To succeed, create something you love (it seems)

Well, you probably heard this saying. And it could be that you have positive feelings about this idea.
But this is my take on this saying, and how this send me in the wrong direction.

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

The start

It started with me wanting to make a game. At that time, I did already know it would be hard to keep focus on finishing the game, so I sought advice. The interwebs are full of advice, and the ‘create something you love’ is one of the advices you get for staying motivated.

So, I thought ‘what would be something I love?’
‘Well, me and my son (5 at the time) enjoying building the game together’
And, after some more thinking
‘Yeah, lets create game with a little bit more depth than the average child-focus game in a world childs of 5 could love, and with mechanics they could understand’

That was my start of ‘Find the Gnome’.

The catch

Immediately I ran into problems. My son did like to draw monsters and play monster vs monster scenes with Lego. So I thought it would be a cool thing for my world to contain monsters. But to get it child-friendly, those monsters would need some ‘friendly-ness’ over them. This proved to be very hard. And on top of that, I don’t like monsters fighting monsters.

So I switched focus. ‘Lets build something I like’.
‘Lets think… I want to create a game because that way I discover what parts in gamebuilding and publishing I am good at and what parts I’m not. So just choose… nah, just choose something I am already working on’

That was the start of the 3D-ish puzzle-like game ‘Find the Gnome’ with Gnomes.

And I discovered I don’t like to create puzzle games…

The assumption of the phrase ‘create something you like’ is that you know what you will like, that things you like to play are the same as things you like to create, and that things you like will stay like-able until the end of times.

In hindsight

I do personally think it is hard to find something that you like to play and create, and continue to like to play and create.

And after a few months after releasing this game, I found out that there is something else. Creating games professionally (subconsciously my intention) require other parameters to be satisfied than games created for private use.

I am a professional software developer so each day I build software related things. Thankfully I find everyday something I like in the job I do, so everyday I do what I love to do.
But do I like the subject? Or the people I’m working with? The requirements? All the tasks I have to fulfill? (Answer: not always everyday, but enough to keep the fun in it)
It is this mentality that I had to translate to game dev to get things going again.

And at last, a youtube I did find about this subject. I think it is a bit harsh on personal projects, but on the other hand: developing professional is a whole different game. Thankfully. Because, if not, what would set me (professional business software developer) apart from all those guys crafting excel-sheet-tools in their office-basements?

The game industrie seems to ignore Agile development, but can they?

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

TLDR: The byproduct of non-Agile development (long development times, bad attuning to consumers) was always there, but its costs has increased so much that it is now unavoidable to start using Agile development methods.

In my daily life I am a senior software engineer, practicing the latest insights on Agile development. I have seen many organisations, small and big, old or brand-new (even startups). Using this insight I can spot a lot of problems with the often plain wrong methods of development the game industry is using.

Yes I think the game industry can be much more Agile, and no they are not “in a special kind of industry that can’t benefit from being agile”.

First a quick introduction to Agile development. Because it is often used as a buzzword with few meaning left in it. Non-agile is the factory line: in advance you plan and rule out all odds, the actual work is thus repetitive and not requiring a lot of skills (although you can argue it can still require some practice… but that’s exactly the problem: no thinking involved). It is input driven: someone somewhere decides what has to happen, everything and everyone falls in line to execute on that. Everyone has a predetermined place and function. You don’t need trust, you need rules.

Agile is the opposite. When you are agile you think of what you want to achieve, and make that happen with respect to the current state of the world and the tools at hand. By building on trust, by being in connection with everyone, by embracing the unknown. Yes that sounds idyllic, because that’s how humans like to be.

But why all this Agile or non-Agile? Why bother with project methodologies anyway? Just build that game already!
Well, the following picture illustrates how a perfect world would look like. Look at all those connections. It would be great if we would build products in a world where all those connections between the content creators and consumers were flawless.

However as you probably know from your own experience, all connections between humans suffer from communication issues. This is the same picture, but now with the possible issues.

The idea is that a project management method helps you cope with these communication issues. The non-Agile project methods, where almost all game developments methods belong, have the following characteristics:

  • You prepare to make a good-enough product that is sell-able to the masses. (This was done to account for the increasing costs of production, and the consumers accepted it because any product was better than none product at all)
  • You try to mitigate the communication risks by using experts to understand the market’s needs. (This was necessary because your goal was to make something that had maximal impact on as many people as possible, but don’t listen to the individual)
  • You plan in advance with what to build for what cost/benefit. (Because you had to prepare a whole factory line, where profits comes from doing it as efficient as possible)
  • You add a line hierarchy with narrow boundaries to manage your workers. (Because of all these activities, the organisation is like a machine where every gear has its place. But those gears can’t do more than they are ment for, for then the whole thing would turn out to be less efficient.)
  • You use mass media and and deals with large selling companies to get your products to the consumers.

But times are changing. A lot of the problems the non-Agile methods accounted for have been minimized in other ways:

  • Creators and consumers can find each other much more easily. (Much less need for all kinds of parties acting as the middle-man. The internet with platforms like Steam have brought both much more close together.)
  • Costs of tooling is so much more lower. (You can work from home, get tooling on-demand without upfront payments.)
  • Access to skills has changed radically. (Flex workers all over the world are available to you with specialized services.)
  • Access to information has changed radically. (You can learn basic to advance skills using the internet (and time/practice) where previously the access was the limiting factor now our time is the only limiting factor.)

Add to this that these non-Agile methods come at a huge cost: the distance of the consumer to the creator is almost automatically enlarged, the time to respond to changes is in terms of quarters and years, and with each change large losses in productivity are unavoidable.

These costs of non-Agile are currently outweighing the benefits.

Gamers nowadays point these things out. So, besides the fact that the world is changing faster than ever, the costs of the non-Agile methods are becoming the real issue. Here is a video of a review pointing out issues with game updates that inspired me to write my thoughts down:

The industry is trying to cope with the changes. The rise of Indy development, introduction of DLC, beta releases have become ‘Early Access’, whole new models like micro transactions combined with games-as-a-service.

One could argue that some of these are Agile development, especially the ‘games-as-a-service’ model. A lot of those games increase their features over time, thus start small and become great over time (or that’s their target).

But I think there is very few agile development going on here. No one listens to the consumer. Or when they do, their communication lines are clouded up with bad incentives… or even worse the development teams (or more often: their seniors/leaders) only pursues their own ego’s.

And from what I see almost no game company is building games incrementally, continuously having a sell-able product, and closely listening to the consumer on what to build next. (Don’t mention Early access, it is often executed so poorly it deserves a blogpost on its own.)
Thus they still suffer from the big problems that non-Agile development has nowadays.

I see a few games that do point in the right direction. One of the latest games I found was ‘Realm Grinder‘. A nice little game that received a lot of good updates over its lifetime that all increased its value, even with game-play altering expansions. The trick here is that these kind of games rely on introducing changes in game-play during the play-time every so often to keep things interesting. I think more game types should try finding out if it is possible to incrementally add to the games without altering all previous build stuff.

And I think I should mention ‘No mans sky‘. Not because of the horrible communications before launch, but because of the big updates that got to the game FOR ALL USERS. Even for those users who did pay already. Many studio could take example from that. I think It increases the bonding gamers have with you. And money still comes from new players that enjoy the experience, finding a live and well-patched game.

I will close this blogpost with a how-to. How to know if a decision on organisation structure of project methodology is Agile or not? I try to think of it as follows.

The past is: thinking in advance (official name: input driven). The future is: building what’s needed (official name: output driven).

All else is just a remnant of the past. People craving for power and thus aligning the organisation to fuel that craving. Departments creating work to stay relevant. So called ‘experts’ that place the consumer at a distance of the creators, significantly worsen the communication between those two.

Early access in gaming: Agile development done wrong

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

As a comment to the following video states:

‘I accidentally bought an Early Access movie at a Walmart a few months ago. The second act repeats seven times and half the dialogue is is unspoken text, but the story is basically alright. Maybe it’ll get better with future updates but I have no idea how to update dvds, please help.’

In my opinion, Early access is just a reminiscent of a gone-by area of the style of thinking, trying to get the pro’s of something new but not wanting to let the old go. And yes, the end product is even less desirable than doing it ‘the old ways’. As pointed out by the reviewer in the video above.

Let me break down what I see is happening. And why I think that it is actually a nice try but executed miserably. As an example I will use the case of Find the Gnome to incorporate some of the learning I did myself.

From what I have seen in gaming, games are executes as line projects. You describe a goal, get a few brilliant people to figure out how to get there so most things are accounted for (this is the important part of line thinking: smart work preparation, dumb work execution), create a few development teams to execute on the plan, and deliver all the goods at the set date.

This seemed to work well in the past times. But that is a fallacy. That is because there was way less external pressure to improve on how to deliver games. Back then there was no real incentive to change. 30 years ago the entrance fee to the gaming industry was very high: you needed connections everywhere to get something build for the right platform and get it published. A few knew how this trick was done, where the lucky first, and could then reign on their thrones for ages.

I do think the old way of building games is addicting, especially for the happy few that are on the thrones. Designers with names, publishers with rock-solid IP’s, console builders with marks on the lives of many.
I did experience this ‘god complex’ myself. When I build Find the Gnome I wanted to do everything myself. Because that’s the most easy way to get credits. So today there is always someone who gazes at me in awe at being able to at least finish a game (for what’s in the name ‘finished’ anyway) and publish it on steam (for what’s that worth anyway nowadays). And all this recognition feels so good…

But as stated, line-thinking is not the best way to create things. It suffers from a lot of problems. The most obvious: if you’re half-way into the project, big chance you don’t have anything working yet. (Working as in: it could sell for some money) Some less essential parts can be finished, but you need all parts together for it to be ‘the thing’ as specified at the start.
(Read my article on Agile vs non-Agile game development for more about those problems)

It is exactly this issue that early access has: it is a product that only functions as a whole, but someone decided to declare a few parts ‘optional’ and release it anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it on the business side. There is a real world out here: people’s tastes changes over time. One year your game is the ultimate, next year no-one plays your genre anymore. And that’s a problem in an era where games take 3 to 5 years to develop.
You need money to continue developing: there is an increasing pressure (to deliver) the industry is facing because of the significantly increased exposure gaming has gained in the past 15 years. Most of this pressure is from the money-injecting side that want Return On Investment and low risks.

I tried to do Find the Gnome on my own because I feared the idea of someone with money directing me in the moves I had to make. I have had my fair share of video’s where people complain about the bad incentives the introduction of investors adds.

But wouldn’t it be great if a game was able to evolve? That you could make a small game first with a small user base and small scope, and iterate on that? (but without calling it sequel x?) I think everything is in place to make this happen:

  • Very good and easy update infrastructure everywhere (and that people nowadays are trained to accept updates as something good)
  • Multiple ways of monetizing (that people are accustomed to)
  • Dev teams are up to this task (and almost expecting to develop that way)

The only important thing is to keep developing with an Agile mindset (in contrary to the line-thinking). Aim your work and your organisation on the creation of needed stuff (the output). Because that way you don’t sneek in line-thinking trough a backdoor.

More on Agile is in this blogpost. That post goes more in depth what’s Agile and why you want it as your game development method.

Starting a game company

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

As I see it now, there are 3 ways of starting a game company. They vary greatly in the change of success, but they all have their own dislikes.

  1. Find an investor, or
  2. Do it on your own, or
  3. Just do something

I thought I did the ‘on your own’ kind of starting up a game company. But in reality it was more of the ‘just do something’. It did bring me a lot of experience, but the result wasn’t me being independent and having a job in my own game company.

Don’t get me wrong, I value the experience greatly, but if you (like me) want to get more out of it than experience alone… you have to do things differently.

Option 1: find an investor

  • Catch
    • Build on trust.
    • Money injections on various moments in the development cycle.
    • You need to invest your own money and love time, the investments acts as levers for more success.
    • Biggest change of success, if you know what you are doing.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • At least 1 dedicated core team, investors must be able to trust them in being able to deliver.
    • Your daily job.
    • Clear product goal and product vision (for this and future products).
    • You have ample and solid evidence you are making games for markets that want these game.
    • Investors have control over your company and products.
    • 1+ years of development per product.
    • Big budget for marketing.

Here are two video’s that inspired me on the investor subject:

Option 2: On your own

  • On your own
  • Catch
    • In theory fun, in practice not that good. You don’t know when you can support yourself or your family. Brings big issues with timemanagement.
    • The invested time is not worth it (time vs gains) for a long time.
    • In the end you have very few financial means, change of a (even small) success is small.
    • If it works you have full control and are completely self sufficient.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • Part time (or dependent on cheap householding services of others like relatives).
    • Many small games.
    • Max half a year dev time per product.
    • Becoming a master in a niche (genre/style).
    • Small but dedicated fanbase.

Here are two great video’s. The first one inspired me to give it a try, the second one is afterwards when I discovered this option isn’t that great nether.

One important thing on this 11 years thing, if you missed it: the person in the video above made his fame before and in the Indy Apoctalyps. Things are different now. See the next one.

Option 3: Just do something

  • Just do something
  • Catch
    • Fiddling around.
    • Watch out with what you think what you are doing: it is very easy to get lost thinking that you are making something great.
    • Very very few people are able to make money this way. Although we know the examples (I look at you flappybird) these are extremely rare compared to the amount of people that tried. Just buy a lottery ticket, you then at least know your chance.
  • Identifying characteristics
    • You are just doing something.

Here is the video I saw that opened up my eyes and made me think ‘Am I this developer he is talking about?’

Booting up

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

I am currently working on Find the Gnome again 😛

It is almost a year ago Find the Gnome hit the markets.
A lot of the original intended game-play didn’t make it into the version that came out on March 2018.

Expect a few updates in the coming year. They will change Find the Gnome quite dramatically.

I am still recovering from a burn-out, so I don’t promise anything.
But in the past months I was finally able to squeeze some code out again.

For those who think: why not abandoning Find the Gnome and bring a total new version instead?
Well… I am stubborn. It’s my game and I think it could be improved upon.

Update v1.0.2

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

Quality improvements

I did some updates over the past months. The 6th of Juli I did a minor update, and today the 21th of August, I did another update.

  • More vibrant game play.
    • I make sure the action is happening in front of the camera. Gnomes in view do more actions/minute.
    • The visible triggers (shivering/runnig) updated. They had some issues: shivering did not trigger enough, and the panic running did not trigger consequently.
  • More consistency
    • If I need the player to click, I ask him to click. If there is nothing more to a mechanism, I keep to what it really does. So the expectations are now more clear from the text messages.
    • The Chaos mechanism revamped so it guides you in how you have to click the gnomes. And it gives a reward if you do search careful and click controlled.

Sales

A small update on the business side of things.

I did find out what the massive increase in traffic on Steam was that I experienced during launch and the weeks after it.

Quite simple:  Steam automatically starts a ‘visibility campaign’ of 1 month when you launch a game. Combine this with the ‘soon coming’ and ‘out now’ pages, and you have explained all the traffic boost I experienced.

So yeah, this ‘discovery’ of mine was a bit of a drawback. I hoped Steam did some underwater magic and had find some players that probably liked my game. (As they advertise they are doing.) But no, that’s not the case.
It is just… well… if you get increased organic traffic, Steam will introduce you to more players. Otherwise you have to ‘pay’ for more traffic by using the finite supply of visibility campaigns. (You get a finite bunch at launch and you can’t buy them)

And… I did my first sale. 10% off in the week of the 13th of August. That did work too! Got 4x more traffic out of it.

But I really have to get to work on my marketing. And start with a better Steam store page so I can turn the traffic into sales!

What next

I’m currently working on 2 projects.

  1. I’m working out how to improve Find the Gnome to get it to be a more fun game to play.
  2. I want to increase my profile as a game engineer and for that I’m updating my personal website to be more of a portfolio site. See https://erikderoos.nl/portfolio/

So my major gamedev focus is to improve the game-play of Find the Gnome.

This is because I think the game has some major issues that make it fun for a few minutes but not longer than that. Player feedback is also quite negative about the expectations the game sets and what it actually delivers.

I do have a couple idea’s laying around that originally had to be in the release. I’m quite sure they will improve the game, I just could not get them into the release because of issues that started happening in my personal life. So when my things get quiet again I will start by implementing them and just see where it will take Find the Gnome.

Reviews

I can’t build a game without people reaching out to me and to other players informing them about my game.

So, here is some more coverage on youtube.

And some text reviews:

http://findthegnome.hyperstudios.co/

How did the launch go

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

How did the launch of ‘Find the Gnome’ go?

Thanks for asking 😉

Well, it was a really great launch. Way better than expected and received way better than expected. The sales do lag behind, but more on that later.

Expectations on forehand

First of all, what was my expectation before the release:

  • A few more people on my steam page due to being in the ‘just launched’ section. So instead of the normal 30 views/day average, an increase to about 120 views/day.
  • First 3 months a wish list conversion of around 50%.
  • One to three reviews, probably all negative or just indifferent. And a few notes in them how to improve the game for my audience.
  • A better understanding who the audience of ‘Find the Gnome’ is.
  • A few bug reports.

Reality at launch

The day before launch day there was a massive increase in traffic to my steam page. 11 times more to be precisely. And on launch day it peaked at 43 times more traffic. It has seen a decline since then but way less then I expected. Still on all time highs on 5 days since launch.

The wish list conversion is zero to nothing. But still got around 25 buyers in 5 days.
I got a load of people adding the game to their wish list: 4 months having a store page life NETS THE SAME amount of adds as from the day before the release until now (5 days)…

And I got a bunch of reviews: 1x steam review, 3x steam curator reviews, 5x YouTube gameplay coverage.

There were no bug reports.
But there was certainly some expression of not knowing what to expect. In the week before the launch I contacted reviewers to review my game and some of them told me the game was unclear in what to do: I immediately countered it by adding a help section to the game. It became clear to me that there the game-play is not guiding the people in what to do.

Retrospective of the launch

The game was received better than expected. The sales lag behind but I can’t be for certain yet because it is a common known phenomenon that you need to start doing sales in staffels to get people to convert. But yeah, this game is in the lowest regions of Steam units solds, compared to the other Steam games.

I am exhausted. That’s not good: It makes it a lot harder to counter some known issues that did arise on the launch day. As a father working full time at a job, I have a hard time directing energy to any kind of mind activity after working hours. I did promise some more updates on the game but I’m really glad I didn’t mention a time span. So mental note to myself: don’t target launch day as ‘the day there will finally be some rest’ but rather 2-4 weeks after it, and spread the energy accordingly.

The reviews were all-right. Although I did think my audience through, I have a hard time reaching out to them. Instead a whole other audience is playing my game now, and of course they have other expectations of the game.
But that’s oké for me. I just need some months redirecting the game a little so it fits my ‘real’ audience better.

The reviews

Goodies!
The youtube coverage I got so far:

‘Find the Gnome’ Released!

Finally the day is there: the release of Find the Gnome.
Months and months of work, hours and hours of crunch-time. And here we are.

As on 01:00 Central European time, this game is downloadable in the Steam shop.

The version that is now live is the v1.0.0 version. And as tradition dictates, there are some update notes attached to a version bump:

  • Music added. 1 menu track, 3 tracks that play while searching for gnomes.
  • Gameplay mechanics altered with a ‘Chaos’ indicator (more on this in the next update)
  • On the loading screen there is now information about the game type you are playing and what you are expected to be doing.
  • Added the scientist gnome type. That makes it for a total of 3 types of behaviors: run, teleport and callback.
  • Gnome animations. Weird ones shiver. And they turn to each other before interacting.
  • Story level 3. Makes a total of 3 now, only 1 still remaining. (Yes the release is without the last story level, it will be added in a next update)
  • Hide-n-seek medal system. You now have times to complete with in the timed mode. (Though not fully implemented yet: it is lacking some visual feedback)

Steam is learning…

This is an article in the ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I shed some light on what it takes to make games. I warn you: they are real, these articles might discourage you to develop games yourself.

Since the June 2018 update of Steam there are some updates to counter mis-use of tradingcards and achievements. That is because of a select group of ‘poisonous developers’ (not my words) use these system for things they are not ment to be used for.

Don’t get me wrong. I like it when Steam tries to balance things out. They have special trained algorithms in place that will redirect users to to games they will like. Even in a crowded store.

But now this algorithm has marked my game… and there is nothing I can do about it.

screenshot find the gnome store page achievements issue small.PNG

It obviously is an evil mark to the uninformed potential buyer. Because it is a mark of something fishy that’s the algorithm thinks is going on with my game. Or that’s how I think the uninformed potential buyer will experience this mark.

To me it seems as that my game indeed correlates to the games that misuse the system, but there is no real connection at all. Yes my game is small, yes it’s quality is low, yes it is available at a low price tag, yes I don’t have many buyers…. But that’s not intentional. There is no intent from my part whatsoever to do ‘poisinous’ things like making money of trading cards / achievements / game counts etc.

I don’t have the power to change this system, nor do I have the time to improve my game to be less likely associated with this ‘Steam is learning about this game’ tag.

So I’ll leave you with this so you all know the background to this mark on my game.
Sometimes it is just better to let it go.

Project 1 – v0.5

Version v0.5 is here, and look at the beautiful gameplay!

I’m sorry if you didn’t expect a video in these otherwise static project updates. But with the upcoming release (3 weeks!) I thought it would be logical to include some actual gameplay with this post.

As you can see the following additions are in here: everything is working again, story gamemode, story all over the place.

So that adds up to a nice game if you think what is already in it: 8 hide-n-seek levels, 2 story levels, 2 gnome types, animations of all sorts, sounds, menu’s, interfaces.

There is a few catch though: story level 3 and 4 are not accessible yet (you can see them but they say ‘under construction’), the hide-n-seek levels that are accompanying level 3 and 4 are also off limits. This is because I’m still working on the last gnome type.

And with that in mind, the hide-n-seek 5 – 8 are currently lacking the teleport gnome type.

This will be solved in the coming weeks, together with the last beta test results.

The gamemodes ‘hide-n-seek’ are currently untouched. The plan was to convert the ‘timed’ to an arcade experience. That is still the plan, only it is after the release when it gets updated.

Last but not least: music is missing. I’m aware of that. Something did not work out as planned so I’m searching for an alternative.