Game launch success: treat your release like hosting a holiday feast
Your game's release is a big deal! You should be preparing for it for months in advance. Unfortunately, many indie game developers make & release without a plan, dooming their game to obscurity.
You just want to make the game, right? Me too! Writing & executing a launch plan takes precious time away from the fun parts of crafting excellent video games.
But like gathering with friends & family, it's important, and must be done!
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Steps to host a feast
- Plan ahead
- Invite guests
- Source products
- Prepare dishes
- Distribute leftovers
1) Plan ahead
When you are hosting a feast, the first thing you do is start planning. Whether it's Thanksgiving or your favorite holiday meal, you can't just sit down with friends & family and expect the meal to magically appear. It takes lots of orchestration.
Who is coming? When will they arrive? What are we going to make? How much food should we make? ... Who's bringing dessert?
What do you think indies do when they decide to make a game? I'm just riffing here, but it seems like many of them go straight to designing or coding (guilty!). Seldom do they think about the whole picture, beginning with the guests, whether or not they can attend, and detailing exactly what those guests like to eat.
Many indie game devs make the meal first, then hope that players will be hungry for it later.
So, what's the occasion and what are you making? The first thing to think about is the menu. If it's Thanksgiving in my house, there will be turkey for sure. But also mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed corn, dinner rolls ... all the staples you'd expect if you're familiar with the holiday. These are the predictable anchors.
What are your anchors?
Anchors are the common features of your game's genre that players will look for. If they're absent, your players will be unhappy.
For Thanksgiving at my house, the anchor is the turkey and classic sides. You can expect those staples, and you won't be disappointed.
Say you're making a side-scrolling platformer: players expect the moving & jumping to feel great. Depending on your genre, other "side dishes" may be expected such as combat, projectiles, double-jump, power-ups, unlockable maps, and the list goes on.
What are your hooks?
When I'm trying to get guests to commit to coming to my feasts, I'll offer my most impressive dish: chocolate soufflé.
I mentioned the dish and a friend jokingly responded, "Oh, if I'd had known there would be chocolate soufflé, I'd have visited sooner." (Think about how you can incorporate this sentiment into your game marketing!)
If the turkey & sides are the anchor, chocolate soufflé is the hook.
Most hooks are at least one of these, but not always both. Audit your hooks to ensure both boxes are checked!
Chocolate soufflé is desirable as a luxurious, somewhat expensive dessert. It's surprising because it takes uncommon cookware & practice to make at home.
What we can learn from this: when planning your game launch, think about who will show up, what they should expect (anchors you will deliver), and what will surprise & delight them (your hooks).
2) Invite guests
When hosting a feast, you've got to think about how many guests you expect to attend, and you've got to reach out to them to invite them specifically. Also if you've ever planned an event, you know you've gotta get firm commitments from people to show up!
Even with firm "yes I'll be there" commitments, people are notoriously flakey. It's natural! We all live complicated lives, and even "easy" tasks regularly drop off our radars. It's just part of life.
When a game launches on Steam, what percentage of gamers who wishlisted the game do you think will purchase it on launch day?
I used to think, surely, it must be high, maybe 50% or more? These gamers were interested enough to wishlist it and it just launched. That should be exciting enough to make a purchase, right? Nope!
People need to be reminded of things. Yes, even big events that are important to you, like holiday feasts and game launches. You've gotta gather people, invite them to support your work, and follow-up with them.
Once guests start to RSVP that yes, they will come to your feast, it's common for them to ask what they can bring. "Do you want us to bring any ice or anything?"
Here are solid options you can bring to any feast:
- A bottle of wine (or non-alcoholic beverage).
- A crowd-pleasing dessert.
- A fancy snack.
Likewise, there are plenty of things that your supporters can bring on launch day.
Here's what you can bring to a game release:
- A wishlist.
- A purchase.
- A positive review.
- A tell-all-your-friends (retweet, forward newsletters with a note, DM links to your friends, etc.).
The world is a busy, noisy place. You must remind your players of these things to bring, or they'll likely just live their lives and never think of it.
I never want to see another indie game with 0 reviews ever again! Get someone in your life who cares about you to take the $5-10 and 5 minutes or whatever to buy your game and put a positive stamp on it.
Purchases & positive reviews are the love language of indie game devs.
Food allergies / preferences
Oh BTW, Matt is lactose-intolerant and Andrea is gluten-free, so please provide substitutions for them where possible. Thank you!
One might draw parallels to some accessibility features that you may have missed during development. As you would ask guests in your home if they have any allergies, you should ask your players if they have any needs you can meet.
Commonly missed accessibility features include:
- Configurable input (keyboard, gamepad, etc.)
- Ability to skip or censor certain content
- Option to disable/reduce screen shake
- Difficulty options (much contested!)
- Color-blind options
3) Source products
Getting all the stuff we need to put on a feast is a whole ordeal.
For Thanksgiving, I try to buy my turkey a couple weeks beforehand to ensure I've got one. There's always a high demand for them, and I don't want to risk missing out on this critical ingredient.
Some products I can buy anytime, like canned cranberry sauce (don't judge!). It keeps fine on the shelf for years, so why not keep it around at all times? It reduces the stress of feast preparation. A solved problem.
Think about how you could apply this to games. What can you maintain year-round that will help you launch a game at any time of the year? Some ideas:
- A contact list of media/press folks
- Templates for emails & social posts
- Guides on how to launch successfully
- Steam integrations already implemented
- Pre-made logos & banners for your game
Set yourself up for success!
4) Prepare dishes
I begin preparing my feasts days before. Sometimes I'll even prep a whole dish weeks before and freeze it, ready to go into the oven on the big day.
My turkey comes out of the freezer 5-6 days before the event. 3 days before, I'll clean it & dry rub it with herbs & spices. Sometimes I'll chop up ingredients, gather the herbs & spices, and pack them away, ready for various dishes.
One could compare this step to sending out your game demo/keys/whatever to journalists or influencers. Timing is critical when cooking to ensure all dishes are ready at about the same time, without any getting cold or stale waiting on others.
Likewise you might want to design the timing of your marketing & promotion. Would it be best to promote your game heavily for a short duration such as 1-3 months? Or slowly drip out new information about your game over a longer period of promotion such as 6-12 months (or years??)? It's a tricky balance to keep folks interested throughout the promotional period without wearing them out.
From what I've read, it's best to let press folks know about your launch at least 1-3 weeks before the launch date. This way they have time to prepare coverage if they're interested in your game.
Ready for the big day
For me, cooking begins on the day of the feast. My turkey enters the oven hours and hours before guests arrive. I baste it every 30 minutes until it comes out of the oven. Sometimes it's out before guests even arrive (it needs to cool for 30-60 minutes before I carve it).
The point is that on the big day, things are in motion early. There's no panic. I have everything under control, but there is lots of work to do. This is how game launch day should feel. Most of the work is already done. People are definitely coming.
For our typical, non-feast meals, my wife and I keep things simple. We'll use whatever bowls, plates, and silverware we normally use. But for big feasts with guests, we'll break out our nice serving dishes and put thought into presentation.
5) Distribute leftovers
One of the best things about Thanksgiving are the leftovers. Food in the fridge to eat for days. Another meal! And another!!
Also: turkey sandwiches. Bread, mayonnaise, turkey. Couldn't be simpler.
After Thanksgiving, I give folks leftover containers and they take whatever they want home with them. The meal doesn't just happen once; it happens again and again in our home and the homes of our guests.
Not sure what to post about? Post about your launch. Everyone loves raw numbers, so share what you're comfortable with. Talk about your intense feelings during this epic launch of the game you worked hard on.
Not sure how to update your game? Listen to player feedback. Compare their messages with your game's design direction, and see how you could find a solution to their thoughts that align with your goals for your game.
Also, dig into the inevitable notes that piled up for your game while you made it. Find cool content you cut, or add a new feature you always wanted to. Anything you saved for the sequel – some of these things make for great small updates!
Steps to launch a game
Before we go, let's take the Steps to host a feast and convert it into a game launch plan:
- Plan ahead -> Write a marketing & promotion plan
- Invite guests -> Contact media, press, and influencers (and friends & family)
- Source products -> Have assets ready like trailers & press kits
- Prepare dishes -> Execute your marketing & promotion plan
- Distribute leftovers -> Updates, community, devlogs
It's more than just "make a great game and hope for a successful launch" that we see too often. Make a plan to get the word out, gather interest from players, and get some fans onboard for helping with your big launch event.
Good luck with both your big happy feasts and exciting new game launch! If you're subscribed to the newsletter, you better believe you've got a recipe for chocolate soufflé in your inbox. If not, sign up now so you won't miss the next email.
Now it's time for you to go make the game!