No More Robots: "I'm just doing D&D, but in a Discord server"
Mike Rose on the marketing tactics that drove the small publisher to $3m revenue, and why Xbox Game Pass is good for sales (for now)
After its first year in business, No More Robots had built a solid indie publishing business around a single game: Rage Squid's Descenders. It was, as founder Mike Rose told us at the time, "far better than we'd dared to hope for."
Fast forward a year and the picture is just as positive but far more impressive. Descenders rolled out to new platforms and new heights of success, Panic Barn's Not Tonight launched to even better sales, and a third game, Hypnospace Outlaw, was just hitting the market. In the space of two years, in a famously challenging market, No More Robots had reached $3 million in lifetime revenue with just a few members of staff.
However, while the company is in a financial position to expand its small team -- it recently hired Arwyn Brock from Rockstar to lead QA for its publishing partners -- Rose has no desire to do the same for No More Robots' portfolio. Indeed, a year ago he aspired to release as many as five games a year. When we meet at Develop:Brighton, he is unequivocal that three is "the fucking maximum."
"I've realised that I'm just doing D&D, but in a Discord server. Post-Brexit D&D"
"In my head, I thought it would need to be three to five just for the sake of finance," he says. "That's how many we'd need just to run the company. But that hasn't been the case whatsoever."
If Rose believed that No More Robots would need five games a year to be financially stable, the surprise that killed that notion was perhaps Not Tonight. Descenders was important for a company the size of No More Robots, but Panic Barn's curious post-Brexit management sim was "four times as big" -- and it achieved that scale on PC alone.
"A lot of the time, games are massive on Steam and you don't actually hear about them," Rose says. "Because why would they get talked about a lot? Unless it's a big AAA thing, but that's fair enough."
Another example of this tendency is Triternion's Mordhau, which sold 500,000 copies on its launch week, despite a great many in the industry exclaiming 'Mord-what?' Not Tonight's sales are on a different scale, Rose notes, but they are of a piece; two games in the morass released on Steam each week, but two games with engaged and loyal communities bubbling just below that wide and impenetrable surface. When the opportunity to actually buy it finally arrives, they show up.
For No More Robots, the key is Discord. You can read about some of its ingenious marketing tactics for Not Tonight here, but Rose says that, when the game launched in August 2018, "we had a Discord server that was filled with crazy people."
"I made them that way. I've realised that I'm just doing D&D [Dungeons and Dragons], but in a Discord server. Post-Brexit D&D."
To pick one example from many, at the start of a week Rose would inform one member of the server that they were a spy for the government. The next day, he would inform the rest of the community that an interloper was in their midst. More information would be drip-fed across the week, leading to all manner of conspiracy and subterfuge and power-plays.
"I know there's a lot of people in the servers that don't end up buying the games, but those people are still massively valuable"
This activity created a vivid interior life for Not Tonight's Discord server -- and don't be confused, this is still marketing. Very creative and very successful marketing.
"All of the Discord stuff we've been doing? Nobody outside of those servers has any fucking clue we've been doing it," Rose says. "I'm doing stupid stuff on these Discord servers every week -- some of the stuff I've been doing for Nowhere Prophet is really off the wall -- but you won't hear about it.
"It would bubble and bubble, and when the game came out, they had to own it. People still ask about it now; literally someone messaged me today to ask if there was going to be a 'season two' of the game we were playing.
"I know that there's a lot of people in the servers that don't end up buying the games, but those people are still massively valuable. Because when people come in, they can see how active it is."
Much has been made of Not Tonight's undercurrent of post-Brexit anxiety, but Rose feels that this is actually the least of the reasons for its success relative to Descenders. The most important factor, he says, is that Not Tonight is a type of game more of less native to the PC, while Rage Squid's extreme downhill racing title is essentially a console title that happened to find its feet on Steam.
"I always guessed that Descenders was an Xbox game," Rose says, "and now it's doing much better on Xbox."
No More Robots is committed to putting its games on as many platforms as make sense; Descenders has been confirmed for a Switch release, while Not Tonight was submitted to Nintendo the week this conversation took place. However, both titles proved that games can have natural homes. Not Tonight started in one, but Descenders needed time to find its own.
Descenders left Early Access in May this year, around a year after it first hit Steam. The 1.0 version added multiplayer, and it also launched on Xbox and (crucially) Game Pass on the same day. The latter, it seems, was a hard sell for Rose, who is a passionate and vocal advocate for developers protecting the value of their work.
"That worries me greatly," he admits. "And after I did all of my Twitter rants, people from Xbox took me to the side and talked to me about it. I thought, 'Okay, fair enough, but I'd still like to see it in motion.'"
"Being on Game Pass means that you basically have constant featuring on Xbox. You're game is on the dashboard all the time"
"Since Descenders came out on Game Pass, the thing I did not realise would happen -- because you'd assume that you put something on Game Pass and sales tank, right? I had assumed that: why would anyone buy the game when they can literally see it on Game Pass?
"We were like, should we do this Game Pass thing? But we did it, and 1.0 came out, and I think it the launch was about three times as big as the Steam Early Access launch... You could say it was putting the multiplayer in, or it was not being Early Access any more, so more people bought it. But the biggest surprise for me was Game Pass."
This recalls what Xbox boss Phil Spencer told GamesIndustry.biz at E3 this year. Rather than devalue games and cannibalise sales, he said, "we look at our first-party games that we premiere in Game Pass... we sell more copies of those games than we think we would have if they weren't in Game Pass." According to Rose, this also holds true for third-party games -- for now, at least.
"Sounded like bullshit, right?" he says, grinning. "Weirdly, it's true. It surprised me."
Rose adds: "Being on Game Pass means that you basically have constant featuring on Xbox. You're game is on the dashboard all the time... People are seeing our game every day.
"And because of that, during launch month, our Xbox sales -- we didn't do any discounts on it or anything -- quadrupled, and have now settled to about three times as much as before. It's essentially an advert; a straight up advert.
"And now Xbox is asking, 'Oh, can we feature Descenders in more of the Game Pass advertising?' Yes, you can. Of course you fucking can."
More than 600,000 people have now played Descenders, and the Xbox launch was a huge factor in reaching that number. However, Rose concedes that he is not quite a subscription convert, because these favourable winds may be specific to Xbox Game Pass -- a service owned and controlled by the company that owns and controls the platform -- and they may also be temporary.
The rewards gleaned from visibility may disappear over time, as they have on pretty much every single digital marketplace. For now, though, the sun is shining on Game Pass, and No More Robots is making hay.
"What happens is it peaks and then it dips, because at that point the saturation kicks in," Rose says. " You'd imagine, in a year's time all these people with subscription models will be offering less money to join them. Because why do they need to pay as much? You'd imagine the numbers will go down, which makes it less worth it to people, but then at that point everyone's on it, so you have to be on it."
But that will be in another year, where No More Robots may be more successful still. Rose certainly appears confident in a marketing and sales process that he is refining with every release, each new game benefiting from the wisdom accumulated from those before it. Nowhere Prophet launched in July, Broken Bear Games' Family Man is up next, and Rose will stick to his target of three launches a year in 2020.
More importantly, though, some of those games will be entirely bank-rolled by No More Robots, which is now in a position to take larger risks to reap -- if Rose's techniques are as effective as he believes -- greater rewards.
"We have a few games in the works where we're funding the whole thing, and that feels massively satisfying," he says. "I've got the numbers now. I know the process."