Would You Pay $10 for Me?

If you follow the Indie-gaming industry there’s a good chance that by now you’ve heard about what I like to refer to as “Puppy-Gate.” If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, last week indie game maker Puppy Games wrote a blog post that was … venting … to say the least. The main point was that developers can’t afford to care about individual customers due to the downward pressure on game prices exerted by the excessive supply of games available through Steam and Humble Bundles etc. I found the Puppy Games post more than a bit depressing, but I do have to ask myself – do they have a point? After all, they have been in the business a lot longer than we have.

At first in trying to answer this question, I tried to figure out if what they were saying about game prices is really true. Do you really have to sell your game for $1? Are developers really destined to get discounted into oblivion?

Thinking about this, I realized that I didn’t actually know as much about all of this pricing stuff as I thought I knew. At risk of sounding extremely naïve, I will admit that I thought you more or less set your price as a developer and see if the market responds favorably. So, unfounded assumptions in hand, I set out to research this problem earlier this week. I found out that I was wrong – maybe.

Turns out, it’s a lot harder to research how Steam pricing works than I thought, which in retrospect really shouldn’t have been a big surprise. Steam does answer the question itself to some extent, noting that they will “work with you” to set an appropriate price based on their knowledge of historical pricing data. On top of that, I came across my fair share of “we can’t disclose that” comments by developers that have put games on Steam. On one hand, this all sounded a bit ominous. On the other hand, Steam does have kind of a lot of expertise in this area, so I don’t want to get too cynical about being strong armed to a lower price point by Steam.

I’ve realized that at the end of the day it is rather pointless for me to go around in circles trying to predict what price our game will be. I think that instead we need to ask ourselves what our goal is. How much do we want to sell our game for? We should decide what price we want our game to be, and then aspire to that goal.

Right now that goal is $10.

I acknowledge that in a sense we are privileged to be able to look at things from this perspective. After all, we don’t absolutely need to sell this game in order to make a living since we’ve still got our day jobs. This gives us a bit more breathing room to hold out for a price we want. Yet, I think this approach will help us put out the best game that we can because it gives us a certain standard to which we need to hold ourselves. If we want to sell our game for $10 then we need to look at other indie games that are selling for $10 and make sure that we can offer an experience that is at least on par with them.

So far in looking for games similar to ours, I haven’t been able to find anything that is a great comparison. While frustrating, this is also encouraging. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, we can really provide something a bit different here.

Side bar I did notice that Goat Simulator is selling for $10. Sadly, while hilarious, this is perhaps not the best example for us (or anyone else ever).

Perhaps the better starting point is – what aspects of our game do we think will make it worth $10? This will develop over time, but there at least a few themes we are focusing on right now. In particular, we think that our gameplay length and customizability will provide value at least at a $10 level. This may make us sound insane, but we are aiming for 15-18 hours of gameplay on one play-through with the addition of valuable re-play time if you play again making different decisions. As far as customizability, this is admittedly a widely-claimed game attribute throughout the industry. However, Rich is laying the foundation right now for this to be at the core of our game as he programs in a wide range of equipable parts that actually modify player stats – not just appearances.

Of course, none of this completely answers the original question. Is the indie game industry dysfunctional and economically untenable for developers? To be honest I still don’t know. But what I’ve realized from trying to figure this out is – it’s really not something we can know for sure at this point. Either we try to put out a game that lives up to our $10 price point expectations, or we don’t. We decided to try. We’re coming for you Alexander Hamilton.  

Dev for Days

The last few weeks have been all about planning and defining the scope of development production from here on out. As I’ve touched on in previous posts, it’s quite overwhelming to continue working when you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.

And I must admit that I’ve been struggling with this planning. I think part of the problem is that I am thinking of it from a “marketing and story first” perspective. This is in large part due to the fact that this is what I know. Whereas many indie companies have the developers doing the marketing, we are trying to diversify a bit – hence my job to take the marketing and business planning burden off of Rich and Austin.

However, when it comes to the project management aspect of this job, to be honest sometimes I feel a bit inadequate because I’m trying to organize something that I don’t fully understand, especially when it comes to developer production processes. I guess this means I need to start using those communication skills that business school seemed to love so much.

Fortunately for me, Austin is good at most everything in this arena. So, I’m trying to piggyback off of his organizational suggestions to develop a good “product roadmap” for our game. What I’ve realized is that we need to be more dev-centric in planning. Everything ultimately needs to start there, because without dev, we will definitely have no game. This sounds like a simple concept, but I’ve found that it’s harder to put into practice than I initially thought. It’s really easy to slip into a weekly routine where everyone works on their piece of the project without a ton of thought as to how everything will fit into the bigger picture.

So, without further ado – I want to walk through some of our thoughts (mostly Austin’s) about how we are going to structure this dev-focused plan.

The first thing to realize is that a portion of our game will be driven by a combat engine and a smaller portion will be driven by a non-combat engine. As you may have guessed, since we are making a tank game, the combat engine is definitely the first priority. Currently, we have Richard slotted as working on the combat engine until mid-February – tracking progress through tickets on our Bitbucket account.

Austin has also prioritized these tickets with the following categories: Essential Feature, Custom Feature, Trivial Feature, RPG Feature, Weapon Feature, Level Feature and Advanced Feature. Within these feature categories, we have specific features listed out according to our Master Feature List for the game. Eventually, I will describe many of these in more depth – but I don’t want to spoil too much of the surprise yet. Suffice it to say that there are such things as Dozer Blades, EMP Weapons and hover tanks. And of course, let us not forget lasers.

We hope that this organization structure will be helpful for Rich and also help him to remain sane as the dev process really gears up. We’ve found that weekly goals are not always the best way to track dev. After all, sometimes life events happen – like that one time a few weeks ago when Rich’s lovingly crafted custom computer more or less imploded.

So, with this new system every month we are selecting 6-7 ticket items and setting those as the production goals for the month. Our September goals include several building block features such as support for pre-level tank customization and interchangeable parts that modify player stats. However, there are also some fun and easier items to give Rich a bit of a change of pace – such as the hover tanks of course!

Beyond providing Rich with a concrete schedule, monthly dev goals provide us with natural opportunities for periodic internal demos. Judging from the internal tech-demo we did earlier this summer, I think that internal demos are one of the most powerful things for team motivation. After all, what’s better than seeing your game actually come to life on the screen? As we advance further, we also plan to use these monthly releases as sources for more promotional material such as screenshots and gameplay videos. Consistent feature releases are also wonderful for me because they provide me with great blog content each month – I plan to write one post a month detailing the features that Rich added that month.

In the end, I’m sure that no matter how much we plan, things will be more difficult than expected. I’m beginning to learn that this is something of a law of nature when it comes to indie development. But, this is part of the adventure – and at least now we are not flying completely in the dark. Thanks for taking the time to investigate our project management plans – we’d love to hear from other indie devs about how they manage this process!

Forever Alone: In Defense of Single Player Games

Inspired by Part II of This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities

Work rumbles ahead this week with the arrival of Rich’s new laptop, Austin’s completion of Act I, Wu-Gene’s completion of more concept art, and my completion of more errmmm business stuff.

But for the post this week, I want to return to my reading of This Gaming Life: Adventures in Three Cities by RPS founder Jim Rossignol. You may (or may not) remember that I am writing a series of three posts reflecting on what I’ve learned as a result of reading this book. This last week, I read the second section of the book in which Rossignol travels to Seoul, South Korea.

There’s a ton in this section and if nothing else it was worth reading simply for cross-cultural informative value. From tales of Korea’s Starcraft pro-gaming circuit, to Korea’s café gaming culture, to a mildly disturbing discussion of games as propaganda, suffice it to say that I learned a lot. However, I want to focus here on one small part of the Seoul section – Rossignol’s juxtaposition of multi-player vs. single player gaming.

In my first post about This Gaming Life I reflected on some of the ways in which I find personal value in gaming and attempted to show how Rossignol’s life story inspired me in these reflections. However, in this section he complicates his initially positive vision of the value of gaming. Rossignol talks about the importance of multi-player interactivity in Korean gaming culture, noting that “what mattered in Korea was not so much the model of the game world…or even the experiences of large-scale combat…it was the fact that it needed to be played as a team that had to communicate to succeed.”

To be fair, the above quote specifically refers to his take on Korean gaming culture. However, he then goes on to broaden this statement and apply it to his own life: “Playing alone, as I discovered when I found Quake III, can only keep us occupied for so long. Games might be interesting, but they’re seldom as interesting as people.”

People are more interesting than games. This seemed like a reasonable statement to me at first, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. No, I wasn’t bothered because I think that games are actually more important than having human interaction and relationships in your life. Human relations are still more important in the grand scheme of things, probably. But, I don’t want to dodge the issue here by simply extrapolating out to broad life value judgements. Rossignol himself is very focused on looking at games for the sake of games. So, let’s look at this issue in the same light. When considering games for their own inherent value, are multi-player games ultimately more sustainable and perhaps more important as Rossignol seems to imply?

This question eats at me because after reading the first section of the book, I came away with a strong sense that games are important because they meet you where you’re at in your own stage of life and personal journey. As I touched on, I’ve certainly had valuable experiences playing games with friends, but I don’t know that these experiences were necessarily more or less valuable than the experiences I had playing on my own. I don’t want to go too far down the path of setting up Rossignol’s multi-player comment as the proverbial straw man here. After all, I’m focusing on a couple paragraphs in a section that’s over 50 pages long. Nonetheless, I feel like I must confront this question. After all, I’m putting a lot of time into making a single player game. Am I really just focusing my efforts on a lesser class of game?

As you may have guessed from my subtle build up, the answer is no. There are a couple really unique things about the single player experience that I think should be respected. For one, there is personal preference. I think much of This Gaming Life comes from a more heavily multi-player perspective, which makes sense given that Rossignol really began to make a name for himself in the gaming world via the multi-player medium of online Quake tournaments. However, I would be willing to bet that there are a lot of people out there who derive entertainment from video games primarily from the single player experience.

Beyond personal preference, I feel that single player games have something to offer on a more philosophical level. They offer you the chance to engage your mind and wrestle with a story, often dealing with a truly different set of rules than you might encounter in the real world. Granted, many game stories reflect the real world in one way or another. This is inevitable. But, it is in this selective reflection that game creators can share their messages with players and give players a chance to view life from a different perspective, even if only through the small window of a game.

Thus, there is an element of personal development in playing a single player game that I’m not sure you get with multi-player games. It could come from the story. It could come from a challenging in game physics system. It could come from beautiful graphics. The point is that when you play through, think about, and struggle with something on your own, you are forced to reach your own conclusion and figure out why you identify with certain parts of the game.

In contrast MMO’s, while fun, ultimately tend to become microcosm of human societies with a video-game skin. You might be battling a team of enemy Special Forces soldiers, questing for a long lost sword, or following Leroy Jenkins into battle. Yet ultimately, you’re often working together on a team to accomplish an objective in a rewards based incentive system not unlike the workplace or local sports team. And don’t get me wrong, teamwork skills and rewards are great. Trust me, I’ve been a business major and before that an average high school athlete; I’ve had lots of teamwork experiences. I just think that we should be careful about letting a good thing (teamwork) become the only thing that matters when it comes to our gaming choices.

Finally, perhaps even more importantly, I think single player games are important because they can be powerful mediums for creating a sense of wonder in us as players. Sometimes we just need to set aside human tactical conquest skills for one minute and be confronted with something new. At the end of the day, we need more moments that just make us ask “what if?”

Playing alone can help fulfill that need. Being alone is not inferior.

Write Til’ You Drop

Three months ago, I sat down at my desk and had a wonderful moment of rare, absolute certainty. Smiling alone, I looked over the virtual universe I had already created and thought: “I am going to write hundreds of pages worth of scripting and dialogue for a video game by myself”. At this point I should have broken into hysterical laughter, thrown everything I’d already written away, and gone back to enjoying my free time. I failed to do this. In fact, I decided to do the complete opposite.

What I am about to describe to you, my captive audience, are the consequences of this fateful decision.

The first thing you should know is that the idea of writing a full-length script for anything by yourself is already a monumental undertaking; it is the kind of project that takes aspiring writers months, if not years, to realize fully.

The second thing you should know is that when you decide you are going to create a script for a video game in particular, an extra layer of complexity is added to the writing. Unlike a movie or a TV show, game scripts do not have the luxury of proceeding upon a completely linear trajectory. Game scripts must be flexible and account for factors introduced by the player through the framework of interactivity involved in this medium.

Sometimes, accounting for the actions of a video game player in your writing is as simple as adding additional lines of dialogue to guide players past moments of uncertainty. Other times, in works with greater degrees of player agency, you must account for branching “trees” of dialogue based off what the player has chosen to say to a particular character.

Writing for a video game thus often requires that the author create more dialogue than they would otherwise need in a more traditional medium, regardless of the style of game being built.   It also requires a special level of planning from authors, who must be able to make their scripts cover all possible avenues the player might travel, without sacrificing the legibility of a traditionally linear script.

I am writing a script for a video game by myself. It offers a large degree of player agency and is not for a short or linear video game, because that is not what we are making with Armour on the Wastes.   To add grease to the fire, the script has to be completed in time for us to make our target release next summer.

Consequently, as you may imagine, the project stretching before me is just a tiny bit crazy. A little bit insane. The kind of project that could drive a man mad.

Luckily, I am nothing if not determined.   I have already made great progress thus far.   AOTW’s story possesses three acts, and after a month of work we are nearly through the first act of the storyline – in the form of a rough draft, of course.   What follows are a few observations that I have made as I have fallen irreversibly farther into the darkened well that is scriptwriting. Perhaps these observations will be of interest to you.

1. If you are creating a new universe to base your story on, it’s important to flesh your setting out before you start writing your next masterpiece. I can’t tell you how many times my “story bible” has saved me whilst writing the script for AOTW. Not only does having a detailed universe help lend your story the feel of a real place and time beyond your characters, but it also keeps your facts consistent so that you’re not making things up as you go.

2. Take on your project one step at a time if you want to stay sane. If you’re producing something long or intimidating, it helps to focus on small segments. Set a single task for the day that you can accomplish, and don’t think about the larger picture again until it’s time to go back to strategic planning – likely after you’ve finished your rough draft.   This approach is especially helpful if you’re running your project like we’re running ours; working in segments helps break paralysis if you’re only able to work on it in your free time, and if you are trying to balance your writing against other concerns such as a full time job, social life and significant other.

3. Let the characters speak for themselves. Generally speaking, railroading characters down a path they “should” go down is a bad idea. If it seems like you have to force a conversation to take a particular turn in your script, maybe you should ask yourself why that’s the case, and why the characters you’ve created aren’t naturally gravitating toward that outcome. You might even want to ask yourself why you can’t go with a different outcome entirely. Besides, some of the most rewarding parts of writing a story are when the characters take on their own personalities and become real people, rather than simple archetypes or life descriptions. You’ll miss out on that if you plan your story too rigidly.

4. When dealing with non-linearity, tackle a single linear path first. You don’t even know how these characters interact yet, so writing down multiple options for their responses is only going to muddy the waters before you’ve even started swimming. My personal advice is to start down a single linear path, as I am currently doing with AOTW’s script. Once you’ve gotten a handle on one way the story might run, from start to finish, it will be easier to come up with alternative pathways later on.

5. No matter what, put words on paper. Don’t waste time on revisions until you’ve written a complete first draft. Then go back and pick your writing apart to make it a stronger work.

Even if you’re not writing in your free time, these observations should give you some degree of understanding about how I am choosing to go about my work on this team.   Because I am the only writer on the team, it is crucial for me to make sure I deliver on my promises to my colleagues– if I don’t, nobody else will step in to fill that gap.

At the same time, being the main script writer and designer for this project is oddly freeing.   You’ve surely gathered that there is a great deal of responsibility involved, but there is also a fantastic opportunity for expression and to put something meaningful into the world.   The work of a video game writer is oddly personal and it is very much an opportunity to pour my heart and soul into something meaningful. At the end of the day, when the game is released and you have the chance to witness the events that unfold in the universe of AOTW, you’re going to see this dedication reflected back at you.

Hopefully soon — I’ll actually be able to tell you something about that universe.