The Story Behind Reverie & Marketing an Indie with Zero Budget
At the triple-A level, video game development is a highly confidential process and often a topic of great speculation amongst fans and media outlets. Marketing campaigns are considered with great care, from release dates, announcements and guerrilla marketing, right down to the choice of phrasing, specific screenshots, and planned leaks. However, it’s a whole new ball game to promote development independent of a major studio. Indies don’t have interest built-in. The masses aren’t busting for more information and conventions aren’t typically broadcasting indie trailers to millions of captivated gamers around the world. After putting everything on the line to bring their creative dreams to life, how exactly do indie developers launch that creation into a marketplace so rife with competition and increasingly shortening attention spans?
The answer in a word: Twitter. But more on that later.
On the latest Puttin’ In Work podcast, I spoke with Tom Butler and Jared Trail, two-thirds of New Zealand indie studio Rainbite, to learn about their experiences developing their first console game Reverie. In March this year, their 2D action-adventure hit the PS Vita and PlayStation 4 to positive reviews. Channeling vibes of Earthbound and The Legend of Zelda, Rainbite set about bringing a classic genre to a modern-day New Zealand-inspired island, choc-full of pop culture references and quirky Kiwi humour. It was Butler, Trail and Daniel Airey’s first full release as an indie team, just after completing their game programming university studies.
Trail, who programmed Reverie and shared game design duties, said living at home reduced the risk and pressure of dedicating an entire year towards their debut project without a guided expectation of how well it could sell.
“I’d say we’ve made the money back that we spent in that year, because the cost of living at home is pretty low. But it’s kind of like we have to make that money back for the time we worked, and then do we have enough money to do another game in the future?”
In other words, simply breaking even would place Rainbite back at square one, without anything to spend on their next project. This is where it was important for the first-time developers to pick a genre and style allowing a quick-turnaround. You won’t see any MMOs coming out of Rainbite.
“Our plan is to make smaller games to keep steady money coming in,” Trail said. “We don’t want to take on a two-year project that we’ll never finish.”
As a three-man team, it made sense for Rainbite to bring a narrow focus to their project, especially when considering the mammoth workload of polishing up even a humble indie adventure for international release. For example, after Reverie launched, a weekend out of town together was marred by the discovery of a (quickly patched) bug that allowed players to re-enter one of the game’s six dungeons after already completing them. This left no way to exit and essentially broke the player’s progress, according to Trail.
“In the first couple hours the game came out, people found a bug that we hadn’t found and I’d platinumed the game like five times. Eastasiasoft, our physical publisher, played through the game with their QA (quality assurance) team, and Sony Japan does a pretty thorough QA, but no one found it at all. It’s kind of crazy.”
Development and programming aside, none of the Rainbite team had any background in writing or marketing, which made promoting the game a key task without any roadmap. The responsibility fell to Butler, who did what many people do when they need a little help – he jumped on social media.
Concentrating first on the dwindling but passionate PS Vita fan-base would help spread the word to a targeted audience, and involving that community in the game’s development seemed like a fun way to drum up interest, Butler recalled.
“When we started doing our marketing… we didn’t have anything to lose if we showed everyone what we were doing as we do it, so that was our marketing plan – get everyone involved in the creation.”
Redrawing scenery, adding cloud shadows, tweaking animations and adding the traditional Maori Kahu Cloak as an in-game item were all changes resulting from Twitter follower feedback and sharing screenshot updates throughout the development process.
“We weren’t sure if it would be a success to do that or not,” Butler said, outlining a concern that their audience would become overloaded to a point of apathy. “People would get too much information about the game and it would come out and they would be like, ‘Well, I already know everything, so I don’t really care anymore’. But people seemed to get quite excited about having input into the design of the game. Everyone seemed to love that, so I think we’ll continue to do it for our next project.”
The Twitter fanbase also came in handy for reaching out to Twitch streamers for word-of-mouth promotion, as well as translating PlayStation Store descriptions that catered to multiple European regions. Butler said even though the game’s seven translations didn’t cover every European dialect, making it available on the EU PSN meant providing store translations for at least ten languages.
“It was like, ‘Who wants to translate this paragraph? And if you do it we’ll give you a free copy.’”
“Over this last year, I’ve got super into watching Twitch streamers in various communities. I thought what if we try to get more involved in the New Zealand streaming space? There aren’t really any streamers with a massive audience so I thought ‘We’ll get involved in the smaller group and try to help them up, and at the same time get Reverie out there’.”
From triple-A to indie, marketing always matters, but it might be even more essential to the independent developer. In an age when influencers have the power to make or break a game’s sales, there are a plethora of examples when word of mouth has carried enough weight to propel indies into game-of-the-year contention. The romantic notion that cream rises to the top is often true in the world of video games, but there are still countless examples of remarkable gaming experiences going relatively unnoticed.
Last month, Kinda Funny Games Daily co-host Jared Petty summed up the indie game struggle quite succinctly during his Puttin’ In Work appearance: “I think there are some that get lost in the shuffle, definitely. There are great games that don’t make their budgets back. Think about iOS where games have effectively been almost entirely forced into a free-to-play model because they can’t get enough money off their game, even if they’re great. You go to the Android Premium Store and look at games that are truly great and they’ve sold five to ten thousand copies. This game costs five bucks, Android’s taking thirty per cent, and they probably have a small marketing budget and then they have their overhead. The person making this game lost so much money making it, so there’s some truth that indie games rise to the top, but not nearly all of them, not nearly all that deserve to.”
(This is probably as good a place as any to note that Petty’s KFGD co-host, Greg Miller, is thanked in the Reverie credits for providing feedback on the trophy list – platinum trophy, no missables, no grinding.)
Through a combination of aforementioned thrifty decisions and a try-anything attitude, Rainbite managed to work around many of the issues Petty highlighted for indie devs. Living at home kept overheads as low as possible. Learning to draw pixel art, create sound effects and write dialogue kept the team small, while social media marketing towards rabid Vita Island residents (starved for new games in 2018) reduced the marketing budget to exactly zero dollars.
If each Twitch streamer spurred one game download, Trail said, it was still worthwhile giving out free codes. Just seeing the fruits of their labour out in the real world was exciting to begin with, but the reaction from fans scooping up Reverie merchandise and Play Asia’s limited-release physical editions has blown expectations out of the water.
“If one person buys it out of their (Twitch) audience, you’ve essentially lost nothing because you’ve given them a free code and you get a sale out of it.”
“We’ve made games before and it’s like, well, it’s a phone game and it’s free and you get a hundred downloads, so no one really cares. Seeing people actually care about the game and want to buy something you made that came from your head – it’s pretty cool.”
Reverie is available now on PS Vita and PS4 (cross-buy), with a Nintendo Switch version planned later this year or early next year. Listen to the full Puttin’ In Work episode with Rainbite here.