Category Archives: business

There are a lot of indie games being released these days, hell, a lot of games full stop. There is evidence of this from this wonderful graph courtesy of steamspys twitter account:

Its hard to imagine the number of gamers has increased to the same extent, or the amount of games press covering indie games, so the inevitable conclusion is that chances of the press caring about your indie game are less than 1/6th as high as they were when I released Democracy 3. In short…in terms of getting press about your game, you are kinda fucked.

And not just you. I haven’t been able to set the world of gaming media on fire with Political Animals or Shadowhand or Production Line either. If it makes you feel better…its me as well. In terms of getting press, I’m probably only slightly less fucked than the average reader of this blog (assuming you are a developer obv.).

The good news is, I don’t think this really matters. These days, I increasingly hear about a new game from world of mouth, a reddit/forum post, twitter or facebook. Or I see it on my steam front page. None of these are areas where the press is dramatically driving eyeballs. The idea that all discussion about video games is emanating like a funnel from the core seed that is planted by a number of gaming websites and print magazines is rooted in the 1990s and 2000s, not today. I actually think that if the editors of Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, PCGamesN and PCGamer all HATED YOU with a vengeance, and refused to ever mention your game, its not really going to have much effect, because the percentage of the games-discussion taking place online that is controlled  by a few media people with megaphones is actually pretty small, and my gut feeling is that it is shrinking.

So how do you fight that?

You don’t, you embrace it.

The fact is, gamers like to find, play and talk about cool stuff. Despite us complaining that only 1% of steam players leave reviews, thats still hundreds of thousands of reviews, and tens or hundreds of thousands of comments, retweets, likes, upvotes and all the other social media stuff. I have to admit, given the option of a front page article on a news site about production Line, or having the game discussed in a top-voted subreddit by hundreds of redditors…I may well choose the reddit option. Social media gets a bad rap, and sure its a cesspool of trolls and people referring to each other as Hitler, but in amongst it all there are a lot of people talking about games, and these people BUY the games, they aren’t the ones getting free press passes.

I, like everyone in any branch of the entertainment industry, have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m, wrong, but I like to think I make informed decisions. In a day when googling for almost any topic or question will get you video results near the top of the list, its hilarious that so many once proud gaming websites don’t even have a video channel. The same people who laughed at their bosses not understanding the shift from print to web are missing the shift from web to video. I strongly think that a constantly updated and topical video channel is not just an option for the fully staffed indie studio with a full time community manager, its absolutely essential.

I’ve done 11 blog videos to promote Production Line, and done my best to respond helpfully to all the comments on them. I fully intend to blog every week in video form until final release and then beyond. I may prefer text to video, but many of my customers do not, and they are the ones in charge. I’m no longer releasing videos as a way to persuade the ‘big press’ to run a story with the video link, the video IS my story, and it IS my coverage, and I’m fine with it.

Right now my videos average about 600 views each, hopefully this climbs over time. If the game looks good, people will share the videos and tell their friends. I am not trying to rush this, or be too pushy about encouraging it, I’m hoping to just make a great game and let it gather attention organically for now. I’m not saying i wont advertise at some point, I’m just saying that chasing the conventional press is starting to feel to me like perhaps a bit of a dated strategy.

 

 

To cut a long story short, personal interaction with me can be pretty random. Some days, if you meet me I will be confident, outgoing, friendly. I will smile and shake your hand. I will probably be very sarcastic (tis my way…) and make jokes. I will try to be helpful. Other times, depending on the circumstances, I may be VERY shy. Its very unlikely I’ll start a conversation, or have much enthusiasm for keeping things going. At a lot of social events, if I haven’t seen someone I know within 10 minutes (max) I’ll leave, even if it took me an hour to get there.

Generally, when it comes to business, I far prefer email to all other forms of communication. I don’t need to meet you to sign a contract. I don’t even need to speak to you. Email is perfect for me, its excellent in all ways. Ironically, in groups of people that I already know, I can often be gregarious, maybe even loud. It is sooo random.

I do muse if people who are like me are naturally biased towards becoming programmers, especially in games. Games programming is about creation, and creation is about control. I wouldn’t choose to create a situation I didn’t want, or people I didn’t like, or locations that freak me out. As a coder, I have total control over the entire world, the entire ecosystem, I can see what everyone is thinking, because I coded their AI.

For a long time, I got the impression that almost all indie developers, and maybe most game developers in general were people like me. Quiet people. people who didn’t draw attention to themselves. hard workers, but the quiet studious types who beaver away in some dark corner of a room somewhere learning C++ or developing a game engine. In short…people like this:

Then after Indie Game:The movie came out, indie became cool, and it seemed the total opposite happened. The last game conference I went to, I recall seeing some distressingly stylish and attractive and confident young game developer strutting the stage with a headset mic on, behaving like he was a veteran of TED talks. What the hell happened? Where did all these extroverts come from? Maybe I am wrong, and being superficial about it. A friend told me that a famous game dev (who I’ve met a few times) is NOT AT ALL as outgoing and confident as he appears at shows, its all an act. if so, its a good one. Is that the case for everyone? Is there some genetic link between being an extravert and making a retro puzzle platformer game in the same way there seems to be between introverts and simulation game coders? (molyneux excepted). Modern game devs seem to be more like this:

FWIW, if you ever saw me give a talk, it was likely this one at the GDC rant (its the biggest audience I spoke to I think, maybe tied with steam devs days #1 marketing talk). Here is the talk:

I was so nervous beforehand you have no idea. I actually thought I might vomit. No, you can’t tell (hopefully), but there you go. Maybe we ARE all faking it?

 

Its not even Christmas yet, but fuck it, I’m typing this now. So how was 2016 for Cliffski/Positech?

Lets start with the easy stuff: Statistics! Oh how I love statistics. Looking at steam, my companies revenue comparing the last 365 days…

Steam revenue is down 19%. Steam units sold are down 16% suggesting not much in the way of price pressure downwards. Income from other channels, like direct sales, GoG, Humble seem pretty steady.

We released 2 games this year: Political Animals and Democracy 3 Africa. neither of them set the world on fire, although D3:A is currently profitable (yay!). PA may break even in the long run. We also released Democracy 3:Electioneering, which didn’t do quite as well as I hoped, but I’m still glad I did it, as I enjoyed making it, and it kind of ‘fleshed out’ an area that was missing in the games coverage of politics in general. Democracy 3 & Big Pharma continue to sell well, as do some older titles.

In other business news, we got a retail deal signed for Big Pharma and Democracy 3 in Poland, which was some cash & some nice shiny boxes for my shelf :D. D3:Africa was my first experiment at trusting someone else to write code that I would put the positech development name to, which was a big step. In PR terms, we were a bit too low key. I didn’t give any major talks this year, nor show any games personally at shows, although Jeff showed off Democracy 3:Africa. There was GDC, and a trip to Steam Dev days, both of which were worth doing personally, even if not really justified in PR terms.

We also invested in new games, notably shadowhand, which will be released soon, and despite being quite late development wise, may prove to be a bit of an indie hit. Its the sort of game that does very well through word of mouth. I have my fingers crossed for that one. Also… I started work on Production Line officially (I had been developing it slowly for ages secretly). Roughly a year ago it looked like this:

It now looks better.

In Business…but not games news…we carried on investing in renewable energy stuff, which gives about a 7-10% return, which is pretty good in these days of low interest rates. Technically my best non-games investment was probably a robotics tracker fund that is up 34% (yay!). I’m a big fan of diversifying investments and income sources, as I hate to be too dependent on just one business relationship. This does mean I now spend more time on the phone talking to banks and accountants than I would like, and I don’t consider either activity to be much fun, but its probably well worth my time.

In personal terms, my usual resolve to be ‘calmer’ each year hasn’t completely worked, although I do get less angry about things than I used to, especially in person. Due to hurting my arm just before summer started I totally failed to do archery this year, but have discovered the joy of casual puzzle games on an ipad attached to an exercise bike, which seems to be my best bet at losing weight. My BMI is 23.5, which is healthy, but I hate having any sort of belly. For years I was a boatbuilder, and we had muscles, not flab.

We raised some money for War Child this year, haven’t got final figures yet, but probably about $14k. We also finally met some representatives from the Cameroon organisation we built that school with. Hopefully we will do more of that soon.

One thing that *is* business related that I started doing weekly development videos for YouTube showing progress on Production Line. So far I have done 9, and I expect that to be more like 50 by the time the game *ships*. I’m well aware of how important youtube is, and how many gamers prefer content to be in video form. I don’t want to be one of those dinosaurs still updating their geocities page in 2016 and wondering where everyone has gone. I’m hopefully getting better at it, despite not having a face or voice for such things.

If I have learned one business lesson in 2016, its to take my time more with games, and to get opinions from gamers early. This was the first year we started using professional player research companies, and I intend to embrace this sort of thing more with a  paid-alpha program for Production Line. The other semi-business lesson I learned was related to the stock market, and thats to set a stop loss when my shares are high, but never sell them otherwise. I am very guilty of ‘banking my winnings’ too early.

If there has been any *theme* to positechs 2016 its been one of holding steady. We have not expanded to a great extent, and we have maintained a fairly constant release schedule and work schedule. Earnings took a dip, mostly due to a lack of a *big-name* first party release. With luck, that will be next year with Production Line.  On reflection, 2016 went very very quickly. It seems like only yesterday I was stood in a car factory in Michigan doing research.

Hope you all had a good year.

 

I see a lot of pitches that contain budgets, I also read a lot of post mortems. Some of them make me laugh, some make me cry, some of them actually make me irrationally angry about how badly wrong they can be. Just in case you are too busy to read this blog, here is the TL;DR:

The cost of your office chair is not contained entirely within your budget for fucks sake.

And yes…this comes from ME the person who famously argued (seriously) that everyone making an indie game should buy (second hand if necessary, mine was ex-display) a Herman Miller Aeron ultimate office chair. (I paid £800).

chair

I see a lot of budgets that look like this:

2 man-years development @ $90,000 per developer.

2 x top-end development PCs.

2 x office chairs

etc…

I don’t reply, but if I did, it would involve swear words and lots of capital letters. Why? Lets look at it like this shall we? I need a new boiler fitted (I don’t…but lets indulge in the willing suspension of disbelief for storytelling purposes). I phone around and ask for quotes from some plumbers. Here is a sample quote:

Quote for new boiler:

1 x New boiler £2,500

1 x plumbers van £15,200

1 x spanner £4

1 x blowtorch £45

1 x plumbers shoes: £65…

plumber

Aha! hold on! we have just realised how totally flipping insane this is haven’t we? Please tell me its obvious…please tell me I’m not the crazy one here? I’m literally begging you. The chair I am sat on typing this is the chair I bought shortly after moving house about 6 years ago. its the chair I coded all the DLC for Gratuitous Space Battles in, also the chair I made Democracy 3, Democracy 3:Africa, Democracy 3’s DLC, Gratuitous Space Battles 2, Gratuitous Tank Battles, and the chair I published Big Pharma and Redshirt from. Its the chair I’m coding for Production Line from. Have I made my point? I hope so. Also its as good as new, I suspect I’m less than half way through this chairs working life. My per-game costs for this chair are probably about £50, of the £800 I invested in it.

Depreciation and Capital Investment are things. If you want a publisher to invest money in you, you MUST at least understand them as vague concepts. Also…fuck publishing, if you are starting in a career as an indie developer (or anything!) you have to understand them. You have to understand investment, you have to understand the long term. It seems a growing number of people are attracted to the ‘romance’ (ha!) of being an entrepreneur, without any willingness to understand what it really means. There are also a LOT of wannabe game developers who think ‘paying your dues’ is something that happens to other people, or only in the movies. While I am annoying and offending everyone, lets go the whole hog and share some realities:

Reality Check #1: You having graduated with a degree in Computer Science does not mean you are gods gift to programming. You will be VERY VERY lucky to get a junior coders job fixing bugs in the tools. Expect to do that for at least a year.

Reality Check #2: Its quite practical to employ programmers on the other side of the planet, even without meeting them. I’ve never met half of the Squeaky Wheel team, and they did a great job. Your competition is global, not the other guys/girls in town.

Reality Check #3: Some cost comparisons:

Consumer Prices in Manila are 59.57% lower than in San Francisco, CA
Consumer Prices Including Rent in Manila are 74.11% lower than in San Francisco, CA
Rent Prices in Manila are 86.59% lower than in San Francisco, CA
Restaurant Prices in Manila are 73.26% lower than in San Francisco, CA
Groceries Prices in Manila are 66.51% lower than in San Francisco, CA
Local Purchasing Power in Manila is 57.87% lower than in San Francisco, CA

Remind me why a studio based in Silicon Valley, made up of young (inexperienced) recent graduates is a better bet for making commercially successful indie games than…I dunno ANYWHERE else on the planet? Oh and by the way, pointing out that health insurance costs are expensive in the US just makes the case for hiring someone from Europe/rest-of-world even stronger.

I know I’m coming across as one of the famous monty python yorkshiremen sketch members..but jesus christ on a bike, why are so many people expecting to walk straight out of college in the west coast of the US straight into a middle class income in a much-desired profession without so much as breaking a sweat? Frankly, even if you DO have skills that are awesome enough to compete with the price differential against coders in other locations, I’d STILL prefer someone who had struggled, and was ‘hungry’ for success than someone who just ‘expected’ it.

I feel that generally there is a vast discrepancy between the income/lifestyle that many recent graduates ‘expect’ and the lifestyle & income they will actually get. I never expected to earn a tenth (seriously) of what I do now, and that’s why I still work as hard now as I did back then. I’m used to expecting to have to work my nuts off to stay in the industry and keep my head above water. Why am I MORE paranoid about competition that many people who are so new to the industry?

 

When I started as a programmer, There was way less domestic competition, international competition was very low, we had little competition from serious middleware (most studios made their own engine), and nobody thought the industry was a path to riches. It was still VERY hard to get a job, and my first job was indeed…tools programming,  and I had to commute four hours a day (yes…four) to get to and from that job, to earn HALF what I’d earned a year before working in IT support. Just because people like me, who have been coding for 36 years (yes really) and released over a dozen games have nice flash cars doesn’t mean you get awarded one on your first day in the industry.

TL;DR: Your salary expectations are very high, and you need to google ‘depreciation’ and ‘investment’.

I don’t understand the people who run movie theaters/cinemas…

In the year 2016, I have a bloody good 40″ TV in my living room. It has a perfect picture, and with Blu-ray, its as good as the movie theater. I have multiple hi-fi speakers and a subwoofer, and don’t really miss surround sound. Also I have a lot of stuff the movie theater does not have:

  • A pause button
  • Complete control over volume.
  • Complete veto on who I watch the movie with
  • Complete scheduling freedom
  • Total control over lighting and temperature.
  • My cats can be with me.
  • Zero travel time, zero parking issues
  • Reasonably priced food
  • The best seats in the house.
  • Probably cheaper.
  • Ability to fast-forward the trailers and ads.

image1

By any conceivable measure, watching a movie in my living room is a superior experience to going to a movie theater. The movie industry still tries to get me to go with the two tiny…tiny..advantages they have:

  • A short (and shrinking) period of exclusivity
  • 3D!

As someone who is stereo-blind, the second advantage is a disadvantage. The first….well thats all they have. Frankly, its not enough. 3D is generally not making movies better, its been adopted to help combat piracy, in the ridiculous assumption that movie piracy is a bigger threat to the business than the adoption of high-speed streaming, fiber-optic to the home and cheap big flat screen TVs have been.  How could they do a better job of all this? Here is what I would do…

Take a lesson from ‘secret cinema’ and make going to see a movie an EVENT, not just an inferior experience…

  • I’d dress up the movie theater staff as characters from the big new hit movie
  • I’d sell memorabilia, toys, t-shirts, posters, everything…associated with the movie at the theater. Surely this is a no-brainer?
  • I’d have a bar…a decent bar, with cocktails and drinks named after movie characters, big screen TVs showing ‘the making of’ and other fan-content so people can get hyped with a pre-movie drink.
  • I’d massively encourage cosplay. Best outfit on each screening gets their ticket price refunded + posters & swag.
  • I’d increase the price of the ticket. This is an event, not just a movie.
  • All seats are premium seats, All seats are comfortable and adjustable.
  • Give everyone the option to pay extra and take a blu-ray of the movie away with them the moment the movie ends.

storm

Maybe that wouldn’t work, maybe it makes no business sense. But as someone who went to secret cinema (expensive) to see Dirty Dancing (not a movie I care about) and had an AMAZING time, and would easily pay double to go again… I look around me and I see movie theaters that are almost always 90% empty, and secret cinema going from strength to strength. People want experiences now, not just an inferior viewing of a movie.

You always have to give people a reason to buy your product. The movie theater has virtually none right now.