I wasted a great opportunity when my game received 191k views on Youtube in its first 10 days. Here are my lessons learned and what I would do differently.
Only 10 days ago, I uploaded my game, Lord of the Aisle, for The Arbitrary Gamejam 17. Already, there have been 39 Youtuber videos made of the game, ~191k views of the videos, mostly playing the old glitchy version of the game that was initially released for the jam’s deadline. There have been at least ~10k downloads/plays of the game, across multiple sites, some of which I did not even know were hosting downloads of my game.
Usually, my game jam entries only get 2-4 Youtubers, with a handful of views, and less than 1k plays/downloads within the first 10 days, despite them being around the same quality as this game. You can imagine my surprise by the number of videos, views, and downloads this time around.
I must admit that I have blown a great opportunity and capitalized very poorly on the publicity of the game, but learned quite a few valuable lessons.
1. Once you upload a free game, it’s out of your control.
Even if you only upload your game to a single site, it may grow legs and find its way to other sites. It doesn’t matter that it is a free game in a tiny game jam.
Even though Gamejolt.com was the only place I uploaded Lord of the Aisle, somehow a dozen other sites are now hosting the game (old versions of it) too! They never contacted me, nor credited me, nor got my permission, and I would not have known if I had not done a Google search or watched the Youtube videos. It’s a free game for a game jam. I did not expect to make any money on it. But it irks me that these other sites are making ad revenue off of my game, and I’m not getting a penny of it. Some of the other sites must have ripped the Unity Webplayer version of the game from Gamejolt. I didn’t realize that they could or would do that. Now I know.
The problem is that I have no control over the game’s description, the game’s version, or way to communicate with the game’s audience on any of those other sites. If I wanted to make a commercial version of the game (and I intend to), I can’t really reach out to the audience on those other sites. I can’t even post a comment to some of these other sites. Some of the other sites are in other languages.
Lesson learned: For future games, I’m definitely going to put an in-game link to the real site within the game, and perhaps add a simple feature that lets the player know if this is the latest version of the game, where to get it from, and displays a message from a remote online source that I control.
2. Old buggy versions will live around forever.
The initial version I submitted for the game jam had minimal testing due to time. I had no time for performance optimization or even performance profiling. From the early Youtube videos that came after the game was released, I saw that the frame rate becomes very low during later stages in the game on less powerful computers.
Very soon after, I uploaded updated versions onto Gamejolt, fixing the bug, but it was already too late. All of the other sites still have the old glitchy version of the game, and I have no way of updating those. And most of the Youtubers recorded using the old glitchy version. How embarrassing!
Lesson learned: Make sure you have some way to communicate updates with the audience of your game, which may be hosted/downloadable from unknown sites out of your control. Do this right from the start.
3. Most players of free indie computer games probably have slow crappy computers. Target them.
(This is purely anecdotal/conjecture – if you know of an article with stats about the computers of indie gamers, please let me know!)
Indie game developers often have a perception bias when it comes to computers. Most indie game developers are likely to be enthusiast gamers, who are more likely to have higher end computers, which are capable of playing a multitude of games (including intensive AAA games). They may commonly associate with other enthusiast gamers and developers who have high end computers. And so they may become less aware of the multitude of casual indie gamers/youtubers who have low-end budget computers.
On a high end machine (like many game developers probably have), a game issue causing a 50% frame rate drop from 120 frames per second (FPS) to 60 FPS will not even be noticible unless you’re specifically checking for it or doing performance benchmarks. (There’s usually no time to do that in a game jam, of course!) But on a low end machine, this drop could be a disastrous showstopper.
Lesson learned: If you only have high end machines to test with (even if it was a high end machine from a couple of years ago), at least do a run through with a reliable FPS meter or other metric even if the game performs perfectly fine on your machine. Would the game still be playable at 1/4 of the performance? What about 1/8th of the lowest framerate?
Also, if you develop in Unity, keep in mind that the FPS meter in the built-in stats display is quite inaccurate! It was displaying the frame rate as ~180-220 FPS when the real frame rate (# of times Update was called) was only ~50-80 FPS. I’d recommend Frame Rate Counter (free on the Unity Asset Store) or writing your own simple FPS meter.
4. A game is initially judged by its cover. Spend enough time on the cover.
Spending extra time to put an interesting character or interesting artwork in the thumbnail/title is probably worth the effort.
Let’s say you made a great game. But the game has a poor thumbnail/title image. It will likely be at a disadvantage at attracting players versus a crappy game with a great cover. When visitors see the game’s thumbnail in a listing among other games with their thumbnails, the thumbnail may have only milliseconds to capture the visitor’s attention before they move down the list.
I’ve made quite a few other free games for game jams that are on par with the gameplay/artwork of Lord of the Aisle, but in the past, I always left the thumbnail/title image to be created hastily in just the last few minutes before the submission deadline. So usually, the thumbnails I made in my old games are just text on a background pattern or vague screenshot – they never really told you much about the game itself from a glance.
However, with Lord of the Aisle, I spent a long time creating an extra scene in Unity, specifically for the thumbnail/title. It includes the main character and setting of the game in the backdrop. I know it doesn’t show, but I also spent an embarrassingly large amount of time experimenting with fonts/typography. It still wasn’t quite there yet, but apparently it was enough, and far more effort than the titles I’ve initially made for my other free games for game jams. I guess it paid off: