Jan 2018 Update

So, the tl;dr version: Spent most of the year learning and building prototypes.  Released a small title on iOS.  Clearly, the marketing and awareness are the big challenges.  Game Studio One will continue, but on a hobbist-level investment of time & energy.

The first part of the year was spent learning libGDX, OpenGL, and also deploying some web services to a variety of cloud services (Google, Amazon, and Heroku).  OpenGL in particular was very interesting, as a better understanding of how the GPU works also made a lot of the things going on in the space (e.g. BitCoin mining, password hash attacks) more understandable, as well as a brief intro into CUDA and OpenCL.

Eventually, what I discovered was that for all intents and purposes, while there may be a relatively small investment in dev work, the vast bulk of the challenge today is around the art, visual design, game design, marketing, and business model.

Let’s briefly look at each point:

Art & Visual Design: If you look at the games being produced today, the indies winning awards & garnering commercial success they are all, as a rule, beautiful.  A stunningly gorgeous game will look good in trailers and screenshots, which is a key motivator for purchase.  Good art & visual design take time and money.  I am an “okay” graphic designer, but not an artist.  I can express opinions (ha) but the idea of spending weeks or months living in a 3d modeling tool just…doesn’t sound like a good investment in time.  Nor money, even if I wanted to hire someone.

Seriously, watch this trailer for the top ten indie games.  They are absolutely stunning.  Just a few years ago, any of these would be considered AAA quality.  Now this level of graphics represents table stakes.

Game Design: So, if not art, what then? In theory, a really unique design may be interesting.  Which means, effectively, creating something brand new that nobody actually knows they may like.  I have some ideas for things, but that’s back to the prototyping challenge – relatively easy to do the pre-production and generate a “programmer art” level intro, much more difficult to create the 20-30 “levels” or whatever of art assets and balanced designs.

Before you start talking about Dwarf Fortress (you know who you are), that's a multiperson team working for starvation wages.  I am very, very glad that it exists, and if makes them happy, awesome.  But... but... but...

Marketing: Regardless of a beautiful presentation or a brilliant, unique new gameplay idea, the problem then turns to one of marketing.  Game journalists are swamped with brilliant games.  Huge torrents of games are releases on iOS, Android, and Steam every day.  That requires awareness, which requires breaking through the noise.  Which costs money and/or time.

Business model: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all three challenges above were resolved through the application of money/time.  That increases the costs for the game, which only makes sense if there is commensurate revenue.  In today’s market, virtually all of the big games are based on some sort of free-to-play model.  This typically requires establishing in-game currencies and developing innovative new variants on Skinner Box designs to evoke the proper behavior from your players.  (Here's a great video on the topic).  Like a lot of less-than-socially acceptable things on the Internet, people may swear that they would never (never!) dump a ton of money into F2P while forsaking traditional games, but the numbers don’t back it up.  I’ve talked to several people that have confided that they hide the money they are spending on their favorite F2P mobile game from their spouse(!) because they are so embarrassed. The people dumping the money in are, of course, whales in the lingo.

In any event, building a F2P game requires a significant investment in time, money, and energy. The particular, unique complexity there is how the game design must, absolutely must, interact in a deeply integrated fashion with the business model.  Selling XP buffs?  Need to have a model for clearly showing how much the XP buffs will help, and carefully offer to increase the buff at just the right time.  Cosmetic items?  Need to make sure that there is a proper opportunity for the item to be displayed.  Energy for additional turns or actions?  Need to make sure that there is just enough to keep the customer engaged, but not enough to drive folks away from your store, aka your game.

It’s all so… exhausting.

Starting from a position of “I love classic gaming” and winding up designing and marketing F2P games is… not actually interesting.  10% dev time, 90% art, marketing, business development, pouring through data to optimize a F2P loop, etc?  Not actually what I want to spend my time doing.

To be clear, none of this is meant as a judgement statement.  I like weird teas, vanilla ice cream, like my own strange set of TVs shows, and would rather play (or replayan old Xbox 360 game I never got around to finishing than play a F2P mobile game.  I have several family members and friends that would rather play a F2P hidden object game.  That's OK!  It just means that there may or may not be a business making the kind of games I like on a micro-indie level.

Let’s not even get started on basic questions like, “what is a game,” or “start with something small, like recreating Atari classics, and work up to bigger stuff.”  Big questions.  Important questions and conversations.

Back to basics.  Need to break or refactor the chain of thought above.  What, exactly, is the goal?

Stay tuned.

Will Iverson