First up: as promised, Alpha 16 is now out. This includes fixes, improved and extended AI, a new robot, and a minimap.
In A Nutshell, What’s Up?
I’m going to give all the customers of In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor a full refund and let them keep the game, then take the game off sale. The game is selling extremely poorly, even below what happened with Starward Rogue.
Isn’t Part Of Early Access “Don’t Make A Game You Rely On EA Sales For?”
Yes, this is very true. However, I stated upfront that our reason for doing EA with this game was partly as a market survey of sorts. I felt like that would be a way of determining how big this game could get. With Starward Rogue, and indeed some of our other past commercial failures, we put in everything and the kitchen sink and then there wasn’t a market there.
I never expected that one option even on the table with this one would be “actually don’t do it at all,” because the premise is incredibly exciting to me and seemed like something other people would also be very interested in. But just from the concept alone, we have a lot of pushback from press; and despite some quite positive coverage from some reasonably biggish youtubers, that isn’t moving the needle at all.
We don’t need Release Raptor to be our sole source of income, or even our largest one. However, if it’s going to be our largest expense it also has to vaguely earn its keep or at least show the promise that it will someday do so. That’s what is missing here.
Why Not Just Build Out A Stripped-Down Version 1.0 That Is Worth $5?
I honestly don’t think there’s any way that a lot of people wouldn’t be left grumbling at that. I personally will also lose far more money trying to do that than I already am, and probably some of what little staff we have left would have to be released. It’s just far, far too risky. I’d rather be known for honorably pulling a game than slapping a 1.0 sticker on something — whether or not that experience is worth $5 or not, we both know the perception would be there.
So Are You Untrustworthy, Or What?
The immediate idea is probably to think “wow they delayed it a ton and then are possibly canceling it right after it comes into EA?”
My response to that is that this is exactly how you want a game company to comport itself. I held back the game while I didn’t feel like there was enough there for other people to catch the vision I have for what it would turn into. I’m not going to take anybody’s money and run; in fact, I’m going to eat a big fat loss out of it and you get a free game if you bought it.
You can certainly argue that I have overreached or have at least misjudged the market in several instances, but I’m not going to sell you a turd and call it ice cream.
Is Release Raptor A Bad Game?
I certainly don’t think so, in any form. I play it, and it gives me a feeling of joy. I just love going through and doing things with the raptor. It has an elemental fun factor to it that myself and a number of other people have reacted well to. I thought that it would be enough to provide this, and then the promise of more enemies and tactics and whatnot (sheesh that’s what we’re known for, people ought to have some faith in THAT bit if nothing else).
That said, people have different degrees of warm feelings toward the controls. That doesn’t help. People have different reactions to the environments. Etc.
Was This Just Youtuber Bait?
No. This is a project that I freaking love, and that is based around my favorite animal (velociraptors). It’s something I very, very much wanted to see happen.
That said, I won’t deny that the idea of a game that appealed to a larger audience and more easily picked up video views was an attractive one. I even considered calling this “Raptor Simulator,” to the dismay of my staff.
This was never intended to be like Goat Simulator (which I’ve never played, but my understanding is that it’s a silly bug-fest just centered around messing about and not doing anything). I figured we might be able to pick up some of the Goat Simulator crowd since you CAN come in here and just mess about, but what I didn’t realize was that this would create a stigma that would lead people to then to think it’s more vapid than it is.
Which, launching with less content in terms of enemies and tactical situations than I would like, only reinforced that perception I suppose. “There’s not enough to do” is probably the number one complaint, and I thought I had made that clear enough from the start. And we’ve been managing daily updates with substantial new content, which I think is pretty darn impressive.
Then plan was to put out more content in a month than most other EA games put out in a year, and just keep on trucking with it. We’ve done it before with other games, multiple times, and it’s something we were well geared-up to do this time, too.
What Went Wrong?
I… am not entirely sure, honestly. People’s perception of this was not matching up to what it was, partly. Also I suppose I should have made more grandiose claims and been mysterious and vague instead of transparent and clear. It’s way more exciting when you don’t know what’s going on and “it could be anything — it could be EVERYTHING!!”
I’m all for enthusiasm, but hype is not something I really like. We had a lot of hype for A Valley Without Wind, and that burned the company and myself in some fairly profound ways. So I’m really wary of hype; that was our one game that had it, and it was distinctly unpleasant. Well, okay: I guess there’s also hype around Stars Beyond Reach at the moment, which is another project of ours that I refuse to release yet because I don’t think it’s good enough yet.
Ultimately I don’t think it can be blamed on any one thing. I do know that in the past — going back to 2014 with the release of The Last Federation, and then everything before it — we made almost all of our sales via Steam and people finding our stuff on Steam. We’d see a bump in sales for a few hours after a Kotaku piece or a Total Biscuit video, and literally no other website or youtuber made any bump that we could discern.
Being on the front page of Steam was the big thing. We’ve had one title in the past that have reached the #6 top seller spot on Steam as a whole (IIRC it was The Last Federation), and multiple titles that have hit the top 10 sellers on Steam as a whole (even A Valley Without Wind).
It used to be super concerning if we weren’t in the top 20 bestsellers on Steam for at least a day or two, and when we dropped down into the 60s on overall game sales it was basically game over until the next discount promotion. Discount promotions, even as recently as 2015, had more weight behind them, too. The lack of gamification of recent seasonal sales has been bad for the small developers, in my opinion.
Overall the market is more crowded now, and gaining visibility is harder. We tried advertising this time, but we literally spent more money today on advertising than the game made. Win!! So this is some sort of New Market now, anyhow, with something approaching the App Store effect that we’ve seen on Apple devices. I was incredibly paranoid that would happen going all the way back to 2009, and then I gradually got less worried about it, and now here we are. How many indie developers do you know of who have made more than one or two games at this point? That’s a bit scary to think about.
It’s not all doom and gloom in the market, obviously: in some ways, opportunities are larger now than they ever were. And it’s certainly a better market now than in mid-2009 when I first started out with AI War. So it’s certainly not all market forces, and I don’t mean to imply that.
At the end of the day, for whatever combination of reasons, this doesn’t seem to be the right game at the right time. Might we pick this project back up in the future? I’d like to think so. As I said, this is a personal passion of mine (raptors), not some Goat Simulator knockoff to me. But such is life.
What Next, Then?
One of my core conclusions from this, despite how much I have tried to defy this my entire career as a game developer, is that folks pretty much just want strategy games from me/us. This is not all I want to do! I want to make games where you shoot things, and games where you’re a raptor, and all sorts of other things! I have varied interests and tastes, and I don’t want to do one thing for the rest of my life.
That said, given the choice between leaving the industry and making strategy games, the choice there is freaking obvious. I absolutely love making games, despite the many negative sides to it. So that’s what we’ll do: we’ll make you another strategy game.
Specifically, we’ll go back to the game that is still our top seller, AI War: Fleet Command, and we’re going to do a proper updated sequel. But at this point I can’t afford to do half a year or a year of development “on spec” to then find out if you’re interested or not. So we’ll likely run a Kickstarter for this, as much as I’ve avoided Kickstarters and never wanted to do one. And if that doesn’t work out in a way that feels financially safe, then there are some other options on the table, too.
At any rate, people have been clamoring for this for years: an AI War sequel with a better UI, better performance, better networking, better graphics, moddability, and so on. We’re now in a position where we know how to do all those things, and goodness knows we know how to make AI War better than we know how to make anything else under the sun. That’s our freaking bread and butter right there.
I suppose there will be some people who are thinking “yay, end of the stupid raptor game, and we get the AI War sequel that has been quietly talked about for a year or so now!” And if that’s how you feel, fine. But you were going to get that anyway, and I just wish that I also got to make this raptor game to go along with it.
Be Wary Of Knee-Jerk Reactions
It’s very tempting for me to blame the state of the market, or whatever other external forces. Really it was a combination of things. So I have to be pretty careful of not giving in to negative emotions on my side.
On the other end, as an outside observer I hope that you also look at this for what it really is, and not the knee-jerk reaction that you might have. I am the Anti-Sean (cough). I will treat you fairly, communicate clearly and often, release frequent substantial updates (just look at our history), and try to over-deliver. This is what you want.
In an ideal world nobody ever makes a mistake. In the actual world, we have to think about how we want people to behave when mistakes inevitably do happen. I am sorry this had to happen, though. I wish it would magically change, but we’re well past that point I think. I want to take a moment to thank everyone that did support the project, though — it really meant a heck of a lot to me.