Markets and You

 

What Games Are Not

Games, as @retroremakes paraphrases my mini Twitter rant, are not commodities. This is a good thing because commodities are goods or services that have substantial fungibility – that is they can easily be substituted.

Copper is a commodity. Crude oil is a commodity. Tea leaves, coffee beans, and sugar are commodities.

There is only one Diablo 3. There are similar games, but the fungibility is low; Torchlight 2 is not a proper substitute.

You can absolutely have games that act as commodities, such as high accuracy clones within a mobile market, but we’re not going to discuss those here, because you weren’t so foolish as to try and make and sell one of those, right?

 

Why Does This Matter?

Within the last few months I’ve been distressed at an appalling spate of poor analyses within (indie) game development. They range from urges to aim for small games that earn 1,000% profit, citing indie game development bubbles, and more recently suggesting game developers are in dire straits because of an impending “indie mass extinction event”.

I’ve already addressed most of the doomsaying in previous posts – I’m not interested in lending any more page space to that stuff. Instead I will talk about what you can do if you want to sell commercial indie games successfully.

Aside: The insufferable phrase “it depends” is implicit throughout most of this. Anyone telling you they have a hard and fast process to strike indie game oil 100% of the time is pissing in your sugary breakfast cereal. This doesn’t mean it’s all up to the roll of some dice, it just means you need to focus your attention and time and effort on elements you can actually control. You know, like most of life’s endeavors.

 

Understand the What and the Who

I’ve said that obscurity is the biggest obstacle to indie devs and this is still true. The key to this is knowing, very deeply and assuredly, what you are making. The lock is who you are making this thing for.

There are a myriad of ways to fail:

  • Having a poor trailer (e.g. 10 seconds of your pointless company logo, 10 seconds of buildup, you get the idea.)
  • Technical issues like crashing or corrupt save files.
  • Uninteresting game loops.
  • Inappropriate pricing.
  • Marketing/PR issues.
  • Poor launch due to timing or other factors.
  • Your payment processor/distribution platform went AWOL.
  • You can’t sell your game because your cat chewed through your website server cables.

Et cetera. Warner Bros. sure did underestimate how negatively PC gamers would react to all those technical issues – the backlash with Steam refunds and Batman: Arkham Knight was sincerely astounding to see unfold.

So understand what your product and/or service is, first and foremost. I don’t mean in broad strokes. Don’t tell me your game is “A pixel art platformer.” Tell me your game is, “A cooperative precision platformer with backstabbing elements in a rich, colorful water-moon world.” Or something like that. If you can’t even excite yourself with your game description go back to the drawing board.

I really mean this because you’re eventually going to try to sell someone with the concept of what your product is. Nothing will kill your sales faster than a description no one has any interest in (aside from no one knowing about your game!)

 

Move and Shoot Game

That’s what my game Steam Marines 1 is, and what Steam Marines 2 will beSure, there’s window dressing: Oh, you’re controlling steampunk marines on a spaceship fighting robots and aliens! Oh, there are roleplaying elements and you have character portraits and stats and armor and weapons and, and, and…

But at the end of the day the game is about moving and shooting. If someone does not enjoy moving and shooting, they will not enjoy either Steam Marines game.

Aside: You’ll note that shooting already implies a bit of narrative sugar on top of the game mechanics. Shooty games are different from point-and-click adventure games although you’re generally still placing a cursor on a thing and clicking.

It’s important to sell directly to your audience if you’re an indie developer. This is why we should be happy games are not a commodity. You will spend your time explaining in loving, but concise, detail why your game is not SPACE MARINES IN SPACE 6: THE SPACENING. You will explain this one awesome core mechanic that binds the game together. You can sell the narrative – steady progress as enemies close in all around you, or a procedural world to explore and burrow and build, or everyone is playing mind games with your character and you have to escape a web of lies.

And it’s more important than ever that you sell them on, and deliver, a real idea. Not some carbon copied anemic version of an idea. Forget Steam refunds – if you want to do this long term you should want to cultivate 1) a core user base, and 2) a reputation for producing quality.

Aside: When I say quality, I mean quality to the people who understand and want and are willing to pay for your product. You can’t please everyone, but there are definitely some people you should want to please.

Find a niche, a specialty, and fill it while ringing a bell. You are not selling salt for fifty cents a pound, you are selling BEST F%$^ING GAME OF THE YEAR 2016 FOR $9.99 USD, COME ONE, COME ALL.

 

Effervescent Effects

There are market realities to face. It is unlikely your zombie survival simulator is going to stand out from the crowd of other zombie survival simulators. Yes, even if it’s a Souls-like. This does not mean the games market is over saturated, or that you can’t sell zombie survival simulators. I’m just saying you’re going to run into some competition in that market.

I promise you one thing: you are not anywhere near market saturation for your tiny indie game. Your problem is the exact opposite – you haven’t got anywhere near the sets of eyeballs to glaze over your game. Now there is a cost to getting more eyeballs on your game, and if your potential market is too small this can mean it’s not cost effective to try and market more.

Aside: Early on when I was developing Steam Marines many people (other developers!) remarked on my amazing incompetence for trying to make a commercial roguelike. These days commercial roguelikes are thriving and those sorts of people now call me a sellout. What-the-fuck-ever.

But as Simon Roth says, it’s way cheaper to market a game a bit more than to make a whole new game. Also, you can probably use the practice.

There are many ways to stand out, and from my last five years of observations most indie developers do next to none of them (including myself when I first started, I might add.)

Aside 1: You may ask how I could possibly know that last bit, and it’s because sometimes I’ll just straight up ask them what they did for marketing/PR. The short version is tweeting a few times and posting to Screenshot Saturday is not a good marketing plan. Sometimes you get sad public accounts of developers basically admitting they did nothing.

 

(Edit: Raigan Burns, a developer of N++ and author of the above linked Neogaf post, emailed me and explained that the N++ team actually spent “about $50k and 3 months on marketing through the course of the project”. So perhaps N++ is more an example of marketing gone wrong as opposed to zero effort.)

 

Aside 2: “Build it and they will come” is bullshit. That’s no kind of business strategy.

 

The Devil’s in the Details

Marketing is not a dirty word. It means communicating the value of your game to potential customers. That’s it. However you do it, be it social media or gaming websites or good old fashioned feet on the ground knocking on doors, you’re trying to say “Hey, look at this great thing you may be interested in!”

Things you can do to market and promote your games:

Those are just some of the more generic resources and options. In my case I physically went to board game meetups because Steam Marines had intrinsic appeal to those people. You can go to genre or device (iOS/Android) specific podcasts or streaming channels on Twitch or YouTube.

Not every platform is going to dump your game in front of hundreds of thousands or millions of eyeballs – you should probably hit as many as you reasonably can. There are many postmortems of successful Kickstarter campaigns and you can learn a lot from those – there’s a ton of overlap!

Ignore Greenlight postmortems – Greenlight is a seriously low barrier to entry these days.

If this sounds like it’d be an awful lot of work… it is. The bottom line is if no one knows about your game no one will buy it. That’s a bit of an irreducible problem.

 

Holy Moly, Batman!

You don’t have to do all of these. In fact you most likely do not have the time to do so, particularly if you are a one person shop. There are lots and lots of resources on indie game development, the business and marketing angles, and so on. The internet is a vast and wonderful resource – use it to your advantage.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Cover Systems and Overwatch

 

Cover me – I’m going in!

Ostensibly a cover system, within the context of a generic turn-based tactics game, is to provide positional play options. It can also provide a mechanism for regenerating health (more common in shooters) and encouraging indirect confrontation of obstacles. If not the latter it can also encourage turtling: whereupon the player chooses not to move because there is no risk the player is willing to take to improve her position.

Games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown cover provides passive benefits, such as 1) stopping enemy units from flanking, and 2) reducing the probability for enemy units to hit them with ranged attacks.

What I find interesting is that a simple cover system can be replicated mechanically in other ways – cover is just frequently chosen because it passes both the realism/simulationist test as well as providing for some thematic tension.

There is no traditional cover system in Steam Marines 2. Instead units can directly suppress other units which apply ranged-to-hit debuffs. There are a number of benefits to this system over a cover system despite both affording a player’s units probabilistic defenses against attack:

  • Unlike traditional cover a player can stack her unit’s suppression, whereby a unit suppressed by one marine might receive a -15% chance to hit, two marines suppressing the same target might confer a -30% (or non-linear stacking) chance to hit.
  • It encourages units to be more proactive in terms of movement and fire, the core tenets of the Steam Marines series.
  • Expending ammunition to suppress a target is more costly than simply finding cover; Waiting too long to advance once suppression orders are given is a drain on ammunition (which is finite) as well as still allowing the reduced chance to take damage. Even if ammunition is not finite turn-based tactics games generally have weapon reload mechanics which should be taken into account.
  • Since suppression acts as an active cover system there is more granularity to the power scale of employing it tactically; Having a marine get -30% chance to be hit in cover is different from having a marine that can suppress a target for -30% chance to hit. In the first situation the mechanics encourage the marine to be on point and reduce the chance for all shots from all enemy units to land. The second situation encourages more positionally-minded play since the marine can only suppress one target, and it cooperates better with units that perhaps have a higher chance to hit but a less powerful suppression debuff. Thus getting all marines increased cover evasion in the first scenario breaks the power curve much more than buffing suppression for all marines.
  • It really emphasizes that Steam Marines 2 is about squad cooperation. A lone marine is very vulnerable, much more so than a lone marine in a traditional cover system.
  • It doesn’t have any finicky edge cases with melee units. A traditional cover system doesn’t provide any offensive debuff for melee units, but an active suppression system does – and should!

You don’t have to have one or the other, or even either or – you could have a hybrid system or something completely different. I just personally prefer a more active tactical system.

Aside: Suppressing a target who auto-retaliates and kills your marine completely fits in the theme of a brutal, challenging game. Auto-reprisal systems that trigger on direct attack as well as suppression also add a lot more decision making to the process. Low health, high suppression marines might not be the best unit to lead suppression with, after all!

Active suppression systems also work well with a lot of units crammed into small, line-of-sight breaking level layouts. Steam Marines 2 does not have the destructible environments of its predecessor and this makes choke points like hallways and doors deadly. Leapfrogging by advancing, suppressing, and repeating is preserved from a traditional cover system except you don’t have to rely on the environment cooperating with you.

 

We can’t see shit, sir.

Overwatch, or any mechanic that allows interruption or interaction for a side when it’s not their turn, provides for both varied gameplay and tension. If I send a marine through that tile is he going to get cut to shreds? This is largely an information war more than anything else for two reasons:

  1. The opposition has to know about your plans in order to avoid/counter it.
  2. You have to have a hunch that reaction is more beneficial than a similar action performed on your turn.

The problem with Overwatch, or Guard Mode as it’s called in Steam Marines, is that it’s frequently a “default” action. It’s just something you do when you don’t know what else to do. It’s a safe action. As with cover and turtling, I prefer to dig that out of my systems.

The other appeal of an Overwatch mechanic is that, in a traditional cover system, you don’t have to really move around much. Again, it’s playing it safe. As mentioned above in the cover section Steam Marines 2 has an auto-engage target. Whenever a unit attacks or suppresses another unit, the defending gets to attack the attacking unit – order depends on circumstance.

This makes attacking similar to defending. You need to suppress and move to good positions and you (should) suppress and attack targets to avoid effective retaliation. There are pros and cons to this. Pros include a depth of tactical decision making and much more active turns.

A rather large con includes the potential for “samey” feel turns, where you suppress, move, attack, repeat. This is, on its face, only marginally different from move to cover, attack, repeat. The main difference from that gameplay level is the micro decision is who suppresses whom as opposed to who moves to what cover. It is arguable that the traditional cover micro decision is superior because it can be made hastily, without too much thought, and be reasonably effective. Whereas picking bad suppression targets can really doom you in a suppression/retaliation system (given a high enough damage-to-average-unit-health circumstance).

Therefore Guard Mode in Steam Marines 2 provides a very different mechanic from the first game. Instead of acting as an Overwatch marines in Guard Mode have increased accuracy, damage, and initiative when retaliating against attacks but not suppression. The key difference is the positional play element – you actually want to push marines forward and place them in Guard Mode.

 

Wait, what about turtling?

You don’t actually want to turtle with Guard Mode because enemy units can dogpile suppression and then rip your marines apart individually. You need to be actively taking them apart with both your rear and forward units rapidly otherwise you’ll lose due to attrition.

It gets particularly hairy when you factor in that attacking/suppression/Guard Mode are now in their own resource pool and no longer related to action/movement points. A unit with two attacks per turn who can attack then suppress or suppress then enter Guard Mode is a very different beast from a unit with only one attack per turn!

It’s not quite a weapon triangle, but it can help to (sort of) order it in that kind of cyclical fashion:

  • Guard Mode > Attack
  • Attack > Suppression (on non-attacker)
  • Suppression + Attack > Guard Mode

Or, combined:

  • Suppression + Attack > Guard Mode > Attack > Suppression (on non-attacker)

Simple, right? Right?

 

Of course, the effectiveness of such a suppression/Guard Mode system is highly dependent on the numerical balance of the game with regards to weapon accuracy, range, damage, armor and health on units, et cetera. So far the results are promising and I hope to keep refining the current system.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

No More Tales

(I apologize for the high number of links in this post. I’ve also pretty much decided to no longer speak publicly about game development finance for a variety of reasons, so I’ll be skirting some points and issues.)

 

No More Tales

Apparently Tale of Tales, developers of Sunset, are closing their doors. Their official site is hammered and down at the moment so the first link is a GameInformer one. The upshot is they went into debt, sold only 4,000 copies between crowdfunding and the Steam sale, and have decided to no longer make games commercially.

It is always unfortunate when a group of creatives can no longer fund their activities. That said there are lessons and warnings here that have have to do with marketing, creative vision, and being realistic.

The first is that knowing who your core audience is, and being able to reach them, is of the utmost importance, more so than ever given that Steam has opened its gates. Tale of Tales has been around as an indie game company since 2002. They had 2,228 backers on their Kickstarter campaign in 2014, raising a total of $64,636 USD. The combination of gross unit sales and backers and sales history (which they know but I am not privy to) should most likely have indicated that their core audience is extremely tiny, almost certainly under five digits.

It sounds like they tried to do everything right in a traditional indie game developer manner; Broaden the appeal, spend on marketing and advertising, and lean on external funding. Whatever the case may be the aggregate result is now failure in a monetary sense.

It is always easy, though perhaps not any more accurate, to pick at details in retrospect. I know first hand how jumbled the process can get when you’re elbow deep in the guts of making and marketing a game. That said there are some broad stroke, red flags:

  • A “game for gamers” Sunset is surely not. If they believed this they truly missed the mark in understanding who their audience was and the market at large. There are enough people making abstract art games that it’s fairly well-established as a niche more than an underserved market.
  • Advertising, as in the act of purchasing ads, is not useful on a small scale. This, too, is fairly well known particularly on the internet. Maybe a game like Sunset can’t push for hard YouTuber or Twitch streamer cooperation. Maybe it’s just not that kind of game. I can’t offer a solution here, but I can diagnose the problem. That was probably wasted money.
  • Good ratings are good, but it has to take into consideration the total quantity of players as well.

The third point is desperately important. With the advent of a more open Steam, GOG Galaxy being in beta, and Itch growing remarkably quickly, literally everyone has wider access to the gamer audience.

It has been my observation that many small indies these days are selling a few hundred to a few thousand copies of their games and are ecstatic. And they should be! Baby steps is how anyone gets through this ever-changing market. But that is not sustainability. When you get 100% positive reviews out of 20 that is not so remarkable. Pretty much anyone can shake up 20 positive reviews from their personal pool of friends, relatives, and friendly developers.

Your parents might tell you your game is the best thing ever, but your parents are not your core audience. As I mentioned in a previous blog post,  you need a resounding YES. Not a lukewarm yes, nor a bright YES followed by words and no sale. A marginally interesting game someone will pay ten dollars far is superior to an enormously interesting game someone will not pay anything for. Steam refunds is a thing now, too; software is catching up to the physical goods world.*

This is a hard pill for creatives to swallow, but we’ve all swallowed it in micro-forms throughout our careers. When you agonize (waste time) getting that thing just right that no one ever notices. Even game critics miss this so often – almost every game that’s not a pile of poo was a labor of love, that was iterated over and polished in some parts and not others. It’s just that the games that gain followings, large followings, get examined thoroughly enough to merit such deep analysis. Who wastes their time dissecting games that are popularly perceived as trash?

This is the hard truth – no one starts off caring about your creative prowess, your time and effort spent. You do not deserve their money, their attention, their time; You have to earn it.

This is why so many creatives fall back on the luck argument. It dodges all the hard truths and lends a fallback excuse. People don’t talk about luck when creating material objects nearly as often. Maybe because the physical fetish can somehow snap a critic back into reality – this is a thing*.  For some reason software has less of that effect on most people.

 

A Number

My number is 20,000. That is the number I want to personally hit as the number of core users for the kind of games I want to make. In my circumstances 20k unit sales, at something like $10-20 USD each can keep my head afloat and making Next Game. Other game developers, some more experienced than I am, tell me that this is folly, that I am setting a trajectory for crashing and burning. Maybe they can see something I can’t.

But even if they’re right and I’m wrong, you still need to know your number. You need to aim for it hard. If there is no Next Game, there is no game after that.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Steam Marines 2 – State of the Game

 

State of the Game

Steam Marines 2 has been in development for about eight months now and is still in pre-alpha. The first game was a straightforward dungeon crawler. It was very no-frills, just clear/escape each level and kill the baddie at the end. The sequel is a bit of a different beast.

 

Frills

Steam Marines opened by making you pick a difficulty level,  bringing you to a squad creation screen, giving you a blurb about awaking from cryo-sleep, and dumping you unceremoniously in a procedurally generated level.

Steam Marines 2 shakes that up a bit. For starters there’s no difficulty level to choose from. Instead starting a new campaign brings you inside the interior of a spaceship. What, where’s the squad creation? Well…

Mission Briefing
Mission Briefing

You can just jump right into the first mission by hitting the Launch Mission button, or you can hit that suspicious looking Squad Loadout button in the upper left portion of the screen…

Roster Selection
Roster Selection

This isn’t fully fleshed out yet, but the general idea is that from the interior of your steampunk spaceship you can flip between your ship base and galaxy view, look at and gear your marines in roster/squad lists, and view and accept missions. Don’t worry, I’m aware that font is terrible for displaying numerals.

This is great because Steam Marines was all about an intrepid squad of four marines, huddled together trying to survive a hostile boarding of their vessel, whereas Steam Marines 2 is about receiving missions from the Steam Marines Corps directly, while trying to engage in directives from the Earth Council and balancing the needs of the system you’re in. Safeguarding civilians and gathering resources to aid your primary goal constitute the new strategic layer.

Gear is now modular – you can mix and match helmets, chest plates, gloves, et cetera. Marine classes have semi-randomized pools of talents that generate different talent trees once marines are promoted. Enemy units return in robotic and alien flavors, but have separate faction goals, and you’ll learn more about their motivations. Maybe you’ll even find some new allies?

 

Marines, MARINES

Steam Marines 2 is still ultimately about turn-based tactics. The old square grid has been retained, but the action and movement and aiming system has been overhauled:

Squad Ready
Squad Ready

I’m still playing with fog of war, but I’m leaning heavily toward either a very dark layer of fog for already explored areas, or simply blacking it out entirely, meaning you can only really see what your squad sees at any given point. It has the benefit of making the game feel more claustrophobic and introducing even more imperfect information since players are unlikely to remember the exact layout of the map once they’ve moved on.

Marines can see and aim in a full 360 degree arc and facing is no longer a factor in game mechanics. While the environment is in 3D for eye candy, the same ruthless mechanics of turn-based combat apply. This is not a hide-behind-a-corner-and-fire tactics game. The universe of Steam Marines is brutal, life expectancy is short, and losing all your marines still a very real possibility.

Since facing has been removed, this makes positional play even more exacting. There is no facing action cost (default on in the original game), and you cannot sit back in a wide area and take potshots in Guard Mode – ranged enemies will be able to pick you off at any angle!

Environments are not destructible this time around, however, and this opens up new avenues of attack and defense. Choke points become much more contentious, and units both in the Steam Marines Corps and on the side of the robots and aliens will have unit-specific tools to rush and otherwise break up that layered tactic.

Escape via blasting a hole in the wall and running away used to be an option. Now if your back’s against the wall you’re forced to fight. Or plan ahead so your back doesn’t get against a wall.

You’ll also have a full roster aboard the I.S.S. Delhi, as well as a larger squad size to play with.

 

The I.S.S. What-Now?

The I.S.S. Delhi is the first human controlled ship you get at the start of a new campaign. It’s a small Corvette-class steampunk military vessel, complete with a skeleton crew of Fleet officers and a handful of marines. You’ll have to obtain more resources and personnel on your journey – Earth is very, very far away.

Steam Marines 2 is not a 4x by any stretch of the imagination, but you don’t just control a squad of four marines anymore. You manage a roster, you manage squads, you manage Fleet personnel, and you manage… ships?

 

Ship Designs
Ship Designs

Oh snap – ship upgrades? Ships? Almost certainly ship upgrading. I’m not sure about managing a fleet yet, but I’m mulling over some possibilities. It will depend heavily on how the strategy layer shapes up over the next few months.

 

Also don’t let me get sidetracked with scope creep, please and thank you.

Third Person Shooter
Third Person Shooter

I had this idea where if you were down to one marine the player could have the option of running and gunning in third person mode. I mean you’d probably still die but it’d be a cooler way to die.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Mistakes, Problems, and Solutions (Part 2)

It Always Starts Small

I think a lot of people start off interested in making games the same way I did:

“That doesn’t look hard to make. I bet I can do better.”

If that’s accurate then it’s hardly surprising that the two causes of developer failure, underestimation and hubris, pop up so often – they’re the impetuous for starting in the first place.

Good and bad, right? Many people fail without starting in the first place, but that misplaced motivation can come back to bite you if you’re not careful.

The first blog post was about how I failed in the development of Ignition Impulse. This second blog post is about how I failed in the development of Steam Marines.

 

Play It, Sam

It started as a small game called Quad. Conceived as a small, turn-based, squad-based RPG, I started posting about it in my forums in early 2012. Feedback was minimal, but there was some interest there so I ran with it.

Aside: You can already see one big problem – “Quad” is a terrible name for a game. Just try Googling it. It took me about six months to rectify that!

I was doing a lot of other things behind the scenes; “real” development didn’t kick in until around April 2012. In-between I tried prototyping a bunch of other games, did more research on the games market, and other assorted failure prevention type stuff.

The core of Steam Marines is having a four marine squad moving through a spaceship and fighting off robots and aliens. Pretty straightforward! It was turn-based, used an action point system, and made some probably questionable design decisions like locking movement and firing to cardinal directions only.

The hooks for the game, the bits that set it apart from my point of view, were that it was brutally hard and straddled a middle field between shorter, more casual games and longer grindfests. During development the “Steam Marines is hard” angle overshadowed everything else.

 

But It’s So Bouncy

There was not one failure here, but a series of failures of communication between myself and potential players. Steam Marines looked bouncy, toony, and colorful. But it was, at least from the average player’s perspective, overwhelmingly difficult. What makes this worse is that I knew this – in fact, I deliberately balanced the game on “Hard” difficulty since I knew I had a personal preference for difficult games.

In other words, I was catering to a niche within a niche and I was not explaining this well.

Many early players and Let’s Players got it immediately, primarily fans of traditionally harder/permadeath games. Everyone else sent me hate mail.

Aside: It is a very weird feeling to have made something that people literally hate you for making. It’s not all bad. Sometimes you get an email reading somewhat like, “I hate this game. I hate you. I’m starting a new game.”

If I had paid more attention to the mobile games sphere I probably would have gotten this right away. People simply associate bright colors and bouncy animations with easy/casual. But I didn’t and the resulting backlash from players was both confusing and damaging to morale.

I like to think I have thick skin but the truth is after a few dozen people tell you your game is crap and you are crap (and for the same reasons!) you start questioning every decision you ever made. Riding low on the results of Ignition Impulse did not help any.

In the end it was a combination of stubbornness and people giving me actually constructive feedback that got me back on track. I really want to stress this: you need to be both stubborn and open-minded to do this (well.) You need to be open-minded otherwise you will miss good feedback and opportunities, but you need to be stubborn enough to reject the crap feedback. And you will get a lot of crap feedback.

One might argue that the pertinent trait here is the ability to accurately assess a given situation, but I think the problem is deeper than that. Frequently the issue is not one you can parse out objectively. Issues of preference, balance which is contingent upon the individual, et cetera abound during game development. At the end of the day you’re going to make some bad calls no matter how sharp you are. Practically speaking your goals should be to minimize the frequency of those and mitigate the really bad mistakes you inevitably make. “Always make the right decision” is about as useful as “never make spelling errors.”

 

Marines, Ho!

Art was coming into the project and I was feeling good. The game was starting to look like a real game, I had some really cool theme music, and I was on Reddit and Twitter talking with other developers and promoting my alpha.

In August 2012 Steam Greenlight was launched, ostensibly to help indie game developers get onto Steam in a more streamlined and orderly fashion. I can’t be overly critical of Greenlight. Mistakes were made and the process was far from perfect, but Valve made a large effort to do something that they did not have to do that did end up helping many indie developers.

Steam Marines landed on Greenlight the opening day… and took about 400 days to get Greenlit. A note on Greenlight to any developer currently in that pipeline: you need to push hard to get eyeballs and yes votes. Yes, there was an initial surge of eyeballs when Greenlight was new and shiny. It still took me and my tiny community over a year of bush kicking to wrangle up the required votes to make it past the finish line. I’m sure developers who have run successful crowdfunding campaigns agree.

Aside: Even if your game is so awesome it can make it without external effort on your part, I can’t recommend doing that. Push it, promote it, don’t stop talking until you make it. Out of all the walls you will face during development Greenlight might be one of the longer, more torturous ones, but it isn’t the highest.

Don’t think I did everything right in this case. I missed the opening hours of the Greenlight launch because my artist at the time assured me he would have the necessary assets (logo and so forth) ready on time. He did not.

I did get lucky in some ways. Negative comments on the Greenlight page were few and far between. Some cries of “Clone!” but they were mostly shot down by other commenters. It was a good trial by fire for learning to deal with people who had no prior investment in my game, and how to answer soft but firm.

I did reach top 100 relatively quickly, although there were some very dispiriting months where Steam would Greenlight a few titles… and Steam Marines would actually drop a few places in rank. I don’t have good advice for that kind of demoralization.

Sometimes there are no clever tricks; you just have to roll up your sleeves, get out, and push.

 

Abracadabra (Or, “Problems Go Away If I Ignore Them, Right?”)

This post is about failures with Steam Marines. It would not be complete without mentioning management of contractors. By and large I believe I lucked out. I ended up with mostly great people to work with.

My intention is not to point fingers at anyone. The following is a non-exhaustive list of problems that can crop up with any contractor, employee, et cetera.

  • Have a contract.
  • Have an exit clause. Think hard on what the terms should be. Do not ever think, “Oh, well this will never be used.” If it will never be used then why is it in the #[email protected]%ing contract?
  • Be very clear on what the expectations are in the working relationship.
  • Be prepared to sever the working relationship if necessary.

Being saddled with someone who does no work is not the worst thing. The worst thing is being saddled with someone who is actively damaging your project. Please be aware of this.

 Aside: There are a myriad of ways someone can damage your project. They can produce subpar work. They can produce no work while saying they will. They can undermine your processes. That someone can also be you.  Try not to be that person for yourself or anyone else.

I’m a fairly caustic individual. I’m blunt, willing to be rude to make a point, and I found it difficult to pull the rug out even though all the red flags were there. I don’t really have an excuse but I think my only explanation was that I felt I didn’t have many good options. Given that the project survived and thrived despite those issues, that was clearly a misunderstanding of the larger situation.

I can see it with a bit more clarity now, so let me offer you this advice as explicitly as possible in the event you find yourself in a similar mind-and-decision-blurring predicament:

You always have better options.

I’m not guaranteeing you’ll see them, but they exist.

 

Moving On

I’m skipping ahead a bit here. Steam Marines was Greenlit, it was voted for Community’s Choice, and made a bunch of sales and money on Steam, Humble, Desura, and IndieGameStand. Into profit territory, woohoo!

Aside: You have a budget, right? Go read Commercial Indie Games & Risk and Budgeting blog posts if not! Actually do it anyway.

There were a lot of little details and failures all over the place. I don’t have too much to say on any of them individually, but I want to impress upon you the volume of problems, or potential problem situations, that can crop up:

  • UI/UX. Even if everything is rebindable people will complain about your defaults. Some people will love your buttons. Other people will hate your buttons. Some will even say your buttons are uninspired.
  • Most players will never look at your menu options.
  • Enemy AI that announces its intentions is widely considered more intelligent despite the fact that it is an incredible act of stupidity for any party to announce their actual intentions to the opposition.
  • 99% of people don’t read anything in-game; 1% read everything.*
  • You can make an announcement, sticky a thread, blare it in-game, and people will still miss it.*
  • You can make the screen shake, throw up character dialogue, and center the camera on an event and people will still miss it.
  • You need to be very, very, very specific about what you are promising and what you are not promising. People will still crucify you but at least you have something hard to point at after the fact.
  • I used words like “Hard” and “Normal” to describe the difficulty levels when creating a new game. Also on the ship decks which had an entirely different meaning.
  • People really hated ‘Z’ as the default keybinding for firing a marine’s weapon. Okay, that one was one me – I could have picked a better default.
  • Gamepad bindings are driver specific. There are different drivers on different operating systems – you get the idea. I wonder why so many consoles don’t allow rebinding?
  • Linux players are few. They cannot buy in numbers of Windows players… but they seem very tech savvy and figure stuff out without contacting tech support (that’s me.) Linux users will also cheerfully report esoteric bugs on their esoteric rigs with a cheerful, “I know this is esoteric – don’t worry!” (If you are good at ignoring problems that aren’t really problems to your users this one is probably fine.)
  • Mac users are not as tech savvy. Less than 5% of the player base but 50% of the tech support.
  • People will tell you they have up-to-date drivers. Then you see their dxdiag dump files.
  • People will tell you they did XYZ to resolve some issue. They did not do XYZ.
  • What are system requirements?*
  • Get called an X because a customer did not realize Y (my favorite was someone who called me a scam artist because he did not realize Steam Marines was a 2D game.)

(*This is why marketing is hard. I am a strong advocate of slow burn, early and often. There are valid arguments for timing release of information and such, but my position as a small developer is that marketing is an enormous wall I need a head start on.)

There’s a minefield of things that can go wrong. Even if you are kind, cheerful, and helpful people will spit in your face. That’s just going to be something you (or someone you hire) will have to deal with.

My advice: be polite and be as helpful as reasonably possible.

To be honest I don’t follow that advice 100%. I may or may not be known for being somewhat snarky on the Steam discussion forums for Steam Marines. I think the right combination can be snarky but helpful and/or comic.

If you can’t swing comedy then just be polite.

Aside: Sometimes I respond to Steam reviews. Sometimes the negative ones. Some people do not take any kind of developer comment well, apparently. Sometimes having that PR person, that layer of insulation, is a good thing. Assess your own personality profile when it comes to this, too.

So many ways you can fail to so many people, so little time.

 

Are We There Yet?

Probably not. To recap I failed pretty hard at game naming, conveying what Steam Marines was actually like to play, didn’t manage contractors as well as I could have, and probably made a bunch of miscellaneous bad calls during the design and implementation of the game.

I got some decent coverage from some sites and YouTubers, and they definitely helped me through Greenlight, but if they were timed better they would have been spent actually getting sales as opposed to votes.

I started selling at too low of a price. Every subsequent price increase actually increased my unit sales. Oops. There are some confounding variables here – obviously the quality of the game was increasing alongside the price – but I’m fairly confident I priced too low early on.

I have merchandise (shirts) but never pushed it hard. I still assume my player base is on the small side to make that a profit center.

I didn’t go to any major game development events like GDC. I didn’t enter into any game contests like IGF. To be frank I consider these mild failures at most. While I am biased as an introvert I don’t consider physical hobnobbing to be that much of a leg up, and contests… well I don’t put much stock in those, either. I consider time spent on social media, and perhaps some physical location promoting at local gamer meetups, to be more productive. But maybe I’ll change my mind in the future. Steam Marines is, after all, a niche game. A game targeted more broadly would probably benefit more from these larger events and platforms.

 

That’s the end of Part 2. I don’t know if there will be a Part 3. Oh, wait, one more thing. Let’s end where we started:

“That doesn’t look hard to make. I bet I can do better.”

Maybe your game will encourage the next generation of game developers. Your game doesn’t look that hard to make after all. They can probably do better.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Mistakes, Problems, and Solutions (Part 1)

(This is the first of probably two posts and is primarily from a developer standpoint.)

 

I Have No Idea What I Am Doing

My first commercial game, Ignition Impulse, was an almost completely unmitigated disaster in terms of profit, scope, design, and whatever else you can think of to measure success of a video game.

It was intended to be similar to a childhood game I played incessantly, Escape Velocity, with space combat, trading, and exploration. Simple! 2D! What could go wrong? I picked up a small commercial game engine and set to work.

I want to be clear I wasn’t quite that naive, but if you asked me circa 2010 if I thought Ignition Impulse would have been a commercial success I probably would have given it even odds. The hard reality was that after a year in development it was done in the sense that it was playable. It had no polish and my trailer was embarrassing, I released it as Pay-What-You-Want (PWYW) on the now defunct site IndieVania and grossed under $2,000 USD.

Aside: It did not help my morale that Space Pirates and Zombies (S.P.A.Z.) – an example of a non-terrible game made in the exact same game engine – was light years ahead in terms of everything that makes a video game good. And it was being developed alongside my own pale imitation of a game. Ouch! I should have taken notes – but for some asinine reason I did not.

 

Aside #2: PWYW as a game selling model is unworkable. Look to the mobile market for models that actually work. In this aspect at least I was incredibly naive. This wasn’t shareware in the 90s and I suspect this wouldn’t have worked well even if it was.

 

Tangible and Intangible

There was very little real value obtained from the development of Ignition Impulse. I made basically no money, I had developed mostly in a bubble, and my company name seemed very apt. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of mistakes I made:

  • I took a game engine I had no experience in and thought my first game would go relatively smoothly. (Read: Programmer underestimation.)
  • I built zero contacts within the game industry; not journalists, not even fellow developers. (Read: Introvert + lack of community building experience.)
  • I built no community prior to release. (Read: I DID NOT EVEN MAKE A WEBSITE.)
  • I did everything myself. I am terrible at art, music, et cetera. But oh ho – it was all MINE! (Read: Creator hubris.)
  • I started marketing after I finished the game. (Read: I thought marketing was maybe 10% of the importance in claiming success; it’s probably closer to 90% and it requires way more time than most people think it does.)
  • While I did take a look at similar space type games prior to development I did not do so very thoroughly since I missed the in-development S.P.A.Z.

Perhaps oddly only two things I did not completely fail at was projecting the development schedule and the budgeting for the project. The only +1 for my prior programming experience, apparently. Still, a very clear disaster.

If I’m hard on newer game developers it’s probably due in no small part to recognizing them making the exact same mistakes I made. Not everyone has the stubbornness and financial buffer to recover from blowing up a project like I did.

Aside: This is how green I was – I almost named the game White Hole. I am not joking. I wish I was joking. I think I still have an image of the game with that title. No, I won’t dig it out and show you.

 

So It Goes

Mistakes were clearly made. The obvious thing to do after failing all over yourself is to examine why you failed. I no longer have the note, but I remember scratching out the basic problems with creating a financially successful video game circa 2011:

  • You need someone to make the game, market the game, sell the game, support the game, and collect the money. (Read: Don’t do everything yourself – lean on other people.)
  • I’m a programmer by training and trade. I can make a lot of the game by myself. But I clearly need to find other people to do the art, music, sound, et cetera. (Read: Budget for contractors and/or partners. Solo development has significant drawbacks for both quality and morale.)
  • Start marketing and community building sooner. Sooner. Much sooner. (Read: Is it playable? If not, make it so. If so, get it into players’ hands.)
  • Networking is a must. You need to find all those people to help you. You need to communicate to them, have them communicate to you, and be able to adjust your project trajectory based on that information. (Read: You get what you give. Whether it’s Reddit, Twitter, TigSource, or your local coffee shop gaming meetup, you need to become a productive member of that community. Otherwise you are an outsider and humans, as the fickle and tribal beings that we are, will not help you.)

These are the four main areas where I stumbled and fell. The problems are now outlined. Solutions?

 

“Never Tell Me The Odds”

By this point I had collected myself and gorged on the various literature on the topic of game development. It was clear that I was in over my head. I had never seriously used a mobile device and I had no understanding of that market. I was a desktop coder through-and-through. Stick with what I know, I’m sure I thought.

You can dig through my other blog posts for hard numbers, but the short version is game developers as an industry are not compensated well. Lots of people want to be developers, fewer start, and fewer still succeed. The odds are stacked against you unless you have serious financial backing for development costs and a hard marketing push.

But, being the stubborn fellow that I am, I outlined the problems and came up with some solutions. I made a company website. I made a game website with forums. I started, almost on day one, to post about my game on various sites. I released screenshots, gifs, developer thoughts, mingled with other developers online and a few in-person, and gave and accepted advice from hard-earned experience.

The nice thing about failure is that it loves company. Developers, as a group, are great people to commiserate with – the pain is real and shared. They are also, unfortunately, a bad bunch to look toward for career advice. Here is some advice I have been given by other developers who failed around the same time I did, some also having much longer strings of failures:

  • “PC gaming is dead.”
  • “You have to target the mass market to succeed.”
  • “Success is all blind luck.”
  • “Make it and they will come.”

The short version is that my second game pretty much puts all four bits to bed. This does not mean that PC gaming is inherently better or good compared to other markets, that you might have an easier time targeting a mass market, or that there is no luck involved – but to suggest such extremes is clearly demotivating and inaccurate.

Survivorship bias is a hell of a thing. I could nod to a lot of postmortems and quotes from bigger, successful indie developers to try and affirm what I currently believe. Instead I’ll simply point out two salient points:

  • Lots of developers make games.
  • Most of them fail to become successes (at least financially.)

You can extrapolate a lot from just those two bits of information. The first is that if you do what the average developer does you should expect to have average performance which is not good – so aim higher.

Observation #1: Don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel (unless you have a really cool wheel), but do consider what you can do differently from others in your field. It will not only help you stand out, but will also give you and others a different perspective – you might find your intended audience isn’t but another is!

The second thing you should notice is that there are only a small handful of successes, but an even smaller number of genres those successes fall under. Excluding perhaps outliers like Papers, Please these games can be categorized into fairly broad genres.

Observation #2: Genre originality is not required for success. Do not be dissuaded from doing “another X” simply because there are other Xs; there are other Xs because Xs have succeeded!

Did you look at the survivorship bias Wikipedia link I posted above? In the article it describes quite an illuminating story:

“During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage. Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions — the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy instead reinforce the areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost.”

But hmm – we don’t have access to much data on the characteristics or development processes of failed game projects – do we? You have a little information from the Ignition Impulse project and some few others, but not nearly as much about the standout successes.

Well we can almost certainly determine that finding common traits in successful games will, over all the data, have some applicable relevance to making your own game succeed. It’s just the questions of which information is actually salient and what other information you have but overlooked.

The WWII bomber story should have automatically drawn your attention to a big red flag, namely that you’ve probably never heard of the vast majority of failed games. There are plenty of games – but you’ve never heard of most of them. In all likelihood you know about more successful games than unsuccessful games – especially if you are just a gamer and not also a developer.

Observation #3: People need to know about your game in order to become players. It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing that new-fangled-X-killer or a tiny nation border crossing simulator. What I’m trying to say is that marketing and word-of-mouth is an unarmored weak spot. So armor it.

It is frequently the third and fourth mentalities in combination, “luck = success” and “build it and they will come”, that conspire to ruin so many developers. Don’t be like those developers – you need to do more than just build your game otherwise you really are just relying on luck!

Which brings us to our final observation.

Observation #4: Failed developers and failed projects may not explicitly tell you how to succeed, but there is value and data there. We can’t know for sure what all the common elements are between all failed developers and failed projects, and maybe there aren’t any, but we can identify patterns. Thought experiments: What if you discovered that the vast majority of failed game projects were released more than 100% behind their original schedules? Or 75% were over budget? Or the average size of the teams was 1.3? Or if 90% of the games were in 2D? Or 3D? Or if 99% were never localized? Or if 87% were only on Windows?

 

What about combinations? Not too many successful games about 11th century South America… but also not too many unsuccessful games about 11th century South America. Sometimes knowing what you don’t know is also useful.

There are an infinite number of ways to succeed and fail. Don’t just rely on your past experience – seek out others’. This is just the good old fashioned advice to learn from other people’s mistakes. None of us can fail or succeed as broadly as all of us.

 

These All Seem Like Really Basic Failures, Bums

Yeah, I know. But we see them over and over again, and not just from new developers. If you’re a programmer ask yourself how many times you make the same stupid, silly syntax error. If you’re an artist ask how many times you lose work because you forgot to save your file (or imagine something else because I’m not an artist.)

They’re basic, but people forget or are tired or are stressed or it’s passed to someone who is and the accountability chain breaks – you get the idea. These aren’t even nitty-gritty details that you might never even think of. Occasionally I tweet about old screenshots of your games existing forever (because the Internet) and whenever I do I usually get a few seasoned developers checking and going, “Oh, shit!”

For empirical reasons I’m a big fan of going over the basics and checklists. Unless you’ve never forgotten anything I suggest you write it down. Actually, even then. You’re not always working alone after all. And we can’t all be John Carmack, right?

 

That’s the end of Part 1.

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Game Development Videos to Watch

Obsessive-Compulsive Development: Retro/Grade Postmortem

GDC Vault video link (~33 minutes).

Matt Gilgenbach discusses what went wrong with the development of Retro/Grade and (perhaps) common pitfalls between developers and their labors of love.

 

Guy Kawasaki: The Top 10 Mistakes of Entrepreneurs

YouTube talk at UC Berkeley (~84 minutes).

Guy Kawasaki is probably best known as former chief evangelist of Apple. He refers mostly to software startups/entrepreneurs in venture capital stages, but many of his points and lessons are relevant to game development, especially with the rise of crowdfunding.

 

Brenda Romero: Jiro Dreams of Game Design

GDC Vault video link (~57 minutes.)

Brenda Romero, known for her work on the Wizardry series, talks about making great games. She speaks on deliberate and comprehensive design, draws connections between the culinary arts and games, and failure.

 

Juice it or lose it – a talk by Martin Jonasson & Petri Purho

YouTube talk with demo game and code links (~15 minutes).

Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho of Jesus vs. Dinosaurs fame talk about bringing your game’s attention-holding capabilities to the next level. Filled with salient demonstration and a real-time generated audience laugh track.

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 [email protected]Twitter, 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 [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.

It’s (Not?) About the Money

Bias

I’m biased. I like to eat. I like being kept around the normal range of human livable temperatures in all seasons. I like to save money so that one day I’ll be able to retire. Sometimes I like to buy games so I can play them.

This blog post is mostly a response to this article and the conversations that ensued around my Twitter. There is also a TL;DR at the end of the post, but I hope you resist the urge.

 

Anger

Irritation is the most accurate description for how I felt after reading that article. But that irritation fully blossomed into anger when I started seeing financially successful indie game developers siding with the author of that article.

 

Money, the making of

I would like to start with the article’s premise: that indie gaming has an obsession with making money. Source, please. Anyone? I didn’t think so*. (Note: see bottom of blog post.)

Between the massive amounts of game jams, experimental games, clones, quasi-clones, et cetera made for fun by students, hobbyists, and even professional game developers, it’s not a stretch to say that there are a lot of games made without even an attempt at financial remuneration. I personally participated in 7drl 2014.

But I’ll give you the premise. I will give you the premise just so we can move on.

 

Bankrupt: Creatively, but not monetarily!

Holy shit.

App Promo - Wake Up Call
App Promo – Wake Up Call

You’re telling me that indie developers are so focused on making money, too focused on making money, that 59% of app developers don’t break even on development costs? I know a little bit about development costs. More importantly, I know many developers don’t even know how to calculate development costs. I know this because I get into arguments with them about valuing their own time and efforts and about opportunity cost. If anything the real figure is higher because they are chronically under-reporting their development costs.

Another survey paints a very bleak financial picture of indie game developers:

“Half of indie developers made less than $500 from the sale of their games (which includes in-app purchases and DLC); 13% made between $500 and $3,000, 15% made between $5,000 and $30,000, and 5% made over $200,000. Alternate sources of income (advertising, awards/grants, sponsorship opportunities) remain hard to obtain; 79% of indie devs didn’t make any money from these methods at all. Of the devs that did, 25% made less than $100, 28% made between $100 and $2,000, 22% made between $2,000 and $10,000, 5% made between $10,000 and $20,000, and 20% made over $20,000.”
– Game Developer Salary Survey of 2013 

I know what you’re thinking. Well, they’re not making money because they were making their games with the goal of making money, not making great games! Bullshit for three reasons:

1) Neither you, nor anyone else, is an authority on great™ games. There are simply games that have varying numbers of players and customers. I think 868-HACK is amazing. Other people do not. Most other people have never heard of it. This is unique to zero games.

2) Minecraft vs. Infiniminer. Spelunky pre and post XBLA.

3) There is literally no hard evidence that making a game for money, even primarily for money, results in a terrible™ game. At best you can offer examples of games that were made for money that turned out terrible. You can also find examples of games clearly made for money that turned out well in both Indie and AAA spheres.

Aside: #3 is also a crazy claim because you are currently using about five bajillion (rough estimate) pieces of interactive software, most of them created with commercial profit as a primary motivation, in your daily life that you generally do not consider terrible. They are creative, functional, have cultural impact, and are generally good™ products.

But games are special. Special little snowflakes.

 

Status Quo

I mentioned earlier that the article only irritated me, that the anger came after financially successful indie game developers hopped on board the “money is evil and corrupts all!” choo-choo train. I iterate this because I really want to hammer this home:

Any time someone who has profited from a system tells you that you are focusing too much on the profit, tell them to piss off. Or at least quietly view their opinions with internal skepticism. How convenient that they’ve gotten theirs and:

  • They’ve got the money and tell you not to chase the money!
  • Overcrowded (Steam/Greenlight/cough)! Too much competition for established developers!
  • Starving? Doesn’t matter – focus on the intangibles!
  • Lazy comparison to creative conservatism between Indies versus AAA. How convenient that they leave out every other relevant bit of information and just equate money and creative stagnation. You notice how these same people don’t go crowing about how chasing money is bad when they, or people they know, need to run crowdfunding campaigns? The story changes so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Aside: The Money = No Creativity argument is particularly galling because it promotes the idea that you have to be a starving artist to be a real artist. Or a real indie.

It also promotes the idea that indie developers should be allowed to get away with paying their employees and freelancers less than non-indie developers.

 

One kernel

There is one kernel of truth in that article. It comes in late, near the end:

“… the games that are most widely written about, from Flappy Bird to Grand Theft Auto to Minecraft, are the financial juggernauts. But these are not the only success stories.”

Well shit. That’s sort of the domain of the writers writing about games, isn’t it? It seems like many of those writers have an obsession with using financial success as the only metric to write about games.

Aside 1: You want your game to be culturally relevant? Get people to play and tell other people about it. That’s the only way. You may think FarmVille and Angry Birds are crap, but you didn’t have to Google either of those two games, did you?

Aside 2: This doesn’t just apply to (indie) game developers. Are you a writer? Musician? Sculptor? Get people to read, listen, and look at your stuff. That’s the only way.

 

TL;DR

  • Indie game devs are poorly paid. Shut up about too much focus on money.
  • If you’re okay with maintaining a status quo that supports you at the expense of others in your industry, I don’t wanna be friends with you.
  • If anyone is overly focused on indie games and money, it’s apparently people writing about games (me?)
  • To indie game developers who are new and/or struggling: chin up, make games others can’t even dream of, and never be afraid to ask for payment.

  [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below.