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Postmortem: Muse Games' Guns of Icarus

Post-mortem on Guns of Icarus, a title we released on Steam, Mac App Store, etc in early 2010. It was not a wildly successful game but enough for us to now make Guns of Icarus Online. It's an account of learnings & struggles. Hope it's useful for others.

Howard Tsao, Blogger

October 11, 2011

17 Min Read

[By Team Muse:  Howard Tsao, Brian Kehrer, Alex Jarocha-Ernst, and Emily Compton]

Having produced a few tiny games with the Unity engine, which was pretty new at the time, we (at Muse Games) felt confident enough to embark on a more challenging project.  We had launched our previous two games, Extreme Sledding and Elementia, on our site for people to play for free.  These made no money, and we realized ad revenue alone couldn’t come close to sustaining us.
We started Guns of Icarus the same way we started everything else - It would be cool if....  In the case of Guns of Icarus, we thought of those thrilling moments in typical shooters where you get to briefly use the big mounted turrets, and thought that sensation could be made into a whole game itself.  Guns, fire, explosions - and above all a sense of urgency and power.  This dovetailed with our concept for a ruined world with large diesel-punk airships, and bands of marauding air-pirates patrolling the wastes.  Over a few conversations, scribbled notes, and sketches, the idea of Guns of Icarus started taking shape.  
We didn’t have a lot of money, and we knew that there wasn’t anything else we’d rather do than make games.  With a limited budget, we set a target of 4 months to develop the game.  We were able to keep to our target, and craft a set of core game play mechanics that resonated well with players.  We spent another month and a half testing and polishing before we put it up on our site.  We envisioned a lot more for the game, but our budgetary constraints enforced discipline, and a small scope.  Start somewhere and see where it takes us.

Immediately following the release on our own site, no one knew about Guns of Icarus, because no one knew about Muse Games.  But things really changed in a big way when the game released on Steam, and then the Mac App Store.  This is not the post-mortem of an IGF finalist, but it is one for a game that sold tens of thousands of copies and was featured on multiple platforms.  Guns of Icarus was one of the first Unity games released on Steam.  It ended up being successful and profitable enough for our small indie team to keep making games, and to have the opportunity to make Guns of Icarus Online - the game we always wanted the original to be.

Study of a character against the environment

Character, environment study

What Went Right:
1. Clear Scope and Goals for Features, and Manage the Project
We laid out a few major features early on, and knew that we had to focus on those first and foremost to get the game out on the schedule we set.  There were a lot of great ideas thrown around during development, but the ones that weren’t absolutely essential to our core gameplay had to be tabled for later.  “We’ll do it in Guns 2” became a running joke, and maybe a way to vent our more ridiculous dreams without obsessing over them at the cost of more important things.  In the end, while the game could have benefited from more features as well as content, its success gave us the opportunity to now actually realize those loftier goals.  If we did not keep to our budget and scope, what we are doing today would not have been possible.  

However, as we will detail later on in “What Went Wrong,” the balance between building a game within scope and on schedule vs. more content and polish was a constant struggle and dilemma, and there were also negative consequences to the approach we took.

2. Our World is Flat
We don’t have a star game designer, producer, or artist on our team.  We don’t have a guy or a girl from a big studio with years and years of experience, where we can turn to that person and just nod our heads knowing everything will be okay because he or she said so.  Maybe as a result, no one had a big head.  It is actually pretty easy to build consensus without politics, ego, and personal agendas.  We add to each others’ ideas, and we argue like hell sometimes, but everything we do, we do it together.  We don’t really buy the argument that the buck always has to stop at someone.  People might see this and laugh, but it works for us.  A great idea can come from anywhere, anyone, at anytime.  This way, we can harness it and not let anything go to waste.   

We may not have a whole lot of experience making games, but we have a lot experience playing games.  So for the team to buy into an idea, it’s really quite simple.  Is it cool enough to get people really pumped?  If we execute on the idea, how would we as players feel?  With Guns of Icarus, we developed a shared creative vision and bought into it completely very early on.  Guns was a collective effort in so many ways, and it couldn’t have happened any other way.

3.  Freedom from Entrenchment
None of us had worked at a big studio before or had much experience.  It was daunting, but in a way, it was totally liberating.  We were free to pursue whatever we wanted.  We didn’t have to make another of any kind of game.  Innovation is always based on something, so of course our ideas on Guns, or elements of Guns, are not going to be completely original.  But we weren’t compelled to make another whatever clone.  With Guns, it was about shooting (the shooting down planes and blowing up enemy zeppelins part), but it was also about time management (the scrambling around the airship to put out fire and repair part).  We were able to mesh these two different game mechanics together to add some twists to shooter gameplay.  In multiplayer, we also went a more unconventional route in focusing on co-op, instead of PvP.  While not having PvP made the multiplayer experience limited, and we didn’t have an extensive multiplayer setup or following, players did like the idea of co-op, and it gave us a foundation for Guns of Icarus Online.  

4.  Releasing the Game is Only a Third of the Battle
Before we released Guns anywhere, we were our testers.  We played, we tweaked level balance, and we fixed bugs in constant iterative cycles.  Patting ourselves on the back would probably have made us feel better, but not getting outside players to test would have been totally idiotic.  So after we got to a stable point in development, the challenge became getting testers.  We of course gave the game to friends and family, but with us watching over them like CIA agents while they, any painful truth was hard to come by.  It just so happened that we hosted a Unity meetup in NYC, and that was the first batch of real outside testers we got.  There  we got the brutal truths we needed to hear.  Watching players repeatedly spinning around and falling over the railings to their deaths made us squeamish, so we put railings up, and reduced respawn time.  This was a shooter, not a platformer, we got that loud and clear.

When the game went live, we created topics on our forum page and braced for the avalanche.  We ended up getting a lot of feedback - bugs, feature requests, suggestions, encouragements, wish lists, etc.  We made it a goal and a rule to answer everyone.  We all get forum alerts and check into to the forum periodically.  Sometimes, we travel or over focus on other things we’re working on, and the responses are not as fast as we would like.  But by and large, we try to respond honestly and right away to all the compliments and rants alike.  We do this because players spend their hard earned money on our games.  We will always appreciate and be amazed by people actually paying money to play our games.  Regardless of how negative the response is, we are always mindful that people paid for this game, and they have every right to complain and vent when something goes wrong.  So the only right thing to do is to apologize and to do better.  

We know people don’t like to listen to excuses, perceive lack of effort, or take attitude.  By being honest, fast in response, and ready to say sorry, we’ve fostered a lot of great relationships.  More importantly, with the fans of the game posting ideas on our forum, we’ve gotten a ton of great feedback for Guns of Icarus Online.  In this next game, there will be extensive mutliplayer, customization, and player advancement.  A lot of the features we are adding to Guns of Icarus Online are in direct response to player feedback.  In so many ways, this next game would not have been possible if we had taken a different approach and attitude towards supporting our players.   

5. Timing Really Helps, but Have to be Ready
Steam and the Mac App Store are what made all the difference for our wallets and reaffirmed our belief that we can keep doing this.  We released Guns of Icarus on the exact days the Steam Mac Store and the desktop Mac App Store launched, so the game was a launch title for both stores.  How did we just happened to be at the right place at the right time?  Of course we can just chalk that up to pure luck, but the reality is that, taking advantage of the luck of timing, we had to be aware of what is happening, or what will happen, be ready to act, and do the hard work to make sure we make that window of opportunity in time.

The launch timeframes on both stores weren’t much of a secret.  With Unity, we already had an advantage in the ease of creating both Mac and PC builds.  Before 2010, a Mac build was only viable on macgamestore.com and Apple Downloads.  We were on both platforms, but the game didn’t create much of a ripple.  We figured that when Steam Mac Store launched, having a game that supports both PC and Mac would be a differentiating factor, so we planned ahead to make that launch.

While the game was on other distributors ahead of Steam, we drove people to a forum we built on our site, and we made sure that we work our butts off to improve the game based on players’ feedback.  Getting on Steam started with just a simple email with a brief summary of the game and links to the game, screens, and trailer.  The process from contract to getting the SDK took some weeks, and Steam was really helpful along the way.  By the time we were ready for Steam integration, the game was already better than when we first released it.  We had only a vague idea how much time Steam integration would take us, as there was pretty much no other Steam integrated Unity games for us to reference.  So we budgeted two weeks, what we thought was ample time, but even then it took us until the last day to finish and test the integration work.  It also really helped that we were proactive in reaching out to the people at Valve.  They gave us a lot of last minute support when we really needed it.

On Steam’s Mac Store launch day, Guns of Icarus ended up being one of the first available on the Mac store.  The game got a lot of exposure and people at Steam gave the game a chance and featured it in multiple genres.  It made the Mac and Adventure top seller list for about two weeks.  We approached the Mac App Store launch the same way, and we were again one of the featured and top paid games at launch.   

If you get the chance to work with Steam, take it.  Steam has been awesome for us.  They do everything well, and they really give games a fair chance to succeed.  They are supportive and generous.  Whenever we needed codes, they were there for us.  They always tell us about sales events, recommend discounts, help us price our games, and include us in bundle packs.  We love Steam.  

character, airship, guns, planes


What Went Wrong
1.  The Fallout of Keeping to  Scope and Schedule
Getting a game out within a budget, scope, and schedule meant that we had a game, and that we crafted and honed the core game play without suffering from feature creep.  However, we sacrificed content and depth.  Even when we spent the extra time polishing the game after the bulk of the development was complete, we still would have benefited significantly with more time to add content and depth to levels, balance the game, and do general polish.  Many criticisms of the game reflected this.  

2. Not Planning the Game Around Multiplayer
While we envisioned Guns to be a multiplayer game, we initially thought the scope was likely going to be too great for our time and money.  Resulting from this rationale, we built Guns of Icarus as a single player game initially.  Then, we decided to add networked co-op multiplayer.  Earlier, we said that we managed our scope well, and this was the major instance where we put ourselves in no man’s land.  Not only did adding multiplayer late turn out to be something of a technical nightmare, we also didn’t push it nearly as far as we could have.  This ended up creating an expectation that was hard for us to meet.  

It would have been much cleaner, and almost certainly less buggy, to architect the game with multiplayer in mind from the beginning.  Similarly, because multiplayer was added later, the campaign system wasn’t well integrated with it.  We got a lot of feedback asking for the ability to play the whole campaign co-op, instead of individual levels, a feature that in retrospect we should have considered.  With Guns of Icarus Online this time around, we felt like we’ve taken this lesson to heart, and the multiplayer experience existed in the core of development.  

3. Not Taking Advantage of the Dev Process for Promotion
As we were developing the game, we didn’t do much to tell people about it - no tweets or posts on facebook, no blog posts on the development process, and no posting of art.  We didn’t start to tell people about it until we were nearing the end of development.  We thought that we were cool for being stealthy, but what was the point of being stealthy when we and the game were virtually unknown?  The only thing that being stealthy netted us during the development process was zero marketing and exposure to start.  Granted we didn’t have much money to spend, but in reality, marketing and promotions really didn’t need any money.  It was about effort, persistence, being honest, being ourselves, and having something interesting to say.  We really had to work extra hard after we put the game out there to tell people about it and to reach out to distribution platforms.  For us, this was a hard lesson learned.

4. Relying on the unreliable, and then told people about it
As we worked on Guns, Unity 2.6 was in beta.  We were faced with the choice of using 2.5, an existing and stable version that lacked a few features we wanted, or 2.6 beta, an unreleased and less stable version with the features that we wanted.  We chose to take a chance with the 2.6 beta, banking on Unity to release it on time, or at least without too much of a delay.  As a result of this decision, of going with more features over stability, we ended up having to do a lot of debugging not only on our game, but for the engine as well.  

If these Unity features were ones we absolutely could not have lived without, then it would have been justified, but they were not.  The issue compounded when Unity’s 2.6 release experienced delays on multiple occasions.  We only have ourselves to blame because we should have known that depending on others’ release schedule would likely lead to delays.  The instability and release delays of the engine added significant burden to our development.  

Even given that our ability to release the game was largely dependent on external factors, we still slapped the release date on the trailer, which was showing on GameTrailers.  We also told blogs that were interested in the game when the game would be out thinking that we would make it.  We didn’t.  We put them at risk for subjecting their readers and potential fans of the game information that were potentially untrue.  Not a great way to build lasting relationships.  Once we felt that we were at risk to not meet our commitments, we had to react fast and update people we previously reached out to.  We updated the trailer and reposted on GameTrailers and other sites.  Luckily, people were understanding and were very supportive of a small indie team.  

5. Tradeoffs on releasing on many portals and platforms
Aside from Steam and the Mac App Store, Guns of Icarus was also released on a number of casual and PC portals and platforms.  On the casual portals, Guns of Icarus had between half a million to a million plays.  The number is vague because the precise data was not available to us.  The ratings were good, and Guns was featured in a number of top games pages, some for quite a few months.  However, because the revenue split to developers were typically lower, and because of the offering of free trial, the conversion for Guns was lower.  As a result, Guns ended up selling more than 50 times greater on Steam and Mac App Store than it did on a number of the casual portals.   

Different services had different requirements.  For instance, we had to strip out multiplayer for some of the services and add splash screens.  In one extreme, we had to wait for weeks after we submitted the initial build to get a response, and when the the audit finally came back, we were faced with a laundry list that looked like it could have been written by Martin Luther himself.  Most of the items on the list were due to incompatibility issues with their antiquated system.  This amounted to UI and code changes that we had to spend quite a bit of time to build and support.  
The overall results from releasing on a large number of platforms are mixed.  The PC/Mac game portal and platform releases generally required less work and yielded better results, but even within this category the sales of Guns varied a lot as well.  The experience and learning we got through the process was amazing.  We also built what we felt were great relationships, but in hindsight, we would benefit by being a bit more selective about which platforms and services we target.  For a small team, that would have allowed us to focus our efforts better.  

Concepts and In Game

Environment Paintings

In the months since the release of Guns of Icarus, we’ve gotten a lot of invaluable feedback, ideas, and support from players.  We’ve grown tremendously as a team in just about every way, and we’ve built some amazing relationships.  With all the feedback from players and fans, we are now making the steampunk adventure of Guns of Icarus much bigger and deeper- co-op and fleet PvP, all sorts of upgrades and customizations, skills system, piloting, crazier repairs, different combat strategies with a variety of weapons, and more.  This was the game we always wanted to make, and we are now finally in the position to make it.  It’s been a long journey with many ups and downs, a emotional roller coaster ride.

We call this new game Guns of Icarus Online.  

Data Box
Developer: Muse Games
Number of Developers: 4
Length of Development: 5.5 months
Release Date: May 12, 2010 (Steam), January 6, 2011 Mac App Store
Platform: PC, Mac, Web

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