Rune Skovbo Johansen
Creative Programmer & Designer
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Launching Eye of the Temple - this was my experience

Quick note: If you like Eye of the Temple, consider nominating it for VR Game of the Year in The Steam Awards!

My VR adventure Eye of the Temple, that I've been working on for the past five years, has finally shipped! It was released last month on October 14th.

Naturally this was a huge milestone for me after having worked on it for so long. And while I've released some smaller games for free in the past, Eye of the Temple is my commercial debut game. I actually did it! Wow, I say, patting myself on the back.

Shipping the game has been great, but also a bit confusing emotionally. There has been some big ups and also some downs. I might as well write about it here - mostly for my own sake, but who knows if it could be useful or just entertaining to someone else.

The time leading up to launch

I’m a developer first and foremost, and I frankly don’t enjoy doing work related to promotion very much. I know many others are in the same boat.

The last major development work I did before launching was implementing localization around the end of August. Then came some weeks of working intensely on creating two trailers - the launch trailer for launch day, and a shorter launch day announcement trailer to be released a month before launch. Both trailers used mixed reality footage recorded by Anaburn.

When the trailers were more or less done, I had an entire month of doing just promotional work like creating gifs, sending out a press release and mails to journalists and creators (influencers) about the upcoming launch, tweeting, preparing the game for launch in Steamworks, tweeting specifically to influencers, plan pre-launch exclusive streaming with Ragesaq and spazkoga, writing to the (small) mailing list, etc. etc.

Once launch day came, I had been deeply entrenched in “PR mode” for a long while, which is probably not ideal for my psyche.

Launch day

Release day finally came and I spent much of it sending out emails to journalists and YouTubers, writing posts on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook, and keeping the awesomely supportive people on the game's Discord server informed, and asking for their support once again. At 4 pm (local time in Finland) I finally pressed the release button and then I was busy replying to the flurry of comments and replies everywhere for a few hours.

A few days earlier I had asked for advice on Twitter about what to do on release day in order for it to be a good emotional experience. The general advise was to avoid sitting in front of a screen all day obsessively hitting refresh on pages, and instead make sure to take time to celebrate the achievement of shipping in good company with good food and drinks. And so I did!

At 6 pm my partner and I went over to a launch party that my friends at Forbidden Studios had graciously offered to host at their studio. Champagne was had, pizza was eaten, and some people tried out the game for the first time while onlookers were entertained by it. Lots of chatting and high spirits. This was really nice and I hardly checked the Internet at all.

In the following days my notifications were on fire like I've never experienced before, and I spent all my time replying, retweeting and posting a few things of my own. It was kind of stressful but also very cool.

I checked the sale stats too.

Mediocre sales

Sales of Eye of the Temple were not absent. The game was selling. It just wasn't selling a lot.

Let me clarify one thing. Most indie games aren't selling a lot. In fact, most indie games sell less than Eye of the Temple. It's well known that only a fraction of games on Steam make enough money to make game development sustainable for their developers. Even a base level of success (only barely covering the costs of making the game) requires being way above the median. So let me start by saying that I’m lucky the game has been selling at all.

Will sales of Eye of the Temple on Steam cover the costs of making it? Not really. I’ve developed Eye of the Temple over five years, but some of it was part time. It corresponds to about three years of full time work. Since it’s predominantly developed solo with only little use of contractors, the biggest expense is salary for myself. If I calculate with a salary for myself that’s less than half of what I’ve earned in the past, and lower than the average entry level game programmer salary (ignoring I’m a senior programmer with 13 years of experience), the game is on track to cover maybe half of that after one year of sales, assuming year one sales will be about 3x of week one sales.

But I’m fortunate to have other sources of income besides the game sales, so I won’t be struggling paying my bills. Don’t worry about me.

Really, the main reason the sales feel mediocre to me is that I think there’s a lot more people who would enjoy the game (and have the means to play it). But before I can meditate on the question of whether it feels like Eye of the Temple should have been able to sell better, we first need to catch up with some other things that happened.

An awesome review score

Four days after release I wrote this on Twitter:

Eye of the Temple currently has 32 reviews from paying customers. I'm curious if it'll reach the magical threshold of 50 reviews in the first week. No matter how highly a game is rated, it can only go from "Positive" to "Very Positive" with 50 reviews.

And lo and behold! Already the day after I could write this:

Eye of the Temple reached 50 reviews, and Steam changed the label to 'Very Positive'! This honestly happened quicker than I thought it would, and I really appreciate the help from you all! Thanks a lot!

A “very positive” rating on steam requires at least 50 reviews and that at least 80% of them are positive. But Eye of the Temple has a much higher rate of positive reviews. At one point it was 98%, a fact I used as part of drawing focus on the end of the launch discount.

Promotional image used when the launch discount was about to end.

It’s since dropped to 96%. (With only a bit over 100 reviews, all it takes is one more negative review to make it drop one percentage point, while it takes over 20 positive reviews for it to climb back up again.) Still, that’s a super high percentage I hadn’t expected at all, and I’m positively thrilled the game has been received that well!

During development I had the impression, based on play-testing with lots of people (also VR first-timers), that only quite few people had issues with motion sickness when playing the game. However, I always had a worry that my perception was skewed for some reason, and that lots of people would report getting motion sickness once the game shipped, and that this would have a big negative impact on the review score. But that never happened at all, and that has been a huge relief!

The awesome Steam reviews

The reviews on Steam are just awesome. They proclaim Eye of the Temple to be not only mechanically groundbreaking with an unprecedented level of immersion, but also simply one of the best VR games created.

Capturing the essence of over 100 reviews is no easy task but I’ve put together the following summary, with links back to 27 of the original reviews.

A slew of reviews highlight the uniqueness of the game, saying it’s “a refreshing change to see a new game form in VR”, that there’s “nothing like this in VR”, and that it’s an “instant classic”. Others write that it’s “some of the most creative VR gameplay of any VR game”, that it’s “nothing short of genius”, and that “this dev is some sort of mad genius”. Some write that it’s “a revolution in Virtual Reality” because “the motion system is completely revolutionary” and that it has the “potential to create a whole new genre in VR-Games”.

According to the reviewers, what makes it so innovative is that “being able to actually walk through the entire game in your play space is just mind boggling and super immersive”, making it “one of those rare mind-blowing VR experiences”. Some say that the game “does otherworldly things with your mental perception” that “makes you forget you are in VR” and that as a result, “the immersion level is off the chart” and it “takes vr immersion to a new level”.

For some reviewers, that level of immersion made this VR adventure the “most ingenious and thrilling VR game”, speculating that “if Steven Spielberg or George Lucas made VR games instead of movies ... this is the VR game they would come up with” because it “captures perfectly the whole Indiana Jones vibe”, so that “if you want to feel like Indiana Jones, this is the closest you could ever get”.

Overall, lots of reviewers say it’s “one of the best VR experiences” and “one of the greatest VR experiences of all time”. Several focus on room-scale, calling it “the best Roomscale VR Game” they’ve played and “the best room scale experience out there”. Some say it’s the “2nd best roomscale game” next to Half-Life: Alyx and that they “haven't had this much fun since playing Half Life Alyx”. Others think Eye of the Temple surpasses it and is simply the “best VR game”. One reviewer didn’t limit it to VR and said: “I’ve been playing video games for 30+ years, and finding ALL the secrets in Eye of the Temple was easily the most satisfying moment I’ve ever had in a game!”.

It’s almost hard for me to believe how positively these reviews describe the game. I’m blown away and humbled by the response here.

Of course, if you would rather sample some of the reviews yourself, you can see all the reviews on Steam here.

The buzz

A whole lot of people made videos of Eye of the Temple on YouTube, most of which can be found here. It’s too many to list, but I appreciate all of them! I gave out a lot of keys to even YouTubers with very low subscriber counts who had shown an interest in the game while it was in development. There has also been many people streaming the game.

A few larger channels made videos as well. Here’s all the videos I know of with 2,000 views or more:

A lot of the videos are really brilliant. The most concise is the excellent 2 minute review by Ben Plays VR while two of the most entertaining to me are the mixed reality videos by Naysy and OtterWorldly. Naysy even had a TikTok video too that went viral with over 4 million views. That’s really cool!

I couldn’t see any spikes in sales from any of these things, but I’m convinced they all helped a lot combined. All in all, it feels like there’s a bit of a “word of mouth” effect for Eye of the Temple.

The silence

Disappointment is just a miscalibration between expectation and reality. In this section I’ll talk about the biggest emotional let-down, but it’s important for me to emphasize that I’m not complaining, blaming anyone, or saying that the world is unfair. I’m just saying that I had certain expectations that were not met, which means they were incorrect to begin with.

You see, I had kind of assumed that the press outlets and popular YouTube channels that had covered the game before its release, and spoken highly of it, would most likely also cover the release of the game. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption.

Let’s start with the press. The highest-traffic outlets that have reviewed Eye of the Temple are Android Central, VRFocus and the German MIXED, which all reviewed it on launch day. Eye of the Temple hasn’t gotten reviews in more mainstream outlets like IGN, The Verge or Screen Rant, and I never much expected it would, since they never covered the game prior to release either.

In contrast, the two most popular outlets for VR news, UploadVR and Road to VR, have covered the game multiple times prior to the release. UploadVR covered it here, here, here, and here and mentioned it in an article 38 Titles We Can’t Wait To Play and Road to VR covered it here, here and here. With that much coverage prior to release, it took me by surprise that they didn’t review the game when it finally launched, and here over a month later still haven’t. UploadVR did post a quick note about the end of the launch discount and I appreciate that of course.

Taking a bit more zoomed out perspective, we can look at Metacritic. Metacritic doesn’t include all reviews, but it can still give a general overview. When looking at the Metacritic page for Eye of the Temple you can almost hear the tumbleweeds rolling, with its single review from VR Focus. Compare with the pages for other recently released VR games that sold much better: I Expect You to Die 2 (PC version) with 11 reviews and Sniper Elite VR (PC version) with 20 reviews. Of course, those weren’t made by solo indie developers, but it’s just to put things in perspective.

On YouTube a similar effect was going on, to a degree. Since we already talked about coverage of the released game on YouTube, with the most seen video having 14K views, we can do a little comparison with some videos from last year that covered the free demo of the game:

This makes the view counts of the videos of the released game seem almost quaint in comparison. The demo got covered by channels that have more subscribers and can command higher view counts. (That’s ignoring Naysy’s TikTok video that got 4M views of course. I don’t currently know how to meaningfully compare YouTube views with TikTok views.)

Here, I had particularly thought it likely that Virtual Reality Oasis would cover the full game since he’d talked positively about it not only in his video but also in the podcast he hosts. On Twitter, after release, someone suggested he was likely to cover the game, to which he replied “I already covered it and had a great time with it” - referring to his coverage of the demo a year prior. And I really appreciated that earlier coverage of course, and said as much. And yet: That there’s no reason to cover the released game when already having covered the demo is a logic that probably makes a lot of sense from the perspective of a YouTuber’s situation, but to the game developer it feels like getting cold water thrown in your face. My expectations were miscalibrated, and having them corrected was no fun.

Another YouTuber I had hoped might cover the game, even if it was a slim chance, was Nathie. He hadn’t covered the game or its demo, but he had covered the game jam game Chrysalis Pyramid from five years earlier that was the precursor to the game. And back then he had said he hoped the developers would make a full game out of it, and he had made a bunch of suggestions for things to include in such a game. And now five years later, there is a full game, and it does include a lot of the things he suggested. If he then tried out that game on his channel, it would be like going full circle. It just seemed like such a good story, and people love good stories.

Two weeks after release I told that story through this video, honestly hoping it might nudge him to cover the game on his channel. The video was very well received by people, and I was happy to see that Nathie also quote tweeted it on his Twitter account, but alas still no video coverage. Ah well, it was worth a try.

Anyway, lesson learned. With both press and influencers it seems logical to think “if the game got this amount of coverage before it was released, surely it will get at least as much if not more when it actually launches”. But that’s not a given at all. Reality can end up being the opposite.

Speculation time

Okay, there you have it, all caught up. The reviews on Steam were way better than I expected and there was a healthy buzz on YouTube. The coverage in the press (and to a degree among more mainstream YouTubers) was way worse than expected, and worse than coverage of the game prior to release had been. And the mediocre sales were somewhere in between, being lower than expected but not completely bad.

Now I can meditate on whether it feels like Eye of the Temple should have been able to sell better, or rather on what the reasons might be that it didn’t.

Maybe PC VR is just dead

That’s what some people tell me. All the attention is on Oculus Quest these days. There might be something to this, though this doesn’t explain why some other recent PC VR games like Sniper Elite VR, Cooking Simulator VR, or I Expect You To Die 2 sold way better on Steam than Eye of the Temple (extrapolated from number of reviews). And Eye of the Temple has as good Steam review or better as any of those.

Maybe it’s because the play area requirement limits who can play the game

That’s true. According to an old survey, only about 50% of people with VR headsets have a play area of 2m x 2m or more. Headsets have decreased in price since then, becoming available to people with lower income, and this might mean an even lower percentage have enough room now. But that’s only because the number of people with headsets grew so much.

It’s estimated that 2 million people own Half-Life Alyx and that per July this year there are nearly 3 million monthly connected headsets on Steam. Even if only 10% of those have a 2m x 2m play area, that’s still a huge market. So the play area requirement is by no means the bottleneck here.

Maybe people just don’t care as much about indie developers with no track record

Harsh but true to a degree. I mean, like I described above, there has been decent coverage of Eye of the Temple in the press prior to launch, and a respectable YouTube buzz when it launched, so it’s not like nobody cares. But when looking for reasons why there was so little coverage upon the actual launch, and also why the sales weren’t better, being an unknown indie is probably a notable factor in that.

Maybe it’s my lack of PR experience

Another factor that goes hand in hand with being an unknown indie developer that self-publishes is having a lack of PR experience and know-how. While I’ve read a lot on the subject and followed a lot of best-practices (sending review keys to journalists and influencers well in advance of launch etc.), there’s undoubtedly also things I didn’t think about, things I didn’t execute well on, and things I did know about but didn’t have time to even try. I’m pretty sure this factors into the lack of press coverage.

Maybe the demo stole some of the thunder

Journalists and influencers prioritize "fresh news" and there's a risk that a demo (or free prologue) released in advance of a full game can detract from the "news value" of the release of the full game. The original intention was that the demo was released a few months in advance of the full game, which is supposedly the ideal gap, but then the full game took much longer to wrap up than I had thought. It ended up being released a full year after the demo, and this can further have magnified the "old news" effect.

Maybe the game just doesn’t have mainstream appeal

Oof, this is not a nice thought. This is also very speculative because it’s very hard for me to directly assess. While developing a game, it’s easy to get trapped in an echo chamber where you hear most feedback from fans of the game. I feel like I’ve always been aware of this, and while I’ve never dismissed positive feedback, I’ve kept in mind that it might not be representative of a larger player-base.

However, the reviews on Steam has been just as positive. Is it possible for Steam reviews to be an echo chamber too? I suppose if a game’s presentation (trailer, store page etc.) very effectively selects for the people who will end up enjoying it, then maybe… If this is what has happened, it’s probably a good thing. It’s valuable for a game to only attract the people who will enjoy it, exactly so that it can get better reviews, word of mouth etc. from those who have played it.

However, it would also have the effect that the positive reviews are not at all indicative of potential for more mainstream interest in the game, which could be counter-intuitive and confusing. This would explain the large discrepancy between the really positive Steam reviews and the mediocre sales and silence from the press. But I don't know if a "Steam review echo-chamber" is a plausible hypothesis or not.

Maybe it's the game's presentation that doesn't have sufficient appeal

One thing that goes against the "limited mainstream appeal" hypothesis is that many people have talked about how showing the game off to family and friends is a blast, and have recommended the game as a great choice to show to VR first-timers. I would think that this indicates very healthy mainstream appeal. Another possibility could be that while the game itself has good mainstream appeal, the game's presentation, such a trailers and store page, doesn't manage to convey that, and doesn't manage to attract all the people who would have enjoyed the game if they tried it. But the plausibility of this hypothesis is also hard for me to assess.

Maybe it’s a combination

It’s probably a bit of all of the above?

Still, I have a feeling there’s a lot more people out there who would enjoy the game, and I hope more of those people might discover the game over time and get to see for themselves what those glowing reviews are raving about.

The future

Here’s what I have planned for Eye of the Temple:

I want to add support for multiple save slots so multiple family members can play with separate saves, and people can let their friends try the game without losing their own progress.

I might look into adding some features to the speedrun mode that might make it more motivating to try out, like having speedrun challenges for completing just a section of the game.

And of course, I’d love to bring Eye of the Temple to Oculus Quest 2, but I don’t have the skill-set to do it myself. I’d need help from a skilled Unity developer (studio or individual contractor) with lots of experience profiling and optimizing for Quest or other mobile platforms. More info here.

Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on all of this, be sure to let me know. :)

12 comments:

Hokhmah said...

Reading stuff like this makes me sad cause people like you put all their heart in such projects but it also needs to earn enough so you can at least live a decent life of it. Not only that I would wish VR to be growing faster in general but especially when devs put out gems like Eye of the Temple it hurts me even more when it's not financially successful.

I mean my one purchase is a drop in the ocean and while I want you and other good devs to be successful, of course I can't (and don't want) to give you all my money. World is really unfair. Lots of cashgrabs, unfinished bug festivals, uncaring sequels, ... and still earning lots of money while games like these are barely known outside from fans.

I wish you all the best in the future and hopefully some studio/publisher will contact you for porting your game to the Quest. Maybe this will at least help you to achieve enough sales so it also becomes a financial success story.

Rune Skovbo Johansen said...

Hi @Hokhmar, thanks for your comment and also thanks for buying the game! I hope you're having fun with it.

If you want to see this game become more popular, I agree - me too! But please don't feel sad about *me*. Like I wrote in the post, you don't need to worry about me; I'll be fine. :)

Simplex said...

"! I gave out a lot of keys to even YouTubers with very low subscriber counts who had shown an interest in the game while it was in development."

I was one of those YouTubers and turned out was actually beneficial to the game because I noticed the game had no Polish localization and, being a translator myself, I know CEO of a Polish localization company who also happens to be a huge VR enthusiast. I managed to contact him with Rune and this resulted in a Polish language version of the game free of charge :)

Regards,
Simplex

Football Expert said...

For me I am guilty of the demo aspect. I saw the game was released but didn't anticipate it because the anticipation was diminished by the demo. But another bigger aspect is the not causal aspect of VR gaming. For me, I don't actually use my VR setup a lot because the games are not casual. In theory VR is awesome, but in practice (for me) at the end of the day (when I play games) after a full day of work and then gym and dinner I usually am not in the mood to stand around playing VR games. So I think "I should play in VR...Nah, I think I will just sit and play a casual game instead." VR Tetris has easily gotten the most hours of gameplay from me out of all the VR games.

All that said, that's just me...but I figured I would share.

I did just now buy the game though! Your blog post reminded me to get off my rear and purchase it (I had meant to but just didn't get up and do it).

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this does not only affect indie developers. I've been working on a game that cost tenths of millions USD to make and it has 3 metacritic reviews.

It certainly doesn't help that EotT is a niche (those with VR headsets) of a niche (those with enough space) but that doesn't entirely explain the lack of coverage.

People always think, all you need is a good idea for a game. But you also need to be able to make the game (extremely hard) and market it (maybe even harder). There is a reason that big publishers spend $100+ mio on marketing of AAA games alone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. Your game is fantastic, and takes me back to roomscale environment which is where VR really shines. Joystick locomoting bores the cr&p out of me..

I played your demo, but by the time your game released I no longer owned a VR headset. However, I still bought your game on Steam when it released, and it will be my first game to play when valve release their "Deckard" or I find a Vive Pro cheap enough as a temporary solution.

Really shocking that neither roadtovr or upload have reviewed your game 🤔

Cercata said...

This is gonna be a long runner, not the tipical games that sells just the first week. This will become a cukt game.

I want a new blog post when that happens

Pd: I am part of the echo chamber?

Anonymous said...

Really hope you can bring it to Quest 2 and 2022 Sony will probably release a new PSVR, maybe you can be there on launch day?

Anonymous said...

I think releasing the game for Quest2 (and sales on the Oculus (meta?) store) would really boost your sales.
We want to play it (we want to give you money!) but were disappointed it wasn't released for our headset.

Hokhmah said...

I bought it at release cause from trailers, reading and 'feeling' I knew it's something I will like. I still didn't play it but that's the case for some games.

Reasons are I want to support the games/devs that interest me but right now I have a Quest 2 and use it >90% of time Standalone. Especially wireless PCVR is nice but I want to experience gems like EofT, Alyx, TWD, ... in all it's glory so I bought and tried some games for 1-2h but paused them for later.

I wait until we get micro OLED and pancake lens. Hopefully til then (Project Cambria?) the GPU market situation also gets better and I can finally upgrade my graphics card. I think playing all these beautiful PCVR games with my present headset and hardware just won't do it justice. Til then I'm happy with the Standalone experiences.

Enough of my life story, this should be about you and the game. One other thing you could maybe try to boost sales with relatively low effort (I think?) would be to also release it on Rift store. I don't know if this will help much cause PCVR folks are often more tech-savvy and informed, so they often prefer the Steam over Oculus store version in the case they will abandon Meta hardware/ecosystem in the future. On the other side some might only be aware of games sold on the Rift store.

Raymanta said...

Spanish web Real o Virtual owes you a review, for sure, but they have dedicated several news to your game and made this straming:


https://www.realovirtual.com/articulos/5889/rov-explorers-eye-of-temple-song-smoke

https://www.realovirtual.com/

El juego es muy divertido y original en VR.

TonyVT Skarredghost said...

As a blogger, I have to say that what happened to you about the demo and the full game coverage makes sense. I have limited time in writing articles, so I can't write too many articles on the same topic. If I had already covered the demo of a game a few months ago, most likely I would skip reviewing the full game to give space to another game or another topic. I know that this sucks, but from a content creator's standpoint, it makes sense.

The good thing is that I have my weekly roundup of news where I can report briefly this kind of news, but it's not the same as a full review, of course.

BTW thanks for this postmortem... since I am also an indie game developer, I've found it to be very informative...