Monday, April 30, 2012

How Soon is Now?

I'm in a weird place right now, in game development. I'm in a sort of between-world that exists before a game is gold, but after it's been released to the public. I'm reluctant to put a lot of effort into another round of publicity just yet, as I feel the addition of upcoming features will make a better first impression.

On the other hand, I've already done some PR, and attracted players to a much older, buggier, incomplete version of what there is now. And by all accounts, most people loved it. That may sound like a good thing, and in some ways it is. However, I think a lot of people are enchanted by the "potential" NEO Scavenger promises: NEO Scavenger is a suggestion of a game many people have been waiting for. If I'm not careful, putting a lid on NEO Scavenger may disappoint many folks.

I suppose this is an issue many developers deal with, especially those who offer games for pre-order. How did they decide which features were required vs. optional? How did they decide when to wrap-up version 1.0, sell it, and begin work on 2.0? I have a gut feeling as to what I'd expect to be in 1.0, so I guess that's a start. It's more than what's there now, but probably less than I've outlined in my feature voting page (unless there was a financial windfall).

Why am I thinking about this? I guess it's largely influenced by the ever-shrinking tail of sales. The initial spike has paid for a couple of months of living costs, which is good. However, that money hardly dents the year's worth of living costs I've spent so far, and none of that addresses future development costs. I'm not quite in emergency finance mode yet, but with sales at 1-3 copies per day, it won't be enough to sustain development for long.

In retrospect, this isn't the first time I've been here. This sounds a lot like where I was just before NEO Scavenger's "soft" launch. I was burning up savings each day, and was starting to get antsy about whether I'd be able to recoup my costs. NEO Scavenger itself was a fun little game, in need of a plot resolution and several bug fixes. I didn't technically decide to launch then, as much as prepare for being mentioned in a few articles. And it was that accidental publicity which led to greater awareness, and a funding "shot in the arm" for new features.

Fast-forward two months, and the game has made significant leaps in stability and usability, and even has a few new tricks to show off. The plot is still as unfinished as before, but that appears to be the next thing on my agenda. Is this it? Do I put together a satisfying plot resolution and start preparing for final launch? Or do I wait and see where finances are once the plot is in, and consider a few features after that?

I feel like there's a good game here, so it's possible that a final launch could sell pretty well, with the right exposure. If I could get onto services like Steam, Desura, or Good Old Games, it could really take off. Possibly enough to recoup my costs and start funding the next game. But how much more NEO Scavenger do I need to cross that threshold?

I don't have a good answer, this is more a "thinking out loud" style post: a journal entry. My gut tells me that NEO Scavenger could show best if at least the plot were resolved somehow, and I addressed the randomness of combat. Resolution increase and downloadable versions would be good bonuses, as would a sprinkling of content variety (more items and creatures).

Fortunately, it appears my players agree. Looking at the feature voting page, plot and higher resolution are the two most popular features, respectively. And even though combat is fifth, it is the single most often talked about issue that players have. There's at least one good explanation for this discrepancy, so I've been thinking about what that might mean. It's possible I may need to make an executive decision to resuscitate the neglected feature.

I'll need some time to let that sink in. The plot work will take a while, so at least I'll have some time to consider it. (Read: hide from reality.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

On Public Relations

About a year ago, I made a PR blunder. I've probably made many in my life, but this one sticks in my mind especially because it helped inform my present strategy for dealing with the public.

Invited to do a guest post at Tales of the Rampant Coyote, I decided I would write about my job at BioWare. As an indie just starting out, I had little else to offer besides some insight into my former life at BioWare. I tried to pick a few topics that seemed interesting, such as where games came from, and why big developers don't experiment with smaller games more often.

Unfortunately, I also decided to speak up on the love/hate relationship fans had with BioWare. This was shortly after DA2 launched, so the topic was current for me. I had seen some pretty nasty things said about my teammates and friends. Some of it was quite frustrating, since it accused many of them of malice and/or idiocy, which I knew wasn't the case.

It's a touchy subject to begin with, with many facets and where emotions run high. Any misstep can be miscontrued as an attack or dismissal. So when I tromped through the topic indelicately, some ire was raised. In particular, comments regarding the article elsewhere on the net were pretty scathing (some going so far as to call out my criminal incompetence as an artist on DA:O).

Fortunately, the article's own comments were largely constructive, apart from a few snarky comments. And in responding to these comments, I started developing what is now my PR policy.

The Blue Bottle Games PR Policy:
  1. Keep my commentary constructive. Refrain from making snarky or sarcastic remarks.
  2. Ignore personal attacks and rhetoric.
  3. Respond to legitimate feedback, criticism, and inquiry as quickly and earnestly as possible.
Each of these serves an important purpose, so I'll talk briefly about them in turn.

Keep it Constructive

The first is probably the most important. As a business, everyone is a potential customer, and you treat your customers with respect. Acting like a jerk is bad for business. It doesn't matter who you're being a jerk to, or why. In the best case, people see you being a jerk and take their business elsewhere. In the worst cases, they take their business elsewhere, but not before jumping into the fray and/or spreading the word that you're a jerk.

Conversely, respect begets respect. Treat everyone with respect, and do your best to help. That person will be more loyal as a result, and may even spread the word. And better yet, when your customers see you being respectful, they're more inclined to follow your lead and be respectful to other customers.

Ignore Attacks

In some cases, people are going to be jerks to you no matter what. They're spoiling for a fight, or just believe so much that you are a jerk and/or an idiot, that they have nothing constructive to say.

Ignore them.

Seriously, there's no better way to deal with personal attacks than to just ignore them and move on. Acknowledging them works against you in three ways: it validates the attack, it encourages other jerks to attack you, and you use your considerable power of publicity to draw attention to negativity.

You're better off just sucking it up, biting your lip, and ignoring it. Those who want to fight want an audience, and they'll move to more fertile ground when you don't provide one. And those who want to believe you are a jerk aren't waiting to be convinced otherwise. Besides, you don't even have enough time and energy to address all of the constructive things that need doing when you run a business...

Respond to Legitimate Feedback ASAP

...such as interacting with interested customers. Running a business, and especially one which launches games to thousands of players, means there are going to be lots of questions, concerns, and other feedback. Plan on spending a significant portion of your time reading those comments, and in cases where they warrant it, reply to them.

You may not have to time to respond to everything, all the time, but you don't need to. Simply trying to engage makes it visible to your customers that you want to hear them, and want to help make your products better for them. Most will understand that you're busy, and can't hear everything.

This lesson was partially learned from observing Chewbot of Stoic Studios (also BioWare vets). A thread had appeared at RPGCodex talking about their new Banner Saga game. In it, there was a mixture of good feedback, dismissive comments, and legitimate questions. As a former BioWare dev, the 'Dex was a bit of a lion's den. He could have just lurked, mining the useful feedback and moved on.

Instead, he recognized them for what they are: customers who want a specific type of product, and have a hard time finding studios to make it. He created an account, introduced himself, and started addressing legitimate concerns and questions. The members of the forums were genuinely happy to have him visit and chat with them. He demonstrated the power of interacting with players, even in places where antagonism arises.

A week later, I got to try his approach for myself. And I was rewarded by valuable suggestions, words of encouragement, and even potential customers. It's definitely taught me that a developer's presence can really transform a discussion.

One month later, I'm proud to say that the NEO Scavenger community is a great one to be a part of. Both at Blue Bottle Games and elsewhere on the net, NEO Scavengers seem polite, helpful, and optimistic, and I'm thrilled. In the words of my high school chemistry teacher, "it's nice to be nice." Who could argue with that?

Of course, who would argue with a Greek guy in a suit with unlimited access to chemicals and a pistol-shaped butane lighter tucked into his belt? Maybe that had something to do with it too...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sales, Metrics, and Doing the Right Thing

Later this week, I'll have hit the 1-month anniversary of NEO Scavenger's launch. The initial few weeks of heart palpitations have given way to a more calm work day, and the never ending stream of emails and forum posts have tapered off to a more manageable rate.

Month 1 Sales

Even though I touched on sales last post, I thought it would be useful to follow-up on that with recent developments. Below, I included a graph of daily NEO Scavenger sales since launch.

Month 1 Sales, in Dollars Per Day

Blue Bottle Games officially announced on March 5th. Initially, I only announced the launch in my social circles: Facebook, G+, Twitter, and here. You can see a tiny blip that week, representing the 4 or so sales as a result. I've also overlaid a red line representing the number of dollars I need to earn each day to stay afloat. Basically, every day I hit that mark, I can afford to work another day.

As mentioned in last month's post, press coverage made a big difference in sales. You can see the major upswing in sales as a result of nearly concurrent interviews, preview/reviews, and forum threads surfacing about NEO Scavenger. In addition to traffic from the articles directly, I did my best to run around the internet, commenting in threads and on articles about the game, answering questions, and generally letting people know I'm trying to interact. The first uptick in sales after the initial peak was the result of posting in the Something Awful thread that appeared, and the second was a MetaFilter thread.

As expected, sales taper off over time, and are settling into a few copies sold per day. I expect this rate will remain pretty constant without outside influence. There are two upcoming website spots that I'll be watching closely, to see if they produce similar echoes to the first coverage period.

Has it been a success? Hard to say at this point. It's at least paid for March and most of April development costs. However, if one counts my unpaid wages between last May and today, that's a huge money pit yet unfilled. Business expenses are also missing here (licenses, registration fees, printing costs, etc.). Hardly a lucrative investment so far :)

However, I have put little effort into promoting NEO Scavenger. Most of the coverage of the game has been due to the press scooping the game before I contacted them. And most seem willing to talk about the game again in the future, as it develops.

Furthermore, I have yet to try the demo out on portals such as Kongregate and Newgrounds. I expect that putting it there will garner additional visitors to Blue Bottle Games, and potentially customers. I've been waiting for the right time to do so, mainly due to bug and feature development. I think there are a few extra things worth adding to NEO Scavenger, to make it more attractive, before announcing the game to additional audiences.

Finally, I've also decided I'd like to try and make a downloadable client for the game. A number of fans have asked, and I think it makes sense to do so. It'll also open up additional sales channels, such as Steam,, Desura, and other outlets. Indie games are gaining serious momentum in direct sales portals, so I may be well-timed to take advantage of the trend.


I've been using Playtomic to track game play statistics, and so far, I've been pretty pleased with the service. It has some rough patches to sort out, but the service was a snap to integrate, is free, and has been quite valuable.

I currently have over 90,000 plays, and over 50,000 views of the NEO Scavenger Demo/Beta pair. The average play time is close to 90 minutes, which I'm thrilled about. It's not Kongregate or Newgrounds numbers, which can often be an order of magnitude more plays, but this is only from Blue Bottle Games traffic, a site which did not exist two months ago.

The site itself uses Google Analytics, which is a brilliant service, and I've hardly scratched the surface. For reference, Blue Bottle Games has had almost 30,000 unique visitors since launch, and almost 2500 registered users. (Registering is free, and provides the user a means to post in the forums, as well as a way to purchase the game.)

I've mainly been using Analytics's daily traffic dashboard and referrer logs. I use it to gauge relative traffic, and track incoming links to see if news has broken someplace. Google Alerts is also useful in this regard.

Doing the Right Thing

One other thing came up which I'd like to discuss. NEO Scavenger had its first major design decision made since launch, regarding saving and permadeath.

Initially, NEO Scavenger had no save feature. When a player died, that was it. Game over. Later, the save game feature grew in prominence on the feature voting page. I was admittedly nervous about making the wrong call on how to implement it, but I went to work on the feature.

A week later, the feature was in, and most of the bugs were sorted out. Players could save at any time, and load at any time. While there was only one load slot, the player could load as many times as they liked. That's when I stumbled across some interesting discussions (both at BBG and off-site) about the decision to add save games, and how that changed the feel of the game.

Folks were concerned that the game had become something different: that fear no longer played into decisions, and the game was starting to feel less original and challenging. When permadeath was in place, many players admittedly chickened out when faced with the House at Seven Gables quest. They saw the house, read the spooky description, looked back over all the struggle they endured to stay alive thus far, and said "Nope, not happening."

It was a beautiful example of exactly the kind of role-playing I was hoping to provide.

Fast forward to a later game where saving was possible, and players would just save the game, and continue without fear. They'd explore each path with impunity, and then move on to the next encounter. The entire experience was robbed of its weight.

After reading through the many discussions, I had to ask myself: why was I adding save games? It was meant to be a tool for the player to solve problems outside the game world. Namely, players who needed to walk away from the browser and wanted to come back later. It was not, however, meant to be a tool for dealing with in-game issues.

Several proponents of save games argued (rightly) that the game was unfair at times, killing players with random dice rolls and no way to mitigate the disaster. To them, save games were a way to make these game balance failures easier to swallow. And while that is one way to address such game design failures, it wasn't in the spirit of NEO Scavenger.

Instead, I want to provide players with in-game tools to deal with in-game problems. I want them to have more operational discretion in combat, for example, and more ways to deal with wounds than just waiting to die. I want the player's choice to be what decides their fate, and relegate chance to a minor role.

So I updated the save game one more time: based on some good suggestions, and some follow-up research into how other rogue-likes handle it, I decided to make save games delete on player death. I briefly considered making save games delete on load, but quickly reconsidered when it occurred to me that browser crashing  might lead to total game loss. At least on player death, I can be sure the player got a full game in.

The result? Hard to say, empirically. I know a number of fans are relieved, and happy to see the game restored to it's original challenge. I think the solution is a nice compromise in player convenience and challenge. And it just "feels right" to me. It's the way I want to play NEO Scavenger. It's true to the vision I have for the game. It's one of the things that makes NEO Scavenger unique, and keeps players talking about it.

It may be a no-brainer for some out there, and maybe this doesn't seem like a big enough deal to blog about. But it was a big deal for me. It was one of my first public game design decisions, and forced me to identify what NEO Scavenger is, and who it's for. It forced me to admit this isn't a game for mainstream audiences. That this is a game for people like me, who want the challenge and role-playing opportunities with real consequences. For people who are more interested in the journey than the destination. It feels good to identify that goal, almost like a crisis of identity averted.

Speaking of, I should probably get back to work, so I can avoid the crisis of falling behind :)