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.

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