Cinders Devs Release Visual Mystery Novel Solstice

Cinders developers MoaCube released a new visual novel on Friday, this time stepping away from fairytales and into a fantastical setting of their own. They call Solstice [official site] a “mystery thriller”, exploring a strange city which looks right out of the Arabian Nights – except it’s in the middle of icy wastes. It’s got a demo and all, so you can have a bash/read yourself.

Even if visual novels aren’t your bag, you might be interested in MoaCube’s thoughts on how selling games outside Steam (Solstice is launching there later) has changed over the years.

First, Solstice itself. In that strange city, an archeologist has gone missing and two protagonists, a doctor and a mysterious visitor, start investigating. But you can see that yourself if you download the demo, which is out for Windows and Mac. And in this vid:

As for its launch… things haven’t gone as well as MoaCube had hoped. Their post goes into how promotion has changed since Cinders three years ago, how selling directly has worked out (poorly), and so on. Their lessons and conclusions aren’t rules or necessarily true for everyone, of course, but this from their conclusion is interesting:

“If a somewhat established indie, with a clearly defined audience and some following, can’t generate enough traffic to live from direct sales alone, this means we’re no longer independent developers, we’re Steam developers.”

Solstice is $19.99 from MoaCube. They’re selling it via BMT Micro, which I can’t say I’m ever pleased to see (psst, hey, here’s something else that’s changed since Cinders came out: Itch.io has taken off, and it’s great). You will get a Steam key when Solstice launches there, though.

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23 Comments

  1. ChrisGWaine says:

    “(psst, hey, here’s something else that’s changed since Cinders came out: Itch.io has taken off, and it’s great)”

    Psst, Moacube are aware but apparently can’t use it from Poland.

    • TeeGee says:

      Yup, that’s true. I mean it’s not blocked or anything like that, but it’s made pretty much unusable through the combination of its middle-man nature (as opposed to re-sellers like Steam or other storefronts) and our tax law.

      We’d have to procure a paper invoice for each and every sale made there, along with some data on the taxes paid. Technically, that invoice should also get signed by the customer. Quite bothersome compared to other services that sell the game in our place and then simply send royalties.

      TL;DR: itch.io is cool but very basic and Polish tax law is dumb AF. ;)

  2. Geewhizbatman says:

    MoaCube doesn’t make the style of game I frequently go for, but I really appreciate their characters and inclusion of all sorts of people and preferences. I also don’t get the sense that they view that as a “must” or “compromise” for modern audiences either but as an obvious way to enhance a story for the gamer.

    Though I will say the kiss followed by a jump cut to that pillar exploding into a magic sparkle shower in the trailer made me giggle x3

  3. Zankman says:

    A Visual Novel that isn’t weaboo-bait, erotica or covered-up pornography?

    Interested!

    And good point about itch.io, that is a good platform for indies.

    • DrakeDwarf says:

      Gorgeous to boot! I mean look at these backgrounds. Cinders isn’t really my cup of tea but it is one of the best-looking visual novel I have ever seen.

  4. Morte66 says:

    WTB primer on what “Steam’s discoverability algorithms” are and why they matter to gamers.

  5. robertlepervers says:

    “[official site]” is redirecting to the current page being browsed for me.

  6. Hobbes says:

    @Morte66 – They don’t, quite simply put. The discoverability algorithms are based on a mix of your wishlists and your discoverability queue (depending on if you use it), otherwise generally speaking the “new release” list is the way to go.

    Most of that is similar conspiratal thinking that got the Sunset devs in the same mess they landed themselves in. Steam is not an inherently evil platform and they are not out to eat your lunch folks. They are simply a place where you sell games, quite simply put, and this is a message to any dev who thinks Steam is a hard place to sell on:

    Get gud.

    I don’t mean this as an insult either, I know many good devs who are struggling to make ends meet and who barely put food on the table despite making decent games on steam, but the rule stands. Make a good game and people will spread word of mouth about it. You may not see a massive surge of sales right away, but the long tail will mean you see steady earnings over time.

    Now Cinders is a game I adored, and I do hope Solstice will be one I can recommend to my friends in the same manner, but I can damn well guarantee that the Steam platform is not the reason why your game fails to sell decently if you already have a good fanbase. Solstice will live or die based on if it’s a -good product-, not if it shows up in peoples’ discoverability queue.

    And as much as people might claim otherwise, those user review aggregates are going to matter, a big blue thumb up next to the review score will ensure that people actually click on the game to investigate it rather than skip over it to the next one. Bear in mind when steam runs sales and weeklies that games are sorted by user review scores, from most to least favorable.

    This whole indie apocalypse people go on about is bollocks too, it’s just there’s too much shite being cranked out and people are getting wise to it. See up for the answer to THAT.

    • malkav11 says:

      Word of mouth is definitely why I own Cinders.

    • TeeGee says:

      Yo, Tom from MoaCube here. Thanks for the write-up! I’m still surprised by how much noise my blog post have made. :P

      @Hobbes: We don’t think that Steam is an evil platform. It’s been pretty cool for us, especially after the discoverability update. I couldn’t hate something that expanded our audience so much!

      That said, monopolies are bad by principle and limit what you can do. My article isn’t complaining about weak Steam sales (the game is not there yet and sales are fine in general), but points out to the fact that it’s just much harder to generate traffic with social media and press compared to three years ago. This takes away some our safety cushion (in case the game doesn’t do well on Steam), which is a problem for more risky/artsy/niche titles.

      Steam discoverability system is pretty swell, and I agree it promotes good stuff while burying most of the crap nicely, but the automated nature of it is quite scary. It heavily relies on day 1 results, so an unlucky lunch may get you buried with the crap and your potential audience will be none the wiser. With Cinders (which had a mediocre launch day), we could back on our direct fans and existing hype and it turned the tables. It’s going to be much harder now, when people outright ignore a game unless it’s on Steam.

      It also makes devs try to “game” the system instead of focusing on just releasing a good game, as can be seen in the influx of trendy-but-unpolished releases (often under the guise of Early Access).

      And just to be clear: I’m not tooting the horn of #indiepocalypse here (as I mention in the blog) as it annoys me too. I’m just sharing my stats in hope that other devs can learn from them and realize how important a good Steam launch has become.

      Also, thanks for the kind words on Cinders. I’m pretty sure you’ll like Solstice too. :)

      • Hobbes says:

        @Tom : Heyhey! Glad to speak with you :)

        Steam is where it is because it’s frictionless. BMT Micro isn’t, therein lies the issue. Most people go to steam because it’s easy to spend money on, and now (as a secondary reason) it has critical mass. All your games are on it, and all your friends use it. So as a rule you’ve also got inertia to overcome if you wish to set up a competing platform. That said, if a competing platform did everything steam does -but better-, there’s no reason competition couldn’t exist.

        The big reason it doesn’t is because Steam does everything “well enough” that there’s little reason to compete unless you’ve some overriding commercial reason to do so to begin with (like EA not wanting to give Valve a slice of their DLC monies), if Steam was as bad as Origin or *shudders* uPlay, we’d see competition toot quick. But we don’t, because Steam works, and it works well enough for everyone, and Valve unlike a lot of monopolies doesn’t make a habit of being abusive about its’ position (at least not yet, that may change somewhen when Gabe isn’t at the helm, but thus far, fingers crossed).

        A good steam launch hinges on a lot of things, most importantly it relies on having a good name (not the name of the game, though occasionally that’s useful), a reputation and a solid product to sell. Games that trade on memes usually flash in the pan and then turn sour pretty fast, whereas games that trade exclusively on the reputation of a game that came before it (I’M LOOKING AT YOU GSB2!) start off looking pretty well on sales but then cliff edge quite literally when it comes clear that the game itself isn’t up to spec.

        When it boils down to it, having a strong “strike rate” of good games is what builds those sales, getting a reliable stable of solid releases that -do well-, will be the best way to guarantee long term success for a dev studio. Yes, it does mean everyone is in effect a Steam Developer (puppygames alluded to this some time ago) but that is the reality of the world we’re in. It’s much like Google in so much as if you can’t find it on google, it doesn’t exist.

        Rather than fight it the better option is to work within the system and instead of gaming it, try to improve it by giving feedback to Valve on how it can be improved (they do listen!) and also to build the fanbase (which I know you have in particular, you’re speaking to one!), and to ensure that good word of mouth spreads. Positive user reviews, good impressions from youtubers who are actively interested in the game you’re offering and can provide good coverage, and articles like on this fine site will do far more for you these days.

        *stretches and flicks whiskers* That said, if Solstice is even a shadow of what Cinders was, you’ve truly nothing to worry about. Cinders is one of those rare games I literally had to beat people over the head to go and buy. It was that entertaining.

        • TeeGee says:

          Yeah, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Steam is the acting monopoly by now, but as far as evil monopolies go, we could do MUCH worse.

          It has some bad sides, it has some good sides (I prefer current situation to when Steam was a closed platform for obvious reasons), and it’s simply the reality we live in. The market constantly twists and turns. A few years ago it was the mobile craze, now it’s Steam, in 10 years it’ll be something else.

          I still think it’s worth it to share data, so more indies can get a better grasp on the situation, though.

          • Hobbes says:

            *contented nod* More information out in the public domain is always good. Especially as it helps others learn, but yes, am glad to speak to someone who’s very much of the same mind.

            I wish you much luck with Solstice. I’ll be writing up my review once I’ve sorted out my budget and it appears on Steam (I do most of my written work there whilst I’m building up a portfolio of short-form work, maybe some day I’ll get to write a few longer articles, but at this point it’s exclusively something I do as a service to others).

          • shadow9d9 says:

            How could it be much worse? Steam has no phone number and their agents take weeks to respond and can’t even bother to read the tickets…they send an automated message, lock your account, and take another 2 weeks to respond again. They can freeze you out of all of your games and there is absolutely nothing you could do but wait again.

          • TeeGee says:

            Oh, man. You should have seen what went on in the PC casual market when it blew out. All that + more + plus they took 70% not 30%. :D

          • Hobbes says:

            @Shadow9d9 : The only time that can happen is if your account is suspected of fraudulent transactions and/or you initiated a chargeback. If you’ve done either of those things, then you’ve presumably assessed the risks of doing so and thus on your own head be it. VAC banning won’t get you locked out, nor will Trade banning.

            @ TeeGee : Oh? Do tell! 70% seems brutal…

          • April March says:

            @Hobbes: You say ‘the only tiime that can happen’, I say ‘the only times we have known it to happen so far’.

    • Morte66 says:

      @Hobbes, thanks. It never occurred to me he was talking about the Steam discovery queue, I thought it was going to be some deep and twisted answer re how things get on the front page or whatever. Well, that was simpler than I thought.

      [Tangent: I’m familiar with the discovery queue and I think it’s a fucking awful system for braindead customers.

      I wish they would replace it with a weighted search on user tags and derived tags. E.g. I’d set mine up to give +15 to FPS, +20 to RPG, -5 to third person, -20 to puzzle adventure, -30 to multiplayer, +5 to story rich, -1 for every pound it costs, + 20 for very/overwhelmingly positive reviews, + 10 for mostly positive, and so on for about 15 other criteria. But I guess that would be too complex for Steam.

      Even just let us add do negative searching as well as positive so we can e.g. search for games that are FPS but not multiplayer, which is not possible with current steam.

      Tangent ends.]

      • Hobbes says:

        See, I’d like that, but I’d also like a combination of that and OpenCritic where I can actively filter out specific review sites (so I can get rid of specific sites that I have low opinions of), to get a better read on what metacritic thinks. Right now Metacritic’s weighting means if it’s between that and the aggregate of Steam User reviews (the million monkeys system), I’ll go with the million monkeys for a rough baseline for how well received a game is.

        Anomalies to that exist, but it’s still a good place to start.

  7. malkav11 says:

    Direct sales were fine and well in the early days of the internet when most games were being sold in retail stores and online downloads were the realm of tiny shoestring operations operating by word of mouth and demos. But it’s 2016. People get all their PC games online now, and they buy them by the dozens. It’s not a matter of requiring Steam, per se (although they’re easily the most popular service). It’s about having all your games in a few easily corralled and remembered spots instead of randomly strewn around the internet, out of sight and out of mind. Don’t like Steam? GoG or Humble or Gamersgate or even Origin fulfill a similar function. BMT Micro transactions on your own website just don’t cut it in this day and age, except for your most dedicated fans. And even then they’re probably only doing it to give you a bit more of a cut and will still want a Steam key or whatever.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Ultimately it’s convenience, yup. Like I bought Atom Zombie Smasher via direct purchase a long while ago and I still have a hankering to play that again now and then. But I’m just too lazy to dig up the old email and tell the dev I need a new download link.

  8. Premium User Badge

    frogmanalien says:

    I really loved the blog post about the situation with Steam and all the comments and conversation about discoverability- but it’s very easy to make Steam the bad guy here IMHO. If Steam didn’t exist and wasn’t the beast that it was I probably wouldn’t buy as many games as I do today- and that benefits indies.
    I’ve bought at least five or six games from indies from way back in the “early-Steam days” (when they weren’t “indie friendly” anyway) and if I want to play those titles I bought direct… I can’t – the studios have closed, their downloads gone, etc. – Steam makes that purchase safer for me as a consumer. It’s made prices competitive and made the PC market thrive.
    It’s a BAD discovery system, but, you know what, it’s still better than Google or Apple’s store fronts which some how force generic rubbish in my face despite me only spending money on some very specific genres and interests (and supposedly possessing far greater intelligence and insight than the Steam store)- in fact, I see more indies in Steam than I do triple AAA’s and at least half of those are games that are appealing to me – so, again, not perfect, but better than most.
    I personally hope that Steam finds new ways to helping people discovery things (curators seemed like a good idea but it’s unplayed) especially since the number of amazing titles from indies seem to be on a massive trend upwards even if many are struggling to make ends meet- but I’m not sure Steam or indies alone are the problem- but rather a cultural thing (movies and books are not treasured for any length of time any more in the pursuit of the novel and new).
    One final note- I’d love to see some new solutions be tested out – Vale do at least seem to be OK with upseting the apple cart a bit with crazy experiments – some better than others- so why not have a blog magazine rack with reviews from favourite sites in line with Steam purchases? Why not do a quarterly survey? Why not game the discovery of new games (like in the recent sale but with more, well, fun)? How about an streaming service tie in to show novel ways play to old games and bring the long tail home? Test them out – they’ll cost little to do (some HTML coding and a couple of interested people!) and they could lead to better sales and happier indies too… Just my thoughts.

  9. Laurentius says:

    This game looks really cool. I am sad that these devs aren’t getting enough attention they deserve. Still indie dev world is really tough spot now.