Inertia. PUSH PUSH PUSH

April 20, 2018 | Filed under: business

A long time ago, wee released a game on the ipad. Its hilarious that I cannot even remember whether in this case it was democracy 3 or gratuitous space battles (edit: it was D3). At least one of those is no longer available, because its 32bit, and some genius at apple thinks that the millions of apple customers should no longer be allowed to play 32 bit games, because somehow, thats suddenly a bad thing (it isn’t). Isn’t it great when platforms restrict consumer choice? Its bad enough on PC, but on apple… you have no other store choice. This is why all my computers are windows…

anyway…

We had this theory back then, that if you can propel your game into the charts, its position in the charts would become self sustaining. It was a ‘fake it til you make it’ approach to marketing. It turns out, that back then, you absolutely could get any game you wanted into the charts (not #500, but #5, #10 etc) if you just spent enough money on adverts. So thats what we did. At one point I was spending $700 a day on ads, and earning $1,300 a day in sales. awesome. So we raised it. We hit $1,400 a day on ads and $1,638 in sales… Not so awesome, but maybe a road-bump. We had a hilarious day where we spent $2,300 on ads and earned $2,394 in income… hmmm. Then we had a few days where we lost money whilst spending $2,300 in ads.

And I panicked, and I stopped, and very rapidly the game dropped like a stone from the charts and all was forgotten. However…in the long run things did ok. Democracy 3 has made $80k profit(ish) on itunes (That includes all the DLC), which is pretty good. Thats after the porting cost (I didn’t do it myself) and all the ad deductions.

To be honest with you, its not a good port. The ipad has sod-all RAM, and Democracy 3 kinda needs a fair bit, and also its not mega optimized for rendering on super-low spec PCs. We could have totally re-engineered it, but that was outside the scope. if we do Democracy 4 on ipad, that would definitely be done better. (On newer ipads its probably fine, but the ipad 1 and 2…. not so smooth)

But anyway.. my point is that I think the inertia strategy *can* work, but its REALLY hard to get it right, because you have to fight INCREDIBLE human pressure to go ‘holy crap. HOW MUCH on ads?’ especially after release when you were really hoping to finally be earning money, not spending it. Most indies dont spend anything on actual paid promotion at launch, relying on the odd tweet or maybe a cool video (which nobody watches), so persuading them to try a crazy strategy like maybe actually LOSING money in the first month of release due to a massive ad spend is probably an incredibly hard sell, even to me (I’ve never gone that crazy).

But still at the back of my mind, I think its a winning strategy. Success *does* become self sustaining. I’ve heard a lot about PUBG, Fortnite and Getting Over it, because everyone is talking about them. Everyone is playing them because… everyone is playing them. Obviously they have to be good games too, thats a given but I am talking about the effects of a certain level of success becoming self-sustaining. Think about new movie releases, especially the big budget ones. Some of these will lose money, but none of the studios act like they will lose money during launch week. Its all billboards, billboards, TV ads* and Web banner ads pimping the latest smash hit! You only find out that the movie lost $10 million years later if its mentioned in some studio financial report. Fake it till you make it.

A lot of people thought steamspy was a great way to tell if a game made loads of money or not, but there is no insight into the development and marketing cost of those titles. Some games that made $1million in sales probably made $900k profit. Some probably lost $1million overall. FWIW, with my biggest selling game (Democracy 3), Marketing represented 6.7% of total profit, and 5.47% of total revenue. With Production Line, that percentage will be way higher (roughly 30% of profit), partly due to changes in the marketplace, partly due to PL still being in Early Access, so still having untapped ‘stored value’ and it not having a long tail yet.

My goal is to teach myself (and really believe it), that the percentage of your total revenue that goes on promotion and development is not the issue, this is just ‘cost of sales’. The goal, from a business POV is as high a profit as possible. if you have to spend $900k to bring in $1,100k, thats still way better than spending $0 and bringing in $100k. Its just much, MUCH scarier.

*ads on Tv are called Tv ads. Calling them ‘spots’ is an attempt by the ad industry to reduce the association with them selling you stuff. People are so easily played…

This is a big feature in my car factory game Production Line that I have been putting off until I could really set aside some time to think about the design seriously. I think I’ve finally reached that point in Early Access where I need to flesh out the design for this part of the game, and also importantly, to listen to feedback from current PL players about how they think this should work.

The current system is pretty simple. cars have work done to them on the production line, and then at the very end of the line, just before export, they go through a pre-export QA process that is broken down into emissions test, visual inspection and performance tests. All cars are assumed to be thoroughly free of defects, and are sold on the basis of their features and their price relative to the perceived value of those features.

Obviously in the real world, defects and car quality is a thing. You wouldn’t expect any defects on a $150,000 car, you would expect very few on a $70,000 car (unless its panel gaps on a tesla…dig dig…), and probably be more tolerant of minor things on a cheaper car. High end car companies (Rolls Royce etc) probably go overboard on quality assurance to ensure a reputation for zero problems (Lexus are also good at this), whereas at the lower end, its probably less of a concern. How to best represent this in the game in a way that both feels reasonable, and makes intuitive sense, and also works within the existing game design, and above all feels interesting and fun?

For a while, I have wanted to combine the idea of defects with the introduction of an area-of effect mechanic. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the designing the layout of your factory, and at the moment, apart from making sure importers and exporters are in the right place, and ensuring that you only place office slots (like research) in office zones, there is not that much *positional* decision making involved in the game. I thought I could introduce this with the advent of new QA slots, that had a radius effect.

The system would work by generating defects at every point along the line. there would be a base level of defects that would be generated each time a task was carried out on a vehicle, including tasks generated through upgraded slots. For example, adding the rear axle = 1% chance of a defect. Adding a tire pressure sensor… 1% chance of a defect… and so on. Some cars would go through the line entirely free of defects, but many would not. Eventually, if ‘untreated’, those defects would make their way into the final cars which would be sold.

For every car sold with defects (depending how many), there would be a negative impact on the reputation of your brand, a new, lagging indicator which would affect the purchase enthusiasm of your customers. Obviously this would be something you would want to keep an eye on, so as to ensure customers were not turned away, so how do you prevent defects? and how do you treat them?

To prevent defects, you can place down QA stations, which would be area-of-effect based, and would essentially reduce the percentage chance of a defect occurring at any specific point on the line. Covering the entire production line with regular QA slots would be a way to keep production quality high and defects low, but obviously would have a cost in terms of employee pay and the floor-space required to add those QA stations. This would be a ‘prevent defects from ever happening’ approach to QA. The second approach would be to introduce a new ‘re-work’ slot right at the very end of the line (maybe just before the current QA section) which would examine each car, and take whatever time is needed (maybe 2 minutes per defect?) to fix the problem and allow a perfect car to travel beyond that point. Clever players would eventually use smart junctions (which would need defect-based rules added to them) to ensure that cars that randomly seemed to be defect-heavy did not cause a major slowdown. As I understand it, in real factories, cars that need re-work are immediately taken off the line and dealt with separately so as not to cause any real bottleneck.

This is my first attempt at designing a QA/Quality system for the game. I’m very interested to know what existing (or potential) players of the game think. Essentially it boils down to this:

  • Defects are randomly generated on cars as they are constructed
  • Area-of-effect QA stations reduce the likelihood of those defects when placed on the line
  • A re-work area can optionally be placed to fix defects at the end of the line
  • Defects will affect the brand image of the company, and thus customer eagerness to buy.

Thoughts?

 

If you aren’t already a player of Production Line, you probably dont realize that there is a part of the game where you can place down marketing facilities (once researched). These allow you to generate a flow of ‘ideas’ which are basically marketing points. Those points get spent on new marketing campaigns, in TV, Print or Movie form. Right now the only target for these campaigns is ‘brand awareness’ which essentially means more people will come into your car showroom and consider buying your cars. So far so good… This system has been in the game for a while, it works, there are no bugs, everything is kind of working as intended.

But yet it isn’t really, because it turns out that generally speaking people just don’t use the marketing features at all. They get excited when they research them, throw them down, and then run some campaigns (which cost a lot, but due to balance issues, some players at this relatively late stage of the game have LOADS of money, so its not an issue), and just kind of assume they worked, without really bothering with them any more. The major problem was the lack of feedback to the player on the progress of the marketing campaign, and its effects, PLUS there were balance issues meaning they may have been relatively pointless anyway.

Dealing with the GUI stuff first, I have replaced the event pop-up in the bottom right of the screen (easy to ignore) with a central modal dialog for whenever a marketing campaign ends which prompts you to run another campaign, and also for the first time it now gives you a breakdown of the extra customers the campaign bought in, how many cars they bought, and the revenue that this generated:

I also changed the GUI for the market screen which shows the current number of visitors to your showroom, so that it has a tooltip which breaks it down into the ‘base’ number plus those who are bought in by your marketing efforts:

And finally I’ve changed the GUI for the marketing screen itself, so that for campaigns which are currently being run, you can keep an eye on those customer, sales and revenue numbers as the campaign is running:

So with luck, that has a major impact on encouraging people to use the marketing feature in the game. They should no longer be oblivious to the effects of the campaign (which is probably the biggest factor), plus they can no longer be unaware that a campaign has ended. Obviously a campaign ending does not automatically mean you have enough marketing ideas to launch another, and maybe I need more hints and pop-ups/GUI indicators to point out to the player that they now have sufficient ideas for a new campaign, or to prompt them to maybe invest in some more marketing facilities.

So anyway… thats just half the problem, which was UI/UX related. The other problem was balance/Sim related, and that also needed some tweaking. Like everything related to balance in a game this complex, it will probably require a number of iterations to get the numbers just right, as designing a game with so many inter-connected parts really is a massive number-tweaking problem. The problem here was that the player was essentially never reaching a point where the number of customers in the showroom was a limit, so they never saw any pressing need to spend on marketing to get more customers through the doors.

Obviously the player can always sell to every single customer that walks through the door, IF their prices are low enough, but this may entail selling cars at a loss. What I need is to ensure that the player sees that by enlarging the number of potential customers, the number of actual buyers is going to go up, WITHOUT reducing prices. This may be intuitively obvious to some, but maybe not others. If you have 80 showroom visitors per hour, and produce 20 cars per hour, would you automatically think you need more visitors? This is hard to convey.

Regardless of communicating this, it did seem like the number of customers was basically not enough of a constraint, so I have adjusted the numbers so that fewer customers show up, but they are more flexible on price. That *should* mean that balance is not vastly affected, whilst keeping customer numbers low enough now that the player sees an incentive to boost them with marketing. I suspect it wont be enough, and I’ll need to communicate this in other ways, maybe by showing the total potential pool of customers, and what percentage of them actually check out your cars? I have a stat already for market share, but thats sales, not views…

Anyway…. I think its all progress on the playability and balance of the game. Bit by bit, the game is getting better every day :D

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