No matter how many years you’ve been doing it, indie game development seems to be an infinite parade of somewhat disconcerting new experiences.
Even though we’ve been slogging across the tricky ocean of games in some form since about 2002, there’s always a ridiculous new mutant shark beyond the crest of the next wave. Reading this metaphor back on a second pass, I’m really not sure it adds much, but I’ll keep it anyway: this isn’t going to be polished.
On Monday 10th March, Frozen Endzone, our simultaneous-turn based futuresport strategy tactical thing, launches on Steam Early Access. It’ll be our first Early Access game and our first title to trot hastily through the dark leafy alley of Greenlight and up the well-worn stone steps to the imposing door of The Steam Store.
It is, for some absolutely unknown meteorological reason, sunny in the UK right now and I am sitting in a tiny garden located in an odd village outside Leamington Spa. A couple of days ago I was working here and someone said to me, “Don’t you think it’s weird that you’re just doing stuff here and then in a few days loads of people around the world will see it?”
A strange man in his garden, warred over by animals, inexplicably bad sunglasses
That’s what digital distribution - in any form - means; the line between “odd cranky person doing something in a tiny garden” and “international product” absolutely no longer exists. Saying so is, essentially, a banal cliche (I am all about banal cliche) but releases like this one really bring it home personally. It is weird.
Normally, in a blog post, I would attempt to adhere to some kind of intelligent structure. I would open with a bold statement or interesting anecdote; an illuminating orb of thematic radiance. I want to talk about early releases, their personal oddity and commercial necessity, and I’d like to make my points effectively. So, after my opening gambit I’d progress daintily through the phases of my argument before storming off with a memorable mic drop at the end, neatly tied off with a reference to the first sentence. I mentioned polish eariler in the piece, as that’s where I’d hit on my second editing pass, but now I’ve got here I feel like I should have introduced it earlier. This is going to invalidate the next sentence, which begins, awkwardly with “but” and attempts to offer a counterpoint to the sentence which concluded “with a reference to the first sentence”. It really strikes me now that I should be using footnotes for this, but that would probably create a kind of pretentious Nicholson Baker vibe that’d be entirely unsuitable for this sort of quasi-business oriented rant. Oh well. Here comes that “but”...
But this isn’t how early releases work. It’s rare that you can give the player the kind of polished introduction they need; you certainly can’t bring things to a satisfying resolution either.
Early releases are about involving the public in development, whether by direct feedback, a financial contribution or a combination of both. The realisation that we are often selling potential - the fusion of imagination with hard-coded reality - has lead to a rise in hugely successful unfinished games.
Steam has been dominated by these in recent memory: Prison Architect, DayZ, Rust, Starbound, Kerbal Space Program. These are all “big system” games that live entirely on player potential: the number of things in each is vast. Minecraft similarly, the most successful early release of all time, was about fuelling the innate human desire to shape a landscape.
The unfinished nature of these games doesn’t matter to gamers; in fact it’s part of the attraction. Funny bugs and problems were one of the key points of Prison Architect’s main trailer; DayZ’s outlaw frisson comes as much from second-guessing a capricious system as it does from actually doing anything meaningful.
Where does this leave those of us working in other genres? Well, we do intend Frozen Endzone to have a big simulation-driven single player eventually, but this first Steam release sees is comprised mostly of release-quality multiplayer mechanics, the foundation of single player AI, a decent level of graphical content and then early versions of tools intended to help players get extra mileage wherever possible (like the pitch editor).
With our previous title, Frozen Synapse, we were focussed on two things with the early beta release.
- Make something worth paying for
- Make the multiplayer as finished as possible
We found that players appreciated both the excitement of a new experience (similar simultaneous-turn-based mechanics weren’t really available at the time) and its solidity. There were very few crashes and nasties in the build.
While this went down well critically and did well enough financially for us to complete the game, it certainly didn’t go gangbusters like a “big system” game. Similarly the Frozen Endzone beta, which has been selling from our own site since December and has not been available on Steam so far, hasn’t broken any records. It’s sold around double the amount of Frozen Synapse at a similar point, but given the greatly increased size of our community and reach, that would seem to be about in line with expectations. Also, Frozen Endzone is vastly more expensive to develop than Frozen Synapse, so for any kind of out-and-out commercial victory, we need to go a lot further.
Something about an early release always has to be “good enough”: you can’t polish a title to perfection in time to release a productive alpha or beta. That’s always a difficult proposition for developers who like to craft their work but it’s a necessary compromise. This does instill a useful discipline though: a milestone that has to be seen by the public is useful for rationalising your process, for pinning you down on certain issues.
It also puts you back into the spotlight. Not every developer can maintain the same kind of prominence in between releases, as I discussed here, so putting something out on a big stage every now and then is absolutely vital. Awareness is still the number one issue affecting sales of smaller titles, especially now as Steam is absolutely swamped.
This is not going to go away: it is going to get worse as Steam opens up even further. If you want your games to stand out, you will either have to basically define a new genre or you will have to build up awareness and value in your work as a whole. Introversion and Vlambeer are both great at this: not only do gamers have certain expectations of their games but you could say that both studios have defined personalities.
This idea might give you a clue to some of the thinking behind Frozen Endzone’s name. The internet delights in its daftness, but we wanted to make it absolutely impossible to forget that the game was an evolution of Frozen Synapse. So far, that’s worked. The entire conception of its development came from Ian’s desire to push simultaneous-turn-based tactics further; he also wanted our previous work to mean something in that context. Rather brashly, we would hope that if someone was going to do that sort of game, gamers would want it to be us.
In the grand scheme of things, Mode 7 is quiet as a studio. We don’t release games very often, we don’t get involved with industry-wide issues very much and - as of recently, mostly due to health issues that I’ve had - we don’t attend events on the scale of other devs. I’m certainly hoping that this release will be another opportunity to get people interested in our work and will mark a turning point in how we communicate with the outside world.
So I’m pushing it. There will be a brand new trailer hitting tomorrow; there will be the obligatory Reddit AMA; there will be posts on any sites where I am allowed to slip in a few words but these are all small fry compared to the release itself.
Weirdly, although you’re selling potential, the content of that release starts to become incredibly important. The most recent feature of the game where I had direct input was the commentary system. It’s entirely text-based so this gives us a massive amount of flexibility. Not only can commentators use the customised names of your players, but the AI can actually analyse your play and give them data about the viability of your decisions. They can have opinions that are actually somewhat based in reality.
Now, in the Early Access version, we have what is truly a first draft of this system. It works tolerably, it’s really exciting when you see relevant commentary for the first time and I was able to slip in a few jokes here and there but it’s so far away from what I want it to be eventually. I want to create something that is absolutely packed with original writing; something that people will quote to each other; something that really lives on its own.
That difficult process of getting it to a point where you are happy for people to see it for the first time is actually something at which I’ve always been dreadful when writing. In my other creative discipline - audio and music - I don’t have this problem. For some reason, I find writing to be more personal, and I find it hard to let it out in an early form.
This has definitely held me back from commenting on quite a few things. Analysing the business of gaming is absolutely rife with survivorship bias; most opinion pieces by devs, myself definitely included, are frankly a furious tumult of guff. I don’t know how to combat this and I often feel like my own writing is just adding to the pile. In many ways, I would love it if games were just able to “speak for themselves” but this is a fantasy in the current marketplace.
So, just as we are contributing a work-in-progress piece to the huge groaning catalogue of Steam, so I will try to put down some of my own thoughts on a more regular basis in case they are of any interest or use to anyone. Better that than stay quiet. If we’re living in a world of prototypes and promise then anything else would seem to be presumptuous. I’m reminded of how, as I’m about to conclude the editing that I mention at the conclusion of the piece as “tidying up a few errant sentences” how I’ve warped this out of all recognition and now people, if they mention this at all, which they won’t, will only talk about the conflicted self-talk and weakly self-referential nature of these troublesome interjections. “Oh, that weird blog post you wrote about Early Access”, they’ll say. But, honestly I really haven’t done my job here if that job is to subtly attempt to get you to try the game...I don’t really feel like doing that though. Isn’t this all about creativity anyway? It’s actually a lot colder now than when I said it was cold at the very end of this and I’ve been writing this for far too long. It’s also Sunday and I should probably be relaxing in the face of the upcoming week...and I suppose writing this is contributing in some way to that. A cat is back: I am concerned it will actually wee on my trousers this time. That’s absolutely not what I intended.
Next week will define the following year for everyone at Mode 7: can we do the more ambitious stuff that we want to with Frozen Endzone? Customisation, the aforementioned big single player..it’s got to have a basis in reality; it has to all be worth doing. Once again we’ve hit another release where a lot is hanging in the balance, so I’m sitting out here trying to stay relatively calm. The dichotomy of a possible Rust-like bonanza (it won’t happen) or an embarrassing flop (I don’t think that’ll happen either) is a bit too weird to think about. It’s getting cold and two cats have both tried to mark my chair as part of their territory (this was quite a funny and unexpected insertion originally but it’s really undermined by how much I’ve foreshadowed it on subsequent revisions), so it’s probably time to tidy up a few errant sentences (yeah I actually ended up adding all that stuff after saying this so that turned out to be an absolute lie) and hit “publish” (I’m not doing that right now, I’m typing this - this is pretty much just there for impact - it’s artistic license).
See you next week as the parade continues.
Please follow me on Twitter - I’m a lot more concise there.
I should almost certainly tell you to buy Frozen Endzone as well.