I recently decided to investigate the whole idea of sponsored lets-plays on youtube. I’m lucky with Production Line, in that its a fairly popular game that already has a lot of lets play content, but because I’m always interested in ways to promote the game more, and because I already spend some money on facebook ads, I thought it made sense to investigate what the costs/benefits etc would be to have some sponsored lets plays.

There are  basically two potential strategies for something like this. The first one would be to find a whole bunch on smaller youtubers who cover strategy games, but have not covered Production Line (or only covered it a bit), and sponsor them to create a few dozen new lets plays videos between them, paying maybe $100 to them to each do a video,

The second strategy would involve finding some ‘relatively big name’ youtubers with many thousands of subscribers and paying them a big lump sum to cover the game, in maybe just one video. These strategies are different, and TBH I am not sure which one makes most sense. As it happens, I find both strategies are futile.

I’ve tried both strategies, and got nowhere, because the market here is BROKEN. I emailed a whole bunch of smaller youtubers, effectively saying “please let me pay you”, and got one reply, from a great youtuber who said he didnt want money but would cover the game again. Thats nice, but what is wrong with the rest? Not even a reply to say no?

I then contacted an agency for ‘influencers’, which is even more useless. Like all middle-men, they wanted to ‘hop on a call’ (no thanks, my time is money and I read faster than you can talk. Plus phone calls are not recorded, searchable, or contractually binding). They also wanted a $15k/month commitment (haha), and didnt hve a public list of youtubers they represent. Eventually it turns out they have no list, and represent nobody. So middle-men with no contacts. Amazing.

What I *want* is google adwords for youtube lets plays. I like free markets and open competition. lets not hide behind all this ‘hop on a call’ or ‘phone or ask’ or ‘enquire for prices’ bullshit. That just means you want to size up the other party, haggle and exploit them as much as you think you can get away with. Lets all be open about what we charge, and what for. Like adults. Give me a list of game genres you cover, and your subscriber / average video views, and your prices, and I can decide. No bullshit, no wasting everyone’s time.

A lot of the time that means no deal happens, and thats fine. Everybody is still happy. For example if you want to have me give a talk at your games conference, you need to fly me (business class), put me up in a decent hotel overnight, and pay me $1,000 for each day I’ll be away from work. Virtually nobody will do that, so I don’t give talks any more, but also nobody wastes their time haggling.

I guess I should go back to the facebook ad manager.


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Content glut and the power of cities

November 30, 2018 | Filed under: business

I read a lot of social science / tech culture stuff, and try to keep up to date with the ways in which the world is changing before everyone really notices. In some ways this is defence against becoming irrelevant (I didn’t want to be the last indie dev to start a blog, or a twitter account or youtube channel for example), and in other cases it can be absolutely financially rewarding. For example I bought Tesla stock a long time ago, and have done very well from it, primarily because I realised really early on that they had, essentially, won the whole market in terms of electric cars, and literally the only problem was, nobody had actually realised how badly they were getting beaten. I could blog about that for days, but I’ll spare you that one…

Anyway two topics I keep seeing and reading about, are mass content creation and the importance of cities, and I thought I’d share them with you and allude to their relevance regarding my life as an indie game dev.

Mass Content Creation.

Have you heard the thing about the weird videos aimed at kids that are acted out by humans (in some cases) and created in a mass-content farm style to generate ad revenue? If not, this might be a good introduction to the topic:

The key thing that I think is relevant here, is that the amount of content that you think is ‘a lot’ in terms of video is absolutely not a lot. If you are an indie dev, and there are 4 lets plays of your new game, and one of them was you, and you are wondering which Ferrari to order, I’d suggestion forgetting the Ferrari and instead consider which organs to sell to buy food. There is a LOT of content out there, especially in video. Generation X watches 1.5 billion youtube videos per day. Over a billion hours are watched per day, and of that content over 70% of it is content that has been recommended by the youtube algorithm. People are watching what is put in front of them, and having a tiny little collection of videos of your product is not going to cut it when your fraction of that content is so close to zero.

I tried to kick-start a youtube presence for production line myself, doing regularly weekly video blogs. I’ve done just over 90 of these 10-15 minute videos now, and each one gets roughly a thousand views. Here is the latest one:

This is beneficial… and also a minute drop in the ocean. Those 90 videos are giving me about 13,000 views a month. Thats ‘not bad’ as it helps get the name out there, but I do not have *nearly* enough content to keep the name high enough in peoples minds. The problem is, its ME who is making them, and I am literally the most expensive (and only) employee available to do this. Obviously its a catch 22 problem, because the person best suited to give inside information on the game, is the guy making it, and he is also the worst person whose time to use for video content.

In a totally perfect world, I would have an assistant who teleported into my home at will, and only charged me for the time he was needed. I’d click my fingers and say ‘hey Dave, set up all the green-screen crap and get ready for my video’ and then half an hour later I’d say ‘hey Dave, take all that stuff down, edit the video, render it, upload it, and then post about it to these 5 locations’. And then BOOM Dave would be gone, after an hours work for an hours money.

The trouble is, Dave doesn’t exist, and cats cannot be trained… I am not able to optimise my marketing efforts to the point where I have the content that I think I need, because the granularity to do this does not exist in a one person company. Which brings me to…

The power of cities

Lets get this out there right away: Cities are awful. I was born in London, and I now live surrounded by fields, hills and single track country lanes along which horses slowly clip-clop. Its AWESOME. Yes, its a long way to the shops, but the air is clean, there is no traffic, there is very little crime, its AWESOME. Unless…

…you need to meet a lot of people who do what you do, or stuff that you may want people to do. This is something that is pretty critical if you want to build (or expand) a business. Its true that I believe strongly in the idea of remote working, and hiring people I’ve not met., I’ve done this a lot, but it is NOT ideal. In an ideal world, you still meet someone, chat about what you want, how it should work, what to do, hammer out a deal, and you are just a few feet away if they get stuck, or confused or you see them doing something wrong. You simply cannot beat working physically with people, and you certainly cannot beat living somewhere like San Francisco, London, Vancouver, or even Guildford or Boston, in terms of having a local ‘game dev’ community. I’m not just the only indie game developer in the village, I’m the only person working in any sort of computer related field whatsoever.

Scott Galloway is one of many people who argue that all of the exciting new business startups, and projects, and opportunities happen in cities, the bigger the better:

And thats very relevant indeed if you are looking for your first job, or to start a business, but it is ALSO valid if you want to grow one. Sure, I could make use of a person on a part time basis to do X, or to do Y, or code Z, or run errands for me. The problem is, I simply don’t meet enough people to make deals and partnerships and arrangements like that happen. This is one of the many reasons I still go to trade shows and events. Meeting random internet people is difficult for an introvert like me, but I have made so many good deals/partnerships etc over the years from people I meet at these things that I KNOW its good for me.

So yeah, your rent may suck in that city, but its probably paying for itself in long term career boosting.

I hate em so much though I’m going to stay here and listen to those horses.

 

 

 

Eight years ago I wrote this article on how to sell your game direct without an app store. It was fairly popular at the time. Its now late 2018 and a lot has changed. Steam is still popular, but origin is also doing well, there are rumblings about Epic starting a store, we also have amazon, kartridge, GoG, the humble store and itch.io as competitors. We also have a lot more indie devs (a LOT more), and its long overdue revisiting the topic. BTW, maybe I should hyperlink all those store names….but nah, they don’t link to *my* site so…

Anyway, are direct sales a good thing still? is it viable? how do you go about doing it.

Is this viable?

Firstly do not believe anyone who tells you that NOBODY buys games direct any more. They totally do. I get enough sales (still) through BMTMicro (who I hardly use any more) to warrant me filtering them into an email folder:

As a percentage of my sales, its not huge, but its certainly not to be sniffed at. In the last 365 days my earnings from direct sales through BMTMicro are $18,457. My direct sales through other services charging a very similar cut are about $16,000. Put those two together and you get about $34,000 sold at a 5% cut instead of a 30% cut. The saving per year? $8,900. Could you do with an extra income of almost $9k a year as an indie dev? its definitely not to be sniffed at. The situation is vastly better when you look at releasing a game initially from your own site, before its on any store. Doing this generated an EXTRA $108,000 on the two most recent game launches where I did this. Thats effectively *free* money.

So myth#1, that you cannot sell enough games direct to make it worth the bother of doing so, is definitely busted. It absolutely can. And if you want a more dramatic example, maybe you should recall that minecraft did exactly this. As I recall, sales were good.

So given that this *can* be done, the two remaining question I guess are *should* you do it, and how do you do it.

The only two reasons I can think of *not* to do direct sales are time/effort and concerns about the stores. Lets deal with them in order.

What is involved?

People VASTLY exaggerate the amount of hassle required in direct sales. Do you not have your own website already? selling and existing online ONLY through steam? Ok cool, you are not really an indie, and I suggest you actually start at basic principles and get your own independent site… Anyway, assuming you do, how hard is it to add a ‘buy now’ page? Heres the page for production line.

Note that the only traditionally ‘difficult’ bit is adding a buy button, something that the humble widget already provides for you, its literally ‘click here to get an embeddable widget for your website’. I can even embed it here:

So that side of it is easy. The next bit is uploading and updating builds. This sounds like way more of a chore than it is, unless you have absolutely DIRE internet. Itch.io support partial builds apparently, but annoyingly humble and bmtmicro do not (which frankly is ridiculous…). Even so… how many updates do you do? I used to have 1MB up internet and still did it. Uploading a new installer is really not hard work. Also coding an autoupdate check for your games and telling the player to update is also pretty easy. I check a text file on my server on startup, which has the latest version, and downloads an updated changelist to display to the player to encourage them to re-download and re-install. Its a few lines of php.

So uploading a build and setting up the buy page are trivial. What else is hassle? You obviously need to tell itch/bmt/humble your bank details, but you have already done this with GoG/Steam etc anyway.  Some services, like BMT, allow you to choose how often you get paid, so as to minimise the amount of bank charges you have to deal with. Any decent payment provider also provides charting and sales reports. here are some from humble and BMTMicro.

The big difference between direct and store sales is that with direct sales, if you wish, you can access the email addresses of the customers. This may involve some GDPR related shenanigans, but depending on jurisdiction, this at least gives you a stronger direct connection to the buyer. You can add an email signup to your order form, and build up your own mailing list to notify customers direct of future updates and new games etc. Something else thats different is that in some cases, direct-payment companies let you choose *when* to be paid. If you don’t live in a $ country and build up a $ balance, having control over when that happens can be convenient. Personally, I keep a $ bank account in the UK so its not an issue (I can pick the best conversion moment at another time).

With a service like BMT Micro, you can ask to be sent any requests for refunds so you can approve/deny them or contact the player direct. The amount of refund requests that actually turn out to be a simple request for tech support over something minor (like trying to run the windows installer on a mac, or having an antivirus false positive etc) is quite surprising. Why put a third party between you and your players?

Basically direct-sales are no hassle. You NEVER see the customers credit card details or passwords or anything. You do NOT handle VAT or sales tax, thats all handled for you. Its basically exactly the same as selling on a store, except you keep 90-95% instead of 70% (minus refunds & sales tax). Oh BTW, you can choose to have sales tax added at the point of sale instead of just absorbing it.

Reasons to be scared

The other argument is that selling direct will be bad because either the stores will hate you, or because you miss out on decent reviews or visibility on steam/GoG etc by siphoning off the early customers. I think both are unfounded but I should at least mention them. I truly believe that the big stores are not going to be annoyed at/vindictive towards developers who also sell direct. This is the very definition of fair competition. I’ve been selling direct for TWENTY years and have never noticed this affect my relationship with any store. Steam especially seem very understanding that a lost sale is just a market signal. Free competition is a good thing, and no store has ever, to my knowledge, behaved badly towards a developer selling direct. Besides, if you even for 1 second think a store you deal with might be this evil, you should audit the hell out of them right now, because you realize you are just trusting them to report sales accurately right?

So will those ‘lost’ sales reduce your impact on the stores. I suspect yes. Big Pharma and Production Line both look a bit less successful on steam because both had a ton of direct sales ‘off-steam’. I don’t care. The impact might be non-negligible, but the sweet extra 25% of those early sales more than covers it. It seems an oft-repeated piece of wisdom (with no hard data) that if you push all your customers through steam on day one that you will get huge ‘launch visibility’. I have not seen this to make an earth shattering difference.

Also, think about what you are doing. You are like someone who recorded an album, a fan knocks on your door with $20, and you tell him to walk to the record store and hand it to them so you can get your $14 (at most). Thats madness.

Conclusions

Selling direct has never been easier, or with more options. There are very few reasons not to do it. Setup is easy. I have over a dozen games on maybe five different stores and 2 different direct payers, and royalty agreements with 3 devs, and I manage it all on my own, as well as coding and designing a game, producing another, writing this blog and probably 100 other things and I’m 49 years old. I cannot imagine how a small ‘team’ of highly energetic indie devs cannot find the time to set up an account on itch.io. After all, you do want to be INDEPENDENT game developers right?

 

 

 

When I meet fellow game developers and the topic of social media comes up, the scorn for twitter is almost universal. Even people who seemingly rely on it a lot, and have a big social media presence tell me how much they hate it, how divisive it is, how abusive it is, how they wish they didn’t have to be on there.

I love twitter. I find it interesting, fun and positive, and it makes my life a bit better. How on earth can this be true?

(background: I’m a 49 year old UK game dev with about 10k followers, running my own business but using twitter 50% for biz stuff and 50% for laughs).

I think the big mistake people make with twitter is that they are confused about what it is. Twitter is not the Harvard debating society. It is not the BBC. Its is not CNN, it is not your safe space, nor is it a political campaign rally, or a movement for social change. Twitter is a huge open-bar with drunk people sharing funny gifs of cats falling off things, and memes, and bad jokes. It has an element of stand-up comedy, and element of wild party, an element of drunken argument, and its not going to change.

Imagine blundering into the final hours of a drunken stag night/hen party and trying to deliver a lecture about gender politics, or inequality, or trying to argue about austerity. Imagine how well that would work out. Its the wrong forum. Its WORSE than a drunken stag party because so many people are anonymous, and people who you do not *vaguely* know, often from another country. How do you expect it to work when you bring up the issue of gun rights, inequality, or anything else to do with politics…

I’m very political, and opinionated. I have VERY strong opinions on climate change, but despite some eco-tweeting, I don’t vaguely expect that I will change anyone’s opinions on there. Basically life is too short. I tweet when I’m drunk, or find a silly video or interesting website, or have some crazy image of something. I vent angry tweets about trivial things (TV continuity announcer volume levels, donotreply email addresses etc) but I’m not kidding myself that this affects social change.

If you are hating twitter, you are basically doing it wrong. Immediately block or mute everyone you don’t like. Why the hell did you ever follow them. Don’t try and use hashtags to change the world. Follow a lot more silly accounts that post fun stuff. There is an endless supply of funny meme accounts, comedians, and other amusing stuff on twitter. I follow accounts that mock the lack of plates in pretentious restaurants, the stupidity of some internet of things inventions, and an account dedicated to things that annoy British people. Its rare that one of these wont make me smile every day.

Don’t complain about ‘toxicity’ on twitter. Its just a mute button away. You are doing it wrong.

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For the last year or so I’ve been employing a pretty ‘passive’ approach to promoting my current game Production Line. By this I mean that I have primarily concentrated on posting on my own forums and the steam forums, posting weekly video blogs, and cross posting those to the forums, reddit and my production line facebook page.

In a sense, all of that is basically preaching to the converted, as if you follow me on youtube, are subscribed to the reddit, or a fan of the facebook page… well you already know about the game and very likely already bought it.

The only way in which I am actively reaching beyond the current audience is by some facebook ads, but obviously the cannot reach everyone (loads of gamers don’t even have facebook accounts). We don’t have any more game shows coming up for me to meet youtubers and press, so apart from facebook, to the outside world I’m pretty silent about the game.

I should probably get used to changing that as the game eventually shuffles towards release (probably January next year?). With that in mind, I think I’m going to set aside some time next week to build up a proper list of youtubers to get in touch with, and put together a proper updated press release with new screenshots and information. The game is now on Kartridge and the Humble Store, so that definitely needs updating.

 

Of course the trouble with any *active* promotion is that it involves my time. The blog posts, video blog, tweets and facebook posts already take up a big chunk of time, and I’m busy coding the game as it is! Unfortunately I don’t have any *easy* way to outsource any of this work. It is *me* in the videos after all, and even if I could record the video, then pay someone else magically to disassemble my green screen, render out the video (only 2 mins editing normally needed), upload it, cross-post it and so-on… its only likely saving me 30mins-1 hour a week anyway. Thats also the fantasy scenario where someone beams star-trek style to my house to assist me, then beams out immediately.

SO I remain, after all these years both the code AND the marketing/PR/Biz bottleneck for my company. I have a horrible feeling that if I *did* ever expand further, code would be easier for me to outsource the rest of it. I’ve tried outsourcing PR a lot of times and never made a decent ROI (or even a positive one).

Food for thought.

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