What Vlambeer calls performative game development very much looks like the new face of game dev. In essence, as Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman described in their GDC talk, they lay their process bare in front of the audience.
Their new game, Nuclear Throne, is in Steam Early Access for people to buy. They livestream while they work twice a week. They heavily moderate and interact with their steam forums. Nuclear Throne is being informed by the community, while also informing the community about game development. And the more popular their streams get, and the surrounding YouTube plays from early access fans, the more free marketing they receive.
It really sounds like an ideal way to make games. But as an indie game dev myself, I'm not certain I could actually do it. It isn't right for every game, they said - it has to be something you can make a significant update for every week. One important decision they made was to price the game higher for early access than for final release. "We didn't need a giant influx of players," said Ismail. "We needed a group of players who were really invested, and wanted to pay a little extra to be involved with it."
Even with this policy in place, they've made around $200,000 on early access. "The development is 100% self sustained, so we'll be earning money as long as we work on it," Ismail says. "So that's kind of nice!"
But then you have to figure out what to stream, to make it interesting for viewers. "Game development streaming for us didn't mean just playing some music and coding," said Nijman. "It meant talking to people, and adding in triple-machineguns on the go, and things like that." Essentially, they allowed players voices to really be heard, while actually speaking with them, and working at the same time. "It really is performance," said Ismail. "And it's exhausting."
Through trial and error, Vlambeer learned a few of the positives and negatives of performative development, which they kindly shared with us.
Transparency. "It's really nice!" says Ismail. When there's a problem with the game, you can just go to your community and say "I'm sorry, we'll fix it in three weeks," and people will just say "okay!"
They may grumble, but it's nice that "we can just flat out tell people when we have an issue," says Ismail.
Direct communication. "By oing this we gave ourselves a lot of new channels with which to communicate," says Ismail. "Now you have just talking direct to your players, which is a new channel, but exciting in a lot of ways."
motivation. "People get together and challenge each other in the game," says Ismail. "It's something new, and it's super motivating. Having a playable game in the open means you can have people playing your game before it's out, which is amazing."
Growth. "When [YouTube players] Sleep Cycles and Tengudrop started streaming, they weren't that popular," he says. "But now they're reaching thousands of people, and as they grow, our game's popularity grows."
Focus. "It's also a great way to stop checking your Facebook, because when you have thousands of people watching you, you don't screw around as much," Ismail says.
Education. "Also you get to educate a community," he says. "We've been building this myth that game development is fun, and everything is shot with beautiful cameras, and when you make a PlayStation build, you go to unity, click PlayStation, click build, and that's it. Now we're able to educate people about what it's really like. It's also been educational for us, figuring out how we can communicate better as developers."
Early access reputation. "Early access has a bit of a bad reputation," said Nijman. "People seem to think early access games are all Day Z clones with bugs. People don't expect something polished." The team had to explain what they were doing quite frequently before the audience could understand.
"Also, early access doesn't really have rules," added Ismail. "That's been one of the most difficult things, convincing folks where we're not trying to get people to pay us to fix our game."
Streaming. It's a lot of work. "It's exhausting, and three hours of streaming per day is kind of a full work day," says Nijman. "We didn't expect that."
Weekly builds. "Releasing your game every week is so much work," says Nijman. "And it doesn't let you break your game for two weeks, and overhaul the audio, because you have to have the build working every Saturday."
Timezones. Being in the Netherlands made it, tough to get everyone to watch the streams. People in the U.S. have to get up at 4 am in order to watch.
Transparency. "You can't really add secrets when everyone is watching," said Nijman - and Vlambeer loves to put secrets in their games. "We tried to add a secret, and everyone discovered it within the first minute."
Expectation management. You have to be able to say no to your fans in real time. "People want co-op, and we said nooooo?" Ismail shrugged.
TipsCommunity is an investment. "When you get there, it's absolutely amazing," says Ismail, but the work getting there is significant. "The amount of time we have to spend removing people from the steam forums has gone down, and now I don't have to ask people to be nice as much."
Ask people to join the community. You have to ask people to follow you on twitter for updates, or follow your Twitch stream, or they simply won't do it. You have to actively build your community.
Being transparent makes things easier. "If you have a game that works on steam early access, a game that's content-heavy, it's perfect, because you can fund your development while you're working on it," says Ismail. This gives you a lot of freedom to make the game you want, but also that the fans want, without worrying about overhead.
Budget your time. Vlambeer has a set weekly schedule, which is very labor intensive. "That's a bit more than we'd do again," says Nijman. "Maybe we'd do half of this, or less."
Ultimately this sort of development isn't really for everyone. "You need to have a team you can really depend on," says Ismail. "You have to stick to a schedule, make sure people know when to be where. Streaming randomly doesn't do anything - streaming with a schedule works."
Now, says Ismail, development and marketing is the same thing. "That's great for us," he says. "We can just focus on making the game, and making the game itself is marketing for the game."