Break Even

 

Break Even

As a term, break even can be misleading. It can be misleading because it does not take into consideration risk. If you start a (small) game studio with $100,000 and after one year you have $100,000 you are said to have broken even. But that’s a snapshot at that particular point in time. If you reinvest that $100,000 and after yet another year you still have $100,000 you should probably be a little worried that you profited zero dollars for two years in a row.

If next year you take a 30% loss (war chest down to $70,000)  that’s an enormous hit. You can’t sustain another full year of operations and it may snowball from there. You’d really like to go to a 30% profit, but that’s as obvious as it comes. If you ever wondered why business people seem so obsessed with growth this is why; there’s a lot of truth to the idea that you’re either growing or dying.

 

Full Time, Fun Time

Last year I calculated the cost of hiring (local) full time employees as an employer based in Connecticut, USA.

For a $60k USD salary the total cost to me would have been around $75k. That’s pretty close to a bare minimum including FICA, unemployment, Medicare, worker’s comp, 401(k) contributions, insurance, et cetera. That does include some benefits that are not government mandated such as dental.

For a $30k salary the total cost would be about $45k.

Those are 1.25 and 1.5 cost to salary ratios, respectively – not all employer costs are percentages of salaries!

The costs are going to vary a lot by location, and what kind of hardware and software and miscellaneous other fees are required to keep the company running. For example if I require Unity Pro that’s an additional $1,500 a year per employee.

Let’s say they do. Let’s say I also hire two full time $30k salary employees for a project, and I pay myself $30k a year as well. So that’s 3 * $45k + $4.5k = $139.5k of costs a year. Let’s round that to $140k for simplification.

Let’s further say the team works really well and we churn out a pretty okay game in one year. Well what does the company need to gross in order to “break even”?

 

Avocado Maths

Sometimes you just need to get down to the nitty gritty details, even if one party dislikes math.

Avocado Maths
Avocado Maths

Industry standard platform cut is 30% of gross revenue. Tax rate is variable/progressive (in the US) but let’s call it 20% of net revenue.

Aside: At least in the US, unless you are making a ton of money it should not be this (20%) high. You should definitely be able to reduce your taxable income. I just spitballed it as a high ceiling to make the math easier to digest and it’s better to be conservative at this level anyway.

So let’s say you net 56% of gross. That comes out to $140k/0.56 =  $250k to break even. There were three people working on this game, and assuming we value all of them equally each person needs to generate 185% of their cost just to break even.

But no one invests X dollars to only get X back. You expect some profit, Y. If we expect an annual 30% profit how does that affect our gross requirement? Each employee costs $45k and we expect a 0.3 * $45k = $13.5k profit. With three employees each costing $45k that comes out to 3 * $13.5k = $40.5k.

That comes out to $40.5k/0.56 = $72.3k gross revenue on top of the break even, or $322.3k total gross revenue for a 30% profit. Because of all the rounding this actually comes out to ~29% profit. Whoops!

But if you pull that off in this simplified example you’d start the year off with $140k and ended up with $180.5k. That’s not too bad!

 

Per Employee

From the employee’s point of view, they’re getting paid $30k a year. This is not a great salary, all things considered. From that they need to generate $83.3k worth of gross revenue for the company to just theoretically justify their cost. That goes up to $107.4k to hit 29% profit.

Aside: Companies (should not) hire employees to merely “break even” because again there is an associated risk involved that is not imputed into that term, and also because why would anyone want to spend X > 0 dollars to earn zero return?

This is pretty normal, and it’s also one of the reasons productive employees start thinking about saving capital to strike out on their own. I mean if you could theoretically generate $107.4k gross profits by yourself even with the 56% net that’s about $60k. Even taking into account your full compensation/cost to employer that’s a $15k raise*.

Aside: *You know, aside from the fact that you probably worked your ass off to get that raise. There are very few (maybe no) jobs that migrate exactly from 9-5 worker to 9-5 entrepreneur with a pay increase and no associated work/time/effort increase. The only way I can think of this happening is if your employer was really screwing you over on compensation; That’d be about a 33% compensation shortfall in the above scenario, less in terms of a salary shortfall with similar math.

That said there are other variables: you lose any leverage you had working in a company with company resources, you lose cost efficiencies on things like insurance and supplies. You’re working for yourself, which is quite different from a Monday-Friday, 9-5 gig. You need your own capital. You own all the company decisions. But you keep your intellectual property, and if you do strike oil you can reap all (or most or more of) the profits.

 

Steam Marines

The total cost of Steam Marines 1 was $97,913.88 USD which covered a development period of about 2.5 years from 2012-2014. It hit break even in 2014 and has been generating profits since.

Aside: Back in November 2013 I wrote that I projected that Steam Marines 1 would cost around $160k USD to develop. Off by about 40%. Estimates, amirite?

Steam Marines 1 Release Date Estimate
Steam Marines 1 Release Date Estimate

The to-date contractor cost of Steam Marines 2 is $82,607.54 USD which has been in development for about 24 months from 2014-2016. That comes out to about $3.4k per month on contractors alone. Alpha release should be Q4 2016 but so far it has generated no revenue through sales of the game as it is not yet available. It also has approximately another 24 more months slated until full release. The costs are unlikely to be linearly correlated with the last 24 months (see Steam Marines 1 mid-project estimate!) but the game will inevitably cost more than its predecessor at this point.

 

What If

What if, instead of hiring contractors, I hired full time employees instead? As a rough guideline let’s take that 1.25 cost to salary ratio we calculated earlier in this post. Let’s further assume that, had I gone that route, Steam Marines 2 would take only 2 years to complete instead of the 4 it’s currently slated for.

I said Steam Marines 2 costs would unlikely be linearly correlated, but let’s assume they are. That would mean that my contractor costs would be $165,215.08 at the end of 4 years. I have four part time contractors, but two of them have a lot larger asset load than the other two, so let’s round that to what would be approximately 3 full time employees. Well, that $82,607.54 spread across 3 employees over 2 years (as opposed to a projected 4 years) comes out to about $27.5k annual salary per employee.

Which is kind of bogus, because it’s already below the pretty low $30k in our previous examples, and that’s just salary, not including other compensation! If they were paid the still-not-great-salary of $30k and cost the company $45k, that comes out to 3 * 2 * $45k = $270k.

$270k is a lot more than $165k (64% more!), even accounting for shaving two years off the project development period. If I discount my own work at their rate of $45k a year I could cut off $90k from the total project cost. Although I also have to add my own work rate onto the project cost for the first two years. Steam Marines 2 now costs $360k after two years in employee compensation.

Additionally employers are generally expected to pay for many costs such as office space, hardware/software, and other overhead for full time employees. Contractors generally work off their own relevant resources, e.g. their own computers, out of their apartments, et cetera.

This is all also assuming that:

  • Full time employees would finish 50% faster, which seems extremely optimistic.
  • The project would hit its 2 or 4 year full release date without significant delays.
  • The linear extrapolation of cost is accurate.
  • Those three contractors accept that really-quite-bad $30k/year salary for the project duration of 2 consecutive years.
  • I can actually round 4 part time contractors to 3 full time employees*.

Aside: *Extremely unlikely. My four contractors are 1) character animator, 2) environment artist, 3) portrait illustrator, and 4) audio. I wear all other hats.

These are four fairly different roles, and while I believe 1 & 2 could perform some similar duties to one another, they’re also the two I mentioned with the higher asset loads. No, in real life if I’d run with 1-2 full time artists and contract out miscellaneous art and the audio.

People are not cogs.

So that’s why I paid contractors instead of hiring full time employees for Steam Marines 2.

 

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Sequels and the Past

I Think This Should Work

Recently fellow roguelike developer Josh Ge mentioned that I had been somewhat quiet when talking about Steam Marines 2 – and he had a point, at least on Twitter. I’ve more or less been getting into the swing of doing on-site testing so I can observe people playing super early builds of the game. I think it’s been enlightening.

But the observation’s not exactly correct, either – I’ve just switched up my strategy for keeping Steam Marines 2 alive and kicking at the back of skulls through a system of scheduled media across several sites and forums; I’ve just offloaded a lot of my groundswell marketing efforts off of Twitter.

Aside: Have you not heard of Josh’s game, Cogmind? You should totally check it out.

Cogmind gif
Cogmind!

Todo Lists and You

I used to keep rather detailed todo lists with high and low priority and “maybe” sublists and subtasks with estimates of time to completion in minutes. I don’t do that anymore.

Now my todo lists are split into simply high and low, I keep my high priority list capped at eight items max, and I estimate task completion in days. Additionally any high priority task that does not get completed within the time estimate gets kicked down to low priority.

I changed from high/low/maybe because maybe was just becoming a dumping ground for low priority tasks I wanted to clear out because of time crunch. I switched to estimating task completion in days because frankly estimating in minutes was pointlessly granular and I’m starting to believe that “large” task milestones per day is a better metric overall than time spent per day (in the sense of it is a more accurate indicator of progress.) Capping high priority tasks to eight is largely a method of preventing too many issues of becoming “high”.

When All Tasks Are High Priority

There are differing opinions on time tracking, although maybe not all that different!, although I maintain that keeping a mental model of what I want to do and what I should be angling toward is a net benefit to me. Your mileage may vary.

 

At Some Point You Have To Start Listening To Yourself

This is tricky because I spent the last two years writing part 1 and part 2 of this blog series explaining how I was a ding dong. It can be a bit unintuitive, but you sort of need to be humble enough to admit you don’t know a lot but also arrogant enough to trust yourself to make decisions because you will inevitably be faced with making judgement calls that are unclear and on topics people with more experience than you have disagree on.

And ultimately what matters is that it works for you, not them. In your situation, not theirs.

In all other cases, hypothesize, test, draw conclusions, and repeat. If it has demonstrably good results keep doing it.

Steam Marines 2 is a sequel. There don’t seem to be that many indie game studios that do sequels. It probably has to do with high failure rate.

But I want to make Steam Marines a franchise: a video game series, a board game, a trading card game, sell merchandise, and so on and so forth.

People have told me it’s a great idea, others tell me it’s a losing proposition. The divide seems to be between developers who believe in failing fast and those who don’t. Franchise building is hard and it takes a lot of time. Risky, say the fail fast crowd. They’re probably not wrong.

Still it’s a goal, and one I think I can achieve.

Aside: I rolled the idea of funding a games analysis/news site around in my head, but ultimately I couldn’t figure out a reliable business model. It really does seem to be a brutally difficult field to succeed in long term.

Motivation

Know what’s cool? Having hardcore fans of your game who still play it years post-release. That’s wild to me. Even wilder? Steam Marines 1 is still kind of in a long tail, selling copies regularly that keeps me fed. Its revenue in 2015 more or less paid for Steam Marines 2 development costs in the same time period.

Also gifs. Lots of gifs.

Steam Marines 1&2 Comparison
Steam Marines 1&2 Comparison

Bonus: This gif informed me that my marine hit animations were broken in the current build. Whoops.

Side projects keep things fresh, even when you’re 2 years into a 4 year project – when you’re in the grinder. I’ve been tinkering with old financial tools (non-game development related), watching some cool stuff on Netflix, and cannibalizing old games to make new ones like this:

Tilting Hard
Tilting Hard – Damn that hitch in the middle!

Twitter is pretty good for this, too. It’s real nice watching devs you know release their games. This blog is also a pretty okay place to rant if need be. I still haunt /r/GameDev now and then, although as the subscriber base grows the place does seem to get more hostile toward even the ideas of running a business and marketing. I also re-read certain articles and re-watch certain videos that are both enjoyable and educational. For example:

I also torment myself by reading news about the US election and Brexit, but that may be too masochistic for many.

538 Nowcast 2016
Fuck  Trump

 

Alpha Release

Steam Marines 2 is nearing its initial alpha release. Itch seems more or less ideal for me because I wanted to 1) narrow my pool of prospective players, and 2) iterate without the almost inevitable backlash that Steam Early Access is coupled with. I also wanted to test some theories I had on pricing, and that’s easier to do with fewer players.

I hope reception is good. I’ve worked on the game for a little over two years now, and that’s a lot of time and effort to spend on anything.

I’ve been trying to get better about working reasonable hours. That is, anywhere from 40-60 hours a week. Which is still a bit obscene, especially taking into consideration that in the US private sector the average hours worked per week is about 34.4. So I’m working on that. But I still don’t know any successful entrepreneurs who worked 40 hours or less a week during the first few years of their business launching. Worthless Bums LLC was formed in October 2011, so I guess maybe I’m a little behind the curve.

I track my hours worked, and I graphed it back in August this year:

Way Too Many Hours
Way Too Many Hours

Part of the problem is I don’t want to grow fast or leverage up. I have the funds, and I can raise more, but I’m having some personal issues with giving up control – namely of code and design. I don’t even like design but I find it hard to give up control.

Another is that I’m a workaholic. I’m always doing something. I can barely sit still for half an hour of television.

Despite (because of?) my ridiculous hours of work, my return on investment, per hour, is good. Unfortunately not as good as my passive investments over the same time period, but my investment portfolio outperforms the S&P 500 by a fairly wide margin; I’m not at all unhappy with my game development business as a business.

Versus S&P500
Versus S&P 500

I’m in a good place financially – I have no grounds for complaint. I can fund Steam Marines 2 development through 2018 without selling another copy of any game so that’s nice.

 

Acts of RNG

I did get tripped up a bit with contractors in 2016.

My character animator decided to take some time off to focus on his own game. This is cool, although the timing was not the best for me – you sort of have to expect this in multi-year projects, even if your contractors are not working on your stuff full time and/or at top priority.

Elasticity
My character artist, Ed’s, Game… Thing

My environment artist got chased out of his home by Hurricane Matthew. Oh dear.

I was a bonehead and because of a communication mixup I wasted a month thinking I was waiting on audio from my audio guy but he was actually waiting on me. The lesson here is don’t go too long without touching base. Depending on how dependable you and the other person is, I recommend touching base at least once every 2 weeks. That said I have a fairly hands off approach to my contractors.

Still, I’m going into 2017 fairly optimistic. Unless the Steam Marines 2 alpha explodes in my face. We’ll see.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Business Considerations

(Note: If you’ve successfully founded and ran a business for several years already you run a higher risk of not getting any use out of this blog post.)

 

Keeping The Lights On

Every company has some amount of capital and costs required to operate. Burn rate is essentially your costs per some time unit, typically expressed on a monthly basis.

Say your company has $100,000 of operating liquidity and a burn rate of $10,000 a month. In that case your company has $100,000/($10,000/month) = 10 months of operating capital, sans any profits your company may generate in the meantime.

Say your company is founded with $60,000 and its burn rate is $5,000/mo. After 12 months you’ve spent all your initial capital, but you’ve also made a profit of $30,000. Is that good?

You started with $60,000, operated for 12 months, and ended up with $90,000 (you recouped your initial $60,000 investment and profited $30,000). Assuming your burn rate is unchanged you now have 18 months of operating capital left. In 12 more months you might project that you have $90,000 – $60,000 + $90,000 = $120,000 in operating liquidity, a full 24 months of company operation!

So that’s pretty good.

But what do you do with profits other than sit on a pile of cash, assured in some future X months of operation? Well you could expand your business. Maybe your burn rate goes up to $10,000/mo but now after 12 months you expect to net $200,000 instead of $90,000. Maybe you decide to diversify and open a sister business that operates very differently from your main business. Maybe you buy low yield bonds because 1.5% is good enough for you on your excess capital. Maybe you pay off your student loans. Maybe you make a down payment on a house.

Either way this is a good scenario.

 

Brown Outs

Systemic risk is something most investors have a healthy fear of. Game developers talk about this, too, hence the “indiepocalypse” craze. Systemic risk refers to risk of an entire system coming apart. Maybe games journalists get up en masse, angry at poor working conditions and pay and leave and no one replaces them. Maybe game developers do this. Maybe YouTubers and Twitchers do this.

That’d cause some upheaval.

Gamers and developers talk about this in terms of market saturation. There’s a common belief that there are just “too many” games and everyone’s going to die off. I don’t see it, personally, but it’s a possibility in the future and something to be aware of.

Risk management complications arise in trying to compute what the actual risk is and how much damage it can do to you. Systemic risk is likely to be fairly catastrophic to every business in that system. What’s the chance of it occurring this year? This month? This week? Next year?

Say you operate an indie game studio with $120,000 of capital and hand wave a guess of 1% chance the entire video games industry comes crashing down in 2017. You also determine that the worst case scenario if this occurs is you will lose $100,000. You also determine that in the 99% chance event the industry does not come crashing down you will earn a profit of $40,000.

A basic analysis might reckon that a $100,000 loss is far heavier than a $40,000 profit and it might be best to wait out 2017 and see what happens. If you drop from $120,000 to $20,000 your business might not even be viable anymore.

A slightly more complicated example: Say your studio has $120,000 of capital. You determine that you could spend $50,000 of that money to make a game and net $70,000 by the end of 2017. You believe that there is a 1% chance that the industry could tank in 2017, completely annihilating any potential revenue. Is a 1% chance of a $50,000 loss worth a 99% chance of a $20,000 profit? A simplistic analysis like the one before might say that it’s not worth even a 1% chance to swing your studio’s assets from $120,000 to $70,000. Another might be that 1% of a $50,000 loss is -$500, and 99% of $20,000 is $19,800 and it is probably worth the risk because even at $70,000 of assets your company is not completely non-viable to make future games.

 

More Common Happenstances

It’s harder to evaluate those sorts of risks because of the catastrophic nature and the low chances. What about costs and risks related to missing deadlines? These are common in making games, and they have a higher chance of occurring but also a much lower loss associated with their happening.

Another benefit of doing this sort of analysis is that you concretely identify what threatens your business and you can take steps to mitigate them. You feel there’s an X% chance people will kneejerk a negative response to pixel art in your game costing you $Y? Maybe you spend a little under X% * $Y making non-pixel art promotional/box art.

Aside: I’m not explicitly suggesting that’s a good solution to that specific problem. It’s just an example to demonstrate calculation of risk, potential loss, and a potential way to mitigate that loss in a cost effective manner. That said…

The platforms you support, the distributors you use, the currency exchange rates, the payment processors you employ, the languages you localize for, the art aesthetic you choose, the genre you develop in, et cetera are all potential risks. There are always costs and risks associated with doing, and not doing, anything.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Windshields and Pacing

 

Decisions, Decisions

I first heard the term from Darren Grey of Roguelike Radio fame. I seem unable to find the tweets now but he was trying to convince me that “Windshield Enemies” were good for game pacing – that is, enemies that the player can basically smash through with little expenditure of time, effort, or resources.

Aside: As mentioned below in the comments, Darren feels a bit misrepresented here as he was not so much advocating windshield enemies as opposed to commenting on their design purpose. Apologies! (Still no hex tiles, though.)

I did not care for this idea. I wanted every enemy to be some sort of non-zero challenge. I wanted every step, every action to be thought out in advance or DOOM, DOOM shall befall the player for their carelessness. I feel like I more or less achieved this in Steam Marines, and I thought it made the game interesting and replayable.

Aside: Some quotes about Steam Marines that I enjoy to this day.

 

“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 Fisher, IndieGamesAAA.com

 

“Steam Marines is a dark and compelling game, which will force you to learn to play the hard way and make you deeply regret every mistake you make.”

– Kevin Read, TheIndieHut.com

 

Players must control their Steam Marines and try to get as far as possible through the ship’s elaborate, procedurally-generated levels. When I say “try”, I really do mean it.”

– The Wargamer

 

“IT WAS A DOOR. IT CAME OUTTA NOWHERE.”

– Jesse Cox

But enough of my gloating. What if I’m wrong?

 

What is Best in Life?

To win or die trying, I think most permadeath players would say. Or something close to that. It is central to procedurally generated, permadeath games that your deaths should be meaningful and of the player’s own doing. Some people do enjoy being instantly and fatally messed with by the random number generator, but I sort of feel that type of design is degenerate. I’m on team “It Has To Be Your Fault.”

But back to windshield enemies. The reason I resisted Darren’s argument was because I didn’t like the idea of the game letting up. (Permadeath) games are supposed to get harder as the player progresses, correct? The player gets stronger, the game gets meaner. Power curve et cetera, et cetera. But what if windshield enemies are a tool to lull the player into a false sense of security?

You’ve killed a Big Baddie, and you’re on a high. You got some great loot and your character is stronger than ever. Next level. Ah, crap what is this? New enemies? Gotta be careful… and you steamroll them. Huh. Fluke? You steamroll them again.

Okay, okay, okay maybe the developer didn’t balance this part that well. Maybe that loot was randomly above the curve. Maybe you get a little complacent. And then you die miserably.

That does sound like an experience I’d like to inflict on people who paid me money.

 

Hard, Hard, Hard, Easy, Harder, HARDER

If this is a tool for pacing, then it’s linked to time. Time to overcome the hard stuff, time to get complacent, time to smack the player in the face at that critical point. But shouldn’t a game be filled with interesting decisions? That’s what I’m told and I think I believe it. Offering easy challenges seems to run contrary to that idea. What are windshield enemies if not uninteresting decisions? Whatever you do, you can just squash them; failure rate essentially zero.

I think I’m in the minority here, but I really love the idea of bonuses and penalties coming hand in hand. It didn’t poll very well in Steam Marines – players were adamant in their pursuit of strictly superior upgrade paths – but I think there’s design space there left unexplored by my acquiescence. I think you just have to approach it thematically as opposed to mechanically to get players on board.

Steam Marines 2 deviates from its forebear in that ammunition is a single value shared across the entire squad. Your Support class marine rips off with her machine gun? Squad ammo deducted. Your Leader class marine fires her shotgun? Squad ammo deducted. Marines can no longer melee. If squad ammo gets too low marine damage and accuracy suffers.

This makes easier enemies still a bit of a hassle because you must still expend ammunition on them. Boss/elite units typically crop up later in missions and this will be a consideration. Is maneuvering around enemies a better idea than engaging? Maybe this is not appealing to all players – moving is generally less satisfying than shooting in move and shoot games, after all.

It also begs the question of is it better to constantly force the player to regulate their ammunition or not. Is that simply micromanagement and tedium?

 

Gears Within Gears

I wanted to remove class talent trees from Steam Marines 2 for months. I finally did this year and it felt great. The system was overly complicated, had too many builds, and made the UI a mess. XCOM EU/EW/2 has soldier talent trees and they work well in that game. The difference, I think, lies in the way they approach microdecisions.

XCOM asks you a question per soldier per turn: Where is my best position with regards to cover?

Steam Marines 2 asks you a question per marine per turn: Where is my best position with regards to retreat or hitting multiple enemies?

Both questions are driven by the same overarching tactical considerations of player unit survival and enemy unit destruction. The main differences are that XCOM has a streamlined action system with regards to movement, attacking, and weapon reloading. Steam Marines 2 has a bit more granularity with movement and attack since they operate on separate resources and there is no weapon reloading mechanic.

There is a much higher chance of death in Steam Marines 2 because there is no cover system – a marine simply relies on 1) enemy accuracy stats, 2) her armor, and 3) range and line of sight to survive. But marines can dance. Marines can move, attack, and retreat behind a corner all in one turn. This is something XCOM does not have – everything is rolled into the cover system and flanking. The class abilities are there to bolster that single impactful thing a soldier can do each turn.

Steam Marines 2 has single tile corridors and doorways and terrain that cannot be destroyed. This means marines can guard chokepoints more effectively and can even completely block pathways entirely by standing on specific tiles. XCOM is much more open, as anyone who has winced as a Thin Man dodged three reaction shots, jumped into high cover, and spit poison can attest to.

XCOM EU starts off relatively easy. It throws a few Sectoids at you and on lower difficulty levels this should pose no real challenge. XCOM 2, I feel, learned from this mistake. It starts off with a brutally hard first mission where a revamped Sectoid can singlehandedly wreck your squad. It establishes what kind of game it is right off the bat and let the rest roll in. Granted they may have had the luxury of that because it is a sequel.

Steam Marines 2 starts off… well, I don’t want to say, really. Let’s just say there are no windshield enemies as of yet…

 

Downtime

… which is not to say I ignored Darren. There are pacing elements in Steam Marines 2, just not within the tactical combat. There’s a ship interior/roster area where players can review their squad. There’s a Universe View where you can control a human steampunk spaceship and engage in marine dialogue. I also have further content planned for that little game branch.

Aside: Steam Marines did not take place anywhere but inside ships. Having access to human ships, alien ships, robot ships, and being able to fly around in the universe? That opens up a lot of potential content. It makes me a bit giddy.

*Is promptly eaten by the scope creep monster.*

So the player gets a chance to breathe, relax, and retool before heading off on a new mission. Steam Marines did not have that – it was just 30 levels of more, more, more, New Game Plus! GO GO GO!

So there you go, Darren. I took your advice a little bit. I hope you’re happy. No hex tiles, though.

Square Tiles. Sorry, Darren.
Square Tiles. Sorry, Darren.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Visual Clutter

 

Out with the Old…

Steam Marines 1 had some issues with visual clutter. Lots of tiles, lots of colors, sprites overlapping sprites – it was a bit of a mess, in retrospect.

Steam Marines 1 - lots of sprites on other sprites.
Steam Marines 1 – lots of sprites on other sprites.

 

More than one player complained about the doors. Visually speaking to a lot of players it looked as if the marines were actually one tile higher than they actually were from the doorway. The red-cloaked marine in the upper left of the screen? He can step onto the tile directly left of him – that’s an open doorway tile.

Yeah.

Beyond that I had flashlight and laser sprites with transparency, fog of war tiles could slowly fade away to reveal their tiles, marines had cones of vision that depended on their facing direction, and items could be on chests and there was animated flashing explosives on doors and and and… it was a lot. Too much, probably.

I’ve tried to rectify that in Steam Marines 2.

 

… In with the New

The one thing I did like a lot about Steam Marines 1 (SM1) was the black around the playing field. It made for some poor screenshots, unfortunately, but it helped to focus the player on the actual game. This is what Steam Marines 2 (SM2) looks like in the tactical field:

Steam Marines 2 - Tactical Field
Steam Marines 2 – Tactical Field

 

As you can see I’ve retained the black edges, all around the tactical field and even on top of environment walls. Differences include:

  • Fog of war is binary now. In SM1 fog of war had three levels: 1) unexplored, 2) currently seen, 3) seen before, but not currently. Having only 1) currently seen and 2) not currently seen has a lot of benefits. For one it’s easier to render! Another is it keeps all that lovely negative space around the player. And a third is it keeps a sense of mystery and oppression the entire time because you’ll never have enough marines to see the entire map at any given time.
  • Almost no visual clutter. There are a few item pickups that spawn, and there are details and some grass in the Alien Temple level, but it’s not visually cluttered like in SM1.
  • The doors are a lot more clear now. Unlike normal environment walls doors are not black topped and the level lighting slices into the top of the doors, in this level giving the doors a hot purple look. They are also taller than the surrounding environments.
  • The UI is overall a lot less intrusive. There’s the portrait, name, and stats of the currently selected marine in the upper left, the squad ammo bar on the bottom center, and an action panel in the bottom right corner. There are some contextual UI elements such as the green cog under the currently selected marine, and the blue tile overlays showing where that marine can move to. There are also a few text boxes and such that pop up during attacks and other such, but by and large it is much less cluttered.

Part of that is because I shoved some stuff into a submenu. Another is that I removed squad inventory. Squad inventory, as I’ve noted before, is not a great addition in permadeath games. By tradition most roguelikes would beg to differ on that point, but I’ll maintain my position: Players frequently try to save items because the nature of the game is to place you into holes you have to dig yourself out of. Then, they forget they have them because they spent hours refusing to use them unless they felt the situation was dire enough. In other words, their behavior slowly gets molded from “Okay, don’t use powerful, rare items until I REALLY need to!” to “Don’t use items!” to “What are items?”

Aside: Have you ever ended a (non-permadeath) RPG and noticed you have an inventory full of super-powerful items you saved up and never, ever used? Did you die at all on the playthrough? Yeah, that.

SM2’s fog of war is also soft and blurry at the edges, not hard and discrete like in SM1. Mechanically it’s the same, though marine visual and weapon ranges are by discrete tile and not partial tiles.

I think overall this is the correct direction to go in, although I do have some misgivings about the marine action camera when aiming at enemy targets:

Targeting System.
Targeting System.

 

That is A LOT of black on the upper half of the screen. I’ve been thinking of putting something there, although it begs the question: why is there no roof in any of these interior environments?!

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Steam Spy and Publicly Available Data

 

Ugh

Steam Spy, as I’ve previously mentioned, doesn’t provide sterling analysis. They are a data aggregator. Before today they’ve agreed to remove certain developers/publishers from the site if requested. Today that ended.

This is bad for a variety of reasons.

The first is that Steam Spy’s argument presupposes all data that is publicly available should be spread around. It should be obvious that this is false. Steam Spy asserts that “In the last 1,5 years there were no incidents where developer was hurt because of his data being exposed on Steam Spy.” Which is a tenuous statement to make given that I am sure they make no effort to determine if their service causes any harm. I can tell you that I’ve received hate mail because various people believe my game is crap and didn’t deserve what they believed to be high sales. I can guarantee you other people have received the same; I am not a special unique snowflake.

The second involves Steam Spy’s assertion that its service is like a poll. It is not like a poll. They scrape data from public facing Steam user accounts to get an idea of specific statistics on Steam games. They are not going around asking developers/publishers to volunteer information on such and such a topic: in fact they are aggregating and presenting the information in opposition to their wishes.

The third is that Steam Spy apparently has no idea what “Hollywood accounting” is. Because of course they don’t. I would like to mention that “things that didn’t kill the industry” don’t necessarily default to “not bad.” I bet games costing $100 USD wouldn’t kill off the industry, either, but somehow I doubt a lot of people would be happy with that result.

The fourth is that Steam Spy is arguing out of both sides of their mouth. This is a semantics argument with no basis in reality. A service that estimates a game’s  owners is not intended to be a financial/business tool? But you also claim this service is to help developers, correct? Which is it?

 

Why Are We Talking About This

And at the end of the day Steam Spy’s data is hilariously bad because it is misleading. And yet it’s the most clear picture of the indie game developer industry we have. It’s good that we have information – but it’s bad that we allow third party sites to take and signal boost that information against the developers’ wishes.

Why is that bad? If you’re a gamer, or even a developer, your mind probably jumps to false advertising and wanting to suppress bad sales. Sure, that’s a possibility. But we should consider what we’re asking for. For example, should all private companies disclose their financial reports? Maybe this is a good idea?

How about you? Should you disclose your financial reports, your tax forms? Some places apparently do this, like in Norway. Interestingly enough in 2014 they also allowed people to find out who was looking in on their records. So this goes both ways, at least according to the thinking of the Norwegian government.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? If you’re a developer and you support this maybe show your own financials – it’s clearly a good idea, yes? Also you should probably ask your employees and contractors if that’s cool. If they say no maybe just ignore them.

Aside 1: That last is tongue-in-cheek, and the vast majority of contractors I’ve dealt with do not want their rates and overall hours worked publicly disclosed. You’ve got to contact them privately for the private details. Personally? I don’t mind letting people know. I talk about my hours worked and get backlash.

Aside 2: I’m not saying (financial) disclosure is necessarily bad. I’m saying that it’s not necessarily good.

I can tell you one reason contractors generally don’t like to disclose their rates: It makes it harder for them to charge more in the future. Consumers in general (not just gamers, developers fall into this category as well since they are clients of contractors) don’t understand costs very well. They don’t understand how things or made, or how they work – they just want it fast and free.

 

Horses

I’ve got no (personal) horse in this race. I have never asked Steam Spy to remove my game’s data, and I openly talk about the finance side of game development. But I have not disclosed Steam Marines’s revenue, gross or otherwise. I have not disclosed total units sold across all platforms, or specific platforms (these tend to have Non-Disclosure Agreements in place.)

The main reason for this is because that number doesn’t help anyone except for me. Let’s say Steam Marines grossed $500k USD. Okay? So this isn’t even a “get an estimate of units sold on only one platform that is probably the most but maybe not and estimate average unit cost and multiply and get a kind of weird number.”

So you can do the math, 30% platform cut, down to $350k, you pay some taxes so let’s just lop off another 30% and get $245k of post-tax moola.

Well what does that mean? To you, basically nothing. Maybe it gives you a general kind of idea of what a squad-based, turn-based, roguelike-y might be able to sell. But hold up: XCOM2 has sold a ton of copies on Steam. 940k owners? AAA game with a $60 price tag? What about Xenonuats? 22k owners. Huh. And we haven’t even cracked the surface on the games in this genre. Fire Emblem? All the small indie games that are similar?

It comes down to what sort of information you’re really looking for and how to impute that data from what you already know. The idea that removing a few publishers who want their games’ statistics non-public is going to somehow damage the value developers get from Steam Spy is a bit ludicrous. Cross that bridge if you get to it.

 

Value

I have never used Steam Spy’s data to influence any business decision I’ve ever made. It’s just not relevant to making the kind of games I’m making and selling in the market I’m in. Here’s what Steam Spy’s data is good for:

  • Going “WOW!” and seeing that a game you thought was crap apparently sold very well.
  • Going “WOW!” and seeing that a game you thought was great apparently sold very poorly.
  • Going “Okay, there’s some sort of market for this kind of game on Steam.”
  • Doing a lot of legwork to aggregate the data with other data to get a better picture of how an individual title did.
  • General trends, like “Whoa, that sale at that price point and discount for that one particular game at that time did well/terribly!”
  • There are many games on Steam I’ve never heard of that apparently do well. Cool.

As it turns out how XCOM EU/EW/2 and Xenonauts sold tells me basically zilch about how Steam Marines sold. Because why would it? The budgets are different, the teams are different, they came out at different times, and were massively different in art styles, audio design, gameplay, levels of modability, price points, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The thing that gets me is that no one who is defending Steam Spy in this can tell me how they are using the data for their business decisions. I guess that’s okay to stay private, though. Your call.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Should You Associate Yourself With Black Shell Media?

No.

 

Spam spam spam.
Spam spam spam.

 

Not a fan of spam?
Not a fan of spam?

 

Defy math!
Defy math!

 

Very client focused.
Very client focused. (This entire thread is filled with negative commentary.)

 

Good PR.
Good PR. (This one, too.)

 

@retroremakes responds.
@retroremakes responds. Xinasha goes more off the rails than usual, deletes posts after trying to shove what he believes are achievements in faces.

 

Videogame Attorney's Sketchy Publisher Post.
Videogame Attorney’s Sketchy Publisher Post.

 

Wall 'o text crits you for you owe me free business advice.
Wall ‘o text crits you for you owe me free business advice. (This was in Reddit’s private message so no public facing link – sorry.)

 

Xinasha Brags
Xinasha Brags. Because of course he does.

 

Vote Buying
Vote Buying

 

"How our PR partner's reputation became a liability, and what we did about it"
“How our PR partner’s reputation became a liability, and what we did about it”

 

Your call.

(All screenshots taken on 16 August 2016.)

 

 

Here is where I normally say thanks for reading and feel free to contact me or leave a comment below but I don’t want Black Shell Media to think I welcome what they have to say.

But I do have a few words for employees of BSM who are not Raghav/Xinasha: If you are good at your job, if you want games and devs and their associated industries to succeed, please take a hard look at what your company does, how it looks to pretty much every developer I’ve talked to who makes games for a living, and what your CMO is shooting his mouth off about on places like Reddit.

Money Makes the Games Go ‘Round

 

Blast From the Past

On 3 November 2013 I wrote about my second commercial game, Steam Marines.  At that point the game had been in development for about a year and a half, and I projected that it would cost $160,000 USD across its development cycle. It fully released on 24 September 2014 and I can now say that the actual cost of the project was $97,913.88. This includes all my hardware and software costs, contractor payments, and my full time salary*.

Aside: *I should mention that I worked a lot during this 2.5 year period. A LOT. If I converted my annual salary to an hourly rate I was by far the lowest paid person who worked on the game. But not if I consider my full compensation – I only revenue share with the various distributor platforms that I sell Steam Marines on.

Don’t be wowed by that cut from $160,000 to ~$100,000. That was a combination of me being very conservative, worst-case-scenario with my initial budget and extremely aggressive with cost and cash effectiveness throughout the entire development cycle. If you have any kind of budget, five digits and up, you may be surprised how far you can make it stretch.

Aside: And I do not mean not paying or underpaying your contractors. Do not do this. I mean find parts of your game you can effectively implement in a less costly and/or time consuming way. Reuse assets. Do you really need X to have unique art? Do you really need 32435 character classes and nine hundred tilesets? Actively manage your scope and it will pay off, I promise you.

Also I did run into a large roadblock partway through development, and the initial schedule of 24 months was extended to 30 months. So even my planning for the worst still had the final release date slip.

How well did Steam Marines do? Well enough. I still can’t speak about specific platform numbers, but I can link you to the game’s SteamSpy page. I can tell you other things, too.

 

The Shock Wears Off After a While

I started working full time on Steam Marines 2 on 24 September 2014. Yes, that was Steam Marines’  full release date. It’s August 2016 at the moment, so I’ve been working on Steam Marines 2 for about 23 months now.

Aside: I did take a multi-month break at the end of 2015.

I track my hours worked.
I track my hours worked.

 

The development cost of Steam Marines 2 is a little fuzzy to calculate due to various reasons I’m not going to elaborate on here. But I can say that its development cost to date is around $100,000 USD which translates to approximately $4,347 a month. It’s still slated for another 25 months of development before full release.

Steam Marines basically paid for Steam Marines 2 development in 2015. Having revenue streams is nice. Have more revenue streams.

I’ve been gearing up for early alpha release on Itch.io which should land in a month or two, depending on how things shake out. Itch, while being fairly well praised by small developers, does not appear to be able to supply the funding for developers, even (or especially?) small ones. I’ve talked to about two dozen now and none of them make a living strictly from Itch; Their sales are actually abysmal, double digits if lucky.

So why alpha release on Itch only? I do have a Steam AppID for Steam Marines 2 already. I’ve been through the process before and it’s not difficult. There are four main reasons:

  1. I initially launched my public builds for Steam Marines on IndieDB. I first started selling via its sister site, Desura (I don’t recommend these sites these days.) The community was small, but focused. You could get limited but helpful feedback and iterate. Most massive issues you have can be sussed out and fixed before shoving your game into the much more vicious Steam crowd.

    Aside: Steam Marines did well on Steam’s Early Access, but you really do need thick skin to deal with the vitriol you will almost inevitably receive. I don’t employ a Community Manager – I wear that hat. That means I get to read every review and comment myself. My ego has taken a lot of hits over the years.

  2. You can see if your price point is roughly correct or completely off the wall. The tentative alpha price for Steam Marines 2 is $25 USD. That is not inexpensive, but I didn’t set it arbitrarily high, either. I don’t mean you solicit feedback on if your price is any good or not. I mean you see if people actually buy your game at whatever price you think fits your game.
  3. Only one platform to update builds and keep in contact with really, really, really helps you be efficient. I literally closed down my official forums this year. I can be reached on the Steam forums, my Twitter, email, et cetera. I cannot overemphasize how important being able to focus is, especially when you’re trying to drum up sales, make fixes, add content, push builds, and do all of this with feedback flowing into your eyeballs.
  4. Itch allows me to set the revenue sharing any integer value between 0 and 100%, inclusive. I’m not setting it at 0%, but I’m not setting it at 30%, either.

    Aside: Itch uses PayPal and/or Stripe as payment processors. For (US people anyway) they charge a transaction fee of $0.30 plus 2.9% of the charge. So in Steam Marines 2′s case it would be $0.30 + 0.029 * $25.00 = $1.025 (not sure if they round up or down), or in total about 4.1% on top of what you decide to give Itch.

I’d like to be able to sell ~6,700 copies of Steam Marines 2 for $25 each on Itch. That’s basically a pipe dream from the data I’ve been able to gather, but there’s my goal. Maybe I’ll sell like 2. It’s hard to say.

Based on my experience on Itch I’ll nudge the game in better directions before dipping my toes into Steam Early Access – unless I’m very pleasantly surprised by great sales numbers. But the earlier I can pivot in a good direction, if I need to, the better. Maybe the game does really, truly terribly and I think I need to adjust the development time. Maybe the game does really well and I need to adjust the development time.

Game development is funny like that.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

A Lottery

Games aren’t lottery tickets. Games may have different chances of winning*.

 

*Winning can mean anything from zero revenue to a lot of revenue, from impressing yourself to impressing the world to impressing no one. Reimbursement may come postmortem. Please game dev responsibly.

Things I Don’t Care About

I’d like to address something things I don’t care about and I think if you want to make games for a living you should also not care about. Please note that I’m generally referring to small indie devs here: trying to make the next Halo is going to run your face into some serious issues this post isn’t really trying to tackle.

 

First to Market

This was sparked because I recently read a game postmortem bemoaning missing the “local multiplayer train.” Ignoring for the moment the many other issues that make that comparison disingenuous, first to market for video games barely matters at all. The entire premise of an advantage for first to market involves being able to stay ahead of your competition; You’re not doing that in games barring some enormous technological advantage or something like a mountain of cash.

There are successful video game companies, big and small, that make a living polishing the heck out of their products and being good at customer service. I don’t want to say Blizzard never innovates, but they’re widely known for taking pre-existing ideas and polishing them to a mirror shine. They’re also known for taking their sweet, sweet time.

 

It’s Too Nichey!

Unlikely. You’ve just not managed to convince those players your game is worth paying for. You’ve got to be really, really narrow in focus in order to claim your potential market is just too niche. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if both Firewatch and Papers, Please can do well so can your game, although perhaps not on that scale.

 

You use MMOFPSRPGRTSMOBA! It’s Super Saturated!

Your game is not getting priced out of the market because there are too many games in the same genre. Do you know why we have these large genres? Because they’re popular and people keep making things in those genres and people keep consuming them. I’ve never met a gamer who loved a particular game who would refuse to buy a game similar in genre and quality. There might be some friction due to pricing, but I think it’s fair to mention that gaming is increasing in popularity; there’s a whole lot of people willing to spend a whole lot of money on games they would enjoy.

Aside: There is something to be said about standing out, and being unique can make you stand out. But being in genre X is not going to be the primary factor in a game’s failure.

 

Visual Arms Race

Don’t care. Couldn’t care less.

I don’t mean visuals don’t matter – they do. But in an aesthetic sense. Not a photorealistic or graphical fidelity sense. Not a can-I-burn-your-latest-graphics-card-to-the-ground sense. There is a general expectation that games should look better as time goes on, and fair enough, but graphics are time consuming and expensive. As a small developer your advantage is not in competing with AAA or middle tier “AA” budgets. Your advantages are being nimble: you can pivot faster for cheaper, focus on details that those massive open world games can’t, and generally do a better job polishing your game because your scope is smaller and your marketing message tighter.

Aside: Ever notice that games aiming for photorealism don’t age well? Super Mario World still looks great. Just sayin’.

 

UE4 versus Unity versus C++/SFML versus…

Use. Whatever. Can. Make. Your. Game.

There are considerations regarding technology, your personal/team’s experience and so forth, but overall for the kind of your games small developers make it does not matter.

Aside: Someone’s going to get on my case about performance on a specific framework on a specific platform, and my response is I don’t care. Find a solution and use that. Don’t waste months debating.

I use Unity/C#. I think coding in C++ is significantly slower than C# and that’s a massive negative. My current game could be made in UE4. It could be made in the 3D version of the engine I used for my last game.

Did you make your game? Yes? Good, I don’t care what you made it in. You made it work so give yourself a pat on the back.

 

Launch

I know that this is traditionally a point of concern for game developers. I once ran a sale in the middle of a big game developer event and other developers were like, “Huh?” Sale did great.

Timing is important; Anyone who grew up on console platformers knows that. But overall I prefer a long, slow marketing burn. It’s great for four reasons:

  1. It provides you with a long time period to simultaneously develop and market.
  2. It reduces the overall impact of one specific launch date on your game sales.
  3. It gives you data on who your core users are and what they want, and how to retain those who are not.
  4. It gives you time to adjust your price.

Aside: Pricing is very important. VERY. IMPORTANT. Set up experiments and collect data. Perform your due diligence. Do not listen to people who tell you to just go lower because more people will buy and it will “obviously” result in more revenue. Also don’t let these ding dongs convince you they are not ding dongs:

Let-the-people-who-don't-like-it-price-it

In case it’s not abundantly clear, it makes no sense to let people who don’t like your product determine its price. Crocs are worth zero dollars to me; if you sell Crocs you should not price them at zero dollars because of that.

Similar to my last game I’ll be soft/alpha launching my current game. I don’t expect the initial months to be amazing, sales-wise. That’s fine since this is fact-finding and community building. The money will come, but later.

Aside: This may not be applicable to all types of games. Short games, or games not designed for replayability will most likely suffer from this marketing and development approach. In those cases your launch is significantly more important and you should not be taking this section’s advice. Uh, except that middle bit about pricing. Take that advice.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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