Continues updates (or: after-launch support)

A big con against using Agile with Continues Deployment in gamedev is for me the question: ‘is it feasible as a business model’? Because at the end of the day the amount of work put into continues updates must be profitable to run a business.

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

The case at hand

I am currently thinking a lot about how to continue in developing Find the Gnome, but a lot more ‘Agile’ and User-centered.

I am a professional software developer doing Agile/DevOps/Google design sprints/CI&CD/Metrics driven development/what-else, and I think this is one of my strong points that I should emphasis while developing games. (See my other blogs for more on these subjects)

Recently a Youtube of GDC 2019 caught my attention (thanks google suggestions!) It is a case study from Nick Popovich (Monomi Park), explaining his success. These are the points he made:

  • Keep your game essential (refine on it). And aim these essentials to provide an experience that is able to sell over time.
  • It is all about concurrent players (online, or offline) that are using your game. By using it they are advertising it (through conscious or unconscious updates to friends that they are liking this game)
  • It revolves around a continues game update cycle that keep the ‘concurrent users’ train going (and accelerating, if possible).

His points align very well with my Agile approach to gamedev I want to take.

The cons

However, I spotted some flaws already on my experiment. For me these flaws aren’t that of an issue, but time will tell.

  • Nick Popovich is making money using this approach, but will others? Or was he just lucky?
  • You can’t just keep updating games, you will run out of money eventually. Or, on the contrary, you can’t just stop updating your game if you had just 1 bad month. In this talk the motivation behind the decisions sounds a lot like voodoo magic: the cause and causality of things aren’t analyzed well.
    A start could be in the Q&A part of the YouTube (https://youtu.be/DTvBgmNL-p0?t=3533) where Nick Popovich gives a rough guide on how he uses sales data to space out content updates. I think the ‘something’-like-a-service business model (through all kind of business) are in a maturing stage right now, and more guides on this subject are going to hit the markets in the coming years.

Next

Well, see it for yourself in this YouTube vid and decide if it is worth trying.

I keep thinking about Agile

How can I use Agile methodologies to deliver better and faster with my planned update on Find the Gnome?
It is a question that is bothering me for some time now.

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

The things at hand

How is the industry currently using Agile methodologies? This questions could send me on the right path to find practices how to deliver better and faster with my planned updates on Find the Gnome.

When I look at developing games from a birds-eye perspective, I see the following area’s where Agile development could have its impacts:

  1. Business: Production methods, payment/evaluative structures
  2. Management: Delegating responsibilities, building on trust
  3. Daily work: Planning and executing on work
  4. Production: Executive team priviliges, Team-only driven improvements, Full-product deliveries after (a few) iterations, Course alignments on real consumer data only. (Inspect & Adapt)

Point 1 is a hard one. Companies are most of the time prohibited from sharing financial data, so finding info on this is hard. Production methods is a not-so-sexy part of game development so that’s another subject you don’t read that much on.
The funny part is, you can derive this information very easily from decisions made. Most companies in the industry are financially in business to business contracts with upfront payment structures and/or revenue shares. Production methods are most of the time ‘Pitch, pre-production, production, alpha/beta, release’.
There is very little Agile methodology here. But that isn’t that much different from other software industries, because it is very hard to steer on results and expenses with the current Agile practices.

Point 2 is a bit more difficult as it seems. This delegating/responsibility thing (and most of the times, combined with true multi-disciplinary teams) takes already place in the smaller game companies. For larger companies though it is really difficult to get away from the line thinking, because due to the scale of the organization the money and legal things tend to be too concerning to let them being handled by individual teams.
However, I’m seeing signs of change too. Due to the huge amount of pressure to innovate. But they are still doing it ‘differently’ from the small companies because in companies that large there are KPI’s, organizational guidelines and other steering tools that are introduced to keep things in line.

For point 3, I think everyone is already on board. Across all industries we know the iterative approach in daily work is a more manageable way to execute on work. I had trouble finding evidence that game studio’s are on-board too, but I recently saw this YouTube video from a big studio that confirms my thoughts on this (link below). Talking with game devvers on Dutch meetings further confirmed it, most studio’s are doing a form of Scrum.
I think there is something left to argue about: using Scrum can make you Agile but that isn’t a guarantee.

Point 4 is where the icing on the cake is. Because this is where currently companies are making the difference. In this area of Agile, the bosses aren’t the ones leading but facilitating (and don’t like being called ‘the boss’). It is this area where you aren’t an expert when you have idea’s but you are an expert only when you are able to execute on proven demands from consumers, or when you are data-proven able to forecast real consumer demands.
It is very hard to get this down in gaming, because production with the current practices of pipelines and content creation don’t facilitate easy/cheap changes down the road or facilitate working incremental product delivery to users.
Most of the companies doing this kind of (business) development are in mobile because the environment natively supports working like this.

Ok… so… how to do Agile on FtG?

To succeed on my own game development projects, I have to think big when maximizing benefits from my experience as software developer in business software.

So, I think I have to go with the maximal Agility on my own projects. Inspired by the Gram Games YouTube video I think it will look like this:

  • Keep releasing full products at Steam at low intervals
  • Release features stand-alone to mobile platforms
  • Move winning features from the mobile platforms to the full product release on Steam

The release-feature-to-mobile-first is the core idea, and here is some more depth to it:

  • 1-3 iterations
  • Real stand-alone gameplay
  • Full of metrics (but AVG compliant: I don’t need user specific data, only the global feeling)
  • No monitization
  • When 10 people use it 7+ days it is a win for me

The odds

Do I think I am right by choosing such a strange method?

Well, I can only think of 1 real cave-eat

  • It is really hard to separate features and prove their individual value

But other than that, I think It is worth the try.

The links

The video on a recent (2019) big company (Total War series, 550 people) that are doing some Agile form of planning and executing on work:

The video on a recent (2019) small company (Mobile games, 20 people) that are doing maximum Agile:

Update on January 2020: I was at the Amsterdam White Nights convention and attended to the talk ‘Defining the MVP’ from Tatiana at Etermax. They have this practice I propose and fine-tuned it. So it is definitely worth looking into.

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.
This article is my take on this saying, and how this saying send me off in the wrong direction.

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

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 advises 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 child’s 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 personally don’t like games with monsters fighting monsters.

So I switched focus from ‘Lets build something I like‘ to ‘Lets try to squeeze in every possible goal I want to achieve in life’

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?

Early access in gaming: Agile business development in AAA gone wrong

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.’

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

In my opinion, Early access is just a reminiscent of a gone-by area of the style of funding in AAA, 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.

Into the deep

Let me break down what I see is happening.

Clinton Keith in ‘Agile Game Development with Scrum’ sums it up nicely. Game dev started in the 1970 with the arcade gaming. Games where very expensive to make back then due to the hardware. As a result, they adopted project management strategies. A much used one back then was line style projects like waterfall. The use of waterfall stayed mainstream until around 2008 (the year of Clinton Keith’s book). By 2008 project were enormous, especially the AAA games with hundreds of people working on a single game. But waterfall had the ‘issue’ of detecting failures a bit too late. So A lot of studio’s were looking into other project methodologies by then, reflected in a couple of good book publications on game development in those years.
Things started to change from the years 2010 and on. But a lot of the ‘old’ is still there. And a few problems aren’t just solved by using Agile or another project methodology.

Finding the ‘Fun’

Finding the ‘Fun’ is the main concert for a game dev project. And a hard to crack nut. Look at the following graph from the book from Clinton Keith:

The red line is about finding the fun in traditional waterfall projects. The blue line is the (optimal) curve when you use Agile project methodologies.

I personally don’t buy into this graph as that ‘Agile’ gives you this earlier and better understanding of ‘Fun’ no matter what. This graph is a good demonstration however about the problems game development is facing and the knowledge you only can acquire over time and when all game components come together.

From what I have seen in AAA gaming so far, game development is most of the time still executed as a line project. They 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.

The AAA game industry has a good reason to build games this way. From the business side the funding is coupled on hitting milestones. You can only account for milestones if you are detailed about the deliveries. As a result all experimentation and tuning is done in the design and pre-production phase. From then on most decisions are ‘locked’ and the production is scaled up.

When you are about to hit a milestone date but are not ready yet, you start to crunch. When even crunching doesn’t help, you start to drop non-essential functionality. And when even that doesn’t help, you either consider moving the deadline or start dropping essential functionality.

This hard-locked funding system seemed to work well in the past times. Although there were always signs that it wasn’t the best encouragement for good game development. But they did stick to it because… of the money and control.

So?

Well, it seems the factory floor working force of the Bioware studio’s are doing their work. They are delivering nice stories, worlds, assets, sounds and everything else.

But the project management… this is 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.

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.

But… planning is everything?!

Don’t get me wrong, I get it on the business side. You want to plan in advance to know how the whole game plays out. And that planning then gives you the (although false) hopes that you have something worthy to invest in.

From my combined thoughts of how things have worked out, I understand the early access move. If a game company had planned a big game IP, and suddenly sees diminished interests, they wanted to get a piece of the cake while they still can. So there is the early access release for said big game IP.

The early access move became relevant in the last years because there is an increasing pressure to deliver. Gaming has gained significantly increased exposure in the past 15 years. And I think most of the pressure on game studio’s is from the money-injecting side that want Return On Investment and low risks, and see a goldmine currently hitting the big veins they were after.

What do you oppose for AAA?

There are two things that needs to be addressed. One is already evolving, but the other isn’t.

  1. Better Agile by using working and fun sub-deliveries.
  2. Better game business development by using other systems to control the funding.

The number 1 is already being addressed by people like Clinton Keith. There is a whole movement of better use of the combined intelligence of high-performing teams even during production and beyond, and using iterative approaches to the daily work of game development. Even more, AAA studio can’t get the high-sought after people no more if they don’t provide an inspiring working place.

The number 2 is just not there for AAA. The industry is moving to more Agile business dev practices with mobile in the front lines. But the AAA on PC and console just cannot transpose those idea’s from the mobile productions to the large-scale AAA production.

Well, look to it from the other side, from the consumer perspective.

There is a 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.

I am thinking about these things for a while now. They are really hard to solve, because there are so many things involved.

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 in the current times we live in to make this happen:

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

We could start with developing different than before. The planning-and-then-executing isn’t working any more, so get rid of it. Start experimenting with practices that enable continues releases to customers.

Starting a game company

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

This is an article in the ‘Research’ category where I dive into a subject on game production.

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 time management.
    • 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 house holding 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 Apocalypse. 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

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

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

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…

Since the June 2018 update of Steam there are some updates to counter misuse 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 meant 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 ‘poisonous’ 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.