On September 30th the CEO of Raw Fury tweeted that Dome Keeper (think Dig Dug meets Missile Command) earned $1 million within a day of its launch:
It is an amazing success story from a team of only two full time developers. This story was interesting because many first-time indies look at their own projects which earn quite a bit less and wonder how in the world a game can earn so many wishlists and so much money.
It seems so daunting and like a chicken and egg problem: Steam only promotes the popular games, but how can a game become popular if Steam won’t promote it? Where is the onramp?
In today’s blog post I am going to walk you through the key moments of this campaign and how you scale from a game nobody has heard of to one that will change your life.
- Make a lot of games that don’t go big but still teach you the craft of game design.
- Create a game that is just really fun that people just naturally are excited to play.
- Build games-industry visibility by sharing the game in places such as #screenshotsaturday.
- Create a compelling demo. Playtest and refine to achieve a high median play time.
- Participate in Steam festivals.
- Keep the demo up for long periods of time so that streamers can find and play it for their fans.
- Pay for advertising.
- Build up wishlists and launch with over 180,000 of them!
*Quick side note. When Bippinbits first developed the game it was named Dome Romantik. However, when they formally announced their partnership with Raw Fury, the name was changed to Dome Keeper. I will refer to the game as Dome Keeper throughout this post, but note many of the videos and free game sites I link to will still call it Dome Romantik.
Learn how to MAKE good games
In my years of documenting teams that succeed, it always comes down to one thing: you must make a compelling game that people are BEGGING you to play (and pay for.) But, before a team can make a compelling game, they usually have to make a bunch of non compelling games that they learn from. You can’t just watch a bunch of GDC talks, you can’t just read blog posts like mine. The most important thing is you have to make and release a bunch of games.
The core team of Bippinbits is a married couple named Rene (code and design) and Anne (art) living in Dresden, Germany. They contract out for other resources such as music; the composer Cameraon did the music for Dome Keeper.
Over a year ago they released their first Steam game Of Mice and Moggies. The goal of this game was as a learning project to see how a release works on Steam. Their revenue goal was to earn $100 and get positive reviews. It got only 20 reviews and had a peak of 4 concurrent players but they accomplished their goal! This is a good thing.
Rene and his wife also kept their day jobs until Dome Keeper started showing signs of being a hit.
Zukowski Side note: Please don’t quit your day job until you have released a bunch of smaller games! Nothing magic happens when you become a “full-time indie.” Your games don’t magically get better. You still have to make them.
Making a good game
When I tell indies they have to make a “good game.” Everyone always says “ya we are making a good game.” But you have to understand the game has to have that spark, that magic, that something that makes people say “I MUST play that game.” I can’t tell you what it is that makes some games compelling while others are boring.
It is a mysterious and elusive quality, but in my experience, the signs that a game is a “good game” can appear with as little as a few gifs or a half-functional playable slice. You don’t need to add hours of content. You just need the core game loop.
For instance, the Bippinbits team saw this “spark” when they first posted the game after the game jam. When you compete in Ludum Dare, the winners are determined by participants reviewing each other’s games. Usually it is hard to get the minimum number of reviews.
But, when they posted the Ludum Dare entry for Dome Keeper, they instantly saw an influx of reviews from jam participants. Look at this history of their entries and you can see how much of an outlier Dome Keeper was
|Game||Number of Ludum Dare Reviews|
As you can see, some games just have that mysterious “it factor.” That is what a “good game” is. This was the first inkling of success but there were more signs to come.
This game [Dome Keeper] got 250 ratings by itself without us doing anything. We also saw it on the itch page at least an order of magnitude more attention than our other games. Anne was adamant about scrapping our project and switching to Dome Keeper which is what people are very excited about.Rene from Bippinbits
Now don’t take this and try and game the ludum dare review system to try and get 278 reviews thinking that will guarantee you a $1 million launch. The point to take away is release a lot of stuff and just compare one game to the other. You will just “feel” the outliers in a ton of different ways. There is no one number to look at, just be in tune with how different launches go.
- Keep making SMALL games quickly before you quit your day job.
- Your first games will not get a bunch of attention but keep at it.
- Watch the reception of your small games and refine as you get better.
- When a game gets that initial spark of interest, if possible, don’t be afraid to abandon any plans you have and go all in on it. This is very similar to what happened to Peglin. After a local game jam, they published Peglin to itch.io and people kept asking them about it. (Just don’t break any contracts and get yourself in trouble.)
- How do you know when your game has that “spark of interest?” You really won’t know unless you release a lot of games and sense their relative interest.
- Keep scope small “We planned for 8 months of full time development of Dome Keeper. Before that, we spent about 6 months in our free time.” – Rene
- Please, seriously, don’t quit your day job to make your first game. Release a ton of them first!
- “Another thing that was a key factor in making the game good: have people play your game very early, and never stop getting this kind of feedback. A lot of what Dome is comes from our playtest community on Discord – even when it was only 10 people, this was incredibly helpful in polishing and growing the game.” – Rene
I think most important to getting better is to be very open and constructive in digesting feedback, and to honestly reflect and introspect about the game that was just made. I feel like we needed 10 game jam games to get good enough to make a proper good game. These games were also made over 4 years, with a ton of work on bigger games being made in between – so overall, just a lot of learning and practicing…. Between me and Anne, it is also just the experience on how to work together efficiently. A well working team is the best that can happen to a game.Rene
The first signs of attention
Thankfully the Bippinbits team went with Anne’s advice and abandoned one project and went all in on Dome Keeper. They launched a Steam page for Dome Keeper (despite not having a trailer or much external marketing) on May 20th, 2021.
As you can see, despite having a game with “the spirit,” the game didn’t much attention in the first 6 or so months.
The first sign was in September 2021 when Clemmy covered their trailer as part of another roundup:
This earned them about 300 wishlists. It was the first spike.
Does #screenshotsaturday work?
Rene posted his first trailer for Dome Keeper on Twitter as part of #screenshotsaturday
It only got 19 retweets (as most #screenshotsaturday tweets do) and didn’t get many wishlists (as most #screenshotsaturday tweets do).
But someone from Raw Fury was paying attention.
Johan is a Raw Fury scout who browses every #screenshotsaturday. I asked Jonas to think back on that first contact and how he typically finds games:
It was a Sunday, which usually is when I go through #screenshotsaturday. Looking at Rene’s tweet I’d guess what I was doing was skipping away from the popular tweets with multiple hundreds or thousands RTsJohan the Raw Fury scout
Dome Keeper was signed shortly after. At this point the game was still named Dome Romantik and the partnership with Raw Fury was still not public.
- Use #screenshotsaturday. It actually doesn’t get you many wishlists but basically everyone looking to sign a game is quietly monitoring it.
- I know most developers post on #screenshotsaturday and never hear from big publishers like Raw Fury. But remember, Dome Keeper had proven itself to have something magic. Some games just attract attention. If you have been posting consistently for months, and not heard anything, that could be a sign.
- Always send your game to Clemmy from Best Indie Games
The demo that caused the 40,000 wishlist explosion
Development continued until February 15th, 2022 when Bippinbits published their demo to coincide with their appearance in the Games of Germany Festival.
9 months before the demo, we gathered 1000 wishlists. There were a lot of Tweets, a lot of reddit stuff, a lot of people didn’t care about that… When people played the demo they got hooked on it.Rene
Despite the huge sales, to this day, the official Bippinbits twitter account has barely more than 1,000 followers. For most games, social media just doesn’t do much.
If you look at Dome Keeper’s Follower chart the visibility and wishlist inflection point is the moment they launched their demo on February 14th.
The launch of the demo is the moment it happened. This is the moment it went from being just any other indie game to a top-tier, high-earning, super-game, capable of earning $1 million at launch.
The cause? Streamers.
Here are the Streamers who found and picked up the demo up in order:
- Retromation (Feb 15 )
- Splattercat (Feb 17)
- Gautoz (Feb 17)
- Wanderbots (Feb 20)
- Real Civil Engineer (Mar 5)
- Angory Tom (Mar 5)
- Dangerously Funny (Mar 20)
If you look at the dates of all those streamers, they are a rolling wave. Each one seems to kick off the next. These streamers found this game organically, it was not a dedicated effort by Bippinbits.
My theory is that you can see how good a demo is by looking at the median play time. Soon after the demo launch, Dome Keeper had a 1 hour and 30 minute median playtime. In a survey I ran, I found that typically games have a 25 minute median playtime. People play Dome Keeper 5 times longer than the median indie game demo. This is what I mean by some games having that magic sparkle to it.
Wisely, Bippinbits kept the demo live way past the initial Games of Germany festival and it paid off big time.
All the extra traffic these streamers brought to the steam page triggered the Discovery queue (the green line in the following graph).
The Discovery queue is a wonderful boost that Valve sometimes blesses upon your game when you bring in a lot of traffic.
Every time it looked like Dome Keeper reached its peak viewers, another streamer covered it causing another wave of wishlists. Here is the first month of their demo going live. The demo brought in 40,000 wishlists in its first month.
40,000 wishlists from a demo.
After the demo inflection point, Dome Keeper was consistently earning 300 wishlists a day. This is largely due to word of mouth and the natural long tail of youtube videos.
Sure lots of other indies make demos and get it played by streamers. But, honestly, their game JUST isn’t as exciting as the Dome Keeper demo. It really comes down to how exciting your game is and Dome Keeper is SO exciting that when a streamer watches another streamer cover the game, they want to play it too. Then the cycle continues:
- As is with most indies, social media doesn’t really do much. Rene and his studio still has barely more than 1000 followers.
- Check your median playtime for your demo. Over an hour of median play time is VERY good and probably means you have something people like to play.
- When your marketing seems to have stagnated, release a demo. If you are stagnating and you do have a demo, playtest it to make sure it is fun. Then patch the demo.
- Keep your demo up!!!!!!! Don’t keep pulling it down at the end of festivals if you are getting good streamer traction.
- If you are making a roguelike, send your demo to all the streamers I listed above they play just about everything that is good.
- Numbers check: before launching the demo, Dome Keeper only had 1174 wishlists and 137 Followers (a 8.57 wishlist to follower ratio).
At this point Dome Keeper was on an amazing upward trajectory. What was so amazing is that all of this happened before they announced they were published by Raw Fury. This success was because of how great their game was.
A month after their 40,000 explosion, Raw Fury officially announced that they were publishing the game and renamed it to Dome Keeper. You can watch the publisher announce trailer here.
Dome Keeper continued at it’s blistering pace of increasing wishlists. In my experience, games that get visibility at huge levels (like 40,000 wishlists,) the increased wishlist rate continues until launch. Read more about my research on organic wishlist rates in this blog post.
During this wishlist expansion, the wishlist to follower ratio increased from 8.57 to 14. There is a theory that extra exposure from festivals and streamers can diminish the “quality” of wishlists and that is manifested in the increase ratio of wishlists to followers. That might be the case but just before launch, Dome Keeper collected over189,000 wishlists.
The unconventional launch
On September 21st, the team at Raw Fury did something quite unique for an indie game, they put it up for prepurchase with a free skin, an in game pet, and a reduced price. This is unconventional because you need to ask special permission from Valve to put your game up for prepurchase. They almost always reject you because prepurchases are a technique reserved for the big AAA games.
The Steam algorithm does not count pre-purchases towards a game’s initial launch numbers. This is bad because your main visibility boost comes from super fans doing day 1 purchases that push your game onto the New and Trending list. So if prepurchases don’t count, you are essentially removing the boost that your fans give you. That is why AAA games do it. They know there will be enough purchases no matter what to get them on the top of the charts.
So how did Dome Keeper pull this off? I suspect Valve looked at the excitement behind the game, the pedigree of Raw Fury, the number of wishlists, and allowed them to do this. This is one of those moments where having a publisher is handy.
Raw Fury’s Producer on the project, Garnett Lee, said the prepurchase tactic was used to capture sales while they were doing early Streamer outreach, heavy TikTok, and Instagram Reels, and Facebook ads. The prepurchase was also used to prove to Valve that the game had a high sales potential so that they would also feature Dome Keeper in a popup on day one of full release.
The gambit worked because the game sold extremely well. The prepurchase period induced another 100,000 people to wishlist before the actual full launch day. Dome Keeper earned over a million dollars in the first week. Again, here is Raw Fury’s CEO:
- Your game is probably not big enough to ask Valve for a prepurchase, so don’t ask.
- Don’t stress too much about the Ratio of Wishlsits to Followers if you are sitting on 180,000 wishlists.
Looking back at the campaign of Dome Keeper there are several key moments that propelled it to the million dollar success that it has become.
- The team invested in years of experience by building small jam games and releasing them for free.
- They also released a smaller game on Steam and didn’t get discouraged when it launched to small numbers.
- When the initial, free, game jam version of Dome Keeper showed early interest with 270 reviews, they quickly pivoted and made that their full time project.
- They polished and playtested a really good demo that when released had a median play time of 1 hour 30 minutes.
- This addicting gameplay and high quality graphics led to enormous streamer coverage.
- They kept this potent demo live even if the game was not in a festival.
- The team also had help from a top tier indie publisher which used media buys and blanket coverage on Tiktok, Instagram, and Facebook.
- The Raw Fury team also reached out to hundreds of creators.
- The game and store page was localized to 20 languages.
Now if you are deep in development and you aren’t seeing this early traction don’t give up. Stick with it. You have to release a bunch of games. Look at how many the Bippinbits team made despite not all of them becoming super popular. They focused on making games that players loved.
Want more info about Dome Keeper? I wrote a bonus article with some additional lessons from this launch. 6 Interesting lessons from the Dome Keeper Launch