Category Archives: business

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

So Unity has changed its pricing structure, and suddenly its not so cheap, and getting rid of that ‘made with unity’ splash screen is a lot more expensive. Thats no surprise to me. that splash screen is like the packaging that says ECONOMY BISCUITS. Its there to guilt you into not wanting to look cheap. Intellectually do I think a game is less worthy if it has that splashscreen on it? Nope. Emotionally do I? Yup. I’m just being honest. Unity know that, which is why they charge you to get rid of it. bis

The unity licensing scheme allows you to earn a certain amount of money before you have to upgrade. Thats sensible, they want a multi-tiered model, its good business practice. Whats also sensible is how they have done this, ie: make the tool so valuable and cheap it become ubiquitous, then start charging for it once everyone is addicted /locked-in.

I hate lock-in. I hate the idea that the free market is limited by the inertia and invisible walls that portals build up. The company you use to do X should be the best company that does X, not the one that already has your preferences saved or your friends list on it. This isn’t some sort of moral crusade by me, its just efficiency. Barriers to entry in a market place lead to inefficiency, and thus a reduction in global happiness. Just ask anyone whose geographical location limits them to one telecoms or internet provider and see how happy they are.

One of my pie-in-the-sky ideas if I leave game development is to set up what would effectively be a high-frequency trading model for energy at the customer level. Rather than locking us in to dumb contracts for 6 or 12 months to buy electricity at a fixed price, I want the option to negotiate with 100+ providers on a second-to-second basis for each watt of power I use. I also want to build that tech into fridges, phone chargers and car charging. I need my Tesla charged in the next ten hours, but I don’t care when, I’d like to have a bot that haggles for me on the open market to pick a time…

anyway, Lock-in is bad for YOU the consumer. Whenever you are locked-in to a product or store or a contract, you lose out. Every-time you are offered a ‘service’ or ‘feature’ that locks you in more, you LOSE some freedom to negotiate at a later stage. The thing is, few people see it like this. They always think you are getting a good deal. Thats the way this stuff works…until you become a casual game publisher and change 70% royalty to 30% or 20% royalty. Yup, that really happened. And do we even have to go in to how little people earn from spotify?

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It really is worth thinking like this. If you have any lock-in or dependency on a tech or company you do not *own*, then you need funds set aside in a ‘what if they turn evil‘ wallet someplace. Similar to a ‘fuck-you’ fund as an employee, you need that WITTE fund. You are probably locked-in WAY more than you think.

  • If your blog is hosted by wordpress or medium or someone similar, they own a  bit of your future.
  • If your game tech is dependent on steamworks they own a bit of your future.
  • If your game community is based around facebook or reddit, they own a bit of your future.
  • If your whole game runs on AWS then they too, own a little bit of your future.

Most people are nice people, most of the time, but businesses change, people retire, businesses get bought out. News item: Microsoft buy Valve tomorrow. Steamworks is now $1,000 a year. You ok? Facebook now wants $1,000 a year for company web pages with > 100 fans. Still ok? Unity changes to a fixed 25% of your revenue model. You OK? You think this cannot happen? or will not happen? you think all these dotcom companies will continue forever with zero profits just to make your life easier?

Yes, I worry about the future a lot. Thats why I’m still here, still indie, still profitable.

Its that rare day where I get to announce we are publishing a game for the first time! and this one is called… Political Animals:

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Its a turn-based strategy game based upon political campaigning. Can you see why I may have been interested? The studio making it is based in the Philippines, and led by Ryan Sumo, who you may know as the artist behind Prison Architect. The studio is new, and called squeaky wheel. Its the first time I’m working with a studio in another country, so it will definitely be interesting. For those who weirdly did NOT get the press release…here is some information on the game in non-PR terms..

Political animals is an election game, not a government game, and it features a map of a fictional island (there are 3 different maps), and each turn the player allocates tasks to their candidate, and a number of their election staff. Those actions may be moving to a new district, fund-raising, holding a rally or bribing the local patron. Bribery and corruption is a BIG part of political animals. it’s a game of moral choices for politicians.

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Anyway… unlike conventional political simulations, this one is all about incredibly cute and fun animals. Politics and cute animals obviously mix brilliantly. Just imagine Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton’s speeches coming from a cute animated mouse. See?

For the eagle-eyed political game obsessives, you will know Political Animals as ‘Party Animals’, a game that’s been in development for a while part-time. When positech agreed to publish the game, we changed the name and switched to full-time development.

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We already have a fab website for the game, and also the obligatory facebook and twitter accounts. Now I’ve publicly announced my involvement I can talk about it here and on twitter, rather than just mysteriously retweeting lots of Ryans posts over the last six months :D. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of the game, and how it fits in with us as publisher. We now have Shadowhand & Political Animals in development, plus a mystery thing (first-party) I’ll announce soon. Release-schedule wise, you will see Shadowhand releasing before PA (Are you reading this Jake?) and PA should definitely be in your hands before a certain big election event in the US this year.

Exciting times! Oh and if you feel like helping us out, a tweet, facebook like or a post to reddit is much appreciated :D

BTW if you are press and need more information, please email cliff AT positech dot co dot uk.

So recently I’ve been -rebalancing Democracy 3, my political strategy game for the PC. It looks like I released that game in October 2013, so not quite three years ago. Why would I be balancing it now? First of all, some context and the results so far of my re-balance. the game is an indie ‘hit’ by the standards of solo-developer-owner, having sold (according to steam spy) 485,000 copies. Its currently $25. if you guessed, you’d probably guess that the developer earned $3million ish from the game. Lets say $2,500k profit, which is very nice. Before we go further into strategy, numbers, and the ‘resource curse dilemma’, lets look at what I did.

Part 1: The changes:

Essentially the game was too easy, and a lot of its content remained unseen, untriggered. Some anon gameplay stats showed me that 86% of elections resulted in victory. Thats an easy game. And at election victory, only 1% had the ‘vigilante mobs’ problem, with 12% having it when they lost. There are many other situations, but a lot of them were just not being encountered enough.

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So I did some re-balancing, tested it on beta players, then rolled it out, and collected some initial data. The data needs a few days to bed in and to eliminate the bias from beta-opt in players (whom I assume are more hardcore). Anyway,. initial results show that…

Percentage of election victories dropped 8.39% to 79.3%

Average debt level on victory is now up 22.59%

Percentage of games where poverty has been eliminated at election has dropped 10%.

All of these are deliberate. My results in some areas were not so good, maybe even contrary to my plans. For example, the blackmarket situation has gone DOWN, the OrganisedCrime has gone DOWN, the only negative event which is now more likely at elections is TaxEvasion. Technological Advantage has dropped 9% and high productivity dropped 10%, both of which I consider good news in terms of re-balancing the game. So TL;DR: Its moved in the right direction, but not enough. I may have to do another patch.

So part 2: Why fucking bother?

Lets look again at that not official guess of a profit of $2.5 million. Thats fucking cool, but more interestingly, that means if I was to boost sales by 1%, thats worth $25,000 in profit. Thats fucking amazing. Thats more profit than a lot of indie games will make in their lifetime. Holy crap. So if I can spend a week collecting data and analysing, a week re-balancing, a week observing beta, and a week deploying the update (4 lazy weeks), and it makes ONE PERCENT increase in sales, thats $25k / month or $300k a year.

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In practice thats bollocks. Will my change make the game 1% better? I suspect it will make it roughly 3% better, but this will only apply to people who come to the game now. A lot of people will have heard of it and discounted it, its only really going to apply to people hearing 3% better reviews from recent players. Say 90% of the games potential audience already have bought or rejected it, then that means there is $250k of potential sales out there, and my 3% boost will be worth $7,500. Of course, thats still a bloody good month. Also, there is the issue of what that 3% boost in game ‘quality’ does. I am assuming a linear distribution of current satisfaction among potential buyers, but what if its skewed with 90% of the potential buyers evaluating the game between 97% and 100% of the quality required to prompt a sale? In that case, a 3% quality boost results in 90% sales increase. Buying a game is a pretty binary decision. TL:DR: Its probably a very good use of my time, but might not be.

so Part 3: How could this possibly be bad.

This is something people occasionally called the resource curse. Country A has fuck-all. Country-B has bananas. Country B just throws the bananas into a ship and exports them everywhere. Job done. Country A is fucked, and cannot afford bananas unless it comes up with something worth trading for bananas, so it invents ipads, and swaps them for bananas. Country B, once a happy smug banana-owning paradise is kinda fucked, because it turns out ipads are worth more, and they never set up the ipad factory because they were eating bananas all day.

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I typed that last paragraph purely because I like the idea that my old economics professors are yelling at the screen in agony at my gross simplification.

Anyway, having a big success can be a huge curse. If Democracy 3 makes me enough money that I can keep tweaking it by 1% in order to earn a decent living, why ever take a risk on making something new. This is a problem a lot of companies face. Microsoft are cursed by windows. They cant create a new O/S or office suite from scratch, it makes no economic sense, because windows & office are such cash cows. Its not so much a sunk-costs issue, but a sunk-profits issue. This is a real issue for a lot of developers and entertainers in general. A new series of the big bang theory, however desperately played-out, unfunny and now repeating itself like crazy, is so profitable it doesn’t make sense for the actors or writers to create anything that might potentially be better. he same is true of all fads. Why bother making an interesting new movie when you can dig up some crappy superhero from obscurity and monetize that?

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I know this may read as ‘woe is me!, my game sells too well’, but forget finances and think about creativity for a minute. The aim of game development is to make cool stuff, and enjoy doing it. Anything that lures you away from that might be profitable, but is it really the right thing to be doing?

(FWIW, I am working on other stuff, I did months and months of work on a potential new game that I will return to next year, plus I have a new expansion I’m working on).