When Should Developers Give Their Game Away for Free?

When Epic announced its new digital store, one of its biggest selling points was that – a couple of times a month – the store wouldn’t be selling you anything at all. Instead, following in the footsteps of the model pioneered by Playstation Plus and Games with Gold on Xbox, the Epic Store does something that its PC competitor, Steam, doesn’t offer. On The Epic Store, users get a free game every week. 

You can see the thinking behind Epic’s initiative – it helps them quickly get customers onboard and helps establish its storefront. And for gamers there is the obvious appeal of free games – and in fact, these games are really free because unlike Playstation Plus and Games with Gold, there isn’t even an online service subscription fee to pay in order to qualify for the free games.  But is this a win-win-win situation for all those involved? When a game features in these free limited time promotions, does it work for the developer as well? Giving your game away for free isn’t the obvious starting point for developers looking to turn a profit for all that time spent on designing and building the game. 

A league of their own

“Now that I look back it’s very easy to say that it [Playstation Plus] absolutely was the best decision. We make more now than we did at launch every month so absolutely it was. You know I think almost objectively you can say that it was a good idea at this point” – Dave Hagewod – Psyonix Founder

Let’s not beat around the bush because it’s no secret that – yes – giving your game away for free for a limited amount of time on one of these services can absolutely work for developers. And one of the best early examples of that in action is certainly Rocket League. 


Rocket League launched on the Playstation Plus free game service in July 2015, at the same time as it was released on Steam for a fee (£15). It was an overnight success. Jeremy Dunham, VP of Publishing, talking to Kinda Funny Games back in 2016, said that Sony had warned Psyonix to expect a couple of million of downloads, and roughly 50,000 – 80,000 max concurrent players on its server. 

Instead, the game servers crashed repeatedly from the huge numbers playing the game, and by October 2016, 22 million PSN accounts had played Rocket league, while sales on the console had reached 8 million. These deals are very secretive and esoteric – no one ever talks openly about the numbers; but you can have a good guess at how many people downloaded Rocket League for free when it was available on Playstation Plus using those numbers. A lot…

There are two ways to look at that. Firstly, you could say Psyonix left a lot of money on the table – especially at £15 a go. Surely a decent fraction of the 22 million players would have spent the money on the game rather than get it for free? You also have to factor in that Sony would have paid the developer upfront in the deal that made the game free for a month at launch, so Psyonix did get some income for the free players. But that amount would also have been based on the pre-release estimates of downloads, which at around two million is certainly far less than the reality. In theory, Psyonix missed out on a whole heap of revenue. 

Or you can look at it with more positively, the free download meant that Psyonix reached a huge player base they never would have touched otherwise. Would they have even sold 8m copies on the console without the buzz generated by the free download.  Jeremy Dunham has described how the company’s budget for marketing Rocket League was tiny, and that going with Playstation Plus let Psyonix pass the reins to Sony to do the brunt of the game’s marketing.

And there are a couple of things Psyonix have done really smartly, to make the game a massive financial success going forward even if revenue was sacrificed at launch.

For one, they made that decision to release the game on Steam simultaneously. As hundreds of clips of the game got shared online and it reached the top of streaming websites, the buzz created by the huge player base on PS4 certainly translated to sales on the PC. And it didn’t stop there. The game had successful launches on the Xbox and Switch platform subsequently, and of course was only available in its paid-for format.

The post-launch support for the game has been impeccable too. Alongside regular free updates, cosmetic-only DLC has shifted about once every quarter, giving Psyonix a chance to earn money from its huge player base on a regular basis. Just to throw a bit of soft anecdotal evidence in – I know I was a player who bought a couple of DLC offerings from Psyonix, not because I wanted them particularly, but it was my way of supporting the developers and saying thanks for the hours of free fun they had given me.  

So every game should start free and grow from there right?

Not so fast. Rocket league is a standout story – and the biggest success story of a limited free launch strategy. But of course it’s not always like that. Velocity 2x from FutureLab games is a great example of how a free launch on Playstation Plus, even if successful, can be an issue. 

Velocity 2x actually launched the year before Rocket League in September 2014. And it too was a free game on Playstation Plus and Vita at launch. Millions of people downloaded the game; to  all intents and purposes, it looked like a runaway success. 

But when the game got published on Switch in 2018, at a time when FutureLabs was desperately trying to fund a sequel to the game, it gave a totally honest call for support out to its fans. 

FutureLab said if fans ever wanted to see a sequel to Velocity 2x, they needed to demonstrate strong numbers on Switch because otherwise no one would agree to fund any sequels. Curve Digital had agreed to publish the Velocity 2x on Switch but needed convincing by the sales numbers before agreeing to support a sequel.  

Indeed, according to FutureLab, multiple publishers had got excited about the sequel when seeing early concepts and workings; and would also get excited about the critical success and the volume of players achieved by the first game. Unfortunately, interest would wane when the reality of the sales of that game were discussed. Velocity 2x – for all its millions of players on PS4 – hardly sold a copy on the platform. The majority of people who might have paid for it, had already got it for free. Unlike Rocket League, establishing that player base didn’t help make money further down the line. 

The game did have DLC that potentially could have generated revenue from its PS4 player base – but both pieces, billed at the £2 mark – were released during the same month as the game. The availability of extra levels too soon after the release of the game does not give it the chance to breathe and create an appetite for more – maybe a larger DLC drop a few months later would have been a wiser approach and a better strategy for capitalising on its download success. 


Furthermore, when the game – which had positive reviews and good buzz from the PS4 release –  was launched on Steam in 2015, things didn’t exactly go to plan. Whereas Rocket League made good money on subsequent platform releases, when Velocity 2x launched on Steam, it coincided with the launch of Windows 10. Unfortunately, that resulted in a number of technical issues and bugs for the game that took many months to fully resolve. It completely destroyed any potential momentum on the PC platform because the game simply didn’t work.

So Velocity 2x needed to sell well on Switch in order to convince its potential publisher, Curve Digital, (or indeed any other publisher) to fund its sequel. I guess the fact that Velocity 3 is not currently being talked about in the pipeline from FutureLabs would suggest that didn’t happen. However, I should also note that Curve and Future Lab are currently working together on a game based on the popular Peaky Blinders series, so perhaps the relationship created by their work on Velocity 2x had some spin-off positive outcomes. 

Modern market 

There is another obvious difference between Rocket League and Velocity 2x that helps explain the disparity in the success of their Playstation Plus free game promotion. 

Rocket League is a multiplayer game while Velocity 2x is a single player game. Online multiplayer games make a lot more sense to give away than single player games. Especially if the free period is at the beginning of the game’s lifecycle. 

While Velocity 2x of course would have generated some buzz and positivity that got the name of the game out there and attracted new players, it could not do it to anywhere near the level that Rocket League could achieve. Put simply, it lacked the multiplication factor. 

Rocket League had such shareable online clips of cool moments. It had hundreds of streamers and YouTubers playing the game showing it to thousands of potential players. And it was easy for players to show and play with their friends online and offline, who would then go get it themselves. It was a social game that marketed itself organically once you had a huge player base. 

And on top-of that, the game was already earmarked to take the game-as-a service approach. There were ideas and plans in the pipeline for generating revenue off the existing player base, and its strategy resulted in strong sales on subsequent platform releases. 

There is a decent argument that Rocket League might actually be a bigger and even more successful game if it was still free, and indeed free on every platform. If that were the case, the player base could be even bigger, with more people bought in and hooked, willing to spend money in other ways. That is exactly where we are now in the market. Some of the biggest multiplayer games, Fortnite and Apex Legends, are entirely free. 

Which brings us back to Epic. Epic’s Fortnite multiplayer component is free to play on every platform it is on (and there is hardly a platform it’s not on) – and we all know that Fortnite has been a massive financial success.  Notably, the single player portion of Fortnite, ‘Save the World’ is not free. Multiplayer games-as-a-service is a business model that makes sense; but single player games don’t have that same shareability among players. Giving your game away for free is clearly not the way to go for single player games – at least not at first.

When does making your singleplayer game free work for indie developers?

The games Epic is giving away for free on its store are not new games – and it’s largely the same on Playstation Plus and Games with Gold. The smart money says that it is further into a single player game’s lifecycle before giving it away for free brings benefits to developers.


Doing it too early cannibalises your own profits. Sure it might increase buzz about the game and get more people to play it, but if you do it too early, you’re stopping people who were willing to pay from doing just that. Whereas if you do it a year after release, you have a chance of drawing in new players to your games – and to your DLC revenue stream – that were very unlikely to play the game in other circumstances. 

What’s more, if you do it not too long before the release of your next game, then you are adding another layer of smarts to your marketing. A free game can help establish trust and build positive feelings about your studio and your forthcoming games. Then when your new game does launch – your audience will have gained a bump in its potential size. Those who enjoyed the free game are far more likely to buy the new release now they know the quality of your work. 

And of course, making your game free on these services doesn’t mean you’re not getting some revenue for the giveaway.  As discussed earlier, the details of these deals are kept very secret within the industry, but it is an additional source of income. 

“The impact was definitely worthwhile. Not huge, but worthwhile. Going free in the later parts of the game’s life cycle can give you some nice revenue boost.” – Jakub Mikyska, CEO of Grip-games

But the goodwill and market buzz you can get from the giveaway is what you are really after when making your game free for a limited period. You’re sacrificing revenue for intangibles. But the vast majority of that  ‘sacrificed’ revenue was never going to come from the players who habitually download games for free anyway. 

Of course, there is a danger to all this – and that’s why developers and the platform holders need to be careful. Creating an environment where gamers believe that if they just wait long enough, everything they want to play will become free eventually is a little dangerous. And we have certainly seen that cautionary market adjustment in the last few years, with the free game offers on Playstation Plus becoming noticeably smaller.  

Epic with its new storefront needs to be a little wary of that danger. Creating an expectation of virtually limitless free games needs to be avoided. And studios also need to think carefully about how often they sign up to such deals. But securing the right free game deal, at the right time, can certainly bring advantages and be very worthwhile for all concerned –  even a single player game. 

But if you are developing a multiplayer game – the success of these free game promotions and titles such as Fortnite and Apex seems to suggest that making your game free all the time could be the modern and smart way to go – as long as it is coupled with a revenue plan to turn the player community into a viable income stream.

Free game promotions shouldn’t mean that developers are giving away profit potential. For that initial ‘gift’ they get a larger playerbase, a wealth of goodwill and exposure, and an additional fee from the publisher. It’s what they do with that kick start that matters; and it’s also important that the industry as a whole ensures these deals remain tactical incentives and don’t become the accepted business model. 

Chasm: Are there too many metroidvanias?

Chasm is a metroidvania game that uses procedural generation to make each playthrough a unique experience. The building blocks are the same, but the layout of the game is different every time.

Hence, it’s a metroidvania game that you can play over and over again because the feeling of exploration that is key to the genre is always preserved. You can imagine as a child, the game’s director, James Petruzzi, wishing he could repeatedly play through the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (a clear inspiration for Chasm). The tight controls and gameplay would remain, but the layout would jumble up – the old becoming new  each and every time.

You see, in 1997, Castlevania was a 2D side scroller at a time when much of the industry was moving on to 3D. Arguably, the pinnacle of the metroidvania genre had arrived just as the genre was abandoned. It was 2001 before another 2D Castlevania hit consoles. In the meantime players were subjected to lacklustre 3D iterations and, what’s more, that 2001 game was only a port of a 1993 title that had previously been marooned on the ill-fated Sharp X68000 home computer.

It’s easy to see why a fan of the genre, starved in his childhood of the kind of games that captured his imagination, would set about creating a game that would let players fill the void. While waiting for the next metroidvania, they could play Chasm as much as they like – every time exploring a new map, with enemies in new locations and hidden treasures that are actually hidden again. In theory, Chasm is the eternal metroidvania. That’s what James Petruzzi wanted to create with his independent studio, Bit Kid games. The developers set out to make the game they wanted as kids.


Petruzzi clearly wasn’t the only kid desperate for more castlevania and more metroidvanias growing up. That was evidenced by the nearly 7,000 people who backed just the idea of Chasm by the end of its Kickstarter campaign in 2012. In fact, during the campaign, it received 70,000 votes on the Steam greenlight process. Petruzzi was right – there was an audience for games like Chasm. The kicker is, there is also a raft of other developers who love the genre and are eager to make their mark as well.

You don’t have to wait that long these days till the next metroidvania genre game hits shelves and online store fronts. It’s certainly not like 1997 anymore. When the Kickstarter for Chasm kicked off in back in 2012, metroidvanias might have been a bit rarer, nevertheless the 2D art style and sidescroller gameplay was already a firm favourite of many indie developers.

All of which meant that by the time of Chasm’s launch in July 2018, it found itself navigating a release schedule full of other metroidvania inspired games. In the five years it took to get Chasm from Kickstarter campaign to commercial release – many other successful metroidvanias hit the market.

So where did that leave the game hoping to be the metroidvania you can play again and again? After all, how many metroidvanias can the gaming market support?

Why developers keep coming back to metroidvanias?

Before we even attempt to answer those questions, it would be good to understand why there are so many of these games on the market right now. What is it about the genre that is so enticing to smaller development studios and independents?

First off, I think it’s clearly a matter of available resources. Back in the 80s and 90s the genre was on the cutting edge. Today, a 2D side scroller is well-trodden ground. It’s a cheaper and easier genre to make. Don’t get me wrong: It’s still not easy to make it good – but you don’t need a team of 3D animators, you don’t have to create huge 3D environments and there’s no 3D physics engine. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s a genre that can be realistically attempted by a smaller team.

And of course, as we have already covered, it’s a genre that many of today’s emerging developers grew up loving. In metroidvanias, developers can flex their muscles and experiment with lots of different aspects of game design. They can create a game with a strong narrative and a real sense of place. They can delve into the design of exploration, platforming, and combat. They can include secrets, collectibles, puzzles and imaginative character development. While these are all elements that can be applied to indie metroidvania games, they can equally be applied to the very biggest single-player games that hit the market.


For example, everything described there, could be applied to last year’s game of the year: God of War. I’m obviously not the first person to recognise this – but God of War is essentially a metroidvania game that is built in the 3D space. Whether you’ve got the biggest budget in the world, or the smallest, there is something about the core elements of the metroidvania experience that draws in both players and developers.

Creating a 2D metroidvania is a way for smaller developers to explore all the things they love about single-player games in a manageable way. It’s no surprise there are so many developed.

The Kickstarter problem

There was a short period of time in which Kickstarter was a viable option that you would suggest to new development studios. Frankly, that time has gone. But back in 2012, for Chasm’s creators, it was a route to market that made sense. And there are some things about Kickstarter that certainly worked in Chasm’s favour for its marketing over the five years of its development.

The platform gave the studio a clear way to build an audience for its game and connect with its fans. A really important part of marketing is to start early, and Kickstarter let’s you do that. It’s a convenient way to maintain high communication with fans. You can take them on the journey with you and build yourself an audience from the get go.

That interaction can be a double-edged sword however. Particularly if your game takes five years to develop, a lot longer than planned. If delays became apparent in the development – and you hadn’t started out as a Kickstarter project – you could perhaps adapt your messaging. You would release information within a timescale suitable for you and give updates at your own pace and discretion.


The problem with Kickstarter is you have a couple of thousand of your most hardcore fans, who have already given you money, who you need to placate. Not all of them will demand or expect regular updates, but enough of them will and – to be fair – they are entitled to them when you have gone down the Kickstarter route. They’ve funded you before you’ve delivered anything concrete.

What that means is that you can get sucked in to doing five years of intensive marketing – when maybe if the game was entirely privately funded, you would hold back at times, push at others. The long delays in development didn’t help Chasm. The studio would at times push hard on the marketing, thinking release is only a year away – when in reality it was two. Chasm’s strategy would no doubt change if Bit Kid had foreseen the actual timing.

In 2014, Dan Adelman, formerly of Nintendo, joined the team. He helped Chasm get on top of this problem, and in one interview spoke about this issue:

“With Chasm, once we realized it was gonna be a long time before the game actually ships, we deliberately slowed down our marketing reach, We stopped giving intermediate builds to YouTubers and Twitch streamers because you can’t keep the heat on high all the time. At some point, there’s fatigue and people start to tune it out.”

Adelman spoke to how a developer like Firaxis with Civilization can spend years working on a project in the background, with its audience never seeing the convoluted messy development path. It can then announce the game a year before, and launch an exact and deliberate campaign that ramps up to release. But because Bit Kid games needed to build an audience and secure funding, it simply couldn’t do the same – it had to take the audience along for the ride with them from the very start.

You might not want to reveal too much to your audience, but they need reassurances pretty much every month that the game is being worked on. With so many people burnt by failed or fraudulent campaigns – it’s kind of a necessary duty of care. In fact, Chasm delivered more than 70 updates on it’s Kickstarter page during development.

If it wasn’t for those pesky competitors

Chasm was released on the 31 July (16 July for backers). It coordinated with Sony and Valve to find a date not too crowded, that also left the press time to write reviews. Bit Kid also sought to coordinate somewhat with other similar games, because the situation could have been much worse.

Other similar games did come out near the time of Chasm, and it was kind of unavoidable. What didn’t help Chasm – or the other new titles – is that the Nintendo Switch had proven itself as a great home for smaller indie games during the previous 12 months. This led to a number of developers porting established titles over to the Switch. Chasm didn’t only have to compete with other new and similar games, but also the re-release of some stand-out metroidvania titles on a platform perfect for them.

The months before and after Chasm’s release were full of similar games:

release schedule

If you like Metroidvanias, there was no huge chasm of empty space. And the title that was perhaps the biggest problem for Chasm, was Dead Cells by Motion Twin.

Bit Kid might have got the jump on Dead Cells by releasing earlier, but must have been wary of the competition from the title at a very early stage. Dead Cells is a slick, fast and challenging game that controls and plays exactly how you would want it too when you pick up the controller. Its hook is that it adds rogue-like mechanics to the metroidvania genre. It procedurally generates the game world from death to death, not playthrough to playthrough, like Chasm. When you delve into the impact that has on actual gameplay, it’s not a case of ‘one-upping’ Chasm’s hook in my eyes. It actually makes for a completely different experience. You could even argue that dead Cells is not a metroidvania at all once you look beyond its initial perceptions. But the fact it even needs clarifying is ultimately damaging to Chasm’s key message.

So Bit Kid had a competitor in the shape of Motion Twin’s Dead Cells, doing its own take on procedural metroidvanias. Even if the two games, once you sit down, are very different – that is a marketing issue. You’re going to be drawn into comparisons you might not want to make.

And as it became clear that Dead Cells would be reaching market in a similar timeframe to Chasm, I’m sure there was an overwhelming sense of frustration at Bit Kid games. But the game had been delayed so many times previously, there was no justifiable way the company could take another hit and press pause once more… Instead it found a fairly decent window that gave both games a modicum of breathing room. Chasm got out first, which was probably a good thing, but there was yet another twist in the tale to the release of Dead Cells that propelled the game’s marketing to heights Bit Kid and Motion Twin could never have foreseen.


If you keep tabs on the gaming industry, it’s a story you could not have missed. IGN, the biggest and best known game review website, had to take down its review of Dead Cells when it emerged that its chief Nintendo editor had plagiarized his review from a small – now slightly bigger – Youtube channel, Boomstick Gaming.

IGN promptly fired the editor in question for the major ethics violation, but unfortunately for the company, a closer look at the back catalogue of reviews found that the incident was far from a one-time thing. A whole host of plagiarized content had to be removed from the site.

It was big drama and it was big news. It was terrible terrible terrible for IGN… bu, for the developers at Motion Twin – well – they hit the jackpot in a way that could never have been anticipated.

Suddenly, Dead Cells was part of the number one story on every game website, on every forum, every podcast, and every Youtube channel. Everyone was talking about IGN’s review, and subsequently, everyone was talking about Motion Twin’s game. And of course, it didn’t take long in most conversations to get to the – “oh and by the way, Dead Cells is a really good game” – part of the debate either.

The amount of unpaid natural coverage and exposure Dead Cells received was phenomenal.

Whereas Chasm has less than 50,000 owners on Steam, Dead Cells has more than one million. Of course that’s not solely down to the IGN controversy – but damn. For those of us who believe in the power of marketing, and the effect and difference that we can make, it’s a humbling reminder that some things are just totally out of anyone’s control.

Big enough market?

So is there a big enough market to support a game like Chasm in the face of such intense competition. Yes. But I carefully posed that question as ‘is there’ rather than ‘was there’? You see, it’s an ongoing battle if you want to make an indie metroidvania game a success. The job is not over for Bit Kid. To reap the rewards of it endeavours and make the adventure worthwhile, Chasm needs to keep slowly and surely bringing in the cash over the next few years, ensuring more and more players slowly discover it by word of mouth and through sales on digital fronts.

The guys over at Bit Kid are certainly doing a great job of keeping the lights on post launch. And it makes sense. When something took you five years to make, you don’t just abandon it straight after its launch period. Especially when Chasm did not release to huge fanfare, swathes of positive reviews, or catch a news break like its competitors.

Chasm at this point has sold somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 copies on Steam. And it sells for £15 pounds. Of course steam gets a cut of that. And we don’t know how many copies of the game sold on PS4, Xbox, on the humble store, or on Nintendo Switch (where Chasm released in October of 2018, following the path so many other metroidvanias had trodden).

But if we very roughly estimate another 50,000 copies were sold on those platforms. Take away platform and publisher cuts, account for games purchased during sales, and you can start to take a rough guess at how the game has done. I think it’s safe to say the revenue for the game was pushing close to, if not over, one million – but it’s certainly not getting close to the tens of millions.

For a small studio, it’s likely enough to keep the lights on and adequately pay the developers for their five years of work. The company is unlikely to rapidly expand or grow off the back of Chasm, but as long as the game keeps bringing in a steady income, it should earn and learn enough from Chasm to come back with another project. I really hope so anyway.

Because even though it is a crowded market, it is a market that can support multiple games. We’re not talking about an audience exclusively of kids and teenagers, who to generalise for a second, are busy playing the latest battle royale game.

The target audience here is older. It’s an audience who have a disposable income. And they probably don’t have as much time as they would like to play games as they used too. A game at an accessible price range that doesn’t take 50 hours to play will be appealing to many such players.  

Chasm is not going to age badly in the next couple of years – after all, it’s already trading on nostalgia. The market might be rammed right now, but in the future, more players will be looking to scratch that metroidvania itch. And when they’re ready, Chasm will remain a viable option.

That’s why it’s very important Bit Kid doesn’t go quiet on Chasm while it works on whatever comes next. And so far it hasn’t, still answering questions about the project on Twitter and on Kickstarter. Bit Kid is still updating and improving the game, and posting monthly updates on its website. Perhaps the best example is the translation work the team has been undertaking in the last couple of months, expanding the appeal of the game to more foreign markets.

If metroidvanias are all about retracing your steps and going back to areas when you are stronger, so is the marketing of one in a crowded space. Bit Kid needs to keep going back to its potential audience, with stronger messages and with new tactics. It has to keep finding new players and keep grinding away to keep the fight alive.  

The Name Game: How important are video game names?

Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, developed by Psyonix, is an obscure game on the PS3 released in 2008. It’s a game in which cars play football.

Rocket League, developed by the same team, is a game released three years ago, first on PS4 and PC, then on Xbox One, followed by macOS and the Nintendo Switch. It’s still getting updated, has esports competitions every year, and has reportedly sold more than 10 million copies. It’s a game in which cars play football.

Can you see what I’m driving at?

The name of a video game is the first thing about it most people are ever going to see. It’s the first advertisement for a game and it’s what they will use to find your game on storefronts: there’s no doubt it has importance.

Now obviously, a lot more went into the success of Rocket League than just changing its name. The team at Psyonix were more experienced and made a better and more polished product. And the ecosystem in which games lived was vastly different too, with the emergence of esports and Twitch.


The question is, would Supersonic Acro – ah screw typing that again – SARPBC been a bigger success if it had the name Rocket League? And would Rocket League have struggled for exposure with a name like SARPBC?

Rocket league is just one example – a rather good one – of how influential the name of your game can be. Apart from not picking a name that’s incredibly hard to remember, to say, or to type into a storefront, what do developers need to keep in mind?

The naming process

The name of a game is going to be its single most referenced piece of marketing. Developers obviously don’t want it to be a turn off. They want it to be fun, interesting, catchy or simply cool. But they also want people to either get what kind of game it is right off the bat, or at least be intrigued enough to ask more questions about it.

When I spoke to developers about their own naming process, that seemed to be the major source of any heated exchanges in the ‘what do we call this thing’ debates. Developers are seeking to pick something that describes what their game is, but that’s still got an edge.

Titles like Farming Simulator and Train Simulator are literal names that have their place – but they are not going to work for everyone – most developers are aiming for the title of their game to evoke more. Adventure Simulator simply wouldn’t be as cool a name as Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

From a purely practical standpoint, it’s a lot harder for developers to talk to the outside world about their game if it doesn’t have a title. So in that sense, naming generally has to come pretty early in the process. It can be a headache inducing task, but the naming process can be a helpful exercise. It can help developers really understand what their own game is.

I spoke to Oli De-Vine of Ghost Town Games, creators of the local multiplayer cooking game, Overcooked, to learn about the process the studio took in naming the game. He told me why the game is called Overcooked (and not Local Multiplayer Cooking Game):  

Oli said:

“We came up with hundreds of names. We needed something short and that described at least the basic premise of the game. So to begin with you have to boil the game down to its most basic ideas, and accept you probably aren’t going to fully describe it, but just give a flavour.”

Boil the game down… a flavour… I see what you did there Oli…

Oli went on to say:

“[It’s a] cooking game in which things frequently go wrong. Originally we were trying to find a name that also got across that the game was local coop. Variations on “Recipes 4 Disaster” were one of our options, the other was “Too Many Cooks”.”

The title Overcooked does effectively evoke the right image. If you’ve ever played the game, you know things do tend to go very wrong very quickly, and that’s the fun. But the chaos largely comes from the difficulty of communicating effectively with your fellow chefs. From that perspective, I would argue Too Many Cooks is the better name. So why not that?

Well there’s simply a lot more to consider. In a vacuum, Too Many Cooks might be a better title, but not when you think about the practicalities of selling the game. Oli went on to explain:

“The main reason we didn’t go with those (Recipe 4 Disaster and Too Many Cooks) was googleability. One of the most important things in a name, really, when being brutally pragmatic, is that while you need people to remember it, that does no good unless they are able to write the name + “game” into google and find us as as close as possible to the top result.”

Too Many Cooks was actually the development name of the game Oli told me, but as I’m sure many you are aware, Adult Swim released the hugely popular viral video, Too Many Cooks back in 2014, two years before Overcooked. It’s not only other games your competing with for attention and discoverability, but the world at large. Too Many Cooks would have been far harder to compete for from an online SEO perspective. When people googled “Too Many Cooks”, there would have been a lot more competition.


Recipe 4 Disaster had similar discoverability issues, and personally, I would advise staying away from numbers in titles anyway. Unless it’s the ‘2’, ‘3’ or ‘4’ in a franchise’s sequel, it’s best avoided. Recipe 4 Disaster could see people search for ‘Recipe for Disaster’ or ‘Recipe four Disaster’. Numbers are a clunky way to go in this writer’s view.

Finally, Oli said:

“In the end we settled on calling the game Overcooked and put lots of chefs running around in the logo art itself in order to get the local coop aspect of the game across.”


Not everywhere will the name of your game get to be displayed in its logo format, but it certainly adds to its impact when it happens. Nevertheless, the title needs to be able to stand alone.

Likewise, developer John Common, from one-man team CSR Studios, told me about the process for naming his game and subsequent upcoming game, Dead Pixels and Dead Pixels II. Like Ghost Town Games, a title that summed up the basics of the game was important. At one point John was leaning towards a very literal title for his zombie side-scrolling shooter fest.

He said:

“Originally it was called 8-bit Zombie Sim. This got some negative feedback on a forum from people that didn’t like the game claiming to be 8-bit when it wasn’t. It had also moved to being more arcadey than sim.”

Interestingly, forums helped John rule out names, but also helped find the perfect one for him. On a different forum, when John tried out the name Dead Pixels it was a hit. He said:

“People seemed to really like it so I went with Dead Pixels…  A dead pixel being a common fault with an LCD monitor and the game having pixel art undead.”

For the sequel, John has gone with Dead Pixels II, but again it is a demonstration of sometimes having to sacrifice artistry for practicality. See John was keen to go with the title Dead Pixels Part II. The ‘part II’ would have fit into the aesthetic of the game (80’s horror flicks) beautifully. But John had concerns it would give the impression you had to play the first Dead Pixels game to appreciate this new game, which wasn’t the case.

Function over art

This function versus art debate seems to be the central struggle developers battle when picking a name. Just how literal do you go? A literal name might best describe quickly what your game does, but it could also easily be flat and frankly boring.

Publishers might push for names they feel best sell the game, while developers, who have worked on something for years and years might be keen to ensure their game gets a name worthy of their hard work. They want some uniqueness. It’s a delicate balance.

There are some literal names out there that I think are very good, both for indies and major titles. Call of Duty is simple, you know it’s a military game straight away, and it literally invites you back to play every time you say it. God of War is another good example.

It can also work for smaller indie games to take this approach. MineCraft might now be the biggest game of the last ten years, but as an indie its name clearly resonated. The title is literally the two most common actions you do in the game smashed together.

Most indies are not quite so on the nose with their titles. Take my favourite game of the year, Pyre, for example. Really, it doesn’t tell you anything about the game, it only makes sense once you start playing. You would have no idea it’s a narrative-driven, fantasy-sport, freedom-fighting game (okay I can see why they struggled for a literal approach).

What sells that game is not really the title, it’s the name of the studio. The guys at SuperGiant have earned their fan base, and maybe their right to name a game whatever the hell they want. They don’t have to worry too much about discoverability – people are actively looking for what’s next from them.


Figment is another good example of an indie not taking a too literal approach. I was able to talk to Emilie Mavel of Bedtime Digital who told me why the team settled on that name for what is a fairly story-driven, action adventure game, that happens to be set within the mind.

She said:

“The game was originally called Dream Factory – the setting had a slightly different angle back then. We had a lot of names in play at one point. I think the reason why Figment ended up winning was that it was simple and yet playful. It didn’t reference directly, but more indirectly and in a more playful way, the game’s concept – since the only place you actually use the word is in the phrase ‘figment of your imagination’.”

The name Figment gives you an idea about the setting and the feel of the game – but doesn’t take the approach of describing the actions you will be undertaking. It’s not too literal title, but fun and quirky, fitting the game’s aesthetics. When you google ‘Figment game’, it’s the first thing that pops up too. And search ‘Figment’ alone, it does just about appear on the first page. So no issue there really.

Figment’s title gives you an idea about the setting of the game, but now let’s talk about a game that is literally just named after its setting: The Sexy Brutale.

Until you play the game, the name is a real mystery. The Sexy Brutale is the name of the casino in which this fun little time-bending murder mystery game takes place. It’s a game with very unique gameplay, and as you can see, a very unique name.


I personally have no problem with games taking on adult themes or aiming for an adult audience – I welcome it in fact. But I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions between developer Cavalier Games Studios and publisher Tequila Works.

Surely such a name could turn off plenty of would be buyers, rejecting the game right out of hand. Perhaps some younger players who would have enjoyed it were prevented from playing by their parents based on the name alone.

I mean, it’s certainly a title that gives absolutely no hint of what the gameplay is like – yet – here I am discussing it having played it – and what made me try the game out in the first place? I saw the name in Steam and went ‘What the hell is that?’

You don’t have to look hard to find discussion and debate on the name on the social media accounts and forums related to the game. It undoubtedly become a discussion point that raised awareness of the game. From that perspective, job done really.

I wouldn’t advise it for every game, but once you play it, the name does fit the dark humour and themes. We’ll just call it a strategy for the bold.

Competition everywhere

Of course, with a name like The Sexy Brutale, you probably don’t have to worry too much about your name already being taken. But that’s another simple and practical thing developers have to consider. Is the name taken? Does it sound similar to anything else coming out? Is it trademarked already? Is it going to give my game unwanted associations when people google it? You don’t want your game to sound like a car or kitchen appliance. And perhaps most important of all these days: can you can get the social media accounts and URLs for it easily?

Theses are all things you will want to consider, and I would be surprised if the developers at Puny Astronaut didn’t do that for their game Skye. The developers at Puny Astronaut however have been faced with a major naming headache for their game that they had no way of anticipating.


You see Skye is a relaxed, exploration game aimed at kids. It’s a game inspired by the likes of Journey and Flower by That Game Company, mixed with more traditional game elements, like quests and characters. The issue Skye has is that one of the very companies that inspired the thinking at Puny Astronaut, went and announced its own project called, yep, Sky.

When the much bigger, more established, That Game Company, announced its similar sounding game in the same year Puny Astronaut was trying to get exposure for the its first big project, the marketing alarm bells were ringing.  Especially as Skye had already gone through one name change in May of 2017- it was originally going to be called Glaze.

I spoke to to the developers at an event last year just as the news of the competing game had hit, and the debate about maybe changing the name of their game was in full flow. They were worried their game would suffer to get attention, and miss out on traffic to the competitor. But changing the name obviously comes with major costs. It’s a headache, especially when you’ve just spent god knows how much time designing and creating the marketing material. On top of that, you’ve spent time building the brand in the minds of journalist and gamers. It’s not easy to throw all that work away.

At the time the company seemed resigned to a name change and they actually put the ideas for new names to a Twitter poll.

I wondered if the similar sounding names would actually be a disadvantage. Arguably it could help people find their game who might never have done so before. When people are looking for That Game Company’s game, they might stumble upon Puny Astronaut’s. That’s a bit of a gamble to take though and not really the way you want to achieve success. You don’t want to be those knock off DVD’s at the bottom of the basket – and Skye is a game with lots of potential to be great in its own right.

It won’t be until next year that Puny Astronaut releases its game, so there is still time for a name change if the studio decides that is best. Additionally, the game has had new investment from 4j Studios since, and the new publisher is likely to want to have its own say on the matter too.

At the moment, the game is still called Skye. I think as more news has come to light on That Game Company’s Sky, the concerns have begun to fade a bit. Sky is also only announced on iOS at the moment whereas Skye will be aiming for the console market – so the two don’t seem as if they will actually be in direct competition.

Will a bad name kill your game?

So how much does any of this really matter? Will a bad name stop your game from being a success. I would argue in the case of Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, yes, it is possible to get it so wrong that it stunts the potential of your game. In Danny O’Dwyers fantastic No Clip documentary on Rocket League, one developer, Corey Davis, described the decision as collective insanity. The name was so long, that some storefronts had to have custom code put in place for the game, just to fit the whole title in.

Whereas Rocket League, a major overnight success, has a good name. It’s a name that sounds like it’s going to be an exciting game, and the league part conveys the sports aspect of the game nicely. Combined with the logo, you’ve got a name worthy of the quality of the game.

However, let’s take two of the biggest surprise hits in the last year: Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.


I think they are both pretty terrible names.

Fortnite is the better of the two. It’s shorter and catchy. The fort part of the name somewhat conveys the gameplay. However, Fortnite’s main gameplay focus has shifted massively from what it originally was, so it’s easy to understand why the name now maybe doesn’t perfectly match the game. In fact, you now hear the developers refer to the game as Fortnite Battle Royale in much of its marketing.

I particularly dislike the intentional misspelling, but maybe that just makes it easier to find with the game’s target younger audience. Overall, I think it’s a just about passable name. The reason it didn’t kill the game, is it’s developed by Epic games, no small fish in the industry. It would have had to been a spectacularly bad name to stop the game from getting the requisite attention to succeed. And while not a great name in my opinion, it’s okay.

Turning to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds… well it conveys slightly better what kind of game you are getting into with the battlegrounds reference. But it’s such a mouthful and is not catchy in the slightest. I still stumble over the words when I say it out loud. That it’s becoming affectionately known as PUBG – which is much easier and catchier to say – is both a plus and minus in marketing terms.

Unlike Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground was originally developed by a small South Korean developer, Bluehole, led by Brendan Greene. It’s a fascinating story how the game grew in popularity that I don’t have time to tell here. But successful use of early access, a small but strong reputation for Greene’s work, excellent use of platforms such as twitch, and amazing word of mouth allowed PUBG to come from nowhere and take the industry by storm. Add in the publishing power houses that have got involved since, and the game has not struggled for exposure.

So they are both pretty bad names, but as we all know, neither have been held back by them too much. Rest assured developers, there is a lot more than the choice of name that goes into making your game a success. It seems like a bad name can be overcome if your game is good enough, gets some social media traction or catches the zeitgeist in a big way.  

So what? It doesn’t matter?

No, the name of your game still matters massively because a bad name can throw up barriers you don’t need. Unfortunately though, I would argue it mostly matters for smaller and first time developers. Take something like Horizon Zero Dawn, not a good name in my book. But it’s a playstation exclusive from Guerilla, it was never going to suffer for attention.  

If you’ve got a lot of other things already going for you, I don’t think the name of the game is too important, with the caveat that it has to be at least passable. It can’t be so complex, long, clumsy, vulgar or confusing that it kills your game before it ever gets off the ground. All the bigger developers have to do is pick something passable.

The upside is that a really good name can help both the big and especially the small developers. A good name can help give a launch a bit of an extra boost with journos, Google, gamers and on storefronts. But the effect is limited. As one of my favourite comedians and author of many a good rant, David Mitchell, says when talking about naming the hit channel 4 sitcom, Peep Show:

“Titles are difficult but I think, basically, they don’t matter. Once a show is up and running, the title loses any significance… Usually, after a while, the title just refers to the show and carries with it the feelings or associations of that. You stop wondering if it’s a good title in the same way that you never stop to think whether ‘carrot’ is a good name for a carrot. No one would ever say: ‘Carrot, ooh I’m not sure – doesn’t seem very carroty somehow. Doesn’t say carrot to me. Wouldn’t “splandeb” conjure up something orange and pointed more effectively?’”

So in that way, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds might be a terrible name the first time you hear it – but now when someone says, “fancy a game of PUBG?”, My mind thinks of exciting and tense battles as I struggle to be the last man standing, and not what the fuck does PlayerUnknown’s mean?

Still, naming your creative works is no easy task. Get it terribly wrong and your project might not get off the ground in the first place, it might not live long enough to get to the point where what it is called no longer matters.

I had the dilemma myself just naming this piece. Do I go with a title that I think will catch people’s attention, make them laugh, or intrigue them?

I could reference the great wordsmiths of history:

“What’s in a name?” – William Shakespeare – too obvious

“What’s the name of the game?” – Abba – oooo that’s good (and got me singing)

Or I could go with a title that has nothing but google and search-ability in mind:

“How to pick your video game name” – Exciting stuff I’m sure you will agree!

And of course, if I want this to be shared on social media:

“You’ll never believe what these crazy cats called their game”

The point is: there’s lots to consider when naming something creative you’ve worked on. You don’t want to get it wrong, whether you’ve been working on it for just a day, a week or especially if it has been years in development.

I can only imagine the stress naming a game must bring on developers. And what’s the reward if you get it right at the end? Huge critical success and massive sales?


Once you’re up and running – it doesn’t really matter anymore. No game has ever reached the top of the charts because its name was cool… the name might give it a head start, but that is where the edge ends.

The name game is cruel. There are no winners, only losers. In the name game, it only matters when you get it wrong. The right name just gives you the platform to build a successful project. Really, the name game is level 1, it’s the easy bit.

It’s the stuff that comes after, you know, designing a good game. That’s still the bit that really matters. For example, if you got to the end of this piece, I hope it was because of the content, not my title.

What Remains of Edith Finch? How to Sell a Walking Simulator That isn’t One

*SPOILERS ahead for What remains of Edith Finch? and Gone Home*

What remains of Edith Finch? is a game that puts you in the shoes of Edith Finch and much of her family. You walk the many characters through key moments of their lives, and ultimately, their deaths. It sure as hell sounds like a game that belongs in the ‘Walking Simulator’ genre of games.


Walking simulators are perhaps best described as games that are usually shorter in length, and focus on environmental storytelling as you explore a game world.

But the developers and publishers of Edith Finch never went out of their way to market it on that premise. And in fact, it is a game with over 10 different gameplay sections, all with their own unique control schemes. Sure you spend a decent portion of the game ‘walking’ through the Finch family home, but the rest of the time you are thrust into smaller stories doing something entirely different.

Nevertheless, from the moment the game was announced, ‘walking simulator’ was the context in which the game was written and talked about. When your game is labelled something that you don’t necessarily think it is, what do you do? And how do go about marketing and selling it?


Thankfully, I think we’ve reached a point in which the label walking simulator has lost its negative connotations for the majority of people who enjoy games. I certainly don’t wish to use it pejoratively in this case study – I have enjoyed quite a few games that fit the genre.

Those who use it as an insult, I imagine, are people who would slap an ice cream out your hand because you ordered a flavour they don’t like. You don’t have to like the genre, but to get upset abouts its existence is beyond silly. The games you love are going nowhere.

So, I doubt the developers at Giant Sparrow or the publisher, Annapurna Interactive, were ever offended their game was framed as a ‘walking simulator’, but it does present a unique challenge. When your game is pigeonholed into a genre to which it maybe doesn’t necessarily belong, what do you do?

It could be a good thing. The categorisations give you a clear audience to target:

“Hey if you liked Gone Home or Firewatch, come play our game.”

But at the same time, what about those people who don’t like those games? Your game is a bit different to what they might have in mind – so how do you get them to give it a shot?

What is Edith Finch?

First off, if Edith Finch isn’t necessarily a ‘walking simulator’ – what is it?

What Remains of Edith Finch? Is a game where, to begin with, you play as Edith FInch returning to her abandoned family home. As you/she explores the bedrooms of each family member, the gameplay switches up and you play out the last moments of that family member’s life in varied different ways. In one scenario you might be a little girl who is pretending to be different animals, or a father taking camping trip pictures, or a teenage boy working in a factory while completely lost in his own imagination.


Really, Edith Finch is just a game without traditional game-like elements. There’s no combat, no competition, no way to fail, and no stats to boost or analyse. In that way it is very similar to other games placed in the walking simulator genre.

But here’s what Ian Dallas, the Creative lead from Giant Sparrow, had to say on one of the many occasions when he was asked if the game is a walking simulator?

“In our case though, I guess it does feel a bit strange to describe What Remains of Edith Finch as a “walking simulator” because you do so, so much more in this game than walking. Which isn’t necessarily true for a lot of games in this genre, that are happy to focus entirely on just exploring an environment.”

Gameplay wise then, it’s half walking simulator, half something entirely different; a collection of little experiences – all with different but intuitive control schemes.

More of the story is revealed to you as you walk through the Finch house in the form of narration and diary entries that magically appear in the environment. That approach and feel does make it feel similar to others in the genre, but some would say that it’s the focus on story more than anything else that links the game to the walking simulator genre.


That’s what games like Gone Home or Firewatch are all about – uncovering what has happened through environmental storytelling and narration.

Interestingly enough though, accordingly to Ian Dallas, the story is what came last when creating the game. It’s not a game that was made with the uncovering of Edith’s story at its heart. It’s a game about small vignettes that all link to an overarching theme and concept: The universe is strange and beyond our comprehension, but (real life spoiler) all roads eventually lead to death.

Ian Dallas in a Reddit AMA said:

“We don’t start out trying to tell a story. We’re trying to evoke feelings that we ourselves don’t entirely understand, like “what I remember about being on a swingset as a child”, and the story doesn’t come until the game itself is pretty far along.”


“I have a hard time getting into games that are primarily narrative driven. For me as a player, that’s not what draws me into those worlds. I’m less interested in story per se, than I am in the more visceral side of experience.”

So overall, ‘walking simulator’ is probably a good shorthand for describing the game. It gets people on the same page, but then if you delve down a bit deeper, it’s not the best descriptor. There’s so much about the gameplay experience that’s different to others in the genre – and whether that’s good or bad is entirely your own personal opinion.


Not being able to pin down exactly what Edith Finch is, I imagine actually pleases the creators at Giant Sparrow in a way. It might make their games harder to sell, but it’s somewhat its company goal:

“Giant Sparrow is focused on creating surreal experiences people have never had before. Our dream is to make the world a stranger, more interesting place.”

Switching Publisher

And if that’s Giant Sparrow’s stated aim – then they’ve landed with the perfect publisher for their goals. Annapurna bought the rights for the game from Sony a couple years into development. Annapurna’s mission statement is:

“To promote personal, emotional, and innovative games that explore the artistry and diversity of the medium.”


Of course, Giant Sparrow’s one and only previous game, The Unfinished Swan, was published and funded by Sony as a Playstation exclusive. When Edith Finch was first revealed, it too was set to be another Playstation only title.

But things have changed a lot since the release of Unfinished Swan in 2012. Back then I think it was fair to say Sony was chasing its competitors a bit, and as such, it wasn’t afraid to take a chance on smaller titles and embrace indies.

Bring on the huge success of the PS4, and while it would be harsh to say Sony has turned its back on indie developers, that segment is certainly not as important to the company as it used to be – its priorities now lie in the bigger titles and deals like Destiny 2. It no longer needs to take as many risks on smaller titles.

In the end, the sell to Annapurna Interactive was best for everyone involved. Annapurna has found success as a small independent producer of movies, such as Her and Zero Dark Thirty. In recent years it has expanded into the gaming world and actually taken a lot of talent from Sony Santa Monica studios to run that division of the company.

Industry veterans like Deb Mars and Nathan Gray made their way over to Annapurna. In fact, most of the producers Giant Sparrow had been working with at Sony had largely moved over to Annapurna – so it only made sense for the game to go with them.

Ian Dallas in a Reddit AMA said:

“In a way, staying at Sony actually would have been stranger, since we would have had to get used to a whole new set of producers.”

Leaving Sony also opened up some doors for Edith Finch. While initially announced as a Playstation exclusive at a PSX event in 2014, the switch allowed Edith Finch to simultaneously launch on Steam as well. A few months later, the game was also launched on the Xbox one.

So how did Annapurna sell the game?

So what did Annapurna do in order to to sell its ‘walking simulator’ that isn’t a ‘walking simulator’. They could have gone the full Tyrion Lannister approach. Forgive me if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, but the charismatic little dwarf from the Ice and Fire series tells Jon Snow the bastard:

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

One route for the game’s marketing could have been to have fully embraced its walking simulator status – but I don’t think it ever went out of its way to do that. Let me give you a key example.

Both when the game was in the hands of Sony and then later Annapurna, trailers were released for the game that very clearly tell anyone who’s paying attention that all the characters are going to die at the end of their stories. It’s something that’s immediately obvious as you start playing the game and look at your journal anyway. But I don’t think it’s something a traditional walking simulator, focused on narrative, would do in its trailers. I can’t imagine the Gone Home trailer ending with – ‘oh by the way – my sis is a lesbian’’

Even the name of the game – What remains of Edith Finch? – it doesn’t sound exactly like she’s going to make it to the end now does it? And in interviews during the game’s release, the death of each character was never kept secret, but explicitly talked about. I don’t think a traditional walking simulator focussed on uncovering a story would go with that title or that approach in the trailer and interviews.


It’s fair to say Annapurna and Giant Sparrow didn’t embrace the genre. For further example, Ian Dallas in one interview confirmed he never even played Gone Home, not wanting to be influenced by another game that on face value has a similar concept, a girl returning to a family home.

That might make you think they deliberately went out of their way to distance the game from the genre – but that’s not really the case either.

A sensible, agnostic and neutral approach is the route Annapurna and Giant Sparrow took. They never shied away from the topic but never looked to bring it upon themselves either. They were very clearly prepared, ready and happy to answer questions regarding the walking simulator label – and aimed to try and attract both walking simulator fans and those who might not find those games the most interesting. In the Xbox one AMA release, Ian Dallas put it like this:

“Our game LOOKS like a traditional “walking simulator” but that’s just the framing story.

“You could think of it as a “walking simulator for people who don’t like walking simulators. Our intent was to tell each of these stories through the gameplay mechanics, so rather than just being told a story as a player you’re actually living out all these different experiences and in each story you’re interacting with the world from a new perspective and in a new way.”

Telling the right story at the right time

In fact – the way Annapurna sold this game was pretty traditional actually. They did nothing unique or special on the social media that’s for sure. The Annapurna and Giant Sparrow Twitter accounts are both fairly quiet. The Facebook page for the game couldn’t be quieter, it’s not been posted on since 2014.

And Giant Sparrow’s site was updated every now again throughout the 4 years of development but nothing major and certainly with no regularity.

In terms of using streamers and let’s play there’s little evidence Annapurna went out of its way to encourage such content. To be fair, the game is only a short experience, and there are legitimate concerns that for shorter experience games, such content doesn’t neccessairly encourage people to buy they game but rather discourage, becasue they have already seen what the game has to offer.

What Annapurna did well, was get Ian Dallas, the creative force behind the game, a lot of publicity and exposure around the release of the game. The guy did interviews all over the web, with traditionally big gaming sites and the smaller ones. They also managed to get some exposure on sites outside the traditional gaming world and in publications with a wider cultural spectrum – such as Rolling Stone magazine. The reddit AMAs at the initial launch and then again during the XBox one launch where the best example of non-traditional marketing – but even then – they were achieving the same goal of getting the interesting and talented Ian Dallas in front of as many eyes as possible when the game hit stores.


Until the late build up to release, we really heard little from Giant Sparrow and In many ways I think it was smart move. It’s a little bit of a less is more approach. How much of a story have Annapurna really got to tell about its own game?

It’s not like it’s the next Elder Scrolls or Halo. It’s a short game, with not that many different systems, and aspects to unveil. Something like Elder scrolls could have one big marketing push about its storyline, another about its combat system, a third about its morale system, and so on and so on. They can build the excitement slowly and get players excited.

But for Edith Finch, it was better to hold off and unleash at the right time, rather than talk about everything that was interesting about the game too early. Giant Sparrow commanded enough respect and attention because of the success of The Unfinished Swan to take the risk of holding back somewhat. When they did come to the press, they found they were willing to listen, which is certainly not true of many other indie studios.

But if Ian Dallas and Annapurna had been giving interviews every 6 months, what would they really have left to say when crunch time came? There are not that many stories to tell about the development of the game and the game itself. You don’t want to give away every twist and surprise – the most fun I had with the game personally was anticipating what the next scenario I was thrown into would be. And with Ian Dallas spearheading the creative direction pretty single handedly of the game, you don’t want to tell his story too early either – because it’s a fascinating one. I recommend checking out some of the many interviews he did and AMAs.

All I would say is that it would have been good if, in these interviews, Ian Dallas had a strong online presence to send people back to – whether it be a twitter account or active developer website.

Bits and bobs

Why oh why does this game not have a platinum trophy on the PS4? I won’t bang the same drum over and over I’ve banged before… but a platinum trophy is an easy way to attract more players to your game – especially if it’s achievable like it most certainly would be in this game. Two things about the lack of a trophy really perplex me:

  • The lack of a platinum trophy feeds into the bullshit argument that walking simulators or smaller games aren’t real games. They are, they can be great, and they should have platinums just like every other release.
  • If the team at Annapurna, full of ex-Sony employees can’t get a platinum for its smaller games but ★★★★★ 1000 Top Rated can – a game explicitly sold purely on the premise of being a quick and easy platinum – What the hell is going on at Sony? The situation is so mismanaged.

Again, here’s Ian Dallas in one of his AMAs on the subject:

“I just asked our QA lead and our Annapurna producer and they said we don’t have a Platinum trophy because “we were not allowed to.”

As a small scale game, Sony’s policy is that we should deny our fans the satisfaction of a Platinum trophy. Those are just my words, btw, I think Sony’s official documentation phrases it slightly differently.”

A nod too far

In Edith Finch, you uncover the fate of many of the the Finch family members – and one character you don’t explicitly play as, actually has the most interesting ending. The disappearance of Milton, Edith’s brother, is perhaps the fate most hinted at throughout the game using a more traditional walking simulator style – newspapers with headlines about his disappearance are among the first things you stumble upon in the game.

Near the game’s end, when you find Milton’s room, you are not granted a gameplay experience that tells his story like the other characters, but you are just left an abandoned room to explore. It seems Milton liked to paint. The paintings will be very familiar to those who played The Unfinished Swan. Eventually you find a flipbook that suggests that Milton entered one of his paintings, hinting that he is ‘The King’ character from Giant Sparrow’s first title. And Ian Dallas straight up confirmed the link between the games as canon in his AMA.


It’s a really cool easter egg and nod to players of the first game. I enjoyed it – but I’ve played The Unfinished Swan. I’m fascinated how this part of the game must have played out for people who hadn’t played The Unfinished Swan. Describing the experience as alienating might be a stretch too far, but I can only imagine it was a bit confusing to say the least.

For players on Steam and Xbox one, they are unlikely to have played The Unfinished Swan, so I can’t help feeling such a big easter egg was a confusing conclusion for a character who had enjoyed a high profile build up within the game. It seems a strange approach to me – even though I actually quite enjoyed it myself.

The walking simulator path to success

What Remains of Edith Finch? currently sits on a metacritic score of 89. On Steam, 70,000 people own the game – and on Playstation, it has a completion rate of 84 per cent, which is unusually high. People certainly like the game. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how truly successful games are unless the people who make them come right out and tell you- it’s an esoteric and tight-lipped industry.

Nevertheless – to my mind, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that found success with a fairly traditional marketing strategy. It really is a game like no other, but it managed to strike a good balance – attracting both those that have played and enjoyed walking simulators before and plenty of those that have not.

MAD MAX: Escaping the Big Nothing

Mad Max was released in 2015 after years of rights battles, false starts and tortured development. It captured everything about Mad Max that made it so popular in the first place: it was gritty, ruthless and gruesomely fascinating. It was filled to the brim with bombastic car action and amazing desert visuals. It explored both the madness of a post-apocalyptic world, and the madness within Max.

At this point I could have been talking about either George Miller’s film, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, or Avalanche Studio’s game, ‘Mad Max’, released some four months later. But now the road diverges.

MAD-max-v-mad-maxFury Road was an outstanding critical and commercial success. It grossed more than $350 million worldwide and was nominated for 10 academy awards, winning in six categories.

The game, commercially, posted no such high numbers. It won no awards of particular note, and it got somewhat lost in the noise of a year full of more popular open world games.

So why was Mad Max, the game, a project that could not hit the same commercial and critical heights as the movie? What, if anything, went wrong in its marketing? And what could be done about it?

Development hell

The Mad Max Game was not in development limbo as long as the 4th movie in the series, but it had no easy road to launch either. The story of how the game came to be developed and published by Avalanche studios is a long one, and has been told better elsewhere. But to give you the top level version:

Cory Barlog, a director of the hugely successful God Of War games, struck up a friendship with George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, back in 2008. Together they worked on a couple of ideas for a Mad Max game that never quite made it off the ground.

Later, Barlog started working as a consultant for the Swedish Avalanche Studios and introduced the idea of Mad Max game. Despite the end of Barlog’s work with the company and his departure to Crystal Dynamics in 2012, the idea and project stuck with Avalanche.  

Avalanche-and-WBAvalanche Studios eventually received approval to develop the game, with Warner Brothers, also responsible for the latest edition of the movie franchise, playing the role of publisher. Thus, the game was duly announced at E3 2013 for Xbox One, PS4, Microsoft Windows, PS3 and Xbox 360.

Lesson learned

That’s the simple version of the story, the game at other times was close to being developed and published elsewhere, but I think – in the circumstances – Warner Brothers and Avalanche Studios were a good marriage for the game.

With the Mad Max movie on its way too, it made sense for the company behind its distribution to take on the publishing role for the game too. And Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment had a good pedigree of working with already established IP that had a movie running alongside the production of a game.

Thankfully we live in a time where poor quality and rushed-to-market movie tie-in games are not the regular occurrence they once were. Warner Brothers and RockSteady’s, Batman Arkham Asylum, is one of the games I would give the most credit for that.


At the height of the extremely successful Christopher Nolan Batman franchise, Warner invested in a game that could stand on its own merits and capitalise on the brand and popularity of Batman, without being tied to the production schedule of the movies. It had made that mistake with Batman Begins, a poorly received game tied to the first movie. Instead, there were no limitations imposed on the production schedule, design, or story of Batman Arkham Asylum. The game got a bunch of sequels which tells you all you need to know about how successful the approach was.

The same principle was applied to the Mad Max franchise. There would be connections between the game and the new movie, but in no way were the creative decisions and production schedule of Avalanche dictated by the other. This was the studio’s own take on Max and his world. In one interview with Venturebeat, Peter Wyse, the Vice President of Production and Development at Warner Bros put it as clear as you could want:

“It’s a lesson we’ve taken to heart at Warner Bros. We don’t build games that are based on movies.”

Making a game not tied to the film gave it the best chance to live or die on its own merits, but wouldn’t sacrifice the branding bonus and zeitgeist the movie could add.

Enough pretenders

The Mad Max movies of the 70’s and 80’s were full of mood and atmosphere. They really dropped you into a strange and compelling world. For that reason, an open world game was always going to be the genre of choice for a game based on the franchise – here was a chance to drop you into George Miller’s crazy world.


And of course, over the years, the post-apocalyptic environment has been a favourite setting of open world games. Many have been directly influenced by the Mad Max films of the 70’s and 80’s: it’s there for all to see in games like ‘Fallout’, ‘Rage’ and ‘Borderlands’. It therefore feels only right that the Mad Max franchise got its own attempt at the genre. With so many imitating and paying homage, it deserved a shot.

As such, not only did Warner Brothers seem a sensible publisher of choice for the project, but, the same could be said for Avalanche Studios.  

In Avalanche Studios you have a development team with tons of experience and know-how in creating open world games. The over-the-top, frantic, and open world of the ‘Just Cause’ franchise is Avalanche’s bread and butter.

Big nothings

In Mad Max, you’re given a huge desolate world to play within. When you try to go beyond the barriers set by the developers, you’re greeted with a big flashing message:



If you keep heading that way, your health depletes and it’s ‘GAME OVER’.

Every open world game has its own version of this mechanic, a way of keeping you within its walls. But some open world games feel like you’ve entered the ‘Big Nothing’ right off the bat. We’ve all played a game where it feels like the developers have obsessed about creating a huge world, but forget to fill it with anything interesting or engaging gameplay wise. You end up wondering why the game needed to be open world in the first place, with the gameplay in no way improved by the design choice.

Is Mad Max one of those games? Well, yes and no.

Emergent car combat

Mad Max has gameplay and core ideas that make sense for an open world. For a start, one of the main focuses of the game is your car, the Magnus Opus. You spend a great deal of time in it, and when you’re not, a lot of the time you’re collecting the resources that allow you to improve it and customise it to your exact liking. This focus on the car, the thing you use to get around the open world is a great design choice.


In so many open world games, the moment a fast travel option become available, you can easily find yourself skipping the journey between point A and point B, basically creating your own series of levels. Mad Max does have fast travel, but – much more than other games –  you don’t use it.

Instead you want to go on that journey yourself, because you’ve just spent an hour collecting resources and upgrading your car. You don’t want to just look at a loading screen to get to your next objective, you want to put your new upgrades and look to the test.

That feedback loop is good design, and helps justifies the need for the game to be open world in the first place.

Secondly, the world of Mad Max is meant to be a desolate place. In many games the impression of a busy and lively world is created. But around every corner is a door you can’t open, a building that can’t be explored or another mindless NPC. Picking a desolate environment helps avoid that disconnect. There’s less in the world than in other games, but everything you do find in the desolate landscape: outposts, sniper towers, large camps, wastelanders and enemy vehicles, can all be played with. Nothing is just for show.


And it’s that last one, the enemy vehicles, that is the most fun. Mad Max’s car combat delivers great emergent action. You get great cinematic car battles. You rub wheels at high speed, dodge and escape from certain death, and blow your enemies into smithereens. They’re not set pieces or scripted events, but exciting bits of action that come about naturally and often.The car combat delivers exciting emergent gameplay that makes the open world design choice rewarding.

A litany of available upgrades to Max, the car and the camps you discover – plus plenty of side missions – keep the player busy with lots to do in the world. And some solid hand-to-hand combat and exploring on foot mix-up the gameplay. But there is no denying the car is the star of this game and the open world.

Too much?

From a marketing point of view, Mad Max also needed to be an open world game – that’s what the franchise lends itself to and the developers did a good job delivering gameplay that justifies the decision. My criticism would actually just be: bloody hell, they delivered a lot of it.

Ever since GTA 3, open world games have somewhat ruled the AAA space. A battle of escalation has ensued with developers competing to make ever bigger and bigger game worlds. In the year Mad Max came out, Metal Gear Solid 5, Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 all hit shelves as well. Mad Max was probably the smallest of the four, but completing it 100 per cent would still take 50+ hours easily.


Mad Max’s open world is good, but it’s not that good. And it’s arguably not as good or as engaging as those competitors. Eventually the tasks become repetitive and the lustre wears off. There is only so many mines one can disarm and camps one can clear before they become chores. Although that’s not a problem unique to Max I must add. But all those other open world games which released in the same year were more successful commercially and critically. They were bigger fish and IP to compete with. Mad Max is a huge franchise, but it’s not like the core gamer audience is of an age that grew up with the movies.

I played Mad Max for 37 hours, and I have to admit, those last 10 hours were just so I could say I completed the main story missions before writing this. I’m not alone in struggling to find the motivation to see the game to the end.

On the PS4 version of the game, only 0.9 per cent of players have achieved the platinum trophy that would indicate they did everything the game had to offer. There are five acts to the game but only 51 per cent of players completed up to act two. That figure almost halved again for the final act of the game, with just 27 per cent seeing the main story to the end, on PS4 at least.

Such a low completion rate is not uncommon in the video game industry. In fact, the trophy rate for completing Fallout 4’s main quest is 29.9 per cent; Witcher 3’s is 30 per cent; and Metal Gear Solid 5’s is as low as 19.9 per cent. Even story-based games don’t have much higher completion rates. In Uncharted 4, only 41 per cent of players have actually seen the story to the end. But for more than half of users to not even complete half the game seems a particularly high dropout rate.

It seems crazy that so much development time is being sunk into sections of games that a majority of players will never even see. What would happen though, if one of these big open world games dared to make a game half the size? Would there be an audience for a ‘budget’ open world game? Half the size, half the things to do and half the price – but with fewer players burning out before they get to the end. A game in which players actually see everything worthwhile seeing.

So why do developers make games so big?

Developers must know that games are completed by such a small proportion, so why are so many seemingly obsessed with size? Do they make them so big because it’s simply not that hard to anymore? Once you’ve made a base template for a camp or a mission, is it easy in the code to replicate that as many times as you want and just re-skin it? Then you can put a more impressive number or slogan on the back of the box:

‘Our biggest and best – living and breathing – open world yet!’

Well for Mad Max, it doesn’t seem to be the case that making an open world is just easy. In one interview game director Frank Rooke said:

“A lot of effort – and expense, I should add – went into creating unique locations. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of creating templates and just popping them around. We couldn’t do that – everything had to feel like it was unique and fresh, made with purpose in that location, with its own story to tell. To me, that’s what makes it fun to go out and explore.”

No, that’s not it then – making these huge worlds such as Mad Max is no easy or quick task.

Here’s what I think it is: developers are ambitious, creative and want to makes games they want to play. When you play a game that’s so engaging, so deep, and incredibly fun to be in, you devour every last bit of content, and spend 200+ hours in it. There’s no better experience than that in gaming. The people who have the platinum trophy in open world games will be fans of those studios for life. Developers want to make that experience.

However, are there enough of these kind of gamers? Way less than half of the audience got close to seeing even just all the main quests in Mad Max. In a year when so many other competitors tried to capture the same audience, would a smaller game and a shorter production time have been a wiser choice?

I actually bought the game a year after its release (hence the timing of this post-mortem) for £20. After 25 hours, I was very happy with my purchase. I’d cleared about roughly half the game world and had a good time doing it, but I certainly felt no compulsion to see it through to the end. I got burned out trying to obsessively remove every objective and task off the world map.


That compulsion consumed me and I discarded the main story. A main story that I have to say was decent and compelling when I did go back and complete it for the purpose of this case study. The size of the open world actually stops people seeing some of the best the game has to offer. Instead they are clearing yet another camp.

Why not deliver the small something?

I’m not saying Avalanche studios made a glaring error here. But with hindsight, it would have been fascinating to see someone do something entirely different to its competitors in that hectic year of open world games. The developer could say:

“We’re delivering you the same open world gaming experience – but ours is half the size, and half the price. You’ll have time to finish it and you’ll save money”

I’m incredibly intrigued by how that would do in the market. How would a publisher go about selling that idea to its audience? Would the market completely reject it out of hand? Once you label your own game as ‘budget’ – are you limiting your success before you even start. Maybe if you don’t value it, why should the gamer?

It of course would not please everyone, but as the gaming public starts to skew older and older, with less dropping the hobby as they reach adulthood, there is potentially an audience who want the open world experience, but just don’t have the same amount of time they did when they younger. A smaller and manageable open world could be a key differentiator in the market and lead to a winner.

You only have to look at the two biggest games of this year to see that the open world genre is going nowhere: ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ and ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld’. There’s a place for those kind of games, and Mad Max could have been one of them. But in such a competitive year, Mad Max struggled to gain attention.

It would be harsh to say Avalanche studio delivered a ‘Big Nothing’ of a game, but I would have loved to see how a definite ‘small something’ would have turned out.

What could have been?

Now hindsight is 20/20, but there are a couple of other reasons a smaller game could have worked in Mad Max’s favour from a marketing point of view. As it was, the marketing campaign for the game was lacklustre. If the studio had made a smaller game, first and foremost, the game could have had a shorter and cheaper production time, and subsequently released sooner, before the huge amount of open world competition.

In the end, the game was delayed, and the versions for previous generation consoles were actually cancelled too. It was just PS4, Xbox one and PC now. A smaller game might have allowed for those versions to survive, but maybe more importantly, also allowed the game to release closer to Mad Max: Fury Road.

When it came to researching this, I expected to find a lot more evidence of cross marketing between the two. But it very much felt like both were left to their own devices, despite the Warner Brothers link.

The film was received very well, and I would argue the five month release gap prevented the game from capitalising effectively on the zeitgeist and brand. Despite this criticism, overall I still praise Avalanche and Warner Brothers for not making a crappy tie-in game. It’s best to release a game when it’s ready, not when external factors, like the production of a movie, demand. But if they had made a smaller game, they could maybe have had the best of both worlds.  

There would have been another huge benefit of releasing the game earlier. I’ve mentioned the fact 2015 was a hugely competitive year for open world games at ad nauseum. But what I’ve failed to mention yet, which only compounds the point, is that Avalanche released another open world game of it’s own just three months after Mad Max.


‘Just Cause 3’ was released in October 2015. This was the established franchise that proved Avalanche were a good studio to go with for an open world game. Asking their audience to buy two open world games in such a short space of time, doesn’t feel like something that could ever have been the initial plan. Avalanche essentially ate it’s own lunch. Much of its established base audience were always going to prefer the sequel to a successful franchise, over a revival of a 70’s franchise. Why not release Just Cause 3 in the first quarter of 2016 at least and give Mad Max more breathing space and attention.

I like to delve in and analyse the social media accounts of the games that are the focus of these case studies. But, the twitter for Mad Max was honestly quite unnoteworthy, apart from one thing. In mid December of 2015, the twitter account essentially died. When Just Cause 3 came out, activity simply stopped.

While the account was not particularly doing anything brilliant on the marketing front while it was active, it’s early demise is not a good sign. Presumably, Avalanche’s marketing efforts and resources switched over to Just Cause. Again, showing maybe why it was unwise to release two of its game so close to each other.

What really happened?

I’ve talked enough about what could have happened if Mad Max had taken a different approach and released at a different time. But what did it do with the situation it did have in terms of marketing?

Well honestly, nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing that stands out as particularly effective. The game had moderate mainstream coverage, such as a game informer cover; it was reviewed by all the major outlets; and a handful of people’s Twitch streams were promoted by the social media team.


It had a sponsorship deal and competition with Rockstar energy drink. I personally don’t really understand the constant energy drink sponsorship games get. I would love to investigate that a little more deeply at some point. I mean, how effective can these really be – I’ve yet to discover any convincing evidence.

The competition reward was pretty cool, you got to drive a big scary Mad Max car inspired from the game. You entered using codes found on the energy drink’s caps. The Rockstar energy drink facebook page has more than 2 million likes. But the views on the Youtube channel of the grand final of the competition only has 1,800 views. That’s frankly pants, and suggest the deal was not worth it in terms of exposure. I don’t know the number of people who watched it when it was first live-streamed to be fair, but it didn’t seem to set the social media game world alight.

Lastly, on the marketing front, there is a hidden away video on Avalanche Studios website – not the website for the game itself. The TV show, West Coast Cars, a sort of evolution of Pimp My Ride, built the Magnus Opus car from the game. The car they built is pretty awesome. But the video is not of the highest production value, and clearly didn’t reach a huge audience. That video has 48,000 views. It’s a cool idea for a bit of marketing, but not brilliantly executed in all honestly. Maybe that’s why it’s hidden away in the first place.


Missed opportunity

I’m a big believer on this site that the industry should be doing more for disabled gamers. A simple change in attitude and approach to development is all that is needed to ensure disabled gamers can enjoy a game from start to finish. If you plan for it at the beginning of development, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Mad Max is a game I really wish had included more disability control scheme options for the game. A customisable control scheme is always a good place to start but Mad Max lacked those options. And there a few moments in the game which require repeated button mashing, which is a known challenge that some disabled games struggle with. Uncharted 4 for example, has an option to replace button mashing sequences with a button hold instead. I hope these kind of options start to become standard for all games in the next few years.


The reasons it’s a disappointment in Mad Max’s case in particular however, is the content of the game itself deals with disability so well. Something the entire Mad Max franchise has done well in fact. There are so many characters in the game, including Max, who have a disability (Max’s leg is in a brace and he has a myriad of limping animations in the game).

Not one of the characters in the game is defined by their disability – it’s never who they are. Tauriq Moosa, writing for Polygon, put it better than I ever could – I recommend his article highly. For a game that dealt with disability so progressively and sensitively, it’s frustrating that considerations for disabled players seems to have been overlooked.

Escaping the big nothing

Mad Max is a game I really quite enjoyed. A year after release, in a quiet period for games, I was really happy with the £20 I spent on it. At full retail price, at a time when so many other open world games hit the market, I’m not so sure I would have been as happy with my purchase. Maybe I would have been better off spending it elsewhere. I think that’s the conclusion many gamers came to in that crowded 2015.

I think Avalanche studio made a lot of objectively good logical decisions. They built a game independent of the film and its timeline, they choose a genre that worked for the franchise, and they made a game that they would like to play themselves. I think they did what is standard accepted practice in the industry – apart from releasing Just Cause 3 a few months later – that decision still baffles somewhat.  

However, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m really intrigued what the market’s response to something different would have been. Rather than another game that feels like a big nothing, what would happen if someone delivered a smaller open world experience at a more affordable price? Two years later, I still don’t have the answer to that question, and I don’t know of any studio brave enough – or maybe stupid enough –  to have tried to find out.

In the meantime, here’s to more big nothings.

Overcooked: Local Multiplayer in an Online World

Overcooked and Overwatch are two multiplayer-focused games, both released within months of each other last year. Beyond the obvious similarity in names, the two games are both fast-paced, frantic, and a hell of a lot of fun to play with your friends. Both have been big successes critically and both were nominated for ‘Best Multiplayer Game’ at the 2016 Game Awards.


Of course, they are very different games too, in terms of genre, scope, budget, audience and design. But one major difference is of particular note, particularly considering their award nomination in the same category. One, Overwatch, is an exclusively always-online multiplayer experience, and the other, Overcooked, is a local couch co-op game only.

In the final reckoning, it was Overwatch that took home the award for ‘Best Multiplayer Game’ at the end of last year, not to mention ‘Game of the Year’ itself’, and while we are at it: ‘Best Studio’ for the developers Blizzard too.

Blizzard developers accept their ‘Game of the Year’ award

But when Oli De-Vine and Phil Duncan, the two-man team behind Overcooked, set out in early 2015 to create their game, it’s very unlikely the duo ever saw themselves competing with Blizzard, or  a title like Overwatch, for best multiplayer game of the year.

In an era of online-only games, and online platforms like Twitch, and Youtube, not many would have thought a game without any online multiplayer component whatsoever, would have any chance of competing for such an accolade.

So how did Overcooked do it? When the majority of the industry was bombing its way down the motorway towards online experiences, how did this two-man development team manage to weave its way in completely the opposite direction, and find a pathway to success?

What is Overcooked?

For those unfamiliar with Overcooked the game itself, allow me to briefly butcher a summary of the game:

Overcooked is a co-op cooking game that challenges players to prepare and serve as many orders as they can in a limited amount of time. Players are forced to work together, collecting, chopping, and cooking ingredients, in a variety of ever-more complex kitchens.

Those tasks can be a bit of a chore in the real world, but when you’re channelling your inner Gordon Ramsey and screeching at your friends and family to pass you the “god-damn lettuce!” like there is 3rd michelin star on the line, it really is a tasty treat of a game.

The game is the brain-child of two former Frontier Games employees, Duncan and De-Vine. The Cambridge based duo share a passion for local co-operative games, borne out of childhood play sessions with older brothers, and bombastic lunch breaks at Frontier Games with colleagues. Together, at the back end of 2014 and start of 2015, they founded Ghost Town Games.

Getting priorities straight

That love of co-op multiplayer experiences is there for all to see in Overcooked. It unashamedly puts the local co-op experience at its heart. It’s not that Duncan or De-Vine are against online multiplayer. If they had the resources, budget and time, I’m 100 per cent sure they would have included it – in fact, we know they would have, they’ve said so many times: 

With a bigger budget and more resource, Ghost Town Games would have included online functionality, but when push came to shove, it chose to prioritise local co-op. Duncan, in one forum post, for example said:

“We’re hoping there are lots of people out there like us who want to play co-op game with their friends, [It] seems to be a little thin on the ground at the moment!”

The online multiplayer question was, and remains, the request that the developers have received most of all on their social media channels, store pages and forums. They know leaving it out is the equivalent of leaving money on the table.

More than 1000 comments about Online Multiplayer in the game’s Steam forum

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, no online functionality has been announced. Its continued absence inherently points to it not being a priority. But it doesn’t seem to have hindered the game – it has been an undoubted success without any online component.

The interesting question is whether that success is despite the missing ‘link’ or because of it. Did prioritising the creation of a game that is incredibly fun to play locally with family and friends, gaming novices and veterans, and even strangers at a party, carve out a niche for Overcooked that bought it sales, praise and awards?

How did local co-op effect Overcooked’s design?

There are a couple of ways the local multiplayer gameplay is designed in Overcooked that is very clever.

First of all, the game is incredibly simple to play. Three button inputs are all you need to use: move, pick up/put down, and chop. On the PS4 for example, that’s just one analog stick, X and Square. If you’ve ever tried to introduce gaming to a loved one or friend, you know the importance of that simplicity. Not everyone has grown up with a controller in hand all their life; complicated or janky controls can be a major put off.

An easy control scheme makes the game accessible to all levels of play and all age groups. It ensures you minimise the chance of a gaming novice being put-off by a frustrating wrestle with the controller, rather than being enticed by the intriguing challenge and fun of the game.

Better yet, because the controls are so simple, the game allows you to split the controller in half and share it with a second player, with one hand each on the same pad. Even if you have one controller, the game can be played by two, and naturally, only two controllers are then needed for a group or family of four.

How Overcooked can be played on a Xbox controller with by 2 players and 1

Secondly, the subject matter of the game is perfect for creating an accessible game focused on co-op. Everyone knows what happens in a kitchen: meals are prepared and served. The subject matter of cooking let’s you bypass any awkward explanation of what’s going on, or what the goal of the game is. Everyone’s on the same page quickly, we’re cooking, so little explanation is needed.

Those two things, simplicity in controls and simplicity in task, are incredibly important for the marketing of a co-op game if it’s going to succeed without an online element. It opens the door to a far greater target audience. Gamers don’t need to live in a house with other gamers – they can convince their boyfriends, girlfriends, and friends to give it a go. Or young budding gamers can get to grips with it easily with sibling and parents.

Online it’s easy to find other players, well versed in games, ready to take down the latest Destiny boss. In the real world, in your house, that’s not quite the case – but the simplicity of the game allows players a real chance to get those non-traditional gamers to give it a go, and a lot of the time, subsequently enjoy it.

There’s one last aspect to the design that is key to making Overcooked work as a local-only multiplayer game. Those first two aspects help you get players into the kitchen, but what keep them there is a design mantra Duncan and DeVine always referred to in the development of their game: Avoid ‘first to fun’.

‘First to fun’ is a co-op experience many of us would have experienced, particularly when playing games with a more skilled and experienced player. The better player will get to the cool stuff first. They get more kills, more points, better power-ups and simply more out of the experience. It’s not always a bad thing, for the right kind of co-op game, an added edge of competition for a high-score between the players is perfect. But sometimes that competitive edge works against the co-operative spirit of the game.

For a game like Overcooked, a ‘first to fun’ experience would be poison. Instead, Overcooked’s design rewards and encourages true co-operation. It’s a game that’s easy to play, but hard to master, like so many claim to be. But the only way to master this game, is by working together like, well…. like an organised and productive restaurant kitchen.

The simplicity of the game lets newcomers quickly feel part of that team, instead of feeling lost or a liability.

Solo effort

There’s two parts to marketing. First, there’s the creation and position of your product in the market against competitors. Ghost Town Games was succeeding at this arguably harder part. It just needed to execute on the second challenge of marketing: Getting your game out there, in front of the right people, at the right time, in a sea of competition.

For a two-man team – doing this job at the same time as developing the game itself, is beyond challenging. In one post on developer forum TigSource, Duncan was brutally honest. He said:

“Definitely the hardest part about indie dev so far has been balancing making the game and remembering to actually tell people about it!”

Ghost Town Games soldiered on marketing the game itself for a long time. And I think it did a solid and commendable job on its own. It had a developer blog on its website, it posted regularly on developer forum site TigSource, and its twitter account was firing out good content at a steady pace. The tone was spot on: informative, humorous, and it had plenty of engagement and interaction.

Ghost Town Games got itself out there at some of the smaller events in the UK from an early stage too – like the Norwich Game Festival. Some games you see at a convention and they don’t really hit – they’re not designed to be played in a five-minute window in a noisy hall.

Overcooked on the other hand, is a game that lends itself to being shown off at convention or festival. With the controls being so simple, the developers had great success getting strangers to play together and immediately have a fun time.

Overcooked at the Norwcih Gaming Festival

Ghost Town Games succeeded at getting some good targeted publicity for the game on its own as well. There was an interview with the website Co-optimus for example, which – as I’m sure you can tell by the name of site – was a perfect audience to reach. And also some minor coverage was achieved on some of the bigger and broader sites, such as Rock Paper Shotgun and EuroGamer. The-two-man team at Ghost Town Games were stewing along nicely – but were they doing enough to make a really big splash on opening night?

Taking the plunge

For two developers who have just got out of the world of big publishers and become independent, signing back into that world could not have been an easy decision. The offer had to be right. Back in September of 2015, Duncan said on the subject of partnering with a publisher:

“We’ve been keeping our options open by speaking to as many people as we can about the game. Some rejections, some offers, some really interesting opportunities which I hope we can talk about one day. We’re still pursuing a few avenues for this but we would only really consider going down this route if we think we’re aligned on the future of the project.”

It wasn’t till more than six months later that Ghost Town Games announced its partnership with the UK-based Team 17. It clearly took its time and did not rush hastily into any decision. But boy was it worth it. If there’s one thing that Team 17 knows, it’s couch co-op. I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent many happy days on the sofa blasting friends off the screen with banana bombs and holy hand grenades, in one version or another of Worms.


Team 17 is a development studio which has found success in developing its own games and publishing similar-sized ones like Overcooked. And the boost that experience and know-how gave to the marketing of Overcooked was undoubtedly essential for the exposure and success of the title. Duncan said this at the announcement of the partnership:  

“We signed up with Team 17 to help us market the game, not to mention help us with the final stretch of QA as we attempt our fairly ambitious task of releasing simultaneously on 3 platforms. It was a big decision for us but so far it’s been really invaluable (especially as a two-person team).”

Just from an exposure point of view, Overcooked was now in front of so many more people. Overcooked’s twitter account at the time of writing has just over 8000 followers. Team 17 has nearly four times as many followers: 30.7k.

Suddenly, Overcooked had the budget to go to E3. And like that, its presence at conventions went from looking like this:


To looking like this:


First off, Team 17 was able to build on the more targeted marketing that had been going on previously – a Youtube interview with FamilyGamerTV is a good example of that. But Team 17 could also deliver opportunities for exposure that were previously unattainable. A trip to E3 in the States, and an IGN beta for prime members would be examples of the doors and opportunities opened up by the partnership.

The two-man development team had managed to Greenlight Overcooked  on Steam, but now a team of community managers could take over that page and keep it updated and customers informed. Likewise with Twitter.

And lastly, Overcooked had a new home on the internet on a dedicated page on Team 17’s website. Before, the only website page for the game was on Ghost Town Games website. The fact that developer website is still using an old version of the logo, with a certain body part exposed of one of the chefs, not seen on later version of marketing material, should tell you how valuable that page was considered for the game’s marketing.

Spot the difference!

Order up!

So, Team 17 gave a real visible boost to the game’s presence and visibility pre-launch. And it allowed Ghost Town Games to focus and commit full time on finishing the game itself. But arguably, the real work for Team 17 would start from the launch of the game itself. That happened, on August 3 last year, with day one worldwide availability for download on Steam, Xbox One and PS4. It’s a commendable achievement for an indie developer’s debut game to hit all the major market places at once.

Just to further ironically illustrate the commitment to local co-op play, Overcooked was a game released only on digital online services. You had to be connected online to get the game in the first place – yet it still had no online functionality.

An obvious thing that needs a mention is Overcooked’s launch Price. Overcooked’s design and structure takes it cues from the mobile market in some ways – like its level selector and 3 star level system – but thankfully the comparisons stop there. It’s not a free-to-play game that’s full of microtransactions. Overcooked On launch retailed for £12.99. For 30 levels, each lasting between 2 and 5 minutes, and with a ton of replayability, I think that’s a fair and enticing price for the average gaming consumer.


Free marketing

Overcooked is a fantastic example of how marketing is not something you simply do when you’re first making and developing a game. Nor does a good marketing campaign stop a month after release. Team 17 have done a great job of keeping the machine rolling months after launch and it’s paid massive dividends.

Its post-launch marketing success really begins with the start of the game itself. This is the second screen that gamers are met with when they boot up Overcooked:


“Please feel free to use any video footage or screen captures of the game in whatever way you like.”

Overcooked is a game that might have shunned any online multiplayer component to its game. But that doesn’t mean the developers or marketing team didn’t understand how important online content would be for the success of the game post launch.

They made a game that would be perfect for the growing number of ‘let’s play’ youtube channels. If your game is a big hit with such online communities, you have a great chance of increasing your sales.

And Overcooked got some of the biggest Youtube channels out there to play its game and make videos. RoosterTeeth with its ‘LetsPlay’ and ‘Achievement Hunter’ channels have produced a number of videos for example, but the list goes on and on. ‘The Yogcast’ and ‘iHasCupquake’ have done let’s plays, ‘Kinda Funny’ too, and even the biggest of the lot, ‘PewDiePie’. The Youtube sensation’s Overcooked video has over 6 million views.


Every time a big channel makes a video, the Overcooked marketing team doesn’t miss a chance to capitalize and get involved. It has even taken time to create chef versions of the respective participants on a number of occasions. Here’s the Achievement Hunter guys using such assets to promote Overcooked themed videos for example:

Gavin, Jack, Michael and Ryan of Achievement Hunter as Overcooked chefs

It’s a game that lends itself to entertaining Let’sPlay content. It’s actually fun to watch a group of friends play through the game, and it’s easy for the audience/potential customers to see themselves replicating the experience with family and friends. Overcooked, from launch day one, has been ready to capitalize on this free marketing, fully aware the couch-based co-op game would make for great online content.

Sustained success

The post launch marketing of Overcooked was, and remains, an undoubted success. Overcooked achieved something rare, it got a review from Gamespot months after release. It is a testament to the quality of the game itself and the marketing effort, that such a site would realize the error and go back. One of the things that sparked that late review was also Overcooked’s nomination for numerous gaming awards, from the Tiga awards, all the way up to the new and improved Game Awards mentioned at the top.

Overcooked just hasn’t slowed down its efforts since launch. It did so well in fact, that Team 17 felt confident enough to take a punt on a disc-based version of the game after the successful digital release. It seems only right that a game that has succeeded based on its online-free approach, should give customers a way to access the title offline as well.

The game has also had two DLC packs released, a version for the Nintendo Switch announced, and just to tie things nicely in a knot, has been nominated again for an award, this time at the Baftas.

Brand development – too many cooks

It’s quite clear I think that Overcooked has been a giant success story, from beginning to end. But like everything, I also think there is room for improvement.

First off, in terms of brand development – I think Ghost Town Games have missed a bit of a trick. There is a Ghost Town Games website, but no Overcooked dedicated website. And at the same time, there is an active Overcooked Twitter account, but no active Ghost Town Games account. It’s twitter account simply directs to the Overcooked account. The result is that it lacks consistency in its online presence.


The brand of Overcooked has been supported well overall, largely thanks to Team 17, but at times that has been at the cost of development to the Ghost Town Games brand. As mentioned before, the website is infrequently updated and lacks promotion. 

This critique could be way off the mark of course. Maybe Ghost Town Games has no intention of developing its developer brand, and is looking to continue to work with Team 17 and let that established brand be the voice for its games. But I believe Ghost Town Games had a great game with a great USP, and thus, a great opportunity to market itself as the king of co-op games that actually are co-operative and which ‘avoid first to fun’.

An indie developer like Super Giant Games is a great example I think. Its had two successful releases, Bastion and Transistor, and Pyre is on the way. Its games are all beautifully crafted and share an amazing art style.

Not one of those games has its own twitter account. Instead it all comes from Super Giant Games account. I think that’s a really forward thinking approach to the development of an indie developer’s brand. It allows the brand to switch from game to game, avoiding stagnating sequels, but maintain the same audience. Ghost Town Games is not in a strong position to utilise the success of Overcooked for its next project should it choose not to move out from under  the Team 17 umbrella.

Underdone accessibility

Another small quibble, or what I see more as wasted opportunity, was not doubling down on accessibility. Overcooked provides a control scheme accessible to one handed players: It’s an option in the controller setting and presumably made possible because of the decision to let players share one controller for two players.

But why not make the whole control scheme fully customisable. Especially for a game with so few button inputs – it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to provide players with button remapping option. Maybe economically, the benefits wouldn’t have outweighed the cost in time and money, with potentially only a relatively small number of players challenged by the controls because of a disability issue. But the move towards accessibility options for disabled players is one that gained some good traction in 2016 and I hope we’ll see it grow massively in 2017.  

Disability panel at the last year’s PSX event

All the trimmings?

My last and final grievance with the game from a marketing perspective is the lack of a platinum trophy on the PS4 version. This is a bit of a bug bear of mine. For the wider audience of more casual players, the platinum trophy means nothing, but there is a hardcore trophy hunting audience that are far more likely to take a punt on a game if it has a platinum trophy.

Just look at games like ‘My Name is Mayo’. It’s a piece of garbage 99p game – it’s not a game, and instead, it’s just half an hour of shaking a virtual mayonnaise jar. Thousands downloaded that game simply because it was easy to platinum in less than half an hour.

There’s clearly an audience out there who like to hunt platinums obsessively. But also an audience which is much more likely to see a game through to the end, if there is an attainable platinum waiting. Trophies and achievements, done with care, can really add an extra layer of fun to a game, and also add the motivation to play to the end. Getting players to play your game for longer is surely not a bad thing for the long-term profits of your business.

However, the rules about which games get a platinum and which don’t, often seem very confusing at Sony. Seemingly smaller title are generally not given one, but then larger titles sometimes miss out. It seems like it’s a complex, rather esoteric system that Sony has chosen for deciding which game gets a platinum and which doesn’t.  But actually, it also seems it can be very simple: If the developer pushes hard for one –  it gets one.  If ‘My Name is Mayo’ can get one, Overcooked should have one. Why every developer doesn’t fight for one is beyond me. It strikes me as an easy win.

Pinch of co-op, dash of charm and a sprinkle of chaos

Okay, time to get out of here before I definitely Overstay (get it?) my welcome. Overcooked is a great game, and a great example of how to target and market your game successfully at a niche audience.

At a time when so many games are going in the opposite direction, towards an exclusively online experience, Overcooked forged out its own place in the market, serving those who still love to play at home on the couch with their buddies, loved ones, or heck, even their frenemies. From inception to the present day, its marketing has been on the money.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt either that the game itself is a charming, chaotic, culinary co-op-concoction.

I hope to see more on the menu from Ghost Town Games soon.