On April 27th, 2018 we released our first game on Steam. The Thin Silence is the first commercial project by TwoPM Studios for the PC platform. TwoPM is a fancy way of addressing our little team of two part-time game devs who have been making games together for more than 12 years. We’ve exclusively made freeware PC games & commercial iOS games in the past, this was a new frontier. If you’d like to learn more about us please check out our about page or presskit.
We wanted to share our thoughts on the release process, we often look to other developers’ stories ourselves and feel there is always something to learn from. However I’ve read enough postmortems to know they often end up as the exact same story. As such I’m going to do my best to avoid the things everyone already knows, no matter how true they are (“neglecting marketing”) or anything that cannot be acted on (e.g. combat the “changing landscape of industry”). I’m aiming for honesty, so I won’t bury the lead: our game was not a financial success… No matter which way you slice it.
Context: Why The Thin Silence?
TTS was born in a melting pot of different desires and influences. It reflects the pattern we’ve observed in ourselves: make something completely different from our last project.
Our interest in game development has always been retro-inspired and, to us, fit best on PC or console. We’d targeted mobile games from 2011 through to 2013 to learn more about the business side of game development — to some success. We were frustrated by the race to the bottom and intense competition that developed on the iOS App Store. So we decided returning to the PC audience would be a better market fit for the games we wanted to make and hopefully be a little less competitive. We’ll come back to that competitive point, this was 2013 though. We became increasingly curious about whether we could make a career, or at least a side-career, out of game development.
We felt like we weren’t capitalising on the expressive narrative potential of our games and wanted to try something new. The Thin Silence is largely inspired by our personal experiences with mental health and gave us a chance to understand & express ourselves.
Preparing for Release
After 2–3 years of development we realised we weren’t making progress fast enough if we wanted to ever cross the finish line— unlike a hobby project, you can’t wake up one day and call it done. We started to seriously consider what was going to be involved in getting the game out there. We decided to bite the bullet and post The Thin Silence on the Greenlight program for Steam. Aside from our devlog this was the first public showing of the game.
We concepted, storyboarded, recorded and edited a Greenlight trailer together, including recruiting a voice actor. We wrote press releases and manually researched journalists to contact about the game. We updated our devlog on TIGSource and posted on Twitter throughout the process. Despite all this we barely made it through. This was around the time Valve had started relaxing the requirements on Greenlight.
Short Interlude on Publishers
Every second article says the same: “You don’t need a publisher, but it certainly helps”. I’m just going to echo that. We know our strengths and we also know that we both suck at selling our work. This is combination of lack of talent for marketing work, cluelessness and conflicting priorities. We’re working on the cluelessness aspect, the others are hard to address. Even being Greenlit, offloading our PR strategy to Nkidu was pivotal to us actually finishing the game. We realised that there wasn’t enough time to be project managers, developers, sound designers, writers, artists, accountants, and public relations officers.
Briefly, there are a lot of publishers out there now and pitching to them is good practice for selling your game to the general public. You need to know exactly what you’re making and why it’s good or else publishers are going to skip right over your email. Trust me, a lot of publishers skipped over our emails. If you can’t sell a publisher on your game then anticipate difficulty selling players on your game — don’t give up, but anticipate.
Finding a publisher is not a panacea; nothing can replace getting out there and selling your own game. We were already bad at this but after five years we were tired. We spent so long planning to make something good, making something good, reevaluating it was good etc. that we didn’t leave anything in the tank for telling other people it was good. A publisher is not going to let you ignore marketing and take the responsibility away but they’ll at least stop you from flying blind.
Setting Expectations: What’s realistic?
In the lead-up to releasing The Thin Silence I spent a lot of time reading about the industry and researching similar games. The community has been bickering about the “indie apocalypse” for years now and there’s a growing perception that it’s impossible to “break in” to the industry these days.
I think this is a return to normality. Almost all entertainment industries deal with market saturation problems after a certain maturity level. Indie games have grown up and there are a lot of absolutely incredible games coming out. It’s not enough to make a good game and expect that consumers will find it, research it or take a chance on it. They’ve got titles like Hollow Knight, Celeste & Iconoclasts! Here’s my comparison: success is distributed, and seems to be distributed in the same “champagne glass” as global wealth:
I don’t put much weight into game scores but that’s more because the rule holds true rather than because it doesn’t:
If your indie game is not at least an 8+/10 to consumers, you have almost no chance of being noticed in 2018. In fact there’s a serious chance you might sell ZERO copies. Yes, you read that right.
I’m fairly comfortable taking a realistic viewpoint on our own work: The Thin Silence is not a top-tier indie game™. I believe we’ve made a very good game, the best we’ve ever made, but it’s at least one tier below where we need to be.
We weren’t in a strong commercial position. We’d made a slow, thoughtful game with a neo-pixel-art style. The market segment for that game is already small and it’s hard to be attention grabbing with something axiomatically gentle. We knew we needed to find a way to make this game compelling to potential buyers. Through discussion with Nkidu we started to come to terms with just how much of TTS was about mental health.
Once we’d had this realisation the gears began to spin a little faster. We had both heard of Checkpoint and their work from both YouTube and Twitter. It seemed like a natural fit, we’re both Australian and focused on the intersection of mental health and video games. We reached out and formed a light partnership fairly quickly.
So, for all that where did we end up? Personally my Twitter audience grew a lot from this game, although I’m still playing in the small leagues in terms of followers. This is a small point but has become increasingly important to the indie game community.
We had considerable press interest leading up to release with over 400 press requests for review copies. This translated into dozens of reviews, streams and videos around the net, including coverage from The Washington Post & Rock Paper Shotgun. We also received an honourable mention at The Freeplay Awards 2018.
Our ratings generally ranging from 6–9/10 (see Metacritic), with a couple of outliers on both ends. Generally if people didn’t like the game it was because they “didn’t read the label first” or people loved it because it resonated with their personal history. This was by far the most rewarding aspect of the game, seeing people’s personal connection to our work is, for us, what the creative process is all about. But the objective facts are this:
The game has been wishlisted over 1400 times on Steam and to date we’ve sold less than 200 copies combined across Steam, Humble and itch.io
We are both in the very fortunate position that we can make games and not rely on them for our livelihoods. No-one could live off sales of this game. We live in Australia and the proceeds of this game did not even cover the cost of founding our company and completing our tax return.
Why do I think we shifted so few units ultimately?
I think it’s a multi-faceted issue but foremost we made a game that’s very difficult to sell. The Thin Silence isn’t loud and exciting in screenshots or videos, it deals with heavy subject matter and is very slowly paced. This is largely the opposite of what your hypothetical “statistically average” gamer is looking for! Marketing starts at the ideation stage, not halfway through development.
We realised all this not-too-far into development and had to make the choice to push on. Ultimately The Thin Silence became a game the two of us had to make. We had things to say in the ‘grab strangers in the street’ kind of way.
If you are making a 2D indie narrative game (a Nolan-level niche) you need to make a 10/10 game. Given the role that streamers and YouTubers play in game marketing you need a story that people demand their audience experience for themselves. In reality, streamers are probably the greatest single benefit to indie games — targeted advertising, community engagement and critical review in one go — but a nail in the coffin of this sort of game. Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free? We prepared ourselves for that, and diluted our expectations. Overall we were still very surprised with both how well received the game was and how little that translated into sales.
If I’m being totally honest here I don’t think partnering with Checkpoint was a a critical business move. We received very little attention directly through this approach but it’s hard to quantify if the added legitimacy from the Checkpoint brand helped drive sales. Nevertheless it’s a move that made sense and we support Checkpoint’s work and message regardless of its financial impact on us.
Our main goal isn’t to make money but to make something creative and valuable, in short, art. We live in a world that places increasing value on the art of independent games. It’s unreasonable to say that your art cannot generate money — our society values art, which is fantastic but it transfers some responsibility onto us as creators — if they value art but they don’t value what we’ve made, some of what we’ve made failed. It wasn’t art. Art evokes emotion — I believe it cannot be ignored. What we made was. I don’t take that as an insult, but as a challenge. We will keep going, and we will make better things. TTS doesn’t lose value from that — it’s a stepping stone to better things.
What can you learn from us?
1) Find Your Niche
When we started working on this game I was only 20, we had no idea about business or anything beyond making a game for fun. I think it’s hard to understate the importance of market analysis and fit in 2018.
Hopping on the bandwagon isn’t especially appealing, but that’s not the same as market analysis. Identifying niches that are being poorly served is key. I’m bringing some of my principles over from the software startup world:
- Find a real gap in the market
- Validate, don’t theorise
We spent 5 years on The Thin Silence, even at an average of only one or two days a week that’s far too long. We want to focus on smaller scope, snappier projects that we can get out to market quickly. We’ve agreed that we’d like to keep prototypes around one month and projects below one year. If any of these ideas catch on then we can expand upon them and continue to build our reputation and maybe even make some money.
2) Reputation is crucial
We need to shed the idea of “one big score” that will set us up for life. Not everyone wins the lottery but that doesn’t mean we all starve. You can see that any project by the first wave of commercially successful indies (around 2011: Derek Yu, Edmund McMillen, Jonathan Blow, Alec Holowka etc.) still garners immediate attention. This is because they’ve proved they’re worth watching over a long career. These huge hit games were, for the most part, the result of years of hard work and flying under the radar.
There are some shortcuts you can take along this path, such as publishers like Devolver or Raw Fury who have their own reputations you can ride on. This has worked a charm for many and may very well be the future of the indie game space. Just remember, getting your game noticed by these publishers is far from guaranteed.
Certainly though, we’re past the era of overnight smash hits and we’ve entered an era of career building.
Our current goal is to be known and to be known specifically as a studio for our thoughtful design and strong atmosphere in our work. It will be hard to quantify the effect but some number of people will look at our next project and say “Hm, aren’t these the team who made The Thin Silence? Well now I’m interested”. We hope that every game we release gets us closer and closer to a winning formula.
We loved making The Thin Silence. It was immensely personally rewarding, creatively fulfilling, professionally maturing, critically well-received and beloved by players. It was a commercial failure.