Game Feedback

Feedback, feedback as far as the inbox goes

I’ve been getting feedback for Steam Marines for over a year now and I’ve gotten fairly good at reading between the lines. This post is part deduction, part reduction. Do remember that my game is intended to be challenging so I have a design bias toward that goal.

 

Get fat on the feedback

Gamers generally don’t lie in their feedback. Even if they send you long, rambling emails that contradict themselves a few times it usually just means they didn’t play that much or weren’t quite as observant as they might have been.

Very few people will go out of their way to mislead you via feedback. They can be factually incorrect, ignore the big picture, or generally misunderstand, but they’re rarely malicious.

The effort required to leave any feedback automatically puts them in the top 10% of your active player base. It would behoove you to engage at least on a basic level rather than ignore them entirely – in my opinion.

 

“It’s too repetitive.”

For them it really is too repetitive. But that’s not the problem. Games by nature are repetitive. That’s why we have rules and mechanics and systems. When people pull out the repetitive criticism it means they mean they don’t like the core gameplay.

What they want is usually 1) fluff that gives them a reason to play the game, or 2) different systems that are also repetitive but of the variety they like.

Take your favorite game, one you might at first blush not label repetitive, and write down the top three most frequent actions you perform. It’ll probably constitute 99% of the game.

 

“Not enough replay value.”

This is code for “I want more content.” More levels, more classes, more characters, more items, more enemies, more music, more eye candy, et cetera. This is similar to the repetitive feedback except…

… it’s a +8 Red Herring.

My game is fortunate in this aspect because it features procedurally generated levels and the difficulty likes to kick players in the teeth. So the expectation of the game is that you’ll be replaying a lot of the first few levels, and my level generator delivers. Mostly.

What makes media, interactive or otherwise, inherently rewatchable? It pretty much boils down to engagement. I like watching Batman: The Dark Knight Returns a lot. It’s a great two part animated film. But there’s nothing inherently new in it. It’s the same film. I don’t catch new details I missed on previous viewings or get any new thought-provoking scenes.

There’s a reason people can play the Mass Effect installments repeatedly, with the same kind of build, same gender, same alignment, and the same choices – engagement. They love the characters, they love the interaction, and they want to experience it and re-experience it again.

So don’t necessarily read “not enough replay value” as “add more crap”. Making your tiny pile of crap (and I say that with affection) more engaging is probably the better route.

 

“Oh, I didn’t notice that.”

I’ve raged a lot in private that people don’t read tooltips, ability descriptions, don’t read anything. Ultimately I feel the majority of the burden still lies on the developer, particularly if no new/unique mechanics or systems are being brought into play.

In Steam Marines when a marine takes a shot at any unit at max weapon range the chance to hit is 100%. This is really cool because good positioning gives you an amazing edge. This is really uncool because it’s unintuitive.

Generally you expect hit chance to scale up as a unit gets closer to its target. Having the 100% chance to hit be at max range means adjusting the max range of a unit’s weapon is a tradeoff decision as opposed to something like higher damage being strictly better.

I’ve had players swear by shotgun-toting marines with deliberately short ranges of 1-2 tiles. A lot of people ask me why the hell I would implement a mod that reduces weapon range – that’s why.

Aside: Some players, upon discovering this, have told me they will be fans forever. I don’t know how true that will be over time, but it feels nice.

There are a few ways a player can learn or be reminded of this. It tells you in the tutorial. A little panel pops up telling you your hit chance when a marine targets an enemy. The tile/unit animation moves faster and turns purple when you have a max range shot. Short of an announcer, giant flashing animation, and screen shake, I make it pretty clear.

But I still get people unaware of the existence of this mechanic. Whose fault is this? Mine, mostly. I could always shrug my shoulders and say, “I made it really obvious; ball’s in their court now.” But I feel that’s sloppy design. So I’ll work on it. I’ll make more visual/audio cues for it. Maybe I’ll pop visual messages of when you take advantage or can take advantage of it.

Aside: Feedback on what could be clearer is always golden, especially since you and your long-time players will have a blind spot toward concepts and mechanics you already know and understand.

 

“It has potential.”

This is a throwaway comment meaning, “I could like this if you do what I like.” By itself, which it usually is, this can’t help you. Just mentally replace with, “I’m not engaged with the game in its current state.”

It’s essentially the king of noncommittal comments.

 

“It’d be cool if you added/removed/changed this!”

Even if the suggestions are insanely imbalanced or difficult to implement it gives you insight into what they want. This is a good thing even though you should beware kitchen sink mentality. Too many people believe that just throwing features into a game makes it better when the reverse is typically true.

It’s like when you get an awesome idea and prototype it – and it sucks. They probably don’t have the benefit of realizing their ideas might suck within the context of your game. Remember it’s not their job to achieve game balance; it’s yours as the game designer.

Aside: It’s great when people suggest options already in the game. Fist Pump Quota +1. But you should have made it more clear it was available. Head Desk Quota +2.

 

“It’s really fun/cool/good!”

That’s awesome and what you should take away from that is you’re on the right track! But you should still polish your core gameplay till it shines.

Aside: If you’re making a commercial game and someone tells you it’s really good, ask if he/she would pay for it. If you get anything other than a resounding YES it’s not good enough.

There’s a game called Arnthak and I harp on the jumping to the developer all the time. It feels stilted and unnatural to me – generally not fun. Given it’s the most performed action I will continue to harp on it (sorry, Kale!)

 

“It’s too expensive!” 

It’s difficult to say anything meaningful on the subject since it varies so much from game to game, geographical location, and economic situation. The best answer I can give regarding this is to read my blog post about Commercial Indie Games & Risk.

Beyond that I’d like to mention that I’ve become disillusioned with the idea of “niche games” – in the sense that I don’t think niche games are as niche as people like to believe. Even games in “popular genres” can fail all over themselves. I believe that, in the long run, production and design values far outweigh genre, at least for indies.

Tag this and laugh in my face if I ever make a visual novel/point-and-click game that fails all over itself.

 

Closing comments

People will generally give you feedback in terms of pre-existing stuff. Do this but 10% better. Do this like in this other game. This applies to both gamers and developers.

Don’t get into a feature list arms race.

I’ve never once received feedback of the form “change the mechanic to this and that one to this to compensate so your system works like this which is better because X, Y, Z.” That would be fantastic even if it’s insanely, objectively wrong.

I don’t mean to say the suggestions are always bad, just that there is a lot of “Oh, I didn’t think of that” during the back and forth. And that’s okay, I’m just saying don’t be too easily swayed. If you make changes based on feedback do it because of solid reasons, not just because many people said so.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at yjseow@worthlessbums.comTwitter, or leave a comment below!

Commercial Indie Games & Risk

(There is a TL;DR at the bottom of the post, but I suggest you resist the urge.)

 

Indie? What does that mean?

I’m using it to mean “small”, as in numbers of people and budget. Commercial means that the game project is intended to generate a financial profit.

When people ask me if Steam Marines is a one man show, I say “no.” I contract out art, music, and sound to other people. My job is to wear all the leftover hats, e.g. programming, technical support, marketing, et cetera.

 

Finances, numbers, and expectations

Steam Marines was always slated as a commercial indie game. This means that I invest time, money, and effort and intend to come out with a profit. Without that intention it’s not a real commercial enterprise. But not all commercial enterprises turn a profit or break even.

I’m under non-disclosure agreements for the sales data of Steam Marines, so I can’t tell you much about that. There are some postmortems of other commercial indie games that can give you an idea of those numbers, although you should bear in mind that those in aggregate are skewed. There are not nearly as many postmortems for failed games even though they comprise the majority of projects.

What I can tell you about is my expenditures and projections. From that we can determine what my financial return expectations are. I feel that this is something too many indie game developers, and creative entrepreneurs in general, ignore.

 

Skills to pay the bills

I’m a programmer by training and trade. This is a big deal if you’re trying to create value that relies on programming. It means that I can afford to pay myself less than what I would need to pay someone else of equal skill and motivation.

Steam Marines is currently in alpha. It was originally slated to be a twelve month project, but due to art issues was extended. Then it made its way onto Greenlight then Steam where it’s being sold under Early Access. So the schedule was extended again to account for more features and polish.

My current projection is that it will fully release approximately twenty–four months since it first started development. Given current expenditures I project that by the time Steam Marines is finally released it will have cost me $160,000 USD.

 

Expected return from an external perspective

If someone invested $160k USD into a business venture, what should an appropriate return be after X months? It obviously depends on what the risks are. Game development, especially indie game development, is highly risky. Steam Marines has no value in terms of intellectual property. It has no previous user base or intangible goodwill from previous titles. The probability that it will not ever break even is high.

Depending on who you ask the internal rate of return for an angel investor is between 20-30% on the “low” end. That is aggregated over multi-year holding periods and multiple investments.

If you take a look at some sales metrics from 2009 (specifically slide 16) it shows that for PC downloadable games:

  • Low-end sales is 100-1,000 units.
  • Mid-end sales is 1,000-5,000 units.
  • High-end sales is 5,000-50,000 units

At the time of this post Steam Marines is on sale (10% off) on Steam for $7.19 USD. If an external investor were to expect a 30% return, per year, on an initial investment of $160k USD, Steam Marines would need to net $270k USD.

Forget that you’re not going to get all that money on day one of release which means that you may have a cash flow problem. Also remember that the $270k USD figure is net, not gross. If a platform or publisher takes a cut, you’ll need to factor that in, too. For example if the game needed to pay a 25% cut (pulled out of the air to make a nice round number) that figure becomes: $360k USD gross.

That turns out to be about 45,000 units at Steam Marines’ base price of $7.99 USD. Remember that the high end of the high end is 50,000 units.

If you think that’s harsh, remember that most games don’t even break even, meaning the investor would lose money after two years. This is also not including taxes which will differ from person to person depending on personal income, capital gains, tax bracket, geographical location, et cetera.

 

From the self-funded entrepreneur perspective

For Steam Marines I’m both parties in the investment scenario. I invested in my company to develop the game and sell it. This changes a few things.

The biggest is that I’m no longer some guy borrowing money from an outsider for base salary compensation. That means if Steam Marines takes off I get to partake in the profits. Risk equals reward, remember? Just also remember that it is statistically unlikely.

It means that I own my intellectual property and can expand and grow it for my own monetary gain. It means that I can have satisfaction knowing I did most of the work on my own capital.

These are all nice intangible benefits. Unfortunately if you’re relying on that income stream not only do you have a potential cash flow problem you also can’t parlay a lot of those intangible benefits into things like rent or food. Imagine if I was profit sharing between two or three other people like programmers, artists, composers, et cetera. Those people have to eat, too.

 

Just come out and say it!

I’m not trying to discourage anyone. I want more indie game developers. But I also want them to be financially savvy and understand what they’re getting into. There are a lot of starving artist types who don’t necessarily need to be. Be realistic and understand your circumstances.

There are a lot more words I could write but it would tie into cost of living, politics, healthcare, and so on and so forth. Again, not within scope of this post. I will say that for me to feel comfortable hiring an entry level programmer full time (fair wage, benefits, et cetera) in the state of Connecticut I would need to gross about $100k USD on top of what I needThe obvious result is that the programmer needs to generate more than that in value for my company to be worth hiring.

The simple reality of the situation is that (commercial) games are expensive to make, high risk, and generally do not support their creators well. Please be aware of these facts.

Still stuck on how you think $160k USD is a lot of money?

  • Braid apparently cost $200k USD to develop over a three year period. I don’t know how Jonathan Blow valued his time and effort, although he does mention that most of the money was spent on hiring an artist, and he didn’t live in a shack. Clearly if you do live in a shack and eat instant noodles you can make a game for less, too.
  • The N+ postmortem estimates that it takes about $125k USD minimum to develop an Xbox Live Arcade game. I wish this had gone into more detail, but the end result is the same – it costs more than you might think at first blush.
  • Dustforce developers won $100k USD from a competition that allowed them to bring their prototype to full release. “So if it cost us almost $100k to work for a year and a half, we’d have to make around $67k for every year until we release our next game. However, it would be nice to live a less frugal lifestyle than before, so ideally that figure would be around twice as much. With a rough estimate of three years for our next project, plus a bit of a buffer, we were looking at around $300-400k USD as our final goal. Was that realistic? We had no idea.” – Dustforce developers.

In any case you’re not making Steam Marines or Braid or N+ or Dustforce, so you’ll have to adjust your costs and expectations accordingly.

 

Well, fine! Then what was I supposed to get out of this?!

  1. Calculate the cost of making your game.
  2. Determine how much profit you wish to make.
  3. Calculate how much gross/net/unit sales at what price point(s) are required.

This can help you determine what work is most valuable, what can be cut or edited, and give you a better framework for understanding how to be a successful indie game developer on your own terms.

 

The obvious question!

Will Steam Marines be profitable to me? Is my expectation really 30% on my expended time, effort, and capital? My expectation is tempered by the numbers I gave above. I am cautiously optimistic.

The response to Steam Marines has been pretty strong – lots of die hard, permadeath, turn-based strategy fans out there! I think it’s a real possibility. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank all supporters of me and my game! Beyond purchase there is definitely intangible value there – moral support when I doubt myself.

 

TL;DR

For an initial $160k USD investment over twenty-four months, an expected return of 30% per year, and a 25% share with a distributor/publisher, Steam Marines would need to gross $360k USD, or about 45,000 units at Steam Marines’ current base price of $7.99 USD. This is not including taxes.

If you want to assume 30% over both years, or over two years of development and another twelve months of sales, it would be reduced to $208k USD, or $277k USD including the 25% share. That also brings the required number of unit sales down to just under 35,000.

Other games have cost roughly that amount – it’s not an obscenely high number. Cash flow (related to the game not receiving all revenue in one shot on day one release) is not considered. In general the longer time for earnings means you’d need to gross more. On the other hand your development costs were most likely not accrued in one fat capital infusion of $160k USD, either. Understand the concepts, don’t harp on the exact numbers; the numbers will differ from case to case.

I live in Connecticut, U.S.A. Your cost of living, and that of those you hire, can greatly influence your financial costs and requirements.

Don’t be discouraged, instead be thoughtful.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at yjseow@worthlessbums.comTwitter, or leave a comment below!

I’ll Talk Out-Game, Not In-Game

 

“People in glass houses sink ships.”

There’s a pattern of behavior familiar to many creators. People rarely read, listen, or pay attention. Sometimes it’s their fault. Sometimes it’s the creators’. Usually it’s a combination of both.

My game Steam Marines recently launched on Steam Early Access. It quickly became apparent that some people never took the time to play the tutorial, look up keybindings, or even look at the F.A.Q. Some went so far as to go to the discussion board, ignore the answers, and simply fire off a post asking answered questions. Others went further still and posted misinformation, unaware that the correct information was a few posts above.

Throw in the fact that people love to argue and you can see the problem.

 

“Don’t cross the road if you can’t get out of the kitchen.”

I don’t like hand holding in games. I avoid tutorials, go straight for the hardest difficulty, and mod for extra difficulty. But that seems to be unusual behavior, and I don’t hassle the developers if I can’t figure something out. It’s part of the challenge mindset.

Steam Marines is peculiar to most people. There’s a quote from an Indie Games AAA podcast that I love:

“There are a lot of tactics. It’s such a brutal game and it makes it even more brutal that you didn’t realize how brutal it is when you start. Then you realize you died because you made one, literally one, wrong move.”

– Joe, Mandate Radio

I wasn’t there when Joe first started playing Steam Marines, but I’m willing to bet that when he first started the game (he played a build prior to a tutorial being implemented) he was a bit befuddled. When I personally observe people first play that’s usually how it is.

But, if you pay attention as you play, certain patterns will emerge. Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. Oh, I should have done that two moves ago! Oh, if I do this and that the AI will probably move here and that’s bad so let’s instead… et cetera.

It’s not really like peeling back layers. That’s how a lot of people like to describe tactical/strategy games. Peeling layers suggests you discard said layers as more are exposed. It’s really more like unfolding a map.

 

 “What the fuck were you gonna do, laugh the last three to death, Funny-Man?”

I hate trying to convey complex information in a game. I hate it when games try to do it to me, too. Give me the basic tools and then treat me like an intelligent human being, dammit!

Explaining complex systems robs the player of discovering it personally. It also establishes a de facto rule. That rule is “Don’t worry, if something confuses you we’ll explain it.” If you don’t deliver then you’ve broken an implicit promise to the player. If you do deliver then your’re encouraging pigeonholed playstyles, assuming your game allows for diverse playstyles.

Give the players basic tools. Give them basic parameters for how the world operates. Let those tools and parameters interact. Let the players loose.

 

“We could kill EVERYONE.”

I like to think Steam Marines gives just enough information to progress before slamming on the brakes. Default movement keys are arrows on a keyboard. Tab or clicking on marines selects squad members. Tooltips give you general knowledge like “Hey, this marine can shoot X tiles!” or “This item does Y!”

It doesn’t tell you that your Leader class marine can throw a grenade to blow a hole in the deck of the ship then use a shotgun to knock enemies into space. It doesn’t tell you that flanking automatically turns units toward the source of damage which can be important for positional play. It doesn’t tell you a lot.

It sure as hell does not tell you that Steam Marines hates your guts and wants to murder your face. It’s colorful. Enemy units bounce up and down – some might call them cute. How can these little guys hurt you? Because I made them hit really hard in the code you can’t see, that’s how.

 

“Ah, shit! I forgot about that one! Nine! Nine?”

By now I should have referenced the title of this post. Don’t tell players all the possibilities you’ve created with your mechanics. Let them emerge from player experiences. Keep your mouth shut in-game.

Outside the game you don’t have to be as coy. “Gosh, that Revenant spawns minions in all adjacent tiles whenever you smack him! I wonder what would happen if…!” Light bulbs. Experimentation. You want this to happen within your community.

But what about all those people who don’t read, listen, or pay attention? If Steam Marines is so good why do you have all those people that ignore what you say? One has to start somewhere. I say we start sooner rather than later. Maybe some of that lateral thinking will spill over.

At any rate building a community is something of a game. And I think what I’m doing is working. Emails of people regaling me with stories of their epic failures, and their joyous successes, is really something.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at yjseow@worthlessbums.comTwitter, or leave a comment below!