What Alexis Kennedy Learned from Mobile and International Releases of Cultist Simulator
On April 2nd of 2019, Cultist Simulator was released for iOS and Android. It has since sold 120,000+ units across both platforms, which generated over £350,000 for Weather Factory, the indie games studio run by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan, and Playdigious, with whom they partnered to port the game to mobile. Given that Lottie’s initial estimate was to sell 100,000 units, this was a significant increase in sales – and one that was well deserved. Here’s why.
Weather Factory partnered with Playdigious to port Cultist Simulator for 50% of its revenue. They opted not to retool the game to function in an F2P model a la Candy Crush or any of the many other games in this style. It benefited from launching in Simplified Chinese and in English, and received launch features from Apple in a number of countries, but not the United States, possibly because the word “cultist” still feels like an echo of events like what took place in Waco, Texas in 1995.
Nonetheless, the title found its supporters. This didn’t surprise Alexis and Lottie, but they were initially worried, as Cultist Simulator is a divisive, challenging game that refuses to hold the player’s hand (something far more expected among mobile than PC or platform gamers). Weather Factory believes that they dodged the lousy review bullet by making explicit in the game’s description that it wasn’t easy, by launching with a high price point (£6.99, which would have been seen as too high years ago, but now is in line with what prestigious, higher quality titles price for on the App Store and Google Play), and because it’s one of a very small number of thoughtfully designed, single player games that don’t adopt the F2P model. All these facts indicate that there is a significant opportunity for small studios to create unique experiences on mobile devices without creating a Bejeweled clone.
Furthermore, the game found a number of champions and received great reviews in China. The localising agency who worked on the game, Indienova, didn’t have clear insight as to why, though they did note that it received substantial recommendations from influencers in China, was featured by Apple, got in front of a community of Chinese fans who love works inspired by Lovecraftian mythos, and that it was very, very different from the other mobile games that were popular in China.
There was an issue, though. Because the localisation of the game began in 2018, before a number of major updates were added to the game, the game had to be translated several times, delaying the rollout of both updates and DLC. Reviews from unhappy Chinese players did negatively impact the game’s reviews, it was difficult to explain the situation because of the language barrier, and it was also something their localisation team warned them about.
Knowing that the team wanted to port the game also changed how Alexis wrote Cultist Simulator. He attempted to cap the game’s word count at about 70,000 – only a quarter of the length of Sunless Sea – in order to make localisation easier and more practical to localise than either of those two titles. Furthermore, because the game’s text is cryptic and elliptical, it’s even harder to translate than a more straightforwardly written title, and one that requires very different cultural references in every territory it’s released in.
In addition to Chinese, the game was released in Russian as well. Alexis and Lottie had considered releasing in two to three languages. They originally considered French, Italian, German and Spanish, but opted not to due to the large number of English speakers in those countries. Brazilian Portuguese was another option, but there had been limited interest in Alexis’s games in Brazil in the past. Japanese was another language on the list, but it is a highly competitive, mature market to compete in, and localising a game to Japanese is extremely cost-prohibitive.
Russia and China, on the other hand, have fewer English speakers and were disproportionately interested in the game. Alexis’s past titles had resonated with audiences in these countries, and a partnership with Kitfox’s volunteer initiative helped make an otherwise expensive Chinese translation possible, and worked with QLOC to translate the game to Russian for about $20,000 US dollars, half paid for by Humble.
Answering complicated questions about language in translation was a time consuming and challenging process, ultimately yielding a spreadsheet with over 300 complicated explanations to questions about word choice, homophones, and the precise language used throughout Cultist.
These experiences all proved to be valuable, both monetarily and emotionally. In addition to developing a much better understanding of the localisation process, Cultist Simulator now sees 36% of its sales from China and brought Russian sales up to 3% despite receiving no major deals or marketing, likely seeing it recouped by the end of 2020.