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.