Secrets of the developer who sold half a million videogames you’ve never heard of on Steam

bit blaster xl

In the space of a half-hour conversation, Adam Nickerson, aka Nickervision Studios, uses a variant of the phrase ‘I don’t know really how to make videogames’ at least half a dozen times. Yet he’s managed to singlehandedly sell half a million copies of his games on PC.

You’ve probably never heard of Bit Blaster XL, for example, but it’s shifted 260,000 copies on Steam. He developed it solo, in just two weeks. Its follow-up, on course to be equally successful, was developed in 75 hours.

How did he do it? He figured out exactly how to get noticed on Steam during this time of seemingly ceaseless new releases – a time that has destroyed the hopes and dreams of many other small developers.

Bit Blaster XL, a short and simple pixel art shoot ‘em up that is intense without being overly difficult about it, was released last January, followed by Orbt XL in spring 2017, and then Diamo XL just last week. Bit Blaster’s racked up 260,000 sales and counting on Steam (plus 3,684 reviews that add up to an ‘Overwhelming Positive’ rating), Orbt XL 50,000 since its release this April but is, he claims, currently on track to sell an equivalent number over time, and he’s also shifted over 200,000 copies of Bit Blaster in various Humble Bundles. The games nominally sell for 99c/79p, but are frequently discounted by 50% (as low as Valve will usually allow). Each was developed in a matter of weeks, though aftercare has taken significantly longer.

Even at those low prices, former IT guy Adam Nickerson’s life has been transformed. “It’s something that I just fell into doing”, the genial Canadian, who comes across as simultaneously confident and self-effacing, tells me. “It has put me in a comfortable position that a lot of people would probably envy, where I can just freely work away at this. Even if my next few games fail, I could do this for a couple of years still comfortably with zero success”

There are three key pillars on which Nickerson’s success was built: tell the truth, tick every box, and don’t get too emotionally involved. These all add up to an uncommonly pragmatic approach to selling games on Steam. “A lot of people are incredibly critical of Valve, and their systems where they open the floodgates for anyone,” says Nickerson, “but I have had tremendous success with Valve’s discovery updates.” This statement alone will be a headspinner for many developers who have cried foul at Valve’s various attempts to make their storefront into a level playing field.

The key, he feels, is to use the available tools correctly. “Unfortunately I see a lot of people who are trying to describe their game in too broad a stroke. I apply the tags and descriptions and I do my very best to ensure they are are super-honest, clear and show exactly what the game is. I even dispel notions that the games are bigger than they are.”

“Not to shoot down any of the hype, because sometimes the hype is real, but it’s a very real thing for people to overpromise. I am under promising. In some of my descriptions it says ‘perfect for playing while in queue for another game’. In all honestly, anyone can do it, it’s just a matter of really paying close attention and not representing your title as something’s it not.”

Also important has been taking care to support even the apparently minor aspects of Steam. “You really want to tick all those boxes – trading cards, controller support, leaderboards, Steam cloud. Steam Cloud I just added this Monday to Bit Blaster, it’s one thing that people have been after, and I don’t know how to make games, I didn’t know how to do it, so I just recently discovered it. When people clamour for these little checkboxes, the more you can fill, the more it adds you to a list of ‘this game has trading cards’, ‘this game has Steam cloud…’”

As a result of both the box-ticking and the diligently realistic descriptions, he argues, “Valve’s behind the scenes framework is only showing it to players who are actually interested in this sort of game. Which I can see in things like my reviews on the game, which have as time went on, become more positive. The review process, as we’ve seen lately with a lot of these review bombing stories happening, is so important.”

Caretaking those reviews has been another part of the puzzle – and that means heading negatives ones off at the pass at least as much as it does making sure the games reach the most receptive audience. “Bit Blaster right out of the gate, I got a lot of yelling from users who were ‘oh, this is a rip-off’ and I was saying to myself ‘oh my God, I sold this for a dollar and it’s a rip-off?’ But listening to those players who were saying ‘oh, this simple feature’ or ‘I want it to work on ultrawides too.’ I just added those little things as I went along. Also, if you’re gonna support Linux, make sure it works on at least Steam OS.”

With these lessons learned, Orbt was a lot smoother out of the gates, and the Very Positive rating on Diamo in the handful of days since release suggests the trend will continue. In my first, superficial glance at Nickerson’s games, I erroneously presumed them to be simple structures to provide a shower of achievements to players who value such things. There are many such games on Steam, and they do find an audience – but Nickervision Studios games are not among them. Yes, there are a few more Achievements than one might expect to see from such small, short games, but again, it’s about making sure every box is ticked, not flooding his work with tens of thousands of spurious trophies.

This is not to say, however, that he has not worked out how to take advantage of Achievements. “People love to complete a game, so they want achievements that are really achievable. Really difficult ones I’ve actually found detrimental to success. People will complain that they just can’t get it, so I’ve modified the balance and whatnot to make sure that the average player, based on the stats I get back, can achieve all of them within a couple of hours.”

Though this perhaps suggests a developer working on an almost forensic level to ensure commercial success, Nickerson is also adamant that the human touch matters. “I’ve had a lot of really negative reviews, where someone just says awful things. Y’know, the internet can be vile, but the moment I respond to that person, they’re ‘oh, shit, this is a human being, this isn’t a gigantic machine churning out games, this is a human who is making games and he’s willing to try and work with my problems.’” He also litters his store pages with jokes and humility, and again works to set reasonable expectations. “The first thing on the Steam page is a developer’s note that says ‘hey, this is the game you are buying, if you expect other things, that’s not what this is’. It’s really me doing my best to avoid selling the game to someone who doesn’t want it.”

diamo xl

Though he comes across as very happy with his lot and assured in his understanding of the system, the affable Nickerson does not seem either arrogant or cynical about his success. There is, perhaps, a reason why so few of us have heard of Bit Blaster (we’ve never before posted about it on this site, for instance), even though we more than likely all know someone who owns it.

“I was lucky enough that Microsoft invited me down to E3, and I got to meet a whole bunch of other developers. I’ve never gone to developer-type things until recently, and I just sit there quiet because I feel almost bad. ‘Oh, a dumb little game I made has been very successful and they’re arguing amongst themselves about if their game can sell two thousand copies. I don’t want to be patting myself on the back – there are a lot of hardships in this business. I have seen so many beautiful and thoughtful games from really talented developers get completely ignored because they couldn’t find an audience.”

orbt xl

Which brings us to Adam Nickerson’s final lesson. “Another important thing I’ve felt from the beginning is not to be too emotionally attached to my games. If I become too attached, and ten people come out of the woodwork and start telling me how terrible it is, it’s going to crush my spirit. And I’ve seen that happen to people. It’s key for me to avoid that situation, so I try to keep at arm’s length from being in love with my own work. Don’t get me wrong – I’m quite proud of it, but I tend not to go out and yell on the streets about what I’m doing.”

For the next few years at least, he’s in a position where he can do whatever he wants – and what he wants is to use that freedom to find out more. “I’m not an expert, but I love learning this stuff.” Perhaps, before too long, the man who sold half a million videogames will no longer be claiming that he doesn’t know how to make videogames.

Bit Blaster XL, Orbt XL and Diamo XL are available now.

51 Comments

  1. dahools says:

    You know what, good on him.

    A bit of common sense, along with a good marketing strategy and what a surprise, relative success.

  2. Nice Save says:

    This is pretty inspiring.

    Guess I should go back to that programming tutorial I’ve not touched in the last few months.

  3. TheTots says:

    Got to meet this guy at the last Steam Dev Days. He and his brother are a trip. We’ve actually covered Orbit XL and Bit Blaster XL on our podcast series. Really excellent games.
    link to gamerpublicradio.simplecast.fm

  4. senae says:

    So he’s made a career out of being the reverse Digital Homicide? neat

  5. poliovaccine says:

    Interesting profile, nice one, RPS! This kinda thing is why this site is my go-to for gaming stuff (this kinda thing and the pooping snail, too).

    This guy’s whole mentality reminds me of something someone told me once about picking a college – “don’t aim low, don’t aim high: aim at your target.”

  6. GeoX says:

    I actually DO own these games, though to my shame, I’ve never played any of them. It’s just that when they a game in my steam recommendations is on sale for fifty cents, it’s kind of hard to resist. I know it’s a bad habit, but hopefully basically harmless.

    • GeoX says:

      Important update: I’ve now tried all three of these, and I have to say: I definitely feel I got my money’s worth. Very solid little arcadey things. Well done.

  7. ScubaMonster says:

    I like this guy’s no nonsense attitude, more people need to take this approach. A lot of indie devs are really too emotionally invested. More than once I’ve witnessed devs respond to negative reviews extremely defensive and they’d have been better off just not saying anything at all. Instead of acknowledging the criticisms they’ll go to lengths to explain why you’re wrong or don’t get it, even if the criticism is perfectly valid. One of them even went through old negative reviews and requested the users either update or delete their reviews since it applies to an older version of the game. That’s just poor form and doesn’t look professional. Take your lumps and deal with it.

    • Halk says:

      It’s easy not to be too emotionally invested in something you developed in 75 hours, as opposed to 2 or 3 years.

    • DasBilligeAlien says:

      I would even argue that a game your are not emotionally invested in is not worth making.

      But then again he seems to be more interested in gaming steam not making games. Wich is ok. But not what I am here for.

      • Nickervision says:

        I understand why you’d say that, though i do want you to consider that while I love the analysis and deconstruction of Steam part. I also think it’s incredibly important to have a product worth playing. I try really hard to make the best possible, fun and bug free experience with my limited skillsets. I think things would be quite different if the games I made we’re broken, unfinished, or exploitative. I just make little games that I enjoy playing and it just so happens there are other weirdos like me that enjoy them too. I certainly have love and am proud of my own games I just make sure to keep in mind they have to leave the nest eventually.

        • syndrome says:

          And I believe this philosophy is what works for your the best. Anything else is just a speculation, but if your game works and feels as solid, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

          All you did, surrounding that core, was to manage your time and adapt your publishing style to reflect this values. The point of publishing is to make this ‘message-of-quality’ come across without redundancy or any noise, and to help it spread without distortion.

          In a world with so many broken ambitions, overconfidence, and megalomania, what you did is actually rarer than many would like to admit. To have a simple product, but embellished with outstanding quality for the price of a dollar, is actually something worth rewarding. So people tip you off practically.

          Because the price is so low, everyone can give it a go, and so your entry level isn’t as high, to try and introduce new players to a world of simple stability, you’ve turned numbers into happy customers. But by making sure you’re not selling to those people who aren’t as interested.

          Really good marketing philosophy man. After you make a name out of yourself, you’ll have the opportunity to do whatever you want, without the unnecessary excess potential that could only churn a disappointment or have you commit too much, losing sights on why people play games in the first place.

          Too few people understand this as a methodology.

          Keep up the good work!

  8. Vegas says:

    His approach, focused on not upsetting customers by making false or vague promises, is interesting and refreshing. No Man’s Sky or Spore would be good examples of games that – whether they intended to or not – did exactly the opposite. But I wonder how much of his success can really be attributed to that, and if the same approach scales for bigger games. My guess would be that, assuming there’s a direct relationship between honesty about what a game does and positive player feedback, the more complex a game is, the harder it is to accurately represent, and thus the less certainty of positive reviews. Sorry for that sentence.

    • syndrome says:

      It cannot scale well. The larger the project, the more souls you need onboard. And not only this messes with the game’s core definition, it also attracts a mixed customer personality.

      There are also many more tricky decisions while making it, and financially you always have to bite more than you can chew.

      This is practically what destroyed NMS before it was released. By appealling to the masses, they have reassured Sony in their previous commitments, and I can only guess that Sean had to pick between the two evils (lying to the masses and lying to the sponsor — or even worse, telling him the truth), and that this was absolutely necessary for the long-term stability in the already rapid waters.

      After all, the end-user population is a slow-moving blob when it comes to opinions, and cannot cancel your funding over night. After a while, it can also crush you with bad opinions or overall negativity. But many would pick this ‘hypothetical set some day in future’ over ‘the immediacy of being fired today’. The latter robs you of any fighting chance.

      • frenchy2k1 says:

        One of the biggest difference in the barrier of entry and “value provided”.
        When Nick sells his games $1 and provide a few hours of fun, people feel they got their money’s worth and have a happy experience (especially if most frustrations, like bugs, have been eliminated). This is the same principle that mobile games have flourished on.

        When you buy a $60 game, you have much higher expectations as a result. If you got 2h of fun for $1, shouldn’t you expect dozens of hours for $60? Hiw method just does not scale, because bigger games require more people working on them and hence will cost a lot more to make. Mobile has applied this a lot and empires have been built (Rovio, King…) on providing solid games for cheap to a huge audience.

        • syndrome says:

          That’s partially true but, sadly, such price-value relationship isn’t proportional in games (or, really, in any other abstract commodity industry), but scales relative to the perceived quality the user might experience.

          A $60 game’s experience doesn’t and can’t equate to 3x the $20 experience. It’s a fallacy.

          Likewise, Bugatti Veyron pricetag doesn’t necessarily reflect its true empirical value. Recycling it won’t make up for thirty experiences of Mercedes C class. It’s price is set up for something else entirely.

          That being said, when you have a $60 game, you try to compare the value it delivers to its peer group. This is why it is important for indies to differentiate, and not because they cannot deliver the same quality, or an experience as impactful.

          It is mainly because they don’t want to come across as a corporate AAA entity, and don’t want to be compared with that tier of products, which is typically subsconsciously associated with the words ‘greedy’ ‘cumbersome’ ‘massive’ ‘monolithic’ ‘inflexible’ among the other, possibly more positive ones.

  9. geldonyetich says:

    He’s everything I’m not. Rather than dwell on a game’s design until it becomes impossible to finish, he just cranks them out. In a way, a perfectionist is a very deluded person.

    • laggyluk says:

      He also sounds like a perfectionist but for maximizing profit :p

      • jonahcutter says:

        Nothing wrong with maximizing his income.

        Especially so considering he’s done it by focusing on maximizing the stability and playability of his games. They work the way they are supposed to. Something game’s regularly struggle with.

        He also delivers on his promises. He produces entertainment for a specific audience. And he dissuades those who won’t enjoy it from actually purchasing it.

        Maximizing that is a win for everybody involved.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      “Perfect is the enemy of good”, as they say. Something I am working at taking to heart more often.

      • jonahcutter says:

        It can be a good reminder for yourself. But it can also become a suppressive banality used to keep actual progress from happening. “Incremental change” is often a mask for not actually challenging some comfortable status quo.

        Legit progress often is bold and disruptive and implemented by visionaries who are told they are pony-wishing dreamers by whatever status quo they may threaten.

  10. Viral Frog says:

    I read quite a bit on r/gamedev and am constantly seeing people complaining about how their games failed on Steam. Every single time, it’s the same things (in almost every case, it’s all of the same things at once). The three biggest things are:

    1) Poor marketing. They didn’t even bother talking to people about their game before it was finished, let alone trying to put any effort into getting it noticed.

    2) They don’t explain enough about the game. Or what they do explain is irrelevant to what features the game includes. Or what they do explain is a lie.

    3) They don’t “tick the boxes”. No controller support, no trading cards, no achievements or incredibly difficult/nigh impossible to achieve, etc.

    I’m glad that this guy has found success. I have had Bit Blaster XL for quite some time, but I haven’t played it yet. I’m going to get on that, because it’s right up my alley from what I can tell from videos. I’ll most likely be picking up his other titles as well. For $0.99, it’s not like I’d be losing out even if I don’t like them (which I doubt I won’t).

    • Artist says:

      Its interesting to read how you talk about this stuff as if you have a clue about this stuff. Tell me more!

      • GeoX says:

        Uh, and who the hell do you think YOU are?

      • soco says:

        Artist, that was probably the rudest comment I have read on RPS. Granted, it is RPS and everyone is pretty nice, but congrats, I guess, on being the most impolite.

      • Viral Frog says:

        Ooh, struck a nerve did I? Please, tell me all about your failed projects. I’m all ears.

        I know quite a bit about marketing, actually. I also have enough common sense to know that if you want your product to succeed, it needs to be something people will want. People don’t want games that lack substance, multiple methods of control, or that are flat out lies. People also want to know what the product they’re buying does before they buy it. Common sense.

        My guess is that you launched a poorly received title literally because of everything I just listed.

      • Viral Frog says:

        Oh, and I would like to add that my post is from the exact words of indie developers who posted on r/gamedev about their games failing. Almost every post about a failed game is literally a “this is why we failed, please don’t do this.” I just took their exact words and repeated them here. So I’ve educated myself through the failure of others. But please, go ahead and imply that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Your bitterness is quite delicious.

  11. Raoul Duke says:

    “plus 3,684 reviews that add up to an ‘Overwhelming Positive’ rating”

    Yeah… that’s the part most people can’t do.

  12. Touchstone says:

    So, be a good, honest developer using the tools you’re given, and Valve’s system works. Who would have thought?

  13. brucethemoose says:

    Proper tagging and check box ticking? That’s HUGE, yeah.

    While it’s not the same genre, years ago, me and a friend released YT videos about Spore levels we made, of all things. The kind of video that has to compete with the thousands of others already there. His level was much better.

    He didn’t tag it, typed a long-winded description, basically got no views.

    I, with my unreasonable OCD, spent a long time tagging and coming up with a good title. I got… checks YouTube… 22k hits.

    I’ve seen a ton of similar anecdotal evidence. Too many people think that if you make something amazing, people will just magically stumble on it and it’ll go viral. But that’s not the case, setting it up to be found and not losing their attention is critical.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Dios says:

    Be aware that all this may just be survivorship bias and that it’S possible that nothing this guy did ever made the slightest difference.

    • Ghostwise says:

      Survivorship bias is likely, but some of the practices described are low-cost and can’t hurt.

    • Shirsh says:

      I certainly see his “XL” games as recommended very often, every season sale etc, often enough that though I never seen or played them, I remember their names.

      Just for experiment opened Steam “Featured” page right now, scrolled down and got one of them long before any game that I actually would be interested to play.

  15. mukuste says:

    This was an interesting article. The guy seems to make well polished, enjoyable gamelets, and it seems to hit a sweet spot with many people.

    As an aside, it seems that very cheap games with Steam trading cards almost invariably sell well. For some reason people seem to love crafting these badges or whatever they do with those cards? Or resell them for a profit? I dunno.

  16. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    Reminds me of a feature I listed for one of my failed (and objectively awful) games: “Not a known cause of brain cancer!”. Legitimately one of the best things I could say about it.

    Also reminds me of the news page for “Girls like Robots”, a game I haven’t got around to playing: link to steamcommunity.com

  17. JaseyMitch says:

    Thanks for the article. I’d love to know how what tools Adam uses to make his games and how he went from not making games to making games, especially since he still seems to be early in his game dev career, and learning new things. What skills did he need to make his first game, and how did he acquire them? Is he a beginner programmer, or does he have a tech background? Does he use a dev environment like Game Maker Studio or Unity?

    • MrPhil says:

      Yes! Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Nickervision says:

      Hey :)

      I use Unity and C# to make my games. Unity provides spectacular tutorials on their site for how to learn to use their software as well. I started tinkering with some mobile game templates from the asset store and seeing how a simple runner works from behind the scenes. Using that template I made my first embarrassingly bad mobile game called Fallopian Frenzy for Android. After that I started writing my own code by learning bits and pieces here and there in Unity tutorials. The template had given me the correct information to allow me to know what I was looking for when creating my own things. I really started this journey.. about three years ago and was learning in my spare time as I ran my IT business. Its only very recently have I started doing this as my full time gig.

      It really just comes down to a lot of patience, reading, and trial and error. So it was just like my IT job before it, and when I owned/operated an internet cafe before that. :)

      Id say the number one ‘skill’ I utilized was problem solving. If you can identify a beginning and an end to a problem/idea, there has to be a path that gets you from A to B, its just a matter of using the vast resources we have these days to find the right path.

  18. Michael Manning says:

    Good on this guy, still it’s not as easy as the tone here suggests. It’s cool he’s able to execute on his ideas without them spiraling out of control which is always my problem. I thought I’d make a simple shooter, and I did but it took me a year and a half. I didn’t check all the boxes, I’m not a coder either – not sure how to integrate cloud saves or achievements. But this article has inspired me to find out :)

    Still, making games is fucking hard work and unless you have the time / energy / experience / skill to “market” the thing properly, nobody is going to even notice it exists, which is what happened to me. But lesson learned for the next project :)

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      My impression is that making games is something you should do because you enjoy making games, not because you need a career. The forums at The Independent Gaming Source (link to forums.tigsource.com) will provide lots of advice and encouragement if that’s what you want. Just don’t expect to break even, money-wise.

  19. nathan.wailes says:

    Great, great article! More articles like this, please!

  20. SquidInABox says:

    I think the price point plus having Trading Cards actually accounts for a lot of sales. With 5 normal Cards all selling for around $0.08 each for a total of around $0.40 then when the game goes on sale it’s both easily bought with whatever loose change is sitting in a persons Steam wallet AND has the potential for them to recoup almost everything they spent (assuming a 50% discount) when they sell the trading cards. That makes the game almost free for a lot of people (some lucky people might even turn a profit depending on the drops). Everything else mentioned helps keep the positive reviews coming but having such a low cost of entry helps a lot.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Who the heck is buying all these stupid trading cards? Is there a guide somewhere for turning them into pocket change with minimal effort?

      Or, ideally, an app to do it for me so I’m not constantly getting these fucking “New Item” alerts?

  21. honestly says:

    Not to rain on his parade, but isn’t Bit Blaster XL the game that asks people for reviews when you exit? The word has now changed to feedback.

    • Nickervision says:

      Back when the game first released in Jan ’16, I had a message in the exit screen that said

      “Thanks for playing! I hope you had a good time playing Bit Blaster XL. If you did, make sure to leave a brief review & share with friends/family. -Adam :) Send feedback/errors to: info(at)nickervision.com”

      Keep in mind there was no button or forced action to open a review page, there was no in game device promised in return, it was just a mere suggestion of hey, if you like it, let others know.

      Someone at Valve suggested I changed it due to a change in the TOS on Steam disallowing developers suggesting reviews within the titles, and mine was skirting the line and could be construed as such. So I changed it to the following:

      “Thanks for Playing! I started making games in my spare time and your support allows me to continue learning to make them better. If you enjoyed Bit Blaster XL, please check out my other games.
      -Adam Nickerson”

      I think that developers should definitely be allowed to let players know they have other things on the go, and that reviews are important in helping other discover their titles. I do however fully understand how some bad actors may have muddied the waters with exploitative practices, so it makes sense to not suggest the review within the game. That said, I don’t hesitate for a second to suggest people leave a review when I talk to them in person or through support emails. I always try to preface it with, hey if you like this game, please consider leaving a review saying why, or something of the sort.

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