CAT Interstellar - Game Jam, Greenlight, Early Access (post-mortem)

Disclaimer: This is written by and for first time game devs. Take it with a grain of salt because I could be completely wrong.
Mods: I posted to “work in progress” because it’s in Early Access but feel free to put this where you feel it’s most fitting.

Post-mortems were a great resource for me going into game development so I wanted to write about my own experience in the hopes that it will give the next dev an idea of what to expect. I tried to write this in sections so feel free to skip around. But if you don’t have time here are the 3 most important rules I’ve come to believe:

1) Have a game design document and stick to it - It’s so easy to get lost in your game and lose perspective especially for a solo developer.
2) Follow Steam’s guidelines - Valve knows what it’s doing.
3) Don’t feed the trolls - no one has ever won an argument on the internet.

The Game

CAT Interstellar - I wont repeat the description on the store page here but basically It’s my attempt to bring a little science and actuality back to science fiction. I wanted to take the immersion I loved in “walking simulators” and add some game mechanics with an environment you can interact it. When I was 18 I was deployed to Iraq and one of my team leaders introduced me to Robert Heinlein. If you haven’t read his books I would definitely recommend them. They’re more about society than giant space battles and laser guns. They really helped me to understand the world around me and I wanted to try to bring that to video games. The story is about conservation and on a very low level asks the question of whether or not you should “pave a road through paradise” or allow unregulated (natural) foot-traffic. It’s a little politically charged but I’m trying not to force my opinion in the game, just presenting a situation.

About me: Just got my degree in physics and was lucky enough to spend my senior year learning UE4. I have about a years worth of professionally experience with both Unity and UE4 but not in making games and certainly not publishing to Steam. I’ve been modding for about 18 years starting with C&C: Red Alert Nurple maps. I’ve always loved video games and being a game developer has been a dream of mine for a long time.

Game Jam (community,UE4):

These are great and I would recommend you enter them regardless of your level of experience. I originally entered CAT Interstellar into the May game jam themed “Raining Cats and Dogs”. You can download my entry here. These game jams are great ways to prototype ideas and get feedback on your game. We didn’t win the game jam but a guy named Allar, who does a twitch stream of all the submissions here and gives feedback on your submission the same night, said the game had a solid mechanic worth exploring and that was a huge confidence booster. The point here is that it’s a great chance to show your game to a stranger and get decent feedback.

Unreal Engine 4
Unreal Engine 4 is going to give you a huge leg up on the competition. The return on time investment for visual quality is… Unreal. Even more important than that Epic has well over 100 gigs of the highest quality assets and examples you could ever hope for. Examples of just about everything and native plugins for Steam, Oculus, and leap motion for free. I’m posting this in the Unreal forums so your all probably aware of this but it’s worth saying anyway.

I might be a little biased because I got in when the community was starting but this is one of the most helpful and respectful forums I visit. A huge reason I even got to this point of was from the feedback I got from this post. There are also a ton of other dev blogs with very good advice like the one for Bears Can’t Drift.

These deserve their own section because they are amazing. I’ve worked professionally with C#, C++, Java, and Labview but Blueprints are, by far, my favorite. You can prototype ideas incredibly fast and the compile time is instant. CAT Interstellar is built entirely out of blueprints. I’ve heard blueprints have their limitations I haven’t run into any yet.

1) Don’t promise people things that weren’t in the original game design - you can’t please everyone and NO votes aren’t as bad as they sound.
2) Follow Steam’s guidelines - Valve knows what it’s doing.
2) Don’t feed the trolls - no one has ever won an argument on the internet.

Here’s the trailer I used for Early Access and the description:

[table=“width: 1000”]

**A visual puzzle game that tells the story of humanities attempt to terraform a seemingly barren planet**

Play as a Dog V4 drone trying to reunite with his partner after being separated by a mining accident. Your drone’s sensor can pick up on clues and tracks that will help you find your partner before it’s too late. The game takes place on Kepler 452b, a planet in the process of being terraformed.

Game Features
Stunning and immersive environments
Dynamic environments utilizing Unreal Engine 4’s dynamic material and physics engine
goal of +1 hour of gameplay
Game State
The game is planned to be released mid July
Currently in a stable beta and 3 out of the 7 environments are completed

Greenlight Thoughts
As you can see, I thought I would have the game completed by July… not even close (more on that later). I went into Steam Greenlight with nothing more than a webpage, twitter account and 0 followers. Steam Greenlight has a very healthy audience but you pretty much only have one shot at it. Once you pass through people’s queues and leave the “Recent Submission” page, you’re dead. I only say this because I’ve seen a number of submissions that completely disregarded Steams requirements and posted without a trailer, didn’t show gameplay, and only had 1 or 2 screenshots. They later added that stuff but it was too late because they had already been passed over. It’s also important to note that Steam Greenlight has changed a lot of the last couple months. There are about 10-20 games accepted every month. The top 15 or so games are just joke games like Gabe Newell simulator. I posted the game on may 31st and got greenlit June 8th (9 days). 6 months ago that would have been a record but now it’s the norm. Here are screenshots of each day.


Early Access:
1) Use the “tags” system the way it’s meant to be used - this are how you’ll get people to your page when you’re not featured on the main page.
2) Follow Steam’s guidelines - Valve knows what it’s doing.
2) Don’t feed the trolls - no one has ever won an argument on the internet.

Here’s the trailer I used for Early Access and the description:

[table=“width: 1000”]

**About This Game**

Play as a DOG V4 drone, a newly activated maintenance bot who is assisting in the terraforming effort on Kepler-452b. After a predictable yet unfortunate accident DOG finds himself uncovering the past of a seemingly barren planet.

The games current state includes the first environment (~15 minutes of gameplay) and an introduction to the second environment. The main goal of this release to get feed back on the player controls and game mechanics.
We’re trying to bring the “science” back to science fiction (with the exception of FTL drives which we tired to explain here). We also wanted to explore a scenario humanity might really encounter on the first planet we aggressively try to terraform.

When you get access to SkyNet (SteamWorks) Steam is going to treat you like an adult and let you practice whatever sleezy business model you want. They have a ton of good advice and videos that you should watch and follow because Valve knows how to sell games and they want your game to sell. As an indie dev the only time you’ll probably ever talk to them is if you try to sneak your dog into a trading card background image (oops).

Early Access
The reason I decided to go into Early Access was because I thought I had reached a point where I could reliably introduce people to the story and get feedback on the game mechanics and player controls. I also thought the game had reached a point that it was representative of what I wanted the final product to be. Don’t make this decision lightly. People are increasing skeptical of Early Access and Kickstarters (as they should be). We don’t have a very good track record of completion so go ahead and assume that releasing to Early Access is in fact a release and the reviews you get will in fact stay with you forever. Gone are the days when people had mercy on indie developers (even cartoon network is an “indie” dev now). You won’t get any slack just because you’re a small team, solo, or indie but we all know this so more importantly TAGS.

These things are there for a reason. What I have found most people do is try to get as many tags as they can. This actually hurts you. Unless you’re riding the hype train you probably wont make it as a featured Early Access game so tags are your best bet. You need to find a game that has a similar audience to what you’re going after and match your tags with theirs. This will let you pop up under the “More Like This” right before the reviews. For example I chose Lifeless Planet because it had a similar the type of story and gameplay so I thought the audience would like my game too. If you just leave your tags blank or throw a bunch of arbitrary things in there steam wont be able to match you with any other games.

I hope you can make use of some of this information because I think this is a great community. Keep in mind though that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve been very lucky so far that even the negative reviews were constructive. Next week I’ll be competing with those chumps over at Konami and their foxtrot engine but I’ve already gotten a ton a good feedback. The players have also completely broken the game, moved stationary NPCs to the other side of the map, and completely disregarded the blocking volumes. Still, no reported game crashes so thank you Epic.

Also, I have a few keys left and would love to know what other developers think so if you’re interested message me and I’ll hand out keys until they’re gone.

Edit: Just checked the steamspy stats and they’re a lot more accurate than I thought they would be even for a smaller game. More importantly, it appears (not 100% on this) getting featured on the early access page has more to do with how much money you make than how many units you sell. I priced the game extremely low because I thought it would get more people and feedback but that might have backfired.

Another Edit: I released my game first thing Friday morning and I think that was a mistake. Currently you can only release on weekdays so releasing on Friday gives you 3 days on the front page of “newly released”. If I had known better I would have released at the end of the day because I would be higher on the list right now. I’m still on the front page but 4th from the bottom. Not sure how much of a difference it makes but it’s worth noting.

Seems I got the last available one. I appreciate it.

Thanks for the heads up. I’m going to go ahead and remove that post in a minute so people dont keep trying them. I’d love to know what you think of the game if you get a chance.

I’ll give it a go tomorrow. (Seoul, Korea timezone). Will let you know then.

I wanted to make another post because we just got featured on the Early Access page. This thread is mainly about the numbers but if anyone wants to know how we got any of the effects or controls feel free to ask. Also, if you want a key just pm me. I’m always interested what other developers think.

The “popular new releases” sections is still a mystery to me but I’m comparing our numbers to other’s on steamspy to figure out how we possibly could have climbed back up the rankings almost 2 months after release. We haven’t sold a lot but we have sold consistently.

To get your large capsule image featured on the early access page you need to be in the 3 page list of “popular new releases”. The large capsules are randomly selected each time you load the page. There are 16 capsule slots and currently 25 items on the list so you’ve got about a 64% chance on each page refresh. You’re place in the list doesn’t seem to effect your chances of being featured.

Getting featured has essentially doubled our sales and has had a much larger daily impact than the visibility rounds had. Getting featured over the weekend probably helped a lot too. I saw the jump in sales on Thursday and thought it was a fluke. It wasn’t until Friday night I realized the unimaginable had happened.

I’m on mobile now but hopefully later today I’ll get some more information about how long your game is considered “new” and how the sales and ratings are taken into account. Once again, this community had been incredibly helpful so if you have any questions at all please don’t hesitate to ask

I would love to know some sales statistics. Especially how accurate those numbers are:

I know it’s always hard to share such numbers, but I thought since you’ve provided so much insight already (thanks for that :wink: I’d just ask.

Not a problem. I was really curious about SteamSpy too and was really surprised how accurate it was. They are a little generous but well within the +/- error. Hope that helps. Lol, not sure how much I can say before Valve kicks my door in.

I appreciate that :slight_smile:

Does your contract with Valve disclose you from communicating those numbers?

Very useful info about steam.

Yes, that’s why I’m not going to post any hard numbers here. They’re policy is understandable IMHO. They don’t have the same restrictions on greenlight which is good.

Im about 99% positive about this but once again, take it with a grain of salt. You can stay on the early access main page for 2 months maximum. I say months and not days because because from what I can tell it’s based on the day of the month you released. As an example if you released on the 28th of February you’ll get booted on the 28th of April. Thi’s might only get you a day on the featured page but it’s worth noting.

This is probably a huge mistake but I’m going to do a custom sale the same time as the Halloween sale. I just want to see what the differenice is between a generic promotion and an event promotion. Might have to boot up Matlab to make any sense of it.

Thanks Nawrot, hopefully this will help someone out. In the future I want to do a tutorial on adding Steam achievements to your game. Seems straight forward but I haven’t found any resourced past Steamworks.

Good info about Steam, and a tut for achievements would be very nice indeed. Thanks.

Update- 28 November

So we just had to pay Epic for Q3 and it was actually a pretty positive experience. Normally you’d think paying bills or royalties would suck but it was more of a vindication that we were developers than anything else. I always wondered when/if I would get that feeling of “I’m officially and Indie Dev”. Not that it really means anything other than a sense of personal accomplishment. Paying Epic actually gave me that feeling. Epic basically said - “You’re important enough that you owe us money.” and all I heard was - “You’re important enough.”

Take that how you will but the main point of this post is to talk about sales and the review system (without hard numbers). Contrary to the norm, we’ve made more each month than we did the last. I just made this horrible graph so I’ll spend the rest of the time talking about it:

So we released with a 40% discount and were not featured on the EA page. The is the first blue part that is descending. Generally Mondays were the worst selling days and then things would pick up Thursday through Sunday. You can see the spike around the 5th week when we used one of the 5 visibility rounds. We consistently sold each week and then on a Thursday in the ~6th week I noticed a huge jump in sales. I thought maybe some famous person made a youtube video about the game but it turns out we actually clawed our way back up the the featured page. Let all the rumors lay to rest that you can in fact make it back to being featured. The way the EA featured page works is that your game can only sit there for 2 months so you can’t do another sale before you leave (every 8 weeks).

We did the next sale at 10% off as soon as we could. Valve warns about putting you game on sale for too much and it’s true. I don’t think there is much of a difference between 40% off and 10% off. It’s more about having that little green tag.

We did this the same Friday that the Halloween sale was happening because I wanted to see if it had any effect. I don’t think it did but the Halloween sale isn’t a big event. Nothing like the summer sale. you’ll noticed a huge spike during that sale. I decided to use another visibility round while we were on sale. It was awesome. Visibility rounds essentially put you in the “Recently Updated” section of the steam front page for a guaranteed 500k views. It only lasts about an hour but, in true Steam fashion, if you do good you get to stay. After the visibility round was up we stayed for rest of the day. It was the biggest day we had and it was over 2 months after release. From now on we will only use visibility rounds while we are on sale.

Note - A new found respect for Steam’s review system*
So you’ll notice on the graph there is a dip after we were featured, this is to be expected. What’s important (and what I can’t show in this graph) was that the dip occurred while we were still featured. We had been teetering on the edge of 80%(very positive) and 79%(mostly positive) and then we got another negative review. Steam essentially uses a tier system to parse bad games from good so they don’t pop up in your queue. Here’s more proof of this:

If you searched for “cat” while we were Very Positive this is the result:
ranking VS Reviews2.jpg

However, If you searched for it while we were Mostly Positive this was the result:
ranking VS Reviews.jpg

In the second image all the games above us had a Very positive review. What I think is happening is that you game is ranked based on its review score first and then how well it’s selling. Both of these contribute to how often you appear in someones queue.

My Complaint
This system is better than nothing but I think that the reviews should also be vetted for helpfulness (just like games are). If a review isn’t helpful, regardless of whether it’s good or bad, it shouldn’t count as much against you as a more helpful review. What a lot of Unreal and VR developers are going to run into is that people wont be able to run your game and they’ll blame you for it. They won’t read the minimum requirements and leave a negative review about how the game simply crashes without mentioning the fact that they have an integrated graphics card (50% of Steam users has integrated cards). With 1 exception this is the only reason the game has ever crashed. If you look at the negative reviews for games that are entirely VR and require an oculus rift you’ll find the vast majority of negative reviews are from people who don’t have any type of VR system. In my opinion this really undermines the PCs advantage of graphically superior games and promotes 2D pixel art games. That’s just my opinion though.

Landed on this thread by accident…

Detailed, refreshingly open & honest read.

Thanks for sharing and good luck!