I have these little notebooks in which I write down my thoughts. Every day I fill a couple of pages with new observations, questions and decisions. Whenever a notebook is full, I put it in a drawer, there to stay until the drawer is full at which point I empty the drawer, and put the notebooks in a box. I really don’t know why I bother with it, because I rarely read what I wrote, but I guess it helps me organise my thoughts. It also makes it look like I’m paying attention in meetings I’m not particularly interested in 😉
If you’d take the notebook that says January 2013, you’d see that I listed as major tasks for 2013, the organising Divinity: Original Sin’s kickstarter, releasing Dragon Commander and releasing Divinity: Original Sin. At that time, I only had hopes and aspirations and I really didn’t have a clue whether or not my plans were going to work.
Taking risks is of course part of the metier of running a game development studio, and there’s only that much that you can do to cover your bets. You know certain things will go wrong, you hope more things will go right. So last night, I started thinking about how we were doing compared to what I hoped for at the start of 2013…
I mention Dragon Commander a lot in this blog. If you don’t know what the game is about, it was released on August 6th 2013, and we made this fancy trailer to explain the game
Well, pretty good actually.
If I look at where Larian stands today, I can’t say that I’m unhappy about how 2013 unfolded so far and I think it’s safe to say that more things went right than wrong. Our Kickstarter campaign beat expectations, Dragon Commander outsold Dragon Knight Saga 3 to 1 in its first month and will be profitable, and a surprising amount of people reported that they had fun playing the game. Sure, things could even be better, but considering some of the environmental parameters we encountered, I’m definitely not going to complain.
But that is already in the past and I really have no time to linger as there’s plenty of work ahead of me. My next job is to finish and release Divinity:Original Sin, something that given the scope of the game will be quite an undertaking. In a way it’s the one task I’m the most nervous about, probably because I have the feeling that that’s the game where our players expect the most from us. I also know that considering the many opportunties I’ll get, chances are high that I’ll make some judgement error in the coming months that’ll hurt the game. I can only hope the damage won’t be to big.
My activities last night were part of an introspective exercise with the aim of avoiding making mistakes made in the past, and so I started taking stock of what went wrong on Dragon Commander and specifically, what problems were caused specifically by decisions I made. Of course, looking at failures in past performance carries with it the risk of sounding too negative, so I do want to make a point of saying that I don’t think we botched up the release of Dragon Commander too much, and I’m quite proud of what we created. I think there was a lot that went right and if I talk a lot about errors and mistakes in the next paragraphs, then it’s because I believe good ends when it stops improving.
Looking at how I personally handled the self-publishing part of our business, if anything, I think my biggest mistake was that I let weaker sales channels or markets affect our development flexibility at the expense of the better sales channels and bigger markets. I’m mostly talking about the retail portion of our release here, though the lesson is applicable to other channels/markets too, such as territories with a low amount of paying players but complicated localization needs. It really doesn’t pay to spend most of your resources on markets where you’ll gain the least, especially if your resources are limited. That may sound obvious to you, but it wasn’t that obvious to me in the run up to the release of our latest game, and it cost us.
For Dragon Commander, at present digital sales make up 85% of our revenu and retail only represents 15%. If you take into account that the digital lifecycle of a game is a lot longer than its retail counterpart, and also a bit more profitable, then numbers like this tell the entire picture – if you have to choose where to put your effort, put it in the digital side. The mistake I made was that I had our studio do pretty much the opposite of that, for all the wrong reasons. As a consequence, a large portion of our publishing investments were done in the retail side of things and that automatically meant that certain digital opportunities were lost, because obviously, we couldn’t do everything. That wasn’t such a clever move.
I guess the thing I regret the most about my misplaced belief in retail was that I let it affect our flexibility so much. Small teams like us gain part of their competitive advantage from our ability to quickly make changes when needed, and I feel I was a fool for manouvering ourselves into a position that handicapped this flexibility.
For a variety of good and bad reasons, we ended up crunching for two months to get everything ready, and during that period we really could’ve done without the constraints of a retail release. I’m sure that had we not been locked into a fixed street date, we could’ve gained a few extra points in our review scores, because we wouldn’t have had to make some last minute compromises. PC Gamer gave it 85%, Gamespot 8/10 and IGN 78%. Obviously it’s the 78% that hurt 😉
I was of course aware of the risks we were taking when the release date was set a few months before, the biggest risk being that we were still developing. Still, I thought we could manage, and to ensure there was some extra buffer time, decided to make the retail box Steam activated. That way we could have a day 1 patch which everybody would get, meaning that we could continue developing until the very end, instead of until the day the gold master was delivered to the factory. But while that worked to a certain extent, we still had to make more compromises than I wanted to.
There’s a lot of preparation involved in a retail release, especially if you’re launching in multiple countries, and in a small team like ours where the same people wear many hats, a retail release problem popping up automatically means key developers will be affected.
A good example of this is what happened to our translation system. The timelines involved in localizing a game with 200K words and full voice acting with facial capturing on top necessarily require several months of localization. Spread that over multiple languages, and you have a compicated process. It’s already hard when you have a all the source assets in place, but it’s even harder if you’re still developing and the text that is being translated is prone to change.Because we were running late, this was the case for Dragon Commander, so we knew there were going to be some casualties. Still I reasoned, better that than stop making improvements to the game. We had come prepared for this eventuality, having invested significant resources into developing a new and fancy well-functioning localisation system that could deal with incremental versions of a localisation kit, presumably without a hitch.
The problem was that our new system had only been demonstrated to work with test data, and well argumented theory, and that the programmer responsible had since left for the competition. In real life, the localisation system failed miserably, and of course it only started doing that when we only had a few weeks left. Life suddenly became very complicated, the nights became even longer and a lot of much-needed time was lost fixing this particular problem. It was seriously bad and if it hadn’t been for the fixed retail release dates, I would’ve postponed the game with a few weeks right there. Or at the very least, I’d have released the English version first and let the other languages follow later. But I couldn’t make those kind of decisions anymore because of the retail agreements we had, and so several lead developers had to scramble to get things sorted out. That of course made them lose time in other domains which were desperate for attention too, and inevitably it meant that certain things weren’t done or only half-done. A real pity.
I realize the core problem here was that the system didn’t work and that the localisation had to start when we weren’t ready with development yet, but these are the kinds of things that happen in any complicated production, and at times like that, you really want to have as much flexibility as possible.Being locked in prevented me from taking the decision that was the best for the game, and it was quite frustrating.
A similar thing happened because we chose to release on different digital channels. Here the problem was that our multiplayer layer used Steamworks for matchmaking and lobby creation, and that we didn’t have any really good alternatives for players on other platforms. (We actually thought we’d have them but that didn’t work out). I completely mismanaged this part, even if we did spend a lot of effort on it, and in hindsight I think we’d have been better off just releasing on Steam, and then deal with the other platforms later. That could’ve avoided a lot of unnecessary frustration and allowed us to focus on the core release, which a Steam release is in the modern day PC market.
As I continued to review things that went wrong on the publishing side and that affected development, I found that the common pattern was that most of them were inspired by the different requirements of the different sales channels. Things like separate builds, different feature requirements, special DLC packages etc… I seriously underestimated the impact of this on our development, and I should’ve been more alert when initially agreeing to certain things. Funnily enough this is of course the very thing that I always cursed publishers for, so I guess a few apologies are in order here and there 😉
Like them I found myself sending out review code to magazines, even if the game wasn’t ready for review, pumping money in ads just to convince retail buyers that there’s a market for the game and limiting the size of a day 1 patch because I didn’t want retail buyers to have to downoad gigabytes and gigabytes. Oh oh oh , what I have become!
Of course, every time there were logical reasons for all of this, but in hindsight, they were not good enough reasons. I should’ve guarded development more than I did because after a while, the only thing players remember is the quality of the game, not who released it or how it was released. At least, that’s what I remember when I think of a game.
So yes, I discovered a few interesting lessons.
The most important one for me was that in the future I’ll try to only commit to a release date when the game is actually done. Not if it’s 85% done or even 95% done, but only when really, it’s done. As in, ready to be released. It doesn’t matter if that release date is inconvenient – the lifecycle of games is now much longer than it used to be, and there are ways around inconvenient release dates.
In case we find ourselves in a case again where we have to release, which I guess will be more than often the case, then at the very least I’ll play hardball when it comes to guarding our flexibility and refuse anything that’s not focussed on our core release or our core release channels.Fragmentation over different channels cost us too much time and we didn’t gain that much from it. On the contrary, if we had focussed on our primary channels and disregarded the secondary ones, we could probably have improved things here and there.
So to conclude, as I said, this may all sound obvious to you, but in the heat of battle, it really wasn’t to me. The thing I wrote in my notebook therefore was exactly what you’d expect after reading this entry: When in doubt, finish the game first, then think about releasing it. If that’s impossible, focus on where it matters, and refuse all the rest, no matter how tempting.
If that’s wise or not, I don’t know, the future will tell. I know several developers or publishers who make quite a lot of money by being on every platform they can think of, so I might be wrong, or it may really depend on the game, team and release path. It in any case seems to be the most sensible thing I could distill from my experiences of the past months and so it’s shaping my thoughts. I’ll let you know how it works out for us.