When writing an article like this one, article that gives personal insight in work of a game development team, in "good, bad and ugly" of gaming industry and positive and negative experiences, it's hard to stay completely objective, especially when you consider your project to be your favorite child and try to give it the best possible treatment, so bear that in mind.
Since gaming industry is basically creating enertainment, it will never be as dull or boring like working in chinese iron nails factory, but it does come with its challenges, emotional moments and stressful crunches.
"Things are only impossible until they are not."
― Jean Luc Picard
So how we started and how we got to where we are now?
We already talked about challenges we faced during development of our previous game, Starpoint Gemini 2 in Gamasutra article.
We also shared our dark secrets, talked about things that happened since we started this company and also shared our personal view of today's gaming industry and challenges you will face when you start a game development team. You can read it here.
But that was back then. It was a different kind of story. It happened a few years ago which was a different time for gaming industry, for Early Access and for Steam. We all witnessed some changes that took place on Steam which is, pray Lord Gaben, the biggest online distribution platform, but also the best place to present your game and hope to feed hungry mouths in your dev team (don't worry, they all eat cheap junk food). :)
But placing your game on Steam market comes with its challenges. Early Access or not? Go to Greenlight? Nah, too late for that, but what about Steam Direct? What consequences will this bring for indies? Better situation? Same thing with different name? Or complete mayhem with zillion titles out there? Do we wait or jump on it immediately? In indie gaming industry every answer can be correct and false at the same time and every strategy can lead to success or epic fail. There are no guarantees.
"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
There is no spoon
Maybe you already released a game on Steam? You went through Early Access and you managed to get good reviews after release, purely because you indeed made the game better following your community ideas and logical suggestions on game improvements? You now have a new game and you think you know how to do Early Access, expecting nothing short of success since you did it already? That's cute, but entirely deceiving and can lead to catastrophic dissapointment, tears and frustration.
You need to change. Now. Market requires you to do so. Not just from game to game, but sometimes in the middle of development too. And even that won't give you 100% success. Pay attention, learn the market, know your players. Research, prepare and get everything documented and then, when you enter Early Access, burn it because all your plans will go to shit in the first few days and you will have to adapt like Borg if you intend to assimilate more players in your fanbase and keep them entertained during Early Access and post release.
You will talk to them daily, you will change the game constantly, you will literally throw out some of your ideas if they will have better ones. And that will lead to a good, high quality game with very positive reviews. Will it lead to a pile of money you will have post release? Think again.
"Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible and that it's always worth trying, and trying now. Gamers don't sit around."
– Jane McGonigal
Gamer or Game Developer
If you're any good, both. In my humble opinion you can't be a good game developer if you don't like playing games, but you also can't be a good gamer if you're not one bit interested in how things are made. My gaming "career" started back in 1986. and I joined gaming industry 28 years later. So yes, it took me some time, but I did it.
Why? Because I was interested for years in how things are made. How did they script those scenes in Half-Life? How did they get such fantastic graphics in Unreal? How, on Earth, is that Serious engine capable of running thousand enemies at once, all screaming and running towards me? How did they decide to get into gamedev anyway? Those were all questions that I had, questions that were unanswered for a long time.
Another thing I learned is that, when you join a game dev team, you are one happy mofo but you realize you don't have time to play your favorite games anymore (just check my completion rate on the picture below). That's the irony of it. But you don't despair, you're not frustrated. You are finally doing what you always wanted to do and living your dream. Screw it, I was too old to be competitive in CS:GO or Overwatch anyway. :)
Stop babbling, noob!
Ok, you're right. Let's talk more about our last game, Starpoint Gemini Warlords. What we did right, what we screwed up, what we learned from our mistakes.
So, for those who don't know, Steam store description would say that Starpoint Gemini Warlords is a third person tactical combat with RPG and 4X elements. While this is an accurate description of the game, I wouldn't say that. I would say that Starpoint Gemini Warlords is bloody bold. In a world where we have excellent games like Stellaris, Rebel Galaxy, Everspace, Endless Space 2, Master of Orion and Elite: Dangerous, going for a unique blend of genres, intentionally giving players lite versions of different genres, but not going full 4X or full RPG, it was a bold decision. Making a mix of Freelancer, Mount & Blade: Warband, X series, sweetening the deal with RPG dialogue choices and leveling system was a big risk.
And it paid off, but it was not our idea. Our community (also known as Meepsters) said they want a game where they will have more to explore, where their choices would have impact on a global scale, where they could lead their empire to victory, either by diplomacy or total annihilation, they wanted to command their large fleets, have their own headquarters and, most importantly, not lose that feeling that you are still out there, on the frontlines, fighting battles with your ship trying to turn the tide and be close to your crew.
They didn't want a new „God“ game. They didn't want to be the Emperor and sit in their little throne. They wanted to be Darth Vader, to get up close and personal with their enemies and engage them directly. We tried to deliver that experience through a year of Early Access, modifying and tailoring the game according to their ideas and suggestions which were genius at times. And even post release, we're still improving the game, one free update after the next.
While it's true we did it all for our players because we care, it sounds as a shameless marketing pitch which leads us to the next part.
We do it for the players, because we care
And it's true. But what we don't do enough is talk about it. Advertise it. Brand ourselves as best developers out there, daring anyone to prove they care about their players more than we do. I'll give you an example; In Rising Sun 2, developers removed one tree from the game because several people asked for it on forums. And that's cute. Kotaku wrote a whole article on it.
On the other hand, we actually took the whole original Starpoint Gemini game, spent months to port it to new engine, added some new cool features and gave it out as a free DLC. Because we were asked to do it by our players (they didn't asked for free DLC, just for the port). But nobody ever wrote a fancy article about it.
Why? Because we rarely talk about ourselves. And that's a mistake you should not make. And I don't mean you should sell lies to your players. No, you should always be sincere, honest and as transparent as you can to your players, but if you do something nice for them, be proud. Let the whole world know what you did for them and how happy and proud you are.
Work on your PR, marketing, communication with your players and media. Tweet something like: "We just released the biggest free #DLC on #Steam! Enjoy!" But let the world know you're there. You can have the best game in the world, but you won't survive if nobody knows about it.
Be a giraffe!
Yes, stand tall, reach out, get a better perspective and be seen. That should be the alpha and omega of your bussiness and marketing model. Look at No Man's Sky, for example. It was covered better then war in Syria and it got all the attention. Was it a good game? With all the angry and negative reviews on release (87% negative reviews) it still sold like crazy. Did we sell better than them since we had 80% positive reviews? Are they to blame? No, because we just didn't push far enough, didn't stand out enough and didn't reach media we should've reached.
Did we sink into depression and cry in the corner of the dark room? No, of course not. Despite everything, we intensified our tweets, increased activity (and creativity) on our Instagram and Facebook, opened several giveaways, arranged livestreams, got some YouTubers to cover the game and accomplished something I never thought was possible on today's indie market - keep the sales steady even a month after release. We didn't had any peaks. But we didn't fall either. Our game is selling almost the same numbers that it sold on release without any advertisements or coverage. Sales not dropping after all this time is a miracle by itself.
It shows that players care. It shows they understand what we did and why we did it. It means they are talking about the game, getting more and more people in our community every day.
"People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it."
– Simon Sinek
So yes, it's possible to react even if nothing is going according to plan and it's possible to revert any damage you suffered. You just need to swallow your pride, forget your ego and continue to do what you do best. A good game that will eventually be accepted by players no matter how long it takes.
And what now?
Do we shift to new project or do we keep working on Warlords? Of course we will start looking into the future and discuss ideas for new projects at some point, but for now we will keep most of the team working hard to polish the quality and content of our current game (Starpoint Gemini Warlords). This game was very ambitious and risky but it offers huge possibilities. We'll continue to work on it as long as we and our players are not completely happy with it. That goes for all our players on Steam, GoG and soon on Xbox. Because, you know - we care.
And since I started with wise quotes, I can finish with one which can be applied to everyone in gaming industry who is making games for a living, but also to all gamers out there who are trying to become the best and stay competitive:
"We’re all learning here; the best listeners will end up the smartest."
– Josh Bernoff
Cheers, live long and prosper, may the Force be with you and the odds ever in your favor.
Little Green Men Games