So here I am again – it’s my birthday & I’m the middle of releasing a game. It’s not the first time, and I guess it won’t be the last time either.(*)
Somewhere on our servers there is C++ code of the previous Divinities in which I reflect on the practice of being in the office in the middle of the night when it’s your birthday and whether or not that is a good thing.
It makes for good stories, but I distinctly remember not being happy about it all back then. Luckily, this time there’s a difference.
I’m going home tonight, and it’s going to be at a decent hour.
And that is as it should be.
We made a movie today in which I did the tour of the office, asking developers of the Dragon Commander team about their progress.
While watching it, notice that nobody looks über-tired or stressed out, and that most in the team are actually quite positive about making their deadlines. They’re not acting, because it’s how it is. In fact, most of the team are in their last weeks of working on Dragon Commander and are then done with their work.
Quite a contrast with the release of our previous games.
There producers were doing everything they could to find extra time, including squeezing the team to work harder and the publisher to move its deadlines. There, emergency plan followed emergency plan, with total chaos as a result. There, our creative ambitions were completely out of synch with the expectations of the publishers, and conflict became a rule rather than an execption.
Not so this time.
Yes, there is a bit of stress and the days are longer for some in our team, but in general, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed. There’s no sense of panic, there’s nobody sleeping behind their desk and nobody has had to spend the night in the office so far.
It’s because we are self-publishing of course. We can decide for ourselves what’s best for the game but also for the people making the game, and we can balance this with the needs of the business. Quite a luxurious position to be in as a developer, I know, and one I obviously appreciate a lot.
There’s the risk that there might not be enough pressure, but I don’t think that applies here. I am stressed, I’m just not that stressed that my health suffers from it. Big difference.
We’re entering money time for Dragon Commander now and so I’ll soon discover if the development and publishing choices we made were the right ones. But of one thing I’m already sure. The fact that it was us making the choices instead of some third party, added so much to our team’s quality of life (and development output imho) that I never want to go back to the old days of publishers deciding for us. That would be stupid.
I’m 100% sure that we made many mistakes since we started our self-publishing adventure, but I’m equally sure that the lessons learnt from our errors will contribute to our future success, and so I don’t care that much about any negative output generated. As long as we keep on learning and our mistakes don’t kill us, we are making progress.
Speaking of which, today I find myself confronted with the perfect opportunity to make a mistake, one that is worthwhile sharing because it highlights what I just said.
We received feedback today from a group of journalists about what they thought of a hands-on session with a beta-version of the game. Specifically, they were asked to name three things they liked and three things they disliked. From that list a few issues got flagged, and the question now is whether or not we’ll address those issues.
We are dangerously close to release, so anything we change now is bound to have a significant impact. But of course, not intervening means that for sure those issues will pop up in reviews, and if they’re bothering the journalists, they’ll probably also bother our players. Naturally, if we continue fixing things that pop up, we’ll never release because there’s no such thing as a perfect game. So, when is enough enough ? And should we listen to the feedback we received?
Had this been one of our previous games where we were paid via milestones, the decision would already have been taken, and no changes would be made, definitely not at this stage in development. But it’s not somebody else’s decision to make this time. It’s ours, and I am happy that we get to make this type of decision.
To make it concrete, the issue at hand has to do with the difficulty, pacing and tempo of the RTS part of Dragon Commander. Several journalists think it’s too fast and too hard. That would be a simple enough thing to solve if it weren’t for that other group who thinks it’s too easy. Go figure 😉
Unfortunately it’s not something we can easily fix by introducing a gamespeed slider or balancing multiplier, so we’re either going have to make a real choice for who our primary audience is or introduce completely different sets of balancing data from which players can choose.
That obviously will impact development, because suddenly we’ll have doubled our balancing work, so it’s not a trivial thing because it means not only extra design work, but also a shitload of extra QA work.
For the purpose of my blog and my arguments pro self-publishing, whatever our choice in this is doesn’t really matter. The cool thing is that we actually can choose and that we know things like this prior to release, so we have a chance to do something about it. If we didn’t self-publish and wouldn’t have been that closely in touch with the journalists, we would never even have had this opportunity.
For the purpose of the success of my game, it of course matters a lot.
Personally, I’m no big fan of things like difficulty and gamespeed sliders and I certainly don’t want to have to put a slider on easy when playing myself. If I have to do that, I consider it bad balancing on part of the developer. It’s up to the developer to ensure that my play experience is a perfect fit. But of course I also want it to be challenging, and I want the game to be challenging without me having to put the slider on nightmare levels. If I can read a book while playing, you’ll hear me screaming about the game being dumbed down and I’ll probably stop playing it. (Yes, there’s not that many games being released nowadays that I’m happy about and it’s not because I’m a game developer that I don’t have the same god-given right like other gamers to expect a game to be made for me only 😉 )
I’m pragmatic enough to realise that we’ll never be able to please everybody, so in all cases a certain amount of customisation needs to be present on the gameplay front. But that doesn’t remove our development responsibility of trying to come up with balancing values that feel “just right” to the majority of players who bought Dragon Commander, and in this particular case, it looks like that will not be an easy task. We might even have to revert of the horror of asking you what type of player you are when the game commences… Hmmm… TBD, that’s for sure.
Anyway, you can probably guess that I’m leaning more to do the “yes, we need to do something about it” type of decision than to the “let’s pretend everything is ok and hope for the best” alternative.
My main reason is that past experience has taught me how important balancing changes can be for the success of a game. With Divine Divinity, the average ratings on release in Germany were around 70% whereas in the rest of the world they were above 80%. The German version was released prematurely and thus included bugs which the English version didn’t have, but the biggest change was the rate and composition of loot drops. From reading the German reviews and forum posts I’d noticed people weren’t happy about their character development, and by just changing those few values, suddenly the experience was completely different and the ratings increased with on average 10%. A small change that had a big impact if ever I’ve seen one, and it’s a story I like repeating to my developers.
So, chances are that we’ll do at least something with the feedback we received, though I don’t know what shape it’ll take yet. The funny thing is that if we go the route of taking on the extra work, it might significantly increase our stress levels. And then everything will be like it’s always been near the end of a release – madness incarnate. But for a good reason 😉
The real point is however that we can make this decision. That is a very big difference.
(*) Actually it was my birthday last week, but I didn’t manage to finish this piece then 😉