Gamasutra: Alexis Gallant-Vigneault’s Blog – Struggling: a game dev story about how you can still fail by doing everything right!


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While running Chasing Rats Games for the past few years, I’ve come to realize how hard it is to get actual stats and facts about game development and launches. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a game dev community in Montreal that have shared their trials and tribulations so I don’t make the same mistakes or fall into the same traps as other studios. In the same vein, I’ve always been lurking in forums to read up on the latest from game devs who were kind enough to show transparency and I promised myself I would one day be the one to do it, so here goes!

Six months ago, right in between the latest Lego Star Wars and Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition, our first commercial project, Struggling, launched during the Opening Night Live of Gamescom 2020 in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators. Published by AAA studio, Frontier Developments, in less than two weeks, more than 10 million people heard about struggling from events, media coverage, Youtube videos or Twitch streams. The reaction was incredible, the Steam reviews for the game was 95% positive and since our launch we sold a whopping 12000 copies of the game!

Whoops…

This article’s goal is basically to tell our studio’s story, from Struggling (see what I did there?) to get wishlists with limited resources to the release of our first game during the opening ceremony of one of Europe’s biggest video game events and most of all… Realizing that you can do everything right and still not achieve the levels of success you might expect from a video game launch.

 

Starting up

As the typical Indie story goes, Chasing Rats Games started with a couple of guys in a basement, developing an overscoped game while reading about the Indiepocalypse. We had a solid prototype that kept getting praise from friends and decided to go for it and make our own video game. Like most, our background was more in game production and we had a lot to learn about how to commercialize games. From lurking on forums and through our research, we had created a checklist as a reference to what seemed to be a recipe for success:

  • Find and reach your community as soon as you can

  • Get 50 000 wishlists on Steam for algorithm related reasons

  • Get as much exposure as you can from social media, online events and conventions.

  • Make sure your game stands out, either from its concept or by the way you present it.

  • Keep an eye on the latest marketing trends and popular hashtags to react to opportunities

What we lacked in marketing skills we more than made up for in creativity, and I think you need to see Struggling’s trailer to grasp what we mean!

Struggling is a physics-based co-op platformer where up to two players control the same screeching pile of flesh. Inspired by Rick and Morty, Getting Over It and Human: Fall Flat, the game was designed to create strong reactions, to stand out with its absurd art style and to bring a refreshing dose of adventure to the physics-based genre. These were the three pillars we wanted to communicate for our marketing campaign.

Each of these pillars were based on with a specific intention:

  • Strong reactions were meant to create incentives for either content creators or from convention crowds to take a look at the game. Love it or hate it, Struggling left no one indifferent.

  • The absurd art style was there to catch the eyes on social media and on Steam. Our atypical character, our disturbing voice acting and the overall absurd look of Struggling definitely is one of a kind. 

  • The adventure sub-genre approach was to create a different experience from other recent physics-based titles. We decided to feature a fully-fledged campaign with seamless transitions* in-between chapters instead of the typical “bunch of small and contained levels” which a lot of physics-based games go for.

With our almost rock solid marketing guidelines, we had to get to work: Facebook ads, reddit posts, conventions were all our top priorities. We also had to maximize our glorious budget of next-to-nothing USD. 

We had to get creative. We tried to bypass most of the self-promotion rules on gaming subreddits to try to raise awareness to the game, but also, to identify which communities were best reacting to it and which type of material was the most successful in these communities.

One of our most successful reddit post was on /r/GamePhysics, which is typically used to share weird physics interactions in AAA games. What we observed from this post was that it was the most suitable content for this specific subreddit. It was a GIF of a bug, posted on a forum about bugs. 140 000 views on Gfycat, more than 5000 upvotes, 70 comments (one of them was us shamelessly self-promoting our Steam page) which converted into 52 wish lists in two days.

We were far away from the 50 000, if you ask me. 

At the time, we had a specific goal in mind and we were only looking at tangible results. 5200 upvotes is a cool number, but 52 wishlist is not and 1% conversion rate is even worse. The thing we did not take in consideration, and I’ll come back to this concept later, was that we were creating a wonderful thing in marketing called Awareness! 

Every post we made and every event we atended gained us a little bit of wishlists to our Steam page, which in the end, was never enough to our taste, but created awareness. Raising awareness is a hard concept to accept when you have no money and limited resources for your four person studio working in one of the co-founder’s parents’ basement. 

 

Conventions

In another life, it was possible to go to events with thousands of people to try out games. People even shared controllers, can you imagine!? We were fortunate enough to present the game at a dozen of events of all sizes. Since the videogame industry is really growing in Quebec, we had the opportunity to present our first janky demo in Montreal at the Montreal Expo Gaming Arcade (MEGA) in late 2018 (which is now named the MEGA-MIGS, you should check it out. It’s a great event!). We won the public’s favorite award during the event, which gave us validation and also the attention of a couple of publishers. Even if we didn’t sign with anyone at that time, we still had the wind in our sails and the motivation to show Struggling to the world. We scraped every penny we could find and asked our friends and family for support to present our product in three international events:

 

  • GDC 2019 for business development

  • PAX East 2019 for exposure and wishlists

  • [email protected] 2019 for both of these reasons. 

 

GDC was quite an experience to say the least. 24 year old me going to San Francisco with another indie developer who I didn’t know at the time to meet with publishers while the other founders were finishing the PAX East demo which happened two weeks after GDC. I met business representatives from companies that I never thought I would ever interact with at the time, learned how to pitch my game, but mostly, I learned that it doesn’t matter how fast you need a follow up from them, publishers will take their sweet time to answer you or give you a significant feedback about your game if they don’t feel like they need to act quickly. It took from a month to nearly a year for all of the publishers we met during GDC to give us a real answer, and that does not include negotiation time for those who were interested. From my experience, if you have not shipped a game before, you will need either a lot of luck, one hell of a game or momentum to get a publisher. That being said, I am not implying that publishers are not respecting indie developers or anything like that, there is so much more than my side of things to see the whole picture here, I am just sharing my experience as a start-up so others can prepare their cashflow when it comes to the “we’ll get publisher money” part of their plan. 

From the twenty publishers I met in four days, we got half of them that showed genuine interest and one publisher who made us an offer, which we turned down. For those who are curious about the offer we refused, in US dollars:

  • 60 000$ for development

  • 20 000$ for ports (Nintendo Switch)

  • 3 000$ for localization

  • 5000 to 7000 for QA

  • 45 000$ in marketing (PR, Influencer outreach, advertising, conventions, asset creation)

  • 0/100% revenue share in favor of the publisher until recoup, than a 50/50 split

The main reason why we turned down the offer was because we needed at least a year of development for the game and if we spent all of the development budget into salary for the four developers on the project at the time, we wouldn’t even get to the end of development by paying ourselves the minimum wage (which at the time, in Canada, was more or less 8 USD per hour). The other reason was the fact that we had no certainty on when we would see our first dollar earned from sales with the 0/100 revenue share until recoup. With the knowledge I learned since then, we could’ve accepted this and used this investment as a validation for our project to find more money (loans, grants, government funding), but we didn’t have any confirmation regarding this. So we decided to politely decline the offer to continue our research for a publishing partner.  It is also worth noting that we had just received confirmation that we had secured our first loan as a company, so a little bit of money was on the way, enough to give us a few months to survive.  

In the end, GDC was an amazing experience, my network grew significantly and it was a good preparation for our next trip: PAX East 2019.

 

PAX East 2019

PAX East was the first and only big event where we showcased Struggling live and we were quite excited to attend it, to say the least. That year, the event included more than 50 000 attendees, tons of journalists and content creators and a showfloor full of amazing studios showcasing their newest project. Obviously, we had to get merch to bring our pauper booth to its maximum potential. We had to show off:

 



 

The weekend was great, we had multiple highlights, including:

  • IGN including us in their “Top 4 Coop Game at PAX East 2019” video

  • A teenager with his dad who came to our booth each day to beat our demo. They succeeded at the end of the fourth day and they were so happy. 

  • The creator of the Earth Defense Force franchise, wanted to spend one of his few 30 minutes breaks during the event to try out Struggling with his translator because he was “shocked to see a game weirder than his own”. It is still, to this day, one of the biggest compliments we got from another videogame developer. What an amazing community. 

Conventions are a great way to get feedback waves of positivity during development (and we miss it very much), but as mentioned, we were not there for the fun and games, we were there to get that wishlist count up! 

Four days of conventions, thousands of visitors, a dozen of articles about Struggling and one underwhelming twitter contest later, we got a grand total of 99 wishlists from the first day of the event to a week after…

Considering we spent roughly 4000 USD to attend PAX East, 40.40$ per wishlist is a bit expensive. At that time, we had a total of 332 wishlists and we were aiming to ship the game 7 to 12 months from that. The 50 000 wishlist goal was making us quite anxious.

 

[email protected]

After applying for a trade mission from Quebec’s government, we were chosen as one of the three Games From Quebec to be featured during the E3’s Media Indie Exchange event in 2019. This event was a lot smaller in terms of attendees than PAX East, but the results were a lot more important for our studio than any activity we had done so far.

MIX gave us the opportunity to meet with first party representatives which got us a foot in the door to get approved as a licensed developer. One of our goals for launch always has been to release on the Nintendo Switch. This one-day event definitely helped to speed up the process. 

Additionally, E3 is obviously a big event, which means that games featured during the expo (and the side events) were featured on Steam’s frontpage. [email protected] was not an exception to this and brought the most significant number of wishlists in a short period of time we ever had: 

 

909 wishlists for a total of 1758 in three months. 

At this point, we had visibility directly from the front page, we had PC Gamer talking about us and met with a bunch of relevant people. This was tangible progress from our goal which we were realizing more and more that would be impossible to reach with the time and progression we had. 

What we didn’t understand two years ago is that we were now the weird thing they saw at PAX East 2019, the crazy co-op game they stumbled on while browsing Twitter. You need to create a story for people to remember your game so they can actively participate in your future calls to action. Bring your best hashtag game and harass your future players on Twitter so they remember your product. Prepare them to act when you’ll have a real request for them, because wishlisting an unreleased game is not a significant action for most Steam users, even if it’s super important for game developers. Maybe a playable demo would be a tangible reason for players to get involved and care about your product, if it fits your game. (We definitely should have done this.) Awareness is the first step to get a purchase from a customer and, more often than not, you will need to show your game multiple times to someone before they decide to spend money on it. 

 

The Incubation

The rest of the summer was spent working on the game and re-evaluating our action plan considering we didn’t quite reach the results we were expecting and most of our non-existent marketing budget was spent. Don’t get me wrong, it is not as if we were that efficient and consistent with our social media posts, but we still felt like everything was out of our reach. In early September, our mentors, who were the founders of other well established Indie studios from Montreal, made us an offer to join their game development hub called the Indie Asylum as the first incubated studio. This was single handedly the most significant and impactful moment for Chasing Rats Games since we started this crazy journey.

The Indie Asylum alone would be worth its own article here, but one thing to keep in mind is that we were now sharing offices with more than 50 talented and passionate developers who welcomed us with opened arms. Joining the Asylum brought an immense improvement to our quality of life and motivation.

Apart from the cultural aspect The incubation invested in multiple forms in our studio:

  • Money to operate the business.

  • Additional senior staff to help us with development, which was the most impactful aspect of the incubation by far.

  • Various services, including mentoring on finance, human resources and operations.

  • Help and credibility to find more grants, loans and funding for the studio.

  • Networking opportunities in general.

We now had the opportunity (and challenge) to work with an expanded team of seven developers, including senior programmers and artists to bring the project to another level. The dynamic of the studio changed a lot for the better. We now had to act as leads for the team, but we also learned immensely from their experience. It’s also important to mention how great our temporary new members were, how they worked hard on our weird looking project as if it was their own but mostly, how we made good friends in the process.

 

MEGA MIGS 2019

After three months of work with the new team, the MEGA, where we won our first award in 2018 and now rebranded as the MEGA MIGS 2019, was at our door. For the occasion, we decided to use part of our budget to pull a little marketing stunt for the event and build two custom arcade machines to showcase Struggling. You had to grab our main character’s disgusting hands (joysticks) in order to get through the demo. Credit to Johan Toresson from Raw Fury who Inception-ed the idea in our partner Chris Chancey’s head at Gamescom 2019.

The arcade machines and the screams of our main character coming out of our loud speakers brought a lot of people to our booth during the four days of the event. The reception of our latest build was beyond our expectations. If MEGA 2018 was a validation, we were not ready for the awards ceremony of the 2019 edition. Struggling won: 

  • Best art direction

  • Best sound design

  • Public’s favorite

  • Best In Show (!!!)

This weekend was incredible, and it didn’t stop there.Struggling took everyone by surprise with its audacity, the overall quality of our booth but also, with Amadeus. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E07mQ4UilNU

This out-of-the-box encounter at the end of our demo, accompanied with its amazing music and dancing assets brought so many laughs and exclamation of joy during the whole weekend, we still believe to this day that it was the main argument which brought Frontier Developments to the equation. 

 

Signing with a publisher

A few days after the MEGA MIGS, we had the opportunity to pitch our game in front of fifty publishers from all around the world since they were in Montreal for the event. Needless to say that with our four awards in our back pocket and the validation from the Indie Asylum from the incubation, our offer was a lot more interesting and our ask was completely different. The funding of the game was now secured, but we were still looking for a marketing partner to reduce the risk related to marketing and potentially a minimum guarantee on the first sales of the game. 

Frontier’s first impressions of Struggling was what we expected from the developers behind Elite Dangerous, Jurassic Park Evolution and Planet Zoo: “It is really an amazingly interesting game, but maybe not the title best suited for our company.” Which was more than fair. We still sent them a build and our pitch decks since our exchange with them was really positive and their business representative told me that he would share our pitch deck to other publishers from the UK. Picture our surprise when we got a follow up by email from them a few days later with an offer to publish the game! For this we have to give a lot of credit to Frontier for taking a chance on a game like Struggling.

For NDA related reasons, I cannot go over the details of our contract with our publisher in this article, but I can say that: 

  • They were now in charge of marketing and they wanted to go big. 

  • No minimum guarantees were included in the deal.

  • Negotiations took more or less three months to conclude

From that point, we settled on a milestone plan and a revised release date which was synchronized with the marketing plan. We only had one thing to do now: ship Struggling.

We were relieved to not have the 50 000 wishlist pressure on our shoulders, but Frontier’s take on the situation was not what we were expecting: The Steam page was taken down. 

Our initial research, efforts and money was taken down to put together a shadow launch for Struggling. Basically, Frontier Developments were putting everything into one big announcement: the official reveal trailer, the release of the game, hundreds of sponsored content creators and mainstream media coverage, all synced up to one event : GamesCom 2020.

We all agreed on the plan considering two main reasons:

  • They had proven with their previous games that this strategy was possible and could get results. Other titles from the same genre as Struggling succeed with a similar strategy in the past.

  • Their reach as a company is incomparable from what we could do on our own. We cannot underestimate the “odds in numbers” to make sure we’re profitable with the game and able to stabilize our studio.

 

Release

With the publishing deal signed in February, we now had five scheduled milestones to finish content and complete our Nintendo Switch port before the launch of Struggling in August. Each milestone was a challenge and unfortunately, the team had to put a significant amount of extra hours to get there. Except for one milestone, in which we had to adapt to work from home due to the pandemic, every milestone was submitted on time. We had one goal in mind: develop the best iteration of Struggling we could and ship it on time. We’re very proud to have succeeded in doing so. 

At the beginning of August 2020, our release candidate was accepted and distributed to journalists and content creators to prepare for our launch reveal at GamesCom 2020. Our job was done!

And then came the marketing campaign. As soon as the media embargo went off, we got:

  • Struggling announced and released on the 27th of August during the Opening Night Live at GamesCom 2020

  • Ad takeovers on multiple popular video game websites

  • Hundreds of Youtubers and Streamers playing the game (sponsored and organically)


  • Articles and interviews with video game journalists from all over the world

  • Presence on the Twitch front page, including a community Stream with Chasing Rats Games and Frontier Developments community managers.

  • An epic coop play session between Jacksepticeye and Markiplier.

Mike Rose mentioned in one of his talks a formula to estimate your revenues on Steam based on the amount of sales you did in a specific amount of time. Of course, this is probably outdated by now and far from 100% accurate, but it was the only way we knew to predict how well our launch was going. 



Picture from Mike Rose’s talk about “How well games sell on Steam” during GDC

In our case, a week after our release, we sold a total of 2891 copies on Steam, representing 39 516$ in revenue. Using this formula, we could assume that Struggling would generate more or less 197 000$ in its first year. 

It’s been 6 months since launch and our lifetime net revenue is around 83 000$. Considering we had four sales since launch, launched the game on Nintendo Switch (Which our revenue is more or less 50% of the ones we made on Steam so far) and we were included in the Humble Choice of December 2020, Mike Rose’s formula is a lot more accurate than what I would expect from a game released in 2020.

In terms of wishlists, up to this day, we have a total of 36 514 wishlists additions, 5 447 wishlists deletions, 6 022 wishlists purchases/activation and 207 wishlist gifts, which results to 24 808 current wishlists and a conversion rate of 17.1%. A couple of things to keep in mind regarding wishlists:

  • We gained the majority of our wishlists (20 000) in the first days after launch (which makes sense since the Steam page was taken down in March and we had a ton of visibility on launch). 

  • The wishlists we had previously were still active since the Steam page was taken down but not deleted. No one could see the game on the store or on their personal wishlists, but it came back and notified everyone that wishlisted it before as soon as the game was available.

  • Struggling was included in the “New and trending” section of Steam’s front page for about a week, which we assume is linked with the number of sales we were doing and the number of wishlist additions during the period of time that Struggling was eligible to be featured in this section.

 

What happened?

As mentioned in the title, Struggling didn’t reach the amount of sales we were hoping for, we didn’t recoup the cost of development and marketing with the game (yet!), and the typical lifetime of a video game on Steam only shows that we’ll most likely make less and less money with time. Although, it is important to note that the game, from a game design perspective, was a success. We currently sit at 96% positive reviews on Steam, we had multiple content creators of all sizes praising the game and pointing out how they appreciated the design philosophy we had with the game. I’ve talked more about the marketing and the studio than the actual game, but our intention with Struggling was to create a refreshing experience which would take its players by surprise, and from the reviews we had so far, I can safely say that we succeeded and we are really proud to have it as our first released title as a studio. Even though, there are still many questions on what happened with Struggling. Having millions of eyeballs on our project, which is being strongly appreciated by its players, but still having such a low conversion rate is still a head scratcher for us and our publisher. After multiple conversations and a good post mortem, we’ve identified a few hypotheses on why the game didn’t do as well as we’d hoped: 

  • A shadow launch for a non-existing IP by an unknown studio published by a company who’s famous for their drastically different type of titles might not have been the most strategic way to promote Struggling.

  • Struggling doesn’t have any official online support. We are relying on Steam Remote Play and external software like ParSec Gaming for players to play online together. Even if there are alternatives, gamers in 2020/2021 have expectations from multiplayer games to have a traditional and stable online support.

  • With the pandemic going on, local multiplayer games have more difficulty than ever to shine since no one is allowed to meet with each other. 

  • Speaking of pandemic, I strongly think that the social climate had an impact on Struggling. If you take a look at the games that shined during 2020, we had Animal Crossing New Horizons, Among Us, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and Jackbox Party Games as examples of success. Each of those were either wholesome, reassuring or brought people “closer together”. It makes sense that gamers were hungry for those kinds of titles in these difficult times. When you take a look at Struggling, which is a rage-based game about a grotesque pile of flesh meant to challenge your friendships and patience, it kind of clashes with what was trending during our launch. 

  • “It’s Carrion meets Heave Ho”. We read that sentence thousands of times, and, ultimately, it is okay that people did. Even though we, as developers, were focusing on the differences between our game with others in the genre, there are still similarities and it makes sense for people to create references in their mind from what they know. Timing is important. We work in an industry where both games could be huge financial successes, but one of the unique selling points of Struggling was the feeling of discovery when you tried the character controller for the first time. We wanted for people to ask themselves “How does this game play out? I’m sure it is not THAT difficult to play” and then buy the game to figure it out. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy is the best reference for a game that successfully created that impression. With Heave Ho being as similar in its character controller than Struggling, it was difficult to achieve this with our game. 

  • A lot of people found their fun by watching the crazy encounters we designed instead of playing them. Watching someone struggling with the game was maybe entertaining enough for a significant amount of people who had interest in the title.

  • Even though we saw our grotesque / Rick and Morty-esque art style as a unique selling point, we read on social media that a lot of people found the game too gross to even consider, even if it was praised by its community. We knew that Struggling would be the kind of game that would create strong opinions, but we were not expecting that so many people would’ve been as grossed out by it as they actually were. Maybe having a more relatable playable character without compromising the universe we created would have made the game more approachable for a lot of people. When you compare with games in a similar visual vein such as Binding of Isaac, I guess it’s fair to say that it’s hard to feel for our gross character.

There are millions of factors to consider, and there is certainly not one “good” answer on why the game had such a poor conversion rate. That being said, our revenue from the game, with the fiscal advantages of making games in Montreal, grants and available funding for video game companies, we were able to stabilize the company and to move forward. We all still feel that there’s an audience out there for Struggling that just haven’t found out about the game yet, but we’re realistic with our expectations.

 

What’s next?

Chasing Rats Games learned a lot from the journey that was Struggling. There are a lot of things we have in mind to give the game a second wind, and a few things are currently in the works! That being said, as a studio, we also want to use what we learned from the experience to try something new. 

By something new, we mean a new IP, a new genre, a new art style, but mostly, another marketing approach. For that reason, today we’re launching our first Kickstarter campaign (which I am shamelessly promoting in this article) for our newest project : Worship, a 2.5D cooperative roguelike where 1 to 4 people get to play as cultists worshipping an evil Old God. 

Our goals with Kickstarter are simple: 

We want to test the market with this new IP before committing to another long production period.

  • We want to get as much visibility and community engagement we can get as early as possible, for real this time!

  • The funding will help us tie up our current budget for this new IP. 

Kickstarter is certainly not the new cool thing for developers, but we felt like it was the best approach for the type of project and objectives we have. It is also an opportunity to try out different things, like a community event during the campaign to design one of the Gods of the game directly with the community with fan-made submissions and polls on our Discord server. We want to have people involved with the game and create a real opportunity for our community to have an impact on the product they love. After all, they are the ones that give us the opportunity to do what we do. 

With Struggling in our back pocket, a motivated and talented team that can ship on any platform and support from our community and the Indie Asylum, we’re ready to start our next adventure and hope to reach the best possible outcome with Worship, Struggling and the other games yet to come. 

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