Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Fighting to get ad click costs down.

I’m running on-going promotional campaigns for Production Line at the moment across a variety of sources. My plan is to work out the current best value for money in terms of cash paid per impression and per click/like, and then to ramp up in that area. Getting a decent click cost is proving tricky though.

After a lot of fiddling, and narrowing of audiences, I’m still struggling to get a Facebook like for Production Line at less than $1.00. I’ve seen my costs wave from $0.83 to $1.95 over a period of a week, even after cropping the lower performing ads out of the equation. The CPM on facebook is currently $13.06, which even as a really targeted demographic, is way too high. It could be that my ad copy sucks, although I have tried variation there. My relevance is  4 or 5.

Switching to AdWords promotion of my trailer gives me different results, The CPM there is £0.33 (roughly $0.44) which is tons better, but possible less effective? The cost per view is just £0.12 / $0.16, which is very attractive…

On reddit I’m seeing roughly $0.66 CPC for ads that lead directly to the steam store page. This is very direct, but is it really 4x as good as getting people to see my trailer?

What I don’t like about ad-words trailer promotion is that its 99% branding with very little engagement beyond that. Viewing my trailer is fine, but how long will that memory persist? When advertising my trailer, I got 642 steam store visits from youtube, and spent £1,500 to get them. If I look at the period before (no ads), I got 506, so effectively I’m paying £1,500 for 142 visits plus general brand awareness. The game is £12, so if all of them bought it now, I’d still make a slight loss under steams cut. How much is brand awareness worth to me? And how annoying to not know the actual real conversion rate of those steam visitors…

There are pros and cons all over the place to thinking this way. there is also the Uber/Tesla/Amazon strategy of really not giving a damn if you are losing money on ads, as long as you can spend enough to get 50,000 players one way or the other, and hope that this then becomes self sustaining and viral. This sounds nuts but it might not be, as lets be honest, you *do* get paid for the games, its only the difference (the loss per customer) that is actually an expense…

Looking at the adwords example.. £1,500 for 142 visits is a loss of £2.17 per sale, or $2.82. Lets imagine I could scale that up in a linear fashion to buy another 12,000 production line steam buyers (doubling its current steam sales, and making 34,000 players in total. The cost of that would be $33,840.

Thats a lot of money, but not impossible. I’ve certainly risked similar amounts on share dealing on a regular basis.


In the meantime here is today’s production Line video in which I wear a hat:

Launching and promoting an early access game on steam, 2017.

Production Line, my latest game released on steam on May 18th 2017. Thats 77 days ago, and according to steam spy, its sold 13,055 copies. We had a prolonged alpha test off steam where we sold another 10,000 copies. The game currently retails at $15.99 but was cheaper during our pre-early access direct sales period. How do I feel about that, how did I do that, and how can I sustain this?

Firstly some perspective. assume I have earned on average $10 per copy, thats roughly $230,000 income from the game. Development costs are not high on an art & music basis, but they aren’t trivial either. I’m looking at a raw profit, before I get paid anything of about $150,000. Theoretically pretty good, although I worked a LONG time on the game before going public with it. it looks like I have earned roughly $38 an hour from developing the game so far.

A lot of this is ‘front-loaded’. Games can continue to sell well long after you finish development of them. Despite my pessimism shortly after its launch, Democracy 3 Africa has gone on to earn a reasonable profit (nothing earth-shattering, but a surprise nonetheless). Although there is a lot more to spend on PL (sound effects are barely in, more art is to come, also trading cards and a LOT more code support), I suspect there is more to earn too. So far the game has not been discounted a single time, not even at launch. Its final price may creep up above $15.99 towards the $20 mark, and we haven’t actually had our version 1.0 release yet.

So how to ‘keep up momentum’ and continue to stay afloat and profitable with the game?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I advertise, and do so fairly extensively (for an indie). I’ve advertised in many places, but my preference in 2017 is social media. I don’t do that much chasing of press any more, as press coverage seems only very weakly correlated with sales these days. I think what matters is eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. A lot of new indies rely entirely on exposure through steam. That strategy is doomed. Dead. Passed-on. Ceased to be. Expired.

So far, Production Line has spent 17.84% of its revenue on marketing, or put another way 25.64% of profit. I believe this figure should be higher to get any sort of real awareness, and am currently trialling 8 different facebook ads to see which one has the best conversion rate to page likes before ramping up that spending. I’ve spent roughly 68% of my ad budget on facebook, 16% reddit, and the rest split between adwords and twitter.

The place where I am arguably being really slack is trade shows. I have a 2xPC booth coming up at EGX, and me and Jeff will be there handing out flyers. I have badges ordered, some PL stickers, and a silly yellow hat and jacket to wear so I stand out a bit. Its all a bit meek though. Really I should be appearing at other game shows too, but there aren’t many within the travel distance and date-range that I require, not that get any actual traffic, anyway. Appearing at a show can be expensive, I put the total cost, including hotels, travel, swag and booth at roughly £3,500.

So is any of this promo stuff worth it?

Very hard to tell. Conventional year 1990-2010 thinking was that its all about conversion rates and track-able sales. In 2017 I no longer think this is true. I think all that is desirable is awareness. There are a TON of games out there on GoG, Humble Store & Steam. The sales events can be big, and the store traffic enormous, but what matters is getting YOUR game noticed. In a sea of game logos, you want to be the one that gets clicked on, and thats much more likely if the logo or game name/image has been seen before.


Well actually its science. We have, hard-coded in our brains, a connection that says ‘familiarity == desirability’. Why? because basically if we have seen something before and we see it again, we know it didn’t try to kill us last time. Its a basic survival instinct. So what you need is people to see your game name, screenshots, video, logo, etc as often as possible, for the lowest cost. Making that work is tricky, not least because thousands of other people are trying to do the same thing. In a perfect market, all costs would level out exactly to match their effective impact, but we know that no market is perfect.

For example, is a view of my production trailer worth 10 ad impressions? or 50? Is it worth 10 at 10 seconds view until skip, and 50 at a full watch? This stuff is guesswork, we have no real idea, so we have to develop our own crude guesses. I once carried out a very exhaustive (and expensive) month of testing where I tried a whole bunch of ad media, and tracked conversions of all of them. I concluded that one media was vastly, vastly better than the others (facebook), but I now suspect it is not that simple. Facebook may be good at driving engagement in the short term, but I want long term name recognition, not just short term clicks and buys.

And that thinking brings us back to EGX and shows, and similar shenanigans. Is handing out a badge or leaflet to someone worth the same as a like on facebook? Are show-visitors more engaged online and more vital in terms of social network graphs for telling people about your game? I strongly suspect so, but there is little data or science on this. Unfortunately, as indies, we do not have the option of saturation marketing, where you spend ten million dollars and EVERYONE knows about the game. We know that works, we have to see if you can get 1% of the effect for $100k. I doubt that equation is linear, but does it skew in favour of size? Who knows.

And of course, this is why its so hard to effectively promote a game like Production Line. However, it can also be fascinating, and even fun.



Get to your cubicle and stay off the factory floor. (Production Line 1.27)

I released a patch for production line recently, then found a minor save game bug that I patched right away. There is a long list of stuff we improved and added and changed, so here is the full list:

[version 1.27]
1) [Design] Touchscreen is now an upgrade for fit dashboard instead of fit electronics.
2) [Bug] Fixed bug where the AI would be very reluctant to research air conditioning or polished paintwork.
3) [Bug] Placing facilities and slots is now correctly recorded as a capital expenditure in expenses charts.
4) [Bug] Bubble next to car sales icon now expands to show numbers greater than 999 correctly.
5) [Bug] Fixed visual bug where scrolling in the sales showroom resulted in invisible cars.
6) [Balance] Research costs of some later-game research items have been increased.
7) [GUI] Various improvements to the style scheduler window.
8) [Feature] Marketing campaigns can now be launched to boost brand awareness, and thus visits to the showrooms.
9) [Bug] Fixed crash bug if the game autosaves within a minute of a manual save, the next time the save dialog was launched.
10) [Bug] Fixed bug in slot-picker where expand icon buttons (+/-) would not unlock when research triggered if slot picker was open.
11) [Bug] Fixed bug where the market screen doesnt show the correct market segment of cars until you have viewed them in the car design screen.
12) [Bug] Fixed bug where cars would have a red error message on them if the next slot was a really long conveyor journey away.
13) [GUI] The style scheduler at the start of the production line now lets you edit existing quantities of entries.
14) [Feature] Wingmirrors can now be manufactured, and also have folding and heated upgrades.
15) [Balance] Costs of wingmirrors and alloy wheels has gone up. Making alloy wheels requires more steel.Keyless entry worth more, requires 2 chips.
16) [Balance] Resource prices are now affected by demand from AI competitors.
17) [Balance] Crossing up to a new price category now produces a ‘bump’ in value which prevents pricing anomalies.
18) [Tutorial] New pop-up explains what to do when you have researched a new body style.
19) [Balance] Increased price of last robot upgrade so its less of a no-brainer upgrade. Also slight increase in power-draw.
20) [Feature] Offices (marketing and research) can now only be placed in office areas zoned on the map. Non office items cannot be placed there.

There is some cool stuff in there, and I think that 8) is a big change (ooh look! actual marketing!) and 14 adds new stuff to research and play with, plus the combination of 16),17) and 19 is actually pretty vital (and much needed) to increase the extent to which the long term game is balanced. The game has definitely tended towards easy, with cash becoming a non-problem once you have put a good few hours in and done half or most of the tech upgrades. balancing a game is hard, and a constantly moving target as new features and bug fixes go in, so this is something I will have to constantly revisit.

However, probably the biggest obvious gameplay change in there is that last one, which frankly was a last-minute decision to add. (I have mused on the mechanic for a while, but made a last minute decision to actually include it now rather than later).

Basically the old game let you slap down a research office or marketing office anywhere on the map. The new game sets aside dedicated office space which cannot be moved or expanded. Nor can you build production stuff in there. It adds a new restriction on the game which may annoy existing players used to the free-form style of the previous version. So why did I do it?

  • Firstly, the  corralling of offices like this prevents ‘research spamming’. Essentially you could ‘cheat’ in the game by slapping down 30 or 40 research centers right at the start using a loan, and then splat through all of the research in record time. You then had an advantage over the AI, and could quickly start producing cars with high tech, and never put down a single production slot without access to a bunch of upgrades. I disliked the ‘spirit’ of this approach, and it seemed unlikely to be practical in the real world. You wont get financiers to back a 10 billion dollar car company that employs nothing but researchers. I like the idea of encouraging research alongside the game, not as a prelude to it.
  • Secondly it introduces some new difficult and strategic decisions. The layout of the factory is now slightly more complex, and the positioning and size of research centers is more tricky. it also encourages upgrading to more efficient research offices (space-wise) which otherwise had little to recommend them. Plus when it comes to expansion, it means you have another factor to take into account when choosing potential lots to acquire.
  • Thirdly it feels more ‘real’. In a real factory researchers desks are not next to car-body stamping machines, for obvious reasons. This makes the layout look more like a real factory and less like a game, which has to be a good thing :D.

Its always going to be difficult making a gameplay change during early access. So far I haven’t got any angry shouts at me, and we have over 20,000 players, so that looks like its a good sign. I *do* need to include a LOT more tutorial hints as to what is going on, as its not explained at all, but I think in the long run, the effect this change will have will be seen as positive for the experience of the game. I guess only time, and checking of forums, reddit, twitter and facebook posts (and blog comments) will really tell. I expected more outcry YTBH, so it seems things are going well (or people upgrading slowly :D).

In unrelated news my construction hat for my EGX booth is now here, along with Production Line stickers :D

Production Line Marketing: Balancing out the factors

Not marketing the game…but marketing *in the game*. As You may be aware, my car factory sim Production Line got its first taste of marketing as a feature in the last patch (1.26). The current setup is very simple, you can research marketing, then place down marketing facilities that generate ideas, but nothing else (yet). In the next patch, the games marketing system will be fleshed out more, introducing marketing campaigns which you can use to generate brand awareness. here is a screenshot of the resulting new dialog box:

This is all in, coded, tested, and works. So hurrah. SHIP IT.

Maybe not yet, as it requires balancing, and when considering how best to do this, I made the following list of potential balancing factors I should consider to get things right first:

  1. The research cost of marketing as a base research item
  2. The purchase cost of a marketing facility
  3. The running cost of a marketing facility
  4. The idea requirements of each campaign
  5. The idea generation rate
  6. The cost requirements of each campaign
  7. The effects of each campaign and the variability of those effects.

Obviously this is effectively a system of counterweights, where increasing or decreasing one will impact all the others. There are reasons for/against changes to any one of these. Ideally marketing campaigns last long enough that they are not too ‘needy’ in terms of interrupting the player. The effects should be noticeable and strategic, but not unbalancing or sure-wins. Marketing will work great as a mid-to-late game feature, so it shouldn’t be attainable too early. It should be something that requires an investment, but not a crippling one, and one that generates a positive ROI in general.

Thinking about the real world, a marketing campaign is essentially a fixed cost, one that you hope makes a positive ROI when spread over a sufficient number of sales. I would like to engineer a system that means it makes sense to run a $500k print campaign if you are selling 10X cars, but maybe not worth it if you are selling just 1X. To put it ion car terms, if you have a single showroom in one city, spending $500k to increase footfall in that showroom by 50% wont be worth it, but if you have 10 showrooms and 10x the potential customers, it will be.

Right now we have a system where there are 3 car body types and 4 price points, so 12 customer categories. Those categories have no fuzziness, so if I want a mid-range compact car, no amount of bargain pricing or marketing will change my mind on that basic fact (I may introduce some fuzzy logic to this later). What this means is, if I have a single car model, then 11/12 of my customers are wasted anyway…

With a general ‘brand awareness’ campaign (the only type I’m working on this month), it will not make any sense (hopefully) to do this for only 1/12th of your customers. In effect, I’d be generating even more footfall from people who come into the showroom and say ‘I keep hearing about positech autos, but they don’t make SUVs in my price range’. A waste of money… If I have a fully kitted out range of cars, that calculation changes.

Lets examine my test numbers:

A print campaign lasts 24 hours and costs $500,000 to run. It boosts brand awareness (and thus footfall) by (on average) 10%. Current footfall is 5 customers per ‘sales interval’ (which is 4 seconds, or 4/120 of an hour) That means we get (on average) 150 customers per hour, and this campaign will mean a bonus 15 customers per hour. 24 hours means a bonus 360 customers. This means its cost us $1,388 per customer through the door.

Assuming that we offer cars to 50% of the possible market (note not all of the 12 categories have the same market share), then we have to double that to $2,777 per customer. Assuming an average car sale of $20,000, we are selling cars with a 13% marketing spend. That actually sounds pretty reasonable.

Of course, the real strategy for the player comes in when they have cars piling up in stock, or not. When you have excess stock building up, you can ALWAYS shift them by dramatically lowering the price. The strategy will be in knowing whether or not it makes more sense to lock in $500k to bring in *more* customers to view those cars, or to lower the price.

I like the way this is balancing out, because without explicitly saying “this is a late game feature”, it becomes evidently true because its not worth advertising to the mass market without having a mass-market range. The real problem is how I convey that to the player. Player-feedback is something that production line is currently bad at, and something I need to work on. I could maybe have a pop-up from your head of marketing that runs through those numbers… a dialog saying “our campaign has resulted in X new customers, so $X per customer, but only Y% of them found a model in our range they would consider. Maybe we need to expand the range?”

As usual; in complex sim games, it becomes a case of 25% code the feature, 25% test the feature, 25% balance the feature, 25% explain the feature. I guess I’m half way there for brand-awareness marketing…

First minor bits of marketing GUI heading for production line

Having been away for a week to relax, coming back to work I have a desire to release an update for Production Line sooner rather than later. I hate people thinking work on the game is slowing down or stopped (ha! no chance). Because a week off means a week less features, this update which i plan to test tomorrow and deploy Sunday will not be huge, but it will have a whole host of minor bug fixes and tweaks, and also the first steps towards marketing.

Basically you will be able to research marketing facilities and place them in your factory like this:

And there is a new GUI you can launch from the main menu strip at the top of the screen which for now just shows you that same summary information. Right now, the facilities generate ‘ideas’ over time, and those are saved and loaded, but you cant use them yet until I code some basic marketing campaigns which should start to go in next week.

Also in development are some new achievements, and a new car body style (4×4 or 4 wheel drive if you prefer, or jeep-style-thing if you prefer). and eventually some proper sound effects. I’ll probably get around to some more optimisation and some proper tutorial improvements soon too. With any luck I’ll do a developer blog video tomorrow.

In unrelated news, our village has been told we will get fiber internet by 2018. Yay…but I’m not holding my breath. still waiting for a quote for ‘fiber-to-the-premises on demand’ (FTTPoD). Theoretically that’s 300Mbps down 30Mbps up, which would be amazing, but the cost is outrageous and I’m getting annoyed it takes so long to even get a quote.