Political Motivation : Why Games Belong in our Classrooms

Recently, we wrote a blog post saying that Political Animals was looking for educators who would be willing to analyze the game and see how they might use the game in their classes.  JFP Maligalig is one such educator, and this is the first of a two part series of blog posts talking about his experiences with games and what inspired him to be an advocate for game-based learning.

It was in February 1986 when all my relatives from Metro Manila suddenly came home to our ancestral house in Los Baños, Laguna. My cousins and I thought it was because of my brother’s birthday on the 23rd. We had little interest in the local news, which showed mobs of people and soldiers facing off on some highway. Our family reunion turned out to be a sign of protest for my relatives: each of them was an officer in the Armed Forces. They had refused to fight civilians or fellow soldiers in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in Philippine history, the People Power Revolution.

As a child, I couldn’t have cared less about politics and the prevailing social conditions of the country at the time. Fast forward to 2017, and I wish I could tell you that kids today are different. Most are as in the dark or apathetic as I was in 1986. What’s more frightening is that their parents, our generation, didn’t feel the need for political and social awareness to be a part of their childrens’ education. That is, to quote a popular leader from the West, “sad.”

All Roads Lead to Rome (Before You're Crushed by Germany)

My interest in government and social issues were sparked in high school by something very unlikely: Sid Meier’s Civilization (for those of you who are unfamiliar with one of the most successful digital game franchises of all time, please find a copy and prepare for many sleepless nights). I played Civilization in a computer shop and I spent almost all of my free time building up my Romans (the Roman civilization had become “mine,” an important point that I’ll elaborate on later); I would build cities, discover gunpowder, go to war with the Germans, and be crushed by their tank units (lesson learned: allot more resources for research, because musketeers don’t intimidate German tanks at all). I got so obsessed with Civilization, I started reading history books to find strategies on how my Romans can conquer the world. That might sound funny to the uninitiated, but Civilization was so well-designed, the game’s concepts and mechanics were good representations of social studies course content.

As a side-effect of my Civ­-aholic (yes, they made up a term for it) tendencies, I surprised my social studies teacher by reciting more in class and showing up in the top ten for the highest final grades in my section. The funny thing is that up until that point, I hated history class! That experience got me thinking: if a game motivated me enough to learn something I despised in school, maybe I could do the same for other students like me.

Game-Based Learning using Democracy 2

Since my undergraduate research days, I’ve been trying out analog and digital games in classroom situations to see if students learn better with games. Most of those games belonged to the strategy genre, and almost all of the games I used dealt with the social sciences. One of these was Cliff Harris’ political and governance simulator Democracy 2 (D2). The game (and the other versions in the series) lets the player be president or prime minister of simulated countries (fictional or based on real ones). By changing policies and managing the national budget, players can either make their digital nation prosperous (getting the player reelected in the process) or impoverished (a game over condition marked by the player’s ouster … or worse).

For my Master’s thesis, I performed an experiment involving 1st Year students from the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ College of Development Communication. For one of their foundation courses, these students were taught development issues using conventional classroom teaching, classroom teaching with D2 game sessions, and classroom teaching with D2 games sessions plus a discussion about the gameplay experiences. While performance in standardized tests were not significantly different, the students who played D2 were found to have a deeper understanding of what development was about.

Why did D2 have such an impact on the students in the study? The game allowed the students to make abstract concepts in development (i.e. poverty) more concrete. D2 players were also more aware of the interrelatedness and interaction of issues in governance, as this is a key mechanic of the game. Players were providing more specific solutions to issues when asked, showing that they gained more “experience” with these issues (in the game) that non-players did not have. To quote one of the student-players, “(In class), we were given just theories. It was not a first-hand experience, but the game synthesized the problems and solutions.” Explaining further, the student said that D2 made them “feel” that the problems discussed in class were theirs, and that they felt obligated to use what they learned in class to make solutions to their problems. When I heard this, I smiled, remembering “my” Romans in Civilization and how I dove into history books to figure out how to conquer a digital world (and discover tanks before the Germans, for heaven’s sake).

D2 was a small step towards making games acceptable for Philippine classrooms. After I finished my degree, the college dean at the time (who was also my research adviser) gave me instructions to try out the game as a regular part of the course activities. Jackpot! With the inclusion of an exercise based on my research into the course syllabus, D2 became (to my knowledge) the first digital game to be institutionalized as a requirement in UPLB. For a time, even other degree programs started using D2 for their classes in human ecology and sociology.

Teaching Critical Thinking with Games

That was back in 2010. I’m not up-to-date with D2 use in UPLB, but I still advocate the use of games like it for appropriate courses. Since then, I’ve used other games, both analog (mostly card games and role-playing games) and digital (a Rock Band clone, anyone?) for teaching. But there’s one more frontier for strategy games dealing with governance: political awareness. As a child, my grasp of politics was practically nonexistent, but that changed because of my education and interest in games like Civilization and Democracy 2. Children, especially those in high school (Gr. 7-12), should be given the knowledge and motivation to become active participants in nation building by the time they enter the workforce. But this is easier said than done; the current political landscape has shifted so much, even politicians are scrambling to keep up with the times.

This is where games like D2 would come in. By giving youths the motivation to learn about politics and governance on their own, they would be able to sift through all the available information and determine a political stand based on their own beliefs and not on propaganda. However, playing games without proper guidance might not be as effective at developing these traits; no matter how compelling a game’s mechanics are, they will never exactly match how real-world systems work. That’s why I believe teachers should be trained in game-based learning methodologies: to enable them to mentor students in gameplay experiences that could influence their growth into responsible and active participants in the development of their communities.

Opportunity Knocks!

A few months back, I was looking at Democracy 3 for another game-based learning study when I got a text from an old research advisee, Tristan Angeles. He’d since cofounded a game development company and he told me that their game, Political Animals, would be releasing in a few weeks. It was good timing, too, as I had learned of a research conference where I could present this game’s use of anthropomorphic animals as representations of political stereotypes.  But I'll write more about that in a future post.

Till then, learn on, game on!

JPF Maligalig is an educational communication and technology practitioner and researcher who specializes in analog and digital game-based learning. He is taking up a PhD in Educational Administration so he can develop procedures and policies in introducing game-based teaching and learning paradigms in schools, colleges, and universities. In between classes, he plays “Pocket Academy” on his smartphone.

A link to his study on Democracy 2 can be found here.

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Learning and Using GOAP (Goal Oriented Action Planning) For Squeaky Wheel's Next Game

Ryan: We've been working on a new game the past couple of months and this is the first time we're going to be talking about it.  You can find out more about the game by watching the video above, and then geek out over the AI by reading Marnielle's post below.

I’m excited that we’re making a builder type of game in the likes of Prison Architect Banished, and Rimworld. I love playing such games. Our’s is a school management game where you can design classrooms, offices, hire teachers, design curriculum, and guide students to their educational success.

For every new game, it’s always my aim to try to implement a new algorithm or system and learn something new. I’ve always been fascinated with an AI planning system called Goal Oriented Action Planning or GOAP. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a simple tutorialI haven’t developed such system myself as the games that I’ve made so far have no use for it. I think it’s the perfect AI system for builder games. I hope I’m right!

Why GOAP?

The primary reason is I’m lazy. I don’t want to wire and connect stuff like you do with Finite State Machines and Behaviour Trees. I just want to provide a new action and my agents will use it when needed. Another main reason is I’ve reckoned that there’s going to be a lot of action order combinations in the game. I don’t want to enumerate all of those combinations. I want the game agents to just discover them and surprise the player.

Another important reason is the AI system itself is an aide for development. There’s going to be lots of objects in the game that the agents may interact with. While I’m adding them one by one, I’ll just add the actions that can be done with the object and the agents will do the rest. I don’t have to reconfigure them much every time there’s a new action available. Just add the action and it’s done.

Tweaking The System

While making the system, I had some ideas that would make the generic GOAP system better. They sure have paid off.

Multiple Sequenced Actions

Per GOAP action, instead of doing only one action, our custom GOAP action contains a set of modular atomic actions. Each atomic action is executed in sequence. This is what it looks like in editor:

By doing it this way, I can make reusable atomic actions that can be used by any agent. A GOAP action then is just a named object that contains preconditions, effects, and a set of atomic actions.

GoapResult

I incorporated the concept of action results like how it is in Behaviour Trees. An atomic action execution returns either SUCCESS, FAILED, or RUNNING. This is what the atomic action base class looks like:

public abstract class GoapAtomAction {

    public virtual void ResetForPlanning(GoapAgent agent) {
    }

    public virtual bool CanExecute(GoapAgent agent) {
        return true;
    }

    public virtual GoapResult Start(GoapAgent agent) {
        return GoapResult.SUCCESS;
    }

    public virtual GoapResult Update(GoapAgent agent) {
        return GoapResult.SUCCESS;
    }

    public virtual void OnFail(GoapAgent agent) {
    }

}

When an atom action returns FAILED, the whole current plan fails and the agent will plan again. A RUNNING result means that the current action is still running, thus also means that the current plan is still ongoing. A SUCCESS result means that the action has done its execution and can proceed to the next atomic action. When all of the atomic actions returned SUCCESS, the whole GOAP action is a success and the next GOAP action in the plan will be executed.

This concept makes it easy for me to add failure conditions while an action is being executed. Whenever one action fails, the agent automatically replans and proceeds to execute its new set of actions.

Condition Resolver

Condition Resolvers are objects that can query current world conditions which you need during planning. I implemented this as another base class in our system. The concrete classes can then be selectable in the editor. This is what the base class looks like:

public abstract class ConditionResolver {

    private bool resolved;
    private bool conditionMet;

    public ConditionResolver() {
        Reset();
    }

    public void Reset() {
        this.resolved = false;
        this.conditionMet = false;
    }

    public bool IsMet(GoapAgent agent) {
        if(!this.resolved) {
            // Not yet resolved
            this.conditionMet = Resolve(agent);
            this.resolved = true;
        }

        return this.conditionMet;
    }

    protected abstract bool Resolve(GoapAgent agent);

}

Note here that it has logic such that Resolve() will only be invoked once. Concrete subclasses need to only override this method. Such method may execute complex calculations so we need to make sure that it’s only called once when needed during planning.

This is what it looks like in editor:

All conditions default to false unless they have a resolver which is used to query the actual state of the condition.

Usage

Once the conditions, resolvers, and actions have been set up, all that’s left to do is to add goal conditions and invoke Replan().

 

void Start() {
    this.agent = GetComponent();
    Assertion.AssertNotNull(this.agent);

    // Start the AI
    this.agent.ClearGoals();
    this.agent.AddGoal("StudentBehaviour", true);
    this.agent.Replan();
}

If there are new goals to satisfy, the same calls can be invoked to change the goal(s) for a new plan to be executed.

So Far So Good

Our custom GOAP system is working well for us… for now. I now have working worker agents and student agents. More will be added later on, including cooks, janitors etc. Here’s hoping that we don’t need to revamp the system as we’re already so deep with it.

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to be updated on the latest Squeaky Wheel news, please sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel! Please let us know if this is something you would be interested in supporting via Early Access!  Any feedback on that would be most appreciated!

Political Animals is Looking for Educators!

While Political Animals was made for the retail market, we've always hoped that it could be used for educational purposes.  Part of our goal as a studio is to try to broaden the topics that games are allowed to talk about, and having the game used in classrooms and thesis dissertations definitely aligns with that goal.  

However, Political Animals is a little difficult to pitch to educational institutions.  As a turn-based political strategy game It doesn't easily fall into the genre of “edutainment”, and any lessons to be extracted from it are solely based on the interpretations of a teacher or student.  Lessons that might be learned include weighing the different moral decision you have to make during an event.  There could also be a discussion about campaign strategy, or perhaps the difference between different electoral systems (Political Animals uses straight majority as opposed to the Electoral College). But there are no lesson plans of any sort, or guidelines for how to use the game in this way.

This is why we need your help.  If you are an educational practitioner of social studies, politics, anthropology or any other subject where you feel that there might be some merit in having your students play our game, we would love to hear from you!  To give you an idea of how it might be used, I did an analysis of the most recent US election a few months ago.  I'm sure you could do a much better job than that.

Send us an email at ryan@squeakywheel.ph with the Subject line “Political Animals for Education” with an introduction of yourself, your school or institution and how you'd plan to use the game in your class, and we'll give you a free copy of the game.  In return we'd love your feedback on your experiences and the results, if any.  If all goes well we'd love to release an education site license similar to that done by Democracy 3. Thanks, and we hope you can spread the word to your fellow educators!

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Indie Game Developers Should Sell Games in China (While They Still Can)

China Shakes the (Gaming) World

“The potent lure of the 1.3 billion person market, no matter how illusory it may be, has helped China to leapfrog some of the technology barriers that had stymied several of the Southeast Asian 'tiger' economies in the 80s and 90s" -James Kynge in China Shakes the World

Ever since China opened up its markets to the world companies have invested trillions of dollars into the country, hoping to be the one that reaps the rewards of access to that colossal market. Internet stalwarts like Uber and Ebay have tried and failed, and on the gaming side Sony and Microsoft are still barely chipping away at the market, yet somehow Valve has grown its Steam userbase in China, giving indie developers a crack at the Chinese gaming population.

China is well known in the gaming scene, but common wisdom was that the vast Chinese market was never going to pay for a game. Most people in China's first experience with gaming was through mobile phones, and with the subsequent turn of that marketplace towards F2P, it further entrenched the notion that Chinese gamers were unwilling to pay for premium games.

Even Valve's sideways entry into the market was via free-to-play. An alliance with Perfect World literally forced gamers to download Steam in order to play the Dota 2 in China. In fact many of them protested at having to download a piece of useless “zombie” software. But then a funny thing happened. While the Chinese government was busy banning Gears of War 4, Steam was subject to no such restrictions. The lure of ostensibly banned games being available on Steam seems to have led many Chinese gamers to buy and download GTA V on Steam. Enough of them have bought GTA V that China is the second largest country for GTA V in terms of units sold.

GTAV stats courtesy Steamspy

GTAV stats courtesy Steamspy

Steam took notice, and took steps to court the Chinese market by supporting payments in Chinese Yuan via payment services like AliPay and UnionPay, which greatly increased Chinese gamers' access to Steam games. In 2016 Steam also held the inaugural Lunar New Year sale to further embrace the Chinese Market. AAA game development has also taken notice, with increasing numbers adding Chinese language and audio to their games. Indie games like Lost Castle have also made a killing, selling 200,000 of its 300,000 total units in China alone.

There seems to be a growing appetite for paid PC games in China. On reddit commenter even mentioned that there is a sense of obligation on the part of Chinese gamers, saying “I have to buy (gamename)to pay back the debt no matter how bad it is. Because they have played lots of pirate version growing up lol.” And yet surprisingly very few indie developers seemed to be taking the Chinese market seriously, including myself.

Maybe We'll get Banned in China

Personally, as someone from the Philippines, I simply assumed that the Chinese market behaved in a similar fashion as the rest of South East Asia, where I grew up. Players bought pirated games as kids and then transitioned into playing free to play games. The population playing legitimate games was simply too small to mater financially. Our strategy was to try to make it big in Western markets (ie US and Western Europe) and the other markets would follow suit. We even joked that maybe the best thing to happen to us would be to be banned in China, because then at least we'd get some press from it.

So I have to admit when I first received an email from Fall Ark of indienova with an offer to localize the game in Simplified Chinese, it wasn't on the top of my to-do list. I was flattered that he had been following the game on Tigsource for a while and thought it would be worthwhile to localize the game into Chinese, but I simply didn't take the market seriously. In my defense, September and October of 2016 were very trying periods for me. We were flying across the world to present Political Animals to gamers at PAX, EGX, TGS, and BICFest and trying to gauge feedback and finish the game all at the same time. It was probably the most stressful times of my life, and trying to add another language to our localization tasks might have have driven me crazy. But as I'll share with you all in a bit, I now really, really regret not having taken advantage of this generous offer sooner rather than later.

Political Animals in China

In our last blogpost, I mentioned that I was pleasantly surprised at how much our sales in China had picked up after we got localization done. I'll dig in to the numbers to give you some more context.

When I compared the two week period before we announced Chinese localization and 2 weeks afterwards, I realized that there was a 8x increase in the total number of units sold during that time. To take a longer view, I compared the sales for the 5 weeks prior to localization launch to a combined 2 and 3 week period after the launch and 3 weeks in January (excluding the units sold during the Winter Sale, which we’ll get to in a moment) and found a 3.2x increase in total units sold over the course of 5 weeks.

What can we learn from this? The amount of units sold in China was negligible prior to localization. It’s common knowledge that Chinese gamers usually won’t bother with a game if it’s not localized unless it’s massively successful. Adding localization to our game exponentially increased the chances that random Chinese gamers might pick up our game. Interestingly just as I was writing this we sold 4 more units in China, and 1 in Australia.

The only upsetting thing about this is thinking about how many sales we might have gotten on release day when we had front page status on Steam.

Steam Winter Sale

Things got even more interesting during the Steam Winter Sale, which according to Sergey Galyonkin on Steampsy drives the most unit sales of games. As you can see from the graph above, Chinese sales represented 17% of our total sales during the Steam Winter Sale, more than the UK and Canada combined! By comparison Japan and the Russian Federation, both large non-English speaking markets, only mustered 1% of the total sales each.

Obviously these are exciting numbers, but first you have to ask yourselves whether or not these numbers scale. After all, we’re looking at a very small sample size here in terms of units sold and time elapsed. But given the fact that games as vastly different as GTA V and Don’t Starve both have China as their number 2 region in terms units sold, I’m fairly confident that over time, that will be the case for us as well.

One major caveat that I have to mention here is that since Steam suggests pricing of 50% lower for China, that means that while the increase in units may be impressive, the revenue increase will be less so.

How to reach your Chinese Audience

Assuming you’ve bought in to the idea that there is huge potential in the Chinese Market, what do you do? First, localize. We were lucky enough that we were able to get free localization from indienova. They are pretty active about localizing games they like, so go ahead and get in touch with them if you haven’t already been contacted.

If you haven’t been contacted by indienova, there are indie game publishers in China that are actively searching for games to localize and launch in China. Another Indie and Coconut Island Studios are two examples of that. I would actually suggest this path for English speaking indies that don’t have access to someone who understands the Chinese market. These companies have relationships and fanbases that they can use to promote your game much more than you could do so on your own, especially given the fact that Facebook and Twitter are banned in China. Streamers are super big in China but unless you can read Chinese or have relationships with them there's almost zero chance you can get one of them to play your game. We actually pitched our game to Another Indie but they declined due to concerns over the political nature and style of our game (it didn't help that the game hadn't done well so far).

So for the most part we are DIY-ing it. We went and made a Squeakywheel Weibo account since thats what folks use there instead of Twitter/Facebook. We post there every now and then using either Google Translate or asking some Chinese friends to do short translations for us. As for stuff we post, we usually look at either reviews of the game in Chinese or screenshots people have posted of the Chinese version of the game.

funny.jpg

This funny review in Chinese got quite a few views. When run through Google Translate it reads:

"Political animal" by the United States Obama team carefully built three yuan super VR games, Obama, Trump, Hillary lead. AD 7, 1427, Azeroth, the mainland decided to elect the next general secretary, and you, as a person elected to be elected as a candidate, where you need to use a variety of moral and moral The way to beat your opponent. such as:
Hard point of a topic, so that people of this constituency to know you
To confuse a second time, so that the constituency of all the people plus one second
In the constituency to find a sister, through the point of praise to pay Po into the harem
Mourning is hereby, ask the constituency of the Tu Hao to Krypton a single
To a PY deal, so that those who do not continue to force a second to see Marx
In this process you can also have a bunch of little brother and thugs to help you fight home robbery, they each have their own good.
Especially for a constituency can put forward a big news rival
Donkey lions can bury your sins to help you cook
Prostitutes from Hong Kong to run particularly fast
Repair the computer can be made welfare
Activists are good at muffled fortune
Dogs feed more boys
Report can be power cuts
Rogue can pull the opponent's brother out of the base
Each character has its own characteristics.
And you need to decide whether you should pay more attention to the motherland's small loli, unemployed female college students, dirty PY transactions, Crystal Palace construction progress, loss of faith lost lamb or the national physical health of these six major issues.
In the course of the game continue to use carrots and sticks to buy people speculation public opinion.
Eventually, all the banknotes will be gone, and you will be honorable to the crowned King

Yeah, we didn't get it either, and when we asked a taiwanese friend to translate it he said it was just full of bad puns!  It's hard to really say how many people we're really getting to click on our link to go to steam, but it's a toehold and we're taking advantage of as best we can.

We've geared up for a 40% discount during Chinese New Year weekend. Luckily it's the year of the rooster, and whaddayaknow we have a rooster on our candidate roster. It won't be as successful as if we had some proper support in China but I'm hoping it will make some impact. I'll report on that in a future blogpost.

The Window may be Closing

I personally want to push this as far as I can to try and see if there is room for markets for us aside from the US and Europe. The larger and more diverse the markets that we can sell our games to, the more indie game studios can survive and thrive. If a game that doesn't do well in the US can thrive in China, that should be celebrated.

However the window may be closing on indie and PC game developers in general. As previously mentioned, the Chinese government takes games seriously. They have a government body that regulates each and every game that is released on consoles, and recently this also affected games that were to be released on the app store. This substantially slows down game launches as publishers and studios have to jump through numerous hoops before to release their games. Publishers and large game companies have representation that can explain to them how best to go through the process, but small indies like us will be shit out of luck.  A recent government pronouncement has already started moving in this direction, so it may not be long before Steam's free pass gets revoked, and it gets much harder to release games beyond the Great Firewall. 

Tech Conglomerate Tencent has muddied up the waters even more as it launched a Steam competitor called TGP and plans to launch a gaming console.  TGP is restricted by the same government rules as Sony and Xbox, but it understands the Chinese market better and has every opportunity to replace Steam as the go-to platform for PC gaming.

In short, if you're an indie developer that feels like they have a shot at the Chinese market, you'd better make your move soon before that window closes for good.

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Political Animals Sales Statistics

Hey everyone,  I know it’s been a while since we last updated you, but enough time has passed that we now have enough stats to share with you after 2 and a half months of selling Political Animals!

Preface

I’ve talked about the launch of Political Animals before, most of which you can find on our blog.  But here’s a little breakdown for the tl:dr folks.  Political Animals is a turn-based strategy game where you are an animal candidate trying to win an election and keep your morals intact.  We worked on it for two years, half of which was funded by our publisher, Positech GamesSqueaky Wheel is a small Philippine PC game studio that has a bunch of veteran developers in it, and personally the biggest project I ever worked on was Prison Architect, for which I did the art.

The game looked promising in all the events we brought it to, as we even got a staff pick by Eurogamer as one of its EGX games of 2016.  We were on the front page of Steam on launch, and had quite a few people streaming our game, most notably folks like Total Biscuit, NorthernLion, Quill18, etc.  Given all of that, how did we do?

Did we Break Even?

We’ve already mentioned that we’ve had a very poor launch, but it helps to know exactly how badly we did.  During the whole of development our internal “break even” number was always 10,000 units x $15, which is the full price of the game.  This took into account both development costs and marketing as well as taking into account Steam’s 30% cut of the revenue.  So how did we do?
 
As you can see after two and a half months on sale we’re about 30% of the way to breaking even.  Which isn’t so terrible, except this is after the first day sales bump and the Winter Sale.  The way things stand we’ll (or rather, our publisher) be very lucky to break even by the end of the year.  The only silver lining here for the studio is that none of us put our life savings into the game.

Sales per Marketplace

There aren’t any huge surprises here.  Steam is still the dominant digital marketplace when it comes to games.  Humble and GoG combined only make up 10% of our total sales so far.  I don’t really see this changing in the short term, as Steam really just has so many more subscribers than GoG or Humble combined.

Sales by Country

It gets a little more interesting when we look at units per country.  As expected most of our units have been sold in the US.  The UK comes in a distant second, which makes sense given Positech is from the UK and has a bit of a following there.  We’re not surprised that we quite a few sales in France, Germany, and Canada, as strategy games are usually popular in those countries.

Things start to get interesting when you notice that China is right behind Germany in terms of units sold.  When we announced the launch of Political Animals we were contacted by some localizers from indienova offering a translation to Simplified Chinese.  To be honest, the Chinese market was a bit of a mystery to us and it wasn’t high priority, but given our poor launch there was little to lose, especially when they offered to localize pro bono.  Since Chinese players mostly won’t both bother with a game unless it’s localized or super popular, this guaranteed us a few extra sales.  I even took the extra effort to start a Weibo page, though I’m not entirely sure if it really matters.

The process was pretty seamless, but took about a month to iron out the kinks.   The additional sales weren’t mind boggling, but we now had numerous people in China downloading and reviewing our game, and most of them seemed happy with it.  In the two weeks following our announcement of the localization our Chinese sale shot up by 300% (from a very small number) and during the winter sale Chinese sales were second only to the US.  The catch is that Steam’s suggested pricing is 50% off of our regular US price, so every unit sold in China is worth half a unit when it comes to our break even point.

We have localization in the works for Russian and Polish, and we’re hoping they’ll provide a small boost to our sales as well.

Sales by Platform

Once again no surprises here.  Windows makes up the majority of our sales and Mac and Linux combined make up less than 15%.  The only thing worth noting here is that the Linux sales were quite disappointing given how much work it took to get it working.  We used Unity to make Political Animals, and while porting to Mac was relatively trivial, making the game work on Linux’ multiple distros was a bit of a nightmare for us.

Steam Sales and Wishlist Graph

Lastly, here is the traditional reveal of the Steam sales graph! Our sales peaked at launch, as with most games, and shows a steady decline until a small peak during the Winter Sale.  We’d definitely hoped for more of a peak during the winter sales, but given the deluge of games on Steam in 2016 and the fact that we were only 25% off I should have expected that wouldn’t be the case.
 

As you can see with our wishlist graph, we have quite the gap between our outstanding wishes (players who indicated that they want to play the game) and activations (players who actually bought the game).  I suspect what this means is that there are lot of people waiting for the price to go down to an “acceptable” level before they pull the trigger.  We’ll find out in one of the future Stream sales as we slowly increase the discount.

What’s Next?

I think we followed a typical pattern of trying to save our game the best we can by pushing out rapid updates, talking to players, etc.  At some point you have to concede that the effort involved in this will bring minimal returns, so you have to go back to the drawing board and start a new game.  We’re still currently working on a major update to Political Animals that includes local multiplayer, but we’re also hard at work prototyping our next game and thinking about how to release it.  

If you have any additional questions about our stats, please feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer!

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Squeaky Wheel's 2016 Year in Review

This is the first year of Squeaky Wheel’s life as a company, and I thought it would be appropriate to set down some thoughts at the start of the 2017.  We started 2016 with high expectations.  We had just gotten a publishing deal with Positech and we were gonna start rolling on Political Animals full time. A lot has happened since then, and there were some lessons learned. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

We launched a game!  

We launched Political Animals on November 2, a week before the US presidential elections.  As discussed previously, the timing of the launch was pretty terrible.  We had also started the year as one of very few explicitly political games, but once we launched we had been joined by quite a few games of varying quality.  Our niche market was now relatively less niche.
All of this means that Political Animals has struggled since launch.  We have some plans that we think will help keep the game in people’s minds, and elections will always be happening around the world, so we’re betting on a long tail.

While the game has essentially failed financially, we did get some recognition.  We were featured in Rappler's Year in Tech : Games to Forget 2016 By and honored by Haogaamer as Most Original Game of 2016.  

The marketplace is changing

Steam is still the biggest marketplace in town and while getting a game onto Steam still confers a little gamedev “cred” it no longer ensures that your game will be financially viable.  For better or worse, Steam has become a much more open marketplace.  This means a larger variety of games to cater to every kind of gamer, but also a lot more competition.  We knew this going in, which is why we partnered with a publisher that had credibility in the indie space, but it still wasn’t quite enough.

The demographics of Steam are also changing.  The US market is still the barometer of success on Steam.  If you do well there, gamers in other countries will inevitably follow suit.  This is why despite being a studio based in the Philippines, we courted the US market deliberately, featuring the US-inspired Autumn Island on the title screen and setting our launch to coincide with the US elections.  When that didn’t pan out, we were caught flatfooted.

We should have noticed that countries like China and Russia were now powerhouses when it comes to buying games on Steam.  These are also markets that generally do not have a large English speaking population, and will skip on a game unless it’s super popular and worth figuring out.  We’re in the process of sorting that out now (something I’ll discuss in a future blogpost), but I wonder how much of an impact the Chinese and Russian market might have had when we launched and had front page status on Steam?

Are game conventions worth it?

We presented Political Animals at PAX West, EGX, BICFest, and TGS this year.  While BICFest and TGS were relatively low cost for a variety of reasons (geography being one key reason) there were some substantial costs for presenting at PAX and EGX.  Whether or not the cost spent was worth it or not has been something that I’ve been musing over for a while.  
Almost all the feedback we got from PAX and EGX was positive.  Everyone thought it was a GREAT idea to launch during the US elections, and we came home exhausted but happy that what we thought was a niche market seemed much larger than we thought.  Hell, we were even one of the “games of show” for EGX 2016, which is ironic considering the Eurogamer (organizers of EGX) didn’t even do a review of Political Animals when it came out.  

While game conventions are great for meeting fans, networking, and meeting your gamedev heroes, our experience was that they had very little effect on our bottom line.  If we manage to secure funding for another game, I think we’ll be very picky about which conventions we’ll be attending.  

What’s happening in 2017

2016 was rough for me personally.  I’m not inherently entrepreneurial, so starting a gamedev business was well outside the venn diagram of my skillset.  I was thoroughly set on closing up shop if Political Animals was a financial failure.  The emotional stress wasn’t worth it, and if I couldn’t even have the luxury of wiping away my tears with hundred dollar bills (or even 10 dollar bills), what was the point? 

The point is we made a good game.  One that didn’t exist a year ago.  We contributed a cultural artifact to society, and helped to expand the kinds of games our medium is allowed to create.  It sucks that we didn’t make enough money to break even (and beyond), but we still have a little money and a couple of months to work on and pitch a new game.  We’ve gotten this far, so we might as well keep going.

Oh, the new game?  Well, we’re still keeping a lot of it under wraps, but here’s a very early work in progress UI flow in GIF format…

mockupBuildGIF.gif

I hope we’ll get to make it!

An Analysis of the 2016 US Election Using the Mechanics of Political Animals

Donald Trump won a stunning victory in the 2016 US Election yesterday.  Regardless of how you feel about the President-Elect, you have to give it to him and his team for tapping into an undercurrent of fear and anger against the Establishment/Elite and utilizing it to win a victory.  When we started making Political Animals, I had a silly dream of political commentators using the game to analyze actual Political events.  Given the game's slow sales, that's not likely to happen, so if you'll indulge me I'll do a little armchair political analysis using my own game.

The Candidates

Candidate Donald Trunk (ha!) understands (some might say panders to) and empathizes with the needs of the citizens in a way that no other candidate (with the exception of Beary Sanders) does.  However, he is criticized for having a potty mouth and poor taste, and thus has difficulty attracting political patrons to his side.  His special ability, while not realistic, is the ability to build a wall around a district and prevent his enemies from coming in.

His platform is Public Works and Employment.  His staff Include an Agent to fabricate scandals, a Lawyer to help cover up his own scandals, and an Activist to further enhance his rallies. His homebase is in the Factory district, which isn't actually true but represents his campaign's strategy to woo Rust Belt voters.

Hillary Clinton (sorry I could not think of a pun) on the other hand is known as an efficient and extremely hard worker but is also one of the most unpopular candidates in recent history, meaning she doesn't do very well at attracting people to vote for her.  Her platform is Health and Employment.  Her staff include a Preacher to help her generate even more logistics to move and operate her staff, a courier that helps her get around and speak to patrons, and an Activist to supplement her lack of charisma. Clinton's headquarters is in the Kapitolyo (aka Capitol) which again isn't entirely true but is emblematic of the perception that she represents the establishment.

Scandals

Donald Trunk had to deal with a lot of smaller scandals on the campaign trail, but showed a remarkable ability to shrug them off with little effect.  Hillary was dogged by a few scandals which had a much bigger impact on her campaign.

The current mechanics of the game allow for a candidate to win despite multiple scandals, so it's very possible for a Trunk-like candidate to win in Political Animals.  It would be even easier if he used a lawyer to settle some of those scandals.

Undecided Voters and Reputation Decay

Political Animals maps the concerns of undecided voters as well.  They're affected by a variety of things including how popular a candidate is in their district, who has more scandals, and who visited their district most often.  It also has a reputation decay mechanic a candidate will lose support in districts that they have not visited for a long time.

There's been much ado about the collapse of Hillary Clinton's Blue Wall, particularly in the State of Wisconsin. She didn't visit it because her campaign assumed she would be a shoo-in there, which proved to be a costly mistake.

Political Patrons

Political Patrons in Political Animals represent a lot of different things, but they are essentially local leaders that hold a lot of sway in their communities or followers.  In the game there are three types of patrons : Influential, Wealthy, and Popular.  These patrons control access to Logistics (efficiency), fund raising, and campaigning, respectively.

In this election Donald Trunk had difficulty attracting the support of patrons like conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes and prominent members of the Republican party.  Clinton, on the other had, not only had Republicans deciding to vote for her but also had celebrities as wide ranging as Beyonce and Lebron James all the way to working class icon Bruce Spingsteen supporting her.

Political Animals uses Patrons as an in-game balance against pure populism.  In some ways we may have given them a little too much importance.  So if the real world mimicked Political Animals, Hillary Clinton might have won the election over Donald Trunk.  But it was not to be, as we'll see when we discuss the issues.

The Issues

I'm not gonna lie, I was surprised at how closely this Issues overlay mapped (the real) Donald's map to victory.  The areas highlighted in blue are generally the areas that he won and the areas in gray map Hillary Clinton's states.  Obviously there are some differences because this isn't really meant to be a map of the US, but still, kind of surprising.

So this is where Political Animals as a simulation kind of falls apart.  We (and the pollsters, apparently) did not expect how much impact the issues would have on these elections.  Our mechanics connect the concerns of a district to the success of a candidate's campaigns, but not to the extent seen during the elections.  It's as if our fake Donald Trunk hacked into the game and adjusted the formula to greatly increase the effect that playing to the issues of electorate had.  

Hillary lost this battle almost completely.  I read recently that former president Bill Clinton had some issues with Hillary's campaign manager about the lack of a clear message (his campaign famously coined "It's the economy, stupid").  I tend to agree, and so does this article.  Towards the end their campaign centered around "Stronger Together", which is nice but pales with "Make America Great Again."  If I was in charge of their messaging, I would have used "Let's Get to Work."  It would have enhanced her workaholic credentials while at the same time assuaging the fears of the millions of blue collar workers that felt left behind in previous administrations.  She could have even struck a Rosie the Riveter pose for campaigns to help cement her as a feminist icon.  

Conclusion

The elections are now over, and it seems it was won primarily on a strategy of playing to the legitimate concerns of people who felt left behind.  It should be mentioned that playing to those concerns also included a lot of hateful rhetoric from the side of Donald Trump, but ultimately it seems that this election was won because of a failure of strategy on the Clinton campaign. That is at the heart of what Political Animals is about.  Politics is hard work, and in many ways the Clinton campaign was outsmarted and outworked by the Trump campaign. 

On quite a few occasions we have been accused of making a cynical game.  I think that's the farthest thing from the truth.  I personally would describe myself as falling somewhere between a pragmatist and an optimist.  We've simply described the political landscape (not only in the US, but around the world) as we see it. We've tried to make it balanced so that any kind of candidate can win.  At the end of the day if you believe in your ideals you have to fight for them during the elections. You cannot simply assume that people agree with or will follow you. 

Lastly, I hope you'll forgive me for being a little sentimental, but if we've convinced even this one person that playing clean is a valid political strategy, all the effort that went into making this little game was well worth it.

Thanks for reading. Political Animals is out! If you're a games journalist or streamer that wants a review copy, please check out our press kit and distribute() link.  If you'd like to be updated on the latest Political Animals news, please sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook group, or follow us on Twitter.

What Does it Feel Like to Launch a Game?

It's been almost a week that Political Animals has been on sale on Steam/GoG/Humble.  It's been quite the emotional roller coaster.  I wanted to take a week to absorb all the emotions and share it with gamers and gamedevs alike.  My apologies for a lack of stats.  I was hoping to share some in this post, but given I can't be too specific with them as per Steam's rules, there's nothing super interesting to show you right now.  I may do a more stats heavy blog in the future once we have a bigger sample size.

Launch Expectations

Given we're not allowed to share actual Steam data, the best we can do is compare out expectations of launch versus how things actually turned out.  We had reasonable expectations for a good launch.  Our publisher, Positech Games, has a good track record and fanbase fond of political games to draw from.  We had positive experiences from players at PAX and EGX.  We gave out keys to press and Youtubers (This is the funniest LP by far) a week prior to launch and we were getting a lot of positive feedback.  Total Biscuit even responded with a Steam key request right after I blasted my press release, which was quite exciting. And we were able to launch right before the US elections, which was our target all along.

There were some warning signs though.  The Halloween Sale happened right before launch, and that's always a terrible time to launch a game.  It was not quite as big as a summer sale, but it's always bad to chase after customers after their wallets have just been emptied.  We were also having a hard time getting traditional press coverage, which would be an issue later on.  And Positech has had games do poorly before, with Democracy : Africa and Gratuitous Space Battle 2 being the biggest disappointments.  

Launch Results

Given we worked virtually (we all live in different parts of Metro Manila and meet once a week) We'd made a team decision to get together after the launch instead of waiting for it together.  I personally went to watch Dr. Strange (entertaining movie, if you can get past Cumberbatch's strained American accent) and waited up for the launch with some close friends before calling it a night.

Note: because we live in the Philippines, the 10am launch in the US was actually 1am in the Philippines.

After a less than restful sleep, I woke up to immediately check on our first day sales so far. We'd previously been informed that we'd be featured on the front page so I was a little bit excited. I'm struggling to remember what I felt when I finally saw the numbers.  Shock?  Sadness?  Probably a stunned silence.  Surely they couldn't be so low.  I impotently clicked refresh a few times until I was satisfied that this wasn't some error.  When it finally sank in that we were probably Positech's poorest performing game, I was a little surprised at how I felt.  I just sat there for what felt like ages thinking "well, we flopped."  I sank two and a half years of my life chasing this day and we flopped.  I was a little worried about how numb I was feeling.  Shouldn't I be crying or something? Is this what shock feels like?  

I stood up and told my wife the bad news.  We sat for a bit while she comforted me.  But it was a weekday, so she soon left for work while I drifted back to stare blankly at the computer screen to click on refresh yet again.  Then I did only thing that I could do, which was try to figure why exactly we'd flopped so badly.

Why Didn't People Buy our Game?

The Halloween sale probably had a bigger impact than we thought.  It's hard to ask players for more money when they've just shelled out for games.  Double Fine also had their day of the devs bundle out at the same time, providing incredible value for just a few dollars.  While there will always be other games out when you launch, I think we picked a particularly poor time to do it.  

"Looks really cute and could be a lot of fun. But as an American I really don't associate fun with elections right now. Dread, yes."

The above quote was from a comment on GoG.  I'm not putting too much stock in just the one comment, but the electino cycle in the US takes an obscenely long amount of time, and my sense is that at this point most people just want it to be over already. Had we launched a month or more ago this might have been less of an issue.

After noticing some people on our game's discussion page opine that the game A) had great art but B) "looked like a mobile game" and C) lacked strategic depth (despite their not having played the game), I decided to take a look at our Steam store page.  I got really upset at myself at that point.  The store page is the first thing most players will see of your game, so it's important to make a good impression.  Your trailer, screenshots, descriptions and reviews all have to work together to convince the prospective player that your game is worth buying. Our store page had an incomplete description and no links to reviews.  It's no wonder people were making these assumptions about our game.  If we couldn't even put together a proper Steam store page, how could we make a good game?  Sadly, the biggest thing that might have affected our sales was something that was very much in our control, and I dropped the ball.

Lastly, I should say it is entirely possible that the game just feels too expensive for what it is, and that maybe the game just isn't good.  As for the first, I suppose we'll find out in a few months.  We've got a surprising amount of wishlists, and if a bunch of those convert during a sale, then we'll know how much people actually value the game.  As for whether or not it's good, we're happy with the feedback the game got at PAX and EGX so we're pretty confident saying we've made a good game.

Engaging the Community

Now that I'd identified some of the launch day issues, the only thing left to do was to try to rectify them as best as we could.  First, that meant fixing the issues with the Steam store page.  Next, we dived deep into the Community discussions and responded as best as we could to people's concerns. In some ways, this is a dangerous move.  Developers can get very defensive about their work, and it's very easy to get into an argument with a player and become labeled an angry dev.  Any devs who want to wade into community discussions need to approach it with an air of humility.  Always assume that any complaint is a valid concern, even if it seems dismissive.  My father in law once told me that a customer that complains is valuable, because they could just as easily have walked away without letting you know why.  If they're complaining, take that as opportunity to convince them to give you another chance.  Which is exactly what I did with one guy who was on the fence.  I asked what was keeping him on the fence, then we had a short back and forth which ended up with him saying :

"Well, with Steam offering a 2-hour refund window, I decided that I'll go ahead and grab the game and give it a whirl."

How did I do it?  It's not magic.  I never once tried to "correct" his intuition that the game was lacking in strategy.  I merely explained that based on our experience at conventions people were happy with the level of strategy, and also linked to a Eurogamer article about it.  That was enough to persuade them to try out the game, which is all I really wanted.

Aside from that, we took note of what people are saying they want from the game.  They say the game feels a bit unbalanced.  We'll look into that.  A lot of people are asking for multiplayer, so we've penciled that in as an update.  There were a few questions about Linux. Assuming all goes well that will be coming soon. More than anything it's the fact that we're engaging with the community that makes people commit to the game.  They feel like we're not just gonna drop the game and never update it again.  We're also still actively looking for press to cover the game to try to keep it in people's minds and give the game some more legitimacy.  

We've also been approached by localizers in China, Russia, etc. places where games don't traditionally do very well due to piracy and a lack of English speaking players.  Localization is definitely a pain, but maybe taking a broader outlook is the way we can keep the game relevant in the coming months and years.

Conclusion

We're proud of the game we've made.  We're also proud to contribute to the number of Philippine made games on Steam.  That may not seem like a big deal to countries with a wealth of developers and games, but it certainly means a lot to us.  It still seems almost impossible that we managed to put the game out on Steam.  

We regret being such a poor investment for Positech in the short term, but they'll make their money back over the long haul, and hopefully even sooner if we manage to play our cards right.  

As for the team, it was definitely pretty rough.  Our first meeting after seeing the sales numbers was pretty somber, but we ended it with a rousing karaoke session that lifted our spirits, if not our sales.  We'll keep working hard to make sure that this game is the best it can be, and hopefully we'll have a chance to make another one.

Thanks for reading. Political Animals is out! If you're a games journalist or streamer that wants a review copy, please check out our press kit and distribute() link.  If you'd like to be updated on the latest Political Animals news, please sign up for our mailing list, join our Facebook group, or follow us on Twitter!