Sep 242010

On September 23rd, just a little over 5 months after release, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning passed the 30,000 sales mark, with a trial-to-purchase conversion rate of 66.7%. To celebrate, here’s a post-mortem of the game – what we felt we did right and areas we could have improved.

Breath of Death VII: The Beginning



What went well:

#1 Team – Having the right team can make or break a project. Even if you’re one of the rare individuals who is simultaneously great at programming, art, and music, making an entire RPG all by yourself is a gigantic task. Having talented team members to divide the work and offer encouragement and suggestions is a huge advantage. Bill and I were on the same page from day one and this made the difficult task of making our first RPG much more manageable.

#2 Scope & Planning – There are so many RPG projects that get started and never get finished and a major reason for this is because the developers are thinking too big. Final Fantasy 6 style graphics, an epic 30 hour quest with multiple story branches, an innovative real time combat system – yeah, there’s no way that a small development group can realistically make something like that as their first project. With Breath of Death VII, we planned from the start to have a smaller game (around 5 hours) with retro visuals, and nothing too complicated in the gameplay department. It paid off – we finished the game in just under 3 months, whereas most indie RPG projects take years if they get finished at all.

#3 $1 Price Tag – Our initial inclination was to price Breath of Death VII at $3 or $5 since it’s an RPG and it’s much bigger in scope than the typical $1 game. However, by looking at sales trends on the XBox Live Indie Game marketplace, it quickly became evident that $1 games tend to be the most successful. Since we’re in this for the long haul, we felt that even if we could have potentially made more money with a higher price tag, a low price would help us to build up a fan base and garner us free publicity which would help with marketing our future games. It’s paid off – we’ve sold 30,000 copies at $1, whereas by my estimates Aphelion (another XBLIG RPG) has probably only sold about 2,000-4,000 copies at $3.

#4 Marketing – Most Indie developers fail to properly market their games before or after release. It’s an understandable failing – it’s difficult to get big media sites to take you seriously if you’re a small developer that nobody has heard of, they tend to ignore you. Despite this, we decided early on that we’d really try to market Breath of Death VII in every way we could short of actually buying advertising space. We put a trailer on youtube and, we posted about it on forums, talked about it on our website, and emailed reporters & reviewers.

Most of our marketing efforts fell on deaf ears, but some were very successful. RPGamer gave us a lot of publicity, with 2 reviews, an interview, and even a guest appearance on their weekly podcast. The Independent Charles show (a video review show on the UK XBox dashboard) was very positive and gave us quite the nice boost in Europe. But we really hit a homerun when a very positive article about the game showed up on Kotaku. Not only did this article give us hundreds of extra sales a day for about a week, but it also resulted in another high profile article showing up shortly thereafter on yahoo games which gave us a similarly huge boost.

Sadly, our marketing stunt of sending out fake boxed copies of our digital game to various media addresses didn’t pan out, but maybe we chose the wrong targets.

#5 Pacing – If there’s one thing that Breath of Death VII: The Beginning has received almost universal praise for it’s the pacing. Most turn-based RPGs are slow plodding affairs. Not ours. We made a decision early on to make sure each element of the gameplay contributed to a fast pace – from the random encounter limits to the lack of battle animations to the free healing after combat to the frequent LV-Ups to the fact that enemies get strong with each consecutive turn. Slow is boring. Fast is fun.

#6 Humor – Sure, there were some naysayers (mostly people who don’t like referential humor), but for the most part, people really enjoyed finding the various references to various games that we stuck in the game (my favorite probably being the Phantasy Star IV sight gag that you see when you leave the first town with Sara). The central joke of our main character being a mute but letting the player read his thoughts turned out to be a big hit as well.

#7 Budgeting – All told, we spent very little money to make Breath of Death VII. Licensing all of the music cost us under $100 total. Many of the songs were even offered to us for free. Beyond that, we just spent a little money to buy a 360 Memory Unit (for testing out the save/load system) and for our boxed copy marketing stunt. Even including the $100/year XBLIG membership cost, we probably spent under $200 total.

I’ve seen several examples of indie developers spend thousands of dollars on assets and tools and that’s just wrong. You can make a good game with free tools or inexpensive tools. Use free tools and split profits with your teammates rather than hire outside help – save big expenses for later games when you’re already making good money.

#8 Music – We were able to find some great songs that cost very little to license for Breath of Death VII. Not only that, but we found our Cthulhu Saves the World composer through Breath of Death (he did the battle theme & final dungeon theme).

#9 Playtesting – Although the temptation was strong after working so long to just put the game into review ASAP, we held back and stuck it in official playtesting for a while first. I’m glad we did – we got some great feedback from other developers that really helped us improve the game. Stuff like the visual cues when you’re losing in battle and including jokes when you examine objects like tombstones were a direct result of playtesting.

What we could have done better:

#1 More thorough debugging – Being our first game, our debugging process consisted of me playing through the game again and again until I stopped finding errors. Unfortunately, we missed a few major bugs and though we were able to quickly release a patch to fix them, I still feel bad for those players who got caught by a crash in the first week.

With Cthulhu Saves the World, we are going to be doing more thorough testing & debugging, complete with checklists to try to ensure that we don’t overlook obvious things.

#2 Better difficulty balancing – Although I think we did a great job on gameplay balance in general, there were two areas that I think we could have improved on. First, the beginning of the game is too easy – I think the big culprit is the fact that most battles early on don’t have enough enemies. Second, the castle dungeon is almost universally considered to be the hardest part of the game – I toned it down a bit from its initial pre-release incarnation, but I should have toned it down even further.

#3 Ailment Attacks – Ailment attacks are usually useless in most RPGs and I wanted to change that with Breath of Death VII, but I forgot one important thing. It doesn’t matter how good your ailment attacks are – nobody is going to use ailment attacks if you can quickly win every battle through direct force. I hope to change this with our next game and make some battles where ailment attacks have a chance to shine.

#4 Post-release obsession – Immediately after releasing Breath of Death VII, we were more than a little obsessive with checking google and websites to see what people were saying about our game.  What we should have done is to limit our searches and taken a break from development – not only would this have been healthier, but I think we would have started serious development on our next game quicker had we done that.

Conclusion: Making Breath of Death VII: The Beginning was a great experience for us. It taught us a lot about game development and has allowed us to gain contacts & fans that will help us when we release our future games. Oh and the money is nice too. Sales are definitely down from what they once were, but I guess the surprising thing is that it’s still selling as good as it is now (around 50-100 sales/day) when the game has been out for over 5 months already. And to be honest, any sales the game makes now are just icing on a delicious cake – the game has already paid us handsomely for the work we put into it.

So there you have it, our first post-mortem! Thank you for all of your support and I hope you continue to support us and enjoy our games when we release our next RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World, in a few weeks.

 Posted by at 11:37 am

  31 Responses to “Breath of Death VII: The Beginning Post-Mortem”

  1. i’ve only recently downloaded the game and have to say, i really enjoy it. i’m an RPG gamer from that era, i played the early SNES RPG’s (to date the best platform for RPG gamers). i have recently bought several SNES RPG’s to add to my collection. I didn’t even need the trial to “try before i buy”, this little gem was bought without hesitation, great game indeed.

  2. SE Gordon:

    There will be a PC combo pack which will include both Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World sometime in the near future after CSTW is released on XBLIG. 🙂

  3. Sounds great! Any plans on releasing a PC/Mac version?

  4. Thanks Binbag 🙂

  5. I purchased after reading the review and mentioned the game to several friends. I’m enjoying it. I would love a quick post in the future showing the sales bump. I’m hoping you guys are doing well, and I’ll keep spreading the word.


  6. For the guy looking for the battle theme, here it is:

  7. In my quest to play all the RPGs around, Breath of Death VII came as a great surprise this year. I’m quite fond of the Indie games on XBL, but BoDVII stands out as the most accomplished title available on there at the moment, and has certainly been more enjoyable than some of the bigger RPG released this year.

    Cthulhu Saves the World looks fantastic (16-Bit RPGs will always be my favourite), and I can’t wait to see how Zeboyd develops in the future!

  8. Oh, question! Since there’s no forum here, I was wondering if there’s any way to obtain an mp3 of the battle theme?

  9. This is great! Thanks for the post-mortem.

    I don’t know if you got the impression from the 1-paragraph review I wrote but I really did enjoy the game and have reccommended it to several people. I think the lessons from the investment and pricepoint chosen are really valuable ones and it’s great that the game did so well!

  10. Guys I read about your game on IGN and thought I would give it a chance, I have to say it was the best dollar I have spent in a long time. I immediately recommended it out to a ton of friends. Gratz on such a great game and I look forward to seeing more.

  11. Just as a follow-up report, the post-mortem I did on Breath of Death VII has had a big effect on sales in the past few days. Last week, we were selling an average of 60 copies a day. This week, on Tuesday, we sold 363 copies and on Wednesday, we sold 489. This is quite the pleasant surprise. I wrote the post-mortem for my own amusement and to help out other developers; I wasn’t expecting it to get mainstream media attention or have any real effect on our sales.

  12. You guys did a fantastic job. That was one of the best $1 I’ve ever spent.

    It’s always great to see an indie team that actually understands quality game development. You guys had level-headed scope and brilliant gameplay. Zeboyo has done in under $200, and on the first try, what most JRPG’s have failed to accomplish in over ten years of what should have been evolution.

    Kudos to you all, and keep up the good work! You can bet I have $3 saved up for Cuthulu, and I’ll be reminding my friends as well!

  13. All I’ve garnered from this is that you shouldn’t write a post mortem right away. Save your codes and your musing over details for after the fact. I’m sure the result of this will be a huge sales resurgence, as this article ended up on a ton of other sites as a result of showing up on Kotaku.

    Congrats again guys, much deserved. You can’t call a game until it falls off all the lists, but this little spike put you back on a bunch of lists – enjoy the continued success. Oh – and its the end of September, where’s my CSTW play test? =P

  14. Blue Dragon turned me off of hiding things in random items – seriously, it felt like EVERYTHING had something hidden in it and 95% of the hidden items were useless, but the other 5% were rather good. It made exploring towns take forever if you were a completionist.

    Sticking a few hidden things in towns here and there would probably be a good idea though, even if it’s just a couple of hidden jokes and not actually items or gold.

    Oh and I’m going to turn 30 myself in a couple months. 🙂

  15. Hey I just bought the game tonight and spent a few hours playing. I ended up buying it – and hearing about it – for the first time through I guess what is Kotaku’s second article on the game ( I can’t believe I missed the first one geesh, I read Kotaku multiple times a day). As soon as I saw it I was quite exited about it and was going to buy it without even getting the trial, I knew the mix of old style graphics and gameplay with only a $1 price tag could not be beat. As it goes I think it offers a great value for $1 and eagerly await your next title when you have even more resources on the table, I think the formula is a strong one and many people my age (just turned 30 a couple days ago) long for the nostalgia of our favorite RPG’s of the past and we’re certainly willing to spend a bit of money on it, and part of that is the willingness to support more of this type of thing in the future.

    Not everything is peaches and cream though but I have a small gripe I’m sure you’ve already thought of though: a lot of the fun of those old style RPG’s was hunting around town and finding things in jars, bookcases, etc, and I tried many time hoping I would find some stuff until I realized it was not part of the game. A more robust inventory system would also be welcomed.

    Anyways, great post btw and was quite interesting seeing what goes on behind the scenes, I eagerly await your next game!

  16. This was awesome, I love the honesty! And I’m really glad that you made so many sales, you deserve it for making such a rad game.

    Also, “post-mortem” strikes me as extremely appropriate given the theme.

    BTW, you guys have inspired me to start working on an NES styled RPG…thanks!

  17. Love to try it… saddly the indie game service isn’t in Australia/New Zealand yet

  18. Hey man, congratulations! I bought the game a while back and had some fun with it. Looking forward to your next game!

  19. Yeah, we made Breath of Death VII in our spare time (I’m an adult ESL teacher and Bill was a law student at the time).

    I’m hoping that Cthulhu Saves the World will be a big enough success that we’ll be able to use the money from that to start full time development of future titles.

  20. How do you finance yourselves?

    Do you have alternative employment and work on this in your off time?

  21. I would add to that list of improvements more frequent save points, perhaps even the free ability to save in the overworld. Otherwise I congratulate you on a great game.

  22. As a gamer that grew up on 8-Bit RPGs I absolutely fell in love with BoD VII from the very first random battle.

    Here’s hoping to see more BoD titles!

  23. Great to hear the story of your process & success. All the best for Cthulhu, I can’t wait to play it and I’ll certainly be nagging everyone I know to do the same.

  24. Just a couple of additions and fixes to the sales chart.

    The first big sales spike after the launch that isn’t marked is when Breath of Death VII was reviewed in episode 2 of the Independent Charles show on the UK dashboard. This resulted in a very noticeable increase in UK sales (we went from about 30/day in the UK to over 300 in one day).

    The RPGFan review tag is in the wrong place and should be over to the right more over a smaller spike of about 50 extra sales. Instead of the RPGFan tag, there should be a Cthulhu Saves the World announced tag there – we got a bit of extra publicity when we announced our new game which resulted in a boost in sales for a few days.

  25. Thanks for posting your thoughts. You guys certainly had a great game plan and followed through nicely, and while you may not have hit every point, there was good reason behind every decision. I think you guys have a great winning formula. All the best!

    — Jason Doucette / Xona Games

  26. Cool read and a motivation for every indie developer out there!! I hope you will have even more success with Cthulhu and that BoDVII sales will have another big spike when it hits the channel!

  27. A huge congrats and thanks for posting your thoughts. The success of this game is a success for the platform and the XBLIG community in general. Great story of a much deserved hit.

  28. Bill from Zeboyd here, Robert/Rainbowdespair may add this data later:

    For some detailed info on sales, I created these charts:

    Sales over time:

    Sales by Region:

  29. That was a fantastic read, thanks for putting it up there. 🙂

  30. Congrats on such a terrific game and sales.

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