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…
I hope we’ll get to make it!