Failure study: Rune Masters
Long story short: a friendly indie developer released their first serious game – Rune Masters. It didn’t sell. They worked for over a year on it. The game’s not horrible. And yet it sold only 8 copies as of now.
It’s an interesting case, because failure is rarely talked about. As human beings, we’re often victims of the survivorship bias. Starting developers focus on the success stories and look at indie game development with starry eyes and big hopes. How hard can it be if Minecraft sold millions and a simple puzzle platformer can become a major hit? Well, very hard. The truth is that most indie projects fail. We should be paying more attention to the lessons we can learn from failures rather than look up to the lucky few who made it, thinking it’s going be the same for us.
It’s doubly interesting to me. Looking at Rune Masters, I see so many mistakes that I’ve made myself when I released Magi years ago. But Magi did sell reasonably well, which raises the question: “Why?”
I talked with the creators of Rune Masters, and they gave me their permission to write about why I think their game failed, from a somewhat more experienced developers’s point of view. That requires some courage, so major props to them.
Before you continue with reading the article, I suggest you at least try the game. Heck, it costs five bucks and can be pretty fun, so you may even want to buy it. At the very least, check the trailer below.
I’m not going into a detailed analysis. The game has several design mistakes of various magnitude, but it doesn’t matter that much in the big picture. I’m going to focus on the biggest reasons why I think it wasn’t even downloaded by many, why it didn’t sell even if it was downloaded, and what were some of the more subtle problems that could hurt it in the long run.
The market has changed:
Not the game’s fault per se, but something to keep in mind. When I started making indie games 7 years ago, the scene was still quite centered. Most games could get at least some attention, and higher average prices meant you needed less purchases to be profitable. It wasn’t uncommon for indie games to cost around $30, like Aquaria, or Spiderweb‘s titles. Even all those casual match-3s were priced at $19.95. I was able to sell my first game for $22.95 and nobody complained. I don’t think it would be possible now.
The today’s market is much more competitive, saturated, and forever changed by the increased popularity of Steam, casual portals, and the emergence of the App Store. Games are probably the only product I buy frequently that heavily went down in price over time, despite the inflation and all that.
Why does it matter for Rune Masters? As with any grown market, the barrier or entry is higher, profit margins are slimmer, big players occupy the top spots, and smaller games are struggling for attention, competing in visibility with the likes of Angry Birds or bigger-budget titles like Limbo.
The success stories we learned from, the myth that you can make a living with a decent game. That it will get promoted by just the word of mouth. It just isn’t true anymore. To succeed nowadays, a game must either come from someone already established, target a total niche, or be truly amazing. Rune Masters didn’t have any of those qualities.
Lack of clear USPs:
The first big issue with the game is that it lacks any noticeable unique selling points. In any business, the key to success is to provide the customers with unique value that they can’t get from the competition. You either need to have a completely new product or make something already existing better. Rune Masters tried the later approach, which is a common mistake for starting indie teams.
You like a certain game or gameplay mechanic, so you decide to develop your own take on it, without considering if you are creating anything of actual value in the process. The result is that people are going to inevitable compare your game to its big brothers, especially if there was a major hit in the genre. Rune Masters is being compared to Puzzle Quest obviously. So the question that CodeDaemons have to answer for its players is: “Why would I rather play this than Puzzle Quest?”
Topping the production values and amount of content of a game produced by a relatively large studio is beyond the reach of most indie teams, especially beginners. So you have to focus on the differences. You want to make people to say: “It’s like Puzzle Quest, but…”, and pray it’s not: “Like Puzzle Quest, but worse.”
Rune Masters developers had a clear problem with defining their USPs. Let’s take a look at the game’s page:
So…the game has characters, enemies, items, and bosses. And a soundtrack. It probably even features an immersive Fullscreen Mode™. This is partially a marketing mistake. One that I’ve made when I launched Magi as well. Too many bullet points with pointless numbers describing a fairly common content. You don’t do that unless you have something really impressive. “1500 enemies and 200 hours of gameplay!” would raise an eyebrow. But “15 skillful enemies to defeat” sounds like: “The game has enemies.” This is not an USP.
In fact, the game doesn’t really have any significant advantages or differences compared to Puzzle Quest. It uses a slightly different match-3 mechanic and active-time battles instead of turn-based. It’s a good start, but has one problem — it’s not immediately noticeable or significant. The bullet points, the screenshots, and the trailer should showcase the game’s most unique qualities. How it’s different or better than the competition. And it should be something meaningful rather than cosmetic.
For example: this game used to sell nicely on casual portals back when Puzzle Quest was still new. It’s not really better than Rune Masters, but at least I can immediately see its key differences. It has an animated 3d visualization of the battles, and it’s much more casual. It knew it couldn’t be better or bigger than Puzzle Quest, so it’s instead much simpler to play and more user friendly. That’s an USP.
This is largely why Magi sold, despite not being more polished than Rune Masters in its first release. If you wanted to play something like it, you pretty much had nowhere else to go. It made people willing to look past its flaws. It’s only years later that we thought we are experienced enough to attempt to one-up an established genre with Cinders, and it’s still not clear if we succeeded.
Poor genre choice:
It has to be said that picking a match-3 of all things was whole bunch of nails to the Rune Master’s coffin. The genre is over-saturated, with several major hard-to-top hits. It was also given the mass-market treatment. When it was still hot, several larger companies made attempts at it. Unable to alter the gameplay significantly, they just continuously upped the production values bar.
It’s also a genre bearing a heavy stigma. Hardcore players hate it and dismiss it as a dumb luck-based puzzles for grannies. Indie players hate it, because it was a fad and an epitome of the me-too mentality of the casual market. Even the casual gamers are fed up with it already. The fad is over. Many reviewers and players likely dismissed the game based on the genre alone without even trying it.
I’m not going to say anything here that the brilliant Jeff Vogel didn’t already say better in his articles (such as this one). If you want to be indie, it’s safer to pick an underserved niche that the big companies forgot about and make something new in it. Picking a match-3 makes almost as much sense as trying to make an FPS or action-adventure.
Bad first impression:
Now, assuming someone actually didn’t get discouraged and downloaded the game. Why they didn’t buy it? The game itself is pretty fun, but it makes many textbook beginners mistakes. Many of which, again, I know all too well from the Magi launch.
First of all, it makes a bad first impression. Which is probably enough to make most people drop it right away. I know that I personally tend to quit demos very fast, if I get the feeling I’m up for a shitty ride. Especially in genres where I can get a plenty of other titles — it’s just not worth the time.
Rune Masters main menu is actually pretty nice, but the devil is in the details. From the login screen to the first battle, the game seems highly unpolished and inconsistent. Some artwork is rather nice (the board itself, the main menu), some is pretty bad (the characters), some looks like it was made by another person for another project (inventory and shops). There’s no unified style or consistency. To make it worse, there’s no consistency even in the behavior of the GUI. Some text boxes and buttons fade in nicely, some just appear, some react to the mouse smoothly, some don’t. It’s all subtle, but it creates that impression of: “This is not a real game.”
Then there’s the text. As soon as I start a new game, I’m welcomed with a character selection screen boasting essays worth of lore, written poorly in print so tiny that I have to squint. I’m not interested in the lore at all at this point, I just want to pick my guy and have a go at it. I’m trying to check what the various stats do, but the tooltips prove to be as wordy and cramped as the rest of the text. Instead of a simple: “This stat reduces damage taken,” I get some fluff text about how it’s important to Nature Magic users. First, tell me what it does and let me figure the rest myself. Second, what the hell is Nature Magic? I just want to play the game!
Then there’s the tutorial guy. He never shuts up. I’m torn between clicking through him and not knowing what the game is about or having to read all what he has to say. When the game finally starts, I’m already tired of it. And actually, it’s not bad once it gets going. All that initial text made it seem much more complex and convoluted that it really is. You just go to various map locations, kill monsters in rather intuitive match-3 battles, and develop your stats. Pretty addicting actually.
I swear, fixing those initial 15 minutes of gameplay would sell infinitely more copies than adding 100 more monsters. First impression is crucial. To be honest, if I didn’t feel obliged to play it, I would drop it at the character selection screen. And I would lose out — I actually spent several fun hours with it in the end.
I had the same issue with Magi’s first version. The update which replaced the menu with a prettier one, cut down the initial wall of text, and simplified the convoluted stat descriptions more than doubled the sales.
Really, always make sure the first 15-30 minutes of the game are as inviting and polished as possible. It’s crucial to making any sales. Most games these days are good, well produced, and accessible. If the player doesn’t enjoy it right away (unless it’s a niche RPG or an art game of course), they are going to move on to another offering.
This was touched in the last point, but I feel it needs elaboration. It usually goes like this. A developer knows the game well, so they don’t include much of a tutorial. Then the beta tests make them realize the players don’t know what to do. So they go to the other extreme — attach a quickly glued together wall of text at the start of the game. Rune Masters does it. It’s a match-3, and designed well enough that most of it is self-explanatory, but the tutorial goes on as if it was a space shuttle simulator.
When it finally gets to the actual game, another typical problem pops up. Information overload. Up to that point, the tutorial went on forever about the most basic features, dropping unnecessary pieces of lore here and there. And when you see the game board at last, it suddenly goes: “Okay, this, this, and this do X. This and that do Y. And also sometimes Z if you have Q. NOW GO!” Of course, most of it is not really relevant to the player at that point and is quickly forgotten.
Modern tutorials aim to be contextual and dose pieces of info when the player actually needs them. Instead of showing every GUI element and explaining in detail that this is a healthbar and it represents health, it’s better to just give the basics required to play. And when an action causes the health indicator to change, display a nice “This is your health” next to it. The player is surely going to figure out the rest. Preferably do it without stopping the gameplay. Advanced information should be available in tooltips, so that the player may review it when they feel like expanding their understanding of the game.
Bad tutorials are common in amateur releases. The reason is simple — they are boring to make. But they really do make or break the game.
Focus on content and not polish:
There’s this belief among young game designers, that if you add more items, and classes, and a crafting system, the game will become better and sell more. It’s not true. Content obviously has a meaning and can build depth, but overall polish and consistency are more important.
Instead on adding more monsters and items to the campaign, Rune Masters developers should focus on making sure that the core gameplay is clear and pleasant to interact with. Preferably by giving the game to someone who never played it before and observing their reaction. I’ve made the best changes to Magi by making my girlfriend play it. She doesn’t play hardcore strategy games, and that was exactly the point. The changes I’ve made that day made the game much better than any amount of spells or characters ever would.
Overall, despite long development time, Rune Masters feels rushed. I can understand the urge to finally release a game, and the frustration coming from working on a single project for too long, but it could really use a week or two of additional testing.
There’s also a bunch of smaller points that I think are easy to miss, but contribute to the overall lack of success and can have long-term repercussions. For instance, CodeDaemons website doesn’t make a good impression in times when almost all indie titles have lavishly designed pages. It’s hard to find a good web designer, especially without a budget, but it’s still worth it to make sure everything is pretty and readable, even if it’s going to be very basic.
Magi’s old website was pretty awful. It was good enough back then, but as soon as we replaced it with our current MoaCube’s page, the sales picked up. Nice website creates a trustworthy image and comes in handy when doing promotion. When you are sending out links to the press, you want the recipients to have the best first impression possible, starting from the website itself. It doesn’t matter that much by itself, but it makes every other action you make easier.
Lack of fame:
This is really worth mentioning. Rune Masters developers are a new kid on the block. Many success stories and tips we’ve all read come from well established developers. They may make you believe that the press actually wants to write about your game, and that the players will play it if it’s any good. It’s not really true. They don’t, and they won’t. People are lazy, and are unlikely to get interested by something from a source they don’t know.
We’re getting way more coverage for Cinders and even Co-Op than we did for ArcMagi a few years ago. And it’s not because these new games are that much better or more interesting. It’s largely because we’re more established now, know more other indies and more reviewers. If we launched a match-3 game tomorrow, you would probably download it out of curiosity. If someone like Jon Blow would release a match-3, everyone would play it. CodeDeamons are a new face, so they get no free pass.
Of course, it’s only natural, and a track record is not without its meaning. So why I’m mentioning it? Because it’s an important lesson for all other aspiring indies. You won’t go by the same rules as the indies you’ve read about. You are much more likely to suffer the same hardships as the Rune Masters developer. Keep it in mind.
Bad public relations:
This ties to the last point. I keep saying that indie gaming is more of a scene than a market. It’s very important who you know, who knows about you, and who’s willing to put a word for you. You need to network and socialize, even if you don’t come from a country with a strong indie community.
When we started Cinders, we knew we are entering a new niche. Our names meant nothing to anyone involved in it. So we’ve tried to make acquaintance with most of the indies in this segment. Sent them the game, asked for their opinions, did some research, made new friends. This got us some invaluable feedback, extra promotion, tips, and affiliate deals. Also made the development that much less lonely. We also participated in the VN community, posted on forums, talked to the press and bloggers. When the game was out, we knew that some people are already waiting for it. Being friendly and sharing information plays a big role in indie development.
CodeDaemons approached it from a very different and risky angle. They are pretty bitter and sometimes outright agressive in their communication. Controversy probably draws some attention, but what goes around comes around. I’ve recently noticed that whenever I see a post or article about Fez, at least one person in the comments will urge everyone to boycott the game based on something its creator said on twitter or during a discussion panel. It probably won’t hurt Polytron’s status and sales too much, but I’m not sure if it’s a good position to be when you are only starting out.
Rune Masters failed to make money, but it could and should be used to at least increase the studio’s presence, and make new friends that will help with future releases.
Lack of direct sales:
CodeDaemons use only Desura to sell RuneMasters. I see it as a major mistake. Maybe it increased the chances of getting a few more sales now, but I think it’s going to have severe implications in the long run. Going portal-only can be a good idea if you are making a mass-market title, or if you are already accepted on Steam or XBLA, but not when you are only at the beginning of your road.
The main goal of releasing an indie game, especially at the start, is to build up an audience that will buy your future titles and help with the promotion through blog posts and word of mouth. Even if the game fails, you at least still get some notoriety and website traffic. These people may remember your name or website address when you release another title, and it makes them more likely to buy it. Going portal-only means that you are only building the audience for that portal.
I’m afraid that when they launch their next game, CodeDaemons will be fighting the same uphill battle they fought now, and this will be a major contribution to it.
Of course, if you think there are more important reasons why the game didn’t succeed, I’m sure the developers would like to hear it, so feel free to post them in the comments. Anything goes. CodeDaemons already proved that they are truly interested in honest feedback by agreeing to this article, so fire away. And again, give their game a try. Despite the mistakes, there’s a lot of passion in it, and it is pretty fun once it gets going.