It's been a year since I released my first game, MMM, so it's time I did a proper post-mortem of it. I think there are definitely some useful insights to be gleaned from it.
MMM: Murder Most Misfortune was released May 1st 2017 for Windows, Mac & Linux on both Steam and Itch.io. It is available in English, Spanish and Italian. MMM is a short murder mystery visual novel game, inspired by British murder mysteries by Agatha Christie (such as Poirot) and the Ace Attorney series. In it you play as Miss Fortune, a widow nine-times over. Miss Fortune is invited to a secluded mansion for a dinner party where a murder occurs, and she is framed. The player must then talk to the other guests, and explore the mansion to figure out what happened before the police arrive and come to the wrong conclusions.
The game had multiple endings, where you could frame any of the characters with murder if you had enough evidence. It took between 1.5-3 hrs of play-time depending on how many endings you do. Each line of dialogue is fully-voiced, and you are able scroll through rooms in a point-and-click style to find items of interest. We also had an optional timed mode, where the player had a limited amount of real-time to explore the mansion before being forced to make an accusation before the police arrived. MMM was made mostly between four people: I directed, programmed, my brother wrote the excellent script, and a friend made all of the art, and another friend did most of the audio engineering. It took ~2 years of part-time work to finish it.
Critical Reception: Although not having too many Steam reviews, the vast majority are positive, with 25/26 of them being positive. Many reviews mention the quality of the voice acting, and the writing itself. Unfortunately we did not get any large media outlets of note to cover or review the game (only a few extremely small sites). We did distribute keys through key-mailer, and had a few small youtubers play through the game. Here's a picture of the steam achievements 6 months after launch, which can be used as an estimate to how many people actually played the game, and how far they got. 57% of people had finished the first chapter (~20 minutes of gameplay), and ~37% had gotten at least one of the endings. When sales slowed to a crawl, we recently put the game on a bundle. This understandably drastically lowered the achievement rates. Overall, the game had a median play-time of 2.5 hours.
Sales: Although I can't be too specific about Steam sales numbers, overall they have been low (~1k sales). Sales followed the usual pattern of having the most purchases in the launch week, having almost no 'organic' purchases when no sales are on, and substantial spikes in purchases during sales. As can be seen from the regional sales chart below, the majority came from the U.S., with Germany, U.K., Canada, China and South Korea following belatedly. Japan had fairly low sales. It is difficult to surmise how well it would have done if there had been a Japanese localization (which would've been very expensive), but I have heard that western visual novels are not so popular there. Surprisingly, only 38% of sales came from primarily English-speaking countries (U.S., U.K., Canada). A quarter of our sales came from 'other' countries. This is significant, and it is possible the Spanish and Italian localisations helped with sales from these 'other' countries.
Why the low sales? Although we had positive user reviews, overall sales were disappointingly low. We now enter the realm of speculation and list some possible reasons why:
- Poor marketing. None of the team had experience marketing, nor do any them of like social media. The only marketing done was some forum posts and some Facebook ads. A larger emphasis needs to be placed on marketing as game market becomes more and more crowded each year.
- Target audience mismatch. Do people who like well-thought out murder mysteries that look like anime visual novels? The anime aesthetic might have been a turn-off for many, thinking this is just a generic anime dating-sim visual novel. The visual novel crowd also might not be into well-written serious mysteries, especially with a timed aspect. Many users want to just relax and read a slice of life story, not an in-depth mystery.
- There are so many games. Steam has become bloated, with ~15 new games being released each day (at time of our release). It’s increasingly hard to get noticed as you vie for attention not only with other indie games, but AAA games as well. We released close to the end of Steam Greenlight's lifespan, but it's hard to say if that had any effect on sales.
Takeaways & other tidbits:
- It's easy to get wishlist adds, but even with sales it's difficult to convert those wishlist adds to purchases.
- North America and Western Europe accounted for 64% of sales. High, but not as high as we anticipated.
- Although difficult to ascertain exact numbers of people who bought the game it was in Spanish or Italian, these translations were probably not worth the cost and effort of producing them. Sales from Italy is only 20, while Spanish sales are more difficult to ascertain since many countries speak Spanish. It could be argued that the Spanish translation is worthwhile, while the Italian one isn’t. Why did we choose Spanish and Italian? Well, the Spanish one was due to a friend of a friend being a native Spanish speaker. The Italian one was offered to us online for a very low price.
- Everybody plays on Windows. Linux activation's account for 7% of sales, and mac for 2.5% of sales. We made the game using Unity, so luckily it wasn't much effort to export Linux and Mac versions. I would have been very disappointed if it had been much work making mac versions.
- Itch.io doesn't make money. It has some great ideas (pay what you want, great community tools), but barely pays for a few meals. Itch users appear to expect mostly free games.
- More marketing. Marketing needs to be done throughout development, not just at the end. Although I did the occasional screenshot post or forum post in visual novel dev forums, the overall marketing effort was extremely lacking. This is difficult, as I personally dislike social media. Finding someone who can do this, or finding a more entertaining way to do marketing will be important in future endeavours.
- Art is all-important. Although a game is made of many parts, the only way to get people to try your game is through incredible visuals and screenshots. We felt our art was decent, but it perhaps could have been improved. Several reviews mentioned not liking the art style, which could be due to the different art style from anime-looking visual novels. It was also sometimes difficult to pick out objects from the background when exploring rooms.
- Voice-acting is expensive. We had promised our voice actors a percentage of the profits (up to a limit), but unfortunately with our initial sales these percentages amounted to very little. I felt bad about the work they put in, so I decided to pay them the maximum amount that was promised out-of-pocket. This maximum amount was still below what is considered industry standards voice-acting fees. Only after a year have we recouped that expense. Although the voice-acting was of excellent quality and definitely improved the game, I would be very hesitant in including it in the future. Profit margins are already slim, and voice-acting can be incredibly expensive. It would not have been possible to make the game any longer and still have each line be fully-voiced.
- Everything takes longer than you think. As mentioned earlier, it took us ~2 years of part-time work to make a 3 hours game. We thought that making a short high-quality story-based game would be fairly easy. Turns out, nope. The voice-acting, and different endings took significant amounts of time. I now have new respect for TellTale games, and now know how much effort it takes when making branching story-lines. Making games with branching stories is a big risk, since it takes a lot of effort, and you're making content that many users won't see.