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How digital showcases helped make A Little To The Left an indie hit

A Little To The Left did have a small following before its appearance during a Wholesome Direct.

The cozy puzzle game about organising household items was created by Max Inferno, a development team consisting of Anne Macmillan (art and animation) and Lukas Steinman (design and programming). It started as a game jam concept that was expanded upon and added to, where it frequently found itself at the top of the charts. Back then it was more a vertical slice, with ten puzzles that were playable in the browser. You can read more about the vision for the game in our interview last year.

It was then that the team decided to apply for Wholesome Direct, an indie game showcase event that highlights ‘uplifting, compassionate, cozy games’.

“And we got in,” explains Steinman. “That was the start of the pandemic, so everything had shut down, and Wholesome Direct, and other events, were picked up into the main E3 media stream.

“After that, a number of publishers reached out to us. That first Wholesome Direct got us a good amount of visibility.”

The showcase brought A Little To The Left to the attention of publishers, and the first one to reach out was James Schall of Secret Mode, the indie games publishing division of Sumo Group. The reaction inspired Steinman and Macmillan to take the leap into full-time game development.

“That’s when we knew that we could quit our jobs and try this,” Macmillain says.

Steinman adds: “Seeing the response to that and seeing publisher interest… as Annie said, the event happened on a Saturday and I think it was the Monday that I put in my notice.”

Macmillain again: “Which I wouldn’t recommend or anything… we just had a really strong feeling we wanted to pursue this. We went for it and we were lucky to be able to support ourselves for a bit. It was very scary for a while.”

The Wholesome Direct delivered A Little To The Left a publisher, but the game’s successful relationship with digital events would continue into 2022.

At the start of that year, Max Inferno released a demo as part of Steam’s Next Fest. “I think it was probably a bit early relative to where we ended up launching,” admits Matthew Pellett, PR and communications lead at Secret Mode. “Ideally, we would have done that demo later.”

Yet it had an unexpectedly positive consequence. That Summer, A Little To The Left appeared on Wholesome Direct (again) and Days of the Devs, and even participated in Play Days, the physical event that takes place in LA in June. It caught the eye of several influencers, and with a demo available, they were able to discover what the game was all about.

“That moment was the inflection point in terms of the Steam wishlist graph,” Pellett adds. “We saw a ton of major creators like Gab Smolders, for instance, picking up the demo organically. That was in August, so there’s a long tail from people noticing something in an event and then getting around to creating content.”

There were more showcases to come. A Little To The Left had been announced for PC and Nintendo Switch, but Nintendo had approached the team about featuring the game in one of its upcoming Indie World showcases, so Max Inferno and Secret Mode stopped talking about the Switch version. Instead, it went to Future Games Show at Gamescom to reveal that the PC version was coming on November 8, 2022.

“We couldn’t unannounce [the Switch version],” Pellett adds. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. But we refocused to talk about PC primarily.”

Nintendo’s Indie World event was scheduled for November 9, and the game was planned to launch on Switch in December. However, Max Inferno had managed to get the game ready well in advance, and so the team decided to showcase the Switch version at the Indie World event and launch it at the same time.

“We released on PC and then Switch the next day,” Pellett says. “And the complement of those two launches just fed each other. All of the creator coverage that we planned for the PC launch fed the Switch launch at the exact same time.”

Secret Mode had used a bit of influencer marketing to boost the game around launch, partnering with Gab Smoulders, who had organically played the game back in the August, on some sponsored content. And the game became a real hit on both platforms, shifting 200,000 units by mid-January.

The partnership with Smoulders would pay off in an unexpected way, too. By the start of February the game’s sales jumped to 300,000 after another influencer discovered the game.

“I initially saw A Little To The Left when Gab Smolders decided to play it on her channel,” says TikTok and YouTube creator Jacob Forster, who up until this game was best known for playing horror games.

“I’ve been a long-time viewer of her channel before I even started my own content creation journey, and she happens to play a lot of similar genres that I focus on as well.

“My typical way of discovery for finding games is a bit of a mix between in-depth research, checking Steam and Itch.ios new and/or trending tabs, and some serendipity. I know I had seen A Little To The Left in passing on Steam post-release but after seeing Gab post a video about it and seeing an occasional clip of the gameplay pop up on my TikTok ‘For You’ page, I determined that it would be a great fit for my channel and would have an opportunity to get above-average engagement for clips on TikTok.”

Steinman adds: “One thing that’s also pretty fun when I’m watching streamers and the responses in the chat… a lot of the people who are engaging with that type of content, they get frustrated with watching somebody else do it and they’re like: I just want to do it myself.”

Forster says that A Little To The Left, with its simple style, is ideal for TikTok because it didn’t require any explanation or a tutorial to work out what’s going on. And people watching the videos inevitably end up playing it themselves by working out what the creator should do.

“I actually sat on the game for about a month before recording it because it was a bit far off from my regular content, but I eventually decided to jump into the game when I really sat down and thought of the potential that the TikTok clips could have with this game. It made it a bit easier to take that risk for myself.”

A Little To The Left is continually updated. First, the team have been making daily challenges (called Daily Tidy), designed to keep people coming back regularly.

“It was definitely inspired by Wordle,” Steinman says. “And on one side, we did it for player retention. But on the other, we just wanted to… it’s a game about being observant and slowing down a little bit. It’s about that reprieve and saying, ‘I feel like taking a little break and seeing what the Daily Tidy is today’.

“There are people who have played over 365 days. We see very strong daily active users and I think that is bolstered by the fact that people check in, and there’s not much of a requirement on you time… maybe 30 seconds or a minute. They’re relatively short.”

There has also been the Cupboards & Drawers DLC, which arrived in June. All of these extra updates and challenges have allowed Max Inferno to keep experimenting with new ideas, but also adapt to what the players seem to like.

“I was surprised that there’s quite a few people who get really angry at the cat,” laughs Macmillan.

Steinman add: “It is interesting how some of the puzzles that have always been kind of my favourites haven’t necessarily resonated with others.”

Back to Macmillan: “I really cherish the types of levels that are a bit more conceptual and are a little more weird. And that’s really hit or miss with a larger audience. That’s not a problem, to be clear. It’s almost to be expected.”

As of last month, A Little To The Left has now shifted one million copies. It’s a certified success story and for Max Inferno it’s taken a bit of adapting to. There are now business pressures to balance with the creative side (with support from the Secret Mode team). The developer has also expanded to three people, with Daniel Crane – who had worked on the game in a freelance capacity – joining as a full-time employee.

“We want to just be careful that we don’t rush into anything,” Macmillan concludes. “We want to stay grounded because a lot has changed really quickly. We want to make sure we are moving in a direction that we’re happy with and is sustainable.

“I think I’m still trying to process what’s happened. We never expected to have like this kind of success. It started as something really quick and organic, and it just kept rolling like that and then it snowballed. What’s most important to us is that we could get to keep on making stuff. That’s always been the heart of this whole thing. If we lost that, that would be really scary.”

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