Okay! So we're a few days out from the launch of the Stanley Parable, and I wanted to take a minute to talk about what happened, what went right, what we did, and lessons from this launch that might help others with their own game development and marketing.
First up: The Stanley Parable just crossed 100k units sold! This is a lot more than we were expecting, and the shock of a successful launch may have been one of its biggest challenges. Some of the repercussions of this success is affected by business decisions we made 18-24 months ago, long before we ever thought this was going to make any real money! First and foremost, this taught us a single and invaluable lesson: do not expect success, but be prepared in case it happens.
I'd like to take a look back at specifically some of the things that we did, especially in the last few months of development, to cultivate and prepare for a successful launch:
Not much to say here except that we released 5 trailers over the course of the game's development, and not one of them contains any substantial actual footage of the game. This is going to be a running theme throughout this postmortem: if you make the marketing material interesting on its own, it's irrelevant whether it "sells" your game. Our focus was always on creating content that was on its own fun for people to experience and to be a part of, with essentially 0% of the design aimed at trying to get the game to sell.
The idea of a demo seemed obvious at the time. Since our game was very difficult to talk about without spoiling, why not simply make an extra piece of game in the spirit of the main game to convey what it's about! Most of the assets in the demo are re-used from the main game, so very little time was spent on content creation. I was writing it in the background for a few months, and William spent about 3 weeks building the version you can play now.
The end result, in my opinion, was very worth it. I don't yet have specific numbers, but we estimate that 150k-200k people have played the demo since it launched. It received its own run of news on most major news sites, the demo alone received video previews and was streamed by many high traffic Let's Players. Copies of the demo were sent to all of these outlets about a week before it launched.
Essentially we got the press equivalent of two video game launches. And we cheated, since we re-purposed most of the assets that we were using for the main game. All that it took was a creative remix of those resources and press outlets, youtubers and people all over social media were eager to talk about it. Plus, because the demo was free, this was essentially the equivalent of an artist putting out free work to gain attention and then monetizing later work once there's an established audience, except we did that whole process in a week. The quick turnaround means that we could channel all of the energy from the demo straight into the main game.
I know that it's easy to ask whether other developers have the time and resources to develop an entire second product while working on the first. To be sure, not everyone will have the ability to do this, nor does this approach work for every style of game. But let me propose: we spent two years making The Stanley Parable. For an extra two months work, we get an entire second game's worth of press. That seems like too good a deal to risk going without.
Streaming and Personalization
There's already been much discussion about the stunning impact of Let's Plays on game sales. However, one additional element we explored with Stanley was that of personalization. For example, we got in touch with the folks who run Game Grumps about doing a video for their Steam Train channel. We had Kevan (the voice of the narrator) re-record 3 lines from the demo, one at the beginning where he welcomes them, one in the middle where he asks them to apologize to the viewers, one toward the end that was just a play on one of their catchphrases. This video, otherwise exactly the same as every other video of the demo in every way, drew 313k views where most of their other videos have 100k-200k views.
Again, it was extra work to add these lines, but for an additional 100k views of our work (not to mention incredibly personal views, I still get people thanking me for giving this gift to the Steam Train community), the extra work had huge marginal payoff. We did the same thing for Adam Sessler's play of the game which drew a smaller crowd, so purely from a marketing perspective it had less impact than doing the same work for a major Let's Player like Total Biscuit of Dannerdcubed or whoever, but it was also a chance to connect much more personally with that particular community and with the folks at Rev3. Every one of these custom versions was borne out of a personal conversation with someone at that channel, it was always a desire simply to give something back to a community that we cared about and to have fun doing so. I would definitely do more of these kinds of personalized pieces of marketing in the future, and to know who I'm doing it for and why I care about that particular community. And if the community happens to be a very large one, that's good too!
Here's one thing we didn't plan for at all:
It's not unheard of for developers of relatively small games that get relatively big reception to experience a bit of post-release depression. When the demo launched, it left William and me incredibly emotionally vulnerable, the response was pretty overwhelming and we simply had trouble holding ourselves together. We were each a chaotic little bundle of raw emotion. I was expecting the same or worse to happen on the actual launch day, but surprisingly I felt almost none of that total emotional breakdown! I guess the launch of the demo simply got it out of my system, I went through that a week early so that I didn't have to deal with that as the same time I was dealing with the actual launch, reception and sales of the main game. This was never something we anticipated, but it ended up being a wonderful little corollary of launching a second game a week ahead of the first.
Tidy conclusions to sum it all up
I think the biggest takeaway from all this is that we released a lot of free and personalized content leading up to the main game, each of which was itself engaging and fun for people to experience. We wanted the media on its own to be something a person would want to share and talk about, and because every piece of media we released contained something that wasn't in any other piece, each one got its own press and conversation. The focus from the game itself to the supporting media was always the same: make this something that people will want to talk about. Each one had to be unique, had to have its own thought put into it, as though we were releasing it purely on its own. In doing so, we were able to get away with saying nothing about the main game because by the time the main game actually launched, the name itself was on a lot of peoples' minds. Give people a reason to talk, that's all we aimed for, and the rest sorted itself out. Release a whole bunch of things for free in fairly quick succession, then at the end of it put a price tag on the last one. It was a lot of extra work, but the results feel very much worth it.
If you have any other questions let me know and I'll try to answer them to the best of my knowledge!