Saturday, November 6, 2021

The Bottom Feeder Has Moved On!

 A happy little message for anyone still following this dusty old blog.

I am still writing! Not a lot, but I am making quality free content. I just do it on Substack, which is a properly maintained blogging site with nice features and a working captcha.

So if you want to experience more ranting, please subscribe to the new Bottom Feeder! Hope to see you there!

Edit (5/26/2023) - Google is going to start deleting inactive accounts this year. I'll occasionally drop in and edit this blog to keep it Officially Active.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Getting Sweet Patron Money On the Modern Internet

Once, to survive in the arts, you needed someone like this: The profoundly rich product of centuries of inbreeding.

This is a blog post about making a living writing art. Like, say, indie games. So expect a certain amount of despair.

In ye olden days, many talented people wanted to be artists. However, very few of them sold their art for enough money to make a decent living. So they would get a patron. A patron is a very rich person who is amused by you. They provide you with a tiny chunk of their wealth, and you continue to exist as an artist in order to please them.

(This system came into being many centuries ago, long before modern capitalism existed, so save your Capitalism Iz Bad hot takes for a sunnier day.)

Many very talented people are writing indie games, but the competition is soul-crushing and most gamers don't even bother to play the games they buy. Those of us who have the design chops but don't have a hit have to find patrons.

There are currently a number of routes to patronage. Suppose you want to write your indie 2-D roguelike platformer about an old dying man who wants to learn to smile. Yet, at the same time, you don't want to live in poverty. Here are three big paths to hope.

This entire blog post is an advertisement. A very good-intentioned one, but still.

1. Crowdfunding (e.g. Kickstarter, Fig)

Kickstarter achieved a true miracle: They figured out how to monetize goodwill.

I am a big fan of Kickstarter. I currently am Kickstarting a remaster of our cult classic Geneforge. It's going well. I am writing this blog post to get more attention for this effort.

Kickstarter is simultaneously a way for people to pre-order your game and a way to find patrons who will pay more substantial amount of money for a single copy. Once, my fans gave me $20-30 per game. Thanks to Kickstarter, richer people who have been my fans for a long time now have a way to pay more and get more in return. They are enabling us to keep writing games.

In ye olden days, if you were a patron for a playwright, you could actually sit on the stage during performances and make fun of the play as it was going on. If you are a serious patron for me, I let you give me ideas to put in the game. You can pay more on our Kickstarter to name a character or design elements of the game.

(By the way, I actually enjoy this a lot. The ideas we've gotten from our backers have been of a VERY high quality and fun to write. But I don't let you do it unless you help me buy food for my kids.)

I expect that we will kickstart every game we write from now on. It really is making that much of a difference for our business. If something about this makes you mad, remember it's basically just taking pre-orders, and people don't have a problem with that when Activision or EA do it.

A Side Thought: One reason video game kickstarters do so well is because Steam gives out free keys to backers of the game when it lands on Steam. This really helps sales and is very generous of Steam. People really like Steam keys. If Valve stops allowing this, kickstarters for video games will instantly become far less valuable.

Another Side Thought: Kickstarters can fail or turn into frauds. Look, if you kickstart a game and it doesn't work out, hey, it happens. But you need to be honest about it to your backers and, if at all possible, refund some of their money. If you don't do this, you make Kickstarter look like a scam, and you are stabbing all your fellow indie devs in the back.

The Internet lets you be like these guys, if they worked indoors and had your credit card number.

2. Donations (e.g. Patreon)

Of course, not all artists look for wealthy patrons. Others are buskers, warriors of the road, playing their music on a streetcorner for donations of passers by.

Patreon achieved a true miracle: They let you busk from the privacy of your home, and you get your money as a subscription instead of a one-time thing. The second part is REALLY important.

Kickstarter tends to be for creators who have a long-time fan base and who have built up a bit of trust. Patreon tends to depend on someone finding you and having a surge of goodwill for you, enough that they fork over a credit card. Then, every month, you can tap a few drops of precious sap from the mighty maple of their credit rating. Get enough of those temporary surges of goodwill and you have a job!

To keep your Patreon profitable, it really helps to come out with constant drips of content only for backers. For this reason, I believe that Patreon is better for people who make content in many small chunks, like writers, artists, and podcasters. However, some game developers are making really good money out of Patreon, so it must be considered.

I don't do Patreon because of my old-fashioned "Ok, Boomer" attitude towards my business: I make a living by selling stuff. You give me money, and I give you a game. Though, the moment my business feels threatened, that principle will go right out the window.

A Side Thought: This is a great (and long overdue) way for makers of mods and other user-made content to be paid for their efforts.

A Side Thought: A friend of mine who is trying to make a living as an artist online is considering making a Patreon. However, to really make money, she will need to draw lots of smutty versions of cartoon characters. I have no real lesson or purpose in relating this. I just think it's funny.

This is what I look like when contemplating the Internet. It is also what you get when you Google "Baby Boomer public domain image".

3. Corporate Patrons (e.g. Humble Bundle, Epic Game Store)

Of course, you can get patronage in the old-fashioned way: get a rich entity to fork over a wad of cash. These days, the cash wads come from corporations.

If you have an old game that has some appeal, Humble will sell a million copies of it for pennies each. They get chum to throw in the waters, and you get visibility and a nice check.

If you have a new indie game that looks fancy, the Epic Game Store will pay you a huge advance to have an exclusive. Then they get the prestige of selling it, and you get patron bucks. Whether the game actually sells enough to make it profitable for Epic doesn't actually enter into the equation. (Thus, this is more like the patronage of antiquity than it at first appears.)

We have sold many games on Humble, and it really carried our business during some lean times. We want to sell games on Epic, but our tawdry wares have not yet appealed to them. (Hey Epic, we got some really funky old indie games full of prestige, available for a giveaway for but a tiny taste of the Fortnite billions!)

This route to patronage is available to those developers who have skill. You need either a very promising title or a library of quality goods. It won't get you into business, but it can keep you there.

A Side Thought: Apple is also giving out patronage checks to those who put their games into their subscription model Apple Arcade. This is great for participants, but the subscription model for video games will bring developers to the same Hollywood Accounting doom faced by other creators. If you get offered a big check to be in a subscription service, congratulations, but don't pretend you aren't scorching the earth behind you.

Your end goal, of course, is to become this guy.

It's a Glorious World

I say this without irony: The opportunities above are amazing and awesome and without them we wouldn't have a business anymore. Every time the indie games biz gets tighter, the Internet figures out a way to help us survive in it. We feel very, very lucky.

And this isn't even all the possibilities for patronage. I understand in some countries the government will give you tax breaks and actual checks to help write your game. This effort to cure the world's tragic shortage of video games should be applauded.

Of course, none of this will help you if you don't have skill. If you can't write something that has appeal to some audience, nothing will save you.

If you're a skilled indie developer (or musician or artist or creator) and your work is good, kind humans will want to support you. Make something that speaks to a bunch of fans, and they will open their hearts to you. And then, with luck, their wallets. And internet entrepreneurs are figuring out ways to help those fans become patrons.

It's not often I write something in this blog with a smile on my face, but this is one of those times.

Oh, and did I mention I have a Kickstarter? My kids gotta' eat!


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our upcoming game, Geneforge 1 - Mutagen. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Queen's Wish Is Out. Here's Why It's So Weird!

All new. All different.

Now that we've finally released our new game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, we're finally free to talk about it! Nerdy game-design talking!

We have been writing role-playing games for a very, very long time. It's what we do. One of the ways we stay sane while doing this is to change things. Every game or two, we like to change stuff: The graphics. The setting. The game system.

Doing new things inspires us and keeps our brains fresh. After 25 years, we want to innovate. Stretch the form. Take risks, win or lose.

The problem is that whenever you make a change some people will get mad. Whatever change you make, some people will dislike it. (Which is reasonable. People like what the like.) It is then the responsibility of the developer to earn new customers to make up for the ones driven away by the changes. (which is difficult and scary.)

Our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, changes EVERYTHING. It's a completely new RPG, rewritten from the ground up.

Some of the changes, like the graphics and the storyline, will be pretty self-evident. Some people will like them, and some won't. I hope you're cool with it, but it's out of my hands now.

There Is One Way I Can Make Things Easier

There is one thing I can help with, though. I've changed a lot of rules and ways the game system works. For decades, we've set up stuff in a certain way, and now it's different, and it's caused some confusion among our testers.

So, for our long-time fans, this is a quick guide to the stuff we've changed. This will help you avoid confusion and kill monsters with maximal efficiency.

I don't want you to waste your time. Every dungeon you enter, you can WIN. You have to win. If not ...

1. Trash Monsters Don't Get Experience

This is the single change that makes people the most angry. You get experience with victories. Completing quests, defeating dungeons, these are what give experience.

Sneaking into a dungeon, killing two wolves, and running out doesn't reward you. You have to enter every dungeon determined to get victory. Coffee is for closers.

I understand the anger about this change. A lot of people play RPGs to get that constant dopamine drip of tiny rewards. I'm trying to do a different thing here, and it's going to cost us money. I don't want you to waste your time killing the same 3 brigands again and again and again. I want you to always be pushing forward, exploring new areas, defeating new foes, trying new things.

2. You Have To Do Dungeons In One Trip

Along the same lines as #1. Your enemies can get reinforcements. You can't dip into a dungeon, kill a few monsters, return to town to rest, and repeat until the adventure is whittled away. You have to use strategy and conserve your power to defeat dungeons in one trip.

Don't let this stress you out, though. We have worked really hard on balance. On Normal difficulty, the dungeons should be exciting and suspenseful without being punishing. If you want a true tactical challenge, on the other hand, Veteran and Torment difficulties are there for you.

3. You Don't Have Much Energy, But Effects Are Powerful

In our earlier games, you had tons of energy and cast lost of spells all the time, but they had less of an effect. In Queen's Wish, you have less energy (though killing foes refreshes it). The effects are quite powerful, but you will have to take care to use them when they can have maximal impact.

If character development seems to simple, remember that how you improve your forts is a major part of your character build. There's lot of complexity, but I don't hit you with it all at the beginning.

4. Healing is Weaker. Crowd Control is Stronger.

It is more important to control your foes than to just let them bonk you and heal the damage. You will have a full suite of stun and terror abilities to get your enemies under control.

A nice tip: Many of your ability make your next weapon blow have a special effect (like causing bleeding or stun). These abilities help attacks from bows and wands too. You can have your archer stun the evil wizards in the back row!

5. You Make the Best Gear In Your Forts

The dungeons still have good treasure, of course. However, your most important reward for completing missions is resources for your forts. Then you can build new smithies, alchemists, etc. The more smithies you build, the better the gear you can get.

Having trouble in a dungeon? Remember that the best gear is sold in your forts. Go back to one of them, build a new smithy, and do some shopping. It will help a lot!

There are over 40 base abilities. Some are core. Some are situational. Some dungeons on higher difficulties may require special character builds.

6. You Can Change Around Your Skills At Will

When you train your character in a set of abilities, you can unlearn those abilities in your forts at will. Some abilities are more useful in certain regions.

On Normal difficulty, this probably won't be necessary. In higher difficulty levels, you might need to change your skill loadout or switch to alternate characters to overcome certain challenges.

You may find the Queen's Wish system is way deeper than it appears at first. You'll have to make a lot of decisions about how to build up your forts and how to shift your skills around to deal with new foes.

7. No More Junk Items

For the last couple decades, there were lots of small incidental items (like spoons or bricks) scattered around to add flavor to areas. These aren't in Queen's Wish. Boxes only contain treasure. You don't get to collect a millions small items, but, on the other hand, there's no need to collect a million small items.

Your backpack is only for useful items. It has limited space, so you have to decide what to take with you into a dungeon. Fortunately, it's not hard to make your pack bigger.

And If You Hate These Changes?

Don't worry! We will still be remastering our old games, and we will leave the things you like in them alone as much as possible. Our next game will be a remaster of our beloved old Geneforge, and we promise to respect what you loved about it.

Anyway, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror for Windows and Mac is out. The iPad and iPhone version will be out late in the year. Thank you for your patience with this new world, and we hope you love these games half as much as we do!

Monday, August 26, 2019

I Am the Cheapest Bastard In Indie Games

A Queen's Wish screenshot. Note that I use game art that I like to look at. This is necessary because I'll be staring at it for years, and I don't want to go mad.

A week ago, I put up a blog post called "Why All My Games Look Like Crap." It really blew up. A lot of people read it. Some were highly supportive. Others took precious time out of their days to let me know I am a gigantic, gigantic bozo.

Thanks to all! When you're trying to get attention for a small indie game, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Basically, my blog post said, "Some people like my art, but I am still super-bad at art. Always have been. Fixing the problem costs time and cash, and I don't have any of either to spare. So that's why our games look bad."

I got a lot of questions about this. Good questions. Why can't I afford art direction? How much does art cost? Why don't I do this or that smart thing? So that's why I'm writing this. I want to answer the good questions.

So I am going to say some stuff about making and budgeting video games and why I am a bozo and why I am cursed to be a bozo forever. Along the way, I'm going to explain to you the whole indie games biz, from soup to nuts. If you like indie games, I think you might find how I survive interesting.

You see, I am the cheapest bastard in indie games.

I don't have this much money. And, please, I beg you, support and the good work they do.

I've Been Doing This For 25 Years

Some people really get annoyed when I bring this up. It's as if having long experience and a huge body of work gives my words some sort of weight and my advice some value.

Well, it does. Do you realize how few people have turned a good profit for that long in this blood sport business? I am rarer than a unicorn made of bigfoots!

The indie games business is hard, one of the toughest there is.

Why Is It So Hard To Make Money In Indie Games?

What do you think the going rate for the best indie games ever made is?

Did you guess 'Free'? You're right! Go to the Epic Game Store every week and they'll hand you the best indie games, games way better than mine, for free!

That not enough? Join the Humble Monthly Bundle. For just $12/month, they'll send you 6-7 games every month, plus you can also download over 60(!) games in their "Humble Trove." They're good games.

So the competition is intense, and you can never ever match your superiors on price, ie free. That makes for tough business, friend.

Award-winning. Critical darling. Huge hit. Free. How do you plan to compete?

So How Can You Survive?

Simple. You provide something nobody else can ever provide. Something cool and distinctive that people will rather pay money for your game than get someone else's for free.

Consider me. I'm an OK programmer. I'm not good at art and visual stuff, and I haven't been since I was a kid.

But I can write well. I make good settings and stories, my spelling and grammar are ok, I make addicting game systems, and my systems and stories blend really well. THAT is the product I sell.

I'm in the business of selling Jeff Vogel games. And just like Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir, or vice versa, nobody else can make a Jeff Vogel game. Larian Studios is a great company with great resources that makes great products. However, no matter how hard they try, they can never make a game one of my fans will mistake for one of mine.

Fortunately for me, there are people who really like Jeff Vogel games, and only we sell them. So we have a business.

However, that's not all it takes to stay in business. I can get people to buy my games, sure. But I need to turn a profit.

That is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

You can find a dedicated fan base for any imaginable art style. That's indie games, baby!

Let's See Some Numbers

I got into this kerfuffle talking about how my games look ugly, and I'll get back to that. First, though, let's look at budgets.

Our next game is Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. We spent about 20 months on it. For it to have a chance to pay for the time we spent creating it, it needs to make, after Steam and and Apple and and Kickstarter take their cuts, about $200000 US.

(It will take years for the game to earn this money, but we'll be earning money from back catalog at the same time, so it evens out.)

Why that amount? Because that is what long experience has told us we are most likely to get. Low-budget high-text, thinky RPGs don't become giant hits, but we have a loyal audience, so we'll get decent sales.

Then we take out, say, $60000 for business expenses and insurance. Then we spend X dollars on art (the key factor we are discussing here). We use what is left to pay our salaries (to get baubles like food, clothing, and shelter).

So our earnings for 20 months of hard work is, let's say, $140000 minus art expenses. Keep your eye on the ball.

Twenty Months? That's Not Very Long To Write a Game

No! It's not! Whenever I ship I game, I immediately begin the race against time to write another game before our bank account runs out. Twenty months is actually an unusually long time for us, but Queen's Wish is an all-new games system and engine, so it needs it. I normally need 12-14 months.

By the way, for people who asked me why I don't just learn to do better art myself, this is why. To learn to do better art, I'd need to spend at least 6-12 months. (To think it takes less is insulting to artists.) I just don't have the time to not be writing games.

I made the frames and button background for this interface. It was years before someone say, "Um, Jeff, are you sure this isn't a little too green?"

So Back To Art

After I wrote the last blog post, a lot of people wanted to make sure that, "Oh yeah, pal. No matter how bad your art is? It's WAY worse than that." The most common complaint I got is that there is no unified style and color palette. My art looks like it was cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Well, I've got news for you. Our art WAS literally cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Here's the thing. Many people don't notice this. Some notice, but it doesn't bother them. But for skilled artists and people with an eye for this sort of thing, looking at the icons I use makes their faces do this ...

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Sorry about that.

How I "Art Direct"

When I do what might laughably be called "art design", my first step is to cobble together any floor/terrain objects that will function. I pull art from old games, from, from sites that license icons for cheap, from anywhere I can get icons that will function. I use Photoshop trickery to make it blend as much as possible.

Eventually, I will reach a point where I need stuff that I can't use online resources for, stuff that needs to be custom-made for how I want the game to look. Then I go to freelancers.

I pay for bespoke art for terrain types with different looks that need to fit the engine, like tables and statues. Also, for terrain that I have my own unique formats for, like walls and doors and gates.

My artists work very hard to make sure the icons they do blend well with each other and look great. They do awesome work. Then I defile it by mixing it in with all the other weird stuff I find. If anything looks bad in my games, blame me! Seriously!

Doing the art this way costs around $40000. That leaves $100000 of earnings. For 20 months of work, that's pretty thin, but I'll live with it. I'll make up for it with the next two games in the series, which will take a lot less time to write. (Plus, eventually, remasters. I will be squeezing pennies out of Queen's Wish for literally decades.) So it's fine.

So that is where the weird mix of styles in my games comes from. Suppose I wanted to have unified art, all one style guide, all one look, everything done from scratch to give the game one pure look. I'm not a total idiot. I know it's possible. This is why I don't do it ...

This is a literal screenshot of the first computer game I ever owned.

Here! Have Some Hard Numbers!

Queen's Wish is a big game! Five nations and biomes! A surface and underworld! Multiple sets of furniture, all kinds of environments. The game currently has, to make the different regions look distinct and give enough visual variety, well over 1000 terrain icons. (An icon here is defined to be a 48x48 tile. Some terrains require multiple icons. Each wall type, for example, is assembled from 60 icons.)

Now suppose I do all this from scratch for the game. I need to hire freelancers. So I have to assemble a team of them that work in the desired style, that all make art that blend well, that are available and reliable, that are willing to commit to a job this big, and aren't too expensive. (If you think this is easy, you have a lot to learn. Assembling this team takes a lot of my non-existent time.)

So I hire Fredrika Freelancer (F.F.) for short. F.F. charges $25/hour.

(That’s a really fair price. If you’re paying less, someone else is going to hire her away from you. On the other hand, many freelancers charge $50/hour or more, but F.F. likes me and gives me a break. She probably lives in a country where the U.S. dollar goes farther. If you live in Brooklyn, I can't afford you.)

I ask F.F. to do, say, a stone pillar, about 20 pixels wide and 70 pixels high.

She builds it in her 3-D program. Textures it. Shadows it. Sizes it properly. Renders it. Sends it to me. I request some changes. She makes them. (I'm really easy to work with. I almost never ask for more than one round of changes. Believe it or not, freelancers tend to really like working with me.) I get the art. This probably will take about two hours.

So, if I'm lucky, I get this pillar done for $50. Yay! One terrain type down.

999 more to go.

But for Queen's Wish, I want 4 different pillars, to give distinct looks to four different cultures. Suppose on opengameart, I find a set of public domain pillar icons that basically work. They aren't great, but they function. If I download them, I save $200.

$200!!! That's folding money! You know how much money that is? That's enough money to buy 200 donuts! WITH SPRINKLES!

But That's Not All!

So do a little math and tell me how much money I'll need to shell out to get all 1000 terrain icons done, how much money will be chipped out of my $140000. And then remember that's just terrain! Then I need creature art, and an interface, and portraits, and color paintings, and sfx, and item icons, and ability icons, and ...

RPGs are art-intensive!

Are you seeing why I go cheap whenever I can? Freelancers charge money because they DESERVE it. They are talented people in a hard job. But they are selling the art ala carte, and I'm too much of a doofus to be able to afford too much of it.

To art everything being done from scratch with a unified style and a consistent, pleasing color palette and all the other good things artists like, if I'm lucky and get a lot of charity and really scale back what I want, I can easily end up spending $150000. Again, I can't do it myself. I'm a writer, not an artist, and RPGs absolutely need certain sorts of assets.

So here is the math: Doing art the cheap bastard way, I spend $40000. Doing it the good way, I spend around $150000. 150000 – 40000 = 110000

So to justify the extra art cost, I need to sell $110000 more worth of games just to break even. Remember that number.

We should be grateful that indie games have expanded what a game can look like and still break through. It wasn't like this a decade ago. 

Or I Could Hire An Employee

I don't have to use freelancers, of course. I could hire an artist full-time for 20 months. Suppose I do a big search and find someone whose style I like and who wants to work for me. How much will that count, taking benefits and taxes into account?

Many who are unfamiliar with this industry are surprised to find that artists are some of the highest paid people. Good, reliable artists are rare! Check out this site, for salary estimates.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good artist who wants the job, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get him or her for $150000.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good person, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get this person for $150000-180000.

(LOL! This is probably way too low, especially if I want the person to live in Seattle so I can work with them face to face, which I do. I will be paying under the median at this rate.)

I don't want to do this. I'm an introvert, and one of the reasons I got into this business was so that I could work alone. But I'll do it. For the Sake Of Art. You, the customer, deserve it. I will never let you down!

Again, my cheap bastard art is $40000. If I hire a full-time art director/artist, I need to increase sales by $110000-140000.

Where Does the Extra Art-Buying Money Come From, By The Way?

So can I even spend the extra $110000+ to begin with?

I don't have that much cash on hand. Nowhere near. To launch this project, I need to take a bank loan or raid my retirement fund. Then, if I don't break even, I'm in big trouble.

OK. I Need To Increase Sales By $110000

I know. This blog post is a long slog. Here's the punchline! Remember, most indie games are sold at deep discount now. After the store's cut, I'll probably average about $8 a sale.

To make that $200000 I think I can earn, I'll need to make about 25000 sales. For an indie game, this is a LOT. But give me a few years and let me luck into a Steam daily deal or a Humble Bundle and I can manage it.

But to break even on my all-new art project, to earn that extra $110000, my still very low-budget indie turn-based-retro-word-heavy RPG needs to sell about 40000 copies.

That increase may not sound like so much more, but it is a LOT. Ask any indie developer. 40000 copies is a HUGELY aggressive number. (So is 25000, but, again, I have an established fan base. Every sale I get requires more work than the sale before it.)

That is just to break even. If we don't hit that number? We can easily lose the entire business, poof, all sacrificed for the sake of a nice, unified art style.

And that is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

All my best art direction is done when my eyes are covered with slices of cucumber.

But ... But ... I Thought Indie Games Made You Rich!

Yeah. Sometimes you get a hit. Then you get a pile of money. Then you hire a bunch of employees and make a real company. Then one of two things happen. You write a new, expensive game and it's a mistake and fails and everything explodes. Or you keep writing good games and grow until GiantMegaCorp gives you hundreds of millions of dollars for your company and you fly free and take a big vacation and buy a Tesla and realize you have no idea what to do with your life.

However, most indie developers are like most small business owners. We're humble folks scraping by and doing what we can.

That is why I am writing these too-many words. If you want to have a small business or make a living as a humble artist, I have kind words for you, because I really want you to succeed.

The Inspirational Ending!

I got yelled at a lot for the previous article. It was basically a massive expression of contempt at me for being such a hack that I was content writing such ugly games.

(And if you want to get Extremely Mad Online and dunk on me more, it's cool. Whatever is fun. Shine on, you crazy diamond.)

But here’s the thing! If you want to be a game writer, or creator, or small businessperson, you should find my story to be inspiring!

I write games so ugly that I am showered with contempt, and yet I make money! I’ll have a full, lifelong career! If I can have so many flaws and still succeed, you can too!

Figure out what you are really good at doing. Sell that. Make your dream real. Get it out the door, whatever it takes, whatever corners you have to cut. If you’re better than me (and who isn’t, really), you have a chance.

Good luck!


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why All Of Our Games Look Like Crap

We spent years working on this game. We're betting our family's future on it. So. Why does it look so bad?
We've been writing indie games for a living for 25 years. My wife and I run a humble little mom-and-pop business. We make retro low-budget role-playing games that have great stories and design and are a lot of fun.

Also, they look like crap.

The first game I released, in January of 1995, looked like crap. It achieved financial success (among the blind, apparently), which funded many more games that looked like crap, enabling me to build a solid reputation.

Based on this reputation, we had a successful Kickstarter for Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, an exciting upcoming RPG that will look like crap. We hope it will be a gateway to us making games that look like crap for many years to come.

We have no complaints. We are in the middle of a long, successful career, and everything is rosy. However, sometimes I like to write about the indie game business and help people understand how it works and give advice to younger developers. This article is about why our games look the way they do, whether you like them or not (probably not).

Most importantly, I want to advocate for the right of indie developers to be weird. If an indie dev has a wild, creative idea and is scared of trying it and thinks, "I might as well do it, at least I'm not being as crazy as Jeff Vogel," I've done my job.

So if you are interested in why we write games that look like crap and will ALWAYS look like crap, read on.

This is what I grew up playing. A true classic. This is what looks normal to me.

First, Let's Just Get One Thing Clear ...

I think my games look good, and they contain a lot of really good art.

All of the art in Queen's Wish was made by extremely talented freelancers doing really solid work to my specifications. I feel very lucky to be working with them. If you think my games look bad, any blame for that rests with me entirely.

Second, again, I think Queen’s Wish looks really nice and comfy. Maybe it's a generational thing. People who grew up with Nintendo and Sega really like pixel art. I grew up with Atari and Intellivision, and I am very used to having art that leaves a lot to the imagination.

My art is the sort of game art I grew up with, just with more modern color and detail, designed to give the feel of a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game. That is my goal.

So when I say my games look like crap, I am maybe being a little clickbaity. Video games are art, art is hugely subjective, and there are lots of people who genuinely like how my games look. I certainly do.

This article is an explanation for those who disagree.

Exile: Escape From the Pit, the first game we ever released. Queen's Wish is meant to evoke this old style, which, yes, I like.

What Brought This Post On

People have criticized the art in our games for decades. I have had indie developers, normally a mild and supportive lot, make fun of my games TO MY FACE.

We have a pretty thick skin about it. Still, when we announced Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, I got this message on Reddit:

Jeff, I really like what you do and Geneforge 2 is one of my favorite games ever, but why not get a better artist? It's not even about technically impressive art, just about something that is pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people. So many of my friends have told me they'd love to try your games but just can't get over the sloppy and cheap art style.


What fascinates me here is that the guy seems to think he is telling me news. Like, I'm smart enough to keep a software company running for 25 years, but I am unable to notice qualities in my games that are instantly obvious to Joe Q. Rando. Apparently, my games are so ugly that looking directly at them without protective gear will turn you into this guy ...

So yeah, this message bummed me out a bit, but it shouldn't have. I have seen COUNTLESS variants of this criticism over the last 25 years. At least he didn't threaten my life or call me slurs or wish horrible fates on my children (which happens).

What Is Wrong With Our Art?

If you think my art is fine and don't understand what the problem is, bless you. I'll tell you what some think is wrong, as best I understand it.

1. Queen's Wish has a very retro square-tile top-down view, reminiscent of old Ultima games, old Pokemon games, Spiderweb's first games, tabletop D&D, that sort of thing. For some, that old style is really unfamiliar and/or alienating.

2. Queen's Wish uses art made by a lot of different artists. That means that the style is not quite consistent. We've done our best to make it blend well, but it's a little off.

3. All the characters only look in diagonal directions. I made this choice because I once thought all the art would be hand-drawn, and I desperately needed to reduce the number of icons I needed. This was a mistake, and I'll probably try to fix it in Queen's Wish 2.

4. It's not in 3-D. Some people will only ever be happy with 3-D.

I'm sure there are lots of other problems. These are just the most common complaints. All these problems can be fixed. All they need is money. Lots of money.

Our previous game, Avernum 3: Ruined World. Why didn't I just write another game that looks like this? Because I didn't want to. Nyeah!
So. Why Do My Games Look Like Crap?

Or, more accurately, why do my games look the way they do, when other more fancy, more expensive art styles are available? Style that would, I freely admit, increase my sales.

These are the reasons I don't change. If you want to make a living in the games business, or run ANY business, these ideas might be useful to you. This isn't just me whining. There are a lot of key basic principles here, and ignoring them is very dangerous for a small entrepreneur.

1. I Can Never Be Good Enough

Remember we're a tiny company, like most indie developers.

Suppose I want to change how I write games and run my business. Fine. Maybe I should. the first thing I have to ask is: What is my goal? It's to convert non-customers into customers.

There are players out there who look at my games and say, "I don't want to play a game that looks like that." That is totally their right. But suppose I want to win those people over. What is required?

The key problem here is that, when most people say, "Your art looks bad," what they mean is, "I want art that is good." They mean, "I want AAA-quality art." And I can't make that. Not even close.

I have had games where I worked very hard to improve the graphics, spending a lot of time and money, and they really did look better! But when I released those games, the vast majority of people who had said, "Your games look bad." STILL said, "Your games look bad."

Games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin look infinitely better than my work. Those games also have huge teams, paid for by big budgets.

And let's be clear. If this is what you want, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Hey, I like good graphics too. If you want really good graphics, my games will never be for you. I can't afford you.

Writing story-heavy RPGs like mine is still a total niche business. AAA gaming has moved away from what I write very fast. Yes, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a big hit, but Pillars of Eternity 2 very much was not.

I will never run a big game company. I have to stay small, both because of business realities and because of what my wife and I want from our lives. So our games will never be fancy. They will always be humble.

LESSON: Before trying for a goal, make sure that goal is possible to reach. It might not be. Know your limits!

Nethergate, released in 1997. A huge improvement over Exile. Before I released it, everyone said my games look bad. After I released it, everyone said my games look bad.

"BUT ... Just because we can't shoot for the moon doesn't mean that we can't make some improvements! Hire a full-time artist. Hire another programmer who knows Unity. Why not do that?"

2. We Want To Run a Profitable Business

When you want to run a small business, managing your budget is vitally important. Right now, our games only need to earn enough to support one family. When you have a solid product and a decent reputation, that is a very realistic goal. We've been doing it for 25 years.

Suppose I want to hire a second employee. That will double the budget for our game. That means we have to double our sales to make up for it. When you are in business, especially one as competitive as video games, doubling sales is HARD.

Would a second or third employee increase sales? Absolutely. Would it do so enough to justify the expense? Far more dubious. And bear in mind I need to come up with the money to hire those employees in the first place. That probably means a bank loan. Even if I get that loan, if the extra sales from the new employees isn't enough to pay the loan, that means the whole business can die.

Can increasing headcount and making better games be a good idea? Of course! Businesses do it all the time! It's how great games are made. It is also a good way to lose everything.

I already have a long-term profitable business, and that is not unrelated to my risk-averse personality. I don't want to blow it.

LESSON: When you spend more money, you need to increase sales to match those expenses. Make sure you have a good chance of doing this, and make sure you can stomach the risk.

Darkest Dungeon has really good art that a small team can afford to do. However, the style is really distinctive. Finding artists to reproduce this exact look is hard.

"BUT ... Small companies make great-looking games all the time. The key is to get an artist to make a cool, distinctive art style (like hand-drawn or pixel art). My games have fairly standard, neutral icon art. Why not have more style?"

3. We Need To Maintain a Consistent Look

This is a very subtle but important point, and it's one that people don't think about enough when analyzing or planning indie games.

Suppose I want to make a game like Darkest Dungeon, that doesn't actually have a huge amount of art, but it has a really cool, distinctive style. A small developer could afford to write a game like Darkest Dungeon. I have to get a freelancer who will develop an individual art style for a reasonable price. (Because I can’t afford a full-time employee, see above.)


There is a key problem with freelancers: They have free will. They will very rarely be able to work for you for a long time. They get better jobs, or they quit making art, or they make art but for someone else, or they just flake out.

Suppose I get half a game-worth of really neat, funky art, and then my freelancer gets a real job for big bucks. I then have to find a new artist who can match the style of that art and make a lot of it, which is very difficult.

And then suppose I write a sequel, and I want to reuse that art and need more art made in that style. Then it is even more likely that my freelancer (and any replacements) will have moved on, and then I either have to throw everything away and get it redone (expensive in time and money) or find a new artist who will try to match that art's style and probably not do a great job at it.

I can't stress this enough: Finding talented, reliable, reasonably priced freelancers is HARD. Cherish them when you find them.

That is why all of my games have a more generic fantasy style. I have to work with a lot of different artists. It's the nature of the business. Thus I have to write games in a way that the artists can be replaced. The generic style this requires is not ideal, but it is necessary.

LESSON: Always be aware of when you are relying on other people. Always be prepared to replace anyone. People move on. Life happens.

This is a really good, critically acclaimed, successful indie game. If a game that looks like this can be a hit, maybe there can be room for me?
"But you did games with a more 3-D look and I like those better. Your games looked kind of fine. Why didn't you stay with that?""

4. You Gotta' Follow Your Muse

Game makers are artists. Artists are dependent on their inspirations. Sometimes your brain just wants to make a certain thing. If you aren't going to do what you want and believe in, why are you writing indie games?

I've been writing games with that angled isometric look for twenty years. Twenty! I just wanted to write something that looks different. I have to change things sometimes to stay interested and keep from burning out. Period.

LESSON: Not every artist can make every sort of art. Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir painting. If something inspires you, consider following that. If you're writing things you don't want to write, why not just get a real job? You'll get a regular paycheck and benefits.

Atari Adventure, one of my all-time favorite games. A true classic. I STILL love this game. If you don't like it, maybe the problem is you.

"BUT ... Surely you can do SOMETHING? Surely there is some hope! Can nothing be improved?"

5. Again, Some People Like Our Games

Remember, we've sold MANY copies of our games. We have fans. Our games have a scruffy, eccentric handmade look. Our indie games look, well, indie.

I like how our games look, more or less, and I get a vote too. Maybe I'm a big weirdo, but weirdos spend money too.

And, honestly, isn't one of the foundational ideas of indie games that there is room for all sorts of creative expression? That having more dollars doesn't give you a better claim on The Truth? That you don't have to be a billion dollar company to be good, to be right?

Seriously, if you think my games look bad, don't play them. Believe me, I understand. But I got into this business to make my weird toys in my weird way. If I ever can't convince people to buy them, I'll quit and sell shoes.

LESSON: If you are doing something that is working, keep doing it. If you are comfortable with your success, don't let anyone psych you out of it.

People have been hating on my art for 25 years. I am very lucky, and I hope they'll be doing it for 25 more.
We Run Our Own Businesses To Have Freedom

To me, one of the most saddening things about our current economy is that the number of small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs has been dropping for quite some time.

We at Spiderweb love the freedom of being our own bosses, and we hope others get to enjoy it too. It's a scary way to live, but it has its rewards. We get to be weird. We get to make our own thing, and we OWN it. That is wonderful.

So, anonymous Reddit person, that is why we don't have art that is "pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people". This was a lot of words, but it's actually a pretty big question.

If you've stuck with me this far, thank you, and I hope, in your life, you get to create things that make you content.


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Make Them Want. Delay. Fulfill. Repeat.

Players can get a deep feeling of satisfaction from games that literally play themselves. How cool is that?
Last week, I began my discourse on how video games can warp your brain chemistry to bring you pleasure in order to make lots of money and how difficult, delicate, and awesome that process is.

I have eight observations about how video games cause your brain to secrete delicious dopamine. Here are the last four. If you can master this dark art, endless success awaits.

5. Different Genres of Games Provide Different Dopamine Delivery Systems

Role-playing games let your characters earn small improvements, providing a constant flow of drug. Tough puzzle games and Dark Souls-type games hold back your dose for a while as you master a challenge and then reward you in one big flood when you finally succeed.

Open-ended games like Destiny are for the serious addict, who wants a lot of hits over a period of time. Short, self-contained games are for someone who wants a limited supply or likes getting the hits in a variety of ways.

This is why there will always be a market for finite-length single-player story games. They are safe to play. However intensely they consume your time for a while, they end. I'm fine with dumping all this time into Subnautica because I know I will eventually kill the Final Fish and be free.

By the way, part of the genius of Achievements systems is that they create a whole new layer of fulfillment and addiction on top of what the games already provide, and they do it with very little effort. Whatever mad genius in Microsoft came up with the idea of the Gamer Score deserves the Nobel Prize For Awesomeness.

My next game, Queen's Wish. Beating dungeons gets resources. Use resources to buy shops. The shops give you better equipment. Each step provides dopamine.
6. Like All Drugs, You Will Eventually Develop Tolerance

You will always develop tolerance for a drug. You will eventually get tired of walking on the hedonic treadmill.

Most people, as they age, stop playing video games. They sometimes ask me, confused, why they don't want to play anymore. Games used to seem so important.

Part of this is the increasing obligations of adulthood, taking away your ability to spend hundreds of hours in an MMO. I think it's more than that. After all, if you care about something, REALLY care, you'll make time for it. If you were that desperate to play video games, you'd play video games.

No, I think it is that video game-induced dopamine hits are a fleeting and hollow pleasure. Every hit you get makes you less fulfilled than the one before. The sense of accomplishment is an illusion, after all. Eventually, the fun you get just doesn't justify the time expended, and you put down the controller and leave your house.

When the rewards are provides by machines you make yourself, that magnifies the fulfillment. Have this game running on three computers simultaneously to triple your pleasure!
7. Don't Be So Judgmental About This.

Seriously. Dopamine addiction is a problem, but it isn't that huge a problem. Why get so mad about it? You're not trying to cure cancer. You're not freeing an oppressed people. You're writing about video games.

Look. I love video games. I have my whole life. I've dedicated my career to them. I let me kids play them. I think they're terrific, in moderation.

Yet, if you spend a hundred hours playing a video game, I think you should ask yourself if it's the best use of your time. If you spend a thousand hours playing a game, I think that you are making a mistake. If my kids try to get into speedrunning, I will, in a friendly and gentle way, strongly encourage them to not do that.

Look, I don't want to make any big fancy declarations about morality or what other developers should do. Video game writing already has wayyy too much of that. I just try to run my business in a way I can feel good about.

These days, I write games that you can be pretty much done with after 50 hours. That's a lot of distraction and dopamine for your 20 bucks, and then I free you so you at least have the chance to go to the park or take swing dancing lessons. This is how I make my peace morally with what I sell.

All I know is this: Writing video games that provide pleasure without dopamine hits can be done. It's just hard. Storytelling is hard. Generating emotions is hard. Dopamine is the cheat code for compelling game design.

Which brings us back to Anthem.

Now you can carry your addictions on your walks with you! You never need to have a moment of tranquility again!
8. If You Want To Sell a Drug, You Have To Provide the Drug!

This is the final point, and the one that will protect you from ruin.

Almost every game, even the most artsy one, uses dopamine hits to keep the player going. For example, Papers, Please! is unquestionably artsy, but it provides happy-making rewards for each challenge you complete correctly, and there is even a nice score sheet at the end of every day. (Return of the Obra Dinn does exactly the same thing, but it is subtler.)

I think a major skill of a successful game designer is a feel for how to give a player dopamine. How to generate those hits. How to pace them. How to introduce enough variety in other parts of the game to create the illusion of a fulfilling activity.

If people are saying about your looter shooter, "We aren't getting good enough loot," that's not a whine. It shows you are fundamentally failing at your main task. It's like someone at your restaurant complaining that their meal doesn't contain food.

You have to respond by giving them more food. Not too much. Not enough to gorge them. Just enough to make them feel rewarded enough to stay on your hamster wheel.

Make the player want. Hold back what they want. Give them what they want. Repeat forever. This is the art.

This is a touch cynical, I know, but it's how I built a career and a life in this business. Game colleges should have classes called "Addiction For Fun and Profit, Mainly Profit." If you want to sell video games, you ignore this topic at your peril.


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Glorious, Profitable, Inescapable Art of Addiction

Get those numbers up! Those are rookie numbers!
I've been reading a lot about Anthem. It's that gigantic, mega-budget looter-shooter from BioWare and Electronic Arts. Apparently, it doesn't give out enough loot for the monsters you kill. For a game like Anthem, this is BAD FORM.

Apparently, when you spend three hours killing a boss, the increase in your character's numbers isn't generating a sufficiently pleasurable dopamine hit to justify the time invested.

So Bioware releases a patch, and good loot suddenly drops like crazy. Our characters numbers shoot up and up, causing a pleasurable, sustained dopamine high. Ahhhhh. That's the stuff. But oops. The rebalancing was bugged! The loot rate drops, and again we are strung out, demanding that when we kill the level 99 Glip-Glop we get a properly satisfying purple (or legendary or epic) item.

They never enabled Anthem to give the players the sweet hits of neurotransmitter they desired. Anthem is therefore not serving the main purpose it exists for, so now the game appears to be slowly dying.

So what have we learned?

Time To Actually Look At What We Are Seeing

I can't be the first person to notice that complaining about these games' loot drop rates is like being mad that the bartender is watering down the drinks. Complaining your character's numbers aren't going up fast enough is the "My weed dealer sold me a bag of oregano!" for the new millennium.

While artsy indiepants developers debated whether video games are Great Art or a great storytelling medium, the big shot developers wearing the money pants became the most profitable drug dealers the world has ever seen.

Fifty of us spend 12 hours being this jerk so that I could get an imaginary sword. What force is powerful enough to inspire such madness?

A Brief Disclaimer to Get the Neuroscientists Off My Butt

When I say video games give you a pleasurable "dopamine hit" that’s shorthand for whatever pleasant chemical process is going on in the brain while you play. Is it actually dopamine? Or some other more complicated reaction of chemicals in the brain?

Beats me. Answering this question is way above my pay grade. I'm just using "Dopamine Hit" as a placeholder/shortcut term. But whatever is happening, it IS chemicals, and they are generated by the brain on gaming.

So, here are a few thoughts about the ways video games provide pleasure and manipulate our brains. Just observations. I don't have any answers. Nobody does. We can, however, look across the landscape and see what we see.

1. The Video Game Industry Sells Engines That Release Pleasure Chemicals In To Your Brain

Hey, I love artsy video games like Papers, Please! or whatever. I really do. But don't kid yourself. That is not and never will be where the real money is.

Popular video games sell so well because they cause the release of sweet, sweet dopamine in the brain. When you fill up an experience bar. When a stat number goes up. When you find a vein of diamonds and can make a sweet pickaxe. When you get the BEST sword. When you solve a puzzle or clear away a row in Tetris.

When you die fifty times to a boss in Bloodborne, you are holding off the fix, which makes the huge surge of dopamine when you finally win all the more satisfying. Aaaaahhhhhh.

I'm Not Judging

I know I'm expected to say how bad this state of affairs is, but I'm not going to. I don't think it's bad. I play these games. I like the dopamine.

This isn't an editorial. I'm not judging anyone. I write computer RPGs for a living. My games are crude and low-budget, but they give you your modest dopamine dose for a far more reasonable price than the free-to-play drug lords over on Android. I even throw in a decent story to put a patina of sophistication on the whole thing.

How many children are, right this moment, grinding at the computer to get the thrill of seeing a fresh vein of diamonds.
2. The Effect Is Very Real and Very Powerful.

Back in the day, before game designers got really good at parceling out the dopamine hits, I raided in Everquest and World of Warcraft. Hardcore. Hours a day for weeks to get my shot at one of the really high-end artifacts. When I got one, the good feeling, a really substantive warm illusion of accomplishment, could last for days.

These days, I struggle to remember what any of those clumps of data stored on a distant server actually were. (An "epic weapon"? Was that a thing?) However, the memory of the FEELING of satisfaction I got is still very strong.

Now, of course, we designers know to make the upgrades come in a constant flow of smaller improvements. A host of bars slowly filling up and numbers increasing, so that the warm feeling never stops.

This effect is so powerful that you don't even need to make the player DO anything. Look at clicker games. Cookie clicker is particularly good.

In clicker games, a few simple clicks jump starts the process of earning cookies/points/gold, and then it runs on its own. You can walk away from the computer, return later, and see your progress! In some games, not only do you not need to do anything, you CAN'T do anything, and you still advance. It really, truly feels like you did something! It's amazing how our brains work.

3. Writing An Addictive Video Game Is HARD

Making a truly addictive video game is an art. Like, it's really, super hard. If it wasn't, there would be far fewer failed video games. Artsy types don't appreciate how difficult it is.

When I am trying to design a game that pulls people in and gets them stuck there, I don't have rules. There's no algorithm. When designing a system, I sort through the 10000000 different ways I can do something, and I pick the one that feels right in my gut. The design that makes me go, "Yeah, this compels me. This would tickle my brain and keep me playing."

There’s no rules for it. It’s intuition. Feelings. Art.

I mean, think about it! When I write a game, I am trying to manipulate another human being's brain, at a distance, using nothing but these abstract mental constructs I build. Do I get to give the user cocaine or meth? No! I don't get a tool as easy or clumsy as actual chemicals. I'm trying to shape their minds with nothing but pure thoughts! That's awesome!

I like writing and visuals and all that good stuff, but don't undervalue addictiveness. Making a game addictive requires true craft, and this quality enables video games to provide something unique in entertainment. If controlling the player's brain was easy, Anthem wouldn't have burned up hundreds of millions of dollars and exploded.

Even artsy games are smart enough to provide a score to increase. Nothing is more fun than bigger numbers.
4. DLC and Micropayments Are a Side Topic, Not the Main Argument

Our industry has discovered that the pleasure jolt from advancing in these games is so great some people will spend lots of money to keep the drip coming. “Five minutes of gameplay and your fancy tower is completed right away? That will be a dollar, thank you.” Bottomless fortunes are being made off of dopamine.

Look, if an ADULT spends $500 of their hard earned money to buy Fortnitebux or Smurfberries or whatever, I don't know what business it is of yours. If an adult wants to spend cash on beer or DLC or opera tickets or loot boxes, it's their right.


Parental controls are deeply flawed. The companies who give them to you don’t want them too work well, because they want the money your children will spend.

Suppose a tired distracted parent (as all parents are) makes a mistake (as all humans do) and lets their kid play the wrong game unsupervised for an hour. That game will happily suck your bank account dry and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

For decades, the world has been trying to portray our industry as malevolent and harmful and evil. They’re always been wrong so far. PLEASE do not allow your greed to make them correct.


Suppose the people who hate free to play games win the argument and get rid of microtransactions. Suppose they change the laws so you have to get your looter shooter Destiny/Anthem/Division dopamine drip for one fair fixed price. So you're grinding hundreds of hours to get better armor, but you aren't spending more money. Just time.

What is the creepy part? Is it evil to charge a dribble of money for a game so addictive it devours hundreds of hours of your time? Or is the problem making the game so addictive it consumes hundreds of hours of your time in the first place?

Again, I am asking this as a person who writes games as addictive as I can make them in order to buy food.

This turned into a huge post, so this is just part one. The second half is to come.


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.