Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Shadowhand, post-release analysis

So… recently we released our latest 3rd-party title: Shadowhand, developed by Grey Alien games. Its a unique RPG/Solitaire/Visual-Novel hybrid where you play the role of a highway-woman in 18th century England. The game has been out just over a month, and its selling ok, and is getting extremely good reviews and playtime. Right now its steam reviews sit at 85% positive, and the median play-time is 4 hours 58, and an average of 10 hours 36. A large proportion of the players are playing 20 hours+, even slightly larger than for Production Line, which has been out for much longer.

We spent some money on release to get the game noticed, which worked to an extent, but because the game had dramatically overshot its original production schedule, we ended up releasing it before the steam Christmas sale, which possibly impacted its launch a bit. (although I still think this was the correct decision, you can ALWAYS find an excuse to put off releasing a game…people even lose their home whilst not realizing this…). The game is selling ok, but it is not a clear indie hit right now, and obviously me being me, I want to analyse why, and how we can change that.

We did get a few negative comments with the first release, saying basically that the game was too RNG-based, but since we got those, Jake patched the game to round-off the impact of the RNG and make it more clearly skill-based. This was more of a perception problem than reality, as when you get deeper in to the game its hugely skill-based. The very good reviews, and the extremely long playtime suggests to me that the *actual game* is very good, and should be selling better. For now, lets assume that changes to the core game are not going to make a positive difference to its sales. What other possibilities are there?

We know that the game sold well during the recent steam sale, more than its selling now, and that seems to be just that more people see the game during a sale. Also we got some coverage at giant bomb, which led to a small spike in sales too. It seems that when the game actually gets shown to people, they buy it, so the main problem here seems to be exposure. Exposure can either be organic, solicited, or paid.


The steam algorithm should theoretically send people towards shadowhand who will like it. We may be a bit cursed here because the game is a bit RPG, a bit puzzler, a bit casual, a bit adventure…and when you have something *different* recommendation algorithms can really struggle. Are we getting the right people seeing the game? Sadly this is mostly out of our control, although it may be slightly influenced by the ‘tags’. As I understand it, the more people who upvote or apply a tag on a game page, the more that tag is seen as relevant by steam. Are there maybe some tags we are missing that we should have? It looks like not enough people have applied ‘solitaire’ which is a big surprise.

Another organic route is through user-reviews. the reviews are good, but as ever, the number of players who leave a review is always really low. We already have a decent review score, although it could always be higher. Obviously if you bought and enjoyed the game, we REALLY want you to leave a review of it. I think that this creates some more SEO too (within steam) as presumably reviews show up on users profile pages etc, all more ways to enable organic discovery.

When it comes to off-steam methods, it matters a lot if the game gets tweets or forum-posts about it, but again, this is something mostly beyond our control. We do have a facebook page for the game, which I think also helps.


As you probably know, steam forbids (quite understandably) games from soliciting for reviews from within the game, especially for stuff like giving out free xp or whatever. This was a curse with mobile and tablet games. However, we are possibly not as creative as we should be when it comes to encouraging people to support the game. AFAIK its fine for me to post here that we really appreciate steam reviews, for example. Something I’ve seen other games do is to make more of a feature out of their social media presence from within the game. For example Democracy 3 has a link from the main menu to the games facebook page. We are probably being a bit meek there, but does that ruin the immersion of the game to include such stuff? Would Jake even do that? :D


I’m on solid ground with paid promotion because I know how it works. My experiments with shadowhand show that I can get a click-through to the steam store page for about $0.27. In December the store page stats give me reason to believe that a visit to the shadowhand store page earns $0.11 in immediate gross revenue (before steams cut). SH currently has more wishlist adds than owners by a factor of five, suggesting a lot of the visitors will not necessarily buy the game, but they may well add it to their wishlists. Is that difference enough to justify a $0.27 click? Gah! its so hard to tell. Just for LOLs I checked the same stats for production line, and it looks like a store page visit there is worth $0.25. Gah!!! What is happening here? I strongly suspect that its price related. basically strategy gamers are prepared to pay more…and players of other games are more prepared to wait for a sale with a bigger discount.

I guess in conclusion I really need data on the conversion rate of all those tons of wish-list adds to actual shadowhand sales during an actual weekend/ weekly sale. In the meantime, there is a lot of staring at numbers.

Post-release shadowhand thoughts…

So we did it at last! Positech & Grey Alien Games managed to push the gargantuan project that is shadowhand through the big shiny gates labelled ‘release’ and put shadowhand on sale a few days ago on steam, humble store and GoG. Plus of course direct from us, although the percentage of people willing to buy a game from a developer is depressingly small, even though my own website has been around longer than…hmmm..let me see….steam, gog or the humble store. I guess they are worried I might immediately go bust (nope).


Shadowhand had a pretty strong initial release, it rapidly piled up the positive user reviews, and as I type this, the store page shows 60 reviews and a score of 95% positive. We also got a special ‘recommended’ badge in an extremely positive review in Eurogamer, and we have other big name reviews that will hit the interwebs this week. We spent some money to promote the game on launch, mostly through PCGamesN, and through Facebook, but didn’t go completely bananas. We are still spending a bit of money on ads, but not *that* much, and I think the very high review score, and addictive nature of the game should give us a decent likelihood of getting a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations.

Right as we launched the game, being able to directly contact curators became a thing, and we duly did our bit, but it proved totally pointless, as invariably, every indie developer on steam seems to have spammed every curator they can find with copies of their game, regardless of genre or suitability. TBH pretty much any system that is available at zero cost to every indie developer becomes useless, as there are so many desperate indies, and so many indie games on steam now, that such methods get immediately swamped and rendered useless.

Yup, I’m one of those (many) devs who thinks that the opening of steam submissions to absolutely everyone has…not worked as well as it should.

I have no control over that, so its best to focus on what I do have control of, which is getting eyeballs on shadowhand, and making sure those eyeballs are the right ones, and that they are going to like the game. One theory I have is that our main steam capsule art may be putting some players off. here is the capsule in question:

In purely aesthetic terms I think this works pretty well. The main character is there, a prominent face (good), and a recognizable and legible logo. Colors look nice, its high quality etc. The only concern I have is that because it focuses on one character, the character is female, and we already list the game as being part visual novel, given the impression many people have of visual novels, the image *may* be giving the impression that its more of a dress-up/romance game than a strategy/rpg affair. Because 99% of steam browsing potential customers have not heard of the game, if that is the impression they get from the image, they will not investigate further if they are looking for something a bit more strategic and complex (which the game actually is).

I wonder if something like this would have a higher click through:

And we are debating whether to give this a try. Annoyingly steam does not support A/B testing on such images. The character in this new image looks more angry and threatening, whereas our current image, she looks a little bit like she is posing for a vogue magazine cover, rather than holding up a stagecoach… hmm…

Anyway, thats just one approach. The second is to double down on game-awareness through facebook promotion. Essentially the whole decision is based on two numbers.

X, which is the probability of someone buying the game once they have clicked through to read a glowing article about it and…

Y which is the revenue that we as developers get from the sale of that game at whatever price they end up buying it. For example, lets say that to get someone to read that eurogamer review that is so glowing will cost us $1.10 in ads.  Our profit from doing so is essentially

profit = (X*Y) – $1.10.

I’m guessing that in the super-long term, the average sale price of a game is 50% off, so given $14.99, * 0.6 (for steam cut, refunds, sales tax, chargebacks), the developer earns approx $4.50 per copy sold. At a purchase probability of 10%, we lose money ($11.10 to earn $4.50), At a purchase probability of 50%, we double our money.

Of course we have zero control over the conversion rate form that article, it is what it is, but what we can manipulate is that $1.10 value. At a (I think reasonable) 10% lifetime conversion, we are getting $0.45 per click. if we can pay less than $0.45 we should promote that article more.

This is the kind of calculation I do FOR FUN.

Anyway…shadowhand is awesome, and if you want to know how it plays, here is me fumbling my way through a duel fairly early on in chapter 6:


Last day before shadowhand releases

Tomorrow at 5pM GMT We release the latest positech-published game ‘Shadowhand‘ to the world, on steam, humble store, GoG and direct from our site at This is a scary time. The game has been longer in development than we planned, and this screwed up our timing a bit regarding PR, but ultimately I think its all going to work out because the final product is just so good. It definitely has that ‘one more game’ feel to it, and despite being married to a game designer, this is the ONLY game where my wife has been saying ‘lets just play one more level’ while I’m saying I NEED SLEEP NOW. This is a good sign. (Not that I’m annoyed that this wasn’t the response to my BAFTA-NOMINATED strategy epic Democracy 3…oh no…)

This is also the first game that positech will ‘release’ (if you ignore early access for production line) during the so-called ‘indie apocalypse’, where new games face incredibly high competition, and income from games has been falling at an alarming rate. Thankfully, due to past successes, positech is in no danger of suddenly having to flip burgers if nobody buys the game, but its still a tense moment to have invested a sizeable sum over years and finding out almost immediately if its paid off. Also its the first big step for Grey Alien games into the hardcore / steam game market and is obviously pretty career defining for these two:

Ultimately I think it will do well, because of play-time, and steam reviews. A game that people cannot put down, and which when asked, they say they loved is a game that *will* be a success. You can use advertising and PR as a multiplier effect to snowball that, but ultimately we all know it comes down to the quality of the experience. I think the quality of the experience is very high here, and to explain why, I need to be shockingly honest…

I’m not a very good game designer. I’m really not. Ultimately I’m, more of a Peter Molyneux (there…I said it). I have very good, very original BIG PICTURE ideas about what to make a game about and what it will like. I also know how to sell it, and make a profit from it. You would think thats all you need, but honestly its not. You also have to know whether a French blunderbuss should do 9 damage or 11 damage, and how much gold a pair of boots that give +10 stealth should cost. is it 200 gold? or 250 gold?

I really suck at that.

The amount of time I spent reading forum threads on Gratuitous Space Battles, with heated debates between players over whether some weapons or ships were under or overpowered, or whether or not restricting certain upgrades to a specific race was a really bad idea…is shocking. I was endlessly tweaking that game, and democracy 3, and also production line (although being in early access has been a GODSEND for this). Its only really in the last six months that I’ve really started learning how to get good at what you might call ‘low-level’ game design, the tweaking of the numbers and the arranging of the upgrades and the costs and the economy etc. This is a gargantuan task.

I mention all this because shadowhand does this stuff REALLY well. Much better than the other games I’m playing right now (like star wars battlefront). Also the interplay of the mechanics is REALLY clever. At the start of the game you think ‘ha! solitaire!…so just 1 higher or lower right?’ and then by the end mission your thought process is more like ‘I *could* play the 6, because I have a spare 7 (but should I save that for the next duel???) and the spare 7 lets me then play that 8, which will instantly power-up my musket…OR maybe I should play the 3, because thats a gem card which unlocks the gem lock on the card which i used my owl to detect is actually the torch to set the barrel alight and let me grab that smoke bomb…. hmm….’

In other words its as strategic as playing Civ V, and it really sneaks that up on you rather cleverly and expertly. Its extremely well done, and frankly I wish I’d made it.

I hope, and expect it will do well, but its kind of terrifying because frankly if it does NOT do well, something’s kinda going wrong. Anyway, you can see the game for yourself soon, and in the meantime here is a playthrough by quill18.

The making of shadowhand

This is something I have never done before, but thought would be really cool, plus we had fun doing it, and I know some people are very interested in how games are made, and who makes them…

Next week we release Shadowhand, by Grey alien games, and a few weeks ago we got together and made a little ‘behind the scenes’ video interviewing Jake & Helen about why they made the game, what the challenges were, and what the process of making a game in this style is like. I’ve been play-testing the game for the last few evenings and its madly addictive, and incredibly well designed. it makes me realize how sloppy my own games are, even though I have a bit of an excuse right now because Production Line is still in early access…. Anyway I think the game will do very well, and I hope it does well enough that Helen and a pretty stressed looking Jake get to breathe a sigh of relief once the game is released next week.

Here is the video in all its glory:

And if you are thinking of picking up the game, you can add it to your wishlist using the link below. Its also a very laptop-friendly game, so if you are looking for a cool lightweight but cool game to play on the bus/train etc, its absolutely ideal.

Car design GUI, unicode and shadowhand…

…So I ended up concluding that rolling those two bits of GUI together was not unanimously a good idea, but I think changing the car design one so those horizontal tabs became left hand side list items is a bit of a no-brainer so I did that:

I’m currently working on supporting toggling slot upgrades to be on or off, to allow more player control. I’m in a bit of a ‘usability’ mode where I’m making the game easier to use, and more welcoming, because its easy to get caught up into an Early-Access vortex where all you think about is expanding the game for people who already know how to play it.

However, that doesn’t mean that I am *not* planning a lot of expansion. I have some more music on order (yay!) and am getting all those untranslated strings sorted so that its a smooth translated experience in French, German and Spanish. I’ve also got some more artwork coming probably in the new year, for stuff like making your own air bags, some new machinery to make slots more distinctive, new animations, and some components like chrome and wood to make plush luxury interiors (plus cabin lighting!).

Basically Production line seems to be going quite well, which is just as well as I have lots of other stuff making demands on my time, mostly Shadowhand and Democracy 3 unicode. We have some teething problems with the windows build of Democracy 3 unicode, in that some fonts are not displaying right. We are aware of this and desperately trying to fix it ASAP, although the earlier build is now available as a steam beta option. We already have some thumbs up reviews in Chinese, which I take as a good sign, and hope to have an official press-release about Chinese Democracy soon :D

Shadowhand has been announced to the world recently, and will ship on the 7th December on Steam, GoG and the Humble store (oops…must set that up…) We have been promoting the game a bit on youtube, reddit and facebook, and our wishlists are thundering higher and higher. The more I play the game, and read peoples comments on it, the more confident I am that its going to do well. If you are wondering what I’m on about, you should go check out the game from the link below…