While we were at Develop: Brighton 2023 recently we got the chance to sit in on a number of fascinating talks and candid reflections on mistakes and triumphs during game development.
One such talk was hosted by Hannah Flynn, communications director for Failbetter Games, the studio behind hit indie browser game Fallen London, and its spin-offs Sunless Seas and Sunless Skies. Although the developer has yet to pursue its own mobile titles, Fallen London has remained scaled for use on mobile browsers, allowing players on any device to participate in the browser game that has been live and finding fans for over a decade.
Hannah’s talk, “A standout campaign retrospective” gives us the inside track on the launch of Failbetter Games’ latest title, Mask of the Rose. This romantic murder mystery game was hotly anticipated by both longtime fans of their work and backers of the title’s kickstarter campaign, however despite a strong promotional campaign, things didn’t quite go according to plan…
To begin at the beginning
Firstly, Hannah detailed Failbetter’s usual audience. This being the “nerdcore” style of player, and fans of stereotypical, traditional British culture, “teaboos”. Their audience isn’t only a curiosity, but also key to understanding how to appeal to them. Promotional tactics to ensure player engagement included releasing their own brand of tea themed after the world of the game in collaboration with specialist tea blenders FridayTea and releasing crochet kits letting players knit their own versions of characters in the game world.
All of these are of course, incredibly niche and to many marketers might seem bizarre. But as Hannah explained it went a long way towards building trust and a tight-knit (no pun intended) community with their players. It increased their investment not only in the game but in the company itself, with Hannah explaining how she even knows some of the most active community backers and members by name.
More pertinent to the broader subjecct of marketing were perhaps Hannah’s takeaways for advertising on TikTok.
Succinctly, she explained her golden rule - “Do the absolute least”. Because of how TikTok functions, creating viral hits is incredibly difficult, and committing large amounts of resources only makes it even more difficult to see decent ROI. Instead, she pointed to how she had created numerous shorter TikToks talking about the title, before finally hitting on a small number of widely shared and liked posts.
It all comes back around to Hannah’s advice, which is to “nail the basics”, build a sense of community and reach out to willing players via email, invest in the ecosystem and - if you’re a smaller company - don’t waste money on paid advertising and expensive showcase placements. However, as she points out and which would be much more applicable for larger companies, trailers and store pages are key to providing a great first impression to new players, so concentrating on showing off the best of your titles there can be extremely beneficial.
Next, came the launch… which is where things began to fall ever-so slightly apart…
Recovering from a fall
With the launch of Mask of the Rose, a major problem quickly became clear. The game was too short. Not in terms of lacking content or possible paths to explore in this narrative-based title, but in terms of the actual length of the time limit the developers had imposed on its solution.
Many players quickly expressed their dissatisfaction at being unable to interact with characters more at their leisure, and explore the wide-ranging story in the time available to play, given that they were placed on a strict time-limit to solve the game’s central murder mystery.
In an instant, all that hard work went up in smoke, and while normally this is the time that many developers would start ringing the alarm bells and panicking, instead Failbetter chose to… well, fail better.
Hannah explained a few crucial takeaways. Firstly, don’t overapologise. We’ve all seen the familiar grovelling statements made on social media after disastrous game launches, but as she said, these often have the opposite effect and instead draw massive negative press and make the problem seem far worse than it may be.
Secondly, she suggested that developers concentrated on communicating with their community. Although not every developer can boast a highly-engaged audience like Failbetter, the lesson holds true. Zero mandated crunch was another key aspect, instead making sure their community knew the concerns were heard and that patches to alter these aspects were coming, as indeed they were.
This was important because, uniquely for their genre, Failbetter had a large audience of backers who were extremely active in the community. For these players, who opened their wallets even before launch, retaining that goodwill was vital as their patronage helped to generate interest in each cult hit that Failbetter produced.
Of course, first impressions were everything, so even when the patches did hit things weren’t going to pick up on their own. That’s where their luck came in, as one of the other creative partnerships the studio had engaged in was with Youtube musician The Stupendium. They had commissioned them to produce a short musical number to promote the title, however Stupendium (who Hannah referred to as “Stupes”) was an existing fan of the Fallen London franchise and eagerly, with Failbetter’s approval, expanded their remit.
Unfortunately this meant the finished video would take rather longer to produce…
Originally this promotional piece was set to go live only a day after launch. However, due to its expanded focus it would instead come a week and a day after launch…
What sounds like another disaster proved to be highly fortuitious. This pre-planned viral push may have missed launch but arrived just in time for the patch.
Thus, by a stroke of luck and forward planning, Failbetter were able to boost their game’s profile and generate far more community goodwill by teaming their patch with the release of this quick fan-hit of a video (boasting nearly 400k views only a month after release).
Naturally, Failbetter’s audience and focus is far more niche than most mobile developers. However, many of the key lessons hold true:
Don’t focus on advertising with poor ROI, listen to your audience, don’t overapologise, understand your audience and work to create campaigns which work with them.
We can see other studios such as Wales Interactive committing to these kinds of niche narrative titles with their commitment to FMV. And narrative titles such as those by Scriptic are becoming more and more popular. Games such as Mask of the Rose live or die by how well their audiences resonate with them, and forming an engaged and loyal following for more niche titles is essential.