How Reddit pushed Geneshift to the top of the Steam charts.
So, you’ve spent nine years creating your dream game and you’re after the biggest possible audience to play it. How do you market it? Even 10 years ago, this would have been a drawn-out, costly affair, nevermind whether or not it was possible considering your independent position within the industry. Today though, it’s simple: share it on Reddit.
Reddit is, of course, the front page of the Internet. It has an avid fanbase of over 330M monthly unique visitors and over 18 billion views each month (according to this Reddit blog), with the gaming subreddit being amongst the site’s most popular. So it only makes sense that using Reddit to market your game is going to get some huge results.
That’s exactly what developer Ben Johnson found with his game Geneshift. Little did he know, it would soon rise to have the 10th highest ever player count on Steam alongside the likes of PUBG, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It’s a remarkable achievement for a small indie game against such competition. But the result didn’t quite stem from the reasons Johnson was anticipating.
“It’s damn cool to be the 10th most ‘played’ game of all time,” Johnson tells us, though this is predominantly due to an issue with Steam Trading Cards that caused bots to descend on the game. Still, not bad for a solo developer who began creating the game simply as a way to learn C++.
Geneshift began life nine years ago, inspired by the biggest names of the time: GTA2 and Counter-Strike, as well as a small indie game called Soldat. With its top-down perspective and outlandish violence, it certainly has shades of the former with a very snappy pace. Having tinkered away for the best part of a decade, Johnson joked on Reddit six months ago about turning the game into “the world’s smallest PUBG clone”. Reddit liked the idea so much that Johnson did just that. It was already becoming obvious that the social networking site would prove incremental to developing Johnson’s game. He shaped his offerings around the audience appetite he had stumbled upon, and continued to nurture the growing Reddit community gathering around his game.
Geneshift was released on Steam as a 48-hour, free-to-keep giveaway on November 14th 2018. Johnson took to Reddit once more to generate interest with a celebratory GIF. Johnson explains: “These days it’s very hard to get exposure for an indie game. With over 7000 Steam games released in 2017, it’s tough to get noticed, and I figured a massive giveaway would be my best shot. Furthermore, multiplayer games like Geneshift rely on having other people to play with, so a big burst of players all at the same time was the best way to kick start the community.”
For an indie developer with a small, or perhaps non-existent, budget for marketing, Reddit provides a huge opportunity. Here is a massive and willing audience, hungrily awaiting the next big thing in gaming. For Johnson, it was a no-brainer to rely on the site – though the free giveaway surely helped things along too.
It’s a narrative shared across the industry, with many indie developers offering free-to-keep weekends to drum up some interest in their game across social media while building a key early player base. “You can make the greatest game in the world, but it won’t matter if nobody knows about it,” explains Tyler McDermott. His title Night of the Blood Moon released on the 21st of January 2019, and he has some regrets concerning his marketing strategy.
While early reviews for Night of the Blood Moon are extremely positive, with players praising the visual style, roguelike genre mastery and frenetic gameplay, McDermott believes his title will struggle in today’s digital marketing landscape. “In 2017 there were 7,672 games uploaded to Steam. 21 every day. Nobody can keep up with this… there are too many fish in the sea. I’m really proud of Night of the Blood Moon, but nobody knows [about it]! I have sunken in with the other 21 games released today, and I’m going to have to fight to come back up.”
That level of competition is beginning to bleed over into the spaces developers have been using to market their games. “The success of a Reddit post involves a lot of luck,” explains Jonson, whose Geneshift giveaway announcement hit Reddit’s first page soon after posting. Social media marketing, while now a large part of modern advertising and development, was once a retreat for developers to engage with their audience, build a community, and develop a grassroots marketing campaign.
To this day, the notion of transparency and reliability are still key facets of the indie game marketer’s online identity, but the organic nature of that engagement has been pushed to the sidelines. The spaces where developers were previously retreating into their communities to market are growing at such a rate that they now provide another circle of competition to budding devs.
For Jonson, this growth proved successful. The popularity of the giveaway caused Geneshift’s servers to crash. A surge in players, positive reviews, growth in Discord members, and valuable feedback cemented the fact the game is hugely fun to play. “As a developer you can spend so long working on a game in theory that you forget if the game is actually fun in reality,” says Johnson. “All the positive reviews on Steam have put my mind at ease that I’m on the right track.”
It’s all well and good to have a positive response to your indie game release, but this is Reddit, and nothing is done in half measures on the front page of the Internet. After posting giveaway GIF to Reddit, Johnson noticed his player base increase by 9000%. Reddit’s good, but not that good. Something else was going on.
One person noticed that Steam Trading Cards were available on the then-free Geneshift, a valuable commodity usually only available via paid games. Enter the bots. Soon, a number of bots began using the game to farm cards, as opposed to real gamers playing. This flooded the game, pushing its play time and player count to the astronomical heights required to push its way into the top 10 most played category across the whole of Steam. The feature has since been removed by Valve – the cards are not permitted in free-to-play games – which has led to negative reviews from gamers assuming Johnson, as the developer, removed the feature.
“The cards to this day have still not been re-enabled, not even for paying customers after the giveaway,” says Johnson. “I have messaged Valve about this but am yet to receive a response.”
It’s a clear example of the prolific power of social marketing in today’s era of indie game production. Such homegrown efforts, with a clearly charismatic and social savvy captain at the helm, can prove incredibly successful in the digital circles they enter. Reddit’s natural inclusivity and general maturity (we say general with slight leeway, it is the internet after all) offers fertile ground for stories such as Johnson’s.
Tyler McDermott took a different approach to navigating the Reddit landscape. “During my studies, while prepping to market Night of the Blood Moon I saw this posted a lot: ‘The danger of the reddit hive mind.’ Where one person starts off the thread on a bad note and everyone hops on board. This has happened countless times on Reddit, but thankfully not for me,” reflects McDermott. “I think the key reason for this is because I didn’t just post Night of the Blood Moon anywhere, but only to the places that mattered. Night of the Blood Moon is in the rogue genre, and so I posted it to rogue subreddits where the interest would make sense.”
As Jonson’s story shows, the ‘Reddit hive mind’ can often spin news and viral information out of control in a crowd-sourced space. When that hive mind breaks the bubble in which it was conceived, however, real-world consequences come into play. While Jonson’s experience in Reddit fame resulted in “a funny/cool story to tell my mates at the pub” as well as media attention and curious clickers being brought to the title, should indie developers be wary of the power of social media to take their title and run with crowd-sourced opinions? We’ve seen the way hard facts become sanded down by the passing of online information, so it’s possible that in the future, developers may need to be more aware of the power of their social media posts.
For now, though, we’re in the age of chasing reach. That all-elusive exposure that seems to fall into the laps of so many. While Jonson certainly put the work into his social marketing campaigns, staying in regular contact with the communities surrounding his creation and genre, social marketing today requires an almost constant stream of content and interaction. Indies need to be able to do this while retaining the relatable, transparent ethos that served the community well during early uptake of social platforms for marketing purposes.
For McDermott, this was simply too much to undertake while creating his game. “When I am developing, I am either programming or animating. Both of these practices take ample time, and I become so narrow-minded I’ll forget to follow through on the less timely aspects of indie development (outreach).”
An independent video game developer releases their game without a publisher. That’s without the marketing budgets, guidance, contacts, and campaign structures that have been keeping some of the biggest games on the planet alive for decades. It’s easy to see, then, how homegrown devs would turn to crowd-sourcing their marketing through social media platforms to gain traction quickly among the audience directly suited to them.
For Ben Jonson, Reddit proved to be a major catalyst for success, driving his game Geneshift to the forefront of media imagination, consumer intrigue, and (through a tangent result of such success) a quick shot at the top 10 most played games on Steam. For McDermott, the amount of time and dedication required to build these communities and engage in a grassroots marketing campaign was too much to face during the development cycle, and the potential reach of his game has suffered. McDermott regrets not investing more in the social media landscape during the development of Night of the Blood Moon.
In the search for audience popularity, sometimes you have to take the rough with the smooth. The increased visibility of Geneshift through Reddit may have drawn the attention of bots, ultimately lowering its average review score, but the experience has been invaluable for Johnson. “I think Reddit is a fantastic place to share your game. It can be tough to get noticed, and posts rarely hit the front page, but when they do the Reddit community is incredibly supportive and helpful. Some Redditors even bought the game purely to support me, which I am very grateful for.”