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Launching a game Off-Steam: Sales number from Week 1
March 9, 2018

I've heard it many times, from both friends and strangers alike (and even a bit from my spouse): "Jason, don't you think you're nuts for not releasing this game on Steam?" Steam has changed a lot over the years, though.


Back in 2011 when my game Inside a Star-filled Sky launched on Steam, Valve worked with me directly to pick a release date that had no major conflicts. My game was the only game that came out that day on Steam. I'll repeat that for emphasis: my game was the only game that came out that day on Steam. It remained on the new release list for almost an entire week, sitting there on the front page of Steam for everyone to see. That exposure helped this otherwise-unknown game sell 649 units on the first day and 704 on the second day, and achieve a peak of 43 simultaneous players on day two. For me, at the time, those sales number were huge and career changing. Of course, the normal drop-off and long tail followed, with occasional spikes during the sales that I participated in. But the biggest influx of players and revenue came during launch.

Fast-forward almost seven years. On Tuesday, February 27, 2018, I counted 83 games launching on Steam that day, the same day that I launched One Hour One Life off Steam.

Steam still has a lot to offer: a huge install-base of dedicated players, a channel for games to spread virally (because you see what your Steam friends are currently playing), and a top-notch player-submitted review system. And of course, some players "just don't buy games that aren't on Steam."

Some people even claim that no game released off-Steam could ever be successful. Such games, it would seem, are doomed to failure.

However, we have to keep in mind that the very most successful games of all time on PC have never been on Steam and will never be on Steam: Minecraft, League of Legends, Overwatch, and Hearthstone.

Minecraft is a great example: the order form, as I originally encountered it back in the day, was worded in Swedish, and the price was only listed in Euros. The point is, if a game is good enough and attractive enough, players will overcome their hang-ups and find a way to buy it, even if it's not on Steam. My goal is to make a game that's so good that it won't matter. Shouldn't I be trying to make a game that is just that good?

Finally, I certainly might have doubled or even tripled my first-week sales numbers if I had launched on Steam. But, as a solo developer, I'm barely able to keep up with the demand and influx of players as it is. I'm doing personal tech support and community management. There were a few show-stopping bugs on certain platforms that I didn't catch before launch. The servers are already half-full, and it will be time to get more up and running soon. This kind of game---a super-complicated multi-server, multi-platform, multiplayer game---pretty much requires a slow roll-out.

Another big difference is the nature of the "games press" these days compared to seven years ago. Back then, every news and review outlet covered Inside a Star-filled Sky at launch. I had an even bigger press response to The Castle Doctrine a few years later.

But in the mean time, the game press essentially vanished. Some websites don't exist anymore. Others are helmed by skeleton crews. Still others have shifted focus and pretty much don't talk about new games anymore.

Thus, to get the word out about my launch, I was really depending on Twitter and my 19K-member mailing list. However, email, as you're probably aware, is riddled with delivery issues. I'm paying for services that supposedly ensure inbox delivery, but they don't work very well.

All these factors conspired to make my launch numbers pretty sad:


Oh crap, look at that! The exponential decay curve was already kicking in just a few days in. Was it all down-hill from here? If so, the future of the game was bleak, because the top of the hill wasn't very high at all, relatively speaking. 484 units.

But if the games press isn't relevant anymore, how do people find out about new games? There are two ways: word of mouth, and YouTube videos. Word of mouth has always been the most important factor for any game, I think. When your friends keep playing a game and keep talking to you about it week after week, you are much more likely to buy the game yourself.

YouTube is a comparatively new factor, but it's a bit like crowd-sourced word of mouth, and also a form of try-before-you-buy. You watch someone else kick the tires so that you know what you're getting into.

But here's the thing: some games are way better at generating word of mouth and YouTube videos than others.

What kind of game generates the most word of mouth? A game that players tend to play long-term, week after week, month after month. Your friend will talk about it this week, and next week, and the week after that. Your friend will just not shut up about this game.

If your friend is still playing months later, it's likely that the game is somehow generating an endless supply of unique and interesting emergent situations. And guess what? That kind of game also makes for great videos. Each video can show people something from the game that they've never seen before.

A game that doesn't have these properties depends on buzz at launch to sell. It also depends on the critical mass that Steam can bring, to give it a chance to go viral during the brief window that people are collectively playing it.

But the press is gone, so buzz is much harder to generate, and Steam is crowded, so going viral there is much more uncertain.

The new world of video game success seems to be happening mostly outside the game press and independently from the impact of Steam's crowded new release list.

I designed One Hour One Life intentionally to operate well in this new paradigm. It is, hopefully, a unique-situation-generator, down to its core, and it's endlessly replayable. It also generates unique situations at a kind of meta level, because civilization collectively advances even when you're not playing. If you make another video next week, it will show something quite different from the video that you made last week.

But these things take time to cook and build. Word of mouth isn't instantaneous. YouTube videos take time to make. To my shock and happy surprise, the downward trend started reversing a few days after launch:


Until finally, today, I had my best sales day ever, by a large margin, a full week after launch.

The Castle Doctrine was a pretty huge hit for me, relatively speaking. It generated a lot of press buzz and word of mouth, and it managed to bring in something like $70,000 in the 11 months that I sold the alpha through my own website, before launching on Steam. But yeah, that was over eleven months.

I realized today that in just over a week, One Hour One Life has brought in nearly as much as what The Castle Doctrine brought in over 44 weeks. And The Castle Doctrine's graphs, both on and off Steam, always had the classic exponential fall-off after the launch spike.

So what's happening here?

Well, YouTube has been a huge factor, as several 100K+ view videos started getting posted a few days after launch. The comments on these videos are telling, with many people begging the YouTuber to make more videos about the game. And some of those YouTubers have. Some are on their third video at this point, with each video thrusting them into new and interesting situations.

But the other factor is that the players who started playing the game around launch are still playing the game and talking about it a week later. They are not "finished' with the game. They haven't moved on.

I'm getting ready to put out the second of my weekly content updates since launch, but even without my input, the game world is changing as civilization advances, making it worth coming back to. Thus, the critical mass of hourly active players is growing:


Given that I've been working on this game for three years already and have at least two more years of work to go, the revenue generated by this game during launch week has not come at all close to making it a financial success. However, it does look like it might be operating in a new paradigm of public interest in games, which is a slow build up to steady growth over the long haul.
[Link][9 Comments]

Everything runs out
July 26, 2017

A friend of mine summed up a design theory for this game as "evolve or die."

Essentially, there should be no steady state, where you finally break free from the survival struggle and can be fat, dumb, and happy for the rest of your life. The garden of Eden can never be returned to. No living off the fat of the land. The land is too thin for that.


On a larger scale, the same is true for a village. Maybe it can start to feel like a steady state for a few generations, but in reality, those generations are making a grave mistake by living that way. If they're not developing the next level of survival technology, they are dooming their village in the future.

The graph of progress should look like saw teeth, with catastrophes every so often when we realize that what we thought we figured out isn't working long-term.

As I was playtesting yesterday, testing some server fixes, I was noticing how infinite anything makes that particular thing robotic and uninteresting. I don't need to care about it or think about it or consider it or spend it wisely. I just go to the known spot and get more of it, as needed. I was keeping a fire going, and like a robot, every so often I'd walk back to the branchy trees, pick a new branch (respawn time for branches is something like 60 seconds, and yew branches are infinite), chop it into kindling, and feed my fire. It was tedious. The computer might as well have done this action for me, each time my fire ran out. I never had to make a decision. Should I use this wood for fuel?

So.... what if each tree only has one branch to give? Each yew tree only one yew branch? What if the clay node only gives 4 clay before running out? What if the fertile soil node only gives 4 tilled rows before running out? What if each tule reed patch can only be harvested once? What if the ponds run dry (and geese leave) after enough water trips? What if rabbits don't respawn after snaring?

As Eve, you are literally plopped down in Eden, with all of these wild resources in their best possible, full state. Every tree has a dead branch waiting. Fertile soil nodes just brimming. Berry bushes full.


It could even "feel" easy at first, but that feeling is an illusion. You won't make it past age 30 unless you kick it into gear and carefully shepherd these actually-limited resources toward better survival tech before they run out.

And, this pattern should continue, all the way up the tech tree. You are planting berries and carrots, which helps you survive when the wild bushes and rabbits run out, but eventually you run out of water. You are developing the steel ax to harvest more firewood and building wood after the branches run out, but you eventually run out of trees. You develop a pump to pull water out of the ground, but eventually you run out of fuel for the pump. You are developing fertilizer that lets you make your own fertile soil, but eventually you run out of the base ingredients for the fertilizer.

It seems like all of this engenders difficult decisions every step of the way. If I have a bit of grain, do I plant more wheat with it, feed it to my horse so I can travel distances, or feed it to my cows so they produce milk? If I have a bit of fuel, do I put it in the plow to till some rows, put it in the pump to get some more water, or put it in the mill to grind some grain into usable flour?

One question that arises: when I say, "run out," do I really mean it? I'm not sure. Like, if one population strips the wild world bare in some radius, and then time passes before a new Eve, she could actually be stuck with no means to re-bootstrap if nothing comes back, ever. If branches and berries are permanently exhaustible, there's no starting over, for anyone, without moving elsewhere. And wandering around looking for greener pastures isn't very interesting. Salvaging progress from the last failed civilization is much more interesting.

So, I'm currently thinking that everything is "lifetime exhaustible." As far as a player is concerned, each tree only gives a branch once. Each berry bush can be emptied once. But they replentish every hour, so the next Eve has a chance. Wild stuff is always there, slowly building in the background, as a possibility if needed, but it can't be depended on for more than a short bootstrapping phase. After you've got a farm or whatever, a trip out into the forest to pick berries can still happen from time to time.

But some things are perma-exhaustible. Like if you chop down a tree and don't plant a new one, that's it. If you dig a wild carrot up, that's it. And a few trivial things, like tinder and leaves, are still infinite, because it would feel too weird to make them limited.

I do worry that this encourages an Eve strategy of "quit playing and come back in an hour." Like if the wilderness feels too lean, or you mess up too much, waiting an hour will bring it all back and give you a new start.

I could also refresh everything on each new Eve, but again, that seems to make Eve suicide a viable strategy.

If it refreshes on Eve, but only if she's different than the last Eve, then it encourages multiple accounts.

The only way around this seems to be to make everything perma-exhaustible. There's no timing trick that you can use to work around it. If you, or the person before you, exhausted the wild resources, your only choice is to find greener pastures to re-bootstrap. You can find you way back to the old city later.

This reminds me of the book Ishmael. There's an analogy in there about civilizations being like flying contraptions, and it's easy to confuse falling with flying for a while, when we jump off the cliff with our flapping wing suit or whatever. The ground seems to be getting closer, so we flap the wings harder. We look down on the ground below and see an array of other crashed flying contraptions. Why did they crash? We'll never know. But we're not going to crash like them! We have it figured out.


Like every time we find the ruins of an abandoned civilization, we scratch our heads. Why would they ever leave all of THIS? Well, we're never leaving ours, that's for sure.


Just to prevent the map from forever expanding into greener pastures, maybe wild resources could respawn on some kind of glacial time scale.... like every 24 hours, or every week, or something.
[Link][12 Comments]

Gigantic updates in v28 and v29
July 22, 2017

Three weeks of 10+ hour days have paid off in a gigantic update that addresses every major issue that arose in playtesting. There are only a few new bits of content in there, but some big changes in the way that the existing content functions.

The biggest change is the new recipe hint system, which shows you what's possible with what you're holding or what you just clicked on. It's a local step in the tech tree that helps you figure out what you can do next. Did you know you can do 26 different things with that sharp stone you're holding?

Food has been changed to stack in your food meter, like it does in most games, but food has also been changed so that wild food sources run out in the short term. No more infinite berry bushes. This is supposed to be a hard survival game, but the tedium of having to live constantly on an almost-empty stomach is gone. You can fill up on any wild food source to buy time, but every time you do, you come closer to long-term starvation as the wild supplies run out.

You now get a message when you die explaining what killed you.

Oh, and something sane happens now if you ever reach the edge of the world.... in 17 real-life years of continuous walking.

Behind the scenes, there are major changes to what's possible in the editor in terms of abstract object categories and objects that can be used a certain number of times before running out (the new berry bush is an example).

If you've been waiting to dive back into playtesting, now's the time.

Full list of changes here:



The Nudity Question
June 14, 2017

One Hour One Life is about growing a new civilization from scratch, starting naked in the wilderness, across many human generations. You start the game by being born as a baby, and obviously you are born naked. People can make clothing over time and put it on, but they can also take it off.

The question: how should nudity be depicted in the game?

My creative partner Tom and I parted ways about 3 months ago. Before that, we were all-in on the depiction of nudity in the game, with a character style that looked like this:


I thought it looked interesting and funny. But the detailed nudity seemed like the elephant in the living room for a lot of people. It had the potential to overshadow everything else, and recurrently popped up in discussions about the game (Kotaku comments). For me, an anti-Victorian stance is part of my makeup, and I do want that to shine through my work. But it's not really what this game is about (it's not a statement on nudity). And then there are commercial issues as well. Nudity could make or break the game either way. I could stir up interest and boost sales, or it could turn off the vast majority of people.

I've re-done all the drawings myself since Tom left the project, and I made an early decision in the new character design to keep the nudity totally abstract. After all, these characters don't even have noses or ears, so why show nipples or genitals? They're cartoons. But they're still obviously naked, because they're flesh colored, and they can put on clothing and take it off. (This is just a sample... there will be 100 different characters from a full spectrum of skin tones.)


But is this too tame? Some of my local game design friends say that I'm chickening out. They also say that I'm cutting out something that will make people curious about the game.

And we have Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel as a hit show, albeit censored. But people are interested in that premise.

And of course Rust. Maybe there's a difference with 3D vs 2D nudity, though. 2D leaves more room for the imagination (see Scott McCloud), making it more salacious? 3D nudity looks like mannequins, and we can distance ourselves from them a bit.

On the other hand, Rust had nothing but naked MEN for years, and they only recently added women, amid great controversy. Maybe depicting naked men is funny and okay, but not naked women. Like the game Icycle:


My wife's reaction to Tom's characters was always that they were "creepy" and that they made her feel uncomfortable in they way that they depicted female nudity. Maybe too R. Crumb-ish or something.

So is there some middle ground? Some kind of more abstract nudity that would be less creepy without chickening out?

Someone pointed out the manga character Shin Chan:


And there's the classic "inverted black triangle" for women, though even that has a somewhat creepy history, like the Playboy Femlin cartoon character (NSFW):


Obviously, the Femlin is meant to be erotic, but is there a way to depict cartoon female nudity without that effect? We have so few examples to reference.

A Google search for "cartoon nudity" results in quite an eyeful. So people are right to associate cartoon depictions of female nudity with salacious intent, given the history of dirty cartoons. Maybe there's no way to transcend that association.

Still, I want there to be absolutely no doubt that these characters are naked when they're not wearing clothing. That idea is very important to the heart of the game, while the specific way that nudity is represented is not.
[Link][8 Comments]

Early alpha testing coming
February 17, 2017

Friends and family testing has been going well. We're right on the verge of being ready for some early, small-scale public alpha testing. The game is in a pretty stable state with a comprehensive batch of starter content (from rocks all the way to forging steel---each game system has an example piece of content in place).

The art collective where we have office space is losing its lease, so we're in the middle of an upheaval as we prepare to move to a new office. As soon as we're settled there, we'll be working on another few weeks of solid content creation. At that point, we'll be contacting our early alpha testers and delivering builds to people.
[Link][43 Comments]