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A Few Things Pertaining To Alpha-Funding
Over the past few years we've learned a few things about the process of alpha-funding, sometimes on purpose - sometimes not. We thought it could prove useful to fellow indies, so here we go...
July 15, 2013
25 Min Read
It's over two years since we began selling Project Zomboid. Through it all we've had ups and downs, but on the whole it feels like we've been relatively successful. Scott from Desura cited our game as 'their most successful' in an interview. That surprised us a lot. We subsequently breezed through the first batch of Greenlight games. That surprised us a lot too.
We're yet to appear on the Steam store or even Early Access, however this is our choice. Our own reluctance to 'blow our load too early'. Despite the ecosystem of Steam seemingly being centred around the the summer / holiday sales, we still value our first appearance on there enough to not want to risk going on before we are ready (first impressions, and that). Which may be in part silly and unnecessary (more on that later) or may turn out to be one of our smarter moves. We'll see.
I may not know much about what life is like for an indie dev on Steam, but we've been through a fair bit on the outside. And to those starting their journey, this is where you will spend a fair amount of time.
So here are some things we've learnt along the way about the Alpha-Funding process. How it works, why it works. I'm not claiming ownership for any of the thoughts there-in. I'm just the one on the team who got bored on a day off and decided to write a blog post on it. I do however claim complete credit for any of the vague unnamed critical bashing of certain other alpha-funded devs that occurs later on.
Sandbox is KEY
It's hard to imagine alpha-funding working in the same way for games which cannot, even tangentially, be classified as sandbox games. I know some wonderfully, wonderfully talented indie devs who develop largely narrative based games, and it always occurs to me how little I have to offer in terms of advice or opinion. Things which work really well for us are completely ineffectual or sometimes even brutally damaging to them. As previously mentioned, we walked through Greenlight, and this was largely because we had a pre-existing community that could help swing the votes in our direction. Communities like this seem a lot more difficult to foster with non-Sandbox games.
So in a nutshell, what classifies as a ‘sandbox game’? I guess the loosest possible definition is one that doesn't have a linear narrative that constitutes 80-100% of the gameplay. You could call Skyrim a sandbox, since the amount of content and the openness of how the content can be experienced means hundreds of hours can be sunk into it.
For us indie devs, such an epic scope of game is quite out of reach, especially where production values are concerned. But a sandbox game is more commonly associated with games like FTL, Kerbal Space Program, Dwarf Fortress, our game, and of course... Minecraft. One day I’ll write a blog post without name-checking it, but its relevance cannot be ignored.
In short, the fundamental difference between sandbox games and non-sandbox games is, a sandbox game can be played for possibly hundreds and hundreds of hours. This one fact alone is what feeds into alpha-funding so well.
Why? Well as I said, fostering a community is key to your game staying in the public consciousness, and it’s easier to do this when the community is habitually playing your game, months, or even years after it first goes on sale. And for alpha-funding to work successfully, this is vital.
To pick a very recent example of a narrative driven game, Bioshock Infinite. I've not had the chance to play it, but I've heard little else but praise for it. It’s also undoubtedly sold about a squillion more copies than we likely ever will. But how much capacity does it have for creating a passionate and loyal and more vitally a persistent community around it? Players will experience the story, be moved emotionally, and will excitedly sing its praises to all that will hear. This will be like a wave rippling across the internet, and then in a month or two, it will start to dwindle and then disappear.
It will of course be immortalized and remembered, perhaps grace ‘top 10’ lists, referred to and cited, and have future resurgences at sales. And of course there will more than likely be another Bioshock game. But even so, the narrative focus of the game means it’s ‘an experience’. Or maybe ‘two or three experiences’. The game and franchise may develop a strong and vast group of supporters, but will the Bioshock forums be aflame with activity from regular members from now until Bioshock 4?
That’s not to take anything away from more traditional narrative, action, adventure genres. Just that sadly a lot of the advantages we've found with our game are less applicable to this style of game.
I know I picked a AAA example which may seem odd when comparing to alpha-funded indie sandbox games, but hopefully taking it to the extreme will show what a potent advantage we can have in the long term even over something so prominent and successful.
This is a term dubbed within our team that refers to the average resting revenue from sales of the game that occurs when there has been no recent coverage of the game, no recent updates. In general no recent event whatsoever that should cause any direct spike in sales.
Generally this will hold pretty steady, or rather will drop at a very very slow rate. So much so that generally looking at a 2 month graph, it’s hardly perceptibly dropping at all.
Of course, having never sold a game using a traditional funding model (aka develop then release), and no experience on Steam, the grand-daddy of distribution services, I can only suppose based on what I've heard from other devs, but my understanding of traditional funding models is that most of your sales are concentrated upon release, appearance on new distribution services or bundles, and sales and other promotions. It’s these spikes that make the majority of your money, and which fund development of subsequent games.
With alpha-funding, at least pre-Steam alpha-funding, it’s a little different, and in fact almost entirely the opposite. It’s all about the money you can make when there is nothing going on, and no big youtubers or game sites are talking about your game. Since this one game is your bread and butter, potentially for years, you cannot rely upon coverage and sales spikes to fund development, pay for contractors and whatnot. You need to be able to carry on going without all this, because people aren't going to keep talking about your game non-stop for years. There will be dark-outs, perhaps months long (especially in our case given our previous problems), where things are quiet.
This is where videos by popular youtubers are a god-send, because while they bring in a tasty spike over a few days following the video, it’s the secondary effect they have of slightly bumping up the average daily drip-feed that’s key to long term survival with alpha-funding.
Say Sips, Total Biscuit, or PewDiePie does a video of your game. You’ll get a nice spike in sales that may likely break previously held records for ‘most money made in a week’. This is lovely, and helps top the bank balance up greatly. However, for months, even years after that video has been posted--even if they never play your game again-- it will mean they will pick up occasional stragglers, who just happen upon the video of your game while browsing the youtuber’s back catalogue, or clicking on a related video along the side window.
These turn into a small trickle of sales that seems to pretty much go on forever. I can’t say for absolute certainty, but I’m fairly positive Paul Soares Jr’s extremely early videos of Project Zomboid (2 years old) probably still contribute somewhat to our monthly sales of the game. It’s hard to say how much, but it’s all cumulative. You only have to look at the comments to see that a surprising amount of people are still coming across them. Add all those people, across all the news stories and videos of your game together, and they all add up.
Each time you get some major coverage, that’s another permanent and prominent footprint of your game on the internet, another door potential customers will happen upon and come knocking. Once you have 1 of these, your drip-feed will bump up a little. 2 of these, that average drip-feed will jump up a bit more. Then the third, and it will jump up more still. If you're lucky enough to have 10, 20, 30 of these around the internet, chances are you can comfortably live for the foreseeable future with these alone.
Although the sale spikes are wonderful, and can lead to justifying buying some software or a new PC or some other thing, it’s raising this resting amount that’s vital, as you can count upon that money to keep coming in, at least for the foreseeable future.
This in turn means its less risky to start paying other people to help develop the game, as you can budget based upon the drip-feed without having to hope that ‘something happens’ to push your bank balance up enough to stay in the green.
It’s obviously not just the youtubers and games sites, and this is where the active community come in. They also keep the drip-feed creeping up, in fact are vitally important to it, since they are talking about the game on other forums, on reddit, suggesting it to their friends, constantly enthusiastically spreading the word. Oh and of course, constantly bombarding the big youtubers with requests to play your game! Smaller, less known upcoming youtubers doing entire series of your game. And of course there’s the updates. Updates are what keep the players coming back. They are what keep people talking on the forums. They (especially with auto-updaters on the various distribution services) are what remind people about your game. They are also what remind those big youtubers your game exists and may lead to follow up videos.
Again, we come back to the Sandbox. If a game can only really be experienced for 10-12 hours, and is strictly experienced in a linear fashion similar or identical for all players, then there is much less scope for updates that will bring people back to the game, beyond bug fixes. A single youtuber is likely to record just one video, or best case scenario a series of videos encompassing an entire run of the game. Likewise, a few exceptions aside (say games like Amnesia, of which watching on youtube is often more about the reaction of the player to scary bits than the game itself) there is generally not much to encourage someone to watch multiple videos of your game. Unless of course they are an existing fan of the youtuber in question.
If someone’s played your game through from start to finish, then bug fixes are unlikely to encourage them to start a new game in themselves, so updates become more about improving future players experiences rather than keeping past players coming back.
It’s much more difficult to drive up the drip-feed to a sufficient amount for it to near-guarantee you a decent enough amount of money for the team to live on, and thus it becomes more of a gamble as an alpha-funded game. Likewise, there is less to encourage people to get in early and play the game in an unfinished state, since that first playthrough is pretty much vital to the worth of the game, so playing it in an unfinished, unpolished and buggy state is less appealing to players.
So yes, basically Sandbox games and alpha-funding go hand-in-hand, and complement each other massively. Does that mean there’s no space for narrative?
Narratives in Sandbox Games
Of course not. Look at our game for example. Although not present in current builds due to a coming revamp, the emotional core that attracted the majority of our early purchasers is Kate and Bob. The pillow. Kate’s pain induced potty mouth. Bob’s cooking ineptitude. Will has plans not only to expand their story into a much longer episodic narrative adventure, but also to introduce new characters within the PZ world, each with their own unique stories.
His narrative itch is being scratched, and these stories are for the most part completely linear and tightly controlled (where branches are more like stumps, since they generally lead to your death). Just because the game is at its core a sandbox, does not mean there is no scope for tight linear narratives. It’s only ever a ‘Story’ main menu option away.
As well as this, there are other possibilities that stem from the sandbox. Emergent story-telling. With the meta-game we are introducing in the nearish future, Will not only has the opportunity to tell his own stories, but provide mini-story components that can be weaved together by the gameplay mechanics to provide an almost endless supply of rich player generated stories.
As an aside, you should totally check this panel at Rezzed out, which is very much focused on some of these same things, and also features our wonderful Will.
Darkwood, an upcoming and wonderful looking game that we’re very proud to see cites our game as an inspiration, has a similar approach. Clearly sandbox in spirit, they still seem to be weaving a rather strong narrative thread throughout it. In many ways it’s completely the best of both worlds.
We’ve all seen it. You can smell it in the air. The Kickstarter bubble is strained to breaking point and looks set to burst, if it has not already.
Thankfully, alpha-funding seems to bypass a lot of the growing cynicism levelled at crowd-funding, since people who purchase actually get something for their money right there and then. There is also a proven history of the developer that prospective customers can look into, to make sure the game is in active development, and that the people they are paying are trust-worthy and capable. Furthermore it’s a lot more tempting to dive in if all your friends are already playing, regardless of how you may feel about it in principle. I can only imagine the popularity of alpha-funding growing as the popularity of Kickstarter game funding begins to wane.
This is the one fundamental reason I love alpha-funding so much as a concept. Project Zomboid, and by this I mean our envisioned complete game, is a game that is without a doubt ridiculous to even attempt as a small indie development team. The kind that once upon a time aspiring indie devs would get laughed out of the room for suggesting they were working on.
Alpha funding changes all this, and since Alpha funding became a thing, the ambition of indie teams, and the games they tackle, have ballooned dramatically. By stretching gargantuan development times over years in which the indie dev will be continuously funded and customers have access to the game in progress instead of delaying any funding or player feedback until release, suddenly opens much more ambitious, or 'risky' game concepts to be practical for a small indie team. This in itself makes alpha-funding as a concept something worth fighting for until the ends of the earth.
It’s my firm belief that if you’re an indie-dev making a traditionally funded game that isn’t a pure narrative game, and you’re doing paid DLC, then you’re doing it wrong.
In fact, I’d even go out on a limb to suggest that if you’re a AAA dev of a sandboxy game doing paid DLC you’re also doing it wrong (with the exception of Paradox, who have hit upon a wonderful compromise)
Free Content Updates is a way that you can get all the perks of alpha-funded sandbox games I describe, retrospectively, for any game suited to it.
We can see Valve share this opinion, when you look at their wonderful post-release support on most of their titles. Consider Left4Dead. Ignoring the XBox versions (which I suspect is more down to Microsoft money-grubbing than Valve) most, if not all, of their post-release DLC has been completely free. Why? Are they mad?
No. Because every time they release some free DLC, suddenly millions of Steam users are all sending a cascading tidal-wave of “XXXX is playing Left4Dead 2” messages around the entire of Steam, near simultaneously. You can imagine what kind of effect this will have.
And for those prepped with the counter argument that ‘surely everyone who would buy Left4Dead already has it’, remember that Minecraft sold 450,000 copies on Christmas Eve last year http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/121304-Minecraft-Scores-453-000-Sales-on-Christmas-Eve, long after you would assume everyone who would buy Minecraft has presumably already done so.
It also adds a ton more inherent worth to the game, and provides much more ‘value for money’ to Valve games generally. They are so much more eminently purchasable because you know that, even a year or two after release, you’ll still be getting new stuff to play with. Valve care about you, and the game. They aren’t out to try and bleed you dry with day one DLCs and whatnot. It’s good for your gamers, it’s good for your reputation, and furthermore it keeps players coming back, keeps them talking about your game, keeps them invested, and spreads the word to new customers. It’s hard to say whether more money can be made by selling DLC or not, having never sold any ourselves. But clearly this methodology works for Valve, and we know for a fact that the consequences of this approach make a huge difference with alpha-funded games.
Or if you still need to rely on post-release DLC to keep generating revenue, then why not consider an approach like Paradox?
If you look at Crusader Kings 2, Paradox have been awfully generous when it comes to their paid DLC. Look at any of their major DLC expansions to the game, and at the same time they will issue a new major free patch to the game.
The changelists for these patches are quite surprising, as the patches always contain very major features and improvements that are intrinsically relevant to the paid DLC, and practically ANY other publisher in the industry would be putting every single one of those features into the DLC and leave customers who do not purchase the DLC without.
This is wonderful of Paradox, as it mitigates the punishing of customers who do not buy the DLC with quite substantial post-release support, and gives them new things to play with that keep them coming back to the game, spawning new Lets Plays and coverage. I suspect it’s an approach that works for them financially too, but it comes across extremely nice, makes Crusader Kings 2 brilliant value for money. Furthermore I have bought all the DLC for that game, even the stuff that didn’t interest me, just because I wanted to support this. Although I have very few people reading this blog, perhaps someone will read this and then go and buy Crusader Kings 2 based on what I’ve written here. Paradox’s drip-feed has just bumped up a slight bit, and until CKIII comes out there’s another door to knock at leading to Paradox that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It all adds up.
Compare that to Civilization 5, of which the post-release support I’ve been constantly disappointed by. I’ve given up on that game pretty much completely, and there’s plenty of DLC I don’t care enough to even read up on.
Okay, I might be speaking out of ignorance here, because perhaps, as an indie dev, the bottom line of Paid DLC vs. Free Content Updates may make Paid DLC a clear winner. Even if we didn’t have a moral obligation to give everything away for free, I’d like to think we’d shirk away from doing Paid DLC irrespective of whether it stands to make us a bit more.
Value for money is important to us, and there’s nothing that makes us feel more wonderful than someone expressing surprise at the price of the game. We could have raised the price a year ago and totally got away with it (that said, I think the time is coming soon. As well as feeling the game is worth a lot more now, we also have a responsibility to reward early purchasers by making late purchasers pay more.) but we come back to the community again. The more the community feel valued, and supported, by the developers of the game, the more they will be willing to go that extra mile to see it succeed. Again, it comes back to valuing the drip-feed over the spikes. The spikes are fair-weather friends, who come and go. The drip-feed is there forever. If you can get a huge drip-feed it will keep you going for a long long time.
I actually failed to write about this in the first draft of this post. Silly me! This is literally the most potent and important form of all post-release support. If you're an indie team with only a couple of programmers and artists, why not hire (for free) a potential team of thousands to help expand the game in new directions? It will add more content than you could ever dream to add, will give your community an opportunity to carve out a bit of your game and plant a flag in it, further making your community feel connected to your game, and that your game's success is their success. That one special mod could capture the public imagination and completely make your game's success. Just look at DayZ.
I can't come up with a single argument against significant modding support in sandbox games, beyond the cost in time and resources to add that modding support. Lua support in our game has opened up many doors for modders, but even something like a map editor will expand the game's life and involve the community on a much more fundamental level.
This is somewhat a contentious issue, and I only have to browse over the Early Access section of Steam to be a little disturbed by a few of the entries. While there is no denying that indie games are often devalued, and this frustrates me just as much, more often these days I am coming across the situation where developers are providing alpha access to their game at a higher price than it will be at retail. While people may be willing to pay this, and hey, it may turn out more profitable in the short term, it doesn’t sit well with me. We need the alpha funders. It’s not the other way around. No one should pay more for something which will undoubtedly be worse than it will be at release. This should never happen.
You can claim you’re doing it to make sure those that buy it are really interested in being alpha testers, but this still seems to me to be somewhat backward. Making people pay extra, in any circumstance, for helping you bug test AND fund a game, doesn’t sit well with me. I cannot imagine one circumstance where it seems justifiable. If people are buying an unfinished version of your game, they should pay less. End of story. Not only because it’s morally right, but also because it gives you a damn sight more leeway for bugs when your price point is low and fair. And I also wonder if these devs are pricing themselves out of the ‘impulse purchase’ zone into the bargain.
I agree that many games on Early Access are certainly brilliant, and a few in particular are even in alpha well worth the asking price. If the price is set to go up, then whatever, it’s entirely up to you what that price point is.
If it’s going down on release, however, then I’m sorry but whatever justification you think to provide, I find it somewhat distasteful and can’t help but question the motives behind it, even if they are genuine.
Infinite Well of Customers
This is the other thing we’ve learnt, and it’s somewhat remarkable. We’re not interested on going on bundles, at least any time soon, mainly because (as stated above) we are mindful of never allowing the game to be purchasable for cheaper than the people who bought our game in the early days paid for it.
However, earlier on, there was another reason. We were convinced that if a ton of people bought our game in a ‘pay what you want’ setting, we may ‘run out of potential customers’. As time has gone on (and as usual Minecraft helped illustrate this point) this point of view has become more and more ridiculous. We forget how ridiculously huge the world is. The sheer numbers out there don’t really compute in the human brain, just like trying to visualize the passage of millions of years, or travelling 10 light years is completely out of our reach. We’re only used to dealing in concepts that apply to us in evolutionary terms. Days, months, years, decades. Meters, kilometers. Ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people.
The internet is a ridiculously big place, and if Mojang hasn’t run out of people to buy Minecraft yet, then we, and you, will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever run out. No chance whatsoever. So quit worrying and don’t think of your market as some finite set of people out there that are slowly diminishing as each of them buy your (or another) game, but instead consider the fact that 99.9999999999999% of people who would buy your game still haven’t heard about it.
Oh and that, if you have an alpha-funded game intended for years of support, new customers are growing up all the time, and thus new customers are actually being created every year as they become old enough for your game to appeal to them.
So when it comes to price for alpha-funded games, why not start low? I mean pretty damn low, and increase it over time. You’re not going to ‘use up’ your potential customers on a low price point, but rather will have customers who are gleefully happy at the price you have sold them the game for, and will probably make 10x the effort to get others to buy it at the higher price point later down the line.
Of course, it’s not all rosy. There are some definite disadvantages to alpha-funding. Some of them can be viewed as advantages though, if you try hard enough.
Prime of these is the huge potential for stress. Unlike traditional funding models, alpha-funding is predicated on the fact people are already playing a presumably unfinished and potentially slightly broken version of your game, and further that they have paid money for the privilege. A lot has been said of entitlement issues with gamers, and they are valid criticisms, but on the whole people are lovely, and the vast majority are as patient and understanding as can be expected. Still, the idea of tweeting idly that you’re playing a game, or heavens forbid are going on holiday for a week, seems laughable. While I found the commercial games industry to be rather stressful, when alpha-funding, you do feel somewhat like you’re being watched, and that you have many thousands and thousands of producers looking over your shoulder asking when your task-list will be complete. There was that moment when I discovered, for example, that since we submitted PZ to greenlight via my Steam ID, a group of PZ players on a forum were keeping tabs on and discussing how much time I was spending playing games.
Luckily it was practically nothing (2 hours in a month, I believe. More on that in a moment), but I can’t deny it made me feel somewhat violated and uneasy. My Steam profile was promptly made private.
But, if you’re anything like us, the majority pressure doesn’t come from the fans of your game, but from yourself. This is both good and bad. Since I’m full time indie now, my office is in the same house as my living-room and bedroom. While my concern when going indie was more that my living room or bedroom was in the same house as my office, and that it would be easy to shirk work and sit watching DVDs, it turned out to be the opposite. The pressure, both internal and external, keeps us at our PCs a lot. A real lot. After the recent Desura release, we’re using the opportunity to have a few days to relax. This feels monumentally weird, and is quite a rare occurrence these days.
This is obviously a positive in some respects, because it keeps us at the grindstone when we might otherwise get lazy. When myself, Binky and Mash worked on various of our own little pet projects when we first went indie, it was all too easy to get fatigued with an idea, the spark of enthusiasm gone, only for another new and fresh idea to take its place in your mind. We had real difficulty finishing anything (though I think this was more mine and Binky’s fault than Mash’s) and it has to be said having a ton of people who have already paid you money on the promise of gameplay features that do not yet exist keeps any thoughts of experimenting with new game ideas firmly out of mind.
While pressure to get updates out may be simply in-place of the financial concerns that may keep traditionally funded game developers up at night, it’s definitely something that should be considered, especially if (like myself) you are susceptible to stress or anxiety.
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