Delays, Thoughts about Launches, and Some Icons

My regular job — the one I’ve been doing half-time — has had a crisis and I’ve had to switch back to doing it full time while we deal with an emergency. This will probably delay my plans for 3-5 weeks, I’m guessing. Frustrating, but the up-side is that afterwards, I will be able to take a chunk of time and work just on the MMO for several weeks. Working full time on the game is much more efficient than part-time work on it, so this delay has a silver lining.

Lessons from Star Corsairs

Dave Toulouse’s discussion of his indie Flash MMO “Star Corsairs” was informative. He shared sales and distribution numbers for it here.

In a nutshell, he worked on it for 5 months, launched the game with the last remains of his savings, and then promoted it hard for two weeks. He earned $273.31 in those two weeks, which wasn’t enough to keep him fed, so he’s had to go get a day job. He’s still hopeful it will pick up more steam as time goes on, but he couldn’t wait any longer.

The lessons seem to be:

  • It’s really hard to get attention for your indie MMO
  • You’d better plan on having the game live for a while, because at first it’s not going to have many players

I admit I haven’t paid a ton of attention to the publicity aspect of my MMO yet — I mean, this blog has kind of become a publicity blog in its own way, but aside from that, maybe I should start doing promotional efforts more aggressively right now. That feels like a whole separate job that I don’t know how to do (and don’t have time to do), though. I’ll be thinking about that aspect of the game.

Lessons from Lego Universe

I played Lego Universe for a few hours, and it seemed pretty nice. It didn’t quite hit all my buttons to make me pay for it, but I think it’s a pretty tight game. So I was surprised to hear it was going away. It just went free-to-play in August! They spent millions on this game, and they have 2 million sign ups, but they weren’t able to figure out a satisfactory revenue model for their target audience. The shuttering of Lego Universe means over 130 people are losing their jobs, too.

The game had an unfortunate development history, but I didn’t know any of that history when I played it: it just felt like a pretty decent little MMO. I didn’t realize an entire 130-person studio was riding on its success. So it feels like another game like Tabula Rasa: the final game may not have been a million-dollars-a-month moneygasm, but I’m sure they were making more money from it than it cost to run the servers and keep a small support team on it. But they needed the game to pay for 130 peoples’ salaries, plus pay back the millions they spent developing it. In the end I think it’s a lot less about the game, and more about how it just cost too much to make and run.

The lessons there seem to be:

  • Don’t overspend/overstaff your MMO
  • Don’t take too long developing it
  • Find a way to earn money from your target audience

Pre-Alpha 1 Comes When?

I think both of these games’ lessons point out that I need to get something playable ASAP. I’m supposed to be testing this month with “Pre-Alpha 1″, which I scrambled to get working by the end of October. Now this emergency has pulled me away from the game entirely for a few weeks, so I guess Pre-Alpha 1 will be in November instead.

I also worry that Pre-Alpha 1 is not “playable” enough. I’ve been so focused on making sure the server architecture works that the content isn’t organized yet. So it’s basically a tech demo, with various vendors and items and monsters and quests lying about, ready to be used to test bits of the technology. It’s not really a game at all yet — more like a big pile of game parts that haven’t been quite assembled together.

The #1 goal of Pre-Alpha 1 is to make sure my server technology is stable, but in order to do that I need a dozen players logged in, all at once, playing for over an hour. If I need people playing the game for an hour, it stands to reason I need at least an hours’ worth of gameplay! I actually have that much content, more or less — I just don’t have it all connected and glued together. So if I just connect some of the quests and pieces a little bit, I think I can get that working. Hopefully that will happen by early next month, but it will depend on when I can get back to work on it.

Art Diary

Although I’m not coding on the game this week, some of the art I’ve ordered is coming in. Check out these combat ability icons. They’re being created at 64 x 64 pixel resolution, but are also designed to be legible at 32 x 32. That way, if you have a gigantic screen, you can see them in big-size, but in a little window, they’re half-size.

It can be very tricky to get icons that look good at both 32 x 32 and 64 x 64 — you need a balance of legibility (so it’s understandable at small size) and detail (so it looks good at large size). So I’m very happy with the look of these so far. Here’s just a couple (mixed and matched from different combat styles):

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13 Responses to Delays, Thoughts about Launches, and Some Icons

  1. Ahtchu says:

    for that I need a dozen or more players logged in, all at once, for over an hour

    Does this mean you’ll be asking for testers anytime soon? ;)

  2. Do you actually need an hour of structured content? It sounds like your project is sufficiently sandboxy that finding the content is a feature. I thought the Kingdom of Loathing folks no longer need to have day jobs, and that game was very much a sandbox with limited content when it opened its doors.

    Ironic timing on the post about how to promote your game – I picked your posts about Project Gorgon for one of my shoutouts on the latest episode of The Multiverse podcast, due out later this week, because of all the insight into the MMO design process that I’ve picked up from reading. The $273.31 question is how you get from positive reviews of your blogposts to something that gets a live-able amount of income from your target demographic. Moreover, how does one even begin to evaluate the question of whether spending X hours to implement Y feature will result in Z additional income, where Z is a reasonable salary for X hours of work?

  3. SmakenDahed says:

    If you a tester let me know. I suspect I’ll have lots of spare time soon. 13 years testing, mostly focused on automation, some performance, etc. if you design in some server APIs you could probably mimic multiple users to stress test the server.

    Consider recording server actions or requests from the client and allowing those to be played back from multiple connections. The client side performance could be trickier because it’ll be relative to the client system capabilities but there are some worse case scenario tests you could do using NPCs performing taxing actions.

    Lots of things you can do.

  4. Ibn says:

    Yes, everything I’ve read about indie games says release as soon as you are able to, in order to get testing, market information and — if possible — revenue. Don’t wait for systems to be perfect, or even built. Release with the absolute minimum that is fun. Like Green Armadillo wrote, KoL is a great example.

  5. Anthony says:

    I agree with the sandbox comments. From what I’ve read I could easily spend an hour just exploring your various systems. Maybe even just finding different ways to die for death XP!

  6. Rauxis says:

    Considering your descriptions so far I would be suprised if I could not find enough interesting aspects to fill more then an hour just looking around. Yesterday I spent that time in DCUO just by running around, climbing the tallest buildings and chatting a bit.

    First time in a new world – everything for me takes very long.

  7. Dave Toulouse wrote a followup post with some misconceptions: http://www.over00.com/?p=1772

    Basically, he’s not giving up on the game. Just showing how hard it can be to get attention for an indie game despite the best promotion one can do. He just doesn’t have the finances to wait for success to come. But, he’s committed to working on the game, just not as his only job. :)

    But, yeah, indie promotion is hard. Good luck!

  8. Chris E. says:

    Just get something out there and let’s play it!

  9. Shawn says:

    Add me to the list of people interested in testing. In fact, do you have a website set up for the game yet where I can leave my email and express interest in being a tester at any future point? I’m very interested in your game both as a player (sounds like you have some really fun mechanics in mind) and especially as an aspiring game designer (you’re clearly making some new and interesting choices here and I really want to see how they play out). It may be pretty early to be actively promoting but I already know enough about your game that I would for sure check it out whenever there is enough you feel comfortable letting people do so. If you set up some sort of site, no matter how simple, where I can enter my email to be told when beta is live and cross my fingers for a beta invite I would do it without hesitation.

    As far as the KoL model goes, yes they do currently have a team who develops it as their full time jobs now but from what I’ve heard they are under the impression that the model of, release anything at all as early as possible, is no longer valid with so many other games competing for attention span at the moment. There was a lot less of that kind of thing when KoL released and it happened to fall into a good niche at the right time. And I wanted to add that I think its funny KoL is mentioned in the comments here since I started reading this blog because one of the old posts about WoW was mentioned on their radio show. Its all come full circle :D

  10. Mitch says:

    I played LEGO Universe with my son (he is 10) and some on my own as well. It is a fun game and a lot of people are shooting it down saying they should have followed the Minecraft model… which makes no sense to me since all of the successful (mostly licensed) LEGO videogames were NOT open build games (though you can open build and script in your private space). Not saying it couldn’t have worked, but there is certainly a focus on more directed rather than free-form games for LEGO.

    The REAL problem with the game closing however is the BIG hit they are (theoretically) taking from people who buy their other products. Parents have been posting about how upset their kids are and many of the kids have posted as well. Kids don’t get the “we’re not making money” explanation the way an adult does, they just hear “we are taking your creations and friends away” and some of them are distraught. Actually, some of the parents have said with the amount of money they spend on LEGO products they don’t understand why the game can’t be kept open instead of upsetting their kids.

    It is pretty sad actually and the LU Community Manager has said he is taking the feedback back to the company and they will have a response next week. If they are smart they would patch the game for offline play at least as people are pretty upset and some are angry enough to say they will not be buying as much LEGO this year if this is how the company treats kids.

  11. Vatec says:

    Whoever is doing your icons is pretty good. Most of those are better than 90% of the icons in some AAA titles (LOTRO in particular comes to mind).

  12. hugo says:

    If you re looking for players I would be happy to take part into testing (long time AC1 player, still today. Also Lotro player and a bit of AO and AC2 experience).

    I agree with people above, if you re planning to do a sandbox type of game, exploring the content itself should pretty much fill your one hour of gameplay. You could just start with a directed tutorial or two on the main game systems and then give loose goals to the player, or just ideas of things to explore.

    I think the worst thing you could do with an early test version would be to try and fill it with artificial gameplay content that could make people believe it s actually a quest heavy, theme park kind of MMO.

  13. Eric says:

    Vatec – glad you think so! The icons for the werewolf abilities are especially awesome, I’ll have to show them off at some point.

    Mitch – that’s a good point. They’re treating this like any other MMO, but it was never marketed like other MMOs. It was marketed to a unique niche and a specific audience. I hadn’t considered that angle, but it makes the complete shutdown seem pretty dumb. It would have made more sense to leave just a skeleton crew on the game, and keep it running as a goodwill gesture. Maybe they weighed the costs of that and decided it was too expensive in this case… or maybe they just didn’t think.

    Shawn and others – thanks! I don’t have a signup list yet, but that’s a good idea that I should get on.