This week I’ve got a lot done in the way of Steam integration, save files, automated builds, some better randomization for galaxy generation, as well as some much needed bug fixes to make online play smoother. Got a lot done but not much on the visual side of things. But hey:
Nice to be one step closer to a shipping product
Got basic Steamworks apis integrated as well. Pretty painless with the Steamworks.net library for Unity. I was hoping to get steam invitations working this week to make play testing a bit easier but it looks like it’ll require a pretty extensive test environment that I simply haven’t setup yet. So I’ll be sticking to our current matchmaking system until then. I’m going to need a few virtual machines running different steam clients to get full end-to-end testing on the lobby functionality. The testing and development environments for multiplayer games always have been a bit cumbersome compared to their single player counterparts.
Bugs bugs bugs
I’ve taken the effort to get a decent suite of unit tests for Space Food Truck using Unity’s Test Tools. In the past, they’ve kind of lingered once some basic functionality was implemented but never really maintained, or even worse didn’t have any (see: Tilt to Live Series). In Outwitters, I had a small suite of client-side tests to validate some unit abilities but never really maintained much of them after several content updates. Meanwhile, the Outwitters back-end has an extensive suite of unit tests. They have been utter life-savers. The extra time spent writing thorough tests would quickly pay for itself just in stopping regression when updating the server-side logic.
Taking that lesson I wanted to apply it to Space Food Truck. The game logic itself is largely covered in the unit tests. Again, extra effort, but it’s bought me great flexibility when trying gameplay experiments, tweaking or fixing gameplay rules. I can quickly go in, change some gameplay rules or abilities, have decent confidence I didn’t break anything fundamental to the logic of the game. That’s great for sleep. But SFT gameplay kind of lends itself more easily to unit testing. For one, a lot of the architecture for the gameplay is a highly modified version of Outwitters core code. It’s a bit harder to do with an action-based game when a lot of your logic can heavily rely on simply collisions and collision detection (systems Unity handles internally and hard to test end-to-end).
The bugs I’m running into now are, unsurprisingly, anything that isn’t unit tested. Go figure. This is largely visual and UI bugs. A lot of times the underlying logic is happily chugging along and fully validated but the UI tripped over itself and has no clue WTF to do anymore. Getting UI and gameplay prefabs testable is an even larger effort (integration and automated UI testing) that I simply haven’t taken the time to do so. Part of the reasoning stems from time constraints (bad argument, I know) and also we’re using quite a few pieces of middleware to drive the visual aspects of Space Food Truck. Getting those isolated and into a testable form isn’t easy (especially if some don’t come with source).
Took a bit of time earlier this week to get a planet montage of some planets from Space Food Truck. Far from fellow indie Colin Walsh’s epic scale of Drifter’s “grand tour” video, but still fun to look at nonetheless. Looking to get more lobby UI working next week as well more graceful handling of less than ideal online environments. So far I’m on schedule with the sprints I’ve planned. Wonder how long that’ll last…
We ran a kickstarter for the game I’m currently working on, Space Food Truck. The game is coming along great, but we lacked the funds internally to really step it up a notch mostly in the audio department as well as some aspects in the graphical department due to budget constraints. I needed to be persuaded on the idea of running a kickstarter, but I eventually came around to it. Obviously, things didn’t work out but it was an exciting, sometimes nerve wracking experience. Figured I’d write down some notes on my feelings of the overall experience. So without further ado…
Some Unsubstantiated Thoughts on Kickstarter
The pitch video is important.
Having a good pitch is critical (not even just on kickstarter, just in games in general), and good production would help legitimize you. I think our video pitch need more iteration but neither of us had the energy, time, or will to do it (more on this later).
Don’t shy away from previous accomplishments.
I think we could’ve pushed our previous efforts more to establish credibility. There’s been somewhat of a less than friendly perception of mobile in the eyes of “mainstream” gamers, and even in the press on some occasions. It’s already hard enough as an indie to get press attention, but being typecast as a ‘mobile developer’ doesn’t exactly work in your favor these days, despite how awesome mobile games can be. Anyone that took the time to read our project page or look us up would see our previous catalog, but maybe we should’ve championed it rather than downplayed it.
That being said, I think it was important to state SFT was coming to PC (and eventually tablets), rather than the other way around. Not because of the treatment they get in press or gaming culture, just the data seems to imply mobile is a tough gig even on Kickstarter. I’m not even sure how you’d pitch an iOS game on kickstarter given how there is no way to distribute it to backers without Apple frowning upon it. As much as we don’t like the perception, gamers see Kickstarter as a pre-order system and if they don’t get a copy with their pledge then I’d imagine their enthusiasm for pledging approaches zero.
A lot of the negative rhetoric I typically hear is on Steam, and more specifically Greenlight. Kickstarter isn’t Steam and the majority of those that went to our Kickstarter page most likely never heard of us. Credentials can be important to those that have zero clue who you are. Furthermore, our fans asking for PC and Mac ports of our games is indicative enough to me that our games aren’t viewed based on the platform they originally released on but the merits of the games themselves. In hindsight, I was too concerned with this aspect. If the ideal goal is to have a game good enough to be worth releasing on every platform possible, then the platform drama is insignificant. Almost all our previous games were critically acclaimed, and maybe I could’ve played that angle up more.
Initial reveal of the game: probably not the best time for your Kickstarter campaign?
I’m still wishy-washy on this because it’s hard to get a sense of the direct impact initial announce press releases, marketing, and social media buzz can get you towards Kickstarter pledges. But my logic is as follows:
If you’re starting your marketing campaign to build up interest, excitement, and, ultimately, followers for your game leading up to launch several months away, presumably the amount of dedicated followers you have right before announcing is at an all time low. Kickstarter is about turning dedicating followers into pledges, and is largely about momentum in terms of how many pledges you can get in that crucial first week. So in a way, using Kickstarter in tandem with your initial reveal may possibly be the worst moment to launch your Kickstarter. Conversely, launching your Kickstarter on the day before you release your game is also useless despite ideally having the maximum number of followers at that point. That would seem to imply that there is some middle ground here between reveal and launch.
The vibe I got from other Kickstarter alums was launching a campaign was almost like trying to line up votes in congress before the vote goes to the floor. The more fans you can convince to be there on day 1 to say “yes” the better the chances you’ll have. In a way, kind of antithetical to the whole idea of Kickstarter given that it’s supposed to be about raising pledges during the campaign, but oh well.
And this is me being completely 100% superstitious, but if our initial out-reach to press is pushing a new game and it’s already got a Kickstarter going I suspect it knocks it down a notch. Sometimes due to the journalist’s own stance on kickstarters, and sometimes the publication feeling they are put in a strange position when discussing Kickstarters. In the future if I ever do a Kickstarter again, then I might lean on the side of “don’t let it be your reveal”. Obviously there’s exceptions to that, but Space Food Truck isn’t tapping into any of the nostalgic angles that have been popular as of late on Kickstarter so that’s a bit of a non-starter.
It was really difficult to suss out the impact of twitter and facebook. The analytics I do have suggests it helped…a bit? It accounted for at least 17% of funds raised. But ultimately the pledges were more of a slow steady trickle than anything meaningful to help build momentum. Looking at other successful Kickstarters it seems that twitter and facebook were not central to their strategies for getting funded. I’d go so far as to say that if this is your main strategy for getting funded, re-think it. Building twitter buzz is doable, but that’s about as far as it got for us. Trying to transform “buzz” into action seems supremely difficult in that medium. I think a better twitter strategy would be centered around encouraging backers, fans, followers to tweet about your project rather than making your company and/or personal account the central point of info on twitter where others retweet or discover your game. Easier said than done though.
Tying into the previous point about reveals, building up a social media following prior to a kickstarter launch is vital. A Kickstarter campaign isn’t the time to increase your follower count on twitter or facebook. Maybe if we had massively popular social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers it would’ve been different. Beyond our initial kickstarter announcement and the 48 hour tweet there wasn’t much gain in the 30 days in-between from either source. I think a really interesting post for the future would be to get down in the nitty gritty and explore how many views the page got, where they came from, how many pledged as a result from which sources, etc. Ultimately, I suspect our social “reach” is on the lower end of the scale so data may prove to be more noisy and difficult to find any trend in.
It Can Consume You
Regarding our effort on the pitch video, we went into Kickstarter without much expectation. I hoped we could raise funds with minimal distraction so that we could get back to focusing on the game during the campaign and not lose much time. It turned out to be the opposite. From all that I’ve seen and heard from successful kickstarter alums the scope of a well run campaign far extends the the “1 month” of kickstarter and a week or two of prep. If 2+ months of part time work dedicated to planning, creating, and organizing a campaign takes a significant chunk of a development cycle, then maybe the game is too small for kickstarter? Or maybe priorities are in the wrong order and marketing isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Our dev cycles aren’t measured in years. Dedicating months to a kickstarter detracts from progress on the actual game, and with our deadlines being less flexible, it’s difficult to justify the time spent with the risk of not getting funded.
If anything, Kickstarter is a hyper accelerated marketing campaign. It kind of became an interesting assessment in our studios marketing capabilities. It highlighted holes in our marketing tools and outreach abilities. The silver lining, I suppose, is the game is largely going to be taken care of, but we’ve exposed that the awareness level of Space Food Truck isn’t where it needs to be. Better to be aware of that now than at the real launch of the game.
Oh my word. This game is my current single player obsession. Loved the new X-Com? Loved FTL? Love RPG’s and the that “one more turn” feeling? I found it hard to stop playing. It came out of left field for me (but that’s how it always feels if their marketing is doing its job right?). I’m not a huge fan of “medieval” or “dark and grim” themed games. But the art style in Darkest Dungeon is amazing and I quickly became a fan. Also the narrator in the game was a great touch. The lines he delivers builds a great sense of atmosphere and immersion. So much so that I found myself thinking about the narration outside the game:
Wish I could have the @DarkestDungeon narrator narrate my inbox. *clicks to pay bill* "A trifling victory, but a victory none the less"
Wow, it’s been a while. Figured passing another milestone is worth at least some sort of update. Looking back at my 1 year milestone has been amusing. My initial thought was that almost all the points brought up 4 years ago would no longer apply. A lot of the insights back then are strangely still quite applicable. So what’s happened in the 4 years since? On a more personal level, I’ve improved my eating and exercising habits to stay healthier. If I want to be at this for many more years to come, letting my health deteriorate while I work isn’t the wisest decision. On the games front: I’ve helped ship 4 games across 8 SKUs not including at least 5 pieces of DLC across those games, with a 5th game currently in production. Not too bad in terms of productive output.
On the satisfaction front, not much has changed, which is great! Each day I look forward to working on something cool or improving something we’ve made. The “case of the Mondays” is still a fading memory. While most of what I said back then I think still applies, I figured I could address some of the changes that have occurred in the past 4 years in regards to iOS indie game development. I think for anyone that is starting out in this market they’ll find some useful info below and hopefully avoid the mistakes I made.
On Gaming Trends
So this is a quirky one. Quickly on the topic of cloning:
Cloning has come to the forefront over the years in some pockets of the indie scene, particularly on mobile. There are someinfamousexamples where the act of cloning or doing what most call “a fast follow” has paid off handsomely. Still, the numbers seem to imply that it’s not a winning strategy and you aren’t going to be winning any friends in the indie scene either.
Now back to trends in the general sense. I still maintain that chasing trends on the app store isn’t something you should do. But here’s the caveat: don’t be oblivious to them. You could find yourself caught in what feels like a fad and is in fact a huge tidal shift. The prominent example is the App Store’s shift away from premium games to free-to-play games. Over three years ago, I made the mistake of not taking that shift seriously enough thinking paid games would simply co-exist along-side f2p. I was so wrong. Paid games still exist on the app store, but it’d be hard to argue that they haven’t been negatively impacted by the pervasive free-to-play culture on some level. I think my stubbornness to understand f2p hurt our game’s chances for success, more specifically Outwitters.
In regards to game design trends, I think if you’ve correctly identified a genre of games that are popular or becoming popular, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not investigate further. Why is it popular? Is it simply 1 game bucking the trend or are there more examples? If there are more, what do you think makes those games connect with such a large audience? And last of all, can you use that to your advantage for any game you make next (read: not clone)? I’ve made the mistake over the years of turning my nose up at some games or genres of games without really taking the time to understand what makes them tick.
It took me a while, but I was able to expand my definition of “play” and what makes “good gameplay” to include modes of play that are outside my usual experience. For example, one of those modes being meditative play. If you want to know more about modes of play I’d recommend listening to this episode of Designer Notes. That podcast helped solidify my own thoughts on why people chose to play certain games that before I wouldn’t even classify as “games”. Armed with a broader understanding of “play” it’s become easier to look at games that are trending and not immediately dismiss them as a fluke or accident, but look at them as possibly hitting upon an underserved niche that most designers wouldn’t even look to design for.
On Shipping Games, Updates, and Fan Service
The idea of free updates is a fading one to be honest. Yet I’ve still seen it marketed as a headlining item in several paid mobile games over the years. My previous post from 4 years ago alluded to this same reality, but in more vague terms. If you’re in the business of making games for a living, and you’re not sitting on mountains of cash you seriously need some minimal business case for doing free updates (beyond bug fixes). If you’re promising free content updates to those that pay for your game, you’re making a pretty big gamble on the app store. Here are some of the most likely reasons to do so:
Your content updates are so cheap and quick, that it’s negligible to do so whether you break even or not. You use it as a marketing tool.
You’re banking on a success to where the revenue will go way beyond “breaking even” that it’ll cover the cost of any content you release as free updates.
You’ve got content ready to go or very close to being finished but didn’t make it into the release of the game, so putting it into updates isn’t a big hurdle
You’re making a huge mistake.
#1 is tenuous at best, because in the past 4 years I haven’t really seen anyone “turn around” a paid game’s trajectory via cheap and quick updates. #3 is kind of a subset of #4. Just because you’ve finished some content that didn’t make it into the shipping game doesn’t mean it has zero value, despite what the vocal minority will tell you. Over the years I think I may have become a bit more hard lined on this: Embrace your fans that adore and actually support you. If you have a thousands of players who haven’t paid a cent and would riot at the idea of spending money on your games, don’t lose sleep over them. I use to. The only time that makes sense is if a) you’re serving ads b) and you don’t have thousands, but millions of players.
Your Benchmark for Success Shouldn’t Be “Break Even”
If a business sets it’s goals only ever to just break even, it’ll never have the resources to grow, improve, or more importantly weather any troubled waters in the future. If you’re truly “breaking even” then you’re 1 mistake or botched launched away from complete failure as a company and it’s back to your “day job” with you. Four years ago I stressed that your first, second, third, or even fourth game won’t succeed. I can’t stress that enough. I think Daniel Cook of Lost Garden says it best:
When I talk about probabilities in game development, I’m by no means saying that success is all due to luck. Instead, it is merely acknowledging that even when you do everything you possibly can there are still huge risk factors that are out of your direct control. You might as well plan for only a small chance of success with an individual game.
I think the above thinking may apply to mobile even more so than other platforms. For anyone starting out, hell, anyone struggling in the indie game business, they should give that article a thorough read. Even if you don’t agree with his underlying conclusion (freemium being more stable long term), the economic realities of game development are hard to ignore. This is probably the hardest lesson I’ve learned over these past few years, and I’m still learning.
When budgeting a game, I tend to restrict the budget by a lot. Eventually I’ll get to the “minimal” game I’d be “satisfied” making, and then the data suggests you should take that and slash it by 90% more in order to hope to achieve any sort of benchmark for success. It then becomes extremely tempting to wave away the facts and just tell yourself “it’ll work out in the end” and barrel ahead. There’s no shortage of “by the skin of our teeth” success stories in the indie scene, which might perpetuate the myth that all you need to do is make a great game, and it’ll work out. A great game is a great game, but if your budget outstrips the size of the potential target audience, there’s no amount of “greatness” in that game that’ll save it or your company. The essential takeaway is: be mindful of where your time and money are going in regards to developing your game, and don’t let either (especially time) spiral out of control.
Are Things Better.. Or Worse?
That’s a tough one. For anyone that hangs in mobile indie circles, there’s a lot of doom and gloom these past several months in regards to the health of the app store and its future for indies. It’s undoubtedly harder to make a dent on mobile these days than when we entered the market over 5 years ago. The average revenue per game for us and many others have gone down over the years. Even the most well known publications in the mobile space are feeling the squeeze. It’s forced me to look beyond iOS. The smallest and easiest jump was to Android. It’s a tougher market to make revenue from, but as time goes on, every bit has helped. I’m taking that a step further with our next game, Space Food Truck, and targeting yet another platform in addition to our usual fare. Having talked to many fellow indies over the years, and having followed the scene for longer than I’ve been in it, when things start looking rough, the indies that are able to take the changes in stride instead of clinging to any one particular platform usually are the ones that stay in business. Any particular platform owes me nothing.
I think my mindset has definitely changed over the years in regards to platforms. Starting out I saw mobile as a way to “get a start” in the indie game business with the ultimate goal of being on multiple platforms. Somewhere along the way it became “the destination” in my head. It was easy to look at our successes and think “yep, it should stay about the same.” But taking the long view it was clear that staying exclusive to one platform didn’t make sense. The last couple of years was a wake up call to how quickly things could change on any given platform. Expanding to different platforms takes effort. It doesn’t happen on it’s own and you have to plan for it. I didn’t initially and it cost me extra time in porting and sub-optimal release schedules. It is not solely a technology problem. Marketing, PR, networking, advertising all need consideration.
If my goal is to make great games and reach as many people as possible with them, platform is mostly irrelevant. So while the app store might be harder to scrape a living off of, I think these days there are more opportunities than ever to sell your game. Consoles have become more attainable for a small indie team, Steam has become more accessible, iOS and android devices are more powerful than ever, crowdfunding can help lower costs, and engines like Unity and Unreal make it easier than ever to have your game run on all of those platforms. So if you’re just starting out as an indie and are dead serious about making a game, your choices are many. Don’t get caught with all your eggs in one basket.