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Hello. Merry Christmas for tomorrow, and all that. If you’ve not been following the, frankly, obscene amount of Tweeting I’ve been doing over the last few weeks (who could blame you – I’d have unfollowed me by now if it were possible), you may have missed a couple of screens I...

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My Response to some Responses to my DF-9 Response

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 22-09-2014

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Original blog post on alpha-funding and Spacebase DF-9 here.

You can’t seriously expect a company to relocate somewhere cheaper and still retain their staff!

Well… no, probably not. That said, if that’s what it takes to produce an alpha-funded game in terms of “money it’ll likely (not hopefully) make” to “money it will definitely cost”, then that’s what it takes. Companies move, people move with them. This stuff happens in industries all the time and to expect the games industry to be any different on the basis that it’s not really very pleasant having to relocate is naive. But the point is not that you should have to move to a cost-effective area in order to run an alpha-funded project, but simply if you are not based in a cost-effective area then alpha-funding is probably not an appropriate development model for your business.

What business is it of yours, where a company is based or how their business is run?

None. But alpha funded games rely on consumer trust. How much do they trust you to finish the game you’re selling? And there are three factors primarily in play:

1) The game idea (obviously)
2) Reputation of the company developing it
3) Price

When an established developer is working on the game, this counts an awful lot on the “trust” gauge. This is why the most successful Kickstarter campaigns tend to be from the likes of Chris Avellone <3, Brian Fargo, Tim Schafer, David Braben, Chris Roberts. All people with tremendous games to their credit - what could go wrong? These guys know how to make games and know how to run studios, right? Right. Except, while on paper you'd be correct to trust established devs what isn't so transparent is the immense gulf in development costs compared to the more bedroom codey indie developers. So yeah, the experience these people have counts hugely in their favour in terms of trust, if you change the question and instead think in terms of this:

“Which developers are the most likely to continue developing their project in the event it performs very badly in terms of sales?”

Now you can see that the larger established developers with the large running costs are the least likely to be able to see through the project if things don’t go according to plan. So it’s not quite the simple proposition as established == better. It’s swings and roundabouts. There will be circumstances when the bedroom coder is a safer bet than the company with AAA games in its softography.

So it does matter how much of the revenue is going to be swallowed by running costs. Right now (and despite the inevitable “mixed” Steam user reviews) Spacebase DF-9 is the 58th best selling Early Access game on Steam, out of 265. That’s in the top quarter of all currently available Early Access games. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a failure. But because those running costs are so high, the top quarter is not sufficient – I wonder what would be? Top ten percent? Top ten? Would have been nice to know this given that continued development depended on it.

Of course Kickstarter is different – those high running costs are factored into the amount asked for. So for Kickstarter you would be right to trust established developers in general. But with alpha-funding those costs are intimately entwined with the project’s chance of success and this is why alpha-funding is not a simple “alternative” to other funding models.

Why no mention of the burglary? You don’t exactly have a flawless track-record either. People in glass houses etc.

That’s a fair point and I didn’t mention it partially because I didn’t really intend to write that much about us in my blog post – just enough to put things in context. But yeah, we screwed up there and were heavily criticised for it at the time (and still occassionally to this day). But I’d argue that the event actually proves my point. Our running costs were low enough that despite that happening, and despite the inevitable plummet in sales that went with it, we were able to carry on regardless – and we’re still here years later. That is the advantage with low cost developers.

With all this in mind, we updated the information on our Store page to include some pertinent information regarding costs associated with where we are based. Frustratingly, I can’t just link directly to it so you’d have to click the “read more” button on the big blue ‘Early Access Game’ panel: here.

Finally in conclusion, here’s m’colleague Lemmy on price points, etc

The cost is very much a big factor in our issues with some Early Access games these days. Consumers are meant to be compensated for buying an incomplete game with risks associated with it. The price is that agreement between dev and customer ‘I know it’s a bit cheeky me asking for money for this, but I just need a financial hand getting it done. So how about I only charge you a fiver? You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You get a game much more ambitious than I could fund normally, and at a super cheap price, and in return I get to make money from this game while I make it.’

With the normalization of Early Access a lot of devs seem to have forgotten that this is a rather unorthodox and contentious thing to do, and instead of being thankful and humble in being permitted to conduct business in this unorthodox way, or remembering that this inherently puts them in a situation where they are more beholden to their customers wants and expectations than in traditional funding models. Instead many have accepted it as the norm, and started to creep the initial alpha prices up to release value (or sometimes, bewilderingly and sickeningly, ABOVE the release price) and the acceptability of releasing earlier and earlier more broken or lacking in gameplay builds to the point where it all becomes very problematic.

If DF-9 was $8 I doubt there would be 1/100th of the backlash. Of course if $8 was a completely impossible price point then this again goes to point out that the location the devs operate in is a BIG factor in the game’s failure and needs to be noted.

Alpha Funding / Early Access is not an “Alternative”

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 21-09-2014

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Please note: Throughout this piece, I am going to be referring to “Early Access” a lot.
In the context of this blog post, by “Early Access” I refer to those games which follow
the “alpha-funded” model whereby the first build available is pre (or very early) alpha.
“Early Access” games which launch with an open beta are more traditionally funded and
these games are exempt from what I’m talking about.

 

With the latest news about Spacebase DF-9, one thing has become very clear to me:

Alpha Funded / Early Access is not an “alternative” development approach. It has a very specific use for a very specific set of games.

At the very beginning of Project Zomboid, when we released the first rough screenshots, outlined our goals, and asked for money to help us get there we had a discussion about the “what if” scenarios. What if we don’t really raise that much money? What if we do well initially but interest (and funding) dries up mid-way through? All these sorts of things. One thing was fundamentally obvious: If we take money up-front from people for a shell of a game, we have a duty to deliver the game regardless of how much money we make.

That’s why for the first year or so, Chris and I shared the same cheap apartment in Hartlepool (there’s very few cheaper places to live in the UK and not get murdered on the streets). When we did eventually move somewhere less horrid it was with the understanding that if things took a turn for the worse, we’d have to move back to an equivalent situation. Just turning round at that point and saying instead, “sorry guys, we’ve run out of money, the game as it is now is just going to have to do” was never an option. And it never should be.

So what is very clear to me, is if you can’t guarantee this from the outset then Alpha-Funding / Early Access is not for you. It’s too risky and were it just your own reputation on the line, that’d be fine. But failures tarnish the reputation of the entire model, so a failure (particularly a high-profile failure) is potentially damaging to the very developers who need this model the most.

Frankly, I find it bewildering that anyone would develop a game which relies on sales to fund development who is based somewhere with staggeringly high living costs (London, San Fransisco, Copenhagen, etc). You’re literally (metaphorically) burning that money. I know it’s easy to say but a lot more complicated to do, but you really should be based somewhere cheaper if you’re going to use this model. You need to be efficient and maximise the development you get out of every single penny that comes in. If you’re not prepared to do this (or are unable to) then, again, alpha-funded / Early Access is not for you.

So, I’m afraid, I’m just not impressed by this:

We started Spacebase with an open ended-production plan, hoping that it would find similar success (and therefore funding) to the alpha-funded games that inspired it. Some of its early sales numbers indicated this might be the case, but slowly things changed, and it became clear that this was looking like a year and a half of production instead of five or so.

Source

Because that year and a half production could easily have been five years if only the studio were based somewhere which didn’t have an average $10,000 (!!!) per person per month cost. You are basically requiring your game to be one of the most successful Early Access games ever in order to have enough money to finish it. This is, frankly, an insane and (dare I say it?) arrogant assumption.

edit: A follow-up post here.

“Gamers are dead” is a flupping bonkers thing to say

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Rants | Posted on 20-09-2014

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Yeah, I’m hugely late to the party on this one, but since I’m still seeing this discussed and argued on my Twitter feed I’m going to chime in. On the one hand you’ve got a load of gamers feeling like they were attacked and, on the other hand, a load of writers claiming bewilderment and saying, “geez, [x] is dead is, like, a super common expression. What’s your problem?”

Well…

1) There is an ENORMOUS difference between saying, “[inanimate objects] are dead” and saying, “[group of people] are dead”. For example, “movies are dead” is less contentious than, “moviegoers are dead”.

2) There is an ENORMOUS difference between saying, “[those people] are dead” and saying, “[you] are dead”. For example, “authors are dead” is less contentious than, “readers are dead” since the people reading the article are, by definition, readers.

3) There is an ENORMOUS difference between saying, “the term ‘[group]’ is dead” and saying, “‘[group]’ are dead”.

In other words, show me a bunch of examples when this format of statement has been applied when the thing being called “dead” represents 100% of your readership and you might have a point in saying that this is a really common thing to do. If you can’t then just admit that you were either being deliberately provocative and reactionary, or you really didn’t think through the headline.

Edit: …and the point still stands if you swap “dead” for “over” or any other similar word.

A Longer Post about Indie ‘Cliques’

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 08-09-2014

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So, game development eh? What a flupping nightmare.

Before I begin, I’d like to state that I can only talk about what I know as an indie developer based in the North-East of England, and I’m not going to comment on the really horrible comments/attacks since it’s flupping obvious that’s detestable and also utterly irrelevant to the conversation.

When we first went indie, our first venture was an extremely low-paid commissioned game which was a joint production between two of us in the North-East and one chap down in London. I must admit, it made us feel a little sad and isolated watching on the internet as all these exciting events and meet-ups were planned, photos were taken, fun was had – as two of us were cooped up in a dingy flat with next to no money. It’s possible that these events were mind-numbingly dull – but everything looks exciting when you’re not there and you don’t get to go to any. By the time that game was done, the two of us in the North were penniless and panicking about what we should do next. That was when Zomboid was planned.

So there we were, with a vague idea, no money, and no actual friends in either indie development or working as games journalists. We’d made a few acquaintances, I guess, since we did manage one or two trips to London in the two years or so we were working on that first game – plus there’s Twitter, but you don’t really make friends on Twitter – especially if most of your tweets are facetious. And even now – three or so years into making Zomboid, a game which has done pretty well overall, has had a modicum of exposure on “proper” games websites – I can count the number of games journalist friends I have on no hands. There are just hardly any indie devs or journalists up here – no trendy parties, nothing. Unless everyone hates me and I’m simply not invited.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was one organised recurring meet-up which, at best, you’d describe as sporadic and infrequent. But most of the people who went to that were mobile phone / tablet devs and, well, sorry but I’m just not interested in mobile games. At all. Also, a frightening proportion of the people there would describe their game as “the product” which immediately makes me stop listening.

So this indie dev clique thing. Is it nonsense? In all honestly I just don’t know. What I would say, however, is this:

  • If I had made an astronomical amount of money from a staggeringly successful indie game, I could imagine myself investing in a friend’s game to help them get going.
  • If that was the case, I would likely be somebody whose tweets and opinion were newsworthy and I would probably use that to pimp my friend’s game.
  • If there was an Indie Games Award thing near where I lived, or I was happy swanning around the globe on a private jet, I would probably take part as a judge.
  • …And then recuse myself if it turned out my friend’s game was submitted and instead make do participating in the gazillion panels I’m constantly invited to.

In other words, I do not find it particularly surprising that all manner of connections can be drawn up between notable and/or successful developers. I also do not find it surprising that the sorts of developers who have made huge amounts of money would also be the sorts of developers who would invest in other games, and also be the sorts of developers notable enough to be involved in panels / award judging / all that shit. Frankly, it would be a bit weird if that didn’t happen.

But here’s the trouble:

It doesn’t half look bad from an outsider’s perspective. And, I think, at the very least we can acknowledge that it looks a bit bad even if we believe it to be perfectly innocent and above board. Because, much like me – sat here in a part of the country where none of those swanky parties happen – it’s easy to imagine it all being better, more exciting, more career-helping than it probably is. And it’s easy to become angry or embittered when you’re making a game and struggling for press attention when all those other developers appear to have things easier.

It’s easier to imagine that it’s some back-room dealings than simply some failure on your own part. And this is coming from a developer – someone with some degree of knowledge on how games are made and marketed. If you’re a gamer, however, you’ve got nothing to work with except some sense that something is wrong (given that there have been documented cases of wrong-doings in the past). And when developers or journalists glibly reply to you, write off your conclusions as laughable, focus on the manner in which you comment rather than the message, paint you with the same brush as the worst of the commentors, or simply say nothing – what are you supposed to do? You have no access to this knowledge that the devs and journalists have. It all feels a bit like Kings mocking the plebs, and it just adds to the frustration and anger which then increases the use of extreme language and the connections which you will find and the whole thing becomes a vicious circle. Because, after all, questioning the press is a good thing in general. Sure, you might have drawn conspiratorial conclusions which (to those in the know) may be so far off-base to be laughable. But it’s better to do that (in principle) than just to accept everything you read or hear as fact because that’s precisely how corruption starts.

Or there might be some truth to some of it. I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a city somewhere with an unusually high concentration of press and devs and things operate differently. Maybe the UK is different to other countries in this regard but I can only comment from my perspective. I read somewhere (I’ll pop the link in if I can find it) some journalist say words along the lines of, “all my news comes from dev friends” which is less corruption and more being utterly shit at your job. But if there is some truth to some part of the claims, I suspect we’re dealing with a tiny tiny minority of devs and press because most indie developers are like me. Sat on their own at home or in an office with no other indie dev friends to speak of, no journalist friends, and no easy way to get exposure for their game.

(Those “gamers are dead” articles were proper bullshit though. If we had Golden Raspberry Awards for gaming articles, they’d be a shoe-in)