The year of 2012 saw many things happen. We got Blackwell on Steam. We released three big games - two of which became huge sellers. We partnered up with GOG. We were very busy bees, and we had lots to talk about.
The year of 2013? Janet and I had a baby and moved four times. A big deal for us, certainly, but not exactly interesting for everyone else. Although as expected, it's slowed our production down quite a bit!
We released an iOS port of Gemini Rue back in April, but aside from that we've been fairly silent on the game development front. If you follow us on Twitter you'll know that we've been working on Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth game in the Blackwell series. We're slowly crawling to the finish line, and it recently dawned on us that we had to start thinking about the launching process and all the PR that entails. But we've been so quiet lately. What to do?
I thought back to the year 2009, which was the last time things were very slow for us. We had spent a over a year working on Emerald City Confidential for a publisher, and we wanted to shake things up a bit and remind people we still existed while gearing up for our next internal release. The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was coming up, so we did a free promotion of The Shivah for a day. It was an older game that people had forgotten existed, so it seemed like a fair bet.
Sure enough, it worked. About five thousand people nabbed the game for free. Our mailing list expanded nicely, and people were talking about us again. So since it worked before, why not do it now?
My plan was simple: To give away Blackwell Deception for free on Halloween.
The goal: To get people talking about us again, and to promote the next game in the series which will release in early 2014.
What could go wrong? As it turned out, almost everything.
I won't go into all the details here, since at the time of this writing I have been interviewed about it several times and more people have discussed what happened better than I could. So click on one of those links if you want to know the full story. But in a VERY quick nutshell - I included a free Steam key with every free copy of the game. Those free keys got exploited by resellers, whose intent was to hoard as many keys as possible until after the sale was over and then sell them. Attempts to solve this problem proved fruitless, and in the end (after not sleeping and fighting with this problem for over 20 hours straight) I threw in the towel and cancelled the offer. When I woke up the next morning, I learned that a weakness in our system was discovered and the resellers had continued their work overnight. Over 30,000 keys were nabbed this way, and I had to get them all invalidated.
Been awhile since I had an opportunity to use this image again.
I know a large part of this mess was due to our inexperience and naivete. There was a lot I didn't know and a lot I didn't anticipate (I didn't even know that Steam key resellers existed, for a start!), and it came around to bite us in the butt. I've said before that an indie lives and dies by their reputation, and throughout this whole debacle I was so torn about what to do. At one point I removed the Steam keys from the offer, but the reaction was swift and brutal. People like having games in their Steam library, even if it's a free game. It's like if it's not in their library it doesn't count. I don't quite "get it" (I'm pushing 40, dontchaknow) but I get that this is the way things are these days. The logic seemed simple: people were mad about not getting Steam keys, so try and give them Steam keys. In most situations, the goodwill generated would outweigh any ill effects. Sadly, this was not one of those times.
What makes me saddest are the small percentage of keys that were taken completely innocently by gamers who found the link on a forum after I cancelled the offer. I felt really bad that they were going to lose their games, but there was nothing much I could do. If it was just limited to a few thousand people grabbing one code for themselves and themselves alone, I would have just let it go and chalked it up to experience. It was the people digging in with both elbows, nabbing codes by the bucketful, that forced me to disable them all. To use a trite phrase, a few bad apples had totally ruined the bunch. The most I could do was to ask Steam not to ban anybody or get them in trouble for this.
Ironically, I kind of achieved my goal. Several mainstream press sites have run with the story, and the outpouring of support and sympathy over what happened has been tremendous. We couldn't ask for better fans. So thank you, all!
(Some have accused me of doing this as a cute PR stunt. All I can muster in response is the old saying: I'm not that dumb, and I'm not that smart.)
So what's the moral of the story? I honestly have no idea. Be careful when giving away free stuff, I guess. I thought I had planned ahead, but boy was I unprepared. In the end, I suppose it was a net positive. I Learned A Valuable Lesson and got some much needed publicity. It might have cost me a night of sleep and a few more grey hairs, but all's well that ends well.