One night when I was 12 my dad came home from work and handed me a 3 ¼ inch floppy disk that had a the words “Wolf 3D” scrawled across it in red ball point pen. He said a colleague gave it to him because he thought I would like it. Boy howdy was he right. I installed the game and it was a free copy of the (at the time) revolutionary game Wolfenstein 3D. At the time I was playing Super Nintendo games which were so expensive I could only expect to get one for my birthday and one at Christmas. But here was an amazing game and it was free. Totally free.

Wolfenstein 3D was shareware. Under the license, you could legally make as many copies of this game and give it to as many people as you wanted. The catch was it was just the first chapter of the game and if you wanted the others you would have to call in and mail in the order form to get the full thing.

I would say a good 75% of my childhood gaming time was spent on free demos. Doom, Heretic, Quake, Rune, Duke Nukem 3D, GTA (the first one), all great demos and I even bought some of them.

Nothing is new 

Almost 30 years later a strange new phenomenon is spreading across Steam: free games. Many of them are labeled “prologues.” And these are not junky trash games look like someone’s hobby project. These are not “demos.” They are a separate game
“packages” entirely. They are part of a new trend where developers give away a free sample of their game to build up buzz about the full version of the game. 

Last week I heard that EggNut, the developers behind Backbone, put up a prologue that generated 150,000 downloads and translated into 95,000 wishlists for their yet unreleased paid version of the game.

This is the shareware model all over again.

I was so excited I reached out to Aleksandra Korabelnikova who is the co-founder of Backbone and asked them the details. Here is what I learned.

Forewarned though, I have not tried this myself. I am just doing research on this but I do plan on trying it. 

The basics of the strategy

Backbone has 2 separate “packages” on Steam.

The first is Backbone: Prologue

And the other is the full game just titled Backbone. It is not out yet for purchase but the expected release date is 2021

This means that the developers at EggNut created two versions of the game each requiring a separate $100 registration fee.

Note that this strategy is separate from the default Steam option of offering a “demo” which is just a subpackage that is attached to the main game. Recently Mike Rose at No More Robots shared some data that doing this wasn’t a good idea.

You have to create two separate games to make this technique work. I know it seems high but $100 is more than worth it if you have the chance of getting 95,000 wishlists.

Essentially what you are doing with this strategy is putting the game at the top of the funnel while still having the full game at the bottom of the funnel. Then you are using steam and wishlisting as the middle of the funnel. Here, because you can never see too many pictures of the funnel, is a diagram of what is going on with your marketing when you do this.

EggNut set the price of the prologue to be “free to play.” Steam also has the option of “Free.” I asked Aleksandra why they picked that but they said they were not aware of the option of “Free.” I am not sure it matters. But in my experience “Free to Play” indicates that the game is going to include some hard upsell for IAP which can turn off gamers. “Free” just means free. I have no data to support either option helping or hurting downloads but just be aware. 

How does the prologue play

The entire Backbone: Prologue takes about 1.5 hours to complete. It shows a nice slice of a lot of gameplay elements. Players get to experience the dialogue, some inventory management, a stealth mission, digging through a trash can (I mean the main character is a raccoon and it would be a let down if you didn’t get the chance), and a couple puzzles. The whole thing is tutorialized in a very nice way. 

Most importantly the prologue is gorgeous and it feels very polished. This is not some “early access” beta. There is a lot of care put into this free giveaway. EggNut is really using this opportunity to prove to the players that this is a quality game. 

Finally, and most crucially, the game ends on a cliffhanger. As the credits roll you really want to see what happens next. Perfect for encouraging excited players to wishlist the full version.

Fan Reaction

You might be worried that ending the game on a cliffhanger paired with an upsell would make people mad but the game sits at 2,444 overwhelmingly positive reviews. Some comments say 

Legitimately the best demo I’ve ever played. Hands down. Shows off a strong representation of the mechanics that will be in the final game plus the amazing art and music track to back this game.

and

It’s just like a demo should be. It’s perfect from start to finish (for a demo); they introduce you to the storyline and controls in a consistent way that along the gameplay it develops smoothly without you realising it.

So it seems as if Steam players have reasonable expectations for demos and are ok with them. This is normal for them.  

Additional details

Aleksandra told me that they will be updating the game again with more languages and they are going to use one of their visibility rounds with it. This will invariably boost them to even higher wishilst counts.

It will also give them goodwill with players as it shows they are continuing to support the game despite being free.

Marketing the prologue

I looked at other free prologues on Steam and none of them have this many positive reviews. I asked the developer how they marketed it to get that many downloads? Was it covered by a big Streamer? Paid advertising? Luck?

No features in major streamers or influencers. All our marketing was done through Twitter and Reddit with pretty gifs

Aleksandra from EggNut

Here are EggNut’s posts on Reddit. They did a good job at posting in subreddits with tangential interest such as noir and trashpandas. There was no 1 viral hit. They just consistently posted lots of screenshots.

Backbone also ran a successful kickstarter with over 2,362 backers. That is a very engaged community that can be driven to download and review the prologue.

But again I asked them what actually moved the needle to get them so many downloads and reviews?

Prologue got featured on main Steam page, and we still get 300-500 downloads and wishlists daily thanks to recommendation system. It’s also super highly rated and one of the best rated games on Steam of all time, so I guess the algorithm likes it

Aleksandra from EggNut

My theory is the community they built up through the Kickstarter, Reddit, and Twitter triggered Steam with the initial boost. Then the incredible art and story kicked in to trigger the Steam algorithms to say this was a quality game.

I also think their Steam page does a great job of showing off the anchors: noir, point+click adventure game, and furry. These combined to lift Backbone into the stratosphere.

If you search Steam for “prologue” you get a bunch of other free games. None of them have reached quite the heights of Backbone. I am going to continue looking at these other prologue games that maybe didn’t fare as well. Stay tuned.

Couple additional thoughts

I feel a little strange offering feedback to the awesome success story of Backbone. None of my games have 95,000 wishlists but I do see some things that I think could be improved.

Always have a call to action

If you watched my talk you know that it is really really hard to get people to make that jump from one platform to another. It is critical to have a clear, strong call to action that tells them exactly what to do to get to the next platform.  I took a screenshot of the Backbone call to action that appears right after you beat the game. 

They do a good job of showing pathos with the “Thank you for playing Backbone Demo Prologue.” However, the actual call to action “Wishlist Backbone” is in very small text.

Actually now that i think about it all the text is small. You probably had to click to zoom in on it.

Also, notice there is no button. You have to hope that people tab out of this game, switch over to Steam, search for Backbone, then wishlist it. Amazingly a lot of people have done this but imagine how many more would have with a nice big button that says “Wishlist on Steam.”

One improvement would be to add a button that opens a browser to the Backbone steam page. I would also throw in a couple of screenshots of what is next. Some teasers of where the hero is going next. Really jazz it up.

Also, this screen is on a short timer that auto advances to the credits. What if the player got up to go to the bathroom or was a slow reader? I would add a little “Next” and the page doesn’t advance until they click it.

I would also remove those social media buttons. Remember you must have 1 call to action. Not multiple. I will talk about that more in a minute…

Achievements

Love them or hate them as a developer most Steam players love them. There are whole communities of players who specifically seek out games that they can get quick achievements and “100%” a game. If you add even a handful of achievements some people will download and share your game just for that. These people also buy a lot of games, so they are more likely to wishlist and buy it (once it goes on sale of course).

Easter egg it for die hard fans

Hide Easter eggs that hint at your future game. Maybe finding a secret unlocks developer commentary or images of concept art. If your game is not out for a while, use the prologue as a way to “move them down the funnel” and fall in love with you with behind-the-scenes content.

Store page

The Backbone full game page has the exact same screenshots as the Prologue. The idea of the full version is to build upon the excitement of the prologue. Show some more screens of the character you just controlled in new places. If you just finished the prologue you are going to have a much better understanding of what those screens mean and how you will interact with the game. 

The short descriptions are also the same. I would recommend writting a short description more about the short adventure that you go on as part of the prologue.

Give a lead magnet + autoresponder

I would break social media off of the CTA page. You don’t want to confuse them with too many actions. Provide typical social media links (even if they are not as effective as email or Discord).

Instead, you should also give players a place to sign up for your newsletter. You could even have a little section that says “like the sound track?” With a button that says “Get it.” Clicking the button opens an email signup form. Important: don’t just link them to a landing page. Actually embed the signup form within the game to decrease friction and dropoff. After they sign up, send them the title track and start them on an autoresponder sequence that introduces players to the back story, who you are, and how the game is being developed.

Prologues?

Prologues and free demos are a pretty neat hack to make your funnel more smooth and hopefully get you more wishlists.

Good luck out there and please let me know if you are planning to do one too.

Here are a couple more that look like they are doing it right but I have not yet had a chance to try out. It would be interesting to see how non-story focused games deal with the ending of the Prologue so that they have the player wanting more.

Unbound: Worlds Apart Prologue

Stoneshard Prologue – Aleksandra mentioned this was the game that inspired them to try the Prologue trick.

Legend of Keepers Prologue – Another great looking game demo with thousands of reviews

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