A Response to Cliffski's 10 Tips to 10X Your Indie Game Development Process

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Recently the noted indie curmudgeon Cliffski wrote a lengthy blogpost about how to improve your indie game development process, for which he received a lot of unfair criticism from the internets. A lot of this abuse was unwarranted, and I want to take this opportunity to respond to show people that you can disagree with someone without necessarily hurling abuse at them.

NOTE: It is rather cheeky to do this, but Cliffski published our first game, and by now we’ve known each other well enough that would call him a friend (although this may put that to the test!)

Tip #1 Stop fucking around with ‘fun’ disguised as work

Reading reddit is not work, unless its 100% actual new, informative, well-reasoned and argued and productivity or sales-boosting information directly applicable to indie game development on the platform/genre combo you work in

Cliffski takes aim at “useless” activities disguised as work, like reading reddit, playing indie games, and watching youtube let’s plays. While I agree that hunkering down and actually working is the key component in any endeavor, not just gamedev, there is a lot of value to wasting time. I can say this as someone who tried to devote himself to making sure every single day of his life was planned perfectly so as not to waste a minute of time.

There is a supermarket near my home that charges me 30 Pesos (about 75 cents) if I park there for more than 15 minutes. I have planned my grocery shopping such that as soon as I enter the parking lot I have already pre-mapped my route through the grocery story to pcik up everything I need in order so that I am out by 15 minutes. When I miss this arbitrary deadline I get pissed off. I tried to spend the rest of my life this way and it drove me (and my wife) crazy.

There is huge value in making an efficient use of your time. But there is also value in giving yourself a little bit of slack to enjoy stuff, play some games, and read through things. It’s impossible to know ahead of time what will be “100% actual new, informative, well-reasoned and argued and productivity or sales-boosting information” so you need to give yourself time to explore. Sometimes this means time will be wasted, and we need to be okay with that.

Tip #2 Work somewhere quiet

cliffski’s hyperbaric chamber

cliffski’s hyperbaric chamber

a coffee shop is not quiet. Nor is any room in your house/apartment where other people walk through regularly. You need to be an end-zone where people only enter your room if they need YOU.

I mostly agree with Cliff here, although to a certain extent this is dependent on your personality. There is some value to be gained from having white noise around you. When I was still exclusively a freelance artist and would often spend hours painting or creating art, I would have a podcast in the background as it genuinely helped me concentrate. This is hard to do if you are writing either code or just plain old text, as the same brain functions are triggered by hearing people speak and actually writing things down. This is because we generally “talk” to ourselves in our head as we are writing, so hearing someone speak at the same time can be jarring.

Ultimately its the being interrupted part that is jarring. So what I’ve done is to try to have the best of both worlds. I work from home in a personal office (really it’s our second bedroom where I have been graced with the use of a corner). To simulate white noise I use a couple of websites:

  1. http://rainycafe.com/ : does what it says on the tin. two toggles and a volume control for rain and cafe sounds.

  2. Air traffic control + Ambient vangelis-like sounds : This is my personal super weird combo. It makes me feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie.

  3. Any “lo-fi hip hop” playlist on Spotify

I have gone over the deep end before and wasted too much time trying to find the “right” white noise, so just pick a sound that you enjoy but can easily ignore, and start working.

Tip#3 Get a big monitor, get 2 big monitors. Don’t feel bad if you have 3.

Three is a bit excessive, but sure, why not. More screen real estate means more information. Too much information can lead to distraction though. For folks with laptops who want a portable solution, this AOC 16-inch usb powered monitor has been an absolute godsend for me.

Tip#4 Shortcut keys and batch files etc

Zero arguments here. I have made shortcut keys for Photoshop for this very same reason. Any time spent learning shortcut keys is repaid 100 fold in the long run.

Tip#5 Comfort

When it comes to my office, no expense is spared. If you are an indie developer, your desk and office chair are probably more important to you than your car, TV, cooker and sofa combined. You will (hopefully) spend a lot of time in that chair at that desk. Get a really good one. try many, the really good ones will last a while. Mine is an aeron, 9 years old, still perfect. I actually had a desk made for me (surprisingly cheap actually), It will last forever. Do not make false economies here. Mine was about £800. Thats under £100 a year so far for the place I park my ass most of my life.

YES, YES, ONE HUNDRED TIMES YES! This makes more sense for older devs who have to deal with more joint and back pain as they age. But no matter what age you are, buy the most comfortable equipment you can afford.

This includes beds btw. I’d been dealing with some back pain for a very long time and going through a bunch of chairs to find the perfect one. Turns out my main problem was our old bed mattress that I had inherited from my parents. We bought a stiffer mattress and my back pain improved tremendously.

Tip#6 Mindset

Do not surround yourself with well meaning people who tell you what you want to hear. Thats a route that spirals down and down into insular failure and disappointment.

It’s almost impossible to respond to this because it’s so rambling and I have an image of Cliffski in his bathrobe yelling at the gamedev kids to get the fuck off his lawn. But I’ll tackle the point about surrounding yourself with people that tell you want you want to hear with a story.

Someone who used to be a friend of mine asked me to take a look at his 3d animation because he really wanted to get into gamedev. I took a look, and the animation, such as it was, was an object moving from one end of the screen to the other. I told him good job, but tried to explain that animation was a lot more complex than that, and gave him tips and links to improve. He left in a digital huff (this was over chat) and never asked me about animation again. He never became an animator.

People need different things to be able to thrive in their careers. Some need more support than others, and that’s ok! We can’t all be workaholic maniacs like Cliffski. But a certain amount of grit and persistence is needed to see any endeavor through, and if you give up after one well meaning criticism? I don’t have much hope for you.

side note: I have been trying to learn Japanese on and off for about 7 years. I am still pretty fucking terrible at it. But I am committed to learning it.

Tip#7 Focus on one thing well

If you are good at making 2D RPGs, make 2D RPGs. Unless you have three years salary in the bank, and a lot of confidence, and are absolutely MISERABLE making those games, do not change. Every 2D RPG you make improves your skills, your experience, your audience, your engine, your productivity and your tool-chain.

There is a lot of truth to this. Mastering your craft takes a long time. If you keep making the same kind of game you can reuse some code and learn to discard things that are unnecessary. But it’s also good to be good at other things. Cliffski is a good guitarist as well as businessman. I am primarily known as an artist, but recently my work has tended to be a little bit of design, business and marketing as well, and I’m a mentee at Weather Factory learning how to be a producer. I can never say that I am a master of any one thing, but I’m happy being a jack of (many) trades.

Tip#8 Seek out harsh but real criticism

Do not insulate yourself from the negative. negativity can lead to change, improvement and accomplishment. Data about what you are doing badly is absolutely essential in improving. If nobody ever tells you your games art direction is shit, or your game title is stupid, you will never improve it. If you *absolutely* cannot cope with harsh, hurtful criticism, then you probably should not try to make a living from indie game development.

I 100% agree. This goes back to the idea of having the proper mindset. You cannot get better if you do not seek criticism. Eventually you will learn to filter useful criticism from trolls, and how to extract value from criticism without taking things personally.

Tip#9 avoid chances for distraction

I used to use rescuetime. I also used to use an hourglass to focus myself on work. I now find I need neither. I’ve worked so hard, so long, I’ve internalized what they used to do for me. Most people aren’t at that stage, and they get distracted. if your phone distracts you from work, switch it off. Nothing will explode. We survived thousands of years without mobile phones, you will be fine for entire eight hour stretches. You don’t need twitter during work hours, you don’t need to check the news sites or reddit during work hours

This tip also rambles off into other stuff, but I’ll tackle distraction. I 100% agree with this. Remember that social media throws billions of dollars at engineers in order to trap you in their site, and MAKE YOU LIKE IT. I have taken the following steps to try to reduce distractions:

  1. Added a website blocker to keep me from accessing social media during work hours

  2. Also use rescuetime to preiodically track my usage

  3. Turned off almost ALL notifications on my phone, with the exception of messenger (coz sometimes friends and fam contact me there).

This has improved my productivity and well being immensely, and I highly recommend it.

Tip#10 Avoid bullshit productivity planning admin

Some peoples reaction to stuff like this is to immediately start planning to be more productive. they will start a productivity planning spreadsheet, with nice formatting, some color-coding and even a company logo

This is where I will take the most issue with Cliff. Essentially it’s an argument for just getting to work and not worrying about the planning. This is fine if you are a single developer and answer to and only coordinate with yourself and a freelancer. This is absolute suicide if you are a team of 3 or more people (unless you’re synced, Pacific Ri style). The Squeaky Wheel team is composed of hard working individuals. But often times we are not working efficiently and in sync because we’re each doing our own little thing very well. This creates a lot of wasted time and stress for me personally, because I always felt that something was wrong and we were not being efficient. It also creates stress for the individual worker because when work isn’t properly planned, you have the eternal feeling of “if I’m not working, I’m slacking off”. As I mentioned in the first tip, this can be absolutely terrible for your mental health (if you’re not a workaholic robot like Cliffski).

Endless planning and bad meetings can be a waste of time. But taking a team and just assuming that everyone working hard will be “good enough” is a recipe for disaster. I have spent the past few weeks working with Weather Factory’s Lottie Bevan to improve my producer skills, and I’m already feeling a lot better and experiencing a lot less stress. In fact, I just spent most of today planning out the next couple of months for the team, and I feel great!

Conclusion

There are a lot of good points in Cliffski’s blog, and a lot that I disagree with. It’s good to have a conversation about it, and at the very least it makes a good starting point for figuring out what works for you!

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! IIf you want to support us, you can by checking out Academia : School Simulator, buy the game now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!



Why isn’t Academia:School Simulator selling as well as other games?

Sorry for the rather clickbaity title! This will actually be a rather dry and boring dissection of why our game hasn’t done as well as similar games, and ideas for doing better.  Academia : School Simulator (henceforth known as Academia) has been out since September 2017 and has done pretty well for Squeaky Wheel. It recently went past the 50000 unit mark and was making a decent profit, at least until the dreaded Steam Algocalypse of October 2018, from which it never truly recovered.  We do have some savings built up and we’re more or less breaking even every month. Being on that knife’s edge of profitability does keep me up though, and I’ve recently started wondering, why hasn’t Academia been quite as successful as other, very similar games? I decided to do a deep dive and compare notes with some other trusted indie developers.  These are the results.

PS: I want to make it clear that we realize how lucky we are to be one of the few devs that are even surviving relatively comfortably. I’m just thinking of this an experiment, ie all things being equal why would one game do worse?

The games to be compared are:

We are comparing these games because they are the most directly comparable to Academia in these ways:

  • Graphics: All of them have a graphical lineage from Prison Architect (for which I was the artist), with some variation.

  • Team Size: Relatively similar team sizes

  • Marketing : Similar marketing output, which is to say that aside from doing their own marketing, none of these games have really gotten big marketing pushes.

  • Originality : These games are building off a relatively established framework. Obviously they are unique in their own ways, but they are different mostly in theme, not gameplay.

  • Launch Timing : These games came out within one year of each other, so for the most part the timing argument can be said to be neutral (ie one game does not have a huge advantage over the other due to being first).

  • Early Access : All these games are currently in Early Access.

  • Quality : I am coming in with the assumption that all these games are of relatively equal quality. That is to say one of these games is not clearly superior to the others at first glance.

We are excluding the following games from this comparison :

  • Prison Architect

  • Rimworld

Prison Architect can be said to have reintroduced the business sim genre to the world when it came out, and was wildly successful for a variety of reasons.  We cannot compare to that. Rimworld, while having similar graphics, is essentially a storytelling game similar to Dwarf Fortress, making it a massively different game.  Both games also came out much earlier, which means they have the benefit of not dealing with any “sim fatigue” that may be creeping in. In short, these super successful game are not a good comparison to Academia.

Assumed Units Sold

The goal of this exercise is to figure out why Academia hasn’t quite sold the same amount of units as these other very similar games.  We will not be measuring actual units sold, but merely comparing the number of reviews and using that as a proxy for units sold.

As of June 29, 2019, these are the numbers of reviews per game:

  • Academia : 522

  • Sim Airport : 1740

  • Airport CEO : 1772

  • ABITM : 982

Based on the above numbers we can say that very roughly, ABITM has sold twice as many units as Academia, and Airport CEO and Sim Airport have sold 3 times as many units as Academia. 

Pricing

  • Academia : $20

  • Sim Airport : $20

  • Airport CEO : $16

  • ABITM : $15

In terms of pricing the games are pretty close to each other.  ABITM’s lower price point may have helped give it an edge over Academia, but it has sold less than both Sim Airport and Airport CEO, so lower pricing doesn’t seem to necessarily lead to more units sold.

Launch Date

  • Academia : 8 Sep, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 24

  • Sim Airport : 7 Mar, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 62

  • Airport CEO : 29 Sep, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 81

  • ABITM : 4 Nov, 2016 avg. reviews/month to date = 30

The most striking thing here is that Academia and Airport CEO launched at basically the same time, but given that amount of time Airport CEO averages 81 reviews a month and Academia averaged 24 views a month.  

Trailer Comparison

There has been a lot of talk about how important trailers are to a game’s launch. Mike Rose in particular has mentioned in one of rhe GDC talks (I can’t remember which one in particular) that a good launch trailer is key to success. So let’s compare the numbers between the launch trailers of each game on Youtube:

These are current numbers, as I’m not aware of any way to access historical data.  There are some interesting comparisons to be made here.

  1. Airport CEO had the most views at almost 3x the number of views of Sim Airport, however this did not translate to 3x more sales.

  2. Academia had about 1.3x more views and ABITM had about 2x more views versus Sim Airport, but Sim Airport has outsold both Academia and ABITM

My conclusion is that while it is very important for your trailers to hit a certain mass (say above 20k views), after that a lot of other different things come into play when it comes to unit sales.

Sum of Top 5 Video Views on Youtube

While the launch trailer aims to measure initial impact and interest, this aims to measure long term interest in the game.  I am aware that there is a better way to do this via Steamspy, but I currently do not have an account set up with them so this is a proxy. I will add the top 5 videos for each game based on viewer count and compare them.

  • Academia : 9584000

  • Sim Airport: 2240000

  • Airport CEO: 1104000

  • ABITM: 1577000

Academia is clearly the winner here, with an almost 5x lead over Sim Airport. Our sales data also shows that we unit sales peaked during the times when these major streamers (jacksepticeye, DanTFM etc.) played our games. It seems clear that despite having a good lead in terms of views, it hasn’t guaranteed that Academia would do better over the other games.

Theme Comparison

When we made the decision to do a school-themed game, the thought process was that it would be relatable since everyone has (in the economic class that can afford to play games for leisure) has been to school. 

Clearly this was not a winning strategy, as it seems running a mall and running an airport (despite the fact that two games are duking it out) are still making more sales than a game about running a school.

Some developers did mention that the theme of the game did not particularly draw them. While the power fantasy of running an airport or mall may stoke entrepreneurial dreams, running a school may not quite hit those same notes.  It could be that there is a mismatch in theme and genre here, and that a school game might have worked best as an adventure game or even a visual novel, since this is where the story elements of running a school might shine.

Marketing Comparison

I am not aware of the actual marketing spends of any of these companies.  However I am on friendly terms with all of them, and as far as I can tell, none of them have made any real investments in marketing, whether it be purchasing ads or even showing up at conventions.

I know for a fact that the Sim Airport guy is very averse to going to conventions, he wasn’t particularly keen on going to GDC.  He’s also mentioned he hasn’t done a lot marketing, adhering to the belief that people buy the game “because it’s good”

ABITM is a dev based somewhere in France who also doesn’t really do the convention circuit, although I’m not aware of any marketing or ad spends in his part.

The only time I heard of Airport CEO in media or conventions was when Jason Rohrer mentioned it in his talk at GDC.

As far as I know none of us are doing any major efforts in terms of marketing, ad spends, or conventions, and yet Academia  has sold the least of the four games.

Youtube subscribers on company account

Another form of marketing is having your own Youtube account and pushing out videos.  This is something that Prison Architect and Production Line have used to very good effect.  Academia did this very well early on but we have lapsed.

Airport CEO has a very clear lead here, with Sim Airport coming a distant second. You could make the argument that community engagement through having a Youtube channel is a key thing we could be improving on.

As a counterpoint however ABITM has a meager 235 subscribers but has twice as many sales as Academia.

Another interesting point is that Airport CEO and Sim Airport have chosen to make channels out of their games, while Academia and ABITM are using their studio channels.  There is a case to be made that a game having its own channel increases the chances that people will find it, and also helps with brand building for the game.

Game/Company Website

These are links to company or game websites with little analysis except to say that Sim Airport recently updated their website, while ABITM seems to be the simplest website of them all. None of the websites seem to convey any advantage to any of the games.

Review Score Percentage

Review score are a touchy subject when it comes to games on Steam.  Steam reps will insist to their death that review scores have zero effect on their algorithm while indie developers like Cliffski will yell at you to get your total review scores percentage back up to 70% because it’s THAT IMPORTANT. 

When I first wrote this, the review scores were:

  • Academia : 68%

  • Sim Airport: 77%

  • Airport CEO: 78%

  • ABITM: 82%

Overall ABITM is in the lead here, but not by much.  And despite this, both Airport games have easily outsold ABITM. So while Review Score must have some psychological effect on a player’s decision to buy a game or not, in this case there is no clear correlation.

Recently Academia’s total review score percentage hit 70% again, so it will be interesting to see if this has any effect on future sales.

Deepest Discount

One could argue that one of the games might be doing deeper discounts to pick up more units.  During the 2019 Steam summer sale these were the discounts of each game:

  • Academia : 25%

  • Sim Airport: 40%

  • Airport CEO: 30%

  • ABITM: 40%

We assume that the Steam Summer Sale is the most recent and therefore the deepest discount for each of these games, since it would be very hard to try to discount to 75% to try to boost units but they go back up to 40% off.  Once players know that it was discounted so deeply, it creates an anchoring effect, and they will simply wait for the game to go back down to 75% off.

Regardless, the differences in deepest discounts seem close enough that it seems safe to shrug this off as having any meaningful effect on sales.

Conclusion 

Based on the varied feedback, it seems that Academias’ biggest issues when it comes to sales are a poor fit between theme and genre, An average trailer, and possibly less depth and retention than the other games.

There is very little we can do about the theme, although we could work that into the game more so that anyone who *wants* to feel like they are running a school really gets into the game.  More depth will be added as time goes on, and once that’s done, a new trailer will hopefully entice people to try the game out.

This kind of comparison is really difficult unless there are vastly similar games to yours out there, however it has been useful for our team in clarifying what kind of mechanics we should focus on adding to the game in the near future.  We hope it’s been helpful for you as well.

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested in Academia, you can buy the game now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!


Squeaky Wheel's 2018 Year in Review

Squeaky Wheel started life as a company in 2015, and with each year that passes, we seem to alternate between having a good year and a bad year. We started out 2016 with a publishing deal and the energy of a new company. 2017 was a tough year at the start since Political Animals had flopped, and we were on the verge of shutting down. The successful launch of Academia : School Simulator in late 2017 meant that we were riding high at the start of 2018. We were all set to continue that trend into 2019 until Steam decided to play with it's algorithm and wreak havok on our financial projections. But before we do a deep dive into that whole situation, let's go over what happened in 2018!

Maintaining Motivation in Early Access is Hard!

When we successfully launched Academia : School Simulator in 2017 the exhilaration was soon followed by a sobering realization. We had basically committed ourselves to working on this game for the next couple of years. Launching a game usually comes with the catharsis of no longer having to be consumed by that same game afterwards. But with Early Access you don't get that catharsis, you just kind of keep grinding on. If you don't have a set deadline, the idea of the finish line being endlessly out of reach can certainly be daunting.

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One solution to this is to break up development into Alpha Milestones, with each milestone having a set number of specific mechanics that must be finished before you can move on to the next milestone. This way you can a bit the “completion high” that a full game gives you, and you can organize some marketing around the launch of each milestone. We sort of half-assed our Alpha 2 because I pushed the team into doing it just a month or two before the actual launch, but we have a much better planned Alpha 3 being prepared for early 2019.

We Return to Conventions

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I was pretty down on conventions in 2016, seeing as how we saw very little success with them while promoting Political Animals, despite the keen interest we saw during the actual events. There's a gamasutra article detailing this issue with much more clarity, but the tl:dr is that people at game conventions are conditioned to be pretty hyped already by virtue of being at the convention, so all of the good vibes you're getting from their playthrough of the game may be legitimate, but is no way an indication of how good the game is or how well it will sell. This isn't to say all of the pre-launch marketing and convention hopping every developer does is pointless, it's just not worked out for us.

That said, conventions are good for other things, including : team building, morale boosting, developer networking (shoutout to all the cool developers we met and hung out with in 2018!), and exploring different markets. We achieved all of those things by going to conventions in Taiwan (Summer Game Show), Japan (Bitsummit and TGS), Korea (BICFest), and our “home” convention of ESGS in the Philippines. One of the cool things about being in Early Access is that you can combine marketing with key sales. We were able to subsidize a lot of our travel costs by selling Steam keys!

Random Thoughts about Different Conventions

TGS (Tokyo Game Show) is a terrible show for indies. The way the booths are arranged is super cramped, and the developers next to us ended up unintentionally crowding into our booth space. Most of the people and press going there are going for the big AAA games. Even with a free booth, I would not go back to TGS. Bitsummit in Kyoto is a much better show that is more focused towards indies. Even if the foot traffic is much smaller, it is also self selecting, and we got way more in terms of Steam key sales there. Kyoto is a much smaller city, and the atmosphere is such that the developers much more freely mingled with each other, whereas with TGS there was more obvious segmentation between different devs.

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The Taipei (Summer) Game Show was a bit of a revelation. We mostly went because the booth was free (or so cheap it almost didn't matter). Taipei is less than two hours away from Manila and can cost less than $100 to fly to. We sold even more Steam keys than we did at Bitsummit, which was a bit of a shock to us. One of the organizers said that the attendees probably don't get a lot of PC games coming into town, so the novelty of having a game that was available on Steam showing its wares helped boost interest in us. Many of the people that bought a steam key had mentioned that they'd heard of the game before, and the fact that the venue was tiny (and packed) certainly helped get a lot of people in front of our booth. Interestingly, despite the success at selling keys, Taiwan doesn't rank very high in in terms of our Steam store earnings.

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ESGS has become our go-to conference at home (the Philippines), and we always went into it with the lowest expectations based on our biases and understanding of local gamer culture (ie gaming driven by esports, mobile, console, and rampant piracy). We were pleasantly surprised at how many people bought Steam keys from us though, with at least one buyer refusing our discount and offering to pay full price. This leads me to be a little bit more hopeful about our local market, although as with Taiwan, the success at the convention didn't lead to any more revenue on the steam store itself.

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BICfest in Busan gets a special mention because like Bitsummit, the indie spirit and camaraderie is strong, and if your game gets approved they sponsor accomodation for 2 people!

Political Animals Gets Some More Recognition

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In May of this year I was invited to a great conference in Budapest called Brain Bar to talk about “Do games have (a) moral conscience”? While I hardly think anyone attending the conference was gonna go out and buy Political Animals after seeing this panel, it was still some nice validation for our first game.

We Had a Good First Three Quarters

Before I start talking about the bad news, I do want to take a moment to recognize how fortunate we were that for most of this year we were a profitable small indie studio. Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games took a poll in November asking if “the last game you shipped cover its costs, including a nominal salary...” The results, while not surprising, showed the stark reality of how difficult it is to make money in this business.

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62% of people who put out a game lost money on that enterprise. Of those, I would be terrified to know just how many of them had quit their jobs, sacrificed their savings, or took out a loan on their property just to finance their dream. 18% of people just broke even, which means they got to tell their wife, partner, or family that they still had a roof over their heads, but that they might be looking for a regular paycheck from now on. Only 20% made a profit. Do you remember how your parents worried that you were getting into game development, and asked why you don't consider getting a “safer” job? To put it mildy, game development is a risky business (although to put it in context, probably no more risky than starting any other business).

For the first three quarters of 2018, we were making a tidy profit, and putting some of that profit into donating funds to schools as well as community building with local game developers. All of that changed in October.

Steam's Discovery Algorithm Killed Our Sales

The title above is a reference to a Jake Birkett blog (you should really follow his blog, as he does a very good job of taking the pulse of the indie game community at large) that he released earlier this month. If you're not familiar with what happened, here's a quick rundown. Steam's abrupt algorithm changes in October had a huge impact on Birkett's sales. After sharing the blog on Twitter, numerous developers across the Twitterverse (including ourselves) retweeted and shared Jake's sentiments, and press outlets like Kotaku picked up on the news. The coup de grace was Epic Games' announcement that it was opening the Epic Store with a much more generous revenue share.

I want to echo Jake by saying that without Steam and the access to the market it provides, we wouldn't be where we are now, part of the 20% of game developers that is (was?) earning a tidy profit. But that dependency reveals a major flaw in our business. We ultimately have no idea what goes on in Steam's algorithm. This is done to keep devs from gaming the system, but also means we have no idea what to do to improve our chances of the algorithm sharing our game with Steam's userbase. And these changes can have a huge impact.

For us specifically, the first month of changes saw our revenue drop to around 40% lower compared to our weakest month so far, and the second month saw our sales revenue drop to around 65% lower than our weakest sales month. To put that in other terms, after Steam takes its revenue and after taxes, we are now below the break even point on a month to month basis. As mentioned before we were fortunate enough that we were making a profit before and have been putting away money for just such an occasion, so we're not in any real trouble yet. But it is rather sobering to know that your expected revenues can be so drastically altered with a few keystrokes.

Moving to Different Marketplaces

Steam's access to their market has meant that there has been less of a focus for us on being in different marketplaces. Indeed, if we could make enough to profit by simply being on Steam, it simplified a lot of things for us. We could focus on a single marketplace to reply to our players, and focus our efforts into integrating further with Steam, by adding achievements, and in the future, leaderboards. Our past experience with Political Animals shows that at best, even Steam's larget competitor GOG only ever made up 10% of our revenue. So focusing on where most of the revenue game made a lot of sense. It's become clear that we can no longer keep doing that, and we need to adapt to the changing times (hopefully Steam does as well).

We already have a buy page on our website, with a humble widget included (hey indie devs, the humble widget takes only 5% of your revenue!). The Epic Store is intriguing and we'll send in an application for sure, but as far as I've heard, they're processing thousands of applications and won't be considering anything new until late 2019 (For anyone complaining about Steam opening the floodgates, this was the alternative all those years ago). Kartridge is interesting, but I've heard confidentially from a successful indie dev that their game, which has sold tens of thousands of units on Steam, only sold 4 on Kartridge in a year. Discord is definitely intriguing, especially with its streamer integration, but I worry about our capacity to regularly interact with players on a regular basis. We're naturally introverts and have our hands full just responding to forum posts, so I worry about how taxing that will be for us. Plus we have no idea how difficult deployment will be to their site.

So finally that leaves us with itch. Itch.io has long been the go-to place for weird, niche indie games, and never had pretensions to be a site for the mass market. It's still growing though, and most importantly for us it seems relatively pain-free to add it to our deployment process. So we'll be looking to add Academia : School Simulator to itch sometime next year. I don't expect we'll make a lot of revenue, my initial estimate is maybe 5% or less than total Steam revenue, but I'll report back with real numbers in the future.

What's Happening in 2019?

2018 was a pretty good year for us. I think it would be fair to say we perhaps got a little complacent, or if I'm being more generous, we allowed ourselves to enjoy the fruits of our hard work a little bit. I expect that 2019 will look a little bit more like our 2017, where we put our noses to the grindstone and try to work on getting as much of Academia : School Simulator done as we can, while simultaneously thinking about what we're gonna be doing next.

As usual, I want to thank the team for putting their all into the game, everyone who has supported us thus far, and all the players for buying the game and giving us great feedback over the past year. See you all in 2019!

Squeaky Wheel's Productivity Tools

As game developers, we can get so focused on the craft of game making that we can sometimes forget that the tools we use outside of actual game development can be just as important to the process. Having the right tools can make the team much more productive, so knowing which tools work best for your team is key. Here I will go over some of the tools we’ve used previously, and what we have replaced them with to better suit our needs.

From Hipchat to Flock

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As a mostly virtual studio, having a good way to communicate online is absolutely necessary for us. When we first started developing Political Animals, company chats were still in their infancy, and Hipchat was one of the early companies providing this service. While Slack was around, Marnel preferred Hipchat because it had a much lighter chat client. Turns out the reason for this was that Hipchat was an incredibly primitive chat client compared to today’s updated products. It became very frustrating to use Hipchat during long chats, when it was unclear to whom we were replying to in conversations. We ended up creating our own systems for this, like copying and pasting the message we were replying to, as if we were on a forum.

Our Scheduling, aka “Today’s Bowel Movement” channel on Flock.

Our Scheduling, aka “Today’s Bowel Movement” channel on Flock.

So we were kind of amazed when we switched to Flock and all of its functionalities. The ability to reply to specific messages, create reminders and notes, and being able to create custom avatars for people and rooms just blew me away. It felt like the difference between dial-up and broadband internet, or SD vs HD. Once we switched over there was no going back.

Flock over Slack

The leader of company chat clients is Slack. You almost can’t get away from slack advertising when listening to a podcast these days. In some ways this turned me off on Slack (I like rooting for the underdog). However we did try out Slack and some other products for a little bit just to see what it was like, and we still came back to Flock. The reason? Flock offers basically the same service as Slack, with a much more generous free version. They offer double the storage space (10GB) versus Slack (5GB) which means we have a lot more wiggle room when attaching files in chat. I’ll write a more in-depth article in the future, but I highly recommend Flock for small teams.

From Jira to HacknPlan

Jira has long been hailed as the gold standard for agile project management. What they don’t tell you is that for it to actually be useful, you need an actual full time project manager, or someone who is committed to that role. Unfortunately for us, we do not have anyone who is able to fully maximize Jira and all of its integrations. Vanilla Jira is, at least in our experience, painful to use. Basic things like looking up previous sprints consume way more time than necessary. Their strict adherence to the sprint methodology also created some annoying things like not being able to easily delete tasks (something that they added eventually). I was ready to move us off Jira as soon as I found a suitable replacement.

Hacknplan is agile project management created specifically for game development. It’s hard to immediately explain why Hacknplan is better than Jira for our needs. The easiest way to explain it is that while a good project manager could probably create amazing functionality using Jira, HacknPlan lets teams without a dedicated project manager just hit the ground running.

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My favorite thing about HacknPlan is its GDM, which is essentially a living game design document. Previously, I would often want to write down some game design ideas for future reference. I would put them in Jira’s backlog, and there they would remain for the rest of their lives. HacknPlan’s GDM lets me create a category or folder containing all of these design ideas, and lets me easily access them in the future when we’ve run out of tasks and need something new to work on. The best thing is that you can assign tasks directly from the GDM, meaning there is a direct connection to your daily work tasks and the higher level design, which is something that is lacking in most agile management tools. HacknPlan has some issues (the pricing tier and some limits on the free version can be a little annoying), but the benefits far outweigh them. I’ve become quite an evangelist, and will push HacknPlan onto any developer within earshot. I’m going to write a much more in-depth post about HacknPlan and how we use it in the future, but if you are a small team making a game, I absolutely recommend you use HacknPlan.

From Google Sheets to (Sometimes) Airtable

Google Sheets is a great all around spreadsheet app that you can access from almost anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. It doesn’t do anything special, but in the hands of an expert like our designer Tristan, you can make magic with it.

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Airtable is an app that lets you do some of that magic and much more without a lot of effort. It feels a little like Spreadsheets 3.0 (with Spreadsheet 1.0 being the actual paper spreadsheets), adding functionality to spreadsheets that can make them much more easier to parse at a glance. For example, while designing our research items, we decided that they would be arranged like a tree, with some items being unlocked by research a “parent” item. Noting down the parent of a research item in a spreadsheet is easy enough, but hunting down items with the same parent can be a chore, even if you take the time to color coordinate the cells properly (which can be time consuming in itself). With Airtable, it only takes a couple of clicks to instantly rearrange and group the data by “parent”, which is a godsend when we are doing internal QA to make sure that everything is working properly in the game. Even better, you can parse this data by grouping it according to two different fields. So for example I could organize the data by way of parent and research cost, allowing me to know which research items that have the same parent cost the same amount.

Airtable’s complexity is also what makes it annoying to use sometimes. For example, coloring a cell is something that anyone who has used a spreadsheet does on a regular basis. I often do this when I want to indicate that a specific task is done, by highlighting it in green. Airtable’s free version doesn’t let you do this seemingly simple task, meaning if I want to do the same thing, I would have to create a new column, assign it as a “checkmark” type of field, and us this to check off items as I finish them. So while I highly recommend that studios use Airtable and its immense capabilities (of which I feel like I have only scratched the surface), sometimes good old Google Sheets is more practical to use. Luckily Airtable lets you import CVS files so if you start out using Sheets and deciding to move to Airtable, the process is painless.

Bonus Tools : Bug Reports with Google Forms

We currently use Google Forms as a bug reporting mechanism. While it’s great and importantly, free, I have been wishing we could switch to a different service that was better at parsing the data we receive. It’s great that Forms links seamlessly with Sheets, but all that data can be overwhelming to comprehend.

I’ve done a little research into alternatives like Surveymonkey, but I’ve yet to see anything that would be exactly what we need, which is an affordable bug report website or app that parses out the bug report data in more understandable chunks. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments!

Bonus Tool 2 : Rescuetime

We are a small team and we don’t do the typical time tracking expected in a virtual team. This probably won’t scale to a much larger team, but in general we’ve noticed that we tend to work longer hours than usual anyway, so asking people to time in and out just seems insulting.

Instead, we suggest that people download Rescuetime and track their productivity on their own. It’s a great free tool that helps you keep track of your computer time. We’ve found that most people are usually shocked at how little productive time they actually use during the day, and this helps give them an incentive to do better. The free tool lets you set goals (mine are to have at least 4 productive hours a day and to spend less than 30 minutes on social media during work hours) and is more than enough for the average person.

Conclusion

I hope this will be useful for other devs and studios out there to give them an idea of the tools that they can use to help make the process of making games a little bit easier. It’s important to note that these are the tools that work for Squeaky Wheel specifically. The best thing to do is to always try it out for yourself and see what works best for you and your team!

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested in Academia: School Simulator, you can buy the game now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

What keeps the Philippines game industry from being more successful? Part 1

Recently on the local IGDA Facebook group a question was asked about “What is stopping the Philippine game industry from having more financial success and global cultural influence?” I generally don't like these questions because they're overly broad and usually are just expressions of frustration looking for affirmation. Luckily it did spark a lot of interesting conversation, so that's great. I was tempted to weigh in, but Facebook is a poor way to communicate. While this is only tangentially related to Squeaky Wheel, I guess I can get away with saying that it may be interesting to talk about the environment in which we make games. I'll respond with my thoughts on some of the responses, try to tie it in with our own experiences as a small PC game studio, and offer suggestions for improvement.

Note: My opinion is skewed towards PC games, and indie PC games in particular, since that is what we make. As such I have little interest in the mobile games market.

Is there a Lack of Support from fellow Pinoy (Filipinos)?

This one is a relatively easy one for me to respond to. We never targeted Filipino players in the first place because we don't believe the market is large enough to support us. This is a belief that I've long held, which only now is slowly starting to change.

Note : Just a warning, I'm not a statistician and the numbers I share with you here are taken from websites that may or may not have accurate research. I do believe them to be generally true, which is why I hold this belief about selling to the local market.

First, let's compare GDP at PPP between the US and the Philippines. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the value of goods and services produced in a country in a year. Divided by the population of a country, this gives you a rough estimate of how much an average individual in that country earns. PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is a formula used to equalize the cost of goods between different countries. So basically we are comparing an average person's income between countries, which is important because we want to know how many people might be able to buy our games.

Using the numbers from this Wikipedia page, I took the data from the IMF, World Bank, and CIA lists and divided by 3 to get the average GDP at PPP for 4 countries : The Philippines, The USA to act as the “successful model”, and Thailand and Indonesia as comparatively similar economies.

GDPPPP.png

So what this graph tells is that an average person in the USA has almost 6 times the purchasing powe of the average person in the Philippines, which means much more money to spend on things above basic necessities (ie games and other entertainment). So all things being equal, the average game developer in the US has a much larger domestic market than the average Philippine developer.

Things get worse when you factor in socioeconomic classes. According to this site (according to an SWS survey), the percentage of people in the upper and middle classes (A,B and C) are about 10%, while about 90% would be considered working class or poor. Let's assume that the survey is a little skewed and double the number of ABC classes to 20% of the total population.

That still means that of the average population that is earning less in GDP at PPP than even Thailand or Indonesia, only 20% of that population might have the disposable income to be spend on games. This doesn't even take into consideration access to PC/consoles, credit cards, piracy, and other mitigating factors that make depending on the local market a dangerous idea. So to respond to the claim that there isn’t enough support, I would say the more important question is whether there is even statistically enough people that are able to support a healthy industry. My answer would be a flat no.

That said, that doesn't mean that you should ignore the folks them. There are a quite a few players out there that are happy and willing to support local development, and I was pleasantly surprised at how many people came by our booth last year to buy Early Access copies of Academia : School Simulator. To be fair, I had expected not to sell a single copy, so my standards were pretty low. Certain communities can also be quite supportive. When I politely shared that we have Jose Rizal as a trading card on the r/Philippines subreddit, people were quite supportive and surprised that the game had been made in the Philippines. We also get excited youtube users that comment on our videos that they were excited to hear we're from the Philippines.

And of course the local development scene is pretty friendly and usually ready to help out (ourselves included, when we are able).

So yeah, it's a great morale boost to get some support from local fans, and we want to represent as best as we can in local events like ESGS, but our long term strategy is to sell to the world first, then hope that trickles down into interest from local fans. Given that the internet (via Steam and other global distribution platforms) gives you access to the global marketplace, you have a much better chance at survival as a game developer by selling to the world rather than just selling to the domestic marketplace.

It would be great to one day have such a large domestic marketplace that is large enough to accommodate super niche games as well as giant triple A games. But a lot of that is completely beyond us and has to do with the economic health of the nation. For now, the best we can do is to nurture the current communities that are already supporting local game developers, and survive by selling to the world.

This is part 1 of what may be a multi-part series. No promises, as this takes me way too long to write than is probably worth it!

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this interesting! If you want to support us, you can buy Academia: School Simulator now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

Drawing Inspiration from a Global Community of Game Developers

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I've opined before that I think game conventions are a net negative when it comes promoting or marketing your game. If it's a consumer focused event, then player feedback can be valuable. There is an infinitesimally small chance that press or streamers will find your game and help it blow up. But I think many games have proven the digital age it is very possible for you to succeed without participating in game conventions at all. But that's a topic I'll go deeper into for another day, as I've yet to give it enough thought to write anything coherent.

So what value is there in attending conventions? Why did we bring Academia : School Simulator to Bitsummit this year? Well for me, the best thing about game conferences is meeting fellow developers from around the world and hearing their stories. In where political and ideological divisions are becoming more and more stark and divided, it's more important than ever to build bridges and get to know each other better. So here are some stories from Bitsummit, with all the specific details brushed out to protect people's identities.

Note: a reminder that I am from the Philippines, which hopefully helps give context to some of what I say.

Indonesia

Three of my formative years were lived in Jakarta, Indonesia's bustling capital. This year at Bitsummit I met a few awesome young game developers who are really making waves both locally and around the world. We compared notes on whether Metro Manila or Jakarta was the worse city ( I decided it was a tie) and how linguistically interesting it was that even our slang words were sometimes similar (The slang for women's breasts is “dede” in Filipino, while it's “tete” in Bahasa Indonesia). We hoped to one day be able to grow the regional industry to the point where we could have our own GDC, aspirations we shared with a Singaporean dev that joined us for lunch.

In between dick jokes (remember how I said they were young?) they mentioned that they had read my article about publishing games in China and how that had shaped their decision to seek publishers there. Hearing these stories really affirms that the time I spend writing these blogs is worth it.

Just a day after the event, the news about a suicide bombing in Surabaya shocked the Indonesian nation. I've always had close ties to Indonesia, but now having made these new friends, I feel their pain even more intensely.

Denmark

Drinking beer by the riverside is one Bitsummit's most time-honored traditions. I had a conversation with a Danish developer about old age in the game industry. He's pushing 40 and a little worried about it, and I was happy to have a conversation with someone older than me about my fears of aging.

I asked how he felt about the influential Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and he said that while he doesn't agree with everything Ingels does, it's kind of nice that he(Bjarke) is a larger than life personality coming out of a country and region that prides itself on the Jante Law (tl:dr living a modest life is A-OK). I agreed that it's good and necessary for certain people to be able to stand out and make their mark in the world and hopefully improve it. But he agreed with me when I said it's also important not to worship these people or require everyone to aspire to be like them.

He talked about how he owns a gun and hunts in the Danish countryside, but that he can't wrap his head around American gun laws. I just shook my head sadly and mentioned how disappointed I was that some people on our forums seem really eager to have school shootings in our game. I have a standing invitation to call on him and his team if we ever visit Copenhagen.

South Africa and Germany

There is something about bi-racial couples that really makes me happy. It's like my view of the world being interconnected and everyone being equal is encapsulated a relationship between two individuals, and it's a beautiful thing. One such couple was staying in the same guesthouse as us, and we had a little conversation over breakfast. There was a disagreement about how we felt about doing game conventions:

South African : I don't know what you're talking about, I get so pumped doing conventions, I'm fucking ready to go! *stretches and flexes
Me and the German : Ugh, get out my face.

Brazil

I met a Brazilian game developer who is living in Japan. I approached him because we were both building simulation games, and we talked about the difficulty of explaining and showing a simulation game in a convention that tends to favor loud, quick to play action oriented games.

We had a couple too many beers at the mixer, and it became clear to me that with each increasing beer he began to progressively bring out his grab bag of spoken languages and accents, which led to two awkward/hilarious moments:

Ukranian : Hey, I'm from the Ukraine.
Brazilian : *something in Russian!
Ukrainian: That is Russian, but I forgive you.

Third Party : These guys are from Australia!
Brazilian : *something in ridiculous Australian accent!
Australians : …

A couple of beers later (perhaps we should have stopped, but they were free) I brought up the current situation in Brazil and he went on a passionate defense of Lula da Silva and how the charges against him were trumped up. The short argument was that yeah, the left was corrupt, but at least they did some good things. The right will just destroy everything!

I should end this by saying I think he's a really lovely person, but when we meet him next time maybe I'll tell him to slow his roll with the alcohol.

Japan

I tried out a Japanese developer's game and I really liked it. We alternated speaking broken Japanese and broken English to each other, and I encouraged him to shop his game to publishers so that he finds a wider audience. I pointed him out to publisher that I knew, and then proceeded to take one of his flyers over to said publisher.

Me: Hey have you checked this game out?
Publisher : No, what is it?
Me: *explains game
Publisher : Oh awesome man, thanks for this, (you're) always looking to help others out.

Canada/USA

I met a lovely couple living in Canada who were both game designers. We discussed the difficulty of calling their spouse their “partners”, especially in the context of a game exhibition where a partner more often means “business partner”.

One of them brightened up when I mentioned we had made Political Animals. Apparently she had really loved how it took certain risks by showing that politicians were just people responding to incentives. I told her that it really warmed my heart to hear that, especially since the game was a financial flop. She said she thinks it's well known in game designer circles because she hears it being discussed a lot. This is the first I've heard of that, but that certainly made my night.

We talked about how we were both so in love with Japan and were trying to figure out a way to settle down there or just live there for a few years, and how it sucked that Japanese immigration and residency policies made it really difficult to attract people here.

I should say I’m actually quite picky when it comes to my friends, but it was one of those wonderful moments where I felt like we instantly connected and would have been best friends had we lived in the same area.

Last Conversation : Iran

We shared a table space with a couple of Iranian developers. I had given them advice on how to get to Kyoto via Tokyo through email, and it turns out we shared the same guesthouse as well. We shared our extension cord with them, and before we packed up and left I had a quick conversation with one of them:

Iranian : Hey, thanks for being good neighbors and sharing your extension cord with us
Me: Oh no problem, its's really nothing. I uh...good luck with those economic sanctions I guess?
Iranian : *Sigh These fucking politicians.
Me : I know right? We just want to make games and get along!
Iranian : Exactly!

Note: I understand that this is a rather naive statement and obviously having made a game about politics we believe in some sort of political process. It does get frustrating sometimes that people on the ground can be friends while their leaders bicker with each other.

These are only some of the many conversations I had in Bitsummit. I left feeling a little more energized and connected to the world than I had been for a while. It's important to hunker down and build your games. But making games in isolation can become lonely and disheartening, and sometimes it's good to reconnect and feel like you're a part of a larger, global family of game creators.  Here's to next year's Bitsummit!

Bonus Conversation : China

While in line at the airport I tapped a guy on the shoulder because his bag was wide open and the contents looked ready to fall out. He was very appreciative and friendly, and we chatted a little bit while in line. Turns out he's a Chinese businessman with “many businesses” in many countries and doing “distribution”.

Chinese : I distribute cleaning implements
Me: *excited Oh! Like vacuum cleaners? (excitement context: I love my Dyson vacuum cleaner)
Chinese : No, like liquid cleansers
Me: *hiding disappointment Ah.

Since he was friendly enough I offered him by business card before we split up, and he offered his in return while his girlfriend nodded approvingly (she was very keen for us to exchange contact info). When I looked at it, his business card was an “invitation” to join Amway. He texted me afterwards thanking me again for reminding him about the bag. Needless to say, I will not be responding to any and all further texts.

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this interesting! I'd like to take this moment to say you get get Academia : School Simulator now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!

Squeaky Wheel's 2017 Year in Review

This is the second year of Squeaky Wheel's life as a company, and things are certainly looking a lot different from when I wrote a similar blog post 1 year ago. We started 2017 at a low point. Our first game, Political Animals, was (and still is) a financial flop. We had shifted pretty hard to our as yet unannounced game (Academia: School Simulator) in a last ditch attempt to launch an Early Access game that could save the company. We were fully prepared for this to be Squeaky Wheel's last year as a company, but it turns out we still have some life left in us! Still, as with last year, many lessons were learned. Here they are in no particular order.

We Launched our Second Game!

First things first, we launched our second game on September 8, 2017. We had gotten a lot of interest in the months leading up to launch, but being this was a game that was only in development for all of 8 months, anything could go wrong. I wrote a much longer blog post comparing the launch of Political Animals with Academia, but the short version is Academia did much, much better than Political did. In fact it did well enough in the first month of sales to ensure that we could operate for at least one more year. That's a huge deal for us, because it ensure that we can keep the lights on for all of 2018 working exclusively on Academia : School Simulator.

Political Animals is Getting Recognition Despite Lack of Sales

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As a small team, knowing where to devote our resources is a very important skill. It quickly became obvious that Political Animals was a sunk cost, and we needed to move on. So after a couple of character and language updates, we moved to work full time on Academia : School Simulator.

Despite it's financial failure, it has reaped recognition in other ways. It was awarded a 5 star review by Common Sense Education, the primary resource for teachers looking to integrate games into their teaching. Political Animals was also included as one of Common Sense Educations' Best of 2017 under the Social Studies category. We also did some local workshops using Political Animals as a way to discuss civics and politics with high school kids. So it's certainly paying a lot of karmic rewards and “good feels”.

Moving forward, we want to explore how to get Political Animals into schools by creating worksheets and workshops with teachers to better enable them to use the game in their classes. We're also going to pitch the talk to the Games For Change Conference in 2018 under the Civics track.

It's become very apparent to us that there is a good game buried underneath some bad presentation choices in Political Animals. I'm holding out hope that maybe next year we'll have the opportunity to dig into the game again and release a deluxe edition with new characters, play modes, and a proper tutorial, so that it can fulfill its destiny as a game.

An Evolving Company Structure

When we hired our programmer Don last year, it was a little unclear what his position was in the team. Was he a cofounder? An employee? Legally he was a contractor, but our small team and egalitarian nature meant that we made very little distinction between him and the core team. While that may generally be seen as a good thing, I do think that confusion partly led to his decision to leave the company to develop his own game, Shots Fired. I want to make it clear that we parted as friends, and we wish him the best with his game (go on and wishlist it!) but it did teach us that we needed to have more clarity when hiring people.

My previous work with Introversion has given me some insight into how they run as a company, and that has given me a model to work with. Essentially they have a core group of directors, and with the exception of one (or two?) employees, they hire out contractors as necessary. In fact, that's how they hired me for Prison Architect.

I like this model because in practical terms it allows us to be more flexible with how we operate. So apart from the core team, we can hire freelancers to help us out for short term tasks like art and social media, or contractors for the duration of the project. Contractors can also be offered bonuses based on their time with the project, and can share in the success (or failure!) of the game.

In a hit-based industry like games where there is little to no stability, having the right kind of structure can be vital to the survival of an indie studio.

What's Early Access Been Like?

Honestly? Not as bad as most developers think it is.  I think we have struck a good balance with Academia : School Simulator.  We have been as honest and forthright about what we can and cannot do, and our capabilities.  We've never overpromised, and the fact that we're constantly on the discussion boards and responding to emails when we have free time has built a sense of trust with our community, one which we are very serious about keeping.

It's been really great to get feedback from people, and for that reason alone Early Access has done tremendously for us.  It's still a bit of a balance managing player expectations for the game and the direction we want to take it in, but that's par for the course. The majority of our players have validated my belief that people who buy into Early Access games are mature and understanding of the process, as long as we are open with them.

What's happening in 2018

2017 started rough, and we ground it out, patiently working on Academia and posting updates and Youtube videos dutifully and crossing our fingers for launch. It turned out better than we could have hoped, and we're happy to say that we'll be working on Academia : School Simulator for the rest of 2018 and beyond. Prison Architect took 5 years to complete, and Rimworld is still chugging along and putting out updates with full release nowhere in sight.

2018 will definitely be very interesting. We're hiring two new contractors to help us speed up development. If all goes well, we have many plans that will make Academia an even better and more complete game within the next few months. We're hoping for a Mac release early in the year, and we're currently working on a language modding tool so that even more people around the world can start playing the game.

I'd like to thank everyone who has helped us make it this far, including everyone that bought into the game so early on and believed that we could make it awesome. We wouldn't be here without you!

Lessons Learned From Two Game Launches

A little over a year ago I wrote a rather depressing blog post about Political Animals' launch. You can read it in full if you like, but the bottom line is the launch was a major flop despite the fact that it was featured on Steam's front page. Indiepocalypse aside, a front page feature should still have assured us a enough views to break even. It didn't. Academia : School Simulator, on the other hand, did well enough to ensure that we could continue development into the foreseeable future. In fact, despite not receiving any features from Steam, Academia : School Simulator sold almost 3 times as much as Political Animals in the same time period.

Why was that? Since we're talking about first day sales, I posit that it cannot be the actual quality of the games that mattered. Because if Political Animals was simply a bad game, what we should have seen was a flood of purchases based on that front page feature and then a subsequent amount of bad reviews, returns, and refunds. Instead, what we saw was people finding our steam page and then immediately deciding “nah, I'll pass”.

I realize now it's the months leading up to launch day that matters most.  I'm going to describe and differentiate what we did for Political Animals and Academia : School Simulator with the hopes that you can use the lessons we learned for your own game launches.

Social Media

Political Animals:

This was a social media failure. While we had a Website, Blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts where we would post sporadic updates, we weren't showing anything that the players could engage with. This was our fault. Cliff from Positech would push us to do video devlogs, but we would demur from lack of ability/time. This shot us in the foot at launch, as we had not built up the requisite trust and awareness from our target market for a good launch.

Academia : School Simulator

We did a MUCH better job this time around. We decided from the beginning that we would do youtube devlogs. So as soon as we had a primitive prototype that we could show off, we started doing devlogs. They were really bad at the start, but you can see the improvement in the devlogs and the game as time moved on. We had a very strict once a month devlog rule, even when we had little to show for the month aside from polishing the game for launch. While we didn't get hundreds of thousands of views, we had an active community that was asking questions and sending suggestions, excited for every month's update.

For every devlog, we posted it on Twitter, Youtube, and our Mailing List. There was a great feedback loop where at the end of every month we would see our Mailing List numbers increase.

We've been a bit negligent on the Youtube side since launch, something I'm going to rectify at the end of the month. The honest reason is that these videos are exhausting and take up a huge chunk of time to work on. So at the end of an exhausting dev month, the last thing any of us wanted to do was to make a video of our progress. But they're the touchstone of our outreach to players, so we need to get back on it.

Conclusion

It's important to have a good, consistent media plan and follow through on it. Start as soon as you can, especially if you know you have to build up trust and create a community around your game.

Steam Store Page

This was a fail for both launches. Aside from filling up the requisite store information (which by the way takes a hell of a lot of time) we essentially did not do anything with the store pages before launch. This is a huge mistake. Like it or not, many gamers are treating Steam as a one-stop shop for their gaming information these days. So there will be a lot of people ending up on your Steam Store page that will never have heard of you before or seen your Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube account. So if they end up at your store page and there have been no updates since yo made the store page live, it will look empty, and emptiness breeds mistrust.

This is even more important for Early Access games. Because so many people have been burned by Early Access games before there is a huge hurdle of trust that you have to overcome with skeptical players. In fact, some people on our Steam discussion boards for Academia wrote saying they initially thought we were scammers because of the similarity to Prison Architect and the fact that there were no updates. The worst thing is we only saw this comment days later, making us look even more suspicious! It took us a few days to gain players' trust by sharing all of the devlogs that we had previously made on Youtube and establishing a track record of development.

Conclusion

The lesson here is that once you publish your Steam page you have to start treating it as another social network that you have to manage, if not the most important social network. An active Steam store page assures players that developers are legit and communicating with the playerbase, which gives them more confidence in the game

Conventions

PAXPolitical.jpg

Political Animals

For Political Animals we went to quite a few conventions, the most important of which were PAX West and EGX in the UK. We got some good press out of it, with Eurogamer even giving us a small writeup as one of their “Best of EGX”. We met some cool players who were super into the game, and it gave us hope that we were on the right track. Sadly, it turns out that this was not the case. We spent a lot of time and energy going to conventions around the world, but I think that money was essentially wasted, especially since for Academia we didn't even go to a single one.

Academia : School Simulator

Aside from our disappointment with the results from Political Animals, the easy answer for why we didn't go to any conventions is simply because we had nothing to show yet. We were way too early in the dev process to be showing it off.

We did go to a convention, but only to a local one in the Philippines called ESGS. While ESGS is one of the biggest gaming conventions in the Philippines, it pales in comparison to PAX and EGX. We also went there post-launch, meaning we already had a game we were selling and could sell to attendees at a significant discount. We also had a free booth courtesy of indiearena, and we wanted to support the local game industry and meet our peers while we were there.

ICTAwards.jpg

As with Political Animals, it was great to meet the players of our games, and we even picked up some local press. We also found out later on that we'd been nominated for a local industry awards, and even ended up taking home best game! So there's certainly a lot of emotional value to be gained from doing conventions, but don't go there expecting to boost your sales.

Conclusion

There are many reasons to attend conventions. Meeting players and fellow devs, getting feedback from them, and just enjoying the experience of seeing the other games. PAX was a whole lot of fun when we didn't have to man the booth. But our experience is that they are not very good value for money.

For ourselves, I think we will only go to conventions if we can get a subsidized spot, like with the Indie Megabooth, or even a free booth as with ESGS or Busan Indie Connect. We'll only go if we already have something to sell, so that we can subsidize the cost of travel. While some devs may find value in the cons, there are many devs that completely avoid them as a policy (Rimworld's Tynan Sylvester and Zachtronics for example) but are still successful studios. That's the model we want to emulate moving forward.

Streamers and Press

Political Animals

We reached out to streamers and press a week or so (memory fails me) before launch. I think we gave press a headstart just because it takes them a little longer to write an article, but that was the gist of it. We got some pretty big streamers on board, the biggest of which was TotalBiscuit. It was amazing watching him stream the game. Unfortunately I think it was a mistake to share the game a week early. By the time the actual launch rolled around, interest in the game had dissipated. Every second between the initial impression and clicking to buy a game is crucial. Bigger studios can rely on marketing right before the game's launch to help cover for this, but for a small studio it can be the kiss of death.

Academia : School Simulator

This time around we were adamant that we wanted to close the gap between first impression and game purchase. We released keys to press and streamers a few days before launch with a loose NDA that basically said “We are releasing this to you early so you can familiarize yourselves with the game, but please release your content only after the game is available for purchase. Otherwise you will receive a long, heartfelt email full of disappointment from me.” There were one or two outliers, but for the most part people stuck to the NDA.

Just to tie this back to social media, one advantage of doing those early youtube videos and spreading the word early was that we got youtubers emailing us asking for access even after our first devlog. So they were primed and pretty pumped to share the game by the time we finally released the keys.

For Academia we used a combination of both Keymailer and Woovit, so people could choose what they felt most comfortable with. Email or Twitter was a last resort, but we would ask for some verification before we would give out the keys to avoid the inevitable scammers.

Conclusion

I realize now that I didn't really write too much about press. That's because for the most part, press outlets hold much lesser sway now than then used to. I would suggest picking out the most important one for you and sending out a personal email, then crossing your fingers.

Build a marketing strategy that will inevitably attract Streamers and press to your game. Release as close to launch as you can to maximize day one sales. Cross all fingers and toes.

Timing

Political Animals

We launched Political Animals on November 2.  This was awful timing because A) It was a terribly fatiguing election (The US election in 2016) and people were sick of it and B) November is a very heavy month for launches, and we were sandwiched between some really big attention grabbers.  We had no choice with this as we could not have launched any earlier, and launching AFTER the US elections might have been even worse.

Academia : School Simulator

We consciously went for a September launch.  Our actual target was August but we needed just a tiny bit more time so we settled on September 8.  There was less of a crowd when we launched, and I think we came out the better for it.  We also had the benefit of three successive sales (Halloween, Autumn, and Winter) coming one after the other, where people are primed to buy new games.  We carefully set the discount to 10% so as to be part of the sale but not undercut the value of our new game's release.

Conclusion

The general rule for indies is to try to launch around February or August because those are the quietest months of the year for launches.  Given the number of games coming out every day on Steam this rule is rapidly losing currency, but I would still advise you to never try to launch in the October to December window because you will be facing up against studios with huge marketing budgets that will drown you out.

Final Thoughts

We learned from the mistakes we made with Political Animals and applied them to Academia : School Simulator. While it wasn't the best launch in the world and I'm sure we could have done better, we did do well enough to keep the lights on. In these dark days of the Indiepocalypse, that's already quite a feat.

Thanks for reading, and hope you found this useful! If you're interested, you can buy the game now! If you're not ready to buy, please sign up for our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our Youtube channel and help us spread the word!