Hey, since my new turn-based RPG, Epic Battle Fantasy 5, is 99% finished, I think this is a good time to write about the previous game in the series. I wrote a postmortem of Epic Battle Fantasy 4 back in 2013, and things were not looking so optimistic at the time. Here’s a continuation of that story.
—The Story so Far—
EBF4 was well-recieved by players and got very high scores on Flash game sites, and the premium content for the game sold quite well on Kongregate. However, even with millions of plays, the game didn’t have the same viral appeal that EBF3 had – and the biggest part of that was that the Flash game industry was rapidly shrinking. EBF4 paid off it’s development costs, but only due to lucky timing – if it had been released just a bit later, it would have had trouble getting sponsored, and may have flopped completely. I worked on EBF4 on and off for a few years, but the final development time was probably around a year of full-time work, and in the end it made $60K, which is decent for a software developer in a cheap city. Making another big game for Flash sites was no longer an option though.
While EBF4 was nearing the end of development, I started thinking about Steam. Games like Binding of Isaac and VVVVVV made me realise that good Flash games might be allowed on the platform. Luckily, Greenlight was announced around the same time, and it seemed like Steam was the way forward for the types of games I was making. But getting through Greenlight was incredibly hard at the time – initially your game would need over 50K votes or so, and only a handful of games were selected each month. EBF4 sat on Greenlight for a few months, and seeing that it was never going to get that many votes, I wrote the 1st postmortem, and decided I may be doomed to make lame mobile games, or some other career path. And now, some 5 or so years later, it’s time to continue the story…
—Preparing for Steam—
After 5 or 6 months, Valve started Greenlighting many more games than before, and EBF4 had a chance again! I immediately started working on new content for the Steam version of the game (which I also added to the paid Kongregate version), and EBF4 finally got through Greenlight, with around 15K votes. (For comparison, in the final days of Greenlight, all you needed was somewhere between 500 and 1K votes) Kongregate was a great sponsor, and they allowed me to link to Steam Greenlight in the web version of EBF4. I kept their logo on the Steam version, but they were not involved in it – I had no sponsor or publisher this time.
Steam was terrifying at first, since it was the first time I was publishing on a platform that wasn’t specifically designed for Flash games. It’s also very lonely, as you can go through the whole process of launching a game on Steam without ever talking to a human from Valve! I was worried I would not be able to implement all of the steam features – achievements, cloud saving, overlay, fullscreen modes, and trading cards. My time at University prepared me for situations like this – when you’re stuck on an assignment, you’re forced to talk to other students and to find out who’s better at it than you are, so you can get some help. I hunted down the developers of all the Flash games on Steam, and most of them were very happy to share their solutions with me. A huge thanks goes out to Alexey Abramenko, developer of Intrusion 2, who suggested I use MDM Zinc (basically a Flash projector) to package EBF4, and let me use his code for Steam achievements.
While I’m at it, I’d also like to thank Amanita Design, developers of Machinarium, for sharing their FRESteamworks ANE, which allows Adobe AIR to interface with Steam features. I later used Adobe AIR for other games I released on Steam, but it was no good for EBF4, since for some bizarre reason, Adobe decided to remove the LOW and MEDIUM stage quality options, which would have drastically damaged the game’s performance. (I eventually found a workaround for this, and will be using Adobe AIR for EBF5) Anyway, MDM Zinc worked very well for a couple of years – it got my little Flash game running on and interfacing with Steam. But in the end the company closed down and stopped all support for it, and I’m no longer able to update EBF4 on Steam unless I update it to use Adobe AIR instead, and I don’t have a huge desire to revisit old work.
In the end the only Steam feature I couldn’t get working was the Steam overlay! It turns out this is because regular Flash content isn’t hardware accelerated, and the overlay cannot appear if the GPU is not active. The FRESteamworks ANE has a handy workaround for this problem – it creates a single off-screen hardware-accelerated sprite, which allows the overlay to be updated. Oh well, I found out about that a bit late.
—Time to Launch—
Anyway, onto the Steam release! I expected a lot of pushback from Steam users that are angry about Flash games showing up on Steam, but there was only a few of those, and the game was incredibly well recieved, with a review score of 98% positive for almost its entire lifetime.
There’s definitely a lot to criticise about EBF4 – it runs traditional Flash content with vector graphics, which even if programmed perfectly, would take up a lot of CPU resources. But there’s also a major memory leak in the game on top of that! I limited the game’s resolution to a max of only 720p, because I know most users would go as high as possible and then be surprised at how badly the game runs. The game was never designed to be played in widescreen, so the aspect ratio is an awkward 4:3. (apparently I was one of the last people with 4:3 monitors, and thought this was still normal)
I’m going to speculate here about why I think EBF4 got past these issues. First of all, I think I was very honest on the store page about what the game was offering. The trailer is just standard-definition footage from the game. Anyone who is expecting technical brilliance or mature-looking graphics, would instantly back away from the game. But more than that, I think the vast majority of people who bought the game were fans of the series from the good old Flash days – my art style hasn’t changed in 10 years, and anyone who’s played my games or seen my animations on Newgrounds or Armor Games will recognise them instantly. With EBF3 alone having over 20 million plays across the web, there was bound to be a lot of Steam users who had played the earlier games on Flash sites before finding EBF4 on Steam. Maybe nostalgia for Flash games is a real thing now.
But Flash does have some unique advantages. For one, it’s incredibly compatible – no matter what your hardware is, it will most likely run on it, even if it doesn’t run well. Only a small handful of players had trouble running the game at all. It’s also very easy to decompile Flash games, which most would consider a weakness, but this turned into a very helpful tool for hobbyists who create wiki pages, and some players would even find bugs in my code for me! Unofficial Chinese and Russian translations were even made! (EBF4 was actually the first game I localised into different languages, and here’s a blog I wrote about that.)
Maybe the game would have been more successful if it was made in a modern engine, but in my opinion, the risks and costs of learning a new engine and rebuilding the game would have outweighed any potential benefits. Working with Flash allows me to limit scope-creep, because I can’t get carried away with fancy graphics or new features, and I am able to guarantee that I will finish my games, no matter what. (unless I’m killed) I prefer to jump straight into prototypes and development, rather than thoroughly learning new tech, so I’m still not in a hurry to ditch Flash, even in 2019. I might be the last guy still using it for Steam games.
The opening day was strong – EBF4 got into the top 20 bestselling Steam games for a few hours! But after a few days, things began to settle down, and I thought that was it. I was used to the Flash game lifespan, where games only get major attention for a week or two, and then fade away after that. I was not expecting the long sales tail that would follow. But even so, the sales so far were just barely enough to make the extra content and Steam launch worthwhile.
I got a lot of emails from game bundles, asking me to take part in them. I was an inexperienced Steam dev, but even at the time I knew it was not a good sign to send your game into the bargain bin a few months after launch. (though the game was over a year old in my view, if you include the web version, so maybe…?) I picked carefully and chose a very small and obscure bundle group, called Blink Bundle, (I don’t think they exist anymore) and EBF4 sold 5K copies there. It was a nice little introduction to bundles – it didn’t result in any user engagement, and didn’t change anything in the long term, as far as I could tell. But I did panic a bit, and swore not to bundle the game again unless sales had completely dried up, or I was approached by Humble Bundle.
Some time in its first year on Steam, EBF4 was featured in a flash sale (anyone still remember those?) and this was possibly the most exciting day of my game dev career. I got news in the morning that it was featured, and went out hiking for the day. When I got back and checked the sales stats, I thought they were broken, because the graph was just a backwards “L” shape. I can’t be too specific about the numbers, but the sale had quadrupled the number of Steam owners so far, and that allowed EBF4 to get enough traction to start getting picked up by Steam’s recommendation algorithms. (getting over 500 reviews is a major milestone for the algorithms) That’s also when I decided I could actually make EBF5 someday!
In 2016, sales of EBF4 were starting to wind down. But then Steam introduced the discovery update, which introduced smarter game recommendations, and made it easier for players to find niche products. Top selling games were featured less prominently than before, and much more indie games were promoted throughout the store – if that’s what a user was interested in. Since then, EBF4’s day-to-day sales have remained strong and fairly constant, only decreasing slightly over time. There have been a few occasions when Steam’s algorithms decided to stop promoting the game, and sales would drop by up to half, but luckily these have all been temporary – so far. Most indie games really are at the mercy of Steam’s algorithms and policies, which are changing often.
At the start of 2017, Humble Bundle approached me to include EBF4 in their Overwhelmingly Positive Bundle, along with some very well known games like Shantae and N++. The results were as good as I could have hoped for – huge sales and very low customer engagement. Around 135K people bought EBF4, only 90K bothered to activate it, only a fraction of those played it, and just a handful actually left reviews. Those new reviews averaged to around 75% positive, so it’s good that there wasn’t enough of those to damage my overall score very much. It goes to show you the dangers of showing your game to a much less invested audience.
Thanks to the bundle, and to Brexit for plummeting the value of British currency, that turned into my best financial year ever. I hadn’t even published any games that year, so it’s funny how things sometimes turn out. Game dev sometimes feels more like a lottery than a job.
EBF4 still has no critic reviews on Metacritic, and has never been covered by a major YouTuber or gaming news site. I’ve never paid for any advertisements. I had no marketting plan, I just made free web games for 5 years, (they were still very profitable) and it looks like many of the kids who played them are now adults who want to support me.
As of now, EBF4 has sold around 255K copies across all platforms, with around 140K of those being from bundles. It ended up earning many times more than the initial web version! It’s also worth noting that 75% of the game is still available for free online – I do wonder how a free Steam version would have affected the numbers?
To this day EBF4 is still selling around 7 or 8 copies on an average day, and a lot more during seasonal Steam sales. 5 years after it launched on Steam, it’s still covering my living expenses. Thanks to this I was able to work full time on EBF5 for 3 whole years! (but not without stress of course, as income like that could stop without warning if Steam decides to change something. I’ve recently started a Patreon as an emergency source of income) (I’d also like to mention that my living expenses are only £15K per year – with an unstable income like game dev, you gotta save a lot)
I think it would be a miracle if EBF5 saw the same success as EBF4 did. (even though development time was more than double…) With some luck, maybe it will come close. I’m definitely more prepared this time, as this will be my 4th game on Steam, and based on various social media stats, there’s around 10K people following EBF5’s development. I’ll also be sending out discount coupons to everyone who owns EBF4 on Steam, which should make for some good marketting, and I’m planning to release a free web version of EBF5 on the usual Flash sites, some time after the Steam release.
We’ll see how it goes.