Monthly Archives: November 2016

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Starting Today, and running for twelve days, Positech is donating all its steam revenue from the Democracy 3 franchise to a charity called war child. Thats the full price of each game, minus steams cut.  Hopefully we will raise about $20k. As gamers, we spend a lot of time (me included) shooting guns in virtual wars. Lets spare some time to consider the impact of real; life wars that are happening right now on children around the world.

I know its trendy to moan and complain about life, and the government, and how things are SO BAD and are GETTING Worse. I used to do this when I was 16 too. Then years later you look back on life then and realize things are definitely NOT getting worse, and it was a combination of selective news-reading / alcohol / puberty / political bias that makes you think that way.

Everyone who is young thinks things are getting worse and they have never been this bad. In the UK at least…that’s probably not true. I’m not saying the UK is perfect, far from it! But I took the time to research some stats, and went only to official stats sources, no spin or selective reporting. here is what I found.

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So not everything is bad! Remember to look at the big picture when you think ‘things are getting worse, its never been so bad!’. Everyone thinks that in the short term.

See…I can do optimism. I just generally choose not to :D

15 days ago Positech released Political Animals, a fun PC strategy game based around cute animals fighting for political victory in a number of islands. The game had a general theme of corruption and ethics, and challenges the player to win an election by being the good guy/girl even when your opponent may be playing by different rules. The game is for PC/OSX and was released on Steam, Humble Store, GoG and direct from us through the humble widget. Without further ado, the website for the game is here: www.politicalanimalsgame.com

15 days after release is not nearly long enough to have a complete and fully-rounded insight into the ‘story’ of making and releasing the game, but its a good opportunity to get this stuff down in a blog post while its all fresh. So here is the warts-and-all post mortem on publishing and releasing the game. (You can read ryan sumos take on the same topic here).

How was it made?

My email account has 687 emails in the ‘Political Animals’ folder, dating back to September 26th, which was shortly after meeting Ryan Sumo for the first time in person at a UK games show. He was the artist on Prison Architect, and I know the Introversion devs well enough to shamelessly gate crash the odd meal with them, which is how I ended up sat opposite Ryan. (Interestingly I published Big Pharma after being sat next to Tim at another indie meal. Notice a pattern?). I love to think the world is a pure meritocracy, but to be honest, the fact that Introversion knew Ryan, and thought he was a good guy/reliable did influence me quite a bit. Physically meeting someone who can show you their game on a laptop is very,very different to a blind email pitch, there simply is no denying that. Anyway… to cut a long story short, me and Ryan exchanged a few emails and builds and eventually signed a contract at the end of October 2015.

Our plans for the development period of the game were pretty darned accurate. Initially we thought we would be releasing around the end of September/Early October 2016, and we missed that by just one month. Thats really not too bad for game development. Budget-wise, we also came in roughly close to what was planned. Making a game in the Philippines (where Ryans new studio:Squeaky wheel is based) is cheaper than the UK and we didn’t spend a vast amount on outside contractors. What we did do, is spend a lot more than expected on expos. Its amazing how keen I am for a game to be shown at a show when someone else has to go there instead of me! In total, I appeared at just one show, because it was in the UK and thus easy for me to arrange, plus I wanted to meet Ryan again, and meet another member of the team (marnielle).

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I still have memories of us driving to a hotel bar to get a decent coffee and both of them going WHOAHHHH! when I accelerated my car a little bit :D.

There was some back-and-forth on design issues during the game, but actually not too much. I wanted the name changed from Party Animals to Political Animals, but the vast majority of the design stuff was entirely left to Squeaky Wheel. We hired a professional user-testing company to try the game out on innocent members of the public, which I found both helpful and reassuring (feedback was good). We were able to launch the game before the US elections, and everything looked pretty positive with some youtubers sounding very interested before the game was released.

How did it do?

Hmmm.

One thing I try to avoid is lying to myself or telling myself I did well when I didn’t. Its a pet hate and also a sign of being crap at business. Smart people learn from their mistakes, and you can’t learn from something you don’t think exists. I think that commercially, this failed, but ‘artistically’ it was a success. Also… to further add a disclaimer before I mention the sales… I am wholly convinced by the brilliant arguments of nicholas taleb, who points out that a string of successes means fuck all, if they were lucky, and a string of failures is no bad thing if you were unlucky. In other words, if you made all the right decisions, then took an informed, calculated and sensible risk…and you lose, then thats perfectly fine, and you should recognize this fact. He explains it better than me.

So far…Political Animals has not sold well. Its sold ‘ok’ for an indie strategy game on steam. You can see on steam spy how it did, if you are curious. We got some very positive lets play cover in the opening week (and beforehand), but the praise from youtubers somehow did not translate into purchases, although it did translate into a LOT of wishlist adds, which bodes well for the long term. Also we are on GoG, Humble Store & direct too, so steam isn’t the whole story here.

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On paper…I have lost a big chunk of money on the game. My current hard statistical predictions suggest I will never recoup the cost, although those may well be out of date due to changes in the way steam promotes games since I collected most of my data. I would not be surprised to see that change. Mentally, I am resigned to losing a mid five figure sum on the game. if that turns out to be pessimistic, then yay!

What did I do right?

Picking Ryans game was a sensible move. He came recommended by good friends, he had worked on a bunch of games before. He seemed a nice guy. His team were affordable, being based in the Philippines. Ryan had a very clear idea of what he wanted in the game, and the team seemed to agree with this internally. Nobody resigned, nobody got fired, there were no arguments. Communication was good, Everyone seemed happy. Don (programmer):

don “I really think that we did our best in developing Political Animals. I was the last addition to the team and I didn’t have a hard time adjusting to my new teammates.”

I know the team seemed a bit stressed at some points, especially with all the travel but…thats game dev :(.

We went to a LOT of shows, and I think this was worthwhile. Tristan (Designer):

tristan “I was optimistic about the game launch, because we have had good feedback during the shows”

We spent money on user testing, which may have been a bit too expensive. Creative control was predominantly with the developers, and on issues where I thought they were wrong (I dislike the music, for example), it seemed I was the only one feeling that way. The game was made in unity and I’m not aware of any major technical issues. Translation went well, and we encountered very few bugs. We launched on time, and pretty much on budget. Everything flowed pretty well. In a break with normal practice, I handled the website design myself, and it seemed fine.

What did I do wrong?

We released the game at exactly the wrong time, with the wrong art style, and didn’t promote it with social media enough. We MAY have priced too high as well.

I assumed that releasing an election game in the lead-up to the most exciting US election in history would be awesome. I assumed that in October 2015. By October 2016…things were different. It was definitely an exciting election but for all the wrong reasons. Corruption wasn’t something we could laugh about in regards to a cartoon mouse, it was something on our TV screens..every…single..day. Political debate on social media was everywhere and corrosive. Far from being able to say “Cool someone just emailed us about a politics game! how timely!”, I think journalists ended up saying “FFS..A GAME about politics? enough already…”. In short, I think my assumption that releasing this game at this time would be a good thing was 100% wrong.

On the flipside I think releasing the same game NOW would be even worse. I make a living from political games, and I am SICK of politics right now. One can only imagine how the average gamer must feel about it…

To my credit, I’m not putting this down as a mistake. The game was being made already. Short of delaying it, and sitting on it for six months, I’m not sure we could have prevented this. Events overtook us. Events dear boy…

The art style was wrong. the art style is in fact…awesome:

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…but it made it look like a kids game. We realised this and fought to get more screenshots out there with charts and graphs to emphasise the strategy nature of the game, but I suspect this was a losing battle. It *looks* like a casual children’s game on mobile. It really isn’t, but in some peoples minds it probably seems like it which also devalues the game… which brings me to…

The game released at $14.99 with a 10% launch discount. I think this is probably the right price *for the game*. I think this was the wrong price for a game launching at the wrong time with the wrong art style. I had made two mistakes (not changing the art style right at the start and then launching the game at the wrong time) and then compounded them by not compensating for this with pricing.

The final mistake we made was a failure to really embrace social media. Ryan went to a lot of shows, as did other members of his team, so there was a lot of personal meet & greet style stuff, but in social media terms, we didn’t ramp it up enough. We had a facebook page, and a twitter account, and even some cool twitter accounts for the candidates, but frankly we didn’t produce enough youtube content, and didn’t build up enough of a critical mass on twitter and facebook. I suspect that the team are not massive extroverts, and I’m not one either, and this probably showed. With rural English internet preventing me from using twitch, and useless Philippines internet preventing the devs from doing it either, we were already fighting with one hand behind our backs on that score.

Ryan:

ryan “I feel like I also slacked a little bit in terms of contacting press. While I did my best, I do think I could have tried a little bit harder. Perhaps knowing that Positech had brand recognition made me complacent.”

and Marnielle:

marnielle “I really didn’t know what to do during launch other than sharing the game to social media like a mad man. There’s a feeling of regret. I feel we could have done more.”

Conclusions

I made a calculated bet with a lot of my ducks in a row. I am the indie politics game dude, this was always going to be a synergy win. It was a good team who did a quality job to make a game on time and budget. In other words, almost everything went right. We were unlucky with our launch timing, and maybe fumbled the art style & social media thing. I will definitely spend more time thinking about this sort of thing with future releases. Lessons have been learned. Pretty fucking expensive ones in my case, but as Quark says: “The riskier the road, the greater the profit”.

Political Animals is available RIGHT NOW:

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I guess that a lot of people who read my blog are programmers and a lot of them are younger than me. I’m now 47. I was coding a new feature for Production Line yesterday, (the colored overlay & icons for the zoomed-out view) and it occurred to me to kind of ‘live-blog’ it in my head as I was typing, wondering if it would be of interest to people if I recorded doing that sort of thing in a video. Maybe if you are new to coding, or wondered what the real-world dev process for coding a strategy game was like…it might be interesting.

As I did it, I started to realize it would be VERY hard to follow if I did it. Frankly I can code faster than I can describe what I’m coding. Much faster. In fact I write C++ code faster than I write this blog. Visual studio has Intellisense, and I use Visual Assist (from whole tomato) to make use of their even smarter intellisense, so I’m only typing a few characters of each word anyway. Plus…after coding since age 11…I can pretty much write the iteration of an STL container in a for loop and call member functions whilst drinking tea (or on the phone to someone).

I am often AMAZED at how long it takes some people to make a game. I know that sometimes these people are perfectionists and they put a lot of ‘craft’ into their games, and they agonize more about design features than I do..and often it pays off with those mega indie hits that don’t look technically hard to make, but have such good design or polish that they sell a bazillion copies. I totally understand that, and I admit that I don’t spend *enough* time on my games (although I intend to change that with production line, which deliberately has no schedule or end date.

What I do *not* understand is the time it seems to take people, or the effort they seem to think is involved, when it comes to implementing a particular feature from a technical point of view. This is especially true when those people use ‘managed’ code or a higher level language, or unity or some other middleware. Frankly if an old fashioned dinosaur like me can code a feature from scratch in C++ in a day, then the younger more savvy kids with their middleware should be able to do it in an afternoon, but that never seems to be the case. For a long time, knowing this has driven me nuts, until I eventually have concluded that its just because I’m older, and have a scary amount of experience doing one thing day-in and day out for DECADES.

I literally have been coding longer than most indies have been breathing, and its always been in C++ (Actually I think Asteroid Miner may have been C) , and always directx, and always for windows. I went from DX5 to 7 to 9, but thats it, I’m still on 9, and I know it well.  As a result, when I’m coding, unless its some complex multi-threading stuff…I’m probably not  ‘coding’ as much as I am just typing. I know the code to type, and it flows immediately from what I want to achieve. Its just a matter of hitting some keys on the keyboard.

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I think this is a big advantage to not being a magpie when it comes to new software and development environments. I still use Visual Studio. I still use C++/DirectX. I still use perforce, I still use Photoshop and paintshop pro, and AQTime and nvidia nsight. In the last year or two, the only change to my development environment has been that I now also use the Visual Studio Concurrency Profiler, which is excellent. Thats one new piece of development GUI I had to learn in 24 months of work.

As you can imagine, this makes life extremely easy. I also coded my own graphics engine, which means it never changes unless I want it to. I don’t have to ‘work out the bugs introduced by the latest changes’ in the engine, because there aren’t any, and if there are, I did them, and I know what I did. And obviously I have all the source code anyway, and can roll-back whenever I like. Its easy. Never underestimate how much keeping a stable work environment can boost your productivity.

In addition, I also am a bit of a workaholic (which helps), plus I have no kids and only low-maintenance pets (cats). I live somewhere incredibly quiet and am rarely disturbed. My office is dedicated to my work, not shared with anyone, and its quiet, and laid out very comfortably with a comfortable chair, big desk and lovely big monitors, so its a nice place to be. This all definitely helps.

My tip to anyone finding their coding productivity low is to resist that urge to upgrade to the new X, or the new Y, or to make any change to your work environment just because you like new things. Sometimes keeping things the same is the best way to boost your productivity.