Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Between Success and Failure - I Can't Escape: Darkness

Today, I logged into Steam and noticed that sales for my latest game, I Can't Escape: Darkness, reached 666. A very auspicious number for a horror game, and it made me laugh. However, it also made me remember what my original goals for the game were, and how the reality didn't quite live up to my expectations. After thinking about what my expectations were, and how I defined success and failure, I decided to write my first Post-Mortem - both to put these thoughts down, and to share my conclusions with other game developers.

But, first a little about my studio, Fancy Fish Games. We've released three commercial games on Steam, and six free games before that (four of which were for One Game A Month). Fancy Fish Games has been around for three years (although I've been making games since I was in middle school), and consists of around five people who work part time for nothing but revenue share (kudos to them giving up their free time so that we can make our dreams reality).

The Beginning
I Can't Escape: Darkness was designed as the sequel, or as I like to think of it, the full version of I Can't Escape, our January “One Game A Month” back in 2013. I Can’t Escape was a simple atmospheric horror game in which the player is trapped in a seemingly (and in fact, literally) endless dungeon where escape consistently eludes them. Thanks to several youtubers and streamers (including Markiplier), I Can't Escape was a great success - where by success, I mean that over 250,000 people played the game and a lot of people commented and seemed to enjoy it (we didn't make a dime on the game).

The sequel was meant to take the simple idea of I Can't Escape, and make a fully fleshed out game without destroying what made the original interesting. And in that respect, I think the sequel was a success - there are certainly flaws and nit-picks that I could talk about, but the game does draw you in and creates a suspenseful, eerie atmosphere without relying on jump scares (which was part of my goal with the original). The sequel was also fleshed out with a lot new features, including overall progression, events, combat and a story.

Development for I Can't Escape: Darkness took a little over a year. The core team was only three people - myself working on the code, Chase Bethea working on music and sound effects (and he did some awesome experiments with dynamic music for this game), and Matthew Poppe working on art and animations. My original plan was for the game to take four months - which as a rule of thumb I doubled to eight months, which wasn't a terrible estimate for the total development time. Working with collaborators over the internet part time is always a little unpredictable - but I had worked with both Matt and Chase before and trusted them a lot - and they didn't let me down.

The development time broke down something like this:
  • Engine Development - First Month: August 2014. Yes, I developed the engine for the game from scratch. You might think I'm crazy, or it's impossible to make an engine in one month, but I wasn't making a general purpose engine. I was modifying some old maze rendering code and developing the lighting algorithms specifically tailored for I Can't Escape: Darkness and it's gameplay needs. I've had a lot of experience developing game engines, so it really wasn't as difficult as it sounds.
  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP) - September 2014. The minimum viable product included the basic gameplay mechanics - movement, exploration, items and combat. Again, you might be thinking one month is pretty short, but remember that the entire original game only took one month. At this point we launched the greenlight page with screenshots and videos.
  • Feature Complete - January 2015. This is the milestone I was estimating when I said the game would take four months. I then double that number because I know from experience that feature complete is really only the halfway point. And while it took six months to get here instead of four, it's interesting to note that it was the halfway point in development for us.
    Now you might be wondering, if the engine work only took one month, and the MVP only took one month, why did it take four months to get to feature complete? The answer is that even though the MVP has the core elements of game play, it is missing content (including the various event areas and puzzles), UI, and balancing. These add up to a lot of work, and they turn what is more like a prototype into an actual game. We also took about a month off during this time between holidays, a short side project (ADventureLib) and getting Deity Quest on Steam (I launched the game May 2014, thinking it’d never get greenlit, but to my surprise it did in late december).
  • Alpha Test - February 2015. After the game was feature complete, we had to playtest, debug, and finish all the higher priority art and music assets. Then we released the game to a closed alpha to get outside feedback for the first time. I wanted to make sure the game was stable and not missing important assets so that the testers could give more focused feedback on the pacing and gameplay itself. It's also interesting to note that the game was greenlit on Steam at this point, after five months.
  • Beta Test - June 2015. We got a lot of good feedback from the Alpha Test, and there were many pacing and balancing problems we had to address (damn rats!). There were also some last minute features that we decided to add - while none of them were big, they do add up *cough*feature bloat*cough*. However, the difference between the alpha and beta test was pretty incredible. The game drew people in a lot more, the average play length quadrupled, and people began wondering about the story. One interesting thing to note here is that as you get closer to the end of development, it seems like you’re moving slower as there aren’t as many spectacular changes, but those four months of work weren’t wasted - as is clear from the difference in the responses from the alpha and beta tests.
  • Second Beta Test - July 2015. After another round of tweaks and improvements, plus cross compiling the game to Mac and Linux, we started a second round of beta testing. Meanwhile, the marketing campaign run by Justin Whirledge went into high gear at this point, with gameplay trailers released every other week.
  • Steam Beta Test - August 2015. At this point, the game was mostly done other than the final tweaks and squashing the last bugs. But there was plenty to do as we prepared to release on steam. We had to set up the store page, get the last of the asset changes in (including assets for trading cards and achievements), integrate the Steam API, get the game translated (we released in English, Spanish, Russian and German - friends, fans, and beta testers offered to translate the game for free!). Finally, near the end of August, the store page was live, and the release date of September 17th was announced. We also did a quick beta test on steam to make sure everything was working with the Steam API and the last of the changes.
  • Release! - September 17th, 2015. After a year and nearly two months, doing some final playtests, tweaks, and a marketing push (including early review copies and attack of the gifs), the game was released. It took nearly six months longer than we expected, and it was starting to feel like endless development hell (we probably could have tweaked the balance and pacing indefinitely - getting a procedurally generated game to parcel out events and progression at an interesting pace is a lot harder than it sounds), but we did it!

Three months later, we've had 666 sales, mostly positive feedback on steam, mostly negative feedback from press, some great videos and lets plays, and one amazing fan-written guide. Was the game a success? How do you measure success?

What is Success - Money?
If success is money, or even making enough to work full time on our next game, we definitely failed. The game retailed for $11.99 on steam, so 666 sales is certainly not nothing. But, even underestimating how much time we all spent on the project, we still made less than $3 an hour (after steam cuts and dividing the revenue among the team). So, it wasn't like we made no money, and it was an awesome end of year bonus for us, but it certainly won’t let us quit our day jobs.

For those of you who like charts and graphs, here's I Can't Escape: Darkness’ sales graph (with the labels removed as we're not supposed to release exact numbers). sales.png
It follows the pretty standard long tail with spikes pattern - where sales drop off very quickly after launch, but then there are spikes from sales and updates. The first big spike was our first major update (with several new secrets and improvements). The second, biggest spike was the Halloween sale including another, smaller update. The third wobbly bump of elevated sales was the Thanksgiving sale - which was not thematically fitting like the Halloween sale, didn’t include an update, and was a smaller sale, so was a lot weaker.

But let's face it - if making money was most important to us, we wouldn't be making games. There are plenty of better paying jobs we could get with our skills. So, there are other definitions of success to consider...

What is Success - Fame?
So, if we're not getting much money, how about fame - people always seem to want money and fame. Well, we certainly aren't famous, and I doubt most of you knew what I Can't Escape: Darkness was when you clicked the link. Additionally, critic reviews are almost unanimously terrible with our metacritic score at 40/100. But, on the other side of the coin, our steam reviews are 91% positive with 23 reviews, and the majority of let’s players who played seemed to really enjoy the game.
But if fame is our goal, again, we failed. Even the original didn't make us famous, and that had 250,000 plays, a lot more than 666 sales. However, while it would be nice for more people to know who Fancy Fish Games was and follow our games, we don't really do it for the fame either.

What is Success - Making a Fun Game?
At the end of the day - we make games because we want to make something creative and fun - something that we enjoy playing, and we want others to enjoy as well. And while we might not have a lot of sales, there are a lot of people who really love the game. A group of players even got together and collaborated notes to create this impressively comprehensive guide to the game.

And this is where I can say I Can't Escape: Darkness was a resounding success - and can feel good about our year long development. We might not be rich or famous, but we made something interesting that a lot of people enjoyed, and we can feel proud about that. Sure - the game isn't perfect, and you only have to read one of the critic reviews to see them point out all of the flaws, but despite that there is definitely a loyal fan base. thankyou.png
As a side note, I'll point out that even the critics who hated the game, perhaps grudgingly, had to admit that the game had a good atmosphere - which was what we set out to create.

Final Notes
There are a lot of post-mortems that talk about how successful and unsuccessful their games are only in the financial sense. However, I feel like it’s also important to think about what success means to you - as even a complete flop that no one plays could be a success if you felt it was a valuable learning experience or you gained one die hard fan who will continue to follow your games - and perhaps even beta test them or offer other help - as you continue on your game development path. This was true for Deus Shift, my very first publicly released game, which didn’t make much of a splash but gained one loyal fan who ended up both playtesting I Can’t Escape: Darkness and translating it to Russian.

Oh, and as I finally finished this post mortem and posted it, the sales have gone up to 674! The launch isn't the end, and people will continue to play and enjoy your games even years after their release! That’s quite a special feeling.

Friday, September 25, 2015

After the Darkness

It's been a while since my last blog post, and that's because I've been pushing myself hard. After the release of our first commercial game, Deity Quest, in 2014, we've been moving full steam ahead releasing our next two commercial projects, ADventure Lib and I Can't Escape: Darkness. I've also had to balance that with freelance work on the side.

So, you might be wondering how things are going with Fancy Fish Games? It's definitely been a roller-coaster of ups and downs, and despite having released two new commercial games, we're still in as uncertain of a position as we were in the last blog post. Financially, we've been making enough in sales to cover costs and distribute some well deserved revenue share to all team members. However, we're no closer to being the full time studio we dream of, and I won't even mention how low our hourly rate comes out to be (based on hours spent and revenue received). A huge thank you to all team members for sticking with me despite that!

Projects Completed

Our latest release, I Can't Escape: Darkness, has been doing decently. Financially, it's not an out of the park success, but it's currently our best seller and will surpass my pessimistic minimum revenue (if not my optimistic maximum). Additionally, 91% of the game's Steam reviews are positive, and fans seem to really like the game, which in my book makes a successful game even if it's not a financial success. Someone even posted this discussion which really made me feel like the game was worth it despite some very uncomplimentary press reviews.

We've definitely gotten a lot of negative press reviews, which is strange given how much the players seem to love the game. It's definitely been affecting my confidence, with reviews ranging from simply negative to downright nasty (not to say that there aren't positive reviews, but the majority of them are negative). I think part of the problem with the press reviews is that they are playing specifically to review the game, and so are not really letting themselves get immersed. Several of the reviews even mention how they liked the atmosphere of the game (which is definitely the core), but then give a bad score because of things they didn't like that were more secondary.

Honestly it's more important that players like the game than press - but perhaps more players would know about the game if we had some strong reviews. Maybe it's just a bad idea to put a number on something as subjective as a game in the first place?


ADventure Lib, our small side project, was also greenlit and released on steam this year. After getting greenlit, we polished and finished up the game, and then added voice acting (which I believe adds a lot of hilarity). Since it was a small project and the game only takes about a half hour to beat, we released it for $2 on Steam - which got it a lot of players. It didn't do great financially, but many people had tons of fun with the game and even took advantage of the workshop to add their own personalized objects. For a small side project, that is about as much of a success as I could hope for, and I am definitely thinking about doing the campaign editor update so players can add their own stories and campaigns.

Projects Dropped

Some of you might have seen this coming, given the continued delays, but Havencall has been put on indefinite hold. The design still needs some work and has some rough edges, and the project is simply too big for a single artist to complete. One day, when we're a full time studio and have a budget, we hope to come back and finish this game, but until then, there are other game designs that we want to work on that are more reasonable given our team and skillset. If you want to read more about this decision, check out this IndieDB Aritcle.

What's Next?

That's an interesting question for us. At some lower moments recently, I was considering taking time off game dev and working only on projects that actually paid the bills. However, fans and friends have made it clear to me that I still do want to make games, and still love it when people enjoy playing my games. I have to finish up some other work this month, but I already have several game design documents prepared and will hopefully start one come October. I haven't decided exactly which game I will be making next, but it will likely be one of the most ambitious I've done yet. While it might not be the smartest idea to work on a big project when we're still trying to find a footing, I want to make something special, something that will stand out as a great game even among all the other great indie games that are constantly releasing. We may not be able to work full time, but we have a lot of skill and as long as we are cognizant of our strengths and weaknesses as a team when planning our projects, I think a larger project is definitely doable.

Look forward to another blog post announcing what our next game is!

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Year In Review - 2014

It's tough to believe it's already 2015! It's been a crazy year, with good times, tough times, and as always new projects. I went from overly optimistic at the end of 2013, to feeling like a complete failure in the middle of last year, and now I don't know what's going to happen, but that's what will make 2015 so exciting and is why I think looking back on this past year is a good idea.

Projects Completed in 2014

Deity Quest, my first commercial game, was released to very mixed reviews. I was definitely experimenting with interesting gameplay mechanics for this game, and sometimes they worked brilliantly and were a lot of fun. However, the game definitely has kinks - partly because the design was an experiment, and partly because I certainly didn't do enough playtesting. This caused some duller moments during combat and even stalemates that contributed to the feeling some players had that the game had a lot of grinding. Additionally, there is definitely a learning curve to the game, and a lot of players didn't learn enough of the mechanics to reach those "brilliantly fun" moments.

The content and areas definitely could have used more love as well. One thing I learned from this project is that procedural generation is not a valid replacement for hand-crafted content unless it is very thoughtfully put together (like I am attempting for I Can't Escape: Darkness) - in which case it actually takes a lot more time to develop than doing the content by hand. Procedural generation is NOT (and should not be seen as) an easy way out of designing content. Because of the very simple generation algorithms in Deity Quest, a lot of the areas seemed repetitive and featureless which was the second big reason that some players felt the game was a grind.

It was after the release and rough start of Deity Quest that I got kind of disillusioned with game development and posted this: http://david.fancyfishgames.com/2014/05/deity-quest-havencall-and-future-of.html . However, I certainly learned a lot from this project, and it was from Deity Quest that I realized my mistakes and designed more interesting procedural generation algorithms for I Can't Escape: Darkness. Deity Quest has also just gotten greenlit on steam, so perhaps that will bring a second life to the game: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=245330039 . I've been doing some fixes, tweaks and balance changes to the game, and I'll have another blog post when I get it up on Steam (which will hopefully be this month)!

ADventure Lib is a smaller game that I finished as a side project late in 2014. ADventure Lib's name is a pun on ad lib - it's a parody point & click style game where most of the characters, items and objects have been swapped with each other. It gets pretty ridiculous when you have to do things like defeat the fire-breathing pants, save your beloved toilet and find the potato of legend. I have yet to release ADventure Lib, mainly because I'm still trying to figure out what the best way to release it is (I have a feeling it is a fairly niche game), but this game will definitely be released in the near future (and if you're interested in playtesting, feel free to e-mail me and I may send you a beta copy).

If you're wondering why I do side-projects, I find it helps to refresh my mind, and the side projects often help me with the larger projects as well. For example I added controller support to ADventure Lib, which is being re-used to add controller support for I Can't Escape: Darkness. My favorite author, Brandon Sanderson, knows this phenomenon very well too - in his end of the year blog post he revealed that he wrote the sequel of Shadows of Self to get back on track to finishing Shadows of Self.

Ongoing Projects

I Can't Escape: Darkness is my next big project, and I am currently hoping to release a closed alpha this month. I was originally planning on releasing the full game this month, but after some playtests we discovered pacing issues that needed to be worked out, causing a minor setback. While Darkness is procedurally generated and different every playthrough, the generator is a lot more intelligent than in Deity Quest, and it can be tweaked to modify the pacing and game flow. It also has procedurally placed static event areas that have interesting art and mechanics. I know a lot of you are curious exactly what the mechanics and gameplay of I Can't Escape: Darkness will be like, but telling you too much would spoil it, as it is meant to break expectations.

What I can tell you, however, is the following:

  • There will be combat.
  • There will be puzzles.
  • Light plays an important part in the game.
  • There will be MANY tricks and traps.
  • There is a legitimate game path to escape (unlike the original where the escape was more of a hidden easter egg).
  • I still do not expect many players to escape.

Another year, and Havencall is still not done huh? Well, we did finally finish a playable version of the first third of the game in June of 2014, and submitted it to IndieCade. However, from playtests and comments from this version, it became clear that a lot of the story of the game was not coming across well - and the story is by far the best part of this game. So we've been redesigning parts of the game and focusing a lot more on how to get the story across. This means that Havencall is once again postponed, but the good news is that the game should be a LOT better when we finally finish it!


This month, I'll be finishing up some changes to Deity Quest and releasing it on Steam, and also releasing a closed alpha for I Can't Escape: Darkness. If you wish to participate in the closed alpha, simply send me an e-mail (davidmaletz@gmail.com). Relatively early this year, I also plan to release ADventure Lib, so there will be several fancy fish titles coming out one after another. I Can't Escape: Darkness will certainly be released in time for Halloween of 2015, and there should be a revised Havencall playable build this year as well.

I'll likely be getting a full time job this year, as my part time endeavors and games simply aren't making much money. However, I still plan to make games and even a 40 hour work week leaves plenty of time for that. Honestly, it will be good to have financial security and be able to work on games without worrying too much about how well they sell.

What other projects do I plan to start this year? Well, I will certainly start one of the sci-fi game projects I've been wanting to make for a while (and spaceships are Matt's specialty, so you know they will look good). I've also started creating a voxel engine using I Can't Escape: Darkness's direct/indirect lighting. The lighting is very impressive, efficient and so well suited to voxel-style games that I could not resist. I'm not spending a lot of time on the voxel engine, so it could be a while before you see it or any voxel games from fancy fish games, but I do have lots of ideas, so that may be a direction I head in the not-so-near future.

2015 is already off to a good start, and I have a feeling it could be the biggest year for Fancy Fish Games yet! Look forward to future blog posts!