Postmortem: Super Amazing Wagon Adventure
I did not have high expectations for Super Amazing Wagon Adventure. As my first game, my primary goal was to get experience and perhaps build up some credibility and connections. It's accomplished that and much, much more. In this post I'll share details about the game's development and sales and do my best to figure out what went right and what went wrong with the game.
In January 2012, I was a PhD student nearing the end of my graduate career, and for various reasons, I did not want to follow my peers into a post-doc or industry job. My post graduation plans were to be an independent software developer–I was disillusioned with research and I wanted to work on real software. But with graduation looming, the stress of turning these plans into reality began to build. To ease the stress, I wanted to work on a small game I could finish and release in a few months to build up confidence and gain experience. I wanted to go through the entire experience of developing, releasing, and promoting a software product. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure was that product.
Yes, you have read the previous paragraph correctly. The game which Indie Gamer Chick said "might actually make you stupider while you play it" was created by a PhD student. Perhaps that explains why the final chapter of my dissertation contained only single syllable words and crayon drawings...
The plan for Super Amazing Wagon Adventure was to make a game which played to my strengths and covered up my weaknesses as a first time game developer. I wanted to make a game with very simple graphics and gameplay that was still exciting and fun for me to make and for people to play. The basic concept was to exaggerate the gameplay elements people fondly remember from the Apple II classic Oregon Trail (random story telling with personalized party members, gruesome deaths, hunting and rafting) but throw out all the slow strategic gameplay and educational value. Given its source material, simple gameplay and graphics would be appropriate, but I could use randomization, fast pacing, and story to make the game fun.
The original plan was to create and release the game in about three months so that by the time I graduated in June I'd have a released product and perhaps even a little revenue. As I kept adding more and more random scenes and features, the development time ballooned. I used the Dream Build Play deadline of June 16 as a milestone to have the game mostly complete, but I still had a few weeks of polish after the contest submission before the Xbox version was complete. The trailer I made for Dream Build Play had an awesome reception that pushed me through to the end and helped push away the thoughts of "What the hell are you doing with your life drawing tiny pixel animals all day when you have a post graduate degree." Yes, I did graduate. You shall address me as Dr. Sparsevector.
Xbox Release and Sales
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure released on Xbox Live Indie Games on July 6, a little over 6 months after the development begun. It's now been for sale for a little under 3 months and as of writing has had 8407 trial downloads and 4532 sales for a conversion rate of about 54 percent. The game is priced at 80 MSP ($1). Below is a chart showing the daily sales and downloads.
I'm quite proud of the overall sales and especially the conversion rate. While these numbers are small compared to those of top selling games on the marketplace like CastleMiner Z or DLC Quest, they are still a good bit above average for an Xbox Live Indie Game, and I think that it's clear people like the game. The conversion rate is actually spectacular, but the trial downloads are low in comparison to the big hits. It's interesting to note that while sales have dropped over time they have dropped quite slowly. The game continued to sell well long after it'd dropped down in the New Release list. On only one day did sales peak over 100 copies sold, and this was several weeks after the games release.
The reception from critics has been in a word, great. I've collected a bunch of reviews and press coverage in a previous blog post. The game has also been highly rated by gamers on the Xbox Indie Games marketplace. It's currently the #11 highest rated game in the US, although this fluctuates a bit as new games are released and new ratings come in. I think it's safe to say that the game's press coverage, high rating, and word of mouth are the source of the continued sales.
Despite the brain damage it caused her, Indie Gamer Chick even liked the game enough to rank it on her leaderboard.
PC Release and Sales
Shortly after I released the trailer for the game (in June, before the game was released on Xbox), I received an email from someone at Indie Royale expressing interest in including my game in a bundle. Having observed the PC releases of DLC Quest, Dead Pixels, Escape Goat, and other Xbox Indie classics, I knew that Indie Royale was a great way for my game to reach PC gamers. so I jumped at the opportunity. In fact, I think that the Indie Royale was perhaps the best way for my game to reach PC gamers–it's extremely difficult for a <$5, 2D indie game to get on Steam, and in absence of a Steam release, bundle promotions may be the best way of reaching PC gamers.
The bundle launched August 28, about 2 months after the Xbox release. In those two months I spent time preparing PC specific features, testing, and adding some new content. The bundle did very very well, selling 13920 copies. I was quite lucky to be bundled with a very strong line up of games (Analogue: A Hate Story, Shattered Horizon, MiniFlake, Da New Guys, Waves). The bundle actually sold a good bit more than the previous bundle, which goes against the general trend of decreasing bundle sales.
Adding the Xbox and PC sales together (I learned how to do this computation in graduate school) you get a number larger than 18000. That's not bad at all for a first game for which I had very modest expectations.
Since the bundle ended on September 7, it has been sold standalone on Desura for $3. Standalone PC sales are quite slow (well under Xbox sales). I'm not totally sure if this is because I've done a poor job of promoting the PC release or because Indie Royale did such a good job promoting the bundle that everyone that wants it already has it. I suspect it's a little of both and that sales would be slightly better with some more promotion but not hugely better.
What Went Right and What Went Wrong
Overall, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure was a huge success. I've accomplished my goal of gaining experience, credibility and connections. Aside from that, it's been played by thousands of people, many of whom enthusiastically enjoyed the game. To wrap up this postmortem, here's a few things I think went right and wrong.
- Went Right: Making a game with a "hook". A huge part of the game's success was due to game's "hook": the game is based on a simple, easy to describe concept that has some inherent appeal. As a YouTube commently eloquently put it, the game is "The Oregon Trail on crack!", and what's not to like about that? I think creating a game with a hook is especially important for first time game developers like myself. Getting press coverage is difficult, so the easier your game is to write about, the better. DLC Quest is another example of a game that I think used a hook to get (warranted) attention.
- Went Right: Creating a polished trailer. The first press coverage for the game came before it was released when I posted the Dream Build Play trailer. I spent about a week capturing footage for and editing the trailer, and this time investment really paid off. Not only did the early press coverage give the game some name recognition before its release, this press coverage is also what got my game into Indie Royale.
- Went Right: Playing to my strengths and weaknesses. I knew going into the development that I didn't have the artistic ability to pull off anything but the simplest graphics, so I designed the game around these weaknesses. I also tried to play to my strengths as a single developer. I tried to put my personality into the game and create something distinct, and I think many gamers pick up on that and appreciate it.
- Went Wrong: Creating a 2D, retro game. While many gamers like the pixel art and retro sound effects of the game, there also seems to be a growing population of gamers that are tired of retro style games. I think that most gamers who try the game enjoy it, but I suspect that many gamers dismiss the game before trying it due to its very simplistic retro style. I think this is the best explanation for the low trial downloads, and the reason the game didn't quite explode into huge mainstream success. As a solo developer, picking an art style which both appeals to gamers and is feasible for me to pull off is a real challenge.
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure has been a great start for what I hope will be a long independent game development journey for me. I'm already hard at work on game #2, and with some luck the revenue from the game supplemented with some not-game-related contract work (I have to use that PhD for something) should allow me to keep working independently without getting a real job or eating into savings. If this next game is even a fraction as rewarding as Wagon Adventure, you can count on a third.
9/29/12: Fixed a few typos and minor mistakes.