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Postmortem: immersionFX Games' “Days of Sail: Wind over Waters”

At the game conference held in Greece at 9 of October 2010, immersionFX Games presented a post mortem of Days of Sail: Wind over Waters. Aspiring developers may find valuable points about what can go right and what can go wrong when making a game.

 

This is basically a post mortem of a title that was first introduced in the public on November 10th, 2006 and which required approximately two years of part-time work to complete, from start to finish.  Days of Sail: Wind over Waters“ was a sailing simulation game that was a big online seller and was also published as a retail title to Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Poland and Benelux.

A few more things to take into account before moving on with the top ten lists:

  • The development team was only one person, me. I was also responsible for the initial distribution of the game (mainly online), up until German retail publisher IceBytes came into play. The only part that was assigned to someone else was the music score.

  • The time taken to grasp the development platform (Conitec’s Gamestudio) is included in the two years period I mentioned above.

  • The game was a fairly successful title which made considerable online and retail sales.

So, without further ado, here’s a Top Ten list of what went right:
 
1. Game engine.
Following an initial period of researching available technologies, we decided to go with Conitec’s Gamestudio game engine. So, we bought the 3DGS Pro version - mainly to support reflection/refraction in the water. Gamestudio is suitable for quick prototyping and has a rich vocabulary. 3D Models and animations were created in the tool’s own modeller. Apart from all of the above, 3DGS is also a surprisingly stable platform. I can definitely say without hesitation that the game engine helped to cut in half the development phase because we didn’t need to code everything from scratch.

2. Original and fresh ideas in the gameplay
The idea was to build a sailing simulator, ok, but, to differ from the competition in the originality section. Of course we researched the competitive projects, e.g. Virtual Skipper and Virtual Sailor to name the most acclaimed ones. Since we could not reach their standards, the next best thing would be to innovate in the gameplay in order to reach the same target audience.

3. Budget was kept considerably low.
The Game Engine purchase was the main cost. Other costs included the composer fee and the online press release. All in all the costs were kept to a bare minimum.

4. Online Press Release.
As it turned out, the Online Press Release was a winning move. The insignificant amount of $100 was required in order to accompany the official launch of the game with a press release that was distributed to thousands of sites within a few hours. The response - translated to hits on the game’s website - was impressive. No other promotion works as good with only 100 bucks.

5. Distribution by retail publisher.
After days of negotiations and with a finished product in our hands, we signed a contract with a German publisher for non exclusive retail distribution in Europe and online distribution through Trymedia. The publisher was not a big name at the time, but the contribution to the game’s sales was abolishing. The publisher - having a technical background in game development - also assisted in the game’s mechanics - that is when the much improved version 2 of Days of Sail: Wind over Waters came out.

6. Successful distribution to 8 countries.
The game managed to reach 8 countries, all in Europe:
-Russia
-Germany
-Italy
-Poland
-France
-Benelux (counts as three)
The retail career of the game finally brought twice as much earnings than its online career. The move to employ a retail publisher proved to be correct. However, this is never a safe bet, especially now that so many third-party video game publishers go out of business just as quickly as they are cropping up.

7.Successful and pleasant website.
Really, what do you want to see in a website that promotes a game? I’d say, it should be flashy and visually appealing in order to incline the audience to the quality of the game. Also, it should be evident where the Buy button is. Last but not least, a video teaser should be present so that you get a general idea of what you’re about to download. All these, however, have one common aim: to persuade you to download the demo. Everything should be adjusted to this basic idea. Having said that, the website got pretty good critics and warm approbations.

8. Music by Pedro Camacho.
A nearly accidental pick of a composer, proved one of the best things to come up with this game. Put aside the two beautiful tracks that he composed for the game, Pedro Camacho was at the time making the first steps to a wonderful career and was the winner of next year’s IGF contest (with Audiosurf). Having a famous guy on the team is always a good thing.

9. Effective demo.
We gave a lot of time and effort when preparing the demo. What should be available and for how long? What was needed in order to showcase the full capabilities of the game but also… keep you hungry for more? We ended up with:
- One level of enjoy-the-view type of ride, plus one Race level for those that wish to increase the pace.
- One hour free demo.
- Easy to find the Buy button.
- If the demo is playable in the customer’s hardware, then the full game also is. So, no complaints after the game’s purchase.

10. Affiliates.
Affiliate sites rarely help in promotion. However, there were affiliated sites in our case that gave a major boost in online sales. Especially sites that were addressed to sailing enthusiasts did a really good job in promoting the game to the most wanted target group, i.e. people that loved the sea and sailing in particular. Such sites were the Dutch nauticlink.com and the Greek easyacht.gr.

 

Top 10 What Went Wrong

1. One man show: development, art and marketing.
Coming from a programming background, the developer easily failed to reach deadlines when it came to level design and concept art. Especially for a game like Days of Sail, the environment needed be entirely outdoors and a surface of 15,000 square meters should be designed on paper and then on the computer screen. The task to fill this area with natural elements was very time consuming. Admittedly, the level design ended up taking half of the entire development process.

2. Not as many levels as one would expect.
When it became evident that time was running out and that a release date should be, after all, announced, we started to limit the number of levels that would be included in the release version. The game was eventually released with 5 simulation levels and 4 races. This limitation ignited the most severe critics the game received up to date.


 3. Weak 3D.
Because of tight budget, a professional 3D modeler was never hired. As a result, the 3D elements were not as appealing as one would expect for this type of game.

4. Game engine weaknesses.
When the going got tough, the game engine showed its limitations. Many shaders needed to be rewritten from scratch and this delayed development considerably. Another extremely important issue was that the executable was only running on Windows platform. It is a pity that we never got to find out the market penetration to the Mac audience for example (Mac sailing simulators were, at the time, a rare commodity).

5. No multiplayer.
This was also one of the side effects of the game engine’s weaknesses; it was a very daunting task to turn the game to multiplayer with Gamestudio’s tools. Since everybody in the 3DGS forum was complaining about the lack of a solid multiplayer solution, we rejected even the idea to try to add multiplayer to the game.

6. Release just before Christmas!
The game was officially launched at November 10, 2006. Many would argue that this is the best period for a game release (just before Christmas) and I can not agree less but… this argument mostly stands for the AAA titles. Let me explain: when all major game studios try desperately to make it to the Christmas rush, every single gamesite is flooded with articles related to AAA titles. What luck can you have with an indie game? I can assure you that it is a great success if your game manages to stay on first page for a full 24-hour as soon as its press release sees the light. It is more likely that your game gets lost somewhere in the inner pages and never receives the attention it deserves. The advantage easily turns to disadvantage.

7. The game suffered from over-expectation.
Would you pay attention to a game if you knew that it was developed by just one person? I wouldn’t. This led me to an attempt to give the impression of a big and experienced team behind Days of Sail, when writing the Press Release. So, the Press Release was a ’show off’ piece of text with fancy language, the type of saying: “trust us, we have a great game over here!“. Unfortunately, this approach raised the expectations and many judged the game by the standards of a nearly AAA game. One more example of our cheeky attitude was that we even released an amateurish trailer at gametrailers.com. It was evident that our slow-paced simulation game was never destined to be played by the hard-core gamers that lurk at such sites, so it’s no wonder they gave harsh and uneven critics.

8. Never reached US retail.
We almost came to a deal with a well-known US retailer. The company was standing a good chance to release the game to the US stores. Unfortunately, the lack of experience made us reject their offer and turn to better revenue share deals. I still can’t be sure if this was a good move but it was - and still remains - the only attempt to reach retail stores in the USA.

9. Niche market not clearly targeted.
The game, as a sailing simulator, has a very specific audience (niche market). This audience is definitely not the hard core gamers nor the casual gamers. We failed to reach our niche market because we never made it clear to them that this was a good, educational simulator. Whenever we had a go at sailing sites, the responses (and the revenue) were spectacular. You can see a custom-made release of the game over here, or the case of nauticlink.com that was mentioned before.

10. Impossible to control retail channel sales.
When the game reaches retail stores, the developer looses track of sales. If the deal with the retailer is a revenue share, then your bad. So, never hesitate to ask for an advance, the more generous the better. Retailers know it and now you know it too; the advance is the only safe way to earn from retail distribution. But, of course, make sure that you have a good game in your hands first!

That’s all folks. Hope it helped you in any, tiny way. For us, the lessons learned from this game are now our guides in the development of the brand new title, Days of Sail 2: Venture, set for release some time in the summer of 2011.

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