Category Archives: business

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.

There are no comments yet

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.