Category Archives: production line

I recently released Production Line update 1.29, so that’s 29 updates since the original release of the game, which was back in the pre-early access days, and just for people buying direct from my site. In that time, what’s happened?

Well, we have more than doubled the players of the game since going into Early Access, which is cool. Not surprisingly most people now buy direct from steam rather than through the humble widget, which means we earn noticeably less per sale, but that’s to be expected. Income from the game is ‘ok’, in that compared to Democracy 3 it hasn’t set the world on fire, but then the game has already paid for its dev costs (minus my salary, which I don’t count directly), and if I do the maths, its paying me a reasonable income for a senior software developer, so from a financial POV, things aren’t that bad at all.

Plus its still in Early Access, so I’m expecting a nice fat bump when we eventually declare it released, a second bump for the first time its discounted in a steam sale,  and so on.

Working out what to do regarding promoting the game has been very tricky. Take a look at this, at first seemingly interesting chart:

The trouble is, that big spike is a steam sale (we were not even discounted, but extra eyeballs etc…) that final peak at the end is the first steam visibility round which I triggered yesterday. I’m trying to work out if its worth spending money on ads right now. There isn’t a strong correlation between ad spend and higher profit, but it does result in higher income overall (as you would expect), and there is an argument that higher overall player counts will lead to building virality and higher long term sales.

My gut instinct tells me I need to nudge the games approval higher (currently 84% positive in last 30 days, 78% overall), and also include my own internal in-game metrics reporting which gives me this:

Which is good, but could be better. Especially stability. I need to see roe examples of crashes and fix them. Essentially what I’m getting at is that the game feels ‘good’ but not ‘great’ in terms of how people respond to it, and I want to save my marketing firepower for when the conversion rate is really high.

That brings me on to the whole pricing strategy debate. There has been some interesting and well-argued talk lately about indie games being under-priced lately. I have a lot of sympathy with this view. I am a bit biased in this area due to being relatively cash-rich and time poor, which is the opposite of many gamers and mean basically I all-but-ignore the price of a game if it looks like I’ll enjoy it. I own the premium edition of Battlefield one (enough said :D).

The trouble is, when I browse games on steam in the top sellers for the categories that interest me, I do not see acres and acres of crap, which is how many devs describe indie games new on steam these last few months. Granted, there are a lot of poor quality, unplayable, useless titles in steams bargain bin, but what do I care? I’m not trying to compete with someone’s first unity effort, I’m a guy with 36 years of programming experience, and multiple million-dollar selling games under his belt.

To be blunt, I’m competing with Factorio, RimWorld, Prison Architect, and their ilk. These are my competitors. I don’t give a damn about the price of other titles.

And given the huge feature-set of some of those games, and their long development history, and their current prices, and the fact that Production Line is still in development…could I really increase the price yet?

I don’t think so. Its still $15.99.

On a related point however, I always felt, from the very first time someone did it, that having a sale on a game during Early Access seems a bit weird. Its like the game is not even properly on sale yet, and you already don’t think its worth what you are asking. It sends, in my opinion, a signal of ‘we just cant wait to discount this game! just you watch!’, and I think that can be unhealthy.

Production Line entered Early Access at $15.99 on May 18th, and 3 months later its the same price and has not been discounted a single cent. I’m fairly happy with this as a pricing strategy and have absolutely no plans to run a discount on the game in the near future. I think this sends a bit of a quality signal, even if its a small one.

Anyway… Patch 1.29 is under my belt, Sports Cars and Design studios will be coming soon. Eventually it will be time to do Hybrid/Electric engines, Quality and Defects, along with more marketing. Still plenty to do, and still in early Access for a while yet. The main thing is that I enjoy working on it, and its not causing me any actual stress. I also really enjoy playing it myself, which is always a good sign :D

 

 

 

 

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There are a number of things wrong with the nitty-gritty fine detail of Production Line’s design. I don’t mean easily adjusted stuff like ‘this costs too much’ or ‘that happens too quickly’, but actual design issues that may require me to change the way some of the mechanics work. Here is an explanation and some background:

Production Line is a car game where cars move along a production line from one ‘slot’ to another, and new components such as doors, engines, wheels etc get added at each slot. Different cars may be different designs, meaning they get a different series of components added. For example all cars get wing-mirrors added, but some get heated wing-mirrors, some get heated+folding wing-mirrors, and so on. Where I have gone wrong is this ‘fitting complex components’ mechanic.

Essentially, the problem comes from the relative simplicity of when I first started work on the game. For example, fitting door panels was just a thing that happened, taking X minutes to do. Then I added a new feature ‘car alarm’ which I decided could be fitted at the door panel slot. This slightly slowed down that slot. (For cars with alarms). then came lane-collision avoidance tech, which again involved extra components at the ‘fit doors’ slot. Then came keyless entry…and so on. As a result, something that was once simple (fit door) became really complex, and really slow, causing a bottleneck not only due to the sheer penalty time for all those features, but also waiting for all the myriad of components (sensors, alarms etc) to arrive for each door, meaning the slot was often ‘waiting for resources’. This also felt unrealistic. Surely the doors get fitted with all this stuff already assembled?

Because I’m clever I fixed this.

Now you have a system where some upgrades (folding/heated wing-mirrors is one) can only be installed if you make them yourself. As a result, you have a slot in the game that will manufacture wing-mirrors, and you can then upgrade THAT slot, and it will attach extra ‘features’ to each wing-mirror. The wing-mirror then gets requested by the fitting slot, attached to the car and the final car now has the features it wanted, fitted no slower than the normal wing-mirror.

A combination of method A and method B of adding features keeps a nice balance between bottlenecks and free-flowing of the line, encourages the player to experiment with local production, and adds to the complexity, maybe even the fun of the game?

Unfortunately it leads to big problems!

Imagine a situation where there are two car designs, Budget and Luxury, and production alternates so the line sees B,L,B,L etc. B has basic wing mirrors, luxury has everything… A local production slot ‘factory’ is upgraded, and thus churning out a load of heated & folded wing-mirrors. This is the process by which it all screws up:

The fitting slot encounters a BUDGET car. It fits some basic wing-mirrors, which because its closer to an importer than the factory, it imports. It also fills up the pare 14 slots with new basic wing-mirrors.

The fitting slot now encounters a LUXURY car. It now needs wing-mirrors that are heated and folding. Should it trash 2 wing-mirrors and order them from the factory? if so, does the player get the trashed items refunded? What about numbers…does it order just 2? or 14. it cannot be 100% certain that the end car (due to complex junctions) will be a Budget or Luxury. It has no idea. Does it order half and half? what if there are four designs? or eight and they all have different combinations, and production ratios? How many do I order? Also…back at the production slot, should I be just making a bunch of fully-loaded wing-mirrors? or some ratio? how do I set this? is it automatic? does the player decide?

Plus…because some components now have upgrades, how the hell is the supply stockpile GUI even working any more? when I say this stockpile should be full of wing-mirrors…which type? does it care? should the player be able to control this? how?

Why did I start making video games? what the fuck am I doing with my life? What made me think I know how to do this? ARGGGHHH.

Obviously this can be solved somehow, but I need to do it properly and not flail around coding random hacks, which is basically how I ended up here. How on earth am I going to fix this mess? Here are some solutions, not all to the same exact part of the problem, and not mutually exclusive:

Solution A: Downgrade components where required.

In other words, when we fit a wing-mirror to a budget car, we effectively snip the wires, and it acts just like a cheap wing mirror. We fucked up here in some ways, and spent the money to make an expensive component that got wasted. This is effectively very simple to implement, as some code can handle this at the fitting stage (stripping inappropriate features before adding them to the car). This is potentially very frustrating to the player, as if they want to produced everything locally, they are effectively wasting money (and resources) on every cheap car they produce. This is not efficient, and efficiency is the key to the game :(

Solution B: Scrap the idea of embedded features in components.

This means that all the component fitting is done *at the assembly line*. So factory slots now just make wing-mirrors, and the upgrades move to the fitting slot. This simplifies the games design from a tutorial POV very much, but it re-introduces big bottleneck, is very unrealistic, and involves a lot of change which will fuck up save games. Plus it doesn’t solve the core problem anyway, we still may have the wrong resources at the fitting stage.

Solution C: Allow manual configuration of assembly-line stockpiles.

Right now, the player has no control over what components a fitting-slot orders. It decides what to order when a new car arrives, and it then ‘over-orders’ on the assumption that the following car will be the same design. Because the player knows that all those aluminium stocks for an aluminium body shell are not needed for 90% of the cars, he/she could specify what to keep in stock instead, giving the player micro-management. The downside is this will not work AT ALL if you go BBBBBLLBBBBBLL, and thus the local ‘caching’ demands change. Plus its rife with the possibility of bugs, and confusion.

Solution D: Allow automatic ‘flushing’ of unused resources in a stockpile.

If I order 5 chunks of aluminium for a body-shell, and then take the effort to order another 11 to fill my stockpile, but the next car doesn’t use aluminium, I should immediately flush (probably refund) all those spare aluminium chunks the minute I realize this. This would eliminate a current ‘blocking’ problem, but mean that if my cars go BLBLBLBL (where L uses aluminium), I am constantly wrong-ordering and flushing. In a sense, this is for the player to spot and fix right?

Solution E: Express composite resources as their own resource.

Life might get simpler if I allow the player to refer to ‘folding wing-mirror’ ‘heated wing-mirror’ and ‘folding,heated,wing-mirror’ rather than just ‘wing-mirror’ in terms of supply stockpiles etc. This only solves a minor issue, regarding supply stockpiles, and vastly complicates the supply stockpile resource picker list (and others for that matter0. However this would theoretically allow the player to import them ready-made rather than produce stuff locally, which gives the player more flexibility.

ARGGGH.

I’m in a design mess here. It *will* get better, probably through a process of far better tutorial & player feedback combined with some combination of the changes listed above. I’m interested to know how annoying all this mess is for actual players right now. Have you encountered any of this? does it bother you? do you think I’m getting too fixated? Is this just something you enjoy working around? How bad is it? :(

 

I’m running on-going promotional campaigns for Production Line at the moment across a variety of sources. My plan is to work out the current best value for money in terms of cash paid per impression and per click/like, and then to ramp up in that area. Getting a decent click cost is proving tricky though.

After a lot of fiddling, and narrowing of audiences, I’m still struggling to get a Facebook like for Production Line at less than $1.00. I’ve seen my costs wave from $0.83 to $1.95 over a period of a week, even after cropping the lower performing ads out of the equation. The CPM on facebook is currently $13.06, which even as a really targeted demographic, is way too high. It could be that my ad copy sucks, although I have tried variation there. My relevance is  4 or 5.

Switching to AdWords promotion of my trailer gives me different results, The CPM there is £0.33 (roughly $0.44) which is tons better, but possible less effective? The cost per view is just £0.12 / $0.16, which is very attractive…

On reddit I’m seeing roughly $0.66 CPC for ads that lead directly to the steam store page. This is very direct, but is it really 4x as good as getting people to see my trailer?

What I don’t like about ad-words trailer promotion is that its 99% branding with very little engagement beyond that. Viewing my trailer is fine, but how long will that memory persist? When advertising my trailer, I got 642 steam store visits from youtube, and spent £1,500 to get them. If I look at the period before (no ads), I got 506, so effectively I’m paying £1,500 for 142 visits plus general brand awareness. The game is £12, so if all of them bought it now, I’d still make a slight loss under steams cut. How much is brand awareness worth to me? And how annoying to not know the actual real conversion rate of those steam visitors…

There are pros and cons all over the place to thinking this way. there is also the Uber/Tesla/Amazon strategy of really not giving a damn if you are losing money on ads, as long as you can spend enough to get 50,000 players one way or the other, and hope that this then becomes self sustaining and viral. This sounds nuts but it might not be, as lets be honest, you *do* get paid for the games, its only the difference (the loss per customer) that is actually an expense…

Looking at the adwords example.. £1,500 for 142 visits is a loss of £2.17 per sale, or $2.82. Lets imagine I could scale that up in a linear fashion to buy another 12,000 production line steam buyers (doubling its current steam sales, and making 34,000 players in total. The cost of that would be $33,840.

Thats a lot of money, but not impossible. I’ve certainly risked similar amounts on share dealing on a regular basis.

Interesting…

In the meantime here is today’s production Line video in which I wear a hat:

Production Line, my latest game released on steam on May 18th 2017. Thats 77 days ago, and according to steam spy, its sold 13,055 copies. We had a prolonged alpha test off steam where we sold another 10,000 copies. The game currently retails at $15.99 but was cheaper during our pre-early access direct sales period. How do I feel about that, how did I do that, and how can I sustain this?

Firstly some perspective. assume I have earned on average $10 per copy, thats roughly $230,000 income from the game. Development costs are not high on an art & music basis, but they aren’t trivial either. I’m looking at a raw profit, before I get paid anything of about $150,000. Theoretically pretty good, although I worked a LONG time on the game before going public with it. it looks like I have earned roughly $38 an hour from developing the game so far.

A lot of this is ‘front-loaded’. Games can continue to sell well long after you finish development of them. Despite my pessimism shortly after its launch, Democracy 3 Africa has gone on to earn a reasonable profit (nothing earth-shattering, but a surprise nonetheless). Although there is a lot more to spend on PL (sound effects are barely in, more art is to come, also trading cards and a LOT more code support), I suspect there is more to earn too. So far the game has not been discounted a single time, not even at launch. Its final price may creep up above $15.99 towards the $20 mark, and we haven’t actually had our version 1.0 release yet.

So how to ‘keep up momentum’ and continue to stay afloat and profitable with the game?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I advertise, and do so fairly extensively (for an indie). I’ve advertised in many places, but my preference in 2017 is social media. I don’t do that much chasing of press any more, as press coverage seems only very weakly correlated with sales these days. I think what matters is eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. A lot of new indies rely entirely on exposure through steam. That strategy is doomed. Dead. Passed-on. Ceased to be. Expired.

So far, Production Line has spent 17.84% of its revenue on marketing, or put another way 25.64% of profit. I believe this figure should be higher to get any sort of real awareness, and am currently trialling 8 different facebook ads to see which one has the best conversion rate to page likes before ramping up that spending. I’ve spent roughly 68% of my ad budget on facebook, 16% reddit, and the rest split between adwords and twitter.

The place where I am arguably being really slack is trade shows. I have a 2xPC booth coming up at EGX, and me and Jeff will be there handing out flyers. I have badges ordered, some PL stickers, and a silly yellow hat and jacket to wear so I stand out a bit. Its all a bit meek though. Really I should be appearing at other game shows too, but there aren’t many within the travel distance and date-range that I require, not that get any actual traffic, anyway. Appearing at a show can be expensive, I put the total cost, including hotels, travel, swag and booth at roughly £3,500.

So is any of this promo stuff worth it?

Very hard to tell. Conventional year 1990-2010 thinking was that its all about conversion rates and track-able sales. In 2017 I no longer think this is true. I think all that is desirable is awareness. There are a TON of games out there on GoG, Humble Store & Steam. The sales events can be big, and the store traffic enormous, but what matters is getting YOUR game noticed. In a sea of game logos, you want to be the one that gets clicked on, and thats much more likely if the logo or game name/image has been seen before.

Why?

Well actually its science. We have, hard-coded in our brains, a connection that says ‘familiarity == desirability’. Why? because basically if we have seen something before and we see it again, we know it didn’t try to kill us last time. Its a basic survival instinct. So what you need is people to see your game name, screenshots, video, logo, etc as often as possible, for the lowest cost. Making that work is tricky, not least because thousands of other people are trying to do the same thing. In a perfect market, all costs would level out exactly to match their effective impact, but we know that no market is perfect.

For example, is a view of my production trailer worth 10 ad impressions? or 50? Is it worth 10 at 10 seconds view until skip, and 50 at a full watch? This stuff is guesswork, we have no real idea, so we have to develop our own crude guesses. I once carried out a very exhaustive (and expensive) month of testing where I tried a whole bunch of ad media, and tracked conversions of all of them. I concluded that one media was vastly, vastly better than the others (facebook), but I now suspect it is not that simple. Facebook may be good at driving engagement in the short term, but I want long term name recognition, not just short term clicks and buys.

And that thinking brings us back to EGX and shows, and similar shenanigans. Is handing out a badge or leaflet to someone worth the same as a like on facebook? Are show-visitors more engaged online and more vital in terms of social network graphs for telling people about your game? I strongly suspect so, but there is little data or science on this. Unfortunately, as indies, we do not have the option of saturation marketing, where you spend ten million dollars and EVERYONE knows about the game. We know that works, we have to see if you can get 1% of the effect for $100k. I doubt that equation is linear, but does it skew in favour of size? Who knows.

And of course, this is why its so hard to effectively promote a game like Production Line. However, it can also be fascinating, and even fun.