Wow, a lot of people love AI War and/or Tidalis…

MANY, many thanks here, everyone.  A lot of great ideas came up through the forums discussion on this, as well as in the comments on my last post, as well as on Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s post about this, as well as elsewhere.  Some great work has already been done getting the word out the press, a lot of it by our faithful fans, and a number of sites have picked up on this and have offered support in various fashions.  I expected a big response and a lot of posts from the core fans on our forums, but the amount of response outside the forums has been really unexpected; we’re extremely grateful. 

Clearly related to all this publicity, we’ve made around $1500 all of a sudden in one day today (so far), where recently it’s been more like $150ish per day or sometimes even less (much too small when split essentially 5 ways, plus split to general business overhead and taxes, no?).  So, that’s been a nice little bump in revenue already — and we are exceedingly grateful — but the main thing that we need is sustained revenues, rather than flash-in-the-pan one-day boosts from discounts, etc.  But it’s a start, and certainly people are thinking about us a different way, which is good, I guess. 

I’ve felt kind of weird talking about this at all, honestly, as in some ways it feels like asking for a handout, and it’s not like we’re imminently on death’s door — after all, we have until November, and a lot could change between now and then.  But at the same time, if I wait until the last minute, then it’s too late for anyone to do anything to help, and we really are sunk.  As it is, I think the timing was right to breach this topic, but it still feels a bit odd.

Product/Company Visibility Is A Tricky Thing To Gauge
On the other hand, I think that a lot of times people fall in love with some product or other, and then just because it’s good they think it’s well-known.  That’s been the downfall of more than one product, I’m sure, and certainly some indie developers.  The Big Download news item about this referred to Arcen as “one of the more well known indie game developers,” which was a huge surprise to me, for a number of reasons.  For one, I have never once, ever, met a stranger who knew who I was or had even heard the vaguest hint about AI War.  When I think well-known, I think more like 2D Boy and those guys; the indie darlings. 

I don’t really mind being thought of as well-known, that’s fine and certainly flattering, but my point is that I think it is indicative of that sort of mindset that winds up letting companies like us languish in more obscurity than people expect; the people who already like our stuff and know about us naturally think that others with similar interests do, also.  Normally that’s something that can be fought with marketing or advertising or something, but only when you have something that is really surface-accessible, which is not what our games are known for (well, Tidalis is, but we have the opposite problem of people assuming it’s generic when it’s not). 

That’s the scariest part there, is that we could fold as a company simply because there’s all these potential customers out there who we never could communicate with about what we actually have to offer them.  Outside the gaming business I’ve seen that happen multiple times, and it was kind of scary to suddenly sense that happening here.

Did We Piss It All Away?
So, on RPS in particular there were a few folks commenting that they wondered how we could let it get to this point.  As in, we must have just been spending money like crazy, thinking that a rush of money after AI War came out would keep coming in indefinitely.  But it wasn’t like that at all (and we’re so cost-conscious that we don’t even have office space, and delayed getting proper web hosting that cost more than $100/year until the servers were about to buckle, etc).

On the other hand, these folks are right in that if I’d just wanted to stay a solo shop, working with occasional contractors and largely churning out AI War expansions for pay, I’d be sitting fat and happy right now.  I’d have several years’ worth of income sitting in my bank accounts gaining interest, and I could slowly start venturing out into territory beyond AI War.  Certainly there are indie developers who do that, and some are successful and others are not.  Most of them tend to remain one-man shops forever, though, and I just can’t stand working in isolation when there’s an alternative; and, frankly, a lot of what has been achieved in the last year has only been possible because of the amazing and talented folks who have joined me on the team.  I wouldn’t trade that for being fat and happy and alone.

Momentum Can Make You Too Comfortable 
Until this problem surfaced, the momentum had been going strong for the last year or so.  For each distribution channel of the game (our site, Impulse, GamersGate, Steam, and then Direct2Drive, in that order of arrival), there had been a floor under which sales never dropped, and a ceiling over which they almost never rose, during the course of normal business — except when we did a discount promotion, and those always had predictable results in terms of raising sales volume, too (though increasing in scale 10% to 20% with each sale, actually, as word of mouth spread). 

That safe, comfortable pattern lasted from late May of 2009 all the way up to around April-ish of 2010.  I knew that might start tapering off at some point, and honestly expected it to happen long before the doldrums hit, but in the end I don’t think that’s what happened.  But anyway, Tidalis was expected to pick up whatever slack arose, and then some.  It was an ambitious game in a completely different genre, and wouldn’t cannibalize existing sales, and had a nice broad appeal while still keeping my hardcore sensibilities, and all that.  I was feeling pretty safe about what I was doing.  And then the bottom fell out, inexplicably and without much in the way of warning.

Silence Isn’t So Golden On The Internet
The scariest part was that nowhere on forums were people talking about Tidalis — there were just the reviews, and that was it.  A few people talked about the game on our forums, but only less than 2% of the people who bought it.  People consistently talk about AI War in various venues, and tiny conversations pop up here and there all the time (Google Alerts is wonderful for catching all that, to gauge response), but Tidalis just wasn’t catching on in forums.  That was one of the biggest things that led me to feel like something just wasn’t right (aside from the fact we were bleeding money all of a sudden after 12 months of growth, obviously).

Q&A
To some of the specific questions/thoughts raised in forum threads and comment areas in general:

1. Trailers.  I plan to do a trailer for CoN, and one for AI War 4.0.  However, time is limited and I want to wait until all the new art assets are in place with AI War 4.0, etc, before I do that. The 4.0 version will look pretty markedly different in a lot of respects (the starfields and the HUD in particular, but also some of the special effects), and I want the new trailers to reflect that.  So, hence my waiting at the moment — but, if other folks want to do trailers or just fun/exciting/interesting/informative videos in the meantime, oh my god would that be a help.

2. Facebook.  This is another case of the-grass-is-greener syndrome, I think.  “Make a Facebook version of Tidalis” is a popular suggestion.  People have this sense that if you put out a game on the iPhone, you make a jillion dollars.  I mean, Facebook/Android/whatever-trendy-thing.  You see my point.  Well, people have the same mistaken ideas about casual games, too — I can tell you from experience, as can many indie developers, that making a casual game is in no way a cash-in; it’s almost a harder road than the hardcore niche route, I think.  The problem is visibility — there again, people look at the top 1% of games, and see how well they are doing, and assume everyone does as well.  Right now, to hear Gamasutra tell it, almost nobody but Zygna is making any money on Facebook.  Anyway, point is that I keep in touch with a lot of other indie developers in a variety of markets (though not many on facebook, admittedly), and they all complain about their markets just as much as I could complain about mine.  Except for the lucky darlings of any platform, everyone else is going to struggle to some extent.

3. Porting in general (Android, iPhone, Facebook, web versions, and so on).  So: I addressed this partly with #2.  But, that’s not to say that I think the porting suggestions are without merit.  It’s simply that this is never easy or simple.  Well, in the grand scheme it might be easy — it only takes a month or two of effort, right?  But that’s about all the time Arcen has left on the clock, unless things change (which, with all this recent press, maybe they will, I hope — but it’s far too early to tell).  Leaping into a brand-new platform on which I have no prior experience, and spending all the remaining time that the company has doing so, strikes me as far more risky and reckless than anything I’ve done with the company since founding it.  Some of the Unity-supported platforms (iOS/Android, mainly) could be a calculated risk that is worth taking if there is time after the AI War 4.0 porting work (which is a far more safe bet in my opinion), but that really remains to be seen.

4. AI War on mobile devices.  This has come up for years, and it’s just a no-go.  A few RTS games work pretty well on the iPhone, I’ve played them, but by and large you only have games with a few small bands of units, and a really REALLY revamped UI.  Also, they are all inherently single-threaded, and have to run on processors less than half (at best) of the minimum that AI War supports.  In the case of AI War, it’s just far too large a game for those platforms.  Our consideration of mobile devices would be limited to Tidalis and future titles like Alden Ridge Arcade, if they are a fit (that one would be).

5. A small web version of Tidalis, as sort of a free demo.  We’ve certainly considered it, but it’s not something that can instantly be done because of the way we load assets into Unity.  Long story, but our way is better except when it comes to something like this.  But, it’s something we’re considering more seriously of late, to be sure.

6. Microtransactions.  Goodness, aren’t these trendy?  They just seem a bit unethical to me, like players are being nickeled-and-dimed.  And for multiplayer games, it creates all sorts of challenges for which players have what smaller components, unless those are non-gameplay-affecting components like the infamous horse saddles or something.

7. Work-for-hire.  Some folks suggest on occasion that we do work for hire, rather than our own original work. And, we’ve been approached by some companies asking us if we’re interested in that arrangement (both today, and in the past in general).  As sort of a last resort, we might consider doing something like that before getting booted entirely out of the gaming industry… but we’re not indies because we couldn’t hack it in the mainstream games industry, if you get my meaning.  I’m grateful that people think well enough of us to offer, but it’s just not our bag.

Signing Out For Now
It’s been a super busy day, and I haven’t been able to talk to everyone I meant to.  I’ve gotten a lot of emails from folks from various businesses offering advice, support, or various potential opportunities, and I’m trying to respond to everyone, but it takes time.  There’s still a pile of emails in my inbox waiting to be read and responded to (there usually is, seems like, especially now with the baby).  I’m not complaining — far from it, I’m extremely grateful.  But, I did want to let people know that I’m not ignoring them if they sent me an email this afternoon and I haven’t yet responded.

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17 Responses to “Wow, a lot of people love AI War and/or Tidalis…”

  1. Longy says:

    AI War has to be one of the best RTS game I have played, and I think it could become a popular franchise if enough people actually know about it. One way of getting attention would be if major gaming sites like IGN, Gametrailers and Gamespot reviewed the game, and put up a notice on their main page about it. I’m no expert in this, but is there any way sites like those could be persuaded into making video reviews of AI War, which they also put a notice about on their front page?

  2. Unfortunately, most sites have a policy of only reviewing new games — possibly when AI War 4.0 comes out, we can get some to review it then. But, it’s definitely a challenge. Added to that is there is no public way to contact the IGN or Gamespot folks that I know of. I have a contact who talked to the IGN folks for me about both AI War and Tidalis, but I get the feeling they were not interested. Kind of a shame, yeah. :/

  3. Anton Gully says:

    “I wouldn’t trade that for being fat and happy and alone.”

    Isn’t the real question, would you rather make games with a smaller team, or go bust?

    Didn’t get along with AI WAR – nice idea but the UI is appalling and I didn’t get much of a sense of achievement from it after the few attempts I gave it. I’ll probably pick up Tidalis.

  4. “Isn’t the real question, would you rather make games with a smaller team, or go bust?”

    Well, that wasn’t the choice at the time. If that becomes the choice, then yes it will get back to just being me, if I’m able to support myself doing that. But, as I’m not able to do any music/sound work directly, and am not great with most kinds of art, that is pretty limiting.

    “Didn’t get along with AI WAR – nice idea but the UI is appalling and I didn’t get much of a sense of achievement from it after the few attempts I gave it.”

    Fair enough, although I think it’s rather subjective to say the UI is appalling. Some people think so, but many others think it’s one of the best, most functional UIs in an RTS. I suspect it boils down to past experience (and thus expectations), as well as experience with AI War itself. But, to each his/her own.

  5. http://www.ign.com/indieopenhouse/

    Heh, interesting, I’d not seen that. Pablo and I are in NC, though, and I at least would leave the games business before moving (family, etc). Keith is in GA, Lars is in WA, and Phil is in Quebec. Aside from which, we definitely don’t want office space, even free office space, as working from home is a major perk and time saver.

    But, we appreciate all suggestions! Had not seen that one. :)

  6. Chris says:

    Hi Chris & the team,

    I’m not that familiar with you guys and haven’t been on your forums, but I read the RPS story (and just bought 3 copies of AI War for myself and a couple of mates) so I won’t let my lack of knowledge prevent me from sticking my oar in. ;¬)

    This has probably been raised a gajilion times, but I’d suggest you think about a permanent price drop for AI War. $20 definitely puts it outside the ‘impulse buy’ category that I think a lot of indie games thrive on. The competition in the indie games market has really heated up in the past couple of years, and I for one thought hard before buying whereas if it had been cheaper I’d have done so without a second thought.

    Other suggestions:
    – Really work on getting Valve to feature your games on Steam. Introversion did very well out of that when they were close to going under.
    – For that matter, try speaking to Introversion! Having recently come through some very tough times they might have some sound advice for you guys.
    – In the long-term, you think about getting a full-time ‘business guy’. In the short-term, how about getting an intern to work solely on publicising your games?
    – As a mobile developer myself I’d say that porting to Android isn’t worth the effort and won’t be for a couple of years yet. We’ve had games which have sold literally 5000% more on iOS than on Android. In the long-term I expect this to change, but it isn’t going to be in the next few months!

    Anyway, good luck to you all.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I think a big issue are the fonts in Ai War. Like two of my friends i wanted to get interested in it were telling me they would get back problems because of the small fonts.. :). Also it wouldn’t be that bad if the graphic would be crispier but well.. :)

    I did a lot of advertisement for Ai war with my online buddies and i think out of 30 ppl i showed the demo like 1 Person bought it. Maybe the Market is small :).

    Tidalis i bought blind without testing, but though i love bejeweled, i don’t really get Tidalis. I find the music annoying and the game mechanic a bit too complicated… :). So i didn’t bother recomending it to anyone.

    Well, i was looking forward to your survival coop game. Hope you manage to survive.

  8. Chris — thanks for the notes. In terms of Steam, believe me, we’ve been talking to Valve about various things. I can’t comment much beyond that. And I do keep in touch with a wide range of other indies, though Introversion aren’t among them. I’ve followed their stuff pretty closely, though, for years.

    Good tip on the Android, too. We’d basically just do it while simultaneously doing iPhone if the cost of entry is low enough, but we weren’t planning to lean on it.

    Regarding having a business guy, right now that’s really been me — my degree was actually in business, believe it or not, and I’ve had a good amount of success as a salesman of sorts amongst other jobs. But I prefer programming, honestly. There are two main challenges: paying yet another staff member, and making sure that the individual is actually good at PR and marketing. Most business guys aren’t, it takes a really special breed to do it just right. At my last company, we went through person after person in that role, but none of them were as successful at sales as myself and the founder of that company were, partly because they didn’t speak the lingo of the product customers well enough. It just basically has to be the right person come along at the right time, probably someone who is already a fan of one or more of the Arcen products.

    Anonymous — the issue with the small fonts is typically for players on middle-size monitors with over-sized screen resolutions. That should be something that the true-fullscreen mode of AI War 4.0 can avoid.

  9. Anonymous says:

    First of all, I don’t mean this disrespectful, I am genuinely curious. Please, please don’t take this as me taking a potshot at you.

    Why were you banking on Tidalis to be a success? What motivated it in the first place? While it has an interesting, complicated mechanic, that isn’t really what sells in casual games – polish sells. Your studio’s strength isn’t really graphical polish, it’s in the hard-core sort of amazing detailed game, and the other titles you’ve got planned are right in line with that, but… I mean then there’s Tidalis. You even targeted the core-gamer stores (GamersGate, Steam, etc) rather than the casual outlets (BigFish, GameHouse, etc).

    Again, please don’t take this as a pot-shot, it just seems well enough outside your studio’s core market/values/whatever to have been an odd choice. It really seems to have been aimed at a sort of midpoint between casual and core gamers that largely misses both?

  10. Chris says:

    I guess my point with the ‘business guy’ was that they shouldn’t also be the lead designer/programmer! I really think it’s really a full-time job – particularly the publicity side of things – if you’re hoping to shift thousands of copies.

    Probably hard to hear, but I think the anonymous poster above seems to have hit the nail on the head regarding Tidalis. Having played the demo for an hour or so, the gameplay seems to be solid, but in terms of polish it feels quite clunky, especially if you compare it to PopCap games for instance. Obviously they’re working on relatively huge budgets, but in terms of the marketplace they are your direct competition! Polish, rather than depth, seems to be the key to success in the ‘casual’ market. Perhaps with another month or so’s work on purely cosmetic stuff, Tidalis might have gone on to be the storming success you’d hoped. However, that bird seems to have flown the nest already. :(

    Anyway, I’m going to put in another 1/2 hour or so on AI War before I have to get back to work!

    Once again, I wish you all the best of luck…

  11. iob says:

    Yes, I have to agree. While bejeweled doesn’t have that much “in depth” gameplay, it really shines. The Graphic, the Sound of Stones dissolving, the Warp animation. You just keep on playing. THough there are versions of “non 3d bejeweled” that seem to do really well on some mobiles… but for me that polished thing was the rason to play it.

    As I mentioned earlier (i am the Anonymour from before) the Music really was something that i disliked so much about that game that i didnt resrart it since i bought it shortly after it was released… :)

    But oh well, you handled like all my Ai War Questions and seem to be such a guy that i just had to buy it without trying it out first *g*.

    Heh, I am looking forward to that 4.0 Ai war release. What would totally wet my pants would be the graphic of eve online in ai war *g*.

    I love ai war (compared to sc2) for the fact that you don’t have to micro all the time – and i have to admit – I don’t play sc2 online anymore because ai war spoiled me. I get annoyed by all that clicking….

  12. Anonymous says:

    I honestly love AI war, and consider it one of the best RTS games I’ve ever played.

    But tidalis just strikes me as “all” of the best block puzzle games, without anything it call its own. It is a good concept, and a good execution, but nothing that hasn’t been done before.

  13. Sagan says:

    When I first heard about Tidalis I just thought “oh it’s a casual game” and then I forgot about it again.
    But from everything I have heard it might be too hardcore for the casual market. Casual games are more about spending time than about being challenged.

    So the game might be too casual for your hardcore audience, but too hardcore for a casual audience. Result: Nobody is really all that interested in it.

  14. CautiousChaos says:

    I’ve been a long-time fan of Arcen and am greatly disturbed by this news. To a point, I had anticipated that something like this, in some form, might occur.
    I’ll make this clear – I love Arcen and the games you put out. I love your commitment, your involvement, and the value of what I get for my dollar. Frankly, Tidalis, as an example, is worth so much more the asking price.
    So take these comments as observation. I’m sorry if they come across in a negative fashion. For each negative there are many positives.
    When 1.0 came out I bought it and played it and liked it a great deal. Still playing it and still enjoying it. But it is a very different animal that I can see having a limited audience.
    – The depth of this game is tremendous. More than is I expected or needed. And I like that stuff. I would expect most users aren’t getting into these details – the AI War crowd might.
    – The characters in the game are so very unusual. I acknowledge that this was the intent – to create a very different world – but the characters are so strange that it’s really difficult to connect with any of them. Pickles is the only one I see as an anchor point. The others are just so abstract – unattractive. Bubba with the strange belly button; socrates with the asymetrical eyes and weird tentacle things; and the other floaty one that looks like a UFO with asymetrical eyes. My 5-year old told me they were scary.
    – The difficulty of the game (esp in the campaign) increases well, but I’m now about 85% through and there have been at least a dozen games (non-puzzle) that I have had big difficulties in passing. It’s starting to feel like a grind right now.
    – Music is just too candy-coated and doesn’t have any hooks to it. I feel strange if I have this on and my wife walks by.
    I think it sums up to these points:
    Tidalis expresses the intellectual depth of AI War to a market that is largely made up of casual users who are going to be put-off by that depth. The KISS crowd.
    The artistic/musical direction, though aimed at making Tidalis a novel, unusual world (and funny, too), comes across as weird instead of engaging.
    A few less options, a few less levels, a few less choices, and a softening of the unusual aspects of the Tidalis world could have made a difference.
    I’m regretting having typed all of this. I think I’d hate to hear this from a customer at this point. I’m still buying your products and telling others – you have my support.
    -cautiouschaos

  15. CautiousChaos says:

    I’ve been a long-time fan of Arcen and am greatly disturbed by this news. To a point, I had anticipated that something like this, in some form, might occur.
    I’ll make this clear – I love Arcen and the games you put out. I love your commitment, your involvement, and the value of what I get for my dollar. Frankly, Tidalis, as an example, is worth so much more the asking price.
    So take these comments as observation. I’m sorry if they come across in a negative fashion. For each negative there are many positives.
    When 1.0 came out I bought it and played it and liked it a great deal. Still playing it and still enjoying it. But it is a very different animal that I can see having a limited audience.
    – The depth of this game is tremendous. More than is I expected or needed. And I like that stuff. I would expect most users aren’t getting into these details – the AI War crowd might.
    – The characters in the game are so very unusual. I acknowledge that this was the intent – to create a very different world – but the characters are so strange that it’s really difficult to connect with any of them. Pickles is the only one I see as an anchor point. The others are just so abstract – unattractive. Bubba with the strange belly button; socrates with the asymetrical eyes and weird tentacle things; and the other floaty one that looks like a UFO with asymetrical eyes. My 5-year old told me they were scary.
    – The difficulty of the game (esp in the campaign) increases well, but I’m now about 85% through and there have been at least a dozen games (non-puzzle) that I have had big difficulties in passing. It’s starting to feel like a grind right now.
    – Music is just too candy-coated and doesn’t have any hooks to it. I feel strange if I have this on and my wife walks by.
    I think it sums up to these points:
    Tidalis expresses the intellectual depth of AI War to a market that is largely made up of casual users who are going to be put-off by that depth. The KISS crowd.
    The artistic/musical direction, though aimed at making Tidalis a novel, unusual world (and funny, too), comes across as weird instead of engaging.
    A few less options, a few less levels, a few less choices, and a softening of the unusual aspects of the Tidalis world could have made a difference.
    I’m regretting having typed all of this. I think I’d hate to hear this from a customer at this point. I’m still buying your products and telling others – you have my support.
    -cautiouschaos

  16. […] out that this has happened to us before.  Back in 2010 we had a lot of trouble, and then promptly were pulled out of it by an outpouring of support.  I still had to lay off about half the team that worked on Tidalis, […]

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