Hi there, been a while.
This post is going to be fairly long. I will talk about Unending Galaxy, the recent changes to Steam’s review system and Greenlight and how they impact my studio. Finally we’re going to talk a bit about the game I am currently working on. I also hope you’re enjoying the new website design. It’s still a work in progress, be sure to tell me if there’s something amiss.
Unending Galaxy post-post-mortem
All things considered, Unending Galaxy’s metrics are pretty satisfying. It’s a good time to read the actual post-mortem if you haven’t done so already. Yes, the launch was fairly rough and many bugs had to be fixed. Steam reviews (more on that later) are somewhat mixed. But the game sold decently, and beside some hardware compatibility issues I have no power over, most bugs have been fixed. Overall, the game satisfied the niche I was targeting.
Sure, I could have done more, and the game as a whole isn’t exempt from exploits and balancing issues. I freely admit that much and will definitely work on a follow-up at some point, in a new engine, when enough funds have been gathered to make something better.
Steam Review System
In order to keep fake reviews under control, Valve decided to ignore the review scores from people who haven’t bought the game on the Steam store directly, including gifts. This move is supposed to cut down fake reviews, and to some limited extend I suppose it had. It’s just completely disregarding the fact that if a developer want a fake review now, they will just Paypal the reviewer instead of directly giving a key.
I have to say the review system changes were detrimental to my business model. Decreasing my rating from 70%+ (mostly positive) to about 65% (mixed) because my early customers had the audacity to buy the game directly from me or from a 3rd party store. My model was to sell the game early, at a discount, on this website and on small stores where I think it’s acceptable to sell “in-development” games. I have never understood this trend of selling alpha/beta versions at full price on Steam and think that doing so is insulting your customers, but I digress.
Of course, many of the people in the niche targeted by Unending Galaxy ended up buying the game early, either for the discount, or because they like following the development process. But according to Steam, their reviews do not count. Not selling the game on third party stores until it has been fully released on Steam, or using the Steam Early Access thingy despite all its problems, or not sharing Steam keys on 3rd party websites (hoping someone buys 2 copies instead of one), would be the most business savvy decisions with this new system.
In other words, I think the new system, while it may cut some of the fake reviews, is inciting developers (good and bad) to publish incomplete or bad products on Steam first instead of using less prevalent stores to check if there’s a market for their product, get feedback and so on.
For those who don’t already know, a new system called Steam Direct is going to replace Greenlight.
As you can read, the details are a bit sketchy at the moment. The general idea is to remove the vote mechanic (it has been more and more of a joke to go through Greenlight during the last 2 years anyway. Right now, if I wanted to put some effort into it, I could get a blue screen of death green-lit in less than a month) and to force developers to pay “a recoupable application fee for each new title they wish to distribute”. This fee has not yet been released but it goes “from as low as $100 to as high as $5,000”. In other words, it’s a paywall, and it’s not clear what the exact definition of “recoupable” is.
The comment thread on the Steam post I linked is quite a shit-show. I’ll save you some time by summarizing it. We have some (unsuccessful) developers crying it will kill their business, we have some (quite successful) developers asking to set the price of admission to the full $5.000, if not more, on the sole reason they can afford that amount and still have spare change to hire art/sound artists on top of that, getting rid of the competition in the process. And we obviously have a ton of people knowing absolutely nothing about the costs of running such a business but having totally nailed down the perfect sum.
From my perspective, I’d say that $1.000-$1.500 sounds like enough without being crippling to the small developers. It’s high enough to force people with zero experience, budget and those making it for the lolz to use smaller marketplaces (It’s a sum you can earn there) instead of cluttering the store. Going back to a survey I linked in my post-mortem, 57% of indie game developers (including both solo indies and members of indie teams across all pay ranges) made under $500 in game sales. So, technically putting the bar at $1.000 should get rid of the very bottom of the pile. Of course it’s not going to prevent meme/crap games made by people who are wealthy enough to pay said fee, but that’s the problem with paywalls in general. It’s technically impossible to prevent someone with unlimited money to publish anything, but that’s out of our scope.
What does it means in my case? Well, between $100 and $2.000 I will just “eat” it, and publish my next game without much disruption. Anything over means I might have to either explain how the fuck Steam works to my banker or reduce how much I want to invest in assets, or both. And a $5.000+ fee has a good shot at killing my business.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about it. I am glad that Greenlight is going away, it will force 15yo “devs” with a (pirated) copy of RPG Maker or any other copy/paste game engine to go back to where they belong. While I don’t think it’s a fair system in any case, it has been made clear that Steam isn’t interested in using a manual process.
I have been working on a new large project. Yes, I said I’d release a small game at a low price just to get used to the new coding language, but adapting to C# was much less difficult that I thought it would be. And given everything I just wrote, I think it’s better to wait for Steam to deliver on its new system than to waste time promoting a low-tier game on Greenlight anyway. For the coders around, this project is written with the Monogame library (and several extensions). Data files are in JSON making them editable by anyone with a text editor. It will feature some Lua support for modding purpose. It should, hopefully, be portable to Linux this time.
I won’t enter in too much details about the project itself because it’s still in its infancy stage, but it’s heavily inspired by my old GRA project. It will feature a procedurally crafted world also containing hand-crafted parts, a lot of NPC living their own lives and running an economy, plenty of customizable weapons to make the destructible terrain go boom. It will be roguelike-ish, and I hope I’ll make it work both in turn-based and real-time modes. The game will take place in a more hostile environment than GRA. 2D and top-down viewpoint, and moddable, as usual.
Contrary to GRA and to some lesser extend UG, I’m writing it in a bottom-up manner. In other words, instead of starting by designing the world at large, I’m starting at the very bottom, animating sprites, defining basic npc behaviors, writing a detailed “building generator”, and so on. It makes for a much more flexible design, and will probably improve my new to rewritten code ratio.
I know it’s pretty vague at the moment, and it’s intended, that will make for better devlogs, which should resume shortly 🙂