๐Ÿ–ณ๐Ÿ’ฃ Anonymous Game Dev's Story: "Hard Work & Review Bombing" ๐Ÿ’ฃ๐Ÿ–ณ #GameDev #IndieGames

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Dark Blue Monkey talks with an Indie Team about their experience of going through Kickstarter, being a boss, releasing on Steam, and why they’ll never ever do it again.

Our guest today went through the full Indie Dev experience;  working full time, doing a Kickstarter campaign, hiring a developer, and then finally releasing onto Steam.   

While this may seem like the ultimate dream for most of us, unfortunately for the team the experience proved to be far from the utopia we imagine it to be. Just as their project reached fruition,  they fell victim to the now infamous review bombing while the game was still in early release, still at launch price.

Trying to do the right thing, they tried to sidestep the clunkiness of Steam’s forums and help players directly who were having problems by giving them access to Skype and email.  This resulted in mounting numbers of unpleasant messages following them into the real world. For this reason, they’ve chosen to share their experience anonymously.

This is a tale of caution, and hopefully will help any aspiring indie developers to avoid the same pitfalls.

"Low, medium and high-cost housing draw in differently skilled workers, but as with Sim City, 
beware of placing too much industry too close to houses."

Hi Max, Thanks for talking with us today.
No problem. It’s great to talk with you guys.

So you’ve recently released a full game onto Steam!
Thanks, yeah it was a huge amount of work, especially for a small team.

So, tell us a little about yourselves. Are you coders? How did you get into Indie game dev?
I was a gamer from an early age, but I only picked up programming relatively recently. I got into it at uni, but became more serious when I started working with the other half of our dev team.

I already had a foot in it, so to speak, but he pulled me in all the way, and we took it from there. I guess, not counting that one class in uni, I'm largely self-taught, for better or worse.

Did you have to leave your job or study to make the game?
We actually developed the game while working full time!

How did you manage to balance that?
It was exceptionally draining, but it had its rewarding moments. When you've spent all day at work, then come home and spend all night coding, but finally see what you've been working on actually starting to work, it's a great experience.

Doing what I did is a safer way to be an indie dev if you're not sure whether your game will take off or not.

"Due to the lack of development budget, there are relatively few 3d assets in the game, but they’re good enough to convey what they are."

What was the reaction from your friends and colleagues when you told them you were moonlighting as an Indie Dev?
I actually told very few people that I was developing a game. Most of my social circle, including family and co-workers, aren't particularly into games. I’m not a techie, and neither are they.

Why did you want to make a complex settlement simulator with such a heavy emphasis on trading and commerce?
In the planning stage, we talked, and those were the types of games the dev team enjoyed playing as kids. There didn't seem to be as many around these days as there were, so we thought we could remedy that.

You initially tried a kickstarter campaign. 
How easy was that to get set up?
Setting up a Kickstarter campaign took a lot of time, but it wasn't that anything was difficult; it was just time-consuming. You're spending a lot of your time recording and editing videos and making graphics for the campaign.

Neither of us have a background in the arts, so it was doubly or triply hard and time-consuming for us. Honestly, if you're going into it with experience in the graphic arts, it's an absolute cakewalk. Kickstarter themselves make it as easy as possible.

I've heard that running a campaign can be like political campaigning. Did you find it gruelling?
That was possibly the most awkward part of the campaign, namely, getting the message out. You're right to liken it to political campaigning, and who doesn't despise a political campaigner?

Until that point, whatever we'd announced on social media, we'd announce it once and let it play out. With Kickstarter, you have to be pushing the message constantly to get to the biggest amount of people, which I'm sure can be pretty annoying if you're on the receiving end of it.

"The trick to the game is to make your city attractive enough to draw in population.
Each citizen is modelled, down to their favourite foods, pastimes, job and what their skill is."

Unfortunately the campaign didn’t quite reach its target…
I think our hesitance and efforts to keep [the message noise] to a minimum were a large factor in the campaign not succeeding.

But  you did still manage to get the game completed. How did it impact your timescales?
Without the money, two things happened: Our planned feature list got cut, and our time to finish the game increased. We originally had grand plans for the game, but all of those hinged on getting the money to pay contractors for assets and leave our jobs so we could work on the game full time.

Without the money, those things simply weren't an option, so large sacrifices had to be made. We've got a large physical notepad full of ideas that we simply couldn't afford to implement. It was a bit disheartening, but we decided to finish [what we could] anyway.

How did you go about choosing what features to keep and what to ditch?
In short, we ended up keeping the essentials and getting rid of most of the fluff. Another general rule was: the more graphics that were needed for a feature, the higher the chance of us not going through with it since we'd need to pay a contractor for it.

Being such a large project, you needed to bring in some help. How did you go about finding someone, and how did you work out the details of the working agreement?
We actually went through a website that specialises in the hiring of freelancers. I think it was the best option because we had some security insofar as you deposit the money with the website when a job is started, but they don't release the money to the contractor until you tell them that the work's been done properly.

Fortunately, we never had any disputes with the contractor we worked with. He was very professional and we have no regrets in going that route. I think it would have been far more harrowing if we didn't have the website working as a sort of middleman.

Did suddenly being a boss come naturally?
The fellow we worked with was great, and I never felt like I had to put on the boss's hat with him. The relationship felt more like a business-to-business type of thing rather than an employer-to-employee one.

I think the best thing to do is go through a website or company that handles the relationship for you. It's not more expensive, and you have a sort of insurance in case things go wrong. I can't imagine anything worse than being on a tight budget, spending it all on a contractor, and not getting what you paid for.

You finally got the game onto Steam. What's that process like? What are Steam like to work with?
It wasn't the easiest process, but it was relatively straightforward. The biggest hurdle in getting the game on Steam is the integration necessary for achievements and things like that. The documentation provided is surprisingly opaque, and it took a lot of research and trial and error to get it all working right.

Other than that, you need to do tax information and bank account information and identification stuff, but all of that is pretty easy - time-consuming, but not difficult.

What kind of ongoing support and attention is required to maintain the Steam relationship?
The Steam side of it is entirely free and trouble-free. Once you're set up and uploaded, Steam do everything on their end. Outside of working on updating the game, you don't have to do anything at all for the game to be up there. That's not to say that there are no costs involved, though. For example, you still have to pay for the license for the game engine if you're on a monthly subscription, as well as licenses for any other content you're using. Directly from the Steam side of it, though, they don't want any regular payments.

Unfortunately it got a mixed reaction from the players?
Some of the early interaction with the players was good, and quite constructive for resolving day zero bugs and stuff.  But as interest in the game grew, large numbers of people who didn’t even own the game started chipping in.

In the end 99% of the interaction with the community involved reading some pretty spiteful messages from people who didn't even play the game. I don’t think people realise that, as a developer, getting abusive comments can be really quite personal, and it can be really hurtful.

"Getting a city up to a size where it becomes profitable takes some balancing."

Now that you've completed the journey you've opted to return to civvy street. Are you considering a return to game dev at any point?
Unfortunately not, the interaction we got from some people I found to be personally upsetting. Although we had big plans to improve the game over time, and put back those features we had to cut, I found it harder and harder to work on it, and we eventually shelved it once all the reported bugs had been fixed. To put it nicely, the whole experience post-release has been a major sh**storm. I’ve no intention of getting back into game dev.

If you had your chance to change anything that you did during the development, what would that be?
This is a hard question to answer. Outside of a small number of obvious things, it's hard to tell exactly what went right and what went wrong.

A part of me wants to say that we could have invested even more of our own money to pad out the features a bit more, but then I'm reminded that if we did so and the game performed as it did, we'd have made an even deeper loss.

This might sound a bit negative, but my message to indie devs out there who are strapped for cash would be to either make the game on an almost-zero budget or to only make it if they succeed in crowdfunding.

This sounds a very familiar tale from most Indie Devs!
I know, sorry, that's a terrible note to end it on [laughs]. The truth is that success in the market is far from guaranteed, and the last thing you want if you're struggling with money is for your bank account to be several thousands of your currency leaner with no chance of recovery.

By all means follow your heart, but make sure you’re realistic.  
Budget, budget, budget.

"More natural AI pathing as the sims find their way around the city was cut from the plan and scheduled for a later patch. The result can look a little unnatural, as can be seen from this “Abbey Road” shot,  which was harshly criticised, but does not affect the gameplay."

Thanks for sharing your game dev journey with us.
No problem at all. Thank you.

Dark Blue Monkey’s Take: Review bombing helps nobody.
Since this interview, the development team have unfortunately disbanded and the game is no longer receiving patches. I have personally played the game for over 40 hours, and while far from polished, I was aghast at some of the language used in the feedback. What the team achieved was pretty impressive, given the zero budget. It has ambient acoustic guitar backgrounds, a full economy system, a day/night cycle, and a complete mission-based single-player campaign providing 50+ hours of gameplay.

My personal take on it was that the game was released at too high-a price and being a long-term strategic simulator, one had to play it for longer than the Steam two hour limit to figure out it wasn’t as polished as you’d hoped, and hence couldn’t refund.

Although there’s a clear cautionary tale for developers here about releasing too early and at too high-a price point, there’s an even bigger note for reviewers and players. If you’ve invested cash in a game, don’t hit the review button until it’s had some time to get patched. No matter how much you want to be first to post a review, tell the team how bad you consider them to be at coding, hold back and see how things mature. If you do want to post feedback, make it positive about the bits you like, and make it constructive about the bits you don’t.  

Using curse words only hurt the team, make them drop the project and you’ll end up wasting your money, instead of eventually getting the perfected game you hoped for.

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