• Nate_Bit_Games

Probe: Post Mortem Review 2020 (Abridged)

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

This is the abridged version with just main bullet points for a shorter more generalized review. If you want the full nitty gritty detailed version you can check that out here: Full Version

Probe: Abridged Post Mortem Review 2020

Release date: April 14, 2020

Storefronts (with links to the game page): Steam (Main focus), Gamejolt.com and Itch.io

Table of Contents

  1. From Concept to Prototype

  2. Choosing a Game Engine

  3. Prototype Visual Design & Gameplay Features

  4. Prototype Sound Design

  5. The Prototype: Reveal and Reactions

  6. Deadline and Marketing Plan for Full Release

  7. Pricing

  8. Launch Time

  9. Updates Post Launch

  10. Generalized Sale Statistics Graphs

  11. Sales Performance Review

  12. User Statistics To Date

  13. Global Leaderboard & Achievements Evaluation

  14. What was successful?

  15. What was unsuccessful?

  16. Overview - The Takeaway

  17. Plans for the Future

  18. Outro

From Concept to Prototype

  • Conceived Holiday Season/November of 2019

  • Inspired by a fusion retro arcade and Atari hits such as Galaga, Space Invaders and Breakout

  • Wanted the game to be just as hard, if not harder, than the games that inspired it. I wanted a game with more of a challenge.

  • Wanted to keep a small scope with realistic goals and release within 6 months to a year

  • Used a minimalistic art style to keep within the small scope

  • Made no game design documents just jumped right into making the prototype from what I had imagined in my head

Choosing a Game Engine

  • Clickteam Fusion 2.5 - I had used this line of products extensively growing up and in recent years for game jams and was most familiar with it.

Prototype Visual Design & Gameplay Features


  • Kept the visual style to a minimal palette of colors to support the minimalistic design. This is what the first prototype looked like:

Most of the mechanics remained the same all the way to the release version:

  • 3 Enemy Types,

  • Ball only Breakable Blocks

  • Explosives

  • Power-ups and

  • Speed Boost

  • 3 Lives

  • Menu designs consisted of a visual icon language instead of text to allow for easy release worldwide without having to translate lots of text

Prototype Sound Design

  • Purchased royalty free sound effects/music pack for $25 on Humble Bundle

  • Picked sounds that would alternate in pitch and tone to provide feedback on progress in the level and also add a musical/rhythmic element to try and eliminate the need for a soundtrack

  • Used more modern sci-fi SFX than retro sounds

The Prototype: Reveal and Reactions

  • Prototype had all basics in by mid December 2019

  • Showed to friends/family - All feedback was very positive as it was

  • Was suggested it only needed some minor tweaks/fixes in physics, speeds and bugs

  • No one thought it needed a soundtrack or changes in visual design

  • Came up with the title for the game, Probe, inspired while re-watching Star Trek TNG series. It sounded like an arcade title and also made sense if you consider the blocks data of each galactic location being collected by the ball/probe.

Deadline and Marketing Plan for Full Release


  • At first had no deadline. Worked on it in my free time.

  • Eventually economic shutdowns due to COVID 19 in March 2020 allowed me the free time to complete the game and set a launch date

  • Got Steam "Coming Soon" page up ASAP and set a launch date as soon as Steam approved the game build.

  • "Coming Soon" page was only up a month prior to launch date

  • Official launch date was set for April 14th, 2020

  • Did little to no marketing aside from "Coming Soon" page and social media posts. Mostly spent the time developing and testing to prepare for launch

  • Did get a fellow developer, Kindred (Developer of Swords 'n Magic and Stuff), to test play it live on his stream and got some exposure and feedback that I implemented including volume sliders in options and made early more lenient on the learning curve by providing more powerful power-ups to ease the player into the mechanics/difficulty gradually over each level.

Here is the original release trailer and screenshots. Honestly wasn't much different in terms of aesthetics and sound from the early prototype:


Pricing


  • Was torn on pricing within a range between $0.99 and $2.99

  • Didn't want to price too low and look like I didn't take my game seriously.

  • Didn't want to price it too high and make players feel ripped off with not enough content or gameplay value. Not to mention many people were facing economic hardship at the time

  • Decided on the middle ground at $1.99 based on how long it took me to beat the game: 2+ hours. For most new players/testers it took 4 to 5 hours to beat so I felt this was a good value.

Launch Time

  • Launced April 14th, 2020 on Steam, Itch.io and gamejolt.com with a 10% launch discount

  • Began sending press keys to Steam curators and youtubers big and small to try and boost visibility.

  • 3 or 4 Curators reviewed it at launch

  • Itch and Gamejolt were almost pointless to release on, however. The launch did not go well on those storefronts nor is it still

  • 1 youtuber played and reviewed the game: Hank Indie Games. Here is his original review video for Probe:

  • Took his feedback to heart as well as some similar suggestions from the few Steam player reviews the game received after launch. With this new unbiased feedback I began working on some post launch updates to improve the aspects of the game that could and should have been better

Updates Post Launch

  1. Update 1 - Controls

  2. Update 2 – Soundtrack and Visual Improvements

  3. Update 3 – New Backgrounds & Website

  4. Update 4 – Leaderboards

  5. Final Update – Demo, Bug Fixes and Other Improvements


Update 1 – Controls update

Released: April 30, 2020

  • Implemented switching to/from Xbox Controller and Keyboard from Main Menu/Settings

  • Implemented ability to choose from 1 of 3 Keyboard/Mouse control configurations including 2 keyboard only

  • Updated "Tutorial" to reflect the currently selected control configuration

  • Removed forced Steam controller input being set as Steam's default WASD configuration on boot (would remap the controller to the wrong keys displayed in game)


Update 2 – Soundtrack and Visual Improvements

Released: May 26, 2020

Changes made in the update:

  • New Enemy Sprites

  • 15 Song Soundtrack - Picked songs and made a playlist from the audio asset pack I purchased on Humble Bundle for the SFX as well as free use tracks from opengameart.org

  • Free Soundtrack DLC (for non owners of the game as well) Check out the soundtrack here

  • New colorful visual FX

Update 3 – New Backgrounds & Website

Released: June 25, 2020

Changes in the update:

  • 10 New Colorful Space Backgrounds

  • Minor Bug Fixes

  • New Trailer

First attempt at background improvements did not come out so good. Even tried livestreaming for feedback from viewers but had no audience so that failed. Here were the first attempt at new background designs:

Second attempt was getting there. Took inspiration from arcade cabinet designs and Atari cartridge cover/box art. This was the result but still felt like it could be better:

Third and final attempt was a success. Used a combination of photomanipulation of public domain NASA images, custom brushes and rock formations to generate a more modern feel and still look like the design that would be on an arcade cabinet surrounding the screen:

The new trailer to reflect the changes:


Update 4 – Leaderboards

Released: August 18, 2020

Changes in the update:

  • Scoring System

  • Steam Leaderboards for All 50 Levels and Overall Score

  • Another New Trailer


Final Update – Demo, Bug Fixes and Other Improvements

Released: November 24, 2020

Changes made in the update:

  • Whitelisted/Fixed the exe file being flagged as malware by antivirus software - Was a settings feature in the game engine I used causing it but was removed

  • Leaderboard Improvements/Fixes - Now downloads scores from leaderboards and compares them to local saves and vice versa. If you achieve a new high score offline it will upload when back online. If you play on another computer your high scores on the leaderboards will always be displayed so you truly know when you have achieved a new high score.

  • New Save Data Structure - Previously save data was shared with other users on the same PC. With the update it changed to be tied to Steam User ID so there could no longer be exploitation of shared leaderboard scores and achievements (luckily no one discovered this before I changed it). Level progression, however, had to remain shared as to not remove any current players progress because of the way I initially launched the game with it's save data structure.

  • Load Screen on the Main Menu to download/upload all 51 leaderboard scores

  • Hotkeys for In Game Menus to help with the flow of gameplay

  • Minor Bug Fixes

  • 10 Level Free Demo w/ Leaderboards and Achievements

  • Enhanced Achievement Icons - Added to numbers to the icons that were statistic based to reflect the stat achieved (ie: 500 Blocks Broken)

  • To celebrate the final update I also released 10 free Probe desktop wallpapers of each levels background for download on the Probe page of my website (here)

Generalized Sale Statistics Graphs

While under NDA with Steam I am unable to share specific numbers on sales statistics. I can, however, do visual generalized graphs showing spikes in sales and comparing them to events such as updates and discount events. Here are the charts to from release to date (December 3rd, 2020)

Heatmap of what countries the game sold the most (brightest) and the least in (darkest).


Sales Performance Review

  • Summer Sale was the most succesful. This was also right after my major visual update. The more colorful and exciting screenshots I suspect got more people to click on my game as well

  • Worst performance was September/October. This was probably due to the fact that I wasn't working on any new updates or promoting the game at all during that time

  • Worst performing discount event was the Autumn sale. This is probably because of Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals on bigger name titles that people were more interested in.

  • Have seen an increase in reviews for the game since the demo launch (all positive)

User Statistics To Date (December 3, 2020)

From SteamDB.info

Maximum Daily Active Users (October) - 4 (I've found SteamDB.info and Steam data doesn't always match so with what I can share from Steam I assume is more accurate and up to date.

From Steam

  • Daily Active Users Average (Lifetime) - 2

  • Maximum Daily Active Users (Launch Week) -11

  • Median Time Played - 8 Minutes

It should be noted that these have varied over the months. Median Time Played over the first few months was between 15-20 minutes.

Global Leaderboard & Achievements Evaluation


The Full Game Leaderboards

All leaderboard statistics for the full game can be viewed on the community page on Steam HERE. The following data I used was collected December 3, 2020.

  • Overall High Score count has 24 scores logged - 15 have highs scores that aren't 0 - 9 have a score of 0 (never beat level 1/started to play the game)

  • Based on scores after level 13 players stopped having high scores/playing and that count gradually decreased over the consecutive several levels by 1-2 players each level leaderboard.

  • 6 players had scores logged through level 25

  • 5 players had scores logged through level 40

  • 4 players had scores logged through level 46 to level 50 (Only 4 had beaten the game since leaderboards were implemented)

The Demo Leaderboards

All leaderboard statistics for the demo can be viewed on the community page on Steam HERE. The following data I used was collected December 3, 2020.

  • Similar to the full game there were several players with 0 Overall High Scores

  • 47 Overall High Scores but 26 had 0 as their score


For both the demo and full game I can only theorize that either players just could not beat level 1 and quit after several retries or had trouble understanding the visual icon menu system but about 2/3 of players beat level 1 and had a score for it in the full game. Had no reports of the game not being able to boot or not able start playing the game. What I think is this may be the result of the level of difficulty of the game.

I did find a video on youtube of someone trying the demo who didn't realize you could fire bullets and took them several attempts to figure it out. Was very hard to understand them in the video so not sure if perhaps that was the issue for some players. You can watch the video and see for yourself HERE. I thought it was very clear in the trailer what the gameplay included, especially the ability to shoot bullets, so I don't see that being the issue but I also have no in game button prompts other than menu hotkeys. However, I felt I may have not made it clear enough just how difficult the game was so I changed some wording on the store page and redid my steam tags to include "Difficult" as the top priority tag as well as prioritized other tags to help curb that misconception.


Full Game Achievements

All achievement statistics for the full game can be viewed on the community page on Steam HERE. The following data I used was collected December 3, 2020. These also reflect a decline in player retention as the levels started to become even more difficult toward the end.

  • 90% of players started the game

  • 50% got past level 5

  • Level progression achievement percentage dropped consistently over every 5 levels

  • Only 12% of players beating the game

  • The 50% of players that made it past level 5 also had a majority of the statistic based achievements already. This may have been what caused a decline in incentive for full completion with too much reward up front with a higher full achievement completion ratio early on.

What was successful?

  • Was Finished and Released - Though it took some time to put in the final touches via post-launch updates, I did finish and release the final product.

  • Fun and Challenging Gameplay - Though I may not have reached the right audience initially or reached enough players for the genre or difficulty, the gameplay was challenging and as difficult as I intended. It was the game I wanted and found fun to play.

  • Creating a Retro Arcade Aesthetic - Initial release was more of a design from the standpoint of the screen on an arcade cabinet. When I updated the new backgrounds it really felt like an old arcade game with just the play area being the screen and the backgrounds the cabinet art. Very happy with how they turned out.

  • Community Engagement - I thoroughly enjoyed reading, watching and engaging with players who did play my game and provide feedback. Even the negative feedback. If there were any issues a player had I responded promptly letting the player know I heard their concerns and worked to fix the problems ASAP. Soon as bugs were reported I got straight to work on the fixes and made the patch live as soon as it was done (sometimes within minutes of the bug report). Also took all suggestions into consideration and even implemented the vast majority of them in the game with updates.

  • Frequent Updates & Improvements - While the game that Probe is today should have been the state it was in for full release on launch, continually updating and improving the game elements seemed to help boost sales accompanying those updates and slowly build a small following. Also they let my player base know I'm taking the development of my game(s) very seriously and that I want to make it the most enjoyable experience possible for what it is.

  • Setting & Reaching Realistic Goals - I kept all updates and improvements to a reasonable scale to be able to finish them on a regular basis and within a reasonable timeframes.

  • Sound Design - While I did not make the sound effects and music, I did choose them, tweak them via pitch/tone and chose the soundtrack playlist. This really enhanced the overall production value and feel of the game. Plus the free soundtrack DLC was a huge hit in terms of downloads.

  • Scoring System & Leaderboards/Re-playability - Adding a high score leaderboard system added a higher re-playability factor than it originally had for players who did enjoy the game and it's challenging nature allowing players to compete with each other and show off how skilled they are or have become at the game. Plus it was a valuable tool in determining player retention.

  • Avoided Burnout - Taking occasional small breaks/time off during development, I've found, is pretty important. Even if it's to work on a different game. I took time off from working on the game and updates to do 3 game jams over the development of Probe since March 2020. Taking those steps back helped prevent any burnout and I was able to come back at the game feeling refreshed. I honestly believed this also helped increase my productivity when working on the updates.

  • Learned a Lot - While making a fun and challenging game that I wanted to play was one my main focuses and helped improve my overall game design skills, the other main focus was to learn what all steps need to be taken to develop and release a game on Steam. I especially improved my knowledge of Steam integrations like leaderboards and achievements. Also learned I need to switch to Unity 3D for future projects to ensure better quality control.

What was unsuccessful?

  • Financially a flop - I didn't expect Probe to succeed financially in the first place as it is rare that a developers first release is a big financial success, at least from the from sources I've reviewed. Thankfully I was not relying on the income from the sales to live off of and am doing this as a hobby for now.

  • Marketing and Promotions - I did little to no marketing before release outside of a month of a coming soon page which should have been up 3-6 months before release instead of just a month. I did have some community engagement after release but definitely needed more than what I did do if I want to get my game in front of the right people who would want to buy and play it. I also don't think I targeted my audience properly when doing promotional marketing.

  • Released Too Soon - I admit it was a rushed release but since it was I should have released it in early access instead of a full launch. That way I could have gotten the feedback I needed/received sooner to make the changes in the game you see today before releasing as a full finished product.

  • Player retention - The game was too difficult as the levels progressed for the average players that were stumbling upon my game. This could also be a failure in marketing and caused by the lack of a demo before this last update. I intended for it to be hard, so in a sense that was a success, just may have been TOO hard for most who did get it pre-demo or was not properly reaching the target audience that enjoys difficult games.

  • Majority of Achievements were TOO Easy to Obtain - With statistics like blocks broken, shots fired, etc. there was not enough consideration taken as to how many times a player would be retrying the first several levels, let alone the whole game, making a majority of the achievements easily obtainable early on. This gave less incentive to keep playing for level progression achievements since they already had a majority of all the other achievements.

  • Visual Icon Language and No Text - Some people may have had difficulty deciphering what some of the main menu icons were or perhaps it looked too much like an app ported to desktop and that may have turned them off from the game. Also limited the adding of certain features like custom keymapping.

  • Releasing in Every Language - Marketing and promoting in one language is hard enough. Not to mention Google Translate isn't exactly accurate. It took a long time to translate the store page in all languages but the data that did come from it helped me refine a localization list to the top 5 languages/countries the game was bought in that I should target and translate for first.

  • Using Clickteam Fusion 2.5 as the Game Engine - It has it's benefits and it has it's flaws. Unfortunately, at least for Probe, the cons outweighed the pros. There are a few issues that were impossible to fix because of the engines limitations but were luckily minor issues. The worst being the built in Physics engine. It has some issues that are hard to counteract since there is no hard code.

  • No GDD (Game Design Documentation) Prior to Development - If I had made and followed documents I would have been more prepared and able to set some things up much more properly to include future updates like leaderboards and saved data structures.

  • Demo Released as Last Update - This should have been on the "Coming Soon" page before release even if changes were made to the game later.

  • Not Enough Proper Feedback in Beta - Only using family and friends for feedback prior to launch meant I probably didn't hear what most of the players who were interested in my game might want out of it. Some of my friends are brutally honest though, and that's what I like about them, so that did help a bit here and there. After release though, I got some great outsider input that helped with post release updates and improvements. I do think overall sales could have been better from the get go if I had done some heavier Beta testing with way more outside sources first.

  • Releasing on Gamejolt.com and Itch.io - Was not worth the effort. Unless somehow it directed traffic to the Steam version, which I do not believe it did based on data. Overall game page traffic and sales on those sites were quite frankly...almost none.

Overview - The Takeaway


Overall...I did almost everything backwards and completely wrong when it comes to developing and releasing a game by far but I knew this from the moment I started the release process. I was given the opportunity to find out what it really means/takes to release an indie game solo on Steam and it was an opportunity I did not want to miss so I relentlessly pursued it not knowing how long I had to complete my goals. I've grown as a developer and learned a lot in the process. Now I feel I have a really good grasp on how to properly make and release other games on Steam in the future. In this sense, I feel the game was a success. I did what I set out to do...make and release a game on Steam and learn what to expect in the future. However, it definitely is not a success in terms of sustainable income/sales and, let's just say, Steam certainly wouldn't consider it a success.


In terms of the game design itself, it is as difficult as I intended, but also was not successful in player retention due to the difficulty curve or not reaching the proper target audience interested in difficult games. In the future I will probably add multiple difficulty levels to avoid this or make sure it is more clearly marketed as a really difficult game to complete if it is. I have also been improving my skills in Unity 3D over the past couple years so I will be switching to that engine for most all of my future projects, especially my next title, so I have more control over quality which I lacked in Fusion 2.5. I also will be posting development progress for my next upcoming title as soon as I feel it's in a good state to present.

Plans for the Future


  • Create detailed GDDs (Game Design Documents) for future game releases prior to development - This will help make sure I properly develop the game as intended and get information/demos out ASAP for feedback so I can alter things as needed before release

  • Try making different genres of games - I don't want to just stick to retro arcade style games. I have many ideas across many genres I would like to see made.

  • Switching to Unity 3D for development

  • Make and Release a New Game

  • Possibly a sequel for Probe - This won't be until after I release my next game which will be very different from Probe because I don't want to seem like a one trick pony or players to think of my games as shovelware and that I am only sticking the retro arcade genre. With what I did learn from Probe though, I do feel I can make an all around better experience to include a broader audience or range of players which makes me want to make a sequel just not right now. I want to try something different for a bit.

  • "Weekly Blog Updates" will become "Weekly Blog Posts" - I will still be posting weekly but will cover several topics or types of content for a while until I can reach the point of being able to start updating publicly my progression in the development of my next game. Posts will include things like games I've worked on in the past, game jams I participated in, little dives into me as a person or my history with games, my favorite games and genres, game reviews, development insight with tips and tricks I've learned, and possibly even some tutorials for getting started as a new developer with the knowledge I have learned and accrued from several other development sources. Don't forget to subscribe to the blog/newsletter to receive notifications when I make my weekly blog posts. Usually they are posted sometime between Sundays and Tuesdays each week but I will try to be better about doing them on a set day in the future, probably Sundays.

Outro

I am super excited to get going on my next project. Already got some stuff for it done and really looking forward to revealing it to the world and hopefully build a community around it of devs and gamers alike that want to be involved in its progress. I hope this Post Mortem review can be useful for other devs (new and veteran) or at the least was an interesting insight for my players and subscribers. Until next week everyone stay safe, Happy Holidays, and thank you again for all your support!

Nathan Hicks

Nate Bit Games

https://twitter.com/N8Bit_Games

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