Embracing the Bottom

I recently read two very different and excellent articles on independent game development.

The first was from Owen Goss of Streaming Color Studios, in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his iPhone game Dapple.  He expressed frustration with the fact that although Dapple cost $32,000 to make, it has only made $535.19 in its first available month.

The second was from Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software in which he detailed the sales figures (so far) of his PC/Mac game Geneforge 4.  Geneforge 4 cost $120,000 to make and after six months has only made back $111,412.

Neither of those sound very good, but Jeff is actually pretty happy with how Geneforge 4 is selling (although he admits that these sales are unexceptional).  Within another month or two at most, Geneforge 4 will have made back its costs and everything it makes from then on will be sweet, sweet, gravy.

So what’s the difference?  I think the difference is that (despite his protests to the contrary) Owen was hoping to strike it rich in the iPhone gold rush.  As soon as his app fell off the front page of the Apple Store his sales dropped to near zero, and getting articles about his game on Kotaku and Slashdot generated exactly 21 new sales.

Owen’s claim in his follow-up post that he desires to build a software company slowly over time doesn’t really match up with the type of game he made.  While Dapple is a clever little game (especially the two-player mode) it looks very generic – because it is.  It’s a color-matching game.  There are tons of color-matching games available for every conceivable platform.  The gaming industry is awash in them.  You simply cannot stand out in that genre, especially if you’re an indie.

Jeff has chosen a different route.  He makes turn-based, single-player RPGs.  This is a market that the big game companies aren’t serving sufficiently.  The lack of cutting-edge graphics has never hurt his sales – indeed, it makes his games very older-hardware/laptop friendly.  He has found an underserved market and intends to keep serving it until it goes away…which, since Jeff’s been in business for fifteen years now, it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to do.

Jeff also understood that when he chose to take this path, he would have to be in it for the long haul.  It’s taken six months for Geneforge 4 to make its costs back, but now every time it sells (and it will sell, for years) it’s gravy for Jeff.  And since he now has fifteen games out there, each one selling away, his overall income is high enough that he can make a living.  In his inimitably cynical style, he calls this “bottom feeding”.

Now, Jeff got lucky, true.  He found a market that he loved but wasn’t being served.  He finished his first game and started selling it just as the internet was getting started.  His development cycle (make a game in eight months, then spend two porting it to the PC) allows him to make a ton of games – at least one new one every year.  And the games outsell their costs, leading to profit.

But it can still be done nowadays – indeed, it can probably be done easier, because when Jeff started he was having to advertise his games on bulletin boards and over AOL.  There are plenty of underserved markets out there.  You can still stand out, make your mark, and make your money.

You just can’t do it with a color-matching game, which is what Owen found out.  I truly do wish him better luck next time.

PTFSD Update, March 27 2009

Um…yeah.

Current Weight: 320.1
Delta: Gain of 1.8 pounds
Number of days this week I walked an hour: 5
Number of days this week I ate fewer than 2000 calories: 2

I’ve got the exercise habit down. It’s the food thing that’s much harder. I think the hardest part is when it gets late, I’ve been working on my programming, and I don’t want to go to bed hungry.

Fourth Rejection

This is getting disheartening. And it was made worse by the fact that it was Twisted Pixel that turned me down.

Frankly, I’m in serious trouble. Everybody either wants console experience (which I’ve got, but just a bit) or, on the PC side, MMO experience (which I don’t have at all).

The Going Theory is that in April companies are going to realize that they need developers to make their Christmas deadlines and will start hiring again. I dearly hope that is true.

PTFSD Update, March 20 2009

(For any new readers, PTFSD is short for “Put that freakin’ sandwich down!” and is the title of my personal weight loss initiative. The line comes from a Homestar Runner cartoon, of course.)

And now, drum roll please:

Current Weight: 318.3
Delta: Loss of 3.3 pounds
Number of days this week I walked an hour: 6
Number of days this week I ate fewer than 2000 calories: 5

You’ll notice my weight is a little higher than I reported earlier. I was pretty bad during the week of my birthday and my weight got up above 320, which prompted action. Now it’s coming back down again, thankfully.

Right now I don’t feel like making any projections about when my weight is going to be at what stage. Doing so always leads to disappointment. I’m just going to follow the plan and let it happen.

Unintentional Gameplay

I recently noticed that my four-year-old daughter was doing something a little strange when she was playing The Maw.

In case you’re not familiar with the game, it features a user-controlled character named Frank and a non-user-controlled character named…The Maw!!!

(Yes, at some point I’ll stop talking about The Maw. I swear.)

Uh…sorry. Anyway, Frank can call Maw to him and Maw will come if he’s close enough to hear. I noticed that my daughter was calling Maw and then immediately running behind a tree, then running around and around the tree to see how long she could keep Maw from touching Frank. And giggling madly the whole time.

She’d found a new game inside the game. The developers of Maw never intended for people to play keep-away inside their game but it grows naturally out of the gameplay elements they did put in.

Which reminded me of a couple of stories. My friend Ryan Clark told me that he was working on an early version of the Zarria engine (which later powered Hit & Myth) and he was testing the 2D physics of the game. The test map consisted of a house, a whole bunch of NPC frogs and the player’s character. There was no combat, but if your character bumped into one of the frogs it would be thrown back away from you.

He showed it to his brother, who immediately found a game that Ryan hadn’t programmed – trying to wrangle all the frogs into the house by bumping into them. Of course, the more frogs you got together the more they’d bump each other around. The only way to keep the frogs inside the house was to stand in the doorway, but you had to leave the doorway to go get another frog, which means that three would probably escape.

And Ryan even found an unintentional game in an early version of Inaria. I made a map with one of every creature on it to test their AI. Most of the AIs were designed to hunt you down as soon as you came near. Ryan instantly started triggering every single unit and then seeing how long he could stay alive. Since there were structures on the map he eventually found a way to trap or block them all and stay alive.

And then of course, there’s these guys who found a new game to play in Super Mario 64:

In case you don’t understand Japanese, these guys are activating a one-up mushroom and then running away from it and seeing how long they can prevent it from touching them. This is hard because it not only moves pretty fast, it can fly through the terrain of the level. It’s pretty funny to hear them freak out whenever it suddenly appears through a wall next to them.

And let’s not forget this excellent article by Shamus Young, wherein he programs Starcraft to play itself so he can find out which enemy AI is the strongest.

So what’s my point? Um…I dunno. It’s long been known that humans can make a game out of anything, and you don’t even need a good framework to do it. Maybe I just wanted to brag on my daughter 🙂

Unintentional Gameplay

I recently noticed that my four-year-old daughter was doing something a little strange when she was playing The Maw.

In case you’re not familiar with the game, it features a user-controlled character named Frank and a non-user-controlled character named…The Maw!!!

Uh…sorry. Anyway, Frank can call Maw to him and Maw will come if he’s close enough to hear. I noticed that my daughter was calling Maw and then immediately running behind a tree, then running around and around the tree to see how long she could keep Maw from touching Frank. And giggling madly the whole time.

She’d found a new game inside the game. The developers of Maw never intended for people to play keep-away inside their game but it grows naturally out of the gameplay elements they did put in.

Which reminded me of a couple of stories. My friend Ryan Clark told me that he was working on an early version of the Zarria engine (which later powered Hit & Myth) and he was testing the 2D physics of the game. The test map consisted of a house, a whole bunch of NPC frogs and the player’s character. There was no combat, but if your character bumped into one of the frogs it would be thrown back away from you.

He showed it to his brother, who immediately found a game that Ryan hadn’t programmed – trying to wrangle all the frogs into the house by bumping into them. Of course, the more frogs you got together the more they’d bump each other around. The only way to keep the frogs inside the house was to stand in the doorway, but you had to leave the doorway to go get another frog, which means that three would probably escape.

And Ryan even found an unintentional game in an early version of Inaria. I made a map with one of every creature on it to test their AI. Most of the AIs were designed to hunt you down as soon as you came near. Ryan instantly started triggering every single unit and then seeing how long he could stay alive. Since there were structures on the map he eventually found a way to trap or block them all and stay alive.

And then of course, there’s these guys who found a new game to play in Super Mario 64:

In case you don’t understand Japanese, these guys are activating a one-up mushroom and then running away from it and seeing how long they can prevent it from touching them. This is hard because it not only moves pretty fast, it can fly through the terrain of the level. It’s pretty funny to hear them freak out whenever it suddenly appears through a wall next to them.

And let’s not forget this excellent article by Shamus Young, wherein he programs Starcraft to play itself so he can find out which enemy AI is the strongest.

So what’s my point? Um…I dunno. It’s long been known that humans can make a game out of anything, and you don’t even need a good framework to do it. Maybe I just wanted to brag on my daughter 🙂