Last June I wrote a postmortem of AI War, which also wound up being a form of history of Arcen as a whole. But now a whole year has passed, and we’ve released Skyward Collapse: Nihon no Mura, Bionic Dues, and The Last Federation in that time. We also have a lot more data on Skyward Collapse, Shattered Haven, and A Valley Without Wind 2.
Rock Paper Shotgun picked up that postmortem in their Sunday Papers yesterday (they may have previously, too, but neither they nor I remember for sure or can be bothered to go back and check, so anyhow). One of the readers who popped over to check out the postmortem, Alban, had a great followup question:
Just coming here late following RPS’ Sunday Papers. As this post mortem is one year old there’s no data for Bionic Dues.
How does it fare? Will you apply the same kind of long term free/paid support as AI War ?
I’m going to get to his question, but first some background. And in general an updated view of the company.
Creating any sort of game or other creative work is a bit of a funny thing, because there is a certain amount of luck involved. There are a lot of examples from the past of great games that inexplicably didn’t sell well. I want to say System Shock 2, but I can’t recall if that is correct. There were some others along those lines.
And then there are some that are clearly the recipient of good luck, going above (sometimes even far above) what you would expect them to. Not that they aren’t good games, but that they simply were the recipient of good luck in the same way that the other games were the recipient of bad luck. Angry Birds and Minecraft are two examples of games that are great, but that also were lucky. AI War I also feel like was lucky, in that same sense. I feel like Skyward Collapse was, too, frankly.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, but here’s how I would rate our games and expansions in terms of their luck (among other factors):
- AI War (base game): Very lucky, and also the right game at the right time for the market.
- AI War expansions: Not particularly lucky, as they don’t get press coverage much. However, they are steady earners because they build on something else that was already successful. (There is some further clarification about what I mean on this in the forums).
- Tidalis: Moderately unlucky, but also just really the wrong mix of casual visuals with hardcore depth. This game had tons of chances to do well, with excellent reviews and lots of coverage, so really I think a lot of this is down to our blowing it more than luck.
- A Valley Without Wind: Quite lucky in the main, but not as successful as we needed because we spent too much making it. And misread the signs after it had been out for a while.
- A Valley Without Wind 2: It’s hard to really gauge the luck here, as I handled the game in general so phenomenally stupidly. We gave it away to all the customers of Valley 1 because of a promise I had made about a free art upgrade to the first game (which later turned into the sequel), and while I am glad I kept my word I am quite sorry I made that promise in the first place. It’s hard to know how this game would have done, since we gutted our potential market by literally giving it away to most of them. That said, the reviews were in the main pretty decent (certainly above Valley 1), but at the same time there was not all that much other coverage (compared to Valley 1), so I would classify its luck factor as middling in general.
- Shattered Haven: This game has seen only niche success, mainly I think due to the graphics (which I am really frustrated how those graphics turned out, the criticism there is deserved), and with how slowly the game “gets to the good stuff” (which we later adjusted in post-release patches to get you to Stantonsburg quicker, but a lot of people gave up prior to that). This game is one I’m quite proud of, but in general it just doesn’t connect with most of the market (though some people really love it), and I don’t think luck really has anything to do with it.
- Skyward Collapse: This was just a fun little project, and a really quirky idea in a small package. That this got as much coverage as it did, and sold as well as it did, definitely smells like a lot of luck to me. I think that the game is fun and good, don’t get me wrong, but I think there was also a confluence of events that helped make this get more notice than on average a game like this would.
- Skyward Collapse: Nihon no Mura: Blah, this was extremely unlucky. We thought that if we followed the AI War model of just putting out expansions to something that was already successful, then people would show up for that. Turns out that was not so much the case — or part of it, really, was just how insanely inexpensive this title is, which makes it very hard to break even on it. More on this later, but I think there was some lack of luck here as well as some substantial stupidity on my part.
- Bionic Dues: Boy this project was just a model of perfection internally. We just did everything right, I feel like, and were firing on all pistons across the board. We were SO fast, however, that we didn’t have time to really do any advance marketing, which was… a problem. But there was also just a distinct lack of luck with this one. I’d classify it as extremely unlucky, to be honest. Some things were in our hands, but others were just out of our hands.
- The Last Federation: This project was a longer and larger one than I had intended, and the combat model in particular was something we struggled to get right, burning up a lot of development time on that. We ran ourselves down to our last dime (and then some, literally), making this game, and had to shrink from a fulltime staff of 7 to a staff of 4. Which is frankly more inline with our income, anyway, but not something I wanted to happen. Then the game came out and was just a phenomenal hit for us, far and away above anything we’ve ever done. I think we made a really great and fun game here, but at the same time, as with AI War I recognize that there were some distinct places where we also got really, really lucky. It’s kind of the inverse of the Bionic Dues situation, where some things were just out of our hands, but went very very much in our favor.
What sorts of things do I mean by “luck?” Well, we try to pick release dates that make sense for purposes of the wider market, but there is a lot of luck in that, anyway. Bionic Dues got squashed by other releases on launch and disappeared from view before people could really evaluate it well. The Last Federation dominated the Steam front page for days, which was partly based on the high clickthrough rates to it but also based on just being at the right place at the right time.
In terms of getting the attention of people in forums, of reviewers, of press in general, etc, there’s also a luck factor. Skill in PR/marketing, too, but also luck. Some games we put out are loved by major reviewers or youtubers, and they tell us this privately, but then they never wind up having time to actually do a review or video, because of other titles that are more pressing in terms of their audience and what will make them money on views, etc. Then by the time they do have time for a theoretical review, the game is old news. That happened to Bionic Dues in multiple instances. But for TLF, we had the opposite luck, where a lot of big names just jumped on it immediately and wrote or did a video about it immediately, rather than having a delay.
You could argue that that is partly due to the degree to which they connected with one game versus the other, and that is surely partly true, but I think that anyone who denies the role of luck in books, movies, games, and basically all creative things is kidding themselves. You can’t get lucky if you aren’t prepared and actually having something worth talking about, but it is possible to do everything right and still fail. There are indies all over the place where that is the case. The most notable recent example of that, to me, is Source by Fenix Fire. That game got a ton of press attention, looks gorgeous, seemed to do everything right on Kickstarter, had a hilariously modest goal for a game like that ($50k), and yet still failed to get funded. WTF? That’s just bad luck, and something those devs need to realize and not feel too bad about.
Please don’t misunderstand and think that I think luck is the only factor that matters, though. There’s a lengthy followup discussion in the forums where longtimer ptarth raises a number of really interesting points and question (about both the role of luck and other things), if this topic interests you further.
Okay, back to the actual question.
AI War is now somewhere north of $1.3 million, I’m not sure exactly where. We’re at over 5 years of the game being out now, and our 6th expansion is in the works for release this August. There’s not a lot to really say here, this just continues to be a strong game for us. It’s fallen a lot in terms of how big a portion of our yearly income it is, but that’s mainly because of the rise of other games for us, rather than a fall of AI War itself.
Bionic Dues – Not So Hot
Bionic Dues, as noted above, was a recipient of bad luck. It hasn’t sold abysmally, it’s not like Shattered Haven or Tidalis, but it just hasn’t really been “discovered” yet, in a lot of senses. Overall it’s had a really solid reception, and certainly some major press. We bungled some things with Bionic in terms of advance press, but a big part of that was the fact that we weren’t really ready to show anything until the last second because the development cycle on Bionic Dues was so short. Our “luckier” titles had longer development cycles with more teasing of stuff prior to them.
Bionic is at a semi-respectable $95k(ish). It’s not something we’ve broken even on yet, although I have to go back and calculate exactly how much we spent making that one. We will break even on it eventually, but it’s much slower than expected.
We were planning on doing an expansion for Bionic, but unfortunately the support just isn’t there to make that viable. We had already done some features that we were going to include in an expansion for Bionic, and with the decision not to go ahead with an expansion we just rolled those out as new free features to the base game a week or so ago. There aren’t going to be many updates to Bionic aside from bugfixes; it’s a complete, self-contained game at this point.
That’s actually true for all of our titles now except for AI War and The Last Federation. Though we are going back and adding Linux support to everything that didn’t already have it (even Tidalis, after all!).
Our latest title, The Last Federation, just passed $500k in 10 weeks, so it’s our new most-amazing success. AI War has still earned more than twice as much, but it did it over 5 years rather than 10 weeks, and with 5 expansions as opposed to zero.
As noted above our 6th expansion is in the works for AI War, nevertheless — we’re not abandoning that game just because we have something newer and more successful. And naturally an expansion for TLF as well. TLF continues to go great guns, and is basically single-handedly funding our work on our next title, Spectral Empire, a 4x which will come out next April.
To say that we are amazed and grateful for the reception that The Last Federation has had would be a huge understatement. To put things in perspective, if you take an average of how the entire rest of our catalog has sold over 2014 so far, and then compare 10 weeks of that average to the first 10 weeks that TLF was out, TLF outsells everything else in our catalog combined by 7:1. TLF was expensive to make, but it broke even somewhere around 7 weeks after coming out. Skyward Collapse broken even much faster than TLF, but it also cost something like 1/8th as much to make.
Well, this is our worst-selling title ever, even “topping” Tidalis, which I had not expected to ever manage to do. We have a lot of disparate income from various bundles and whatnot now, so it’s harder and harder to collate exactly how much specific games are making unless we keep careful track of it. With TLF, you bet we were watching that with fascination (and it hasn’t been in any bundles, anyway). For Shattered Haven, we’ve not been watching the numbers super closely. I would hazard a guess that the total gross is around $30k total, based on the concrete numbers that I am looking at at then going from memory on the smaller gaps.
The Silver Lining On Shattered Haven (And Similar Games That Don’t Fare Well)
That said, I’m really gratified to see that some people do connect with it as much as I do, and come into the forums and say how much they love it. Here’s an awesome thing: every single game that we have ever made is somebody’s favorite game that we’ve ever made. In other words, even our “worst game” is one that somebody (that I’ve never met) feels is our best game. In some cases, we get people saying that our “worst game” is actually their favorite game ever in a genre — or even out of all games in general! That’s a huge honor, and always takes me by surprise.
Cynics will go “there’s no accounting for taste,” and sure, that’s true in a literal sense. I think all of us like certain things that are not popular, and it’s not because we’re hipsters. Shattered Haven’s gameplay was very inspired by both Zelda 1 and Lode Runner: The Legend returns, and I think that people who like the latter in particular (or games like that) are likely to respond well to Shattered. Story-wise, some people think that it’s not really a good story (and some say the same about Tidalis). But for those who connect with the emotion in Shattered, or the humor in Tidalis, it’s really quite wonderful. It comes down to taste.
I mention this because this is also true of lots of other games around the Internet. I see it in the forums of other indie developers all the time. They make something that the market hates, that the critics spurn, and that is a financial ruin for them. Yet there are strangers telling them how much they love that title. It’s an odd thing to experience.
In some ways, I guess I kind of feel fortunate to have both this experience and the experience of having something much more widely popular and accepted. Being able to recognize the nature of personal taste, and the role of luck as well, kind of helps take the sting off of my failures. Or at least helps me put them in some kind of context, if that makes sense. Very few people love every game we’ve ever made, and plenty of people don’t like ANY game we’ve ever made, but somebody loves every game we’ve made, and some games are loved by a LOT of people, and that has to be good enough for me; that’s the best anyone can really expect, I think, in all honesty. Think about it; even for someone like Stephen King, who is like the Notch of novels.
The gross total last year on Steam for the package that includes both this and Valley 1 was a mere $109k. That’s… pretty pathetic, honestly. Given the huge expense of making this game, the Valley 1 and 2 package has been pushed so far into the red that they are never going to climb out of the hole.
People always complained about the graphics in Valley 1, but then once we did Valley 2 (which is vastly prettier, I think), people started complaining about how they preferred the character animations in Valley 1. Go figure.
Valley 1 also is excessively more popular in terms of playtime. It gets played more than Valley 2 by about a 5:1 ratio. Valley 2 is the one that I actually prefer out of the two of them, although both are really fun. But it was a complete genre shift from being a Metroidvania to being a Contra-like. And the crafting and mild citybuilding from Valley 1 was instead replaced by procedural bonuses, character classes, and a semi-intimidating strategic layer in Valley 2.
A lot of fans of the first game didn’t respond all that well to the shift, because they basically wanted more of the first game, but prettier. Which I can understand. Valley 2 probably would have been better received as a completely standalone separate game with no connection to the first. Though critics did like Valley 2 better.
For myself, behind AI War, I think the game I have put the most time into playing recreationally from our library of games is a tossup between Shattered Haven (with my wife) and Valley 2 (with my 4 year old son). Go figure! This is kind of what I mean about there being no accounting for tastes. Sometimes my taste is really odd to the point the market goes “what?” and that’s something I’m having to learn to live with (and to try to avoid, where possible, as it really risks the company).
Skyward Collapse and the Nihon no Mura Expansion – Ehhh…
At the time this came out, it did phenomenally well. Its first month was not our highest-grossing launch, but it was our most units moved by a large margin. It broken even in 3 days, and was 6% of our historical revenue within a month. That’s more or less where we left things at the last postmortem, a year ago. Well, what’s happened since then?
Sales tapered off pretty fast, actually. The expansion came out to a resounding lack of interest from all except the core players, and gaming moved on. This seems to be what happens to most games — that’s why the initial launch is so important — but for Arcen the long tail has always been where the meat of our income comes from, so this was a surprise to me.
With the expansion, we deliberately released that in August just to see what would happen. That’s a real dead period in gaming, and we figured we could pick up some extra press due to that, and that we’d make up the initial shortfall in sales via long-term sales in discount promos and whatnot. It was a reasonable plan, although a speculative one, and we knew the risks when we tried it. It didn’t pay off.
Actually, by putting so much work into Skyward 2.0 and the expansion, we managed to UN break even on the game that broke even in 3 days. Facepalm. But, by the end of 2013 we had re-broken even on the combination of the two, although the role of the expansion in that was questionable at best.
Looking At Company-Wide Numbers – Strength In Numbers, Actually
Still, despite the above, overall Skyward Collapse did respectably for last year. The base game generated about $125k gross in that year on Steam, out of about $510k total for all our products on Steam last year, so Skyward was 24% of our Steam income last year. That’s no slouch at all! And frankly, Valley 1 + 2 were 21% of our Steam revenue from last year. By the end of last year we had 7 full games released, plus 1 expansion for Skyward and 5 expansions for AI War. That’s a lot of back catalog, and it’s not the sort of back catalog that starts to look stale after a few years like the latest 3D games do. Our graphics start out retro and stay retro, and I think that’s part of the long tail that we experience. And a number of other 2D or retro-styled games by other developers, frankly.
Anyway, aside from a dip in 2012 (I think it was the Q4 economy there, which hurt everyone), Arcen has always had at least around a 10% growth in year over year income. Our big problem was always having expenses that grew at that rate or higher, thanks to my bringing on more and more staff. So despite the constant growth, there was also a constant struggle. Anyway, last year Arcen grossed over $700k in all, and no one product was more than 40% responsible for those numbers. That’s a big win for us, given how dominant AI War has been in our history.
Our strategy in 2013 was kind of the opposite of what we did in 2011 and 2012, where we focused on just one or two really giant games. Instead we focused on a larger number of smaller titles, the two chief amongst those being Skyward and Bionic. That strategy paid off in some respects, but by the same token it doesn’t create titles with the longevity of AI War or The Last Federation. So 2014 has seen us swing back the other way, working on larger titles again, but with more of an emphasis of keeping steady pacing without runaway expenses.
Overall, Arcen has now grossed somewhere around $2.7 million dollars. $500k of that came from The Last Federation in the last couple of months. About $1.3m of that came from AI War over a span of 5 years. That leaves $1.8m divided amongst all the rest of our products combined (6 games). Valley 1 and 2 are the largest component of the rest of that, with about $500k in gross income between the two of them (since April 2011). Skyward and its expansion and complete version account for about $180k. Tidalis, something like $110k. Bionic Dues, $95k or so, and Shattered Haven at something like $30k.
So, we’ve been all over the map, in terms of financial success. I’m okay with that, so long as we stay solvent and free, though. I look at Maxis games from way back in the early and mid 90s, and I really admire what they did. They had some really hit games (SimCity, sort of SimTower), but then they also had a sizeable number of ones that never really took off. But someone loved all of their games, even the “flops,” and there was value and innovation in everything that they created. I’m okay with a track record like that.
That said, our next title is a semi-traditional 4x, so we are playing it somewhat safe. Granted, it has our own twists and uniquenesses on it, but we’re not mashing up two unrelated genres like we so often have. In the end it just boils down to being able to make what we’re most interested in making at the time, and then doing the best job on it that we can. With a lower amount of expenses, and more money shelved away for security, we currently don’t have to run around with our hair on fire quite so much. I’ve been basically in crunch mode for 5 years, and it’s really nice to be able to actually take a more reasonable amount of time to do things.
Anyway. For the moment, things are looking very much up, and I’m feeling very fortunate for the situation that we’re in. I had hoped to stabilize as a fulltime staff of 8, but ultimately we wound up stabilizing at a fulltime staff of 4. That’s the one thing that really kills me, but it’s just more realistic for a company of our nature. All in all, despite the many bumpy things last year, we managed to have a really solid year, and despite a very scary start, this year has now exceeded last year in every way. Here’s to the future.
PS: In the forums, I was asked about what I think about Jeff Vogel’s recent posts about how the indie bubble is bursting, and what that means. Unfortunately, I agree with him on most of his points. If you’d like to read that discussion, it is here.
PPS: The forum discussion continues to be wide-ranging and detailed on a variety of subjects, some only tangentially related. It’s an interesting read if you like this sort of thing.