Category Archives: business

How many people are playing PUBG now? 2 million? 2 billion? 2 trillion? Whatever the number, we know its insane. We also know that its player-growth was not slow and steady, but what seemed to be an accelerating exponential growth. It seems that pretty much everywhere I go, I keep seeing those same exponential graphs of growth. A few things are growing at an incredible rate. Its not especially relevant, but lets look at the robot company KUKA and its share price:

Holy fuck. Now one could argue (and I do), that this is people suddenly realizing the potential for future revenue and market share that a long established high quality robotics firm has in a super-accelerating market. But one could also argue that its just the herd mentality, or people buying KUKA because other people have bought KUKA. Be honest…if you have savings you are thinking about it now aren’t you? FWIW, I’ve doubled my investment :D

I remember a long time ago standing in a physical store (GAME) fondling a boxes copy of world-of-warcraft. I was not the target market for the game. I didn’t really play MMO games, I didn’t like fantasy games, I was not excited by the name, description or the videos I had seen. But there I was, holding the box thinking that maybe I should play it too.

Maybe I SHOULD play it TOO.

Bizarrely this is normal, and in some ways primitively rational. if everyone in your cave is only eating the red berries, you only eat the red berries. if everyone else flees from the tiger, you do too. Its a decent survival instinct when it comes to identifying both danger, and a decent source of food. Its absolutely fucking useless when it comes to entertainment.

I saw the comedian Stewart lee live last night, and he has a hilarious rant about people asking him if he has seen Game Of Thrones. I especially loved it, because I dont watch Game Of Thrones, but the SOCIAL PRESSURE to watch it is quite high. I even tried an episode of Westworld (FFS can they squeeze any more sexual violence or rape fantasies into a single episode?) because ‘everyone’ was watching it…

And I admit I am part of the problem. if you haven’t seen Silicon Valley, I will lecture you on how you should, because its awesome, everyone agrees etc…

So how does this relate to games and indie game development? Well basically there is a line, somewhere, and above that line, you go into a positive spiral of awesomeness. More people play your game, so more ‘friends’ see that their friends are playing, and they grab the game too, then steam notices that the time played and the ‘conversion’ is going up, so it gets displayed to more people, so more people get the game, so more streamers notice it and start wondering if they should stream it and…

And there is also another line. below this line, nobody is playing the game. The steam forums are empty because nobody has any questions. Nobody sees their friends playing, and the game is not in any charts. Nobody streams it, because nobody is playing it. Nobody is buying it so the dev earns no money for any PR. No journalist writes about it because frankly nobody is playing/streaming/tweeting about it…and down we go into the vortex of failure.

As a games producer/marketer/business person, your job is to aim for the high line, and live in fear of the low line. Be aware that 95% of indie games are below that second line. How can you fix this? There are basically two systems at play:

OPTION 1:  MONEY

Basically this is ads, and its also stuff like appearing at every show, and getting in the faces of taste-making players, streamers, bloggers and so-on. Appearing at a show is EXPENSIVE and its basically advertising. You do this if you have money. If a show takes 4 days and costs you £4k, then you have to be a pretty successful dev to be worrying more about the time than the money in that case. (Even then you can reduce the burden by hiring someone to go to the show, or only sending 1 team member).

OPTION 2: TIME

Social media is your friend. Hang out on every game forum, every social media site, post about your game, the making of your game, the financing of your game, the support of your game, everything. Reply to every comment thread and every review. make every customer feel special, even the angry ones. Aim to turn every player into a fan, listen to every concern and promise to address it, keep the players informed as to what you are working on. All of this is free, but really time consuming. take this option if you have no money, but are young and enthusiastic, or have a team size > 1.

Also be aware both systems rely on you making the best game you possibly can. That goes without saying.

Me? I tend to choose option 1 because a) I am time-limited, b) I live in nowheresville and 3)I’m not very extroverted. The big question is probably ‘where is the line’. To be honest, I’m not sure, but I know its definitely above $1,000 a day in steam revenue. I have some evidence that $2,500 a day in revenue will be self-sustaining for a long time, but below $1,000? thats not momentum at all, thats just heading into a downwards spiral. YMMV.

 

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Balancing games is really HARD. I’ve posted before twice about using stats to fine tune Production Line, mostly because I ma better with hard numbers than I am with reading forum comments, reddit comments, facebook comments, emails, reviews on steam and everything else the community has to say in order to draw conclusions. people generally dont comment on a game, so the 1% that do can give you a very skewed view of what is going on, and I want to ensure I am working to effectively improve the game for everyone. With that in mind lets look at some stats.

Here is a graph showing the progression within games from 50-500 game hours, expressed as the median value.

It looks like I kinda screwed up with build 1.32 and it was too generous(easy) in the long run, with the median player having buckets too much cash. I prefer the way things are now, although TBVH cash accumulates too much at the end anyway. This may be the effect of outliers running cheats though? If I look at the distribution for the current version I get this:

Which has a log scale and shows that we definitely have some people cheating at the top end, but a fair few people who have more than $100mill in hour 500. A cluster seems to be around the 1-10 mill level which is fine. overall, I dont see any major balancing issue here. Now looking at profit margins:

I really dont want the player to have significantly negative profit margins over the course of the game. Its fine in the short run, as loans can allow it, but not indefinitely. It looks like the last two builds did a decent job of preveting catastrophic meltdowns over the 100-400 hour mark, but I could still do with tweaking the marketplace to stop that negative margin being so low. it looks like the system is good at preventing excessive profits, but can resulty in unsustainable losses, so I’m going to need to tweak that a bit.

This chart is showing how strongly the AI competitors compete with the player. it looks like I made no noticeable impact on this in the last build. The AI basically runs on maximum from when you reach the 200 hour mark. This is probably related to it over-punishing the player and causing that negative profit margin. It looks like I just need the AI to back off a bit quicker once it starts having an impact on the players profit margins.

All fun stuff for me to think about today, and then tomorrow I’ll just be doing final testing before releasing build 1.34 to the wild. Talking of which…

I am increasing the price of Production Line tomorrow from its current $15.99 to $17.99. I thought this was a good time to do it, as I’ll be adding the new exciting Pickup Truck to the game:

As well as lots of new animations, and we are getting closer to the eventual point where it gets described as ‘beta’ and then eventually ‘released’. The games price has been the same all through Early Access so far so I thought it was about time. if you want to save yourself $2 you can grab it from the link below. (or steam/Gog). If you are enjoying the game, positive reviews are always nice to have :D

A few thoughts I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks, concerning steam, and most relevantly, the steam review system.

I like the idea of product reviews. So many people try to sell you crap with a lot of marketing bullshit and vague promises. Reviews are a powerful weapon which allow little-known but great products to rise to the top, and punish the superficial, poor-quality crap with big marketing budgets. Done correctly, reviews are a win for the consumer and for the developer. Consumers get unbiased purchasing advice, (and lots of it), and also a voice for their opinions, and developers get a free marketing department for good products, and constructive feedback on why some customers are unhappy.

Of course, that is all theoretical, the real impact of reviews depends vastly on their implementation. In many ways, the steam implementation is extremely good, and actually better than the implementation you see on some other websites. Firstly, you have to actually have bought the product to review it, which eliminates 95% of dubious reviews. I could easily go and review my neighbours B&B on google and say it sucked, if he is someone I don’t like, but with steam, if I wanted to maliciously give bad reviews to every other developer’s strategy games, I’d have to buy them all, which acts as a powerful brake on people just acting like dorks.

Also, steam lets you rate reviews as helpful or unhelpful, which is cool, but AFAIK this has no impact on the extent to which a review is counted towards the review score. This is a tough line to walk, because AFAIK anyone can rate a review without being a customer. If steam allowed review ratings to influence review scores, then you are back to square one with the malicious review-manipulation issue. The review-rating system is presumably a nudge towards  encouraging thoughtful reviews, which probably works to an extent, but you still have a problem that people may leave a bad review for the wrong reason such as ‘Developer is a woman/gay/nazi/non-white…’. How can this be combated?

I think the solution is pretty simple, and obvious when you go back to first principles and ask yourself what a review is supposed to be. let me put forward this assertion:

“A review is an objective measure of the collective opinion of customers as to the quality of the product they have bought”.

That sounds pretty fair to me, and when you put it like that you realize that we try to collect such measure all the time in the real world, with question like this:

“If an election were held tomorrow, which candidate would you vote for?”

Yup, opinion polls are basically trying to do the same thing. They are trying to work out what people think of products, in this case politicians and parties. The key thing I’ve realized, is that there is a wealth of expertise and knowledge gained from such systems about ‘how to do it right’, where ‘right’ means predict the real opinion of everyone from a small subgroup. With this in mind, lets look at everything game reviews on steam do wrong:

Problem #1: A self-selecting electorate.

You don’t have to review a product on steam, and you get NOTHING for it, if you do. No steam points, no gems, no chance of a discount coupon, nothing. You take up your own time. As a result, steam reviews are basically like holding an opinion poll where people have to choose to take part, and then take their own time and effort to participate. Any pollster would laugh you out of the room if you tried to predict an election result by waiting for the public to come to you and tell you how they would vote. You get the activists, the extremists, the angry, and also more relevantly, you get people with time on their hands. You would have huge over-representation by the unemployed, the teenagers and the retired. The result is worthless.

Problem #2: A small sample size.

Ask 10 people who will win the next election and you will get a pretty useless result. Ask 100 and its closer, but for a really close election (48/52% style) you are going to need thousands, even assuming that you have carefully ensured its not self-selecting and that the gamers have been randomly polled.

Problem #3: People lie to themselves.

Some political opinions are widely held but publicly frowned upon. In the US, saying you supported trump would be unpopular in some circles, in the UK, supporting UKIP can be seen as signifying racism. In working-class towns, saying you vote conservative is downright dangerous in some places, and a labour sticker in some conservative villages will exclude you from dinner-parties. Pollsters try to find out what people really think and will do, not what they claim to think and do. In gaming, we dont have much in the way of ‘shame’ although its interesting that all reviews are public and non anonymous. How many people dont want to have a positive review of a gay-dating sim visible on their profile? How many gamers wont post a glowing review of a game they love when the developer gets hate due to their political views? Its probably not *that* many. However, we do have a problem where gamers routinely plough hundreds of hours into a game, then give a negative review. This seems…. weird. To some extent, steam should be able to factor this in. Maybe some fudge factor needs to take players median play time into account when computing a score? This is the trickiest area to fix.

 

So the first two problems are EASILY fixed. You just get more people to review a game. Don’t leave it to the bored (mostly young) or the incredibly outgoing, happy to write comments everywhere (again, mostly young) crowd, or the angry mob (people are more likely to review badly when something goers wrong than they are happily when something goes right). Steam needs to do a simple thing… Raise the percentage of gamers leaving reviews above 1%.

Proposal 1 (Meek). Make it easier to leave a review

You can see a big ‘write review’ box on the store page. So whats the problem? NOBODY visits the store page after they bought the game. Why on earth is that big box not on the games page within the steam app itself? This would be easy to do. Also…on the page for a game right now, ‘write review’ is TINY. I couldn’t find it the last time I looked. Even a different color or a bigger font would help. The current UI design for this is incredibly meek. There is a big fat piece of prime estate next to the play button where it could go instead!

Proposal 2 (Bold) Incentivize reviews

The minute you add any reward for anything on steam, you get side effects, so for now lets ignore the idea of giving out steam points, or gems or anything, and just keep it really simple. When you quit a game session lasting more than 30 minutes, if the player has not reviewed the game , pop up a dialog (like the screenshot uploader) asking them if they want to leave one. 95% of them will hit escape, but even if the other 5% leave a review, we have boosted the accuracy of steam reviews by 500% immediately. Concerned about the 30 minute hard limit? fine, make it random for each player/game combination between 30 minutes and 8 hours, so you get a random sampling of play-times.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and these are the solutions that I think are a) hard to cheat and b) easy to try. You can even A/B test steam users and see what the effects are before rolling out to everyone. I’m interested to hear peoples opinions on this, and think its always worth discussing this sort of stuff. It applies of course not just to steam, but GoG, Humble, Itch and everyone else. Its in everyone’s interests that game reviews are fair and accurate for all.

 

 

So we survived EGX! Me and Jeff from stargazy studios were manning the Production Line booth. TBH Jeff was there more than me, as I just get crushingly tired in the presence of lots of people, especially if they start talking to me :D. I realize now what an introvert I truly am. Still, it was great to watch people try the game for the first time, as it gave us a lot of insight into the really obvious mistakes I’ve made with the GUI and tutorial. The biggest and most obvious screw-up was the tutorial did not (and still doesn’t, as of writing this) explain to you that the middle mouse button, or ‘r’ key rotates the current object… ooops.

We also had some non-intuitive GUI, which we never realized, because presumably players of the game work it out, and then forget they were ever confused. here are some examples.

  • Some players got confused as to what was an export slot (for finished cars) and a resource import slot. I think I’ve solved that by adding little animated GUI for them:
  • Some players tried to place a slot down on top of existing conveyor belts, which in theory should work, but in practice doesn’t because the code just refuses to let you place a slot on top of any ‘occupied’ tile, even if it makes sense because you are aligning the conveyor tile of the new production slot with the existing conveyor tile going the same way. I now have code that detects that you are doing this and lets it happen, which feels so natural; now its implemented.
  • Some players tried to place a bunch of slots then drag a conveyor belt through all of them, which also makes sense but doesn’t work because of the way the drag-routing works, but I think I have a solution to that (maybe… it might be a bit hellish) This is one of those things that sounds simple to code… until you code it and realize how you still have to create a sensible route for the dragged path, and also ensure all of the directions line up…etc. I’ll think about it.
  • A few players didn’t seem to notice research *at all* and considered the game pretty much ‘done’ when they had shipped some cars, which is so very very far from the truth :D I’m going to have to work on some advice popups in the mid game to point out that you need to get some research done.

Anyway… we learned a lot, and met some of the games early players, and also some streamers and youtubers, and gave away 1,000 Production Line badges and a bunch of leaflets and stickers (I really should have ordered more than a token 100 stickers…). I find these shows tiring, but I think having a presence at them does help.

I also gave a very well attended talk on the show floor called ‘How not to go bankrupt’ which I’ll also be giving at indiecade paris, and maybe after that, I’ll put the slides online on this blog. That was a bit nerve-wracking, but also good to do, for PR purposes etc…

And so, because I like to be that indie who gets things done, I have returned home and immediately released build 1.32 of the game. There is a full breakdown of what changed in this forum post. I also recorded the latest developer blog video today:

Plus…we are close to releasing Chinese, Portuguese & Russian versions of Democracy 3. PLEASE if you have a steam build, check out the beta branch (even if you only play in English) and let me know if you encounter any text rendering issues :D

Exciting news on Shadowhand soon!

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As people who follow me on twitter may know, I find appearing at trade shows really really tiring. The biggest one in the UK is #EGX and I’m at it right now. We have a fairy standard 2xPC booth with branding etc, a whole ton of leaflets and badges and stickers etc, and I have my white Production Line jacket and yellow hat. I gave a talk today on the stage and we are generally watching people try the game.

The problem with me being at EGX is threefold. Firstly, its a LONG show, 4 days long and ending at 7PM most days (an hour too long if you ask me). Secondly, its a really loud socially crowded place, which I am emotionally and personality-wise unsuited for, and Thirdly its designed in the normal manner of shows for Gamers.

Its the third point which I think is interesting.

We all know that plenty of gamers are introverts. Plenty are shy or quiet. Plenty are over the age of twenty, or thirty, or in my case, even forty. We all know that video games are just a medium, like books, movies or the theatre, there is a vast range of different types…

And yet game shows act entirely like its a festival for (mostly) make teenagers.

They are generally VERY LOUD. There is a lot of flashing lights, and people with microphones SHOUTING and getting VERY EXCITED. There are competitions for cosplay, highly competitive LAN party things, and the whole vibe is like a loud rave with computer screens. In other words, it is directly aimed at a certain cross section of gamer, mostly the shooter or First-Person Shooter or AAA budget RPG crowd.

Fans of farming simulator, or of Civilisation style games, or city builders etc.. do not seem to be at all catered for by the aesthetic of these shows. I think this is a mistake, and the shows should do more to cater to different, less LOUD and SHOUTY game styles. Why not divide EGX or similar shows into 2 or 3 sections. Have the loud shouty FPS game section, have the young cool cosplay area with minecraft etc and also the merchandise stuff, and then have the quiet(ish) strategy / sim / boardgame / developer sessions area.

Every time I go to GDC, all the parties are really loud, and everyone stands around shouting about how the parties are (yet again) too loud. What we need are events and shows that specifically cater to people who love games and game development, but don’t want to yell at each other through strobe lights all day. Like I say, games are just a medium. Imagine of literary festivals assumed all the attendees were just readers of crime fiction, or of thrillers. It would be mad. Cater to everyone.