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Track press mentions and distribute promo codes for your games

TL;DR SEP-2017

Various indie devs discussed porting to the Switch as weekly Switch releases are increasing. And Microsoft focuses on its ID@Xbox program for the upcoming Xbox One X November launch.

Rebecca Cordingley shared her “marketing first” approach to making Ooblets. Mike Rose discussed how to announce a video game in the current market, and Rebellion's Head of Marketing Robbie Cooke followed up with his own set of tips on the same topic.

The next game from thatgamecompany, with clear influences from both Journey and Jenova Chen's early work Cloud, is a timed-exclusive for Apple TV and iOS. Tj Hughes announced a Kickstarter campaign for his experimental "aesthetics of food" game Nour with a delicious trailer.

Valve faced criticism for their a data-focused solution to review bombing. Nick Suttner, previously at PlayStation, has left the Oculus team after 14 months.

The 'Borealis' Release

Borealis

Time for a status update! Here's what's new in Promoter:

Public list of available games

The press request form is a popular feature in Promoter that allows journalists and content creators to request a key for a game, and game developers to automatically send out multiple keys at once with only two clicks. The new public list of available games makes it easier for content creators to see which games can be requested on Promoter. Note that the list does not include games from free or trial accounts.

Content creators now need to at least have 25 YouTube subscribers or Twitch followers to request a key.

Websockets

In your timeline, mentions of your games are now loaded via websockets instead of being polled every few seconds. That means you'll see a new mention the second Promoter finds it. This really makes a difference when you add a new game and see the mentions popping in instantly.

Filter reviews by country or language

You can now filter mentions for your games by country and languages. This new filter can also be applied to CSV exports. In addition to that, many international non-English gaming sites have been added to the site index for more complete coverage.

Usability improvements

Two small changes that I think you'll like:

  • When creating a new record like a contact or a mention, the form will now automatically focus the first field to you save a click.
  • Search results for contacts are now always sorted alphabetically, making the result list easier to read.

TL;DR AUG-2017

Bloomberg reports that HTC might sell its Vive virtual reality headset business or spin off the unit. At the same time rumors about a VR mode for the Nintendo Switch are going around, based on code spotted in the operating system of the new console. Apple's next generation iPhone (codenamed D22) is expected to be introduced on September 12. Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, again, has the scoop on what to expect from it regarding new form factor, virtual home button, sensors, and cameras, and Daring Fireball conjectured interesting details about its display resolution.

Bithell Games announced Michael Futter's The GameDev Business Handbook about creating and sustaining your independent video game studio. Finji, Devolver, Bethesda and Evolve chime in on the ideal time frame for announcing your release date. Mojang's first employee Daniel Kaplan leaves for Coffee Stain to work for its new publishing arm. Juho Snellman investigates why PS4 downloads are so slow and offers practical tips.

Dennis Kogel reports in detail on the history of the biggest indie area at gamescom. Indie developer Ludomotion reasons at devcom that press mentions do not drive sales, but that platform holders are reading the gaming press attentively on the lookout for games to feature on their digital store fronts. (Both articles in German language.)

Brian Gibson & Marc Flury talk on Noclip Sessions about designing rhythm violence game Thumper. Former Valve writer Marc Laidlaw writes some very interesting fan fiction and Half-Life fans review-bomb Dota 2 in response.

Did you find this column useful? Let me know on Twitter.

The 'Snow Fox' Release

Snow fox

During the last few weeks I worked a lot on the internals of Promoter. That means no new user-facing features, but many performance and maintainability improvements. Performance is something you'll notice right away if you're using Promoter on a daily basis. Things will simply feel snappier and load quicker. The new version went live today for all users.

These are the things that changed under the hood:

  • Upgrade to Rails 5 which brings a lot of performance improvements.
  • Upgrade to Postgres 9.6, also with performance improvements.
  • Update of all external libraries (gems in Ruby parlance) Promoter is using and removal of a few that were no longer necessary.
  • Improved caching for the contact search to make it significantly faster.

Hope you enjoy the latest release!

New in Promoter: October round-up

Performance improvements for finding mentions

The number of sources that Promoter is crawling for mentions of your games is growing every month. At the time of writing this, over 3300 feeds are constantly monitored. These include gaming websites, YouTube gaming channels and places like reddit or NeoGAF.

Before the performance update, it would take up to one hour to parse through all sources. With the new improvements, fetching and parsing all feeds is now blazingly fast and takes only under 5 minutes.

Validation for manual mention entry

Promoter will now do a client-side check via JavaScript if a mention already exists in your account when you paste an url into the form field. That way you don’t need to fill out the complete form just to discover the mention already existed.

New in Promoter: September round-up

Twitch authentication

The biggest new feature this month has been on my backlog for a long time, so I’m really happy it’s here: As with YouTube, content creators on Twitch are now required to authenticate when requesting a review copy of your game. This ensures that it’s no longer possible to impersonate other content creators and helps reduce fraud from key resellers. You can also see the number of followers a Twitch channel has. The follower count is updated once a day.

Improved auto-detection for edge cases with special characters

The auto-detection of mentions and reviews is based on exact matches of a game’s title and additional search terms. However, this does not work well for certain edge cases. For example Promoter previously had trouble to automatically find headlines like “Future Unfolding's team wants to randomly generate hand-designed puzzles”, because of the ’s. In another edge case for a game like N++ Promoter would previously ignore the special characters of the title and falsely match any headline that included terms like “Android N”. These edge cases are now all gracefully handled by Promoter.

Automatic parsing of category

Promoter will now automatically set the category of a mention to Forum post for reddit.com and neogaf.com mentions, and to Video for YouTube and Twitch mentions.

I hope you enjoy the new features and changes! Let me know if you have any feedback.

New in Promoter: August round-up

Better contact search

It’s now possible to search for contacts by city, country, job title and notes, in addition to name, email and website. If you add a Twitter handle to a contact, Promoter will automatically fetch city and country from the Twitter meta data if present. Job title and notes are data you enter yourself. You could for example add at which event you first met a person, and then later easily find all contacts that you met at that event. An additional improvement is the new loading spinner that indicates when a search is still in progress.

New interface for filtering and sorting sites

The site index now has an new, easier-to-use interface for filtering and sorting sites. You can filter by platforms and country, and sort by Twitter followers. For example, if you’re showing your Steam game at PAX, you might want to filter by the US and PC/Mac to research publications to contact. All options generate unique urls that are bookmarkable in your browser for quick access.

Filter and sort interface

Preview for review copy emails

You can now see a preview for the emails Promoter sends on your behalf to people who requested a promo code of your game, without having to go through the request form yourself.

New in Promoter: July round-up

The biggest change for July is a brand new design for the homepage. Promoter offers a large set of features, and the old homepage didn’t do a good enough job of explaining them and how they make your job easier. Thanks to the talented people at thoughtbot, the new homepage provides a much better tour through the features and tells who else in the industry is using the service and why.

Behind the scenes, I mostly worked on maintenance and bug fixes. One bug was specifically hard to catch: A race condition in which sometimes Slack and email notifications would not be sent, because the background job system would try to process the notification job before a new mention was actually saved in the database. I solved this by migrating from Rails Observers to ActiveRecord after_commit callbacks. At the same time, I upgraded many Ruby gems in preparation for the upcoming switch to Rails 5. The latest version of Rails offers many real-time features which I hope to use for Promoter in the future.

Lastly, the site index got a big “summer cleaning” update where many dead or inactive sites got removed.

New in Promoter: June round-up

Here’s a quick summary of the new features and improvements for Promoter in June.

Improved contact details for YouTubers

Press requests from YouTubers are now linked with your contacts, so you can see their number of subscribers right in your contacts list. Click on the subscriber count to open the YouTube channel.

More data fields for contact exporting

When exporting contacts as CSV, Promoter will now export additional data fields. This can for example be used for sorting or filtering your data in Excel or Google Docs, or importing your data into other services.

The complete list of exported fields are:

  • Name
  • Primary and secondary email
  • Twitter name
  • Twitter followers
  • YouTube subscribers
  • Job title
  • Publications
  • City
  • Country
  • Notes
  • Lists
  • Starred
  • Created at

New in Promoter: May round-up

Hi! Here’s what’s new in Promoter this month:

Better meta data parsing

Promoter will now automatically parse review scores from websites that have implemented the open Review Schema standard. Parsing of author names for mentions that you add manually to your account has improved as well. For example, when you add a YouTube video it will now recognize the correct author name automatically. Some of the parsing features in Promoter are part of my open-source library Raev. Check it out if you’re curious how it works in detail.

Payment and billing improvements

I implemented some improvements on the payment form that prevent certain cases where a valid credit card was previously wrongfully declined.

When you upgrade or extend your plan, Promoter will now email you an invoice receipt as a PDF. (Your accountant loves PDFs!)

Onboarding

The feature set of Promoter has grown quite a bit since its very first version in 2010. I realized I needed to improve the initial experience for new users and added a few onboarding emails that will tell you about key features if you have not already discovered them yourself. Promoter will remind you to add a product to track, explain how to BCC or forward emails to your account inbox, and help you setting up integrations with Slack, HipChat or Campfire.

One more thing …

You can now run Promoter in Duskers by typing 'run promoterapp' into the console. ;)

New in Promoter: April round-up

Hi there. Here’s your monthly summary of what’s new in Promoter.

Dark theme

If you’re on the Studio or Publisher plan, you now have the option to switch to a special Dark theme in your personal settings. It looks pretty neat!

Dark theme

Team notification settings

When adding a new game to your Promoter account, you can now define who in your team should get email notifications about press mentions for that product. This way, you don’t need to remind them that you added a new product that they might want to turn email notifications on for.

Daily summary improvements

Press mentions in daily summary emails are now sorted by publication, instead of by url which makes them easier to read and skim through. Daily summaries now also include a note on how many products from your account you are subscribing to.

Email history in contact list

The contacts list now shows the subject lines of the last three emails that are associated with a contact. This helps you to see at a glance when you contacted a journalist and what your correspondence was about, without having to open the detailed view for that journalist.

Secondary email addresses for contacts

You can now define a secondary email address for each of your contacts which helps you to avoid having duplicate entries for the same person.

Tracking of NeoGAF mentions Promoter now tracks mentions of your games on the NeoGAF forums. Since NeoGAF does not have support for RSS, I wrote a custom parser for NeoGAF to scrape the data from the website directly.

Calendar email reminders Please note that email reminders for festival submission deadlines will only be sent out to users with a paid plan going forward. The calendar itself is still publicly available.

Be humble, be honest, do the work – Interview with Jónas Antonsson

When I first met Jónas Antonsson, introduced to me through a mutual friend, I was sceptical about the company he had just started. Yet another indie publisher?

Since then, Raw Fury have proven they are on to something with the successful release of Kingdom, the side-scrolling RTS developed by Thomas van den Berg and Marco Bancale.

Raw Fury started with three aluminis from Paradox Interactive. With your current focus on publishing independent games in mind, what are the most important things you’ve learned from your previous experience in the world of Triple-A?

That it is much more fun to both play and work with small independent games. Short and simple. Games are inherently experiences and they can affect us deeply. They are a bit of magic delivered through the interaction of graphics, narrative and code. It turns out that small independent developers are much better suited to make new magic.

All of us have been working with games for many years. We've founded, funded and operated development studios, game news sites and consultancy companies. We've designed games, produced them, promoted them, published them and written about them. So collectively we have touched upon every aspect of what it takes to both make a game and get it into the hands of players. This is important. Especially since we understand what it is to be on the development side. We understand the struggle, the turmoil that comes with emotional work and how your time and focus - those precious resources - are always under attack. We believe we know how to build up partnerships that are based on fairness, trust and mutual respect and are suited to ensure that the magic is magnified, instead of being snuffed out. We hope we're right.

During the last years more and more indie studios started to act as a publisher for other independent game developers. Raw Fury calls itself an (un)publisher, a label that seems to be popular with a few publishers that have started to work with indies. Where do you see yourself in a world where publishing no longer has, or still has – depending on the point of view – a bad reputation?

If others are adopting the (Un)Publisher label, we're happy! We came up with it because the label “Publisher” is both very ambiguous - the companies that operate under it offer a wide range of services and terms - and pretty negative. Let's face it, traditionally publishers have built in ways to ensure that they operate under a different set of risk factors than the developers that sign with them. And some of those ways have not really been very beneficial to the developers. So the deals haven't been fair or built in a way to ensure that both parties are mutually aligned. This can quite simply fuck up the development process and kill the magic. Publishers have also had a tendency to start meddling with the development process. Sometimes forcefully (requiring developers to implement their requests, or meeting certain requirements to unlock further payments, etc) and that can also fuck up the magic. These deals and models are based on a lot of history and legacy. Sometimes they are archaic in nature and haven't really been adopted to meet new realities. Simply put - a lot of publishing efforts, terms, behaviors, or services make sense in certain cases, but are being applied even when they don't.

We're a supporting act. We take risk with the developers we work with. We're not in the forefront. We're here to help and the only way we are successful and survive, is if the games we help out with are successful. We don't ask for IP, we don't impose milestones, schedules, features or anything that messes with the development process. We do not black-box our efforts, work, or anything really. We collaborate. We trust. And we needed a new paradigm to explain that sometimes you have to undo a thing before you can redo it. So we unpublish.

We're also a pure-bread unpublisher, meaning that we don't do any development on our own. We are 100% focused on the publishing efforts for the game developers we work with. There is no portfolio strategy and we only decide to help out if we ourselves are super fans of the game, that we have the bandwidth needed to treat it equally well as the games we have already taken on, and if we feel we can add value.

You’re based in Stockholm and have two people working remotely in San Francisco with an 8 hour time-zone difference. Are you mostly working asynchronously? What tools are you using to work together?

We use the Google tools (Mail, Calendar, Drive), Trello and Slack. That's mostly it. We only care about results so there is literally no requirement to register time or sit somewhere for 8 hours straight. We work from home, synchronize as needed but trust each other to deliver, irrelevant to how and when that happens. We help each other out. We also make sure we all get paid the same salary, so there's no need to think about those things. And we make sure everyone has the best tools and environment needed at home, to be effective at their work. That's also way cheaper than an office.

Kingdom

The Let’s Play videos of content creators on YouTube and Twitch were really important to the success of Kingdom, the first game you published. What was your strategy when reaching out to this community?

Simple. Talk to people like they are people. And understand that the games we're making and they play, are - first and foremost - facilitators of the social interaction between a creator and her community. So, when you reach out, make sure you are talking to people who are likely to not just enjoy your particular game but are also likely to have a community that would support and enjoy content that is based on it. Try to ensure you are engaging in a win-win conversation and keep in mind that you are talking to fellow gamers and enthusiasts. You are talking to people, so refrain from the urge to sound like a business or corporation (impersonal) - because it isn't more professional. It's only more likely to lead to nothing.

To put it into practical terms, don't look at this as a “resource” (man, I hate that word). You have to watch YouTube and Twitch. You have to know these people. You should make a list of those that are most likely to enjoy what you are building, specifically. You should reach out to them - person to person - when it makes sense (like when you might potentially meet them somewhere, when you have something to share with them, etc). And make sure to focus on them and not just the awesome stuff you are doing. Follow up. Include them if they are interested. Talk to them. Listen to them. Build friendships - not business relationships. And, above all - do not be a douche. Be respectful of what they do and grateful for their passion - even when it leads to someone not enjoying your game.

It’s often useful to have press mentions and previews ahead of your launch to build up interest and awareness for a game. How does that translate to content creators? Does it make sense to do previews with YouTubers?

A: Absolutely - if the type of game you are making fits well with doing that. It is hard if your game is built around a linear story that has only one path (but it can be done). But again, keep in mind that you can't make anyone put up these kind of previews. In order to increase the likelihood of this, you need to have a game that fits well with a group of people you have already identified, followed and understood how they engage with their community. When you start asking for people to preview your game, you need to do it based on already established relationships – otherwise you'll see limited success. A lucky few will work on a game that gets “auto hype” – where it is essentially picked up by “everyone” automatically. That happens once in a blue moon. Don't count on such luck. Count on putting in the work. And always think about how to make a tide that raises all boats.

Again, to put it into practical terms, send out a build to your selected creators a few days ahead of launch. Make sure they have enough time to play, study and understand the game. Ask them to start releasing content at a specific point in time, at the earliest. Make sure that point in time isn't too far from the actual release date. A couple of days might be enough. Try to do be personal and approachable. Do something special, if you can.

Content creators don’t necessarily attend the same industry events as the press does. In your experience, which are the best events to meet YouTubers and Twitchers in person?

You'll usually find them where you'd find gamers gathering. So PAX, Gamescom, EGX and other similar events are good bets. Additionally there are events like TwitchCon.

Recently prices of independent games have gone up a bit, and some developers have become more critical and outspoken against the practice of heavy discounts on stores like Steam. What do you think is a reasonable pricing strategy for independent developers?

Think like a gamer. Try to ask yourself what you would feel to be a fair price for a game. Ask your friends (the ones that are more likely to give you an honest answer, than something that you would rather want to hear). We do not dislike discounts and sales at all and think that they can be a very important ingredient to create a long tail for a game. Along with updating it regularly and engaging with the community. Understanding how these three things can go together, can lead to a very long life for a small indie game. And that's what we personally like. We're not fans of “Fire and Forget” and we'd rather like to engage long-term with the community and help the developers realize the full potential of what they've created (if that is what they also want to do).

What advice would you give to self-publishing developers to survive in a market that has become more and more saturated?

Be humble, be honest, do the work. All of it. You don't need partners but you should consider them if you aren't willing or able to do all of the work. Don't buy into the “build it and they will come” mantra. Remember that it isn't just about you, the magician - it's about them, the players, the content creators, the fans. See how the thing you are creating can affect other people and potentially allow them to express themselves. Even self-identify. Find and develop passion for every aspect of what you are doing. You are not only making a game - you are delivering and handing it to other people to play with. Love that as much as everything else in the process and you'll be able to take it on with the same vigor as the creative aspect. And always remember, there's a person on the other end of that email, forum post, Facebook message or Skype call. And that person wants to be heard just as much as you do.

New in Promoter: March round-up

Here’s the monthly round-up of new features in Promoter.

Search contacts

If you navigate to the Contacts tab, you’ll find a new input field on top of the page that allows you to search for contacts in your Promoter account. You can find contacts by name, email address or associated websites. For example, type in killscreen.com to find all writers in your account that are associcated with Killscreen. Contacts can be created automatically or manually in one of the following ways:

  • You emailed a press contact and BCC’d the email to your Promoter inbox address
  • Someone requested a review copy using your Promoter form
  • Promoter found a press mention of your game and added the author of the mention as a contact
  • You manually added someone to your contacts in your Promoter account

Lists

You can now assign contacts to one or multiple custom lists. Lists are useful to put people into actionable groups you want to focus on. For example, we have a group called GDC 2016, where we kept all contacts we requested a meeting request with for that event. To create your first custom list, just click on the Lists tab in the top navigation. Then edit a contact and check the lists you want the contact to be part of. Lists can be exported as CSV files.

Email notifications

A not-so-great incident with Mandrill forced me to look for alternatives when it comes to email delivery of notifications for press mentions, press requests and festival reminders. After some research on the best option, I’m happy to have now migrated all outbound and inbound email processing to Postmark. You’ll see two improvements from this change. Postmark focuses on transactional emails only (no marketing emails are allowed on their service), so they can offer higher delivery rates than other bulk email services. Review copies that you send with Promoter are therefore less likely to end up in a Spam folder. In addition, Postmark is the fasted email service provider out there, so email notifications about press mentions arrive in your inbox even faster.

I hope you find these new changes and additions to Promoter useful. If you have any feedback or questions, please email me at andreas@promoterapp.com or hit me up on Twitter.

New in Promoter: February round-up

I’m constantly adding new features to Promoter, based on user feedback and using Promoter myself everyday. You can always learn about new features directly on Twitter. In addition to that, I’ll do a monthly round-up of new features here on the blog. Let’s get started.

Manual assignment of publications to contacts

Previously, it was not possible to manually assign a publication (such as killscreen.com or rockpapershotgun.com for example) to a contact. You had to rely on Promoter figuring out the relationship based on the email address or the meta data from the RSS feed of a website where the article did appear.

Now, you can finally add and remove publications to contacts manually as you wish, filling in the missing information that Promoter could not infer by itself. The new feature took some restructuring of the database, which is why it took a bit longer to implement. It has been a long-standing feature request by many users, so I’m really happy it’s finally here.

Block requests from scammers

Any service that allows people to request Steam Keys or other promo codes for games attracts scammers that are trying to impersonate someone else to get free codes and resell them. For YouTube channels, Promoter already requires users to authenticate via a Google account, which makes it impossible to impersonate someone. However, scammers can still pretend to be a journalist writing for a popular outlet. If you spot a scammer in your press request list (usually by a suspicious email address), you can now block them using the 🚫 symbol. All current requests made for the blocked email address will be hidden from your list and you all future requests by blocked users are not being saved to your account at all. Scammers are not able to see that they have being blocked, apart from the fact that you’re not sending them a key.

Pagination

If you had a lot of data in your Promoter account, you previously might have experienced long loading times or even timeouts in the worst case. Now, Promoter uses pagination for your contacts, publications and email lists, to significantly speed up loading times.

I hope these additions make Promoter even more useful to you. There’s some cool stuff coming for March, so keep an eye on the blog.

Why Promoter did not send any emails during the last 48 hours

Update: Heroku Support has lifted my account limit and all emails that were stuck in the queue have been sent out now.

Promoter relies on Mandrill for sending out transactional email. Reminders for festival deadlines, review copy requests from YouTubers, bulk sending of Steam Keys and press coverage notifications are all delivered through Mandrill. Yesterday, Mandrill announced a major change in their pricing structure and feature set and removed the option to provision, upgrade or downgrade any Mandrill add-ons via Heroku. Promoter is using the paid Heroku add-on which has hard limits on how many emails you can send per month depending on your plan. Just before the end of my billing period, and at roughly the same time as the Mandrill announcement, my account hit the sending limit of my plan. Ironically Mandrill was unable to deliver me a transactional email about the fact that I'm running low on credits. (I double checked that I have alerts turned on for my account.)

This afternoon I realised that Mandrill had stopped sending out emails and queued them in its backlog until my billing period would reset, or until I upgraded my plan. However, since Mandrill removed provison of the Heroku add-on without any notice, I was unable to upgrade my plan. Instead I got an error message: “The plan you’re on no longer exists.” For Heroku users with a growing usage pattern, the 60 days migration notice Mandrill gave was effectively 0 days. Adding insult to injury, Mandrill does not even allow its Heroku users to migrate to their new setup until March 16, three weeks from now.

I was lucky to have a staging environment of my Heroku app that also had the Mandrill add-on installed, so I'm temporarily sending all emails from staging. However, around 1000 emails are still being held hostage by the Mandrill backlog, and I can’t do anything to get them sent out to my paying customers.

I'm deeply sorry that my customers were affected by this issue. I'm currently researching an email provider that can reliably deliver transactional email in the future.

Let's meet at GDC

Are you going to GDC and are curious about Promoter? Then I'd love to meet you and help you setting up your free trial, so you can get the most out of it. Whether you want to track press and media coverage for your games, distribute review copies, or get email reminders for upcoming festival deadlines like IGF, I'd be happy to give you a guided tour and answer your questions in detail.

Your trial did run out, and you like to try it again? No problem, I can reactivate your trial period at the start of our meeting.

Of course, if you're already using Promoter, I'd love to meet you too, learn how it fits into your daily workflow and discuss your feature requests.

To schedule a meeting please email me at andreas@promoterapp.com. Hope to see you in San Francisco!

Promoter is now its own company

Promoter is now its own separate limited company called Promoter Studios Stockholm AB. That might sound like a long name, but there are some naming restrictions for companies in Sweden that require this slightly longer name in my case. I'm still owning and running Promoter 100% myself, and I will keep being involved with Spaces of Play and the development and marketing of Future Unfolding, so no changes there.

While moving everything to the new company, I reimplemented the payment system from scratch using Stripe. So, the next time you upgrade or extend your plan it will save your payment details and you won't need to enter them again after that. Plus, the checkout process is much smoother in general.

The new company is based in the co-working space The Park that is located in the Vasastan area in Stockholm. If you're based in Stockholm and would like to get a personal demo of Promoter or one-to-one support, let me know and we can schedule a meeting there.

How to email journalists without wasting their time

Let’s say you’re working on a game. You do different things to make sure people know the game exists. One of those things is sending emails to journalists. This can be really effective, or it can be a huge waste of everyone’s time, depending on how you do it.

When you’re emailing a journalist about your game, your goal is to make the email as relevant as you can. An email that is 100% relevant to a journalist will get you coverage. An email with zero relevancy is called spam.

How relevant your email is will vary for every person you’re contacting. So you’ll need to do some research and customize every email, instead of mass-mailing all your contacts.

Double-check that you spelled the name of your recipient right. Getting the name wrong is communicating that you don’t care about your recipient, so why should he or she care about your email?

Does the person still write for the publication you want to be covered by? If you met someone writing for Kotaku at an event last year, there’s a chance they have moved on to, say, Polygon. (Or they might not work as a journalist at all anymore.) You need to be aware of this when writing your email. The quickest way to make sure your info is up-to-date is by checking the Twitter bio of your recipient. BCC the email to Promoter so you can easily see your correspondence history later.

Check what genres and platforms your recipient writes about. If you’re making a word game that’s exclusive for iOS, don’t send it to the person who only covers PC strategy games. Figure out who the correct person at the publication is and send it there directly.

Only use services like MailChimp or CampaignMonitor to contact journalists if they actually signed up or gave you a business card.

Some of the journalists know you well, some have heard about you, some will have no idea who you are. Keep that in mind when writing your email. Introduce yourself, follow up on a previous article or remind your recipient where you met him or her. If you blindly send the same email to everyone, you don’t create any meaningful context.

Is there something newsworthy in your email? Why is this important? Does it make a good headline? Try to put yourself into the perspective of the journalist.

Write a clear subject line. Keep the email short. Get to the point. Use as few words as possible to say what you want to say. Longer text blocks such as team bio and other background information should go into your online press kit. If you don’t know how to build a press kit with HTML, use presskit().

Double-check for spelling mistakes and mixups. Common errors to look out for are sending from the wrong email address, and having duplicate or no footers.

If you’re scheduling a meeting with a journalist, confirm date and location a few days before the meeting and make sure you can contact them via mobile phone or Twitter if you can’t find each other on a busy location.

Let your story bubble up. Start out with sending an email to 5 people that you think will appreciate your content the most. If its good, other sites will pick it up.

Ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead – Interview with Martin Jonasson

You started making games around the time when the Experimental Gameplay Project was getting popular, and you’re using its methodology until this day. Can you talk about what makes prototyping many small games so compelling to you?

Most of the game ideas I get are along the lines “wouldn’t it be cool if…”, that lends itself well to smaller scope mechanics and not at all well for more broad concepts. I also have a very hard time keeping a larger game design in my head at one time, I much prefer getting bits out and trying them before committing to something larger.

It’s also immensely satisfying to sit down for a day and blast out an idea I’ve had. Game development is a slow moving and incremental process for most of the time, save those first few hours when you’re trying out something new. It’s a pleasure.

Many of your games started as game jam projects. You’re also co-organising the No More Sweden game jam. What’s the thing that you love most about game jams, and what’s the one you hate the most?

When I left my day job to go full indie my perspective on game jams changed quite a bit. As an employee with a limited time to work on games they were a great opportunity to buckle down and make something over a weekend. But, when you’re indie and can (and should) work on games all day, every day. That’s suddenly less interesting, at least for me. Nowadays, game jams are mainly about the social parts for me. Getting a chance to meet old friends and making new ones.

This matches my feelings about jams rather well, it’s great to get together and make games for a couple of days, but, really I just wish we’d ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead.

Before rymdkapsel you mainly worked on projects of smaller scope. At what point during its development did you realise that rymdkapsel was going to be bigger in scope, and eventually, a bigger success?

The scope of rymdkapsel very much snuck up on me. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do it had I known what I was getting into. The process of making that game was odd. I had the basic game working after just a month, it’s scary how similar a screenshot one month into development looks to the final thing.

One month into development

PSM release one year later

After about two or three months I posted a teaser trailer, which then got me in touch with Sony to publish on Vita, that’s when everything took a step up. I had a gut feeling it would be well received, but I was never convinced it’d be a success. It was a massive privilege to get a shot at making something like that and having the resources to make a good go at it.

Rymdkapsel launched on Vita via PlayStation Mobile, then came to iOS and Android, then finally to Steam. Can you share how the different platforms worked out for you in terms of revenue and how you experienced the ease of porting and self-publishing on the different platforms?

The revenue split is roughly this: iOS is half of total revenue, Google Play about a fifth. The remaining third is evenly split between the PC version (Steam and Humble Store), a Humble Bundle (November 2013) and Sony.

I struck a PubFund-esque deal with Sony, meaning I got an advance on royalties which helped immensely. Without that the game wouldn’t be nearly as polished.

I didn’t find any of the platforms to be all that different from each other. The ease of updating on Steam (and to a lesser extent Google Play) is probably the one thing that sets it apart. They all take a couple of days of poking to get your head around.

Could you describe how you managed the transition from being a web developer to becoming a full-time independent game developer?

I was lucky enough to have a skill that was in high demand, meaning that I could charge a hourly rate three or four times that of my actual needs. That meant that every hour of web development I did paid for two or three hours of game development. As I did mostly interactive flash web stuff, my skills transfer nicely across. I tried doing game development as a freelancer, but (save for one project) it was an exercise in frustration.

You’re based in Sweden which has relatively high taxes and cost of living compared to other regions. Do you feel that this factor makes making a living with independent games a more difficult goal to achieve?

It’s a a double edged sword. Those high taxes pay for the social security net that keeps me from dying when I get sick, even if I’m broke. They also paid for the infrastructure that got me a great internet connection and allowed my parents to get a computer on the cheap. As did they pay for my university degree in Game Design.

So, for most of my life, before I made a successful game, they were an asset. Now, they game is doing well enough that I’ll manage, but I still happily pay my taxes knowing they help me, and more importantly others that need it more.

You are doing weekly game development streams on Twitch and participate in events like Mojam. How did you get into streaming and what’s your main motivation to keep doing it?

I only really got into streaming in time for the first Mojam in 2013, it seemed like an interesting experience and indeed it was! I enjoy talking about what I do and why I do it, and hope to maybe share some of my knowledge along the way. I’ve held a few courses as a teacher before, and that’s fun too, but streaming lets me get much more of an outlet for that without having to deal with homework!

The main charm that keeps me coming back to streaming is the immediate interaction with the audience. As I said earlier, game development can be a slow moving process, even if you’re fast it’ll take weeks from you doing the work until it reaches your players. With streaming you cut that loop short, it’s a matter of seconds instead.

Many people that come from Flash game development have moved on to Unity. What made you choose Haxe as your primary development environment?

I never liked working in 3D, I don’t know if it’s because the games I played growing up was exclusively 2D, it may also be that I’m lazy. Either way, I find 3D an unnecessary complication for my purposes. And, with Unity you’re forced to deal with it, even if you just want to do 2D. Haxe and OpenFL came along at a perfect time for me, it was such a smooth transition I hardly felt like I switched. That said, I’m not chained to that forever, I may still switch over if the tech requires it.

You designed a four-player arcade machine called Crime City Arcade together with Niklas Ström, and published instructions including the laser cutter schema for how to build your own. How has the reaction been from people playing it and from people building their own versions?

It’s a great machine to bring anywhere, even though it’s big and cumbersome, every time we take it out, we wonder why we don’t do it more often. As far as I know no one has made another one from our plans, but there’s quite a few four player machines out there.

The biggest upside of having it is that people seem to think it’s some magical device, but really, it’s just a screen in a box with a couple of controllers. I can pop it open and show them how it all works, hopefully that makes building your own a little bit more approachable.

We dream of making one that’s battery powered so we can bring it around to parks and set up little ad hoc arcades over the summer. I’m excited for that!

Any chance that people who don’t own an Ouya will be able to play Mrs Dad Vs. Körv at some point?

Yes. One day!

What is your favourite fruit?

I’m not much of a fruit person, especially not grapefruits. They’re awful.

Could you share some advise for people who are just starting out making games?

Don’t worry about stuff. If you’re just starting out, pick any programming language, any platform and just make something. If it turns out good, you can deal with that as it comes. If it doesn’t, just make a new thing. Use source control, eat your vegetables and be nice.

Promoter’s auto-detection will be a paid-only feature starting July 1

I’m making a change to what is included in the free Promoter plan. Promoter has been around for a few years now, and has slowly been growing to track press for over 2500 games. Over 85% of these games belong to a free account. When starting Promoter, I made the mistake of not adding a time-limit to the free plan.

Today, hundreds of games that have been released years ago and are not getting press anymore are still constantly processed by Promoter’s auto-detection feature. During the early growth it was possible to mitigate this by optimising the server code and adding more servers. Now however, too much server time is consumed by customers that will likely never pay for the service. This has a direct negative result for paying customers: The auto-detection is getting slower with every new signup.

To solve this, free accounts will no longer have access to the auto-detection feature starting July 1. New customers will be able to signup for a 14-day free trial that is similar to the previous free plan that included the auto-detection.

To trade something with someone

Sometimes I contact developers who are about to release their game on Steam if they want to try out Promoter to track press mentions. I’d offer them 1 month for free, since they’d often hit the limits of the free plan really quickly during the launch window.

One developer was generous enough to offer me a Steam Key in return. There was something I really liked about that, so I’m going to try the following for a bit:

Email me a Steam Key of your game, and I’ll give you 1 month of the Studio plan for free. The small print: The offer is limited to one free month per developer, regardless of how many keys you are sending me. If I already own the game or know someone who’d really enjoy it I’ll give it away, otherwise I’ll use it for myself.

Speaking of which, you can BCC any email containing a Steam Key to Promoter to automatically mark it as used.

"Like Working In A Band"
Interview with Douglas Wilson

Today I’m talking to Douglas Wilson, the creator of Johann Sebastian Joust and possibly the single biggest driving force behind the sales of PS Move controllers. (At least I bought four of them just to play his game.)

Our generation grew up on games that you could play with 2-4 players in front of a home computer. Playing together in a physical space is a very important part of almost all games you worked on. Do you see a Renaissance of local multiplayer games?

Yes, definitely, at least in the indie scene. You see game collectives around the world (like Babycastles in New York City, Wild Rumpus in London, Dirty Rectangles in Ottawa … the list goes on) throwing events and bringing people together to play installation games and local multiplayer games. My own party game B.U.T.T.O.N. was made specifically for the GAMMA IV exhibition in 2010. There are more opportunities than ever to show such games.

The PC and PS3 versions of Sportsfriends were funded on Kickstarter just two months before the PS4 was announced. What are your thoughts on releasing the compilation at the end of the console’s life cycle?

More than anything, Sportsfriends is a passion project. It’s not primarily a commercial venture, though certainly we hope to make enough money to cover our hard work! Porting the games to PlayStation 3 is an opportunity to get the games on a console, which we think is the right “environment” for the games. Putting the games on a console will help us get them to a wider audience. It would be great to release Sportsfriends on the PS4 as well – we’re still looking into that.

You have been critical of the traditional use of motion controls that focuses on increasing the level of immersion. In your own work you often try to make players look at each other and away from the screen. Why do you think there is so little – for the lack of a better term – innovation in motion controlled games?

I don’t think it’s impossible to use motion control to aid immersion in a virtual world. I just think it’s a difficult path, and it certainly isn’t the only path. There’s a more under-discussed approach, which is using motion control as a kind of slapstick comedy. That’s the approach I’m most interested in, at least. There are a number of commercial games that do this very well, like Dance Dance Revolution, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, and Kinect Party. But because of all the sci-fi imagery around the idea of virtual reality I think consumers often expect a more traditionally “immersive” experience from new technologies. Sigh!

In addition, making motion control games requires a whole way of thinking about game design. At least personally, I found that I needed years of playing with physical games before I really understood the genre in a deep way. I had to “unlearn” a bunch of traditional design wisdom.

Your studio Die Gute Fabrik works on multiple titles simultaneously that are very different in nature and scope. How do you decide which projects to work on and how to prioritize them?

More often than not, our games start from the “vision” of one person. For example, Where is my Heart is the brainchild of our collaborator Bernhard Schulenburg. Mutazione is a project Nils Deneken (my co-owner) has been wanting to make for years. And Johann Sebastian Joust is very much my project, and speaks to my interest in physical games. I guess you could say that each game has a “project owner”. The rest of us then try to help that person bring their vision to life. For example, Nils helped me with the design of J.S. Joust, and I’m helping him with programming, design, and production on Mutazione.

Balancing all these projects has been a challenge, and is something I’m still learning how to manage!

Die Gute Fabrik was initially founded by Nils Deneken. How did you decide to become a partner? I met Nils at IndieCade 2008 (he was showing Rückblende, I was showing Dark Room Sex Game). I learned he lived in Copenhagen (like me), so we stayed in touch and started hanging out. We worked on some game jam projects together, and later we worked together on B.U.T.T.O.N. As I was finishing my PhD, I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in academia or go full-time indie. Nils asked if I wanted to work with him. You don’t say no to somebody as talented as Nils!

You have worked together with many different people on different projects. In a way it reminds me of a musician who’s working together with other musicians, sometimes being the lead, sometimes contributing. What do you feel is most important when collaborating?

I think your comparison to music is spot-on. I definitely think of collaboration like working in a band. All the instruments have to come together in a synergistic way, and there has to be enough trust between the band members. If that trust breaks down, the whole project falls apart so quickly. Also, it’s important that each person brings something valuable to the team. “Dead weight” (so to speak) isn’t just inefficient, it also can interfere with team morale.

You made a game called Tower No Tumble for the Sifteo platform. What was your experience working for a relatively small platform that has not yet been adopted widely?

It was an interesting job, but also quite difficult! I think we did a good job, but it takes multiple projects in order to deeply understand the design principles of a new platform. I mean, it took me years playing around with Wiimotes and PS Move controllers before I really “got” motion control games. Physical games are particularly challenging because you need to convince the players to help you “referee” the game in the physical world. For example, in Tower No Tumble we had to explain to the players how and when they needed to build a tower out of the cubes.

Some of your projects heavily rely on open source software for the technical groundwork. How do you feel about the idea of open source within the game developer community?

Open source software has been crucially important for me! Eventually I’d like to open source J.S. Joust and some of my other games, or at least some of my tools. I’ve already open sourced my Unity bindings for the PS Move API, and I’d like to share more. But maintaining those projects is definitely time-consuming.

You recently moved back to NYC after living in Copenhagen for several years. Can you talk a bit about the differences you see between the two, living and working as an independent game maker?

It’s certainly busier here in NYC, which is both good and bad. It’s good because there is so much going on, and so many talented games people here. So many of my favorite game designers live in NYC! It’s not such a traditional development hub like Seattle or San Francisco, but as a result many of the developers here have had to make their own way. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with other cultural spheres like art and music, which I think is wonderful. And there are a number of universities and arts organizations (Babycastles, Eyebeam, NYU Game Center, Parsons) that give out artist grants or organize events.

But it’s brutally expensive here, especially since I have to pay for my own healthcare (unlike in Copenhagen). It’s almost too busy here. It’s been hard to find a tight-knit group of colleagues and spend quality “slow” time with them. Everyone just has so much going on! As someone who thrives working collaboratively, I’m having trouble adjusting. We’ll see if I can make my way here. There are certainly other appealing videogame hubs in the States.

Also, I should mention that there are just so many more funding opportunities in Scandinavia. In fact, part of our company is still based in Denmark, and we’ve been working on Mutazione with generous grants from Nordic Game and the Danish Film Institute. Without that support, I couldn’t be full-time indie right now.

Everyone who follows you on Twitter knows that you’re very passionate about music. Are you interested in working on a game where music is at the center of the play experience?

Yeah! I’ve been working on the ambient sound engine for Mutazione, which is heavily music-based and features the music of Alessandro Coronas. In the game, you tend to these gardens where you grow a variety of plants. Each species of plant makes ambient music from a particular instrument or texture. Essentially, it’s a kind of generate-your-own Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. It’s one component in a larger adventure game.

And, I should point out, Johann Sebastian Joust already is a game where music is at the center of the play experience! The J.S. Bach music (selections from the Brandenburg Concertos) are absolutely key to the “identity” of that game.

Looking at the independent games scene today, what are you most excited about?

Hard to choose just one thing! I’m excited to see more cross-pollination between videogames and the contemporary art world, as I think both spheres have a lot to learn from each other. Just this past March, I got to show Mutazione at a small exhibition at SFMOMA, which was obviously a huge honor. It seems like museums and galleries are increasingly interested in videogames these days. For example, there’s currently a great exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta celebrating “alternative voices in game design.” More importantly than the museums themselves, it seems like more contemporary artists are “discovering” games and the world of independent games. This kind of cross-pollination will help bring a broader diversity of creators and collaborators, which is certainly exciting!

Introducing Raev

Without the vibrant Ruby open-source ecosystem I would not have been able to develop Promoter by myself. It uses over 45 Ruby gems today, many of them handling essential tasks. I have been wanting to extract some features from Promoter and make them available for other developers for some time, but didn’t get around to it until now.

Raev is a Ruby gem for fetching, parsing and normalizing meta data from websites. If you want to parse meta data from websites or RSS feeds you’re faced with the challenge that practically no one in the real world is using sensible standards or microformats. Raev tries to take away some of that pain by parsing and normalizing meta data to something more usable. The feature set of version 0.1.10 is still somewhat limited, but it offers some things that you might find useful:

  • Fetch the Twitter handle from a website
  • Fetch the RSS feed from a website
  • Return the base domain (without www) for an url
  • Resolve shortend or proxied urls and remove UTM analytics parameters
  • Normalize the author name of a RSS feed entry

I’m planning to add more features to Raev that deal with scraping meta data from article pages, such as headline, publication date, and author name.

Starting a Trend

During the weeks before our release of Spirits on the App Store in 2010, we looked how other successful indie titles had priced themselves. We decided to follow the same model as Osmos. We released a version called “Spirits” that would run on the iPhone and iPod touch, and a more expensive version called “Spirits for iPad” that would run on the iPad. While this model worked for us in terms of revenue, we missed a trend that was about to happen: Making games universal so they run on any iOS device without the need to repurchase. As a player today, I’d expect a game on the App Store to be universal.

With the comforting option of following a successful trend, it’s easy to forget that it’s possible to start a trend yourself.

When Queasy Games released Sound Shapes for the PS3 and Vita, they offered both versions of the game for the price of one, making it the first game to support Sony’s Cross Buy initiatve. When Dan Tabar asked players to pay for the Cortex Command Alpha, he started the trend of paid, iterative development, paving the way for Minecraft and Steam’s Early Access.

How do you come up with a model that will work in the future? A viable strategy might be to design for yourself. What do you want as a customer that noone is offering today?

Promoter Database Upgrade

Promoter suffered some serious downtime over last weekend and the following Tuesday due to problems at my hosting provider Heroku. I’ve been in touch with them to discuss how to avoid this kind of downtime in the future, leading to the following steps:

  • I upgraded the database of Promoter to the next higher database plan, which has an expected uptime of 99.95% (instead of 99.5% for the old database). The new database is also noticeably faster, thanks to in-memory cache.
  • I set up a read-only Follower database for redundancy and failover. If anything bad happens to the production database in the future, I will be able to switch to the Follower database within minutes. This should help to reduce downtime significantly.

I apologize to everyone who was affected by the downtime. If you have any questions or feedback please email me at andreas@promoterapp.com.

Changelog

Since the public release of Promoter a year ago, I’ve implemented many new features, both based on feedback from users as well as on our own everyday use. Here’s a detailed list of what has been added.

  • Faster and more frequent auto-detection for reviews and mentions.
  • Official support for non-gaming apps.
  • Larger index of app and gaming sites (700+), categorized by platform and recommendations, sortable by number of Twitter followers.
  • Keep track of awards and order them by date.
  • Integration with dopresskit.com, automatically fetches the best quotes and awards from Promoter and displays them on your press kit.
  • Redesigned dashboard for quicker overview over all products.
  • Show headlines of reviews in the timeline.
  • Move a review to a different product.
  • Set email notifications per product and user.
  • Export the festival calendar as ICS or get email notifications one week before each deadline.
  • Export reviews, writers and sites as CSV.
  • Display a header image on your public page.
  • Reorder quotes and reviews on your public page via drag and drop.
  • Fetch quotes and awards from your public page as XML or JSON.
  • Show expired and used dates for promo codes or Steam Keys.
  • Install Promoter via the Chrome Web Store.
  • Choose between more flexible pricing plans: 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year.

Do you have an idea how to make Promoter even better? Let me know on Twitter.

"Flip The Question Around"
Interview with Andy Schatz

Andy Schatz has been highly influential and inspiring to the independent game development community for a long time, so I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk to him about Monaco and the Venture Games, the growth of indie games and the most important skill to run an indie studio.

Your first two games Venture Africa and Venture Arctic are about managing an ecosystem of animals. Was the theme of the games mainly driven by your interest in the subject, or did you also see a niche that no one was serving at the time?

It’s surprising to me how often I get this question. I design games based upon themes and mechanics that I observe in the real world, not based upon other games, and I have a passionate interest in animals and the environment. I would actually flip the question around and ask the people that design shooters if they are doing it because they love guns, or if they are doing it for business reasons.

Venture Africa was a finalist for the IGF Grand Prize in 2006, the year Darwinia won, when Braid’s prototype was awarded for its Innovation in Game Design and when the Student Showcase featured thatgamecompany’s first game Cloud and DigiPen’s Narbacular Drop that later would lead to Portal. If you look back, how would you describe that particular time for making games independently and how does it compare to today?

There was a period of three years that saw exponential growth in the indie scene, starting with the year Gish won, through Darwinia, and onto the World of Goo/Fez year. This was spawned by the existence of new distribution platforms and the casual game revolution familiarizing game players with digital purchases. These days there are tons of opportunities for indies, mainly because we have a healthy variety of competing options for funding and distribution. Customers and the press have acclimated to the new status quo, and growth continues unabated.

You have been running your own studio Pocketwatch Games in San Diego since 2004. Aside from the ability to design and develop games, what skills do you think are the most important for running your own company as an indie developer?

Every studio succeeds based on its strength. Some developers are great coders – those ones should code. Some are great marketers, some are great with business. Some people are great artists. The only skill that is absolutely required is the ability to actually finish games. Being successful takes more than that, of course, but that’s the only one that is common among all successful developers.

After the success of Venture Africa you hired someone full-time to work on Venture Arctic, which didn’t sell as well, so you had to let that person go again. During that time, did you feel that you needed to change your strategy and move away from the family-friendly brand that Pocketwatch Games was intended to be?

No. I still felt that I was onto something with the Venture series, and so I did 6 months of contract work so I could try again. It was disappointing to me that Venture Arctic flopped, but it wasn’t surprising. Venture Arctic was more interesting than it was fun.

In the end of 2009 you started your current project Monaco, originally to take a break from working on Venture Dinosauria. On your blog you described how Monaco felt like “an ‘easy’ game design” and “very different from the Venture Games”. What exactly was it that made it feel easier?

Working with a singular player character is much easier than working on a god-game. The problem with god games is that the limitations, goals, and player identity must be invented out of the blue. With a player-character, all of these game design decisions flow from answering the question “who am I”. With a god game, it’s up to the designer to invent the immovable rock that stands in the way of the omnipotent god. Without such constraints, there is no game.

After four weeks of development you considered to release Monaco as an Xbox Live Indie Game, but kept working on it until today, effectively turning it into an AAA Indie Game. How did you make the decision to work on it “until it’s done” and thus highering your stakes?

Ha, there’s lots of stuff packed into this question. First off, I despise the term “AAA Indie Games”. I wish Chris had never suggested that. Some of the best selling indie games of all time would never have been described as AAA Indie Games, and some of the AAA Indie Games are bad and sell like crap. Sure, you can see the difference between indie games that are the product of years of work and those that are from a game jam, but I feel like there’s too much emphasis on those differences already, so why would we want to separate the playing field even further?

As for how I made the decision, I can’t really talk about the details of it all just yet, but the [redacted] story is that it wasn’t really intentional, but it was necessary. At every step along the way circumstances would throw up a road block that forced me to plan for another 6 weeks, or 6 months, or year on the project. I’ll talk about it all when I’m done!

Your initial game design for Monaco goes all the way back to 2003, where your previous employer pitched it to Microsoft Game Studios. Do you feel that the best ideas are the ones that you can’t stop thinking about? Or did you ever feel like “If my idea for Monaco was any good, I would already have done it years ago”?

The best ideas are the best ideas. :)

Monaco is a co-op heist game where each of the up to 4 players have their own unique character class and abilities. How do you balance each character class to make sure it’s fun for everyone? Do you constantly play-test with 4 players?

We do play test a lot, though not that often with 4 players. I’ll be launching a closed beta soon, so I should get an idea about which characters are best then. That said, balance is overrated. It really only matters in competitive games. In single-player or cooperative games, all that matters is that each player has a role, a specialty, and each is fun to play. Then it’s up to the players to discover the imbalances that can give them extra advantages when competing with each other for high scores.

You’re planning to release Monaco on PC, Mac and “at least one console”. Are you aiming for the same release window on all platforms?

Yes! It will be a simultaneous launch.

Monaco was one of the first games to be backed by the Indie Fund in 2011. How did you fund the development of the game before that? In what other ways are you benefitting from the Indie Fund besides the funding itself?

Well, I had winnings from the IGF, savings from before I started Pocketwatch, and some income from the Venture Games. Indie-fund is of course a fantastic resource in terms of advice and moral support as well. I couldn’t have done it without them.

One of the highlights during GDC is when you occasionally host the IGF awards ceremony. Do you write your own script, or do you have “professional” help? And why is the telepromter placed in a way so half of the audience can read what you’re going to say?

I do write my own script! That’s why it doesn’t have professionally written jokes ;) I am not in charge of teleprompter placement.

What’s your advise for people who want to make their own games and are just starting out?

FINISH YOUR GAMES! If you don’t finish, you don’t matter!

"Good Business Decisions"
Interview with Zach Gage

Zach Gage is both a conceptual artist, and a game designer from New York City. I talked with him about deciphering the success behind SpellTower, the strategy of avoiding focus and why indies should act like local businesses.

You originally designed and developed your word game SpellTower within two weeks. You constantly kept improving the game after its 1.0 release, implementing feedback from players and slowly gaining momentum this way. That’s a very different model compared to working on an AAA indie game for 3-5 years. Do you see a shift in indie games more towards games as a service, where releasing the game is just the start of the journey?

It’s difficult to say for sure if the model that I used with SpellTower was a good one to emulate. It’s definitely seen success in some other games (most notably Minecraft), but it’s also worth noticing that very few iOS games ever recover from a not-killer first launch, and given that evidence, it seems like this is a bad strategy… and yet we see it from time to time cropping up.

I think the reason this is happening is because even though it isn’t a great strategy for economic reasons, it is a great strategy for learning. For me in particular, I’ve always had problems figuring out how to make my games relatable to the masses. Making strong and successful tutorials is extremely important on iOS, but it’s also extremely difficult. Another issue for me is that I frequently make games in areas in which I don’t have any knowledge in. Putting out games piecemeal and implementing feedback as it comes in is a solution to those problems.

Of course, there is an upside to the slow release, and that’s the community building aspect of it. While that part is really powerful, I think in most cases, the same thing could be done with a development blog, which is a lot safer.

When you’ve released a game, at some point there’s always the question if it’s worth to keep working on it, or if you should focus on the next project. Giving the impressive quantity of works you’ve released, how do you decide where to put your focus on?

Even with 3 works out, I think I have about 5 sitting around in various stages of completeness. I kind of have a strategy that avoids the question. I pretty much work on games only when they’re fun for me to make, so if I’m half way through one and I have a good idea for something else, I’ll go off and work on that. Eventually I end up having a ton of prototypes that are all nearly finished that I can show around to my friends. This takes a lot of the pressure off needing to get something out or find my next ‘big game’.

Once I get excited enough about a prototype that I feel like I can tackle the remaining boring 10% (polish mostly), then I spend two or three weeks pushing it out the door.

You both work on projects by yourself, and collaborate with others as in the case of Ridiculous Fishing. Is this an important balance for you, to be able to follow through with your vision in one project, and to be able to share ideas and refine them together in another project?

I really like collaborating, but its a very tricky thing to do. Collaborative disputes can be very dangerous, and on any project with more people you need to be sure that everyone has respect for everyone else’s ideas and skills. On the other hand, if you can do it successfully you nearly always get stronger products as a result, and you always learn a ton.

I definitely like to do both, but working by myself is definitely a lot easier.

SpellTower didn’t get a feature by Apple until version 3.0 added support for the Retina Display of the then just-released new iPad. Do you feel this was the major reason for the feature?

With Apple it’s usually a lot of little reasons. Retina support was important, but so was multiplayer. I think they also felt that the game deserved a feature in general. They were just waiting for a big update of any kind to promote it a little bit.

When the sales charts for SpellTower raised dramatically from #297 to #6 for paid iPad apps, you reduced the price to 99 cents to “take on Rovio and Zynga”. The sale created an immense buzz, sold you over 20.000 copies, and got covered pretty much everywhere in the gaming press. What did you take away from this whole experience?

I think the biggest thing I learned was that my strength as an indie is being a human who cares about his work. As an indie, one of the hardest things is PR, and while you’re trying to learn how to do PR, there’s a lot of pressure to emulate time-proven methods. But it turns out that those methods are really built around how to promote products that don’t have a face or a human behind them.

As indies, we can do more of a grassroots PR, we can play to our strengths. One of the biggest learning moments for me was when I was going to release an update that targeted literally 8 people who had sent me emails that they were unable to play the game. It was right in the middle of SpellTower’s climb, and I didn’t want to damage the climb because when you release an update Apple nukes all your ratings. Essentially it can look like your app has only been reviewed 5 times instead of the 1000 times its actually been reviewed. It seemed like a bad time to put an update out for so few people. I was sitting at my computer looking at the Reject this update button, and I kept thinking “I should click this, this is a good business decision”, but I just couldn’t do it. It felt totally unfair to those 8 people. So instead, I just explained the situation in the update text and on Twitter. Instead of trying to come up with some sneaky way to get people to do what I wanted (typical corporate PR), I just told people what was going on, and hoped that they would be friendly and help out if they felt like it. By the morning I had close to 600 reviews. It was amazing and humbling.

I used this strategy a few times. It takes a bit more work than traditional PR, and responding to so many emails and tweets is exhausting, but it has always felt like the right thing to do. And this will sound super sappy, but really nothing compares with putting out love into a game and a community and having them send love back.

Obviously you can’t ask users to do things for you all the time (much like you can’t ask your close friends to), but consumers/friends will step up to the plate when it counts.

Before SpellTower you developed and released five different apps on the App Store, including the games Halcyon, Bit Pilot and Unify. What did you learn from making and releasing these games?

Man, that’s a hard question. I learned SO many things. I really had no idea how to make video games before those releases, so nearly everything I know is from them.

I guess the biggest stuff is how to prototype quickly and how to develop a game idea from the initial prototype to something more fleshed out. Bit Pilot took a full six months from the day I made the prototype to the final version and that’s pretty shocking when you look at what the original prototype had (the exact ship and control scheme that is in there now, and you flew around dodging asteroids until you got hit). I just didn’t really know how to turn tiny things into full fledged tiny games.

Another big thing I learned was how to make tutorials. I think that was probably the hardest thing since it’s never something I paid attention to when I was growing up playing video games. I don’t think I ever really made a game with a good tutorial until SpellTower, and even that took a lot of post-release iteration.

You have a very modern, beautiful website for SpellTower that was done by Chris Driscoll and a great trailer by Kert Gartner. Many indie developers do these things themselves as they are on a limited budget. Why did you decide to outsource this?

Thanks! Those two guys are amazingly talented, and I was really lucky to get to work with them. The biggest part of that decision was that SpellTower had done fairly well on its initial release without an Apple feature (≈50k USD), and I decided that since I had a little money and thought the game should be doing a lot better than it was, in preparation for the big multiplayer update I was just going to go all the way with everything. So that meant getting the trailer in place, agreeing to Chris’ generous offer to do the website, making a strong icon and screenshots for the App Store, and really being on the ball with trying to drum up press and respond to emails. In the end I think that trailer and website didn’t individually make SpellTower a hit, but they certainly made a big difference. One thing I never really realized about hits is that it’s not one gigantic thing going right, it’s tons and tons of little things going right. Having a great website and a great trailer were really instrumental in that happening for SpellTower.

During an email discussion between indie developers you stated that one key lesson from your career is to “Treat consumers like friends, and they’ll treat you like a friend.” Can you talk a bit more about that?

Totally. There’s a lot of pressure as an indie to try and market yourself like big PR companies do. Its not that anyone is specifically telling you to do this, but everyone is telling you to market yourself, and there really aren’t very many models to look at for how to do this properly. The problem is that really this whole indie explosion is very new, and even the indies that have found great success are still deciphering exactly what happened and how they got there.

I think one trend that is very common amongst successful indies though is being friendly with customers. This obviously isn’t true across the board, but it’s something that Vlambeer, Mikengreg, Penny Arcade, and Mojang have in common… and it makes sense, indies shouldn’t be fighting with AAA companies in marketing dollars, we should be doing the stuff that those huge companies can’t do. And one thing they absolutely can’t do is let consumers put a face to the game. They can’t let consumers be friends with their developers. Even if they could somehow pull it off, their audience is just too large. Indies don’t have this problem. We don’t need to sell 500 million copies of our game. We can act like a local business where you know all the people who come in, but one that’s local to the internet.

In your Thank-You letter for people who bought SpellTower you wrote “We make games to make people happy. We make games because it makes us happy.” How would you describe the thing in games that have the potential to make both players and it’s creators happy?

That’s another tough question! I think for me, I enjoy exploring the systems that games let us find. I think what’s so magical and so difficult about games (and all forms of art really), is that they are a medium where we can make something that’s so much more than it is. You can, in an afternoon, come up with a game that someone could play their entire life, and never truly understand, that thousands of people play their whole lives and never understand. And not only that, but even in creating it, you don’t totally understand what’s going on. It’s a collaboration with the universe. That’s amazing! To work towards something so dynamic and lively that it could engender people in all walks of life to be curious and explore it. What’s not to be happy about?

*Did anyone ever get mad at you for losing personal files by playing lose/lose

Not a single person. There were a few instances of hate mail, but nobody who ever tried it complained.

What’s your advice for someone who’d like to get started with making their own games?

This one’s easy. Get started right now and make games. It doesn’t matter if they’re in GameMaker or HyperCard or drawings on a piece of paper with marker that you just describe what the game is. Whatever you can do, do it. And just keep doing it, trying to make it closer and closer to the thing you’re dreaming about.

Don’t worry about if it’s good or not, what program to use, what language to learn, or how it’s ‘best’ to get started. The best way to get started is to get started. Whatever language or framework you pick will be correct. It’s not that it’ll be the thing you use forever, but even wrong choices are valuable. Just make games.

Also, (common, but if you haven’t heard it yet) listen to Ira Glass on creativity and failure.

Promoter integration with presskit()

presskit() is an awesome free tool by Rami Ismail of indie studio Vlambeer that lets you quickly create your own press kit to host on your own server. It’s loosely based on the structure of our own press kit for Spirits for Mac.

Now, you can use Promoter and presskit() together. With the new integration you can pull selected reviews and awards from Promoter and automatically show them in your press kit.

Simply tick the checkbox “Integrate with presskit()” in the settings for your game in Promoter. Then copy/paste the code snippet into the data.xml file for your game in your presskit() installation. All awards and quotes that you marked as public will show up in your press kit, sorted by newest first and always up-to-date.

Interview: Bit Barons on Astroslugs, funding, portals and publishers

In today’s interview I talk to Alex Zacherl from the small Munich-based game studio Bit Barons. As usual, I simply ask about the things I’m most interested in – behind-the-scenes stuff that you don’t hear about that often.

Your studio consists of three core team members. How did you meet and why did you decide to start a company together?

We met at GDC Europe 2009 where Alex Widl and Sergej showed their prototype “Qubox”. I went to their booth and played the game. We started talking and quickly found out that we all wanted to make our own games instead of getting jobs at one of the big studios. We needed a legal vehicle to facilitate this so we founded the company and got an office.

How long did the development of your puzzle game Astroslugs take and how did you fund it?

Hard to say. If you count the prototyping phase during the last months of university and the time we spent working on it part-time then it took us nearly two years to release the game. We worked full-time on the PC/Mac game from November 2009 to January 2011 and then about another six months on the iPad/iPhone version. We funded the development both with our own money (more than legally needed for a GmbH), a good amount of public funding (94.000 EUR from the EXIST Gründerstipendium) and some smaller contract jobs.

Astroslugs has been released on iOS, as well as on PC and Mac where the game is available to buy directly from your website. What were the most successful platforms for Astroslugs, both critically and commercially?

iOS definitely was our most successful platform, both from a monetary and reception standpoint. Astroslugs got about 600 user reviews so far and 90% of them are the full five stars. It was also featured by Apple which gave us some pretty nice sales numbers for some time. Compared to that, the PC/Mac version was not very successful. We got good reviews and great player feedback but nearly no one bought the game in the first place – neither on our on site nor on any of the portals. Retail was also pretty negligible for us.

The game is also available on 15 different game portals including OnLive, Desura and GamersGate. With the overhead in paperwork and supporting different APIs, was it worth it to get the game out on as many channels as possible?

No. In hindsight it didn’t make any monetary sense as the portal sales were so very small. In our experience, no portal other than Steam justifies any workload that is bigger than half an hour – at least not for a game that received so little promotion as ours. This may have changed with the rise in popularity of some of the indie portals like Indievania and Desura though. We haven’t had to support any APIs – but the paperwork and networking needed to get the game on the different portals was immense.

One game portal is conspicuously absent from the list. As a small indie studio, what’s your opinion on Steam?

Steam is pretty good for consumers and seems to be a great distribution channel for many indies. We were not able to convince them that our game would make sense on their platform so we were left out - that’s life. Should we ever make another computer game we’ll definitely try again to get it on Steam.

Astroslugs is also available at retail stores. How has your experience working with a publisher been?

An old indie wisdom says that all publishers are evil. We were lucky because working with the guys from Headup Games was pretty smooth and transparent. Though we had a long contract we never had to actually get to it – just calling them on the phone made things work pretty well. It helps that they’re about our size. Though this can obviously also be a weakness, as a small publisher (with a small game such as ours) will never be able to push the same number of boxes as the big ones (but with whom you can’t really work). Compared to that, working with another publisher who is in a completely different time zone, who we can only contact by email and who is less transparent is something we won’t do again.

How do you react to player feedback and user reviews?

We answer e-mails and comments almost immediately when they arrive. At least when this is possible. It’s a big problem that you cannot communicate with the players and commenters on the App Store at all. Most problems only require a few words to fix them or the confirmation that there is really a/no change planned.

Can you tell us about the next game you’re working on? What’s your approach for developing the idea of your next game?

We’re working on different games and game ideas that are in different stages already. Our next release will be an awesome board game that we’ll bring from the physical space to mobile – the money for this comes from a big German board game publisher. Then there’s our trading card game which has been a physical prototype for too long and which we’d love to get out of the door next – negotiations are at work. And then there’s our Monster RPG called Guardians of Era which is still only a concept with a small prototype and for which we’re trying to secure funding (it’s a pretty ambitious project). After that, there might be an MMORPG or two. =D

Do you feel you’re able to fund the next project from the revenue stream of Astroslugs?

No. This has always been our plan but it didn’t really happen. We had pretty good sales when Apple featured the game on the App Store but since then they have been very low. This probably comes from a lack of promotion (and funds for that), from a rather stupid business model and a focus on a very casual audience. Our next games shouldn’t have these problems, so we’re confident that we’ll be able to finance 100% of our costs from our games’ revenues once they are out in the wild.

What’s your advice for people who want to start their own game studio?

Do it now. Start part-time if you must. Go full-time as soon as possible. Make some small games first. Don’t think casual games are easy. Make a game that you love. Have fun. Strive to be independent – don’t give up when you’re not. See Rat King and Mimimi Productions for guys who are doing it the right way.

Keep track of your game's awards

When marketing your game one thing always helps. Being nominated or even win an award at a games festival acts like a seal of quality, trusted by press and players alike. We put our best accolades into press texts, app descriptions and on our website.

We didn’t have a good way to keep track of those recognitions though. Usually we’d just copy them from a text file laying around somewhere, and make a new list with the awards we wanted to highlight.

Looking for a better solution, I added support for Awards & Recognition into Promoter, which is available starting today on every paid plan.

With this new feature you can easily:

I hope you like this new feature – let me know on Twitter what you think of it!

Interview: Broken Rules on running a studio and Chasing Aurora

I first met the guys from Vienna-studio Broken Rules at the “indie hostel” during GDC. I remember them sitting in the overcrowed lobby, discussing and playtesting a new project and bouncing ideas back and forth. It was an interesting contrast to other indie games, which often are designed by one or maybe two people. I asked Felix Bohatsch how they run their studio.

Broken Rules started out as a student team – today it has 7 team members. Do all of you have the same stake in the company? Does everyone work full-time, or do you rely on additional sources of income to pay your rent?

Clemens, Martin, Peter, Jan and I all have stakes in Broken Rules. These five are also employed full-time at the company. Andrea and Josef are employees and work about half-time.

Until now we only once did contract work and struggled a lot with it. At the end it was not worth it financially. As long as we can afford to, we want to avoid doing contract work in the future. Currently we are only working on our next game Chasing Aurora.

In 2010 Broken Rules merged with iOS developer Radiolaris. What was the reason of merging the two teams?

Merging with Studio Radiolaris was never planned, but when the opportunity showed up we did it. Studio Radiolaris was founded by two people who we knew from university. We used to share an office with them for a long time as well. After developing three games for iOS, Fares, one of the founders, wanted to return back to an academic career. Martin wanted to continue developing games and as we knew and trusted him, it was a logical step to merge the companies, games and talents.

With a bigger team coming from different backgrounds, is it harder to follow a single vision? What are the pros and cons of merging compared to just working together on a project while keeping companies separate?

Yes, it is harder to follow a single vision. We try to periodically re-focus our vision in the team by talking about it, killing darlings and doing esoteric stuff like manually cutting and pasting a giant analog moodboard. Following Gaijin Games’ Storytelling through Symbolism talk at IndieCade 2011 we try not to worry too much about diverging interpretations of the vision, though. Instead we see it as an opportunity that might help us communicate the vision to a broader audience.

One pro of having everyone who’s working on the game in the same company, is that it is easier to deal with financial issues. First it is easier to work for a smaller income, if you also hold stakes in the company. Second we don’t need complicated contracts upfront that try to fairly split the risk and possible future income. Everyone gets paid the same income and if the game is financially successful it simply means that Broken Rules can keep paying and keep developing great games.

Cons are that everyone has a say on the design of the game. We keep things very democratic, and while that can be a bit tedious sometimes, it generally works well for us. It also means that everyone is creatively invested in the game which keeps motivation up and everyone happy during the long process of developing Chasing Aurora.

What does a typical day at your studio look like? What’s the day-to-day process of working together on a Broken Rules game?

Everyone has a slightly different work rythm – and three guys have babys at home, but we have core working hours, where everyone of the team is at the office. Some come and leave earlier, some later, but we usually have a few hours every day where everyone is at the same physical space. This assures face-to-face communication, which we find to be usually faster and more efficient when dealing with problems. It is even more important as we are continually improving our in-house engine Ginkgo in parallel to building Chasing Aurora with the same engine. Things break and it’s way easier to fix bugs when one can look over the shoulder of the one who has a problem.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday we do a SCRUM meeting when everyone is at the office (usually around 11:00 am). These meetings help everyone to be up-to-date on the process of the game and highlight dependencies.

We try to have teams of two to three people working on a specific task. More people make communication harder and less people usually result in insular solutions to a given problem. Four eyes see more than two. When someone is away we try to find tasks that can be worked on alone.

What tools are you using to communicate with each other and to organize your projects?

We try to do most communication while everyone is at the office. We have an analog SCRUM board where the tasks for the next two weeks reside. We adapted SCRUM to our needs. I would say it’s quite a loose and flexible interpretation of it. Basically we write a task and who’s responsible for it on a small piece of paper and stick it to the board. The task starts in the to-do section and then moves from In Progress via Check to (hopefully) Done. We found that sprints of two weeks work best for us. You can read more about how we SCRUM on our blog.

Usually only big tasks like “build situation X”, or “improve flight behaviour” are written down on the SCRUM board. For finer detail we use Basecamp, where we keep todo lists for our smaller tasks and bugs. We also use the messages and writeboard features of Basecamp to slowly communicate about specific design topics.

To structure our process we play test often, basically every three weeks. Usually with about 6 people. These tests give us a deadline to work towards and keep us focused on what the players want of the game.

For milestones we try to use externally dictated moments, mostly festival submission deadlines, conferences or expos. Simply because these are harder to push.

Your first game And Yet It Moves is available on Wii, PC, Mac and Linux. Players can buy it from multiple channels, including Steam, Mac App Store, Humble Bundle, your own website and others. What’s your experience with having a multi-platform strategy? Is the extra work needed to get it on other platforms and channels worth the additional sales? Which channels worked best for you?

Going multi-platform worked great for us. This approach made the long tail of And Yet It Moves possible. Interestingly enough, 2011 was the most successful year for And Yet It Moves financially. Two years after its launch!

The most important channels for And Yet It Moves are Humble Bundle, Steam, Mac App Store and WiiWare.

You’re currently working on an ambitious new game. In Chasing Aurora players control a bird flying over the alps. How did you decide on the game idea and setting? How long did it take to find a vision for the game?

Yes, it definitely is ambitious. To tell you the truth it grew a lot bigger than we originally wanted it to be. We recently realized that our expectations of what a Broken Rules game has to look and feel like, will always make for an ambitious project.

It all started with flying, wind and motion controls. We built a few prototypes that mostly focused on elegance and soaring through channels of wind. After a few month we postponed these ideas and focused on the playfulness of flight and the freedom one gains through it. We build a local multiplayer prototype, which I would say was the starting point of Chasing Aurora.

Mountains where part of the idea from the start. (Fun fact: the original project title was Fujiyama.) Early on we decided to use the Alps as a setting as it is a part of the world we all know very well, as we are living and working in Austria. We wanted to get inspiration from something local, rather than something exotic.

We started brainstorming circa January 2011, while we were working on contract work and still building our own engine. I would say that we only recently pinpointed our vision. So it took us about a year of prototyping and discussion to develop a clear vision of what we want to convey with Chasing Aurora.

How do you fund the development of Chasing Aurora? What development time are you expecting?

We are partially funded by departure, a fund for the creative industries given out by the city of Vienna, and through the sales of And Yet It Moves. We will launch Chasing Aurora in 2012, so we expect a total development time of about 18 month.

Despite common advice of extracting tech from existing projects, you decided to develop your own 2D game engine Ginkgo from scratch, after experiencing trouble with Torque. What have you learned from building your own tools?

It’s both scary and exhilarating at the same time. It’s scary because it takes a lot of time and resources away from working on Chasing Aurora. Ginkgo was mainly made possible because in 2010 we got a subsidy from ZIT (also Vienna) to build the core foundations of it. That was a major point in deciding to build our own engine. The big danger of programming everything ourselves, is that we might get caught up in feature creep. Especially because engine tasks are easier to define and close, thus being more fulfilling to work on, than game tasks. To avoid this we keep a close look on what features are really needed and what things can be done via workarounds instead.

It’s exhilarating because Ginkgo is already such a great tool, that is built exactly to our needs. It really is a joy to work with. And as Ginkgo was planned to be platform independent from the start, we look forward to easily port our future games to multiple platforms. This will hopefully enable an even longer tail for our future games.

What’s your advice for people who both want to make their own games and a living from it?

Do what you love and what you do best. Always keep a close look on what you want to convey with your game, kill your darlings and focus on what the player will experience. Start small and don’t aim too big.

Influence of gaming sites via Twitter followers

The site index in Promoter now includes the Twitter name of every site and the number of followers. (As long as the site actually is on Twitter. I can’t really relate to why some sites choose not to.) This should help you to get an idea about the influence and reach of any gaming-related site.

The research of the Twitter names was done manually to ensure correctness. The followers count is updated once a day through the Twitter API. You can click directly on a Twitter name in the site-index to go to the related Twitter profile.

The site index is available on all paid Promoter accounts.

Thanks to @chrisoshea for the suggestion.

600+ gaming sites categorized by platform

When you’re about to release your first game, it can be hard to figure out which gaming sites you should contact. When we released our game Spirits on the App Store, we had to do a lot of manual research which sites were relevant for iOS games. Now working on the Mac version of Spirits, we had to figure out which sites actually cover Mac games.

Every game developer talking to the press has this problem. Since Promoter already had a list of 600+ gaming related sites that it uses for the auto-detection feature, I decided to categorize all sites by the following platforms to help solve this problem:

  • 360
  • 3DS
  • Android
  • Browser
  • DS
  • iOS
  • Linux
  • Mac
  • PC
  • PS3
  • PSP
  • Vita
  • Wii
  • Wii U
  • Windows Phone

Now, let’s say you’re porting your game to Android, but have no idea what the press landscape there looks like, Promoter gives you a current list of all major and minor Android gaming sites. This gives you a great starting point on deciding which sites to contact.

To access the list, simply signup for a free Promoter account and then click on Sites in the main navigation. To only show sites for a specific platform, click on a platform tag beneath a site.

Interview: Vlambeer on the iOS launch of Super Crate Box

When Super Crate Box came out for the Mac in 2010, I was astonished by it’s instant play- and replayability. Released for free and acting as a ‘business card’ for Vlambeer, it became clear that it would be worth to keep an eye on the dutch indie studio.

With Vlambeer being one of Promoter’s first customers, I was happy to see that they managed to organize a successful iOS launch of the game, not an easy task in today’s super competitive market. I asked Rami Ismail how they did it.

Super Crate Box has received coverage on major gaming and iOS sites such as TouchArcade, TUAW, Joystiq and PocketGamer within 48 hours after release. How many of these sites did you contact and how did you approach them?

We use a different approach for most games, but one thing we do is to get to know the people we’re requesting to write about us. It’s a common (and rather insulting) misunderstanding that the press are corporate, evil, money-sucking mindless drones. They’re almost without exception passionate and helpful people that care about the medium. In that sense, they’re not so different from developers like us, they just contribute in a different way than we do.

With that in mind, we always contact people we like working with first with what we call a focused mailing. These are personal e-mails to known fans and some people critical of Vlambeer in which we point out we’re releasing something and offering them a look. After that, we wait a few days and check Twitter, Google and Promoter to see who picks up on the story and reach out to them. After that second round has had their go at the story, we usually ‘shotgun’ the rest – we release a press release and send it to every outlet we can find.

The PC and Mac version of SCB was released for free in 2010. It was nominated for ’Excellence in Design’ at the IGF 2011 and selected as the ’Best Free-to-Play PC GAME’ on IGN. How did the popularity of the PC version help with the iOS launch?

It did definitely help to be able to mention the prizes and awards of the PC version in the e-mails. We don’t think it was crucial for the critical reception, as the iOS media is mostly unaware of the indie gaming scene and the other way around. We do usually mention that we’ve been nominated for the IGF and that we won some awards when reaching out to new people – that seems to work rather well.

How long has the original game been in development? How long did it take to port the game to iOS?

The original game was developed in about two days of hard work followed by eight months of polishing, the port took about two months of hard work and then four months of tweaking. Especially controls and getting all the details right took more time than we had anticipated, but in hindsight we are pretty happy we did invest that time into it. The controls, although controversial, definitely seem to do the job and we’re happy to see that the vast majority of people seem to like them. We’re trying to reach out to people complaining about the controls to see if we can help them out through Twitter or Facebook.

It can be difficult to port a keyboard based game to the touch controls of iOS. How did you test the usability of the new control scheme?

It was difficult! The one thing we felt really helped out was testing in the train to the offices. Asking random strangers to try the game was both incredibly interesting and motivating. People were extremely responsive to our requests and often brutally honest. Using the feedback, we tweaked, improved and tried again until we had a schedule that worked consistently without significant problems for a week of train testing.

If you’re able to estimate, what’s the conversation rate between free PC/Mac downloads and iOS sales?

At this point, for every 40-something PC downloads there is a single iOS purchase.

There are several ways to send out press copies, such as custom builds for specific UDIDs, TestFlight or Apple’s promocodes. What did you use for SCB? How long in advance did you send them out?

We used Testflight for some press we involved early in the process, but we extensively used promocodes in the week before launch. We feel the iOS market has a short memory span, although core iOS gamers (such as those on the TouchArcade forums) behave more like the traditional gaming crowd. We started by reaching out to those forums and waited until a week before release before really starting our ‘media push’ so that the peak of the coverage would coincide with the release.

When contacting journalists about your game, what’s the three worst mistakes one could make?

We have a few things we never do:

  • Starting with a lengthy introduction. Get to the point. If you assume your first paragraph is the only one potential recipients will read, it has to be short, powerful and sweet. Press often has to read through hundreds of e-mails a day and if you start by telling about your hamster dying last week and how you’re so sorry that affects your writing, they’ll not make it to the second paragraph.
  • Not being personal. We’re an indie and that means we do not have marketing budgets. This has an advantage to it, though – you’ll get to be a person or studio with a story to share. You can connect to the media personally, without a PR department between you and the people writing about your game and studio. Remember that they’re people and they like talking to people - that’s way more interesting than mailing with the secretary of the secondary junior PR manager who never spoke to people making the game anyway. Be personal and attentive.
  • Sending anything but plain text and links. We’ve heard stories about people sending their press releases with 250MB of art and video assets. Funnily enough, it turns out, some people still don’t have mailboxes that handle that really well. Some will delete your email to make space in their inbox. We’ve also heard stories about press releases being sent as beautiful PSD and PDF documents. The press has limited time so make things easy on them. Send plain text, link to a press kit, pre-uploaded trailers or a few images they can download. In the optimal situation, they’ll read your first paragraph, be interested in what you offer and then be able to copy and paste parts of your mail directly from the mail into their story to get started on their article.

In mid-December you announced that SCB iOS would be released on Thursday, January 5th. Was the game already approved by Apple when you announced the date? How did you choose the release date?

Yeah, the game had been approved by that date. We had discussed this at length amongst ourselves: We had decided that christmas was the worst possible time to launch. We hoped that after christmas, there would be a gap in the supply of new games as every ‘big’ player would’ve launched to grab the top spots during the one week in which the App Store freezes. On top of that, we felt there was a pretty big chance people who got their iDevice for christmas would still be intently checking for new releases and thus stumble upon Super Crate Box.

You also announced at your blog that you’ll release an update with new game content once 5 million crates have been collected by players worldwide. When did you work on this update?

We worked on that from the release date until Sunday, which means we’ve barely slept for four days in a row. We functioned on ridiculous amounts of caffeine, but we feel we have to try our absolute best at keeping our promise to our fans and customers. The fans are the most important thing we have.

To be honest, we had never expected the crate counter to soar this fast and wrongly expected the rate to mimic the original Super Crate Box (two weeks) - we’re pretty overwhelmed. Lesson learned, we suppose - but we’re going to take a day long nap or so after this.

SCB is an universal app for both iPad and iPhone priced at 99 cents. What are the reasons for going universal and how did you decide on the price point?

Super Crate Box is a bit of an oddity in terms of distribution. We want it to reach as many people as possible, however, unlike the original Super Crate Box we couldn’t release this one for free with two teams working on it and having to pay the rent. So we decided to launch the game as cheap as possible and with as little obstacles as possible. For Ridiculous Fishing, we might go with a completely different approach. We like to think of such strategies as being seperate per game we make.

You support both Game Center and OpenFeint from day one. Why did you go with both systems?

Again, wanting to reach as many people as possible. We believe Super Crate Box is something that’s worth spreading and making things simple and including features such as those help. We’re working on more additions in that category for later updates, too.

If you’d have to describe in one sentence why the original SCB became ’the 2010 underground hit’, what would you say?

Hopefully because it shows that arcade games can still be original and new. Unlike many games nowadays, Super Crate Box allows you to play it, instead of letting the game ‘play you’ - all the responsibility for scoring high is with the player. We think in an age where many games guide the player through the game, that can be rather refreshing. We really hope that translated to the iOS version and we have faith in what we made. We’ve been having fun with it.

The perfect video game press kit

Video game journalists have to cover lots of games, and they don’t have a lot of time. Naturally, you should make it as easy as possible for journalists to write about your games. We have a decent press kit for Spirits online, but it’s not perfect. Update: Here's what we are doing with our press kit for Future Unfolding.

I asked on Twitter how game journalists imagine the perfect press kit. Here’s what it looks like:

  • High-quality screenshots with human-readable filenames
  • Option to download all screenshots in a ZIP
  • Embeddable gameplay videos on YouTube/Vimeo
  • Full gameplay description
  • List of features
  • Release date
  • Price point in USD and EUR
  • Available platforms
  • Direct download link on iTunes/Steam
  • Developer name and link
  • Publisher name and link
  • App icon and game logo in high resolution and with alpha channel
  • Packshot if applicable
  • Awards and nominations
  • E-Mail address of team member responsible for press
  • No buzzwords

Do you think something is missing? Get in touch on Twitter.

Thanks to Ludoistweetting, LiveTouch, Kargbier, EngagingGames and @Dick_Hogg for the input.

Introducing Promoter

In early 2010 I started to work on a tool that I wanted to have but didn’t exist. Something that helped us to keep track of the press coverage our games would get and to easily see which of our iOS promo codes we had sent out to whom. This tool became what Promoter is today.

So why spend time to develop a dedicated tool for this? Here are some good reasons:

  • I don’t want to search Google or Twitter all day to see if someone wrote about our games.
  • One week after launch, I want to easily see which of the gaming sites we contacted did not review our game yet.
  • When we’re going to release Spirits for Mac, I want to follow up with the journalists who wrote about the iOS version.
  • A blogger contacts us that she wants to write about Mr. Bounce and would like to have a promo code. I need to know how many codes we have left and if any of them are going to expire soon.
  • I want to collect the best quotes from reviews, so I can use them on our website and in our press releases.
  • We want to submit our games to all important game festivals. I want a reminder when a submission deadline is coming up.

Promoter solves all these problems and saves us time. I built it for our very own needs. That means, it’s specifically built for small teams, for game developers that do their own marketing and PR.

Promoter is now officially in public beta and available to everyone. You can sign up for a free plan that includes 1 game, 25 reviews and 50 promo codes. There is no time limit on the free plan — you can use it as long as you’d like. You can always upgrade to the paid plan, if you need to manage multiple games, more reviews or promo codes.

The unlimited plan is only 99 EUR / year. There is no auto-renewal and you can keep all your data even if you don’t renew your paid plan.

If you’re a game developer, I’d love you to give it a try and let me know what you think of Promoter. Just get in touch with @promoterapp on Twitter.