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Spellbound: April Update

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slayemin

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It's been a tough few months. Spellbound is not really selling very well on Steam. It's to be expected, since the game is both in Early Access mode and has zero marketing behind it. But, it's still a disappointing reality. I'm optimistic that it will eventually change. All I have to do is keep working away at the game, add more content, start marketing and promoting it, and create more interest and attention.

The biggest challenge right now is financial. I'm quite broke, but that's not really news for anyone, but it is very limiting. It means I can't hire anyone to help me. It means I can't spend money on marketing and advertising. It means I have to spend my time working on side projects which bring in extra money. Ultimately, it lengthens my timeline to final delivery. My costs have become extremely lean. My operating costs are now $400/month and I have to buy food and pay rent. I have to do everything without spending money because I don't really have money to spend.

For the month of April, I have spent most of my efforts on trying to figure out how to make money on the side and how to market and advertise my game. I'm working in an office of film guys and they are offering their clients 360 video services, and will fly around the world to film and make 360 video content. Their target hardware platform is the GearVR, so they recently pinged me to help them produce their content. Easy! The first project was a short 2 minute 360 film for a film producer. He needed it made in time for NAB so that he could give demos and get work. I delivered. He was happy. Now, I just need to invoice him. I'm certain there will be much more work in the future. Dell is also another client. Their project is a bit more involved: They have three different philanthropy programs they want to promote, so I'm creating their application for GearVR as well. What's interesting about this project is that it was originally just going to be a series of 360 videos viewed in GearVR, but now that I'm involved, it has become a much more interactive VR experience. The film making and VR gaming industries are merging together, and this product is a testament to that. I foresaw this over two years ago, but didn't really expect to be one of the people to bring our industries closer together. But, it's exciting. I think this project will raise the bar for everyone else doing 360 videos.

I've also been doing a little bit of consulting on the side. A fellow VR company is trying to get their GearVR app submitted to the Oculus Store, but their problem is that the phone overheats within 5 minutes. They asked me to come help them troubleshoot this. So, how do you troubleshoot a nebulous problem like this? With super debugging skills (see my last post). You can't exactly set a break point on a particular line of code or point at one thing and blame it, you have to have a really good, thorough debugging process. Anyways, I helped them out and they're now on the right path to resolving their problem.

But I'm not just doing VR consulting to make money. There really isn't enough money to make it worth my time yet, and it comes with opportunity costs. I'm also selling my girlfriends product "The Perfect Wine Opener" at various street fairs, home shows, and events around the pacific northwest. Yeah. I'm a programmer, selling products to complete strangers. And I'm actually very good at it. Like, scary good. Put me in your crappiest show in the crappiest booth, and I will sell the shit out of your wine openers. Two weekends ago, I almost sold out completely and made around $2,000 -- in a weekend! This weekend, I went to an outdoor show, which was completely miserable because it was cold, rainy and windy, and I still sold $1,200 of product. I've had a guy go out to get me a coffee and come back, and I've sold another $100 in the three minutes he was gone. I honestly think that sales is a very wonderful, valuable skill to have. Think about how amazing it would be to be both a skilled salesman and a VR content creator at the same time. Not only do you understand exactly what your customer wants to get out of your experiences, you can also build it.

So, it's a bit of a perplexing wonder that Spellbound isn't selling very well, considering how good I am at selling wine openers. I'm treating all of this as a science problem to solve (we engineers are good at these!). I'm going to use the same process I use to debug software to debug my marketing problem: So, why isn't anyone buying my game? What's my hypothesis? How do I test my hypothesis? How do I measure the reaction? What assumptions am I making?

Last week, I assumed that if I created a Reddit AMA, I would get a lot of extra traffic to my storefront and I would see a measurable bump in sales. So, I spent the whole afternoon answering questions about VR game development. Surely, people are interested in virtual reality, game development, philosophy, ethics, war, and all of them together, right?! Those were all stupid assumptions I made. Apparently, there wasn't much interest. So, why do some AMA's get 1,500 questions and others like mine get 24 questions and engagement with 7 people? Probably because I'm not a celebrity or really weird/interesting? I have no idea. Regardless, the test results showed that there was absolutely zero change in traffic or sales from my established baseline. My hypothesis was proven wrong.

And that's okay! It's 100% acceptable to be wrong! In fact, the faster you can figure out that you're wrong, the faster you can quit doing the wrong things and try different wrong things! Eventually, you'll try something that isn't wrong and you'll do something right! The key is to not get down when something negative happens!!!!!!

I guess this is what makes me so good at sales. Every rejection, every objection, is perfectly fine. Just be like a rock in the bottom of a stream and let it roll off of you like water. Learn and move on fast. It's all about having a positive, optimistic attitude, no matter what is happening. Broke? Keep your head up and keep charging forward! Getting shot at? Keep your head down but don't stop smiling -- you're still alive! People quit your team? That's to bad, it's certainly a setback, but you know who won't ever quit your team? Yourself! You'll get new people eventually -- success attracts them. An indomitable spirit, positive attitude and a strong work ethic will steamroll any obstacle in your path between yourself and success.

I'm a betting man, and I would still bet on myself. The lack of funds is just a small, temporary problem / challenge, but there are much bigger problems to solve in my future. I've got an industry to define and build.

On that front, I have been going through the process of getting Spellbound onto the Oculus Store. It's every bit of a painful process as you'd imagine. First, you have to make your marketing materials and create your storefront. Then you have to submit a build to Oculus and go through a QA review process. I've been rejected three times. The first time, I didn't have an "entitlement check", which means I'm not checking to see if the game is a legitimate purchase. I missed that in the plethora of documentation. Second time around, I ran into this really, really annoying "black screen" bug which only happened on the oculus rift with a packaged build for levels which contained sub levels. This took me over a week to isolate and identify. It was obviously a game breaking bug. The third time I got rejected, it's because my game isn't hitting the required 90 frames per second. This is where I'm currently stuck. My scenes are complex and heavy, and I average around 45-60 frames per second. Once I can consistently hit that magical 90fps mark in all parts of my game, I'll resubmit. It's a tough benchmark to hit while trying not to lose quality in content. But, after I get accepted onto the Oculus Store, I'll have my game available on two different distribution channels. Then I can have no sales on both channels! :D But no, really, it's actually a good thing. It increases my "discoverability" and any additional marketing and advertising I eventually push out, will make my game easier to find and purchase. I think the way this works is that the more successful a game is on a storefront, the higher it "ranks" in the listings and featured sections. The more it is featured, the more eyeballs it gets and the more it is purchased. It turns into a self promoting cycle which snowballs. Naturally, these storefronts will want to continue promoting products which sell very well. It only makes sense, right? There's no incentive to promote garbage which doesn't sell well. If you take 30% from every sale and promote stuff that doesn't sell, you don't make much money. The key is to be able to say, "This will sell well. People who buy it, will like it." Am I there yet? I'm not sure. My biggest problem is that my game doesn't have enough content to make it compelling. But, that's also a temporary problem. I am also very interested in making this into a multiplayer game. But, multiplayer is going to be challenging if there aren't enough players to play with yet. So, I also need to grow my player base to justify multiplayer. Currently, I average about 1-2 concurrent sessions globally, so spending a few months building multiplayer capabilities would be a wasted effort. So, expand the player base, add more content, add multiplayer, make game better, rinse, repeat.

In another recent development, I met with the Nullspace VR team last week and tried out their Hardlight VR haptics suit. They've recently had a successful kickstarter and have been getting a lot of positive press recently. They're obviously a hardware company, and as they say, "hardware is hard!". Hardware is another platform to build content for. Anyways, I tried out their suit. It was pretty cool. I felt that the VR demos they gave didn't really do their tech proper justice. I could do way better. But it's cool tech. So, I'm going to add support for their hardware in a future release of Spellbound. When a zombie claws at you, you'll feel it on your body. When you die and they munch your corpse, you'll feel it. When you get hit by a sizzling wraith spell, you'll feel the impact and burn on your body. It'll be amazing. They played Spellbound and really liked it as well, so in a few weeks or months, we're both going to announce another title with official support for their hardware. I think this will help both of our teams. I need the marketing exposure, they need content to support their hardware, and consumers need amazing, immersive VR experiences which takes VR to the next level.

Anyways, VR is going to be a big deal in a few years. I hope I have a part in building its future. Right now, I have to make sure I can survive and be a part of it.

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"It's been a tough few months. Spellbound is not really selling very well on Steam. It's to be expected, since the game is both in Early Access mode and has zero marketing behind it. But, it's still a disappointing reality. I'm optimistic that it will eventually change. All I have to do is keep working away at the game, add more content, start marketing and promoting it, and create more interest and attention."

That's interesting.  That is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.  It'll be interesting to learn more about what you've learned through all of this.  Currently I'm thinking there may come a time when an exponential interest in some project becomes a possibility.  I haven't the foggiest idea really, but the thinking goes that if you can have your marketing in place when that wave of interest hits you can try to capitalise as much as possible on it.  I figure success is ~5000+ purchases.  The only question you've got to ask yourself, or myself, is how long do you want to wait around to see if that wave is going to come along?  This is all coming from someone who's never tried selling a game before. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around some of this before I get to your stage.  

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"It's been a tough few months. Spellbound is not really selling very well on Steam. It's to be expected, since the game is both in Early Access mode and has zero marketing behind it. But, it's still a disappointing reality. I'm optimistic that it will eventually change. All I have to do is keep working away at the game, add more content, start marketing and promoting it, and create more interest and attention."

That's interesting.  That is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.  It'll be interesting to learn more about what you've learned through all of this.  Currently I'm thinking there may come a time when an exponential interest in some project becomes a possibility.  I haven't the foggiest idea really, but the thinking goes that if you can have your marketing in place when that wave of interest hits you can try to capitalise as much as possible on it.  I figure success is ~5000+ purchases.  The only question you've got to ask yourself, or myself, is how long do you want to wait around to see if that wave is going to come along?  This is all coming from someone who's never tried selling a game before. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around some of this before I get to your stage.  

Yeah, I think realistically, I'm not going to succeed if I don't do any marketing or advertising. Marketing and advertising costs money, and there are a million and one ways to do it wrong and waste your money. So, how do you do marketing and advertising for your product without spending money? Get other people to do it for you! How do you do that? Create business partnerships! Create a product they want to be involved with! (way easier said than done, but high production values is the starting point).

I think in my case, it's going to be an uphill slog where I have to fight hard for every single sale, unlike those other lucky game devs who have somehow gotten tons and tons of media attention throughout their development cycle and gotten millions in venture capital funding, followed by a successful release... I'm a bit jelly at how easy they make it look, but I imagine there's a lot happening behind the scenes that few people know about.

When it comes to waiting patiently for success, it may never actually happen. But, your patience is determined not by your mental state of mind, but by the patience of your bank account (and maybe wife/girlfriend). In the case of VR, we may need to wait a while for the industry to become mainstream in order for indies to be profitable, but "profits" are less important right now than just surviving and getting market share and making a positive, early impression in the industry.

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