How an indie game made a word-of-mouth rise to the top of the eShop charts

Steamworld Dig, the excavation-heavy Nintendo 3DS title from Gothenberg, Sweden-based indie developer Image & Form, has taken over the eShop in a number of territories across the globe — and it did so almost entirely thanks to the unpaid evangelism of its earliest adopters.

It's a peculiar success story, given the number of games launched on the 3DS eShop that, under similar marketing and public relations conditions, flopped spectacularly. Writing to Polygon in an email interview, Image & Form co-founder Brjann Sigurgeirsson broke down just how different Steamworld Dig's experience has been: The title has been on top of the European and Australian eShop charts for weeks — it even managed to dethrone the reigning champ, Animal Crossing: New Leaf. It's currently in third in the North American new release charts, only sitting below Mario and Luigi: Dream Team and Pokemon Dream Radar.

Sigurgeirsson didn't disclose exact sales numbers, but said he's extremely pleased with how Steamworld Dig has ascended, passing up first-party games that are even more recent than the studio's indie game.

"Economically, suffice it to say it's not been bad, but I'm sure it'll be even better," Sigurgeirsson said. "You always hope to sell as much as possible on day one, but very few were prepared for us 'slamming in from the side.' Unknown dev/pub, unknown IP; people will need to hear and read about the game a couple of times before getting it."

"...very few were prepared for us 'slamming in from the side.'"

Image & Form developed Steamworld Dig quickly and quietly, with production on the title running from last October to this June. The tight time frame belies the depth and quality of the final product: Steamworld Dig blends elements from Minecraft, Spelunky and the Metroidvania genre with a charming, robotic Wild West aesthetic. It doesn't look or feel like a game created in a little over eight months; that's because the entirety of Image & Form was focused on getting the game done, rather than on promoting it.

"Now, Image & Form is the best dev team on the planet per capita — excellent people, the lot of them," Sigurgeirsson said. "But it was frustrating that we never really had very much time to create PR stuff such as gameplay trailers, exquisite screenshots, mockups and what have you. We're a pretty small studio, and everyone had their nose buried in development."

Screen_shot_2013-08-30_at_1

Sigurgeirsson sent out just a single press release about the title while it was still in development. In March, Image & Form sent out a small handful of screenshots for the title; an email Sigurgeirsson expected to get lost in the "white noise" the studio had encountered when trying to promote its iOS games. Steamworld Dig's unique aesthetic actually managed to gain traction in the press, but the team had its head down in development and "totally missed whatever little buzz there was."

"Time passed, and I was kicking myself for not having anything new to send to the press at any point," Sigurgeirsson said. "I was too embarrassed to send out a 'Still working on it, have you seen the ole artwork I sent before?' Also, we kept being too optimistic about our submission date. We kept thinking that it wasn't very far off, so we could produce and send material when we were done."

"I had borrowed a mountain of cash to complete the game, the guys had done a terrific job with it, and I had failed miserably at promoting it so far."

After finishing the game, the studio took the month of July off; a vacation that Sigurgeirsson spent worrying about the game's lack of publicity.

"I had borrowed a mountain of cash to complete the game, the guys had done a terrific job with it, and I had failed miserably at promoting it so far," Sigurgeirsson said.

His fears were unfounded. After releasing the game's first trailer on August 6 — the day before the game hit the European and Australian eShop — the game began to gain traction. Nintendo of Europe briefly promoted it in a Nintendo Direct. YouTube users began picking it up with Let's Plays and positive video reviews. A NeoGAF OT thread began to fill up with enthusiasts for the new game, all eager to spread the word.

The first written review came from an Australian outlet called Gamesblip, which awarded Steamworld Dig a near-perfect score.

"Our egos were very fragile at that point, our heads were on the butcher's block, and when the next reviews — all 8s and 9s — trickled in, I almost cried with relief. 10 months of hard work were finally at an end, and it was all very much worth it," Sigurgeirsson said.

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People began purchasing and recommending the game on Twitter, where Image & Form's follower count leapt up by a factor of 10, jumping from just 70 followers to over 700, in a single week. The game topped the eShop sales charts in Europe and Australia, and approached the top spot in North America as well — a spot that Image & Form still hopes to claim, despite the fact that it doesn't plan on allocating any more budget to promoting the game.

By Sigurgeirsson's estimation, Steamworld Dig has been a success; one that his studio hopes to follow up on with another entry in the Steamworld series.

"We're talking about the next installment in the SteamWorld series, and we've come pretty far," Sigurgeirsson said. "We have a number of options. All of them look fun."

"Life's too short to make and play bad games."

There are a number of factors behind that success, though; one of the chief reasons being the nature of the 3DS eShop itself. The install base of the 3DS is certainly lower than that of iOS devices — a fact Image & Form is familiar with, as it's launched titles on both platforms. But there's far more competition on the latter platform, all vying for attention, making it exponentially harder to guarantee an audience for your titles.

"On mobile it's close to impossible to be heard, and the featuring process is somewhat of a lottery. There are so many great games coming out, and only a few can be featured. The rest have a hard time," Sigurgeirsson said.

He also attributes Steamworld Dig's success to the complete lack of "calculations, demographics analysis and greed" behind its development. It's how Image & Form was able to make the game that its dev team wanted, on the platform they wanted to make it on.

"We've got to beat the margins to pay everyone's wages too, but in the end I'd rather see us go bust (don't tell the others) than make subpar or uninteresting games," Sigurgeirsson said. "Life's too short to make and play bad games. I'm 45, so trust me on this."

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