"I usually say it's a game about a giant robot that's trying to save the universe, but it's really clumsy and accidentally destroys everything. I think that sums up a lot of the game pretty quickly."
That's the pitch for Jettomero: Hero of the Universe, as described to GamesIndustry.biz earlier this month by developer Gabriel Koenig. It's a fun idea, one brought to life with a striking visual style at an impulse buy price point ($13). It launched on PC and Xbox One in September, and seems at first glance like a good candidate for an indie darling success story. And in some ways, perhaps it is.
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"The reception has been positive so far," Koenig said, noting that it's only received a single negative user review on Steam. "Most people who've looked at it have been pretty excited about the game. There have been a few negative [media] reviews, which is not surprising because I don't think the game is for everyone. It's been tricky figuring out who the game is for, and it's kind of a range of people, so it's difficult to lock down what audience I should be trying to communicate the game to. But overall, the reception feels like it's pretty good.
"And then there's the sales, which have been kind of the opposite, and kind of underwhelming. If I took all the time I put into it, it looks like over its lifetime it might recoup development costs, but it's definitely far behind right now in terms of sales."
"It feels like anytime people are talking about marketing for games, they say if you get people playing the game on YouTube, that's the best way to get people interested... But it didn't seem to make a huge impact on anything"
The early numbers are disappointing in part because the game seemed to be catching some fortunate breaks. Last year, while Koenig was still working part-time on Jettomero, a .gif of the game online caught the attention of Double Fine Productions' VP of business Greg Rice. Impressed with the game's style, Rice invited Koenig to bring Jettomero to the studio's annual Day of the Devs event. Koenig said that showing opened up a lot of doors for him, starting conversations with Microsoft and Sony about console ports, and drawing an invitation from Valve to put the game on Steam.
Fresh off an encouraging boost in traction provided by Day of the Devs, Koenig shifted to work full-time on Jettomero when the contract for his day job was up in January. Unfortunately, the buzz surrounding the game seemed to dissipate rather than snowball after that, as it flew largely under the radar until the month before launch.
In August, with development on the game basically finished and the release date just a month away, Koenig took the unorthodox step of launching a Kickstarter for it.
"I wasn't sure what kind of sales I could expect and I didn't want to dump in a bunch of money to translations if I couldn't recoup that quickly," Koenig said. "So it was a very safe way to fund translations and the visibility you get with Kickstarter was very good. It helped a lot to bring in a new audience of people that were looking for new and interesting games on Kickstarter."
Koenig's campaign had been looking to raise $5,000 Canadian to add Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese and Italian to the game, and to help get a head start on the PlayStation 4 port. As the Kickstarter campaign drew to a close on September 1 with $6,641 Canadian committed, Koenig took the game to Seattle to showcase it at a pair of PAX West satellite events. He said the showings increased the game's visibility and helped him make a number of valuable contacts, but doesn't know how much of that translated to any boost in sales.
With the September 15 release date closing in and still a lack of buzz around the game, Koenig turned to UK-based marketing firm Beefjack to help promote it and showcase it at EGX as part of The Left Field Collection.
"They helped a lot in terms of getting it out to the big sites, and just tons of sites in general, lots of YouTubers," Koenig said. "I don't think I would have had nearly as much coverage if I hadn't worked with the PR company. Every major article about the game, I think that was largely because of the PR I paid for."
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Jettomero's profile may have been boosted by Beefjack's efforts, but its sales figures were not.
"It feels like anytime people are talking about marketing for games, they say if you get people playing the game on YouTube, that's the best way to get people interested and get more sales," Koenig said. "But it didn't seem to make a huge impact on anything. I don't know if that's because of the type of game it was, if people just weren't interested in it, or if the audience for a YouTuber might not have been the right fit. I'm not sure exactly why there wasn't more of an effect from those, but it surprised me."
That question of audience looms large over Jettomero. Koenig's influences for the project included Hohokum, Journey, Sound Shapes, and particularly Ed Key and David Kanaga's Proteus, an ambient musical exploration game where players explore an island at their own pace and for their own reasons.
"To me [Proteus] was really inspiring in terms of a game that didn't challenge you, that just let you relax and wander through space," Koenig said. "I'm not sure how that game did, or who exactly the audience is or how to reach that audience, but that was definitely a source [of inspiration]. This is the kind of game I want to make."
Jettomero was inspired by a wave of relaxed games and potentially meditative experiences, and it aspired to be one, but with many of the trappings recognizable to more mainstream games. Players control a giant robot who breaks things. There are lots of explosions. The denizens of the game's procedurally generated planets mobilize military forces to bring the robot down (albeit unsuccessfully). There are even puzzle mini-games and space monster battles.
"I don't know if that changed the perception from being a chill-out game to more of a traditional game with challenges," Koenig conceded. "It was interesting making a game that from the start, the design was very organic. It took shape out of what I enjoyed and what I thought was fun, so I never had a clear plan or knew exactly who the game was for. Ultimately, I guess it was for me. And it's tricky trying to figure out after you've made this thing who the game might be for, especially since it doesn't really fit into any typical genres.
"It's all interesting to read and you learn something from everyone's story, but everyone's story is going to be completely different"
"If I was making a game based on a more proven formula, it would have been simpler to say, 'This is who I think would like the game' and then talk to those people and get them playing the game more, to really tune and craft it so it's exactly what people wanted. But with this one, it was never really clear. And I think that made it really difficult to market."
But speaking to Koenig, it seemed the thing he second-guessed himself most about was the game's price.
"I've read lots of articles about not under-pricing your game and not doing launch discounts and stuff like that. I don't know if I priced it maybe $5 cheaper, or maybe even more than that, if it could have had a bigger reception, might have gained a little more traction."
Even so, he knows those articles--much like this one--should be taken not so much as cautionary tales but as food for thought.
"It's all interesting to read and you learn something from everyone's story, but everyone's story is going to be completely different," Koenig said. "Something that didn't work for someone might work fine for someone else, so you can't base your own decisions on it. But it's worth reading just to see where people might have had a blind spot in their plan, and that can make you reconsider what you're doing yourself."
Right now, Koenig is gearing up to work on the PS4 version of Jettomero and an update for the Xbox One version. On the horizon, there's also the possibility of a Nintendo Switch port. But after that comes the tougher call.
"Once I get the game out on PlayStation and possibly Nintendo, I think I'm going to have to reassess the situation and see whether I'm making enough to justify doing more full-time game dev," Koenig said. "Otherwise I'll look for some contract work or doing something full-time, and keep doing my own projects on the side."
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He has some ideas for a next project, even one that has the clearly defined audience Jettomero lacked that could make it easier to market. But that project would require a bigger scope, longer development time, and probably more people to work on it.
"There's also the option I'm currently more interested in, which is doing a smaller game again, maybe smaller than Jettomero," Koenig said. "Not necessarily targeting a specific audience, really not worrying about it at all, doing something experimental and putting that out there. If I can do that without as much stress or as many expectations, as a solo dev that might be a better path for me, especially if I can do it while I'm doing other work as well.
"I would never recommend making games as a way for someone to make money. I would say it's a great way to do exactly what you want to, and if you can make money doing that, it can help support you. But it should never be the expectation that you're making money, unless you're very serious about your business strategy. It's just a nice platform to work on, and if you can make a living doing it, that's basically the best."