Tyler Sigman

Run your own fantasy business! Darkest Dungeon Pre-Mortem #2

Run your own fantasy business! Darkest Dungeon Pre-Mortem #2

Welcome back to the ongoing pre-mortem of Darkest Dungeon, an uncompromising new RPG being developed by Red Hook Studios in Vancouver.  These posts detail the creative, development, and business challenges and experiences of the team. You can read the first part to catch up.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  -Dwight D. Eisenhower

Last month we announced Darkest Dungeon, which was really exciting for us, and hopefully some of you as well.  We’ve been pretty happy with the reception that the game is getting so far.  As we hoped, there seems to be quite a few gamers out there excited by the idea of an unforgiving dungeon crawler heavy on atmosphere, with the focus on the fallibility of the heroes.  The trailer has been particularly well-received, judging by the comments we’ve received or seen across the web.

Don’t get me wrong—we’re not resting on these meager laurels.  But we are emboldened that our first strike has landed and drawn blood.

And this brings me to the point of this article: developing and publishing an indie game in today’s world is not a fire-and-forget proposition. You need a PLAN.  And that plan MUST incorporate three things: a development strategy, a funding strategy, and a marketing strategy.

Development strategy (with your game idea in hand, how are you going to make it):

  • How long will development take?
  • Do you have a deadline, or will you “develop until it’s done?”
  • What to prototype/try first? (feature prioritization)
  • How many people will it take, with what skillsets?
  • Have you scoped the whole game? Can you do it?

Funding strategy:

  • How will you fund development?
  • Publishing deal?
  • Bootstrapping?
  • Crowdsourcing?
  • Investors?

Marketing strategy:

  • When to announce?
  • How much to show and when?
  • What trade shows and conventions to appear at?
  • Does the development timing coincide with festivals and competitions?
  • What time of the year will you launch?
  • What kind of competition do you face? 
  • Timeline?

These are not comprehensive or complete lists. But to increase your chance of success, you need to think about things like this and then plan accordingly.  Too often, a lot of devs have strategies as follows:

Development strategy:

  • Make it fun

Funding strategy:

  •  Start working on and figure it out later.  Money will come.

Marketing strategy:

  • Release it when it’s ready. People will love it and buy it!

There are actually a fair number of examples of this working really well.  But my God, does it leave a lot to chance!

There are a lot of great games out there, and consumers only have so much money.  Competition is tight.  A (good) strategy gives you a better chance to succeed.

Now let’s talk specifically about Darkest Dungeon. In today’s article, I want to cover Marketing strategy, so let’s look at that:

Marketing strategy basics (Darkest Dungeon):

  • When to announce: only when we have something impressive to show
  • How much to show and when: do not show everything we have at announce time. Trickle quality content out over time and continue to drive interest and discussion.
  • What trade shows and conventions?  PAX Prime and PAX East, GDC/IGF, IndieCade, Fantastic Arcade, GenCon, DragonCon, any ComicCons?
  • Festivals and Competitions: apply when able, but if build is not ready, defer until the next year (e.g. IGF)
  • What time of year to launch: target around PAX Prime 2014, but be willing to slip into winter or later if the game needs it and funding fits.
  • Competition: it’s out there, it’s great. But keeping true to our game vision is the most important thing.  Barring some huge overlap with a specific title, won’t change strategy except for keeping an eye on launch window competition.
  • (For the moment I’m consciously omitting target platforms and marketing channels)

When to Announce

There are a lot of schools of thought here.  Some devs favor announcing as soon as they start work on something.  It can be exciting to kick things off, and in this age of social media, indie sharing and the like, this gives you the most possible time to gather interest and build a following.  In some cases, you have to worry about cloning—Vlambeer and their awesome games being an example.

At the other extreme, occasionally a game will burst upon the scene virtually unannounced.  How many times have you looked at Steam “New Releases” and seen a game that you haven’t heard of ever before?  Sometimes that’s because they didn’t market at all.  Other times it’s because they started the marketing too late.  There is a rule of thumb in marketing that it can take 7-12 impressions before consumers will start to remember your product and/or take action on something that impresses them. 

A simpler example is Twitter or Facebook: if you post something and you have 250 followers, it is virtually impossible for all 250 people to see that post.  Many won’t check that moment, or feed logic will choose not to show your post, and so on.  But if you post something similar 5 days in a row, you’ll reach a greater percentage of your followers. 

Marketing is the same way; you have to hammer and hammer and hammer into the void to achieve awareness and penetration.

When I was at Big Sandwich working on HOARD, we didn’t even announce the game until June 2010.  The game launched on Nov 2, 2010.  That means we had 5 months to market the game before release.  That’s just not enough time.

Here at Red Hook, we decided that the critical thing for DD would be waiting until we had something that we could make a really good first impression with.  We didn’t want to announce with a “Hey, we’re working on a game! Stay tuned!”  We wanted to make a splash.  We wanted people to take notice.  We wanted to put something out that said “THIS game is coming and it’s going to be awesome. Stay tuned.”  There is a difference in those messages.

This in turn led us to design and produce an announcement trailer to accomplish that goal.  The trailer development is another article subject in itself.  There were a lot of hard choices to make about what things to include and what to leave out, how much gameplay to show, and so on.  If you want to know more, let us know and maybe we can make it the subject of a future post.

How Much to Show and When

Again, different schools of thought here:

The “show everything you have” strategy can be great because it lets people know that your title is not vaporware.  “Look, see all this cool stuff! We’re for real, and there are so many amazing things you can do in this game!”  Definitely valuable.

Or, you can show very little—the equivalent of a film teaser where you hear great music and see “On June 20th, The World Ends!” and then see the cast list and the director’s name and then you get excited. 

The problem with this version is that it only works if you already have great awareness for your talent and people generally believe that whatever the Next Thing that You Do will be great because the Last Thing You Did was amazing.  A lot of Kickstarters have been funded this way “I’m developer X, and I’m making a new game!” This can be advantageous if you really don’t have a lot to show yet (duh) or want to reserve the right to change things later.  (Fans don’t always like change.  Actually, most people don’t like change.)

So where does Darkest Dungeon land on this spectrum?  At the time of announcement, we actually had a lot more that we could’ve shown.  A working build, screen mockups and screenshots, design specs, concept art, etc.  But we want a connected, involved fan base that we need to grow over the next year.  We want people to bring some of their own hopes and ideas into the exchange. 

We want to reserve the chance the change things.  We want fans checking every week to see what’s up on FB, Twitter, darkestdungeon.com, and so on.  If you blast everything out on Day 1, then the next meaningful news is only when you’ve hit some other major milestone.  On the flip side, if we show too little, then people think you have An Idea and there isn’t A Game yet. 

Our strategy so far has been to err on the “show little” side of the spectrum.  But this is largely because the “Terror and Madness” trailer was the centerpiece of our announcement.  Each week since we have been posting things, and come Kickstarter campaign time (expected Jan/Feb), we will do another huge push with lots of new reveals. 

One reason for this strategy is that we believe announcing too much at one time confuses the message.  We want clear, directed things to talk about when contacting the press.  “Announcement trailer!”  “Gameplay reveal!”  “Crowdsourcing Campaign!”  “First Screenshots!”.  Each of those is a solid, concise message that is actionable for us, for fans, and for the press.  We think that leaving some juicy details for later is ok.  Just like when dating, you need to have a little mystery sometimes.

Another thing to keep in mind is……OH GOD, GHOUL BREAK!!!

Trade Shows and Conventions

If you’re starting to notice a common throughline, it’s that there are different ideas on how to solve every problem!

Most companies approach trade and even consumer shows as loss-leader events that are marketing expenses which will lead to revenue down the line.  You spend thousands of dollars, hype your product (be it the Slap-Chopper, linoleum tile, or Darkest Dungeon).  People (eyeballs) see your product, and hopefully tell other eyeballs about it and exponentially and indirectly the marketing expense pays for itself later.

A smaller number of companies look at consumer shows as money-earnings opportunities, where merch sales at the show can directly fund the exhibition costs.  This is pretty rare, though.

We definitely skew towards the traditional, here.  We hope to have some merch eventually, and offsetting some of the costs this way would be great.  But we think shows are still good marketing and worth attending.  HOWEVER, this is really only true for some shows.

We love the PAXes, as having the chance to directly reach so many fans in person is great.

One thing we are considering doing is attending some great pen-and-paper and general fandom shows, like GenCon, DragonCon, or even regional RPG conventions.  If you help organize any of those and want us as, ahem, special guests, ahem, let us know. 

The reason we are considering hitting up some of the paper-oriented shows is that Darkest Dungeon is a game heavily influenced by a lifetime of paper and board gaming in addition to videogaming.  It’s an RPGer’s game, a strategy lover’s game, and a fantasy lover’s game.  Many gamers span different platforms (e.g. paper and electronic), and we’d like our outreach to hit those core gamers, too.  Plus, maybe having a presence in areas where videogame devs don’t go as much will give us some relative benefit.  Of course, cost is a major consideration for us, but attending some of these is definitely something we’re keeping on our radar.

Festivals and Competitions

Things like the IGF (Independent Games Festival), PAX10, IndieCade, and so on are huge vehicles for raising awareness of independently produced games.  However, they are fixed calendar events that sometimes don’t fit in with your development schedule.  We keep an eye on them and definitely plan to submit to them, but if the game is not ready in time for one of the deadlines, we’ll (grudgingly) wait for the next year rather than submit something that doesn’t represent our game as well as we need it to.

Launch Window

First, I am going add the disclaimer that we are not committed to a specific launch window yet.  So don’t blame me later if it changes. ☺  But we have been initially targeting next fall, because we “like” the time between September and the start of the Holiday Season.  This also coincides with a great fan-outreach event (PAX Prime).   It also lines up with how long we plan/hope to spend on development of the core game.

We tend to shy away from thick of the holiday season (mid-November through to the new year) because you are competing with press coverage for giant tentpole games.

I would actually say that launch Week is more important than Season, however.  But again, the problem is that during the holidays, there are so many titles coming out, you are guaranteed to have a lot of competition.  Competition doesn’t necessarily mean other titles similar to yours.  It just means competition for peoples’ attention.  Case in point: when I was working on HOARD, we launched on PlayStation® on the same week as Kinect launched.  So what, you ask? 

The actual PSN window was great—not a lot else going on that week.  But virtually every journalist was writing about Kinect and Kinect launch games.  Instead of coordinating a cohesive blast of HOARD write-ups, they trickled in as journalists’ plates cleared up.  Launch timing wasn’t ideal.  Thankfully, the game was reasonably well received and we had better Steam launch timing the next spring.

You can’t really know Launch Week competition a year or more in advance.  But what you can do is try to put yourself in a position to have flexibility when that comes.  What we plan to do is, when we’re a month or three out, negotiate with our target platforms to figure out a good specific week to hit the green button.  And we will try to be willing to adjust our strategies a little bit if the week we wanted looks chock full of great stuff already.

Other Marketing Considerations: Crowdsourcing as Marketing

We didn’t talk about specific Funding Plan options in this post, but I just want to point out that Marketing is directly related.  Although we plan on crowdsourcing to complement our other funding sources, we also see Kickstarter as a crucial marketing tool, regardless of the funding benefit.  Furthermore, we believe there are a great many things you need to do to give yourself a chance to have a successful Kickstarter campaign. 

Something we feel incredibly strongly about is that building awareness BEFORE starting a Kickstarter campaign is critical.  Kickstarter campaigns benefit hugely from momentum: as soon as people see that a funding goal will be reached, they are more likely to contribute.  This is a form of the Volunteer’s Dilemma, I think.  Or it might just be inertia—why bother going to the trouble of pledging unless you are 100% sure it is worth your time.  (Note: I just pledge away and hope for the best.) 

Campaigns also follow a clear trough pattern: spikes at the front, a lull in the middle, and spikes at the end.  We are doing a number of things all about creating that initial spike.  The most important thing (we think) is building awareness before Kickstarter Day 1.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” -Mike Tyson

If there’s one thing we know with certainty, it’s that a lot will change. Adjustment is part of game development.  In our team’s decades of combined experience, we haven’t been on a project yet that went completely seamless with no surprises!  So we enter battle well-stocked and well-trained, ready for anything… except maybe that giant, menacing bloodthirsty ghoul lurking behind the next pillar!

-Tyler, on behalf of the Darkest Dungeon Team