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Biology game Niche thrives by going against the flow

Stray Fawn Studio crowdfunded from people who didn't want to play its game and charged a premium in Early Access; Philomena Schwab explains why it worked

Stray Fawn Studio has embraced a number of unorthodox strategies with its genetic survival game Niche, but those decisions have given the game an advantage in a crowded field of competitors.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last week, the Zurich-based studio's co-founder Philomena Schwab said the origin of the game dates back about seven years, when she was trying to choose between pursuing an education in game design or biology. The compromise was to make a game about biology, and since evolution and genetics interested her most, she settled on a game that tried to take the five pillars of population genetics (mutation, sexual selection, natural selection, genetic drift, and genetic flow) and see if she could turn them into fun game mechanics.

Schwab had seen games like this before, most recently with Electronic Arts' Spore. But where that game erred on the side of fun over foundationally sound science, Schwab wanted a slightly stronger educational component in Niche, while still keeping entertainment as the primary goal. The result is a turn-based game where players create their own species and breed them to adapt to the dangers of a procedurally generated world, including predators, disease, and climate change.

That decision to embrace the game's educational aspects would turn out to be key when Stray Fawn launched its Kickstarter for Niche. The campaign debuted in April of 2016 with a goal of $15,000, but went on to raise more than $72,000. As for how the campaign outstripped its goal so thoroughly, Schwab--whose thesis was on community building for indie game developers--said the team had made a concerted effort to get the word through more than just gaming communities.

"A lot of these people don't even have a Steam account or anything like that," Schwab said. "They're not necessarily gamers, and in the end, not many of them are the people who will buy the game."

The scientific community in particular got behind the game in a big way, Schwab said. Teachers, scientists and the like supported the game not for themselves, but simply because they shared the goal of making scientific concepts more accessible to people.

"They wanted to help and invest in the game; they didn't want to necessarily play the game," Schwab said.

That wasn't the only non-gaming crowd Stray Fawn targeted with the Kickstarter. The game was partly inspired by the Warriors series of young adult books, and the developers were confident the game would similarly appeal to that crowd. A shoutout from one of the series' authors also helped, Schwab said.

"I'm totally into trying to tap into related communities because they already exist," Schwab said. "You don't have to build them up; you just have to make something that relates in some way to what they love, and you'll eventually get their support. It's a hundred times faster, or a thousand times faster than building up your own community about your own thing."

"We did a silent Early Access launch. We basically didn't want to sell a lot of copies during the Early Access"

Once the game was ready for Early Access, Stray Fawn adopted another less-than-intuitive strategy.

"We did a silent Early Access launch," Schwab said. "We basically didn't want to sell a lot of copies during the Early Access."

To that end, the studio also communicated quite clearly that it was charging a premium for the game during Early Access, and Niche would be cheaper upon its final release.

"What this did is it kept away players who were just there to have some fun, and attracted people to the community who were really interested," Schwab said. "Then you basically only have the people in your community who were willing to pay more to join the development. That means you have a very supportive and active community because they see themselves as ambassadors."

There were some negative reviews as a result of the move, but Schwab said it was "totally worth it" for the benefit it had on the community. There was minimal toxicity from the player base during development, as Schwab said there were maybe two members of the game's Facebook group that had to be booted for being "really counterproductive."

Beyond its help in keeping the early community a positive place, the Early Access premium also helped when the game finally had its proper launch last month. Because interested gamers knew the price would be coming down, Schwab said many of them wishlisted it rather than buy it in Early Access. So when the game had its proper launch, the numerous wishlisters all received a notice that the game was live. Quite a lot of them bought it in the first day or two of release, Schwab said, which helped provide a big day-one push that landed the game on the front page of Steam and helped it stay there a while.

Schwab also noted that the actual price drop coming out of Early Access wasn't that significant. The game was $19 in Early Access, and launched at $18 with a modest time-limited discount on top of that. But since Stray Fawn had never actually communicated how much cheaper the game would be upon release, the prospect of a price drop still had the desired effect for keeping the community smaller and more positive.

"We still think [Kickstarter] is a very cool way to get people invested, and to invest, in your projects"

However, there were some minor downsides to Stray Fawn's approach to community building. A highly engaged audience means a lot of people who aren't the developers feeling a considerable amount of ownership of the game.

"Since we have a lot of players who are biology teachers, dog breeders and so on, whenever we implement something they think is a bit [off], then they will strongly voice that opinion. Because for them it's one of the only games where they can do genetic stuff like they do in real life," Schwab said. "Our player base keeps us on track with being scientifically accurate."

When the team implemented new features, it became somewhat common for community members to create forum polls about them, and then rally their fellow players to convince the developers to tweak this or reverse that. Fortunately, Schwab said that when a lot of players didn't like something and asked for a change, they were usually right.

"They are very nice people, but I think if we were making a brutal shooter game, we would have a more aggressive community than an animal breeding game," Schwab said.

The more common problems Stray Fawn faces can likely be traced to its efforts to appeal to groups outside of the usual gaming communities. Schwab said the player base includes a lot of younger people who need technical help to get things up and running, or have questions and needs that other game developers would just take for granted.

Niche has succeeded, at least in Darwinian terms. The game has made back its development costs, and Stray Fawn will look to carry its adaptations into its next project, Nimbatus: The Space Drone Constructor. While the procedurally generated action sim doesn't lend itself to non-gaming communities quite as readily as Niche, Schwab said she still plans to reach out to a few existing communities who might be interested, like hobbyists who build robots. And even if others have expressed some dismay at the current state of gaming campaigns on Kickstarter, Schwab is confident they can make it work.

"We still think it's a very cool way to get people invested, and to invest, in your projects," she said. "I think if you have a really cool game, it will still work out."

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