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Army 21: what I've learnt so far from the alpha release

Indiegama's Tom Spencer-Smith discusses how he prepared for the alpha announcement of his action-strategy online-only game Army 21, how it played out, and what he learnt from it.

Tom Spencer-Smith, Blogger

February 11, 2015

8 Min Read

On Jan 27 this year I announced the alpha release of my indie online-only action-strategy team combat game, Army 21. In this post I'll describe how I prepared for the alpha announcement, how it went, and what I've learned from it so far.

To give you some context, feel free to swing by the game's website where you can download and try the game, if you wish.

What is Army 21?

Army 21 is an online-only action/strategy game for Windows PC. It features team combat for up to 60 players in 6 teams. The game involves base warfare: you spend money to build up a base of buildings, and to upgrade your buildings and units. At the same time, you must destroy the bases of the other teams. When a base is destroyed, that team is defeated and disbanded. There are Co-op and Versus game modes. The game uses procedural generation and so the download is tiny (6 MB).

It is not a simulation of what futuristic warfare looks like. It is a tool for finding and training military leaders of the future. It is an army. I didn't convey this very well overall, and not at all in the case of the trailer:

Doing an online-only game as an unknown solo indie developer is an extremely risky proposition. I fully understand this. Heck even doing an indie game is risky, given the degree of saturation these days. Doing a game solo amps up the risk. But online-only? Few people [are foolish enough to] attempt this. I'm doing it because that's where my passion and expertise lies (i.e. online gameplay and online game development). Also, if I can succeed, my game's uniqueness would stand out in the market as something really different.

Preparation for Alpha

In advance of alpha my title has been live and stable but with very little testing from external players. That's part of what makes it alpha. I host the game servers and the game backend - the Master Server and database. I created them and manage them and provide the "dedicated" game server instances. I use a professional game hosting company.

I put together the various media you always need: screenshots, logo's, animated gif's, trailer, press release, press email, press kit. I built the game website, blog, forum, facebook page, twitter account, youtube channel, and seeded all of these with initial content.

Most people start on their social media content far earlier in development than I did. Conventional wisdom says that's the better way, particularly if you are not a solo developer (and therefore have more bandwidth for it). I tend to agree.

I built a press list - about 80 sites - out of some website lists provided on videogamejournaliser.com. This involved searching each website for contact email addresses. I preferred to use a specific person's email rather than the generic "editors" email whenever I could find it. However these websites seldom make it easy to find the email address of the journalist who is the best match for your game. When you do find journalist profiles they almost uniformly favor "wit" over actually telling you anything useful about the journalists (like, what they specialize in).

I sent my email out in US East-coast morning time, individually addressed wherever possible. Basically I didn't want my email to be deeply buried by the time journalists got to their desk. I live in Singapore so stayed up late to do this.

Results from Alpha announcement

My biggest fear was that my press release would sink like a stone into an abyss, without anyone in the world noticing. Luckily that didn't happen. In fact it was very encouraging to get some immediate and positive responses from several journalists who wanted to follow up with interviews. I think my previous AAA experience and my multiplayer expertise was a big factor here. I'm unknown as an indie but have some credibility as a developer due to having shipped quite a few AAA titles.

I suspect my press release + press email strategy was helpful. I was unsure about it at the time. Basically, my email to the press was casual and friendly in tone, written in first person, and emphasizing in bullet form what was "unique and newsworthy" about myself and my game. Attached to the email was a more formal and traditional press release. Both linked to my press kit.

However, I did not succeed in getting onto any of the big gamer sites, only onto some small sites. This was not entirely unexpected. I did get a nice interview published by develop-online but of course this is not a gamer audience.

Consequently, I did not get many players into the game - only a handful of people actually downloaded and tried it. So my alpha announcement has not brought me players. Nor any following on social media.

Feedback from the few small sites that reviewed the game was mixed to positive, recognizing that the game is in alpha and that they can't really see the best of it without an existing player base. A problem I'd been careful to mention in advance.

Worst feedback was posted as 4 dire user comments on bluesnews. These people watched the trailer but didn't read the press release, I think. Their conclusion was that I must be high on drugs to produce such a game. My visuals are certainly not AAA but I'd hoped that as an indie game, AAA visuals weren't required, that something quite abstract would be OK. But perhaps for my type of game - a first person action/strategy game, you need to either have beautiful visuals or to use a particular aesthetic. This is a topic I might discuss later. Army 21 is currently probably an unwise mix of visual styles - semi-realism mixed with abstraction. Procedural programmer-art.

As recommended by many indies, I've blogged to tigforums. Plenty of people have read my blog there but no feedback at all. I'll continue with it for a while but so far it has been disappointing. The devlogs there are very active so you disappear very quickly from the first page.

I suspect indiedb could be useful if I invest time in it.

Ultimately I believe most people will initially judge your game purely from the trailer. The trailer is by far the most important single thing. I feel it is the gateway to almost everything else you provide (website, downloads, social media, reading your press release, etc), not only to the players but also to much of the press. Your trailer has to be awesome. In my case my trailer is pure gameplay - no cut scenes, story telling or anything. This was probably a mistake. If I'd focused more on the backstory behind Army 21 (there is one), that might have worked better. Also I view my game as more strategy than action, but my trailer is all action - because it looks visually interesting. But I suspect it is a bit confusing and overwhelming.

Your trailer can also create misconceptions. In my case for example my trailer at one point includes the text "6 teams / 60 players". Some people seemed to assume that you couldn't play without 60 players present, which would obviously never work out well. But of course my game is drop-in - you can play with any number of players. I also failed to convey what Army 21 actually is. It is not a simulation of what futuristic warfare looks like, but people probably assume so.

Animated gif's are great. I have some on my website, they really pop out. But it is hard to make good ones due to the palette restrictions. Seems like Photoshop is the only good way? My gif's are not actually gifs but a form of auto-play video provided by gyfcat.com. These are great, but true gif format has the advantage that you can embed it anywhere - in any article or blog post, on social media, etc. So I should probably invest in photoshop for this purpose. I've been using Gimp (the poor man's photoshop), but its palette management of animated gifs seems poor.

From the few people who tried Army 21 and reviewed it, the feedback has been mostly positive and extremely useful. Even this alone justifies making the alpha announcement.

What's next for Army 21?

My alpha announcement has brought a little media awareness, made me a few good contacts, and provided some very useful feedback. But not players. So building up an initial player base is my primary challenge. I feel this is the key to everything for Army 21. Players must be able to try the game as it was intended - with other players. That's what makes it fun. Very fun in fact. I actually feel that getting to a CCU (concurrent users) of 20 will be harder than getting from there to a CCU of 1000.

When I have a small group of active players populating the servers I'll be ready to greenlight and possibly kickstart. But in order to get those initial players, I'll need to make a better trailer. And I'll need to work on presentation - make the game more visually appealing and professional looking, more polished, and either less realistic, or more realistic! And I'll need to work on community building. Not too sure how long all of this will take.

Thanks for reading! I hope this article has been useful. I'd welcome any feedback.

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