So, you made an unpopular game

I’ve been pondering writing this for a while, and a recent post in another thread was a good kick in the pants to do it. This is a message not just for those who actually published a CoG or HG title that met with few purchases and/or dismal storefront reviews, but anyone who has ever put out their WIP thread only to get 55 thread likes and a wholly insufficient amount of feedback posts. And this isn’t meant as an attack or dig at anyone; I think that should be fairly apparent since I consider myself someone this whole message applies to, but I wanted to make sure it was mentioned. Hopefully this helps ease your mind a bit and put a positive spin on a difficult experience.

  1. Unpopular isn’t necessarily unsuccessful.
    Depending on what you want to accomplish with the story, it can still be a huge success without critical acclaim or much in the way of renumeration. For my first story, Nuclear Powered Toaster, my main goal was to finish it by the contest deadline. I knew I could do it if I tried despite the short timeframe, and it was incredibly important to me because I’d never actually been able to complete any longform fiction at all after a decade and a half of trying in one form or another. And…I did it! I overcame self-doubt and wrote 160,000 words in a little over half a year. I told myself this was the goal and anything after that was gravy. Which is good, given that it didn’t place in the competition, and when it was eventually released it received mediocre reviews and a painfully small amount of purchases. It is unquestionably an unpopular game. But it is not unsuccessful, because it accomplished what I set out for it to do, to break that mental block that had kept me from finishing anything all these years. So if this game or WIP you made that wasn’t well-received had a personal meaning for you above riches and glory, then hold on to that. Cherish it. Because no one can take it from you. And if it didn’t have a higher meaning, well, go on to #2.

  2. Failure is the best teacher. Every unpopular story teaches you something: it shows what the readership does not want. If your goal is acclaim or riches, now comes the relatively easy part: just do not-that. Sure, if the criticism you got was mostly “you should be a better writer”, improvement may seem tough, but that’s usually not what a lot of negative reviews say (and even if it is, there’s always classes and such for that sort of thing, or simply looking at those who are regarded as ‘better’ writers and seeing what they do that you currently don’t, or vice versa). If the reviews focused on your story being railroaded, make an effort to increase choices. If you lacked customization, make sure your protags and major characters are much more blank at the beginning to let players imprint on them and customize to their heart’s content. If you published in an unpopular genre, well, don’t do that. The holy trinity here is fantasy, supernatural and superheroes. They are crowded genres, so you’ll have to work to stand out, but they come with a built-in audience that other genres lack. If you didn’t have romance and feel comfortable, add that too and make sure it’s fleshed out, that’s a solid way to boost your chances at success. Odds are if your story was unpopular, you lacked a lot of feedback during the beta phase, but this is your chance to make up for that. Each review (barring the obvious troll ones or those complaining about things you cannot change, such as app glitches or having to pay for the full story) provides you valuable intel to incorporate into your future writing for maximum appeal. I know for me, it was NPT that helped me hone Parenting to be better than it ever would have if I had created it first.
    And there’s one other major thing you can do to help your odds of future success and let you rise like a phoenix from the ashes…

  3. When it comes to word count, less is not more. More is more. When I did the data dive earlier this year (link: Hosted Games Data Sheet: For All You Number Nerds Out There ), one of the most amazing things to see was that even though everyone knew how much word count mattered, it was an even bigger element to success than I could have guessed. Not necessarily that a high one guarantees success (although it doesn’t hurt), but that a small one can almost guarantee failure. Readers have gotten a bit spoiled, and at this point, I have one major piece of advice for anyone planning on putting out a standalone story under 100,000 words in length: DO NOT DO IT
    Why? Because, aside from older stuff when standards were more lax, or the rare outlier like Aether, stories under 100k bomb on the regular. Being free helps some, but not enough. If your desire is success, make the effort and get that count over the 100,000 mark. It’ll be worth your while.
    But let’s say you don’t want to fatten up word counts and force yourself to write kissy-kissy scenes in marketable genres just to earn extra cash or please the faithful. In that case, go on to #4.

  4. If you don’t want to change to be successful, then don’t. But be happy where you are.
    Not every author has to be a best-seller. If you’ve got enough fulfillment from those non-measurable elements of writing that were mentioned in point #1 that it sustains you, well, then rock and roll. Because for the vast majority of authors here, the money will never be such a high amount that it justifies torturing yourself to get it. You’re better off making a very small amount of money and enjoying yourself than increasing both the dollar figure and the level of dislike you have for what you have created.
    However, you may be tempted to get the best of both worlds. To try and make your ugly duckling beloved by the masses through advertising, tireless shilling, and other methods, sure that if you can just get more people to read it, it will turn into a swan after all. That brings me to my last point, and perhaps the most painful.

  5. You can will a story into existence, but you cannot will it into popularity.
    Simply put, release is a big deal for these games, and pretty much all other games or books too. If it flopped hard at release, do not fall into the trap of trying to get more reviewers or readers to it for months or even years on end as some have. Don’t move forward with your sequel plans simply because you think the next entry can rehab the first. It’s not impossible, but the odds against it would make even the most reckless gambler cringe. Accept your losses and move on, spending your time creating a new story that will be able to succeed on its own merits (or happily writing unpopular stuff and not sweating whether you ever get mass appeal) instead of constantly trying to get a second chance at a first impression. You’ll be happier, since you’re not constantly getting your disappointment refreshed like an overactive web browser, and the time you spent creating something new instead of obsessing over something old and dead is going to be both more productive and better for your mental health.

So, that’s it. If this can help at least one person feel a bit better about not soaring to the top of the charts, it’ll be well worth it. Feel free to chime in with any other suggestions, feedback or positive affirmations to help out those that might need it.

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Thanks for this :+1:

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Perhaps as a Western Horror author, I’m kind of terrible in my thinking. I think that my books wont be the best. They’re also likely not to be the worst, so I try to write them so obscenely violent that people would deem it’s criminal not to note them amid the most brutal pieces of literature. A fellow author praised me work as being so vivid, then adding that it was too much for her - deeming it “extreme horror.”
As a temperamental musician & artist I feel that anything too mainstream isn’t hip. :wink:

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Hey, it’s not terrible. It is what works for you. Western Horror may not be a huge draw (though admittedly the Western genre is fairly untested since so few stories have elements of it, so I can’t write it off as unpopular quite as easily as I do horror itself), but if your goal is to create something dark and unrelenting that will live rent-free in the minds of readers, then do it. You aren’t likely to top any charts, but you can make sure the readers who do find it can’t forget it easily.

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Mmm… (looking certain popular books with questionable quality)… maybe unpoularity is not so bad.

Jokes aside, good talk @hustlertwo (and Cap)

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It absolutely isn’t. I mean, go look at the Most Underrated poll from the beginning of the year. There were stories in it that were talked about with more love and affection from their readers than some that have likely sold several times as many copies but may not have had the quality to match their mass market appeal.

Also, you know, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom made a lot of money, and that trash was the worst Hollywood movie this side of Mothman Prophecies.

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@hustlertwo Introspection done right. Not only did you admit that your first game was not very good (surprisingly hard to do for something you worked really hard on), but you accurately laid out all the things you did wrong, as well as some observations about mistakes other games made, and formed a basic guide on what NOT to do. I’m impressed. Based on The Parenting Simulator, I’d say it works pretty well.

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Thanks. And yeah, part of why I wanted to mention this stuff is so hopefully some people wouldn’t have to learn by doing like I did. I mean, like with point #5, I remember after NPT released, I was individually looking up old readers of the original webcomic and telling them about it (as Toaster’s artist pointed out, presumably with all the love in his heart, “Hust, I wasn’t aware the barrel you were scraping had a false bottom”). I tried hard to get reviewers to check it out and even considered investing in outside advertising, though thankfully I’m too broke for any of that mess. I did not want to willingly accept the prospect that I had tortured myself with 2 and 3 AM wakeup calls to get my words in before work for months, sworn off even touching a video game console from July to February, and the end result of that was a launch month check of less than $200 and monthly royalties that quickly fell to single digits and only rarely rose above that line. But once I changed my perspective on what the story had accomplished instead of what it didn’t, and gave up on that planned trilogy and all those future villain arcs (fare thee well, Bishop Neod’s cleangene crusade and murderous self-aware Neb and the AI Conclave), it felt better. And admittedly, it helped that even at the same time NPT was crashing and burning, I had a WIP in Parenting that had a lot more attention and buzz in its early and incomplete stage than Toaster ever had.

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I agree 100% with the above, and would like to add one thing: Just because a debut is popular, doesn’t mean it was written by a first-time writer and you should compare yourself to them. Wayhaven and Fallen Hero was published on the same day, they were “debuts” in the choicescript genre, but they weren’t first works. I think she had published several books and had an established fanbase, and I had published comics and other stuff (but mostly in Swedish).

My first book absolutely sucks. I got an offer from a swedish site a few years back to reprint it chapter by chapter on their site, I think I managed to edit and put up five chapters before I realized it sucked so hard I couldn’t stand it. I’ve written 3 books after that, neither got published, and for good reasons. Had I written those in choicescript instead of struggling with the traditional market I would have finished the projects, but oh boy, they would NOT have sold well. But, I couldn’t have written Fallen Hero if I hadn’t finished them.

That’s the long and the short of it. You need to write to become good, and you need to write a lot. Whether the books end up self-published or on hosted games, or stuck in your drawer doesn’t matter. it’s more painful to show it to the world, but that also gives you useful feedback which is so valuable to progress.

Also, yeah, some genres are more popular with the market. But many books can be tweaked to pull people in that might not have picked it up otherwise depending on cover and blurbs.

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For many people, likely the vast majority, your first long story is kinda like that first waffle in the new griddle. Great as a test case. Now throw it away.

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Well Parenting Simulator was definitely a work of art. The scene where you fake bully your kid to teach them about bullying was genius. I felt terrible at the end because we were living day to day throughout so I accepted the promotion, but as the years went by, I had less and less time for her. It ended with our relationship strained even though I did everything I could. She was a good person who had everything she needed, but wanted basically nothing to do with me. That shit hit me hard.

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Matt, first of all, I wanted to say that I read some of your Cinderella story over lunch, and man, I think you have a great flow there, with an engaging tone that really fits the story. I thought the writing in NPT was strong, but I think you’ve strengthened you craft, so well done, good sir.

And speaking of craft, I would maybe add to your Point 2 that, until someone has written a few million words of different stories, they are really still a novice at the whole writing thing. It should not be surprising if a first-time (or second-time, or third-time) author struggles with their first games (or books). It takes time to build craft. I mean, how many of us have formal training in writing or game design or any of the skills these products demand from their creators? Most all of us are newbies still. I consider myself a newbie even after submitting 4 solo games.

And as far as what sells, I think folks should strongly consider their motivations for creating a game. If someone is doing it 100% straight up as a hobby, then obviously you have a ton of wiggle room. But if someone is doing it primarily to earn an income (and there is NOTHING wrong with that), then you really need to study the top 20 or so earners and do what they did, while making it your own.

End of story.

That’s what indie authors do. Because it works. It’s simply writing to market. If you’re primarily treating this as a business, why would you invest time in a story people won’t buy?

As you said, readers want romance, supernatural, superheroes, and fantasy, and if you fall outside of those genres (here, at least), you’re likely going to be disappointed with revenue.

Yes, there are a few exceptions, but let’s focus on the 90% here.

I’m determined to finish my WIP Talon City by Thanksgiving. Part of the self-imposed tight deadline is that I know it’s likely not to have strong sales. I can’t justify spending 6 more months on it. But I -can- justify another 45 days while I outline stuff for CCH3, which -will- likely sell pretty well. I just think it’s helpful to be honest with yourself about your expectations and act accordingly. Oh and it will likely fall just south of 100k words, but that’s okay with me. (I do agree with you that some customers seem to avoid ‘shorter’ games, which are still as long as a long novella when it comes to actual readthrough).

Thanks for posting this, I think it will help a lot of folks.

EDITED TO ADD: I think I’m in the minority here, but I still hold the position that I think it’s economically unwise to write 300k+ stories unless you are SURE it is going to be a smash hit. That is like the equivalent of writing 4 or 5 regular novels! That’s a huge time commitment! Clearing $1 or $1.50 in royalties per sale, you’ve got to sell 10k+ copies to even earn a livable wage from that amount of hours. I think customer expectations are wildly inflated here, but I’m not sure it can be stopped. Hell, it’s like sometimes the author is rewarded for being overly wordy and perhaps not coding very efficiently. Many games could probably stand to be edited DOWN.

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A lot of popularity also seems to come simply from how much and how you interact with the community. Be it on the wip thread or on social media.
Lotsa authors here have development blogs over on tumblr, some have special twitter accounts for their work.
(On a sidenote I still find it funny how Western Horror saw at least three WiPs this year… talk about weird occurences)

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Thanks for this thread I feel right at home. The start was hard and when I look at my WIP thread, 50% of the comments are from me, and some people that I have shared my game with on reddit out right ghosted me :sweat_smile:

I just completed my game today and will have a full game public beta soon, then I will submit to HG.

The thing for me is… I’m sure bad reviews will put my mood down and not having revenues will sucks but… I kind of took the whole saying “Write something you love and Write it for yourself first.” To a whole new level because…

I freaking love my game. :rofl: :joy: :sweat_smile:

Maybe that’s the issue go figure.

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Link please :star_struck: :star_struck:

P.S. Sorry about duplicate replies…

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Glad you have liked Day After thus far; I admit I am not entirely taking my own advice with that one, since it’s kinda oddball. But it was the story that knocked me loose from a year of writing very little and that made it worth pursuing. I’m trying to treat it as an experiment, do some different stuff and see what happens.

And I agree that more wordcount, while beneficial in general, may still not be worth it if your story is niche or not entirely structurally sound. It increases the odds of it being a breakout hit, but if those odds went from a 2% chance to a 5% chance, was it really worth it when that time and those words could have been spent in a more profitable fashion?

I lam fascinated by Talon City, and have been since its first iteration. But yeah, I agree with you that it’s not likely to soar to the top of the pops here. It was never going to have mass appeal (though it will, I am confident, be the absolute best game involving birds as lawyers since the Harvey Birdman title released on the PSP). But it can be a bit of a brain bleach for you before settling down to unravel all those Gordian knots of the CCH hero paths, which has significant value. What it won’t earn you directly it will earn indirectly because of how much it will help CCH 3 be the future blockbuster it likely will be. And because you’re okay with it not being a huge hit, the short word count won’t matter. Adding a bunch more words there would have, purely from a cost analysis perspective, been shelling out for a spoiler, nitrous and 25-inch wheels on your Mazda Miata. For that one it’s just let the story be what it wants to be lengthwise and let it float out there to impress and delight whoever finds it.

@ClaimedMinotaur I appreciate that! I chose opposed stats for TPS because that was one of the central tenets of the game: you cannot have it all. When I was trying so hard to market NPT, I made a Facebook business page calling myself Opportunity Cost Studios. Because you want to make people feel the absence of what they didn’t choose. Parenting’s approach to work/life balance was one way where I think that came across pretty well. And hopefully it feels fairly realistic, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the corporate world (and the tens of thousands of bank accounts I have seen in my job), it’s that money and satisfaction are a lot more mutually exclusive than people think.

@CC_Hill If you love it, that’s what matters. If you feel confident it was the best story you could have made out of it, there’s no reason to be worried about the slings and arrows or the tumbleweeds rolling out of your royalty check envelopes. You’ll be published, and it’s something few can manage. And you published a story you enjoyed even at the end of it, which fewer still can claim.

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This is the goal!! Finishing and publishing something at all is an accomplishment, and publishing something you’re proud of is even more so. I hope I can get to where you’re at, too. I want to make the sort of games I’ve always wanted to play, and hopefully I’ll be able to do so in a way that other people will love them too.

Also, congrats on completing your game!

I appreciate the honesty and personal experiences in this thread, it’s helpful to know what to be aware of. It’s especially reassuring to read about people who struggled with early projects and were able to learn from it and find more success or more satisfaction with their writing later on. Pouring time and effort into something that doesn’t meet with the reception you hope for can feel like the end of the world, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Thanks so much for posting this! Being a writer can be a lonely journey, especially when you feel as though your work isn’t getting any appreciation; even more so if you slip into the mindset of comparing yourself and your writing to others. It’s easy to have a lot of self-doubt and be self-critical (as I’m finding out as I write more and more).
So thanks for the positives.

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To add to this:

It’s common advice that if someone doesn’t like your work, you’ll never argue them into liking it. Accept feedback, no matter how boneheaded, and move on.

However, less common but no less important advice is that if someone likes your work, never argue with them, either! I can’t count how many times I’ve read something and said I liked it and the author turned around and said something along the lines of “Oh that’s nice but it needs a lot of work and I’m not finished yet and it’s not very good and maybe you didn’t see all the flaws here and there and --”

Lady, stop trying to convince me I didn’t like it! This happens all the time. Never put yourself down, and never try to change someone’s mind on how they feel about your work.

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I am not a ChoiceScript author, but I’m in a committed relationship with one, I have edited many CoG titles, and have published many knitting patterns myself and, from my experience, in both industries, quality has almost nothing to do with popularity.

From reading the CoG forum for years, the reddit threads, and from hearing scuttlebutt in general, I’ve learned that many of the honestly fantastically written games that I’ve loved to read and edit haven’t done huge numbers. Some have. Some that I thought were lackluster have done great, and some haven’t.

Commercial success depends largely on hooking the customer: cool cover art, a cool title, a cool premise that strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist. Characters that are sexy and compelling in their own right and a PC role that feels rewarding will get them coming back for sequels. Having generally good reviews helps also, but unless every review is glowing or dismal, it probably won’t make a huge difference. So the quality of work can bolster it or hurt its overall chances, but shouldn’t be considered as a major element of commercial success.

So rest assured, if you’ve written a game that hasn’t gotten much traction yet, it has next to nothing to do with your skill as a writer or value as a person, and almost everything to do with the motion of the ocean. See your vision clearly, do your best at expressing it, and everything else is gravy on top.

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