Category Archives: business

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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Its not long ago that Discord famously launched their new store, which a lot of people I know got very excited about and predicted big things for. I have not heard any tales of epic riches yet, and not read much news about it since launch, so I’m assuming its not yet setting the world on fire.

Today its the turn of Kongregate with their ‘Kartridge’ store:

This one is infinitely better because it sells 3 amazing games that I was involved with somehow. Those are Production Line, Shadowhand and Big Pharma. Kongregate still have that slight ‘amateur hobbyist’ thing going on because those games show as made by ‘cliffski’ which is my username, but really should list developer/publisher if they want proper ‘triple I’ games to flock to the store maybe?

As ever the big elephant in the room is epic, and why did they raise 1.5 billion dollars recently. Are they going to launch their own store? I suspect they are, but few people seem to agree with me. They certainly have the money, and they more importantly have a big name game that EVERYBODY plays called ‘fortnite’. Don’t forget everybody thought steam would die on launch and were outraged to find it as the only place to get half Life 2, which arguably is the only reason the site ever got any initial traction. Epic are clever, maybe they realise this and have been stockpiling money and plans for a store until they had the ‘must have’ game to ensure its success?

I think what everybody gets wrong about this stuff is they ‘dip their toe in the water’, rather than going bananas and adopting a ‘VICTORY OR DEATH’ approach to the new venture. Even Kongregates home page has just a standard wrap skin about their site today: https://www.kongregate.com/ which quickly rotates to a banner about ‘just another game on the site’. The same is true of discord, I don’t exactly feel like they are absolutely killing themselves to make me use their store, or even inform me whats on it. This seems way, way too meek a strategy to take on a massive established and popular competitor (steam).

I’m a big fan of Tesla and Elon Musk, and I believe the company to be the most important company on earth right now (due to their rapid push to shift us off fossil fuel dependence that is actually killing off our ecosystem and ensuring we will all die…), but even ignoring their ‘mission’ you have to admire the way the company pushes full-tilt, 100% into achieving things with seemingly the force of a nuclear explosion. Any other company would have happily sold high priced model S and X cars, and maybe invested any profits into eventually expanding into making slightly cheaper cars. Tesla has a single quarter of profitability, then immediately borrows and dilutes like crazy to raise a tra-zillion dollars to build the largest factory on the planet to go full tilt into mass-market car production. They *might fail* (although as of last month it looks increasingly unlikely), but nobody can ever, ever accuse them of not really going for it.

I don’t know what will happen to Kongregate. I think their store has a better chance than most, and I doubt it will actually fail. As to whether it will take noticeable market share from steam…thats even harder to know. Maybe one day these stores will start to compete for the top devs listings by reducing their royalty take?

 

 

I’ve sold games through yahoo games, Realgames, GoG, Steam, Iwin, the apple appstore, macgamestore, the humble store, and probably about a dozen minor ones I cannot even remember. Currently the ‘active’ ones, where I make literally 99% of my sales are:

Steam

GoG

Humble Store

Apple OSX store

Everything else is a rounding error. To be honest, those last two are pretty close to rounding errors already. I am about to release a few games on the new kongregate store, but after that I am doing some serious reconsidering of my strategy on this. The landscape has changed, technology and expectations have changed, developers options are definitely better, and its time to take a long hard look at the current system.

Basically any store of any consequence is trying to grab market share from steam. Steam had a VERY rocky start (younger gamers may not remember the absolute hatred and anger at the instability and clunkiness and inconvenience of steam on its initial release), but quickly rose to be the market leader. When it started accepting indie games, the premise was pretty simple: We take 30% of the retail price, and we provide a website to handle discovery, order-taking and fraud detection, demo and full-version hosting, automatic updates and some community features. Is this a good deal? And the vast majority of people thought ‘fuck yes’. It WAS a good deal, but 90% of the ‘good’ part came from exposure to such a huge audience. You could already get order taking, fraud detection and stats for about 5-10% from other companies, including getting the email addresses of your customers, depending how you haggled. Later, steam improved vastly on what it had to offer, as we got achievements, real-time sales tracking, trading cards, steamworks, a simpler (GUI-based) updating tool, better customisation of store pages, a steam-widget you could embed on your site, developer pages, and GUI tools to simplify setting discounts and participating in sales.

Debate goes on in 2018 as to whether this is worth 30%, because of the vast change in discover-ability on steam caused by the opening of the store to hobbyists and practically everyone. Thats an argument for another time, and not one that I feel is the most relevant to this blog post.

The real point of this post is to point out a pretty big discrepancy between the steam value-proposition (to devs) and that from other portals. Here is the headline:

Unless you are offering ALL of that, AND something new or better to make it worth my while, and probably throwing some swag my way, why the fucking fuck would I give you 30% of my hard earned income?

Chefs at Steam Dev Days cooking free food for devs

Chefs at Steam Dev Days cooking free food for devs

The assumption seems to be that you can set up a store, do some minimal GUI design on it, put out a press release and expect to cash in your thirty percent of every game that the developers take the time to configure for your portal. I think that time is coming to an end. The thirty percent is arguable anyway, but unless you developer experience is BETTER than steam (and lets be honest, its really not), why on earth should you take the same cut?

Hell… even steam’s offerings in some areas are extremely low quality. The steam community forums are awful, with no WYSIWYG component, no real-time preview, very limited features in comparison to software like discourse (which I have here on my forums). The stats reporting is nice, but still nowhere near as fast as it should be. There is no really usable inbuilt player-metrics component in steamworks, no way to easily upload images of work-in-progress stuff to show off early access development on the forums, there is no tech support ticket system to allow us to give proper tech support to our customers, no notification of new reviews for developers… I could go on.

Valve can ‘kind of get away with this’ for a while… because they are the market leader. But new portals cannot. Valve also do the odd cool thing like steam dev days, or send people nice gifts, even chocolate, which is definitely appreciated. they meet up with developers and give them free drinks (also appreciated). This kind of thing actually *does* matter. The Humble Bundle guys and Kongregate do get that side of it, but I’m not sure others do, and even those two have a long way to go to offer true competition for steam. Try setting sale discounts for 20 different titles on the humble store. its not fun.

So starting with next year, and my *next* game (Democracy 4), I’m going to change my view when it comes to online game stores. The game will definitely come to steam, but if anybody else wants to sell that game, my attitude will very much be… Whats it worth to me?

It doesn’t JUST have to be money (although setting your cut noticeably BELOW 30% would definitely get my attention), it can be way-better community experience, way better stats and metrics support, an awesome tech-support feature, incredibly fast and helpful developer support, an annual expo where you wine and dine us, fuck it… free chocolate or bottles of champagne sent to my house. A free fucking T-shirt? Throw us developers a fucking bone. There is no magical law that means we have to be on your store. We cover 95% of the market simply by being on steam. lets see some actual competition for a change.

 

 

I recently showed off my latest game production Line at a big UK games show (EGX), and not long after than, I took a trip (my first ever) to Boston to meet up with some Boston devs and talk to some nice people from valve. I also had a look around the local Boston indie games festival event while I was there, and talked to a bunch of indies about various stuff. In-between this I visited the Boston tea party museum, which you kind of have to do if you are very English and in Boston right?

Now I am finally recovered from jet lag, and back working on cool new stuff for Production Line, I have time to reflect on the indie scene as I see it now in September 2018.

I think this is a good time to do this, as a number of people are talking about this article about the reality of indie game dev, and there has also been debate about this article, about the experience of some fellow indies (who also happened to be next to us last year at EGX). Its probably also worth mentioning that Limit theory’s developer seems to have quit the project.

Anyway…

yeah its not getting any easier, and I don’t see any immediate reason to believe it will. In theory, eventually enough indie developers go bankrupt in a saturated market so that the self-correcting methods of capitalism kick-in, people realize that its no different to writing a novel (in terms of success chances), and the people who are currently ‘chasing the indie dream’ get jobs in banking or business app development. In practice it seems that indie development is still seen as attractive enough that there is another decade or so of new entrants coming in to replace every developer who drops out when their finances run dry. I really cannot see the ‘number of games released on steam this week’ metric dropping a lot in the medium term.

Another potential solution or equilibrium would be a more even and less hit-driven distribution of revenue from stores could make indie devs more sustainable at the margins. Every RimWorld or Prison Architect, of for that matter every PubG is making so many bazillions of dollars of pure profit, that if it could be distributed over 100x as many games, there would be a lot more solvent developers and maybe a handful fewer multi-multi-millionaires on steam. Arguably that would be a good thing, but not something I think you can really force.

Ultimately there a few forces that are naturally causing the current state of affairs to persist, and I dont think any of them are evil, or corrupt, or bad per-se, they are just the reality.

Force #1: people want this lifestyle so much they are prepared to take unnecessary risks. That means the price is driven down. Its simple supply and demand, and because many people are as happy to live on noodles as a game developer than they would be to apply the same skills to biz-app development at a $90,000 salary… then the average developer is going to see their wage driven down. Thats simple supply/demand economics and that is not going to change.

Force #2: Barriers to entry have dropped hugely. We can argue the pros and cons of the $100 steam fee, but the simple fact is unity and similar engines & asset stores mean its easier to make a game than ever before. That vastly increases the pool of people able to compete in the market.

Force #3: There is a massive skill disparity in the range of ‘indie’ game developers. This is the one that requires more explanation:

A really AWESOME bricklayer may be able to lay bricks at double the rate of a bricklayer who learned the trade last week. Maybe even three times as fast. Thats awesome. But a really AWESOME programmer is likely 40-50 or even 100x as productive as a newcomer to programming. It sounds like bullshit but its true, and the sad thing is, you really need to HAVE that much experience before you truly appreciate this reality. The same is likely true for artists.

If you are a newcomer to programming, think of all the time you spend debugging, the time you spend googling the answer to something, the time you spend refactoring, the time you spend on skype or discord asking people for help, and then remove ALL of it, and thats how it is when you have coded *that kind of thing* 10 or 20 times already. Once you know what you are doing at a certain level, programming is just typing. I can create new user interface code for Production Line pretty much at the speed I can type this blog post, and to be frank, using whole tomatoes improved intellisense, its actually quicker for me than typing English.

In many ways I am the *WORST CASE* scenario as a competing indie developer. I have 37 years coding experience, and 20 years indie dev experience. I learned to type before home computers even existed, and used to get a book and type out the text from the book on a manual typewriter *for fun* as a child. I’m married, and have no kids so I’m not constantly socializing or dating, and have zero distractions. I work from home in the countryside in a 100% distraction-free environment. I can afford the most comfortable chair imaginable, the fastest PC imaginable, I am healthy, I love my job, I have no boss, and no financial worries. Add to this… I have no major hobbies, I hate most TV, the majority of books I read for fun are about programming or business or marketing.

If you imagine designing a robot to take human form and churn out as much productivity as possible as an indie dev… its not *that* much better than me. The only things working against me are the fact that I guess I’m older than average so theoretically less energised? (I made a a developer blog video on Boxing day, so I cant see the lack of energy myself…)

Anyway my point is… I am your competition as an indie dev. You may not like to think like that, and I certainly like to be helpful to other indies, and encourage people, but the fact is, I exist and I’m making games 60 hours a week and I love it. I am not the only one. You are also trying out-code Chris Delay from introversion, Jonathan Blow, Jamie Cheng, Ryan Clark, and a bunch of other indies who have WAY more experience and WAY more technical ability than you (probably), simply because of age and time.

(This sounds horribly arrogant, but I’m not claiming to be any ‘better’ a person and certainly not innately any cleverer than anybody else. I’ve just done it a LONG time, and I am unusually single minded and focused. Essentially I’m tough competition due to time, age, and genes.)

..so what am i getting at here?

The excellent Lake Ridden post mortem includes this:

“35h work week. We measured the SCRUM points completed and was able to get the same amount of things done in 35h instead of the usual 40h. All while the stress number was staying the same or dropping. Everybody was actively encouraged to use this extra free time to see family or do exercise.”

Which sounds GREAT and I wish the whole world was like that, but unfortunately it is not. They are indie devs, and competing in the free market with the rest of us. I’m not working 35 or even 40 hours, and never will ( I am too obsessed with my games), and by mere fact of being much older and more experienced than that team, I have a huge advantage. You cannot legislate that advantage away, nobody can make a solo indie dev who owns the company work less hard. The playing field is NOT level, and its not going to be.

So whats my answer to this problem?

I absolutely accept that I do not have one. It is, simply put, really fucking hard right now, and probably always will be. Music, Writing, Acting, game-dev, they all suffer from this problem. Too many people want to do it for everyone to end up with a great lifestyle, working conditions and standard of living. I absolutely understand why people would like indie game dev to pay (on average) like a normal 9-5 job with normal 9-5 hours, but this is not about to happen, sorry. If you expect gamers to ‘pay more’ to subsidize better working conditions for indie game devs, ask yourself when you demanded the option to pay an extra amount to spotify to support indie musicians.

HUGE disclaimer: If you work for someone else in a big company like EA/Ubisoft/Whoever else, then absolutely you should NOT be working > 40 hour weeks. I ROUTINELY went home dead on 6PM from my jobs in AAA and never got fired for it. Similarly, if you are a super-experienced developer in those same companies then you should FIGHT LIKE HELL to get the pay you deserve. Absolutely some coders should earn 10x what other coders earn, and if they wont pay you that, leave.

TL;DR: Indie dev is really hard. The experienced devs have an advantage. This sucks if you are new. This will not change.

 

 

Announcing Democracy 4

September 14, 2018 | Filed under: business | democracy 4

Development has started on Democracy 4, the latest iteration of the political strategy game by Positech Games. Democracy 3 was released in 2013 and…quite a lot has happened in global politics since then, which we hope to reflect in the new version. We are still very early in the development of the game, so are not ready to show anything yet, but here are the answers to some expected questions:

Lead programmer and Lead Designer on Democracy 4 will be Jeff Sheen from Stargazy Studios, who also designed Democracy 3:Africa and worked on the Unicode port of Democracy 3 recently to allow support for Russian & Chinese translations. Cliff will help with design & testing and will be producer.

Democracy 4 will incorporate the extra features introduced in Democracy 3 Africa, which simulated corruption, limits to press freedom and other political phenomena from the extremes which are starting to become more common in western politics since the release of Democracy 3.

The game will be completely updated to reflect modern issues, so no more worrying about the ‘V’ chip and other long forgotten issues, and more worrying about fake-news, social media, and other social phenomena driving politics in 2018 onwards.

The release date is ‘some time in 2019’ and we expect to offer an early-access / playable alpha version to players before the games final release. Target platforms are PC, OSX and Linux.

The plan is to roll content from the existing 4 expansion packs (Extremism, Social Engineering, Clones & Drones and Electioneering) into Democracy 4 where appropriate and relevant to provide a single version of the game.

More details coming over the next few months :D