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Pulling off The Swindle

How the misfire of Gun Monkeys and an indie publishing assist helped Dan Marshall hit the mark with his new procedural stealth-action game

Dan Marshall's last game, the one-on-one online shooter Gun Monkeys, was not a disaster. It reviewed well, and it made its money back. Still, speaking with last week, it was clear if he had it all to do over again, he might have done a few things differently.

"There were so many things that I did wrong promoting that," Marshall said. "It's one of those things that as an indie developer, you have this amazing opportunity to try new things. One of the things I tried with that was, 'Hey, let's see what happens when you just release a game.'"

"Maybe it's just delusions of grandeur, but you just think, if I release a game, everyone will go, 'What's that?'"

The answer, it turns out, was "not much." Reviewers liked the game, but had so much trouble finding matches that they mentioned it prominently in their write-ups. Marshall thinks that in turn led people to shy away from picking the game up, which only aggravated the problem.

"It seemed like a sensible idea at the time. Maybe it's just delusions of grandeur, but you just think, if I release a game, everyone will go, 'What's that?' And then they'll all pile onto the servers, have a great time, and get the ball rolling and talk about it. But that didn't happen, so it was swimming uphill from the start, basically."

For his new game, The Swindle, Marshall appears to be swimming with the current, thanks in part to some takeaways from his experience with Gun Monkeys. He says the game taught him practical things about developing 2D games in Unity and creating procedurally generated levels, as well as instilling in him a greater appreciation for the value of solitary gaming.

"I'm not touching multiplayer with a barge pole ever again," Marshall said.

It also taught him to get over his reticence around marketing.

"I'm really bad at that sort of thing," Marshall said. "I don't like showing things off until they're done. I find it quite hard to show off work-in-progress stuff because I don't like it unless it's perfect. I'm kind of a perfectionist that way."

Marshall got over that reluctance, announcing The Swindle last fall with a trailer getting across the basic concept of the game.

"Since then, it's just been a sort of drip drip," Marshall said. "It feels a lot of times like you're preaching to the converted when you're doing a lot of marketing stuff because you're talking to your Twitch people and there's a very specific sphere of influence you have that it doesn't feel like you're extending out of."

"Indie publishing's like a really weird thing. It feels like it should be a thing that indie developers push back against."

Regardless of how it felt, The Swindle's promotion extended beyond that immediate sphere of influence, thanks in part to a partnership Marshall undertook with Curve Digital. He had originally signed up with the publisher to port the game to consoles, but said Curve was eager to take the game on the road to shows like PAX and EGX Rezzed, and helped line up coverage at outlets Marshall thought might not have been interested if he had approached them personally.

"Indie publishing's like a really weird thing," Marshall said. "It feels like it should be a thing that indie developers push back against. The great thing about indie development was that there weren't any publishers getting in the way, or that kind of thing. But from what I've seen of Curve and what I know of people like Team 17, Mastertronic, and Devolver and all these kind of people is that 'publishing' might be a dirty word to a lot of people, but it's not really what they do. They've tweaked the business model a bit so it's less invasive."

Curve also pushed to have every version of the game launch in the same time frame, something he believes helped The Swindle feel more like a big release.

"Curve haven't insisted on a single change to The Swindle. There's no, 'You can't do that, you can't do that, you need to change this thing.' The Swindle is exactly 100 percent my game, and they've been amazingly supportive throughout the entire process. To me, that takes away a lot of the negative side of stuff that publishers always had. A lot of them are doing quite a good job in straddling the line between being the heroic force for good that some indie developers need and staying away from that old, publisher stereotype image of being problematic for the industry."

"It's not necessarily all about that launch date. It's about the three years after that launch day when you're constantly updating it and talking to your community, getting people playing it and spreading the word."

The Swindle launched in late July, the same week as highly anticipated indie efforts like N++ and King's Quest: A Knight to Remember. Marshall said the timing was chosen mostly because it seemed more important to avoid AAA fare like Batman: Arkham Knight and the imminent blitz of big game launches leading into the holiday season. As for the crowded indie calendar, Marshall said he couldn't worry too much about that; there will always be new games releasing. Besides, indies aren't as dependent on a big day-one haul as their AAA counterparts.

"It's not necessarily all about that launch date," Marshall said. "It's about the three years after that launch day when you're constantly updating it and talking to your community, getting people playing it and spreading the word. Maybe good word of mouth is much more important to our marketing because we can't afford TV adverts and we can't afford site takeovers. So our marketing is a little bit more of a snowballing thing."

Since its launch in late July, The Swindle has made its development budget back with PC sales alone. Marshall didn't have console sales numbers as of last week, but the game certainly seems to be positioned well for a longer and more lucrative life than Gun Monkeys. Even so, Marshall's not about to say he's got it all figured out.

"The weird thing is, I don't really know," Marshall said. "As in indie developer, you make best guesses. I sit and make games all day. That's the part of my job I love and enjoy, then you get to this weird bit at the end where you're suddenly press and PR man and businessman... If you think I've got an Excel document with graphs and statistics, you're very, very wrong. I've got a load of guesswork and a sort of happy-go-lucky attitude, and that's about it."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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