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April 20, 2021
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Charles Games, Year 1. Making serious indie games, business recap (Part 1)

by Ondrej Trhon on 04/07/21 10:16:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

It has been 13 months since we have established our indie studio Charles Games. Our starter pack included 45 000 USD in our account, one award-winning (but three-year-old) game Attentat 1942, a humble office and a strong vision about the kind of games we would like to make. 

Since we believe in the power of sharing, we want to share with you how things went from there. We have benefited greatly from many community resources (big shout out to free GameDiscoverCo and How To Market A Game newsletters by wonderful Simon Carless and Chris Zukowski, respectively) and we want to return the favor. By sharing our journey, our business results, and our marketing’s quirks, we hope we can help all of the other indie devs out there striving to succeed.

So welcome to the first installment of a small series of business recaps.

To be honest, by the numbers alone, we’re not there yet. We still have to make some sacrifices to survive, but it’s a promising start. That said, we don’t claim any expertise and we are definitely not a typical indie game studio, so bear that in mind. Indie game development is still a volatile endeavor, even when you're not making an FMV adventure about horrors of World War 2 like us.

We are convinced that sharing data can help other developers guide their expectations. In this series, we will talk about decisions that helped us to survive the first year. How we managed to resurrect our older title, diversified our portfolio and dive a little into the process of collecting resources for our next big title. So let’s go.

From academia to game business

Before we get to the App Stores, Steams and all the business graphs, we need to set the stage. Charles Games was officially founded on 24th January 2020. Founders of the company were all academics from Charles University taking care of game development or game studies programs. We developed multiple projects together, but even though academia is a perfect place for experimental development, doing business there can get a little complicated.

For example, when we decided to create our Steam account at the university to sell our games, we had to provide the founding documents of our company. For a normal company, that is not a complicated requirement. For us it meant that we had to send almost 700 years old founding documents written in Latin. You can imagine the confusion this caused.

So we decided to pitch a bulletproof plan on how to establish our own company to the university. We planned out how to resolve the rights to our games and what the actual ownership structure would look like. Then our brand new limited liability company was born. It wasn’t as smooth as that, but let’s leave it here - as this is when the real business begins!

The story of Attentat 1942 

As a business, we had to break even and make profits. With 45 000 USD as a starting capital, we entered the scene with one game already released. Attentat 1942 came out at the end of 2017. It’s an FMV adventure game about bravery, love and real stories during World War 2, which we made with professional historians. The game was well received. As of now, our Metacritic score is 75, user score 7.5, our Steam reviews Very positive and we’ve won 9 awards - Game of the Year in Czech Republic, ended up in finals of IGF, won A MAZE, Games for Change and others. 

This all happened before Charles Games were born. 

Despite being a small studio with a rather small game, we got extraordinary coverage throughout the gaming world, Czech scene and from mainstream magazines (like The Washington Post) as well. You would guess that all these awards and the associated publicity would transform into huge peaks in sales. Well, not really. When we looked back for this article, we found out that we sold the same number of copies in our first year as Charles Games as we did during the first three years of Attentat’s existence.

So let’s start with what business people like the most - numbers. Take this chart as a teaser for much more detailed data further below:

So this is basically a story of how this came to be. In January 2020, we looked over our wishlists (5-digit number) and combined with our energy we felt the game still had (and still has) a potential to generate revenue. 
 

Resurrection of 3-year-old game

We believe that Attentat 1942 can appeal to everyone with an even a slight interest in history and/or complex stories. But truth to be told, competing with all the other games out there is hard. Despite our regular presence in media, back then, our sales were stagnant, lingering around just a few sales per day.  

Since our company has had very few financial resources at the beginning, our main goal was to raise our revenue significantly without a big ads budget. Here are our takeaways.

Lesson 1: Even small things can help

The first and the cheapest thing to do was to edit our marketing materials – Steam page and websites. There are two components to Attentat 1942’s unique visual style. We use live video footage so we have a lot of materials with our charismatic actors, but our interactive comics are hand drawn by great Czech graphic artists. In the past, we crafted our identity around comic parts as we thought those hand-drawn materials will be more attractive for players and that they will look more like typical games they play. 

But in the Charles Games era we decided to give our marketing a makeover and switch to real video identity. After all, most of your time in Attentat 1942 is spent talking to witnesses.

We also refined our Steam tags multiple times. The successful set of tags (at least for us) seems to be one that is not overtly specific (unless your game is relevant really to a small niche that has a big buying power) but also not too general so you fall into irrelevant searches and recommendations.

And the last thing in Attentat 1942’s presentation that we altered in order to help our discoverability was to promote our awards and media coverage more. Previously, even though we were surprised and super glad for every praise our game received, we thought (perhaps in a typically Czech spirit) that bragging too much is inappropriate. That was a mistake. Even though it might look boastful at first glance, listing your awards, reviews and positive feedback legitimizes your game. Letting someone else and trusted talk about your game’s strengths is invaluable. Right now, we’re thinking of even making an accolades trailer, inspired by the great work of people over at Ninja Theory. 

After polishing things up like that, we saw a rise in the number of copies sold daily almost instantly. And a little hint: Try to look on your presentation through the optic of someone who doesn’t know you at all. Likes (although valuable!) from other devs and people who already know you aren’t everything. After all, organic Steam searches make up a big part of our sale conversions.


Lesson 2: Bigger investments should be calculated

Originally we wanted to release our second game Svoboda 1945: Liberation in 2020. But even though we were prepared to focus all our attention to a new title, we decided to make a “small” detour - to rebuild Attentat 1942 from scratch, switching from Adobe Flash to Unity. In the light of Flash’s recent death, in retrospect a good call. 

But how much effort and your time can you invest into your story-driven game three years after its release so that it is still worth it? Before you decide to dismiss this step as nonsense and a waste of money, hear us out.

Almost 8 years ago when the choice to go with Flash was made during our vertical slice development, it was age-appropriate. We built our custom engine packed with a lot of nice features and Flash was very versatile. Well, not so much in 2020. Due to dying support and technical restrictions of Flash porting to iOS no longer possible for us. And the future did not look bright.

You can read more about the porting process in our previous devblog. Since then, we built a lot of tools (a toolkit now called Charles Engine FMV) designed to create games similar to Attentat in the most simple and efficient way. These tools were perfect for our next game Svoboda 1945: Liberation as well. Apart from iOS users, using Unity also opened the door for future ports to other platforms as well as improved graphics and performance. In the light of all that, the initial investment wasn’t that big. 

The new tech also enabled us to keep the project alive for longer. Recently, we updated it for 4K everywhere and are considering adding controller support. And thanks to Unity, our programmers are now porting the game to Nintendo Switch. Marketing-wise, it’s cool to have a game that is regularly updated, polished and not gathering dust. Players see and appreciate that.

We timed the release of this update to the Spring 2020 and combined it with a Steam visibility round and a custom sale. Coupled with the marketing refinements from lesson 1, the results exceeded our expectations. 

We also started building narratives in our marketing. So instead of Definitive edition, we called it the Remembrance Update to draw attention to the historic vibe of our game. Instead of general sales, we do “History in Focus” sales and alike. Every part of your game’s image is important! What you can see from the following table is that custom sales are much more important to our revenues than regular Steam sales. With the exception of Autumn Sale (33% discount) and the first Custom sale in March, our discounts were always set between 50-54 %. The huge spike happened thanks to the initiative of Czech Games Developer Association organizing a Czech and Slovak Games week on Steam, which significantly helped our sales

In every discussion, there was always someone asking us whether the game will be available on Linux. With Flash, that was not possible. But since we switched to Unity, we were ready to try it. Several weeks after the Remembrance update, we followed the campaign with our Linux port. We sent notice to relevant media and forums and again, supported the event with a sale, this time on Humble Store.

To be honest, the effort to port our game natively to Linux was not so big and the community was very supportive. The level of enthusiasm you get from dedicated Linux players is overwhelming, with players buying for example two copies straight away just so they can support your efforts in taking Linux as a platform seriously.

Here’s a breakdown of which desktop platforms Attentat 1942 is run on Steam and Humble (DRM free). It is important to mention that our sales on Humble Store are approx. 20x smaller than on Steam.

We made the money back fairly quickly and now the resources invested into the Unity switch were slowly paying off. And that was at a point where we haven’t even started working on our mobile ports.

Hence, next lesson!


Lesson 3 – Long tail needs work, but is worth it for stability

Our game has definitely a long tail. In 2020 we have sold more copies of our game than any year before combined. Attentat 1942 is apparently kind of a slow-burner, not a game that will get all the hype and servers will crash. But with some support and updates, it is still achieving very reasonable results. Its concept and format is unique, so we bet that we will be able to pay off all the further investments into the game in revenues, and so far it is working.

The game hasn’t sold millions of copies (yet?). Sales are totaling well above thousands on all platforms. Taking care of our game helped us to reach 5-digit USD revenues three years after the release on Steam alone.  It provides us with a steady flow of cash that is not fluctuating wildly. And since indie gaming is not the most certain of business fields, we are thankful.  

We assume that one of the reasons why new players keep on finding us is the fact that we still have a lot of wishlists. Some of those people are activated by every sale. So even though the game has been in a few sales at more than 50% off, we still have a 5-digit number of wishlisted. In fact, we are four times more successful regarding the collection of new wishlists this year than during the previous one. However, we are able to convert only one quarter of them to purchases. We will be happy to hear any tips or advice on how to work with them other than increase our discounts.  

We will be happy if you have any insights to share!

So our business is less about immediate profit. More players mean more reviews, more possible word-of-mouth/social media mentions and more wishlist for our upcoming games.

 

So that’s a wrap for part 1

Our studio is obviously very small. It was created by three founders who are currently being kind of a jacks of all trades in all projects investing mostly their own time. But Charles Games could not function without the rest of our talented team. We have one full-time programmer and one part-time programmer, one part-time marketer/developer and two part-time graphics. Using simple math, it’s obvious that one game, the size of Attentat 1942 cannot ensure the stability and security for all our developers. 

So If you want to know how we diversified our portfolio and incomes to survive the first year, look forward to our next installment coming in the following weeks. We will tackle mobile ports and different ways we achieve business stability. 

If you don’t wanna miss it, consider following us either on Twitter, DiscordTikTok, Instagram or Facebook!

Co-written by co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Charles Games Lukas Kolek, marketing guy Ondrej Trhon with proofreading by our programmer and Charles Engine FMV author Ondrej Paska.
 


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