Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guessing What Is Going To Kill Me, Pt. 2

Last week, I started to ponder what could put Spiderweb Software (and, by extension, any small Indie like us) out of business. Pretty fun recession chit-chat, huh? This week, I continue my litany of pessimism.

What could grievously wound, or even kill, our business?

The Rise of the Netbook - Netbooks, those cheapo little laptops for web browsing and other undemanding activities, are taking off like crazy. Every one of those that sells removes a possible customer, who likely would have otherwise bought a more expensive (but not actually expensive) machine that could run my games. This wouldn't be fatal, but it is a constant shrinking of the possible customer base.

And that's not even addressing the fact that many of those machines run Linux. Supporting three platforms would overtax my feeble brain.

Likelihood - It's already happened. When I released Geneforge 5: Overthrow for Windows, I received constant cries of woe from Netbook owners who couldn't handle its extremely low system requirements.

But I'll swallow it. People who like games generally still buy machines that can play games, and there are no Netbooks on the Mac side. Also, a lot of Netbooks can run my games. So I doubt it'll be a real problem, but only because my hardware needs are still very low.

It is still frustrating to get chewed out by someone who is ticked because his $250 machine can't run games. Well, yeah!

Piracy Becomes So Trivially Easy and the Recession Becomes So Intense That Hardly Anybody Buys Games Anymore - Pretty self-explanatory.

Likelihood - Again, this has already happened. Recent estimates put the PC piracy rate at around 80-90%. Even I am not cynical enough to believe that the percentage of honest people around here will drop below ten percent. And yet, that tiny minority of virtuous people is enough to keep me in business.

Once, I actually worried about something like this would happen. And then it did. And yet, business is strong. I think this shows that even nightmare scenarios can be surprisingly survivable. In other words, predict and prepare, but don't panic.

I Go Insane Or Burn Out - When you work alone creating for a very long time, you can get awfully eccentric. Or even crazy. Or you can just burn out or get terminal writer's block. It happens all the time. I have dreaded it every day that I've run this business.

Likelihood - Sadly, high. It's only a matter of time. The Internet is robust. The software industry is robust. That couple pounds of fat and electrical impulses I carry around in my skull? Sometimes, it feels very fragile indeed. I never know when I'm going to come downstairs, sit down, stare at the blank screen, and go, "I got nothin'." And that is the end.

But that's not the thing that really keeps me awake at night. This is ...

I Write a Bad Game - Next year, I'm going to make a whole new series, with a new game engine and IP. This is always risky. I might sink a bunch of money and time in it, and it will fail. Remember, anything new will make you lose a chunk of that reliable customer base that keeps you alive. If I don't replace what we lose? We have a pretty good cash and sales cushion here, but it will never be enough to survive one big flop.

Likelihood - Inevitable.

I've had a pretty good record with my games. None of them have set the world on fire, but they have almost always at least broke even. I've only ever written one game that didn't sell enough to make it worth the time. And, when I followed it with a game with mediocre sales, we almost went under. It happened once, and it will happen again, and worse. Everybody produces a real stinker eventually. And, when that happens, it will very likely be the end. It's something that every small developer has to face. Either get absorbed by someone bigger, a company that can survive some shocks, or face the fact that the wolves will catch you eventually.

Everyone and everything ends. Might as well make your peace with it now.

And that is the litany of doom, from paranoid delusions to an honest assessment of my own mortality. I hope this has been a vaguely interesting peek into small-business world.

Oh, and I just finished Plants vs. Zombies. I have a lot to say about that, next week.


  1. A. Plants vs. Zombies is an amazingly addictive game.

    B. Blades of Avernum is an equally amazing game system which to this day surprises me that it hasn't sold well. Yet I know it to be fact, I'll talk to freinds that lament a lack of a relatively easily modifiable RPG engine, to which end I'll point them in the direction of BoA and they'll say meh, sorta neat and proceed to not buy it.

  2. "Recent estimates put the PC piracy rate at around 80-90%."

    I don't think you've interpreted Demigod's piracy rates correctly. In Demigod's case, only 18,000 (15%) of the 120,000 connections were from real buyers. But, that doesn't mean 85% of the public is pirating. Rather, it could mean that only 50% of the public pirates AND pirates are 5x more likely to get a copy of any particular game. This scenario would give you almost the same 85% pirates to 15% buyers ratio as with Demigod. This makes sense because pirates have no reason not to pirate any game they have half an interest in checking out. Real-buyers on the other hand stop and consider whether or not they want to pay money for the game.

    (Case in point: I once mentioned ZBrush to a guy that pirates everything. He had never heard of this $500 application before. He immediately pirated it - even though he knew next-to-nothing about it. No one in his situation would've immediately paid $500 for a copy of ZBrush. It just goes to show that pirates have a much lower barrier to pirating something than a real-buyer has to buying something.)

    - Brit, AtomicboySoftware

  3. I can almost guarantee that I will buy your new game with its new engine (although I can't quite guarantee that I will like it, I have a hunch that I will). I personally tend to like change, it gives me the chance to learn something new (which all humans should enjoy).

  4. I liked Blades (I was the one that pushed Jeff for the string manipulation fix in 1.1). But I can understand why it was less successful. The provided scenarios were never incredibly compelling in Blades of Exile, and everyone expected the same from BOA. And getting good user-created content is very, very hard. In both BOE and BOA I would download a few scenarios and then say "meh".

    Though Bahssikava does rock.

  5. What about aging? I do business programming, which generally isn't hard yet still the ranks seem to thin dramatically after 50 years old. I sometimes worry that one bout with carpal tunnel or glaucoma or who knows what means I'm no longer grade-A material. Even the slow declines in memory and concentration will eventually be an issue, just hopefully after retirement.

  6. I think the problem with Blades was that, to the player who's not interested in making their own scenarios, it offered nothing new. Not only this, but people're used to paying less (or in lots of cases, nothing) for modding tools from big studios' games, so they are less willing to pay more for this.

    If you'd have had some people in the community make 5 or 6 extra scenarios in advance of the games' release (e.g., invited some of the BOA people to beta test and make some scenarios to be bundled with it), I think the game would have done much better. There's also the psychological aspect of buying something that comes with 5 new + 4 remake scenarios, as opposed to the 4 BOA remakes it came with. Even though it would not cost the user anything more to wait a few weeks/months after release and download them for free.

    Also, I don't really know how you develop, but if you wanted to do something like this in the future, couldn't you just develop the tools *you* use to build the actual game's levels with the object of releasing them later?

    It would certainly take a little longer to do, since the tools you use for yourself don't have to be as pretty as things you want to sell, but it would give you time to make sure they are working well and are reasonably bug free, and all. And if it takes you 1.5x as long to develop a game and the tools at once doing this, then you're still ahead since you've developed two things at once!

  7. Jeff, I wouldn't worry so much about the "inevitable" bit. You see, you will also end up retiring at some point; you just have to put off the first "inevitable" until after the second. Your games are really very good, and as long as you keep your concentration on what makes us want to buy your games (your plots are the kicker for me; Avernum 2 is possibly my favorite game of all time for that reason), I have faith.

  8. Hi Jeff,

    Have you thought about posting early conceptual works or Alpha prototypes so you can get early feedback from the community? Perhaps that could help with creating a stronger game and building a stronger base for it?

  9. Jeff, if you ever do burn out of ideas, you can always go back and make blades of geneforge, it will do better than BoA, I promise ;p

  10. I actually thought your games would be perfect for my brother's new netbook. He loves the old-school RPG games, so I thought it was a perfect match.

    The only problem wasn't that the netbook didn't have the muscle (your games require very little in that department), it was that your games can't be sized down to the 1024x600 screen size on the netbooks. Netbooks are getting more powerful, not less, but the screen is going to stay small. Other than being cheap, this was the main reason my brother bought one.

  11. Re: Netbooks. Surely their hardware spec will increase at a much faster rate than the minimum-required spec of your games.

    That is, in 2-3 years all new netbooks will be capable of running your games (if you haven't gone mad by then, and your games are still worth buying, etc)

  12. I've never posted a comment, but I've been subscribed to your RSS feed for quite a while. I want to say a heartfelt "Thank You!" for posting all the articles you have written. You've done a great job and taken an honest view at something that many gaming "news" sites seem to gloss over and report with slanted views. You've done great. Keep up the good work. Although I don't play many PC/console/electronic games, I'm considering spending a few dollars to support you.

  13. @Damon: "The only problem wasn't that the netbook didn't have the muscle (your games require very little in that department), it was that your games can't be sized down to the 1024x600 screen size on the netbooks. "

    I'm going to remove the hard requirement of a 600 pixel screen height for future games, and if people want to live with the squished screen, they can. But that it about as unfriendly a screen resolution to gaming as I can imagine.

    - Jeff Vogel

  14. Another way to Netbook proof your games would be to make them web-based. Have you looked into the viability of porting your engine to Flash?

  15. Netbooks:

    The basic problem is that Moore's law is breaking... not because Intel doesn't double it's transistors every 2 years, but because people either aren't buying new computers (they lifespan is now around 7-9 years) or they are buying cheaper computers (such as netbooks or nettops)...

    Which means your code needs to be flexibile enough to handle a factor of 16x difference between CPU speed, memory, hard disk, internet speed, and pixels.

    In other words, you need to run on a 1 ghz netbook with 512 meg and a 9" screen (1024x600). AND you need to run on an 4-8 core processor with 8 gig and dual 30" monitors (3000x1800). On the higher end computer, your eye candy needs to baloon to take advantage of the extra processor.

  16. I might buy blades of avernum anyway, no interest in a creation tool but I'm sure I'll get $25 worth of fun out of the scenarios alone.

  17. People have multiple devices. I expect a little eye candy from my xbox--but I run an old RPG on a Celeron based PC. The kids have a DS they don't use much, my wife a PC that is gameless. It is hard to imagine not being to install
    somewhere, and I haven't even fiddled with emulation modes with the exception of what comes with XP. If we had a netbook in the kitchen, I doubt anybody would play games on it anyway. I suppose younger gamers might have just one device, but over time they accumulate.

  18. I fully admit that I am interested in your games and would love to purchase them however since I run Linux I can't play them. It has crossed my mind to try and run them under WINE (think of it as a windows emulator) but without any proof that they can run under wine, I don't want to waste my time and money to get them to run. Google searches haven't turn up anything to help with this.

    Since your games don't appear to be action orientated it might be worth while to write them in a cross platform language such as python or java and take the slight performance hit. Either one of these options could increase your market share but I don't know how if the work required would be worth it.

  19. For someone who has had success in a field where so few succeed, and even fewer even try, you're a pretty negative guy, Mr. Vogel.

    That said, you know, it really wouldn't be the end of the world if Spiderweb failed one day. I'd imagine you wouldn't have very much trouble getting a job at any of the big RPG houses. Obviously it isn't what you want-- it isn't what you're doing-- but there are worse ways to live.

  20. @Joshua: Just download the shareware version and try to get it running under WINE. The free and paid games share the same binaries, so if one works the other will too.

  21. That's funny. The only games I ever bought from you were both BoA and BoE. I guess I just like the idea of user created content more than some people. :)

    I'd also buy this "new engine" game and a Blades of Geneforge.

  22. :/ Wow, I feel really guilty actually. I'm a minor with no money, and the demos were really, really fun... So, I messed around with the game a bit and found a way to fool them into being registered... Well, I'll have to send Jeff a few hundred bucks sometime, once I get that job at dominos...

    @Matt: The BoA was the only game I actually attempted to buy. My dad wouldn't let me 'waste my money' on it. I LOVE blades of Avernum! Even if Jeff's games are better.

  23. I wouldn't worry about netbooks; I had the most fun playing Exile (just plain exile, not that silly remake you did with more than one action per turn :) on my old IIci; I'm fairly certain that it was less powerful in every way than any netbook being made today. You just need to scale down again :)

    Also, right now netbooks are coming out in as many different distributions as there are models of netbook. That will probably consolidate as the distros that suck die, and the ones that don't become more adopted. That will never happen in Linux desktop land because of enthusiast installers, but since netbooks tend to ship with linux pre-installed, they will probably become a bit more standard. Once that happens, an SDL port of your system shouldn't be too hard.

  24. If you're interested in having a beta tester on a G4 Mac who's been a fan for years, I'd be happy to guide that new IP in the right direction. God, that's a horribly obnoxious comment, but I'm going to leave it on the off chance it works.

  25. Well ... I just bought Avernum I *because* I just bought a Windows netbook (Acer Aspire 1). I played your original Exile games on Macs, and most of the Avernum and Geneforge on Macs as well.

    Exile 1 is great on my little netbook, as is the game, of course :-)

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