Escape from Life Inc Postmortem
Oh, hey there! :D
What’s this now, you may ask? Well, it’s just me trying to reflect on this game I made called Escape from Life Inc. Why I made it, how it went, what went wrong, what went right, that sort of thing. Maybe someone will enjoy reading it ¯_(ツ)_/¯
I’ll try not to spoil too much! But still, probably finish it first if you’re worried about that stuff. You can get the game on both Itch and Steam!
Part 1: Original idea and story of development
Okay, I’m gonna go way back, and try to explain how this game came to be.
Once upon a time… I was about 11. I had just gotten a friend kind of interested in game development, and we were just messing around in Clickteam Fusion. One day while doing this, he told me a pretty neat idea: A game where you play as a legged fish who has to escape an alien lab called Life Inc. At the time I didn’t think much of it.
During school breaks I kept discussing and evolving the idea with him. I wanted to make it into a three-character puzzle game inspired by The Lost Vikings, he reluctantly agreed (“That’s not CANON!!”). We decided that the two other playable characters would be a reindeer and a bald eagle, perhaps a reference to a swedish game where you say “Bird, fish, or in between?” (Roughly translated). We thought it would be funny if the animals had super generic american names, so that’s where Bob and Rick comes from. Originally Ern had something similar (I think it was Jake or something with a similar vibe), but we realized that we could use the name of the animal in swedish as the names, more on that later.
So here’s a fun fact for you: much of the basic lore actually comes from a short story I wrote as an english assignment. I’m not sure why, but when I was trying to think of a theme, that ‘Life Inc’ idea came back to me. I figured it would be easy to turn that idea into a simple story. This is where I really started fleshing out the personalities of the main three characters, but lots has changed since. (Rick doesn’t stutter in it, they’re actually rather confident)
After that we returned to the Life Inc idea and started to do some actual planning. I wanted to have the game split into different chapters, each with their own gameplay style. We settled on 5 chapters, with their focus being: puzzling, platforming, stealth, metroidvania-style exploration and action/set pieces. (Most of this is in the final game, but puzzles became the main focus instead of that other fast-paced stuff) So I started to write a rough version of the story! Much has changed since, but it served as a nice “skeleton” for the writing.
During this time, this friend I’ve mentioned, another guy (Both are in the credits under “Additional art and writing”) and I found a pixel art tool called Piskel that we could use on our school chromebooks. We used breaks to create a ton of ugly pixel art characters, most of which are in the game somewhere today.
Now, it’s around the end of 2018. I’d just gotten kind of comfortable using Unity, after switching to it around a year prior. After finishing a large-ish project named Cartoony Cars 2, I was ready to finally make Life Inc a reality!
Part 2: Random fun facts and cut content
I have a bunch of fun things to write about, but I don’t know how to structure them. So I’m just gonna… uh… not do that! Enjoy.
What’s the deal with those names, I hear you asking? Igel Cott? Groda? Ern? Greece? Q-Pie? Well, most of them are based on the name of that particular animal in swedish. Groda is the word for frog. Varg is wolf. Gris means pig, but I changed it to Greece to make the english pronunciation more accurate. Same with Ern: it’s actually Örn, but that would’ve been confusing.
Then there are the weird ones… like Q-Pie. My friend who made the original pixel art drawing saved the file as “kukpaj.png” which uh… translates to “cock pie”. And as for Bob… I’m not even sure where that one came from.
The biggest piece of cut content was an endgame area called Logtown. There’s this thing I hate in games: after finishing it and loading your save file, you’re put back right before the final boss. It’s like… let me see what happens afterwards! Let me hear NPCs say how amazing I am for saving them! This town was meant to be the place you came to after you’d escaped. There wouldn’t be much actual content, just some characters to talk to.
Another thing I never had time to do was a small area you’d only be able to access once all animals were rescued. It would be an abandoned, creepy lab where something had gone horribly wrong. Diary entries from the original founder would be scattered throughout, detailing how Life Inc was started. Definitely not inspired by Undertale’s true lab whatsoever.
Here’s one of the most annoying bugs I’ve ever encountered. In certain cutscenes, on certain people’s computers, the dialogue would just… stop. The game wasn’t completely frozen, animations were still playing, but the dialogue wouldn’t progress. I eventually singled out that pausing the dialogue for 0.5 second was the issue. But why? Setting it to a whole number worked like a charm. What I eventually realized was that certain countries use a comma instead of a period for decimals. One of those countries is Sweden. For some reason my computer was set to English instead of Swedish, so my computer could convert the string “0.5” into a float. But computers set to Swedish…. They couldn’t understand it at all.
About a month before release, I was making some final touches to the game’s script and realized something. Literally every character is male. That’s… kind of a problem. So I was like… Let’s make some characters women! But that didn’t quite sit right with me. (Sounds pretty sexist when taken out of context haha but hear me out) I realized that I didn’t see these characters as a particular gender, they were just… animals. So I said screw it, let’s not give them a specific gender! I’ll just use they/them pronouns for all of them. In the Life Inc universe, animals have either evolved past having two genders, or it’s simply not relevant. I guess which one it is is up for interpretation.
Part 3: Marketing, Sales, and all of that boring stuff
Well, if revenue is what you came for, here ya go:
Although remember that Valve takes a stupidly high (30%) cut, so what I’m really getting is $651. Add what I made from Itch and you get a total of about $740!
Graphs are fun, so here’s one of how many copies it sold per day:
As you can see, almost all of the sales were in the first two days. I knew that I’d get the most sales the days after launch, but this is just madness…
Okay, it’s not something you could live off of, but it still feels great and it’s quite a bit better than I expected for my first paid game. The only money I invested was paying for music, which ended up costing $300-400 for the entire soundtrack. Looking back, I realize I could’ve gotten music for way less money through a variety of ways… But I’m also really happy with how the music turned out! Plus having music for my stupid little game on Spotify is cool as hell. (Shameless plug hehe)
Now, you may be wondering: how was I able to achieve such
terrible amazing numbers? I’m not qualified to talk about this whole marketing thing at all, but I’ll at least tell you what I did. If you want general marketing advice, go somewhere else, this is just the specific things that worked for me.
Even though I initially kind of hated Reddit, it’s probably where I had the most success. It’s great because you don’t have to build up any sort of following to get a viral post. On the other hand, you really can’t get a following. You could make a post that gets 50 000 upvotes, and then make another that gets 5.
I’ve had quite a few reasonably successful reddit posts. Here’s one that got 6.3k upvotes, and here’s another which got 2.3k. I also reposted the first one but with a different title here, and while a few people called me out on it, it got almost as popular as the first one.
In my experience, a good title is what’s most important. You want to avoid sounding like a sales guy, and more like a friend sharing their big accomplishments. Generally, here’s what you’ll want to include in the title:
- A hook: something inspirational, different, bold, extremely funny, whatever. The hook I used most of the time, “I’m a 15 year old game developer” works very well on reddit (even though it sounds braggy as hell…)
- Time: say for how long you’ve been doing something. Like “After 4 years of learning game dev I’ve finally quit my job to make games full-time” or “I’ve finally finished my dream game after 3 years of development, today it released”
Many say you need a gif, but for me just using a trailer worked pretty well. Just make sure your trailer isn’t slow or people will lose interest quickly, and think about how your thumbnail will look (I think it just picks the first frame of the video?)
Yes, Reddit’s selfpromo rules are stupid. They’re really freaking stupid. It can be easy to feel like giving up on it, but please don’t! You can easily get around these with some clever planning and patience.
Let’s start with some of the smaller subreddits, because these rarely enforce that 10% promotion rule. I’ve posted to r/indiegaming, r/indiegames and r/unity2d with decent success, without worrying about posting other pointless garbage to my account.
Eventually you’re gonna have to try the bigger ones like r/gaming. Here, the mods can and will take down your posts if your account has more than 10% self promotion. They don’t seem to care whether or not the post gets popular. But as I said you can easily avoid this by being a bit sneaky! For me, this involved creating an entirely new account for posting on r/gaming. I found out from messaging the mods that they can count deleted posts into their silly ratio. I had already posted so many promotional posts that making up for it would be basically impossible.
All you need to do is use your account to post some unrelated garbage. It doesn’t even have to be to the r/gaming subreddit, it can be anything. Posting a pic of your pet to r/aww is always a good place to start! If you’re interested in what I did, you’re welcome to check my account here!
Emailing Press & Youtubers
This was one of the most time-consuming parts of my “marketing campaign”. I wish I could say it was worth all the trouble in the end, but honestly, it just feels like it was a big waste of time.
I won’t go into all the details this time, but here’s some useful tips I’ve gathered:
Use GIFs! Try to personalize your email somehow (At least write their name in the greeting) Send keys directly, don’t ask if they want keys Include as many links as possible (Presskit is the most important one!)
I had some decent success here actually using a very similar strategy to what I did on reddit. An interesting title, a cool video and some tags was all I really needed. I sort of wish I’d discovered this platform sooner actually.
Here is my post that did the best, if you wanna check it out!
Twitter was really the only platform I posted on continuously throughout the game’s development. While it’s been a nice way to connect with other developers, it hasn’t been good at getting me sales. People just don’t act on twitter: they retweet, like and comment, but not much more. They hate clicking links or interacting with you in any sort of meaningful way. (From my experience, at least!)
I think my biggest mistake was being a bit of a perfectionist with what I posted - I should’ve just posted more and more often (I guess I should’ve done that in all areas of marketing…) I also think it would’ve helped to have a developer account rather than one named after the game like I had. Might have made things a bit less “official” and made it easier to post consistently, dunno.
Part 4: Lessons learned?
So, I worked on this for, let’s see… one and a half years…. soooo I must’ve learned something, right?
As I’ve shown already, marketing was one of my biggest struggles during this project, and my main takeaway is this: I should’ve started way earlier and done much more of it. It ended up being sort of a “too little, too late” situation. I kind of got lucky with Reddit and Imgur but those aren’t particularly reliable.
Then there’s also a pretty important thing called playtesting, and um… I did very little of it. Like, at some stages, I did none. I mostly just implemented all my wacky ideas and hoped for the best. There was never really a prototype stage to this game. I really can’t be sure if this method is actually a good way to make a game or if I was just lucky, but my guess would be that it works well with these types of strange genre-bending story experience thingies, and less so with games that are refined, polished and “fun”. Although with my method, different parts of the game inevitably feel a bit hit-and-miss.
I wrote an insane amount of dialogue for this game, a quite bold decision considering I’d never made a story-driven game before. I think it turned out okay though??? Although for next time I should try to think of some sort of “message” a bit earlier. I did kind of come up with one for Life Inc, and it’s explained in the conversation with Cid after they’re defeated:
“I used to try to live up to these unrealistic expectations… Honestly, it’s impossible.” (Rick, Escape from Life Inc, 2020, PowerBurger, like, close to the end of the game, is this how you reference a quote correctly, probably not…)
This is something Rick learned from the whole “being kicked from reindeer school” experience, and Cid is in a very similar situation with Q-Pie. It’s very relevant to the development of the game, I wanted the game to live up to this imaginary “Life Inc” game I’d always had in my head. I could’ve kept working on the game for 10 more years and it still wouldn’t be like I’d imagined… and that’s okay!
Part 5: The End???
I think I’ll take a long, well-deserved break from game development. While it can be fun, doing it for one and a half years without many breaks leads to some pretty serious burnout. I also want to use this time to explore some other interests and activities that had to be put to the side while working on the game (Hell, I might even try this thing called “being social” and “leaving your house”! Crazy concepts, I know).
Well, I hope you got some kind of enjoyment out of this wall of text, or the game. That’s it! Bye now! Have a lovely day!
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