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200,000 Copies in A Week: How This Chinese Indie Publisher Propels Sanfu And Its Developer to Success

By Isabella Jiangcheng
Aug. 14, 2023 updated 01:35

The release of Sanfu was almost two weeks ago, but discussions about this game have only increased, proving that Sanfu is the most anticipated independent game among Chinese players this year.

The impressive art design and atmosphere of Sanfu have left a deep impression on players. Despite some backlash in response to elements of the storyline, the initial sales of 200,000 copies in the first week indirectly demonstrate the market's recognition of this independently developed game.

The commercial success of Sanfu has once again put its publishing company, Gamera Games, in the spotlight. This is not the first time that Gamera Games has created a hit. In the same month as the release of Sanfu, another game published by Gamera Games, a nurturing game called Daughter of the Volcano, announced sales of 600,000 copies and a revenue of 20 million CNY, securing the top spot on the domestic buyout game sales chart.

How did Gamera Games, as an indie game publisher, achieve such success? Where should indie game marketing strategies begin? What does the future hold for the market? Today, we have invited Xu Duoduo, the Director of Publishing, to discuss Sanfu, Firework, and the stories behind indie game publishing.

SP: Sanfu ranked first place domestically and third place globally in sales on Steam on the day of its release. Can you share any specific sales data?

Xu Duoduo: Sanfu sold 200,000 copies in its first week, and on the first day alone, it reached nearly 110,000 copies sold.

Many players' game time is less than one hour.Many players' game time is less than one hour.

SP: For a small-scale indie game, this is already a remarkable achievement.

Xu Duoduo: The developer's previous game, Firework, garnered a lot of exposure, so players had high expectations for his new work. Early on, there were many players who only watched streams or videos of Firework instead of playing it. And we noticed comments like, “I will buy it after streaming it," or "I will definitely play his next game personally." Additionally, the demo for Sanfu was also very successful. With the combination of these factors, players were eager to buy Sanfu on its release day and experience it firsthand, which contributed to its rapid sales.

SP: You mentioned that many players who watched the game streamed eventually want to buy it. Do you have data to support it? For example, has Firework consistently maintained its sales?

Xu Duoduo: In fact, Firework is still selling to this day. During the week of Sanfu’s release, Firework sold nearly 50,000 copies. On Steam, we also observed many players with relatively short playtimes giving ratings and mentioning that they had experienced the game through streams and were now coming to purchase it. So, we realized that this type of player does indeed buy products and help spread the word about an excellent game. In many interviews, I've said that I don't believe streaming is a disadvantage for narrative games. Streaming can help a game gain popularity and allow more people to quickly understand your game. Therefore, whether they truly played or just watched the story of Firework, we are extremely grateful to them.

SP: From a publishing perspective, did Sanfu encounter any obstacles in its release, or did it face different issues compared to Firework?

Xu Duoduo: Yes, but primarily at the development level. These development-related issues existed between the developer and the publisher and were not necessarily known to the players. When we tested the full version of Firework a few years ago, we didn't raise any issues. We believed there were no problems in terms of narrative logic or gameplay experience. I remember my colleague giving me one word of feedback: "awesome," and that was it. We conveyed the same feedback to the developer. In hindsight, Firework did have some narrative logic issues, but why was it’s reception less contentious compared to Sanfu? The main reason is that its content was more easily accepted by the general audience, and players could directly perceive the message the game wanted to convey.

However, Sanfu was different. Last winter, we already had a complete test version, albeit an early and relatively rough one. After testing, we found that many issues were raised by the testers. Although the game itself was good, but similar to the current market response, we believed there were some controversial aspects. So we compiled all the issues into a list and provided it as feedback to the developer. At that time, I didn't realize that the feedback for Sanfu was a significant problem, but the developer did. He started worrying if his work was not good enough. We discovered that the developer was under immense pressure, and he began doubting himself, fearing that the players who supported him would be disappointed.

I asked why he thought that way, and he said that during the testing of Firework, we had many discussions during the development about the narrative, and we could always talk about it, instead of providing just a list of feedback. But with Sanfu, the feedback provided was more organised, as if there was a lack of communication between us, and the list was just a consolation. From these details, the developer concluded that his work didn't meet expectations. 

Although we didn't want to compare Sanfu to Firework, we also realized that the series of feedback after testing Sanfu was somewhat similar to the backlash it has seen in the current market, almost like a premonition. So, I believe this is a very different problem that Sanfu encountered during its early development compared to Firework. Before receiving the first test version, we initially planned to release it on March 3rd this year, but after testing and adjustments, the developer wanted to make changes, so the release date was pushed to July. In the end, Sanfu underwent many modifications.

But we don't want everyone to compare Firework and Sanfu. In fact, we emphasized before the release that we removed the horror game label. However, whether it's from streamers, players, or the media, they still label Sanfu as a horror game. Even if you search for it now, you'll find that many people still consider it a horror game.

I think detaching from labels is a challenge for us. It wasn't an issue for Firework at the time, but it was crucial for Sanfu. In recent years, there have been many homogeneous products in the market. Some games deliberately incorporate horror elements: coffins, burning paper money, and similar elements of Chinese folk culture. So from the developer's perspective, he wanted to break free and remove the horror game label, proving that Chinese developers can still tell a good story. As the publisher, we also needed to take that gamble. But we soon realized that the horror label couldn't be removed. We also really hope to see more unique Chinese horror games being discovered, but not completely homogeneous works.

I often use iQiyi's Fog Theater as an example. The Silent Truth, The Hidden Corner, and The Long Night series. Are these products not scary? They are. So we realized that the horror element is something that cannot be completely removed. So whether it's from development or publishing, although we all hope to see games with different elements, it is still challenging. But actually, I think Sanfu is doing fine now. After this release, I really see many media outlets, streamers, and players seriously thinking about where its horror lies and why we've been emphasizing that it's not a "horror" game. I think this kind of contemplation brings meaningful thoughts to everyone.

SP: We previously mentioned during an interview that the developer also didn't want to be tied to the label of "Chinese horror." However, the success of Firework created expectations for Sanfu, and people believed that the new game would be a similar story. Gamera, as a publisher focusing on small to medium-sized independent games, how do you balance this attention and pressure? As a publisher, how do you interact with creators? What aspects can the publisher provide advice on, and at what level do creators have absolute freedom?

Xu Duoduo: That's actually a very good question, and it's indeed a difficult balance to strike. From my perspective, I'm responsible for games like Sanfu, The Rewinder, Long Dream, and the Chlorophyll Project, all created by teams consisting of only 1-3 individuals. I signed these projects because I saw unique qualities in these developers. I often mention Long Dream and Sanfu together, saying that they are by developers who know how to tell stories. However, comparing their sales figures, Long Dream didn't sell as well as Sanfu, but that doesn't mean one developer is better or worse than the other. So, in response to your question, I approach communication with respect for the developers. If there are issues with Sanfu, I might objectively point out the problems from my perspective, but the developer is not obligated to make changes. We give developers ample freedom because each developer has their own way of expression. Unless it involves illegal content, I will manage the risks.

Long DreamLong Dream

But the primary goal of our communication is to ensure that they are in a good headspace. Before the release of Sanfu, I was very concerned about the developer's state of mind because they were under immense pressure. I could feel their stress through our communication, and they expressed their reluctance to accept interviews and similar requests. So, before the release, we provided them with affirmation as a publisher: we assured them that we were fully prepared.

Yesterday, the developer also posted on social media, saying that word-of-mouth and sales were within our expectations. In fact, these were within our anticipated range. From the time we received the test version last year until now, we had long-term communication with the developer, anticipating how players would perceive the game and what reactions we might receive in the market. We believe that some controversy is normal and part of the discussion surrounding a product. Regarding the relationship between the publisher and the developer, we provide risk control for the developer. If more serious problems arise, we also know how to handle them.

As a publisher, we act as a safety net, providing more freedom to the developer from that perspective. When risks or problems truly arise, I will firmly stand by their side and help them resolve the issues, rather than complaining about how their product didn't conform to our modifications. We have to bear these things together with them and not leave them to face the displeasure of fans alone.

SP: As a publisher, you have more market resources and data support, which can help provide the developer with some scenario assumptions for the post-launch phase, letting them know what possible outcomes to expect.

Xu Duoduo: Yes, I do make those assumptions.

SP: After the release, did the developer's state improve?

Xu Duoduo: The developer's mindset relaxed a lot after the release. However, we were also afraid that people might misunderstand and think that refusing interviews was a way to avoid responding to critics, or that the developer was arrogant. So, we actually anticipated this issue and published a letter written by the developer to the media. We genuinely feel that the media, industry peers, streamers, and players have provided us and the developer with a lot of support for Firework and Sanfu. I think it's necessary to express our gratitude and clarify the situation to avoid any misunderstandings.

SP: We previously mentioned that narrative-driven games are prone to spoilers. Are there any additional challenges in promoting such games? Not everyone recognizes visual novels or click-based puzzle games as well-crafted "games." Some people complain that they lack interactivity, so even if they watch the game online, they will not buy it on Steam to support it. From a promotional standpoint, are there more subtle strategies?

Xu Duoduo: There are indeed some strategies. When we released Sanfu, the unlock time for videos was delayed by one hour compared to live streaming. If you restrict it for too long, it may not be suitable. Players who purchase the game might create and upload their own videos, which could affect our collaborations with streamers. In the future, if we have visual novels or narrative-driven games with longer storylines, we might consider adjusting the video unlock time further and see how the industry responds. In terms of media reviews, we hope that people can avoid spoiling key character deaths and make requests based on story details. This is our current practical strategy for promoting narrative-driven games.

SP: Gamera Games publishes many heavily story-driven and visual novel-oriented games. Do you receive feedback regarding the interactivity aspect of the games?

Xu Duoduo: Yes, we do. We received such comments for Firework already. I believe games can incorporate puzzles, but for story-driven games, the puzzles must have a strong connection to the narrative rather than being puzzles just for the sake of solving them. So, for narrative games, balancing the weight of puzzles requires a higher level of skill from the developers. Adding puzzles is simple; you can arrange a few mini-games or even include a meta-game within the game, right? But this may affect the narrative experience and pacing. Therefore, finding the right balance between puzzles and storytelling places significant demands on the developers.

SP: As an independent game publisher, when you don't have budget advantages, do you have any differentiated marketing strategies? The peripherals for Sanfu and the promotional videos for Room 301 No 6 were very down-to-earth and managed to attract relatively niche players.

Xu Duoduo: I believe that all marketing strategies need to be based on understanding the game itself. When it comes to Room 301 No 6 and Sanfu, both of which I handled, I had to first understand why I wanted to sign them. Once I had a reason, I already had a rough plan for their release. Regarding Sanfu, being a narrative-driven game, we couldn't focus too much on the storyline itself, as we couldn't reveal spoilers or key information about certain characters. These aspects couldn't be used as promotional hooks.

So, we observed the market response by releasing a game demo and found that people were interested in the image of the three-eyed rabbit in Sanfu. Although it didn't have much narrative significance in the game, it became a memorable focal point for players. Just by seeing this image, people could associate it with the game, even if they didn't know about Sanfu. We even had a large three-eyed rabbit doll at all the gaming conventions. Many players who hadn't played the demo came to ask us about it. Whether it was participating in events or the merchandise we created as gifts, the three-eyed rabbit served as a starting point to deepen people's impression of Sanfu.

Room 301 No 6, on the other hand, was a game developed by a college student team as part of the Chlorophyll Project. Initially, when I played it myself, I felt that its sales might not be great. At first, I found it particularly dry, and I couldn't quite understand it. But after completing it, I fully understood the game's excellence. It even brings tears to my eyes when I talk about it now. After playing it, I realized that the puzzle-solving process, the maze exploration, and repeating the same actions every day were all things that an Alzheimer's patient would go through daily. At that moment, I thought the game's concept was brilliant. However, society is impatient, and many players may, like me, not understand the game in the early stages and may not feel the need to complete it. They might abandon it early and not grasp its essence.

So, in terms of marketing, I kept thinking about how to convey the game's concept. Since this game has a philanthropic nature, I immediately thought of the charity advertisements I used to see on TV, like holding a basin for your mother to wash her, for example. So, I thought we should take the route of promoting the game through philanthropy and see if we could create some charity videos that replicate the game's scenes, making the connection between the game and reality. It did cost quite a bit to produce the videos, but I found it interesting, and the developers liked it too. Later, the game joined Tencent's Social Value Department, and I think this became a differentiated marketing strategy.

Room 301 No 6Room 301 No 6

In summary, as a publisher, it's important to understand the developers, understand the game, and think about the memorable aspects for players based on different products.

SP: We previously mentioned the trend of game's using their IP to develop merchandise. Even before the release of Firework, players were already familiar with the characters, and we could feel the Merchandise creation atmosphere. We also know that Firework announced its adaptation into film and television some time ago. How does the publisher view the IP development of independent games, and is diversified development becoming a trend?

Xu Duoduo: Merchandise development is definitely a trend because, currently, game IP is still relatively underdeveloped. Because of the opportunity presented by Firework, we have also had discussions with film and television companies, murder mystery events, escape rooms, and even radio dramas. In the end, people might think it's impressive that the game is being adapted into film and television, right?

But when I look back at this, I realize that when discussing the adaptation, I had a bit of my own bias. I subjectively thought that Firework would be suitable for adaptation, and I kept pushing for it. After much effort, we finally found a company that was interested, and things fell into place. But upon reflection, I feel that we lack a systematic plan for the overall IP development of games.

Now, when I receive a game, I might consider the global perspective and how we should approach IP development, rather than just relying on passion and love. For example, we might start with a radio drama or organize offline escape room activities. We need to rethink the pacing and approach to IP development.

In fact, I set a small goal for myself this year to think about the IP development of games. For the games we are currently working on, IP development is an inevitable trend. Games like Sanfu and Long Dream may seem very cinematic at first glance. But we also consider games like Dyson Sphere Program and Volcano Princess. Can't they be turned into IPs? What possibilities would they have if they were developed as IPs? IP development is not limited to just movies or TV series. So we need to think about how to turn other types of games into IPs. I'm just posing the question at the moment, and I don't have the answers yet, but I believe it's something that needs to be considered.

SP: Especially for independent games, diversifying product development can also greatly benefit the developers.

Xu Duoduo: Yes, but it consumes a lot of time and energy. Moreover, thinking about these aspects doesn't entirely fall under the responsibilities of a publisher. But who else can take on this task? Especially for those teams with only one or two developers that we have been in contact with, they might not have considered these aspects. At the same time, IP companies in the market may not understand independent games. Only people who understand can attempt to push these things forward.

SP: When Firework was not yet released, the interest from film and television companies was not as high. But after the game's successful launch and positive feedback, many film and television companies are now interested in starting conversations. This is not only happening in China, but also globally, with many games being adapted into film and television. Does Gamera Games pay attention to this trend? Will there be opportunities for Sanfu to be adapted as well?

Xu Duoduo: I believe there is a high possibility for games to be adapted into film and television. In fact, you can see that some film and television companies are also trying to turn their works into games, like The Bad Kids. After achieving good results on TV, they also want to explore the gaming aspect. So, the convergence of film and gaming is a direction that has been continuously explored and is definitely a trend. As for Sanfu, there will also be opportunities for it to be adapted into film and television in the future.

Actually, recently we have been waiting for feedback from some film and television companies. Because we have already established connections with some friends in the film and television industry, they are also looking forward to the new works of Firework’s developer. We are continuing to explore this path.

The Bad KidsThe Bad Kids

SP: In projects like these involving film and television adaptations, what role does Gamera Games play? As you mentioned, publishers may not necessarily be involved in all aspects of these business ventures.

Xu Duoduo: We are integrated with the developers. In the case of Firework, I will help the developer with initial negotiations and guide him on what needs to be done from a market perspective. However, when it comes to specific choices of a partner, we communicate our opinions and tell them about the options we have and why we choose a particular one. If they have no objections, then these decisions are mostly finalized. So the collaboration and initial contacts are primarily handled by us.

In the later stages, there may be a need for product implementation and script confirmation, which requires the developer's assistance in coordinating with the partners. It can be understood that the publisher acts as the copyright holder when negotiating with the partners.

SP: It's somewhat similar to the role of an agent.

Xu Duoduo: Yes, I sometimes feel like I'm becoming the agent for some developers.

SP: Can Gamera Games currently provide one-on-one support to all developers? This can be very time-consuming and demanding.

Xu Duoduo: I can't compare ourselves to other companies, but speaking for ourselves, we do provide one-on-one support for the projects we sign. We need to understand every aspect of each game. Although it can be exhausting, that's how it has been so far. We don't just focus on blockbusters; for games like Long Dream that may not have high sales, we still invest a high level of attention because I've always believed that some developers, over time, will prove how great they are, like hidden gems.

SP: Sanfu received a lot of negative feedback regarding its ending. How does the publisher view these post-release evaluations? Does this kind of controversy help the publisher understand the game, or does it bring significant pressure?

Xu Duoduo: There is definitely pressure; you see the ratings dropping every day, right? But as long as it doesn't drop to an extreme low, it's still acceptable. These reviews provide significant help. I mentioned earlier that when we received the complete demo of Sanfu, I already started making market judgments about the product. The release validates whether our predictions were accurate. Through this validation, our judgment for future products becomes more precise, or rather; we gain more experience. I think this is a more long-term kind of assistance.

SP: Does the game’s current reception affect the publisher?

Xu Duoduo: No, actually, most people still associate the game with the developer, so the developer bears the greatest pressure. In terms of evaluations, I think a certain level of criticism is a good thing because it shows that players genuinely care about the game. Much of the criticism is simply due to high expectations, and the discussions remain within a reasonable range.

As a publisher, we can help with technical issues (such as bugs). These are areas where we can continue to assist players. However, when it comes to certain endings or plot elements, I believe it varies from person to person. Some people may really like them, while others may find certain arrangements inappropriate. I myself may feel confused about certain aspects and ask the developers if a particular decision seems unreasonable. They would then explain to me the reasons behind their design choices. This work indeed breaks many boundaries, shedding the horror game facade and being the developers' first attempt at an ensemble drama. So many aspects are entirely new experiments.

SP: Currently, Sanfu only supports Simplified Chinese. Will there be other languages in the future?

Xu Duoduo: We probably won't do an English version, 99.9998%. When we made the English version of Firework, we wanted to test how foreign players would understand this type of storyline, but it turned out to be a misjudgment. I thought that foreign players would be able to understand the story: the mother in the game represents selfless maternal love, and the teacher embodies a sense of duty as an educator. These are glorious images, and I believed that this recognition would be universal. Although the story involves many local feudal superstitions, I predicted that overseas players would still have the opportunity to understand the story because of the presence of these characters. However, after completing it, we realized that we might have oversimplified things. Foreign players would ask, "Why didn't Zhao Xiaojuan go to the police?" That question really stumped me. It was a good question—why didn't she report it to the police? 

That's when I understood that overseas players might not be able to understand the story.

The English version of Firework did not see a significant increase in sales, so we concluded that it wouldn't be effective to make an English version. Moreover, the investment for an English version is quite substantial, so we believe that the cost-effectiveness of other language versions may not be high. It's better to focus our energy on developing more good games.

SP: What about other language versions? For example, in East Asia where the cultures are more similar?

Xu Duoduo: If we make a Nintendo Switch version, we will include Japanese.

SP: Going back to the overseas market, Gamera Games is also a publisher that distributes Chinese games abroad. Do you have any observations about global indie game trends?

Xu Duoduo: What I personally feel is quite similar to what I said before because we are all discussing things based on games. It's just that we may not understand each other's markets well. Developers may not understand the operational models or promotion strategies in foreign markets. Similarly, Chinese companies may not know whom to approach in overseas markets or which channels would be effective. I think it's all about trial and error. But the biggest trend is that we still need to go global.

SP: Lastly, can you share your overall view of the Chinese gaming industry? What do you think about the current trends in the Chinese indie game scene?

Xu Duoduo: I have mostly interacted with smaller teams. If it's a small team wanting to make visual novels, they really need to think ahead and avoid creating overly homogeneous content. Homogeneity is not a problem, but you must consider if you can make something unique. It's crucial to stand out within the same genre; otherwise, your game might just disappear without making an impact and get lost among similar products. So either you have full confidence in making a game with a certain element or theme that stands out and excels, or you should explore other possibilities. As for Chinese-style horror, we have repeatedly emphasized that there are many things worth exploring beyond the clichés of coffins and burning paper. If you discover something new, it becomes an opportunity.

These are some suggestions for narrative-focused games. As for advice for all independent game developers, especially small teams, it is to control costs. That's the most important and straightforward advice. Don't expect your first work to explode; it's too risky to have that mindset when making games. Keep the costs under control, clearly express what you want to convey, and within the predicted risk range, release your game to the market to see the feedback. That's how you'll know which direction to take in the future.

SP: Yes, there are probably many people who want to make indie games now, but they may have the mindset that "the first game will be a hit."

Xu Duoduo: That's true. Some developers struggle with cost control or change directions midway, which increases costs and consumption. In such cases, developers can be discouraged and lose their enthusiasm.

SP: Are there any upcoming projects from Gamera Games that we can look forward to?

Xu Duoduo: We still hope to bring everyone high-quality and enjoyable games not only from domestic developers but also from international games. That's our plan for the next phase. As for horror games, there will definitely be good games announced in the second half of the year.