Category Archives: business

I have been selling games a LONG time now (twenty years!). My first game to ever sell a copy was called ‘asteroid miner’ (later renamed star miner). Because in 1998 selling games online was all very ‘new’ I just used the root directory of positech.co.uk to store the shareware .zip file for my game demo, together with images not even in a folder, called ‘image1.jpg’ and other such unscalable stupidity. There was a ‘hit counter’ to show how many people had visited the website. A single screenshot, I think even a banner ad for someone else?

Anyway… the site has had a bunch of redesigns over those twenty years. it now supports https and even has a mobile version of the main page! it scales how much data it displays based on your screen resolution. (omgz). It now looks way better than it ever has, and currently looks like this:

Which is fine, and I like it, but there is a definite lack of consistency from an aesthetic POV the minute you leave the front page. Each game got a website designed ‘at the time’ with whatever cool ideas I had, or whoever I had hired to do the design. They all link back to the main page, and some of them even have ‘other games by positech’ hacked manually into the bottom of the page like this:

That approach never scales, because its just showing fixed games to people regardless how many years later it is, or the genre, or anything like that. Frankly I don’t shift many copies of Planetary Defence these days, so why even mention it. The approach is static HMTL, and its dated. Theoretically what I need is some sort of database driven website that shows my games, and cross links them properly.

Its not like I’ve never done it before, showmethegames.com was a vague attempt at that (although it never gained any real traffic). I could in theory code such a system myself, but I don’t want to spend the time (I am 100% busy developing Production Line & producing Democracy 4). The only motivation I would have for doing it myself would be that I HATE working with CSS/HTML code written by others, which is normally some over-templated bloated mess with at least 50x the code required to do the job.

So the question is…should I even be considering it? No doubt there are some great off-the-shelf products to build an online web store that would make it possible without a lot of hassle, but would I be losing the ‘feel’ of each individual games web page? Some of them have cool backgrounds, or videos surrounded by excellent artwork. Do I really want to reduce them all to the bland consistency of a steam store page style layout just for the sake of my own OCD and obsession with order?

Normally I would say no, but then i can’t help but think that steam, GoG etc all have standardised store pages, and nobody cares? Is the obsession with creating some sort of tailored ‘experience’ for visitors to your gaming website something that died out in the 1990s and we just are not accepting it yet. Its not like videos and lets plays and trailers are not a thing, do people really need a ‘shadowhand’ font on one page and the ‘democracy 3 CSS’ to give a different tone on a different game page?

I think there is an argument that the ‘big AAA studios’ who do this still are only doing it because its effectively 0.1% of their PR budget anyway, and they may as well cover all bases. In the end, isn’t a game really selling based on a screenshot, a short video, a review score, and the name?

The other way of looking at it, is what would be the upside? How many people buy big pharma direct from my website who don’t know we make production line, and would otherwise buy it right then (who would not have bought it at another point). Even if the number is 1% of total big pharma customers (and vice versa of course), is that really enough money to justify the cost and time to totally revamp the website?

I suspect, sadly it is not, and this may be relegated to a ‘wishlist’ thing. My own OCD and the fact that I think the current mishmash looks ‘amateurish’ are what is really driving me here, not any sort of business case. Its not like I’m looking for outside investors who may be put off by the aesthetics of my web page, and I really don’t care what people who are not customers think anyway.

Maybe I’ll reconsider it again sometime in 2029?

The change made by steam from a simple store front to a dynamic one based on who is logged in was a huge improvement. I was extremely pleased to see them do that. I find that for me, their algorithm actually works pretty well, and other stores are definitely not as good (yet). But lets stop congratulating things that already exist and remember three really important facts here.

Its 2018 and computers are fast as fuck

Most online web stores have a LOT of money

Most online web stores have a lot of clever coders working with them.

And now lets imagine all the factors we REALLY should be able to plug into some clever neural net that decides what games to show somebody. Starting with the trivially stupidly simple ones;

SIMPLE FACTORS

The genre of the game as defined by the developer vs the players preferred genre from playtime of other games or stated preferences

The weighted-values of all the tags associated with that game against the similar weighted values of tags that apply to the games the player has played (weighted by time and tag relevance).

The current price of the game compared to the usual purchasing p[rice at which the player either buys or wishlists / follows the game. (don’t show $59.99 games from a publisher who rarely discounts to someone who never buys a game over $5).

Really dumb stuff, like if the game is a sequel (determined by a scan of the name) to a game the player liked (or opposite if sequel to ignored), or made by the same developer.

Super-super-dumb stuff, like the platform must match the platform the player usually plays, and skew towards multiplayer if they only play multiplayer stuff, language option should include those the player usually has for the store interface.

NOW LETS GET CLEVER

We need to build up a major hidden customer profile that contains as much information about the player as possible. Stuff they enter into their profile page is a cute start, but its the absolute tip of the iceberg. Does the player have a lot of friends who are playing game X, and can we weight that by how *close* those friends are (by statistical analysis of the chart frequency and posting in similar discussions). Do those players have large average play times, or better still, have thy left multiple comments, or positive reviews. If so, factor that in when showing the game to them.

Is the player a bargain hunter? what percentage of their games were bought at each price point and each discount percentage. skew the game presented to them that match this purchasing pattern.

Do we know the players birthday? if so, send discount coupons to their close friends for games that are on their wishlist, to encourage them to buy those games for them in the week before their birthday. Skew those coupons to match the calculated likely purchase level that we can get from each friend.

NOW LETS GET EXPERIMENTAL

We only know about a game what the developer tells us, and use that as the final information on that game. Asking players to tag games is great, but surely we can go further. Internally we can know if a game is viral from the amount of instances where someone buys a game, and then a close friend of theirs buys that same game within a certain window. The virality of a game should act as a positive that results in us showing it to more people.

We can also re-evaluate all of the reviews left for a game to get a more accurate picture. If a player leaves 95% negative reviews, then they are basically just a bit grumpy, and we should skew the relevance of their reviews to the score. A player leaving overwhelmingly positive reviews, probably needs analysis to see what percentage of games they review, and if they were dissatisfied with other games but never leave negatives. If analysis of their playtime/refund rate, forum-participation and chat mentions suggests that this is not the case, and they are unusually positive, maybe skew down the relevance of their reviews too?

Reviews cores for a game being the same for everyone is a joke. Maybe everyone hated the game except for the 30 players who we estimate to be young Chinese players who tend to like funny games with certain tag combinations. If I match those reviews profiles really closely, I should see a review score FOR ME, showing how much people like ME, like the game.

Computers can analyse video pretty well now. Get an algorithm to watch 100 hours of youtube videos (or uploaded player videos) of every game, and try to draw some statistical analysis from it. Is the game clearly a fast moving, high contrast particle-fest bright explodey sort of game? Make a note. Is the game a slow paced, relaxing game with subtle color scheme? make a note. Is it clearly a brown man-shooter? etc…

Its 2018. I shouldn’t have to explain to people that production line has a similar aesthetic or feel to factorio and big pharma. an algorithm can do that for me.

Maybe some of this is impossible, or even undesirable. Its certainly a challenge. But the online store market wars are heating up. If you run a games store and do NOT have a bunch of coders attempting this sort of thing…well maybe you should look into that?

Content glut and the power of cities

November 30, 2018 | Filed under: business

I read a lot of social science / tech culture stuff, and try to keep up to date with the ways in which the world is changing before everyone really notices. In some ways this is defence against becoming irrelevant (I didn’t want to be the last indie dev to start a blog, or a twitter account or youtube channel for example), and in other cases it can be absolutely financially rewarding. For example I bought Tesla stock a long time ago, and have done very well from it, primarily because I realised really early on that they had, essentially, won the whole market in terms of electric cars, and literally the only problem was, nobody had actually realised how badly they were getting beaten. I could blog about that for days, but I’ll spare you that one…

Anyway two topics I keep seeing and reading about, are mass content creation and the importance of cities, and I thought I’d share them with you and allude to their relevance regarding my life as an indie game dev.

Mass Content Creation.

Have you heard the thing about the weird videos aimed at kids that are acted out by humans (in some cases) and created in a mass-content farm style to generate ad revenue? If not, this might be a good introduction to the topic:

The key thing that I think is relevant here, is that the amount of content that you think is ‘a lot’ in terms of video is absolutely not a lot. If you are an indie dev, and there are 4 lets plays of your new game, and one of them was you, and you are wondering which Ferrari to order, I’d suggestion forgetting the Ferrari and instead consider which organs to sell to buy food. There is a LOT of content out there, especially in video. Generation X watches 1.5 billion youtube videos per day. Over a billion hours are watched per day, and of that content over 70% of it is content that has been recommended by the youtube algorithm. People are watching what is put in front of them, and having a tiny little collection of videos of your product is not going to cut it when your fraction of that content is so close to zero.

I tried to kick-start a youtube presence for production line myself, doing regularly weekly video blogs. I’ve done just over 90 of these 10-15 minute videos now, and each one gets roughly a thousand views. Here is the latest one:

This is beneficial… and also a minute drop in the ocean. Those 90 videos are giving me about 13,000 views a month. Thats ‘not bad’ as it helps get the name out there, but I do not have *nearly* enough content to keep the name high enough in peoples minds. The problem is, its ME who is making them, and I am literally the most expensive (and only) employee available to do this. Obviously its a catch 22 problem, because the person best suited to give inside information on the game, is the guy making it, and he is also the worst person whose time to use for video content.

In a totally perfect world, I would have an assistant who teleported into my home at will, and only charged me for the time he was needed. I’d click my fingers and say ‘hey Dave, set up all the green-screen crap and get ready for my video’ and then half an hour later I’d say ‘hey Dave, take all that stuff down, edit the video, render it, upload it, and then post about it to these 5 locations’. And then BOOM Dave would be gone, after an hours work for an hours money.

The trouble is, Dave doesn’t exist, and cats cannot be trained… I am not able to optimise my marketing efforts to the point where I have the content that I think I need, because the granularity to do this does not exist in a one person company. Which brings me to…

The power of cities

Lets get this out there right away: Cities are awful. I was born in London, and I now live surrounded by fields, hills and single track country lanes along which horses slowly clip-clop. Its AWESOME. Yes, its a long way to the shops, but the air is clean, there is no traffic, there is very little crime, its AWESOME. Unless…

…you need to meet a lot of people who do what you do, or stuff that you may want people to do. This is something that is pretty critical if you want to build (or expand) a business. Its true that I believe strongly in the idea of remote working, and hiring people I’ve not met., I’ve done this a lot, but it is NOT ideal. In an ideal world, you still meet someone, chat about what you want, how it should work, what to do, hammer out a deal, and you are just a few feet away if they get stuck, or confused or you see them doing something wrong. You simply cannot beat working physically with people, and you certainly cannot beat living somewhere like San Francisco, London, Vancouver, or even Guildford or Boston, in terms of having a local ‘game dev’ community. I’m not just the only indie game developer in the village, I’m the only person working in any sort of computer related field whatsoever.

Scott Galloway is one of many people who argue that all of the exciting new business startups, and projects, and opportunities happen in cities, the bigger the better:

And thats very relevant indeed if you are looking for your first job, or to start a business, but it is ALSO valid if you want to grow one. Sure, I could make use of a person on a part time basis to do X, or to do Y, or code Z, or run errands for me. The problem is, I simply don’t meet enough people to make deals and partnerships and arrangements like that happen. This is one of the many reasons I still go to trade shows and events. Meeting random internet people is difficult for an introvert like me, but I have made so many good deals/partnerships etc over the years from people I meet at these things that I KNOW its good for me.

So yeah, your rent may suck in that city, but its probably paying for itself in long term career boosting.

I hate em so much though I’m going to stay here and listen to those horses.

 

 

 

Eight years ago I wrote this article on how to sell your game direct without an app store. It was fairly popular at the time. Its now late 2018 and a lot has changed. Steam is still popular, but origin is also doing well, there are rumblings about Epic starting a store, we also have amazon, kartridge, GoG, the humble store and itch.io as competitors. We also have a lot more indie devs (a LOT more), and its long overdue revisiting the topic. BTW, maybe I should hyperlink all those store names….but nah, they don’t link to *my* site so…

Anyway, are direct sales a good thing still? is it viable? how do you go about doing it.

Is this viable?

Firstly do not believe anyone who tells you that NOBODY buys games direct any more. They totally do. I get enough sales (still) through BMTMicro (who I hardly use any more) to warrant me filtering them into an email folder:

As a percentage of my sales, its not huge, but its certainly not to be sniffed at. In the last 365 days my earnings from direct sales through BMTMicro are $18,457. My direct sales through other services charging a very similar cut are about $16,000. Put those two together and you get about $34,000 sold at a 5% cut instead of a 30% cut. The saving per year? $8,900. Could you do with an extra income of almost $9k a year as an indie dev? its definitely not to be sniffed at. The situation is vastly better when you look at releasing a game initially from your own site, before its on any store. Doing this generated an EXTRA $108,000 on the two most recent game launches where I did this. Thats effectively *free* money.

So myth#1, that you cannot sell enough games direct to make it worth the bother of doing so, is definitely busted. It absolutely can. And if you want a more dramatic example, maybe you should recall that minecraft did exactly this. As I recall, sales were good.

So given that this *can* be done, the two remaining question I guess are *should* you do it, and how do you do it.

The only two reasons I can think of *not* to do direct sales are time/effort and concerns about the stores. Lets deal with them in order.

What is involved?

People VASTLY exaggerate the amount of hassle required in direct sales. Do you not have your own website already? selling and existing online ONLY through steam? Ok cool, you are not really an indie, and I suggest you actually start at basic principles and get your own independent site… Anyway, assuming you do, how hard is it to add a ‘buy now’ page? Heres the page for production line.

Note that the only traditionally ‘difficult’ bit is adding a buy button, something that the humble widget already provides for you, its literally ‘click here to get an embeddable widget for your website’. I can even embed it here:

So that side of it is easy. The next bit is uploading and updating builds. This sounds like way more of a chore than it is, unless you have absolutely DIRE internet. Itch.io support partial builds apparently, but annoyingly humble and bmtmicro do not (which frankly is ridiculous…). Even so… how many updates do you do? I used to have 1MB up internet and still did it. Uploading a new installer is really not hard work. Also coding an autoupdate check for your games and telling the player to update is also pretty easy. I check a text file on my server on startup, which has the latest version, and downloads an updated changelist to display to the player to encourage them to re-download and re-install. Its a few lines of php.

So uploading a build and setting up the buy page are trivial. What else is hassle? You obviously need to tell itch/bmt/humble your bank details, but you have already done this with GoG/Steam etc anyway.  Some services, like BMT, allow you to choose how often you get paid, so as to minimise the amount of bank charges you have to deal with. Any decent payment provider also provides charting and sales reports. here are some from humble and BMTMicro.

The big difference between direct and store sales is that with direct sales, if you wish, you can access the email addresses of the customers. This may involve some GDPR related shenanigans, but depending on jurisdiction, this at least gives you a stronger direct connection to the buyer. You can add an email signup to your order form, and build up your own mailing list to notify customers direct of future updates and new games etc. Something else thats different is that in some cases, direct-payment companies let you choose *when* to be paid. If you don’t live in a $ country and build up a $ balance, having control over when that happens can be convenient. Personally, I keep a $ bank account in the UK so its not an issue (I can pick the best conversion moment at another time).

With a service like BMT Micro, you can ask to be sent any requests for refunds so you can approve/deny them or contact the player direct. The amount of refund requests that actually turn out to be a simple request for tech support over something minor (like trying to run the windows installer on a mac, or having an antivirus false positive etc) is quite surprising. Why put a third party between you and your players?

Basically direct-sales are no hassle. You NEVER see the customers credit card details or passwords or anything. You do NOT handle VAT or sales tax, thats all handled for you. Its basically exactly the same as selling on a store, except you keep 90-95% instead of 70% (minus refunds & sales tax). Oh BTW, you can choose to have sales tax added at the point of sale instead of just absorbing it.

Reasons to be scared

The other argument is that selling direct will be bad because either the stores will hate you, or because you miss out on decent reviews or visibility on steam/GoG etc by siphoning off the early customers. I think both are unfounded but I should at least mention them. I truly believe that the big stores are not going to be annoyed at/vindictive towards developers who also sell direct. This is the very definition of fair competition. I’ve been selling direct for TWENTY years and have never noticed this affect my relationship with any store. Steam especially seem very understanding that a lost sale is just a market signal. Free competition is a good thing, and no store has ever, to my knowledge, behaved badly towards a developer selling direct. Besides, if you even for 1 second think a store you deal with might be this evil, you should audit the hell out of them right now, because you realize you are just trusting them to report sales accurately right?

So will those ‘lost’ sales reduce your impact on the stores. I suspect yes. Big Pharma and Production Line both look a bit less successful on steam because both had a ton of direct sales ‘off-steam’. I don’t care. The impact might be non-negligible, but the sweet extra 25% of those early sales more than covers it. It seems an oft-repeated piece of wisdom (with no hard data) that if you push all your customers through steam on day one that you will get huge ‘launch visibility’. I have not seen this to make an earth shattering difference.

Also, think about what you are doing. You are like someone who recorded an album, a fan knocks on your door with $20, and you tell him to walk to the record store and hand it to them so you can get your $14 (at most). Thats madness.

Conclusions

Selling direct has never been easier, or with more options. There are very few reasons not to do it. Setup is easy. I have over a dozen games on maybe five different stores and 2 different direct payers, and royalty agreements with 3 devs, and I manage it all on my own, as well as coding and designing a game, producing another, writing this blog and probably 100 other things and I’m 49 years old. I cannot imagine how a small ‘team’ of highly energetic indie devs cannot find the time to set up an account on itch.io. After all, you do want to be INDEPENDENT game developers right?

 

 

 

For the last year or so I’ve been employing a pretty ‘passive’ approach to promoting my current game Production Line. By this I mean that I have primarily concentrated on posting on my own forums and the steam forums, posting weekly video blogs, and cross posting those to the forums, reddit and my production line facebook page.

In a sense, all of that is basically preaching to the converted, as if you follow me on youtube, are subscribed to the reddit, or a fan of the facebook page… well you already know about the game and very likely already bought it.

The only way in which I am actively reaching beyond the current audience is by some facebook ads, but obviously the cannot reach everyone (loads of gamers don’t even have facebook accounts). We don’t have any more game shows coming up for me to meet youtubers and press, so apart from facebook, to the outside world I’m pretty silent about the game.

I should probably get used to changing that as the game eventually shuffles towards release (probably January next year?). With that in mind, I think I’m going to set aside some time next week to build up a proper list of youtubers to get in touch with, and put together a proper updated press release with new screenshots and information. The game is now on Kartridge and the Humble Store, so that definitely needs updating.

 

Of course the trouble with any *active* promotion is that it involves my time. The blog posts, video blog, tweets and facebook posts already take up a big chunk of time, and I’m busy coding the game as it is! Unfortunately I don’t have any *easy* way to outsource any of this work. It is *me* in the videos after all, and even if I could record the video, then pay someone else magically to disassemble my green screen, render out the video (only 2 mins editing normally needed), upload it, cross-post it and so-on… its only likely saving me 30mins-1 hour a week anyway. Thats also the fantasy scenario where someone beams star-trek style to my house to assist me, then beams out immediately.

SO I remain, after all these years both the code AND the marketing/PR/Biz bottleneck for my company. I have a horrible feeling that if I *did* ever expand further, code would be easier for me to outsource the rest of it. I’ve tried outsourcing PR a lot of times and never made a decent ROI (or even a positive one).

Food for thought.

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