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 be able to run a business.

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

The case at hand

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

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

In my daily life I am a senior software engineer, practicing the latest insights on Agile development. I have seen many business software development in organisations, small and big, old or brand-new (even startups).

But I personally don’t see the fruits of Agile development in game development…

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

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.

What ‘Agile’?!

First a quick introduction to Agile development, as I perceive it. 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.

For me, Agile is the opposite of the factory line. 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. I think this definition sounds idyllic. And I like it, because I think that’s how humans like to be.

To communicate or not, that is the question

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. But look at all those connections. Wouldn’t it be great if we could build products in a world where all those connections between the content creators and consumers were flawless?

However from my own experience, all connections between humans suffer from communication issues. At least my communications do. This is the same picture, but now with the possible issues.

Communications in organisations

For me, a project management method is a tool that helps organisations 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.)

Blast from the past

The 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.

When I look at modern media, the social media, I see shout outs from gamers all over the world. These gamers spit on the side effects of non-Agile methods and demand change. 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 this blogpost:

we CAN do better

I believe in the game industrie. They are showing they want to change.
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.

But is this change for the better? Does it address the underlying core issues?
One could argue that some of the late improvements are Agile development, especially the ‘games-as-a-service’ model. Because 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…

There is some good though. I see signs of a few (mobile) game developer companies that are building games incrementally, continuously having a sell-able product, and closely listening to the consumer on what to build next.
But the majority, especially AAA development, still suffer from the big problems that non-Agile development has nowadays. (Don’t mention Early access, it is often executed so poorly it deserves a blogpost on its own.)

And I want to point out that there are always examples of games that try to approach the problem differently.
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 for the sunk-money-fallacy excuse: money still comes from new players that enjoy the experience, finding a live and well-patched game from a caring publisher.)

I want to close this blogpost with a how-to. How do I know if a decision is Agile or not? I try to think of it as follows.

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

Early access in gaming: Agile development done 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 ‘Behind the scenes’ category where I share my personal experience developing games professionally.

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.

Into the deep

Let me break down what I see is happening. And why I think that it is actually a nice try but executed miserably.

From what I have seen in gaming, game development is most of the time executed as a line projects. 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.

This seemed to work well in the past times. But I know for a fact that is a fallacy. There were always signs that it wasn’t the best development method. But they did stick to it because.. because.
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.

So?

Well, I think line-thinking is not the optimal approach when creating 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.

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.

I like to see it from the consumer perspective. 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.

From my combined thoughts of how things have worked out, I understand the early access move. If a game company had plannen 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.

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?

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)

The only important thing is to develop different than before. The planning-and-then-executing isn’t working any more, so get rid of it. Choose instead an Agile mindset (in contrary to the line-thinking). Aim your work and your organisation on the creation of needed stuff (the output).

I have had more thoughts on Agile related to gamedev. Check this blogpost.

Update v1.0.2

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

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/

‘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)

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.

Project 1 – v0.4

The V0.4.0 milestone is there… but is hasn’t been reached! If you know what I mean 😉

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

We didn’t get anywhere in the V0.4.0 milestone, it is in a state that you can’t submit it for Beta review. If you look at that from an Agile project methodology point of view, this means that something has horribly gone wrong.

Well, it is a lot better than before. There are now 15 levels in it, aside from the story levels. And there is a whole new immersing main menu in it. And story telling and story driven progress. And saveslots. And funny AI. And better animations…
You can see this for yourself in the youtube video on the progress I made in this version.
So I think everything will get right in the next release.

The not-so-bright-side is that the project did go southwards fast due to a few circumstances. Most of which I didn’t have influence on.
So the current approach to get going again is: freeze the scope. And to delay the release date. And: get to a Beta testable state as fast as possible, to get feedback on the (major) changes as fast as possible.

The next official project update is scheduled at 5 June 2018, we will hit version 0.5 by then. It will finish the gamemodes and complete the settings menu.
It is the last update before quality control and the release.

Quality takes time

I thought I would never ever make a blog with the title ‘Delayed’. So instead I put something with ‘quality’ in the name to empathize the positive. But yeah, the idea is the same: delays.

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

First, the delay: Instead of releasing on the 4th of June I’m going for the 29th of June.

Second, the reason. And I hope you are all with me on this one. If not, speak out!

Beta testing

I have conducted a lot of beta testing, and especially the v0.3 feedback proved to be very usefull. So I started the ‘one fix to fix it once and for all’ and announced v0.4.

But, as you could read between the lines in the recent update on the progress on v0.4, the amount of work to do is huge.

Back then I didn’t go into details of what that feedback was. So I’m going to give you all some details on where this game is currently and what I envision it to be when it releases.

Gamemodes

It it all about the gameplay, isn’t it?

In v0.3 the game is like this: 1 small scene, 1 large scene, and 14 levels that use a segment of one of those scenes. There are 2 gamemodes: in normal you try to find them all, in timed you have to find a portion of these gnomes but they are in random spots this time.

In v0.3 this is the ‘why’ you should play: because of the challenge it is to look for gnomes in dark area’s or in parts of the level you easily overlook. And the reward you get in the end: full completion or a good time.
But the testers did point out a huge issue with this kind of gameplay: why am I doing this and why should I keep playing?

I think that the underlying issue in my game is that difficulty should not have been the foundation under the ‘why’. This game targets children and wants to entertain adults as a by-product.
Currently both gamemodes focus on the difficulty of finding objects in a 3D landscape, and both gamemodes don’t offer much else.

Experience enhancers

And I did know this.
If you look at one of my first posts, I point out that the core experience is situated around finding. It doesn’t state that it should be ‘a hard discovery’ that makes up all the gameplay.
Rather, all of the words I use are situated around the ‘experience’ of finding. So difficulty is not a target in this, at most it should provide the experience. And if it doesn’t, what it clearly does not, another instrument should be used to provide this experience.

So what are the instruments I could think of to implement in v0.4 to make a more interesting experience?

  • Make it like the ‘find wally’ cartoons. There is an established reference for how to do this and people are known for loving it. I do love books with this theme myself and I even have some of them. By the way, it was a beta tester that directed me to this approach.
  • Add a story. With a story the ‘gnome’ idea could be given more context. And gnomes are known to do cool things, so that could improve the game feeling dramatically.
  • More vibrant environment. Stuff that moves, rotates. It should fit really well into the game because it will make it harder to search but at the same time make it a more diverse experience.
  • Make it a phone game. Add sparkles, events, flashes, power-ups… lootboxes?! (I have to admit I didn’t want to think of this whole ‘going mobile’ option, but a tester pointed it out to me. It has a good some really nice underlying mechanics that could be integrated in our desktop game (without lootboxes of course… hehe))

A bit of everything

Well, there is a big problem with all of the previous pointed-out improvements: the cost time. A lot of time. That’s because it is situated more around content production and less around programming, and with me being a senior programmer but a junior designer/writer/modeller… things get out of scope really quickly.

So after a lot of thinking, planning, talking to people and staying true to myself, this is the idea:

  • Story driven progress. The main menu is the 3D map of the Netherlands. Between each level you get back to this map, someone talks to you and points out the progress… you get the idea.
  • Story driven ‘main gameplay’. A few levels ‘find wally’ style where the mechanics gets introduced. In these levels you see a lot of same-looking gnomes but a few of them are strange and you have to pick them out of the crowd.
  • The ‘original’ gamemodes are now transformed to an ‘in-between’ for the story levels. These are now called ‘hide n seek’ and there you just have to find all gnomes.
  • This ‘hide n seek’ mode has 2 game formats available in each level:
    • the first format is called ‘normal’ and consists of childish ‘just find them’.
    • the second format is called ‘time trial’  and is the more arcade ‘do fun stuff more mobile like and get a good time’ approach to the same levels. (I try to get as much sparkles, power-ups and stupid things in there as possible with my junior modelling skillset.)

I think this is the maximum I can pull of if I want to stay true to the original scope of the game. (The scope was: learn a lot, do it myself, make a fun game for myself and my son, stay withing the deadline.)

Next

So, do we get a new delay somewhere down the line? Isn’t the new goal even more ambitious?
I don’t hope so.

Where are we at now?
Currently the story driven progress is 50% on modelling, 90% on programming, 50% story writing. The ‘find wally’ style levels and mechanics are on 50% modelling, 25% level design, 90% programming, 0% story writing. The ‘hide n seek’ mode ‘normal’ is on 100% modelling, 95% programming, 100% level design. The ‘hide n seek’ mode ‘time trial’ will get the remaining time… and thus is likely to be skipped to be enhanced after release.

And yeah, I did think of the other open issues: need for music and more diverse sounds, more settings, and a few good screenshots and video’s that show of the game.

Release

I think the release will contain all story and all ‘find wally’ stuff. And the music, sounds and overall finish of the game will be good.

After release I will add more to the ‘time trial’ mode, add more Steam integration (achievements, cloud, etc), and look for ways to add more levels (or a whole new country) to the game, controller support… but this depends on the feedback I receive on the game.

Thanks for reading!

Project 1 – v0.3

The V0.3.0 milestone has been reached!

As stated in the previous post the following additions have been made: more details, more levels, more content. And the Beta has been started through Steam. (For keys, contact me)
On top of what was announced, there is more: a vision on what the game is going to be (story mode, time trial mode), already extensive beta testing and integration of the results, and a lot of finishing touches.

v0.3.0 c3.png
v0.3.0 c7.png
v0.3.0 c9.png
v0.3.0 c12.png

The next official project update is scheduled at 25 April 2018, we will hit version 0.4 by then. It will add the main-selling feature… what this means is yet to filled in but I know it will be as good as the previous updates!

Project 1 – v0.2

Update: a new post on this subject.

The V0.2.0 milestone has been reached!

As stated in the previous post the following additions have been made: start menu, in-game interactions (collection UI, timer/high-score UI), minimal special effects (object sounds, UI changes on object found), level ending (with high-score submit).

The game as of V0.2.0:

Level design 0.2.0.png

Some changes did not make it: the achievement system is still on the list but not that high on priority anymore.

The next official project update is scheduled at 18 March 2018, we will hit version 0.3 by then. It will go more in depth: more details, more levels, more content. And we will start the Beta by then and begin distributing it to the Beta testers through Steam.