My week at GDC 2018 – Part 1

March 31st, 2018

It began to snow on the day I was due to fly to GDC

In this blog post I’ll talk about my 8th GDC trip, how much it cost, and why I went. In the next post I will link to some of the talks that I enjoyed.

To get to GDC I have to get a car to a train station, then a train to a bus station, then a bus to the airport, then a plane to GDC, then a BART to my hotel. It takes a *long* time and costs a lot of money and is not pleasant, so why do it do it? Because GDC is great and I have a blast which outweighs the pain. Also, bizdev etc.

How much did it cost?
- Indie Game Sumit pass = $375 (you can pay way more for other passes, or less and get an Expo pass)
- Flight from London to SFO = $910 (economy class)
- Train, Bus and BART = $140 (plus a bit of car fuel)
- Hotel (1 night solo and 4 nights shared with friend) = $1060
- Food = $175 (lots of people bought me meals so that helped with the cost)

Total = $2660 (£1900)

I only stayed from Saturday night to Thursday night this year but in other years I’ve stayed until Saturday. This was to save money because if you pick flights on certain days they cost less and other busier days cost a fortune (e.g. Sunday to Friday), and of course more days = greater hotel cost.

My company is strapped for cash this year and many people probably wouldn’t have spent the money in my financial situation, but I view it as an investment, and I have enough liquidity to make it happen, so I went.

The one big saving I could have made was to stay in a cheap hostel I guess, but at my age, that’s just not for me. I need a decent quality place to stay in, but still on a budget. So sharing with a friend in a good hotel is a nice way to achieve that. I’ve stayed in some real dives in dodgy areas in the past but I don’t want to do that any more.

Some people asked me why my wife and business partner, Helen, wasn’t there. And the answer is twofold: 1) the cost would double and we simply cannot afford that, and 2) we have two childen that need looking after for a week. Helen could go instead of me, but I basically know way more people and will get more out of it from a bizdev point of view than her, and that compounds itself every time I go of course. Helen goes to UK-based events with me instead, and sometimes to events on her own. In fact we will both be at Rezzed in April, so say “Hi!” if you see us.

What were my goals?

I am between games at the moment since the Launch of Shadowhand in December, and so I didn’t have any new games to show to press, nor any prototypes to pitch to publishers. I didn’t even have a nearly finished build to get feedback on from game dev friends, which is what I did last year with Shadowhand.

So I didn’t set up any formal meetings, but I knew there would be several events I should go to in order to chat to people who may be able to help me out financially in the next year or so. However, I did make a list of people I wanted to meet and who had expressed interest in meeting me, and I managed to meet most of them. Also, I just wanted to reconnect with existing friends and make new ones in case opportunities crop up in the future.

I often explain to people who have never gone before that you get more out of GDC the more you go. This is because you reinforce the connections you make each year and make new ones. Plus you get to know which are the talks and parties most suited to you and your objectives. Also you get to know the “lay of the land” and figure out the best places to hang out and eat, and the places to avoid.

Therefore I don’t GDC as a single event with some kind of tangible ROI because it’s more like advertising in that repeated exposure brings benefits which pan out over the long term. I’ve received invaluable advice about the market and my games, got games in two Humble Bundles (which have paid for all past GDCs), met press/streamers, met influential indies who helped me out in various ways, and just got a big inspirational boost. Plus it’s a nice “holiday” in a completely different place from Dorset (where I live), though it’s not relaxing, it’s hectic!

Peak San Francisco: could this guy be a CEO of a tech starup?

Saturday

I got to the airport early because I was paranoid about snow disrupting my various transport methods, but it turned out the journey there was fine. However the flight was delayed for 2 hours due to ice on the wings and runway. The flight (British Airways airbus from Terminal 5) was fine as I had an aisle seat and no one sitting next to me – result! I watched 5 movies, had a couple of gins, was dissapointed by the tea as per usual, and didn’t sleep.

It’s a bit too expensive to get a taxi or Uber from the Airport into downtown and so I got the BART which is a noisy old train system that runs around San Francisco. It’s so noisy I have noticed locals getting on there with earplugs inserted!

I was most amused in my befuddled state to see the guy in the photo above roll onto the train with his weird skateboard thing at one of the stops. In my mind he personified San Francisco perfectly. He was a bit flustered and his trousers were hanging off his arse revealing some bright red underpants. He had three model aeroplane kits under his arm and he plonked himself down on a seat and began to scoff pistachio nuts and throw the shells on the seat beside him. There was a “no food” sign right next to him.

After he finished the nuts he had a big swig from his 500ml bottle of sprite and then broke into a large bag of gummy worms. At this point, as the woman in the background of the photo began to give him serious stinkeye, I began to theorise that he was probably a CEO of a tech start up. Eventually he got up, red arse on display again, and rolled off to his corporate headquarters.

I got to my hotel about 10pm and thought I’d probably fall asleep immediately but somehow I stayed awake until midnight on my laptop, which was good in terms of keeping me in sync with the 8 hour time difference from the UK.

Sunday

On Sunday I woke up at 6am-ish and waited until 8am when I ventured out to Starbucks over the road for breakfast. I could have got breakfast in the hotel but the buffet was $33+tax, so er yeah, no I didn’t do that.

I arranged to meet a friend (Matt Gambell, RPG Tycoon) at the mall to potentially buy some new trainers as my current ones are getting a bit old. But when I got to mall but it was closed until 11am and so I bailed on that plan and went to SF MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art), which I really like going to (this was my 3rd time).

I visited the MOMA last year and most of the exhibits have changed since then so that was pretty cool. I used to think modern art was bullshit, and to be fair, I still think some of it is. But I’ve learned to appreciate it now. I just sorta of stand there and let it wash over me and see what it makes me feel. Sometime nothing but other times it can be quite trippy especially the huge orange and blue Rothko in the museum.

After that I met some friends for lunch including Dave and Janet Gilbert from Wadget Eye Games (they make point and click adventure games). It was a quiet Chinese restaurant recommended by Ido Yehieli of Cardinal Quest fame. The portions were huge and I couldn’t finish mine.

Later in the day Ichiro Lambe from Dejobaan Games showed up at the same hotel I’m staying in and showed me the fancy hotel suite that he hired to have “relaxed chat sessions” with other developers in. I ended up going to quite of lot of the sessions during the week and they were great!

Then we hit up the hotel bar and I had a cocktail which contained strawberry and jalapeno flakes. It was awesome. So much so that I had another one later.

Brian Provinciano (Retro City Rampage) showed up at the hotel and because I was sharing a hotel room with him Ichiro and I popped up to the room to say “hi” but Brian was sorta naked in bed chilling out.

So Ichiro and I made a hasty exit and went for another Chinese meal in China town with some friends of his before ending up in the hotel bar again to greet Cliffski (Positech Games) who had just flown in. He was pissed off because he’d ordered some “chips” and got a bowl of “crisps”. A rookie mistake. Matt Gambell and a friend also turned up despite me standing him up on our mall shopping date earlier in the day.

Intending to have an early night I went back to my room but ended up talking to Brian until like 2am. It was good to see him again as we used to hang out when I lived in Vancouver and we get on well.

OK, that’s it for this blog post. In the next post I’ll talk about what I actually got up to during the week of GDC.

If you have any questions, ask away in the comments!

Read Part 2 here.

Sequels vs new IP

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…

Shadowhand update

March 10th, 2018

We’ve added some shiny new features to Shadowhand, which we think players will love.

Sell your stuff
Players can now sell items back to the shop at 10% of their regular price. The main purpose of this feature is to allow people to tidy up their inventory, for example by getting rid of weapons they no longer use.

Check your score
Players earn stars depending on their performance on each level. Stars earned on chapters are now shown above chapter cards on the Select Chapter screen. This makes it easier for players to see their overall scores for the game, and to decide whether they would like to retry a chapter to get even more stars.

Further improvements
In addition, a number of other changes are also included in this update:
- Added confirmation dialog for when purchasing shop items.
- Fixed Borderless Window on Mac to have no title bar and to hide app launcher bar.
- Fixed desktop icon on Mac so that it’s no longer the default Steam icon.
- Fixed typo in Ch9 story.
- Default.ini changed so that game will load in borderless window instead of full-screen on first play.