Audience

 

As of the writing of this blog post Steam Marines has a  67% positive rating across 213 user ratings on Steam. On Desura it has a 9.3/10 rating across 37 user reviews.

Steam Marines User Reviews on Steam.
Steam Marines User Reviews on Steam.

 

Steam Marines User Reviews on Desura.
Steam Marines User Reviews on Desura.

 

Steam user ratings are on a binary system of either “Positive” or “Negative” and you must choose one of those two ratings when creating a user review. Desura user ratings allow any integer from 1 to 10. Steam has more units sold versus Desura, but not at a 213:37 ratio (Steam has sold significantly more than ~5.76 times Desura’s units sold.)

The upshot here is that audience matters a lot. A smaller, more understanding or focused audience means better reception, more patient to stick out the beginning of your game, more willing to actually leave a review, and this also translates into willingness to pay a higher price. You should court these players for your core audience.

It should also be noted that some of these core players will be on the larger platforms like Steam as well, they’ll just be surrounded by non-core players. It was something akin to torture to watch the Steam Marines user review score slowly drop as the game sold more and more to people who weren’t really fans of the turn-based tactics genre, or difficult games in general.

That’s okay, though. Steam has refunds now and it should keep your audience more focused and allow for more consumer confidence in general.

Steam Marines Too Difficult!
(I am unreasonably proud of this.)

 

It’s stuff to keep in mind as you try to communicate your game to potential players. I won’t make any special commentary about how to convince people, but I will mention that I personally prefer an audience that actually plays and likes my game. It helps cut back on the community building effort as well as the negative reviews.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Indies Can Do No Wrong

There was a Polygon article with the title Big indie’ Kickstarters are killing actual indies.

There was nothing wrong with the main thrust of the article. Points were made, namely that in many Kickstarters (I’d add crowdfunding in general) costs and budgeting are not made clear. If you follow my Twitter at all you’ll know these are issues I rant about rather frequently.

But of course if you follow my Twitter you’ll also know I get rankled when indies ignore when other indies behave badly by going after non-indies for the same bad behavior. Specifically:

Indies Can Do No Wrong
Indies Can Do No Wrong.

 

I did the math earlier along with some other pithy tweets, but the upshot is that the developers of Kickstarter – Elsinore are (currently) running a Kickstarter with a goal of $12,000 when they believe, according to the Polygon article, that they needed $672,000. That is approximately 1.8% of what they think they need to complete the game. By comparison $500,000 of $5,000,000 is 10%, or 6.9% of $7,200,000.

Indies, as a group, participate in pretty much all of the bad behavior that they accuse “AAA” or “big indie” studios of. This includes crunch, chronic (and more severe!) underpayment of employees and contractors, and obviously crowdfunding without transparency or even a hint that they actually created a workable budget.

My suggestion is to not support unethical developers, wherever they are, whatever their status of indie or big indie or AAA or AAA indie or AA or whatever label you feel most appropriate. In these cases the most relevant label is unethical.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

 

The Enlightened Asshole

(Note: This is a post on being mean. Or, realistically, a useful meanie. But I would be remiss if I did not mention Paul Graham’s essay Mean People Fail. He makes a solid argument about why you should not be mean, and it’s tempered by his entrepreneurial/startup experience with caveats regarding other industries.

If it’s not obvious yet I disagree with him a little bit. I suggest reading this blog post first then reading his essay, although this blog post is not a direct response to his essay so the order is not terribly important.

I also want to be clear that the title is tongue-firmly-in-cheek. I don’t consider myself an enlightened anything.)

 

The What Now?

The term asshole is generally thrown at mean people as a pejorative and that encapsulates the problem: being mean isn’t always bad.

There are plenty of situations where meanness is called for. I think what people actually intend is “unnecessarily mean.” And unnecessarily oftentimes translates to “never be mean.” Which is silly.

Allow me to elaborate.

 

I Defy Thee!

People aren’t really homogeneous with regards to how they interact and respond to other people. It would be inaccurate to say that always being mean is good, and that never being mean is good. “Tough love” is a phrase with a kernel of truth, but that can be carried too far as well.

Every piece of criticism, constructive or otherwise, is mean. I don’t mean stingy, shabby, or the usage of its first occurrence in this sentence – I mean MEAN. As in offensive.

That’s really the point of criticism, to point out something inferior and a lot of people will take that personally and badly. There really is no way to convey the idea that something could be made better without also implicitly conveying the idea that it is currently sub-optimal.

And that’s the crucial bit: the meanness is leveled at the inferior thing. In the same way that people should learn not to take criticism (of their work) personally, critics should learn how to level criticism appropriately.

Aside: Those of you who know me are screaming, “POT, MEET KETTLE!” I will address your concerns further down. You butts.

It may be appropriate to criticize someone directly, as an extension of his or her work, but it also may not be. There’s a degree of nuance here.

 

That Seat is Taken

Being outright mean and condescending and critical is easy. Some people use lines such as “I’m just calling it like I see it” to justify their sadistic tendencies. Why? What sort of reasonable person goes around calling it not like how they see it? The default assumption is that other people are not directly lying to  your face in most social interactions.

Aside: I’m aware of how often people casually lie – that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m speaking in the context of serious discourse and not, “I’m doing fine, thanks!” versus, “I need to take a huge dump and you are blocking the path to the bathroom; remove yourself or I will do it for you.”

As a person taking criticism you have to filter the meanness into two categories: malicious and non-malicious.

The people who are leveling criticism (especially at you personally) to waste your time, are not actually invested in your well-being or future performance, et cetera, are useless. Cut those people out of your life with ruthless efficiency.

Aside: With the advent of the Internet it can become difficult if not outright impossible to cut this toxic element out. I unfortunately have no good advice for those individuals, but at any rate I’m sure they have more experience and advice to give than to get.

You also have to filter the meanness into useful and not-useful. I don’t mean constructive. I mean useful. As in you have to be able to put it into actual use. “X is bad, do [completely impractical option] instead” may be constructive but it’s not useful.

 

Beg, Borrow, Steal

It is said that you should surround yourself with those better than yourself that you may learn to be better. This sounds good except that in reality the better people are, the higher the likelihood that they are doing the exact same thing.

You can see the problem if you’re just starting out and are not very good.

You need to beg, borrow, or steal some of their time and experience. Nicely. And with permission. Don’t be a run-of-the-mill asshole about it. A lot of people are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with you as long as you just ask!

People who are good at stuff generally spend a lot of time doing that stuff. Their time is valuable. Your time is also valuable, but probably not as valuable to them or others. It really is incredible how much useful information you can soak up just interfacing with a really knowledgeable person directly for an hour or so. If you can one-to-one your time like that, that’s golden. If you spend an hour typing out a giant email and they respond with a succinct, but illuminating one-liner, that’s fine, too.

You should cultivate a garden of people explaining why what you’re doing is bad and how to make it better.

Aside: Results based thinking is not, on an objective level, always the best route to follow, but in a sea of uncertainty and inexperience it’s the best bet. “I went against the grain and it paid off!” stories are few and far between and often a tissue of lies and revisionism. Until you get some experience under your belt you are in no position to even ask the correct questions or to evaluate what is corrosive groupthink versus solid conventional wisdom.

 

Assholing For Dummies

Don’t be, generally, especially if you’re a dummy. But there’s a pretty straightforward checklist of conditions to go through if you’re thinking of increasing your level of mean:

  • Does the recipient seem to deflect any and all other forms of criticism delivery?
  • Is the interaction public or private? Public humiliation is a poor tool for learning – at least for learning the thing you most likely want to teach. A private talking to can give a much more intimate feel and make a greater, correct impression.
  • Is the recipient a challenge seeker? A contrarian? You need to maneuver obstinate people more carefully.
  • Are there observers who might be on the fence? Being an asshole can be an “all hands, evacuate” button; sometimes you can’t convince someone, but you can convince others.
  • Are you sure that your desire to help is actually a desire to help? As opposed to say, a sadistic streak? A power tripping drill instructor is a bully, not a teacher or a mentor or anything good.

I know a lot of the “always be nice” crowd don’t believe that there are people who respond (well) to meanness, but that’s patently false. I’m one, for example. It’s quite literally the proverbial “I bet you can’t do that, loser!” – “OH YEAH? WATCH THIS.”

Conversely there is the crowd of people who believe that any and all criticism should be bare, stripped of nuance, and dedicated completely to the most offensive facts pertinent to a particular situation.

Both mentalities are toxic. There is an entire spectrum of people and associated reactions and convincing them requires different tools.

 

“He said WHAT?”

Negativity bias is a significant force. I know I just spent a few paragraphs explaining that people were individuals, but I’m going to go to a broad stroke now because it’s hard to argue against empirical evidence when it comes to a mostly hardwired psychological state.

Humans remember insults. They remember negative encounters. They do so significantly more than positive encounters both in range, duration, and intensity.

The literature suggests that humans, as a group, instinctively believe that negative information is more accurate than positive information. In other words, “Tom is a nice guy” has less weight than “Tom is a shitbird.” Higher intensity if you are Tom.

Perhaps unfortunately negative reinforcement and loss aversion are powerful tools.

Aside: I bet you thought this blog post was free and clear of games relevancy, eh? Loss aversion is particularly effective in the mobile gaming sphere. “Here’s your +7 Hammer of Pot Smashing! Oh no, pay fifty cents to keep it or it will disappear!”

The short version is creating an immediate negative encounter can result in increased memorability of said encounter.

 

Be Mean to Be Nice

There is something to be said about the time scale of niceness and meanness. It’s the whole teach a person to fish versus giving her a fish thing. You definitely don’t want to be put into a situation where you gave people bad advice to avoid hurting their feelings. Or at least you shouldn’t, from my point of view.

Saying nice things has benefits and perks – there’s no denying that. In the long run most people want a fun, happy, safe environment to live in where meanness does not spiral out of control.

There is every possibility if you’re mean when trying to persuade people that it backfires. They might dig their heels in out of personal principle, decide you are wrong (mean people are always wrong, right?) or for some other reason.

Being mean also generates friction, and many people are conflict-averse. Some people simply cannot handle criticism on any level, and until they learn to any meanness would simply be counter-productive. Some people simply love the criticism and attention (yes, these people exist.)

 

Reputation and Anecdotes

My general reputation is of an asshole. It’s one I promote, with the caveat that I also sincerely want to help people. It’s effective for all the reasons I mentioned above, but also because I can offer praise that is taken seriously. That last is a very nice selling point.

It really is remarkable how often I get asked in private how I feel about such and such a thing largely because that person feels those too close will not be honest.

I realize I’m conflating niceness and lies (as nice lies!), but this has become so common recently that I think it happens much more often than many people, myself included, think it does.

Final comment on being an Enlightened Asshole: If you read or hear something you think is completely off the rails, imagine someone you love and respect had said that. What would your reaction be? Employ that as a yardstick for measuring your meanness in the most useful way you can.

Use your inner asshole for good, not evil.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Talking About Talking

(A terrible event happened last night in Santa Barbara, California. There are a great many issues that stem for this single incident. This post is not a direct response, but more a collection of thoughts.

I would very much appreciate you reading it in its entirety. I promise it will not be long.)

 

Words Have Power

The saying “all talk and no action” is inaccurately disparaging if taken literally. Words can transform ideas into reality, mobilize populations, and are responsible for progressing entire bodies of human learning and knowledge.

But the best thing about words is that there are so many, in so many combinations, that it’s hard to wrap your head around how much you will never know. It’s a good form of humility to learn to enable you to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know something.

But this post isn’t about what you don’t know. It’s about what you already know.

 

Meanings

Some words I don’t like. They can be loaded with meanings that are outdated or skewed or wrong.

One of those words is gender. I use it because it has meaning, but don’t like it because its meaning can imply something where I intended nothing. When something is called a “gender issue” what pops into most people’s heads is not what gender issues actually are. Most people think of gender as binary and when gender issue is mentioned the meaning that is delivered is “women’s issue.”

The same can be said for ethnicity, sexuality, et cetera. When we say “racial issues” what people think is “ethnic minority issues.”

The first lesson is that words have power, and you should learn to harness words lest they harness you.

Aside: There’s a point about power (and privilege) structures in there, but that isn’t within the scope of this post. It’s difficult to have the strength of introspection to see when you have it good. It’s much easier to identify when life throws you a curve ball.

 

Intentions

Many of the problems women suffer from involve men in a central way. Men are perpetrators, victims, and bystanders and it affects everyone.

Aside: The point is not that any group suffers less, equally, or more than any other. The argument is that we live together and it affects us all.

The second lesson is that you shouldn’t be a bystander. I don’t mean you need to write blog posts, start campaigning, start organizing, or anything on that scale. All these issues, all these -isms, are pervasive. All you have to do is this: don’t let these wrongs slide.

When they happen you might be terrified. You got up, had a good breakfast, and life’s been relatively nice. Then something happens. Maybe it happened to you personally. Maybe a co-worker, a relative, or a friend says something. It’s bad and you know it’s bad.

If and when that happens, say something against it.

They say bravery is being scared of doing something but doing it anyway. It is easier to crusade on the internet surrounded by like-minded individuals. When you’re physically in a group of a dozen people and one person says something, and ten other people laugh, that’s when it gets hard.

Aside: It’s easy for me to say this. I’m a large man and I’ve made people step backward just by frowning at them. I also have a natural tendency toward argumentation.

I’m not saying anyone is a coward for not speaking out. There are also situations when it simply may not be safe to, and discretion can be the better part of valor. But I am saying this is how it has to happen for the situation to improve, and I mean this on a global scale.

If pressed I could give concrete examples of people admitting that, when confronted with these sorts of comments in real life they don’t speak up for themselves. Please speak up for others even if you won’t speak up for yourself. It can help to have someone to be brave for. Leverage that.

Aside: I’m saying “real life” as if the internet isn’t real life. It’s definitely real, but the internet also acts as a barrier to insulate us from recognizing human beings as actual human beings. Facebook has mostly put to bed the notion that it is anonymity that makes people more confrontational. It is the insulation, the physical separation, the internet provides that promotes such confrontation. Car doors and a few feet of space between highway lanes operate in the same fashion.

The converse, of course, is that in “real life” we are less likely to be confrontational – say, in the defense of another human being in an uncomfortable situation.

 

Mirages

Diffusion of responsibility is a real issue. The Bystander effect is a real issue. They’re why people can be left dead near a highway without report for hours despite hundreds of cars whizzing by in full view. They’re why, outside my apartment building a few weeks ago only two people, myself and a woman, investigated a young boy screaming for his mother at night.

It’s why in an emergency situation with many people you should point and call by name or otherwise indicate specifically an individual from whom you require assistance, e.g. “You, the man in the red jacket – call 911!”

It’s a complicated social issue. Not all incidents of non-help can be attributed (only) to those two factors. There are many, many others.

The long and the short of it is this: words aren’t just thoughts in your head or scribbles on a piece of paper or pixels on a monitor. Words also come from your lips and they can help people.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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

Commercial Indie Games & Risk

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

 

Indie? What does that mean?

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

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

 

Finances, numbers, and expectations

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

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

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

 

Skills to pay the bills

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

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

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

 

Expected return from an external perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From the self-funded entrepreneur perspective

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

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

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

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

 

Just come out and say it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The obvious question!

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

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

 

TL;DR

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

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

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

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

Don’t be discouraged, instead be thoughtful.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

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