Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Early Access, Difficulty Fetishists, and Driving Yourself Insane

I am always amazed by how little I am able to predict the game industry. The success of Steam Early Access (where developers can put their unfinished games up for sale early) is still a bit of a shock.

When I started out writing shareware in the last century, shareware had a pretty bad reputation. It was often buggy, weird, and badly put-together. But at least, as rough as a shareware game might have been, at least when it was released it was DONE. We were so old-fashioned then.

Yet you can't argue with success. Early Access is a popular new way of developing, is here to stay, and requires new techniques and guidelines. One recent cautionary tale may, I think, be very instructive.

Early Access, Failing In Public, and How to Fill Your Brain With Madness

So now developers can release their game early. This has good points. Gamers get the game earlier. The developer can get possibly much needed cash. Most interestingly (to me), users get a chance to watch an unfinished game take shape before their eyes.

On the other hand, the game will be buggy and incomplete, and you can't be sure it will ever be finished. Also, and this is the part that really interests me, the developers have to finish a game in view of the full public. It's hard enough to write a game under the best of circumstances. Early access devs have to write a game while the entire world is shouting at them.

I fear the views of the unfiltered public. I've written about this before. If you let too many loud voices into your head, it can drive you mad. Outside feedback is necessary, but you have to filter it. For me, ten sensible people are far more useful than 10000 internet randos. You'll write a much better game if you don’t just throw the doors of your brain open to the world.

Which brings us to the recent fascinating case study: Darkest Dungeon.

This is how my game development process looks under the best of circumstances.
Darkest Dungeon: A Cautionary Tale

When Darkest Dungeon came out in Early Access a few months ago, I talked it up a lot. It's a really ingenious roguelike. You keep a stable of 20 or so adventurers and pick bands of 4 of them to send into really nasty dungeons.

The dungeons are (or were) moderately tough. You'll probably get through, but a run of bad luck can permanently kill some (or all) of your characters. Much of the game is judging how you are doing and deciding after each fight whether you should flee or not.

(There's also the unusual mechanic of a sanity meter. Upsetting events can drive your characters insane. In my experience, this basically just acts as a second health bar, so I'll leave it undiscussed.)

You could usually beat a dungeon without much fuss, but there was always a chance of disaster. This led to an experience that was pleasingly tense and exciting without being soul-crushing.

However, I have to refer all of this in the past tense. When the game was new, I visited their forums to see the feedback they were getting. When I saw it and how the devs were reacting to it, I thought, "Oh boy. This could be a problem." And it was. Sadly, the game I loved is kind of gone.

If you want a much more detailed view of the kerfuffle, go here for a good write-up. Official word from the shell-shocked developers is here.

In short, what happened is that this highly talented crew of game makers allowed the Difficulty Fetishists into their heads, and now they are trying to repair the damage.

The Most Dangerous Form of Feedback

There are lots of different ways you can get damaging feedback, but the Difficulty Fetishists are the ones you must fear the most. They are marked by three qualities:

1. They ALWAYS want the game to be harder, no matter how hard it already is.
2. They will be the loudest, most persistent givers of feedback. They will swarm forums, making them seem more numerous than they are.
3. They are mean and contemptuous to anyone who suggests, no matter how meekly, that the game is too hard to be fun. ("n00b!" "LRN 2 PLAY!" "GIT GUD!")

Now let us be very clear. Gamers who love really hard games ARE a valid audience. I have several such gamers as permanent members of my testing pool, and they are invaluable when I design the harder difficulty levels. However, they MUST be kept away from influencing the default difficulty level at all costs.

Since Darkest Dungeon only has one difficulty level and is intended to be a hard game, you can see the problem. The Difficulty Fetishists dominated the feedback. Now Darkest Dungeon is a brutal and unforgiving game in which, among other things, you have to hack away the bodies of monsters you already killed to get at the archers murdering you from the back.

The result was that the silent majority of content players became very disgruntled and non-silent, and now the developers are trying to find their way back out of the weeds. I'm sure they will manage, though it's a great example of how treacherous trying to please one faction of gamers can be.

This is, of course, only one form of bad feedback. There are as many ways to give bad advice as there are people. This is why using Early Access to give all of humanity a chance to poke at your game when it is still amorphous and unformed is risky.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this. First, though, I want to mention one other peril of Early Access.

I suggest planning a realistic schedule before going into Early Access. Writing tweets like these are not fun.
How One Rogue Developer Can Screw Us All

I know I repeat myself overmuch on this point, but the biggest thing going for indie gaming is that people like us and want us to succeed. When one of us is a jerk or con artist, it hurts all of us.

If you put your game on Early Access, you MUST do one of these two things: 1. Finish it roughly according to schedule, or 2. Humbly explain what is going on and apologize.

I know some online commentors put down gamers for being Entitled, but if I pay money for half a game and a promise of the second half, dammit, I AM entitled.

(Sadly, after my experience with the promising title Kentucky Route Zero, I've stopped buying Early Access games at all.) 

I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line for how long is too long when finishing an Early Access game. It’s an interesting question that bears discussion. How about this for a potential rule of thumb to argue over: If you can’t say with confidence your potential Early Access game will be done within a year, maybe it needs more time in the oven.

For early adopters, if you take too long to finish your game, you might as well not have finished it at all. Remember, every year the number of elderly gamers increases. Sorry for this extra pressure, but if you take too long, when your game is done, some of the people who bought it won't be alive anymore.

My Humble Advice For Those Who Take This Road

I'm not going to give advice to the Darkest Dungeon people. As I said, they're really talented folks, working on a game with huge potential. I could offer advice to them, but I'm often wrong, and the last thing they need is another loud voice in their heads.

Instead, I will make a humble suggestion or three to those who have yet to go down this road.

Advice One: Form An Elite Feedback Strike Force

Gamer feedback has diminishing returns. Adding more people doesn't help much. Read your feedback, find a good, diverse pool of 10-15 solid advisors, and take most of your advice from them.

Advice Two: It's OK To Stop Listening Sometimes

Trust yourself. If you start to feel confused and bereft, you have my permission to turn off the feedback hose. Take a breath. Enjoy silence and peace. Play your game yourself and see if you like it. You're the designer. If you're digging what you made, it's OK. Trust yourself.

Advice Three: Ban the Evil

This is a big one. If you have a forum and some dude attacks or insults someone else giving feedback, you must ban him. DO IT. BAN HIM. BANHIMBANHIMBANHIM. If he gets mad, tell him how to get a Steam refund. If he can't get a refund, mail him a personal check. Just get rid of him.

This is not an overreaction. The worst thing a tester can do is try to shame and scare off other people giving honest feedback. Anyone who tries to drive away other testers is a direct threat to the health of your business. Terminate with extreme prejudice.

Also, banning jerks is fun and theraputic. It is an activity I recommend highly.

Early Access Is An Experiment

Then again, I feel everything in the game industry is an experiment now. This whole thing is new, and it's evolving faster than I can follow.

I won't try it out myself. I'm too old-fashioned, and I like doing most of my creating in a relatively calm, quiet environment. However, if you would prefer to do your delicate design work while on a flaming rocket, alarm klaxons blaring, flying at top speed into the heart of the sun, I think that Early Access might be just right for you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Indie Bubble Revisited (or, Are We All Totally-Doomed, or Just Regular-Doomed?)

I hate writing this, because the situation is ugly, and it feels like I'm just piling on. I'll try to add something new to the discussion.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Another stupid article about the Indie Bubble, or the #indiepocalypse, or whatever dumb thing they’re calling it today.

It’s starting to get a little old. I did my part kicking off this whole discussion with my Indie Bubble article about a year ago. It's probably the most widely read thing I've ever written. Luminaries of the game industry read it. Many articles referenced it. Some people hated it, though a lot of these seemed to do so not because it was wrong but because they wanted it to be wrong.

It’s been talked about a lot since then. I’ve read a million articles and tweets and critiques by established indie devs who are eager to let you know that if you don’t create an eternal classic and market it 27 hours every day you suck and deserve to fail. (I’m know ... I’m exaggerating. Some days, it doesn’t feel like it.)

But I’m not gunning for ten million dollars, and I doubt most young game devs are either. We just want to earn pizza and housing money making our happy toys. We know that a few people can make a killing. We just want to know if we can make a living.

Anyway, it’s been a year, and I’d like to check in. Try to inject some reality, maybe a solid prediction or two. It seems like half of the game industry is too optimistic and the other half too lost to despair. Instead, all we need to do is look around and see a bit of what the Game Industry is like. What it was like before the bubble, and what it is reverting to being like again.

By the way, I don't want to turn this into an ugly class thing, but ... If you already have a massive hit, OF COURSE everything looks great.

A Bit Of Truth, and Then You Can Ignore the Rest of This

Some have described me as some sort of weirdo Indie Dev Angel of Death, forecasting the apocalypse. This is not what I said in my article. All I said was that, after several exuberant years, the business of writing indie games was returning to normal.

And what is normal? Here's the big take-away! Writing games for cash is a harsh, unforgiving affair. Success is rare and failure common, instead of the other way around. If an indie game fails, it shouldn’t surprise you. Success should surprise you. All I said was that, in the future, this hard reality will (and must) reassert itself.

Please take a moment to reread the previous paragraph. Then don’t read the rest of this mess. All that us Doomsayers are saying is that the simple reality in the previous paragraph is reasserting itself. There’s is an #indiepocalypse, kind of. It’s a painful return to the simple harshness of the gaming biz, same as it always was.

But if you’re still reading, since we're all in the future now, I wanted to revisit my original piece and see if I was accurate.

So let us look, bravely, eyes open and clear, at the situation as it exists. Let's figure out where we're going, and let's see if we can all find a way to avoid flying shrapnel.

Time for a little cheering-up break. Thanks, Twilight Sparkle! Friendship IS magic!

Now I Prove I Was Right

How can I prove that I was right, that the happy days of easy money are gone, and that we indie devs are going to have to hustle and scrape and control our budgets like in the musty olde shareware days?

Once, I dreaded writing this article. I feared having to dig up tales of high profile indie flops. I planned to rely on imperfect measures, like the increasing number of games forced to rely on massive discounts and being in bundles a scant 3-5 months after release. I thought I'd need to scrape together what sales figures I could find to show that, yes, titles that once would have been massive hits out of the gate will struggle simply to break even.

Now I don't need to do any of that. I have been given manna from Blog Writer Heaven: SteamSpy.

Aren't you sick of seeing this chart? (Full size original here.) I know I am.
The Mysterious Miracle of SteamSpy

SteamSpy is a new web site that uses online data mining, secret algorithms, and Magic to come up with weirdly accurate estimates of how many titles games on Steam have sold. Based on my own sales and what I've heard from other indie devs, its numbers are surprisingly on the nose.

It's not as good for figuring out how much actual money a game has made. SteamSpy counts sales, not how much money a sale was actually for. The site  can't tell whether sales were at full price or from sales or bundles or whatever. However, if a game hasn't yet been in any bundles or big sales, it's good at estimating how much the game has earned. It's pretty damn cool.

That being said, please consult the chart above.

One heavily disputed claim in my original article was that most people have only a constant amount they will spend on video games. Thus, since so many more titles are coming out, earnings will go way down.

This struck me as a pretty uncontroversial statement, immediately understood by anyone who knows anything about economics or who has had to make a family budget. If you release 10x as many games, people won't start spending 10x as much on games, as they also need to buy food.

SteamSpy's chart says this is pretty much exactly what happened. Number of games shot up. Money earned per game went way down. Yes, there are still hits, and they generally earned it. It's the invisible majority of developers that are drifting into oblivion in silence.

So now I'm going to make some predictions, and I hope, in a year, that I have been proven wrong. I really do.

Another chart everyone is sick of: Steam releases per month. Ignore the dumb trend line and just look at the dots. The pretty, pretty dots.

Prediction One: More People Need To Abandon Their Dreams.

As a bonus, there is another chart: Steam Releases per month. There's no guesswork here. To know the number of new releases, you just have to go to Steam and count them. The numbers are still shooting up, as hopeful, talented young devs chase the gold rush.

Expect earnings for most developers to keep going down for a while. I don't take any satisfaction in this. I love indie development, and, as I said in the previous article, I WANT to be proven wrong. (Remember, this is my day job too.) Yet, these numbers are pretty compelling, and they speak of a rough road ahead.

Yeah, yeah. You’re probably sick to DEATH of hearing that. LOTS of indie devs say it. What nobody talks about is exactly what that rough road will look like. Who will get hurt, and how? Here’s a guess:

Basically, solid, competently made games that would have made a modest profit 10 years ago or 10 years from now will just flop. Really ground-breaking titles will do fine, of course. It’s just that, in a normal environment, you shouldn’t need to be absolutely unique and invent a new genre or whatever to make money.

(Oh, by the way? If an otherwise solid product falls to huge competition, there's no need to pile on further by saying, "You just sucked. Indies are whiners. You just want a trophy for showing up. Loser. LRN2PLAYN00B!" It really aggravates me when profitable indie devs do this. Show some humility. You just write indie games, for God's sake. Just because your game sold well doesn't make you Jesus.)

This is REALLY important: After the hard times to come, yes, wages will be lower than they were. It will be harder to get rich, but it'll also be totally possible to scrape by a nice, middle-class existence writing competent games in underserved genres.

All it will take is enough companies dying to have a few genres be underserved again. This process will be HARD. This is the so-called #indiepocalypse, right here.

To make a living without a monster hit, however, will require some reality acceptance ...

Yeah, pretty much. I suggest writing your first game in your spare, non-job time. Yes, I know this sucks. I've been there, man.

Prediction Two: Ambitions Will Grow More Modest. Budgets Will Be Cut.

My blog is called the Bottom Feeder, because that is what I am. I am a small, fast, nimble developer, dashing in to grab the scraps the big boys leave behind. I write my games on tight schedules with modest budgets. When I can use cheap, licensed sound and graphics, I do so with enthusiasm.

As a result, our business has done well for over 20 years.

I've watched the ramping up of indie budgets and ambitions over the last few years with fascination. Having a real team and professional assets (graphics, sound, etc) can result in a very successful game. However, the more you spend, the greater the risk. Sometimes, I suspect my fellow developers have lost the ability to make hard choices about what luxuries are worth paying for and what aren't.

Indie developers tend to want nothing less than custom graphics and music of the highest quality, everything done completely fresh for each game. Sometimes, licensing a piece of music for cheap can do just as well, with far less overhead to earn back in sales.

If your game needs voicework (Does it? Does it, really?), there are a multitude of actors who can do well for reasonable rates. Instead, I've seen several developers hire big name actors. I sincerely doubt this generates enough extra sales to justify the expense and trouble.

Team sizes. Holy cripes, but teams are big! I never would have imagined that a 10+ person indie game team would seem like a viable option. Never forget that you can make remarkable stuff with two people (one coder, one artist, buy what assets you have to online for cheap).

And as for long development times, yes, I know. Art happens on its own schedule and shouldn't be rushed. Yet, discipline is still necessary. It's way easier to stay in business when you have a new game every two years than every four. If you're spending 5-7 years to make an indie game, I hope you were already rich when you started.

Amazingly, some indie devs hire actual consultants, the greatest of all cash sponges for confused businesses with too much money. The highest profile recent indie failure, Tale of Tales, hired an expensive consultancy team to help out.  I can guarantee that it wasn't worth it.

As things get tougher, the indie business will need to focus more on the 'Business' part. This is all to the good.

Look at the bright side. If you never get famous, nobody will notice when you have your nervous breakdown on Twitter.

Prediction Three: "PR Better" Will Stop Being the Answer To Everything.

Lower budgets mean you can sell fewer copies of your game and still stay in business. If you operate on a low enough budget, you don't need a huge PR breakthrough to succeed.

I believe a really good game, word of mouth marketing, and patience can still be enough to generate a profitable product. It’s a slow, hard road, but this is still a tough industry. It’s still was easier than it used to be, as the number of outlets for word-of-mouth and cheap marketing have gone way up since I started. If I’m wrong, we have an even more serious problem than we thought.

This is because the PR situation is becoming intolerable. I am so sick of indie devs who already made it saying, "You must spend huge resources on PR. If you don't, you deserve to fail." This is mean, lazy, and utterly neglectful of the reality now.

Look. As I write this, Pax Prime is going on. There are OVER ONE HUNDRED indie games showing at PAX. These are young, ambitious developers who are expending huge amounts of time, cash, and energy doing what their elders told them to do. For most of them, the effort will be wasted.

This isn't their fault. The gaming press only has so much bandwidth. It can and will only cover so many games, and most of those resources will go to AAA titles. They simply can't give exposure to over 100 games. Even if they could, gamers don't have the time or mental bandwidth to process so much input.

I've heard that the press will only cover you if you go directly to them in person (expensive, time-consuming). Simple email contacts (fast, inexpensive) won't do. I'm starting to believe it. The recent indie game N++ hardly got any coverage, and this is the sequel to the N series, one of the best-known, seminal series of the indie boom.

And yet, even if they had gone to cons and kissed the ring, I doubt it would have helped. Over 100 indie games on display. You can't fight that math.

(I’m assuming here that the gaming press is a pure, neutral meritocracy. If you believe that the press occasionally gives a huge amount of press to a mediocre title for unrelated reasons, well, the problem becomes even more dire.)

This is also assuming, of course, that conventional press even matters anymore. There are real doubts on that score. Reviews in old-school magazines and web sites don’t bump my sales near as much as they used to.

I believe that, of necessity, developers will rediscover building businesses the old-fashioned way. Not by getting a smash hit overnight, but slowly, game by game, building a genuine fan base that will carry them through good times and bad, counting on quality and word-of-mouth PR to get the word out there. As the saying goes, it takes ten years to make an overnight success.

It's slow and difficult. Really difficult. It may not even be possible. You’ll have to forgive me for thinking it’s possible, as it’s the only thing that enables me to get out of bed some mornings.

Pictured: The Game Industry in 2016. (Artist's conception.)

Prediction Four: Indie Gaming Will Survive.

Despite all this, I'm not a doomsayer. Indie gaming will survive. Gamers want us to survive, and the quality of our work is fantastic. I rarely have more fun than when I buy a Humble Bundle and try out 10 of the games these ambitious young people are making.

These new developers are driven, smart, and admirable. They are better than me, and I want them to get rich. Some of them even will.

Nobody knows what is going to happen. There are a ton of unsolved problems (like pricing and efficient marketing). It will be hard to succeed. Like it has almost always been, and will almost always be.

My advice for you personally? It's the same advice I'd give to anyone planning to go into a highly competitive artistic field: Don't start writing indie games unless you couldn't possibly be happy doing any other job.

I hope you're not a broken toy like me, driven by a mad compulsion to make these peculiar, garish, little works of art. But if you are, welcome aboard. I am rooting for you.

You're still reading this? What's WRONG with you? Why didn't you just read 200 words, make up some stupid opinion I didn't say, and attack me for it in a Gamasutra article? You know, like everyone else?

What I Am Going To Do

The same thing I've always done. Lay low. Work fast and cheap. I'll count on my awesome loyal fans to see me through, and I'll do my best to make work worthy of their loyalty.

My games are $20. To stay in business, I need to sell, say, a minimum of 6000 full price copies of each new game. Add on bundles, Steam sales, etc, and it's a good living. For me, now, it's an entirely attainable goal. If you care, you can follow how I'm doing on SteamSpy.

I know life is a bummer now, but indie games are just too cool to die. If you write them, as a pro or hobbyist, be proud.

Well, better get back to work. I have two weeks to write four weeks’ work of dialogue. Time to hop to it.


Please let me know how much I suck on my Twitter.