How to handle a buggy release from a marketing perspective – ZoinkDay #33

A little more than a month has passed since we launched Zombie Vikings on PlayStation 4 and we’ve finally had some time to sit down and think about how the launch went. Our game suffered from several bugs (including game breaking ones) when we launched. In this post I thought I’d delve into how we addressed and handled the situation from a marketing and community perspective.

Getting the game ready for launch

Zombie Vikings was part of something called Vote To Play on PlayStation. That meant that during a couple of weeks in August everyone who had a PlayStation Plus subscription had a chance to vote for three different games. The winning game would be released September 1 on PlayStation Plus for free, and the other two games would be released with a launch discount the same day.

Since we had this deadline we worked extremely hard to get the game finished, and we submitted the game just a couple of days before the release day. When we submitted we had fixed all the bugs we could at that moment, but we were aware there were still some bugs left so we immediately started working on a day one patch. Most bugs that were left were because of the online mode that Zombie Vikings have. We’ve never made a game with an online mode before and that task turned out to be way more complex than we could have ever imagined. Working with a Vote To Play deadline and with a complex (for us) online mode turned out to be a real challenge and were the primary reason the game launched not polished enough.

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The Vote To Play deadline was part of the reason to why we didn’t manage to delete all bugs before release.

Launch Day – The first reports

September 1 arrived and the game launched. Since we had worked so hard for this day it was amazing to finally see the game out in the store. What a relief to see that it’s actually out and that people can play it! The first reviews started to come in, and the game scored pretty decent. We got 80% on Punk And Lizard, which made us happy, and a few other publications gave us good reviews. But then some of them starting talking about bugs and giving it a negative score because of that reason. Everyone seems to love the game’s humor and art style but they were getting various technical glitches. Here’s the list of cons from a review that came out on launch day:

Cons: Hefty 4.5GB download / Screen tearing / Slight slowdown in built up areas / Few isolated issues of the game black screening / Co-Op partner does not earn trophies / Can be hard to see your character when the screen is busy / End of level loading screens go all flashing and sound distorts / Day one DLC / Tutorial whilst present is kind of delayed until halfway through the level which seems a bit weird.”

This was course really discouraging to hear on the first day, and since more and more reviews were commenting on the bugs we started to realize this wasn’t just something that happened to one or two people playing the game. On the morning after launch day we sat down and discussed the situation, and although the game kept on scoring well we noticed that almost every review mentioned bugs. It was time to rethink the marketing and social media communication.

We have a small crisis on our hands

We were already working on fixing all the bugs so our strategy for marketing and social media communication quickly changed from “Let’s tell everyone that the game is out!” to “Let’s tell everyone we’re working on fixing the bugs!”. Since what people complained about the most were screen tearing and frame rate issues, we sent out a tweet on September 2. Patch 1.01 was a day one patch and was already out, and this tweet announced patch 1.02.

More and more reviews started to come in, but pretty much all of them were mentioning at least one or two bugs. Our strategy was just to reply to everyone that was having a problem and be 100% present whether it was an email, a tweet or a message on Facebook. We replied to all the comments we got, and told everyone we were working on getting everything fixed.

Damage Control

On the third day we wrote a blog post talking about the game breaking bug that occurred a couple of levels into the game. Not everyone got this bug, because you had to die on that particular level for the bug to trigger. The community responded well to our transparency and a few of our fans took the role of testers and sent everything they could find to us complete with detailed descriptions and YouTube videos. It was really amazing to see our fans help us out like that. We also decided to set up a support page and appointed a designated support guy, so we could direct all the issues to one place. On that page we listed all the changes every patch brought, and when it would be available in the different regions.

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When we were notified about a game breaking bug, we made sure to inform everyone through our blog and other social media.

Due to our late submission of the game we had received press codes on the same day as the launch, which meant that were still a lot of people who hadn’t reviewed the game. A couple of days after release, we decided to tell everyone that had received a code to please hold their review until we could upload patch 1.03. This email was also well received and a lot of people emailed back commenting on how unusual it is for developers to be this transparent and informative. A lot of the sites that were reviewing the game were mentioning how quickly we patched everything, and a few that had already written their reviews went back and updated them, mentioning that a lot of the problems were fixed. All the support we were getting really helped us push through this period, which included a lot of late work hours.

A hard blow

Two weeks after release we had released three major updates that fixed all the major problems people were experiencing. By this time, the game was scoring better and the reviews didn’t mention bugs as often. There were still bugs in the game and we were working on yet another patch, but the most critical ones had been fixed. But then it happened… one of the biggest sites out there reviewed the game and gave it a 25% in score. We were devastated. Unfortunately the latest patch hadn’t been available when the reviewer played the game, which lead to a bad score. There were other things the reviewer didn’t like about the game besides bugs, but I’m certain it had scored higher if it had been bug-free. This review lead to a long discussion in the office and the realization that we had to do more with Zombie Vikings than just fix the bugs.

So what’s happening now?

It’s been over a month since the game came out, and the last ten or so reviews have been really positive, all scoring 8/10 or higher. We have realized though we need to go back and fix certain things in the game, which brings me to this… we’re re-launching Zombie Vikings with a completely fresh update! We’re still working on what content to add but our goal with the game is to fix not only all the bugs but also add new enemies, a new game mechanic and improve the experience. This major update will launch together with the Steam release, and all PlayStation 4 users will get it for free.

And what did we learn?

Zombie Vikings is the first game we’re self-publishing and promoting, and it’s been both highs and lows. We’ve fixed all the bugs we could find. Reviews that are coming in are better than before. Both the community and press have responded well to our transparency. Direct communication with the fans has lead to huge support, which helped us fix the game and make it even better. We are really confident about the future and our upcoming “reboot” of Zombie Vikings. My tips for handling a similar situation are as follows

  • Don’t release a buggy game.
  • Be transparent and honest about what’s happening.
  • Talk to your community. Everyone is just as important!
  • Inform press and media about patches and status. Keep all the info available so everyone can easily find it.
  • Keep working on your game until it’s 100% what you want it to be.
  • Stay positive!

If you want to talk to me, write your comment below or drop a tweet to @MikaelForslind

Thanks for reading!