Experiments in Games

I’m a big fan of running personal experiments. Testing assumptions is a good way to avoid falling into the same pitfalls everyone else is. Sometimes you want to make sure old assumptions are still correct. Sometimes you need to make sure you’re not the one off your rocker.

Sometimes you’re pretty sure everyone else seems to believe something they never bothered to verify.

Here are some experiments I’m currently, and will be, testing with my next game, Steam Marines 2:

 

1) “You need a trailer.”

I’m not so sure you do, at least not for all games. What is a trailer? Typically a combination of video and audio. How many people have audio on on mobile devices? Or aren’t annoyed on desktops when they’re not on YouTube/Twitch et al?

Most distribution platforms have a prominent embed link for trailers, and Steam actually requires it to even launch a game’s start page. I have a suspicion that despite how ubiquitous this is trailers aren’t always worth the bang for the buck. The alternative? Gifs.

And why not? They’re easier to make, more portable, easier to digest, Vine made an entire business out of short form video/audio clips, and frankly static images and gifs have just as high or higher potential to go viral. They’re certainly easier to share across social media in the sense that they will simply load automatically and quickly across most feeds.

How far can sheer imagery and no audio carry a game’s marketing?

Aside: If audio is an integral part of your gameplay experience, like most of the horror genre, this may be a bad idea. But maybe not? #ThatsThePointOfExperimenting #WhoWillBeBraveIRL

2) “Everyone’s complaining about that, so that’s what you need to focus on.”

Survivorship bias is a hell of a thing; I’ve mentioned the airplane story before on here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fix things people complain about, but I keep repeating this and, it feels like, people keep ignoring me.

When you look at a bunch of games that “made it”, that met their goals, made at least a reasonable profit, et cetera, there is a tendency to look at criticism and shore that up. But if the goal is to get your own game across that same finishing line, look to what they did well and capitalize on that.

They combined X and Y mechanics and got Z and it was good? Cool, you can follow suit. I feel like one of the best examples of this is game interfaces. How many games have “terrible” interfaces – but they sold amazingly well and people kept playing them anyway? The games were so good players overlooked their bad interfaces. I’m not saying to deliberately make bad interfaces. I’m just saying that it would appear that there are a lot of people who are willing to overlook terrible UI/UX/controls for a morsel of something else good.

Concrete examples include Skyrim (made better with mods like SkyUI!) and basically every (traditional) roguelike in existence. Games like Fallout 3 onwards suffer from terrible gameplay bugs, but people still love and play them anyway.

I have spent more time and effort on Steam Marines 2’s overall presentation and UI/UX, but that’s still not the primary focus of the game. I’m banking on gameplay and overall theme much more than sexy icons and meter layouts.

Aside: The “reverse” works as well. The failed games? Look at a bunch of them and see what they did well. Those things they did well? Apparently not good enough. Personally I’ve found that art style and X-likes fall prey to this a lot of the time.

3) “Show, don’t tell.”

I dislike this advice . There’s something to be said for direct and blunt communication. It seems rooted in the idea that, at least in games, players tend not to read anything. This has been my experience as well. But it’s one I’m still testing deliberately.

Most things players don’t read. Tutorial? Nope. Tool tips? Rarely. In-game lore? Whoa, wait up. That’s something a lot of players actually do read. Weird! Steam Marines 1 had a tutorial in a pre-assembled level with text popups and dialogue explaining the basic gameplay and mechanics. Most people skipped right over that shit. Steam Marines 2 is going about that a different way: no explicitly tutorial, but more marine banter that players might read and inadvertently learn about gameplay.

Ultimately I don’t expect “show, don’t tell” to be very wrong, but again testing is the point of this.

Aside: I expect this to live or die a lot based on the game genre in question. Probably more true in a RPS, less true in a full blown RPG.

4) “Indie games can’t charge more than X dollars.”

X varies, and largely seems to be reflective of the graphical fidelity involved. Well balls to that. Steam Marines 2 will be launching at an alpha price of $25 USD. It will be an actual alpha – playable, but rough around the edges, with content missing. It will not be unique in this set of qualities, but it will be one of the few.

Getting ~20,000 unit sales (depending on distributor percentages) at that price point will cover the entire projected cost of the game’s development.

I have some mobile game side projects as well, and I’ll be experimenting with payment models/pricing in that arena as well in the same general vein.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Sequels and the Past

I Think This Should Work

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

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

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

Cogmind gif
Cogmind!

Todo Lists and You

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

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

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

When All Tasks Are High Priority

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

 

At Some Point You Have To Start Listening To Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivation

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

Also gifs. Lots of gifs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

538 Nowcast 2016
Fuck  Trump

 

Alpha Release

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

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

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

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

Way Too Many Hours
Way Too Many Hours

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

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

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

Versus S&P500
Versus S&P 500

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

 

Acts of RNG

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [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.

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.

The Indie Game Market (2014)

This post was primarily motivated by tweets swirling around my feed and, if I’m honest, because of Jeff Vogel’s blog post about the Indie Bubble which I neither completely agree nor disagree with in this instance.

Aside: Jeff, if you’re reading this – I love you. The Exile series is a significant reason I do what I do now. I promise to buy the original Exile some day and stop talking to the Shareware Demon.

 

There is no Indie Bubble

I mean this literally and precisely. There is no evidence to suggest that there will be a sudden crash in the valuation of indie games (if you believe I am straw manning the definition of “bubble” please skip to section Put it Together.)

Indie games are already both plentiful and inexpensive. There are two main forces at play here:

  1. Maturation of the market.
  2. Crowding of the market.

They are happening in tandem, but that’s a bit disingenuous as maturation is typically always happening. The main thrust is that the market is getting crowded with more products.

 

Maturation

Development and distribution of (indie) games right now is easier than it has ever been in the past. It is cheaper, more efficient, and the quality of games is rising. I know many don’t believe that because of the sea of junk that has appeared on Greenlight and Steam, but I don’t mean the average quality has risen – I mean the cream at the top has. If you’re reading this post you don’t need me to point out high quality examples of indie games.

 

Crowding

Because the markets and distribution chains have become more efficient more products are making it to market. At an abstract level every game is competing with every other game. At a lower, more concrete level this is not as strongly the case. If you’re looking for a turn based strategy game you’re probably not going to accidentally end up buying a third person cover shooter as a good substitute. You might, however, if cost or lack of good substitutes compels you.

 

The Combination

There has been steady pressure on the price of indie games for years now, primarily driven by bundles. The average cost of games has gone down. Apparently 37% of purchased Steam games have never been loaded. This is generally not what you see prior to a bubble. Prices need to actually be relatively high otherwise they can’t drop relatively low.

If you’re already getting most of your income from selling your game for less than two dollars a pop, there’s not much more down to go.

 

So What?

So competition will be stiffer. There will be less chances for exposure. As the industry matures more successful indies will have more resources and push the bar of quality even higher.

Do not fear the graphical arms race of AAA studios. You’ll have to contend with “AAA Indies” first. Indie games are still a hit based industry similar to the AAA games industry. Statistically speaking if there are more competitors there will be more hits.

 

Put it Together

Indie game developers are already poor. The vast majority at any rate:

“Indies still struggling. Despite the fact that indie devs are receiving more attention than ever before, the average indie still isn’t very well-compensated; individual indie developers averaged $23,130 (down $420 from 2011), and members of indie teams averaged $19,487.” – Gamasutra, 2013

So if you think I’m straw manning the definition of “bubble”, please note that lack of sustainability for small indies has already been upon us. If you thought it was a (financial) golden age you were probably already near the top.

The issues with Greenlight and the increasingly large Steam library parallel a lot of the issues in the indie game scene. Lots of products, but no good ways of sorting and finding relevant products. The problem is primarily one of query, not over abundance of product. Google isn’t bad because it has indexed thousands upon thousands of crappy, irrelevant sites. It’s good because you can type in a terse phrase and generally find relevant results.

In other words, focus on query and not curation. Curation is a very small part of the problem.

Steam’s game categorization is really bad; Indie is considered a genre. I think even the most definition liberal individual would agree that is not helpful. Contrast that with Shiny Loot’s genre and trait system. It has issues as well, such as the Casual genre, but look at Empire Building and Hack-n-Slash – why aren’t these on all distribution sites?

Steam has a user-led tagging system which is still immature. For example Transistor has tags for Art, Action, and Indie. You can find more examples – I’m not cherry picking.

 

What Do?

The first Do is to make your game available. Make it findable, make it searchable, make every encounter a potential customer has with it a pleasant one. This isn’t any different from now or ten years ago, it’s just more necessary than ever.

Aside: If you thought getting onto Steam was a one-way ticket to fame and fortune you were wrong. You’re more wrong now and will be even more wrong in the future.

Your long term goal should be to make a living without Steam.

Tag your images especially on social media sites. Learn about SEO. Learn about marketing. Learn about direct marketing. Pick an underserved market. Make your product stand out in some way.

Make your site mobile enabled. Make sure it loads quickly. Have a gameplay trailer. Have concise descriptions. Have embedded widgets people can use to purchase your game. Use Presskit. Go read everything at Pixel Prospector. Hit up TigSource. Hit up Reddit.

Make friends with journalists, Twitchers, YouTubers, and other people in the industry. Network. I know a lot of you aren’t people persons but make an effort. If you can’t convince a YouTuber with 100 followers to make a video of your game, good luck convincing someone to pay money for your game.

If you pick a generic product, put minimal time and effort, and don’t push hard at every opportunity you don’t get to complain that other people are breaking the curve. You would have failed anyway.

 

What Else?

Journalists need to cover more games. In the short term it doesn’t help them. It just doesn’t – reviewing popular games gets the views which generates their income. And they have limited time and resources like we do.

But in the longer term this helps everyone. This is an ecosystem and everyone involved has a vested interest in keeping everyone else healthy. The flip side is devs need to make games people want and are worth covering. This community has a two-way street.

Some devs participate in the community through jams, organizing events, et cetera. Some devs take the route of reviewing games, even games that perhaps compete with their own. Craig Stern does this in spades with IndieRPGs.com.

So after I spent the last section telling you how to overcome your competition, the second Do is to help your competition. Understand that the competition is primarily in exposure. If you’ve clawed your way to the top and have visibility look kindly on those who started after you, perhaps didn’t have quite enough time or energy to compete, or were just plain unlucky. Or maybe they just need it more than you do.

I have a website I recently created that showcases games by other indie devs. Honestly I don’t have the web traffic to have a significant effect for any of those devs, but the point is that many of them are turn based strategy games – same as the one I’m currently selling.

You could argue that they are the competition, and you’d be correct, but I seriously doubt anyone is going to look at two games on that page and think, ‘I love both of these, but I’ll only ever buy one.” They are not $60 AAA games.

That’s not intended to convince any holdouts. I just want to say I’ve put my money where my mouth is; that site is linked directly on my game’s website.

 

Thanks for reading, Mister Bums

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

Steam Sale – Community’s Choice

It’d be great to be a daily deal! Front page, on sale, and, and, and!

Steam Marines was on sale for 50% off on Steam during the Holiday sale. On December 27th it was picked as the Community’s Choice and went on sale for eight hours at 75% off for $2.49 USD.

The impact was enormous:

Communitys-Choice-Graph
Steam Marines traffic on Steam

The graph is for unique visitors to the Steam Marines Steam Store page. When Steam Marines first launched on Steam I did not have Google Analytics set up properly, so the first portion of the graph is missing data. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the spike on the right side, because you can barely tell where the launch and Autumn Sale dates are if I didn’t mark them.

 

Community’s Choice > Passing Go.

I don’t think you can plan on being selected for Community’s Choice. I don’t know how they picked the games I was put up against. I don’t know by how much I won the vote or how many people voted. But of course I voted for myself like the scumbag dev that I am:

Community's Choice Options
Community’s Choice Options

Aside: The developers of Kinetic Void (one of the other games in the Community’s Choice pool) were kind enough to post congratulations on the Steam Marines discussion forums. Very groovy of them (i.e. not scumbag devs.)

 

Getting on the front page in this manner also drove traffic to the official Steam Marines website:

Community-Choice-Steam-Marines-Website-Traffic
Steam Marines Official Website Traffic

 

Armchair Analysis

As you can imagine this also drove sales on non-Steam platforms, although the numbers were nowhere near as large as on Steam itself despite the fact that all purchases on non-Steam platforms also grant Steam keys. I probably could have made that fact more obvious, although I suspect it would not have made an enormous difference. I am certain that many of the sales were impulse buys.

When Steam Marines launched on Steam it did so at a price of $7.99 with a launch discount of 10% off. During the Autumn Sale it was listed at $7.99 and on sale for 50% off. During the Holiday sale it was listed at $9.99 and on sale for 50% off; also 75% off during the Community’s Choice eight hour period.

It may have helped that Steam Marines was the lowest cost game for that voting pool at $2.49 versus $5.00 and $6.80. Anecdotal observation of other Community’s Choice picks suggests that people go for low cost versus cost saved compared to base sale price, presumably in part due to Steam not readily providing that information on the voting panel. Of course even if I had the actual voting data it’d be difficult to draw that conclusion. Lots of other variables to consider!

 

Closing Comments

Being on Steam’s front page with a steep discount, if only for eight hours, was amazing. Lots of sales, lots of discussion, and an avalanche of bug reports I’m still wading through.

I apologize for not being able to hand out solid sales numbers. However the site traffic should give you a general idea of the relative power of sales and the Steam front page on the data point that is my game.

If you’d like a few more words on this general subject matter, I hope you take a look at my older blog post, Commercial Indie Games & Risk.

“I didn’t get to craft my Snowglobe thingy because the Steam servers were all wobbly whacked.” – Unknown Scumbag Dev

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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