Thursday, October 5, 2023

Aground Post Mortem: The Value of Early Access

It's strange to call this a post-mortem, as Aground is still very much alive. But, I have moved onto new games, with Stardander School for Witches now in Early Access, and Aground Zero not far behind.

The key takeaways from Aground's strange journey are:

  1. Early Access is much better than you think it is.
  2. Don't lose hope until after the full launch, and maybe not even then!
This blog post will mostly cover post-launch, as I had a thorough pre-mortem I made during Early Access here:

The Numbers

Without further ado, here's our full lifetime sales (copies) chart:

There have been nearly 60k lifetime steam copies sold, and that's not including other sites, key activations, or consoles.

The first small spike from several 100k+ subscriber youtube videos (visible in the pre-mortem) barely shows up in this chart - which is completely dominated by the full launch and daily deal. Before Aground, everyone told me that you only get one launch when going into Early Access - this was true. But they said that one launch is the Early Access launch, which was completely false.

In Early Access, your launch visibility round begins when you transition to full release.

And this is huge. Even if the ~2 years of Early Access sales look pitiful before the post launch sales, during that time we were building up a following, wishlists, and reviews (not to mention getting feedback and improving the game).

When Aground transitioned from Early Access to full release on April 17, 2020, it had 293 reviews (334 if you count people who got the game for free) and 25,681 wishlists - which is far above most games that launched that week.

We only had 2k wishlists before entering Early Access (August 8th, 2018), and from experience, it's tough to drive traffic to a coming soon page and gain wishlists. During Early Access, wishlists came easily, most of them probably not wanting to buy a game in Early Access, but the fact that there were sales meant Steam was driving traffic to our page, and traffic means wishlists.

All of these wishlists and sales put us on the front page of Steam under new releases during full launch, and later Valve contacted me offering to put Aground in a Daily Deal, which means our game would be on sale for 24 hours and featured on the front page. This made an even larger spike than the launch - and while it's tough to tell from the sales chart, that's actually 2 days of > 1,000 sales (it starts a new day at midnight PT).

The last labelled spike is a major post-launch update - the hybrid path. While tiny compared to launch, it was still worth it. I feel like updating your game post launch is a generally good thing to do (although, we only had one major post launch update, as we wanted to move on to other games).

The unlabeled spikes after that? Sales - seasonal, festival, etc. While we're definitely seeing a slowdown in sales, we're still getting more than we had during the end of Early Access - and seasonal sales still draw a big spike (although, the most recent sale was 66% off, so it's not as much revenue as the spike suggests). We still have over 50k wishlists, and that number tends to go up over time - more people add Aground to their wishlist during sales/events than buy or delete the game.

We are now over 3 years since our full launch, and sales are still strong enough to fund our next two games. Never underestimate the residual income! Why aren't sales dropping to essentially zero like our older games? I suspect it's because people are still discovering and playing the free web version - and a lot of those players are getting older and are now able to buy the game.

The last number I'd like to share is our console information. I don't have a nice graph as I only get monthly reports (and I'm too lazy to combine them into a graph), but in general all 3 consoles combined add up to about 25% of our steam total. This isn't as high as I was expecting, and surprisingly XBox is the biggest chunk of that, even though I've heard from other devs that the Switch was huge for them, even compared to Steam. While an extra 25% revenue doesn't sound like a lot (especially with the challenge of porting a game to consoles), it's still worth it - especially since console sales and Steam sales don't cannibalize each other (it's uncommon for someone to decide not to buy a game on Steam because they can get it on console or vice versa - they usually want it on their platform of choice, and some people buy on both)!

On Losing Hope

In the end of my pre-mortem, you could probably tell I was beginning to lose hope. Everything we did before the full launch ended up being disappointing or meeting my bare minimum expectations. So, it should come as no surprise I expected a lackluster full launch - especially after hearing that the big launch was the early access launch. Luckily, that wasn't the case for Aground - and all of that time and effort was hugely valuable even if it didn't meet my expectations in terms of sales at the time. I've heard many similar stories of devs losing hope yet somehow persevering... and then ending up highly successful. Obviously there's survivorship bias here, but it can work out - especially when you're in Early Access and a lot of people are wishlisting and waiting for the full release.

On Early Access

If you can commit to making it to the full launch and believe in your project throughout a potentially lack-luster Early Access, it can truly pay off. Having reviews on launch is huge - and you can more easily gain wishlists in early access than on a coming soon page. I'm not the only one who has noticed this: .

I definitely feel strongly enough about the value of early access that I've just launched my next game, Stardander School for Witches, in Early Access a few days ago.

Downsides of Early Access

  • Sales are weak in early access - so if you never transition to full release, you'll never get your launch visibility round and will do worse than if you just started with a full release.
  • Launching in early access takes you off the upcoming games list - so if you're gathering a lot of wishlists and are prominent on the upcoming list, entering early access could potentially hurt you.
  • Some games just don't easily fit the early access model.
  • You do need to build momentum during early access for it to have value - if you get no sales, views or wishlists, no amount of time in early access will help.

Concluding Thoughts

Aground is by far my most successful game, and I consider it a huge success (both financially and otherwise). And Aground is by no means one of the best selling games on Steam. Aground currently has 1,381 reviews, and there are games with 10k reviews, 100k reviews, even 1 million reviews (likely over 1000x our sales). The more successful a game is, the more visibility it gets, and the more successful it becomes in a seemingly endless upward spiral.

Aground was lucky enough to have some of that positive spiral - and I didn't really have to do much post-launch to make it happen. All of the hard work was done before - I just couldn't recognize it at the time. By the time of the launch we had enough momentum to hit that spiral.

See Video Game Insights for the full infographic - and this is from 2020, it's only gotten worse.

There's also the opposite, a downward spiral where a game dies in obscurity. Aground is in the top 9% on the infographic above, meaning 91% of games never reach Aground's sales, let alone anything higher. Even though I know early access sales numbers are low, I am still worried after Stardander's launch, where we barely hit my lowest estimate. Can Stardander do the same thing as Aground with Early Access, or is it stuck in a downward spiral like the vast majority of games? Does Aground's path to success even work for story-heavy games or visual novels?

I don't have all the answers, and I'm worried even though I just said to have hope in this blog. But, that's a part of game development - you have to learn to manage your fears and try to give your game the best chance of success you can.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Making a Game from Start to Finish

One of the questions I’m asked a lot is what it takes to make a game. After more than a dozen years as a game developer, I’ve finished a lot of games (and I'm currently working on 2+).

This blog post covers my process of making a game from start to finish, along with thoughts and stumbling blocks along the way! Of course, this isn’t the only way to make games. But it’s the way that works for me!

The Idea

The idea stage is my favorite. Some people struggle to come up with new ideas, but personally I never have - ideas come to me faster than I know what to do with. Because of this, I try to at least keep my ideas organized. I keep all of my ideas in a spreadsheet, with a genre, score (how much I like the idea), description, and link to a game design document if it exists. I also keep notes, mainly things the idea is missing or needs to improve.

When I have a new idea, I add it to the sheet, or perhaps merge with and edit previous ideas. I also update the scores periodically to keep the best ideas at the top (there are currently 64 ideas in the list… the bottom ones will never see the light of day).

This also lets ideas age - when you have a new idea, it always feels special, like the best idea you've ever had. After a few months sitting in the ideas list, the novelty of some of the ideas wears off and it goes down the list, while some stay as interesting and exciting as ever.

When it's time to start a new game project, I have a list of ideas to look through that have had edits, improvements, and have weathered the test of time.

Finally, at the top of the list, I have a reminder for myself:

A good game idea
Is something I'm excited to make
Capable of making
And has a viable market

These may all seem pretty obvious, but it's surprising how many times I come up with an idea that doesn't follow one (or any) of them.

The Prototype

When I’ve settled on an idea, the first thing I do is make a prototype. The goal of the prototype is to see - vaguely - how the game plays and whether it is actually fun. I often share prototypes around with friends, and if there's something missing, I put a note in the ideas document and put that idea on hold until I come up with a potential improvement. While it's sad to put an idea on hold, it's always better to rethink things during the prototype phase - this is when you can change things with the least amount of work. Worst case, it's better to drop a prototype than a half-finished game. A poor idea almost never gets better with additional work and content.

Old prototypes that are dropped... for now...

The Honeymoon

I like to call early development on a game the honeymoon phase - that's because it's the most exciting part. The idea is still new, and a small amount of work can make huge improvements. Everything feels like it's going quickly and smoothly, and motivation is high. A short enough project can live entirely in this phase, although I rarely see that outside of game jams.

The Grind

Eventually, the honeymoon phase ends, and you need to start finding ways to motivate yourself to continue. New ideas beckon, and you see less and less progress for the work you put in. This is a normal part of the development process, and you have to learn how to stay focused and persevere, or you may never release a game. Keeping projects short reduces the grind, but even though I told myself I'd never make a 3+ year project again after Aground, I am currently working on two of them! The most exciting projects tend to take time, and they can be worthwhile, but you do have to find ways to deal with project fatigue.

Other than having self discipline (to motivate yourself and stay focused), there are two things that help me the most with project fatigue. One is to break tasks into meaningful and bite-sized pieces that I can check off and feel accomplished for finishing. The other is alternating between tasks I want to and don’t want to do throughout the project - if you always focus on the tasks you want to do first, you’ll end up with a large stretch of tasks you DON’T want to do. There are three things that cause the most grind for me - content, technical debt, and polish, which I’ll detail below.


For me, the grind is often caused by content. The game is feature complete, the gameplay and aspects that are fun to code are complete and the game feels "done" in my mind, but it still needs a lot of content added. While it varies from project to project, I've found in general 1 hour of gameplay (for the player) takes about 1 month to develop. Without content, players won't know how to interact with all of the interesting mechanics you've added, and there won't be any cohesion to the game.

Mixing content and gameplay tasks makes a lot of sense - especially since new content usually unlocks new gameplay. However, if you're not doing a solo project, you often need to wait for art/content to be created by other team members, so sometimes I frontload all the gameplay tasks anyways. However, in this case, it can still be fun to see the new art and content made by others and integrate it into the game.

Technical Debt

Throughout a project, you will notice things that need to change or have feature suggestions or bug reports. Sometimes you fix these right away, but more often than not, you add it to a TODO list so you don't distract yourself from what you're currently working on. This is called Technical Debt - by putting it off, you have added tasks that you will have to complete later - and this can quickly get overwhelming.

Keep this list organized, be thoughtful before adding things to the list (does it REALLY need to be added), and clear items in it periodically to keep technical debt down.


There are two main kinds of polish:

  • Juice - Making the game more exciting and actions you take feel more impactful.
  • Oil - Removing stumbling blocks and making the game (and user experience) flow smoother.

You'll need both - as without oil, no matter how fun the game is, players will get frustrated and quit, and without juice, almost any gameplay loop will feel grindy. However, you can't just add "polish" as an item on your TODO list, it requires experimentation, feedback and iteration.

Here's a really good article about oil:


Once you have something you're ready to share, I strongly recommend running a playtest and getting feedback from players - as you can never see your own game with fresh eyes. You'll rarely notice when your game is missing polish, as you're too used to the game and UI to notice a lack of oil, and you're too invested in the game to notice a lack of juice. However, during testing you'll get more feedback, suggestions, and bug reports than you know what to do with. If you're not careful, you could easily end up in an endless loop of technical debt and polish.

The Finish Line

At some point, you have to say the game is done. It will never be 100% - there will always be things you could do to improve the game. There's also a boost to motivation when you are near completion, so setting a firm launch date and choosing what final changes you want to make will often push you through the last bit needed before launch.

There will always be people wanting more (especially now that game as a service is a thing, and players are used to endless updates). So, find a place where you personally feel satisfied to call it done. You can always do a sequel or spinoff, if the right idea strikes you.


This blog post focused on the development side - as that is my forte. There's a whole list of marketing, publishing and post-launch stuff that's necessary too. Making a good game gives you the potential to succeed, but there's never any guarantee - even with a big marketing budget. But, I feel like just making it to the finish line of a large project is a huge achievement to be proud of.