Thursday, April 30, 2009

Some Morbid Reading For Your Day

As the years passed, I have seen a lot of Indie developers rocket past me, just because they are more talented and courageous than I am. Stupid Braid and World of Goo, getting all big and famous by earning it.

I have spent a lot of time envying Introversion, for getting success by being so damn innovative and good. Which is why this article about the grim state of their business really bummed out my day.

We all say it again and again, but it bears repeated. Indie development is a rough way to make a living. One or two missteps can cast you into the Abyss. Not long ago, I released two unpopular games and almost went under. Only the good fortune of writing one big success saved me.

I will feel bad if any currently operating Indie, even a direct competitor, goes under. Because, to quote an excellent book, "A marketplace without a competitor isn't." We compete, but we're all in this together. When one of us does well and gets people to go, "Hey, I should look for more games like that," it helps us all. Anyone who gets introduced to RPGs by Eschalon is just waiting to become my customer.

So good luck to Introvision. Survive and keep showing that Indie gaming can be more exciting than just 90s-style RPG retreads.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Nobody Should Ever Change Anything, Ever.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at me over the years is that I only write the same game over and over again. This fills me with bitter, ironic laughter, because of one thing. Whenever I change anything, I get lots of angry E-mail asking me to change it back.

I've learned a lot running this business. Many lessons, most of them learned painfully. And I have gained no more aggravating bit of knowledge than this one:

There is no change you can make to your games, no matter how clearly obvious or beneficial, that will not anger some of your fans.

And a brief corollary:

If the change doesn't make someone angry, it didn't matter.

A Visual Example

My first game, Exile, released in January, 1995, looked something like this:

(Actually, Exile v1.0 had charming creature graphics drawn by my ex-wife and horrible button and interface graphics drawn by me. But it was about the same.)

Our newest game, Geneforge 5: Overthrow, looks like this:

As you can see, I have changed just about everything. Repeatedly. Graphics. Style. Interface. And the game system underneath. Everything has been redone, and, as I learned more, redone again. And while not all of the changes have been beneficial (and were then re-changed in later games), the process has been one of evolution toward betterness.

And every change earned me angry e-mails and lost customers. I've gotten more, "Why have you forsaken me? I am lost to you forever." E-mails from customers than I could ever count. It's a depressing thing to happen when you've been really busting your butt and your budget to bring about improvements. But you have to live with it. You just have to steel yourself and always remember this:

People hate change.

Case Studies From My Own Experience

Here are some hugely beneficial (and profitable) changes I made which earned me fury and lost customers.
  • Switch From A Flat View to a 3-D Isometric View - My first games were completely flat, as seen in the first illustration. I switched to a far, far nicer pseudo 3-D isometric view in 1998. It looks better, and it enables me to do more things with the game. (Like elevations.) But, over a decade later, I STILL get complaints about it. Lost souls, out in the wilderness, wanting me to return to a design I got completely fed up with in a previous century.
  • Switch From Hand-Drawn To Rendered Graphics - Oh, wow. There are a lot of people still angry about this change, made in Avernum 4 in 2005. My old graphics were hand-drawn instead of rendered, which made any sort of animation extremely painstaking and expensive. Using 3-D models to render creatures and terrain enables me to have a wider variety of much nicer icons without crushing my budget. But it changed the look of the games that people were used to, and a lot of customers never forgave me for it.
  • Removing the Need to Identify Magic Items - A smaller but highly instructive example. Once, when you got a magic item in one of my RPGs, you had to take it to a sage to get it identified. This was busy work, confused new players, diluted the excitement of collecting lewtz, and just wasn't fun. Dropping it was a total no-brainer. And yet people complained. Why? Oh, why?
  • Removed the Need to Carry Around Ammunition For Bows - This is a recent change, part of my desire to eliminate busywork. When you shoot a bow, you just shoot it. You don't need to shop for arrows. I can see why this would break immersion for people, but it seems a neutral change at worst. Not worth the angry complaints I've gotten.
Now the more contrary among you might be thinking, "Well, maybe people complain because your so-called improvements actually suck. How about that? Huh? Huh?" Not likely. Historically, when I made major augmentations to the engine, I've seen increases in sales. If the changes I made sucked, I would not still be in business. So give me the benefit of the doubt.

And I should point out one more thing. if someone doesn't like a change, well, you can't win an argument with a customer. If they don't like it, that's their right. They'll have to find their bliss somewhere else. It is your job to make sure that your changes bring in customers to replace the ones you lose.

So What Should I, a Game Developer, Do?

Forewarned is forearmed. You can't do anything about this phenomenon, but you should steel yourself for it so you don't suffer shock, self-doubt, and potentially catastrophic second guessing.

Be sure the changes you make are worthwhile. Be sure that your community of fans is warned about them, so that the culture shock is lessened. Be apologetic but firm to the people that complain about improvements. And be confident. Remember, evolution is necessary. Making the same people happy forever is a surefire route to stagnation and burnout.

One More Thing, For Those Who Are Angry At Me Changing Things

Despite what some people think, I am constitutionally incapable of writing the same game again and again. Writing more than three games without major changes in the engine or system or setting would drive me out of my mind. I need to change the system so that I can open up new design spaces. I need to change the graphics so I don't go loopy staring at the same icons day after day.

There are some people out there who claim they would be honestly happy if I just rewrote Exile, again and again, year after year. But I can't do that. Nobody can. You should always be looking for ways to evolve your work. It'll keep you from going crazy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Indie Games Should Cost More, Pt. 2, The Expensening!

Last week, I wrote about how Indie games are becoming too cheap and what factors we should use to price our games in the future. This post attracted some attention and the occasional explosions of misplaced rage. A quick summary of the article:

  • There are an increasing number of Indie game outlets where low, low prices are expected or enforced.
  • Not all Indie games, for a variety of reasons, can profitably be sold for so little.
  • Thus, the new markets are going to choke what Indie games can accomplish, not encourage it.

This isn't good for anyone. Developers. Customers. Distributors. Anyone.

This week, I talk about the reasons I've been given to make my games cheaper, why I ignore them, and what I think should happen now.

One Quick Point

Some people on forums criticized what I wrote because they mistakenly thought I was trying to repeal the law of Supply and Demand. This is unbelievable nonsense. I LIKE the idea of pricing according to Supply and Demand. It is our outlets to the marketplace setting arbitrary price caps that is countering the good work of economics, not me.

Refuting nonsense on Internet forums is such a Sisyphean task that I hate spending even a moment at it. But this particular misrepresentation was so common that I had to say something.

Why Do You Charge So Much? You Suck!

In the last fifteen years, I have heard just about every reason why my games should be cheaper. These arguments refute infallibly the old maxim that "The customer is always right." I prefer the much more accurate "You can't win an argument with a customer." Which is why complaints about my prices tend to go unanswered. So, without further ado, here is the litany of shame ...

"Your Games Are Too Crude and Old-School To Justify the Price"

Then dude, seriously, don't buy them. (And, if I may ask, why are you playing them?) I have my pride. If you don't think my games are worth it, don't give me money.

But consider this. I write plot-heavy old-school, turn-based RPGs. Almost nobody else does. I provide a quality niche service few others provide. Some people LIKE the crude, old-school thing I got going on. The scarcity of the service I provide justifies the price.

"If You Charged Less, You Would Sell More Copies"

This is true. The problem is that I won't sell enough more to justify the lower prices.

Microeconomics tells us that as we charge less, we sell more, but we make less per sale. At some point, there is a best price, a point where (number of sales) * (profit per sale) is at its maximum. The question is, where is it? Based on my experiences shifting prices up and down, I think I'm actually at the sweet spot.

Suppose I charged a World Of Goo price, like $15. This would roughly halve my profit per sale. (Because of the way credit card fees work, the less I charge per sale, the smaller percentage of profits I make.) To make up for this cut, I would have to double my sales. Double! That is a huge increase! Doubling would be big!

Based on data I've received from distributors, I believe that about 3% of my downloads turn into sales (this is called the Conversion Rate). To make up for the price cut, I would have to increase my conversion rate to 6%. This is a HUGE rate, pretty much impossible to get for a niche product like mine. If I had a more casual-friendly product, I might manage it, but that's not my niche. I have to set a price to reflect the nature of my niche.

"Steam Cut Their Prices Way Back, and Their Sales Went Up"

True. But their brief sale got a lot of press. There is no reason to believe this would result in an increase of profits over the long run, for the reasons given above.

We have sales too. They got attention and an uptick in sales. Then that increase petered out and sales returned pretty quickly to the old levels (but with less profit per sale). If sales had stayed high, we would probably have lowered prices permanently by now, but that's not how it worked out.

"I Can Buy Better Old Games At the Game Store For Far Less"

This is, honestly, a pretty hard charge to answer. When someone says, "Why should I get your game when I can get Baldur's Gate 2 for $10?" what I think is, "Dude, you haven't played Baldur's Gate 2 yet? Go get it! It's awesome! And you know something? In a few weeks, when you're done with it, I'll still be here."

I can't compete on price with old classic. Nobody can. To expect me (or anyone) to match price with a handful of old games is completely ridiculous. Can't happen.

But my games have an advantage. They're new. Go ahead and play the old classics, or at least the ones you haven't played already. Go play Fallout or Planescape: Torment. They're SWEET.

You'll be done soon enough. And, when you are, I'll still be here.

"I Can Play Games Just Like Yours For Free on Kongregate Or Whatever"

No. You can't. I make sure to write games that aren't already being done by everyone else. That's why I can charge so much for them. And, prospective Indie developers, if there is a similar version of the game you're writing already available for free, write a different game.

"You Don't Deserve That Much Money. Period."

Then don't pay. The day nobody thinks my games are worth the price, I will fold up shop and go get a real job. But I will never, ever be shamed into charging less than what I feel is a fair price for my labor. I work hard, and I have earned a living. The service I provide to my fans is worth the ability to keep food on my family's table and a roof over their head.

If you disagree, that is your right. But I am not going to send everything I've built over a cliff to appease your wrongness.

What Should Be Done

After all this griping and ranting, I should offer some actual suggestions for what should happen in the future. You shouldn't complain without suggesting a better alternative, amirite?

If all of us (developers, customers, distributors) want a healthy Indie scene in which we can all make money, we should all want the people who make the content to be able to make a living. If you agree, there are things each of us can do to help this happen.

Customers - Don't pirate Indie games. Sure, it's wrong to pirate any game, but not all crimes are equal. But when the game is the direct source of the cash that puts food on a family's table, that is an extra-intense level of Bad.

Anyone who would deny the two guys who made World of Goo their lousy fifteen bucks deserves a good, sharp kick.

Developers - Figure out the right price for your game and stick with it. Don't let anyone shame you into going lower. It stings to pass on distribution on Amazon, sure. But if you can't get the price you need to charge, swallow hard and move on. Maybe if they aren't able to sell more of the titles they want to sell, they will change to a wiser path.

Distributors - Don't set arbitrary price ceilings (like at Amazon or XBox Live Community Games). If you are setting the price yourselves, use the developers price as a guide. Then let the magic of the marketplace do its work, punishing the foolish and rewarding the smart. If a game is too expensive, the price can be lowered later. But if your overly low prices don't support the people who make the products that make you money, well, that is not in your simple, dollars-and-sense best interest. Don't cut the developer off at the knees before his or her product even reaches the market.

None of this is unreasonable. I'm not being all idealistic or hippy-dippy. I'm just using hard, simple business sense. This accelerating rush to give our products away is simple craziness.

So go ahead. Try it. Charge what you're worth. See what happens. You might as well. Because we'll all have to do it sooner or later. You might as well do it while you're still in business.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More Evidence Of Overwhelming Piracy

An article of some interest over at the Escapist today about piracy rates on Stardock's new game, Demigod. The big takeaway for me:

"Sadly, most of the ~120,000 connections are not customers but via warez," he continued. "About 18,000 are legitimate."

The big lesson here (avoid any position where pirates can tax your resources) is pretty obvious in hindsight, so I won't belabor it. And I think the weak DRM on Demigod doesn't have anything to do with anything. No matter how strong your DRM is, Torrents of cracked versions of your game will be available in seconds.

I am just really drawn to this extra evidence of how overwhelming PC piracy is. 120000 users, 18000 legitimate! It dovetails nicely with what the World of Goo people found. No real conclusions here. Just my jaw hanging gently open.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview Flamebait!

Just did an enjoyable little interview with RPG Codex. A lot of it is the standard, boilerplate stuff, but we kind of got into it on an interesting question: Should computer RPGs strive to have interesting tactical combat ...

Look, in a turn-based RPG, with a small number of dudes fighting a small number of dudes, there isn’t much in the way of tactics that is possible. The math isn’t there! I think you’re wanting something closer to chess. Sure, chess is complex, but that’s sixteen pieces on sixteen. For a single-player RPG, the fun is in the story (on a high level) and the stat building and lewt finding (on a low level). The combat is a means to an end. So make it fast and lively, end it, and get on to the next fast, lively combat. I do put in fights with odd tactics, generally weird or boss encounters. It’s nice variety. But combat is still the means to an end.


If you really want tactics in an RPG, play chess and give your pieces cute names. Like, “I declare, forsooth, that Queen Zzelma, my 18th level Rogue-Paladin, doth move 4 spaces diagonally in defiance of the Darkbeetle Empire. Hark, she hath slain a Knight, and is thuseth Level 19. Huzzah.” Chess is about quality. RPGs are about quantity.

Sadly, I haven't gotten any angry E-mails about this yet. What's the point of giving good flamebait if nobody bites? Even if I absolutely believe that what I said is true.

When designing a game, you have to keep your focus on what makes that sort of game cool and resist the temptation to bring in stuff that dilutes your focus. When I write an RPG, I try to put in about eight or nine serious, tactical encounters with thought involved. The rest of the battles are quick, light, kick-ass, adolescent power fantasy stuff. Because that's what makes the genre work.

In my favorite RPGs in the last few years, like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, most of the fights involved shredding bozos. And that's the way we like it.

Edit: Happily, a commenter pointed out I missed a forum discussion where I am subjected to the withering rage of the Internet. I don't understand what makes some people so angry about things.

Actually, I should point out I plan, in my next game engine, to highly refine both my graphics and the tactical elements of combat. There IS room for improvement. But that doesn't change the fact that if you demand serious tactical experiences in your battles, stay away from RPGs. Mine. Anyones. They are not for you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Indie Games Should Cost More, Pt. 1

I have a friendly little message for my fellow Indie game designers.

You really need to start charging more for your games.

Every year, life is getting more and more expensive. Insurance. Rent. Food. And, at the same time, your games are getting cheaper and cheaper, sometimes as cheap as a dollar, as you engage in a full speed race to the bottom.

Now don't get me wrong. Some games (casual quickies, simple puzzle games) should be inexpensive. But everyone (retailers, reviewers, customers) is enabling a mindset where all games, even the niche products and larger, deeper, less casual titles, are expected to be desperately cheap. This is not going to help developers stay in business. This is not how a healthy industry is maintained.

Creating the Expectation of Insulting Cheapness

There is an increasing attitude that Indie games should be cheap. Super cheap. Like, pennies on the dollar, "How can a developer make a living that way?" cheap.

XBox Live gave the trend a big push by charging $5 or $10 for most titles. That was still enough to get rich on when the gold rush was going. It isn't going anymore. I was genuinely surprised when people seriously complained that Braid, one of the coolest, most innovative titles out last year, was an entirely reasonable fifteen bucks.

Then Microsoft created XNA, a set of tools anyone can use to write and sell games on the XBox. Sounds cool, so far, but the maximum anyone can sell their game for is $10. Not good. Think that, sometimes, some games should actually sell for more than that? You are, apparently, crazy.

Then Amazon opened their game download store, selling all titles for ten bucks or less. Not good. (Oh, and look at the comments in the article I just linked to if you don't think people are now expecting games to be that cheap.)

Now the iPhone has boldly lowered the bar, with $4.99 being the highest price point for most of the titles, and the user reviews on most $4.99 titles are about how excessively expensive they are. (As if.) And many of the games are going for ninety-nine cents. Cents! Once the gold rush is over, only the lowest budget, most casual titles are going to be able to make money at that price.

Bargain basement prices are becoming the expectation. It wasn't always that way.

A Bit of Ancient History

When I first founded Spiderweb Software, in 1994, I spent a lot of time thinking about pricing my first game, Exile. Back then, there was a good rule of thumb for pricing your shareware product:

Charge half as much as the comparable product being sold in boxes on store shelves.

Back then, new games sold for $50. So Exile was $25, which was a very common price for shareware games back then.

A few years later, I started sending the registered version on a CD (instead of E-mailing a registration code). I charged $30 for a CD. Sales changed very little.

Two years later, I went back to an E-mailed code system and lowered the price back down to $25. Sales changed very little.

Three years ago, I looked at all of our expenses (credit card fees, postage, insurance, etc) and went "Holy crap! We need to raise prices to account for this." We raised our price to $28 (still about half the price of comparable products on store shelves). Since then, our money intake has actually increased. We're doing quite well now.

And yet, in the last few years, Indie game prices have been falling through the floor. They get more and more expensive to write but are approaching unheard of levels of cheapness. ($10. $5. $1.)

So What's the Problem, Loudmouth?

Some games being sold cheap doesn't bother me. Some games SHOULD be sold cheap. Braid and World of Goo, both fantastic games, are perfectly priced at $15 for 6-7 rich, no-filler hours of play. $28 would be too much for them.

What bothers me is the increasing number of outlets where low, low prices, no matter what the quality or depth or size of the game, are the expectation. (hi2u Amazon and iTunes) This squeezes out the niche products. Niche products (like single-player RPGs, adventure games, wargames) are going to have small, intense audiences. They need to charge a fair price to survive. And that means taking all the factors into account.

How Should You Price An Indie Game?

The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional knows how much to charge for his or her work. When people argue about how much an Indie game should sell for, they tend to ignore several important factors that should go into the decision:
  • How Big is the Game? - Braid lasts about 6 hours, or about $2.50 an hour. A little on the pricey side, but the game gets away with it by being so fun. Our newest game, Geneforge 5: Overthrow, lasts about 30 hours, or less than a buck an hour (not counting considerable replay value). $28 seems very fair.
  • How Niche Is the Game? - Economics says that scarcer things should sell for more. A Bejeweled clone is common and thus should be cheap. Good single-player RPGs are scarce. They should sell for more.
  • How Much Do I Need To Earn To Live? - Suppose your game takes a year to write and thus, counting salaries, needs to earn about $100K to break even. If you sell it on iTunes for $.99, after Apple's cut, you need to sell around 130000 copies to break even. That is a LOT of copies. A spiffy and addictive puzzle game (which is harder to write than you think) might sell that many. A plot-heavy niche RPG? No.
When you price your game, you take the factors into account and you come up with a number. Then you try to sell the game. And if the number you need to charge is too high for what the portals will let you charge? You have a real problem. And, when good games get squeezed out of the market because of penny pinching, we all have a problem.

Indie developers are harmed by a blanket idea of what their games "should" cost. Everyone who allows this bargain basement attitude is part of the problem.

Oh, And a Quick Note For Those Who Disagree With Me ...

If you don't care about the people who work so hard to entertain you being able to charge a price that enables them to survive, I have no interest in what you have to say.

Why You Shouldn't Go Cheap, and What You, Yes You, Should Do

This is already pretty TLDR for a blog post. Next week, I'll give some of the reasons to sell games cheaply (I've heard them all over the years) and why they are bogus. And I'll give some suggestions for how everyone can maintain a market in which ALL Indies can survive.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Rock Band Is Better Than Actual Music

I love Rock Band. I love it a scary amount. I play Expert guitar and drums. I've been playing video games of all sorts for going on 30 years now, and I don't think any game has given me the pure joy that playing Rock Band on drums has. Sure, it also makes me sweaty and disgusting and needing to bathe after every session, but there is always a price to pay.

I want to write a little about this phenomenon now, before Harmonix and EA and Neversoft and Activision are able to kill the fad with a truly excessive flood of upcoming titles.

(And, to insert myself into the fanboy wars, I strongly prefer Rock Band to Guitar Hero. I like the general look better, and I strongly prefer the song choices. Rock Band has introduced me to far more bands I now adore than Guitar Hero.)

My big pet peeve about the fake plastic Fisher Price musical instrument fad is the constant, almost inevitable refrain that, instead of playing these games, people should go out and play real instruments. Which is stupid in so many ways.

Let's set aside the fact that these people have no right to criticize the innocent leisure-time activities of others. Think I should learn to play real drums? Well, who died and made you the Queen Of Fun?

There is a very good reason that I'm not taking drum lessons. It turns out, I don't want to.

But the main problem with this criticism is that it makes a very common and very fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the fake musical instrument experience: Playing Rock Band is not a less involved way of making music. It is a more involved way of LISTENING to music.

I don't want to make music. There are not enough hours in the day. I need a new creative outlet sucking up my time like I need a hole in my head. But I absolutely love to listen to music. And, when I play Rock Band, I play the songs I want to listen to, and I noodle along with them in a rhythmic, physical way that adds to my enjoyment of the song.

Listening to music is a fundamental human activity, requiring neither explanation or excuse. Sometimes I listen using a stereo. Sometimes I listen using Rock Band.

And I think most other players are the same way. I hope so. The unsavory alternative is Rock Band leading to the creation of hordes of new musicians. God, I hope not. Last time I checked, our world has no shortage of musicians.

So play it loud and play it proud. While it lasts. I honestly think that, in our new recession-wracked world, fake plastic instrument games are kind of doomed. I'll rant about this more in some future week when I don't have a good way to piss off Indie game fans.

Couple More Quick iPhone Thoughts

Thanks for the great comments on my iPhone post. I did want to quickly address two points people made.

It's so agonizing missing a Gold Rush. The New York Times is taunting me with tales of untold wealth I have missed. But I still think I made the right call.

First, some pointed out that the iPhone has some people who play it seriously, like multi-hour sessions on a train or whatever. I have no doubt that there are a number of users who play long sessions, but the apps that are selling like crazy really seem to lend themselves to short sessions.

When in doubt, my main business rule is this: I always make the sort of game I would want to play. If I don't do that, my heart isn't in it. Even if a large percentage of iPhone users wanted highly-involved 40 hours games (which I still doubt), I sure don't use my iPhone that way.

Second, someone suggested that I write a quick app for the iPhone, to try it out. Throw something together and see if it floats.

Here is my bit of advice for aspiring developers:


It is theoretically possible to put a small amount of time into something successful. But when that happens, you will have made something very easy to rip off, and your profits will eventually fade. So I really hope you had a Tetris-quality idea makes you a millionaire quick.

As for me, I write RPGs. And I don't think it's possible to really quickly write a Diablo or Rogue clone which will hit the sweet million dollars spot.

Of course, I might just be whistling past the graveyard, trying to convince myself that I didn't just pass up on a chance to make a fortune. But I, like all small business owners, have to make lots of decisions all the time. At some point, you just have to live with the calls you make and go on to the next thing.