Steam Marines Development Overview

Crucible

It started as a game called Quad. Slated as a one year Chess type game it became a bare bones tech demo in early 2012. From there it morphed into a fantasy RPG then a steampunk roguelike and renamed to Steam Marines.

Public builds of Quad started in April of 2012. By the time Steam Marines went on sale on Desura on 4 September 2013 the game had been in open alpha for Windows and Mac for a year and a half.

 

Greenlight

After over a year Steam Marines was Greenlit on 16 October 2013. On 4 September 2013 it launched on Steam’s Early Access.

Two of the first posts created on the Steam discussion forums were the Roadmap which laid out the long term future of Steam Marines, and the FAQ which laid out the state of the game, such as controller support and platform support.

Steam Marines was still in alpha and this was clearly communicated. The main goal at this point was to get all major features and content in.

 

Sales

Steam Marines participated in the Steam Holiday Sale 2013 which started on 19 December. On 27 December it was voted as the Community’s Choice and went on sale for eight hours at 75% off.

By 2014 Steam Marines had, just four months after it had transitioned from open alpha to paid alpha, sold over 50,000 copies across all distribution platforms.

 

Recently

Steam Marines is fully released after spending over a year on Early Access. Nearly all features initially presented in the Roadmap were implemented. Some features, such as deck destruction which I considered a major feature, were cut in part due to Early Access players offering feedback that such a system was undesirable. Some features which were not promised also came to fruition such as a native Linux build, deeper marine customization, and modding capabilities.

The vast majority of known bugs have been squashed. The game is stable. It is feature and content complete. Word of mouth continues to be a significant driver of new players.

 

Retrospective

I’m quite proud of what I’ve accomplished since early 2012. The initial one year project scoped up to a two year roguelike, then was extended for more features once it hit Early Access which was largely successful.

I’m probably most proud of my engagement with the community. There are many valid criticisms one could level at me regarding my design decisions, UI/UX implementation, choice of art aesthetic, et cetera, but I don’t believe responding and engaging with the Steam Marines’ player base is one of them.

I learned about game development and design, met a lot of interesting people in the industry, saw more sides of the game/player community, and did well enough that I can continue making games.

That’s a win.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Budgeting

(Note: This is primarily aimed at indie game developers because of recent Reddit and Twitter conversations involving costs, budgeting, and valuing people’s time and efforts.)

 

Funding

I’m firmly against “flexible funding” like IndieGoGo allows. Flexible funding means the campaign receives whatever funds it has raised regardless of whether the “goal” was reached.

The two main reasons for this are:

  • Flexible funding means the creator(s) don’t have to think hard about what they actually need to accomplish the project goals.
  • Flexible funding means they’ll get an inadequate (according to them!) amount of money to try to accomplish the project goals.

Like any other commercial venture one of the biggest risks is simply that the product will not be delivered. This is why a prototype is so significant to have in a crowdfunding (CF) campaign. If you have an early, but working, product in hand that people can poke at and use it greatly mitigates this risk.

Technical and creative chops are requisites for shipping games, but something else can also derail an otherwise on track project: funding. This is why crowdfunding has exploded in recent years after all; people need money to create games.

Aside: Savvy readers will most likely notice a venture capital (VC) undertone to this blog post. While there are lessons one can take away between VC and CF, please note that they are not the same. CF, despite what many people say loudly and repeatedly, is not investing outside of an obtuse, layman definition of the term.

 

Budget

You should have a budget. There are many kinds of budgets but revenue, costs, and profits should always be a part of them. For a game development budget you should have, at the bare minimum, these items:

  • Labor and asset creation costs (e.g. cost to model, rig, and animate a character.)
  • Capital expenditures (e.g. cost of a development computer and two monitors.)
  • Marketing/PR/Advertising costs (e.g. buying Google ads.)
  • Tech support costs (e.g. paying someone to respond to irregular issues.)
  • Quality assurance costs (e.g. pay tester to regression test.)
  • Distribution costs (e.g. platform X takes Y% of gross.)
  • Unit price (e.g. $9.99 per copy of the game.)
  • Projected sales/revenue (e.g. gross $50,000 six months after the game’s release.)
  • Tax/legal/other fees.

In other words you need to create the game, market the game, sell the game, support the game, and collect your money.

If at any point you read one of the above bullet points and thought, “Well I’ll do that myself so it costs nothing” you need to pay more attention to this blog post. None of those costs are zero. They all cost something. You may not personally pay the cost. The cost may be intangible. The cost may be tangible but is not measured in dollars and cents.

But they all cost a non-zero amount.

There was a Reddit post in /r/GameDev recently that highlighted the primary problem: people do not understand what constitutes a cost. I’ve chosen some in-context quotes without attribution to demonstrate:

“Not everyone works on their game full time. If I work on a project after work in my spare time, then that is a 0 budget venture. I’m not spending any more money than I otherwise would have just sitting and watching TV.”

“If I worked on a project for a year in my spare time, it would be exactly the same financially as if I just played video games instead. Therefore, its not cost me anything.”

“Doing game devNas a hobby, you can’t count something thayt would be there regardless as an expense. Ill have a job and pay living expenses whether I work on a game or not.”

“I have a full time job and just work on games in my spare time. As for whether I value my spare time, what does it matter? If I’m not coding, I’ll be playing video games, or watching TV, or playing a game with my wife. I’m not spending any money doing game dev that I wouldn’t be otherwise.”

“It’s called ‘free time’ – you do whatever you want with it and don’t generally put a price on it.”

“For people who are developing games on their own, and have no outside funding, adding their own time to the budget is useless. They are not spending any money on themselves to make the game. Obviously, things would be different if I had a crowd funding source like KickStarter I would probably start budgeting my own time.”

“The purpose of a budget for independent devs is to figure out if you have enough money to complete your project, and if not how much you have to raise or how much scope to cut.
A high school kid working evenings on his game reasonably could have a budget of zero.”

I think you get the idea. You should have winced very hard at every single quote above. They all demonstrate a lack of understanding of opportunity cost and the far less complicated idea that time and effort are not free.

The last is true on its face, but if you need further convincing a simple counter-example is that if your boss asked you to work overtime for extra pay, and you agreed, you surely would not consider the overtime pay as free money. Despite the fact that you worked in your “free time”. Despite the fact that you didn’t need to work overtime. Despite the fact that you did not out of pocket spend more than sitting down watching television.

You certainly would not appreciate your boss forcing you to work overtime for no extra pay because of those facts.

So you should have a budget. A budget with even rough estimates will give you an idea of whether you can afford to complete a project (assuming nothing goes wrong!) A budget lets you know the lay of your costs so you can better determine what can be cut or extended. A budget is what a professional makes because whether it’s your own money on the line, or someone else’s, you can be confident that you can deliver within the constraints and specifications of the project.

Aside: There are serious ethical considerations involved with failing to understand opportunity cost and cost in general. This kind of financial incompetence manifests in vaporware, ridiculous CF campaigns, and, perhaps most insidiously, the poor treatment of freelancers.

It is no secret that there are many clients (game developers) that undervalue the time and efforts of artists, musicians, sound engineers, writers, et cetera. Grab a hold of any freelancer and she’ll be able to tell you horror stories; she’ll also be able to point at all her freelancer friends with similar stories to share.

Financial competency is not just a project management necessity, it’s also required to not swindle yourself and others. The stakes are raised in CF campaigns when other people’s money is involved.

 

Real World Costs

Hopefully by this point I have convinced you that time and effort are not free and a budget is useful, if not completely necessary. The same Reddit thread I pulled the quotes from also had some developers who kindly posted general overviews of their own costs:

“We’re a team of 4. We spent roughly $100k developing Shattered Planet for Android, iOS, PC, and Mac, paying ourselves $2k a month for 9 months, from an incubator/accelerator. We’re officially incorporated, but currently we’re hosted by a university as “visiting researchers” because we get free rent and computers/software for doing so.

It was our first game together, and I anticipate we’ll be more efficient for our next one, Moon Hunters, which has a budget of $150k (mostly from an investor, but partially from Shattered Planet sales). One of us has gotten a raise, but it’s not due to skill/value, it’s due to being deeper in debt than the rest of us and being unable to continue any quality of life at $2k a month. This will be coming out of his bonus from Moon Hunters sales.”

Tanya X. Short

 

“$17,475 after spending 1,382 hours over the past 385 days, with at least another 6 months to go before 1.0 (though it will be released before that).

I don’t have a budget, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have expenses, because I certainly value my time which could have been spent doing something else like watching TV. (Not sure why, but that example seems to be brought up every time one of these threads gets discussed. That I haven’t owned a TV for more than 15 years is beside the point 😉

I value my time based on the hourly wage I’d need to get by assuming full time work (i.e. 40 hrs/wk). That comes down to $12.50/hr. Sure I could (and do) make more doing other work, but I’m willing to drop my rate as low as possible since I get to follow my passion.”

Josh Ge

You can also refer to an older blog post, Commercial Indie Games & Risk, where I discuss the development costs of my game Steam Marines as well as Braid, N+, and Dustforce.

 

Valuation

There can be a gray area over what constitutes fair remuneration for their time and efforts depending on skills, experience, and geographical location, but the overarching principle is the same – it’s not free.

I’d like to draw attention to 1) Tanya’s comment about rent, computers, and software since her team was categorized as “visiting researchers”, and 2) Josh’s comment about his $12.50 hourly wage.

While Tanya describes the goods and services as “free” they’re not literally free. I’m not 100% familiar with her team’s academic arrangement but generally speaking visiting researchers are required to lecture/research while they are visiting; the academic institution is simply spreading the cost across its faculty/staff/services/capital structure. This is a value proposition exchanging salary for amenities that have an economy of scale.

I suspect I would consider the budget valuation on the low end with regards to Shattered Planet, and that seems in line with one team member’s raise in Moon Hunters development.

Aside: If you work from home (in the US) you can claim home office deductions. Further if you are a student who is dependent on your parents, there are still tax incentives to file rent/food/et cetera as business expenses if the student is actually running a business from the home, even if the business has a net operating loss.

In Josh’s case he lives in Taipei, a fairly inexpensive location as far as international cities go. Moving to, or already being in, an area with a low cost of living can be an effective cost cutting measure.

 

Opportunity Cost (again)

Opportunity cost is, generally speaking, not intuitive to most people. Even people who should understand opportunity cost may not. Please understand that “I would have done <insert zero financial value activity> instead” does not imply zero opportunity cost. In fact it is very, very difficult to incur zero opportunity cost – some might say that for all intents and purposes it is impossible to do so.

Aside: Away with your PPF graphs, economics students!

As mentioned earlier cost, not just opportunity cost, does not have to be measured in dollars and cents. Cost can be intangible.

 

Closing Thoughts

Opportunity cost is real. Time and effort have value, although not necessarily positive value. These are true for everyone – yourself, yourself when you’re hired to perform a job, and others whom you might hire. Do not deceive yourself into thinking your time and effort cost nothing. More importantly do not deceive yourself into thinking other people’s time and effort cost nothing.

There are zero reasonable circumstances under which time and effort are free. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, if you’re already financially secure, or your primary useful skill is licking stamps.

Aside: I pointedly observe that even your corpse has value, which is why people can be body donors.

So spend some of your valuable time and effort and determine how to use the rest of it efficiently and effectively.

 

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!