This is the story of a developer who turned a simple side project into a game that earned more than half-a-million dollars in less than a week. Not only that, he did this after just 2 months of marketing and development.
In today’s blog I am going to deconstruct the dizzying success of 20 Minutes Till Dawn and the free prologue 10 Minutes Till dawn. I will be pointing out the critical moments that really blew this game up so you can understand how to get visibility on your own projects.
Many people who are just starting out wonder, how do you possibly get any success when you have 0 following, 0 dollars. It seems like to be popular you already have to be popular. This is an excellent test case on how a game can go from 0 to 100,000 very quickly.
Here is the TLDR for how to have a hit like 20 Minutes Till Dawn
- Take a break from your long-in-development Tactical RPG.
- Pick a popular genre that is in the zeitgeist
- Get feedback from friendly sites and forums like itch.io and the r/playmygame subreddit
- Create a prologue
- Enter into festivals (Roguelike Festival)
- Get streamers to cover your game
- Get them to LOVE your game.
- Get the Prologue into New & Trending and keep it up
- Launch your game into Early Access
Key performance indicators
- Day Coming Soon Page Launched: April 23, 2022
- Day 20 Minutes Till Dawn Launched: June 8th, 2022
- Number of Wishlists at Launch: 143,196
- Number of Followers at Launch: 5836
- Wishlist per follower ratio at launch: 24.5
- Unit sold in first 36 hours: 110,042
- Units sold after 4 days: 220,523
- Total returned: 4,322 (2% return rate)
- Gross earnings after 36 hours: $329,025.58 (pre Steam cut)
- Gross earnings after 4 days: $538,035 (pre Steam cut)
- Wishlists Converted to sales 36 hours: 42,319
- Price: $2.99
- Launch Discount: NO DISCOUNT!
- Peak Concurrent Players: 12,953
- Studio size: 1
- Publisher: Self (but Erabit is doing Chinese publishing for them)
How the hell did this happen?
The developer behind the game is Flanne who lives on the East Coast of the United States. He majored in Computer Science in college and worked as a programmer before working on his games. He had no real game dev experience other than a few Unity school projects in college.
He was years into development on an RPG Tactics game called Spiritlink Tactics but was feeling a bit burnt out on it. So he took a break and made a short side project to release a game quickly to get some experience. He read my blog on the success of Vampire Survivors and decided to make his own version.
The design of 20 Minutes Till Dawn is definitely inspired by Vampire Survivors: Top Down, hoards of enemies, experience is gained by collecting gems, every experience level leads to an upgrade the player selects, rogue-lite perma-death. But 20 Minutes Till Dawn has a number of design differences the most important of which is that the player does not auto fire and you must reload your gun. Here is Flanne on his design choices:
I honestly disliked the Vampire Survivors auto-shoot gameplay, so the decision to make it more active was mostly because of my personal preference. My philosophy designing this is that I think there is an audience that wants a game that has depth in mechanics but with short, casual play sessions.
I chose a somewhat “horror” theme, because I noticed horror does very well on itch. This ended up helping as the “horror” tag page was one of the biggest sources of traffic in the first hour or two on itch. Traffic from that tag fell off quickly, but it helped put me very far up on some tags like “web-platform” and “roguelike” which was the bulk of my itch traffic later on.
I chose an anime artstyle for the characters because I wanted to cater to Asian audiences more. Checking the F2P section on Steam (which is where the 10MTD Prologue would be) I noticed a lot of Chinese games. Japanese audiences also loved Vampire Survivors, so I figured they would be good to target as well. I’m pretty sure this is actually a big part of the success of the game. This is the regional player data for 10MTD:
Regional player data for 20MTD:
As you can see, I’m fairly certain that targeting Chinese audiences for the Prologue was indeed important. Of course getting a Chinese publisher also helped a lot in marketing to a Chinese audience later on as well.Flanne
On April 22nd he launched a Steam Coming Soon page and itch.io page for 20 Minutes Till Dawn. Both had the demo playable. Here is his original post on the official How To Market A Game Discord announcing his new game:
I was inspired by your vampire survivors article and wanted try it out with a very short development cycle.Flanne
Side note about the naming: I will be abbreviating it as 20TMD form here on out. Flanne also released a separate free prologue of the game and called it 10 Minutes Till Dawn because it was a 10 min slice of the game. It is confusing and he admits it and probably wouldn’t do that again. Sometimes we can get too cute with our naming convention. Just know going forward that if you see anything reference 10MTD that is the free prologue, but 20MTD is the full game.
Chris Zukowski Analysis:
First, it warms my heart to a degree that I cannot describe that a silly little blog post I wrote could lead to someone having success like this. I now know what Highschool teachers feel when one of their former students becomes a Supreme Court Justice or a Nobel Prize Winner or something.
Also I think indies spend WAAAAAY Too long on their first game. I wish indies would put aside their own Spiritlink and do a fast release game to learn what a launch looks like with a low-stakes game. Here is a companion blog post that I wrote to address how you can pause your over-scoped game and make something small (and more profitable).
As soon as Flanne had his demo up he was looking for feedback on the r/playmygame subreddit. Here is his post.
“had almost 100 upvotes and was an okay traffic source for 10MTD’s itch, which I posted at the same time.”Flanne
Furthermore the early feedback helped refine the design of the game:
after reading player feedback, it seems like they wanted more build variety, enemy variety and difficulty, so I knew I needed content in that direction as well.Flanne
Itch.io is small but the game got some great numbers.
Chris Zukowski Analysis
Flanne sought super early feedback and adjusted and that is the first critical step in his game’s success. It hurts my heart when indies go YEARS working on a game without any feedback from a stranger (your roommate does not count as unbiased feedback).
People always ask me if itch.io is a viable place to put a game up. My answer is that it won’t sell you many copies (it is a very niche audience) but the people who do use itch.io are very curious and are nice and receptive to in-progress games. So itch.io is a great place to get early validation on your game.
The numbers that Flanne saw form itch.io were promising and lead to some decent traffic on Steam. It brought in 200 wishlists.
This is not a lot, but it is the first step in the ramp up to big numbers. The early (albeit small) signs were positive. The long play times and big (by itch standards) indicated he had picked the right genre, and had a good design.
Do not skim over this section!
The only way to have a hit game is to have a good game. These early signs indicated that this game was good. People were hungry for it. If you don’t see early (but small) interest it indicates that it might be hard to get traction on your game.
On May 2nd Steam hosted the official Going Rogue Festival. Flanne opted in with the 20 Minutes Till Dawn demo. The early success from his demo being on itch.io helped push 20 Minutes Till Dawn up the trending charts:
I feel like it really snowballed from the very start though. The game did well on itch which let me get a decent amount of wishlists initially. That made it so a decent amount of people played the demo in the Going Rogue fest, which landed me around page 3-4 on the most downloaded section. I think that’s how youtubers found my game, which kicked off everything elseFlanne
Chris Zukowski Analysis
Festivals are the Number 1 way to get visibility on your game. You should be looking for every possible opportunity to enter your game in a Steam festival. You can find them in my discord server under the #upcoming-events channel HOWEVER, The Going Rogue Festival didn’t actually yield that many wishlists. It was very overcrowded. 20 Minutes Till Dawn only earned a couple hundred wishlists here. But these are important because they put your game in front of influencers. Which leads to the next step …
Streamers found it
2 days into the Going Rogue festival, the big streamers discovered the game. Wanderbots played it on his channel yielding 22,498 views.
Then 4 days later Splattercat played it and earned him 2700 Wishlists.
Demos are executables that you attach to your main game. Prologues are a bit different. They are a slight hack in which you pay steam another $100 to have a separate depot and upload that same demo code and release it as a free game.
The benefit of doing a Prologue is that if you can get enough momentum on this free game, Steam will promote the prologue as if it is a released game. Prologues are eligible for “Popular Upcoming” and “New And Trending.” Demos are not. The downside of prologues is that they are confusing. You have to be really good to redirect players from the prologue and on to your main game. It also didn’t help that the naming convention between 10 Minutes Till Dawn and 20 Minutes Till Dawn are a bit confusing.
It still worked though. The attention from Wanderbots and Splattercat and the Going Rogue Festival propelled the Prologue onto the “New And Trending” section of Steam.
Yea [the streamers] really kickstarted everything. The momentum from the youtubers carried my Prologue into steam’s New and Trending, which gave me pretty insane traffic. After I hit 10 reviews I spiked up to 200 concurrent players, and then it just steadily grew from there to almost 3500 concurrent players over the next 2 days from organic steam trafficFlanne
Soon after this happened 20 Minutes Till Dawn earned 11,983 wishlists in a single day. And it was consistent. For the second half of May, he was earning over 10,000 wishlists per day.
However, once 10 Minutes Till Dawn dropped off of New And Trending the wishlsits dropped down to a measly 6,000 wishlists a day and then down to 2000 per day. (I am kidding of course, these are insane numbers.)
Solving the Chicken and the Egg Quandary
Chris Zukowski Analysis
Let me recap the chicken and egg problem that confuses so many game developers new to this: At the early stage of the Going Rogue Festival, 20MTD was listed in the “New And Trending” section because streamers were playing it which caused more streamers to find it which propelled it up the charts further. It is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle!
Many people get confused here. “It takes streamers to find streamers to get more streamers?! WHAAAAT!?!!!?!?”
The answer to this quandary actually has nothing to do about Streamers. 90% of your success depends on you having a good game that is in a genre that everyone is interested in. 20MTD is a great interpretation of a genre that is very hot right now (Top-down Hoard Rogue Games).
Here is the thing though, there are so many streamers playing so many games that every game gets this opportunity to be played by small streamers. BUT most streamers play 10 minutes of a game and are like “eh this game isn’t very interesting, NEXT GAME!” and so no stream gets made, no recommendations to their friends, and no momentum into festivals and on and on to the virtual cycle that I was just talking about. The onramp to this virtual cycle is when any streamer no matter their size first starts up your game.
Do they have fun or not?
It comes down to your game. If you are not seeing excitement around your game, it isn’t your marketing. It’s your game. That is what is so brilliant about 20MTDs strategy is he worked fast, did early validation, found he had a hit from this early interest from streamers, the press, and just took it as far as he could.
The median play time for his demo was 1 Hour and 15 Minutes. That is VERY Good. I ran a survey about how long everyone else’s playtimes were. Here is the chart:
The median indie game here has a 12 minute median play time. The median indie game also fails. You will see that only the top 1% of games have a median play time longer than an hour. When people play your game a long time, it is a good sign.
Don’t be afraid to abandon your game
Remember that Flanne had also been spending years working on another game that just didn’t catch on: Spiritlink Tactics. Here is what Flanne Said
I really was tired of working on Spiritlink Tactics for over 5 years (huge mistake to commit to an ambitious RPG as a inexperienced solo dev, in my opinion). And over the years, I felt like my skills have gotten so much better as a game dev, so I really wanted to take on a new project.
[20 Minutes Till Dawn’s] Wishlists after 2 weeks on Steam caught up to my other game [Spiritlink Tactics].Flanne
Flanne sees this in stark terms. It has drastically affected his plans:
[Spiritlink Tactics] put on hold indefinitely. I feel bad about it since I had just done Steam Next Fest with it and it did quite well. It garnered a few fans on the Spiritlink Tactics discord that would leave me very detailed feedback regularly. I definitely want to finish the game for them eventually, but it makes too much financial sense for me to focus 100% on 20MTD right now.Flanne
The easiest way to have a hit game is to make a hit game. That is how you get on this virtuous cycle. Spiritlink Tactics wasn’t interesting people and the pivot to a game that caught fire is a smart one. Sometimes people just aren’t interested in a game and that is ok.
On June 8th 20 Minutes Till Dawn Launched with 143,196 Wishlists.
Flanne removed the prologue from steam and 5 hour before the release of 20 Minutes Till Dawn, he uploaded a build to 10 Minutes Till Dawn that said this:
Flanne set the price to match that of Vampire Survivors at $3.
Yea but I do feel like games like these could maybe be like $4 and still feel like an cheap impulse buy while raising the revenue significantly. But I also think that VS is so dominant that it has set the standard for consumers that anything like it should be $3.”Flanne
I think the reason for 20 Minutes Till Dawn’s viral success is because of the cheap price and wouldn’t earn the same amount if it wasn’t so cheap. You can see my reasoning in this blog post I wrote.
Basically, the super cheap price short circuits the typical buyer behavior of wishlisting and waiting for a sale. The cheap price encourages an impulse purchase. It is like that candy bar by the register you just say “hell why not?” instead of making a very belabored buying decision.
20 Minutes Till Dawn took off like a rocket. As stated above, he is currently sitting at $538,000 in gross revenue in less than a week.
Others have tried
Flanne wasn’t the first person to create a quick variation on Vampire Survivors. There is Neon Sundown, Nomad Survival, and Seraphs Last Stand. None of those other variations had the success that Flanne had.
I don’t think any of these games did enough marketing before their release. I actually laid out my marketing plan before even touching development at all. I actually had the entire development timeline and marketing plan laid out from start to finish (a lot of things didn’t go according to plan but in a good way).Flanne
My thought is that 20 Minutes Till Dawn is just a better game. The art style is more attractive than all the others (including Vampire Survivors). I haven’t played the other variations but I imagine the subtle game design improvements are also more in line with player desires (remember Flanne had sought feedback from reddit and itch.io?)
The 20 Minutes Till Dawn marketing plan was also killer. It isn’t just about getting streamers to cover you: Many of the BIG streamers covered these games here and here. I think a lot of 20 MTD success comes from the strategic use of Festivals, Free Demos, Prologues, Streamers.
Other things that didn’t matter
First lets look at twitter. Many indies think marketing and assume that means posting to social media. But Flanne’s Twitter account is still sitting at only 720 followers. His pinned tweet still points to Spiritlink Tactics.
Tiktok didn’t matter either.
Social media is just one tool in your marketing arsenal but I think it is a minor one.
The way to get real visibility is to leverage the visibility of other players who have big audiences. Streamers lend you their following when they cover your game. Entering festivals like Going Rouge is leveraging the millions of users of Steam.