In my last blog post, I talked about how good gameplay balance goes beyond the spreadsheets and relies on understanding how players perceive and evaluate their choices.
But let’s be honest — at the end of the day, you still have to put some numbers in for the game to work. And if you botch it badly, no amount of clever mind games is going to help.
Here are a few tricks I’ve picked across my career as a game designer that should let you deal with numerical balance more efficiently, without going insane in the process.
Keep it simple:
Yeah. I know. Every article on every design-related subject starts with this. It’s because it’s true.
Human minds don’t comprehend large numbers, probabilities, complex formulas, and their intertwining relationships very well. Remember AD&D, with its 18/00 strength, THAC0, and negative armor class? There’s a reason why it got simplified a lot in later editions. Overly complex and several-step computations are not intuitive and hurt the ability to make informed decisions on the value of each action, while adding nothing to the strategic depth of the game.
It’s not limited to players, too. You, the designer, will have a lot more trouble keeping a unnecessarily complex system in balance. So try to make your mechanics as close to what-you-see-is-what-you-get as possible.
Use a consistent scale:
My Druid in Diablo 2 dealt around 20k damage per attack, had 6k to-hit rating, and only 2k health. Does that mean he was a glass cannon, dying from a single hit, but dishing out crazy amounts of damage, assuming he could hit anything with his low to-hit?
Nope. He was actually a tank-type character. Monsters could have well over 100k health points, but dished out damage in low hundreds, and 6k to-hit was more than enough to connect with 95% of attacks. But how would you know that when each of these stats seems to follow a completely different, arbitrary scale?
You can probably see where this is going…
Consistency is for the weak!
Using a consistent scale makes things much easier to comprehend for both you and the player.
In Bonfire, I’ve made a conscious effort to keep everything between 1 and 100, with 20 being the base value for all actions. This makes its balance much more transparent. If something is at 75, it universally means it’s high. If a skill raises a stat by 20, it’s roughly equivalent in value to an attack that does 20 damage. It also allows me to use similar formulas for most computations, from how much damage an attack deals, to how fast a character gets their turn.
Boil things down:
I’ve found that it really helps the balancing process if I boil things down to single numerical values. From abilities’ power to each level’s difficulty, it’s just much faster to operate on easily comparable variables.
Shameless Bonfire plug.
For instance: all abilities and attacks in Bonfire have a magnitude value assigned to them. If an attack has a magnitude of 2.0, it will always deal exactly twice as much damage as a 1.0 strike. This way, even if underlying formulas change later, relationships between various items are kept intact. If an action was designed to be twice as powerful as another, it will stay that way even if I mess around with how their effects are calculated.
Same thing applies to difficulty levels, despite them being much harder to clearly define. It allows me to see the balance between various aspects of my game at a glance, which speeds ups the development significantly.
Keep global modifiers for everything:
Like many game designers, I used to be into modding before going professional. When doing a small re-balancing patch for Oblivion, I wanted to solve the problem of enemies and the player character requiring way too many hits to kill. Fortunately, I didn’t have to tweak damage values for each and every weapon, as the game had a definable global multiplier for attack power. I could test various possibilities within minutes and see what fits the dynamic I had in mind.
Officially more fun than the game itself.
Thanks to this lesson, I always abstract global multipliers for pretty much every single aspect of my own games’ balance.
Because, here’s the thing — no matter how good you are, your balance will require several iterations before you get it right. If you can quickly check how your game would play if all characters moved twice as fast or died from just a single hit, you’ll arrive at something fun and playable much sooner.
Avoid using arbitrary resources:
Is 100 mana high or low? Is Fireball balanced if it costs twice as much as the half as powerful Firebolt? Probably. But what if mana actually regenerates quickly? Or if a high-level character can easily have more than 1000 points in their blue bar? Does the higher price still matter in that case? What if the player stacked up on potions?
This is a problem with using arbitrary resources that have no intuitively understandable value — they are very hard to get right, as they make no sense outside of the ruleset of the game.
A move to natural resources improves things a lot. Let’s consider changes made from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls. Demon’s Souls used the classic mana system. It was pretty tight, but had its problems. For example: some spells were clearly designed for a single use, with their mana cost close to the possible maximum. However, players could grind for magic-restoring herbs to break the system and make large mana costs of those super powerful spells have little consequence.
Dark Souls fixed that by simply having a pre-defined amount of uses for each spell. A very natural resource that’s immediately understandable and easy to evaluate. If the weaker Firebolt has thrice the uses of Fireball, it leaves me with an interesting choice to make. Should I take the more powerful spell for use in critical situations or go for the flexibility of being able to use ranged attacks more often. It’s also easier to balance the cost of each spell, as it’s a single non-arbitrary value that can’t be broken by other gameplay aspects feeding back into the system.
Time is another good natural resource to use, and it doesn’t have to involve cooldowns. Dragon’s Dogma balances its spells not only by how much stamina they cost, but also by how long it takes to cast them. A weaker spell may be simply more practical, which is something of clear value to the player. It also adds an interesting gameplay dynamic where you try to find a good position and moment to evoke some game-changing magic.
Of course, no set of tips will replace solid math, playtesting, and the right amount of iterations. They should, however, speed up the process, and make it easier to communicate your game’s balance to the players in a way that allows them to make informed decisions without relying on a FAQ.
If you have any tricks of your own, feel free to share them in the comments.
When you only learn how to draw, you doodle. It’s fun. Sometimes it even looks cool. Then you begin to grasp anatomy and composition and things never seem the same. It’s like only now you know how to visualize something properly. The true mastery, however, starts when you learn how to get away from “correctness”. Break conventions to focus on what actually matters.
In my experience, same applies to gameplay balance. I still remember how I worked on my earliest games. Added whatever seemed cool, balanced it with semi-random numbers, then tweaked things during playtesting. When I began to see game design as a profession and started educating myself, I’ve learned the power of careful planning and making sure the math is sound. But the better I get, the more I realize that numbers are just a basis and good gameplay balance comes from aspects that are impossible to capture in a spreadsheet.
Before I get to examples, a minor disclaimer. Balance is a broad term, so let me clarify that I’m talking about gameplay/strategic balance. Or even clearer: making sure that if two options are available to the player, they are both just as viable.
Balance by unique purpose
This one’s pretty obvious, but needs to be mentioned. The simplest way to ensure that all options are appealing to the player, is to give each a unique purpose.
Let’s consider Diablo. It has several missile-type spells: Firebolt, Fireball, Lightning. Each deals ranged damage to enemies, with minor differences in area of effect, mana cost, and power. It’s not a very interesting situation strategically, as one of those simply has to be the best option. Unless you’re fighting fire immune enemies, there’s little reason to use anything other than Fireball.
It’s not just the graphics that aged.
But what happens if we give each spell a unique effect and purpose? Let’s say Firebolt sets enemies on fire for a duration, Fireball is powerful but can’t be used at point blank, and Lightning stuns monsters for a few seconds. Way more interesting. Even if numerical balance if off and Lightning costs too much mana, it’s still useful when you want to get away from enemies (possibly to set them up for another Fireball).
A good positive example would be weapon design in modern shooters. Three assault rifles with different stats would be boring, so you usually get a generalist rifle, a shotgun devastating at close range but useless at a distance, and a sniper weapon with the opposite qualities. Regardless of their exact stats, all weapons are going to be useful in specific conditions.
Balance by synergy
The logical next step from giving every option a unique purpose, is to make them work best in tandem. I discern two types of synergies: soft and hard.
Soft synergies emerge naturally from game mechanics. The tried-and-tested RPG cliche of tank + healer is such synergy. It’s never said that you need to have at least one knight and one priest in your party. They just benefit greatly from each other’s presence. Even if designers screwed up, and the knight has more interesting skills and gear selection, you’ll still want to use the priest to get as much as you can from your powerhouse character.
Hard synergies are formed by specific gameplay mechanics designed to make two options compliment each other. Dragon Age 2 works like that. It has two melee classes: warrior and rogue. To make sure that you’ll want to keep both in your party, there are several powerful skills that the rogue can use on “staggered” enemies. The caveat? Only warrior can apply stagger.
So there’s something worthy in this game after all.
Similar thing happens in Final Fantasy XIII combat system. It features a bar that fills with each consecutive hit, increasing damage dealt. Mages are good at raising this bar, warriors can prevent it from falling down. So you need both, regardless of how well their skills are balanced.
Balance by cool factor
Something designers often forget, but has a great impact on the players. I can point to my first commercial game, Magi, as a perpetuator. It features two basic attack spells: Magic Missile is used for quick and steady DPS, Fireball is slower and overall weaker, but breaks shields. Both have their unique purpose. But I’ve noticed that many players stop using Magic Missile once they unlock Fireball. Why? Because it’s a friggin’ ball of fire that goes boom! Likewise, very few players ever used curse spells, despite me making them somewhat overpowered in the end. It’s just that stat decrease isn’t as awesome as blasting away with missiles.
Not cool enough!
Players usually don’t know the underlying mechanics or how the numbers interact with each other. But they do know that huge explosions are cool, and it affects their tactical judgement. After learning this lesson, I try to make sure that all options are fun to use and have clearly visible effects.
For instance: in ArcMagi (the planned sequel) we replaced a curse that lowered opponent’s defenses with one that makes them spontaneously combust whenever they are hit. The effect is the same: increase of DPS from your other spells. But hell if it isn’t ten times as cool!
Balance by convenience
In Starcraft, a Zerg Queen can destroy any ground unit with her Spawn Broodlings ability, creating two melee fighters as a bonus. On the other hand, a Guardian can attack ground targets for 20 damage a shot. And yet, these two units are balanced. Queen has you manually pick her ability, check if you have enough mana, then click the desired victim. Meanwhile, Guardian just attacks on its own and takes less effort to micro-manage. This is balance by convenience.
Still holds up in so many ways.
Fighting games are another great example. A complex 10-hit combo or a special may deal more damage, but in the heat of actual battle you’ll often rely on much weaker but simpler to execute techniques. Or you may simply be too lazy to spend hours practicing those 10-hit finger twisters when there are other options available.
Because that’s the thing — we, humans, are lazy. We tend to chose convenient solutions, even if they aren’t exactly optimal. Manual targeting, difficult to master input, or even something as simple as walking slower when you wield a big weapon, can be seen as a huge hindrance and used to balance options beyond their numerical values. The nice bonus of balance by convenience is that it rewards skilled players who are willing to deal with all the extra hassle to master the game.
Balance by meta changes
This is a very powerful technique that’s especially appealing to small indie developers, who have absolute control over every aspect of their game. Sometimes the best way to make an option viable is to alter the environment it’s in.
Consider a theoretical cover-based shooter with a shotgun weapon that’s heavily underused, despite killing everything in one shot up close. The thing is, this is a cover-based shooter. Enemies don’t come up close. They keep their distance and hide, occasionally firing a few shots before getting back into cover. Under these circumstances, an accurate long range weapon that can pop some heads is a preferred choice. No matter how crazy the shotgun’s stats are.
However, if you were to add melee enemies, who charge or ambush the player, and if those enemies would be heavily armored– Man, shotgun sure starts looking like something worth carrying!
The spell-eating golem took many heroes’ lives.
A real-life example would be an issue I had with my Bonfire. I’ve found out that parties based on buff/debuff stacking were too powerful. I could nerf buffs, but that would make classes using them quite unattractive. Besides, they were only overpowered in a particular combination. In the end, I added several enemies that feed on buffs or can turn them against the party. You can still use the same strategy and have fun with it, but now it comes with the risk of running into something that’s going to be very hard to kill without a drastic change in approach. Not only it solved the issue, but made the game more tactically engaging.
Balance by lack of balance
Yes, lack of balance can be a conscious design choice as well, and it often works well.
Arcade fighting games often include characters that are weird, tricky or simply less optimal to play and stand little chance in any serious tournaments (but if someone does win using them…). Likewise, there are characters who are easy to win with, even for beginners. In a way, this works as a hidden selectable difficulty level. Some players like to battle against unfavorable odds, others prefer simpler way to victory.
As long as your game has enough viable options to make it varied, don’t feel bad that there’s some underdog choice that only a select few pick (and probably enjoy the game more for it). Haven’t you seen Rocky? People love the underdog!
Of course, if numerical balance is way off, even the best psychological tricks won’t work. There are also the hardcore players who crunch numbers as well as any seasoned designer, if not better, and you need those. That’s why next week (or so…) I’m planning to publish the second part of this article with tips on how to handle the numbers game without going crazy.
I even created a blog post titled “So I’ve bought myself a Porsche” and scheduled it for release in two years. So that — you know — no possible force on Earth could stop me from delivering on the promise.
It just so happens that these two years end today. And lo and behold:
Not exactly the model I had in mind, it’s a bit cramped even for a sports car, but it’s still a Porsche. It even has a pull-back drive! Very cool, not to mention: economical.
So here it is. Standing next to my computer. Reminding me that sometimes things do have a happy ending and it’s fun to dream big.
Who knows, maybe in two more years I’ll be able to afford an RC one!
In the Cinders postmortem, I’ve talked about how social networks completely overshadowed the press when it came to generating traffic.
Of course, the press is still important for igniting that initial spark of interest (which I’m now painfully learning through Bonfire‘s alpha launch), but it looks that it’s the social networks that are critical for the long term success and word of mouth spread. At least for indie games without marketing budget.
I don’t proclaim myself to be a social media guru (shoot me if I ever do), but we strongly believe in the value of sharing knowledge between indie developers. Especially, as there are many great guides on contacting the press, but information on this particular aspect of indie promotion is still quite scarce. So, here’s our experience with each of our dominant networks. Note that I’m linking chapter titles to the respectable pages/accounts if you want to personally check how we run them.
Our homepage isn’t a social network per se, but as it serves as a hub for all our activities, it’s worth a few paragraphs.
When we started out, this website was our main tool for communicating with the players. I posted whenever we had anything interesting to show. In time, the weight of this small-but-frequent updates moved towards social networks. The main page is now a timeline reserved for bigger announcements. A way for a newcomer to learn what we’re up to. We’re also considering removing the possibility to post comments, as people use that option less and less, despite the general growth of traffic.
I think it’s just how modern internet works. Everyone is a member of several networks and forums that serve as the main hub of their online activities. People don’t have the time to visit yet another small website with any regularity. You have to reach out to them yourself.
The blog is a different case. It actually constitutes a significant portion of our overall traffic, with the most popular post at over 25k unique hits and less successful ones ranging from 3k to 10k. However, it’s worth mentioning that these visitors usually aren’t interested in buying our games. The blog is good mainly for raising our overall notoriety as game developers and sharing knowledge.
We also have a forum for more direct communication with our players. It was pretty active 7 years ago, when I released Magi (before MoaCube’s birth). These days, it’s rather quiet and used mainly by people seeking customer support. Again, I think this is just how modern internet works. I know I myself stopped signing for game-specific forums years ago. Gotta draw the line somewhere.
Reddit is by far our most successful traffic source. Additionally, while other networks maintain contact with your existing audience, reddit is the one that draws new people in (87% new traffic ratio for us). On the other hand, the average time spent on the website is significantly shorter compared to Facebook or Twitter. Still, for how little it takes to post a link on Reddit, I can only regret we haven’t started using it earlier.
Word of warning though. Reddit has a pretty strict anti-spam policy and established etiquette. Don’t treat it as a newsfeed to your website — try to link only the really important news and informative blog posts. Things that you yourself would like to read. It’s also in good taste to be an active member of the community, rate and post other links, be active in comments, etc. Nobody likes spammers.
As for where to post, we use these subreddits:
r/IndieGaming for game releases and indie game related blog posts. It’s also a good place to get feedback.
r/gamedev for blog posts related to game development, especially postmortems.
r/games for news and articles that could be interesting to the wider gaming audience.
Subreddits for specific genres, like r/roguelikes or r/visualnovels are very useful too. They are smaller but more interested in your games. The churn rate on their main page is also slower.
ProTip #1: A good headline is crucial on reddit and should be tailored for the audience. For example: my last blog article was linked as Cinders postmortem: production, marketing, and sales numbers on the business-oriented r/gamedev. But for the more mainstream r/games, I used: If you’ve been wondering how small indie development looks from the backstage and how much it earns, Cinders postmortem is out. It makes a difference.
ProTip #2: If you are linking your own content, be nice and introduce yourself in the comments. Say something about what you are linking, and be open to questions and feedback. It makes people far more welcoming.
Facebook is getting really shitty really fast. But still — it’s our second most powerful network, driving the most interested traffic. Of course, most of it is our existing fans and friends (only 30% of visitors are first timers).
We initially treated Facebook as an alternative newsfeed to our site but eventually gravitated towards more personal communication. It’s much better that way. The most popular posts tend to be photos of our team, short text updates on what we do, work in progress screenshots, and questions for our fans. Everything that reminds the players that we’re real people. That said, bigger news (like game releases) tend to get a lot of attention as well.
So why is Facebook becoming shitty? Take a look at this screenshot:
“Get more likes”, “Boost post”… almost half of the fanpage admin panel is now dedicated to various paid advertising options. To further encourage their use, normal posts are getting shown to less and less people. We actually had more reach back when we only had half the current number of likes. At this point, our posts show mainly to my personal friends and the few most dedicated fans, defeating the purpose of maintaining a fanpage.
Paid posts are cheap, but I can’t imagine our players getting “sponsored” posts from MoaCube next to ads of their bank or mobile operator. That’s not how you build a friendly and personal relationship with your fans. It makes me cautiously pessimistic about Facebook and I think it will become less important for us in the future.
ProTip #1: Write like you talk with friends on your own wall. Post fun, honest, and personal stuff. You are indie, so don’t be official. Official is boring.
ProTip #2: Try to encourage discussion and ask questions. Posts with more likes and comments are seen by more people because of how Facebook algorithms work.
ProTip #3: Post photos. Everyone loves to see how people who make their favorite games look like.
I really like Twitter. Perhaps that’s why we’re relatively successful with it. When we started MoaCube, I decided against setting up a new account specifically for the studio, and simply linked my existing personal one.
Why? At the early days of Twitter, I followed a lot of studios and other companies whose products I enjoy. But when my feed started to consist of tweets looking like this…
So excited!!! #NewProduct from @OurCompany is all over the social media! #PointlessHashtag #PointlessHashtag2 #CompanyIsTheWayOfLife http://linkety.link.link
…I realized it’s not the way to go. There’s already enough spam and adverts online — I don’t want to contribute to it. However, I do want to get to know the actual people behind the things I enjoy.
I just kept using my personal account as I used to. Get into conversations, tweet about the games I play, link cool articles, share my thoughts on the recent events in the indie scene. Sometimes, I drop a link or a development update on our own stuff for those interested, and it seems to work best that way.
Twitter also proved to be very handy for professional networking. It’s an open social network, where talking to people you barely know is not only acceptable but encouraged. It can be a great way to gain new contacts in the press or the scene in general.
ProTip 1: Getting into conversations is the best way to meet new people and gain followers. And it’s fun to boot!
ProTip 2: Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts on things you find interesting. Your personal opinion is precisely why people are following your account.
ProTip 3: If you have some news that you would like to reach more people with, it’s okay to politely ask your followers to retweet. Just don’t overuse it.
ProTip 4: Tweets are short lived. Make sure to post your important news when your audience is actually awake and active. This may help.
Now, that’s something you wouldn’t expect to be a major source of traffic for a game developer. But here it is. And at #4, no less!
There’s really no trick here. Gracjana — our artist — is a popular CG illustrator with an active DeviantArt account and plenty of followers. I asked her to give updates on our work in her journal from time to time. She also posts in-game art to her gallery whenever we have something really nice looking.
Each time she does it, it results in a significant burst of traffic, especially if the work gets featured as a Top Favorite or Daily Deviation. People checking her account for other artwork can also check her journal and see what she’s working on. It takes minimal effort but works really well in the long run.
What’s important, these are usually visitors who haven’t heard of us before, and don’t follow us on other social networks. It’s fresh traffic that’s also surprisingly interested in checking and buying games made by their favorite artist.
ProTip: Nothing special here. If your artist is popular on DA, ask them to occasionally post about your games. And if they don’t have an account, it may be a good idea to setup one for the future.
Our presence on Tumblr is a relatively new thing. The spontaneous birth of a small but dedicated Cinders fandom is what encouraged us to make an account.
We don’t have many followers yet (around 150 at the point of writing this), but Tumblr is quickly becoming one of my favorite social networks. I can see it being a major factor during our future releases.
The best thing about the service is that your posts actually have some lifespan. Twitter and Facebook updates disappear quickly under the stream of new messages. Tumblr works more like an actual micro blog. At any time, someone can go to your page and read it like a normal blog. And if they want to comment on your post, they have to reblog it first, giving it a new life on their own page. We often see increased activity on old postings whenever we publish something new.
As for what works best for for us — pretty work-in-progress screenshots, brief info on what we do, and questions for the fans (like, what they would like to see in a sequel). Again, we post in a casual manner and avoid official tone.
ProTip 1: Follow tags related to your game and studio. It’s good to be on top of what people think of your work. Something may even warrant a reply or a reblog. Especially if it’s gorgeous fanart.
ProTip 2: Pretty images, little text. Tumblr is something between a normal blog and Twitter. People skim through their dashboards quickly and prefer content that’s straight to the point. Keep long articles to your main website.
We also have an account on YouTube and IndieDB, but they aren’t really worth their own sections.
YouTube brings okay traffic, but we do nothing special there. It’s just a depository of our trailers and other videos. I try to be active in comments, though.
We’ve put more work into IndieDB and tried to keep a constant stream of updates at some point, but the website seems to have very little activity. We still post our games there — because why not — but don’t expect it to show up on our Google Analytics anytime soon.
I’ve also heard that other indies enjoyed success with LinkedIn and Google+, especially for sharing their more business-oriented blog posts. We never tried that, so if you have some experience to share, we would love to see it in the comments.
If you have any other tips to share, don’t hesitate to hit the comment button. And if you’ve found this article helpful, consider following me on twitter for further updates and blog posts. Thanks!
Let’s move on to part two of Cinders postmortem. Part one was a critical assessment of the artistic merit of the game. This one goes backstage — to the production and business aspects. How the development worked, how we marketed the game, and how much it sold.
Once again, I’m dropping the usual “what went right / what went wrong” formula and simply write about every subject I think is worth talking about.
Our general workflow was fairly simple. We wanted to cut down team management overhead to a minimum while staying fairly organized. Gracjana and me are both pretty self-motivated people, and our competences are diverse enough that it’s easy to break them into independent branches. We don’t need much control. Just a general guideline what to do and when.
We started by making a list of all the content and tasks necessary to finish the game. It takes a little time, but I recommend every indie game developer to do it. It’s critical for planning and lets you evaluate the scope and production time of the game right away. Things will change during the development, of course, but it’s crucial to know how much is left to do. At least more or less. Especially when deciding if to add some new features.
For day-to-day development, we used a simple milestone structure. Each milestone had a common sense goal like “make a playable demo” or “implement chapter 3″ (really helps to make you feel like you are accomplishing something), a deadline, and a list of tasks necessary to reach the goal.
We don’t watch each other hands or care about who works how, as long as everything is done on time. When a milestone is complete, we go out for a beer, then sit down together and decide what to do next. We don’t have a pre-planned release date (just estimations). It’s done when it’s done, and we work as hard as possible for that to be sooner rather than later.
It worked quite well. We slipped with only one milestone out of seven. And, after adjusting our timing, we were back on track up until writing issues began.
Speaking of writing, the workflow for it was a bit more complex and something I would like to improve in the future. I wrote the general script for every in-game scene — who says what, what choices are present, what variables change, and where it all leads. Then, the writer used it to write actual dialogue. I then placed it in the game and added all the technical stuff and effects.
In a way, I wrote a scene, so someone could write a scene, so I could make an in-game scene. Too much back and forth. Too much overhead. In Solstice and our future titles we want to make writers more independent. It’s all much faster if they can handle the script and the technical aspect of producing a scene, even if it takes some learning time.
This is where we fucked up hard and the main reason for the humongous delay. Mistakes were made since the very beginning and it eventually cascaded into a whole avalanche of trouble.
Initially, I thought I’ll be able to write the text myself. It was a totally unrealistic assumption based on our lack of experience in visual novels. There’s more text in Cinders than in two average-sized paper novels. Writing it all while also coding, managing production, and doing marketing is pretty much impossible to do in a reasonable timeframe.
I’m also not a native English speaker. Writing naturally sounding dialogue takes me a while, and it’s impossible to avoid some awkwardness and grammar mistakes. The parts I wrote myself (the very beginning of the game), had some issues even several versions after the release. If I were to write the whole game, it would take forever.
We realized we need to hire a writer. And desperately so, without the time to establish and test a healthy work relationship. This, of course, ended up in more trouble.
We started cooperation with an experienced visual novel developer. Her writing was really good and true to the script. She was however unable to dedicate enough time to finish Cinders in a timeframe that would be acceptable for us. Months passed by and very little progress was made. It was a classic mistake on our part. We should reconsider our situation sooner, and just find someone else. But because we were desperate and afraid it’d kill the project, we kept this relationship going, frustrating both sides in the process.
When we finally decided to seek another person, the game was hugely delayed and our bank accounts almost completely dried out. We had to find someone fast! I approached a writer I knew from a friend’s indie game. This also didn’t work out. Her vision was different from ours (though very interesting on its own), and she also couldn’t dedicate enough time to this project. This time, we learned from our mistakes and moved on right away.
At this point, we started to lose hope. We’ve had a half finished game that we already started accepting pre-orders for, and the possibility that we may have to cancel it terrified us. Gracjana suggested that if we have trouble finding professional writers who are not busy with their own stuff, then maybe we should try to look for amateurs willing to get into game development. In fact, she has a friend who’s a very good writer and always wanted to make a game one day. That’s how I’ve met Hubert and later Agnieszka, who work with us to this day. They pulled off an amazing feat and pretty much saved MoaCube from going down in infamy.
It all ended well, but the significant delay vastly increased the risk that the game won’t be profitable. It also affected the quality. Different parts of the game were written by different people, and there was no time to really unify it stylistically. In the end, people really liked the storyline, but we’re aware it could’ve been better and more consistent.
The lessons here are clear. Don’t start a writing project without a writer. And don’t try to delay hard decisions that you know are coming anyway.
Testing is something that newbie indie developers often overlook in their plans. It’s a big mistake. Making sure everything works fine takes plenty of time, especially in a lengthy game with a complex and branching storyline. There’s always going to be that one obscure route no one played through, and that insignificant variable which breaks one of the endings under specific conditions. Even if you are super careful about it.
That’s why we decided not to leave quality assurance for the very end. We’ve made an effort to have a playable demo very early to send it to other VN developers. We realized that, as newbies to the genre, we’re bound to make some obvious mistakes. It’s better to ask the pros what they think before it gets too late to make significant changes. It was also the first step in establishing future business relations and generally marking our presence in the VN scene. Having a playable demo early also allowed us to offer a preview build to the pre-order owners and gather some early feedback from the actual end users.
Further parts of the game were tested as we developed them. After implementing a chapter, the whole team played through it at least once. It wasn’t extensive testing, but it made sure there are no major storyline or technical issues present, and we can move to the next chapter. Near the end, we also started to include volunteering pre-order owners in the process.
Thanks to this approach, when the game hit content-complete version, it was actually pretty polished. Only proofreading and less critical bugs remained, and we sent the game to volunteers to cover those, while also taking the time to have one last look at the whole script ourselves.
We’ve also made the game available to pre-order owners a week before the official release. It served both as a token of appreciation for their trust and support during the development, as well as the last chance for us to catch something critical before it turns into a disaster.
We haven’t avoided a few post-release patches with minor corrections, but thanks to our approach to testing, the release build was properly polished without dedicating months to testing at the end of the development. Given how big our delay already was, it may have saved us from going under.
Ren’Py is by far the most popular indie VN development tool (and for a good reason), but we decided to go with GameMaker instead and coded our own visual novel framework from scratch. There were three reasons behind that decision.
I knew GameMaker very well from back when I was working on Magi/ArcMagi. I also did lots of prototyping in it back at my job at Codeminion. A familiar tool is always better than a new one if time is essential.
It was important for us that Cinders would stand out among other VNs visually, with plenty of animations and special effects. GameMaker, being a more generalist 2D engine, simply allowed for more oomph.
More general-use tool also means we can expand our framework with new gameplay elements or anything really, if we ever need to. We wanted to develop something that we could use to create more complex games in the future.
All in all, we’re very happy with the choice we’ve made. There were some hurdles at first, as the Mac version of the tool proved to be very buggy. But once these issues were fixed, we haven’t encountered any signifiant problems. Coding features was fast, the game looks pretty, and we never had to constrain ourselves due to some limitations.
One problem is that GM Studio, which came out later and promised easy deployment to mobile devices, differs from the old version in some ways (also, doesn’t feature a Mac IDE). It makes porting more complex and time consuming than we predicted. Nothing unsolvable though.
Marketing and traffic sources
We approached marketing from two directions. By contacting the press directly to get features and reviews to attract new gamers. And bottom-up, by getting involved in the VN community, contacting other developers, asking for feedback, talking to gamers directly on various forums, and generally making our presence known.
I can tell you right away that the latter was more important in the long run. Visual novel readers and developers are a tight-knit community. Getting them to talk about your game is infinitely more important for its success than any single review. To this day, people find about Cinders through word of mouth, long after all the press features disappeared in the stream of new releases.
It’s worth noting that we resigned from using any PR distribution services. Or writing official press releases at all for that matter. I’ve seen a major decline in the effectiveness of this kind of marketing for indie devs in the past few years. Too many games come out, PR services are cluttered with spam, and officially sounding “We’re thrilled to announce our innovative yada yada” releases are boring like nothing else. At best they get auto-posted on some news aggregators no one reads. Waste of time.
Instead, I sent direct emails to journalists from our own contact list (if you don’t have one, stop reading and correct your mistake this instance). Of course, I included all the stuff that’s usually in the press releases, like basic game info, screenshots, and review copies, but tried to make it as personal and non-formal as possible.
I started by reaching to journalist that knew us from our former work or could be otherwise interested in what we’re doing. We also didn’t discriminate smaller websites or blogs, especially if they were closer to our audience. With a niche game, an honest blog review read by a small community of fans may be worth more than a feature on a big mainstream outlet.
Journalists often know each other. If enough outlets write about you, the rest is likely to pick the track of your game by themselves. For example, we didn’t write Kotaku about the game. Patricia Hernandez just found out about the game through another source and decided to feature it.
…this is how our top traffic sources look. As you can see, it’s pretty much all social networks and forums. The only two news outlets that managed to get to the top-10 are TIGSource and indiegames.com, and the latter only because they did several articles about our games, not just Cinders. Which only shows how much community building is important these days. Of course, you need press to get people interested in the first place. But in the end, it’s the ability to keep in touch with your players that provides sustainable traffic.
If you are interested, the Kotaku feature is at #21 with 1332 hits (pretty good for a single article). Not too many sales, though. In comparison, the review on TheMarySue was more of a slow burner, with only a couple hundreds hits at first. However, after several months it landed at #15 with 1815 uniques, while also resulting in many more sales. This shows nicely that targeted traffic is way better than a quick burst of mainstream fame, especially in the long run.
Another runner up is Tumblr with over 3k hits in total (coming from several sources, hence it doesn’t show in top-10). The spontaneous birth of Cinders fandom was one of the most pleasant post-release surprises. The word of mouth it generates is one of the main sources of our long tail traffic and sales. We launched our own micro-blog on the service recently, to stay in touch with this significant fraction of our gamers. In time, I think it’ll be up there with Twitter and Facebook.
The conclussions are easy to read. Social networks and community participation are crucial nowadays. More important than good press. And no wonder — the ability to stay close and personal with one’s audience is one of the few advantages indies have over huge companies. It’s also really enjoyable and a great way to stay motivated.
Sales and longtail
Yes, I know you probably skipped straight to this part :). The numbers!
We needed at least 1000 sales to consider making another game.
2000 sales ($40k) would make Cinders an actual commercial success.
Average gross salary in Poland is at around $14k (I had $18k at my last job).
So how did it go? In short — we did it. The game is almost exactly at 2000 units sold at the point of writing this.
What’s more important. It still sells a few copies a day, and it doesn’t look like this long tail is going to end anytime soon (just like it didn’t with Magi). After we release a few more games, it should add up to a nice passive income between the releases.
One thing we regret is that Steam rejected the game. We didn’t expect them to take it initially and certainly didn’t plan around it, but after Christine Love’s Analogue enjoyed some success on the service, there was some glimmer of hope. With how Greenlight is constructed, we don’t see a chance for a niche game like Cinders to get on Steam anytime soon.
Summary and future prospects
So how do we feel about it? Was it worth it? Are we happy with the results? Do we look forward to the future?
Yes! We haven’t become one of those overnight-millionaires success stories, but we never intended to. However we do what we love and manage to live from it on a level comparable to back when we were office workers. We earned enough to be able to release Bonfire and be well advanced in the development of Solstice before we ran our of money. And if we keep at at it, more serious money is also a possibility.
It’s great to see that this whole indie thing still works. Just making the games you want to make, selling them to the people who enjoy something different. Without publishers, huge portals, kickstarter, or an office filled with hired developers making your “indie” game 9-to-6.
Stay tuned for part three where I’ll get more personal and talk about how our day-to-day lives looked during the development of Cinders. As lifestyle benefits are one of the major reasons for developers to go indie, I think it could be very interesting to many of you.