I had a brief, interesting conversation with my game developer cousin about the impact of YouTube and Twitch and general internet hype on indie games, particularly about the very interesting case of a game called Owlboy. So I've got some thoughts I'd like to share...
Owlboy - a retro, pixel-art platformer - has, apparently, been in development by a small team for roughly an entire decade. Early this November, it was finally released - and holy cow, was everybody excited about it! Several different gaming Youtube channels and podcasts that I listen to made sure to mention it, and every last one was really enthusiastic. Some compared it to previous successful indie titles like Shovel Knight, or to Freedom Planet. "It's a really good game. Seriously. Just go play it," various gaming authorities were saying. This is the kind of language that people used to hype up Undertale - a 2015 game that sold millions of copies. Shortly after launch, it had a really impressive 98% positive rating on Steam. Virtually all commentary was positive, occasionally effusively positive.
It has now been about a month since Owlboy's launch, and it's total ownership figures, according to Steamspy?
Somewhere around 35,000. And it's been leveled off there for some time now.
Now, if the Adventures of Chris (my game) were to get that many owners when it launches, I'd be ecstatic. But for a game that was receiving so much positive attention? So many excellent reviews? That's really not that much.
For comparison, Shovel Knight has 400,000 owners. Freedom Planet has 242,869. Both of these games also received a lot of good reviews and positive attention. Ultionus, a pixel-art platformer that DIDN'T receive much attention, and some of it negative, has 29,690. And Elliot Quest, a platformer that has received very little attention (although I love it), has 20,101 owners.
These numbers are fascinating to me, because it's very tempting to believe that, in a world with a million indie games fighting for attention and more being released every day, internet hype is the difference maker. If you can just get the attention of popular podcasters and streamers, you can make it. Owlboy seems to prove that hype really isn't the difference-maker I thought it was.
Or does it?
The fact is, I think that what Owlboy proves is less that hype is meaningless, and more that there are certain factors that even tremendous hype can't overcome.
The first one, and probably most important one, is price.
You see, Owlboy is currently priced at $24.99. That's significantly more than most platformers charge, pixel-art or otherwise. The vast majority of higher quality titles are in the $10-15 range. Dust: an Elysian Tail is $14.99, as is DuckTales: Remastered. One of the most exquisitely-detailed and expensive-looking platformers out there, Ori and the Blind Forest (Microsoft Studios), tips the scales at $19.99. Owlboy is more expensive than all of them!
You could plausibly argue that Dust and DuckTales and (especially) Ori are really under-priced for what they bring to the table. But people are weird about prices, and conventions and expectations matter a lot. When you go to buy a pixel-art platformer and see the price jacked up to $25 - well, that may not technically be a whole lot of money, but it feels pretty steep. I imagine a lot of people balked at that price. I almost did. A lot probably wishlisted the game, waiting for a sale. Some percentage certainly just didn't bother.
But I suspect there's more to it than just that, and it's an interesting psychological question. I think a lot of what drives gaming success isn't necessary internet attention (although it may help a lot), but actual, traditional gamer-to-gamer word of mouth. I wouldn't have bothered with Undertale if I didn't have people insisting that I try it. I think people very naturally share games they absolutely love, and that this sharing means more to people than more mass-media hype does. And I think Owlboy didn't really have the word-of-mouth.
What's interesting is that a game can have 95-98% positive ratings, and still not generate the kind of word-of-mouth necessary to really get a game to take off. I feel like there's a difference between liking a game enough to slap a "Recommended" review on Steam, and liking it enough to tell a friend on an individual basis that they really need to play this game. Having general positive feelings is quite different from enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm (outside of YouTube and podcasts) just isn't there.
I've been playing through Owlboy for a while now, and I may be projecting onto people, but I certainly don't feel the enthusiasm. It's not that it's a bad game, exactly. There are a few really awesome moments. The characters are cute and have big emotional expressions that I find pretty dang charming. The music is nice, if not particularly memorable or melodic. The pixel art is pretty and generally impressive. But most of the dungeons are kind of boring - and for those moments when they're not boring, they're frustrating. Long portions of the game feel like a slog. You never really feel like you're getting stronger as a character. Moving around and attacking and performing your basic moveset isn't particularly satisfying in any way.
Shovel Knight had satisfying basic mechanics. Undertale had an incredible soundtrack and a world that constantly threw interesting surprises at you. Even though there were aspects of both games that irritated me (a lot), there was a lot there in both games to really love. Owlboy doesn't have that so much.
So the only people who would pay $25 for Owlboy (and leave a positive review) are the people who really wanted to like it, which is quite different from actually liking it. And I think other people can tell the difference.
And that leads me to another curious question - why did so many people, particularly Youtubers and podcasters, want to like this game so much? Some have theorized that the initial Kickstarter 10 years ago came during a time when pixel art was actually a fresh, nostalgic idea. (It's really really not now.) I don't really buy it. I suppose that having been in development for 10 years can increase mystique and expectations for a game, but Owlboy's far from the only game to have languished for so long in the workshop.
No, I think (or is that hope?) that there are a lot of people who, like me, are basically starved for games that hit the Big Five - charm, character, music, story, and world. All of these things are expensive and/or difficult, so most indie games focus on gameplay mechanics, or clickbait-style high concepts or silly titles ("Shower With Your Dad Simulator!"), and we find ourselves longing for something - anything - that actually effectively scratches our itch for the kinds of things we care about in games. Undertale did, and its success was much deserved. Owlboy looked like it was going to (hence the excitement), but really didn't (hence the failure to spread by word-of-mouth). Some of us gamers want to get totally lost in a game, the way we did all the time back in the days of yore (also called the SNES), and it happens with frustrating rarity nowadays. Owlboy looked like just the kind of game to draw us into a consistent, charming, quirky, emotion-laden universe that we could explore and revel in. It tried. For a lot of us, though, I think, it just didn't quite get there.
So maybe having 35,000 owners isn't really all that surprising after all?