This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.
3. The Notebook Interface
In the first two Blackwell games, Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound, your character carried a notebook with her. As you went through the game, you'd collect clues and you'd write them in your notebook. These clues acted like inventory items that you could combine together and get more clues.
This interface was touted by the critics as being very unique and innovative (although Discworld Noir did it first), but the players told a different story. For most players, the notebook gave them the greatest amount of frustration.
"It's obvious that Cecil Sharpe and the band C-Sharps are related," complained players of Blackwell Unbound. "Why doesn't my character know it too?" My suggestion to combine the "C-Sharps" and "Cecil Sharpe" clues in the notebook was met with replies of "Oh. That's annoying."
At first I shrugged off these complaints, but they were right. Combining clues in this fashion was not an intuitive way to get through a puzzle, even though it's a very appropriate mechanic for a mystery game. I had originally designed Blackwell Convergence to include the notebook mechanic and incorporated several puzzles with it, but after the umpteenth complaint about the system I knew it was dead weight and I had to remove it.
However, this caused a problem. One the one hand, removing the notebook made the game much more streamlined and pleasant to play, but on the other hand it removed a significant amount of challenge. In the end, I decided that making the game more fun was more important than making it more challenging, so I removed the clue-combining aspect of the interface completely.
The result? Many more players mourned the loss of the notebook than I thought would, especially the hardcore fans of the previous games, and the critics. A lot of reviews said that the "simplification" of the game was the one thing holding it back from being the best in the series. I still stand by the decision, but I wish I had made this decision earlier so I would have had time to come up with something better to take its place.
Will the notebook return in the fourth game? Perhaps. At least now I can now plan ahead and make a solid attempt at making a clue-combining interface that is both intuitive and fun to use.
4. Higher Production Values Made Little Difference in Profits
I mentioned earlier how the production values of Convergence were significantly better than those of the previous games. This also meant that the game cost significantly more money to make!
The slicker production values did help Convergence sell much better than its predecessors, but it also took much longer to earn back the production costs. So in terms of pure profit, my earnings are exactly the same as the previous titles. I am satisfied enough with how the game is selling, but I do have to ask the question: would I have been better off keeping the lower production values (and cost) of the original games?
Honestly, I don't know. Perhaps some kind of cost/sales analysis would shed some light, but as an indie developer with very little experience with business or sales I wouldn't know where to begin. Either way, on a personal level I love how the game looks and sounds. It easily conveys the dark mood and atmosphere of the series perfectly, and is exactly how I envisioned the game when I first started out.
5. Over-Reliance on Distribution Channels
When the first Blackwell game, The Blackwell Legacy, was accepted by the game distribution portals I was a nervous wreck. At the time, I was struggling very hard to sell my games and I figured their success on the portals would make or break me.
When the game leapt up to the top 10 charts of game portals like Big Fish, PlayFirst, and iWin, I figured I had finally "made it" and had discovered the secret to successfully selling my games. In a nutshell, I was going to rely on the distribution networks to do it for me.
That was in 2007. Now, a whole two years later, things are different. A lot of distribution channels have lowered their prices to the point where it's very difficult for a developer to earn any serious money. In addition, the competition is a heck of a lot more fierce and the economy is severely limiting the number of games people buy. The result is that customers are buying fewer games and paying less for them.
So when Convergence went up on the portals, I was not surprised to see it struggling to get noticed. I learned my lesson very quickly: I could no longer rely on the game portals to sustain the majority of my income.
They can make up a part of it, but relying on them completely was a bad idea. I had to -- gulp -- actually do some marketing and PR work myself. This forced me to become much more self-reliant, as I explained above.
In reading over this postmortem I realize that most of my "rights" are about evolving the series and my "wrongs" are about sales and marketing, which I guess shows where my priorities are. Being an indie studio made up of me and a couple of freelance artists, there are limits to what I can accomplish.
I have a story I want to tell, and this is the medium (no pun intended) that I've chosen to tell it. I am constantly re-evaluating what works and what doesn't and trying new approaches in how to tell an interactive story, but for too long I ignored the business end of things and that became a liability. I'm glad I finally noticed this and took steps to correct it. Learning from your mistakes is important, because it enables you to make room for more!