Postmortem: Launching The War Z
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The War Z, now known as Infestation: Survivor Stories, may have been one of the most controversial game launches of the year when we released it in December, 2012. It was also the biggest learning experience of my career, and something that I hope other developers can learn from.
Here I will present the story of the creation and launch of The War Z in a narrative form from the game’s inception to launch and beyond. I’ll cover both what went right and what went wrong during the entire process – including design decisions prior to launch, mistakes made at launch, our work to execute and maintain the game, and how our monetization practices evolved.
It’s been more than two years since we’ve launched our first public beta on November 1st 2012, and it has been an exciting and terrifying emotional rollercoaster for us.
When we set out to create The War Z, we saw a hardcore, fun mod in DayZ, and found ourselves inspired to create a game in that genre that we felt could be open to a wider audience. We wanted it to be more accessible and fun and we wanted both hardcore and casual players to feel welcomed and challenged. In some ways, our process was similar to Riot Games and how they opened up the DOTA mod to the world with League of Legends. Obviously we are nowhere near as big as Riot and neither is our game as big as LoL, but in terms of the genesis of The War Z, our aim was similar. Our intentions were good, though we definitely made some poor decisions that made them look otherwise.
Right Audience, Wrong Name!
At the start, back in December of 2011, we wanted to make a zombie shooter game that appealed to both fans of the zombie games, and casual shooter players. Over the course of the next 6 months we refined our design and added a lot of open world survival aspects which were also found in DayZ. Yet, I believe we still kept the game much more accessible to more casual players, designing systems that were less “hardcore” and more forgiving to the user. Basically, we wanted The War Z to appeal to a hardcore player base but also be accessible and easy to pick up for players who hadn’t played similar games in the past.
At first, this approach worked. Initial interest from hardcore players was very high, and as the game grew more popular, the game attracted more and more casual players. To date, the game has been purchased over 2.8 million times, a sign that both segments were effectively engaged. This is no small achievement for a small indie development team working on a shoestring budget. More than half of those 2.8 million players spent over 50 hours playing The War Z. Some have even spent over 1,000 hours to date playing the game.
That said, The War Z was a terrible choice of name, as it naturally invited comparisons between our game and DayZ. In the run-up to launch, we thought we hit all of the important PR milestones: early demos, a press tour, regular asset reveals, hands-on previews, etc. Even so, we made a big mistake in not listening to the vocal minority of our community who thought the name was terrible. Handling our community communications differently would have alerted us to the major mistake we were making in choosing a name that was so close to our main competitor’s game.
Beyond not listening to the community, we were also very arrogant in our public communications. We should have taken more care to communicate how and why this was not a DayZ clone, citing specific differences in both design and conception. Instead of saying to ourselves “Oh well, haters gonna hate!” we should have tried to understand where the hate was coming from and address it. (More on this to come!)
Again, our intentions were good. We were (and still are) fans of the genre and wanted to create a game that addressed the problems many had with DayZ. If we had communicated more openly and effectively about it all, we may have been able to show the gaming public that we weren’t cloning, but expounding on a genre that we wanted to explore ourselves.
More importantly, we shouldn’t have ignored obvious resentment from most hard core DayZ fans who clearly were not happy that someone was “taking away their game,” as they put it. Instead of ignoring them, we should have paid more attention to addressing their critiques instead of working toward hyping the game to the more casual crowd. At the end, this ignorance bit us in the ass.
A Big, Bittersweet Launch
We first launched The War Z on our own site, before hitting Steam, and it was hugely popular in the first 2 months. In that time, we sold 700,000 copies and had an average of 50,000 concurrent users at a time. Even as a small team, our servers stayed up and our game was stable throughout such a rapid period of growth.
We had internally developed tech that had already been battle-proven over several years for other online titles. While none of those titles reached the number of players that The War Z did, together they collectively had over 4M registered players before we launched The War Z. We also had a great partnership with our billing provider xSolla who was able to provide us more than 500 different payment options for our global user base right at launch. Having that available right off the bat meant we weren’t turning any gamers away.
We also had an incredibly powerful server and networking infrastructure that allowed us to survive heavy launch day loads, DDOS server attacks, and other common online game problems with minimal downtime. While many studios and publishers can hit snags on launch day and launch week, with servers unable to handle heavy, unexpected loads, ours remained up throughout the launch timeframe, despite a larger-than-expected group of first adopters.
That said, this extremely rapid growth of our player base hit us hard in other ways. The popularity of the game meant we had to devote more resources to executing the launch and keeping everything going smoothly. On launch day, we had over 100,000 concurrent users—more than we ever expected—and we were still a small team. While we managed to avoid the “server unavailable” type of problems larger games have on launch days, we simply didn’t have the resources to handle everything that came at us from the development, community and PR perspectives.
The greater-than-expected influx of players really handicapped our ability to effectively and quickly communicate with our community and with the press. This meant that errors we made and controversies that came up were exacerbated by our inability to communicate well, or to provide updated info and explanations. We should have set resources aside and dedicated them to listening to the players in our community who had real complaints. Instead, we were too focused on maintaining launch momentum. By listening to those players and addressing the problems that they brought to us (for example: lack of melee combat at the launch of the game or lack of features that allowed you to play with your friends effectively) we would have mitigated many things that later hurt us.
This had a further trickle-down effect on our development cycle. We fell far behind on our own schedule for delivering new features and fixing bugs. It took us a year to deliver all of the features we had promised our players when we first launched the game. Along the way, this lead players to assume we were lazy developers who misled gamers about features, and we should have done a better job of communicating to them why things were taking longer than expected.
On Steam and Bad Press
Likely the biggest controversy around The War Z, and what most people will remember, was that we were pulled off of Steam shortly after launching on the platform due to an inaccurate game description. The description we submitted for the game included features that were not yet implemented, but would be added soon, like the inclusion of private servers and the ability to host 100 players per server. While the game’s removal from Steam was temporary, it certainly had a major impact on the game’s perception in the media and gaming public.
Even though we were a small team crunching to complete the first release of the game, with better attention to detail this costly oversight should have only been an easily avoided issue.
With all hands on deck working to finish the build, we simply used the description of the game that we had on our website as our Steam description. We did not take the time to properly check and edit the description of the game - if we had, we would have realized we were misrepresenting features, which was never something we meant to do. To be honest, one of the reasons we rushed to Steam was because Dean Hall, leader of the DayZ team, was quoted in the press as saying that his game would launch on Steam before Christmas. We felt that The War Z needed to beat DayZ to Steam and, for lack of a better term, an arms-race ensued. We launched on Steam in December, but in our rush to get the game up, we neglected to do the due diligence required to avoid the resulting blunder.
While the game returned quickly with a new and clearer description of current features versus ones that were coming soon, this caused many gamers to think that the game had flopped right off the bat. Even though the Steam version of the game was, at the time, responsible for only about 15% of our users, public perception was that The War Z was effectively dead on arrival. This small and avoidable error was our biggest mistake during launch, and had such a profound effect on the media and gamer’s reception of our game that we still are recovering from it to this day.
What we had basically done is taken a game that was still in beta (and advertised as such on our website) and made it available on Steam without a “beta” tag (which wasn’t even an option on Steam at that time). In addition to the misleading game description, this move meant that press were free to consider it a completed title and review it, leading to poor review scores. Interestingly, just eight or nine weeks later, Steam introduced the early access program; if we hadn’t been in such a rush and had waited for that, launching our beta on Steam could have been perceived much differently.
Now, this controversy was one of many: for instance, a story surfaced that the community found some of our art to be very similar to cosplay art produced by fans of The Walking Dead TV show. Every negative story was magnified, starting in one outlet and spreading like wildfire to many more.
All of the bad press obviously gave The War Z and OP Productions a bad reputation. It adversely impacted our brand and I am sure overall sales figures would have been better without the negativity. I wonder where the game would be today if we had avoided these many mistakes and press coverage had focused on the things we were doing right. Even with the bad press, we sold three times as many copies of the game after reviews hit than we did before. But I’d be lying if I told you we’re not still wondering what our sales numbers would look like if we did things differently.
The Dos and Don’ts of Monetization
At this point in the story of The War Z, we are past launch and much of the bad press that plagued us at the time. In this stage of the game, we learned more important lessons about how to monetize a game with a strong core gamer audience.
First, let me say that I believe that free-to-play is not a monetization model, but a distribution model. By going free-to-play you are really choosing what kind of players you are going to attract – a paid game will attract a smaller audience of invested players, while a free game will attract a much larger audience of less invested players.
We chose to charge between $20 and $50 (depending on a “package” of in-game items) upfront for our game, in order to go after a smaller audience of dedicated players. This allowed us to accumulate capital early and use that to feed expansion and development of the title. However, any studio maintaining an online game needs recurring revenue to keep the game up and running, and microtransactions are a great way to keep growing.
Our in-game purchases were very much modeled after the effective ways that many MMOs monetize. While this overall strategy worked well from a financial perspective – we have enjoyed a healthy revenue stream from a very small percentage of paying users - it didn’t sit well with our most hardcore players, especially those who came over from Day Z and other core single-player games. Simply put, some of our in-game monetization decisions were too aggressive and not considerate to those players, and basically came off as greedy.
For instance, we included a cost to respawn quickly. Our initial design called for no respawning for 24 full hours because we wanted players to value their lives and avoid dying often. This did not work in the beta, so we lowered that respawn time to two hours, then down to one hour, and now we are at 10-15 minutes. We also introduced a pay-to-respawn feature with in-game cash – we still wanted to force people to value their life and thought that everyone would wait and only a percentage would pay to respawn. Unfortunately, we didn’t communicate this very well and it was perceived as a cash-grab.
Another ill-fated micro-transaction was around selling ammo. We wanted an active in-game economy – ammo can be found out in the world, but it’s pretty scarce. Some players wanted to get guns and ammo right away and play The War Z just like a shooter, though we designed it more as a slower-paced survival game. At first, those players could play it as a shooter by going to the store and paying real money for bullets. They still had to find weapons in a world first – those weren’t available for sale. We gave them the opportunity to purchase ammo with real money, and many perceived that as a type of paywall.
The lesson here is simple: don’t put anything in your game that can be seen as a paywall, especially if you charged an upfront cost for the game. This may sound basic, but it can be hard to predict exactly how players are going to play your game. If they do so in a way that is different from how you designed it, a micro-transaction that made sense to you can later be perceived as a paywall to the majority of your players.
As of today, all of those monetization mechanics we put into the game have been removed and replaced with more player-friendly mechanisms. This has resulted in a slight decrease in revenue and a clear increase in positive player feedback, a trade we’ve been more than happy to make.
Listen to the
Haters Vocal Minority of Players!
Throughout all of this, I think the biggest mistake we consistently made was that we were arrogantly deaf to problems raised by a vocal minority of players. For a long time our strategy was very simple – we looked at a massive amount of data we had mined and if it looked generally okay, it meant that things were going well, and if someone started discussing problems on the forums or on social media we generally ignored them. There was a lot of hate out there on the web being aimed toward us, the studio, and the game. Today, I realize that there was plenty of reason for that hate, but at the time, we were foolish and thought that we didn’t have to listen to or respond to “haters.”
In some ways, we were an indie team trying to act like a big team. The big players – Activision, Sony, Microsoft, Blizzard, etc – can go silent towards negative comments or forum threads, but it never works for a small team. This is one of the biggest things we learned from the entire launch of The War Z. We now recognize the importance of listening to vocal groups of critics regardless of their size. We needed to engage them, open up a dialogue, explain why we did certain things, take their feedback to heart, and address it as best we could.
My team and I learned more from launching The War Z and supporting Infestation: Survivor Stories than any other property we have worked on. It would be an understatement to call it a rough launch, and looking back I can’t blame any of the gamers and reviewers who pulled no punches in their criticisms of the game.
We learn and grow the most when things don’t go as planned, and I can say with complete certainty that we have learned many lessons and matured as a team as a result.
The bright side was that the game became a financial success – we have sold over 2.8 million copies to date, a great accomplishment for a game that launched so poorly in terms of press and player perception. It was also important for the whole team to execute the launch of a large game to prove to ourselves that we could from an operations and execution standpoint. This experience is important in terms of moving forward and on to new and bigger projects.
We’ve overcome most of the problems we had at launch and continue to enjoy and work with a strong community that grew up around the game. Together with a new development team and partners we’re preparing to launch a new chapter in a game’s life, with completely redesigned gameplay experiences based on all we’ve learned over the last two years.
In fact, we have just recently launched a free to play version of the game in Thailand to great success (average CCU is around 18,000) and have big plans to introduce Infestation: Survivor Stories to the rest of the Southeast Asia region early this year.
In the end, The War Z launch was just as messy as we all probably remember it, but it wasn’t the flop that many thought it was and it lives on in Infestation: Survivor Stories with more to come. I sincerely hope that other independent developers can learn from our experience.
Developer: Originally Hammerpoint Interactive, but later switched to OP Productions’ in-house dev team
Publisher: OP Productions LLC
Release Date: Limited closed alpha release October 2012, Open access November 1st 2012, Steam December 2012
Number of Developers: Between 4 and 12 people depending on stage of the project
Length of Development: 8 months of preproduction and 8 months of active development
Hours crunched before launch: Around 20 hours total
Peak Concurrent users: Over 100,000 on launch day, averaged 50,000 CCU from November 2012 through February 2013