools over to real-time engines and my young daughter was watching me paint some trees on a landscape and was fascinated and wanted to have a go, a few hours later she was still painting, and I wondered if there was a market for something like this.
Lesson 1: Everything takes twice as long as you think it will
I sketched a quick GDD in November last year and thought it would take a month to build a simple diorama creator. While I got the basic framework happening in a few weeks it actually took a little over 2 months to get it to a polished state and in January it was ready and I released on itch.
Lesson 2: You need external sales to make it on itch
With no social media followers or any previous announcements, sales were dismal on the first day, so I simply posted the trailer to various subs on Reddit and sold a few thousand copies in the first month. I was pretty happy about that as I have had a ton of people tell me releasing on itch was pointless, which would be true if all you did was release it there, but it turns out that if you get a bunch of copies sold outside of itch, you will be at the top of your tags where you can catch their traffic organically and then also get featured by them as they see you selling and the potential in your game.
Lesson 3: If you keep updating you will keep selling
I could have left it at that, but I had a lot of suggestions from my users and spent the next 7 months updating it regularly and getting ready for a steam release. Overall I had 4 major updates including adding castles, more assets to build with, Landscaping tools and the ability to import your own models. With every update I would get more sales as I had another trailer to share on Reddit, more sales would also mean a bump back up to the top of your chosen tags on itch.
Lesson 4: Find your audience
In the beginning I was sharing trailers with the usual indie game subs but soon found a hungry group within worldbuilding and dungeons and dragons, so made sure that I gave them tools like map makers that would help them with their uses, and every update would gather thousands of upvotes on those subreddits and also a lot of sales. So make sure you find interested groups outside of just the usual gaming subs.
Lesson 5: You can advertise to Reddit but very carefully
Reddit is a fickle beast, you can do really well on it or fail miserably, the key I have found is to offer something useful. I had success with the D&D crowd as I was making things they wanted, I made a couple of iama's that did well not by saying "check out my game" but by letting them ask questions about how to get into game dev. Both Mac and Linux subreddits are more than happy to see your game or app as there seems to be very little software for them so I recommend building to that if you can, one of the rare subreddits where you can freely advertise. Some of the bigger gaming subs are hard due to the number of posts they get but providing you are sharing something fun and catchy, you can have a lot of success there, but I warn you its a matter of timing and luck. One gif I posted got downvoted immediately, so I delete it and waited a few hours and posted again, and boom front page. I don't know what the formula is lol but you have to experiment, and it seems that a failed post might not be your fault but just posted at the wrong time and or day or even just caught a bunch of grumpy Redditors lol. For me what has worked is posting a few hours before the US wakes up, during mid-week, possibly after sacrificing a chicken on your keyboard
Lesson 6: You need fans or marketing before going to steam
In August I set up a Steam page, people were still abusing the wishlist system by changing their release dates and I hardly got any myself due to that until 3 days before I released when they finally fixed it and my wishlists finally got up to a few thousand. I really needed to get as much of my previous users to buy again on steam so that I had enough launch sales for the algorithm, and luckily I had enough loyal fans through Twitter, Reddit, Youtube and Discord to make that happen. Launch went very well and I stayed on the new and trending page for a week. If I had just launched there, it would have been buried with all the other apps and I would be writing a very different postmortem. So please don't just release on steam, have fans or a marketing plan first! you need a certain number of sales before the algorithm decides you are worthy of the front page.
Lesson 7: Keep updating even on steam
I often hear that after launch day sales will drastically slow down, but I have been updating every few weeks and sales are still going great. Keep your users happy and they will keep recommending your game.
Lesson 8: Localize
I noticed strong sales happening in China and Japan, so I added a simple localization that I got translated on fiver for 50 bucks to the UI and that has helped with sales over there tremendously. I have a girl now that I pay 100 a week to look after the social media over there and answer questions for the users and that has been a great help.
Lesson 9: Pirates can be your friends
When I was on itch I noticed pirated copies being sold and sales numbers increased when that happened, I posted about that on r/gamedev before and the same happened a few days later after the steam launch. This time I decided to post on one of the pirate sites and the responses were great. While I don't know how many pirates I converted, there were plenty of good reasons given as to why they pirated, and I often get users tell me that they initially pirated my game but eventually bought it to support. My personal conclusion is that piracy is not a lost sale, but actually help sales.
There you go that's my 9 lessons learnt, so far I have sold 10k units on itch and 25k units on steam with both platforms still selling way better every week than any 9 to 5 job in the VFX industry I no longer work in. I will probably keep updating and then eventually start on a new thing or finish one of my many many prototypes lol
Hopefully, this will help you with your game. Got any questions? Fire away!
This article was originally published on Reddit and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.