3 years since the dragon went to the shower

On November 8th or 9th, depending on where you live, Goblin and Coins had been released on Steam all the way back in 2016. This came to happen after months and months of tension and uncertainty on my side caused by the lack of any tangible information on what is going to happen in the future. Mind you, I didn't worry about the sales and numbers, I just wanted to finish the game and have it out there before I go crazy. Later I found out that's called crunch. My secondary goal was to use this release to learn about Steam-backend, release process itself, marketing avenues and whatnot. And at some point I've realized that every knowledge you painstakingly gain is basically worthless the moment you learn it. That scared me to oblivion. But let's backtrack a bit.

When I started working on this project, it was a learning opportunity, not really much more than that. I was scripting some tiny GameMaker "games" as early as 2003, but never got to anything you'd consider more than a hobby project, until I started working on Deklinacija (a game where students can practice declension of nouns, pronouns, adverbs and such words in Serbian language) and it got me thinking of internet leader boards, data sorting, different loops and structures... Which sort of gave birth to Srpski za 5 (more user-friendly trivia app for students) which even got an Android release on Google Play Store (now removed; couldn't provide them with a 64bit version) receiving 50.000+ downloads and 4.5 stars on more than 100 reviews, and from there to it's "clone", Games of Yore trivia.

As I had some free time over the summer, I started thinking maybe I can revisit some of my old ideas, which mostly included side scrolling platformers. That's the type of games I grew up playing, even though I'm not really enjoying newer titles - they all lack something that made me come back to the old games over and over. Graphics was there, but gameplay was now... different. We'll come back to that later. I was well aware that my older concepts failed to ever make anyone interested because they lacked on all fields, mostly because I lacked the knowledge needed to make them properly. So I decided to learn more, and started watching YouTube tutorials, reading a lot and even buying access to some really nice courses on coding and... discovered pixel art. Like, I knew of pixel art of course, it just never occurred to me to actually use it to create a game. I always tried drawing things.

And thus my little learning project started. I wasn't learning basics of GML or even programming, as I've had experience with earlier versions of GameMaker and even Pascal, Delphi, Python, HTML... But I was learning some very nice gamedev concepts that would, as I discovered them, simply click and position themselves in a place where they were needed for so long without me actually knowing what exactly was expected to fill the void. It felt like playing Broken Sword again, sort of: "Oh, so this is what I need to know/have to do X that I wanted". At the same time, I got introduced to the art of combining pixels into tiny sprites, and forced myself to renew all the knowledge on basic shapes, colors, shadows, light sources...

It was clear to me I'll not become an expert over night, but I had fun and what I was making made me happy more and more with every passing day and every level designed. Had some friends test it and they liked it too, but also found bunch of bugs and tried really hard to push my weird logic on things more toward the mainstream, to what someone would expect when playing such a game. Then I got brave enough to post a "pre-alpha demo" to some online forums.

The first time I saw a video of someone (Fet) playing Goblin and Coins blew my mind. There was this person playing my game, but completely differently from what I was doing during my test sessions. Where I'd wait, he'd brave onward. Where I was experienced, he'd observe. What I found easy, he'd all but curse me for it. And with that, my eyes opened. I needed more feedback, more people. The best thing? People were happy to help. As the project grew slowly and got improved, I was lucky enough to receive a constant feedback from more than 200 users of several internet communities, including Steamgifts, Imgur and Svet kompjutera, which led to many good things including separate audio settings for music and sound, ability to change key bindings, polishing graphics in many areas and even redoing some areas completely, changing enemies behavior...

I was also really lucky to have the support of my girlfriend in the time none of my family had understanding for what I was doing. She also provided crucial service as a non-gamer tester, because I knew that every level she can finish as someone who never played a similar game, anyone else with any amount of gaming experience can finish and is not "too hard" for sure.

The more progress people saw, the more comments "Get it to Steam and I'll buy it" I got. Back then, there were only two ways to get a game on Steam, and I did not have, nor I was deluding myself I could get, a publisher. So there was only Greenlight. At first I wanted to wait and polish everything as much as possible, maybe take additional year or two... but then Steam kind of mentioned in the passing that Greenlight will close and something else will come. What? No one knew at the time. So I did what seemed as necessity at the time and with the blessing of my GML teacher, paid $100 to get Goblin on Greenlight and see if very skeptical Steam users will "allow" it to actually be released there. It helped immensely that GnC already had a dedicated community of sorts and people who already knew of it wanted to help out and vote and by some miracle it got in in a week.

That's where we come back to the initial passage of this story, to me struggling with working my day job, staying healthy, and finishing/polishing the game enough that it doesn't get buried under a sea of bad reviews... but also trying to stay sane with all of that pressure of not knowing what will come next. Word of something called Direct reached me, but it was not really clear what it was and how much would it cost or anything else. I was re-drawing and animating what I could, at the same time trying to implement achievements in the beta without any previous knowledge of Steam backend, achievements, cloud saves... Everything I was learning by doing. I did get stuck several times and was lucky enough to manage to reach another developer from my country, who explained some details to me and helped me a lot.

Nevertheless, those few months rushed in a haze. Mind you, this did not start as a project for Steam, but I had optimistic fans asking for cards, for example. I had no assets ready for that, everything had to be made at the same time. I could have leave it for later, but I didn't know what will happen. Maybe Steam will stop accepting indies completely before I'm ready for release? Sure, nowadays we know those ideas were completely silly, but back than I couldn't know. At some point, I just couldn't do any more. I was drained, there was no energy left in me to replace any pixel art with a better version, to test any more... So I set the first available date and clicked release. Took me 3-4 months to recover and start working on an additional challenge level.

3 years later, as I'm writing this, it's really hard to look back and ponder on what went right or wrong. Game sold well above my realistic expectations (mind you, I was playing video games since the mid-eighties and was not deluding myself that I made something that will become wildly popular) but still far from what it could have, theoretically, if I managed to reach more of the target audience. I did what I could to listen to the advises out there -  had the Steam page for at least 2-3 weeks before the release, had IndieDB page for months, Twitter and Facebook - though I never got used to being constantly active on those; was showcasing from early on so to say, had demo for people to try, even several smaller youtubers posted pre-release and release-day videos... that was all good.

At the same time, Steam cut guaranteed release exposure for new games a few days before my set release day, as a way to fight ever growing tide of Greelinght titles in those late days. They also stopped counting reviews from the people who activated keys to stop the abuse from some "bad actors", as they later named them. Sure, I wasn't among them, but it meant that my game won't receive initial boost from the people who supported it the most and followed it the longest and thus got their keys from Itch.io where they purchased it. This also hit many Kickstarted projects for example. A few months later "Direct" arrived and Steam users got overwhelmed by all sorts of titles, including asset flips and seriously broken games, developers who don't read instructions and don't include exe file in their build, or worse, who jump on shady deals with even shadier bundle websites and then revoke keys when they don't get paid in due time or at all.

And overnight, being an indie solo-dev turned into a bad thing. You were not seen as this enthusiastic dedicated person trying to "tell a story", you were automatically bundled into the same category with a bunch of, well, not really developers but opportunists who were after a quick buck. What I had to distinguish myself from that bunch was my word and my experience as a gamer, so I decided to rely on that even more than ever. I knew my goal was not to cheat anyone, so I focused on being as transparent as possible and treating others the way I'd like to be treated when buying a game.

I didn't want gamers getting confused and buying something it's not for them. Sure, it can still happen on accident, but saying clearly "this game is locked to 30 fps" in system requirements on Steam probably deterred some folks from buying, and both sides were happier for that. Or saying, "out of respect for early adopters, this game won't have heavy discounts in the first two years" and then actually sticking to it, probably caused some gamers to leave it on their wishlist much longer than they expected, but I guess that's the price you have to pay for doing what you believe in.

Bundles? Nope. That alone cut the player numbers and exposure for sure but... do I really want 100.000 people owning the game in the library with absolutely no intention to ever even start it? Looking at it like that, it's not a loss at all. Everyone who buys the game on Steam is actually a customer who has an intention to at least try the game. They might not like it, or even refund it (thank heavens that option exists) but at least they know what they're buying, they can read the page, see the screenshots... maybe even browse the community content and see what people liked or disliked about the title they're about to buy.

What were my biggest mistakes? First, I'd say a non-flexible design that stopped me from adding more levels post-release. I'm sure people would like that. Adding that one challenge level was a hell, specially because I got the build split into three for different languages. Now there's six of them on Steam, for Windows only. There's six more for SteamOS/Linux. Important lesson for GnC2 I guess. Second, it's relying on my logic and trying to make the game less-gamey so to speak, and only later understanding that people do want that familiar end screen telling them what they've picked up, what they've missed and such. My goal was to make it one seamless path comprised of story and levels, and obviously that backfired immensely.

In the end, the most valuable lesson that I've learned and confirmed is to be who you are, stay open and transparent, and make games that you like first. If you do, there will be others who like them too. And even if they aren't many, treat them as the best audience in the world, because they are. There's no better thing that seeing someone play the game you've created and having fun with it.

In the end, because I forgot half of what I intended to say and said many things I've never planned to write, here's an anniversary giveaway. Have fun! 


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