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Game prices, whinging about prices, whinging in general

Up there on the list of, “statements which annoy me” nestling amongst, “game development – it’s just a job” (bullshit) and, “free to play is good for games design” (LOL) is this old chestnut: My game’s, like, $10 – that’s less than the...

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Even more (!) musing on Alpha-Funding

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Project Zomboid, Useless Advice | Posted on 21-03-2016

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* Narrow-slice view of the industry incoming. I do not claim to speak for all (or most/many/any other/whatever) indie developers.

Before Minecraft invented/popularised alpha-funding as a viable way to make videogames, here is how you’d make an ambitious large-in-scope indie game:

  1. Make a small indie game in your spare time
  2. Repeat 1 until the pittance you earn from all these small indie games affords you some capital to invest in a larger project
  3. Make a slightly bigger indie game, pay someone to make the graphics swanky, spend some money on marketting
  4. Repeat 3 until you’ve got a pretty hefty chunk of profit or return to 1 if it was a commercial failure
  5. Gamble horribly, quit your job, pump all that money and a truck-load of time into your magnum opus, hope that Valve let you have it on Steam
  6. Profit, hopefully

You’d have to be pretty bonkers, really, to even go down the road of step 5. You’d be much better off just pumping out a tonne of smaller games and having the cumulative sales they generate sustain you and hopefully give you a reasonable standard of living.

But Alpha-Funding / Kickstarter (and then Early Access) changed that. It meant that step 1 could be the large-in-scope magnum opus. If you can get people interested in your project in its infancy, you can be sustained all through the game’s development. That almighty step 5 risk is hugely reduced (at the cost of putting a comparatively tiny amount of risk on a lot of individuals who support your game). It is simultaneously the most liberating and the most dangerous method of making videogames. It comes with costs far beyond the paltry sum that you are usually asked for to buy the thing early in development – costs which affect customers and developers alike.

Costs exclusively concerning customers

  1. The ambitious-sounding project may just end up being too ambitious. Game never gets finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  2. The project may have been perfectly realistic in scope, but due to simply never managing to attract sufficient interest it is never finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  3. The game may not end up being what you expected it to be, you consider your £1 / £5 / £10 to be wasted
  4. It places an impossible burden of responsibility onto the customer. While publishers have the experience to recognise a game design horribly out of touch with what is practical, or a tech-demo with terrible foundations, your average customer does not – yet they’re the ones who, when upset when things do not turn out as they expected, are shrugged off with the, “well you should have done better research” argument
  5. If you were expecting the game to get better in good faith, and it didn’t, you’ve probably already blown your chance of getting a refund (this applies less if you bought it on GOG, of course)

Costs which affect both customers and developers

  1. The game will eventually cease to have support / updates. There will be a large number of people who will be unhappy – regardless of how complete the developer considers the game to be at that point
  2. To excite people into giving you money at the point you’ve barely started is… difficult. Your project needs to stand out. There is huge danger here in inflating your game’s scope beyond ‘ambitious but do-able’ to ‘ambitious to the point of insanity’ in order to be noticed
  3. You need not demonstrate any ability to finish a game in order to attract the money to start one – unlike every single other way of getting funding. While there is no ethical problem with simply releasing a crap game, having it review terribly, and having those that buy it refund it within an hour – those ethics become questionable when you’re taking money for a project you cannot know that you can complete. A horribly misguided sense of ability can be endearing if you merely output awful games no-one buys, but there’s nothing endearing about misleading people into buying in to those delusions, intentionally or otherwise
  4. The skills required to pitch a concept fall far below the skills required to successfully create that concept. This development method enables those who both lack the skills to complete what they’ve pitched and also those skills required to recognise that they can’t complete what they’ve pitched. From a consumer perspective, these pitches are often indistinguishable from realistic pitches.

Costs exclusively concerning developers

  1. You’re potentially throwing away the chance to build-up your skills and experience slowly if your project ends as a high-profile disaster

 

Conclusion

 

I’m not suggesting, then, that no-one should make an alpha-funded game, or that our own game is some sort of shining beacon of this method. Alpha-funding, to us, was a necessity – and we considered our chances of finishing what we started to be pretty damn certain. But, of course, everyone who isn’t actually trying to pull-off deception would say that, but it doesn’t mean that we or they would ultimately be correct. I do think that, in general, those indie developers who create many smaller projects are the smart ones – all our eggs are currently in one basket and, while we’ve been successful with Zomboid in terms of sales, we were pretty lucky that the DayZ mod appeared shortly after we released our first build and ignited interest in the survival genre. Thanks Dean!

I also think critics can serve tremendous good in this context. We can’t expect an average gamer to be necessarily able to recognise the difference between those concepts likely to succeed and those likely to fail. Critics, however, are more familiar with games development and can distinguish between the two and spot-light the former. Kickstarter pitches often overlook including a “risks and challenges” section and sometimes when it is included exists in a sort of, “my greatest weakness is sometimes I care too much” way. I’d like to see more prominence of those articles which really look into early game builds / pitches in-depth.

On Indie Game Development

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 13-11-2015

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It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support Alpha-Funded / Early Access / Kickstarters / etc. games”. It’s a real shame because, as should be remembered, these funding models enable games to be created which simply could not have existed otherwise. Of course, as a consumer, it is absolutely sensible to approach with caution before putting your money down for a promise – but at the same time, closing yourself off entirely… well, if everybody did that then we’d be back to the only viable funding model being a traditional publisher-developer relationship. And let’s not forget that it was dissatisfaction with the kinds of games which that relationship typically yields which led us to this in the first place.

It’s a sad truth that with any model – be it E.A., alpha-funding, Kickstarter, free-to-play – there will be some games which use the model perfectly, some which balls the whole thing up horribly, and everything in-between. Some people, just with luck of the dice rolls, will find themselves only backing turkeys. But a few bad experiences does not mean that the system, as a whole, is broken or fundamentally flawed.

This kind of funding model is fantastic, utterly fantastic. If you want a games industry which maximises creativity, maximises variety, makes niche titles viable, this is how you get it – there is simply no better model. We need to protect it, and that places a duty of protection on every single developer using it – no matter whether you’re a larger independent company, or a single hobbiest – whether you want it or not.

Know your limitations

 
When I got my first job in the industry, back when I was twenty, I was full of arrogance – the sort of arrogance which you only really recognise with hindsight. I went through school top of my class in art and computer studies, I got a first-class B.Sc. (hons) in Computer Visualisation and Animation. Frankly, I thought I was the bees-knees. But, of course, you’re only being judged in terms of people in your class or year not the World as a whole. When people treat you like you’re amazing, you begin to think you’re objectively amazing. Then you get a job in the Games Industry.

Blimey, that was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I was comparatively shit. In the grand scheme of things I knew nothing. The arrogance still takes time to evaporate (evaporation, to this day, still not entirely complete) but you do at least start to recognise it as arrogance. Despite not having made many games I was particularly proud of during those ten or so years in the commercial industry, it was still the best thing I could possibly have done. I dread to think what I would’ve been like, had I skipped it and simply started making indie games when I was twenty. Actually, I pretty much know – I would have wanted to change the world (of games). I’d have wanted to show the games industry where they were going wrong. All my “amazing” ideas – why has no-one made these games? Pfft. Noobs.

Those ten years taught me that all those ideas which I thought were so amazing? Not only have they occurred to literally everyone, but also that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that they are not applied is either because they’re “good in theory, not so much in practice”, because they’re utterly nonviable, or because actually they’re shit.

“Indie” has become a PR term, but there is a reason why I’ll insist on making a distinction between “indies” and “independents”. Indies should not be trying to compete with the AAA (or even AA) games. Yeah, we have Unreal Engine 4 at our disposal now, but that we’ve got AAA tools and tech does not mean we can start making AAA games. Just prettier indie games. If, in general, indie games were synonymous with “looking a bit shit” well, that’s fine isn’t it? No, not fine, better. Because if “great game, but graphically a bit shite” was what people thought of when they thought about indie games, then the word wouldn’t be quite so great for PR and maybe the larger independent studios wouldn’t insist on calling themselves indie and muddying up the whole thing.

It’s okay to use Unreal Engine 4 but fill the entire game with cheap crappy stock assets. It’s okay to have both awesome Unreal lighting and assets made out of cubes. It’s okay not to use Unreal at all and make the whole thing in Game Maker or RPG Studio. Style is cheap, HD models aren’t. If you’re wondering why it is that the commercial industry has never produced [insert awesome-sounding ambitious project here] it’s not because you’ve got better ideas than them. It’s because, unlike you, they know how much it costs to make a videogame of that scope.

Ultimately, pretty graphics mean bollocks all if the game is shit or canned. Yeah, you’re probably not going to out-sell Call of Duty. But if you’ve planned for your limitations, kept your team small, kept the design realistic in scope… you won’t need to. You can be ambitious – heck, definitely be ambitious. But be ambitious in moderation. If you shoot for the moon, there is a minuscule chance you’ll land. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a stable orbit around Earth. Most likely, you’ll plummet back down to Earth and explode.

“Just make a good game!”

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 23-07-2015

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Okay, so I’ve just watched an excellent YouTube video from Simon Roth, the chap behind Maia, about how to build a sustainable microstudio (a re-creation of his Develop talk). I’ll include it below because I really recommend giving it a watch:

But one thing stood out to me, very very early on, in the video which is where he’s critical of “useless” advice for indie devs – one of these nuggets of useless advice was, “just make a good game”.

Oh my God. That’s me, I do that all the time, it’s pretty much the only piece of advice I ever give! I’m going to defend it.

Now, I appreciate that it’s fairly useless in the sense that “good” doesn’t really mean anything concrete. Good how? Mechanically robust? Following established conventions of game design? Being in a popular genre? It certainly poses more questions than it answers, and it actually answers very little. But when I give that piece of advice to people, I’m not giving them advice which is a surefire way to success (nobody can do that) – instead I’m recommending a mindset.

As Simon points out (paraphrasing here), “Lots of crap games sell loads, lots of good games fail miserably – so how ‘good’ something is does not necessarily correlate to how well something sells”. This is perfectly true but from my point of view, I would not want to be a developer who writes crap games which sell such that I am now running a “successful” games studio. I want to be a developer of great games. If sales did not follow, then I would be a hobbiest developer of great games – if they did, I would be running a “successful” games studio who makes great games. I’m not interested in the “successful” bit unless that was just something which happened on account of the games I made being well regarded.

The games come first.

If you’re starting out and compiling advice about how to become successful and at no point is the top bullet point of your list of “do’s” a big bold, underlined, “come up with a great game idea, then try to execute it competently” – if success is more important to you than the game – then what the Hell are you doing in the games industry? Frankly, you can piss off 😉

Note in case it isn’t clear: I very much like Simon Roth, his hair, and Maia. This isn’t intended to be critical of him or his talk. I just disagree with that one little nugget of that one slide.

On Patreon and conflicts of interest

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Useless Advice | Posted on 30-11-2014

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I must admit, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Patreon – is it okay for me as a developer to fund a games writer who potentially in the future could write something about my game? I don’t know – you’re certainly not, in that simple act of Patronage, entering into a binding contract where they must write something favourable about you. But at the same time, without intimately knowing the person you’re supporting you also can’t guarantee that it won’t predispose them towards you.

So what to do? Well, here’s a thought…

Patreon

Set your Patreon account to “private”, you muppet. You can do that dead easily. For extra fun, set up another email account with a meaningless address and don’t put your actual name (or common internet handle) into the Username box (those are the only two mandatory fields). That done, there is no way that the person you’re supporting, or the public at large, could ever know you support them – and therefore there is no way at all that this act of Patronage could be perceived as a cash for coverage situation.

If the person you’re supporting doesn’t know (and can’t know) you support them, how could this possibly change anything? The other way round, press supporting devs… that’s a little different and I bow gracefully out of having an opinion on that matter since it’s not an issue I have to concern myself with, not being press and all 😉

Generating Normal Maps from Textures

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Useless Advice | Posted on 30-11-2014

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It’s not infrequently that I stumble upon forum posts on hobbiest game dev sites where someone proclaims in response to a question, “no – you can’t make normal / bump maps from textures”. The logic being that there is absolutely nothing in a texture map that would in any way yield useful depth information. This is certainly true – and it would be also be true to say, “you can’t make really really good normal maps from just a diffuse texture”.

But you can make normal maps which serve a purpose – you’ve got a texture which had no bump map packaged with it, you’re not an artist, and anything half decent is better than nothing. It’s also staggeringly easy and requires no skill, yet I almost never see it mentioned on the internet in these discussions.

So I present to you, Photoshop’s “High-Pass” filter:

NormalMaps

Take your texture, and do:
Filters -> Other -> High Pass

Play with the slider until you get something bump-mappy (usually quite low values), desaturate the image, done. You’re welcome 🙂

A handy guide to clarity

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Useless Advice | Posted on 29-07-2014

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Definitions of “very clear” seem to vary. I have therefore produced this handy guide.

Extremely Unclear

Very Unclear

Explanation requires clicking “read more” in the description.

Somewhat Unclear

Explanation (“in association with…” etc) does not require clicking “read more” in the description.

Murky

Explanation (“sponsored by…” etc) does not require clicking “read more” in the description.

Somewhat Clear

“Sponsored by…” written onscreen at the end of the video.
Explanation (“sponsored by…” etc) does not require clicking “read more” in the description.

Very Clear

“Sponsored by…” written onscreen at the start of the video.
“Sponsored by…” written onscreen at the end of the video.
Explanation (“sponsored by…” etc) does not require clicking “read more” in the description and occupies its own paragraph.

Extremely Clear

Explanation (“sponsored by…” etc) written in full onscreen, in large bold text – no other flashy attention-grabbing text/imagery onscreen to distract from this message, message is held for minimum of 5 seconds.

Top Tips: How much should you sell an Alpha-Funded game for?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Useless Advice | Posted on 23-10-2013

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Question 1:

How much is your game worth RIGHT THIS SECOND?

 

Take that number and subtract a bit. Easy.

 

Game prices, whinging about prices, whinging in general

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff, Useless Advice | Posted on 08-07-2013

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Up there on the list of, “statements which annoy me” nestling amongst, “game development – it’s just a job” (bullshit) and, “free to play is good for games design” (LOL) is this old chestnut:

My game’s, like, $10 – that’s less than the price of a couple of beers! What on Earth are you whinging about?

The reason it annoys me is the very blinkered approach to game purchasing it takes. It’s true that if you took any one game in complete isolation and did some sort of “hours played / total cost” calculation, you’d almost always come up with a stupendously good value number. Certainly if you compared it to going to the cinema. And doubly so if what you were going to see was Prometheus.

But other games exist aside from your own, and people buy many, many games. Since nobody’s disposable income is infinite, there are always going to be many many more games that you don’t buy than games which you do. You have to pick and choose – and try to ensure that you choose wisely. So if one of those games turns out to be a turkey, the thing that makes buying it disappointing is that it has effectively booted out a better game from that set of games you buy in a year. Unless you spend more on games that year. Which would, in itself, be annoying.

So that’s fair enough to whinge about, isn’t it? It’s not about the $10, or $5, or however much the stupid game is. It’s about the other game which is also $10, or $5, or however much that they didn’t buy which might have been better – or the two games, each for half that price, which each might have been better.

There’s not a day which goes by which at some point I don’t honestly consider that maaaaybe we’re rather under-selling our own game. It is, after all, a sandbox game with potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay in it. And the price will almost certainly go up at some point since it’s been the same price for about two years now and it’s got quite a lot more in it now than it did. And I think that’s fair – particularly to those who bought in early, that they should end up with the game for a cheaper price. But at the same time it’s important to be in that impulse buy zone – that’s the zone in which you get the least amount of price whinging (aside from free stuff, obv) since those kinds of games tend to fall into the ‘games you pick up in addition to your list of games to buy’ category, in the same way that games which appear on the Steam sales, for peanuts, do.

Since managing to price your game at the perfect point for content and experience is practically impossible, it’s always better to err on the side of under-selling and over-delivering since doing the opposite is pretty disastrous.

Alternatively, you could price your game higher (flirting dangerously with the other side of that perfect zenith) and pick up that massive spike of impulse buys during a sale – having your cake and eating it too. In which case, kindly shut up when people whinge about the price of your game – whatever it costs 😉

How to be a tester and have people know who you are without it being because they hate you

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff, Useless Advice | Posted on 14-03-2011

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Congratulations, you’re now in The Games Industry! Sort of. For a bit, at any rate. If you’re lucky the studio which has employed you may have multiple projects on the go so that when the game you’re working on is complete you won’t instantly be laid off.

It is important to use this time to build up a network of friends and slowly worm your way into the design team, where permanent contracts exist along with the chance that you might actually enjoy aspects of your job. This is not going to happen unless people know who on Earth you actually are.

Here are some simple rules to follow to help achieve this aim:

1. Have a memorable name

The thing you have to remember is that artists and programmers are going to be receiving a lot of bug report e-mails. They already loathe getting e-mails from you, so the last thing you want to do is combine a bug which involves them doing loads of work with something else that pisses them off.

So do not for the love of God sign your e-mails / reports / etc with an utterly hateful signature like, “Bob Smith – the Master of Disaster”, or “Jack Jones: The Testinator”.

No, it’s better just to have an amusingly bizarre name, like Peter Penishead. If you do not have a name like this, blame your parents.

2. Don’t be annoying

Yes – we all know that what you really want to be is a designer/artist/programmer and not a tester. But bug reports are not the place to show the World how good you would be in these roles. So less of the, “the main character should be wearing denim trousers instead of leather” or, “the grass should be more green” type bug reports please. And bugs that you find are not automatically more important than the others. So if you find yourself only ever submitting A-class bugs, it might be time to give yourself a slap before someone else does.

3. Don’t be creepy

Imagine for a moment you’re a programmer or an artist. Now imagine that you’re in the office having a chat to a co-worker. Now imagine that out of the corner of your eye you can see a completely generic person who’s unremarkable in every single conceivable way staring at you. Now imagine this figure starts popping up all over the place, possibly following you. It’s starting to get a little creepy, isn’t it?

Now, the fact is that you, the tester, aren’t completely generic but simply appear that way to the dev team because there are literally hundreds of you buggers. If you want to stand out, have no torso or two heads instead. If you have a torso and the conventional number of heads, blame your parents.

4. Be friends with the QA Manager

This is a much more realistic goal. Forget design, art, or programming for the time being. By all means practise all that stuff in your spare time (ahahahahaha!) and if you waddle over to an artist or designer clutching some work and looking adorable, chances are they’ll happily give you some feedback and blurt out some advice significantly more useful than this blog.

But the QA Manager is your target. The team knows who the QA Manager is, for a start, since he/she is one of them. A bit of sucking up here could mean the difference between being kept around for the next project and not. Plus, no matter how many heads you have or how mundane your name is, if you’re around for long enough eventually people are going to remember you.

How to stop everyone hating you for being a designer

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff, Useless Advice | Posted on 14-03-2011

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When it comes to graphics, everybody has an opinion – it doesn’t matter if you’re a coder, tester, designer, producer, or tea boy. It requires absolutely no qualifications to look at something and decide whether or not you like it. It requires slightly more skill to determine why you like or dislike something but we all get some ability to that end just by being alive for a reasonable period of time.

So this means that, especially early on in a game’s development, it’s the artists who are doing the things that most people are interested in. New concepts going up on the walls, a new character model, a pretty sunset for the skydome. It’s an unfortunate truth that the only people who particularly care that a programmer is writing a particularly elegant function is other programmers.

So unless you’re the special effects programmer or are responsible for enabling exciting new engine functionality, you have a diminished set of people that really care about what you’re doing.

Of course, on the flip side, while as an artist it’s very nice that mid-way through the creation of one of the player characters you get plenty of attention from everybody wandering past on their way for a smoke and/or coffee, it’s less nice when they remark that what you’re doing looks a bit shit. Because, of course, while everyone can recognise the difference between things they like and dislike, not everyone is particularly informed as to what a really good character model might look like when it’s only ten percent complete.

This only gets more severe when it comes to design.

The trouble with designing, is that not only does pretty much everybody in the building have an idea of what it is about games they think makes them good or bad, but there’s also less people for them to blame when they think something’s awful.

If a programmer fires up the latest build and thinks that the screen looks a bit iffy, any particular artist can at least claim that it’s the lighting, or the environment, or anything else that they didn’t personally do (or that who did is currently present) that is the problem before skulking back to their desks to repair the ropey skin weighting on their model.

But as a designer in a similar position, the best you can do is blame the implementation of your idea which isn’t exactly the best way to endear yourself with the programming team. Alternatively, you could blame the other designers but then, if it’s a mid – to – small sized project, there’s a good chance that there aren’t any. If you say nothing and skulk back to your desk to repair the flaw in the design document, it’s going to be pretty obvious what you’ve done since you’ll have to tell everybody that the document has been updated. No, there’s really no option but to suck it up and either attempt to convince everyone that what you’ve designed is correct, or admit error then and there.

The first option will annoy people if they all think you’re obviously wrong and therefore just being stubborn and the latter will cause people to start questioning why on Earth you’re responsible for the design. All paths lead to everybody hating the designer and you’re screwed.

The only way out of this situation is to be the sort of designer that everyone likes regardless of how good or bad you are at actually designing. If you’ve reached a design position via testing and QA, there’s a good chance that everyone in the studio already hates you, so this is the kind of approach that needs to be planned for well in advance (and would be a whole new blog topic – how to be a tester and have people know who you are without it being because they hate you).

The less time you’ve been at the company, the less work you have to do – especially if you join a company which already employs a bunch of designers everyone hates. In this case all you need to be is something approaching reasonably normal to surprise the hell out of everyone in the studio and put you on their good side. Immediately start whinging about the other designers in this event, otherwise the team will get suspicious and you’ll lose your advantage.

In either case, you could start smoking and/or drinking huge quantities of coffee so that you’re always present to hear what everybody else in the studio is whinging about. Hopefully, it’s time constraints, team size, or management decisions. If it’s you they’re whinging about then they are less likely to do so if you’re stood next to them offering cigarettes and so, if you’re lucky, they’ll start complaining about something or somebody else. At this point, join in.

Glad I could help!