Postmortem: The Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking
Having failed to learn any lessons at all from my last postmortem, I’d like to talk about the experience of developing and releasing the Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking on Steam.
The Museum is a collection of lockpicking minigames drawn from videogame history — from 1989’s Hillsfar to 2019’s Jenny LeClue: Detectivu it attempts to catalog part of the history of video game lockpicking and provide analysis and context for the minigames. In short, a very niche project of interest mostly to game developers.
The genesis of the project was twofold: On one hand, I was working on a project that involved a lot of design research for conversations in video games and how they’ve been implemented in the past, meaning a lot of frustration trying to come up with those games and finding footage or playing them. On the other, a tweet from respected games journalist and developer Nat Clayton:
I thought, “this is a brilliant idea and it should exist for everything. Fishing, conversations, hacking, lockpicking.” The idea stuck, and after a while I decided to see if I could make something along those lines in my free time, as a tool for other developers. I chose lockpicking because I thought it was a fairly limited number of games, and they were mostly 2D/UI minigames that were self-contained. Not as much to bite off! So on August 8 of 2020 I put the first version up on Itch.io. It had a few games, a 3d space to wander in, and not much else — the art for the included games was all done by me in Paint.Net, and was clearly programmer art. But the idea was there, and I kept expanding the offerings over the next year.
As implied, the original goals for the Museum were modest: it was a side project, put up for free (PWYW) on Itch.io, for fellow developers to learn from, and for myself as an exercise in design and coding. And I hoped, too, to inspire other people to make other versions of the Museum — at one point I hosted a jam on Itch for that very purpose (it did not get a lot of participants, unfortunately).
And then at one point I had the grand idea to see how well this project would do on Steam. I had already put in most of the coding work, and needed only to commission art and adapt the game to be more of a Steam-like product by adding achievements and leaderboards and so on. Since it was a side project, financially it would not need to do terribly well — I hoped only to earn back the costs of the new art, sound, and marketing. Non-financial goals would be to increase awareness of the project, go through the Steam release process one more time on my side and ‘finish’ the project in that way, and ideally to help other developers even more. For that last, I decided on a another component of the release: a source code release for anyone to download and modify on Github.
So, how did all this go?
What Went Right
Marketing and PR
For marketing and PR, I worked with Hannah Flynn of Failbetter games — she initially evaluated the Steam page for the Museum, and then agreed to also help with press outreach and PR management around launch. This was not a full marketing push, amounting only to about a day or day and a half of Hannah’s time, but helped me to concentrate on other things around launch. I was immensely glad for this help! And the press coverage for the game launch was excellent. We had stories in The Guardian, Le Monde, Radio Canada, Kotaku, Polygon, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Eurogamer, Famitsu, and Destructoid, as well as interviews (some not yet published) with Axios, PC Gamer, IGN, and Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. A huge amount of press coverage for a small game!
Tying the above to one of the stated goals, it was lovely to see the Museum making a splash and getting in front of all-new audiences. Especially in mainstream news coverage! I think that this goal of the Steam launch was met and can be considered a success.
Another thing that went well was the gorgeous art that was created for the museum itself and the marketing. The incredibly talented Persephone Kavallines made a gorgeous poster for the game, and turned it into Steam assets for the page.
And in the realm of auditory art, Priscilla Snow did a haunting bit of music for the announcement trailer.
I had wanted to release another game on Steam under the Dim Bulb Games label — because I’ve had a lot of outside work, and not been able to get a project of my own funded, it’s been years since I last released a game and it would be nice to do another. A lot of tasks of making a commercial game only really happen when you decide to put it out for sale! In some ways this was an easy goal to achieve, although going through the Steam approval process was not my most favorite thing to do, and I always forget how much support is needed.
Helping Other Developers
It’s a little premature to put this in the “wins” column, since I have no idea how much my implementation of this idea, the design thoughts inside, and the source code release have actually helped anyone. But I think I’ve done what I can on that level, and I do hope that the project continues to inspire and teach other developers.
What Went Wrong
So, this isn’t really something that went wrong so much as it is a fact of the entire project — I made a small interactive museum of a particular kind of minigame, with analysis text for game designers. From the beginning this was only going to be of interest to a very very small group of people. Not a problem given the goals of the project, but certainly a risk when looking to commercially monetize! A very small audience is not the best thing when looking to sell a game.
Confusion Between Versions
I should have seen this one coming! I left the Itch version of the museum up, for free, because it’s primarily a resource, and I wanted everyone to have access to it. Sometimes in the press the messaging became confused, and they said the game was available on Itch and Steam. Technically true, but the new thing, and the thing that the screenshots and trailers highlighted, was the Steam version. So I think that a number of people got confused and went to the Itch page, and I hope they weren’t disappointed. After I realized, I added a note to the Itch store, but I have no idea how many people got lost.
We attempted to head this off at the pass by noting up-front that this was a specialized, niche non-traditional game that was very short, but still some players were disappointed. Some folks felt that it didn’t have enough polish or was not “professional” enough, some wanted a full suite of options that it didn’t have, or ran into bugs, others complained about the length. One guy is extremely mad at how I laid out the exhibits and which games were included. The upshot is that the game has “Mixed” reviews as of writing, with 68% being positive. This likely means that Steam’s algorithms will do nothing or very little to promote the game.
One thing that I didn’t realize was going to be a problem was Mac support. I’ve released previous Mac games with the same setup and had them work fine on my older hardware/OS. But unfortunately both the input package I was using and the Steam integration package did not play well with new Mac requirements, and after wrestling with them for a while I had to pull the Mac build from the store and refund the players on that platform. A disappointing outcome — in the future I don’t think it’s worth the time or energy to support Mac, for a whole host of reasons.
Outcomes And Numbers
Judging from past experience, this is the part that anyone from the press will focus on, here it is!
OK, so then, what did the launch look like from the perspective of a commercial game launch?
As of writing, the game has 6,196 wishlists on Steam. At launch it had about 3,250, and on launch day 183 of those converted to purchases.
The costs for the game break down like this. Keep in mind that I am valuing my own time coding, marketing, testing, patching, administrating, managing, art directing, creating assets, etc, at zero dollars — this money is just cash that has gone out of my bank account to pay others.
- Steam fee (Recouped, according to Steam): $100
- Unity Asset Store purchases (3D models, sounds, some code packages but not ones that I already owned): $209.27
- Music for the trailer: $500 (rush rate)
- PR and Marketing: $1,017.31 (indie rate)
- Art costs, including marketing assets and in-game assets: $7,964.20
The total amount I spent on getting the game ready for Steam (again, discounting my time entirely) was $9,790.78, or $9,690.78 if the Steam fee is recouped. Incredibly cheap for a game! It is a very short, simple game, but it is still a video game, and as you can see from the list above, I cut some corners by using asset store purchases for the parts that weren’t as unique.
Financially, my goal was to break even. That has not happened yet, the game has made $6,000 what Steam calls “net”, which does not include their cut. So far, from my calculations, Steam has made $1,800 from the game and I have made about $4,200 for a total loss of about $5,490 so far (it is unclear whether the fee recoup is included in here). Obviously, the game will hopefully continue to sell (although with Mixed reviews, not as well as it could), and I still remain hopeful on breaking even on the whole, even if it takes a few years. Luckily, since it was a side project and since I am leaving indie game development for the security of AAA, I am not depending on the game for income or funding a next project. And, since it was self-published, any money coming in is all mine, once Steam has taken their 30%.
None of this includes sales from Itch — although the game is optionally free, many people have chosen to contribute some amount there over the course of development. I’m not counting that money towards the Steam calculations, though, since the idea was that the Steam release would hopefully pay for itself.
I do not know what the takeaway is here for other game studios. This is a very unique project and I don’t think anything can be read into this for basically any other game. I do hope the numbers here give an idea of what costs and income can be like, and I hope that I’ve done a better job of framing this postmortem in terms of the goals of the project and its outcomes.
It does mean that if I have the ability to create other Museums I will probably not try to release them commercially, and I would urge anyone else to approach a similar project in the same spirit.
I do think I could have done more to polish the game and to promote it, but both of those things would also have increased the amount needed to break even. Enough to make a difference? It is a mystery.
And finally, out of the four goals I had outlined above:
- Getting more people to see the project
- Releasing something new on Steam under the Dim Bulb label
- Recouping added development costs
- Helping other developers
The project achieved three of them so far, with the fourth possibly coming as well. All in all, I think it was a success, even if I would not necessarily take the same approach again.
I hope this is good information for other indie developers and anyone else curious about this process — please feel free to leave additional questions, if there are any.