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Killing Your Babies (Part 1/2) — A Gaming CEO’s Guide to Pivoting and Re-Energizing Your Team

by Richard Warren on 02/19/21 10:51:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

By Colin Feo, CEO of Windwalk Games

It was November 2020, and Enemy On Board, our debut title, had been in Early Access for six months. We’d been working on this project for nearly two years. Our excitement from our Early Access launch was wearing off and there was an increasing sense of unease at work. The numbers weren’t growing and monetization wasn’t where it needed to be. We were losing momentum.

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Enemy On Board — our studio’s first game

In the past, when we discussed new features or content, it was hard to get people to shut up. Now people were hardly contributing and there wasn’t a clear path forward. Sam, one of my co-founders, finally approached me and flat out asked: “Do you think it’s time to move on? I don’t think Enemy on Board is going to work for us.”

Sam, Cris (my other co-founder and real-life brother), and I looked through the data and went back and forth for a couple of days. Tensions ran high. Between the 3 of us, there was an overwhelming sense of: “everything we’ve built is for nothing”. A focus on execution above all else left us in a state of confusion. We needed to know why Enemy On Board didn’t work and in lieu of any well-defined, thoughtfully identified problems, confusion naturally turned inwards into self-doubt. Were we bad at our jobs? With no clear path forward, we decided to break the news to the team: due to Enemy On Board’s performance, we would begin working on a new project. I thought that was the hard part.

My Team’s Reaction

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Everyone had their own axe to grind and rationale for why EOB wasn’t driving success

After breaking the news, it became clear that we were in no mental state to tackle something new. Communication was emotional and inefficient. Everyone had their own axe to grind for how we got in this position. It didn’t feel like the kind of environment that could ever yield the excitement and collaboration required for hunting down a compelling new project. I saw two problems that I needed to solve immediately:

  1. Everyone was burned out. Even if there was excitement, new product development requires totally open, comfortable communication. We were very far away from this.
  2. How do I turn around my team’s “everything we built was for nothing” sentiment? I knew Windwalk was in a better position than ever. We had just pulled in additional capital and learned an immense amount. I needed to help my teammates see this.

To address burnout, I decided to take drastic action. I gave everyone on our team 2 weeks off, effective immediately. We had just spent 2 years grinding and we needed to let our brains relax and absorb all of our learnings. I enforced some very specific guidelines for the time off though:

  1. No one can work. If anyone works, others will feel pressured to work. This needs to be guilt-free time. Don’t check work messages. Break that out of your routine.
  2. Don’t plan a big vacation. Focus on living a better day-to-day life. Catch up on sleep, working out, and cooking. Spend time with family if possible.

This worked like magic. The difference in tone when we got back was like night and day. The dark rings under our eyes turned brighter. We lost over 10 pounds collectively over the break because we were all back to steady workout regimens. Sam even learned how to make croissants.

To fight the feeling that everything we built was for naught, and gain confidence in pivoting our direction, I knew we needed to dig deep and complete an EOB and Windwalk retro when we returned. I needed to refocus our team on the learnings we had while developing and releasing Enemy On Board.

So I sat down with my team and we ran a thorough analysis for what was good and bad about Enemy on Board and Windwalk. In all of the long nights of grinding where did we excel? Where do we really not have expertise?

Retro — The Good

Our Insight into Consumer Tastes is On Point

  • Our team was 100% right about the rise of social deduction as a genre. This wasn’t just a shot in the dark. It was based on our deep and ongoing experiences in social, influencer and modding communities.

We Know How to Make Fun, Deep Gameplay

  • Our power users spent 1,000+ hours each playing our game even in its Early Access state.

Our Tooling makes us REALLY Fast

  • Our team has built out software tooling that lets us build and operate the frequently updated, community-driven games we love creating. We can iterate and test content quickly. We can deploy new updates with little overhead. We can communicate with our community effectively.
  • Our next project can be built in 1/4 of the time of EOB.

We are Exceptional at Community Building

  • We built a healthy, thriving Discord community of over 30,000 members with a $0 budget. 95% of studios I have talked to are flabbergasted by this and want to know how we did it.

We Know How to Use Our Community

  • We worked with our Discord community to build a huge amount of awareness on a $0 pre-marketing budget. We were on top of Steam’s upcoming list when we launched. We sat above many AAA, publisher-supported games.
  • We know how to involve our community in development. How to talk with them. How to distill their feedback into new features and changes.

We Are Well Networked and Have Great Partners

  • Between Y Combinator and active outreach, we are punching above our weight class in terms of our network. 1UP Ventures and our new investors double down on this.

We Have Grit

  • We have been knocked down enough times to not panic anymore. Our team doesn’t give up because we are all working at Windwalk for the right reasons. We want to build massive, thriving games and communities.

Retro — The Bad

Small Team and the Distraction of Fundraising

  • Enemy on Board had too large of a surface area and was increasingly hard to maintain with a team of 3 developers.
  • Growing a company is hard. Making a game is hard. When I turned my attention to fundraising this stretched our team even thinner and hurt morale.

Realtime Action Combat and Social Deduction Clashed

  • Our goal was to combine action-packed real-time combat and social deduction. This caused a pinch. If combat’s skill ceiling was too high then a talented player could avoid the deduction and just kill everyone. We ended up having to dumb down combat to preserve the value of information and sleuthing.

“Play with Strangers” vs. “Play with Friends” Path to Play

  • We optimized Enemy on Board’s path to play for playing with strangers. We thought we needed to tackle this problem to make our market big enough. What’s not to love about a bigger TAM?
  • We built a matchmaker to combine random groups of players together. This helped us grow initially but ended up causing serious match quality problems. For a game that requires communication, one bad egg would ruin a round.

Evangelist Alienation — Chasing Among Us in Early Access

  • When Among Us started blowing up we introduced a handful of changes that we thought would help us appeal to their users. This gamble ended up changing our games’ identity drastically. This violated our obsession with community and alienated some of our most important power users.

No Full-Time Art Leadership

  • A lack of early art leadership led to our game underperforming on YouTube and Twitch. It limited our ability to build a more beautiful, opinionated game.
  • Managing a rotating cast of contractors took attention away from our already limited development team and slowed us down.

Steam Platform Dynamics — We launched into Steam Early Access too early and as a F2P title.

  • Our thought was that we could focus initially on retention and then turn our focus to monetization. As it turns out Steam’s algorithm primarily rewards titles that produce revenue. As a studio in the throes of fundraising, we didn’t have the brute force capital to prop up the audience while we worked.
  • Ongoing growth on Steam is mostly structured around wishlists and sales. As a F2P game, we can’t make our game cheaper than free, so we couldn’t take advantage of Steam’s primary means of growth.
  • Our early testing showed incredible stickiness. This fell off when we broadened the audience.

Hired for Growth and Marketing Too Late into Development

  • We brought on our community and growth team 6 months before Early Access launch. While they still found substantial success, involvement earlier in development would have allowed us to build more authentic relationships with communities which would have superpowered Enemy on Board’s path to market.

Many members of our team came into the retro with strong opinions on what our team did wrong. As we dug in deeper and continued to talk as a group, we realized that while we had screwed up here and there, most of our challenges stemmed from the same three foundational issues: project scope, Steam platform dynamics, and the early growing pains of a new founding team. It was incredible to see the team’s morale turn around as we shared our best and worst moments.

This self-reflection has become the foundation of our next project. Game 2 is more likely to succeed not only because we are better at our jobs and better capitalized, but also because we are consciously picking a project that fits our team like a glove. In many ways, Enemy on Board was the classic “first project”. We unknowingly took on many challenges that ALL needed to be solved for meaningful financial success. For Game 2, how can we play to our strengths? What challenges will we commit to?

To learn more about how we picked our new direction, check out part 2 tomorrow!

We have a monthly newsletter focused on gaming and our second project, Project Borealis. You should SUBSCRIBE.

Do you want more of my hot-takes? You should FOLLOW me on Twitter.


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