Decorticating “Dead Cells”: A business & marketing deep dive

Notes on a talk by Steve Filby of Evil Empire & IndieCatapult, formerly Motion Twin at GDC 2019

  • Background
    • Motion Twin did F2P browser games, tried to move to mobile F2P/premium
      • Threw out everything to make Dead Cells for PC
    • Left in 2016 to start marketing agency Indie Catapult
    • Started Evil Empire recently
  • How we made Dead Cells a hit (from a strategic perspective)
    • Pre-development: Research, market analysis, smoke tests, creativity
    • Pre-launch: development, iteration, community building
    • Early Access: dev cycle, community management, release planning, etc.
    • 1.0 launch: hype building (again), content strategy, sim-shipping
    • Post launch and the future
  • Pre-development (big ideas)
    • Why are you building this particular game?
    • Who are you building it for?
      • Does that market already exist? (How many people are in the addressable market here?)
      • Buyer profiles
      • See other note on “find people who have too much money and want more games”
      • See Steam Prophet for analysis on what people are buying today
    • Marketing is way bigger than communicating what you’ve already built—make sure you build a thing that people want to buy in the first place
    • Marketing is a feedback loop to help you make better games
    • Market analysis
      • Quantitative analysis:
        • Who’s the competition?
        • Sales figures for the competition
        • How does the competition price? What do their discounts look like?
        • SteamSpy is useful here
        • Useful for extrapolation and budgeting; don’t bet on your game being a hit
        • What are people interested in and watching related to the content your game is going to generate?
          • How do you create a game that appeals to people that want to generate that content?
      • Qualitative analysis
        • What does the audience want from my game?
        • How good is the competition?
          • Check reviews and press
          • Play the games—what did they do right, what did they do wrong?
          • How will you develop your game to make it better than the top 3?
          • What development challenges did the people who made those games came up against?
        • Are there things I can do better?
  • Pre-launch planning
    • Constraints—what are the requirements for a “good” game in your genre?
    • Start building & testing early—test your hypotheses about what’s going to get a big reaction
      • Teaser trailer, GIFs, public content
      • Show vaporware early and see if it resonates with people—decide to kill it or continue
      • Playtesting both internal and at small shows
        • Watch people when they don’t think you’re watching them—if you’re watching closely, they’ll only tell you nice things, and you won’t see them express their frustration
        • Bribe college kids with pizza & beer to come play your game
      • Creative iteration and continuous communication with your community
  • Early access
    • Risks:
      • Mostly communication—not having the bandwidth, making promises you can’t keep, etc.
      • What happens if we have to kill the game? (Exit strategy)
      • Have a plan!
    • For it to go well
      • Game needs to be finished (mostly)
      • Content strategy—keep some stuff back and know your sprint rate
      • Communication—how do you keep everyone informed?
    • Why are you hyping your game? (What strategic outcomes do you need?)
      • Getting gatekeeper attention
      • People didn’t want to see another example of your genre
      • Being on the front page of the media du jour
      • Overcoming apathy, or “need to play to know it’s fun” games
      • Have a plan to do all this
  • Early access launch
    • Community building
      • Start early (but not too early)—6 months out you should be on a tight schedule
      • Steam Greenlight
      • Planning out marketing “beats” and creating content for them
      • Closed alphas and early streamer outreach
        • “Spy” on these people playing your game live
        • Give keys to people with very few followers so that you can see them play it, but it won’t register with the general public
        • Fix their pain points in playing the game
    • Hype building
      • Streamers
      • Twitch figures
      • Your communication plan will constrain your game design
        • It’s crazy to make unstreamable games at this point
        • Don’t ignore streaming
          • Make tools that help streamers
        • How can you make your game fun to watch? (Bring interesting things onto the screen)
      • Speaking directly to the journalist people
        • How do you get them to cover your game? (Speak their language!)
        • Get attention at events
        • PR company
        • Pick the right 
    • Be honest, open, and realistic about your release schedule
    • Week 1 is for bug fixing
      • Be omnipresent on the forums
    • Wow people by releasing new content in the first month
    • Q1 is for keeping promises
    • Highlight changes you bring based on community feedback
    • Respect your community’s feedback—if people are whining about something, fix it!
    • Lots of iteration on messaging on Steam page
      • E.g., is your jargon/buzzword-filled pitch actually going to resonate with people?
  • 1.0 launch
    • Get promotion by integrating with hardware partners, stuff like Humble Bundle
    • How do you get influencers to play it again?
      • Help them grow their community/engage their community
      • Twitch integration—doubled the entire year’s coverage in the first week
        • Again, offer it to the smaller time people first! (Bigger ones may contact you after they hear about it from them)
      • Streamer program—incentivize people to stream by giving them swag if they reach certain levels
    • How to get press? Give them exclusive interesting content ($50k trailer)
  • Post-launch
    • More content, not a deeper discount
    • Find ways to leverage visibility in exchange for content
    • Do free updates move the needle on sales? (As best we can tell, yes)
  • Next time:
    • Try to work with platform holders from day one (e.g., Switch exclusive?)
    • Need a bigger team and better tools for community management
      • Work with platform holder (like Valve) to do better
    • Spent $50k on a trailer for a game with a $350k budget otherwise and didn’t regret a thing 
    • 10-20% of total budget spent on marketing
  • Ask other people in the industry about their experience doing stuff you haven’t done before!
  • Save money generating marketing content—have your dev team make GIFs and such as they wrap up features

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