Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as educating players on the potential of renewable energy with GreenNew Deal Simulator, how the writers of Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus & Butterfly transformed their DLC plans into a full-fleshed game, and mastering minimalism and layering complexity with the strategy game Thronefall.
In this edition, Evil Empire CEO Steve Filby shares the secret sauce of Dead Cell’s continuing success, citing a player-centric approach to post-release content.
I’m Steve Filby, CEO of Evil Empire and a wearer of many hats. I’ve been around for pretty much all of Dead Cells, including its explosive growth under Evil Empire. Of course, when the game was being made at Motion Twin and first launched in Early Access on Steam in 2017, we didn’t know how far it would go. Like many, we just needed to survive for a bit. But with an indie success on our hands, we ditched our short view and adopted a long view, determining how we could turn our flash-in-the-pan title into a franchise. Looking back, it’s a lot of common sense that made Dead Cells what it is today, but I’m hopeful that this insight proves useful to anyone else who finds themselves in the position we were in six years ago.
Play For The Crowd, Not The Bottom Line
One of the first things you’ll notice about Dead Cells is that there are a lot of people who like Dead Cells. While that’s because the game itself is great, we didn’t just put out a great game and leave it at that, nor should anyone. Instead, use that initial success as a platform, not for more sales but for more people. Build, foster, and continuously engage a community. Then, monetize that community without taking a reputational hit.
Community interaction has a couple of different formats. You can take the approach where you develop and release as much DLC as possible for your game, all of which costs your players money, and be apathetic to how that content and its price makes your players feel. This is an extremely common approach taken by a lot of larger studios who can afford to do so because their IPs are wildly popular or they have massive install bases. But if your game is like Dead Cells in 2017, you don’t have either of those things; you only have a successful indie title that you want to extend the life of. As such, our strategy, which we’ve employed since the launch of Dead Cells,has been to prioritize our reputation amongst our community and the larger gaming community, leaving monetization second.
Our community development and interaction strategy starts with one key question: how will our community interact with or respond to something? If we’re developing a new update, DLC, or anything for Dead Cells, we don’t think about what it could mean for our studio’s growth or bottom line first. Rather, we think about how a community member might respond to it, as monetization, growth, and profit are directly correlated to that one point. You can’t get a member of your community to buy a DLC if you know it’s something they won’t like or want.
Monetization of our community is still our secondary objective though, and respecting a community while generating profit from it is a fine line to walk. We navigate this relationship by doing something quite simple: we listen and act based on their feedback. When they want something, and it seems like a good suggestion (such as getting rid of some of Dead Cells’ original grind), we do it. When it doesn’t work, we don’t implement that suggestion, but we also explain why. When you make changes that reflect your community’s suggestions (within reason), that will earn you goodwill and more than likely make your game more appealing to anyone who hasn’t purchased it yet.
Building a community like this, founded on mutual respect and a genuine approach, has been our holistic method for continuous growth. None of our decisions that would impact our community members or prospective players are made without considering them first. If your gut tells you that you’re charging too much for a DLC and might be milking it, or if you get the feeling that players might not like a new gameplay feature, you’re probably right. Create a community where members feel seen and heard, and it will grow, creating a monetization structure that leaves you as a role model rather than a vendor.
More than updates, post-launchsupport done right
I mentioned DLC a lot in that last section, so I feel that I should immediately move on to post-launch support, the thing that keeps your player base engaged with your game and attracts new players. When you realize that your game has longevity and potential, you begin to consider everything that comes next. You can break down post-launch support into four easy-to-understand topics: updates, storefront placements, strategic partnerships, and sales.
For us, our post-launch support started with an internal strategy of deciding how much content we could put out and what the scale of that content could be. You want to have a monetization update (paid DLC) that follows the core principle of putting respect for players first, an acquisition update that gets more people to play the game, an engagement and retention update that keeps people playing, and a technical update that makes the game experience better overall.
We then strategically placed these updates throughout the year in order to get the most attention out of them possible. Larger updates should always receive higher priority, and more often than not that will end up being your paid DLC. Specifically, though, we tried to figure out what first parties wanted on their storefront pages. We would call PlayStation and ask, go to Xbox’s GDC parties and ask; we did everything we could to learn what members of first-party teams wanted on their store page and when, then made sure we offered Dead Cells at the right time. If your game isn’t a triple-A title, you have to do the legwork of this approach for that positioning.
Part of our planning was also predicting when sales would be lowest and compensating for that through our strategic partnerships. Early into any game’s life, there won’t be super high-level opportunities like we had recently with Konami and Return to Castlevania. But there are still worthwhile opportunities that put your game in front of more players that don’t require massive time commitments like Dead Cells’ crossover updates and expansions. Early on in the game’s life, we integrated Razer’s Chroma SDK into Dead Cells’ for some visibility and took other similar opportunities while thinking about who our audience is and who in that space has visibility we could use. If you look for these win-win situations, you can easily find your game landing 10 million impressions.
Get Your Game Out There
This part of growing Dead Cells into a franchise wasn’t something we immediately considered. It’s very much a phase that a game takes at its mid-life, when you realize it’s time to get the fancy sports car it’s always dreamed of and ride off somewhere exciting. When your game has grown a community and had numerous strategic partnerships, it’s time to think about outward growth and broadening your game’s appeal.
For starters, that means something simple yet complex in practice: strategically port your game to a different platform. In our case, we saw that Dead Cells was extremely popular in China and thought about how to capitalize on that market further. Mobile games are extremely popular in China, so we figured it was about time to bring Dead Cells to mobile. Of course, we then had to find a publishing partner, and again, with our strategy in mind, we chose Bilibili for its popularity with younger demographics. This was the logical template for us to follow: choosing the right time to move our game to another platform and doing so with the right partners. It takes careful analysis, consideration of sales figures and other statistics, and timing for a port to be successful, but if done correctly, it can make your game explode into another market.
Additionally, we wanted to soften Dead Cells after finding that it had plateaued as a “hardcore” title. We had thought about how to do this for a while before some of our staff mentioned wanting to make an accessibility update. We naturally wanted to make this update a reality, but as it so happened, the new options that made the game easier also softened its image and made it more broadly appealing, giving us a larger overall audience.
In that same vein is onboarding, or more precisely, the first three minutes of your game. In its earlier iterations, Dead Cells was really raw. You got thrown in with very few directions, and while people enjoyed it, this didn’t end up meshing well as the game grew. New players can feel burdened by an introduction that isn’t clear, and while Dead Cells found success, we realized that the game’s first 5 minutes for any new player who had all of its DLCs and updates was unwieldy. So we changed it, updating the game to fit better what it had become. When you have a successful game, it’s easy to ignore your game’s opening minutes, but streamlining that experience will stop people from playing once and bouncing off.
Something I absolutely need to mention as well is the need to make sure your team is engaged while growing your game. We had members who got sick of seeing Dead Cells on our first team at Evil Empire, so we decided to cycle them off while bringing on different talent to continue on Dead Cells. That renewal process brings the ability to continue making more of the game; people get their heads stuck into one thing and start losing perspective on a larger project. When you have a game that you want to turn into a franchise, new perspectives from people who aren’t fixated on small parts of the experience are essential.
Protecting Your IP’s Value
Everything up to this point has been about growing a game into something that can be a franchise. Once it’s ready for that last stage of growth from a successful IP into a franchise, you’ll have to consider protecting the value of that IP. For us, that started with price protection.
Price protection is, in bare terms, thinking, “this is what my game is worth,” and keeping its price somewhere around there. For Dead Cells, that price was $17 at its Early Access launch. We chose that price because the average cost of an indie game when Dead Cells launched into Early Access in 2017 was $15, so pricing it just above that gave the message that this was a higher-than-average quality product. That perceived value, as well as Dead Cells’ success, then let us increase the price (which we had always said we would) to $25.
When you make an indie game, you have to understand that your profit doesn’t come from people just buying the game; it comes mostly through discounts. If you know your game is going to be on sale, take that into consideration of its overall price. For instance, if your game is $25 and you know it’ll eventually be 50% off, its real price is $12.50. Consider the value of your time as well as your game when you decide to discount. As this is where the majority of your sales will come from, you’ll need to ensure that you’re still receiving what you believe your game is worth.
Luckily for us, we expanded Dead Cells with a bunch of post-launch content (as every game should). Pricing for those helped us further retain the value of Dead Cells thanks to bundling. Sure, Dead Cells would go down to $12.50 at 50% off, but the DLC bundle would bring that value up to around $30 because getting the game and all of its DLC for just $5 more than its actual price is a great deal for consumers.
Effective strategizing for sales is essential when growing a static IP into a franchise. I can’t stress enough that this is where your profit comes from unless you’re a breakout hit like Hollow Knight. Don’t just discount your game; consider what your price will tell consumers a year down the line if you release one or two DLCs. You only get to define your price once or twice, so think about that and protect your price. It’s how you’ll generate the profit to carry out everything else I’ve mentioned in this article.
Turning an indie game into a franchise is not a small task. It takes careful planning, market analysis, and a lot of patience. We took every opportunity we could get for Dead Cells at precisely the right moment because we planned to do so. I find that a lot of what we did at Evil Empire for the game was common sense (I actually Googled “How To Do Early Access” at some point in 2016) but many companies don’t do what we’ve done.
For those looking to make their IP into a larger franchise who know it has the potential to be something larger, try and follow these steps. Grow and engage a community, produce content with players in mind rather than profit, plan and successfully execute your game’s expansion into new markets, and ensure its price is protected.
If there is one last piece of advice I can offer, it’s this: be genuine. Act like you care about your IP or brand and that it’s not just a way to make a ton of money. Do the same when interacting with community members or making additional content for your game. If your interactions sound like an airline’s responses on Twitter when someone says they had a bad experience, you’re doing it wrong. Produce with the mindset that your players are people with preferences and tastes rather than walking wallets, and your game will grow.