Escaping the Indie Shame Spiral

Getting your indie game project back on track


On the second day of GDC, I presented Escaping the Indie Shame Spiral as part of the Indie Soapbox session at the IGS. I wanted to expand on the information I presented it in the talk and share it beyond those developers who could afford to attend GDC.

Defining the Indie Shame Spiral

When I left EA after a 4 year stint at the company I had two goals. One was to found a start-up and the other to finally build and release some of the art game concepts I had been mentally developing for years. The start-up goal was realized, but after a year and half we shuttered our doors after failing to secure funding via the venture ecosystem or Kickstarter. My indie game aspirations quickly fell by the wayside as opportunities to consult presented themselves. I have been lucky enough to build a business as a monetization design consultant and my initial savings have been largely untouched thanks to freelance work over the past two years. I have contributed to a lot of games and have traveled the world to speak at conferences on the topic of F2P design. Yet the longer I go without filling my dream of completing one of my art games, the more regret I feel.

When the start-up failed, I began pouring my time and energy into indie game development. I started working on a game called Some Day You Will Die, a narrative mediation on the inevitability of death. Although initially filled with passion, verve and a deep sense of purpose, I began falling into what I call the indie shame spiral. As I talked to other independent developer friends I learned that my situation was unsurprisingly common among solo game developers.

Each Monday I would wake up and excitedly make a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish that day. This included development on Some Day You Will Die, freelance work, work on a match-3 game I was developing with a former colleague and chores like shopping for groceries, running and calling Mom. By the end of the week, I would look at my list and despair. I was lucky if I accomplished half my Monday goals. Not only that, the tasks I did complete after making rent always seemed to be the least critical.

Despair over lack of progress drained my motivation. Flagging motivation resulted in even less momentum on my game. Creating more despair. Draining more motivation.

I was getting less and less done and feeling worse and worse about it. I wanted to abandon my game and start prototyping that shiny, new art game concept I felt genuinely excited about. I was trapped in the indie shame spiral.

Escaping the spiral

Thanks to my background as a game producer, I had some tools to help me get my project momentum back on track. The critical first step to escaping the shame spiral was to start running a personal scrum as though I was leading a team back at EA. I fired up Pivotal Tracker and started populating my backlog (alternatively I could have used Trello or a Google Spreadsheet). I like Pivotal because it is an opinionated piece of software; using it forces me to embrace points instead of hours, and the product tracks my momentum and gives me an honest estimate of what I can accomplish in a one week sprint.

Pivotal only allows 1, 2 or 3 point tasks. I decided that a 1 point task was anything I could do with 1-2 hours of concentrated work. 2 points was for 1-2 day tasks and 3 points was for anything that would take half a week (or a lot of effort in short bursts over a long period of time). Any task that would take longer was broken down into component tasks that fit my point system. Chores were critical tasks I had to do that would take 15 minutes or so, such as answering key emails, paying bills or sending and checking up on client invoices. I did not allow my backlog to fill with more than 3 sprints worth of work; backlogs get stale quickly and anything further out was unlikely to stay relevant.

Since I was running a one person scrum, I tracked important personal tasks as well. I created chores for morning meditation and assigned points to incentivize easily skipped personal tasks like running and weekly allergy shots. I used labels to separate personal, freelance and development tasks to ensure I was not artificially boosting my momentum by working on myself while neglecting my games.

Critical to running successful sprints was ending each sprint with an unflinching post mortem. It is necessary to call out bad behavior, review previous areas for improvement to see if I was in fact getting better and detailing new areas for improvement based on recent failures. After cathartic self-flagellation over my transgressions (and celebration of my accomplishments) I would refresh the backlog, set my new priorities and start a fresh sprint with a clean slate.

I quickly learned how much work I could actually get done in a regular week. Unsurprisingly it was significantly less than my previous Monday morning productivity fantasies. Running personal sprints forced me to accept my limitations. With that acknowledgement the despair began to subside. I was no longer haunted by the demons of unattainable perfection.

Commitment devices

The second critical step to clawing my way out of the indie shame spiral was to use a commitment device. A commitment device is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” For me, this meant buying a table to showcase Some Day You Will Die at the Good Game Club event in San Francisco even thought I did not have a playable build of my game at the time I wrote the check. The event forced me to curb my procrastination and get things done.

By running a scrum and having a clear, hard deadline to show off my game, I started making true progress. I was coding right up to the last minute before the doors opened on the event, but when they did I had a playable demo that allowed me to collect real feedback from real players.

We are lucky to develop in a time where there are plentiful commitment devices available. Submissions to IGF, IndieCade or PAX showcases, Ludum Dare and game jams, local meet ups and demo nights with other developers in your area can all create milestones to drive towards. You can set up a devblog on TIGforums and commit to updating with a demo once a week or set up a newsletter and commit to sending out a playable demo once a month. Every week you have the opportunity to share your game and get feedback from other developers in the r/gamedev Feedback Friday post on Reddit. There are plenty of possible deadlines to commit to either publicly or privately to force yourself to escape the indie shame spiral and make real progress on your game.

My commitment

When I started the talk, I asked the packed room of game developers how many had 5 or more prototypes, demos, design documents or half-finished games on their hard drives. I was met with a sea of hands. My call to action to the Indie Games Summit, and to you if the concept of the indie shame spiral sounds familiar, is to choose a commitment device and show off your game. I am personally deep in the shame spiral — for weeks I let my process fall by the wayside and have been completely focused on freelancing and a match 3 game. I haven’t opened Game Maker even just to fix bugs in the Some Day You Will Die code for too too long. My pledge at the summit was that on March 28th I will show off my game on r/gamedev’s Feedback Friday. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be complete, it might not even be any good. But it will be playable and I will have to make true progress to get there. I hope to see your game on the thread too, so that I can give you feedback and congratulate you on making progress towards completing your game.

Next Story — 5 game monetization optimizations for Vainglory
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5 game monetization optimizations for Vainglory

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this quick video analysis instead.

Trumpeted on stage at WWDC, given the Editor’s Choice on release and featured to an unprecedented degree in the Gamers television ad for iPhone 6, no game has seen as strong of a promotional push from Apple as Metal showpiece Vainglory. The fantastic take on MOBA for mobile devices has seen strong reviews and industry support. And yet the game’s performance has underwhelmed relative to the amount of attention garnered. To date, the game has failed to break into the top 150 grossing in the US for iPhone or iPad. In the past three months, Vainglory has not appeared in the top 150 downloaded apps chart in the US on either device.

Featuring an all star team of accomplished executives, Super Evil Megacorp has raised $15 million to date (according to Crunchbase) and no doubt has the ability to raise millions more if they are in need. As a company set on building a 10-year plus franchise with Vainglory, it appears their focus is not on overtaking Clash of Clans this year, but on being the first touch game to fill a stadium full of eSports enthusiasts League of Legends style some years from now. In a recent interview, COO Kristian Segerstrale explained the company’s community first approach to development and how they’ve “deliberately chosen from the start to almost be the caricature anti-monetizer.”

In my work as a game monetization consultant, I’ve encountered teams on all levels of the aggressiveness scale when it comes to monetization. Some have implemented tactics that are far too aggressive and need to be dialed back in order to be more respectful to players. Others, like Super Evil Megacorp, are highly allergic to anything that may be considered manipulative tactics by their players. Yet just because you (rightfully) wish to put respect for your players first and foremost in your priorities, does not mean you should completely ignore those organic opportunities to boost your game’s monetization potential. To that end, I wanted to show 5 monetization optimizations for Vainglory that (I believe) would increase monetization without breaking Super Evil Megacorp’s desire to be the anti-monetizer.

Optimized path to registration

I assume due to its eSports nature, Vainglory requires the player to register an account before they are able to make a purchase in the game. In general, I do not agree with putting unnecessary barriers in front of the ability to spend money, but I will assume Vainglory has its reasons. This implementation of the registration gate provides the most obvious optimization for Vainglory.

Instead of “Okay”, this dialog should have two buttons “Register Your Account” and “Not Now.” This dialog puts a gate in front of the player and gives them no way to resolve it. To register an account, they must click okay, exit the store and then find the registration/log in button on the main menu. By simplifying the flow of a player who is trying to make their first purchase, you will increase the percentage of players who complete it.

Incentivize sharing my contact info

When you ask a player for their contact information, you are asking for the ability to annoy them with email advertisements. In the world of downloadable PC F2P games, sharing contact details in the form of creating an account is often the price of admission for downloading an installer. But on the iOS store, players share their personal details and billing information with Apple so that they do not have to share it with you.

If Vainglory is going to require the player to have an account in order to make a purchase, then they ought to incentivize the player for creating that account. Being able to name your account is nice, but no longer being Guest_111714333 on the in-game scoreboard may not be enough of an incentive for players to share their private information. I suggest that the motivation to register an account is sweetened by giving the player either soft or hard currency. This will also allow for a stronger call to action on the registration gate highlighted above as Vainglory would be able to tell the player what they get out of registering an account. Again the purpose here is to increase the percentage of players who register, thereby increasing the number of players who are allowed to make a purchase.

Unlock heroes in the core loop

As with most MOBAs, Vainglory uses a rotating hero system to drive monetization. Each week there is a selection of heroes a player can use for free. If the player wants permanent access to a favorite hero, they can buy it with soft or hard currency.

This screen, where players select their heroes before a match, represents one of the biggest missed opportunities in Vainglory. The greyed out heroes are those who are currently locked. The player cannot even tap them to bring up information explaining why they are locked or how to resolve (which may be a foreign concept for those players new to the genre).

Players spend up to 5 minutes on this screen before each match. They should be able to select any locked hero to see information on it and spend soft or hard currency to unlock it permanently. I can understand not wanting to introduce elements that would slow down the time to get into a match, therefore I would not suggest allowing the player to purchase currency through this screen. However, if a player has enough currency in their account they should be able to unlock heroes through this core loop screen they see before every round of play.

Discount favorite heroes

This is the suggestion I imagine is most outside of Super Evil Megacorp’s comfort zone. After each hero rotation, the player should be offered a small discount on their most used hero that is no longer available.

There are two reasons I am suggesting this feature. The first is that the game does a very poor job of messaging new hero rotations. If a player is new to MOBAs (as I expect a decent portion of Vainglory downloaders are) this may be a completely foreign concept. Additionally, if a player ignores the notification badges on the newsfeed button on the main menu, they may be surprised to find that their favorite hero is no longer available for use.

The second reason is that this is the clearest moment of need. The player is most likely to want to purchase a hero right after it goes out of rotation. If the game balances out the “intrusion” of in-game merchandising with a discount, then they are presenting an offer that is meaningful to the player.

The system would be fairly simple. After the roster of heroes has rotated, the game identifies the most used hero for each player that is no longer available. For the next 3 games, a widget on either this finding a match screen or the following choose a hero screen could advertise the offer, where the game could take 10% off the currency price for this hero. This feature would combine making purchasing present in the core loop (and thus more likely to happen) with clearly notifying the player of a change in the hero roster.

Global Chat

Vainglory’s current focus is on building community, which in my opinion is not in opposition to the goal of monetization. The two go hand in hand. But for a team oriented genre from a developer focused on community, it is quite difficult to meet other players inside the game.

True, I get the occasional friend request from a random who I completed a match with, but why would I want to add a complete stranger to my friends list? And I’m sure that dedicated players are using forums and Reddit to find each other, party up and play Vainglory at a high level. But I, like most players, will rarely if ever visit a mobile game’s dedicated forums.

I understand why chat was left out of matches and recent updates have increased the number of tools a player has to communicate easily with their teammates. But Vainglory should take a page out of the Marvel: Contest of Champions playbook and add a global chat lobby to the game. Global chat while in the game’s menus would allow players to create the social ties that will build the backbone of community Super Evil Megacorp hopes will give them longevity as a 10-year plus franchise.

Conclusion

In my work as a game monetization consultant, one of my key tactics is to separate issues and feature solutions. A developer may say yes or no to a given feature, but so long as they understand why I am proposing it they may come up with a better solution on their own. Whether Vainglory would implement any of the features proposed above or not, my hope is that it illustrates for other developers the issues encountered when free-to-play game goes too far in the anti-monetizer direction.

The team at Super Evil Megacorp has plenty of runway to focus on community building and turn a fantastic, fun, critical darling into a financial success. However, one must imagine that neither Apple nor its investors are extremely happy with the game’s performance to date.

For Apple, the game was meant not only to sell consumers on the power of new devices, but to also sell developers on why they should adapt Metal and target the high end. And with Vainglory, developers can see a very public example of a game that invested heavily in console quality graphics yet so far has failed to make the impact of a viral hit like Crossy Road. On the investor end, one imagines that the $15 million came from people who buy into Super Evil Megacorp’s long term vision. However, from the outside one imagines that they would not be happy with an investment who has squandered the incredible opportunity presented by their unfair advantage of unprecedented promotion directly from Apple.

Next Story — The Free-to-Play Opportunity in VR
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The Free-to-Play Opportunity in VR


Don’t feel like reading? Watch this video analysis instead.

CES 2015 has come to a close and one of the big stories as it relates to gaming is VR. Oculus Rift had a huge presence, Razer and friends announced the Open Source VR ecosystem and headset, Samsung showed off Milk VR and we all had a good laugh about 3Dhead’s taughted Oculus Killer.

Between these products and Sony’s Morpheus, it is clear that a lot of players are betting on VR as the next big platform to come and shake up the gaming world. On one hand, VR gaming could be the next 3D TV, the hot thing that gets tons of coverage and hype at CES but fails to catch on with consumers. Or it could be the next smart phone, a new category that lights the world on fire and creates a massive new platform for games and apps.

Although it is too early to tell how VR will fare when it launches at a commercial level, I wanted to think about what opportunities will exist for game developers on VR. More specifically, since I work as a consultant focusing on monetization design, I wanted to think about the opportunity for free-to-play games during the early life cycle of VR.

As a thought experiment, let us assume that VR will be the next transformative platform for gaming. This is an especially appealing premise in the ever maturing mobile games business where most of the biggest winners in 2014 were published in 2013 or earlier. In a world where VR takes off, will the platform be a panacea for free-to-play games?

The first question to answer is how VR headsets will be adopted among consumers. If X years from now, VR devices will be as common as smart phones or television sets, how will they get there? My guess is that VR will have a lengthy early adopter phase where they are the domain of the tech centric. Over time devices will get cheaper, more powerful and easier to use. Killer apps and killer uses will be discovered and there will be some turning point where VR goes mainstream. Before long we will be buying tickets to attend virtually broadcast football games sitting in a private box with friends from across the country, or attending Coachella without worrying about crowds or camping. However, I do not think that VR will instantly explode into mainstream use.

Second, what will the app marketplace look like for VR? In this mass market vision, I imagine that the app ecosystem will resemble the iOS and Android marketplace more than a console ecosystem. For products we assume will have no physical distribution it makes sense that the marketplaces will be modeled off of the smartphone app economy. Developers will offer their games directly to consumers with the platform holder serving as gate keeper and middle man.

In this scenario, we can expect the economics of the VR app market to closely follow the trajectory of the smartphone app market. Initially, the marketplace will resemble the wild west of early iOS days. Bigger names taking a “wait and see” approach to developing for VR will create opportunities for smaller devs or unknowns willing to take a risk on VR. As the commercial promise of VR proves out over time, bigger names will enter the marketplace. Early successful devs will build an unassailable competitive advantage by investing heavily in paid user acquisition. Brand names will become an essential marketing tool to get noticed. The VR app economy will resemble the mature smartphone market of today.

For those willing to take early bets in the VR market pictured here, premium games will make sense early on. The audience will be relatively small, comprised of early adopters willing to buy premium experiences. A quality game will have an easier time making a profit in an sparsely populated marketplace where we can expect platform holder promotion and word of mouth sales to come relatively easy to deserving games.

Over time, free-to-play experiences will dominate the marketplace. Once VR adoption has reached a critical mass, the games that will rule the top-grossing charts will be those with low barrier to entry and the ability to highly monetize their most passionate players.

Early on, though, will free-to-play make sense on VR? My answer is it depends on your funding scenario. Early in the VR adoption curve, there will not be a lot of potential players out there. A business model that relies on hundreds of thousands to millions of players in order to be successful will have a tough time generating significant revenues if there are not a lot of devices in players’ hands (or on their heads, in this case). Although developers can anticipate high conversions to paying players and revenue per paying player, the number of players that exist will restrict a game’s revenue potential.

So if a game is launched in a scenario where the developer needs to turn a profit quickly to sustain and survive, free-to-play is a more risky bet. If a strong revenue stream is necessary to keep the lights on, premium games are a smarter choice than free-to-play until the VR market reaches a critical mass.

However, if a developer has a level of investment that allows it to run for a few years and grow with the market, free-to-play can make a lot of sense early on. If we expect that over time both the marketplace will get crowded and free-to-play will dominate, there are huge advantages to building a strong, early presence. Deserving games can become those go-to experiences that benefit for years as “must download” games for new VR headset owners. ASO advantages will be gained by being on the marketplace for years accruing downloads and reviews before bigger companies enter the fray.

To see an example of an ASO advantage in action, I searched for soccer on the iPhone. The first result is Dream League Soccer, a game with 140k lifetime ratings, first released in late 2011. The fifth result down is the brand name FIFA 15 Ultimate Team by EA SPORTS with 43k lifetime ratings. Strong ASO can help a developer stay competitive even when the big name, big budget competitors come to town.

Early free-to-play games will be positioned to grow with the market. If a developer is in the privileged position to have investment allowing them to run in the red for a few years, focusing on free-to-play games is an interesting strategic bet. If the market does grow over time as described in this thought experiment, VR will be the next big greenfield platform for game developers. There will be money to be made in both premium and free-to-play games. The business model to pursue in VR gaming needs to be aligned with the overall market size, the maturity of the market and the business needs of the game developer.

Next Story — How Peggle Blast employs a most hated F2P tactic
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How Peggle Blast employs a most hated F2P tactic

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this video analysis instead

Peggle Blast, a free-to-play entry in the fantastically addictive Peggle series, was featured last week as one of Apple’s Editors’ Choice. It has reached top 25 downloads in the US on both iPhone and iPad and is just as fun, whimsical and addictive as the original game. It also employs one of my most hated free-to-play monetization tactics.

Much of my work as a monetization design consultant comes in the UI/UX. Most free-to-play games are built on a small pool of monetization features and their success or failure is determined by a combination of the game’s inherent fun factor and the presentation to the player. Just like Candy Crush, Farm Heroes or any number of Saga games, Peggle Blast offers the player to buy extra moves instead of giving up when they are about to lose a level. But the presentation of this feature uses a trope I find annoying and disrespectful as a player.

When offering you more moves, Peggle Blast does not make it clear you are about to initiate a purchase.

A simple choice: Play On or Give Up. Missing is the price tag that makes it clear that clicking Play On means spending money.

After clicking Play On, the player is asked for their password. Unless they saw the momentary switch in the previous screen to “Purchasing” while waiting to connect to the network, it may be particularly confusing why the game is asking for their password.

Only after signing in is the choice presented. Do you want to buy one Extra Balls for $0.99? The player has clicked a button, entered a password and only now is it clear that they are making a purchase.

Contrast this to the straightforward presentation of character purchasing in Crossy Road. Do you want to play as Floppy Fish? If so, it will cost $0.99. It is clear and unequivocal that the player is initiating a purchase.

This feature is not unique to Peggle Blast. It is a trope that has bothered me in any number of free-to-play games. For all I know this feature has been thoroughly a/b tested and the data proves not showing a price on these button results in more revenue. But even as a monetization specialist, I cannot shake the feeling that this is a disrespectful implementation.

UPDATE on 12/11

I wrote the article and posted it up online on 12/10 after noticing this patter earlier in the week. Even this morning I was encountering the flow where no prices were showing on buttons. On the afternoon of 12/11 I went in to play and noticed that prices were starting to show up on the end of level buttons. I checked the iOS store and the app has not been updated. My guess is that either this is a server side configurable variable that was changed OR this is something that is actively being a/b tested.

Next Story — The messy interplay between Steam and uPlay in Assassin’s Creed Unity
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The messy interplay between Steam and uPlay in Assassin’s Creed Unity

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this analysis video of the AC: Unity checkout flow

In many ways we are in a golden age of PC gaming. Nowhere has this been clearer to me than the ease with which I turned down current gen Black Friday console deals. Most of the games I want to play are on PC. There are platform exclusives I am eager to play, but no one system has a critical mass of exclusive titles that demand a purchase. With my overflowing backlog of games purchased in endless sales and bundles and most multiplatform games being available day one on PC, there has never been a better time to be a PC gamer. However, with the dominance of digital distribution has also come a glut of digital platforms.

Steam, Origin, uPlay and Desura are all installed on my gaming rig. Soon GoG’s Galaxy will make my backlog of classics much less of a library and more of an active collection. Of these platforms, 3 have a clear place in the world. Steam is my primary gaming platform. GoG is a repository of classics. Desura is home to all the Humble Bundle games that have not made their way through Greenlight.

The two publisher mandated platforms are less desirable. Although Origin gets markedly better each time I log in, incentivized by a free game given through the On the House or the desire to purchase a latest release, is still an unfortunate side effect of wanting to play the games EA keeps exclusive to its service. uPlay even more so. Although I can thankfully purchase, manage and play my Ubisoft games through my preferred Steam client, many Ubisoft games require Steam to launch uPlay to play the game.

As part of my ongoing research into all things related to game monetization, I recently took a long look at the microtransactions inside of Assassin’s Creed Unity. You can read about my full experience over on Kotaku, but one element of the in-game purchase experience was so poor, I felt it was worth sharing with the game developer community.

Leading up to the launch of Unity when Ubisoft’s biggest holiday games were temporarily pulled from Steam, one can guess that there were negotiations going on behind the scenes related to the interplay between uPlay and Steam. This setup is less than optimal for customers of both platforms in more than one way. A simple unpleasantness is the way that after each Unity play session, the player is served an advertisement for upcoming Ubisoft titles via uPlay. More painful, however, is the in-game checkout flow for those players who wish to purchase microtransaction (MTX) currency inside of Unity.

This purchase flow is a train wreck. On the player side, it removes all of the benefits of being on a secure digital platform like Steam that knows your identity and is able to store your payment preferences. On the developer side, there is so much friction in the checkout flow that one can assume that Ubisoft and Steam are losing revenue from those PC players who want to purchase MTX in Unity due to a poor user experience.

After selecting a currency package in game, the player is asked to select a payment method through a web browser in the uPlay interface. Bewilderingly, this browser window does not contain any scroll bars and the critical purchase button is below the fold. Only those players who figure out to press page down instead of quitting the flow are able to proceed with their purchase.

Those diligent players who make it past this hurdle are faced with another annoyance. Despite playing the game on Steam (which is forced to launch uPlay to start the game) they must log into Steam via the uPlay web browser. Theoretically, the player is on Steam. But they need to log in, enter a Steam Guard key that is emailed to them and add funds to their Steam wallet before they can complete the purchase.

All told, it took me 14 discreet steps to purchase MTX inside of Steam inside of uPlay inside of Steam. Had I been purchasing as an organic player, and not as research for my monetization consulting practice, I would have abandoned my purchase early on in the funnel.

Based solely on the amount of hate that MTX receive in comment sections and social networks, one may assume that the lost revenue here is minimal. However, in a recent survey I ran taken by over 2,700 gamers, over 13% admitted to purchasing MTX inside of a AAA PC or console game in the last 3 months (full article on that data is forthcoming). Despite the public outcry, a significant portion of gamers are buying MTX inside of AAA games. That means that by implementing a poor consumer experience between their two digital platforms, both Valve and Ubisoft are likely losing revenue thanks to a poor user experience.

Developers big and small are reliant on platforms like Valve, Humble, GoG and more for significant portions of their revenue. In this relationship, the platform owners holds all the power and the developer can only control what they can control. In the case of in-game purchases that I anticipate more developers will turn to over time, it is in the developer’s best interest to do what they can to ensure as smooth of a purchase process as possible to make sure you are not losing a player after they have already agreed to open up their wallet.

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