"We did nothing the right way."
That was Waygetter Electronics' Ben Esposito, explaining for GamesIndustry.biz recently how he prepared for the launch of Tattletail, a horror game inspired by the creepy 1990s electronic toy fad Furby.
In an era where indie developers are routinely encouraged to begin marketing their games and building communities as early as possible, Esposito and fellow Waygetter devs Geneva Hodgson and Tom Astle released Tattletail the same day it was announced: December 28.
"We went against basically all common wisdom about releasing a game," Esposito said. "I thought it was crazy to do, because everything I've heard about indie games is don't even bother releasing in December or November because that's when all the big stuff came out. And we actually launched during a Steam sale, which seems like suicide."
But thematically, it made sense. Tattletail is set during the holiday season of 1998, and casts players as eager children discovering the talking electronic pet under the Christmas tree a bit early. Unfortunately, a rogue Mama Tattletail is on the hunt for her baby, so players will need to keep the chatty toy quiet by meeting all its demands, lest its noisy protests draw the attention of Mama.
Beyond just having a game set at Christmas launch around Christmas, Esposito said the release window made sense given the game's inspiration.
"I never was into horror games. I was always way too scared to play them. And it wasn't until last year I found that playing horror games with a group of friends was incredibly fun, like, that was my favorite group gaming experience."
Playing through Silent Hill 2 and SOMA in that sort of environment got Esposito interested in making a game like Tattletail in the first place, and he was hoping others would experience it in similar circumstances.
"It was really important to us to have it be around Christmas, but also to be available to our audience when they might be sitting around with their friends and have nothing to do," Esposito said. "Since that's how we got the idea to make a horror game, we wanted it to be out when kids are home for Christmas break, they're hanging out and bored, maybe they're just looking online for stuff and haven't gone back to school yet."
While Waygetter clearly spent little effort on pre-release hype, that's not to say the team completely ignored marketing. One of the first things Esposito put together for the game as a sort of proof of concept was a retro TV commercial for the fictional toy, complete with cheesy theme song and VHS audio and video degradation. Despite the clip's effectiveness (Esposito used it to convince Astle to join the project), the developers decided against using it to build anticipation, and only released it as part of the official launch trailer.
"To be perfectly honest, we were scared that if we put the trailer out too early, it would result in negative reviews," Esposito said, "because the production of the trailer turned out really great, and the reality of the game doesn't always meet the expectation. So we decided it would be a lot more fun, and probably effective, if we just put the trailer out and the trailer says, 'Available now. Buy it. You love it.'"
Regardless of how effectively it sells the game, the clip clearly establishes the game's grounding between nostalgia and horror.
"When you watch the video, the whole thing is soaked in the VHS copy-of-a-copy filter, and the sound feels like it's been copied a million times," Esposito said. "When it comes to nostalgia, we tend to remember the lossy ways we recorded stuff in place of our actual memories. So that was what we were going for.
"A lot of nostalgic memories are tied to some element of horror in the sense of experiencing something brand new for the first time. And that mystery and uncertainty is what makes it such an important memory to you. When I was at summer camp, for the weeks I was there, it was the most scary time of my life. And some of it was not actually fun, but after I left, it was rewritten in my mind as the best time I'd ever had. That prolonged period of time when I was just really overwhelmed and scared is a really nostalgic memory for me now because a lot of my day-to-day life is really normal and I kinda know exactly what's going on."
So far, Tattletail's marketing strategy doesn't seem to have hurt it.
"In terms of our measure of success, it's absolutely successful," Esposito said. "We invested a small amount in it. We've earned that back so far. We've been paid for our time. It's not like a viral hit, or whatever, but over time it will be worth the time we put into it."
Esposito understands what it looks like when something goes viral. He worked on "the ultimate Sonic the Hedgehog fan experience," Sonic Dreams Collection, an aggressively bizarre assortment of four fictitious prototypes for Dreamcast-era Sonic games that featured--among other things--Sonic giving birth to Tails. The game was widely covered and featured by YouTube stars like PewDiePie, but of course, was about the furthest thing from a monetizable commercial project one could get.
At the time of the interview, Esposito said Tattletail had generated some traditional game press coverage and been covered broadly by streamers, but had yet to draw the attention of the higher echelon names. Interestingly enough, Esposito said many fans of Tattletail hope it never does. The game is frequently compared to Five Nights at Freddy's, a horror game known for its jump scares that draws inspiration from the Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band much as Tattletail does Furby, but Esposito said many players have explicitly said they don't want Tattletail to be as successful as that franchise.
"Undertale had the same problem," he said. "When people get overexposed to something, they get overexposed to a fandom who's really excited about something, and they start to build resentment to it. So a lot of teens on the internet and young people who participate in these communities will be seeing the same content over and over again, and they're really not interested in it and can't even really filter the stuff. Then they just start to resent and hate it, and there's a counter-current that builds. And that's something I think happens to anything that builds a certain amount of popularity. So people see Tattletail and they're like, 'I can see how this could become really popular and I'd love for it not to because I don't want to see teenagers' Tattletail personas, or whatever, posted online all day.'"