5 Steps to Replicating Stardew Valley’s Success

Old School

  1. Really, really, really want to spend most of your free time developing a videogame.
  2. Be enough of a polymath to be able to program, draw and animate sprites, and compose music.*
  3. Spend 4+ years building your game. Possibly** fewer if you do it full time.
  4. Make certain that, when you launch the game, it fills a market niche that’s been previously unaddressed by any other developers.***
  5. Work tirelessly to foster goodwill in the community that springs up around your game.

* Alternatively, have a decent design and enough funds to purchase all the assets you need.
** Bear in mind that, in game development, the amount of time spent can directly translate into overall quality, which can translate into sales.
*** See also: luck factor.

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Hot Takes: Aug – Sept ’15



Larian, makers of the Divinity series, have decided to return to the Kickstarter well to “fund” their next entry in the series.

I put fund in quotation marks because it’s dubious whether they really need to use the platform for the money it would generate. Even if they match the amount gathered by the Original Sin campaign, it’s nothing in the face of the estimated 20M USD they’ve earned from Steam sales alone. It’s also interesting to note that the original campaign was done to help complete a game that had already been in development for a while, essentially funding the polishing phase (and, ostensibly, to gather “community input”, though why anyone would claim that was enhanced by pre-paying for a game versus just using an online forum is beyond me). Also important is that the next game won’t be a completely new project per se, but fresh content built on their existing framework, which has already been paid for. I don’t illustrate these facts to shed a negative light on the game, just to reinforce the idea that the crowdfunding campaign isn’t necessarily for the funding so much as it is for the crowd.

What Larian will end up with from the new campaign is (if they manage to set a funding threshold that can be reached*) a bunch of free, grassroots marketing, and gobs of obligation-free cash. Is this a bad thing? That depends on who you ask. I think that if someone sees crowdfunding platforms as expressly means-to-money that should only be used by folks who have no other way of getting dollars into their projects, then sure, it looks a little heinous. I can’t remember if Kickstarter’s early vision statements were anything along those lines, and they certainly aren’t now. The more money Kickstarter can gather off of the backs of other people’s projects, the better. Patreon seems to have a similar set of arguments that go along with it, after all you have folks on there who almost certainly don’t need to use the platform to gather ducats, yet do and do so in spectacular fashion.

In the end it’s a “capitalism of charity” scenario. I’m kind of surprised that more large game studios and publishers haven’t turned to crowdfunding to bolster their marketing efforts and grab that knock-on cash flow, but I expect to see more doing so in the future. I wonder if my own basic ethics would allow me to leverage those platforms, as I’ve always felt that they were unnecessary when there were products on the shelves, much in the same way I’ve never had a donation button. But if the money and interest are there, isn’t it silly to ignore them? From my standpoint, it’s a very difficult decision.

*At the time of writing the campaign hadn’t picked up steam, since then it’s blown past the set 500K.

Trine Time

According to reports, Trine 3 is short. Like, 6-7 hours short. At this stage in my life, I think that’s fantastic: a videogame that doesn’t demand much of my vital life essence is welcome. They should be listing short playthrough times as a feature on the product pages.

War God

Watched the credits roll on God of War 3 and God of War: Ascension. One of the most satisfying violence-action videogame franchises gets better with every entry. As an experienced developer, it’s rare for me to have a “how did they do that” moment while playing a game, and I’m sure I had no less than a dozen during these playthroughs. Sony Santa Monica pushes the envelope, and the result is a breathtaking romp through their version of Greek mythology.

Social Media

Further Facebookery

I don’t post much on Facebook. I was “Facebook abstinent” from May to September, only returning once I’d published all the books I had to publish. When I left in May, I went through great pains to clear the Feed (the endlessly-scrollable front page of the site that’s supposed to show you everything your Friends and Likes have been up to) by Unfollowing anyone or anything that posted over the course of two weeks.

That was when one of my worst fears about Facebook was confirmed: the volume of “news” that appears in the Feed isn’t a function of how many people you’re linked to. I can’t figure out how it works, but I know one thing for certain: it’s not displaying every post.

I’d assumed that once I Unfollowed the most active members of the Feed that I’d start seeing more stuff from people who weren’t fully addicted to the site. No such luck. When I came back at the start of this month I was shocked to discover a still-empty Feed, even though I was certain that people had been posting. Sure enough, when I went direct to someone’s Page I could see posts ranging back years, none of which had ever made it into my Feed.

It’s a shame, really, considering that Facebook is essentially a data-mine that we, the users, voluntarily contribute to. I’d think that it would at least let us see everything we’re interested in without much work, since that’s their fundamental modus operandi. The only way to guarantee seeing a post is by enabling “Get Notifications” from the Friends or Liked button on their Page, something Facebook does not do by default.

It was a little heartbreaking to discover true real-world friends had been posting for years and I’d never once seen any of their news. Marriages, breakups, pets, deaths, graduations, career successes and failures, and all the other minutia that a social network is supposed to facilitate, just disappearing into the void. It made me wonder how many of my own posts had gone unread by people who would have cared to read them.

I’ve been performing little tests since returning to the site. The first involved trying to get every active Facebooker who’s my Friend to Like the Dark Acre Digital Facebook Page. From when the page was founded in ’10 until prior to this month, I’d let the numbers grow “organically”. That meant never using the Invite function to draw people to the page, and instead linking it to my personal account when sharing news from it or posting it as the “location” with regular status updates (a function that only became available in recent years). In all that time I’d managed to draw around 400 likes, and most of those from my “indie heyday” when I was very active on the Internet, making and posting a lot of games and contributing to the scene as best I could. Out of those 400, 127 came from an existing 1336 Facebook Friends.

I took a more aggressive approach this month, and directly invited everyone who hadn’t liked the page. I gained 25 likes (thank you very much if you were one of them) and lost 5 Friends. Though I suppose if being asked to support a Friend’s livelihood is that offensive, perhaps we shouldn’t have been connected in the first place.

All in all, the growth of the Page is a very minor consideration for myself and Dark Acre. As I’ve said before: the ultimate goal is having all interested parties subscribed to the mailing list. Still, having a healthy audience on Facebook can’t hurt, and trying to figure out how the site manages who-sees-what-data is an interesting and ongoing concern.


True Disappointment

True Detective’s second season was a massive let-down. Todd VanDerWerff over at Vox has written a great list of reasons why, so I’ll add my main reason for disliking what went down: it didn’t feel at all like a part of the world that Pizzolatto set up in the first. There was some press prior to season two’s opener claiming that it would be, and I was excited to explore the potential that had been opened up by the activity in Florida, but there was almost none of it. I held on, dumbly, like a shipwreck survivor clinging to a piece of flotsam and praying to be rescued by the glimmering light of hope on the horizon but… I wasn’t. I was drowned, along with the rest of the loyal fans, by the unmitigated disaster and waste of resources of the sophomore outing.

Break Again, Like We Did Last Summer

When I finished my first viewing of Breaking Bad in ’13, I was sure I’d never have to watch it again. I loved it, felt it was a rare series of perfect televised storytelling, but the climax had relied so much on not knowing what was happening with the protagonist (similar to Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense”) that I figured it would be a waste of time to tread that ground once more. How wrong I was. My partner had never seen it, and as it was summer break and we were looking for something to fill the evening hours, the show came up as an option.

If anything, the experience of a second viewing was enhanced by knowing how everything went down. It freed me up to pay closer attention to all the details, foreshadowing, and depth of characterization that Vince Gilligan and company put into the show.

In the Knick of Time

The first season Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” is a masterpiece. Finally got around to watching it straight through, and it only reinforced my love for the period and Clive Owen’s abilities. Cliff Martinez’s score has been a mainstay of my writing/gamedev working BGM for months. Yes it’s dark, depressing, and brutal, but that’s just how I like my television.

The dark realities of life are most often the most illuminating. You can’t have shadow without light.

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Month 59 Report

How I Made 5 Dollars Selling Ebooks

I have a dream where the primary means for spreading my work involve only Goodreads and this site. It’s not out of laziness, but efficiency. To the general public, looking at the business of selling books online, these are the only two places where that activity should matter: a popular, consolidated, social media-driven place that allows public review (and potential vivisection), and an “official” place that offers easy access to the products. Since I want as little to do with Amazon or Apple, for various reasons that could be simplified as “disagreement with corporate policy”, I’ve put myself into the very challenging position of sole responsibility for peddling my wares.

At the end of July, for the first time since releasing Ambia way back in ’11, I started looking into marketing options in earnest. As the new, definitive editions of my books started to come together, I realized that I’d sorely neglected the publishing portion of self-publishing. Writing the book, making the videogame, sewing the plushies, printing the t-shirts, whatever’s involved in the making of a product will always be the hardest and most stressful part of any creative business endeavor, but it’s all for nothing if there’s no avenue for reaching the people who want to pick up what you’re laying down.

This time around I’m taking it slow, and being patient. I believe that the ultimate method of grassroots promotion involves producing more stuff and then presenting it to as wide an audience as possible. The following results illustrate the effects of a limited passive campaign.


Here’s the current passive promotion cycle that started when Tale of the Madeus was published 30 days ago:

This had been kept minimal and straightforward on purpose, because I’d rather do more stuff than just keep telling my audiences to buy. I still have yet to do a proper newsletter mailing or reach out to book review bloggers, and anything more than that would involve paying money for promotion (a thing that I’m more than willing to do, but will be waiting until I have at least 2 more books on the shelves before investing).

Boost no Boost

By the time the new edition of Parlow’s Choice was published, the updated version of Tale of the Madeus had been “on the market” for 11 days. I prepared a Facebook advertisement (they have some strict rules about the accompanying image, mostly to do with additional text) and then “Boosted” it from the Dark Acre page. Here’s the report:

.002% conversion rate for US$35.

.002% conversion rate for US$35.

The ad was set to target “science fiction ebook readers in the age range of 18-65”. Supposedly it appeared on the Facebook feeds of 13,332 people connected to the people who had already (graciously, thank you) Liked the Dark Acre page.

The ad ran for 3 days before using up the allocated budget. It resulted in 30 clicks that took interested folks directly to the book purchase page on Gumroad.

Actuals and Factuals

Here’s the 30-day report from Gumroad, showing views and sales:

An excellent look at the results of the marketing efforts thus far.

An excellent look at the results of the marketing efforts thus far.

The good news is that the Facebook clicks add up, regardless of the shockingly horrible conversion rate. Gumroad itself provides some activity, and the number of views is surprisingly high considering that it’s more or less just “shotgun marketing”.

The top performer was direct shares, most coming from my email activity. I’m not crazy with my mailings, but just spreading the links in signatures has worked the best so far. I think that the point here is that each one of the efforts has resulted in directing at least one person to my work, and that even the single view from Pinterest is a precious gain.

Show Me The Money

You may be wondering how the report above can show 8 sales and only 5 dollars total. Here’s how that works:

A single cash sale (a very kind overpay, though) on 79 views.

A single cash sale (a very kind overpay, though) on 79 views.

The zero sales are free copies I’ve given out to supporters and friends. They’re not review copies, either: I handle those separately to keep the sales data as clean as possible. So at least each “sale” is someone who was interested enough to redeem a download code, and of course the very awesome person who paid more than the minimum for a copy of Tale of the Madeus.

Moving Forward

The immediate workload as of this post looks something like this:

It’s likely that the shorts collection won’t be ready for another year, and it’s possible that an additional book gets published before then. In either case, once there are two more books on the shelves I’ll contract a PR firm and do some serious marketing. Everything until then will be passive (and hopefully non-destructive) grassroots efforts.

You can help me out by spreading my work around. Every share of the shelf link: https://gumroad.com/darkacre and the books link: https://dark-acre.com/books (the S in the httpS is very important, as it will auto-format the share if sent on Twitter or Facebook) is worth far more than any single purchase. Also, if you’ve read any of the books please take a moment to leave a review or rating on Goodreads. As I’m operating without a direct review system (à la Amazon/iTunes) it’s the easiest way to generate proof of quality.

Furthermore: if you run a review blog, know someone who does and would be interested in some tasty sci-fi, or have any advice and recommendations regarding grassroots marketing, please get in touch with me either via e-mail or Skype and let me know. Any and all help is greatly appreciated.

Serious thank-yous are in order for the following folks who’ve stuck with me this far: Asbjorn, Ayako, Bryan, Divya, Erik, Greg, Gerry, Hannora, Janus, Jin Soo, Jiří, Joel, Kate, Kelly, Leonardo, Mike P., Mike R., Nao, Pam, Patrick, Pauline, Pon, Rainbow, Ronzo, Serge, Sergey, Shannon, Tom, and of course you.

Tune in next month for the year 5 report, where I drop the total costs for a half-decade of independent creative development. Until then!

It’s important to follow your dreams, but sometimes they’re nightmares in disguise.

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