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
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!