A look at the release and sales of “Life of Pixel” on PC, Mac and Linux over the past ten months.
First off, a quick intro, as there is a good chance that you have no idea who Super Icon is…
We are an independent multi-platform game development studio, and our aim is to make great games. As a team, we have self-published various titles on WiiWare, PSP, Vita & mobile.
Right now we are three strong – Richard Hill-Whittall, Claire Hill-Whittall and Steve Howard.
So, who does what? Richard is the designer, artist and audio at Super Icon. He basically loves anything and everything creative. Claire is responsible for all business and marketing aspects, all the day-to-day fun and games. Steve is the code genius, he loves code, he really does – and code loves him.
Our latest release is Life of Pixel, which is the first game we have launched on PC/Mac, so the process is fairly new to us. We launched Pixel on May 16th, initially via the Humble Widget off our own website. This was followed by a release on Desura on June 11th.
Life of Pixel wasn’t a completely new game; we had already released a version for PlayStation Mobile a few months before, created using the PSM SDK. For a PSM title it sold reasonably well, and was very well received by players and press alike.
From the offset, we planned for a multi-platform release; launching on PC, Mac and Linux with WiiU, a full PS Vita version, and hopefully (subject to Microsoft ID approval) an Xbox One version to follow.
Initially we had to convert the Life of Pixel project over to Unity, which was actually quite a large undertaking and took longer than expected. We had decided on Unity as it has such good support for cross-platform releases, and at the time we were also planning iOS, Android and Windows mobile releases.
The Launch of Life of Pixel
Prior to the Life of Pixel launch, we had contacted the press to let them know about our amazing new game, offering pre-release builds for them to try, and hopefully give it a little coverage.
This was an odd experience really – those places that had covered Life of Pixel on PSM were reluctant to revisit the game, and other sites, such as Rock Paper Shotgun would never respond. We tried for several weeks to get some coverage – thankfully several smaller sites did respond, so we did get a little coverage, but we couldn’t ever get the larger outlets to reply.
We had many internal conversations about how to change this, where we were going wrong with our communication, what to do to improve it, and so on. I suspect many other Indies experience a similar lack of response, it is a difficult one, and to be honest we never managed to overcome it. We also released each of our Life of Pixel press releases via the GamesPress site, but again there was no pick-up there.
How to get Press Interest?
So what do you do if you can’t get the press interested? You can’t keep emailing them if they don’t respond and seem unwilling to cover your game. It seems to be the case that if you are a known figure going Indie – you get coverage, pretty much guaranteed. If you are not known though, what is the best approach to tackle this problem? We considered contacting a couple of PR/marketing companies, but it proved to be difficult to find any, and the ones we did find were far too expensive for our budget (which was on the small side). It seems a bit of a Catch-22 situation; unless you are already known or have friendly press contacts already in place, getting coverage on the larger gaming press outlets is near impossible.
Looking back again to Part IV of David Galindo’s sales coverage, it was really interesting to see that David had a pivotal moment when Cook, Serve, Delicious was covered by Giant Bomb. Overnight his sales massively increased, yet before that point he was having doubts about his future as an independent developer.
From our experiences on PC with Life of Pixel, it certainly seems like it is essential to get that mention on a major site, or a Let’s Play with a popular YouTuber. Without this top tier coverage it is very difficult to get your game noticed.
Sales Figures since Launch
So let’s look at the figures…
From our own site, up until end of February 2015, we have sold 160 units since the launch on May 16th (all via the Humble Widget). Desura YTD up until the end of 2014 was a total of 18 units, with a revenue of £75.
In August we also released a major free update, which added a LOAD of new content. Unfortunately this didn’t make any noticeable difference to sales, even though we tried to promote it as much as we could. Again we encountered a bit of a wall from the press, so coverage for the update was limited. The update included the following new content:
Three new machines from the 16-bit era – SNES, Amiga and Mega Drive. Each machine included eight new levels. We added game pad support and control configuration, new and reworked music tracks and redesigned all of the menus.
We also added lots of new secret areas, fruits and special gems to collect and a fair few other tweaks and enhancements.
Life of Pixel launched on the Humble Store in October 2014, but the sales were much less than we had hoped; to-date we have only sold 181 units.
Indie Game Stand has seen 13 sales since launch in August 2014, with revenue of $90.87. We had also hoped to get Pixel onto GOG, but they turned us down – which was a little disappointing.
What can I say about those figures? Disappointing to say the least! None of us has been able to earn a living wage for several months now. Looking back, I think our expectations were to sell a few thousand units over the first year (not including Steam). If I recall I think we hoped to see at least 2,000 sales from the above outlets, but didn’t expect more than 4,000.
We have never attempted to work out what Pixel cost to develop – most of the development costs were wages we should have earned, so as such it is hard to quantify an amount. There were some direct costs involved, including music and additional artwork, and these came to about $5,000. I know that working out the development costs against the income received so far would make for grim reading, and it wouldn’t achieve a lot other than to highlight the commercial failure it has been so far.
As an indie developer it is really hard to cost the development of the game, especially when the ethos of many is that you shouldn’t factor in your personal wage costs, and that if you do – you have no passion! It has been horribly tough financially; Claire and I have had to sell everything of value we owned (which wasn’t much – our car, a KORG keyboard, DVDs, etc.). At the time of writing, through the course of Pixel’s development and sales period to date, we’ve had to leave 2 rental houses due to being behind with the rent – usually under very difficult and stressful circumstances.
All in all, it has been hard. I LOVE developing games, and that is what has kept things going, but at times you think that you are perhaps in the wrong career!
Back in August we were asked by a musician we knew to be part of his Groupees bundle. At the time we agreed, although we’d never actually heard of Groupees. Remute is a nice guy and we didn’t want to let him down, also we thought that it could be useful to get a few more copies of Life of Pixel out into the wild.
A little bit of advice – really try to avoid approaching bundling in a similar lackadaisical way! You are in fact entering into an agreement that requires a whole lot more thought and research. So, the bundle went live – and they then asked for Desura keys, I said sure, how many and they said 3,000 should do. At this point I panicked and thought, damn, what have I done? I’ve just given away several thousand copies of a game that has taken months to make, and so far earned only a few quid.
After the bundle, the Desura sales were just 12 units, with earnings of £21.54, yet there were hundreds of active keys out there. At the time it felt like we had actually pirated our own game!
We also had Life of Pixel on Steam Greenlight during this time, although there were very few extra votes during the Groupees bundle run. We made just $150 from the bundle, and while we didn’t really have any expectations, that did seem pretty poor.
We launched a Life of Pixel Greenight over on Steam on the 25th July 2014, and I’m happy to say that on 2nd October we got Greenlit, which was a brilliant moment. By the time we were Greenlit, we were well into the Top 50, although I can’t remember the final position.
It was a wonderful experience, to finally get Greenlit, and definitely one of the highlights of my development career to date.
Once we got the Greenlight, it took us a couple of weeks to add some Steam specifics, such as achievements – thankfully adding these was fairly straightforward thanks to Unity. By mid-October we were ready, so we set a release date for the 22nd October. We didn’t really try to research the release date and compare to other releases at the time. It seemed to us that it wouldn’t make much difference when we released, unless perhaps we timed it to a Christmas launch, which we didn’t want to do – so we just went for it…
The Steam Launch
On October 22nd 2014, Life of Pixel launched on Steam. The community feedback was amazing, for the first time ever people were talking about PC Life of Pixel. It really was a wonderful experience; to talk to people who actually enjoy the game, to feel that there were players out they interested in Life of Pixel. It made everything seem worthwhile.
It also buoyed our spirits, and as such we got to work on a series of updates. We added additional Steam functionality with full controller support, Leaderboards, more Achievements, Trading Cards, and we implemented lots of user-reported requests and some bug fixes. The Steam Community were brilliant, so a huge thanks to them.
Sales figures on Steam were, I am happy to say, much higher than anywhere else. Compared to sales on Desura, for example, Steam numbers were amazing!
In the first month on sale, October, we sold 243 units – with revenues of $1178. In November we made 420 sales, with revenues of $1236.
We participated in the Steam Christmas sale, and as expected, December was our best month with 642 sales and revenues of $1602. Sales on Linux have performed better than we expected, so far we have seen 110 sales on Linux. The Linux community has been very supportive too.
2015 has taken a downward turn, with sales in January hitting 160 units and revenues of $521. February so far is even lower, with just 56 sales.
Steam Totals So Far
How have we done since release on Steam?
We have made just over $4,500 in four months on Steam. Roughly speaking, we then have about $300 per month of expenses and payments to make, and the remainder is split between the team.
So that’s $4,500, less expenses and payments of $1,200 (4 X $300), which leaves about $3,300 earnings for the team.
The grand total of units sold across all platforms is 1893. This is far less than we hoped, and comes very far short of sustaining the team and funding future development. Steam is far and away the best performing storefront for us.
Is there a market for Life of Pixel?
“…accept the market just isn’t there for this game”
I have been told the above more than a few times now regarding Life of Pixel, and there is also the failed Kickstarter to back this opinion up.
Before we launched on PC, we had fairly high hopes for Life of Pixel. I thought we’d see some good reviews, and that players would get behind it, particularly those in the retro community. To a limited extent we did get some support, and those who have played the game seem to enjoy it (our user rating on Steam is Very Positive). We just never got that press support or community interest, for whatever reasons it didn’t push their buttons.
How do I feel now? I’m kind of unsure – did I get it wrong, is it pointless rose-tinted nostalgia that no one is actually interested in? Is there, honestly, no market for such a game? I know that players have not engaged with the Pixel character – the consensus is that he is just a boring green cube. I can understand that point of view, although I don’t agree with it. To me, Pixel is a plucky little fella, a lone Pixel who wanted more than just to be part of the crowd. I like the story and the concept, and it didn’t feel right to try and shoehorn in a human character, or even a cute animal. A pixel made perfect sense in the context of the story – which I’ve included below for those unfamiliar with the game…
iOS and Android Release
We had originally planned to release Life of Pixel on iOS and Android, and we actually went as far as creating a full mobile version, that just needed some testing before launch. Essentially the game was ready. We decided that we should try and release via a mobile publisher, as we had limited mobile experience, and what experience we did have was relatively unsuccessful.
Our thinking was that a publishing partner may help us to reach sales numbers we would otherwise be unable to achieve. We contacted a few publishers, such as Chillingo and Thumbstar, but ultimately it didn’t go anywhere. The feedback was that they loved the game, but felt that it may be a little too niche for mobile. We decided against publishing ourselves as we didn’t have the time or resources to properly test and run a mobile marketing campaign; we felt it likely the game would sink into the mobile abyss. Instead we focused on creating a version for the WiiU, which has been a joy – a great system to work with, and Nintendo are really indie friendly now.
Conclusion So Far
We are a little bemused…
We still have faith that we have a good game here, a game worth anyone’s time to play and explore. But why did we never get the coverage, why do other retro games – Shovel Knight being a prime example, massively eclipse Pixel in terms of press interest?
Hand on hearts – we all tried our best to get Life of Pixel noticed, and we continue to do so – often it is presumed that if you don’t get coverage that you suck at marketing and reaching out to the press. Perhaps we do, but we certainly tried and will continue to try.
How do you approach a gaming press that don’t reply and don’t seem to want to know about your game? We have found that the hardest question to answer, and we still don’t feel any closer to solving it. Some indie games get good coverage; most don’t, yet we honestly thought that we would get more interest in Life of Pixel than we did.
We have just submitted the WiiU version of Life of Pixel to Nintendo Lotcheck. Right now we are hard at work on our next game, Vektor Wars. We had hoped to get Vektor Wars out onto Steam by now, but we discovered that you have to Greenlight each game on Steam when you are an indie developer. We thought that once Greenlit, you could release new games without going through the whole Greenlight process, so we are looking into options.
I have also spent a few months working on another title (off and on), a horror game called Hell House. Then there is the Best Buds game, a game I am working on with my 10-year-old son, Lucas. It uses the Pixel engine and is a run and gun with a world of ideas fresh from Lucas’s limitless imagination!
We just need to hang on in there, and hopefully at some point soon our fortunes will improve. Indie development can be a tricky beast!