Tuesday, September 14, 2010

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.

1 comment:

Harbour Master said...

Sorry - and surprised - to hear about this Chris. Made me change my gaming priorities, so grabbed Tidalis this evening and played instead of waiting until I've finally got round to AI War.

Interesting: will write up for Electron Dance on the weekend. I think there's a marketing problem with perception versus reality for Tidalis. You can see some of this with "hmm, I don't like casual games" crowd but I think it goes a little deeper than that. Will expand on ED when I've given more thought to this.