Friday, November 19, 2010

It Rocks When Indies Cooperate

The article UK Dev Gets Off Arse - Makes Indie Portal on Spong talks about, something that Arcen -- and 19 other indie developers, including Positech, 2D Boy, and many others -- have been quietly working on for the last month or two.  Time flies, I forget exactly how long it's been.

And I really shouldn't say we've all been working on it, as it's mostly been Cliff Harris, whose idea it was in the first place.  The rest of us made our contributions, fiscally and otherwise, but Cliff did all the heavy lifting and he blogs here about why he created the site and what he hopes to eventually accomplish with it.

Quoth Cliff:
Now I know what you are thinking, “why haven’t I heard about it then?” isn’t it usual form for me to go on a publicity blitz? When am I going to punch Keith Vaz on live TV? The whole point of SMTG was to prove 2 basic concepts:
  • You can get almost 20 indie game developers to co-operate, and actually pay money into a mutual project
  • You can make advertising work for indie developers, it we club together. (this is why we tested it as an ad-driven site at first)
I think the amount of success for the various indies in the first run of this probably varied, but it's early days yet.  I also think that the amount of success for most of us with this made it close enough to cost-neutral (if not generating a return for some of us) that it's worth future investment and investigation.  I don't share the anti-big-portals sentiments that some indies do, but that doesn't mean that an indie collective that is controlled by indies isn't attractive.

As an early experiment, Show Me The Games has been a success, I think.  We -- that is to say, Cliff -- has in my mind proved out that the basic concept can work.  And we had 20 indies buying into this without squabbling of any sort, which is another miracle.  It's a really good group of folks with games on that list, so that's certainly part of it.  Now all that remains to be seen is where we take it from here!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nostalgia: Final Fantasy VI Is An Allegory (And, "When I Was A Paperboy")

I just today realized this.  It goes without saying that there are major spoilers ahead for FFVI, so if you haven't played that game yet you should stop reading.  And go play that game.  Right now.  To me, it's the best game ever made.

But I digress.  I said it was an allegory.  Usually when people say some story is allegorical, they mean it has some hidden political, religious, or parallel-to-current-events meaning.  FFVI goes deeper than that -- it's an allegory for a key part of the human condition.  That is, that the world changes around us, and things are irrevocably lost.  Back to that in a second.

When I was a kid, I had a paper route from right before third grade until just after 10th grade.  Eight years almost to the day, of delivering a free paper called the "Ad Pak" once a week to 152 houses in my neighborhood.  I rarely missed a week (just one or two weeks per year when my family was out of town for vacation, and occasionally when I was sick on a Wednesday), so its fair to say that I made my deliveries about 400 times per house in all those years I was a paperboy.

The point is, when you visit any house -- or 152 houses -- so very many times, you come to know them extremely well.  I probably knew the front yards and front stoops of those houses better than many people know the front yards of their grandparents' houses.  And I knew many of the families that lived in those homes fairly well, and some of them very well.  I doubt there is anyone else alive who knew those streets remotely so well, simply because I was the paperboy for so very long, and because I often stopped to chat when people were amiable and I had time.

It's been twelve years since I made my last deliveries.  It was a job I was quite happy to be done with when I finished it.  Now I miss my closeness to those houses, those streets, terribly.  A lot has changed in the last 12 years.  Many of the older people who lived on my route have died, and others have probably moved to nursing homes.  All of the kids have grown and moved away.  Some of the parents remain, but many of them are grandparents now and a lot of them have left, too.  New families have moved in to close to half the houses, bringing with them lively new children and young families (which is great), but at the same time making huge changes to the properties in terms of home decor, landscaping, and so on.

Those decor and landscaping changes are actually also great, looking at this in an unbiased fashion, but it makes me feel that much more distant from the properties I once knew so well.  Many of them bear little resemblance to the homes I could still sketch from memory.  As I'm sure you can tell, as it practically drips from these last few paragraphs, this whole process makes me extremely nostalgic.  Things have changed at those houses, almost entirely for the better, but since I know longer recognize the world I grew up in, it feels more like a tragedy to me.  You can't go home again, and all that.  This is perfectly familiar to anyone over a certain age.

And this is also what Final Fantasy VI is an allegory for.  On the surface it's about saving the world (or what remains of it after failing to save it the first time).  But underneath, what it does is make the player intimately familiar with the World of Balance -- and then utterly destroy that world.  The World of Ruin is an almost entirely tragic place, of course, and this, coupled with everything from the music in the WOB to the colors to the characters and story elements, serves to make the player nostalgic.

The characters are often nostalgic as well, and much of the later side-quests involve surprisingly deep exploration of backstory.  As a kid, I think that perhaps Locke's backstory resonated most highly with me.  Now I think probably Cyan's does.  It's these layers of depth, and the fact that the game manages to make the player go through echoes of the character's emotional turmoil, that make the game so bloody brilliant.  A shallow, world-sweeping allegory is fairly simple and trite to set up -- but FFVI goes the extra mile by also making it a personal story for a dozen main characters and dozens of supporting cast members that we also care about.

Much like my paper route, the World of Ruin is littered with remnants from the past.  Some whole towns, parts of others, and many people that you recognize from the WOB remain in the WOR.  Some families still remain on my old route, and the very basic structure of all the houses and yards are achingly familiar.  It's these discordant similarities mixed with the Unfamiliar that make the nostalgia factor so high.  If nothing had changed, of course we wouldn't be nostalgic, but if everything had disappeared or changed completely it would also be hard to really comprehend what was lost in the same way.

Final Fantasy VI touches on a great many universal themes, a lot of underlying truths about humanity.  It manages this despite the fact that its wording is spare and simple because of the limitations of the platform it was written for.  The simplicity makes it almost poetic, really, which is a lesson a lot of more modern RPGs could learn from.  But the attention to making the story recognizably human, at playing off so many deep-seated emotions that players can relate to in different ways at different stages of life, is the core of FFVI's brilliance.

My extreme fondness for the game is well established, but I've spent the last 16 years trying to figure out just what exactly it was that made that story so powerful for me and so many others.  I still haven't figured it all out, but I think that this is one key piece of the puzzle.  It kept the emotions real, human-sized, and understandable.  And it had a killer hook for making the players really feel what the main characters were going through in a visceral way (the end of the World of Balance).

I don't want to duplicate what Final Fantasy VI did, but I do want to someday create a game narrative with the same sort of emotional impact and depth.  Eventually I'll hopefully figure out enough to do so.  It's an amazing achievement for the FFVI team that I feel almost as much nostalgia in connection with their game as I do regarding my lost youth delivering papers to families I no longer know.  As amazing as Chrono Trigger or Silent Hill 2 are, for me they just can't touch that level of emotion.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Support Of SlimDX

With the massive new 4.0 version of AI War hitting tomorrow, one of the big bullet points from that release is a wholesale platform shift: moving to Unity 3D, away from SlimDX / .NET.  In the past, I wrote about why I chose SlimDX, and why I felt it was the best DirectX interface available in C#.  Searching for "C# directx" on Google, I see that's still one of the very top results.

It's been over a year since I wrote that article -- so, what's changed in that year regarding my feelings for SlimDX?  The short answer: nothing.  It's still the best .NET wrapper available for DirectX, bar none.  My beef was with the .NET 3.5 runtime and DirectX themselves: their lack of cross-platform support, and the terrible and massive installer for .NET 3.5, were the two big issues for us.  Unity 3D paved a way for us to have no prerequisites for installation, and to have Mac OSX support as well as potential support for phones and other small devices.  That was really important to us, but it hasn't changed the fact that SlimDX remains the best at what it does.

I've lately also been talking a lot about things that we can do in the Unity engine that we couldn't do with the SlimDX version of AI War.  That's a good shorthand for me to use (much quicker than saying "version 3.189 and before of AI War, on the old engine"), but it really has very little to do with SlimDX.  The limitations in the old engine came from our use of GDI+ as a windowing system, from our use of the Direct3DX extensions as wrappered by SlimDX, and the general fact that DirectX is a multimedia API and NOT a fully-fledged game system.

So for anyone who is looking for a way to use DirectX in .NET applications, I can definitely recommend SlimDX to you.  Look no further, it beats the pants off its competition.  We left that arena, but that should have no bearing on what other programmers might choose to do when looking for a solution in that environment.  I don't want anyone to get the impression that SlimDX is old, outdated, or inferior -- it's not.  The "SlimDX version" of AI War was, compared to the "Unity version" of AI War.  But that's more to do with us than the SlimDX folks.

You'll notice that the SlimDX team are still thanked in the special thanks section of our credits -- we might not directly use the API any longer, but their API allowed us to launch ourselves in a way we never could have otherwise (I came to SlimDX from MDX, and it was like a dream after MDX).  My best wishes go with the SlimDX team, and I'll keep an eye on them and their project as it develops over hopefully years to come.  Cheers!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Punchbag Artists

In this recent article at Resolution Magazine, Joel Goodwin discusses the effect of destructive criticism on game developers.  Yours truly is one of a handful of developers quoted in there a couple of times, which is cool, but it's a rather important article regardless of my ties to it.  In the end, I think Gabe Newell had the most interesting points to make (I never though of it that way), but I enjoyed reading how all the developers quoted deal with the abusive comments that are endemic to publishing anything on the Internet.  Definitely worth a read!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Point of Clarification: We're Debt Free

The fact that Arcen is debt-free is an important point, and I wanted to make sure that didn't get lost in the larger posts from the other days.  Why is that so relevant?  It means that, in the grand scheme, the company as an entity is in no danger of disappearing whatsoever.

Even in this super slow period, even after the royalties it owes staff, Arcen makes about five times what it needs to in order to continue operating the website, pay our LLC fees, and that sort of thing.  That means that AI War and Tidalis and so forth would still be on the market a year from now, two years from now, and so forth.  Rumors of our impending bankruptcy are greatly exaggerated, in a manner of speaking -- one only has to declare insolvency if one can't pay one's debtors and has no assets.

What Stands To Be Lost, And What Doesn't
So what's the big deal been?  Well, the problem was never about Arcen-the-entity.  The problem is about Arcen-the-team-of-people.  Myself, Pablo, Keith, and Phil, primarily (Lars is happily employed elsewhere fulltime, anyway, and has only ever worked part-time with us).  The financial challenge that we've been facing was that we wouldn't be able to keep paying the actual staff, providing benefits for those who have them, and that sort of thing.  In other words: laying everybody off, including myself.

That would be the end of us doing much work for you, but the prior work that we've already done would live on.  That said, many of us have decided that we'd still try to do some stuff part-time in the off hours even if we had to look for other work (we all love what we do), but it won't be the same at all, especially for me -- as a new dad, I can't put in nearly the hours I did back in 2008 or 2009 when I was working two jobs.  I have no idea what we'd be able to accomplish and in what timeframe, but it would be just a tiny fraction of what we do now, I'm certain.  And if one or more of us found other employment with other game developers (a few have offered, over the last year or so as well as recently), then odds are we wouldn't be able to do much with Arcen aside from selling what we'd already made.

So when I was saying that would be the end of Arcen Games as people know it, that's what I meant: that we'd go into sort of a shadow half-life, like Voldemort did after his curse rebounded upon himself.  Like the dark lord, we might then be able to claw our way back into full life, but it wouldn't be the same and it would take a long time at best.  Okay, perhaps I shouldn't be comparing us with an arch-villain of a fantasy work, but it was the only analogy that came to mind -- I've been re-reading the Harry Potter series lately, so I'm sure that's why.

Things Have Improved, A Bit, The Last Couple of Days
None of this makes the situation any less serious, of course, but at least it does mean that the products themselves won't completely disappear, and that we'd have some hope of making a comeback even if we did completely go under.  The outpouring of support and help over the last few days has been absolutely amazing, though, and has helped at least push our dead-end date out by a good half month so far already.  That's pretty stunning for a couple of days without anything even being on discount -- we're extremely grateful.

We've also had a number of businesses offering us support in various manners, and for that, too, we are extremely grateful.  "No man is a failure who has friends," to be sure.  I've felt alternately a bit like George Bailey and Kathleen Kelly lately, which is not something I'd ever expected.  Of course, the main thing on my mind with Kathleen Kelly was how it turned out for her despite the outpouring of support, but that's just cynicism.

I think that, if it's possible for things to work out, we'll find a way with the help of those who have rallied to support us.  We've got a few things brewing in the works for after AI War 4.0 at this stage and even before, though we can't talk about most of them yet.  There hasn't been a magic bullet to solve all our problems yet, but every bit helps and things are moving in the right direction for the first time in months -- that's all we can ask for.  I'm certainly filled with a sense of hope, and it's all thanks to you.

We can still use all the help people care to throw our way, though, to be sure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wow, a lot of people love AI War and/or Tidalis...

MANY, many thanks here, everyone.  A lot of great ideas came up through the forums discussion on this, as well as in the comments on my last post, as well as on Rock, Paper, Shotgun's post about this, as well as elsewhere.  Some great work has already been done getting the word out the press, a lot of it by our faithful fans, and a number of sites have picked up on this and have offered support in various fashions.  I expected a big response and a lot of posts from the core fans on our forums, but the amount of response outside the forums has been really unexpected; we're extremely grateful.

Clearly related to all this publicity, we've made around $1500 all of a sudden in one day today (so far), where recently it's been more like $150ish per day or sometimes even less (much too small when split essentially 5 ways, plus split to general business overhead and taxes, no?).  So, that's been a nice little bump in revenue already -- and we are exceedingly grateful -- but the main thing that we need is sustained revenues, rather than flash-in-the-pan one-day boosts from discounts, etc.  But it's a start, and certainly people are thinking about us a different way, which is good, I guess.

I've felt kind of weird talking about this at all, honestly, as in some ways it feels like asking for a handout, and it's not like we're imminently on death's door -- after all, we have until November, and a lot could change between now and then.  But at the same time, if I wait until the last minute, then it's too late for anyone to do anything to help, and we really are sunk.  As it is, I think the timing was right to breach this topic, but it still feels a bit odd.

Product/Company Visibility Is A Tricky Thing To Gauge
On the other hand, I think that a lot of times people fall in love with some product or other, and then just because it's good they think it's well-known.  That's been the downfall of more than one product, I'm sure, and certainly some indie developers.  The Big Download news item about this referred to Arcen as "one of the more well known indie game developers," which was a huge surprise to me, for a number of reasons.  For one, I have never once, ever, met a stranger who knew who I was or had even heard the vaguest hint about AI War.  When I think well-known, I think more like 2D Boy and those guys; the indie darlings. 

I don't really mind being thought of as well-known, that's fine and certainly flattering, but my point is that I think it is indicative of that sort of mindset that winds up letting companies like us languish in more obscurity than people expect; the people who already like our stuff and know about us naturally think that others with similar interests do, also.  Normally that's something that can be fought with marketing or advertising or something, but only when you have something that is really surface-accessible, which is not what our games are known for (well, Tidalis is, but we have the opposite problem of people assuming it's generic when it's not).

That's the scariest part there, is that we could fold as a company simply because there's all these potential customers out there who we never could communicate with about what we actually have to offer them.  Outside the gaming business I've seen that happen multiple times, and it was kind of scary to suddenly sense that happening here.

Did We Piss It All Away?
So, on RPS in particular there were a few folks commenting that they wondered how we could let it get to this point.  As in, we must have just been spending money like crazy, thinking that a rush of money after AI War came out would keep coming in indefinitely.  But it wasn't like that at all (and we're so cost-conscious that we don't even have office space, and delayed getting proper web hosting that cost more than $100/year until the servers were about to buckle, etc).

On the other hand, these folks are right in that if I'd just wanted to stay a solo shop, working with occasional contractors and largely churning out AI War expansions for pay, I'd be sitting fat and happy right now.  I'd have several years' worth of income sitting in my bank accounts gaining interest, and I could slowly start venturing out into territory beyond AI War.  Certainly there are indie developers who do that, and some are successful and others are not.  Most of them tend to remain one-man shops forever, though, and I just can't stand working in isolation when there's an alternative; and, frankly, a lot of what has been achieved in the last year has only been possible because of the amazing and talented folks who have joined me on the team.  I wouldn't trade that for being fat and happy and alone.

Momentum Can Make You Too Comfortable 
Until this problem surfaced, the momentum had been going strong for the last year or so.  For each distribution channel of the game (our site, Impulse, GamersGate, Steam, and then Direct2Drive, in that order of arrival), there had been a floor under which sales never dropped, and a ceiling over which they almost never rose, during the course of normal business -- except when we did a discount promotion, and those always had predictable results in terms of raising sales volume, too (though increasing in scale 10% to 20% with each sale, actually, as word of mouth spread).

That safe, comfortable pattern lasted from late May of 2009 all the way up to around April-ish of 2010.  I knew that might start tapering off at some point, and honestly expected it to happen long before the doldrums hit, but in the end I don't think that's what happened.  But anyway, Tidalis was expected to pick up whatever slack arose, and then some.  It was an ambitious game in a completely different genre, and wouldn't cannibalize existing sales, and had a nice broad appeal while still keeping my hardcore sensibilities, and all that.  I was feeling pretty safe about what I was doing.  And then the bottom fell out, inexplicably and without much in the way of warning.

Silence Isn't So Golden On The Internet
The scariest part was that nowhere on forums were people talking about Tidalis -- there were just the reviews, and that was it.  A few people talked about the game on our forums, but only less than 2% of the people who bought it.  People consistently talk about AI War in various venues, and tiny conversations pop up here and there all the time (Google Alerts is wonderful for catching all that, to gauge response), but Tidalis just wasn't catching on in forums.  That was one of the biggest things that led me to feel like something just wasn't right (aside from the fact we were bleeding money all of a sudden after 12 months of growth, obviously).

To some of the specific questions/thoughts raised in forum threads and comment areas in general:

1. Trailers.  I plan to do a trailer for CoN, and one for AI War 4.0.  However, time is limited and I want to wait until all the new art assets are in place with AI War 4.0, etc, before I do that. The 4.0 version will look pretty markedly different in a lot of respects (the starfields and the HUD in particular, but also some of the special effects), and I want the new trailers to reflect that.  So, hence my waiting at the moment -- but, if other folks want to do trailers or just fun/exciting/interesting/informative videos in the meantime, oh my god would that be a help.

2. Facebook.  This is another case of the-grass-is-greener syndrome, I think.  "Make a Facebook version of Tidalis" is a popular suggestion.  People have this sense that if you put out a game on the iPhone, you make a jillion dollars.  I mean, Facebook/Android/whatever-trendy-thing.  You see my point.  Well, people have the same mistaken ideas about casual games, too -- I can tell you from experience, as can many indie developers, that making a casual game is in no way a cash-in; it's almost a harder road than the hardcore niche route, I think.  The problem is visibility -- there again, people look at the top 1% of games, and see how well they are doing, and assume everyone does as well.  Right now, to hear Gamasutra tell it, almost nobody but Zygna is making any money on Facebook.  Anyway, point is that I keep in touch with a lot of other indie developers in a variety of markets (though not many on facebook, admittedly), and they all complain about their markets just as much as I could complain about mine.  Except for the lucky darlings of any platform, everyone else is going to struggle to some extent.

3. Porting in general (Android, iPhone, Facebook, web versions, and so on).  So: I addressed this partly with #2.  But, that's not to say that I think the porting suggestions are without merit.  It's simply that this is never easy or simple.  Well, in the grand scheme it might be easy -- it only takes a month or two of effort, right?  But that's about all the time Arcen has left on the clock, unless things change (which, with all this recent press, maybe they will, I hope -- but it's far too early to tell).  Leaping into a brand-new platform on which I have no prior experience, and spending all the remaining time that the company has doing so, strikes me as far more risky and reckless than anything I've done with the company since founding it.  Some of the Unity-supported platforms (iOS/Android, mainly) could be a calculated risk that is worth taking if there is time after the AI War 4.0 porting work (which is a far more safe bet in my opinion), but that really remains to be seen.

4. AI War on mobile devices.  This has come up for years, and it's just a no-go.  A few RTS games work pretty well on the iPhone, I've played them, but by and large you only have games with a few small bands of units, and a really REALLY revamped UI.  Also, they are all inherently single-threaded, and have to run on processors less than half (at best) of the minimum that AI War supports.  In the case of AI War, it's just far too large a game for those platforms.  Our consideration of mobile devices would be limited to Tidalis and future titles like Alden Ridge Arcade, if they are a fit (that one would be).

5. A small web version of Tidalis, as sort of a free demo.  We've certainly considered it, but it's not something that can instantly be done because of the way we load assets into Unity.  Long story, but our way is better except when it comes to something like this.  But, it's something we're considering more seriously of late, to be sure.

6. Microtransactions.  Goodness, aren't these trendy?  They just seem a bit unethical to me, like players are being nickeled-and-dimed.  And for multiplayer games, it creates all sorts of challenges for which players have what smaller components, unless those are non-gameplay-affecting components like the infamous horse saddles or something.

7. Work-for-hire.  Some folks suggest on occasion that we do work for hire, rather than our own original work. And, we've been approached by some companies asking us if we're interested in that arrangement (both today, and in the past in general).  As sort of a last resort, we might consider doing something like that before getting booted entirely out of the gaming industry... but we're not indies because we couldn't hack it in the mainstream games industry, if you get my meaning.  I'm grateful that people think well enough of us to offer, but it's just not our bag.

Signing Out For Now
It's been a super busy day, and I haven't been able to talk to everyone I meant to.  I've gotten a lot of emails from folks from various businesses offering advice, support, or various potential opportunities, and I'm trying to respond to everyone, but it takes time.  There's still a pile of emails in my inbox waiting to be read and responded to (there usually is, seems like, especially now with the baby).  I'm not complaining -- far from it, I'm extremely grateful.  But, I did want to let people know that I'm not ignoring them if they sent me an email this afternoon and I haven't yet responded.

Love AI War and/or Tidalis? We could really use your help...

Most game companies probably wouldn't share this stuff, and certainly not on their front page, but as our fans know we're not like most game companies.  So...

To put it bluntly and briefly, at present we're only bringing in about one half of the minimum money we need to survive as a company, and that's quickly eating through the rainy day money that we'd set aside.  At this rate, if sales don't pick up then we run out of money sometime in November.

This is despite the fact that we've largely been very careful and prudent with our money and expenses over the last year.  We're just a young company, and thus more vulnerable to market fluctuations than most -- though, as you might realize from the gaming news, even many AAA development studios are about one failed game away from dissolution.  It's a cut-throat business.

The rest of this long post is background and explanation about how this came about and our business model in general, as well a request for help at the end, with ideas for how fans can contribute without spending a dime (as a commercial enterprise, we dislike asking for donations, though occasionally players offer).

One slice from our 3-month sales graph;
even those spikes are less than half the usual for promotions.
AI War Has Always Been Community-DrivenIt's been nine months since I wrote or updated the topic Love AI War? Want to know how you can help?, but a lot of that still holds true: the short version is that what we need most is publicity and new fans.  Word of mouth has always been a huge driver behind the success of AI War, and we need that now more than ever.  For AI War to survive in its current frequently-getting-hugely-updated form, it has to keep continuously selling. 

AI War went on sale in May 2009, and it's grown enormously since then -- as has the customer base.  We've sold somewhere around 30,000 copies of some flavor of AI War and The Zenith Remnant.  All in all, that's probably around 18,000 customers, since those who buy the expansion also have the base game.

Right before the start of the summer, AI War was more popular than it had ever been -- sales were up, forum membership was at an all-time high, and all over the Internet, it seemed like random threads were popping up with players talking about this strategy game they'd discovered.  This was an amazement to us since that's not something that typically happens to year-old games.  It looked like we had something with enduring niche popularity along the lines of Dwarf Fortress, largely thanks to our ongoing free updates. 

Around that time, we decided to do both the upcoming AI War 4.0 version (free for all existing customers), as well as a for-charity micro-expansion to the game that was partly to celebrate the upcoming birth of my son (he was born on 9/1/2010).  All of this seemed easy to do, because profits were such that we were doing great with AI War alone, and Tidalis sales were soon to be added to that and we knew what a great game that was long before reviewers came around to confirm it.

The Summer Doldrums
The problem is, the summer doldrums hit.  It's a well-known phenomenon in the games industry, but for whatever reason it didn't happen to us last year.  Actually, apparently it didn't happen to a lot of companies last year, but I didn't realize that until recently.  I'd thought we were immune because the nature of our game and its audience, or something along those lines.

Suffice it to say, this year it has happened to us, and it's wounded us pretty badly over the last four months; I always try to keep a healthy operating cash buffer (and we have no debt), but that cash had already been about half depleted by the extra expenses of creating Tidalis.  This was an annoyance but not a crisis, except now the summer is over and sales have still been slower-than-average by a large, we-can't-survive-on-this margin.

Recent Sales Volume
The more detailed picture of the situation is this: at the moment, with Tidalis and AI War on the market, we're averaging about 1/2 to 1/3 what we were making in our "bad" months (where there were no discount promotions) with just AI War back in the spring.  Worse, if you average all the spring months together (discount sales and all), then these last couple of months we've been making about 1/4 to 1/5 of what we normally had been making.

Or, again, about 1/2 the minimum we need to survive.  Since last July, we've been in a position of growth and taking on new staff  -- it started out as just me, recall -- while still saving for as rainy day (such as this).  My expectation had been to comfortably bring on two, maybe three new staff members in the fall of this year, while still bolstering our savings at the same time.  And then mysteriously and suddenly everything changed.  The summer doldrums.

Ouch.  This stems from sudden sales problems with both Tidalis and AI War.  Tidalis has sold only a few thousand copies so far, despite largely euphoric reviews and player response.  And it's not even that large numbers of players weren't connecting with the game: Tidalis had some of the top sales spots in the casual, family, and indie categories on Steam and other digital distribution services in its launch week, despite my utter screwup of the advance marketing/PR for the game.  Just not much of anything was selling well in that week, it seems.

Under the circumstances, I suppose Tidalis has done well, despite having done about 10x worse than I'd expected the worst case with it to be.  It's still done better than the bulk of small indie games, but it's still not yet at the point where it's even nearly earned back what we spent to make it -- right now it's earned back about 1/16th of our cost of making the game.  Again: ouch.

What We've Been Doing About All This
It's not like I woke up this morning and realized this was a problem.  We knew that Tidalis was draining more of our rainy-day funds than desired back as far as April, and took appropriate cost-saving measures.  Then throughout the June and July, we knew things were uncomfortably slow, but we had two discount sales (one on AI War, one on Tidalis's launch) that we thought would  tide us over.  They helped, but basically only brought it up to around that minimum monthly figure we normally needed.  Yikes.  The plans for bringing on more staff got put on indefinite hold at that point.

After the launch of Tidalis, we've gone into overdrive trying to get reviews and press coverage for the game, and largely that has paid off well in terms of reviews and coverage... but had no discernible effect on sales.

We were already committed to doing the Children of Neinzul micro-expansion as a for-charity thing, and so we stuck with that -- that's not the sort of pledge we'd ever go back on, and it's something we intensely believe in, anyway.  Probably that will have a residual boosting effect on AI War and TZR sales numbers (and so far that has sort of been true), but also so far it has mostly been CoN itself that has been selling the best -- which we are thrilled about, quite apart from whatever our own challenges are.

The AI War 4.0 porting is something that at present we see as our best shot to pull in quite a lot of new customers in October, as it practically re-imagines the game as well as bringing it to a whole new platform.  As well as as making it vastly easier for folks to demo, since there aren't any prerequisites with the Unity 3D platform we're moving it to.

We've also thoroughly adjusted our fall schedule -- the plan had been to work on a large project called Alden Ridge, with a large (for us) team of 6.  Now we're looking at doing a smaller spinoff of that core game called Alden Ridge Arcade, with a smaller team of 3-4.  If income gets back on track, we'll do the full Alden Ridge game after that, but actually we're really excited about how the design for Alden Ridge Arcade has been coming along, anyway -- so even if the money situation magically resolved itself today, I'd still want to make Alden Ridge Arcade first.

As one part of our attempt to recover from the botched Tidalis PR, we've launched the Tidalis Design A Block contest to spur ongoing interest and player interactions with that game.  As well as a 30% off Tidalis discount promotion at GamersGate.  Some of the other planned stuff we can't comment on yet, but there's more in the works.

There's also the possibility of porting Tidalis to Android/iPhone/iPad, but there are a lot of risks inherent with that, as well as financial costs of licensing those versions of Unity, as well as opportunity costs of the significant time we'd have to invest programming that port.  Some of those costs are mitigated if we also port Alden Ridge Arcade to those platforms (which we'd definitely like to), but a lot of that is just up in the air because it's unclear if we'd have money to even make it through such a process.  And while the grass always seems greener in an unknown market, in our experience it rarely actually is (though Mac sales are now fully 10% of our income these last few months, so that was certainly a good move with Tidalis -- and hopefully also will be with AI War).

Internally, we've already done the stuff like salary cuts (for me), and of course the staff pulling royalties are really hurting based on the shortfall as much as the company as a whole is.  And we've cut pretty much every other nonessential expense that could be cut, long ago (we try to keep it lean in general, actually).

There are other things we're considering, too, but none of it is without risk, and at the moment I have the sense that we're one or two blunders away from oblivion.  Having Tidalis (so far) not perform as expected was a blow, but also having our AI War income drop so precipitously at the same time is something that would have killed the company in July if I hadn't been savings-oriented to start out with.

What Can You Do To Help?
Well, to some extent, we'd love your ideas on that.  But the bottom line is, we need people to actually buy the games that we've spent all this time and money making.  People with the right genre tastes have an above-average affection for our games once they find them and know what they are, but the huge challenge is getting people to actually find our games and know what they are.

AI War 4.0 and AI War:CoN are both hugely exciting, and the latest betas are already including an enormous, hugely-game-altering amount of stuff (not all of it is fully polished yet, but that's why it's still beta).  This is exciting stuff!  We think people would like to know, and we'd love help in telling them about it.  Through youtube, facebook, twitter, forums, plain old talking-to-friends-or-family, anything really...

Tidalis is a really amazing game, if I do say so myself, and while it's gotten a ton of great reviews, I get the feeling that most gamers don't even know of its existence.  Many people from our AI War fanbase enjoy puzzle games, but even those that don't probably know tons of people who do: moms, girlfriends, and sisters are one obvious source (and we've had many such stories already), but it's not like AI War is a game for boys and Tidalis is a game for girls -- my wife and I both play both.  But I guess everybody knows the stereotypical demographics for the genres.  At any rate, this is another game that we think is very exciting, and that a lot of people would like to know about who don't currently.  Despite their digital nature, our games also make great gifts!

The simplest thing that anyone can do is tell other people about our games!  It's always been the case that we wouldn't survive without word of mouth, and that's true more now than ever.  If you're reading this far, you probably already love one or both of our games, but that doesn't mean that other people that you know with tastes similar to your own even know what these games are, if they've even heard of them.  That's the greatest challenge for any indie.

With Tidalis, we have to combat the "ugh, yet another casual game" stigma that many people have until they actually try it and see how original it is.  With AI War, we have the challenge of people seeing how complex it looks, and how retro a lot of the graphics are (and our trailers are seriously outdated), and that turns off some of them for glitzier strategy games that they will then often endlessly complain about.  I hope to do more trailers for AI War coming up, but that will just depend on available time, which is in short supply.

Beyond the basics, if you have other ideas or special talents, we're always open.  A number of players have donated art or sound effects for specific parts of Tidalis or AI War over the last year -- that's always appreciated, but not what we most need right now.  Others have helped with writing stuff for the community wiki, or other little mini-guides elsewhere.  If you've got experience with video making, we would love it if folks want to do instructional videos, trailers, or otherwise for any of the games.  Those sort of promotional materials really do work, from what I've heard, though we've never done much with it in the past except in our own capacity.

And, of course, if you want to donate actual money you can, though the fact remains that that's not what we'd most like.  My view is that if we get dependent on donations, the only way we'd be able to survive is with continual donations unless something else changes.  Sure, maybe that can get us through a rough spot, but honestly if you could convert four or five friends to being fans of our work (and customers), that's worth a lot more to us in the long-run than a straight donation.

But beggars can't be choosers, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that -- we're grateful for whatever folks can do, whether it's on this list or not.  As I noted, we'd absolutely love to have further ideas other than just what we've come up with, as some of them might work even better.

In Summary
In summary, we'd love anything that folks can do.  Right now Arcen staff is very tied up with the workload that we have to get AI War 4.0 and CoN done on time (the biggest blow to our company would not be to have those out sometime in October, or not at full quality at release), so our ability to launch or shepherd major initiatives on our own is pretty much nonexistent until mid-October at best.  That's why we're appealing to you.

Make no mistake, appealing to the fans for help was something I'd delayed doing as long as possible.  It's never good to be crying wolf at every slight dip in the business (dips are normal), but now that we're clearly in more than a dip, the time was right.  If things don't change, there will have to be some major shifts at Arcen by the end of the year at the latest -- lost staff, drastically lowered output, etc.

I still think that with AI War 4.0 coming out soon, and with our promotion work we're doing on Tidalis, we should see a resurgence.  What frankly scares the bejeezus out of me is that we haven't seen the start of any such resurgence yet -- and that instead we're still flying so far below our normal rock-bottom minimum.  I set up an elaborate series of safety nets for Arcen in case Tidalis didn't do as well as hoped (extra cash buffer, the AI War 4.0 project, etc), but so far things have gone in such a manner that we're crashing through safety net after safety net.

If that keeps happening, then the company could get into pretty much mortal danger.  This post is one attempt among many to try to erect some more safety nets in the way, to keep us from getting any nearer to that point.  It might well be that October is just an awesome month and completely makes up for this period, but I can't bet the company on that.  In the meantime, we could really use your help in making sure that, no matter what happens in October, there's still a recognizable Arcen Games in December or January.

The forum discussion on this is here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Don't Want To Be In This Play

This morning at 6am, my son (Christopher J) and I rehearsed a play called "Christopher Pees On Everything." It was a lot more fun for him than me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Baby has arrived! Christopher J. Park

Well, it's been a hectic and tiring few days, as you might imagine, but really amazing and rewarding, too.  Little Christopher J is doing great, and was born at 7pm on September the 1st.  After a bit of a rocky start from the shock of the birth (not doing well at all at 1 minute after birth, doing great at 5 minutes), he's now really seeming to have settled into life at home and his mom and dad are getting used to the demands of baby care, too.

I'm still not going to be around much posting on the Arcen forums and such for a while (or around to moderate comments here), but wanted to give folks the update.  To the right is a picture of me and him (Christopher M. Park and Christopher J. Park -- he's not a "Jr.") at the hospital the day after he was born.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why I'm Reluctant To Critique... Whatever You Created

How many here were raised under the rule from Bambi, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?"  I know I was.  And hence an immediate conundrum when you're out to critique a game that someone else has created.  It's especially challenging when an aspiring indie asks me to "take a look at their game and let me know what I think," or similar.

Let me back up for a moment.  In his post about his Critter Code of Ethics (an important read for anyone thinking about giving or receiving criticism), my friend Stephen Parrish writes:

There are three kinds of writers: those who aren't interested in criticism; those who, when they ask for criticism, are really seeking validation; and those who incorporate criticism and improve their work.

This is a fundamental truth that a lot of folks don't stop to consider.  I know that I was personally in that second group for most of my younger life -- I'd ask for criticism, expect praise, and then sulk if I got actual criticism.  This helped no one, least of all me, and wasted the time of the person who was giving me critiques. 

Taking Criticism Effectively Is Hard
Even back in college, when my wife would give me perfectly valid (and quite insightful) commentary on my own fiction writing, I was known for having an overstrong emotional reaction.  Part of the problem was this: when we were younger, and I was a worse writer, she pretty much just gave me praise, oohing and ahing over what was good and ignoring the rest.  Then as we both grew older and wiser, she started actually trying to give me better feedback; she'd stayed in the field of literature, which I'd partly abandoned for computers, and she'd picked up a lot of stuff I had not.  However, in that same span I had also grown as a writer as most people do with time, and so my experience was that I had gotten better and she was suddenly critical.

Of course, that wasn't what was happening at all.  It was merely that she was more sure of herself and of me, and that I was far enough along the path of my abortive literary career that I should have been ready to hear her criticism.  There was some undeserved static from me in the meantime, but eventually we worked through that, I managed to mostly put my emotional reactions on hold, and we both managed to learn a lot together from the process of editing my novels.

However, Taking Criticism Effectively Is Worthwhile
So, happy story, right?  Put your emotions on hold, suck it up and delve into the criticism that will make your work better.  It's certainly a big theme at Arcen, where everyone on the team tries to put their egos on hold as much as possible and there's a more-or-less free flow of constructive criticism between the members of the team.  That's largely something we conduct in private for reasons of decorum, but what's quite public is the suggestions forum for AI War, which is one of the favorite sections of our forum system: it's seen over ten thousand posts in the last year, and we've completed more than 1,400 individual items during that time.

What makes this work?  I would say that one major factor in both cases is the sense of trust.  When AI War was new, and the player community was only partially formed, I had a much harder time emotionally dealing with all of the suggestions.  It's like sticking your head into a fire hydrant of "you should have done this, why didn't you do that?"  It can feel very negative, very draining, and like the people who are your supposed "fans" aren't actually liking your work much at all.  Amongst staff members, it can feel like professional rivalry or worse.

That's when there is not a sense of trust.  I think I did a pretty good job of swallowing my feelings despite myself in those early days of AI War, and I don't think I publicly let on overmuch how I was really feeling.  But I was miserable, I was stressed, and I was worried that nobody really liked my game all that much.  In short, I was having huge bouts of insecurity, which is natural for anyone who has taken great pains to create something, and then has thrust it out in front of the world for criticism.

And that's around the time when that magical missing ingredient showed up: trust.  As last summer wore on, and the popularity of my game grew, the volume of suggestions grew high enough that I couldn't hope to address them all.  That might make it sound like AI War isn't very good, but actually players are just bursting over with suggestions and ideas for pretty much every game ever created.  In most cases they simply don't have an outlet for those suggestions, so they just gripe on forums.  But in the case of AI War, they did have an outlet.  And that's where the trust came from.  There were too many suggestions for me to do them all, everyone could see that, but they could also see that I was listening, and trying.  They could trust that they had a voice, and I'd do my best to make everyone happy. 

Similarly, I began to see that these actually were fans of the game, as true of fans as you could possibly ask for.  Not only did they enjoy the game, but they spent enough time thinking about the game and playing it that they were willing to write up ideas for me to consider.  Once I could no longer keep up with the flood of ideas, I soon learned that it wasn't the actual implementation of any specific idea that would keep players happy, but rather that I'd at least consider all the ideas, and take them into account as I improved the game.  Sure, everyone prefers it when their own actual idea is used, but people are pretty reasonable about the circumstances when there are thousands of them and one or two of us.

So, long story short, an environment of trust happened to form, and the feedback cycle of suggestions and improvements became a daily or weekly routine rather than an unexpected and emotional event.  As more staff were added to Arcen, they came into this environment and that attitude of trust formed amongst our small team as we worked together, cautiously testing the waters with one another with constructive criticism, notes, and ideas outside our direct areas of expertise.

In short: there are a lot of benefits to having these sorts of sources of criticism, but the environment has to be suitably safe.  And that doesn't happen overnight.

So Why Don't I Like Critiquing What Others Create?
Well, as anyone on my staff can tell you, I'm certainly full of critiques.  If something is so much as one pixel off, I'll comment on it.  Not in a mean way, but I value precision and correctness, and I think everyone else on the team agrees.  They comment on things I've done quite a lot, too.  This is a two-way street.

So when I say I don't like critiquing the work of others, I'm referring to people that I don't have that level of relationship with.  My inclination is to absolutely pick apart whatever someone shows me, not to be mean, but to make it better.  However, in almost all cases if the other party has not had that intensity of criticism before, they're going to get overwhelmed and probably will have a negative reaction to it.  And I'll have wasted my time.

It happens to the best of us.  Stephen Parrish, the author of the Critter Code of Ethics above, sent out an email asking for comments on an event-specific website he had created a while back.  Knowing his views on literary criticism, and having a long history of web design, I really let loose on the site he was working on.  I thought a lot of aspects were good, and overall I very much liked his site, but that didn't stop me from writing over five thousand words of criticism about a 7-page site.  He and I have always been on great terms, but that particular endeavor of mine was a waste of several hours of my time, suffice it to say. 

I had another critique partner years ago where the result wasn't as happy.  We'd talked online for a few months and had similar outlooks on writing, and we decided to swap manuscripts.  We'd both had some near misses with agents, and felt like we were on the verge of picking up representation (as it turned out, she was but I was not).  I diligently critiqued the first 8 chapters of her manuscript, and by the end of that process I had written as many words in red as she had originally had in the chapters to begin with.  This was very poorly received.  She handed back my first chapter with notes that she felt the protagonist was arrogant and unlikeable, and little else.  It was written in the first person, in my voice.  Go figure.  We didn't really speak much after that.

Suffice it to say, my track record is not overly great with individual critique partners.  To me, it's a minor miracle that the Arcen staff and community works together so smoothly, and I'm not entirely certain how that came about.  Call it blind luck, divine providence, or whatever, but I can't tell you how to recreate it.  I guess it's just having the right mix of personalities.

Critiquing Versus Evaluating
I'm making up some terminology here, but I'm going to make a distinction between "critiquing" something and "evaluating" that same thing. 

Personally, when I critique something, I rip it apart.  The slightest flaws are mentioned and explored, possible alternatives are suggested for every last non-perfect facet, and red ink is thick on the ground.  You can hand me my very favorite games ever, what I consider masterpieces, and the effect of this would be extraordinarily diminished but not erased.  There is no game or literary work that is above all reproach.

Normal games, anything not at the absolute pinnacle of its genre, don't stand a chance under that kind of scrutiny.  In all seriousness, my process for tearing apart games is very much the same as that in Zero Punctuation.  I only discovered ZP in the last few months, but I've watched almost all the videos and I'd say I agree with about 70% of what he says.

Except what he's doing is evaluating a game, to use my newly-minted terminology.  I presume that he, like most people, fires up a game and starts playing it, intending to enjoy it.  Then every time something jumps out at him as being sub-par or wrong, he makes a mental note of it.  In the games he likes, very little jumps out at him.  In the games he rips into on his reviews, things were jumping out at him left and right.

In the case of a critique, there's a different process I go through: I'm not playing this to enjoy it.  I don't even care if I enjoy it.  I'm here to find every last flaw I can, to make the work stronger.  I've worked with a couple of professional editors in the last decade or so, and their approach was much the same: they were here not to destroy, but to break down to help me to rebuild.  As one put it (to paraphrase), "I quite enjoyed your book, but you'll notice that just about every page is covered in red.  Take this for what it is: a mark of respect.  In the book industry, editors only give so much feedback for authors whom they feel would actually benefit from that much effort.  If I didn't think that all this feedback would help you in making this the best possible book you can make it, I wouldn't have spent the time."

That editor forever changed my perception of criticism.  I wasn't being nit-picky all those years, I was just doing what she was doing.  Which is, admittedly, picking nits.  But assumedly you want a nit-free game or novel, which is why you asked someone to critique it... right?

All too often, the answer is no.  Most of the time, people are just looking for validation of their work, and that's it.  They approach professional authors with hopes of either getting some validation from someone who already made it into the business or even in hopes that the author will think the work is so amazing that he will recommend it immediately to his agent and editors. 

That almost never happens, because generally manuscripts that are that amazing have already found an agent or editor without going to those lengths.  Most manuscripts that haven't are in need of a good nit-picking before they're really ready, and the best you can hope for from a professional author is that they'll rip into your stuff.  And that's generally devastating enough for you that it's a waste of their time.

Critiquing Is Critical Thinking
Why critique?  It's because you want to make something better.  If we never saw the flaws in anything, nothing would ever improve, right?  And thankfully almost nothing in our world is perfect -- if there was too much perfection, there would be nothing left to do, no more room in which to grow, and that would be the most depressing thing I can think of.  Fortunately, there's room for improvement all around us, in everything we have made and do.  Fifty years from now, everything in your house will seem cheap and outdated, if current trends hold.

Part of critical thinking also involves recognizing what has been done right.  Unlike Stephen Parrish, I also believe very strongly that it's important to tell people what they have done right.  He thinks that's useless as a general rule, but I think the utility lies in the fact that often people just do things instinctively, and don't consciously know what others react to well, or why they react to it well.  I get a lot of positive commentary on AI War as well, and quite a lot of it has also been instructive to me.  And when it comes to the staff, I give out at least as much positive commentary as I do negative.

Simple, honest -- and hard to swallow, if you were just looking for effusive praise.

So, What Was "Evaluating" Again?
I never really explained that, did I?  Critiquing is actively looking for flaws, whereas evaluating is not.  Normally when I play games for recreation, I'm just in evaluation mode.  I play to enjoy, and I note things that I particularly enjoy, or that particularly impede my enjoyment.  Small flaws or things that I would do differently slip right under the radar, because I'm not actively trying to find them.  Heck, I'm here to enjoy the game, after all!

But at the same time, any author should be evaluating every book they read, and any game designer should be doing the same with every game they play.  And authors should read, just as game designers should play games.  It's the only way to grow, as it's the only way to spark ideas that don't come solely from within yourself.  Working in isolation is not a very conductive path to growth.

So anyway, most of the time I try to stay in evaluation mode just to see the forest instead of the trees, to use a different analogy.  Then if I spot something specifically of note (for good or ill), I might delve into the critique mode for just a bit.  When someone does something strikingly well or poorly, it can be very useful to think about it more actively to really understand why it worked as it did.

Hopefully my reasons are now clear for avoiding requests to critique the games of others.  Personally, I've had very little luck with that, and often wind up spending a lot of well-intentioned effort crafting a critique that is of no use to the other party, demoralizes them, and gets them mad at me.  Because all too often I misinterpret what the person was really asking for, and they don't understand quite what they'd be getting into with me.

And for the record, if you're looking to break into the business you're far better off going directly to the distributors and press with a suitably awesome game.  Other indie developers that have already had some level of success are rarely in the position to open any doors into the industry for you.

Lest this post spark even more requests for critiques than I normally get, I should also note that time is particularly thin on the ground for me.  I love answering questions and try to make blog posts to help out other indies with ways for them to improve their work or to help them break into the business, but there is rarely the time for me to do full critiques these days.  I'm going to be a new dad within the next six weeks, and I'm already finding it really hard to balance all of the various jobs I have.  I don't mean any offense to anyone, but I have to tend to my family first, then my own job, and at the moment there is very little left after those two things.

The best source for critiques isn't other developers or even reviewers, anyway.  It's players.  It's the would-be fans of the games you create who just couldn't get into it for whatever reason; the genre experts on the genres you wish to inhabit; and the actual fans of your game, who even so will have ideas on ways to make it better.  If you want the best possible feedback for making your game everything you want it to be, seek out those people and get their opinions.  Having a designer friend or two to toss ideas around with doesn't hurt, but it's the players that are collectively more expert than all of us in terms of knowing what they want and what they like and don't like.  Just listen to them.

This Blog Now Featured On GameDevBlogs

Pretty cool!
In 2009 Christopher founded Arcen Games, an indie company who have already made a handful of PC and Mac games. As such, his articles on achieving success as an indie developer, and working with the press as an indie both have a lot of weight.

Very recommended reading for anyone interested in that side of the games industry.

That's not to say that Christopher is just about the business side of things. There are also lengthy articles on game design topics that are well worth reading.

So just what is GameDevBlogs?  Well, it's new, but here's their spiel about themselves:
GameDevBlogs' mission is to become the best resource for finding new blogs written by video game developers. Whether famous or unheard of, student or experienced, a developer's writing will be listed here. If you are interested in finding something new to read, select a blog category, pick a site at random, and enjoy.

Or, as they described it to me in an email, "a site dedicated to listing the blogs of game developers, so inquiring minds can find good reading material more easily."  That seems like a very worthy goal to me, and it's always great to see new resources (especially meta-resources like this) appear for new and aspiring indie developers.  There are a lot of developer blogs out there, so I imagine they'll have their hands full archiving all of them, heh.  Good stuff!

On Writing: Frequent Offenders In The Manuscript Analyzer

I recently got the following note via email, which I thought asked a great question:
I had recently discovered your Manuscript Analyzer program, which I've been using for a better understanding of the editing process.  But, what I don't understand is why the word "were" is a frequent offender?  When properly used with a verb, especially with one ending in -ing, the word "were" is perfectly acceptable.  Would I have to use my own discretion, or is there another explanation?

That's a really great question.  Here's my response:

With any of the frequent offenders, bear in mind that you have to use your own discretion and judgment -- the tool tries to give you a good overall idea of areas you might need to check, but these are at best red flags, not definitive notices of error. In most cases, anyway -- in the case of some of the frequent offenders, you've got words that are always wrong, like irregardless.

In the specific case of were, it's not even that the word itself is too much of a problem, but that if it is too prevalent it can be indicative of sentence structure that isn't varied or creative enough.

For example: "They were eating lunch.  The horses were in the pasture.  They could see the clouds were passing by overhead."  This is pretty unimaginative, and is something that tends to pop up in the first drafts of a lot of manuscripts. 

Much better construction might be something like: "They ate lunch on the terrace.  Horses grazed in the pasture below, with clouds drifting lazily by overhead."

Again, there's nothing wrong with saying "they were eating lunch."  You'll find sentences like that in any manuscript, and peppered throughout published books.  Sometimes that's the exact right thing to say, for reasons of pacing, tone, or simply because it sounds right.

On the other hand, you often read a lot of amateur manuscripts, or rough first drafts even of professionals, where the sentence construction reads almost like a monotone because of all those "was/were x-ing" constructions.  It's always up to the individual writer or editor to make their own judgments, and certainly in a rough draft it's better to just get the thoughts down on paper without worrying about the flow of the language, but when it comes time for revision this is one of the areas where a lot of writers spend a ton of their time.  I know I do!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Secrets Of My Success As An Indie Developer

So, in my last post I talked about how I botched the PR for Tidalis, and mentioned that I'd started out with very poor PR when AI War first came out, too.  In the case of AI War, the game was utterly invisible until it actually came out, and then for the first two weeks after it was out, it had literally zero sales.  How did AI War get from that dismal spot to now having sold around 30,000 copies (including copies of the expansion) and still counting?

And, for that matter, how is it I'm planning to rectify the botched PR with Tidalis?  Read on...

Step 1: Make A Good Game
Perhaps this goes without saying, but this only works if the game in question is good.  However, I put this step in here because some folks will inevitably assume that the following steps are some sort of "marketing magic" that can make a bad game sell like hotcakes.  Nothing can do that, at least not on a shoestring budget.

The other reason I bring up this step is because a lot of folks think that this is the only step that is needed in order to achieve success.  "Build it and they will come," and all that.  I'm here to tell you that only works in that one movie!  When you build it, almost no one will come, because no one will know you built it.  That's why these other steps exist.

Step 2: Tell People About Your Game
Maybe this seems self-evident, but more indies seem to skip this step than you might expect.  If you build an awesome game and then just post it on your brand-new website, how many people have you told?  Probably almost no-one.  If you get posted about on one of the many indie-related blogs, how many people have you then told?  Even if they have a readership in the thousands, that's still not many people.  A lot of those thousands of people won't like the genre of your game, or just won't be grabbed by it, or whatever.

Or, put another way: however many copies you want to sell, you probably need five hundred times that many people to hear about your game.  I just made that number up, but that's probably undershooting it.  Average "conversion" rate for people who download a demo is something like 2% or 3% who will buy it.  That means that for every 1 sale you make, you need 33 to 50 people to actually download your demo.  I have no idea how many people it takes reading about a game to get one to download the demo, but I wouldn't be surprised if the conversion rate there was 1% or less.

So: if you've only told a few thousand people about your game, and your game is awesome, expect a couple of dozen sales unless you're really lucky.  Most sites have lower daily readerships than you might expect, and even on really high-volume sites in terms of traffic, not nearly every post or article gets read by all visitors.

Step 3: Keep Telling People About Your Game
When you're a new indie, you'll get the cold shoulder.  A lot.  Press won't be interested in posting about your game, by and large, and most digital distribution sites won't be interested in you, either.  It takes time to look at your stuff, and there are a thousand other hopeful indies out there also vying for attention.

You want to cast a wide net because you never know who it is that your game will particularly strike a chord with.  As soon as you get some positive press, you can often translate that into more positive press, but until you have any you're going to really not get much attention at all until you find just those right early people to take a look at your work.  That also goes for digital distribution sites, incidentally.

Step 4: Make Sure There Is Something New To Tell People About Your Game
So, what happens if you send out a bunch of emails to press and distribution sites, and you get no response?  Do you:

A. Quietly give up?
B. Keep sending them the same message over and over again every so often?

Answer: neither, if you really want to be an indie developer.  If you start spamming press and distribution sites with the same message, how long do you think it will be before they actually flag your address as a spam address so that they don't have to see your stupid identical messages over and over again?  Even if you mildly (or heavily) reword your message, odds are you'll receive a chilly response.  You need something new to tell them, and you can bet they're expert at recognizing content-less emails, which they received a lot of.

So, the real answer to the above question is actually secret option C, which is to make sure that if you re-contact press or distributors, you have something genuinely and significantly new and interesting to tell them every time.  How do you do this?  By continually updating and improving your game.  Add in some fun new content.  Make it something significant and interesting, something that you could picture reading about from some other developer on Blue's News or ModDB.  Anything less is just going to be spam to a lot of folks.

Step 5: Keep Updating Your Game
I know I just said this in #4, but this is important enough to warrant its own step.  You need to keep adding to and updating your game, improving it based on player feedback, that sort of thing.  Every so often, do a big release with all your little changes summarized, and the most exciting ones highlighted.  Send that to the distributors, and to the press that would be interested in that sort of thing.  If you've had some positive reviews lately, you can also mention those (especially to distributors), but they aren't news in their own right.

This fifth step is also important in that:
  •  It actually makes your game better, and your players happier.
  •  It's legitimately news-worthy.
  •  It keeps your existing players playing the game longer, and talking about it.
  •  Best of all, if you like your game (hopefully you do), this is fun and rewarding.  You wanted to make games, right?  Rather than rushing off to the next title, why not spend some time making your current title the best it can absolutely be?
Granted, if your game is not already solid, this won't work.  If everyone thinks your game is terrible, and no-one will talk about your game or play it much, then the advice a lot of other successful indies give is correct: it's time to treat that game as a learning experience and move on to the next one.  Don't try to salvage it, you're just as likely to make it worse as anything else.

This whole process is assuming your game is already good or great, right?  But I've yet to see a game that couldn't be made better at least in small ways with a few tweaks and additions.  It might be some little side quest.  It might be more settings options or some improvements to the controls based on player feedback.  It might be a new enemy or a new item or weapon.  It might be some improvements to art, or a new music track, or improved sound effects.

Step 6: Be Hyper-Critical With Your Own Work
This is really a corollary to step 5.  I have never met a professional game developer, a professional novelist, or a professional creative of any sort, who thought their work was perfect.  Perfection is the delusion of amateurs.  Professionals are always look at their work in a critical way, seeing all the seams a cracks that almost no-one else will see. 

Since you're trying to sell and distribute digital games, you are in the unique and fortunate position that you can revise and extend your work at will.  You should never have an initial release that is full of known bugs, but it's inevitable that players will find some that slipped past you.  Fix them.  If you're at all like me, you were probably also boiling over with other ideas that didn't actually make it into your initial release of the game.   Release some of those ideas in patches, as "free DLC" that just comes right with the standard patches of the game.

Step 7: Take Suggestions From Players
Even better than step #6 above: solicit suggestions from players.  You might have to swallow your auteristic pride a bit at first, but once you get used to it you'll find that players are absolutely full of cool ideas you would never have thought of.  Every person views the world a bit differently, and that's really something useful in your case.  Players love to make suggestions, and if you implement those, they'll be really thrilled.  And your game will be better for it, if it was a good suggestion.

You want a way to build player investment and word of mouth?  Make them a part of the process.  Show them you value their opinions and their ideas.  These are exactly the sorts of things big companies never do.  Doesn't it drive you nuts?  Isn't that feeling of powerlessness with the major AAA games part of the reason you started making your own games in the first place?  Well, many of your players will have that same sort of feeling with your work unless you actually let them have a voice.  It's a good thing to do, for you and for them, and you'll be surprised at the positive community that can form around this.

Step 8: Give Away Free Stuff
You notice I said "free DLC" in step 6?  Yeah, all of this stuff only works for promotional purposes if you're giving it away for free.  If you try to nickel and dime the players for every little addition (or worse, ever charge them for any bugfixes), they'll quickly leave in disgust

The best part of giving away free updates to an existing game is that it's only free for players who actually buy your stuff.  This gives existing players a reason to stick around and continue to give you suggestions and talk to their friends and such.  But it also gives people who have yet to try your game a strong incentive to check it out.

Think about it this way: if I tell you a game is a year old, how do you think of it?  Is it mildly crusty and not a newsworthy sort of game?  Maybe you'll play it anyway, or you might be the sort that thinks there is enough new stuff that you'd rather see the latest and greatest games, instead.  But what if I tell you a game came out a year ago, and has had free monthly or bimonthly updates for the entire last year?  How does this affect your perception of both the game and the developer of that game?  See what I'm driving at here?

Granted, this doesn't mean you can't do paid expansions and DLC.  But those should be really meaty and worthwhile, in addition to all the significant stuff you're already giving away.  Players know when you're not giving them a good value, so strive to always do so.  And hey, it's just the right thing to do in general.

Step 9: Have Patience, Have Persistence
Don't go spamming any press or distribution sites, and for goodness sake don't make a marketing-y bother out of yourself.  Don't be sending messages to the same nonresponsive press/distributors any more frequently than monthly, and make sure you have noteworthy new news every time you do contact them.

But goodness, don't give up after one failed contact, either.  For AI War, it took us 3 months after initial release to reach 1,000 sales, or to get our first really big reviews.  It took 5 months after initial release to get on Steam.  It took 6 months after initial release before we had a MetaScore.  It took us 7 months after initial release to hit 10,000 sales.

During that timespan I added literally thousands of features to AI War (over 46,000 words of release notes just to version 2.0, no joke), and I sent hundreds of emails and inquiries, over 90% of which never received a direct response. 

But press eventually did respond, and once there was a certain amount of momentum some of them even contacted me directly.  Impulse wound up being interested in AI War early, and then GamersGate was, and then finally Steam and Direct2Drive came around to it.  For other developers the order is different, or all the distributors might not even be interested.  There are definitely still a few distributors that won't give me the time of day or answer my emails, and AI War was a massive success as far as non-contest-winning indie games go.

I perhaps went a bit overboard with how many features I added to AI War, but I was having a fun time doing it, and the player response was really great.  If I hadn't had all that encouragement from players, the press, and ultimately from the distributors, I wouldn't have done that much.  Put another way, if you're not gaining any traction, then the advice of the other indie developers is right and you should just move on to another game.  But assuming you are making progress with the players, press, and sales, you should keep at it: persistence wins the day, just not always very fast.

Step 10: Discounts Never Hurt
Another way you can get a lot of "free" publicity?  Discount your game for a brief period.  I put free in quotation marks because you pay for that publicity in the form of all those discounts you're giving.  But it's vastly more effective than advertising, I've found, so it's quite a good investment.  And having a big rush of new players is great for the ongoing publicity and word of mouth of your game, too.

If you can time your discount promotion with or near the release of some new free additions to the game, so much the better.

There are many, many ways to build a successful indie company.  I only know the way that I did it, and that this worked very well for me.  It's been a solid business model for Arcen, and it's made our players really, really happy in the main.  Want to have a dedicated fanbase?  Show them that you're willing to go above and beyond what you'd have to do.  Also?  That, again, is just generally the right thing to do, anyway.

On the PC side, I can't think of many other developers using this same strategy as us, but there definitely are some doing it.  Dwarf Fortress essentially does this, BOH seems to do this, and so on.

On the iPhone, though, this sort of thing is incredibly common.  All the most popular iPhone games (and even many of the less-popular ones) are getting updated all the timeDoodle Jump, Defender Chronicles, and Angry Birds are just three examples of many I could name.

This sort of thing really works.  And doing right by your customers is always a good idea.  Good luck!

Wearing Multiple Hats Is Tough, And PR Is Important

This has been a productive week for me, in terms of me getting a lot of things done, but it wasn't the work I'd intended to get done, or the type of work I am normally accustomed to -- so I've been feeling guilty and stressed.  Ever have that happen to you?  It's been something I've faced my entire life, but I never figured out what was going on until now.

Background Tangent: This can happen with any job
Back when I was in high school, I was a cashier for a local hardware store.  I really liked doing the sales and troubleshooting type work (helping people find the right solution for their problem, or at least finding a product in the store), but most of the time I was just on register.  I worked there for a year, and by the end it was clear I was good at the troubleshooting stuff, so I was let out onto the sales floor more and more.  And I was frequently nervous, guilty, or stressed.  I did the job fine, and customers seemed happy, and management seemed happy, and I was certainly happier with that work, but I felt guilty for not being on register.

Right after high school I got my first job in the software industry.  It started out as data entry for a few weeks, then I quickly became a system admin, then after two years I officially joined the programming team and shortly after became the head of the programming team during a big layoff (long story there).  And you know what?  Every time I changed positions, I had guilt and discomfort.  Sitting at my desk doing data entry, I felt idle.  Doing the system admin work I felt guilty because the work was something I enjoyed and was not that mentally taxing.  Switching over to programming more, I felt guilty because I wasn't working with my hands or using specialized knowledge that nobody else in the office had.

And so on.  I think that a lot of stay-at-home parents have the same sort of trouble, honestly.  They're used to doing whatever job, and now that they're doing the massively important job of taking care of their children, they feel "idle" despite the fact that they're doing something immensely of value.  It's often the case, so I've heard, that new moms feel guilty for not cooking as much, or doing outside work, or keeping a clean house, while they're busy taking care of the baby.  Obviously, that guilt is incredibly misplaced (without even getting into gender roles: it's clear they've got a demanding job with the baby alone).

So what's the problem specific to indie developers?
This week, my guilt and anxiety is because I haven't been programming as much.  Keith has been, and certainly I've spent maybe 10 hours programming myself, but the rest has been more "soft" skills:
  • Talking to the press.
  • Talking to and negotiating with potential vendors.
  • Catching up on some financials, including doing more projections and assessments so that I can make decisions about potential hires during the autumn
  • Talking with a potential PR firm.
  • Dealing with a partner that went into insolvency without paying us.
  • Getting everything ready for the next full project, Alden Ridge, so that the staff not working on Tidalis or AI War can get started.
  • Getting a head start on the design of Alden Ridge itself, so that folks on the team have a better idea of where we are already heading
  • Redoing the entire blog and coding that into the main page of the arcen site, then transferring close to two hundred older posts and articles by hand so that they'd be categorized.
  • Coordinating with both Valve and Unity 3D on some various internal things.
  • Oh yeah, and I did a fair bit of technical support and had a number of discussions with players.
This happens to most new business owners (which many indies are)
Gosh, it's been a freaking busy week.  I was working 10 hour days, which is admittedly low for me if you look at the past few months, but still.  I would never demand of staff what I have gotten into the habit of demanding of myself.  It would, frankly, be inhumane.

This is a common trap that new business owners fall into, and that "one man shops" often fall into when the team grows.  The owner feels guilty for taking any time off, feels like he/she should be working every waking moment, and so on.  That's a trap to avoid, as it's not healthy and leads to spectacular flame-outs and ultimately failure of the business.  It's something I'm working on, most of all because I'm going to be a new father sometime in the next 1-6 weeks, and I sure as heck don't want any of this interfering with family life.

But that's not the real crux of what I realized, even.  The point of this post is to discuss that guilt-thing that I've noticed in my own life going all the way back to the hardware store.  What is that thing?

Here's the problem: what exactly is it I do?  What's my job?
Personally, I think it's just an inherent difficulty with wearing multiple hats.  People ask me what I do for a living, and I rarely know what to say.  I stumble through something along the lines of "I make games" or "I have a video game company" or similar (because the followup to my first response is inevitably "where do you work?" with a hoped response of Blizzard or Nintendo or something).

What am I supposed to say?  I founded a games company, but now I act as producer there, as well as the lead designer on most projects but assistant designer on Tidalis, and yeah I do all the finances except taxes, and most of the contract negotiation except when we really need our lawyer to do it, and most of the marketing and PR stuff, and I do all the HR stuff like managing health benefits and such, and I do a huge chunk of the programming though not all of it anymore thanks to having Keith now (thank God), and I keep up the website and deal with lost license keys and the occasional customer who wants a refund and and and...

It's freaking crazy that anyone could work fulltime doing all that, and then still feel guilty for not spending 40 hours programming in any given week, but that's how I feel.  With all the rest of the stuff I do, there is a good 20-30 hours of work per week just in that.  So to do 40 hours of programming means I'm working a 60-70 hour week.  If it's crunch time and I'm trying to spend 60 hours programming, and if it's tax time or time to do payroll or time to bring a new staff member up to speed or something, then the problem is only compounded even more.  I also like to answer questions for other indies (I get a few emails a month, usually), and I try to keep up with this blog when I can.

I went to school for computer science, and then changed to a business degree with a focus on management, so I do like doing most of this stuff, especially the finances and the HR stuff.  Call me weird.  But what I like doing best is game design, followed extremely closely by programming.  When I think of "what is my job," the simple, incredibly misleading answer I like to think is "I design and program games."  All the rest of that stuff isn't something I think of as my core job, it's just something I do so that I can do my real job.  It's like chores: you have to mow the lawn and take out the garbage, but when someone asks you what your job is, you probably don't think of those things.

Why this is such a problem
Okay, so we've established that the above is a problem.  For obvious reasons, mainly: it leads to unhappiness and burnout, it's probably not healthy, it destroys any semblance of a balanced life if you let it (social life? what?), and it can lead to the ruin of your company if you're not careful.

But there is an even more insidious problem, which I have seen with so incredibly many indies that it's practically an epidemic: it can lead to a skewed sense of valuation of activities.  In other words, many indies often focus on the wrong things.  They (hopefully) focus on making the absolute best game they can, pouring all their time and energy into the current project.  That's great, to a point, but the problem is that having an obsession with the game itself can lead to tunnel vision.

And then the project is -- hooray -- done!  So what does the prototypical indie developer do?  They send out a couple of emails, make a few forum posts, and wait for success to find them.  And then it usually doesn't.

I've been around long enough to know that you need a lot of marketing and PR work done after a game is finished.  So I spent practically all last week on that, and sent out several hundred emails.  Since Arcen is already something of a known quantity, we had a lot more success with that this time around compared to when AI War came out; I think the tally of press members who have opted to review the game is up to about 48 now, and that includes something like three or four print magazines.

That's a big improvement over AI War!  AI War was really well reviewed, but only in about 20 places, and that over the span of a six month period after the game came out.  With Tidalis, everything was indeed easier this second time around, and I had 20+ reviewers asking for the game within the first 24 hours of contacting any of them.

So where in this process did I severely drop the ball?  If you were reading carefully, you've already seen it: I waited until we'd completely finished the game, and were two days away from the game coming out, before I did any serious PR or marketing work.  Sure, I did a number of videos during development of the game, and I sent out several impersonal press releases to all my press contacts, but that resulted only in a brief writeup on Co-Optimus, an early review by a small blog, a preview on Gamezebo, and a mild bit of exposure on ModDB.

That is so much less than it could have been if I'd been on the ball with the press.  If I'd put in half the effort with the press during production that I did after production, the release of Tidalis could have been so much larger of an event.

The press response to the game has been overall exceedingly crazy positive thus far, so we definitely did our duty in making the game, but I dropped the ball with publicizing it.  Those people who have heard of the game seem to really adore it in the main, but most gamers have never even heard of it.  Consequently, our sales volume so far has been about 10x lower than I had expected the minimum sales volume to be.  That is excruciatingly sobering, no?  Tidalis is well into the quadruple digits of sales after being out only two weeks (a feat it took AI War four months to reach, despite the fact that game has now sold around 30k units if you count the expansion), so from that angle it's still already vastly more successful than all but a handful of indie games.

But here's the thing: if you look at the reviews and player comments that the game is getting, it's clear that it's being undersold at the moment.  Thank goodness with digital distribution this is a problem I can correct over time.  I suspect that by the end of September things will be back on track with where I'd expected the game to be, but we're not there yet and that's where the game should have been at launch if I'd done things correctly.  I'm not worried about the fate of Tidalis specifically, Arcen is in a position where thankfully we're able to compensate for my earlier mistake and the game is good enough that it should get back on track.

What concerns me, in a larger sense, is this: I don't feel much remorse for having screwed that up.  My gut feeling is instead that, while the release was not the way we wanted, that was largely outside my control -- I sent out press releases and such, after all, but nobody responded.  The basic belief being that I could have done more, but we had limited time and I put my efforts in where it was more needed, on coding and producing and such.  And in a lot of senses that is true, it's not like I had a lot of spare time to be able to spend a full week on PR stuff in the middle of that project.  In retrospect, I should have pushed the project's deadline back a week in order to make time, but it was an honest mistake on my part due to the fact that I am not, at core, a marketer or PR rep.  So as much as I do wish I'd handled that better, I it's hard to feel particularly remorseful.

Okay... yet when I take a week largely off from programming so that I can take care of the other critical business needs that I've been putting off in order to get Tidalis out the door, I do feel guilty.  I feel stressed and guilty like crazy.  This is so incredibly backwards!  And talking to other indies and reading posts by other indies, I know I'm not the only one with this sort of screwed up sense of valuation of my activities.

This is toxic.  And it can happen to you without your even realizing it's happening at all.

So what's the lesson here?
The lesson is that if you're going to be a successful indie, you have to either get lucky or you have to sometimes act against your instincts.  My instincts are to cling to designing and programming games, not because that's the part I enjoy most (though that is true), but because that's the part that seems most core to our business.  The people that love our games love them because they are designed and programmed well (and for reasons of the art and music as the case may be, obviously, but I'm not involved as directly in those).

So if all potential players were omniscient, and knew exactly what every game on the market was, where to find it, and which ones they would like, I'd have no problem.  I'd be absolutely correct in just focusing on the design and programming, since that would be the only thing that would directly affect both sales and player enjoyment.

Since we live in a world without omniscient players, unfortunately, there is the sticky business that you can make a game that someone would love, and they'll never ever hear about it.  Or they hear just the wrong sort of information, or not enough information, for them to realize how much they'll love it.  That sort of thing happens all the time, and not just with smaller games.  How many people have you heard gush about Portal or Silent Hill 2 years after the fact, after having finally trying the game to see "what all the hype was about?"  It's just that the problem is more severe with smaller games, indie or not.

For a multitude of reasons, when it comes to publicity and PR and marketing, with Arcen it's my responsibility.  If you've founded an indie company, or are thinking of founding one, odds are that the same responsibility belongs to you.  The lesson is that most of us need to do a better job of remembering this, from the start of the development process on forward

Speaking personally, I need to get over my guilt when I'm tending to the business side of things, and I need to remember to allocate time in each project for that sort of work, because it's just that important.  As the project manager, if I'm scheduling projects in such a way that the project has no time for publicity and marketing type work, then I'm not doing my job correctly there, either.

Every successful indie talks about how important publicity and marketing is.  And they all have their own method of going about that sort of thing.  A lot of them talk about how important their self-posted previews were, or their development diaries, or early previews by the press.  Even just having reviews in-hand at launch can make a big difference.  Not doing all those things is a recoverable situation, AI War is proof enough of that, but not doing those things makes the road oh-so-much-harder, and occasionally impossible.  I remember reading all those sorts of articles, but I should have actually taken that advice.  If you're a new or an aspiring indie developer, so should you.