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Postmortem: Human Extinction Simulator

The ups and downs of the development of the indie game Human Extinction Simulator released after a year of part-time work.

On January 21st I released my latest game Human Extinction Simulator. This postmortem is not meant as a question looking for answers and even less as an answer for questions other indie devs might have. This is simply a slice of life and should only be considered as such.

Background

I've been working on various games part-time since 2007 (day job is still in the picture) so I am not exactly new to the game development world but in a way I still am. My first years in this world were spent on various online games (Golemizer, Blimp Wars, Dungeon of Loot and Star Corsairs) that did little for me financially but proved that I could work on my own and actually release games.

This phase of trying to release a MMO on my own with little means was followed by one of working on smaller Flash games which I should have probably started with. It's only in 2013 that I released my first downloadable game, Bret Airborne, followed by Human Extinction Simulator (HES) last January.

The birth of Human Extinction Simulator

All my games before Bret Airborne suffered from terrible visual presentation mixed with an extreme lack of polishing. Bret Airborne thought me the discipline required to not only make it to the release day but to release a proper game that is more than just a bunch of lines of code put together showcasing some mechanic.

I was now in the right state of mind to work on my best game yet that would let me get my hopes up for the first time. I was ready to put to good use the last seven years I spent "trying" to actually "making".

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What went right?

1. Released on an almost non-existent budget

Besides my time invested, the development of HES cost me a little less than $200. This was not an objective but a constraint and believe me, one I wish I did not have. I made some life decisions that would allow me to spend more time working on my game projects so it also meant that I had less money to invest.

I never considered crowdfunding as it is a job in itself and I was not prepared to face such challenge on my own at this point. I am I am happy about how HES turned out with such tiny budget.

2. Best financial success so far

I have not quit my day job but HES is my best-selling game so far. If I compare the money invested VS the profit made it's a huge percentage in return. I now have a modest war chest for my next project. Modest but I actually have one and that is a first for me. Actual profit from a game I can reinvest in another game.

3. Write them and they will answer

I reached out to more people than I can count while I was working on this project and I actually received some answers. This was the first time I was doing what can be called basic PR work and I got some victories out of it. I grew a newsletter that should be helpful in the future and made some contacts that could open some doors for my next project.

This seems like a given for any indie dev hoping to get his work notice but you do not have any real idea of the work involved until you start to take this thing seriously. It's a whole new aspect of the indie experience that I discovered and I can say I learned a lot from it.

4. $20 price

When I compare the exposure the game received, the page views of the game and the sales made I can honestly say that going with a price of $20 was the right call. As you will read later the financial results are not quite impressive but in no way can I blame the price for it.

When tons of games are released at $10 each day (and often with a release discount which HES did not have) it's easy for an insecure solo indie dev trying to figure out things to undervalue his work. I am glad I did not as I can only conclude that selling the game at a cheaper price would have resulted in a much worse outcome.

5. Distinct mechanic and difficulty level achieved

The deterministic chess-like mechanic of HES really sets the game apart and is a source of personal pride. It took quite some time to refine it but being able to come up with something so distinctive in an era when there are so many games released each day is a nice feeling.

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Another objective was also to create a high-difficulty strategy game which I achieved if I believe the reviews the game received. As a fan of strategy game myself I really dislike how difficulty is usually achieved by letting the AI cheat so being able to come up with a concept that provides a hardcore experience without relying on any cheap tricks is something I think is neat.

It is however a double-edged sword ...

What went wrong

1. Way too much time spent on development

As I said, I've been working on games since 2007 without much financial success so it can be easy sometimes to take prolonged break from game development because you just don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Staying motivated is the biggest challenge when you start doubting yourself.

I spent a bit over a year working on HES so I went through a lot of ups and downs during that time and that  had the effect of prolonging the development of the game even more. I also should have spent more time prototyping as I had to revise many concepts as I was going and that meant a lot of code to change.

2. Write them and they might not answer

I started to send builds of the game early but not that much noise was generated by this. I said I had some victories before and I had but not quite where it could have really make a difference. This is when I should have think twice about the time I was about to spend on the development of the game. A bit more than a year is a long time when you fail to generate much interest early on and the result of the release was completely in line with my early PR work.

I didn't give up on the first try. In fact, it's possible some people might be tired of receiving my emails but I had to try. After each teaser, trailer, beta builds I wrote them back in the most cordial way possible hoping they'll finally pick it up. Unfortunately most of them didn't.

3. Difficulty level

I succeeded at creating a deterministic difficult game but it might have been a barrier for many of the people I contacted (press, YouTubers). I didn't thought it might be a problem at first as the game was being previewed by quite a few YouTubers with a modest subscribers base but it might have been a mistake to assume it would play the same with the "bigger players" who are much more solicited and might not have the time or patience to go through such a difficult game. I remember seeing a two hours stream of the game in which the person didn't make much progress in the game (though he was enjoying it).

By observing people play, figuring how the game mechanics wasn't much of a problem. The problem is simply that the game is unforgiving. Fair (the AI doesn't cheat and there's no luck involved) but terribly unforgiving.

Looking back I think it might have been a good idea to compromise on the difficulty level on enough content to give a chance to people to actually get the spirit of the game before letting them face the frustration of defeat. But how do you exactly make a game like chess easier? You make the AI dumber ... I always refused to do that and it was probably a mistake to be so stubborn about it.

4. Launch crash bug in release version

Ah yes ... There had to be one of these that I didn't catch and that no beta testers reported either. Only a few hours after releasing the game (and of course after I send keys to all the contacts I had in my list) the bug was reported which prevented some people, sometimes (Great! An intermittent bug! ...), to launch the game. I was now facing a bug I wasn't able to experience myself and didn't even let people play the game.

Thanks to the help of a very dedicated player I finally figured and fixed the bug (which was related to a third-party component, of course, linked to resolution management) but only days after release and the harm has been done. I emailed everyone I contacted in the first place letting them know that the issue was fixed and that they would hopefully give the game another shot. Only silence followed ...

Did this issue really had an impact on the coverage of the game? Not everyone was experiencing this issue so surely I can't put all the blame on this but it surely didn't help.

Conclusion

I wasn't planning to write a postmortem so soon after the release of the game as for a month I made more money from this game than I did from my day job. Now, however, things have already drastically changed as the game is slowly getting buried deep down in Steam's entrails and no new coverage have appeared. Here are some more points I want to add to this postmortem.

1. Good but ...

I have yet to see a negative review of the game from the press. All reviews from the press or YouTubers are generally quite positive (I keep track of them here) but the problem is that there are so few of them. So I'm confident that I released a good game but maybe it lacked something special about it. Something that makes it instantly intriguing. It's a good turn-based strategy game with an interesting mechanic but maybe it's lacking some kind of "icing"? A better hook?

A few days before the release of the game I received an email from a YouTuber with a lot of subscribers asking for a key for the game (email was legit, I checked it like I always do when I receive such request). A review from this YouTuber could have meant incredible visibility for the game. More than a month later though there's still no video. Was it due to the launch crash bug? Was it because he didn't like it? If so why not say so in a review? Or was it that he thought it just wasn't special enough? I'm tempted to go with the latest though there's no way to know for sure.

2. Steam

99% of the sales I made were through Steam. Without being able to release the game on Steam I wouldn't be able to call this my best financial success so far and it's not particularly good news. Most sales I made were simply because the game appeared on Steam and not because I was able to generate interest in the game.

Only a small percentage of Steam users have visited the game's page so I can only wonder what it could have meant if I would have been able to generate more interest when I look at the current sale numbers with almost no visibility. I didn't become rich but considering that appearing on Steam with little to no coverage generated the kind of revenue I'm currently seeing it's still pretty amazing.

3. Happy or not?

I must be honest, when I saw the release would not make any wave whatsoever and that my day-to-day situation would not change one bit I wasn't in a good mood. I wasn't hoping to get rich but I was hoping it would allow me to make some kind of change in my life to allow me to spend more time working on games. This won't happen.

The danger of doing something part-time that you greatly enjoy and hope will have a financial impact on your life at one point is that it can obsess you and then you become a lot less involved in what allows you to actually put food on the table. You're grumpy because you don't enjoy your day and grumpy because you don't get the results you hope for at night. So when you realize that change is still not coming ... Well that's when it really helps to have a loved one by your side to help bring you back to reality.

So you have to move on at some point and accept things as they are. So what are they? I have now more money than I ever had to put on my next game. I gained more experience by releasing this game than I did in the past few years. I still did better than many others so things could have been much worse. I am much more conscious about what project is worth my time than before.

So happy or not? I'm getting there and this postmortem is a good way to keep things moving forward.

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