Category Archives: business

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.

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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.

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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.

 

15 days ago Positech released Political Animals, a fun PC strategy game based around cute animals fighting for political victory in a number of islands. The game had a general theme of corruption and ethics, and challenges the player to win an election by being the good guy/girl even when your opponent may be playing by different rules. The game is for PC/OSX and was released on Steam, Humble Store, GoG and direct from us through the humble widget. Without further ado, the website for the game is here: www.politicalanimalsgame.com

15 days after release is not nearly long enough to have a complete and fully-rounded insight into the ‘story’ of making and releasing the game, but its a good opportunity to get this stuff down in a blog post while its all fresh. So here is the warts-and-all post mortem on publishing and releasing the game. (You can read ryan sumos take on the same topic here).

How was it made?

My email account has 687 emails in the ‘Political Animals’ folder, dating back to September 26th, which was shortly after meeting Ryan Sumo for the first time in person at a UK games show. He was the artist on Prison Architect, and I know the Introversion devs well enough to shamelessly gate crash the odd meal with them, which is how I ended up sat opposite Ryan. (Interestingly I published Big Pharma after being sat next to Tim at another indie meal. Notice a pattern?). I love to think the world is a pure meritocracy, but to be honest, the fact that Introversion knew Ryan, and thought he was a good guy/reliable did influence me quite a bit. Physically meeting someone who can show you their game on a laptop is very,very different to a blind email pitch, there simply is no denying that. Anyway… to cut a long story short, me and Ryan exchanged a few emails and builds and eventually signed a contract at the end of October 2015.

Our plans for the development period of the game were pretty darned accurate. Initially we thought we would be releasing around the end of September/Early October 2016, and we missed that by just one month. Thats really not too bad for game development. Budget-wise, we also came in roughly close to what was planned. Making a game in the Philippines (where Ryans new studio:Squeaky wheel is based) is cheaper than the UK and we didn’t spend a vast amount on outside contractors. What we did do, is spend a lot more than expected on expos. Its amazing how keen I am for a game to be shown at a show when someone else has to go there instead of me! In total, I appeared at just one show, because it was in the UK and thus easy for me to arrange, plus I wanted to meet Ryan again, and meet another member of the team (marnielle).

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I still have memories of us driving to a hotel bar to get a decent coffee and both of them going WHOAHHHH! when I accelerated my car a little bit :D.

There was some back-and-forth on design issues during the game, but actually not too much. I wanted the name changed from Party Animals to Political Animals, but the vast majority of the design stuff was entirely left to Squeaky Wheel. We hired a professional user-testing company to try the game out on innocent members of the public, which I found both helpful and reassuring (feedback was good). We were able to launch the game before the US elections, and everything looked pretty positive with some youtubers sounding very interested before the game was released.

How did it do?

Hmmm.

One thing I try to avoid is lying to myself or telling myself I did well when I didn’t. Its a pet hate and also a sign of being crap at business. Smart people learn from their mistakes, and you can’t learn from something you don’t think exists. I think that commercially, this failed, but ‘artistically’ it was a success. Also… to further add a disclaimer before I mention the sales… I am wholly convinced by the brilliant arguments of nicholas taleb, who points out that a string of successes means fuck all, if they were lucky, and a string of failures is no bad thing if you were unlucky. In other words, if you made all the right decisions, then took an informed, calculated and sensible risk…and you lose, then thats perfectly fine, and you should recognize this fact. He explains it better than me.

So far…Political Animals has not sold well. Its sold ‘ok’ for an indie strategy game on steam. You can see on steam spy how it did, if you are curious. We got some very positive lets play cover in the opening week (and beforehand), but the praise from youtubers somehow did not translate into purchases, although it did translate into a LOT of wishlist adds, which bodes well for the long term. Also we are on GoG, Humble Store & direct too, so steam isn’t the whole story here.

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On paper…I have lost a big chunk of money on the game. My current hard statistical predictions suggest I will never recoup the cost, although those may well be out of date due to changes in the way steam promotes games since I collected most of my data. I would not be surprised to see that change. Mentally, I am resigned to losing a mid five figure sum on the game. if that turns out to be pessimistic, then yay!

What did I do right?

Picking Ryans game was a sensible move. He came recommended by good friends, he had worked on a bunch of games before. He seemed a nice guy. His team were affordable, being based in the Philippines. Ryan had a very clear idea of what he wanted in the game, and the team seemed to agree with this internally. Nobody resigned, nobody got fired, there were no arguments. Communication was good, Everyone seemed happy. Don (programmer):

don “I really think that we did our best in developing Political Animals. I was the last addition to the team and I didn’t have a hard time adjusting to my new teammates.”

I know the team seemed a bit stressed at some points, especially with all the travel but…thats game dev :(.

We went to a LOT of shows, and I think this was worthwhile. Tristan (Designer):

tristan “I was optimistic about the game launch, because we have had good feedback during the shows”

We spent money on user testing, which may have been a bit too expensive. Creative control was predominantly with the developers, and on issues where I thought they were wrong (I dislike the music, for example), it seemed I was the only one feeling that way. The game was made in unity and I’m not aware of any major technical issues. Translation went well, and we encountered very few bugs. We launched on time, and pretty much on budget. Everything flowed pretty well. In a break with normal practice, I handled the website design myself, and it seemed fine.

What did I do wrong?

We released the game at exactly the wrong time, with the wrong art style, and didn’t promote it with social media enough. We MAY have priced too high as well.

I assumed that releasing an election game in the lead-up to the most exciting US election in history would be awesome. I assumed that in October 2015. By October 2016…things were different. It was definitely an exciting election but for all the wrong reasons. Corruption wasn’t something we could laugh about in regards to a cartoon mouse, it was something on our TV screens..every…single..day. Political debate on social media was everywhere and corrosive. Far from being able to say “Cool someone just emailed us about a politics game! how timely!”, I think journalists ended up saying “FFS..A GAME about politics? enough already…”. In short, I think my assumption that releasing this game at this time would be a good thing was 100% wrong.

On the flipside I think releasing the same game NOW would be even worse. I make a living from political games, and I am SICK of politics right now. One can only imagine how the average gamer must feel about it…

To my credit, I’m not putting this down as a mistake. The game was being made already. Short of delaying it, and sitting on it for six months, I’m not sure we could have prevented this. Events overtook us. Events dear boy…

The art style was wrong. the art style is in fact…awesome:

eventplaygirl

…but it made it look like a kids game. We realised this and fought to get more screenshots out there with charts and graphs to emphasise the strategy nature of the game, but I suspect this was a losing battle. It *looks* like a casual children’s game on mobile. It really isn’t, but in some peoples minds it probably seems like it which also devalues the game… which brings me to…

The game released at $14.99 with a 10% launch discount. I think this is probably the right price *for the game*. I think this was the wrong price for a game launching at the wrong time with the wrong art style. I had made two mistakes (not changing the art style right at the start and then launching the game at the wrong time) and then compounded them by not compensating for this with pricing.

The final mistake we made was a failure to really embrace social media. Ryan went to a lot of shows, as did other members of his team, so there was a lot of personal meet & greet style stuff, but in social media terms, we didn’t ramp it up enough. We had a facebook page, and a twitter account, and even some cool twitter accounts for the candidates, but frankly we didn’t produce enough youtube content, and didn’t build up enough of a critical mass on twitter and facebook. I suspect that the team are not massive extroverts, and I’m not one either, and this probably showed. With rural English internet preventing me from using twitch, and useless Philippines internet preventing the devs from doing it either, we were already fighting with one hand behind our backs on that score.

Ryan:

ryan “I feel like I also slacked a little bit in terms of contacting press. While I did my best, I do think I could have tried a little bit harder. Perhaps knowing that Positech had brand recognition made me complacent.”

and Marnielle:

marnielle “I really didn’t know what to do during launch other than sharing the game to social media like a mad man. There’s a feeling of regret. I feel we could have done more.”

Conclusions

I made a calculated bet with a lot of my ducks in a row. I am the indie politics game dude, this was always going to be a synergy win. It was a good team who did a quality job to make a game on time and budget. In other words, almost everything went right. We were unlucky with our launch timing, and maybe fumbled the art style & social media thing. I will definitely spend more time thinking about this sort of thing with future releases. Lessons have been learned. Pretty fucking expensive ones in my case, but as Quark says: “The riskier the road, the greater the profit”.

Political Animals is available RIGHT NOW:

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The scary first day

November 03, 2016 | Filed under: business | political animals

Unless you didn’t already know, we released Political Animals yesterday around 5PM GMT, its been out less than a day, its a fun, surprisingly deep election strategy game, with a website here. here is the trailer.

Right then…so how was launch?

Game launches are always terrifying. You press the big LAUNCH button, then you sit and watch a spinny cursor hoping there won’t be an error, then you immediately alt-tab to the steam sales stats page and furiously bash the F5 Refresh key like a sex-crazed chimpanzee trying to get his hands on a hareem of supermodel lady chimpanzees. Ok, maybe that was a weird metaphor, but hey…animals.

Trust me, all game developers are obsessed with knowing how many copies they sold. Its not a greed or money thing, its a panic thing. Panic that you may have bombed. panic (in the days of steam spy) that everyone can see you have bombed. Panic that ex co-workers will feel smug that you made the wrong decision to walk out of that cushy office job, sleepwalking into the scary uncertain future of sitting at home in your underwear eating crisps and typing C++ at 4AM each night. Panic. Panic.

Panic.

There are a number of thresholds in getting obsessed with checking sales figures for a newly released game. here they are, in order of occurrence.

  • The fear that no copies will sell. That the sales figure will stay at zero forever, until your game is erased from history by a future maintenance script cleaning up ‘irrelevant unvisited store pages from the year 2016AD’ in the far future.
  • The fear that although some copies have sold, they are all friends and family.
  • The fear that although a bunch of copies have sold, there is no way its enough to cover the bank fees on translating that pitiful sum to your home currency.
  • The fear that although thats a good few thousand dollars, you spent way more than that making the game.
  • The fear that although you are about to break even, its still going to be obvious that you would have earned a better salary flipping burgers.
  • The fear that although thats actually not a bad salary at all, you have to pay corp tax, your own pension contributions yada yada, so its nothing to get excited about.
  • The fear that even though its now a fuckton of money, because you are a US citizen, its still not enough to afford decent healthcare.
  • The fear that although this has done very nicely thank-you, you know it was a one hit wonder and you will still be penniless in a few years eating the remains of donuts from trash cans and muttering ‘i was a game developer once’ at terrified pedestrians.

So yeah, the fear of sales figures never goes away. Try not to worry about it. Unless you are coding your game from Mogadishu and there are guns at your head unless you hit sales targets, it will all be ok. Anyone with the technical skills to make a video game isn’t going to starve to death, and having created a game that got released and people enjoyed is a wondrous thing you will never forget.

So I keep telling myself :D

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Steam Dev Days 2016

October 15, 2016 | Filed under: business

So…that was steam dev days 2016. What was it like? what did I found out? what do I think now its over…?
Firstly it was excellent. When valve get game developers together, they provide breakfast, some free hardware to take home, a happy hour with free drinks, free coffee, snacks, loads of booths to try VR games, loads of opportunities to talk to people from valve, and it costs you $100.
All I will say is….your move GDC, because paying GDC prices for the GDC experience is…less tempting.

There were some good talks and some….niche talks, but to be honest the appeal of these shows isn’t often the talks, but the bumping into other developers and just chatting. I met a bunch of people I’ve worked with for years but never physically met, and thats cool, and the general chatting and swapping of tips means I came away with some interesting business ideas.

Overall, dev days feels a lot more like a big party where everyone is a game developer, rather than a ‘corporate networking opportunity’ where people are constantly ‘pitching’ stuff and trying to impress each other. This is a good thing.

(Of course, what with it being legal there, I couldn’t resist the temptation of a fellow developer handing me some marijuana cookies, so maybe you should take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I did giggle quite a bit.)

Something that I reckon is missing from shows, not just SDD, is developer talks that are broad enough to be interesting to the whole audience. For example, in technical terms, a talk on “How to optimize your game” in general terms, would be great, or “How to balance a strategy game”, which broad lessons that appeal to 500 developers. I think talks tend towards the “How to improve subsurface scattering in a Unity FPS game on nvidia hardware” style, which is amazing if that happens to be exactly what you really need to know, but niche and tangential as fuck for the other 99% of attendees.

Its surprising that there is no crowd-sourcing of submitted talks for shows. I presume someone in charge reads applications and decides “Thats interesting to our audience” which is crazy as they have the email addresses of all the attendees, why not ask us?

Just an idea.

Right…how many complimentary m&ms can I guy eat in one sitting?

When you really look at things in terms of what people bought… I’ve made 3 games. Kudos (Trust me..it did well at the time), Democracy (ker-ching!) and Gratuitous Space Battles. I’ve also made spin-offs, sequels and side ventures such as Gratuitous Tank Battles, made some DLC, and published 2 released games (Redshirt and Big Pharma). But in terms of positech-owned IP, I’ve made 3 games of note. Hopefully this is number 4. its definitely the plan…

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I never used to care about cars. Then I bought a nice hybrid one (Lexus) then I bought a stupidly flash electric one (Tesla). I started to realize cars had become interesting to geeks, not just petrol-heads. I then read a book by Henry Ford about the Model T, and how it was made, and his philosophy for business. I found it absolutely fascinating, not least because it is basically being copied to the letter by Elon Musk. The way production line efficiency transformed the way cars were made was fascinating. It also involved something that until recently was hugely out of fashion – vertical integration (essentially owning your own supply chain). When reading the book, I realized there was an opportunity for a new take on ‘production line’ games. Essentially, they are all about building more, building bigger. What I wanted to do was build more-or-less the same, but build it better, build it more efficiently, make the same product cheaper, make the production line better (which means breaking down the tasks and making it longer).

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I took the idea pretty seriously. I even visited Detroit, specifically to get a tour of a modern car plant, and also visit the Henry Ford museum. Originally, my games was set in Fords era. At one point it was a side scroller, at another it was black-and-white and top down. Eventually it became color, and isometric, then got changed to the modern day. And I’ve been secretly working on it for ages.

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For me, the big changes here are that its an isometric game (never done one of those before, but already coded my own engine, seems ok so far), and that I’m planning on really open-development. Its not in alpha yet, let alone beta. Big parts of the game are not finished. Coder art is everywhere. None of the sounds are final. There is no music. Its buggy. There is only one type of car, and half the research-tree stuff isn’t done. No text is final. Its really early. Its not shipping in 2016, and likely not in Q1 or Q2 of 2017.

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However…I’d like to get people playing it early, in a direct-with-the-developer prison-architect style early access way. I’ll blog about it more soon, and do videos. I’ll probably bore you to tears with the details. I have come full circle on the idea of early-access and would like to see how it works for me. I recently got addicted to factorio (Long after starting work on the game) and I admit I am attracted to making the game support BIG factories. (I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of Teslas gigafactory). I also like a lot of options, and huge research trees, so you should expect me to be putting that sort of stuff in, if people agree that they would like that in the game. We shall see…

Right now, I’m at the ‘I’m making a game about this topic. Do you like the idea’? stage. I’d love to know what you think. Does the topic suck? what would you like to see in the game? Would you grab an early-access copy? Comment below!. And if you are press, you will find that the website for the game has a presskit link. Plus we set up a facebook page already, so please go join that :D. Oh and yes, those are screenshots of the current build :D