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Following Hunches, Badgering Witnesses and Grasping at Straws: How a Filthy Cop Made a Name For Himself
This is a guest post from Kevin Beimers of Straandlooper, an animation company based in Northern Ireland that has found great success in its first foray into gaming.
I met Nicholas at Edinburgh Interactive – he and I were both speaking in the Public Sessions, shaping the minds of budding young developers. I soaked up Nicholas’s presentation first; his advice was structured, methodical, well-researched and backed with plenty of hard facts and figures. Then came my presentation on Straandlooper’s shift into the production and marketing of HECTOR: Badge of Carnage (an point ‘n click detective adventure game for iPhone), which had a basic strategy of “I wonder what would happen if we did… this?”
From the point of view of anyone who attended both sessions, I can only assume it was like night and day. But, regardless, Nicholas and I hit it off, and he asked me to share some of our experiences as a first-time app developer on Gamesbrief. If you can pull any good life lessons from this, I tip my hat to you, but otherwise, just enjoy the journey…
First off, Straandlooper isn’t a game development company (at least, before Hector we weren’t). We’re an animation company, first and foremost, who came down off a project funded in the lengthy traditional method, and didn’t really want to go through all that rigmarole again. We’d always wanted to get into gaming, and when we saw the potential for distribution and the micropayment turnaround of the App Store, we thought, what the hell… let’s give it a crack.
Dean Burke, Hector’s creator, had already come to the table with a great character, style and setting, and the only thing undecided was the medium for release. Dean and I grew up loving the classic LucasArts-style point and click adventures, and with the then-recent porting and successes of Monkey Island Special Edition, Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky making a resurgence, we thought the world was ready for a new point ‘n click hero.
We nailed down a three-episode story arc fairly quickly (as an animation company, story is something we do best, and point ‘n click is still the best medium for a storytelling game), and set to work on Episode 1 (without ever knowing if there would ever be funding for an Episode 2 or 3… time would tell).
How long did it take? Somewhere between 6 and 8 months, in and amongst other studio shorts and projects that were coming through the office. There was anywhere between two and eight people working on it at any given time, but anybody’s guess on the actual budget or schedule. Basically, we knew what we wanted to achieve and kept chipping away at it until we achieved it. We knew we’d achieved it when we loved it.
Of course, the big question now was: How the hell do we get other people to find out about it?
I would love to be able to tell you that the success of Hector: Badge of Carnage is down to a brilliant yet simple coordinated promotional attack on all branches of worldwide media, resulting in a quantifiable and reproducible 12-step package available to indie developers like yourselves. However, like police work, it can be mostly attributed to a lot of legwork, some gutsy gambles, and a bit of blind luck.
Lucky Break Number 1: Wacky marketing gamble pays off
If you’ve played Hector (and in my opinion you really should), you’ll know by now that the character of Hector is rude, violent, slovenly, drunken, cynical, sarcastic, irreverent, and indifferent. So, heh heh, why not do the same with his promotional materials?
Demotional materials, actually. Hector pioneered the refreshing art of Negative Marketing: Slam our own product before anyone else does. Don’t tell people it’s incredible and wonderful and trendsetting and life changing. Instead, if anyone asks you if it’s good, just shrug and say “Meh. S’alright I guess.”
In a way, it’s the marketing equivalent of playing hard-to-get. Picture yourself at an expo, and you’ve got a line of ten indies showing off their goods. Nine of them would catapult themselves through a plate glass window to waggle their iPad in your face, and all their leaflets say “AWESOME!” and “MUST-HAVE!” with exclamation points up the wazoo. Then there’s the dude down the end reading a magazine with a stack of leaflets that say “Whatever.” on them. That’s the guy promoting Hector.
The funny thing about it was, we DID consider our game to be awesome and must-have. It was high quality animation, good story telling, clever writing, and sneaky puzzles. I don’t think we would have been nearly so forthcoming with the negative marketing had we not been as confident in the product. You don’t say “Meh, it’s okay” to a product that is meh, okay. The very fact that we had the confidence in the game gave us the confidence to shoot it down in the promo materials… and subsequently, caused many reviewers and players to be the ones who shout “Actually, you’re wrong, it IS awesome.”
…Which is really what you want. Anyone will tell you that their product is great, allowing the users plenty of opportunity to disagree. Instead, we spouted about how bleedin’ average it was, which allowed users to disagree with us and tell other users it’s way better than we made it out to be.
Caveat: THIS ISN’T FOR EVERYBODY. In fact, what makes it so interesting to talk about is that there aren’t a lot of products with the self-loathing and irreverence to tie a marketing idea like this onto. So if you go launching your Fashion Consultant Sim App next week with the tagline, “Don’t bother, it’s rubbish,” don’t go suing me or Nicholas here.
Lucky break Number 2: Hector attracts an underground following
The great thing about point ‘n click adventures: the people who love them REALLY REALLY love them. It is a small yet passionate audience, almost elite or exclusive. If you’re sitting around the table with three other people talking about games (and given that you’re on this site, you’re likely the sort that does), and you say “Remember Monkey Island?” you’ll get these responses:
Person #1: “Dude I LOVED Monkey Island!” and you’ve found a kindred.
Person #2: “No, never played that. Is it good?” and you and Person #1 convert them.
Person #3: “Enh, Monkey Island never did much for me…” and Person #3 is not invited to the next gathering.
There are loads of games out there that everybody ‘likes’ (and congratulations to them, because they’re the ones making squillions). But a point ‘n click DONE WELL – and the ‘done well’ bit is key – will have a passionate pocket of people who ‘love’ it. And if you can score with that gang, they’ll do a lot of the legwork for you.
A couple of weeks before the launch of Hector Ep1, we put out a trailer on YouTube and popped a notice off to some of the forum sites. A couple of the forum sites stuck us on the big list of Coming Soons. Somebody on TouchArcade spotted the trailer, and started a thread about it, gaining the attention of other point ‘n clickers in the region. Fair enough.
But the gist of the thread (once again, unique to the product) was this: “Drugs, drinking, filth, violence, naughty language… This game looks waaaay outside Apple’s comfort zone. I, for one, am going to snap it up the moment it’s released before Apple pulls it on grounds of common decency! Who’s with me?” Everyone on the thread was crossing their fingers that they could nab one before it got yanked, £2.39 price tag and all.
Now, I couldn’t tell you how much forum chit-chat directly related to the rise in sales on launch day – after all, this particular thread may have had 20-odd people chatting, but anywhere from zero to thousands poking their heads in. But either way, it certainly didn’t hurt to be talked about.
Other than that – trailers, codes to reviewers, and the above collection of back alley Hector hooligans – Hector launched on the App Store with virtually no fanfare.
Lucky Break number 3: People actually liked the thing
We sold 483 copies of Hector Ep1 on the first day, and a decent collection of 5 star reviews. Turns out, this is (well, was a year ago) enough to get our app into the top 10 of the Adventure and Role Playing sections of the App Store.
Once we were up in a sweet placement like that, we got noticed by more gamers. Suddenly here was a game nobody knew about riding high in the Adventure section with scads of good reviews. Second day sales doubled to over a thousand, and we hit number 1 in Adventure and Role Playing in about 20 countries. (For the record, it’s really, really cool to see your icon representing the Adventure category on the App Store. You should try it!)
Next, Hector got noticed by Apple, and was dropped into the New and Noteworthy section of at least the US and UK App stores. A little later on, Apple gave us another boost and put us into the “Best Games You’ve Never Played” collection. At one point Hector could be found not only in the Top Games section, but the Top Apps as well (fluttering around the top 50 at best).
I should add here that we had virtually no social media presence (well, not integrated into the app, but @diHector has a twitter account, which we on occasion post belittling comments from). We had no Lite version, we didn’t fall in with a Free App promotion squad, nor did we ever do a price drop. Would it have affected sales, or kept the momentum up? Looking back, who can tell? Like I’ve said from the beginning, Hector’s not for everybody, and I’d say we got pretty far on charm alone.
An actual bit of useful advice…
About time. Congratulations on holding out this long, I tend to go on a bit.
One handy trick I can pass on that I think made a big difference in reaching our fan base: connect with users and reviewers as much as you can on a grass roots level. I’m talking about support emails, review requests, and forum postings.
To anyone who came in contact with the marketing materials, the support line, or even the game walkthrough (which insults you before you’re allowed to use it), we were trying to create the equivalent of DVD extras – the world of Hector doesn’t stop when the game is switched off. It’s easy once your game is complete to then package it into a little box and market it like everyone else does. It’s something else entirely when the essence of the product creeps out of the box and leaves a little stain on the counter around it.
For example: the support line. Responses usually came from Hector himself, or a Hector-like dev team member. None of this “Your concerns are important to us” bureaucratic PC garbage, more like “Ballbags! Really? I’ll go slap the tech monkeys in the basement so this sort of thing doesn’t happen to anyone else.” You would not believe the number of times people tried to out-Hector the Hector in the support email.
Another example: Apple’s 50 free promo codes. Don’t just distribute them through the conventional channels. After giving out about 20 or 30 to review sites we had a stack of extras to play with. What to do? Look for more reviewers? Nuts to that. Let the public scramble for ‘em like a raisin in a henhouse, that’s what I say. Reviewers get free games all the time. But when a member of the public just gets handed one, he tells people about it. Here’s what we did:
We kept tabs on socialmention.com (very handy) to see if anyone was talking about Hector Badge of Carnage, and instantly responded to any new links or reviews. If it was a good review or forum posting…
Tweet about it from the company twitter account as soon as possible, and sometimes Hector’s account as well (basic)
Hector (as himself) would post a rebuttal, usually berating the reviewer for liking such a god-awful game so much
Hector’s comment would invariably end with Hector tossing out a free promo code to the masses, and the first reader to type it in would get a free copy of the game.
Hector’s attentiveness would invariably be retweeted by the review site and by other readers who stumbled onto it, or at the very least be followed up with a thanks and a user testimonial. As well, we got a bit of a reputation for doing so, so people looked for our reviews in the hopes of a free promo.
There was an art to this, mind you. We wouldn’t berate a site for a bad review or a lost star; that sort of thing comes across as bad form and sour grapes. (However, that didn’t stop the fan forums coming to Hector’s defense at times… whether Hector was the instigator of said riots is still unproven.)
One year later…
Hector launched in June of 2010, and did wildly better than we dared to hope. Then we got our last lucky break: Hector slumped across the desk of someone at Telltale Games, the industry leaders in next-generation point ‘n click adventures, and home of quite a few of the genre-defining writers, programmers and creators of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max and the like.
Now, to be honest, I would have been quite chuffed enough to have received an email that said, “we played your game and we loved it.” But they took it several steps further, offered to re-release Episode 1 on PC and Mac, and then co-produce Episodes 2 and 3 on their game engine to round off the series.
I’m happy to announce here that Episode 2: Senseless Acts of Justice is now out and available on Telltale Games, Steam and the App Store, and you’ll be able to get your filth-loving little hands on Episode 3: Beyond Reasonable Doom on September 29th.
So there it is. A nice simple formula to make your game a success:
- Base your game around human filth and depravity
- Tell everyone it’s not that great so they can disagree with you
- Develop a cult following
- Be rude to your customers from every angle
- Get signed on by a major international games company.
It really is that easy. And just to show you that I’m true to my word, here’s a promo code to the first lucky chap who made it to the bottom of my ridiculously long guest post: 39FM4J3PMMT3. Go on, you’ve earned it. (Actually, it’s got nothing to do with you earning it. I just like to see if anyone could be arsed to read every word of my tenuous ‘advice’)