Wednesday, June 8, 2016

To Be a Pro is to Be Abused.

Trigger warning: Bears.
I want to say a few words to young developers on the value of resilience and the growing of a thick skin.

Slow down there. Hands off the keyboard. I an NOT talking about abuse, harassment, and threats. I've already written on this topic. Certain behaviors online are clearly unacceptable, and you should not be subjected to them.

What I AM talking about is learning to endure criticism and occasional hostility that is an inevitable part of being a creator in a public way.

Because you will be criticized. You will be insulted. People will be mean to you. Also, because you are only human and will occasionally make mistakes, sometimes that criticism will be justified. So you should be ready.

I'm going to tell two instructive stories. One about me, one about an ambitious young developer. (Well, as of this writing, ex-developer.) Know enough to be afraid. 

You WILL receive feedback like this at some point. Prepare in advance an appropriate reaction.
A Time That PC Gamer Was Mean To Me

In November, 2000, PC Gamer. reviewed my game Avernum. This was a huge deal for me, as PC Gamer was the biggest press outlet around. The game was already selling very well, but we were eager for a hit. Also, press attention for a small developer has always been really hard to get.

Imagine my surprise when the review, written by a Gentleman I Will Not Name (GIWNN for short), came out and my score was 17/100. Yes, 17%. I'm sure a lot of thought went into it. I imagine GIWNN up late at night, agonizing. "I mean, this game isn't quite good enough for a lofty 18%, but it's also not the sort of hackery that merits a mere 16%."

But it gets better. The review also says my game is worse that choking to death on your vomit. (I swear I am not making this up.) The review included a helpful sidebar that listed rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit. (Again, I SWEAR I am not making this up.)

If you are upset by the current level of journalistic standards in the games industry, I assure you there have been issues for some time.

Some developers would be given pause by a review like this. Some might even be slightly upset. I was not. I was still being given a full, free page of coverage in PC GODDAMN GAMER. I know that review brought me a bunch of new customers. I heard from them. I'm sure I got more extra cash from the review than the GIWNN got for writing it. (And, when you get a few drinks in me, I still get the review out sometimes to show to friends.)

Are you an aspiring game developer? Picture the largest games press outlet publicly treating you in such a manner. If you have any response besides, "Hey, any PR is good PR," you might want to reconsider your career path.

I got that review, and I went on to have a highly lucrative and satisfying career. PC Gamer went on to give very kind coverage to quite a few of my other games. And the GIWNN went on to achieve his True Destiny: being a negligible non-entity.

Since I was taking pictures in my office, I thought my more devoted fans would like some sweet backstage info. For example, I work surrounded by my classic vidya gaem collection. Here is a tiny portion of my Atari 2600 games.
The Tale of Bear Simulator

What brought this article on was the sad story of recent indie title Bear Simulator, written by an ambitious fellow named John Farjay. Full disclosure: I have not played it, as bears are Godless Killing Machines

Bear Simulator was funded on Kickstarter with an impressive haul of over $100K. Farjay then broke from Kickstarter tradition by actually finishing the game in a reasonable period of time. He delivered it to backers and released it on Steam. (As of this writing, user reviews for the game: Very Positive.)

At this point, and I'll admit I'm a little fuzzy on the exact particulars, the game received some negative press. There was a particularly brutal takedown by renowned INTERNET TOUGH GUY Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (sometimes referred to as PewDiePie). This review ended with him getting a refund on Steam, which is now the traditional way for a vicious hack job to spike the ball in the endzone.

John Farjay quit, announcing this in a poignant little post on Kickstarter. Since it might not still be up when you read this, I'll include an excerpt:

Well the game didn't have a great reception, has a stigma against it's name and there's plenty of other problems so making any updates or going further is basically a lost cause now. Plus not skilled enough to make the game better than it currently is or write better updates than previously.
 Was really hoping the Steam release would go well but why would it, should have just gave the game to backers and not bother with Steam.
 Also don't want to deal with the drama anymore. Can't ignore it because that causes more drama and can't do anything about it because that causes more drama.
 It was really fun making the game, trailers, updates, websites, tutorials, blog posts and stuff, hopefully you all liked those things.
 Am glad most of you guys are happy with the game though, unless you were just being nice

I mean, seriously, if you don't find this at least a tiny bit sad, you have an even harder heart than I do.

The Thing That Makes Other Indie Devs Raise Their Eyebrows

There are so many of us who would give a lesser body part to be savaged in a video by PewDiePie. Man, I would love for him to tear apart my work in one of his videos. I'd salve my hurt feelings by using the extra sales to buy a Tesla.

But that's the difference between a hardened veteran and a new recruit, isn't it?

Some of the piles of junk that form my nest. Yes, those are two functional Vectrexes. I am amazing. 

If you know anything about me, you know that I would never savage a young, earnest developer. Others enjoy lashing out when there's blood in the water (especially when there's tasty, tasty clicks to bait), but I don't.

I have no problem with John Farjay. He offered a game on Kickstarter, delivered a game, became unhappy, and tried to extricate himself from the situation in as ethical a way as possible. The only real criticism I've heard leveled against him is that he didn't provide Kickstarter updates that often, but that isn't a crime as long as the game eventually arrives.

Here's what this situation sounds like to me: This guy wanted the job, applied for the job, got the job, decided he didn't like the job, and quit. This happens 10000000 times a day. It's not a big deal. It's only the public element that made it newsworthy.

And here's the cool thing: There's still hope. Suppose John Farjay changed his mind. Suppose he caught up on sleep, went for a few restorative walks, and went, "Wait! I do want to write games!"

He could write a Kickstarter update, say, "Sorry. I went nuts for a few days. I'm better now, and I'm back to work!" If he did this, I promise that he'd be welcomed back with open arms. It's a great story, and people love indie devs because we're quirky and human.

This shouldn’t have ever happened, though. Aspiring developers need to hear tales like these, so that they know what they are in for.

A shareware award I got in 1997, next to notes from my new game. My work notes very strongly resemble the opening credits to Se7en. 
But What Does That Mean Exactly?

It’s easy to say “Toughen up.” But what does that mean? How do you modify your behavior and reactions in a way that enables you to withstand being in this business longer. Because that’s the goal: Creating a stable, sustainable business you like to run.

This will, in the end, vary from person to person. I don’t know what your mental fault lines are. I don’t know what freaks you out. I only know that, when you find the thing that freaks you out, you should probably modify your behavior or inputs in a way that leaves you calmer and more able to do your job.

For example, a lot of devs I know worry about weird metrics. They obsess over their Steam wishlist numbers, or their user reviews, or if they can compete with some new game that’s coming out, or whether keys they chose to sell through Humble Bundle are being resold. The world presents us with infinite trivia to worry about.

If a piece of input worries you, and you can’t control it, and you have no crystal clear idea what its impact on your life will be, feel free to ignore it. In fact, you probably should ignore it. If something upsets you, do everything you can to ignore that something.

Being harassed is VERY difficult to ignore, so do what you need to to keep from being harassed. Forums are nice, but you don’t HAVE to have them. Twitter has its points, but you don’t HAVE to be on it. (This is true. I ran a successful business for many a year before Twitter went live.) If a forum or public-facing account is a hive of harassment and nastiness, shut it down for a month. Most of the trolls will move on.

If you say, “I have to be on [web site] no matter what!” you are giving the crazies a weapon they can use to hit you. Don’t do that. “But they can drive me off of a site? That is wrong and not fair!” Yes. It is wrong and not fair. I’m angry about it too. But this isn’t an undergraduate ethics class. It’s business. Who ever told you business was fair?

(Fun aside: What percentage of online abuse against developers is secretly being launched by their competitors to push them out of the business? It might be 0% now, but, as the industry gets even more competitive, it won’t stay 0% forever. Sleep tight.)

This is a TOUGH, competitive business. It’s a blood sport. To have even a small chance of success, you will need to bring your A game, day after day, for years at a time. If something distracts you from that, you must cut it out without mercy.

My latest game's Metacritic. It's entirely fair. When I disagree with something someone wrote, I send them a respectful rebuttal
Quick Aside About User Reviews

Most indie developers write games aimed at niche audiences. Therefore, the games they write won’t be liked by most gamers. This is pretty much the definition of ‘niche.’

Alas, indie developers also tend to really freak out about negative user reviews on places like Steam. They worry about this too much. It’s easy to forget that, if you write a game aimed at only 10% of the gaming audience, 90% of players will hate your game. A lot of them will leave bad reviews. This sort of review is not harassment. It’s the system working as intended.

Sometimes, when a dev expresses an unpopular political opinion, those who disagree will organize a brigade and spam your Steam page with negative reviews. This sucks, and they shouldn’t do that. (Although I would gently observe that, when your goal is to run a profitable business, political activism will only very rarely help in this.)

Not all clumps of negative reviews are signs of evil intent, though. Maybe you just wrote a game a lot of people don’t like, and they told you, and that’s the end of the story. Be ready for it.

I suggest making sure that the sliver of users who like your games are paying you enough money to stay in business. Then do what I do and don’t read user reviews. EVER.

But Getting Back To the Main Point

John Farjay was living the dream, and he fell apart. It's far from the first time, and it won't be the last. Life in the public eye, even in so lowly a role as indie game dev, can be tough. It's not for everyone.

It's the job of me and others like me to prepare the neophytes. They need to be ready for these jolts. They can't let one nasty review or article collapse them.

Assholes and hacks exist. So do reasonable people who will call you out when you inevitably make mistakes. You must be ready for all of them.

How do you get to this lofty point? I don't know. I just wish you luck, and I won't hold it against you if you find you aren't cut out for it.

Brace yourself. Good luck.


(You can read my moment to moment thoughts on Twitter, which I am on for the moment. Finally, I can't resist ending with a link to this.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Avadon 3, Announcing New Games, and Facing Your Inadequacy.

Aaaaaand ... we're off!
We have just announced our newest game, Avadon 3: The Warborn!

It's the final game in the series! At last, you get to end the war, pick a winner, and decide who lives and who dies! (Though we are making sure that the game will still make sense and be satisfying even if you didn't play Avadon 1 and 2.)

It should be out in September, unless things go wrong. Completing this series will bring an end to five frenzied years of my professional life.

I wanted to talk about the game a little, for people who don't know about us, people who do, and people who are interesting in making games in general.

I'll try not to be boring.

If You Don't Know Who the Hell We Are ...

Hi! We're Spiderweb Software. Since 1994, we have created indie, retro, turn-based, huge, epic fantasy role-playing games. We specialize in games with intricate stories that give you a lot of interesting choices. We also like making fun game systems and varied combat with lots of unusual encounters and tactical options.

If that sounds cool, just stop reading this. Go here or here and download a big, free demo. We have always had the biggest demos in the business. If you like what you try, all of our stuff is on Steam.

If You Already Play Our Games ...

Thank you for your support!

We asked for a lot of fan feedback before we started Avadon 3, and we put a lot of it into effect. There are a ton of changes and improvements in this new game. Many long-overdue interface improvements. A lot of rebalancing and new abilities. Fewer trash fights and greater encounter variety.

I managed to generate some pretty decent screenshots this time around.
What Is Avadon About?

If you want the basic facts of the story, they are on the main game page, and I'm tired of rewriting it. (This is the sort of disciplined approach to PR that has enable me to maintain decades of consistent anonymity.)

I'm more interested in talking about the process.

In the 20+ years I've been doing this, I've always had one main habit: I write the sort of game I enjoy playing. They are always RPGs, because I am obsessed with that genre. It's a genre that allows for great variety. (And the basic, addictive elements of which have infected just about every other genre.)

Whenever I'm not sure what to do with a game, I always make the choice I would prefer if I was a player. It's a compass that has almost never steered me wrong.

When I decided to write Avadon, I'd just played Dragon Age: Origins, which is still, for my money, one of the finest RRPGs every made. It made me want to write a similar game: An epic story, full of intrigue, dark fantasy, and touch choices, set in a huge and complex world. I wanted the battles to have their own flavor, with lots of different tactical options and unexpected events, and in which movement and positioning are really important.

I think I succeeded. Kind of. I will say that I enjoy playing Avadon games more than I enjoy playing any of my other games. A lot of my fans don't care for Avadon as much, but that's ok. We write a lot of different sorts of RPGs.

Actual gameplay footage!
But I'm Ready To Move On and Feel Bad About What Has Come Before

Like many creators, I hate looking at the work I've done. Even if it's good, it still pales in comparison to the beautiful image I had in my mind when I began. Looking at the final work can be a painful process.

A painful process, but a helpful one. When you fail to do what you wanted to do, well, failure can be very educational. You just need to look hard and honest at you failures and see what you can do to correct them.

So, some things I'm unhappy with about the Avadon series.

When I was designing Avadon, I was very ambitious. Lynaeus, the continent on which the series takes place, has 5 friendly nations and six hostile nations, each of which has its own politics, history, and so on. I wanted to make a whole world.

In the end, however, I was just one designer.

There are so many factions, wings of government, conflicts, controversies ... Too much for me to keep track of, too much to fully develop. I wrote so much lore I could never find a place to fit into the game. There were so many locations I just wasn't able to give enough time to.

My eyes were bigger than my stomach on this one.

Also, i didn't put as much polish in these games as I should. Avadon 3 will have a lot of careful rebalancing and useful interface improvements. However, these changes should have been in Avadon 2. Honestly, a lot of these things should have been in Avadon 1 so I didn't have to fix them in the first place.

I have a good excuse for some of this. I'm only one person, and I'm getting older and slower. Still, a problem is a problem, and, if I'm asking people for money, I'm still responsible for flaws.

Finally, I've stuck with this particular engine, graphics style, and world style for too long. After I remaster Avernum 3 (our most popular game over the years), I'm going to do something way different. It's well past time.

Actual gameplay footage!
I Also Have Reached My Own Limits

However, the Avadon games have also reached the limits of what I am capable of holding in my single brain. They are the limit for how complex I game I can make without going mad. There's just too many characters, story threads, and so on. After a few months of keeping everything balanced and in my head and making sense, it gets exhausting.

One of the great pleasures in my job is finishing a game and being able to forget everything I've had to hold in my mind, ready for fast access. It's like putting down a heavy weight. I'm really looking forward to letting Avadon drift away. It's been like having to have a second family, only in my head. A weird, dysfunctional, non-existant family. I want it to fade away and leave a blank canvas, that I can fill with other fun stuff.

And, in Avadon's sprawling messiness, I think we made something really neat. Among all of the treasure hunting and epic battles, this is a story about running a fading Empire. You have borders to protect and unlimited power to do so. Will you be cruel or merciful? Will you be dutiful to your country, or will you focus on power for yourself?

Avadon 3 is full of choices, and your decisions will lead to a multitude of possible outcomes. No cop-out twist endings. It won't all have been a dream. We will make sure that the series caps off with a satisfying ending.

We'll be starting an all-new series soon. When we do, it will still be a big, complex game, but it will be big and complex in a different way. At the very least, there will be fewer than 11 countries for you to keep track of.

Back To Work

And that's all for now. Hope you like the screenshots and the trailer. If you're new here and like RPGs, we have 20 years of back catalog to tempt you.

Time to go write a few thousand more words of dialogue!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

How I Deal With Harassment, Abuse, and Crazies In General.

Whenever I write about a topic that upsets me, I calm myself by illustrating it with royalty-free, reassuring stock photos.
"People are a problem." - Douglas Adams
I get a lot of requests for advice from young developers. Some of these questions regard advice on how to deal with being harassed online. Sometimes, these requests come from people actually experiencing harassment. This is a topic I've been afraid of writing about for some time. It tends to draw firestorms.

Also, it is an issue that affects other individuals WAYYYYY more than it affects me, and I don't want to be a callous buttinski around other peoples' troubles.

But I do get asked. And I do want to respond. I don't think young developers should value my feedback, yet they do. They certainly deserve to get fair warning about what awaits them. So.

This is how I, me personally, handle the threat of online harassment. Your mileage may vary. No, it WILL vary.

I Am a Public Figure

When I release a game or write something visible to the whole world, even a tiny something (Warning: Twitter counts!), I am acting as a public figure. A teeny tiny one, but a public figure nonetheless. Public figures have always received hate mail, abuse, threats, and messages from the unhinged, and they always will. Alas, the internet makes them much easier to deliver.

If you are a public figure, you will be abused eventually. Maybe mild insults. Maybe much worse. This abuse can spread to those around you. (Employers. Loved ones.) You should start thinking about this (and your tolerance for it) now.

This means that, unless something changes very drastically, from Day 1 of your life as a public figure, you should be thinking about your public image and how you will manage it. What is your mental resilience? How much abuse can you take?

Yeah, these chocolates are really reassuring, until some rando finds your street address and gets 100 boxes of them shipped to your house.
1. Harassment is real, and it has a real effect.

Being harassed is harmful. It's easy to say, "Just toughen up. Walk away from the screen." until you've actually experienced it.

Humans are tribal creatures, and tons of insults are upsetting to us on a deep lizard-brain level. Anonymous threats are terrifying, even if they aren't credible. Organized swarms of bad Steam/iTunes reviews can sink a vulnerable business. Organized swarms of angry people can cost you your job. And getting swatted (someone giving an anonymous call to your local emergency services to get a SWAT team sent to your house) might kill you.

By the way, these days, they don’t just come after you. Your family and loved ones will be considered targets as well. You may be capable of ignoring being called every dirty word in the book. But is your mom?

So complaining about harassment isn't just whining by sheltered nerds. The more visible and outspoken you are online, the higher the chance that a whirlwind will land on the heads of you and those you love. There is no chance of this changing in the foreseeable future. This is serious business. I am scared. Everything I do online is weighed against the risk of harassment.

Actually, that's another good reason why I haven't written about it. I don't want to be yet another sheep, bleating loudly in the middle of wolf-infested woods.

Actually, these macaroons look sort of gross. Also, who ever thought it'd be ok to charge two bucks for one small cookie?
2. I filter my input. Mercilessly.

I know a lot of creators of nerd culture. Game designers, writers, comic artists. Old, gnarled, crabby, battle-hardened pros with decades of experience. You'd have heard of a bunch of them.

They all have something in common. It never fails to amaze me, but a single mean email or bad review can send them into a spiral. Like, they'll still be obsessing over it days later. I think, "Wow. After all these years, they still won't let this stuff roll off of them?" And then it happens to me.

So we filter our inputs.

Consider this. Suppose you are, like all right-thinking people, a big fan of Taylor Swift.  So you want to write her a piece of kind fan mail, telling her how awesome she is.

She might read it. It's entirely possible. However, before it hits her iPhone, I bet it will have been filtered by at least one handler. (All of this is just my guess, of course. I would NEVER presume to speak for T-Swizzle.)

There is a super-good reason for these handlers. I've never met Taylor Swift, and I likely never will, but I do know one thing about her: She is a human being, so she is heir to all human vulnerabilities. If hit with the wrong email at the wrong time, she will be thrown off her game for a day, or three. If Taylor Swift is thrown off her game, major corporations lose millions of dollars. So they filter.

I do the same thing. Your messages to me are checked before I get them. I almost never read forums. I'll bet most public figures with any kind of profile do the same thing.

Some people are mean. Some people are crazy. Some people are both. I do not let people in these categories pour poison directly into my ear.
That's odd. I don't find this picture reassuring at all.
3. I remember that life is not fair.

Suppose someone gets angry at me for what I write. He gets a bunch of friends together and they give my games bad reviews on Steam and iTunes.

This is really mean and genuinely harmful, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. They will cost me earnings, and I have no recourse. They walked up, punched me in the nose, and strolled away, and I could do nothing.

Meanwhile, anonymous hordes gather and attempt to cause real suffering to their targets (and their targets’ loved ones). Targets often chosen for silly, trivial, or even factually incorrect reasons and given punishment utterly out of proportion with what they might possibly have done (or not). There is no logic to it, no justice. Just mad lashing out. I have tried to understand it, and I have failed. It is simply maddening.

Life is not fair.

If there was a solution, I would be suggesting it. If I had ever heard or read an answer which would really work and not be a bandaid and would actually make things better, I’d be shouting it at the top of my lungs. But I got nothing. What can’t be changed must be endured.

So, when I get scared or angry (which is often), all I am able to do is attempt a measure of Zen acceptance. I mean, sure, I could rail about how mean the Internet is. But the Internet is what makes my business and awesome life possible in the first place, so it seems a little churlish to hate the Internet.

I will never be totally safe. There will always be fights. Afterward, I get up, dust myself off, get back to work, and try to make enough money to endure the occasional asshole assault.

Well, this is kind of reassuring, I guess. Bones are good. We need them to live.
4. I am very careful about poking the beast.

Over the last year, my writing output has dropped to almost zero. I'm still writing. I have a folder full of completed articles. I just don't post them, because of fear.

The main way to draw abuse is by saying things that anger people. Saying true things still makes people angry. In fact, true things often make people more angry.

When I chose to make a living as a creator, I picked a very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

Suppose I also decide to try to change the world in some way. In this case, I picked another very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

But there's a key difference between these two jobs. When I try to make stuff to make people happy, most people like me. Only mean, nasty people are out to genuinely hurt someone who only wants to share neat things with the world.

When I am trying to change the world, it's different. Human beings naturally hate and fear change. If you try to change the world, no matter how noble your cause, you will make some people angry.

Remember what I have egotistically termed Vogel's Iron Law of Anger: If you try to make people angry, intentionally or not, you will succeed.

Now what I am not (NOT NOT NOT) saying is that you should be quiet and never state your opinions. I am NOT saying that. In fact, as a citizen of a republic, I believe it is my sacred responsibility to occasionally speak up and try to nudge opinions.

However, a republic is not a suicide pact. What I AM saying is that I weigh my opinions very carefully. When I decide to speak up and try to change minds, I must ask: Am I currently ready to be shouted at? How much? Is the piece I am about to write a ticking time-bomb that will explode and destroy my career in five years? Then I pick fights that will not overly distract me from my first work: creating.

OK, my reassurance-evaluation algorithm is definitely on the fritz. Give me a second.
5. Beware Twitter. 

Twitter was designed, from Day 1, to enable any random person to send messages directly to any public figure. In other words, from Day 1, it was designed to be an abuse and harassment engine. It's not a bug. It's a feature. All that abuse and controversy is how it gets clicks and money.

They are a publicly traded, for-profit corporation, so they will never change in a way that brings them less money. In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they receive overwhelming pressure to not do so. Do not trust corporations to make the world a better place. They are not your pal. They do not love you. Beware.

6. I have obtained a weapon for self-defense, and I have become proficient in its use.

Ha. Ha. I'm just kidding.

Or am I?

I'm certainly not going to tell you here.

Online harassment has been around for a long time. Every year, it increases in prevalence, ingenuity, and raw damage. I see no reason why this trend will change. I suspect, five years from now, things will be even worse. I don't know what will happen or how I will deal with it when it does.

I've been lucky. I've never gotten to the point where I seriously considered calling the cops. Not yet. Not because I didn't want to, but because I knew it wouldn't help.

Because who are we kidding? They won't do anything. The Law's ability to deal with crimes that haven't happened yet is pretty much zero. (As so many who have gotten restraining orders against an abuser can sadly testify.)

However, the police might make a note in some database saying that SWAT teams heading to my house should be a little extra-careful. That's more than zero.

Look, I've gotten legit scary messages. I've had nights where I sat up on the couch, scared to death, listening for someone trying to break in. I have explored my gunpowder-based self-defense options.

(If you think I am being over the top here, please bear in mind that I am very intentionally leaving out the details of problems I have personally encountered, as I will NOT say anything publicly that might reawaken those problems.)

Writing about this topic, all I can do is shake my head slowly and take deep breaths and try to calm the anxiety. I tell myself that the person who actually comes to kill me probably won't bother to send a polite warning first. Weirdly, this doesn't make me feel better.

I don't know. I just do what I do and hope for the best. Does this count as advice?

GAH. OK. Time to wrap this up.
Scared Yet?

If you're thinking of being a public figure, you need to be ready for it. I guess I do have advice. If you are nervous now, you have taken it: Be nervous. It's OK. It's the rational path.

And that's all I have to say about it. This is a very unsatisfying way to end the article, but the online environment now is very rough, angry, and in a state of flux. I think things will get worse before they get better. (Spoiler warning: They will never get better.)

I respect the damage harassment can do. I don't blame the victim. I don't back down from every fight, but I am prepared for others to fight back. I am nice and respectful whenever possible. I remember some humans are mean, some are crazy, some are both, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. I also remember that the vast majority of people are quietly decent. Finally, I remember that being a public creator is a tough, noble path, and I am proud of it.

I hope you can pick something worthwhile from this heap of scraps. Good luck.


I also say things on Twitter.

Edit (4/17/16) - Replaced the sentence "In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they are legally prohibited from doing so." with something more accurate.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gaming Needs To Have More Arguments. Here Are Some Topic Suggestions!!!

Today, I argue for more argument on the Internet. I freely admit that this is a Hardcore-difficulty rhetorical maneuver.

I just got back from the Game Developer's Conference, where I met a ton of cool people who write indie games and attended many panels. Everyone I met was perfectly lovely. Indie developers are a bunch of friendly, outgoing, huggy folks, and they could not have been kinder to me. I appreciated it.

Yet, there is one thing I find fascinating (and maybe even slightly worrying): In several days around my peer group, talking and drinking with them, I did not hear one argument.


Indie gaming is changing very fast. Our art is expanding in every way and getting tons more press. Our business is booming, to the point where it is actually significant. (The figure I heard at GDC was that indies are grossing over a billion USD a year, which is a real business by any measure.) Indie devs are artists, and our work is now a Big Deal.

But here's the thing. Artists are a proud, passionate, opinionated lot. Look anywhere in the history of art, and you will find passionate (even furious) debate. People used to riot at concerts and the theatre, for God's sake.

Indies have a lot of things to argue about. Our art form is very, very new, and there are countless unanswered questions. Hell, there are more questions than answers at this point. Nobody seems to know anything about anything. We should be figuring some stuff out. We should be having debates. Noisy, vigorous debates.

Therefore, I am going to, in my humble and retiring style, suggest a number of Open Questions In the Field of Indie Development and Marketing. I think they are all issues intelligent people could disagree on and have a heated debate about. If you are hungry for a good topic for a panel or article, help yourself. You’re welcome.

I freely argue with gamers and developers, because I am respectful and thoughtful and know that we are all bound by the Magic of Friendship.
A Selection of Topics For Argument

We know it's possible for your game to be a hit or to fail. What about in-between? Is it still possible for new indie devs to chip out a sustainable, middle-class career, building a fan base and serving an underserved niche? If so, how?

So how DO you figure out what price will maximize earnings for your game? Does it depend on genre? Production value? How much media attention you get?

Should indie games be cheap? Indie games have long been cheaper than AAA games. This is an advantage. Is it a good idea to give it up?

I have long believed that one of the great advantages of indie gaming is that people like us and think we are cool. Thus, people want to keep us in business. Buying our games makes them feel good. Is this true? Do indie developers have an ethical responsibility to maintain the reputation of our industry? (This is a tough question. If an indie dev wants to do something unpopular, but it will provide the money he or she absolutely needs to stay in business, I'm not sure I could in good conscience tell them not to.)

Have indies let their quality control slip? If an indie is selling a strictly non-functional game, should we be pressuring them to remove it from sale? (I am a long-suffering Mac gamer. So many indie Mac ports are seriously broken or just plain non-functional.)

Are free to play games ethical? If so, are some sales practices for them ethical and some not? If so, how do you tell where to draw the line?

Computer games are a 100 BILLION dollar a year global industry that employs multitudes and entertains countless people. Given that, does our industry deserve a serious, professional media that adheres to reasonable journalistic standards? If so, do we have it?

Have I gotten myself into trouble even asking those questions? Also, am I being unfair? Is it even possible to make money doing rigorous old-fashioned journalism anymore? In any field?

Customers expect new games to eventually go on sale. Is this a bad thing? If so, how should indies act in order to extract more money from customers? If there was a way for us all to collude to keep prices high, should we do it?

Most agree that Steam Early Access is, overall, a good idea. That said, how developed should a game be before it's allowed into Early Access? How long is too long to wait for a game you bought early (or on Kickstarter) to be actually released?

If you're making an episodic game, how long is too long to wait to release the final chapter? (Bear in mind that if you take, say, five years, a percentage of your purchasers will be DEAD before the final part is out. As the gaming audience ages, this percentage will only increase.) How many years have to pass before you cross the line from eccentric, unpredictable, lovable creator to something far less respectable?

When playing a competitive game, should trash talking be allowed? How do you tell when trash talking becomes abuse? If all trash talking is bad, should it be removed from every competition, including in real life?

While I love many Walking Simulators and have recommended many of them in my blog and on Twitter, I also like to use the term Walking Simulator because I think it's funny. Am I a bad person? I play casual games on my PS4 all the time, but I still joke about Filthy Casuals and Console Peasants. Is this abuse or harmless japery? How do we find the line between the two?

Most agree that game refunds are, overall, a good idea. Should we push every platform to offer them? If so, when should a customer be allowed to get a refund?

Most agree that user reviews are, overall, a good idea. However, user reviews enable a few disgruntled cranks to brigade your game's page and directly attack your sales. This really sucks, but it seems impossible to prevent it. Can it be prevented? If so, how do you do this without enabling developers to simply remove bad reviews they don't like?

The most common story I've heard from indies lately is: "We did a ton of PR work. We got a lot of positive attention. Our game still didn't sell well." Does this actually happen or is it just my imagination? Is the universal advice of, "Indies need to do tons of PR or die," actually correct? What sorts of games is it true for?

I have read many articles saying that developers should have high self-esteem and confidence and avoid Imposter Syndrome.  Yet, my self-hatred is what drives me to improve, and my terror is what drives me to work hard. Is there really one optimal developer emotional state?

I was hugely disappointed when Steam's program for paid mods and add-ons failed. I think this is a good potential route for indies to make a name and a living. Is a working for-pay mod system possible? If so, how would you make it?

One of the best ways to make a living as an indie is to find a much loved but underserved genre and start to serve it. Are there any underserved genres left?

Do Let’s Plays of your game always increase sales? Suppose you don’t want long Let’s Plays of your games. Do you have the right to prevent them? Is a long duration Let's Play a copyright violation? How long until a big lawsuit forces to only allow streaming of your game if you give them explicit permission?

Are schools that teach game design and programming a good deal? How useful are the degrees they offer if the recipient leaves the industry? Is anyone doing long-term studies of this issue? When a young dev asks me whether he or she should blow $80K of after tax money to study game design, what the hell should I say?

Finally, video games are a TOUGH business. Many indies go into it with the strategy of, "Newer give up. Never surrender." But not all of them can make a living. Isn't there a point where you SHOULD give up and/or surrender? How do you tell when you've reached it?

I am going to transition from My Little Pony to Naruto header images, as my daughters are forcing me to watch Naruto. All 80000 episodes of it.
“Great. More arguments on the Internet.”

I can picture you now, sighing and shaking your head. "The last thing we need is more discord, more shouting," you may well be thinking. It seems like the whole Internet is good for nothing but shouting. There is a small number of assholes out there now, doing enormous damage. I don't deny it. To deny it would be willful blindness.

Yet, we can't let those assholes keep us from doing the work we need to do and figuring out the things we need to figure out. We should provide the assholes a good example by showing them that respectful criticism and debate still exists.

I really enjoyed GDC, but the talks there left me with more questions than answers. Tough questions, that could use some real debate. When I wrote about the Indie Bubble, a lot of indie devs called me out on this point or that, and it was awesome.

Indies are decent people, and we like each other. This means that we can afford to have a few arguments. It is possible to debate someone, even passionately, even with shouting, and still love them and go out for drinks with them at the end of the day. I do it with my family and friends all the time.

This nightmare is what comes up when you do a Google Image Search for "Naruto fights." So. Um. Don't do that.
In Conclusion

When I was young, I loved a good argument. I don't really enjoy debates anymore. I'm a lot more chill in general now.

But I will still argue, not because I enjoy it but because it is my duty. Frequent, vigorous, respectful debate is good for a community, an industry, and an art form. Debate is the Darwinian crucible in which bad ideas are burned away and good ideas emerge, purified in fire.

(The key is to make sure that only bad ideas get burned away, not people.)

I’m going to try to defeat my cowardice and start blogging again and chipping away at this pile of open questions. I hope, when I’m dumb, people point it out. If you think I wrote something wrong and can provide actual reasons to prove your case without resorting to cheap ad hominem attacks, I hope you’ll take your shot at me.

Then, if you manage to score a point on me and we meet at a convention someday, I will happily buy you a drink. Something reasonable. Jack Daniels quality. None of this top shelf crap. I'm not made of money.


As always, you can get fresh opinions and news about our games at our Twitter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Witcher 3 Is Amazingly Written, and People Should Talk About It More.

The three best-known characters of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
(There are light spoilers ahead for The Witcher 3, starting about halfway through. Even if you haven't played the game, you should still read all of this article, as it is a good article.)

A large part of the purpose of this blog is to pick apart interesting video games, so it would be shameful for me to pass up one of this year's most exciting titles, the Polish hit RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I've been playing computer RPGs since they existed, so I'm sort of burned out on the genre. I play them for market research, but I rarely finish them and almost never enjoy them. Thus, I can give The Witcher 3 the highest praise I can give an RPG: When I stopped playing it to do something else, I wasn't happy about it. I found it to be, and yes, I can't believe I'm saying this, a ton of fun.

It's also full of fascinating design. It does some things in writing I've never seen in a game before, and parts of the game completely blew my jaded self away. I would have loved to see game writers and critics pick apart the machinery of this game and show what new things it did and why it did them so well.

Didn't happen, so I have to pick up the slack. Alas ...

Putting On My Critic Hat

There was some vigorous critical debate about The Witcher 3 when it came out, but it primarily centered around whether this Polish game, made by Poles and set in a fantasy Poland based on Polish books, had too many white people.

(Side note: Did you know that many Eastern Europeans, who occupy a large, diverse region with a long and rich history, severe poverty, and recent history of vicious oppression, find it intensely irritating to be thoughtlessly lumped into the huge, vague category of "white people"?)

The question of whether the Polish people deserve the right to make their own representations of themselves without getting permission from affluent North American academics is one I plan to leave entirely alone.

Instead, I'm going to say something about The Witcher 3 that will probably severely agitate some readers: It is a terrific, much-needed dose of diversity for the game industry.

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
There's a Lot of Sorts of Diversity.

My wife is a Hungarian immigrant, and her half of our family is Hungarian and Polish. I'm not going to pretend for a second to be an expert on their cultures, but I have had a few decades of close observation. Enough to say this:

The Witcher 3 feels like it was written by people who spent a lot of their childhoods at their parents' and grandparents' feet, hearing stories about the horrors of World War 2 and the following Soviet occupation. (Or like the game was written by people who suffered that misery directly.)

Eastern Europeans have always seemed to me to be a tough, serious people living in a historically dangerous part of the world. Appropriately, this is a tough, serious game, full of unfairness and arbitrary cruelty.

The Witcher 3 feels like it is written with a keen awareness of what it is like to have your country occupied by brutal outsiders. Coincidentally, it comes from Poland, a country whose experience of the 20th century was, let's say, traumatic. For them to use that experience to produce a work like this is something we should treasure. It is a valuable thing.

Video games tend to approach politics in a simplistic way. The Witcher 3 is obsessed with politics. It shows again and again how the decisions made by those in power filter down and affect (usually painfully) regular people. This is not a game that sugar coats anything. Anywhere. Ever.

So This Is Where We Lose the Game Critics

Much modern gaming criticism is based on this basic theory: Popular culture shapes how people think, which shapes the world. Therefore, art is inherently political. It should focus on showing the world in the lovely state we want it to be, as opposed to the unpleasant way it might actually be.

(To see an example of this viewpoint, consider the well-known Tropes vs. Women video series. Go here and read the last three paragraphs of the transcript.)

The Witcher 3, on the other hand, depicts a medieval, war-torn, highly patriarchal society. It is only rarely judgmental. The game sets up how its world is, and then it deals with the consequences, logically grinding from one inevitable event to the next.

This game doesn't lie to you, even if some want it to. It comes from a land that knows full well how cruel the world can be, and it knows that ignoring that cruelty is an insult to our ancestors, the ones who withstood it in order to make a world for us. This leads The Witcher 3 to a lot of really interesting places, and I’m genuinely surprised game writers haven’t dug into it more.

It is a game full of grim humor, some of which was a bit much for me. (For example, I absolutely would have cut the gwent card with the joke about "raping for Redania.")

It's also a game where horror sits side by side with silly humor and pop culture references. There's nothing unusual about this. Humans often use inappropriate humor to deal with difficult circumstances. (Example: Google "jewish nazi jokes". Or just watch any old Mel Brooks movie.)

Video games need more of this. Our industry tends to approach politics and other real world conflicts in a simplistic way, with black and white morality and good/evil choices that don’t line up with how things really work. For all its occasional whimsy, The Witcher 3 reflects real thought about humanity and how it bears up (or breaks) under oppression.

That is why I say The Witcher 3 is a great example of diversity in our industry. There are many sorts of diversity. It brings diversity of thought, perspective, history. It is infused with a different, harder way of thinking and regarding the world.

If you are an academic preparing to write the 1000000th article on Proteus or Gone Home or Spec Ops: The Line, might I direct you to a title that is under-examined and worthy of analysis?

(Mild spoilers start here. Keep reading anyway.)

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
Family Matters.

No discussion about storytelling in The Witcher 3 is complete without mentioning its already-infamous Family Matters questline. It's already been written about a bunch, so I won't talk about it too much, since I want to get into a cooler bit later on.

Basically, this is a quest where a local warlord asks you to find his lost wife and child. Which escalates into a local warlord who asks you to bring back the wife and child who fled his abuse. Which escalates into finding a wife and child who fled and became ensnared in powerful, dangerous local magic.

It's not far in. It's the first major chapter. If you care at all about storytelling in video games, YOU MUST PLAY THIS SECTION. Do it on the easiest difficulty setting if you need to. (The Witcher 3 has some balance issues. It's too hard early on and too easy later.)

This section takes a ton of weird plot threads that seem unconnected, ties them all together effortlessly, throws in some stunning set pieces along the way, and ramps up to an excruciating ending full of impossible choices. It’s really good.

After that, there's a looong chapter in the city of Novigrad that is fun, but a bit overlong. It also occasionally throws in piles of dead women for cheap shock value, which is hacky. (This is a point where I agree with the Tropes vs Women videos.) It's my least favorite section, but it still has a lot of good stuff.

Then you're on the Isle of Megavikings (sorry, Skellige), which has some very cool, involved quests full of epic combat, punching-oriented politics, and painfully slow boats.

Then the main character, Geralt, is reunited with his basically-adopted-daughter, Ciri. This is where the coolest part (to me) starts. First, a few words about women in The Witcher.

Shut up, Newman. Nobody will ever love you.
Sorceresses and Goddesses.

The Witcher's most interesting characters are all women. The more recent books the game is based on focus on the women (Ciri and Yennefer, mainly). Even in The Witcher 3, there are multiple scenes where the women are doing the planning while Geralt shuffles around nervously nearby.

Gender politics arguments are not usually the morass I choose to get bogged down in. If you want to dig into these discussions, this Kotaku article is a reasonable breakdown.

All this brings me (finally) to the thing I loved most about the game: The relationship between the hero, Geralt, and his ward and surrogate daughter, Ciri.

My Favorite Thing About the Witcher 3.

Ciri is your standard fantasy Mysterious Power, Destined To Do Great Things. The first part of the game is Geralt trying to find her. The second part is him protecting her and helping her do the Big Fantasy Thing she needs to do.

Here's a key point. For all your running around and questing and gwent-playing, Geralt is not the main character in Witcher 3. He is a secondary character in Ciri's story.

Forget Fighting. How Good a Dad Are You?

So at the end, Ciri does a Big Thing. I think the game could have done a better job explaining what she was doing and why, but that would be adding more content to an already overstuffed game. The important thing is that this event is what the hours and hours of running around, confusion, and carnage has led to. Her thing. You aren't even present for it.

But you DO matter. Remember, you are Ciri's mentor. For the final stretch of the game, Ciri comes to you for support and guidance. The way you support her is vitally important. It determines whether she completes and survives doing the Big Thing.

All of the things you say and do that make a difference don't seem to be that important, but they are, in fact, vital. A few offhand words you don't think twice about can have an enormous effect on someone else, and it's not always fair. (You know. Like in real life.) All of the most important decisions in the game seem like False Choices.

False Choices?

Role-playing games, including my own, have a lot of what are sometimes called false choices. These are points when you make a decision or express your opinion, but your choices don't have a concrete effect on gameplay.

I don't believe false choices don't make a difference. In fact, they are hugely important. By asking the player to mentally engage and form an opinion about what is happening in the game, you are directly shaping the player's experience.

Remember, video games are just tools we use to affect our brains. The only important thing about a game is how our brain perceives it. Any choice, even a false choice, affects our perception of the game. All choices matter, even if they don't affect your stats.

The difference with The Witcher 3 is that all of the most important decisions are hidden in plain sight. They seem like false choices, but they directly change the ending. Your words have enormous importance to your child, but they seem irrelevant to you. It's exactly like ...

As a bonus, here is a lifetime's worth of nightmare fuel.
Being a Parent.

I have two kids. It has been endlessly frustrating to me how bad a job pop culture, especially video games, does depicting this fundamental human experience.

The Witcher 3 is the first game I've ever played that really engages my parent brain. When Ciri came to me for advice, my experience raising my own daughters had an affect on what I chose.

Yes, it can be unfair. You can think you're doing or saying the right thing, and it all falls apart. Welcome to parenthood.

I think this is cool and unique, and I wanted to make sure it didn't pass without comment. It's a shame it all happens so late in the game, because it's really well-crafted.

A Few Odds and Ends.

The Witcher 3 contains a card game called gwent, and yes, it is as addictive as you've heard. However, I don't think it would work out well in real life. The computer game has absolute control over the cards you can possibly own at any point. A real-life designer doesn’t have that ability.

The Witcher 3 is mostly an open world game, and it shares the sins so many open world games have: A needlessly fiddly crafting system. Lots of meaningless encounters and collectibles clogging up the world. Too much time spent looting giant piles of boxes, one at a time, each of which contains something useless. Honestly, stick to the main questline and side quests as much as you can.

I enjoyed the combat. Invest in the spell that lets you charm bad guys. It makes many fights easy and hilarious.

The speed at which this game can go from light-hearted whimsy to full-on Game of Thrones never failed to surprise me.

I want Keira Metz to be in every video game I ever play again ever. I want Tetris to be nothing but little falling Keira Metzes.

Apparently, rumor has it that The Witcher 3 also depicts a sex scene atop a stuffed unicorn. This is exactly the sort of needless immaturity that keeps video games from flourishing as an art form. The Witcher 3, your mother and I are very disappointed in you.

Finally, no discussion of this game would be complete without a link to Conan O'Brien's terrific Clueless Gamer segment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Early Access, Difficulty Fetishists, and Driving Yourself Insane

I am always amazed by how little I am able to predict the game industry. The success of Steam Early Access (where developers can put their unfinished games up for sale early) is still a bit of a shock.

When I started out writing shareware in the last century, shareware had a pretty bad reputation. It was often buggy, weird, and badly put-together. But at least, as rough as a shareware game might have been, at least when it was released it was DONE. We were so old-fashioned then.

Yet you can't argue with success. Early Access is a popular new way of developing, is here to stay, and requires new techniques and guidelines. One recent cautionary tale may, I think, be very instructive.

Early Access, Failing In Public, and How to Fill Your Brain With Madness

So now developers can release their game early. This has good points. Gamers get the game earlier. The developer can get possibly much needed cash. Most interestingly (to me), users get a chance to watch an unfinished game take shape before their eyes.

On the other hand, the game will be buggy and incomplete, and you can't be sure it will ever be finished. Also, and this is the part that really interests me, the developers have to finish a game in view of the full public. It's hard enough to write a game under the best of circumstances. Early access devs have to write a game while the entire world is shouting at them.

I fear the views of the unfiltered public. I've written about this before. If you let too many loud voices into your head, it can drive you mad. Outside feedback is necessary, but you have to filter it. For me, ten sensible people are far more useful than 10000 internet randos. You'll write a much better game if you don’t just throw the doors of your brain open to the world.

Which brings us to the recent fascinating case study: Darkest Dungeon.

This is how my game development process looks under the best of circumstances.
Darkest Dungeon: A Cautionary Tale

When Darkest Dungeon came out in Early Access a few months ago, I talked it up a lot. It's a really ingenious roguelike. You keep a stable of 20 or so adventurers and pick bands of 4 of them to send into really nasty dungeons.

The dungeons are (or were) moderately tough. You'll probably get through, but a run of bad luck can permanently kill some (or all) of your characters. Much of the game is judging how you are doing and deciding after each fight whether you should flee or not.

(There's also the unusual mechanic of a sanity meter. Upsetting events can drive your characters insane. In my experience, this basically just acts as a second health bar, so I'll leave it undiscussed.)

You could usually beat a dungeon without much fuss, but there was always a chance of disaster. This led to an experience that was pleasingly tense and exciting without being soul-crushing.

However, I have to refer all of this in the past tense. When the game was new, I visited their forums to see the feedback they were getting. When I saw it and how the devs were reacting to it, I thought, "Oh boy. This could be a problem." And it was. Sadly, the game I loved is kind of gone.

If you want a much more detailed view of the kerfuffle, go here for a good write-up. Official word from the shell-shocked developers is here.

In short, what happened is that this highly talented crew of game makers allowed the Difficulty Fetishists into their heads, and now they are trying to repair the damage.

The Most Dangerous Form of Feedback

There are lots of different ways you can get damaging feedback, but the Difficulty Fetishists are the ones you must fear the most. They are marked by three qualities:

1. They ALWAYS want the game to be harder, no matter how hard it already is.
2. They will be the loudest, most persistent givers of feedback. They will swarm forums, making them seem more numerous than they are.
3. They are mean and contemptuous to anyone who suggests, no matter how meekly, that the game is too hard to be fun. ("n00b!" "LRN 2 PLAY!" "GIT GUD!")

Now let us be very clear. Gamers who love really hard games ARE a valid audience. I have several such gamers as permanent members of my testing pool, and they are invaluable when I design the harder difficulty levels. However, they MUST be kept away from influencing the default difficulty level at all costs.

Since Darkest Dungeon only has one difficulty level and is intended to be a hard game, you can see the problem. The Difficulty Fetishists dominated the feedback. Now Darkest Dungeon is a brutal and unforgiving game in which, among other things, you have to hack away the bodies of monsters you already killed to get at the archers murdering you from the back.

The result was that the silent majority of content players became very disgruntled and non-silent, and now the developers are trying to find their way back out of the weeds. I'm sure they will manage, though it's a great example of how treacherous trying to please one faction of gamers can be.

This is, of course, only one form of bad feedback. There are as many ways to give bad advice as there are people. This is why using Early Access to give all of humanity a chance to poke at your game when it is still amorphous and unformed is risky.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this. First, though, I want to mention one other peril of Early Access.

I suggest planning a realistic schedule before going into Early Access. Writing tweets like these are not fun.
How One Rogue Developer Can Screw Us All

I know I repeat myself overmuch on this point, but the biggest thing going for indie gaming is that people like us and want us to succeed. When one of us is a jerk or con artist, it hurts all of us.

If you put your game on Early Access, you MUST do one of these two things: 1. Finish it roughly according to schedule, or 2. Humbly explain what is going on and apologize.

I know some online commentors put down gamers for being Entitled, but if I pay money for half a game and a promise of the second half, dammit, I AM entitled.

(Sadly, after my experience with the promising title Kentucky Route Zero, I've stopped buying Early Access games at all.) 

I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line for how long is too long when finishing an Early Access game. It’s an interesting question that bears discussion. How about this for a potential rule of thumb to argue over: If you can’t say with confidence your potential Early Access game will be done within a year, maybe it needs more time in the oven.

For early adopters, if you take too long to finish your game, you might as well not have finished it at all. Remember, every year the number of elderly gamers increases. Sorry for this extra pressure, but if you take too long, when your game is done, some of the people who bought it won't be alive anymore.

My Humble Advice For Those Who Take This Road

I'm not going to give advice to the Darkest Dungeon people. As I said, they're really talented folks, working on a game with huge potential. I could offer advice to them, but I'm often wrong, and the last thing they need is another loud voice in their heads.

Instead, I will make a humble suggestion or three to those who have yet to go down this road.

Advice One: Form An Elite Feedback Strike Force

Gamer feedback has diminishing returns. Adding more people doesn't help much. Read your feedback, find a good, diverse pool of 10-15 solid advisors, and take most of your advice from them.

Advice Two: It's OK To Stop Listening Sometimes

Trust yourself. If you start to feel confused and bereft, you have my permission to turn off the feedback hose. Take a breath. Enjoy silence and peace. Play your game yourself and see if you like it. You're the designer. If you're digging what you made, it's OK. Trust yourself.

Advice Three: Ban the Evil

This is a big one. If you have a forum and some dude attacks or insults someone else giving feedback, you must ban him. DO IT. BAN HIM. BANHIMBANHIMBANHIM. If he gets mad, tell him how to get a Steam refund. If he can't get a refund, mail him a personal check. Just get rid of him.

This is not an overreaction. The worst thing a tester can do is try to shame and scare off other people giving honest feedback. Anyone who tries to drive away other testers is a direct threat to the health of your business. Terminate with extreme prejudice.

Also, banning jerks is fun and theraputic. It is an activity I recommend highly.

Early Access Is An Experiment

Then again, I feel everything in the game industry is an experiment now. This whole thing is new, and it's evolving faster than I can follow.

I won't try it out myself. I'm too old-fashioned, and I like doing most of my creating in a relatively calm, quiet environment. However, if you would prefer to do your delicate design work while on a flaming rocket, alarm klaxons blaring, flying at top speed into the heart of the sun, I think that Early Access might be just right for you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Indie Bubble Revisited (or, Are We All Totally-Doomed, or Just Regular-Doomed?)

I hate writing this, because the situation is ugly, and it feels like I'm just piling on. I'll try to add something new to the discussion.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Another stupid article about the Indie Bubble, or the #indiepocalypse, or whatever dumb thing they’re calling it today.

It’s starting to get a little old. I did my part kicking off this whole discussion with my Indie Bubble article about a year ago. It's probably the most widely read thing I've ever written. Luminaries of the game industry read it. Many articles referenced it. Some people hated it, though a lot of these seemed to do so not because it was wrong but because they wanted it to be wrong.

It’s been talked about a lot since then. I’ve read a million articles and tweets and critiques by established indie devs who are eager to let you know that if you don’t create an eternal classic and market it 27 hours every day you suck and deserve to fail. (I’m know ... I’m exaggerating. Some days, it doesn’t feel like it.)

But I’m not gunning for ten million dollars, and I doubt most young game devs are either. We just want to earn pizza and housing money making our happy toys. We know that a few people can make a killing. We just want to know if we can make a living.

Anyway, it’s been a year, and I’d like to check in. Try to inject some reality, maybe a solid prediction or two. It seems like half of the game industry is too optimistic and the other half too lost to despair. Instead, all we need to do is look around and see a bit of what the Game Industry is like. What it was like before the bubble, and what it is reverting to being like again.

By the way, I don't want to turn this into an ugly class thing, but ... If you already have a massive hit, OF COURSE everything looks great.

A Bit Of Truth, and Then You Can Ignore the Rest of This

Some have described me as some sort of weirdo Indie Dev Angel of Death, forecasting the apocalypse. This is not what I said in my article. All I said was that, after several exuberant years, the business of writing indie games was returning to normal.

And what is normal? Here's the big take-away! Writing games for cash is a harsh, unforgiving affair. Success is rare and failure common, instead of the other way around. If an indie game fails, it shouldn’t surprise you. Success should surprise you. All I said was that, in the future, this hard reality will (and must) reassert itself.

Please take a moment to reread the previous paragraph. Then don’t read the rest of this mess. All that us Doomsayers are saying is that the simple reality in the previous paragraph is reasserting itself. There’s is an #indiepocalypse, kind of. It’s a painful return to the simple harshness of the gaming biz, same as it always was.

But if you’re still reading, since we're all in the future now, I wanted to revisit my original piece and see if I was accurate.

So let us look, bravely, eyes open and clear, at the situation as it exists. Let's figure out where we're going, and let's see if we can all find a way to avoid flying shrapnel.

Time for a little cheering-up break. Thanks, Twilight Sparkle! Friendship IS magic!

Now I Prove I Was Right

How can I prove that I was right, that the happy days of easy money are gone, and that we indie devs are going to have to hustle and scrape and control our budgets like in the musty olde shareware days?

Once, I dreaded writing this article. I feared having to dig up tales of high profile indie flops. I planned to rely on imperfect measures, like the increasing number of games forced to rely on massive discounts and being in bundles a scant 3-5 months after release. I thought I'd need to scrape together what sales figures I could find to show that, yes, titles that once would have been massive hits out of the gate will struggle simply to break even.

Now I don't need to do any of that. I have been given manna from Blog Writer Heaven: SteamSpy.

Aren't you sick of seeing this chart? (Full size original here.) I know I am.
The Mysterious Miracle of SteamSpy

SteamSpy is a new web site that uses online data mining, secret algorithms, and Magic to come up with weirdly accurate estimates of how many titles games on Steam have sold. Based on my own sales and what I've heard from other indie devs, its numbers are surprisingly on the nose.

It's not as good for figuring out how much actual money a game has made. SteamSpy counts sales, not how much money a sale was actually for. The site  can't tell whether sales were at full price or from sales or bundles or whatever. However, if a game hasn't yet been in any bundles or big sales, it's good at estimating how much the game has earned. It's pretty damn cool.

That being said, please consult the chart above.

One heavily disputed claim in my original article was that most people have only a constant amount they will spend on video games. Thus, since so many more titles are coming out, earnings will go way down.

This struck me as a pretty uncontroversial statement, immediately understood by anyone who knows anything about economics or who has had to make a family budget. If you release 10x as many games, people won't start spending 10x as much on games, as they also need to buy food.

SteamSpy's chart says this is pretty much exactly what happened. Number of games shot up. Money earned per game went way down. Yes, there are still hits, and they generally earned it. It's the invisible majority of developers that are drifting into oblivion in silence.

So now I'm going to make some predictions, and I hope, in a year, that I have been proven wrong. I really do.

Another chart everyone is sick of: Steam releases per month. Ignore the dumb trend line and just look at the dots. The pretty, pretty dots.

Prediction One: More People Need To Abandon Their Dreams.

As a bonus, there is another chart: Steam Releases per month. There's no guesswork here. To know the number of new releases, you just have to go to Steam and count them. The numbers are still shooting up, as hopeful, talented young devs chase the gold rush.

Expect earnings for most developers to keep going down for a while. I don't take any satisfaction in this. I love indie development, and, as I said in the previous article, I WANT to be proven wrong. (Remember, this is my day job too.) Yet, these numbers are pretty compelling, and they speak of a rough road ahead.

Yeah, yeah. You’re probably sick to DEATH of hearing that. LOTS of indie devs say it. What nobody talks about is exactly what that rough road will look like. Who will get hurt, and how? Here’s a guess:

Basically, solid, competently made games that would have made a modest profit 10 years ago or 10 years from now will just flop. Really ground-breaking titles will do fine, of course. It’s just that, in a normal environment, you shouldn’t need to be absolutely unique and invent a new genre or whatever to make money.

(Oh, by the way? If an otherwise solid product falls to huge competition, there's no need to pile on further by saying, "You just sucked. Indies are whiners. You just want a trophy for showing up. Loser. LRN2PLAYN00B!" It really aggravates me when profitable indie devs do this. Show some humility. You just write indie games, for God's sake. Just because your game sold well doesn't make you Jesus.)

This is REALLY important: After the hard times to come, yes, wages will be lower than they were. It will be harder to get rich, but it'll also be totally possible to scrape by a nice, middle-class existence writing competent games in underserved genres.

All it will take is enough companies dying to have a few genres be underserved again. This process will be HARD. This is the so-called #indiepocalypse, right here.

To make a living without a monster hit, however, will require some reality acceptance ...

Yeah, pretty much. I suggest writing your first game in your spare, non-job time. Yes, I know this sucks. I've been there, man.

Prediction Two: Ambitions Will Grow More Modest. Budgets Will Be Cut.

My blog is called the Bottom Feeder, because that is what I am. I am a small, fast, nimble developer, dashing in to grab the scraps the big boys leave behind. I write my games on tight schedules with modest budgets. When I can use cheap, licensed sound and graphics, I do so with enthusiasm.

As a result, our business has done well for over 20 years.

I've watched the ramping up of indie budgets and ambitions over the last few years with fascination. Having a real team and professional assets (graphics, sound, etc) can result in a very successful game. However, the more you spend, the greater the risk. Sometimes, I suspect my fellow developers have lost the ability to make hard choices about what luxuries are worth paying for and what aren't.

Indie developers tend to want nothing less than custom graphics and music of the highest quality, everything done completely fresh for each game. Sometimes, licensing a piece of music for cheap can do just as well, with far less overhead to earn back in sales.

If your game needs voicework (Does it? Does it, really?), there are a multitude of actors who can do well for reasonable rates. Instead, I've seen several developers hire big name actors. I sincerely doubt this generates enough extra sales to justify the expense and trouble.

Team sizes. Holy cripes, but teams are big! I never would have imagined that a 10+ person indie game team would seem like a viable option. Never forget that you can make remarkable stuff with two people (one coder, one artist, buy what assets you have to online for cheap).

And as for long development times, yes, I know. Art happens on its own schedule and shouldn't be rushed. Yet, discipline is still necessary. It's way easier to stay in business when you have a new game every two years than every four. If you're spending 5-7 years to make an indie game, I hope you were already rich when you started.

Amazingly, some indie devs hire actual consultants, the greatest of all cash sponges for confused businesses with too much money. The highest profile recent indie failure, Tale of Tales, hired an expensive consultancy team to help out.  I can guarantee that it wasn't worth it.

As things get tougher, the indie business will need to focus more on the 'Business' part. This is all to the good.

Look at the bright side. If you never get famous, nobody will notice when you have your nervous breakdown on Twitter.

Prediction Three: "PR Better" Will Stop Being the Answer To Everything.

Lower budgets mean you can sell fewer copies of your game and still stay in business. If you operate on a low enough budget, you don't need a huge PR breakthrough to succeed.

I believe a really good game, word of mouth marketing, and patience can still be enough to generate a profitable product. It’s a slow, hard road, but this is still a tough industry. It’s still was easier than it used to be, as the number of outlets for word-of-mouth and cheap marketing have gone way up since I started. If I’m wrong, we have an even more serious problem than we thought.

This is because the PR situation is becoming intolerable. I am so sick of indie devs who already made it saying, "You must spend huge resources on PR. If you don't, you deserve to fail." This is mean, lazy, and utterly neglectful of the reality now.

Look. As I write this, Pax Prime is going on. There are OVER ONE HUNDRED indie games showing at PAX. These are young, ambitious developers who are expending huge amounts of time, cash, and energy doing what their elders told them to do. For most of them, the effort will be wasted.

This isn't their fault. The gaming press only has so much bandwidth. It can and will only cover so many games, and most of those resources will go to AAA titles. They simply can't give exposure to over 100 games. Even if they could, gamers don't have the time or mental bandwidth to process so much input.

I've heard that the press will only cover you if you go directly to them in person (expensive, time-consuming). Simple email contacts (fast, inexpensive) won't do. I'm starting to believe it. The recent indie game N++ hardly got any coverage, and this is the sequel to the N series, one of the best-known, seminal series of the indie boom.

And yet, even if they had gone to cons and kissed the ring, I doubt it would have helped. Over 100 indie games on display. You can't fight that math.

(I’m assuming here that the gaming press is a pure, neutral meritocracy. If you believe that the press occasionally gives a huge amount of press to a mediocre title for unrelated reasons, well, the problem becomes even more dire.)

This is also assuming, of course, that conventional press even matters anymore. There are real doubts on that score. Reviews in old-school magazines and web sites don’t bump my sales near as much as they used to.

I believe that, of necessity, developers will rediscover building businesses the old-fashioned way. Not by getting a smash hit overnight, but slowly, game by game, building a genuine fan base that will carry them through good times and bad, counting on quality and word-of-mouth PR to get the word out there. As the saying goes, it takes ten years to make an overnight success.

It's slow and difficult. Really difficult. It may not even be possible. You’ll have to forgive me for thinking it’s possible, as it’s the only thing that enables me to get out of bed some mornings.

Pictured: The Game Industry in 2016. (Artist's conception.)

Prediction Four: Indie Gaming Will Survive.

Despite all this, I'm not a doomsayer. Indie gaming will survive. Gamers want us to survive, and the quality of our work is fantastic. I rarely have more fun than when I buy a Humble Bundle and try out 10 of the games these ambitious young people are making.

These new developers are driven, smart, and admirable. They are better than me, and I want them to get rich. Some of them even will.

Nobody knows what is going to happen. There are a ton of unsolved problems (like pricing and efficient marketing). It will be hard to succeed. Like it has almost always been, and will almost always be.

My advice for you personally? It's the same advice I'd give to anyone planning to go into a highly competitive artistic field: Don't start writing indie games unless you couldn't possibly be happy doing any other job.

I hope you're not a broken toy like me, driven by a mad compulsion to make these peculiar, garish, little works of art. But if you are, welcome aboard. I am rooting for you.

You're still reading this? What's WRONG with you? Why didn't you just read 200 words, make up some stupid opinion I didn't say, and attack me for it in a Gamasutra article? You know, like everyone else?

What I Am Going To Do

The same thing I've always done. Lay low. Work fast and cheap. I'll count on my awesome loyal fans to see me through, and I'll do my best to make work worthy of their loyalty.

My games are $20. To stay in business, I need to sell, say, a minimum of 6000 full price copies of each new game. Add on bundles, Steam sales, etc, and it's a good living. For me, now, it's an entirely attainable goal. If you care, you can follow how I'm doing on SteamSpy.

I know life is a bummer now, but indie games are just too cool to die. If you write them, as a pro or hobbyist, be proud.

Well, better get back to work. I have two weeks to write four weeks’ work of dialogue. Time to hop to it.


Please let me know how much I suck on my Twitter.