Brad Wardell's site for talking about the customization of Windows.

gc-citizens

This is a response to the excellent article over at one of my favorite sites, Explorminate. In the article, author Oliver Kiley laments on what he sees as the current unpolished state of the modern 4X market.

[[..]]

He defines what he defines what he means by polish:

Before going further, I should clarify what, in my mind, a “polished” game has:

  • No major imbalances or exploits in the game that undermine its intended gameplay
  • No major bugs – particularly the obvious and game breaking sort
  • No major performance issues (late game lag, memory leaks, poor optimization, etc.)
  • No underdeveloped mechanics that leave you thinking that something was only half-implemented
  • An iteratively refined gameplay loop and an engaging overall game pace

I agree that the above is a good start to what would constitute polish. But the devil is in the details.  For example, I would argue that Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade was unpolished at release yet it it would have passed this definition by most standards.  Thus I would also add:

  • Gameplay systems are intuitive and highly usable
  • Documentation is complete and easily accessible
  • The tutorial is both informative and inviting
  • The game has no obvious "how could they miss that?" [typos, missing assets, etc.] bugs

So why are so many recent games having a hard time delivering a polished experience out of the gate?

The short answer is: cost. People pay for gameplay, not polish.

Crusade_players_spend_hours_just_in_the_custom_civ_builder

Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade shipped hundreds of amazing features including free-form ship design..and then misspelled "infidel"

 

Offworld Trading Company is an excellent game that was extremely polished upon release.  And yet, many players balked at its initial price point of $39.99 even though it's an excellent game and one of the few economic RTS games on the market. Polish is very expensive and generally undervalued.  Whether we like it or not, people buy games based on feature checklists and not polish.

Budgets vs. Sales

Now, let's have a cold, hard look at the game industry.  Galactic Civilizations II cost $600,000 to make.  Sins of a Solar Empire cost $800,000.  By contrast, Galactic Civilizations III cost 5X as much as GalCiv II and not only has the market not gotten bigger but price pressure is greatly increased. 

For example, Galactic Civilizations II sold over 3 million copies during its lifespan (over 700k on Steam where it wasn't added until it was over 6 years old).  That's more than all the current crop of space 4X games combined.  We're a long way from the days of games being on the shelves of Walmart and Best Buy and Steam has not filled that void completely yet (especially given its discoverability issues).

 

Patron_and_the_Patriot_Pirates (1)

Stardock's popular, MULE-inspired RTS, Offworld Trading Company is loved by many...but frequently down-voted over its price.

So what is the answer?

Each game has its own unique story. 

Galactic Civilizations III, when it first came out, had nearly half its budget consumed by the development of a brand new, multi-core, 64-bit, engine.  That meant throwing out all of the GalCiv II source code base (in multicore, you're not even supposed to use pointers to give you an idea of what's involved).  So the design was a lot more conservative than it otherwise would have been. 

Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade is outstanding and only cost $400k or so to make because its focus was purely on innovative gameplay additions.  It wasn't nearly as polished as I would like it to be but it does mean there's hope in the future (I felt GalCiv III need a lot of gameplay additions and I chose to sacrifice polish for more features) to being find a better balance between polish and innovation.

2017-04-01_13-27-06

Stardock is hoping that modding, rather than DLC, is the future.

 

Which brings us back to the question: What is the answer? Fundamentally it involves an understanding between developers and players about the strategy game market:

  1. No, gaming is not "big business".  Let me put this right out there: Endless Space 2 + Stellaris + GalCiv III combined will almost certainly never make as much money as Start8.  Enterprise software is big business.  4X strategy games (outside Civ) not so much.  There is a huge disconnect between players and developers on this issue.  I see the term "money grab" regularly used in response to a $4 DLC.  Do these same people give their barista this kind of grief? In an age where Steam Spy exists, there's no excuse for people not knowing that niche game development, especially today, is not a get rich scheme.  Developers make the games because they love making them.   
  2. Understand the trade offs. I am not privy to the budget of ES2 or Stellaris or MOO or what have you, but I would bet that the budgets for each of those were well over $5 million.  If you want to know how much a game makes, take the list price, divide it in half for the average price, then multiply it by 0.7.   So imagine a game with a $5 million budget. Let's say its list price is $40 and it has sold 200,000 units.  That means it is only about half way to breaking even on the development cost (let alone marketing, etc.). 

    The new Master of Orion game has sold about 200,000 units.  Wargaming.net paid $2 million just for the trademark.  Or put another way, the game hasn't yet sold enough to pay back the cost of the trademark acquisition let alone the development budget.  But as anyone who played it can tell you, it was very polished at release and relatively in expensive.  The criticism directed towards it is that it wasn't ambitious enough.   Would the new MOO have sold better if it had been less polished but more ambitious? I think so.

    The point being: Developers have to be very careful where they invest their resources.  
  3. Understand why timing matters.  Have you noticed that May is the new release date for many games? That's because in the Steam universe, if you don't release your game by mid May, you have to wait until September. June is the Steam sale month and July and August are dead months effectively.  If your studio has a $500k per month burn rate, you are asking them to lay off employees to delay.   I delayed Sorcerer King until August specifically for polish (and it's one of Explorminate's favorite titles).  But polish hasn't made Sorcerer King popular. It's sold only around 60,000 units on a $2 million budget.  Instead, Sorcerer King would have been better served having a lot more depth and features rather than going smaller and more polished.  Thus, if you have a game that is basically done but could use more polish and your choice is to release it in May or wait until August and polish it, then you should release it in May (we waited until August and had to lay people off when it didn't sell as well as we hoped -- if we had released it in May and sold the same quantity, the studio wouldn't have had to lay anyone off).
  4. Patience.  As an industry, we are migrating from a 32-bit, single core code base to a multi-core, 64-bit code base.  It's worth noting that the most "innovative" game the author calls out is the one that hasn't begun that transition yet and thus could take advantage of a mature code base.  But ES2 and GalCiv III both had to make that transition and it's non-trivial.  It just means that the next set of games will be much more polished.  Going from from single core to multi-core is very hard.  All that code where you're passing around pointers? Yea, that's gotta go for the most part.  That's a really bitter pill to swallow.

 

So the good news is that I think players will see a substantial improvement in polish going forward as the transition from 32-bit, single-core to 64-bit multicore is completed.  But in the meantime, we had to pick between gameplay, cost and polish and we can only pick two. 

Crusade_Resources

GalCiv III: Crusade. Some argue this is what GalCiv III should have been.  But many of those players never played GalCiv II (the base game) but rather started at the Ultimate Edition.

I really enjoyed Mez's article. It also highlights the core disconnect between gamers and developers.  The best way to think of those of us making these games is that we're gamers who happen to know how to code.  We aren't in this for the money.  We're in this because we love the games and the gaming community.

Cheers!

-brad


Comments (Page 2)
on Jun 07, 2017

rewriting code with a new architecture (no pointers?  ugh!) sounds very frustrating and difficult. 

personally, I'd pay a little bit more for some polish, with gameplay being at the top.  But how much more $$ for how much more polish is a tough question.  One of the reasons I enjoy this game, is having to deal with those sorts of balancing acts in a fictional universe (and ignoring my real-life dilemmas).

the AI work on this game has improved so much since the beginning, and the newest update looks fantastic.  I do not play on very large nor difficult settings, and every time I decide to go up a difficulty level, there is a new update to get used to, and the AI is always a little tougher.  Sometimes a lot more so.

I think the polish will come, and I'm willing to wait.  I'm patient.  Just saying, I'd have paid a little more for not waiting.

on Jun 07, 2017

First of all, thanks Brad for this opportunity to express the opinion about current state of GalCiv3 in the format, which I find most relevant (y)!

So, let me start with the statement that I definitely find GalCiv3 polished in it's current state. What do I mean by that: 

1. It doesn't have bugs, which annoy me enough to mention them... 

2. GC3 Crusade stream lined the gameplay and made some important interface changes, which made the game experience "smooth" and more well paced IMHO. 

3. It (especially with Crusade addition) has nice feature set, which feels like it's got necessary meat on it, which was kind of lacking before Crusade came out...

That said, I think there is one major issue with GC3 - and it is common for some of the other Stardock games as well: it is that it is too much of the "sandbox". What I mean by that is: there is a nice set of features in GC3, but many of these features live life of their own. There was in the beginning (and still is despite all efforts IMHO) disconnect between different functions of the game.

I.e. the ideological traits system - when the game was first released, it felt that that system lives the life on its own. It was giving certain bonuses to the factions, but apart of that it was not connected much to diplomatic, science, economy or any other system in the game. Yes, you were trying with different expansions and patches to bring it closer to other systems, particular diplomacy, but 

a) the potential of ideology still feels as not being realised in full

it took quite a bit of time to get where we are at, and there is still a way to go

So, why it feels that the systems (diplomacy, economy, ideology, politics) are not quite shining to their full potential? 

Because as I said above, the game was designed with the following in mind: 

to have many basic features, which later could be brought together and made work together to full extent by expansions. That approach is opposite to what endless space 2 seems to be doing - where they are trying to do relatively small amount of functions, but make them deeper and working together very well.. 

The problem for GC3 I think is that once you have that big variety of different functions, it is very difficult to make them work together later. As some of them have to be completely modified in order to do so. And that's partly where the time and money go to with no real benefit for the company. Because it means quite a bit of re-working something, which already exists. Or you have to make decision not to touch some of the functions - and it means that they always will feel underdeveloped and ultimately frustrating as there is a bare skeleton for many of the things there, but it doesn't provide the real coherent experience.

So, I think that in order to minimise the rework and save money and time for the meaningful development work, it is an absolute must for 4X developers now to have complete, very well speced and transparent design before they actual even start developing anything.  Design, which will link all of the parts of the game together and then probably the paper prototype or something, which would allow them to see, which features of the game would be fun and which ones are pulling it back... 

This is the biggest issue I have with Stardock games, such as FELH or GC3, they have great set of the features, but the coherent, integral experience of the game often is not quite there. The features feel disconnected and in many cases underdeveloped. I would argue, that if you (and of course it is just my opinion) put your money in too (much stronger!!) game design, then you will find that great games you have now, will become truly classic. AND you won't spend that much more money on development, because you won't be spending it on re-writing, re-combining features, but can instead always concentrating on expanding and broadening the game. Which you already an expert and market leader at!

Thanks again, but really - this is such a great opportunity to tell you about the pains and joys buying from your company

on Jun 07, 2017

Alstein

I think the reason you're seeing the expectations of consumers of games (largely millenials and younger) becoming tough is a combination of higher competition on Steam, and the effects of late capitalism.  Simply put, the public is so squeezed financially that $4 is a lot these days.   Add to that most folks do have 100 game backlogs they can go back to at any time, and you really have to come up with something new in order to gain sales.

This is a load of socialist BS. 

on Jun 07, 2017

Okay. Here's what I pick: polish and sophisticated game play. You may proceed now.

on Jun 07, 2017

>Let me put this right out there: Endless Space 2 + Stellaris + GalCiv III combined will almost certainly never make as much money as Start8.

 

seriously??

 

thats kinda sad

on Jun 07, 2017

Frogboy


Quoting lyssailcor,

But still I hope at least this game (Galciv 3 Crusade) will develop over time in a polished and mostly bug-free experience with a lot more modding capabilities so that in the end we can ourselves polish the game to our tastes



Oh GalCiv will be developed as long as I'm in charge.

 

So let's hope you stay in charge a long time still

on Jun 07, 2017

I think innovation, good project management and the right price point can counter the gaming doctrine stated above.

For example, a game like This War of Mine broke a lot of rules. It's black and white, has very little action, but features a captivating storyline and immersive gameplay. It sold very well and received excellent reviews. I'm sure there are others.

Chris Roberts, the mind behind Star Citizen, might disagree with any financial limitations. He set out to raise $1 million for his game, it's currently over $150 million and they haven't actually released a game yet. I know this is an extreme example, but I wouldn't underestimate the wallets of gamers.

Gaming, or any other business, exists in a free marketplace. Great products make great profits, inferior products... well, you'll spend a lot of time explaining yourself.

I'm a huge fan, own every SD game and DLC, including duplicate copies of Crusade on GOG and Steam. I'm patiently waiting for the version of Crusade that was hyped. Like many people in this forum, I certainly see the incredible potential of GC and Crusade.

on Jun 07, 2017

ZombiesRus5


Quoting Alstein,

I think the reason you're seeing the expectations of consumers of games (largely millenials and younger) becoming tough is a combination of higher competition on Steam, and the effects of late capitalism.  Simply put, the public is so squeezed financially that $4 is a lot these days.   Add to that most folks do have 100 game backlogs they can go back to at any time, and you really have to come up with something new in order to gain sales.



This is a load of socialist BS. 

 

I have to say that this is a poorly reasoned response.  I'll second the OP.  Not that $4 is a lot of money, but I will say that the $40 cost that studios generally require to recoup costs certainly are. 

With respect to the "socialist BS": Marx and the neomarxists who continued to work on his critique of capitalism (since Marx himself was unable to finish his work) certainly have a much stronger, coherent and cogent explanatory framework for describing the economy that currently exists, than do the neoliberals that are currently crowned the high priests of finance and policy (who unlike the neomarxists, have a /less/ coherent operational framework than liberalism out of the Austrian school (Mises, Hayek, etc) that its name would imply, go figure). 

If you simply look at the present state of the world, it is best described as being mired in exactly what the OP termed 'late capitalism' - or in David Harvey's parlance, a 'crisis of capitalism.'  This is best described as excess productive capacity as far as the eye can see, little or no economic growth (especially if you remove finance 'capital' from the equation), and declining standards of living for most people. 

Personally, I think that this goes beyond simple foibles of capitalism (although the neoliberals certainly offer no useful answers whatsoever (more austerity, give more free money to banks and financiers, give away all public goods to private interests, and allow private interests to externalize all costs and privatize all profits)), and is confounded by the end of the great age of free energy that started with the industrial revolution in 1700's England when we first started burning carbon for industry.  Late civilization also describes our current predicament - not only the unused excess capacity, but also the overproduction of elites and increasing costs of carrying complexity that is no longer supportable by our energy infrastructure (read Tainter - or if you want less robust reading for the lay-person, Jared Diamond).  And before you immediately counter that 'oil and energy are cheap' no, they /appear/ cheap because the economy cannot afford them, as the costs of their production have squeezed out other productive segments of the economy that would normally be consuming them - thus demand has yet to recover its former 'glory' (you will also notice that carbon extraction brought online haven't even replaced what we've used over the past decade despite somewhere between $6-10 trillion dumped into doing so)..

If you want to know what the future will be like, just look at Japan - except with more attempts at a spacial or temporal fix (again the neomarxists know how it works, the neoliberals do not) - more wars, more Detroits, and more 'Bridges to Nowheres'.  And, in the West - without the strong social cohesion, harmonious culture, and sense of community that Japan had before their 1992 housing bubble crash..

This is why the OP was not spouting 'socialist BS' but rather an accurate description of the world he/she lives in..

cheers

 

on Jun 07, 2017

shawn12

>Let me put this right out there: Endless Space 2 + Stellaris + GalCiv III combined will almost certainly never make as much money as Start8.

 

seriously??

 

thats kinda sad

 

Well, every business in the universe had to buy it, otherwise their employees wouldn't know how the hell to use Windows 8.  Stupidest thing Microsoft ever did (which is saying a lot), and the luckiest windfall for Stardock of all time (no offense, it /is/ a good product and well worth the $10).  I heard once that SD sold 30 millions copies of Start8/10, not sure if this number is accurate, but I know what is accurate is that they sold /a lot/ ... 

Anyway, just think about it - I have yet to see an office running GC3, but there are a lot of cubicle farms with Start8 (and depressed cubicle farm workers)..

 

-tid242

on Jun 07, 2017

tid242

This is why the OP was not spouting 'socialist BS' but rather an accurate description of the world he/she lives in..

I appreciate how you feel, but 40 bucks is not much in a world where a fast food meal for 4 will be more than half of that figure. 

40 bucks is not so inconsequential that it can be squandered recklessly, but anyone with the wherewithal to own a computer and a wifi connection probably has the ability to buy a few 40 dollar games per year.

on Jun 07, 2017

tid242


Quoting ZombiesRus5,






Quoting Alstein,



I think the reason you're seeing the expectations of consumers of games (largely millenials and younger) becoming tough is a combination of higher competition on Steam, and the effects of late capitalism.  Simply put, the public is so squeezed financially that $4 is a lot these days.   Add to that most folks do have 100 game backlogs they can go back to at any time, and you really have to come up with something new in order to gain sales.
This is a load of socialist BS. 

This is why the OP was not spouting 'socialist BS' but rather an accurate description of the world he/she lives in..

cheers

 

 

What I was describing is covered by substitution and income effects, which are taught to every economics student, and are something that is believed by everyone who is rational and understands the concepts.  I've also seen this firsthand, as many of my friends are younger millenials.   Stardock also still has an image problem with this crowd, which doesn't help- for multiple reasons that aren't deserved.

Has nothing to do with my own personal beliefs.

 

Franco fx


Quoting tid242,



I appreciate how you feel, but 40 bucks is not much in a world where a fast food meal for 4 will be more than half of that figure. 

40 bucks is not so inconsequential that it can be squandered recklessly, but anyone with the wherewithal to own a computer and a wifi connection probably has the ability to buy a few 40 dollar games per year.

 

You'd be surprised.  Also many of these folks are using their college laptop for games.    There's a reason why F2P games are so big.

 

on Jun 07, 2017

 @tid242 It's a good thing communist countries have adopted more mixed capitalism otherwise they might have failed too. 

on Jun 07, 2017

Franco fx


Quoting tid242,

This is why the OP was not spouting 'socialist BS' but rather an accurate description of the world he/she lives in..



I appreciate how you feel, but 40 bucks is not much in a world where a fast food meal for 4 will be more than half of that figure. 

40 bucks is not so inconsequential that it can be squandered recklessly, but anyone with the wherewithal to own a computer and a wifi connection probably has the ability to buy a few 40 dollar games per year.

 

Sure, sure.  But ..

The personal computer market itself is shrinking (with the exception of high-end rigs, which is somewhere about 30% larger than it was ten years ago), with a lot of people skipping PCs altogether because they're an unnecessary expense in the era of iPhones and chromebooks.  (source if you're interested) Far from being a sign of nuevo riche and money to spare, smartphones have become a swiss-army-knife stand-in for all sorts of good/services that unbundled costed a lot more money (TV, computer, phone (obviously), maps, and the rest).  In fact, if you read any automotive blog or magazine you don't really have to read too much before you'll stumble upon an article talking about the 'problem' whereby millenials don't love cars.  If you start looking into the issue on a deeper level one will find that smartphones have replaced cars - at least in the cultural sense - even though at face value the notion seems ridiculous - but the numbers speak for themselves.  Phones are also much cheaper than PCs, if for no other reason than that you already have a phone because it's virtually impossible to function in society without one (unlike a car, or home internet - so long as you have a phone).  Cars get you repair bills and court fees - especially if you can't really afford one, computers get you a $50/month internet bill without any benefit not already had by having a smartphone..

The fact that it costs $20 for four people to eat fast food doesn't mean that four people have an extra $20 to spend.  The highest ratio of calories/dollars is found in fast food (and also junk foods at grocery stores).  Sure these aren't good calories, but you have to eat something (and you also can't eat games from steam).  There's a reason that poor neighborhoods are filled with fast-food restaurants - it's because this is the format that impoverished people can afford when it comes to calories.  It also doesn't require the infrastructure (having a functioning kitchen for instance) or the time to cook a meal.  Or the institutional knowledge of how to actually prepare food.  There's a ton of literature on the problem of people who are impoverished being more or less institutionally mandated to eating fake food.. (at least in the US this is the case, I'm not sure how this all actually works in civilized countries..).

There are numerous surveys that bear out the dire and precarious nature of American's household balance sheets here and here for example, which pretty much keeps saying that the /average/ person is really poorly situated, financially (and probably shouldn't be buying computer games at all, tbh).  Especially when one considers things like healthcare and college are increasingly so expensive that really, theoretically, there really shouldn't be any discretionary spending at all for a whole lot of people.  

While I totally agree that a $40 expense is something that people should be able to manage here and there, those people really don't extend particularly far down the socioeconomic ladder.  The whole industry is chasing the top 5% of households, because these are the ones with true disposable incomes - and it's crowded up there.  Extend down the foodchain and you hit people with crap computers, then no computers pretty fast.  (one of the open question I have about "high end PCs" is how much of this is an artifact of having so many totally crap PCs for sale that didn't exist in the 90's when every new PC ran things reasonably well?).  There was a recent article on Bloomberg about millennials increasingly foregoing employment (I'm having trouble finding the article) - but basically the gist of it was that the (post-college) labor market is so competitive (or such crap, depending on your perspective) that they're too busy taking AP courses and the like to get a summer job.  So even that top 5% with disposable income has a lot of people who aren't looking for deep immersive computer strategy games for /economic reasons/ - even though economically they're doing just fine (for now). 

I mean, what's the market like for deep, immersive /board/ games these days?  - I'd guess it's basically the same 100,000 people buying every single one of them on kickstarter.  It's the same 100,000 people buying the cool computer games.  It's really not a ton of people. Getting them to buy a $40 game is easy, same with the less well-heeled fans that already know they will like it (but may have to save up or work  it into their budgets), but the marginal buyer who used buy it on a whim is increasingly scarce, and you have to try to outmaneuver everyone else in this marketplace (the AAA's with millions in advertising budgets, the consoles with their dedicated playerbase, the free games (League), etc) . 

I'm really not sure what the answer is.  I /wish/ more people could and would buy the types of games that I like, but it's definitely been a market in decline (apart from the recent crowdfunding and steam Renaissance, but it remains to be seen if this is a blip of pent up demand or an actual thing going forward (and I'm not even talking about SD games, my favorite games growing up were RPGs, so I was super stoked about Pillars and Torment, no one had made one of these in  10+ years)).  Every market is pretty much having this problem right now.  Movies all tend to lose money (I really don't understand /how/ but somehow they manage to), retail stores are all continually flirting with bankrupcy (and they're increasingly in empty malls), etc.  Even successful outfits are one flop-release away from oblivion (for example, what happens to Sony if the PS5 is a total flop for some reason, or HBO can't find the next 'game of thrones' when the series wraps up?)..

Sure it seems like i9's and high end desktops are a bright spot - until you realize that the "market" for these are actually the high-end servers that the i9 customers order up at work with the corporate budget because they like their home PCs..

I really, really /want/ to agree with your sentiment - but it's just not what I see when I look out the window at the people walking by..

 

 

ZombiesRus5

 @tid242 It's a good thing communist countries have adopted more mixed capitalism otherwise they might have failed too. 

If you actually read what I wrote, nowhere did I say that Socialism or Communism was a terrific idea that worked.  What I did say was that Marx's critique of capitalism had a lot of merit, and the ideologies that we are currently married to (neoliberalism) does not have any useful answers to the mess we've made for ourselves.

 

on Jun 07, 2017

I do not buy Starbuck's coffee.  I cannot afford a house because I occasionally spend $4 on DLC.

and I do not understand why "socialism" is a bad word, nor how it really applies to the OP.

on Jun 07, 2017

thinking about it further...

if any of you use Leaders for the double-all-planet bonus, which can be swapped at will, you are using socialism

placing citizens on planets is localizing the resources, hopefully for a big gain, but pulling out is difficult.  That is capitalism.

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