Thursday, July 23, 2015

Indie Games, Refunds, Terror, and Taking “No” For an Answer

I, for one, welcome our new Washington overlords.
Two months ago, Steam, the imperial, dinosaur-sized seller of PC games online, announced that they would start offering refunds to unhappy customers. And about time, too.

We run Spiderweb Software, a small indie company who sells role-playing games to a tiny niche audience, and we could not be happier about this change. Our business has long had a policy of no-questions-asked refunds for people who bought games from us directly. Our policy is, simply, “If you aren’t happy with our game, we don’t want your money.”

So we were happy with Steam’s new policy even before we knew how much money we’d be losing. Running an ethical business means a lot to us. Of course, customers love it even more than we do.

Predictably, parts of the gaming press, ever eager to stoke controversy for easy clicks, used shaky evidence to make it seem like the refund policy was a big, objectionable thing for developers. Happily, the grumbling has died down, predictions of imminent indie destruction were groundless, and the policy looks like it’s here to stay.

On my end, our refund rate is about 5%. This is, from what I’ve heard, typical. Also, entirely acceptable. We can live with it. (Plus, refunds help to force swift, brutal justice on rushed, crappy PC ports.) 

But I don’t want to be blasé about it. For a small business, a loss of 5% of sales can sometimes be a catastrophe. Changes are scary, especially changes that cost you money.

I wanted to say a little bit about why generous refunds are not only a good idea, but a huge long-term benefit for small, fragile developers like me. And yet, at the same time, some indies are nervous about the change, and they should be.

Giving refunds does change how indies need to think about what we make and what we charge for it. I have a bunch of thoughts about that. Lucky you.

I was curious what the first Google Image Search hit for "indie game developer" would be. (Source article, which is worth reading.)
Why We Need Refunds

I can deal with this one pretty quickly. It’s something I’ve written about a lot in the past.

If you sell PC games, there are generally three ways people can get your game super-cheap: Piracy. Sales. Bundles. If your game is only acquired in these ways, you will go out of business.

To survive selling indie games, you need to convince a bunch of users to pay full price for it. You need to get them to pay more than they know they need to. This is difficult, as people like to keep their money.

The best way to get people to pay the full price is to get them to like you. To make your customers emotionally invested in your survival. This is the great weapon of the small indie: People like us. They think we’re cool. This must be preserved at all costs.

That is why, when I saw a few indies publicly complaining about this inevitable, hugely popular change, all I could think was, “What are you DOING!? Don’t you realize you’re hurting us all?”

Yet I understand. I really do see why they freaked out, and I sympathize. I’m in the same boat. Indie games are different from the big AAA product, and it’s worth asking how the change will affect us.

Indie developers tend to be afraid of two things: That customers will want refunds because the games are too short. Or, that customers will want refunds because the games are too artsy.

I totally want there to be a market for shorter works of art. Like this one, which is absolutely fantastic.
The Two Hour Barrier

Steam’s stated refund policy is that you can get one if you’ve played the game for less than two hours. This invites the question: What happens if your game is less than two hours? Games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, or Dear Esther. Won’t customers play the whole thing and then get a refund?

First, this fear shows a really dark and depressing attitude towards your customers. If you really think the people who buy your games are such monsters, why are you writing games for them in the first place?

More importantly, if your games are not providing enough entertainment for the price you are charging, do you really think denying refunds will save you? It will delay the demise of your business, sure. But if people feel ripped off buying one indie game, best of luck trying to get them to ever buy a second one.

I don’t want to entirely dismiss this problem. Suppose you really want to write 30 minute games. I think a game this short can be really cool, and, if it’s good, people will want to support you and won’t ask for refunds. I really think this will be the case, and I have not heard news of huge refund rates from authors of short games. I can be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be.

Suppose refunds do become a problem for small games. Keeping the money of unhappy customers is still not the answer. Maybe the games need to be sold in bundles. Or maybe they need to be better. Or maybe, in the end, there won’t be much room in the market for smaller games, and they will just need to be longer.

I don’t currently see a big market for 3 minute games, no matter how clever. Similarly, the markets for short films and short stories are very small. Still, there is a market, and it might get bigger.

Let me be clear. I LOVE short, artistic stories, films, and games. I WANT them to have a market and be successful. Reality being otherwise frustrates me greatly, and I wish I could change it. Alas, I only get one vote.

In the long run, whether these markets develop will be up to the customer, refunds or not. No, calling gamers scummy or bigoted or entitled will not help.

Getting angry at capitalism won’t help either. I don’t know what alternate system you want to set up, but if it’s goal is to force people to buy things they don’t want, I’m not sure many will be on board.

If you can’t summon up enough trust or affection toward game buyers to convince them to surrender cash for your product, well, hobbyist game development is an old, beloved institution. Better people than you have fallen to the brutality of the free market.

Microsoft Stress Simulator 2013
Forcing Gamers To Eat Broccoli

I feel some indie devs have this attitude: Our job is to get people to play the artistic games we think they should, instead of the fun stuff they tend to prefer. Gamers shouldn’t be allowed to fill up on cake. They should be forced to buy our broccoli.

Consider one of the most discussed and successful games of the Great Indie Peak of 2013: Papers, Please! This is a game I loved, recommended, and wrote about. It combines story and gameplay in a truly unique and fascinating way. It’s cool beans.

However, Papers, Please! is also viscerally unpleasant to play. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. It is a game about quickly and perfectly doing mindless, repetitive tasks, with swift, merciless retaliation if you fail. It’s stressful, and it’s a bummer. That’s the whole point of the game. (Which, again, I loved.)

Papers, Please! takes about 5-6 hours for a playthrough, so it’s not too short for the 2 hour refund cutoff. To get a refund, players will have to give up on experiencing the whole story. So will they?

I hope they don’t get refunds. I hope Papers, Please! continues to make lots of money, so that more games like it are written. However, I don’t think most people want their limited video game relaxation time to be stressful and unpleasant. If someone buys this game and says, “This game is making me less happy, not more. I want my money back,” I don’t see how we can reasonably refuse.

A terrific sci-fi movie, AND it stars Scarlett Johansson? Who wouldn't go see that? (Answer: Everybody.)
Err In the Direction of Respect

I love indie games, and I love obscure foreign art films. I really wish I could share underwatched classics like Mr. Turner or Under the Skin with you. I just can’t force you.

Music, films, books, all have indie presses that sell obscure products for niche tastes. This is awesome. They are just smaller. They make less money. Someday, it might (will) be impossible to get rich writing artsy indie games. Following your dreams and making fulfilling work will have to be a large part of the reward. I’m in the same boat.

I say all this as someone who has skin in this game too. I write super-low-budget, old-school, turn-based, text-heavy RPGs. My product is more niche than any of the games listed above. I know every new game I release might be the one where gamers finally tire of what I sell.

It terrifies me, but I can take comfort in the way my fans want me to stay in business. They know they will be treated fairly when they buy my games, which makes them like me more.

And that, in the end, is how refunds help me to stay in business. Refunds are right ethically, and they’re good business. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Age, Pleasing Apple, and Trying To Climb Out of the Hole.

I still think these are pretty funny.
I haven't done much blogging for a long time. Part of it is that I don't feel I have much advice to give. The business has changed an awful lot in a last few years, and I'm still mired in the old ways. I'll let the elder statesman mantle pass to those who actually know things about our amazing modern cyberworld.

But there is another reason I haven't been writing. I have been suffering from a massive period of exhaustion, triggered by an ugly combination of age and medication. That, perhaps, is something I can write about usefully.

For a variety of reasons, game industry workers tend to be young. Little gets said about the grim business of growing old in this industry.

(Younger people have now tuned me out. Don't worry. It's fine. You will live forever.)

This is a tale about my age and health, how they helped me make the biggest screw-up in my career, and how I am trying to climb out of the hole.

A Few Practical Comments About Middle-Age

Young people have a notorious disinterest in hearing what things are like when you grow older. Old people are smug and boring and smell weird. Since this is meant to be a practical guide for a long haul in game development, I will be as brief as possible.

I am 45, and my health is getting worse.

Generally, when I tell younger people that, I get a reaction like, "Oh God, no, HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE LEFT!?" But it's not like that. I'm not dying. At least, not imminently.

But middle age is usually when the long, inevitable decay of your body starts to make itself known. It's when you think, "My chest hurts. I might be having a heart attack," and then immediately think, "Oh, crap. I’m old. It really MIGHT be a heart attack."

(Of course, some young people have poor health, and some lucky people stay healthy into old age. I include this disclaimer for the tiresome folks who get most of their fun from being angry and pedantic in the comments.)

When you reach middle age, your body starts to grumble and slowly break down.  A combination of lost dreams and dying loved ones tends to make your mind a bit of a mess too.

Annoying people always say, "You're only as old as you feel." Well, I feel old.

Do you know him in real life? Then you don't know anything about him.
"Dude, You Are a Whiny Bummer."

I really don't mean to be. Just laying out the facts. It's not all bad. There are good things about growing older, too. I‘m not whining about it. It happens to everyone.

What I am saying, and this is important when understanding creative types, is that something always goes wrong with your health (mental and/or physical) at some point. When this happens, the fractures will deform your work.

Almost everyone makes fun of George R.R. Martin for not making good time on the Game of Thrones books. But, dude, the guy is 66 years old. I'm not going to pretend I know what's going on in his life, but I can think of 10000 things that could be keeping him from writing. I'm not happy that the Game of Thrones books come out so slowly, but I know that these things happen.

I'm 20 years younger than he is, and yet, I recently had a long stretch of problems. I won't bore you with the blah blah details, but they left me on a collection of medicines that left me completely exhausted for long stretches of time.

This led me directly to the biggest professional screw-up of my career.

Falling Into a Hole

I release my games for the iPad. I think tablets are really cool and fun to play with, and I love putting out games for the platform. However, it's not a big moneymaker for us. The market is so super-competitive that we can't compete.

So, early this year, we ported our newest game, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, to the iPad. It went through testing and we were ready to ship it. It was good to go.

Three days before release, Apple put out a new version of iOS, the iPad operating system. If I was a responsible, together developer, who was fully focused on selling his customers quality products, I would have tested the game on the new OS. But I was too tired.

Had I done so, I would have found that the new OS completely broke the game.

There are more details of the story in an interview I gave here. Basically, the engine I used was old and did things in some outdated ways. The new iOS update was the one that finally broke the engine.

Instead of canceling the release and fixing the problems, I thoughtlessly shipped the game. Then, finding it was broken, I canceled the release, removed the game from sale, and handed out refunds.

Then I tried to fix the problem, but this involved learning a lot about programming iPads. At that point, my fatigue was so bad that my limbs hurt. I didn't have the energy for a real burst of research and programming. So I gave up.

My advice: If you're going to make yourself look like an idiot, do it LOUDLY.
I Do Not Want Pity

Don't feel sorry for me. My point is, at some point, EVERYONE gets sick. You will, too. When it happens, all of your careful plans fall apart, and you need to put them back together in a new (probably smaller) shape.

After I canceled all of our iPad stuff, I lost several days to depression and self-pity. It was the first time, in a long, solid career, I'd said, "I have to stop doing stuff I was doing because I just suck now." Declining ability is something everyone faces at some point, but it is still hard to face.

I decided to go to the doctor. As much as I needed the medicines I was taking for my health whatevers, I needed work and self-respect more.

I spent time playing with my medication and dealing with various complications. And, eventually, my energy came back. That was two weeks ago.

Climbing Out of the Hole

The first thing I did when I could do things again is begin a massive assault on the design of our next game, Avadon 3, to finally fix the problems that have been in the Avadon games from the start. (I wanted to fix them for Avadon 2, but I was tired. Exhaustion forced me to spend over two years writing that game even in its flawed state.)

Once I convinced myself I could do things again, I went back to fighting with the iPad. I had to. Not for money or PR, but for simple pride and self-confidence. I don't want to have to run in fear from challenges yet.

I needed to rewrite my old engine (happily, it came with source code), which means that I had to learn how to program iPads. Keeping from having to learn iPad programming is why I licensed an engine in the first place.

This is the sort of challenge where being old and having lots of experience helps. Getting older is not all bad news.

In the 30+ years I've been programming, I long ago lost track of the number of foreign languages and systems I've learned to develop for. You get better at it. You learn to avoid the easy mistakes and not create the tricky bugs. You get better at finding answers to tough problems. When I am capable of doing what I do, I'm better at it than I've ever been.

And I did it. It took days of basically constant, family-neglecting work, but I have a working engine and a working game again. I still need to do some planning and testing, and it's pretty humiliating to go back on my word. But being an indie developer means that you get to look stupid to the world occasionally.

Game developer ages, as of 2014. Thank God that, when you turn 50, you don't need to eat anymore.
A Few More Words About Age

Writing a public article about one's bad health is a really good way to make it harder to get jobs in the future. Who wants to hire a sickie?

But ha ha! The joke's on you! I'm already unemployable in games!

Take a look at this chart. Game devs in their forties? 16% In their fifties? 1%

One. Percent. What the hell. Video games are a young art form, but they're not THAT young.

This is a topic I want to write more about, but no discussion about age and writing games would be complete without at least mentioning it.

Want to talk about lack of diversity in the games industry? I'm with you. However, if you don't mention the total lack of old people, that's how I know you're not serious.

If you struggle to get more women, non-whites, etc. into the industry, only to find they all fall back out when they start turning 40, I promise that your victory will turn to ashes in your mouth.

So It's Kind of a Happy Ending.

I thought I couldn't do a thing anymore. I announced it. Then I found I could do it again. Then I announced it, making me look stupid. Now I think I'll be able to ship the game after all, and be proud of it. It should be a happy ending.

Sort of. It has forced me to really think about how my business, my life's work, will end. A series of contractions and abandoned projects, each step accompanied by a cloud of apologies and refunds. Unfortunate and inevitable, but it can be handled ethically and with grace.

If nothing else, this failed release has made me a lot more forgiving of older creators when they fail. Of course, if someone is actively ripping their customers off, that's a problem. But a late Kickstarter? A slow book? I can show some patience and empathy. Qualities the internet could use a lot more of.

If there is anything hopeful I can come up with, it's this: The people who make the games you love? They are human too. They will age. They will falter. Be tolerant. Be supportive. Forgive them.

You will get old too, and you will understand. When that happens, don't have to look back and think, "Wow. I was a jerk."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls Is Out. Some Cranky Thoughts.

The II in this logo is hard to see, and it drives me nuts every time I look at it.
We have just released our newest game. It's Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It is a huge indie RPG for Windows and Mac (iPad coming soon), on Steam, GoG.com, Humble Store, and our own website. You know. All the places the cool kids hang out. 

It came out yesterday and early sales are very strong. Thank you, kind customers!

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is, like half of what we do, a rewrite. This particular story is arguably the one loved most by our fans. (Avernum 3 is the other contender) The previous incarnation, Avernum 2, came out way, WAY back in 2000, so I am utterly unapologetic about releasing a rewrite.

My main goals when doing these rewrites is to respect and maintain what made people love them in the first place. This is made so much more important by the fact that I can't write new games like this anymore.

Cool Things About Avernum 2

The first two Avernum games have a story structure that is still unique in RPGs. There isn't one storyline. There's three, each of which has its own goal, missions, final boss, etc. You can play one of them and have a satisfying game experience, or you can be hardcore and do more.

It's a huge game, and I wanted people to be able to play a smaller chunk of it and still feel that they got somewhere. I think there's a good idea in there, and other developers should steal it.

Also, the game takes place in Avernum, a subterranean nation full of exiles, petty criminals, and weird, alien races. It's like Australia, but with even more monsters. Or like the proverbial parents' basement, but a country. It's a really cool setting, one that has resonated with players for over twenty years. I still love it.

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is a rewrite of Avernum 2, which came our in 2000 and looks like this. 
Nobody Wants an Aging Rock Star To Play the New Stuff
If you go see the Rolling Stones in concert, you don't want to hear their new stuff. Yuck. Boring! You want to hear the old hits, written when they were young and energetic and crazy and fresh.

My old games are kind of the same. As I rework them, I can't get over how weird and quirky and energetic and chaotic the stuff I did when I was young was. My games were full of rough edges, joyfully overpowered spells, and the sort of concentrated oddness I have a harder time generating as I get old and boring.

Rewriting them, I've tried to make it a bit more user-friendly with modern tweaks like quest lists and tooltips. Yet, I mostly spend my time being jealous of how silly and loose I could be when I was young. 

When I wrote the Avernum trilogy for the first time (when they were called Exile), I just threw everything in there I could think of, and, thanks to a weird alchemy of skill and dumb luck, it worked. People loved the games, and I got a career out of it.

Avernum 2 was a rewrite of Exile 2: Crystal Souls, which came out in 1996 and looks like this. Some people seriously tell me that my games haven't changed at all since I started. Oh, you silly internet! 
You Still Have To Make New Stuff, Or You Go Insane

Don't get me wrong. I am proud of my newer games. They don't sell as well, but they do have a following. I don't hallucinate the fan mail.

I still need to keep doing the rewrites. They make good money. People like them. The old games don't run well (or at all) anymore. I get tablet versions out of the deal. So I'm going to keep doing it. When people complain about rewrites, it just means they've failed to fully acknowledge how awesome I am.

And I still need to write new games, with new systems and interfaces and stories, or I will simply go insane. If you like my old stuff better, I won't take offense. Different people like different things.

But More About Avernum 2: Crystal Souls

It's a really big game. The story and setting are cool. It's retro and oldschool, but with a modern interface to keep it fun. There's a big demo on our website, if you aren't sure. Take a look!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Storytelling, Critical Nitpickery, and the Dragon Age

In every Dragon Age, I make a modestly dressed redhead mage, name her Wizbian, and spend the whole game hitting on every woman I meet. I am a man of simple pleasures.
I have long been vocal about my love for the Dragon Age series, so, of course, I can't let Dragon Age: Inquisition (DA:I) pass without going on about it a lot. I've only played through the main storyline once, but, since that's like 800 hours of play, I've been at it long enough to have some opinions.

I'm also writing this to try to draw eyeballs towards my new RPG, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. Pushing my own game by saying nice things about someone else's is probably a bad idea, but I've always been terrible at marketing.

I really do love the game. (Some people have accused me of trying to get a job at Bioware for saying things like that, which is not true and kind of weird. But whatever.) It does well all the things Dragon Age should do well. It does a lot better at things it's done poorly in the past. It's huge and a hoot.

I estimate that you, the reader, have a 50% chance of being angry at me now.

Why Look For Facts When We Have Metacritic?

A fun exercise for any video game is to go to Metacritic and compare what the critics think of a game to what the players think. There is usually a big difference, and DA:I is no exception. Critical response is ecstatic. Player response if 50/50 for and against.

Again, I love these games, but I this may put me in the minority. A lot of people are really hating DA:I, and, reading their comments, I see why. Many don't like the story. Others don't like the gameplay. I don't agree, but I can see why reasonable people feel the way they do.

I think the problem DA:I faces is a simple one: The more things you try to do, the higher the chance something you did will fail for someone. And, for many people, if a single element of a game fails them, they won't like it.

More on that in a second. First ...

A Catch-Up For People Who've Never Played the Series

The Dragon Age games take place in a huge, complex setting, full of tons of races, factions, political squabbles, and the other ingredients from which juicy dark fantasy is made. They also have combat, spells, skill trees, and other RPG junk, but their main feature is complex and epic branching stories you can really sink your teeth into.

To get an idea, Kotaku put up a fantastic background for the world. If you are interested in these games, it's a great (if daunting) read.

I can't believe the courage it takes to make a AAA game that makes so many demands on the attention of the player. It's meaty stuff, and the ethical quandaries the game gives you are frequent and tough.

This is not Diablo. The combat is pretty good, but the story is the main feature. If you don't have patience for a lot of talkin', there are better gaming options for you. If you do get-off on that epic fantasy storytelling, though, no series does it better. #shotsfired

If you're new to the series, I strongly recommend playing Dragon Age: Origins, which is one of my all-time favorite games. It strikes a great balance between carnage and diplomacy, and the section near the end where you negotiate with different parties to help select a new king is one of my favorite segments in any RPG.

Dragon Age 2 is a trickier case. It's a deeply flawed game that suffered greatly from a lack of budget and development time. However, the storytelling is very good, and the events of that game lead directly into DA:I's story. A lot of people hate DA2, but I enjoyed it a lot despite all its flaws.

Oh, Sera. The love between us was never to be. Because you are psychotically violent and crazy.

The Perils of Storytelling

I can see why so much of AAA game development has given up on intricate storytelling. You can't win. There are three ways you can fail putting a lot of story in a game.

First, a lot of players don't want story at all. TL;DR, dude!

Second, even if a player wants a story, that player might not care for that particular story. No matter how good a book is, some people just won't like it.

Third, even if your story is good and people like it, then critics will start to treat the actual gameplay as unworthy and unnecessary. The gameplay is just considered some ungainly tumor on the game, wasting everyone's time, no matter how fun it is. I've seen this happen a lot with discussions of The Last of Us, even though I think that game's actual gameplay is really tight and fun.

So yeah, storytelling in video games is a big risk. It's remarkable to see a AAA
game dig into it as much as DA:I. So, to make up for the risk, the budgets need to be lower. In other words ...

YES. THE HAIR IS BAD. GET OVER IT.

My guess was that DA:I had a limited budget to work with, and it shows in certain ways. The most common complaint I've heard is that the hair in DA:I doesn't look good, and, yeah, they're right. Hair in the Dragon Age always looks like a little plastic helmet. But programming hair is expensive, man. It takes a lot of time to get it right.

Games like DA:I (single-player, story-heavy) will always be kind of a niche product. I think that if you want games like it, you need to be a little forgiving. Games like Destiny have much wider appeal and can thus afford all the shiny polish. RPGs, on the other hand? These need a tiny break.
Beloved characters from the first game return. The ways they have been changed by the passing 10 years were, I thought, very well-written.
Fear the Hinterlands

The zones in DA:I are huge. The outdoors isn't as sprawling and insane as Skyrim, but there is that kind of feel. Every corner of the world is crammed with collectibles, tiny side quests, shards to collect, goblins to pester, and just general crap to do.

The Hinterlands is the first open zone you are given to roam through. And that is why, amusingly, pretty much every tip sheet on DA:I I've read has started with the advice, "Get out of the Hinterlands as soon as possible."

A lot of people interpret this to mean that the game is full of long, dry stretches, which is unfortunate. The Hinterlands are a lot of fun.

Instead, what this advice means is: "If you are the sort of obsessive who has to get every possible collectible, Dragon Age: Inquisition will take a hammer and crack your head right open."

The Hinterlands has more content and goodies than 95% of indie games, but, if you stay in it too long, you get less storytelling and world-building. And, as I said, storytelling and world-building is Dragon Age's #1 feature.

The zones are all full of stuff like, "Find these three pylons to locate 12 shards. Then peer through the 12 shards to locate 112 power grapes. Then eat the 112 power grapes to gain the Third Sight and be able to see the 853 energy pebbles. Then use the 853 energy pebbles to build a ..." And so on.

Somehow, people have convinced themselves that having too many choices and things to do is a problem. (Of course, this is the same world in which some critics don't think we should use the word "fun" when talking about GAMES. Oh, the Internet.)

So Why Are We Mad At More Content Again?

I have seen actual serious critical complaints that DA:I lards on too many trinkets and side business and stuff to do. This just amazes me. I have a whole post worth of stuff to say on this, but this is already too long, so I'll cut to the chase:

It is RIDICULOUS to think that every section of every huge game has to appeal to every gamer. Think a quest is boring? Picking herbs if boring? Hunting shards is boring? DO. NOT. DO. IT.

DA:I is a really well balanced game difficulty-wise. You can skip all of that extra junk and still be strong enough to win at the end of the game. So relax. Just have fun, man.

Sixty hours played. Ten of them in the face-maker.
Yay! Another Social Justice Argument! Everyone Get Mad!

As anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to the gaming press knows, there's been a roiling debate about depictions in video games of gender, sexuality, race, and all assorted identity categories.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty much a shopping list of almost every social justice wish list item you could hope for. Female player option? Check. Gay characters and same-sex romances? Check. Trans character? Check. (!) Bechdel Test? Hell, if you roll a female character, you can easily be 20 minutes into the game before you hear a male character say a line. More if you spend a lot of time looking for Elfroot.

And yet, DAL:I as much of a hardcore gamery game as the gameriest gamer could want, and while applause is not unanimous, gamers are giving the thing a fair chance. Which has a message for both sides. For gamers: It is possible to have a big, fun gamer game with a more social justice viewpoint. For activists: Gamers are not evil, mindless orcs. We'll happily play games from all sorts of political points of view as long as they are fun.

I was actually really interested in what critics would say about the game. It has been hearteningly positive, including Game of the Year award from both Polygon and The Escapist. The romance options had something to anger all ends of the political spectrum (Sorry, India.), but people are always angry.

Whatevs. I thought the response to DA:I was pretty fair and even-handed overall. Calm even-handedness is pretty rare on the net these days, so I'll take what I can get when I can get it.

Extra Advice For Players

If you want to know a badass, broken skill tree in advance, I'll tell you now. Play a mage and go knight enchanter. They give you a light saber. A freakin' LIGHT SABER.

Accept everyone into the Inquisition you can. Talk to your characters frequently. There's a lot of really good writing in there.

Go into Settings and turn off drawing helmets. Makes conversations much more pleasant.

The best loot is dropped by bosses and mini-bosses. Closing rifts and collecting shards will generate power, but only the meatier quests will gear up your group.

A Few Dry Design Comments, Which Are Boring and Can Be Skipped

1. DA:I is still pretty buggy. It won't break your game, but it'll irritate you. Not as bad as Dragon Age 2 was, but still. Be warned.

2. There have been complaints that the number of romance options for heterosexual males is really limited. Let me go out on a limb and say this criticism has a point. There are two choices for straight men. That, in itself, isn't the problem. The problem is that these two characters (Cassandra and Josephine) are very controlled and responsible. There isn't enough difference between them.

To fully get into the adolescent wish-fulfillment of these games, everyone needs to have a wild, crazy romance option. My worthless, 20-20 hindsight opinion is that players would be happier if Josephine was a lesbian and Sera was bisexual, instead of the other way around.

3. For me, the most interesting section in the game was the Hissing Wastes. By most metrics, it's a terrible zone.

It's really late in the game, and a clear case of the "We're out of time and money!" had set in. It's huge, but barren. It's flat, where it's not full of confusing mountain paths. It's empty. It's dark. It's ugly. But the design doc said the creators still had a zone to fill, so they did it.

And they did something terrific. They took the limited resources they had and made something cool. The whole zone is one huge puzzle. Basically, you have to find six tombs. You have six extremely crude drawings you need to interpret to find them. There is a trick to it. It's subtle, but, if you interpret the drawings correctly, you will know exactly where to go in this giant wasteland to find what you need.

So I hated the zone, and yet I spent a ton of time there and had a lot of fun. Designers take note. This is one of the best cases of making a lot with limited materials I've ever seen.

4. The crafting system in this game is elaborate and, amazingly, sometimes useful. However, my gut tells me it'd work better if both the number of materials in the wilderness and the number of materials you needed to make items were both halved. You'd have to do the same amount of wandering but less time picking. This would do a lot to remove the busywork feeling people get from the game.

There. I think that's what I have to say about Dragon Age. I'll see y'all again when we argue about Dragon Age 4: Hair Helmets of the Tevinter.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How You're Going To Price Your Computer Game.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume you want lots of money. (Image stolen from here.)
Yes, it's time for another post about setting a price for a game. It's lame that I'm writing more on this, but things are really in flux in the game biz and a lot of people (developers and consumers) seem to be confused about how things work now. Here's my up-to-date take on it. I'll try to make it funny so it's less boring.

This is mainly about indie games, but, honestly, AAA games are in the same boat. The time scales and initial price are both bigger, but the pattern is the same.

So suppose you're a small developer and you wrote a game and you want to make lots of money off it. In 2010, it'd be easy. Get onto Steam, price it at $10, and buy a house made out of yachts.

Sadly, getting a time machine is not a viable option because physics. You'll need to do marketing and come up with a price for your game. Since my hot new indie RPG Avernum 2: Crystal Souls comes out soon, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The pricing part, as thinking about marketing makes me break out in fear hives.

How Much Should My Game Cost?

Do it like the pros. Flip a coin. If it's heads, $15. If tails, $20. Done!

Ha ha. I'm just kidding. (I'm not kidding.) Right now the sweet sustainable-business price for indie games looks like $15-20. This range is cheap enough to feel affordable and high enough that you can make a living. As for which one you pick, look at your competitors, and do what they already did.

Granted, some rough riders want to send out their game at $10. This is still feasible, but with one warning: Look at your game and ask, "Can I honestly ask $15 for this?" If the answer is no, you need to look at your work REALLY hard. Figure out if you've made a quality product that brings something distinctive to the marketplace that a competitor can't easily clone. Be ready for a long, sleepless night.

(Obviously, I’m mostly focusing on personal computer games here. Pricing for mobile is an entirely different topic that has been extensively written about elsewhere.)

One more caveat, which is entirely my own opinion. If your game costs more than $10 per hour of gameplay, please reconsider your price. Not for your sake, but for those who write indie games after you. Charging $20 for your elegant 90 minute art piece might trick people into buying their first indie game, but it hurts the chances of their ever buying a second one.

Hokay. You have a number. Now ship your game! Isn't this exciting?

In Stage 1, this is how you see your game.
Stage One. "Will everyone please help me stay in business?"

The first couple months that your game is out, it'll always be at or near full price. A 20% off sale the first week can do really well to goose sales and bring in the undecided, but, otherwise, stick to your guns. Demand money.

The first month or so your game is out is key. It's the time when your game is most visible and people who are really jazzed about it will pay full price. This is why developers go so insane with worry about proper release press, Steam placement, and everything going perfectly.

Here is a very important rule of thumb:
The people who love your work enough to buy it right away at full price will provide you with most of the money that keeps you in business. So you need them.
I can't stress this enough. I've had disagreements with my fans, but I am infinitely grateful to them for rushing in and paying full price. It keeps us making games. Period.

Hard question time again. Are there people out there who'll care enough about your product to buy it right away for full price? If you aren't sure, you may have a rough road ahead of you. Bundles are nice, but you won't make your living off of them.

Anyway, if things go accordingly to plan, you'll get a ton of sales the first week/month and be thrilled and optimistic and float on rainbows. Then, a month or so in, your sales will fall off a cliff. Don't worry. It's nature's way. Just don't let it surprise you or send you into a depression spiral. It's just life.

(It will surprise you and send you into a depression spiral. No mental preparation is adequate to protect you when you see that sales chart line slam downward.)

Give it a few more months for the diehards to trickle in and pay the full ticket. You'll need that money. Then, eventually, sales will be slow, you'll be three months into the long tail, and it'll almost be time for your first Steam sale.

It's time for Stage two.

In Stage 2, this is how you see your game.

Stage Two: "Will you take 25% off? How about 50%? We're pricing to move!"

Once a few months have passed and sales have trickled off, there is no longer anything to gain from always keeping your prices high. It's time to take advantage of Steam and other sales.

(Oh, you are on Steam right? At this point, if you aren't there, you have real problems. Get on it. The standards are way looser than they used to be. Put your game in Greenlight and get your Great Aunt Millie to vote for you.)

You're going to want to have sales. The key for the sales period is to take it slow. For the first sale, 25%. When the next sale comes along in a few months, 50%. And so on. (On Steam, you can also beg a super high discount to get a Flash Sale. Be aggressive for this. Being promoted by Steam makes the big bucks.)

Putting your special little game on sale can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Everyone wants to protect their baby. However, by this time in the process, I'm usually entirely sick of seeing my baby and don't mind tormenting it a little. Try to cultivate an emotional environment of cold brutality.

This process will go on forever, and you have a lot of freedom. You can be 50% off one sale and then 75% the next. Nobody will notice. You have room for some trial and error to find out what makes the most money.

But at a certain point, your work will be old and musty enough that even sales won't make a ton. It's just too buried in the game stores, and too many of its target audience will own it.

Then it's time for the deep discounts. The bundles. The hard sell. Or, to put it another way ...

In Stage 3, this is how you see your game.

Stage Three: "LET'S STRIP MINE THIS BAD BOY!!!!!"

A quality game can continue to generate income for a surprisingly long time. And why shouldn't it? If it's fun, it never stops being fun. However, at a certain point, your game will make the transition from "My darling baby that must be loved and cherished." to "An aging asset that must have its value ruthlessly extracted."

That's where the bundles (Humble Bundle, Indie Royale, Groupees, etc) come in.

Putting a game in a bundle in its first year is a mistake. You'll irritate people who paid a high price, and you’ll lose opportunities to sell the thing at a higher cost.

Once it's been out a year, things are different. Then your game is old news, and you're probably more focused on pushing your next title. In this case, bundling is terrific. It brings in more packets of money. It serves as a demo, bringing you a lot of attention which helps you sell your next game. And, surprisingly, past experience has shown that being in a bundle doesn't do a lot of damage to ordinary sales.

Actually, this isn't that much of a surprise. For even the best known indie, the population of gamers who have never heard of you will always be huge. Anything that gives you a bump in visibility will expand the fan base you need to continue as a business. Being in a bundle is perfect for this.

Sadly, bundles don't make as much as they used to. Humble Bundle still does well, but the million other bundles rarely generate much cash. It's another way in which the glory days are gone. Bundling does still increase your visibility, though. So it's still a good idea. Think of it as getting to charge for your demo.

Most people don't play games they get in bundles anyway. They're too busy trying the titles they got ten bundles before.

And Then It Goes On Forever

Since the Indie Bubble popped, getting a small game company to profitability has become far more difficult. In this super-competitive environment, it's tough to build a loyal fan base willing to pay full price. You need a really good title that earns a lot of visibility.

However, once you are making a living, it appears to be easier to stay in business. Thanks to sales, bundles, and the ever-ubiquitous Steam, a good game can continue earning for a lot longer than you might think. And that's even before you start porting it to new platforms, releasing Deluxe Editions, DLC, rewriting it as a Remastered edition, etc.

The Game Industry is changing really fast. I hope all this keeps you up. I'll probably write a new version of this article in six months, when Steam invents a way to beam games directly into your brain.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Are Addictive Free-To-Play Games Ethical? Let's Fight!

Come with me now, as we stare unflinchingly into the face of Ultimate Evil.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post defending Big Free-To-Play. You know, the evil, soulless big money mobile game makers us indies are supposed to totally hate and stuff. Because finally managing to turn your mom into a serious gamer was SO BAD.

My piece received rebuttals that were worth addressing, and I want to do a little of that now, because I have a new game coming out soon, and I could use the clicks. So.

Objection 1:

Most free-to-play game profits come from a handful of compulsive whales who spend a ton of money. These games use a wide variety of psychological trickery to force players into being addicted and spending outlandishly. This is unethical.

The first two sentences of the previous paragraph are unquestionably true. The big question is the third sentence. Are these games unethical?

And trust me, the techniques these games use can get really shady. For example, a game might offer you the chance to spend money to win a tough level. If you do this, you may well find that the price to do it goes UP. Once the game identifies you as an easy mark, it will start milking you for cash.

Is this sort of thing morally wrong? If you answered quickly, you might want to rethink it. It's a hard choice. A gray area. Internet debates tend to deal really super badly with issues with gray areas, but we might as well dig in a little. Indies developers tend to want to see themselves as moral people, so the question is how we feel comfortable getting money away from people is an important one.

"Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err and even to sin." - Mahatma Gandhi. So you see? I'm right and you're wrong.
A Relevant and Instructive True Story

We used to handle all of my company's sales ourselves. We could charge credit cards, and people would call us to talk on the phone to an Actual Person. Yeah, it was a total pain.

Every so often, we'd get a person who just had bad credit. They'd give us a credit card number. It would be rejected because they were at their limit. They'd give another. At their limit. Again and again, until they finally found a credit card that they could squeeze another $25 credit out of to buy our game.

Whenever this happened, we'd think, "Dude, you are in a lot of debt. You're in trouble. We don't know what you need, but it's not our game."

We could have refused the order from Mister Way-In-Debt. Or, we could have given the game away for free.

We never did either. We took the money.

So you tell me. Was that the right thing to do?

Doesn't the mere presence of this image make my arguments feel more right? (Yes. Yes, it does.)

And Who Cares?

Every so often, someone will think, based on my work and writing, they can nail down my political views with a simple label. This always makes me laugh a little. My political views are a dog's breakfast of points of view from all over the spectrum, shaped by a lifetime of experience. Much like yours.

(The United States is in a situation where it seems like each half of the population thinks that the other half are idiots and jerks and their beliefs are utterly wrong and indefensible. Which would mean that 100% of us are wrong.)

One of my points of view is that we must always place great value on personal responsibility. If person A wants to sell something at a given price and person B (freely and without coercion) wants to buy it at that price and the exchange does no clear, measurable harm to any person C, then that exchange is fine. It should be allowed, and any busybody D who has an opinion about it should probably go bother someone else.

This is a really rough philosophical position to take. Is running a casino ethical? Is the state selling lottery tickets ethical? Is selling meth ethical? Is selling tobacco ethical? (My personal answers: No. NO. No. Just barely yes. Though I might change my mind tomorrow.)

And, even if these four things are not ethical, should they be prevented? Because preventing them has a cost: Infringing on the freedom of the people involved to do what they want with their limited time on this Earth.

If I refused to sell a game to Mister Way-In-Debt, I am taking away his freedom. If I give him the game for free, that infringes on my freedom to make a living and buy little trinkets like food and shelter.

And who knows? Maybe selling the game to Mister Way-In-Debt helped him. The $25 price isn't crippling, and our games are huge. They might have kept him out of trouble for 40 hours. Or gave him a few moments of peace from his quite possibly considerable troubles.

The point is that you shouldn't judge. I shouldn't judge. Mister Way-In-Debt is a free person. That freedom is of far bigger importance than the game, or the debt, or your opinion.

This is even true for entertainment products. Remember, I come from a country where the right to "pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the second sentence of our founding document.

"The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities. But even the strongest, most free individual cannot find the proper mana cost for Starving Buzzard." - Ayn Rand
Whoah! This Is Getting Heavy!

I know, right? That's what happens when you start tossing around trivial little words like "right" and "wrong".

So Answer the Question. Are These Games Right or Wrong?

I don't know. I change my mind about it every other day.

Look, the facts are that these games are almost entirely subsidized by taking the brains of some compulsive, addiction-prone "whales" and cracking them wide open. They spend literally ridiculous amounts of money, and the rest of us get games for free. And yes, this makes me feel icky.

But if I went out of business and had to look for work and the only job open to me was working on a game like that? I'd probably take the gig. I wouldn't feel super-awesome about it, but I don't think it's so objectionable that I'd starve for the principle.

Ethics can be muddy ground. Even on the Internet.

"Here I go with the timid little woodland creature bit again. It's shameful, but ... Ehhh, it's a living." - Bugs Bunny

Gee, Jeff. Thanks For the Wisdom. Would You Like To Close This Out By Getting REALLY Pretentious?

If you don't mind.

I AM SO OUT OF HERE.

Oh, hang on just a second. I'm going to get all bedrock ethical ethos with you.

I don't think it's safe to drink alcohol, or smoke, or gamble, or become a stuntman, or climb Mount Everest, or blog on social justice issues, or do drift racing, or ride horses, or fight in The Octagon. But I have to respect your freedom to do those things, as long as the only person harmed is you. Which means I have to allow people to provide the ability to do these things, because forbidding them would infringe on your freedom to have them.

This isn't kooky libertarianism. This is a fundamental principle of my country.

So think what you want. Say what you want. Try to direct compulsive spenders to more reasonable alternatives. (I think it's bonkers for anyone to spend a ton on Candy Crush when so much cheaper equivalents are available.) And that, I'm afraid, is the end of the issue. If you, with the pure power of prudence and rationality on your side, can't convince the lost to play a different game, maybe your viewpoint wasn't as indestructibly self-evident as you thought.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On New Games, Rewrites, and the Pain of Higher Prices.

Fourteen years without an update is long enough.
We have finally announced our next new game. It's Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It's a complete, ground-up rewrite of Avernum 2, which came out in 2000. It, in turn, was a rewrite of Exile 2: Crystal Souls, which came out in 1996. We at Spiderweb Software are about nothing if not integrity.

You can see a trailer and other info here. Avernum 2 is probably tied with Avernum 3 for our most beloved game, and I know a lot of fans are looking forward to a reboot. Now with better design (I hope), a better interface and graphics (in my opinion), and the ability to run on tablets (yay).

We don't half-ass our rewrites. This one is taking a full year. New material, new quests, a new dungeon, more dialogue, actual boss fights. You might not like our work, but you can't fairly say we're not trying.

But enough self-promotion. I've said a lot of overly self-assured stuff over the last few months about the state of the indie games biz. Now that I'm having to actually make hard choices and release games, I wanted to talk a little about how I'm adjusting to the New Game Reality.

Sometimes, you don't need a full 140 characters to drop the truth bombz.

We're Raising Our Prices.

I thought this tweet covered it perfectly.

I have said for years that indie developers have to be careful not to charge too little for our products. Most of us tend to the needs of small, niche audiences, and we have to make sure to set a price for our specialty products that enables us to stay in business. For a long time, our new RPGs were $20.

But then something happened I would never have predicted: The Indie Bubble. Almost overnight, there was a massive increase in demand for games like mine, and there weren't many good titles. All of a sudden, my games were getting the sort of placement on places like Steam we could never get in a normal environment.

So we reacted accordingly. We lowered our prices on Steam and similar services to $10, a price low enough to motivate people who stumbled on us on the front page of Steam to give us a try. Tons of people were seeing us for the first time, and we tried to take advantage.

Things have gotten back to normal. We are back to getting a modest amount of visibility and press, and most of our sales are from fans and members of our particular niche. Our last game, Avadon 2: The Corruption, sold a reasonable number of copies, but the $10 price didn't generate enough revenue to make writing the game worthwhile. We can’t run a sustainable business on $10 games.

So we're going back to the old days. Our new games, going forward, are back to being $20. We have to count on existing fans and retro RPG gamers to provide enough sales to stay in business.

It's terrifying. What if our audience isn't there anymore? What if there is now too much competition? What if my games just can't cut it anymore?

It's scary, but it's been scary since we started out in 1994. We've had times when we flirted with going out of business, and I'm sure we will in the future. But the days of universally cheap indies are over. A lot of small devs are raising their prices, and I'm one of them.

And look at the bright side: All of our games will be cheap eventually. Steam sales still exist, and we'll still put our older games out there with steep discounts. It'll just mean you'll have a longer wait until they are two bucks on Steam or show up in bundles.

One Implication Of This

I have always believed that if you're going to charge $20 for a game you have to have a demo. Ten dollars is cheap enough that you can get away with it. However, if you're going to charge $20 for a game you can't get a refund for, I feel you are ethically required to give a gamer a way to check it out and make sure it'll run on their machine.

Of course, we never stopped making big, meaty demos available on our web site. And we never will.

TL;DR version: This is how you should picture me.

Rewrites. Remasters. Remakes.

Indie game developers seem to be having a real Sophomore Slump problem. When I look at developers who had a hit, I'm not seeing a lot of really inspiring follow-ups.

Sure, there are a few developers (like Supergiant and Klei Entertainment) who have really managed to keep their momentum going. However, a lot of small devs who produce a great game either go crazy and quit, get caught in an infinite development cycle on a new product, can't even get started on a new product, or release a new product that's just kind of meh. I was smart and avoided this problem by never releasing a great game in the first place.

This is why I think you're going to see a lot of indie devs recycling their hits. Remastering them and releasing them on new consoles. Rereleasing them with new material. Doing full rewrites.

This is as it should be. It's good for developers and it's good for gamers.

For developers: Look. Writing a game is hard. Writing a good game is harder. Writing a good game and actually having it catch on and become a hit is catching lightning in a bottle. It's almost impossible. It almost never happens for one developer twice. If we let developers turn one hit into a career, it helps more developers make a living, which encourages the writing of more games.

For gamers: Look. If a game is fun, it doesn't stop being fun. Castle Crashers will still be awesome a decade from now, and I am surprised that it hasn't been ported to the new console generation yet. I talked to several developers at PAX about the expanded versions of their games that are forthcoming, and I'm thrilled. I liked them before, and I'll like their new levels on the PS4.

One of the things I've always hated about our art form is how it discards its classics as technology moves on. Anything that keeps good designs fresh and playable is all to the good.

A large part of my professional life now is acting as curator for the things I made when I was young. I spend my time trying to be respectful to the work of my younger self, bringing it into the modern day while preserving the stuff that made people love it in the first place. It's a very different sort of job, with its own challenges, but I do enjoy it. I wish more people did a better job of respecting what they made when they were young. (CoughGeorgeLucasCough)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 is one of my favorite games of the last console generation. If it comes out for a console with online matchmaking, that is the console I will buy. James Silva, MAKE IT HAPPEN.

When Will My Rewrite Be Out?

I've been shooting for early December, by my increasing old-person-exhaustion is making it hard to keep up the furious pace of younger days. The Mac and Windows versions will probably be out in January. iPad a few months after that. I don't know how to develop for Android and getting a good person to do a port is hard, so I'm not sure if that will ever happen.

And that’s what we’re up to in the Business World. New game soon. Hope you like it!