How this small German games studio found its audience in China

“Curious Expedition” went from a flop to an indie hit. For this, the developers had to put a lot of work into the game – and open up the Chinese market for themselves.

The idea too “Curious Expedition” was created in the dentist’s waiting room. For very few people a particularly inspiring place, but for Riad Djemili the origin of today’s success. “I read an article about expeditions in an issue of National Geographic. There were graphics in it, for example about resources that are used on such trips, ”says Djemili, co-founder of Maschinen-Mensch, the studio behind“ Curious Expedition ”, which is based in Berlin.

The game is a simulation in which players set out on a journey to explore undiscovered places. Not only do they have to put together a capable team, they also have to keep track of resources so that the journey doesn’t end suddenly in the middle of the jungle. The game even takes up topics like colonialism by making racism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples part of the game experience. The game first appeared in Early Access in November 2014 – with a total of 61 copies sold on the first day.

In the meantime, however, the game has already sold over 250,000 times. The Maschinen-Mensch studio has grown from two employees to nine and in 2020 the second part of “Curious Expedition” was released – also with success. How did the studio go from flop to hit?

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The series “Small studios, big impact”

The games market is highly competitive. Studios that don’t have a huge marketing budget often have to find other ways to reach their audiences with little money. In this series, we want to introduce smaller video game studios that are creatively promoting their games; who use new channels, work skillfully with influencers or have found success through clever “word of mouth” marketing. Here they give tips on how a good game can be known even with little money. You can find all articles in the series here.

Your own personality as a marketing tool

“At first we only sold ‘Curious Expedition’ on our own website – that was a big mistake,” says Riad Djemili. Hardly anyone bought the game and the mood was hopeless – but Djemili and his business partner Johannes Kristmann did not let themselves be demotivated. A few months later, they offered the game on Steam. “Then it worked and the game sold better from year to year,” says Djemili.

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However, that didn’t just happen. Rather, they would have made sure from the beginning to focus the marketing of the game on themselves: the two indie developers Riyadh and Johannes. “We didn’t pretend to be totally professional. We told our story and that of the company and conveyed what makes our game special, ”he says.

Both developers come from the blockbuster area, where marketing briefings are common, detailing exactly what can and cannot be said about a game. “We used our own game to be free and to tell everything we want.” To do this, they used a blog, Twitter or YouTube, where they kept uploading videos to give small updates about the game. You can still see their faces in the intro video of their Steam page before game scenes can be seen. “That’s how people got a feel for who we are. And we were able to build a strong bond with our community. “

How they entered the Chinese market

This standing has ultimately led machine-man to success. Not only did they stand out in the great sea of ​​many indie games. Fans also approached them – and opened up a gigantic market for the studio. “A Chinese fan community approached us, they wanted to translate our game. At first we thought it was some kind of trick, after all, ‘Curious Expedition’ has over 80,000 words, ”says Djemili. But in the end it was decided to send the fans a version of the game in which they could do a translation themselves.

“We were astonished, not only did they translate every spoken word, they also created graphics, for example of our logo – just in Chinese.” The studio uploaded this language version to Steam. “The Chinese market is now by far the largest for us.” The studio has already submitted “Curious Expedition” to some of the Chinese sales platforms, but so far without success. It is still stuck in the approval process, so it can only be sold via Steam. Steam, on the other hand, is not illegal in China – but neither is it completely legal, at least the international version. A Chinese steam was launched at the beginning of the year. There is a risk that the international platform could be banned at any time. A risk that the studio has to live with.

Surely it can be described as a coincidence that a Chinese fan base wanted to invest the time and work into this game. But it was precisely the closeness to the community and showing one’s face that conveyed the fact that there are developers there, with whom one can get in contact, who are happy to accept input. To this day, the studio maintains one rain Discord server, where fans and developers can exchange ideas.

Tips for budding developers

Of course, those weren’t the only endeavors the studio did. In 2017, for example, they were part of a Humble Bundle. These are game collections that can be put together with a specific motto or common purpose and purchased at a reasonable price. Your bundle sold over 90,000 times and once again reached a larger audience.

The fact that the game was able to survive for so many years and was replaced by a successful successor is only due to the fact that the studio has constantly worked on updates to the game. “As much as I like story-driven games, as an indie, it’s a good idea to make a game that is expandable,” says Djemili. That would ensure that players keep coming back to discover what’s new. But it would also help the developers: “You can try yourself and throw some crazy ideas and aspects into the game and see how they are received.”

Also interesting: 4 innovative games studios from Germany that you should know

The great success for “Curious Expedition” came from the Chinese market, constant updates, the Humbe Bundle – and the personality of the people behind the game. And that’s also the big tip that Riad Djemili would like to pass on to other indie developers: Tell a story. Don’t list what your game can do, what features it has. But think about what you actually want to express with it, why you are doing it.

“Think about the story you have to tell as an artist. Don’t say you are making a strategy game with 30 levels and 15 weapons. The audience is interested in people and stories. And instead of trying to appear totally professional, it is better to pick people up emotionally: Why do you do what you do? “

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