The Peculiar and Anticlimactic Nature of Game Releases

I’m going to try my best not to make this sound whiny. (Imagine this is being said by the gruff, manly voice of a deep-space miner, played by the secret lovechild of James Earl Jones and Tom Waits.)

Releasing a game, especially a freeware game, is enormously frustrating. At least for me, that is. You work on something for months on end, literally hundreds of hours of work; you plan the structure, consider the meaning, think through the implications; you write and write and write and write; you scan in images, adjust them… and so on… and then, finally, it is ready. It’s there. After a year or more, all the hours of thinking or working or both, the game is complete. And you feel happy, because it’s finally come together, it finally feels real.

And then you release it, and… nothing happens. Like every artist, on one level you’re expecting your game to single-handedly change the world, make everyone recognize your genius, and permanently alter the course of history… in the first five minutes of release. On another level – usually the more dominant one – you’re hoping that people will enjoy the game and that it will spread around the internet like the mushrooms in the larder. And that’s not entirely unrealistic – you have, after all, seen other games do it. Sometimes even games you would, quite frankly, consider to be far inferior. Or crappy, as less pretentious people would say.

But nothing happens. A post here, and a post there, people seem to be liking it… but it takes ages for any site to pick up the news, in most forums you seem to be ignored, and in general you probably have to wait for weeks before the hits on your Statistics page start going up.

That does sound whiny, doesn’t it? But I think it’s something a lot of us freeware designers – especially those who don’t have too large a following, or dislike hyping their games years in advance – should be aware of. Because it is frustrating. And it is depressing. And to prevent falling into a pit of despair, we should be mentally prepared. It’s not entirely dissimilar for writers: Stephen Donaldson has talked about the anticlimactic nature of getting your book published, where by the time your book is actually in print you’ve been working on something else for months.

Personally, I’m actually finding it difficult to work on something else. I’m trying to get back into editing my film, but my mind is still with Desert Bridge – it feels like the game hasn’t even really been released yet. The burden of finishing it is off my shoulders – and it is always quite a burden, let me tell you that – but I haven’t been able to let go of the game itself yet. It’s not out there yet. It’s like we’re still in early beta or something. This is also a danger indie game designers should be aware of. Games stick to your soul, and at some point you have to get them off. Like bubblegum, only more meaningful and less disgusting.

I have submitted news of the game’s release to several adventure gaming sites. Some of them have not yet responded, others have promised to try putting up something. Freeware games, it seems, aren’t that highly regarded. Many of the sites I knew are also gone – Quandary, for example, was always nice and supportive, and seems to have gone the way of the Woolly Mammoth. GameHippo is also gone – and good riddance, too, since they would never list my games. Home of the Underdogs has also ignored every single submission, which I could never understand. The point is this: you’d think that in the days of the internet, reaching an audience interested in what you do would be easy. It isn’t. Remember that.

The problem is multiplied, of course, by my personal aversion to the kind of sucking-up/spamming/self-aggrandizing behaviour that might lead to more exposure. I think this is a common – well, it’s not really a common problem, is it? More a common virtue. But virtues won’t get you far these days. This isn’t Ultima IV. But there’s a reason for having principles, and that doesn’t go out the window just because having principles makes success more difficult. So I am assuming you would behave the same way. If you wouldn’t, fuck off, people like you annoy the hell out of me.

So what do you do? The first thing, I guess, is to have patience. Try going through all the places where you feel that submitting news is OK – places that are meant for this sort of thing. Post in relevant forums. There are a few sites that have lists of free software – submit your game to them, even though it’s likely to take a while before they list it. And pray that some people who like your game end up spreading the word, because word of mouth (especially with services like StumbleUpon, Digg, etc.) is going to be important. Maybe. I think. In time, reviews may appear, which will drive more people to your site, somebody will write about you to BoingBoing, you’ll get a call from the Pope, and sooner than you know you’ll be elected High Priest of the Known Universe. From there, the step to godhood is a short one.

OK, so maybe not. But maybe you’ll get lucky, and your game will have enough success that you can finally let go of it, and go create something new. It’s what I’m hoping for (though I won’t complain about a bit of godhood).

(Why do I keep reading dogfood instead of godhood? I don’t want a bit of dogfood. You can always give me catfood, though. That stuff is expensive.)

If you are a freeware developer, read this as useful advice about what might happen, and keep your spirits up. If you’re not a developer, but just stumbled across this site looking for porn, or even one of my games, read this as the whiny thoughts of a game designer with a god complex and an empty stomach.

In other news, Verena has baked cookies and I shall now go eat them.

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