Mobile Mavens

Is soft-launching a game effective for an indie developer?

Is soft-launching a game effective for an indie developer?

One thing we're known for at PocketGamer.biz is our extensive Soft Launch list, which tracks all the biggest games that we know are currently in soft launch on Android and iOS.

But  you may notice when looking at the list is that the majority of these titles are from bigger developers, with indies less represented throughout.

To find out more about why that is, and what indies should do if they decide to soft launch, we turned to our very own Indie Mavens to ask:

  • What are the merits for indies of soft-launching their games? Is it worth it?
  • What best practices can you share for how you maximised your time in soft launch?
Tanya X. Short Creative Director Kitfox Games

Whether you're on mobile or Steam, soft launches (or open betas) are usually worth it for indies. They're definitely worth it for highly replayable games, because players have incentive to come back after you've fixed the bugs!

Keep in mind that a soft launch is very distracting for development.
Tanya Short

Presumably, the reason you're soft launching is that your game is punching a bit above your weight – you are developing features you can't afford to test properly in-house.

Whether that's because you're a one-person team testing compatibility or a 10-person team testing server stress, soft launching helps if you have a learning goal.

Decide what you're testing, what questions you have, what assumptions you're making and use that time to learn as much as you can.

Also keep in mind that a soft launch is very distracting for development.

It's not quite as debilitating as a full launch, but you still won't be able to move forward with feature development at the same rate – managing player feedback, crises and community will all take focus away from what used to be pure making-the-game time.

Plan for it, or else your soft launch will take two to three times longer than you expected, even if you were 100% correct about your estimations up until that point.

Erik van Wees Co-founder Arcane Circus

I perceive soft-launching as an alternative to the conventional QA testing. Soft-launching is the "indie-alternative" to hiring experienced QA testers.

I hear a lot of peers talking about how soft launching is "the way to go" but I’d like to offer some food for thought on the subject matter.

Consider your soft-launch audience as critics, not testers who are inclined to help you improve the game.
Erik van Wees

The power of a QA tester is that they will intentionally stress-test your product whilst a consumer will just use it "casually".

Having done at least one elaborate stress-test by an experienced tester will help you get rid of some "obvious" issues that will make your soft-launching audience a lot more valuable.

In my opinion, your soft launch audience should test your design, not your functionality.

Soft-launching can also give a potential market a wrong first-impression about your product (and therefore your company) even though the purpose of your soft launch might be to add/change features and functionality (and/or to eliminate bugs).

In a way you are sacrificing some people’s first-impression to create a better first-impression with a bigger audience.

Making use of closed betas will put your audience in a different mindset, one that tends to be more positively inclined to give your game "more of a chance" so that more aspects of the game can be put to the test. This can be both a good as well as a bad thing.

Crap, I'm Broke!, the next game from van Wees' Arcane Circus studio

However, if there's a fundamental design issue being exposed during your soft launch then you should start asking yourself whether you have been playtesting your prototypes enough during the early stages of the creative process.

A closed beta can also give players a sense of "feeling special" because they got to experience something before others are "allowed to".

This can create hype for your game whilst you still have the opportunity to straighten some things out.

Consider your soft launch audience as critics, not testers who are inclined to help you improve the game.

These people will form their opinion about your capabilities as a developer. Whatever reason you choose for soft-launching, it will become part of your company's image.

Does the soft-launching strategy coincide with how you want people to perceive you?

Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

We’ve never done a soft launch ourselves as we've not really seen any potential advantage in it for the type of games we're releasing.

It just doesn't seem worth it for smaller titles.
Aaron Fothergill

We have been involved in other games past publishers have soft launched though.

The big advantage I see in a soft launch is if your game is reliant on server side data or other communications that you're handling yourself then you can load test under semi-controlled real world scenarios before it scales up to full release.

Although as we've seen from some major releases, this doesn't always predict the scale up enough to avoid server overloads on a really popular game.

Cramming the game full of data gathering and analysis tools will also grab you some useful data to play with ahead of the release.

The downside though is if the game's got some decent PR and players outside the soft launch country know about it and want it, they'll set up an account in that country to download it.

Not only does that skew your soft launch data (extra load on servers and potentially unrealistic lag issues if your server side is set up targeted to the soft launch country), but it also means you may lose those downloads on the full release as they won't be downloading it from their local store.

For really big games, I doubt this would skew the initial chart positions much, but for smaller games it might.

Add that to the extra level of bad reviews that you get from anything 'beta', the extra workload of setting up for a soft launch vs just releasing the whole thing etc. and it just doesn't seem worth it for smaller titles.

Sebastian Lindén CEO & Creative Director Qaos Games

It depends how much you spend vs get out of it. If you plan to spend lots on UA, it would be good to understand what to spend on.

Apart from bug-fixes and improved user-experience, for us soft launches have been about understanding which users to target for the specific game.

It's all about trying out as many things as possible to increase your odds in launching a successful game.
Sebastian Lindén

For any developer, soft launches should focus on identifying problem areas and quantify users' feedback into improving users experience and retention rate.

If you spend lots of money, without getting any useful feedback, it's a waste of time and money, and you should probably reconsider how you make games.

Choosing a test market that is similar to your launch-market is essential to get relevant feedback.

What best practices can you share for how you maximised your time in soft launch?

Pin-point a few unique metrics for every game to track during your soft launch, apart from general ones like retention and DAU.

If you have tried a new on-boarding with Facebook login or saga vs endless, try them against each other and estimate which one is better short-term vs long-term.

AB-test from experience, assumptions, and constantly question yourself. Look at other successful games in similar genres to see what they have ended up with.

Make hypothesises about different user groups, and see if they correlate with your metrics and results.

I guess it's all about trying out as many things as possible to increase your odds in launching a successful game.

Matthew Annal MD Nitrome

I held back on responding to this as we have never soft launched a title, and so didn't feel that it was too relevant or that I could add much.

Then I considered that our reason not to soft launch is I guess relevant.

For us we try to make games rapidly and expect to make money from them as a whole rather than individually. The bigger hits cover the missteps, I guess.

Nitrome Must Die, one of Nitrome's many games

Soft launching would make it hard for us to make games rapidly and would increase pressure for individual games to perform well to cover this.

We don't feel that we lose out entirely on learning what audiences want either as by launching many things you get to try many things and you can reuse what works well.

I'm not saying soft launches are wrong by any means. I think different approaches can work for different set ups.

Josh Presseisen Founder Crescent Moon Games

I'm pretty much mirroring Matthew on this one - although I have soft launched a game before and didn't really get enough useful data.

I think it's kind of hard to get enough soft launch users to truly provide enough good data before actual launch.

Most of our games are premium as well, so I would say that it's more important to beta test vs. soft launch, where you might risk deflating the balloon so to speak.

If you have the big money for UA, then soft launches definitely seem to be important - almost like they do with public betas of triple-A games or games that have a big online component.

Travis Ryan Studio Head Dumpling Design

It's been nice to have a bit of money coming in to support the development process.
Travis Ryan

I was about to write that we’ve yet to dabble with soft-launching, but the reality is it feels like we’ve been in soft launch with Dashy Crashy since we released in December!

Rather than updating with a steady content cadence (as advised), we took a step back, evaluating all feedback - and I mean ALL of it - observing player habits and data, as well as picking up regional nuances (particularly in China).

This led to a series of focused changes, adjusting everything from core progression mechanisms to the way each car plays, all the way through to how we monetise the game - all of which we're releasing as a free major update in a few weeks (shameless plug).

Perhaps our audience would be bigger if we had soft launched changes, but we’re a two-man team. it takes time to digest and work this stuff out, and until recently app store submission was a drawn-out process.

Dumpling Design's Dashy Crashy

Plus, it's been nice to have a bit of money coming in to support the process.

Which all sounds more along the lines of 'games-as-a-service' and is certainly an approach we're planning to continue with the next game; releasing small and growing the game with a community via regular feature reviews with our audience.

At least that’s the current thinking…

Deputy Editor

Ric has written for PocketGamer.biz for as long as he can remember, and is now Deputy Editor. He likes trains.

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