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Spilt Milk Devlog 07 - Fascism Fighters 4000 Post Mortem (Part 2 of 2)

We're going into what went right and what went wrong on our politically-charge, for-charity DLC. It's time for honesty and transparency!

Welcome back, we’re here with the second and final part of our deep dive on the development and release of Fascism Fighters 4000. Find part 1 here.

Development - What went right (in no particular order)

  1. Black devs

As you read in our previous post, we hired two amazing talents to help with this game. Working with Jason and Lilian was an absolute pleasure, of course. Consummate professionals with bags of talent and drive. But we can never truly measure the positive ways they affected the game itself, the tone, the sentiment, the way it is received, and the way they’ve helped us grow as a company.

We’re decidedly not a diverse team right now, and there’s plenty of evidence showing how diversity improves companies, teams and products… so in a selfish sense by adding these two Black creatives to the mix we also levelled ourselves up, and we can’t overstate that value. Additionally, these two talents credits in a launched game... hopefully, everybody wins. Hopefully, this is a small step towards that meaningful change we strive for.

1. New mechanics/the DLC stands apart from the base game

We managed to make a unique and standalone mode of play for the game, one which absolutely builds on the cornerstones of the political intent, while providing a fun experience. I covered the specifics of the mechanics in Part 1 of this deep dive, but designing them is one thing, making sure the player understands them, and has fun with them, is another.

The mechanics in the game as you play it right now are so close to those designed on paper that I’m actually rather surprised. Not trying to pat ourselves on the back too much - nothing here is reinventing the wheel - but it’s rare that a design survives the transition into the playable so wholly. It’s likely a mix of our ability to iterate quickly, scope sensibly, and work as a team to define things during planning - not to mention the framework of an existing game which inherently meant we simply could not consider certain avenues of gameplay. A box within which to design is a wonderful gift, and this project had a box made up of existing mechanics, priority on the reuse of existing assets, and of course the ‘as soon as we can’ shipping date.

The result is that the DLC could be its own game! On the one hand it’s a more thoroughly retro-inspired high-score chaser than Tango Fiesta itself, and on the other hand FF4K is its own much more modern, more relevant, more NOW piece of entertainment. The unexpected success for us is how those two elements combine and make each other stronger. I think the team smashed it!

2. Zero budget, time, money

We managed to, all things considered, budget really well and keep the time we spent on the project appropriate to the challenges - very little time was wasted if any. We used Trello to manage tasks, labeling tickets simply but appropriately (bug, feature, etc), and having triage sessions before any work was done, or after a time away from the project (see the work for hire section below!). The piecemeal nature of the work meant that we could’ve really struggled to maintain our course, but any scope creep was sensibly managed by discussing it with the team, and we ended up just voting on new features. Keeping everyone on board and excited, or at the very least educated on the value any piece of work adds was hugely important - as a studio, we really value openness and ownership of the creative process, and this project I think reinforced that for us.

3. Testing testing testing

Thanks to our superstar Artist/Designer/QA technician Steve, a recent hire during the development cycle (but an old friend) we were able to throw some proper, trained QA at the DLC across the back half of the development time. We’d have been scuppered without it, as the quality of the game is very high bar maybe one or two minor glitches (C class bugs at best!). Also, the QA is usually my job, so it was great to take that off my plate and free me up to tackle other design-related issues that presented themselves. Multi-talented, cross-disciplinary team members for the win!

 

Development - What went wrong (in no particular order)

1. The time it took.

We started in June, and shipped in October. Not great, but we balanced the work required against work for hire (gotta pay the bills!), pitching projects, and you know… 2020 in general. Talking cynically, if we’d been able to smash it out in 4 weeks, while the rioting and demonstrations were still making headlines, we’d have had a much better chance of being seen or reported on by sites, for good reasons and bad. Marketing and visibility are so intrinsic to the success (or not) or a project that this kind of thing has to be considered, even though it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

2. Sporadic opportunity to focus/build momentum.

The aforementioned work for hire was the single biggest factor pushing back against our efforts to make the DLC. Essential income, work for hire dominated the middle of the year for us. A combination of King of Crabs and two other projects we’re not at liberty to talk about meant that our time was frequently, and for long periods, taken away from the DLC. Momentum is such a huge (and constantly underappreciated) element in game development. Losing it causes all kinds of issues.

Most obviously the Code side of the project takes a beating - getting into the headspace of a thorny or complex piece of functionality takes time, and being ripped out of it to refocus on other things is always detrimental. Likewise, for Design, it was a case of trying to get back into the headspace of the product for new content, and then trying desperately to remember the reasons behind some of the decisions we made way back in 2014… because changing this seemingly weird value could break something we’d forgotten about, and introduce new bugs, and we probably set it that way for good reason, but… well anyway. It was a whole thing.

3. Bugs in base game/old codebase.

Tango Fiesta is old. We’d released a patch earlier in the year, updating to a newer version of Unity for various reasons, but it had been a long time since we’d made any content for the game, let alone new gameplay and mechanics. Doing so now was akin to starting from scratch… only the scratch was more of a giant tear. Full of holes, bugs, inconsistencies, broken third party plugins, and downright bad decisions. To say it was a challenge is an understatement, yet it was an element we were not surprised by and the real problems came when combined with 2) above; we never really found a decent block of time to really get into the groove. There’s genuinely no way to solve this other than having more money in the bank to buy yourself focused time.

 

Launch, reception & stats

Here’s the bit that really hurts. I’m going to HEAVILY self-edit here, as I get a bit emotional and - quite honestly - angry. It’s not professional to call people out or to point fingers, so I’m going to have to use a broad brush in some areas. But also, it’s not ‘cool’ to talk about failure and I hate that because the best way to learn is to ‘fail’. Failure is a crucial part of improving. And the second-best way is to learn from other peoples’ mistakes and failures. So we need to be clear, open and honest.

So, here’s (most of) what we did:

- Worked with two PR and marketing professionals who donated their time and expertise to help us craft the Steam store page, the press release, a marketing plan, and all other materials

- Worked with a video professional who donated their time to create the trailer

- Used an industry-standard tool to send out and collect data on the release (kindly donated)

- Sent the press release to 1,879 games websites

- Picked a day and date that was not crowded

- Launched during UK Black History month

- Curated a list of Black and diversity-focus streamers, organisations, and movements on social media, all of whom helped in whatever way they could. Some were given codes, others helped spread the word.

All of this work was top-notch, done with good humour, support, and resulted in genuinely great materials to help the game launch and make a splash.


And here’s the result:

- 8 news stories (examples here and here). They’re predominantly copy/pastes of the press release. This is standard, but means nobody really engaged with it and these don’t really ‘count’ as coverage. In numbers, 0.4% of contacts posted anything.

- 1 review (here)

- 18 sales


Now, there are always factors outside of your control, and I even followed up with some outlets who didn’t cover it to test one assumption that it was the political content of the DLC that resulted in them passing on it. I am lucky enough to have a relationship, and our studio enough of a reputation, that I got answers from everyone I contacted.

I guess it’s partially about ego in the end, being fairly comprehensively told that despite the best intentions, hard work, skill and labour of a bunch of incredible people… very few people wanted to know.

In this paragraph, I initially gave three examples of articles/games that did get coverage in the same week. The reasoning was to focus on the argument most normally given when something doesn’t get covered, which is that there are too many games, too much news, and only so many hours in the day.

Which, you know, is true.

But it is also pretty much bullshit.

I’m not saying FF4K somehow deserves attention simply because it exists. But I have to assume (and maybe this is where I’m wrong) that it is a fallacy along the same lines as “there are so many games released every week on Steam, indies are doomed”. 90% of them are genuinely not professional enough, or unique enough, or of the zeitgeist enough to gain any meaningful audience - nor take the audience away from games that are ‘worth a second look’ for want of a better phrase. And so I expect that 90% of the news that hits a site’s inbox is also just that… uninteresting across a bunch of vectors, any of which might be enough reason for that site to pass on it.

But I have to assume after 10 years making games, and the talents of the people who donated their time to the entire process, and the cultural context, and the timing, and everything else we threw at it means we sit in the 10% that do warrant a second look.

And that assumption would appear to be wrong. That’s what the data is telling us. I just have no useful insight to counter it with, let alone learn from, which is the source of a lot of the frustration.

So in the spirit of learning, here are some truths about Tango Fiesta, which is the conduit through which FF4K is experienced (literally, but also when talking about it, when marketing it)

- It is a 5-year-old game (older if you count Early Access)
- Almost as few sites reported on its launch as did FF4K
- It’s got a Mixed review average on Steam

All of which, I’m guessing, proved the perfect counter to everything else we did. The one fact we have gleaned is that for at least one site, the fact that the base game was not covered more than once or twice by their staff means that the DLC isn’t really seen as newsworthy. I admit that seems fair (kinda, ish, although as an editorial guideline it certainly seems like it would blinker things, ruling out any sort of comebacks or longterm ‘rags to riches’ type successes, but I digress) but this was not simply DLC now, was it. Or was it? Did we make sure people understood that? Well, beyond that little tidbit, we’ll never know which factors are crucial, which are incidental, and what to do differently next time, beyond just ‘trying to do better’.

What I do know is that the lack of coverage really torpedoed its chances of finding algorithmic happiness and reaching what we’d hoped would be our most conservative sales (read: donation) goals. We did donate $100, but that was us generously rounding upwards.

To cap this section off, there’s also a part of me that hates the fact we got more racist and far-right comments on our Steam announcement (7, all of them deleted obviously) than we did user reviews of the DLC, positive or negative (1), and that is one thing that is really difficult to trim away from my feelings about the wider picture.

Future/Plans

Well, Spilt Milk is nothing if not tenacious!

This week we launched a patch for the DLC that we’ve been working on since release, with balance changes, new gameplay, and a brand new gun named after that incredible human being ShogunAsh! We’ll respond to bugs and release more tweaks and patches no doubt, and as the purchases come in, we’ll keep donating! Just you try and stop us!

Honestly, I don’t know that we’ll be able to point other people at it and say “look, see, it’s not hard to make a difference, you just need to DECIDE TO!” which was what I’d hoped for...

...or at least I think we can do that, but people will be all “but nobody cared” and while it’s true the global games press really did not lift a finger to help and our limited reach on other platforms (basically we’re not already an established, successful name, so nobody listens), we still believe in what we've done here. It is a fun game, and it is a catalyst for real change; an all-round Good Thing. The streamers (ShogunAsh, Inelious, Streamcast) and people (Uzerfriendly) who did pick up on it and support it will always have our undying love and support, so even if the only concrete difference is that we’re now able to talk to more of the very people we built this to support, then that is a huge win, and fudge all the other noise.

Other news

We’ve brought on two amazing hires, both part time but both FULL IMPACT.


We’ve been lucky enough to know Des Gayle for years now, and finally, we’re working together! He’s an incredibly experienced Producer, and he’s working with us as Production Director, overseeing, well, our production! That means establishing process, strategic-level thinking around our projects, teams, how we build both and helping the production department manage their workload, as well as our relationship with publishers, platform holders, all that lovely stuff. Basically being an utter hero (standard for Des, frankly), and making sure our second new hire is having a wonderful time! He also does incredible work helping make our industry a better place too, being a founding member of POC in Play, the Chair of Games Aid, and is serving his second term as an elected board member of the brilliant UKIE, so we’re just humbled to be calling him a part of the family.

 



Danielle Allum is our brand new Associate Producer! She’s helping us with everything around project planning, managing scope and timescales, workload, task tracking, all while making sure we identify weaknesses and help us build processes and tools to ensure we deliver our games on time, to the highest quality, under budget, and with a happy and motivated team! All a bit corporate speak, but it’s the truth! She’s only been with us just under 2 weeks, but so far she’s been a complete star, and Andrew S (me) is already feeling the benefit of handing one of his hats over to this very capable person. She’s done her time in QA, studied production at University, and we’re just lucky to have her. We’re feeling very blessed, and can’t wait to really get stuck into making incredible stuff together in 2021, with her skills at the very core of what we do.
SO…

All of this points to some obvious questions I’m sure. Why or how are we staffing up? Surely we have a new game in development? What’s next, and when will we be showing more? Hey, the first Patreon post of 2021 might be the time… but we want to make sure that the first time we announce, it is with some INCREDIBLY exciting. We want you to fall in love at first sight, and that will take a bit of time.

All that said, we have some exciting things coming down the pipe sooner than that, and I can’t wait to show them off too! 2020 has been a REALLY weird year, obviously, but for us is has been an incredibly strong, confidence-building, and dare I say it? A transformative one.

 

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