Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Latvian gamedev conference

Friday, April 13th, 2018

When my husband and business partner Jake Birkett is invited to speak at a game development conference in Latvia, my interest is piqued. I realise that my knowledge of the games business in this part of the world is extremely limited, and of course I want to find out more.

Thanks to generous sponsorship from GameInsight, the one day event in Latvia’s capital, Riga, is free to attend, and attracts over 100 game industry professionals and students.

What about Latvia?
Latvia is a little country with big ambition. This small Baltic nation has a population of fewer than two million and an interesting cultural mix, partly as a result of historical rule by neighbours such as Sweden, Russia and Poland. Even so, Latvia has retained its own Baltic identity and language.

The Latvian Game Association (LSIA) was founded in 2014, although some of its members had been active since 2007. Its remit is to promote the development of the Latvian game industry and mutual cooperation between game developers, in addition to education. The industry also gets support from sources such as the Latvian Agency of Investment (LIA).

Getting started
Riga is famous for its nightlife and so some of the speakers were out late sampling the local beers and karaoke scene. Our hosts from are generous with their time and have the event well organized.

Imants Zarembo kicks off with his recent experience of getting a game on Steam and working with a publisher. Zarembo works at Soaphog Game Studio, a team of eight that spent around four years developing roguelike dungeon crawler Rezrog, which won the Latvian “game of the year” award back in January.

One of his key takeaways is to throw out early prototypes: “we made practically all the mistakes we could make,” he admits, “we kept building on the same base.” He also advises other devs: “be serious about your marketing.” The publisher experience still boosted the project and facilitated localization: despite various twists and turns taken by the business, the game has broken even.

PR and marketing advice

There is no shortage of great PR and marketing advice on hand, like the excellent PR primer for gamedevs by Agnieszka Szóstak, founder of PR Outreach based in Warsaw, Poland, complete with a launch timeline.

Further marketing advice is on hand from 11 Bit Studios’ senior writer, Pawel Miechowski, based on the strategy deployed for standout pacifist game, This War of Mine.

Miechowski has over 20 years’ experience, and goes into detail on how to create a “brand book” for your game title, the significance of selling emotion to create a marketing impact, and the importance of a consistency through all communications.

His strategy paid off in terms of garnering considerable coverage from the mainstream press, he says. The takeaway? Set the marketing tone from the very start of your project and don’t be afraid to market only to a specific audience: “If you try to make a game for everyone, it’s going to be a game for no-one,” he concludes.

A tale of two studios
Next Brjann Sigurgiersson (Image & Form Games) and Jake Birkett (Grey Alien Games) offer contrasting talks on game studio survival and strategy. Sigurgiersson describes using the same game world and intellectual property (IP) and switching genres to create a series of games, as Image & Form has done successfully with its Steamworld games.

The company increased the price of its later games, such as Steamworld Dig 2 and says the advantages include reusing the same tech, creating for the same, engaged community and continuing to iterate.

The downside of making a game series? “If you aren’t careful then it can be boring, your skills don’t evolve much and it feels like creative suicide,” says Sigurgiersson. “You could be restricting your consumer base.” However as a business model incorporating self-publishing and a growing studio in Sweden, it works well for his team. “Strong IP is key – life is too short to make bad games,” he concludes.

Birkett’s talk drills down into the revenue per hour for indies as a key metric when judging the success of a project. Using data harvested from a large number of other developers as well as from Grey Alien Games’ recent projects such as Shadowhand and Regency Solitaire, he shows that there is considerable risk for many indie developers in over-long development times, and also shows how to estimate future sales on Steam based on the first week of sales. (There is also a version of this talk on YouTube.)

The takeaway is that remaining light and agile and keeping project turnover brisk is a sensible strategy in the current market.

Ari Pulkinen then treats conference attendees to a talk on branding through music, followed by a retrospective on a significant career in concept art by Bjorn Hurri. The final, high-energy talk is by Riga-born Anatolijs Ropotovs, CEO at GameInsight, with almost 20 years of game industry experience.

Leaving on a high note

Ropotovs started out operated his own gaming community site, then went on to develop games and user experience on various platforms, including social city-building games and current mobile mega-hit, Guns of Boom. He manages large teams and has many millions of players.

The key advice from his talk was that it’s OK to fail. Keep innovating and moving forward because anything is possible.

I’d go again
It’s an invigorating message for the developers gathered in Riga. The quality of projects in the prize gamejam is high, and as we spill out to the local bar the talk is animated and the ideas continue to flow.

The afterparty in full swing

For many, the next stop is a similar event in Tallinn in neighbouring Estonia, and after that, Casual Connect in London.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this event in future…I have learned a lot, met some great people and have also caught some of their energy and enthusiasm, which leaves me brimming with ideas and ready to dive in to work when I get back home.

by Helen Carmichael

A bonus picture of Jake REALLY enjoying the Latvian dumplings

Sequels vs new IP

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Someone recently emailed me to ask my opinion on making indie sequels vs brand new IPs and I thought I’d elaborate on my reply in a blog post.

Caveat: This is just my opinion from what I’ve observed in this business for the past 13 years. It’s also presented from the perspective of being a full-time indie not a hobbyist or someone sitting on a giant pile of cash from wherever.

Basically if you made a list of indie sequels that did well and ones that did not, I suspect you’d find that the list of “flops” (I use that term losely) is a lot longer. In fact there seems to be a generally held view amongst indies that sequels are a bad idea.

Of course, one can always find exceptions, such as Democracy 3. I’m not going to call out any specific flops as that may be unduly cruel but I bet you can all think of some.

Why do sequels fail?

Of course the reasons are legion. But here are some I’ve thought of:

- Only a small percentage of players of the original will buy the sequel. These are the true fans who loved the original and want more. However, any “meh” players certainly aren’t going to buy a sequel, and nor will players who have had their fill of the game and don’t want any more.

- The game genre doesn’t lend itself well to sequels. In the download casual game market, the games are often short and designed to be played once, like how you’d read a book or watch a movie. Fans are then keen to play the next game in the series. However, some games are open-ended and players can sink many hours into them, such as sandbox simulation games, and so they may not be too bothered about playing a sequel which might not be much different anyway.

- The original launched in the “golden years” of platform X and the sequel launched in the “indieapocalypse”. I’ve definitely seem this happen with some big name devs/games. Some people still don’t believe in the indieapocalypse but I think most devs are now coming round to the idea that certain markets have matured (e.g. Steam and iOS) and that people who got on them earlier had an advantage. I think this will happen to Switch soon like it has for PS4 and XBox One.

- The sequel is too similar or too different. For example, I know of one game that got mixed reviews with players saying it should have been a DLC and felt more like a V1.5 than a sequel. The opposite is also true in that a sequel can feel so different (graphically, gameplay wise, or whatever) that it puts people off. Players have in their minds what a perfect sequel is and it is unlikely to match up with what the developer provides. In fact, some Regency Solitaire fans didn’t get on with Shadowhand (a prequel) due to us adding turn-based combat. We knew this might happen but were OK with it as we wanted to reach a bigger audience on Steam (and it worked).

- Too much time has passed. Things move on; technology and the zeitgeist changes. A game that may have been cool and original 10 years ago no longer turns heads.

Sequels can make a company go bust.

A serious mistake that I’ve seen repeated many times is as follows: a company has a big success and expands their studio and ploughs all their money into a bigger and better sequel (or new IP), which then flops. Or even if it does OK, it’s still not enough money to pay for the expanded team and development time.

This should be avoided at all costs. Thinking you have a magic formula in game dev is a very big mistake imho. Anything can go wrong. The first success may have been an unrepeatable fluke, and in fact PROBABLY WAS. Expecting to repeat that sucess (“catch lightning in a bottle“) is not wise. You wouldn’t expect to roll a double six twice in a row, so don’t bet your house on it.

Not that I’ve been fortunate enough to have a big hit, but if I was, I’d put about 10% of my money into the next game and try again with a relatively quick game in order to trade off the success of the previous game.

Why is new IP risky?

As I’ve mentioned above, there can be a tendency to “go big” for the next game if the first game was a success, which can cause real problems if the new game doesn’t do well.

This is compounded when making a new IP instead of a sequel because (mostly) everything has do be done from scratch (if it’s a new genre too) and not much can be reused which can result in a longer development time. This can severly affect the $ per hour earned from the time spend making the game.

Also fans of your first game may not be interested in the theme or genre of your new IP. They may not care at all about the dev team that made it if the theme/genre is a severe mismatch. I saw this happen in an extreme case recently where a team that made a multi-million selling game released a much poorer-selling game that looked or played nothing like their first game, thus squandering their original player base’s goodwill.

In fact, I’m pretty sure many players just don’t care about studios or “indie rock stars”. Sure, a few do, but I think there’s way more of this sort of “fanboy/girl” stuff in the game dev industry than amongst actual customers. So beware of that too.

Furthermore, your new IP may be moving away from a successful theme/genre into a less successful one. This is very hard to predict especially as what is popular constantly changes.

Is there a compromise?

Now to the point of my article, gosh! So I’ve established that sequels are a bad idea and so is new IP, which leaves nothing left except going out of business. That may be closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, but I do believe there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

I see two main options:

- Make a sequel QUICKLY. If you can make the sequel using the same tech, with a few improvements (based on feedback from the first game or ideas you didn’t have time to implement the first time round), but you control scope to get it done quickly, then I think that can be worth it. This is based on me seeing successful sequels in the casual download space which improved upon the original but not so much as to be a giant delayed project. The undoubted master of this is Jeff Vogel, who has been making very similar RPG games for 24 years.

- REUSE your engine for a new IP. An alternative is to do what I’ve done with my games which is to reuse the engine but for a new IP in the same genre. This gives you the chance to try out a different theme which may be a better market fit (like when I made Spooky Bonus using the Spring Bonus engine). They aren’t simple “reskins” but a proper retheming with different elements and a few improvements. This can be done quite quickly and at low cost so isn’t very risky. Also, if you can name your new games in a way that makes them sound similar to the other ones but not appear as obvious sequels, then you can end up with a bunch of fans who buy them ALL. A friend of mine likes to call this the “franchise effect”. It’s certainly happened with my games.

But I want to make a completely new game!

People often ask me if I get bored reusing my engine and making similar game. Well luckily I enjoy refining the concept for each game that I make, and because it lowers my risk, I get to stay in business. Of course I’d also like to be making cool new things but I sate that desire to some extent by doing game jams and making small games just for fun and to improve my skills.

I realise this approach is not for everyone, and that’s fine. But I have to balance idealism with realism in order to stay in business because I do not have a warchest of cash. Perhaps things will change in the future, but that’s where I am for now.

So this year, expect to see a) a sequel from us, and b) a reuse of my engine with a different theme…

You are spending too long making your game (Video)

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Jake recently did a talk for an online conference called ProIndieDev. The talk was about why you are spending too long making your game with a bunch of fascinating charts of data collected over the past 13 years that reveal hourly earnings from working on our games.