Every new games business starts with a projection; an educated guess about how many products it will release, and how much money it stands to earn. Indie publisher No More Robots based its own projections on releasing at least four games in its first year. In the end, it released just one.
But this isn't a standard tale of indie woe; instead, it is one of optimism and success. According to No More Robots founder Mike Rose, who launched the business one year ago, the one game it did release performed well beyond expectations. In fact, Descenders generated more income for developer RageSquid in one month than its previous game, Action Henk, has after more than three years on sale.
"What actually happened was a single game release in 12 months," Rose says, about the unintentional deviation from No More Robots' four-game plans. "But that single game release did far better than we'd dared to hope for, meaning that No More Robots has ended up with more than $600,000 in revenue for our first year."
Rose admits a degree of optimism in those initial projections, but the performance of Descenders has allowed the freedom to be "super picky" about which games No More Robots takes on. It has also allowed him to recruit another member of staff, the variety streamer Pip Hoskins (aka TinyPixxels), as community manager. Hoskins will help Rose to "keep all our crazy Discords in check", a platform that No More Robots has used to great effect for Panic Barn's Not Tonight, which launches next month.
And then there's No More Robots fourth game, an exciting project that will be announced at the end of August. To ensure that year two is even better than year one, Rose says, he needed some help.
"I needed someone with my ridiculous energy, and someone who wanted to come and be a part of No More Robots rather than just be working for me. I'm glad to say I found that person."
Whether either of No More Robots new games will match Descenders is impossible to know, but Rose can take encouragement from the fact that, while RageSquid's extreme downhill racer had a great launch, its performance since then has been "spectacular."
"Everyday sales of Descenders are more than sustaining both No More Robots and RageSquid"
"According to internet wisdom amongst devs, you take your first week of Steam sales and you multiply it by roughly four to get your first year," he says. "After just five months we have achieved this, with first week Steam sales quadrupling by this point, and there is no sign of sales slowing down. Everyday sales of the game are more than sustaining both No More Robots and RageSquid, and we've now had more than 110,000 people play the game across Xbox One and PC."
There are a number of factors at play here, all of which merit mention, some of which demand closer scrutiny. No More Robots smart, engaged use of Discord servers and streaming - more detail on which can be found here - created a virtuous cycle, the active community encouraging new players, and new players making the community more vibrant and appealing. It also makes a "big deal" out of every new update, giving each one a name, cutting the price a little (no more than 10 per cent, but more on that later), and actively reaching out to new players. In doing so, Descenders sold almost the same amount of units in its RogueBike update and the Steam Summer Sale as it did on its launch week.
These are good best practices for any indie publisher or developer, but No More Robots made significant gains in a less obvious area: crowd-sourced localisation.
"Localisation was a massive factor in the game's success," Rose says. "We worked with our Discord community to translate the game into more than a dozen languages before and around the launch, and as a result, we've seen significant sales in regions we targeted.
"Normally, you might expect US sales to make up a good 30 to 40 per cent of revenue, but for Descenders the US makes up just 20 per cent of units sold, followed closely by China with 14 per cent of our sales. Japan was another big surprise for us, being our eighth best selling country; we quickly added Japanese localization post-launch, and that helped the surprise Japan sales to become even more surprising. We also saw higher than average sales in Russia and Germany."
Overall, Western Europe "far surpassed" total US sales, and Asian territories "weren't far behind." This was achieved despite no firm plan for how to localise Descenders, and for which countries. Instead, the strategy organically arose from the community that No More Robots had built on platforms like Discord. French users offered to provide translations to enrich their own experience of the game, and Rose ultimately put out a call for assistance for other users to do the same for their own countries.
"Within 24 hours I had too many people apply to help, and the game was translated into a ton of languages within just a few days"
"Within 24 hours I had too many people apply to help, and the game was translated into a ton of languages within just a few days," he says. "Nobody wanted anything in return, they just wanted to see the game in their own language - although we did end up giving them a bunch of stuff, like the game for free, special kits in the game, and so on. For Not Tonight, the exact same thing has happened -- just a ton of really lovely people asking me daily if they can help to translate it into their languages."
The effect of this should not be understated, even if it is difficult to estimate exactly how many extra units Descenders sold because of these crowd-sourced translations. When pushed, though, Rose believes its sales in non-English speaking markets indicate "nearly double" what he would otherwise have expected.
And those players are rarely paying much less than full-price, which Rose sees as another key factor in Descenders sustained commercial performance. The average game on Steam has at least one (and often several) "big discounts" within five months, by as much as 40 to 60 per cent in many cases. Descenders has never dropped by more than 15 per cent, in an effort to "convey the message that we value our work, and the price point we've put on the game is how much it is worth."
"We believe this has heavily contributed to people watching the game, seeing clips and wanting to play, and then eventually realizing that it's not going to drop in price, and grabbing it anyway," Rose adds. "I think it's easy to launch your game and think, 'Welp, that's all the sales we're getting -- better deep discount. But, like I said, our launch sales were great, but most of our sales have come well after launch.
"I think this worry also causes devs to start at too low of a price point, too. I see devs charge $10 to $15 for their games all the time, because that's what everyone else is doing - they must be right, right? But a lot of the time games are priced too low to begin with, which completely destroys any potential wiggle room on discounts later.
"When we eventually do 40 per cent discounts on Descenders years down the line it will still be selling for $15 at that discount, which is what most devs are selling their games for at launch."
"When we eventually do 40 per cent discounts on Descenders it will still be selling for $15 at that discount"
Finally, Descenders has reinforced Rose's belief that staggered releases offer more potential for sales than hitting multiple platforms at the same time. The launch on Xbox Game Preview in May "greatly enhanced" the game's performance on Steam Early Access, and when the PC version was part of the Steam Summer Sale the Xbox version (which was not discounted at all) had at least double the sales every day.
"Early Access and Game Preview has definitely helped us, too," Rose adds. "I firmly believe that people are now 'over' Early Access as a possible con point, and instead see it as a chance to experience a game's evolution.
"On Xbox, we get people telling us all the time that they found Descenders while browsing through the Game Preview library on the Xbox Marketplace, and thinking they'd like to get involved. Early Access has been a huge boon for Descenders, and it's leading us up nicely to the point where we hit the 1.0 launch at the start of next year, put out the multiplayer update for the game, and line everything up nicely for the game to explode again."
After Descenders 1.0 explodes on PC and Xbox, it will then explode on PlayStation 4 and Switch. Nintendo's platform is proving a challenge in terms of performance, Rose says, "because quite frankly the platform isn't handling the literal speed of Descenders very well, and Descenders does not play nice at lower frames per second. But we know we can get there; it'll just take lots of optimisation and grinding teeth."
And after the year that No More Robots has enjoyed, few would question the confidence in building on what has already been achieved. Year two beckons, and with it comes a whole new set of projections to defy.
"It's been a crazy year," he admits, "although I'm proper knackered now. No-one ever talks about how stressful it is running a business, and how drained you feel all the time. Hopefully, once September rolls around and we move into the portion of the year where it's suicidal to launch a non-AAA game, I can get a quick bit of rest."