Category Archives: business

The last few months have been pretty tough for me. I basically did too much at once, and missed a few things, and made some mistakes and I am not the sort of person who shrugs things off and goes ‘well shit happens’. I get angry with myself for screwing up, and I don’t forget it, which means I get more stressed and argghh… I end up a bit like this:

stressed

which is obviously *not good*.

Recently we found a bunch of bugs in the implementation of getting Democracy 3:Electioneering (DLC for democracy 3) to work seamlessly with Democracy 3 Africa (A different game) without people having to re-buy it, or move any files. This sounded like a good idea at the time, as a programmer, but when running a business you have to realize that OH MY GOD it is not that simple.

The problem is that D3 is not just ‘a game’. That would be simple. It’s Democracy 3 on steam, on GoG, on the humble store, the mac game store, direct from us and also on ipad (which does not support the new DLC). Plus…its in OSX and Linux. Oh and also the builds for the French, German and Polish language are ENTIRELY separate (and the DLC is not translated). This means we have D3(direct)D3 German(direct) D3 French(direct) D3 osx(direct) D3 linux (direct), D3 Gog, D3 Gog osx, D3 steam osx, D3 steam Linux, D3 steam. D3 steam French, D3 steam German, D3 steam polish. Humble osx, Humble win, Humble Linux. Oh and there is a browser version on humble (but nowhere else, and only in English).

Holy fucking shit.

Then we added Democracy 3 Africa, which is multiple languages but ALL IN ONE BUILD, and thats on humble, GoG and Steam. Its in Windows and OSX, but not linux. BTW Africa doesn’t have polish, but D3 does, but only on steam, and in retail, because yes…D3 is in retail, but only in Poland.

Again…

stressed

So holy fuck. And I have fucked up a few technical things which I THINK are all now sorted, despite giving cause to angry emails and twitter outbursts and general stress., Plus today is the HOTTEST day of the year in England. (don’t laugh, we have heat some days). Oh and I nearly cut my arm off in a gardening injury (yeah funny huh?) and damaged my neck doing sit ups (you can laugh here), and had to miss DEVELOP which was the first time I’d bought a full conference pass and booked a hotel . FUCK.

So ideally I’d have all this behind me now and be heading back to my favourite relaxing place (st lucia…)

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Which I haven’t been to for three years because…being a treehugger, I rarely fly, and games conferences have kinda used up my personal angst budget for long distance trips for a while. But wait! there is good news ahead…

Firstly, barring tech support, Democracy 3:Africa is DONE and shipped, Big Pharma Marketing & Malpractice is DONE and shipped, Electioneering is DONE and shipped. The only planned releases by positech games in the next six months are two third party games, Shadowhand and Political Animals. Both are looking in really good shape, and I am not writing a single line of code for either of them. YAY.

Plus its very sunny out there, the garden looks AMAZING, and today I am going to visit friends for a day and wont do much work. YAY. Plus I *have* actually learned a lot of lessons from all this stress. The most obvious one being that the less builds you have of your game the better. To that end… A lot of this mess is being cleared up by the super-talented Jeff from stargazy (he coded Democracy 3 africa). Soon(ish) we will have a Democracy 3 build for all languages (in unicode no less), and that will kill off a chunk of these useless bastard builds that cause me so much admin hell.

DOUBLE YAY.

So first up, here is the latest exciting video of ME: I talk about stuff, including democracy 3 electioneering, and steam reviews, and modding and schools and injuries.

Maybe more bloggable, is why bother? A fellow dev with decent insight into these things asked me on twitter why I bother when I don’t enjoy it. The answers are that I do ‘kinda’ enjoy it, and also I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and be all easter island about it. I have had this blog for ten thousand years now, but times change. maybe video is the thing now. Remember when everyone used typepad (who?) or even LiveJournal (what?). yeah exactly. These days people use Medium, instead of WordPress, because… I have no idea. Soon a new blogging platform will exist every week. Is youtube even the thing now? does everyone use Vimeo, or twitch or is it all periscope these days?

Anyway..here are some stats:

The combined views so far of the last 4 youtube developer blogs for electioneering that are on youtube only (discounting therefore any facebook views, which would be promoted) are:

2,541 views.

Which is a) pathetic and b) more than 99% of lets plays (ahahahah…my little joke).

Compare that with for example, my last 4 blog posts (going by google analytics) which is only 1,715 views. However, that stats is total bollocks, because most people use the rss link and I have seemingly no username or password any more to find out how many. Arggghhh. The blog also occasionally explodes. For example in the last 30 days, blog hits have been 14,027, which isn’t *that* shabby. Over the last year, average blog views per day is 664, which is 15% *up* on the previous year. So thats not bad. And they have a long tail. I get currently about 300 hits a day (yup!) on a blog post from 2011 about fixing pc game crashes.

So there isn’t an overwhelming crushing argument to say its worth me investing time in youtube. A video blog takes me roughly 4x the time and effort of a normal blog. Why bother?

Firstly youtube is still growing, and doesn’t look like its going to stop. Alexa estimates its the #2 site after google. Secondly, the traditional media increasingly looks like it cannot compete. Everyone talks about how their kids spend all their time watching youtube. Watching has become the new reading. You don’t have to read an article, you watch the writer talk about it, far less hassle. The future seems to be mobile phones + video content,. and if I don’t have any strategy for mobile (and I don’t) I should at least put *some* effort into video.

Thirdly, I suspect video content is ‘worth’ more. Someone reading a review of my game will be fairly informed and aware of the game, but somebody WATCHING me or a reviewer actually playing it gets a MUCH better feel for what the game is like in actual usage. A picture paints a thousand words, and a video, with most games can paint a thousand pictures. Also, if the developer is actually *in* a video, it humanizes the developer a bit. I have no clue who designed or coded Star Wars Battlefront, but when I get used to seeing someone’s face and hearing them talk about the game, it seems a much more ‘real’ connection. I’m pretty sure thats a fairly common reaction, and is why I’ve started sticking my elderly unshaven mug in the videos :D. It also vaguely helps with public speaking confidence in some weird way, which I think might help long term when I promote some new stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not closing my blog, I love doing the blog, but I aim to produce a lot more video content than before. Now I’ve got (vaguely) into the groove of uploading stuff, its getting smoother and less hassle, and I think from a marketing POV, its sensible and worth doing. Tips on how to make better content are very welcome.

 

 

 

I do not know a single developer who has not knocked back a neat whiskey and, in the manner of someone who has seen things no man should see, when discussing the woes of the battlefield and the horrors of war…found themselves mumbling to their comrades, wiping the dribble of 100% neat alcohol from their chin and expressing the common sentiment… “fucking steam reviews eh?” before sobbing and falling off their bar stool.

Its not just a problem for steam obviously, or games in general, biut all online reviews. Anyone who runs a restaurant or a bed-and-breakfast or small hotel will tell you that ‘consumer reviews’ are not the panacea they are sometimes described as by businesspeople who run online portals.

In a sense, the theory behind reviews given freely by users are perfectly sensible. By definition, the seller of a good (me) is only going to promote it in a positive light. We are going to tell you our game is amazing (even if it isn’t) and we will not draw your attention to defects or bugs, because we have a financial interest not to do so. The other side of this, obviously is the consumer, whose interests (in the short term) are the complete opposite. They have a financial incentive (they do not wish to waste money on an inferior product) to know all the faults of a product before purchase.

So to quote pretty much every character in a Tolstoy epic. “What is to be done?”

review1

The uniformly accepted decision is to allow customer reviews. Theoretically the customer is unbiased, and only interested in reporting facts, Thus the customers have a shared objective and can trust one another, as nothing is to be gained from leaving an unjustified bad review. Thus, sanity prevails, reviews are free, and everyone is happy.

The system described above is based on what is called ‘classical economics’ or what, when I was at the London School of Economics was called ‘Economics’, because back then, we didn’t know any different. Thankfully since then, the whole field of behavioural Economics has grown up, and we know now that Classical Economics, at least at a micro level, is 50% bollocks.

Classical Economics makes assumptions that turn out mostly to be wrong, and the design of customer reviews makes many of those assumptions.

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Assumption #1: The customer has nothing to benefit from dishonesty. This is 99.9% true, and thankfully I do not see it as a problem on steam (at least not personally), but the area of restaurants, books and so on suffer hugely from this error. Where reviews are anonymous, chaos reins! As a seller, in theory I have much to be gained from reviewing competing products badly, and theoretically, from creating shill accounts to review my own games positively. More likely (thankfully also rare) is the possibility of extreme fanboys of game A giving negative reviews of game B, because its a ‘rival’ game, or because the developer supported gamergate, or because the developer is female, or whatever…

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Assumption #2: The customer has perfect information. In terms of steam reviews, this would mean that the customer is fully aware of the product they are reviewing. To do this, they would need to experience it on multiple PCs, on Windows and Mac, and Linux (if supported), also in multiple languages, and to have completed the entire game, plus tried modding, co-op, multiplayer and so on. In short, they would have to dedicate several weeks of in depth research to completely evaluating the experience. In practice, many reviews are based on one PC, one platform, one language and a relatively short playtime of limited features. This is a partial experience, not an in depth evaluation.

rev4

Assumption #3: The reviews represent a representative sample of players. I’m tempted to just type HA! at this, but it requires more explanation. A game that draws people in to play for hours and hours may well get negative reviews in the first day of release, simply because the only people leaving reviews are people who hit a bug, or otherwise stopped playing. In other words, the silent majority who like the game are too busy playing to review it. This is definitely true on steam where you are forbidden from encouraging reviews from the app itself (unlike on mobile), and where there is no minimum playtime AFAIK.

Of the Democracy 3 sales, I can tell that roughly 1% of players have left reviews. The chances of the 1% being a poor cross section is very high. Angry people are more motivated to write reviews than happy people. People with time on their hands (kids & students) are more likely to leave reviews than busy gamers (20+ 30+ and parents).

So what is to be done?

what

 

I think if you want to keep reviews you have to accept that the only real way to fix 1) 2) and 3) is to have at least some paid reviews. If I owned steam (I’ll get this on a t-shirt one day), I think I’d take a chunk of the sales profits (steamspy suggest roughly $200 million this sale, so say 30% is $60 million, lets spend 2% of that, $1,200,000) and hire a bunch of reviewers, full-time. I’m sure the world of games journalism has a bunch of unemployed writers that would love the job. Lets pay them $60k each, with admin & health insurance and all that, we get 12x$100k reviewers. So that’s 12 full time games reviewers working for valve.  Not a lot, but not insignificant. They don’t have to review all the shovelware, just the games selling thousands of copies.

Suddenly we have a bunch of ‘pro’ reviews mixed in with the wider range of existing ones. Now a big part of the problem is solved, but I’d go further and do some weighting based on another metric.

Time played.

Frankly if you play a game for 40 hours then give it a negative review you need therapy, or a job. That makes no sense. Also, TBH if you play a game for 40 minutes, you really shouldn’t be reviewing it *at all*. The beauty of ‘time-played’ on a game is that steam already calculates and stores this for ALL the players, not just the vocal 1% who leave reviews. The stat is not perfect (some people ‘idle’ a game to get trading cards’, but its not bad. Presumably steam *could* write some code that detects a player being really AFK and fix that anyway.

I think some combination of pro review scores (let them give 0-100% not just positive or negative) combined with user review scores combined with player time will be a far better (and harder to ‘cheat) version of what we have now. Just my opinion, and I’;d like to read your thoughts.

BTW before anyone starts yelling, I’m not complaining specifically about my scores, I have generally good reviews, and to state it for the billionth time, my games sell fine. You can criticize without ‘whining’ if you lay out your arguments sensibly :D.

Soo… here we are in a steam sale. Sales are….ok. Nothing spectacular. I have D3 Africa in its first big discount, Big Pharma at 50% off, Democracy 3 is 70% off. They are performing ok, but I *may* have overspent promoting them, hard to say. Time to take a look at what I have earned in the last year, and consider what’s coming up.

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Video is more important. Increasingly I see video content more often than I see text. It seems weird to me as a coder, who much prefers text. As a result, I’m trying to be a little bit more youtube-y. I’ve done 3 developer blogs on youtube for Democracy 3:Electioneering, and intend to do a fourth. I’ll probably do some with shadowhand too, and Political animals. I think this is an area I have under-appreciated in the past. My video presence sucks. My broadband is way too slow for twitch, and my youtube channel has 1,200 subscribers, not exactly impressive. I’ve finally started dual-camera videos and am trying to upload more frequently.

2

Press is harder to reach. Going to GDC this year was pretty futile from a press POV. I met a few decent press people, but I guess 99% of the time was useless from a press POV. I have no idea what you do to arrange press meets. Even proper PR firms don’t seem to be able to cut it. maybe my releases were of no interest that year? who knows, but getting through to press seems harder than ever. I am not sure how to beat this, I may just accept that conventional press is more trouble than it is worth. PR firms cost a LOT.

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F2P is not going away. I keep expecting a big kickback and backlash but there isn’t going to be one. I think its another year where we have to accept that we get closer and closer to the expected business model, even on PC, even for strategy games, is F2P. If thats how people prefer to play I can’t be a grumpy old man ignoring them. I can see the appeal in some ways, as I am constantly frustrated at the slow pace of reveal of new (paid) content for my current favorite game. Can it work with niche games? possibly. Do I rule out positech releasing their next new IP as F2P? For once I do not. I can’t see me ever selling consuambles, but a free game with paid add-ons and extra content? maybe. Too early to tell.

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A lot of the ‘competition’ is junk. Yes, there are roughly 623,000 new games on Greenlight every day. Some of them are laughable and look like they took the developer a weekend (at most). Even those that look good, are often very, very ropey. Unity, and the asset store allows a lot of newcomers to game development to seem good at a superficial level. Look at this cool terrain, and these cool trees, and the shiny 3D engine! Look also at the uninspired gameplay, the cliche-ridden design and the laughable lack of optimization. Everyone has to start somewhere. My first game sucked big time (image above). The difference is everyone’s first games now end up on steam, and people perceive this as a threat. It is not. Good games will still sell.

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Player testing & metrics are good. I knew this, but I never thought it worthwhile to really invest both money and time into player-testing and analyzing use. I’ve been doing a lot of re-balancing of Democracy 3 lately, and I think I’ve made it a noticeably better, more balanced and more fun game as a result. Why its taken me so long to tune in to what the F2P crowd have known for years is beyond me. I make games that are very complex, so being able to test every permutation before launch is just not viable. I may also tend towards an early-access style release for my next new IP, as that obviously gives you lots of needed feedback. I know that can kind of wreck the PR of your real launch, but I’m thinking about doing it in a more low-key way anyway.

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I need to move on. Democracy 3 sold better than my wildest dreams, but I need to move on to the next thing now. Gratuitous Space Battles 2 was supposed to be my next big thing, but it fizzed and flopped (relatively). I then got a bit distracted with Democracy 3:Africa, which is probably my ‘Tesla Model X’ (a distraction between products). But after D3:Electioneering, its full-steam with new stuff. I already have new stuff up and running. I could show you screenshots right now of a big isometric-style strategy/management game. I won’t do it, because I’m not convinced by the design or look of it yet, but I do plan to release details of it way earlier than I normally do. Maybe this year, not sure.


I think in summary, things are tough, and things are changing (as always). 2016 is likely to be a ‘holding steady’ year for positech, sales-wise. I just checked steam and comparing the last 365 days with previous 365, revenue has dropped by 1% :D. Thats pretty good as we didn’t release any new first-party IP this year, only D3:A, which is an expand-alone. Last year our big release was Big Pharma.

D3:Electioneering, Shadowhand and Political Animals all have strong potential and will all release this year, so there should be some nice sales bumps there. 2017 will be the year of my new IP, with all the risks, stress, potential and roller-coaster of emotions that involves.

I sometimes forget how lucky I am, as I know a lot of indie studios doing a blog post like this would be ‘phew thank fuck we can make it to another year’, and I kind of take that for granted. Mostly this is because I am VERY conservative in business. The big boom-years resulted in me stashing away cash to survive any future dips, and its a strategy that’s worked well. That isn’t the typical ‘get big fast’ silicon valley growth model, but its worked well for me, making games since 1997, still here :D.

Just a random thought, that occurred whilst playing Star Wars: Battlefront, a game I deeply love, have bought the season pass for, and yet am still desperate to say ‘shut up and take my money’ to the developers. If a popup appeared in-game saying ‘3 new character skins 5$’ I’d hit buy without question. New maps? ditto. I love the game, I love spending time in it, I want more, more more.

AFAIK Star Wars Battlefront supports no modding at all. You can tell its a very console-style game, and the idea of allowing modding was probably heresy to the publisher, but apart from the usual arguments (good ones) that people often make about modding helping to build a decent community, keep people playing, and build up the perceived value of the base product, I think there may be another good reason to allow it in a game.

starwars

It MAY be true, that when you have a healthy modding scene, its a sign of a lack of supply in the market a little like the way piracy , in some circles, is considered to show up an under-served market for cheap games.

I know some AAA publishers are anti-modding on the basis that people should be sold new content, not allowed to make it for free, but frankly, who installs a dozen mods for a game who does not ALREADY own all your DLC? Besides, I think that modding may well be the best market research tool ever made. Amateurs are basically making new DLC and letting you test the market, before you even consider creating ‘official’ DLC. The existence of a singular, big, popular and well-reviewed mod for your game could be taken as evidence that you missed an opportunity, evidence that you should get in there and give those customers what you did not realize they wanted.

As I recall Battlefield had a Vietnam mod before Battlefield Vietnam. This does not surprise me at all.

vietnam

I have supported mods in pretty much every game I’ve made or published. Gratuitous Space Battles had an amazing popular modding forum, Democracy 3 has both a huge list of mods on my site plus a major steam workshop presence. Even Kudos 2 supported a modding scene, and I have always been a cheerleader for indie devs enabling mod support.

I am starting to realize how good a beacon this is for encouraging devs to serve that market with official content. TBH, the only reason I stopped developing new GSB1 DLC was I felt I was ‘being cheeky’ by making so many, but frankly now I’m starting to think that was silly. maybe EA think they are being cheeky by having a whole Star Wars Battlefront season pass, but as a dedicated player I want MORE, I demand it in fact! Unfortunately the lack of modding means they will never know for sure :(.

You could argue that not every downloaded mod is a ‘lost-sale’, and obviously that’s true, there may not be a viable sized market for mods that replace Star Wars storm-troopers with pink rabbits, and yet you might still get a mod for it, but I think in general, the more popular and more mainstream mods are definitely a sign that the players are saying ‘we want more stuff in this game’, and as ever, the game developer should always be listening to the players.

I was wrong to stop making GSB1 expansions when I did.