What it's like to launch an indie game in 2018, hour-by-hour

Thumbnail image via Cukia "Sugar" Kimani

I first met Ben Myres at PAX East 2017, when he spotted my press pass from across the hall, cut off my path, and quickly escorted me to the his single-monitor setup in one of those austere Indie Megabooth slots. That was the first time I played Semblance, which was then a thesis project Myres and his partner Cukia "Sugar" Kimani worked on together as students at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand. You play as a magenta blob in a Seussian landscape who has the power to deform the geometry around you by jumping into it headfirst—like a Mario who didn't live in a purely right-angled world. It brought to mind puzzle platformers like World of Goo and Fez. They were looking for a publisher to finance it.

A year later I'm across the street from the LA Convention Center at Good Shepherd Entertainment's E3 showcase, where a full version of Semblance is set up in a rickety wooden booth. Myers and Kimani had finally found their publisher, and were already planning for the treacherous path ahead in a crowded marketplace. This was a challenge that both inspired them and terrified them. Earlier that week, Myres made a wonderfully hammy pitch on Giant Bomb's E3 night show. "Semblance, is the first real platformer," he said, with a mock deadly seriousness, before breaking. "It's a platformer. You gotta go shock tactics."

Semblance officially unlocked on Steam this Wednesday. Kimani and Myres were back in South Africa, and Skyped with me throughout the evening to give me updates on what they were doing and how they were feeling. What follows is a series of dispatches that detail the anxieties and excitement that come with launching a project you've worked on for three years into the unforgiving maw of the Steam front page.

11 am Eastern (5 pm South Africa): Two hours before release

The sun has set in South Africa, and Ben and Sugar are already drinking. Their battle station is notably sparse: an empty white rec-room with a couch and a projector screen, which is currently beaming out an endlessly refreshing feed of Semblance's Twitter mentions. Myres reaches off camera and produces a sealed, bronze bottle of champagne, which will be popped as soon as the Steam link goes live—official proof that they've shipped a product.

Already, critical reviews are leaking out and breaking embargo. "Some amazing scores, some meh scores," says Myres. "It's just anxiety compounded into excitement."

It's just anxiety compounded into excitement.

Ben Myres

Neither of them know what to expect. You only launch your first game once, but right now, they tell me that it feels like they're going toe-to-toe with an algorithm. Making it in this industry requires conquering the metadata—engineering virality, manipulating the backend nuts and bolts, and securing real estate on the front page of Steam. That can be a difficult thing to grasp for people on the outside looking in.

"The first day or two is all about getting some sales in the beginning, and some reviews, so you can get on the New and Trending page, so that you can maybe pop onto best sellers, It's like fighting against the computers. It's cyberpunk," laughs Myres. 

"The launch sets you up for everything else," says Kimani. "There's not much else after this, like maybe you make a sale here and there, but the way you launch is really gonna set the tone for the [fate] of the game." 

As an observer with no financial or artistic stake in Semblance, I still manage to feel some of their uneasiness. Indie development is an unfriendly business for a boatload of reasons, but this part, when you put your product on the internet with absolutely no mercy or failsafes to stop it from flopping, always seemed particularly brutal.

"I plan on watching Twitter, watching Facebook, and updating my mom," says Sugar, when I ask him how he expects the rest of his night to unfold. "My mom asked, 'Where do I watch the launch?' I'm like, 'There's nothing to watch! It just goes live!'"

1:45 pm Eastern: 45 minutes after release 

As soon as our Skype call connects, I can tell that Cukia and Ben are giddily buzzed. They settle down in front of the camera, flutes of champagne in hand, thriving off the tipple and the euphoria of… well, of just getting it over with and letting people buy their game. This will be the only moment tonight where they won't be obsessing over Steam analytics and sterile line graphs, and they plan on enjoying it the best they can. "The algorithms will kick in later," explains a beaming Sugar. "Right now seeing the love from people who are tweeting, and sending messages in my DMs, and asking us for interviews, that's what it's about!"

Myres describes the actual launch as a "mild panic." He was sitting there, on the couch, refreshing Steam over and over again—the same thing you and I do when we're trying to score Radiohead tickets or limited edition Nike Dunks. As soon as the link was live, he immediately blasted out everything in his promotional arsenal—three years of work culminating in a five minute flurry. "The 30 minutes leading up to the launch felt like days," he says, "It felt like we stared at 7:59pm for hours."

"At the last minute I thought, 'There's no going back,'" adds Sugar. 

The media reviews that didn't break embargo all hit at once, so Myres and Kimani spent a few nervy minutes digesting the verdicts of heavyweights like Gamespot and Destructoid. (They've been mostly positive.) At this point, Semblance hasn't generated its first Steam user review, which Myres jokes away by saying that their customers must be too "overwhelmed with greatness" to have enough time to draft up a take. For now, the pair settles back into the couch and enjoy the fireworks on Tweetdeck. What else can you really do?

3:30 pm Eastern: Two hours and 30 minutes after launch 

"After our last call I looked down at my hands and they were just red," says Myres. "My whole body was hot. It was pure adrenaline in my system. And now that things settled down, I don't know. It's a weird feeling."

He is sitting on a couch next to his partner. They are sober. They are quieter. They are the spitting image of Elaine and Benjamin at the end of The Graduate.

This is the one of the crucial things I learned about launching an indie game from Cukia and Ben. There's a distinct low period in the hours after your game hits Steam where you don't really know what to do with yourself. I've experienced some version of this myself. When you spend months reporting a story, the euphoria of seeing that work realized under your byline is electrifying. You bask in the praise and the light for a little bit… and then the world keeps turning. Semblance is out. These two college students completed an unbelievable journey, but their existence has not been seismically shifted in any way.

Steam's rules are such that Cukia and Ben can't discuss their purchase numbers in specifics, but they do mention that their sales, right now, are "a bit slow." They also have the unfortunate disadvantage of being a full six hours ahead of the North American market, which means that they won't get a full picture of their launch until tomorrow. "Right now I kinda just want to go to sleep, wake up the next day, and be like, 'OK, this was day one,'" says Kimani.

Instead, Myres is dealing with a slow trickle of bits and pieces—little jolts of worry and serotonin as new information passes through the timeline. That means a lowball review earns more of his ire than it probably would've a few hours ago, when they were in the thick of it. "It was a small site, I was mostly impressed that they made it onto Metacritic," he laughs.

Myres also tells me that, at this point in their careers, he and Kimani don't really know how to process or comprehend Semblance's financial analytics, simply because they don't have the experience to take precedent from. If anything, they wish they could skip ahead a week to see where the dust has settled, and move on from there.

"You thought we were gonna be up til one in the morning," says Cukia, to his partner, laughing about how quickly their energy burnt out. "Now I'm like, 'Let's put some Netflix on.'"

5 pm Eastern (11 pm South Africa): Four hours after launch 

One thing was clear: Semblance was likely not going to be one of those runaway Steam hits that dominates the conversation for weeks.

The last time I check in with Ben and Sugar they seem absolutely exhausted. Not necessarily in a physical way, though it is getting late in South Africa. Instead they're both emotionally tapped, and no longer capable of processing or obsessing over sales, or critics, or the steady drip of metadata coursing through their computers. Semblance now has three Steam user reviews (one written in Chinese), but for the most part they've spent the last few hours simply waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Waiting for something to happen, without any real idea of what that something is, or what it's supposed to feel like.

"You have this really intense burst at the start," says Myres. "I don't know if we were expecting for it to taper out. I mean, you look at the Tweetdeck and it's still going and refreshing, but the emotional impact it has on you sort of goes down a little bit."

They are no longer drinking, and there is no Netflix on. Instead, the boys are lingering around the living room until it makes sense to call it a night. Before I called them, Sugar was having a cigarette with his girlfriend outside, and then took a 15-minute power nap on the couch. I could tell that there was an anxiety gnawing at the corners of their minds. One thing was clear: Semblance was likely not going to be one of those runaway Steam hits that dominates the conversation for weeks. That doesn't mean it won't be a success, but if they were in the middle of an endless barrage of sales, acclaim, and vertical line graphs, I'm sure this night would feel a lot different for them.

We sign off, and a few minutes later Myres messages me over Skype with a screenshot that came from their publisher. There was Semblance, on the top of Steam's New and Trending chart. For now, they have won the war with the algorithms. I congratulate him and tell him to sleep well. "Best sleep of my life!" he responds.

 The next day

I wanted to check in with Sugar and Ben one last time, on the day after release, to see if they could reflect on the experience of launching Semblance with any more clarity. They both beamed in from their respective bedrooms, and I found them still weary from last night, but also more determined, more purpose-filled.

"This morning I received an email from itch.io that said we've sold ...an amount," laughs Sugar. "The hype had died down at this point and I'm like, 'OK, let's go look at the numbers. It's Steam in 2018, OK.' I had a meeting with our accountant and I was like, 'OK cool, what are the realities now?' So right now I'm just beginning to think about where we are heading, what the projections are, but at the same time I haven't gotten much work done. I've just been reminiscing and thankful."

Myres tells me the thing that surprised him the most is the lack of a sense of finality to having the game out. He thought maybe he'd discover some degrees of separation from Semblance once it existed in the hands of players. Instead though, he's found a rapidly fattening to-do list. 

"There's this phrase that says 'art is never finished, only abandoned,'" reflects Myres. "I was like, 'It's fine, we'll just abandon it.' The problem now though is you're only one click away from updating the game. We're getting all this feedback and still getting requests for review codes, and it's hard to not think about continuing to work on it."

After one night of celebrating, it's back to work.

The team has gotten their first bug reports and quality-of-life requests on the Steam forums. "I'm trying to think of where we start the plan for that," says Sugar. "I want to make a schedule and figure out the things we want to focus on." (Currently, there are some occasional issues with gamepads in Big Picture mode, and a several people have asked for a solution for color blindness.)

By Friday, Semblance accrued 29 reviews from Steam purchasers. Myres said he couldn't share their sales numbers so far, but using the average Boxleiter method, we can very roughly estimate the game has sold about 2,059 copies on Steam. The number could be half or twice that and still fall within the estimate range for indie sales, and it still won't be the full picture: Semblance is also on GOG, Itch.io, and the Nintendo Switch eShop.

I was amazed at how after a single day, Cukai and Ben were back in the weeds, but in a way they got off easy: other indie devs go days without sleep to fix critical bugs. For most developers, a release date is no longer a finish line. The programmers and designers behind the scenes don't have the luxury of taking their hands off the wheel after pressing that launch button.

"There's a numbness, I can't really feel anything anymore, I just want to slide back into the grind," says Myres. "Maybe that's a defense mechanism. Focusing on the future ahead."

"The release feeling has finished for me," says Kimani. "Now, it's just work."