Hello patrons (and non-patrons),
I have to begin with a disclaimer because this article is in addition to the two articles that I have committed to delivering to my patrons each month. Additionally, I am making this content public because I believe that it is very important and I would like to combat the spreading of false information regarding the topics at hand. With that being said, I hope that you enjoy this and learn something. If so, consider becoming a patron if you are not one already. Thank you.
The Luck-Based Business Plan
Wow, so there is a lot to cover here. To avoid reiterating the situation that influenced me to write all of this tonight, I will supply a few links to the original blog entry: Here, here, and/or here. Each of these links depict the same post, but the comments sections shed a lot of light on the situation and differ from portal to portal. Also, prior to saying anything seemingly negative about Poncho, the developers of Poncho, or the publishers of Poncho, I would like to state that the purpose of the article is NOT to bash on anyone or their abilities. The purpose of this article is to assist in avoiding a situation where new developers are scared away from a thriving industry and a strong community due to one group’s horror story.
(Poncho – screenshot from Steam storefront)
Poncho is a indie platformer about shifting the player between different layers of the background and foreground (think Mutant Mudds or Xeodrifter); the game began development in 2012. After a whole slew of ups and downs, Poncho launched in late 2015 via Steam and PS4 (“the worst year of my life” according to the developer). The overall objective of the postmortem was to bring attention to the low sales number of the game in comparison to the vast amounts of hard work, funding, and heart that went into the development process. I am doing my best not to draw this part out, but for those who didn’t read the article in full (or would appreciate a recap) I will equip you with a handy, dandy bullet-point list:
1) In 2011, a sprite of a square-headed, monochromatic character with a single piece of clothing inspires a game named after said piece of clothing (no, not Fez).
2) The remainder of 2011 and the majority of 2012 are dedicated to becoming proficient with the Unity 3D game engine and iterating on the overall design and game mechanics that center around shifting the traditional platformer perspective (still not Fez).
3) 2013 was the year that they brought on a new team member to handle the pixel art. Development hours were again used to correct design pitfalls that stemmed from the work of 2011/2012.
4) During 2014, the core team quit their day jobs. Without having done any prior marketing at this point, they insisted on planning a Kickstarter campaign.
5) In order to take Poncho to EGX (a game conference), the developer claimed to take out a loan to cover the costs (“it was in the thousands”).
6) A trailer was launched (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nimoT5xC4PI) and ~three press releases were performed prior to launching the Kickstarter campaign (how adequate or exhaustive these actions were is beyond the scope of the postmortem).
7) The team showed Poncho at EGX later in 2014. Following the conference, the Kickstarter campaign failed; wrapping up at a mere 38% of their goal.
8) In 2015, the team brought RGS (an independent games publisher) into the fold, as well as ran out of money, lost a home, lost their development kits, and turned to marijuana to cope.
9) On November 3rd, 2015, Poncho was launched via Steam and PS4. The team fought mismatch reviews, a lack of publicity and cooperation from journalism outlets (little to no articles or noteworthy reviews), and poor sales. To the date of this writing, the game has yet to make a single penny of revenue for Delve Interactive.
10) Fourteen months after the release of Poncho (this morning), the postmortem was published and it was announced that further porting would sadly be cancelled.
A Disservice To Future Generations
As developers, I believe that it is our duty to be transparent about our successes and our failures. If we are unable to do this, we send a skewed image of our industry to the people who make up the future of games, or to the people who could have, but fled with their unknowingly ignorant tails between their legs. To reiterate, I do not believe that Delve Interactive released this information with the hope of leading new developers astray. I believe that they were trying to cover their asses in regards to cancelling the unfinished ports, warn current developers of what they believed to be their mistakes, announce their next project in a way that would be wildly shared, and perhaps grab a few pity sales along the way. For the most part, there is nothing wrong with any of that. However, the rest of my article will be focused on what I feel they did incorrectly, discuss some of the words shared publicly (and wrongfully) between a developer and the publisher, and a few tips regarding your first independent game.
A Second Opinion: Postmortem: Poncho
Alrighty, this is where the opinions of Danny Hayes (author of the original postmortem) end, and mine begin. If you are not super curious about the pitfalls that I see, feel free to skip or skim the rest of this article. Again, this is simply a collection of my opinions based on what I have learned as a developer and recently, as a publisher. If this article makes the rounds and you are unaware of who I am, I am Zack Bell. I am the co-founder of Spaceboy Games, where I act as a programmer, designer, publishing scout, and a CEO of sorts. Together with my team, we are publishing High Noon Revolver (Mike Studios, Singapore) on January 25th (PC, Mac, and Linux), and launching our own project, HackyZack (PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One), soon after. Prior to Spaceboy Games, I released a game called INK (PC, Mac, and Linux) which has gone on to sell over 215, 000 units within the last sixteen months.
Due to the nature and organization (or lack thereof) of my postmortem, tips involving “first games”, marketing, and publisher relations will be sprinkled throughout rather than blocked out like the previous text blocks.
There are so many qualities that go into making a successful independent video game. There are an equal many things that can go wrong, feel off, seem uninspired, and so on. I don’t believe that Poncho is an objectively bad game; I will get that out of the way now. That being said, I see glaring problems that would have prevented me from developing or publishing the game, personally. From bullet-point number one, I don’t believe the mechanics to be overly unique and while playing, I felt that the mechanic was used as more of a gimmick than it was in other games of its kind. For example, Mutant Mudds (early 2012) and Xeodrifter (2014) both use the traversal of different background layers sparingly and are the visuals are complimented well by their platform of choice (the Nintendo 3DS). In an article that I wrote last week, I discussed different approaches to creating and iterating on new game ideas and player mechanics. I do state that not all games require unique mechanics, but Method A also recommends that if you are going to do it again, make sure to do it better. I do not believe that they pulled this off, but this is just an opinion; we can now move onto problems outside of the realm of fun and design. I just thought that it was worth noting that the quality of your game is certainly relevant to its success and it is common for developers working on multi-year projects to adopt tunnel vision and lose track of where they were originally aiming.
The following bullet point can be summed up as roughly two years of gaining a familiarity with a new technology and spinning their wheels inside of a game design iteration loop. I have previously discussed a similar problem that I ran into when designing one of our Spaceboy Games properties, Fara & The Eye of Darkness. It is easy to become attached to a sprite, a world, or a mechanic with desperate hopes that your crises will be averted with enough time and thought. A seasoned developer will know when to reconsider, add something else to the mix, or even throw in the towel. A game mechanic is often a neat gimmick worth exploring while simultaneously not having enough depth to warrant a game on its own. This is where I believe Poncho is surpassed by Xeodrifter. The multiple layers and swapping between them were merely the sprinkles on a classic, very “metroidvania” cake. At this time, the developers were still working jobs, so I can’t fault them for deciding to take extra time to learn how to develop the game within Unity. However, increasing a project’s timeline makes a dent in the psyche regardless of the intensity at which you are working. For first time developers, don’t stress about a commercial product until you are comfortable with your work environment and have explored the pros and cons of the game environment that you have in mind.
During 2013, the team brought a pixel artist on board. I am unsure about how this additional member was compensated, but due to the fact that design issues were still being ironed out throughout the remainder of that year, I would presume that the hire was completed prematurely. Polished assets are unnecessary prior to fleshing out a mechanically-driven, mechanically-complete prototype. As well as a decent amount of playable content to display the range of your potential gameplay scenarios.
The AAA games industry can feel cutthroat. Delve Interactive mentioned sixty-hour work weeks and extended periods of crunch. This is not unheard of and would certainly have an impact on the development timeline of their, at the time, side-project. The author stated that he had a reasonable buffer of money saved up and decided to quit his job during 2014. Also during 2014, the same developer decided to take out a personal loan of several thousand dollars to cover the cost of a game conference appearance. To me, that screams disorder, a lack of preparation, and so much more. Unless the game was on track to release during 2014, there should be no reason for the developer to quit his job without enough capital to see him through the new year.
This same time period brought about the discussion of Kickstarter and noted that zero marketing had been done prior. Ok, now I can’t be completely sure about what Delve Interactive considers “marketing”, but throughout three years of development you should be able to gain a hefty number of fans, Twitter followers, and so forth. Developing your game in a transparent manner is practically the cornerstone of independent games marketing. I would go as far as to say that your sales numbers will somehow be proportionate to the number of GIFs that you tweet over the course of your development timeline. A press release can have a lot of impact on your web presence, but journalists are active on social media too, and much prefer to write about things that they have previously seen or heard of. “Exclusives” are only relevant if they have an impact created by being known or popular previously in some way. For example, a new Hideo Kojima game is a great headline. It gets clicks. A new game by first-time developer, Hingle McCringleberry is useless unless they feel that their audience 1) would be drawn to it due to some incredibly unique component, or 2) would be coming back to something that they already know and want to read more about.
I could go on and on about the Kickstarter piece of this, but I will attempt to keep it brief. First, know that Kickstarter is a full-time job in itself. The meticulous planning of your page, your reward tiers, your asking price, and more will take a month or so. The campaign itself, along with updates, communicating with early backers, and monitoring and adjusting to account for the reception of your campaign will take another month or so. Lastly, it will take an additional ~month to receive your money from backers after waving goodbye to a plentiful amount of fees and taxes. Quitting your job, months later having to take a loan for a conference that may or not benefit you, and then adding three months of burnt development time and living expenses to your tab does not seem like a solid play; whether or not you receive your reward. “£22.5k was the goal we landed on for the Kickstarter. We figured it was the minimum we needed to finish off the game, I was fine with surviving instead of living for awhile to see it through. £22.5k between 3 people over 6 months is less than minimum wage, but we were prepared to do it. Only PONCHO mattered.” Having lived through the previous couple of years of obstacles, there is no way I would have trusted this statement. It is a tough pill to swallow, but perhaps this saved the backers from some extra disappointment.
Near the end of all of this, money was non-existent, morale was probably several meters into the mud, and a publisher was brought into the mix. The year the publisher became involved was finally the year of a victory; a Steam launch! However, the comments section on Destructoid tell a different story. RGS claims that the postmortem was the first that they were hearing of a cancelled port. They continue on about early excitement, over-spending, growing apathetic, and then an overall poor relationship with the developer. The developer responds with jabs of their own in regards to the validity of the publisher. There is mention of sloppy agreements and a lack of contract for a time.There is a literal pissing match in the comments of this postmortem and it reads as an organized stack of red flags that make you feel for both sides. I do not wish to comment further on that.
Be confident in your work environment, don’t rush into commercial products and extreme life/time commitments, Be wary of the pros and cons of your game concept and be transparent with other developers to receive as much feedback as possible, know when to put something down, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and create a lone job of something that you have not proven, do not take personal loans for your first independent project (you are better off cutting scope, retaining a part-time, non-dev job, etc), begin your marketing and your transparent development on day one, consider the downside to bringing a relatively unknown project to an expensive show floor, consider the downside to sending a relatively unknown project to an experienced journalist, only consider Kickstarter as a last resort and be aware of the costs that it brings, contact an attorney prior to dealing with publishers or workers (especially if you do not know them personally), be wary of monetary advances and what they do to your eventual revenue, be open and honest with your publishing partner(s), require that your partner(s) be open and honest with you, and do an honest service to your fellow game developers by encouraging creativity and hard work, sharing the ins and outs of a positive game development experience, and pushing the general attitude and ethic of our industry in the right direction.