A little more than a month ago, I had a problem: after the unexpected success of the Waiting for App Lab bundle, our group of indie Quest developers was now growing to 18 developers of 14 games, and we had to find our next idea to get a bit of attention from players that never heard about our games.
The Waiting for App Lab bundle was an idea that we launched in just 24 hours with 12 games coming to App Lab, but still waiting for their submission to be approved. It was a way to turn this moment when everyone was waiting, players, journalists, and developers, into something positive. Now that we were actually selling through App Lab, we wanted to give our future players a good deal… and a way to discover all of our apps, not just one or two.
We wanted to expand the ecosystem around App Lab apps in a way that would benefit as many indie Quest developers as possible.
App Lab’s New Hope For Indies
App Lab is a great step forward for indie devs on Quest. It brings easy updates for our players, it gives us very important anonymized user engagement data, and of course a smooth, no-friction way for players to buy our games, to rate and to review them. Each one of these features is key to growing our player base.
When App Lab launched, people interested in the health of the VR ecosystem were curious about what would happen once more and more new apps would be accepted to App Lab. Would it really open the door for indie developers? Or would it continue to be challenging to market your games without the help of the main store?
Swimming Against The Stream
So, what happened once we were accepted to App Lab? For most indie VR developers, nothing major happens in terms of success.
If developers are going to App Lab thinking it will be 100% helpful for their success, they are deceiving themselves: it’s actually a much more complex position to be in that it might appear at first. Once you sell via App Lab, you now have to fit in certain constraints, like your prices are fixed to one spot, and you don’t get the benefits of the exposure of the main store.
For App Lab developers, marketing an App Lab app might feel a bit like they are swimming against the stream.
Regular sales is a basic tool to gather attention, create an event around an app, and to get different types of players to buy a game.
Lars Doucet in the classic game marketing article Bounds, Bottlenecks, and Digital Marketing states as totally obvious that “nowadays it’s easy to change your price or go on sale, so I put price towards the end of the list. Some people will love your game so much they pay full price, while others will wait for a sale.”
But when players ask us to do a sale on App Lab, or a co-op bundle, or to activate Quest/Rift cross-buy—all having an influence on how the prices of our games are perceived—the only thing we can answer to our players is: sorry, we have no way to do it on-platform.
App Lab developers are unable to follow the most straightforward of the marketing advice.
Players are also discovering directly that App Lab apps have small roadblocks. There’s no way to buy an App Lab app for a friend. Some of us already had players complaining about that directly in their reviews. It’s not something that is under the control of developers at the moment, and we have no good answer to give to our players asking for what they are used to on other platforms, including new features that are coming to the official store like Subscriptions.
There’s also the weird limitations, or maybe bugs, specific to App Lab that we’ve discovered via public tweets, reddit comments on our games or, worse, the reviews. That’s the case for App Sharing, where some players are complaining that, for App Lab apps specifically, it is not working. Some players believe it to be a developer decision.
Each of these issues might seem like something small. But when they add up, they are not without consequences. For example I found a player who explicitly removed one star to a game because of two issues totally beyond the developer control, the lack of App Sharing and the inability to buy for a friend.
So, on one side of App Lab, we don’t have the full capabilities of platforms like Steam or Itch. And on the other side of App Lab, we don’t get exposure from Oculus, as all App Lab apps are considered off-platform. That leaves us in a kind of double-bind situation.
What’s a VR dev to do?
Indies Pooling Marketing Efforts
Oculus gave all the developers the official go to sell keys the way they want, with Chris Pruett even tweeting about it publicly to dissipate any doubt.
Because of Oculus Store keys, developers using any of the three distribution options—Rift, App Lab and Quest Store—can experiment with their marketing. They can create sales, do giveaways or contests, and of course try and sell on third party platforms as per the distribution policy: “you can distribute the keys yourself or through other stores and websites such as Amazon’s Digital Software store” But if you use keys, it must be creative, or else why would your players bother with keys? It adds a layer of complexity, so it has to be worth it one way or another.
With Lab Surprise, you get a surprise bundle of 3 Oculus Quest games (from 19 different games) hidden in 3 eggs, and choose how many eggs you want to open, changing your discount.
Why did we end up with this idea?
As a collective of indie developers, we thought it was really important to showcase the whole lineup of games, not just one or two games, to give players a chance to explore and take a chance on games that they might not think of trying. As our group grows, we are looking to find ways to reach out to players that don’t exclude or sideline one developer or the other.
The Lab Surprise idea emerged as an inclusive way of giving very different games, in terms of price, gameplay, etc. an equal chance to be seen and bought by all players.
So here is the pitch: buy and try blind to explore something you wouldn’t explore usually, and in exchange we’ll give you the biggest discount we can.
As nothing like what we wanted existed (we searched!), we had to build it over the course of a month, setting up our own custom API with Google Cloud Functions, Firestore, and the Paddle API. The web front-end is very simple.
One frustration we had with Waiting for App Lab is that we couldn’t add new games along the way to the bundle because of how the Itch co-op bundle system works. But with this custom marketing backend, we already added 5 new developers and their games along the way. Later on, we could eventually create new evolutions, like including all paid App Lab games if their developers were interested or add official store games for a 2-days period as a special event. This system has given us some autonomy in terms of experimenting with marketing our apps.
Feedback from VR players suggests they like the idea of having both a great discount and a way to support indie developers.
We also saw a lot of discussion on VR Discords along the lines of “What did you get?”, “I’ll try another one”, so many VR players are responding to the playfulness behind Lab Surprise. Of course, we also had other players that didn’t like the idea of a surprise at all, and that’s why we also offer a discount of 10% even if you reveal the 3 games.
From Lonely Frustrations To Collective Creativity
The VR developer ecosystem, including Quest, is still mostly solo developers. I think the vast majority of games I play come from solo developers.
Lab Surprise, like the Waiting for App Lab bundle before, is a project to help build up and sustain the indie VR dev ecosystem, to help create a support system for indie VR devs when they want to reach out to players. We call it Collective Marketing.
VR devs are very isolated right now, there are no events, and as the ecosystem is still a majority of indie and solo developers, they are also quite isolated in terms of marketing and communication. They try things like paid advertising, but they have a really hard time being seen by the players who would love their games.
Instead of struggling with solo marketing that, frankly, doesn’t work well at this small scale, we all benefit doing things more collectively. Our collective now stands at 23 App Lab developers, and I think that shows how we are missing basic support structures for VR indies.
Building An Ecosystem That Makes Small Successes Possible
All creative productions, including games or apps, are always in a very diverse market, with a few big hits and long tails of smaller and smaller successes. A success for a solo dev is not the same as success for a 50-person studio! But all successes need to be sustainable and give teams room to grow and expand their creative vision.
In VR, Oculus often celebrates the hits. We all understand why: it shows that the ecosystem is growing, that you can build up an entire studio based on VR titles. It helps attract bigger licenses and ultimately more AAA VR games.
But the VR platforms, Oculus included, must also demonstrate that the market can do more than sustain 20 or 30 VR hits, that it can also help a healthy long tail of smaller studios to be sustainable and grow, because a creative ecosystem without a tail is really not a creative ecosystem at all.
Being an indie VR developer is trying to be successful in a niche, inside a niche! For solo developers or very small teams, it’s very important to kickstart a virtuous circle of getting more players, as more players lead to more revenues, more time spent on the game, more feedback and more improvements in the game, and all that leading to more players.
Marketing Is A Dirty Job But… Wait, Or Is It?
I see marketing as the key to empowerment for indie developers. That might be a business bias of mine, as I have worked with big name communication agencies as well as smaller ones, but I’m convinced that the more you own your marketing, the more possibilities you get for your studio to choose its own path.
If you look at the history of game distribution, changes in marketing have opened the way to new game genres, new studios, and more diversity: we can easily give the iPhone App Store, Humble Bundle, Steam… as examples of marketing shifts that created new ways to support creating games.
My definition of marketing is really wide: everything that helps you reach out to your players, and creates a market for your game. So design, and polish, and having a beautiful icon, but also being nice and answering support questions, are all part of marketing in my view. Of course price and special offers have been a core component of marketing for a very long time.
Marketing or press relationships is not necessarily something that comes naturally to most indie devs. As I talked to dozens of indie VR developers in the last few months, I heard questions about how to pitch the press, the impact of discount or bundles, the effectiveness of paid channels.
It seems as if many developers are sort of hoping for a savior, be it an official store picking their game, or an unofficial alternative suddenly becoming so big and so well-known that it would attract enough traffic to their game.
In marketing, there’s usually no savior. To get a healthier, more robust VR ecosystem for indies, to help more developers reach success and prove themselves, we have to build up our own marketing frameworks around our games, in sync with the current status of VR, and what we’ve developed here is an example of us testing those waters in a playful and positive way.
Julien is the founder of Collective Marketing, a group of 23 developers running Lab Surprise, a virtual vending machine of surprise eggs containing one of 19 different App Lab games. He also is one of the three creators behind Peco Peco, a VR puzzle game available on App Lab.