February 24, 2009

“Sketchable” and “The Lab”

Andrew Russell’s “Sketchable”

I have been somewhat surprised by Andrew Russell’s “Sketchable” Blog. It seems Andrew is aiming for a very similar goal to mine; a business making our own games, free from cubicle life. Not only that, but his plan is very similar to mine; starting with simple prototypes to find ideas that work. And Andrew’s an Aussie as well, so we’ll have similar logistic issues. And we’re starting at roughly the same time. Wow, talk about coincidence!

If you haven’t already, I recommend signing up to the “Sketchable” blog and following Andrew’s progress. I thought I already had his RSS feed entered into Google Reader, but I only got the first entry. Hopefully I’ve got it right now.

One of the big differences between “Sketchable” and my project is that, with delays due to my dilly-dallying with my PhD, Andrew Russell is now at least a month ahead of me. I was planning on going full pelt with blogging about my plans once I had a new website at my new location set up sometime in late March, early April. Now I feel like my hand is tipped. While I am glad to have another Aussie blog going down the same path to inspire me and to keep me on track, Andrew Russell is now blogging competition. My only recourse is to challenge Andrew to a race around the world.

Game Plan for 2009 & “The Lab”

It’s also timely to read Andrew’s blog because I’ve been doing some paper calculations and I realise I need to kick things up a notch if I am still to entertain the concept of releasing a sellable game sometime in 2009. I will most likely blog about this some more once my new website is up, but it’s time to outline my broad approach to game development this year.

As I see it, there’s three big business areas I should work on:

  • Marketing - letting people know I exist and have something they’d like to buy/try/see
  • Research - prototyping out new ideas
  • Production - making products to sell

As well as this, there’s also administration (keeping everything running) and training (learning new skills), but those are fairly straightforward as to their purpose and value.

Marketing gets an important billing on my list as I think it’s the area most neglected by indies. It seems most indies prefer to be working on making games, not promoting them. However I think marketing is the most important activity to success in this field. If people don’t know you exist, how will they know about your game?

My marketing plan is still in development, and hinges a lot on just how much I can get done in a day. Basically, my plan is to draw people to my new site with as much interesting material as I can. I’ll have a developer’s blog, obviously, but I also plan to write a few tutorials and articles to host there. I’m also planning on having a few freebies and game prototypes as a drawcard, very similar to “Sketchable”. This is a nice tie in to “research”.

Research is the fun part of trying out new ideas and technology without caring too much about production values, deadlines or marketability. Plus after several years in academia, I really need to have a research outlet worked in here somewhere!

The genesis of my approach to research stems from the Experimental Gameplay Project. I marvelled at how these developers could pull together idea prototypes in a week with such flair. The success of World of Goo only shows how valuable this approach is to creative indie development.

Also, like Andrew Russell, I think these little prototypes will be a great way to market our existence to the outside world. My little research wing is currently nicknamed “The Lab”, as it’s catchy and short to write in my plans. I’ll probably keep the name unless something better strikes my fancy.

My plan is to extend The Lab to cover technology demos as well as gameplay. The idea is to completely separate out “production” from “research”. Ideally, all production will be doing is taking ideas and tech developed and proved in the The Lab and bolting them together. Less risk, little fuss. Seems sensible to me.

All of this is planned to launch on a new site sometime in March or April, depending on how long it takes to build the website. I expect rapid changes on site for the first few months as I learn the ropes, but things should settle down later in the year when I start working towards a product.

For the first couple of months, I have my focus on setting things up and finding my feet. I’ve been a bit hesitant to get started for a while, but that might be due to my Ph.D. status at 99%+ for the last month or two. Once that is well and truly behind me (which it should be in the next week, barring any mishaps), that psychological weight should be lifted. I think Andrew Russell’s “Sketchable” approach is probably more sensible then a tentative one, and I should just dive in and start building stuff instead of learning each piece slowly and separately. Part of the problem with starting a big venture is that everything is uncertain; it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with no pieces on the table. Instead of spending time locked in planning it’s mostly likely better to jump in, throw a few pieces down and see if they make sense, with the option of rearranging them later.

That will mostly likely be my plan for March. February’s almost over regardless, so I won’t feel guilty about using the time left this month to tie up loose ends and get everything prepared.

Best of luck to everyone in their projects. If I’m to race Andrew, I’ve got a balloon to catch.

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February 19, 2009

The Portal Price Wars

I might be a couple of weeks slow in catching up with indie news, but recently I’ve been pondering the current portal price wars. In case you missed it, earlier this month Reflexive, which is now owned by Amazon, opened up as Amazon’s casual game download service. One of the earliest moves they’ve made is to sell the vast majority of their games for either $6.95 or $9.95. Apparently they also initiated this change without warning to many developers.

You can read some of the indie developer reaction to this over at the (now somewhat lengthy) thread over at IndieGamer. Opinions are mixed. Some welcome the new price point, or are at least resigned to it, while others are up in arms. The fallout is still underway. Hundreds of indie games have been pulled from Reflexive after this move.

With Amazon storming into the market, it seems to be a somewhat precarious time to be a portal indie. My feeling is in agreement with the indies that believe a cut-throat price war has just begun. The other portals won’t stand still while one undercuts them by a large margin. They’ll start fiercely competing with price cuts of their own or more special deals such as their game clubs or permanent discounts for loyalty benefits.

The problem for the portal indies is that any discounts directly affect them. Nearly all payment deals with portals are for a fixed percentage of the final sale price, usually along the lines of 40% for the indie. If a portal decides to sell your game for $7 instead of the usual $20, they’ll only give you roughly a third of the money per sale. And it’s highly unlikely you’ll be selling three times the volume to make up for the loss.

Another problem is portals may demand more in terms of rules and benefits from indies. At the moment indies going the portal route will usually sell through many if not all portals available. However some portals are now giving strong preferences to “exclusives”. I’ve read of a case (Encord’s Totem Tribe) where, when an indie wanted to release across all portals simultaneously, one portal reacted by dropping all advertising due to non-exclusivity. Then when the game sold reasonably well there (it was selling like gangbusters at other portals), it apparently suddenly vanished from this portals Top 100 list.

A further issue is that many portal indies also like to sell direct from their own site. Third party payment providers give indies a much larger percentage through direct sales (usually about 90%). However despite whatever loyalty customers would like to give direct to indies, if an indie is selling at $20 while a portal is selling at $7 then it’s hard to resist that type of discount - and who can blame them? Indies will be forced to make a choice between dropping portals or cutting their own prices.

I’m just a newbie without a direct stake this round in the form of a game for sale, but as someone calculating his market strategy this is an important development to consider. The question I have been debating for months is whether I aim for a more casual market or go for something more, for want of a better word, “indie style” indie.” Casual” would mean going along the lines of Bejeweled or Diner Dash; idea generation and development might be easier, and it would fit in well with the portals. “Indie style” means more along the lines of World of Goo or Darwinia. It’s higher risk, better ideas and more development are required, plus the marketing is considerably more complex. However if handled right and with a bit of luck this more naturally leads to a better sustainable business in the long term.

My intuition was that the stand-alone indie position was where I should aim to be in three to five years time. This has not changed. However, I was debating whether it was sensible to release a few casual games to begin with to portals to wet my feet in indie development and to build up some cred with customers and other developers. It is the feasibility of that strategy that is now under close review with this latest batch of portal wars. My strong impression is that, by feuding amongst themselves to grab the largest slice of the casual gamer pie, portals are tearing a rift between indie developers. At the end of this speciation, we’ll have casual developers working for the big portals. The true indies will be working for themselves.

I’ve been loath to use a terminology like “true indie” against casual developers, because I always thought it was a bit snobbish, in a “my genre is better than yours” kind of way. I don’t see anything wrong with casual games.; heck, that’s why I’m considering developing one. I think the time management genre (Diner Dash and its ilk) is brilliant, and the match 3 genre will always have its place. The casual space has some great genres to work in that I’d love to participate in myself. The problem is that the business for the casual genre is being sewn up by the portals, and the portals are demanding more power over what their developers do. If as a casual developer, I am forced to develop to their standards, release to their schedule, and have no say over pricing, then in what way is that “independent”?

I could live without the “indie” label (it’s not as if it matters that much what you call yourself). But labels aside, the deals with the big portals are looking less sensible with these developments. Already I was sceptical about the benefits of working with a portal. The deal is you allow them to take about 60% of the sale price in return for marketing and placement in front of a lot of eyeballs. Except games are typically only marketing for a very short time while new at the portal before slipping into their back catalogue, and in even less time if you don’t give them exclusivity it seems. You have to use the portal’s boiler-plate DRM methods which crackers know how to break instantly, meaning your game will speedily hit the torrents. You can’t have any mention of your own site, so unless your customers go hunting on the internet they’ll associate your game with the portal not with you, plus little chance of offering healthy after-sale benefits. And now it seems you have very little say on the pricing the portal uses; you’ll have to suck up any losses if a portal wants to offer a discount. Is the benefit of being at a portal site really worth all that?

I guess it’s not all bad, and it would be a mistake to tar all portals with the same brush. I know there are a bunch of more niche portals and affiliates out there with far more sensible deals, which treat the relationship between portal and developer far more like a partnership. The mistake would be to put yourself in a position where you need a portal, so if a portal dictates terms to you then you have the option of walking away.

The question is whether you can be a casual game developer and still do that. With the portals having a lock on casual sales, it would be tricky. Certainly, if your game is just a clone of a standard genre, then you’re pretty much stuck. If you have something genuinely novel, yet casual, then you might be able to strike it alone. But with such a hold on the casual audience, portals might still be able to bury you, especially if your casual game idea is easily clonable itself. And you might still be forced to sell your new casual game at the same rates as the portals. Even if your game is not available at their sites, the portals will set the expectation for how much a casual game should sell for. If your game sells for $20 with portals selling theirs at $10, customers will see your game as expensive even if that price is fair for the entertainment provided.

The pricing issue is the one thing I’m most concerned about. I’ve thought the $20 price median for indie games was a fair expectation. But if the portals start shifting customer expectations towards $10, it will have a knock-on effect throughout the entire industry. $10 is cheap - too cheap for quality games. Most indies who do pricing analysis on their titles usually end up with prices around the $15 to $30 mark.

The problem with $10 or less for games is that you’re now pricing them as throw-away entertainment bracket. That’s probably my biggest issue with this portal pricing. To them, games are just a commodity to be shovelled out to bring in the most profit. I can understand that from their point of view; if I were making toys to sell at a toy store, I’d expect the store to act somewhat the same. However, at $10 or less, the portals are treating their games as if they’re like cheap, mass produced crap that you sell from the discount chain store, rather than pieces of lovingly hand crafted pieces of entertainment art. If a portal expects games to sell for no more than $X, then developers will adjust to that reality by producing games that are worth no more than $X. I don’t see how quality can be maintained under this kind of market pressure.

So, rambling discussion aside, what should I do about it?

It’s becoming more clear to me that I can’t rely on portals to replace my own marketing. If I want to go indie, I’m going to have to centre it around my own website. Admittedly that was my plan all along, but the strength of the argument for it wasn’t made clear to me until now. It also means I’m essentially alone and will have to build up attention from scratch.

I may still consider portals as part of a complete marketing strategy, but only on my own terms. If I feel the exposure to new customers outweighs the downsides, then I’ll go ahead. But I certainly will not be basing my entire delivery strategy around the portals.

I am also now leaning away from going down the casual path, even as just a warm up before switching to more unique titles. If I do go casual, it has to be in a way that doesn’t make my game feel like yet another portal game. That almost certainly means no match three, no time management unless heavily altered, no hidden object. I’m far better off aiming for something unique. Which is extremely hard, unfortunately, but no-one set making games was easy.

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January 23, 2009

Data Backup, Time Capsule

One thing I’ve never been that great about is my data backup procedures. For the last few years my backup procedure was to burn a CD-ROM or two every week of certain directories on my hard disk. Really important files would get put on a USB stick or copied to a USB drive daily to be carried around with me as a method for porting to other computers. All good in theory, but it had the teensy flaw that I’d often forget to burn the discs and the USB sticks and drives tend to get beat around a bit when I carry them with me. I’m also a bit wary that I’ve never had to test my backup CD-ROMs to find something old.

This year, I’m ramping up a notch in my efforts for proper backup. Today I set up a 500GB Apple Time Capsule (an Xmas gift) to work with Time Machine. It’s pretty straightforward to set up, which I like: less chance of me screwing things up. Example why this is important: I ruined the first two attempts to do the first full backup due to me curiously poking around with the settings while it was running.

The Time Capsule seems to run pretty well. It’s nice and quiet, although it does put off a lot of heat. For a little while today I was storing it in the foot space under a chest of drawers, but I was worried about the ventilation in such an enclosed space and on carpet. While it did have at least five centimetres of space on every side save the bottom, I moved it to a spare bookcase shelf instead. I’m not sure if I’m being a bit paranoid there, but it’s no good having a backup solution if it goes up and dies on you prematurely.

Time Machine seems to be good as a just-run-and-let-it-go backup service. I really should have been using it earlier, but my USB HD was a bit small and conked out on me around the same time I got the iMac and I never got a replacement. Now I’ve got backups of the entire hard disk every hour. I’ve still got to figure out which directories I need to exclude from the backups - there’s no point backing up temporary directories that change all the time - but that’s not urgent.

Now I’ve got an external hard disk and a regular backup system, I’m not sure what to supplement this with. The Time Capsule on its own isn’t sufficient, as in the case of damage or theft in my office both the computer and the Capsule are likely to be damaged. The Capsule is great for on-site backup, but I’m going to need an off-site backup too.

I could pay for one of those internet backup services, but I’m not sure that’s best for me. My internet connection is pretty darn slow and expensive by world standards.

Alternatively, I could get a couple of USB HDs and either regularly mirror the Time Capsule or do manual backups. Then I can keep one in an off-site location and swap it every now and again. That’s not too bad an approach, although it does mean buying at least two 500GB USB HDs, manually doing the backups and storing them somewhere that isn’t here. There’s also the possibility that Time Machine might mangle the backups without detecting the problem; it’s not much use having multiple copies of corrupted backups. Manual backups instead of mirroring could fix this.

Or I could stick to burning CD-ROMs. It’s not that expensive to burn a CD or two every week, and it’s easier to store them off-site nearly anywhere. Plus I’ll have a different method of backup in case one method goes awry. The downside is that I have to remember to do it, the directory structure needs to be set up in such a way that important files are all together, and there’s a limited amount of data that can fit on one disk (although I can go to DVD to help fix that issue).

And of course, I could do multiple of these. However there’s a downside to tying up the backup procedure with too much bureaucracy; I could end up just avoiding doing any of it. That’s why I wanted the Time Capsule in the first place.

I’m still mulling this one over. The logical part of my brain says the USB HD thing makes sense, as if the Time Capsule conks out then I’ll have a perfect mirror image with which to create it. And my gut feeling is to at least burn a CD-ROM every month or so in case something horrible goes wrong with the whole system.

I’d like to read what techniques you use for backing up your important data. Is there some nice techniques I’ve overlooked?

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