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 5)
on Jun 12, 2017

Polish, low price and sophisticated game play?  That's not the right equation. The equation is: (Price) (Time) (Quality) - pick 2. 

You've got two qualities and a price in your equation, there should be a time element.  So in that case I'll take polish and sophisticated game play, but I want it tomorrow!

 

 

 

on Jun 13, 2017

lyssailcor


 









 








 






If the question was for me, I'd say that I could live with the Paradox model since it's not about the absolute amount of money I have to pay but in a subscription model to be forced to pay for nothing if you have no time or appetite to play. With a DLC model I could at least determine myself when I pay for what and would only buy the DLCs if I really can and want to play.

 

Definitely for you  

 

I'm really curious as to people's perceptions on that question. I share your outlook, but I often see people expressing other sentiments with games like Stellaris in anticipation of a stream of DLC. With Stellaris, I definitely appreciate how they maintain a core experience with updates but have been adding DLC which extends the experience.

 

I don't know how the DLC has been received overall with GalCiv3. I purchased all of them, but I'd be curious to see if they have been helpful to the continued existence of GalCiv 3 and what lessons have been taken away for future DLC.

on Jun 13, 2017

TheFunMachine


I'm really curious as to people's perceptions on that question. I share your outlook, but I often see people expressing other sentiments with games like Stellaris in anticipation of a stream of DLC. With Stellaris, I definitely appreciate how they maintain a core experience with updates but have been adding DLC which extends the experience.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion

Apart from that, if a company makes their policy clear everyone can decide for themselves whether they want to follow that policy or not. But if a company gives the impression you buy a complete game and you find out later it's only a core game and *needs* a lot of DLC to feel really complete and fun, I cannot blame people for feeling cheated. That's not to say that Stellaris falls in the former or latter category (have bought it when it came out, played a couple of hours, but it couldn't capture me, so I cannot say much from own experience), that's just a general remark.


TheFunMachine


I don't know how the DLC has been received overall with GalCiv3. I purchased all of them, but I'd be curious to see if they have been helpful to the continued existence of GalCiv 3 and what lessons have been taken away for future DLC.

That only Stardock can answer. But as far as I understood from posts in the past DLC pays further development all right.

I myself bought most of the DLCs. I didn't buy the soundtrack and ship part DLCs since the soundtrack is fine in game but nothing that I could hear apart from the game much, and I'm not much in artistical ship building to enjoy a bunch of ship parts.

on Jun 14, 2017

The original article also lists (Oliver's) reasons WHY the games are unpolished, and GAME DESIGN is the biggest isue, with actually 4 separate "problems", starting with games being too blown up for no good reason other than "why not?"

on Jun 14, 2017

Jolly Joker

The original article also lists (Oliver's) reasons WHY the games are unpolished, and GAME DESIGN is the biggest isue, with actually 4 separate "problems", starting with games being too blown up for no good reason other than "why not?"

 

Here's the problem from my point of view, as a fan of these games and less importantly, a buyer of these products. If a new 4x doesn't have arbitrary feature 'X' (say espionage) at launch, or  is designed in a manner that doesn't have that particular feature in mind, I guarantee you someone will write a bad review and/or cranky forum post lambasting the dev. If a game is conservative in its design (the newest MOO), it will get lampooned for not being 'innovative', whatever the hell that means. If the latest 4x is very ambitious, but not exactly polished or having certain features not fully realised, it will cop flak for being 'unfinished'.

 

I think at some point, the dev just has to pick their poison and commit to a vision or set of clear goal that they have for their game, because it's never going to please everyone in a niche market where there appears to be a lot of rose tinted perceptions.

on Jun 14, 2017

Jolly Joker

The original article also lists (Oliver's) reasons WHY the games are unpolished, and GAME DESIGN is the biggest isue, with actually 4 separate "problems", starting with games being too blown up for no good reason other than "why not?"

The latest MOO game was released very polished and, as I mentioned, hasn't sold enough to pay off the cost of acquiring the trademark, let alone development.

People buy based on fun/innovation.  Not polish.  

I want to make super polished games too. But gamers won't pay for it.

Substitute airline seating with game polish and it's the same story. 

on Jun 16, 2017

adamb1011

Interesting article.

Why don't you try offering a subscription model for a game? Ie pay an initial cost ($40), then subscribe  $5/mon in exchange for regular new development and polishing etc.

That way you can scale up or down team size based on game popularity. For example if galciv has 20000 paying subscribers, at $5 per month, then you would have maybe 50k per month to spend on salaries to build galciv. This could then be scaled up or down as required.

Recurring revenue is amazing from a financial perspective as well

OH MY GOD NO!  Please, NO NO NO subscriptions!  Subscriptions are a lazy lazy marketing tool.  And you will lose me for sure!  I won't buy Adobe anything.  I won't buy any MMORPGBS.  The monthly fee is a deal killer for me.  Even though I can afford it!

"Recurring Revenue" is why newspapers around the world are failing.

"Recurring Revenue" is why magazines are failing.

"Recurring Revenue" is why every company that relies on this is at grave risk in the next economic downturn, whenever it happens.  Yep, Software as a Service, Photoshop?  Office 364-and-a-half?  you're next!

  • I fired my chiropractor because I was getting dinged for $120 per month.  I left because of the money, then I discovered that he wasn't helping much anyway.
  • I fired my SatTV provider because they were charging me $150 per month.  I left because of the money, then I realized that all along they were charging me money to watch advertisements for reality programming and making up for it by showing me fake news.  Yes, that is a thing.
  • I fired my land-line phone provider because they were charging me $70 per month and charging me AGAIN for calling my mother and father.
  • I stopped paying my health club dues because they were charging me $40 per month, then later I realized it was a dreadful place to go to anyway.  It was filthy and had broke-down equipment.
  • I'm now re-evaluating my Verizon service, as well as my automobile and homeowner insurance policies.  EVERYTHING that smells like a subscription gets an annual anal exam in my home!

My point is:  Subscriptions suck!  They suck money out of your monthly budget, and they're evil because they hide their true impact from you.  Every time I bail out of one, it's the money that causes me to get out; a constant attempt to keep my personal budget in line.  And every time I cancel a subscription, I realize that there were plenty of OTHER great reasons for canceling the relationship and that I should have done it long before I did. 

I'll NEVER join a subscription for a game; not even a game I like such as GalCiv.  Never.  Write that down.  No, really; write that down!

I'll also NEVER buy a "bundle" of services.  The true cost is never really communicated, but it's there and once they lock you in, then they keep raising the price until you either cry "Uncle!" or do the equivalent of a rage quit.

By the way, I'll also never preorder or buy a game that forces me to play online with other people as its only option.  That's a whole 'nother conversation, but you can look it up under Sim City 2013 (filed under "EA Games:  Rotting Stench of Failure and Death" in Wikipedia).

on Jun 16, 2017

I'm on board with never ever subscribing to a game.  For pretty much the aforementioned reasons.  Being affordable within my budget has nothing to do with it.

I have, however, bought all the DLC for GC3, because I wanted them, and each was a one-time purchase.

on Jun 16, 2017

I should say that subscriptions have a way of adding up.

And really, you can even think of that morning stop at Starbucks for that $6.95 latte as a subscription, because it rolls into everything else you are paying for.

$7.00 * 5 days per week = $35 per week.

$35 per week * 46 weeks (a rough average of the number of weeks a full-time employee goes to work) is more than $1,600 per year.

Roll that latte in with the cable, internet, phone, smartphone, Netflix, Office 365, health club, golf club, bowling league, Adobe Photoshop (only about 20% the cost of the whole Creative Collection), and other various subscriptions and various other fees you're probably paying each month, and you could be spending as much as $4,000 each year.  That's a huge chunk of your take home pay going toward stuff that you might not even be taking full advantage of.

The way to reduce those costs is to review, then get tribal on all of them, even the small ones.  ESPECIALLY the small ones.  No subscriptions!

on Jun 19, 2017

Subscription is a logical development. Although, not to a single game, but to a service like Steam.

MOO CTS - is really anyone surprised about that game's comparatively low sales? Didn't they completely miss the point, what MOO and MOO2 have been all about? I have no problem discussing that in detail, but at this point I'm inclined to just say that MOO CTS is a game that nobody really needs, because it doesn't deliver "the goods". I mean, this hasn't been the first 4x space game, and if you do such a game nowadays you need a clear idea of what you want (and WHY), and you need to deliver some new angle, otherwise - why make a "new" game at all?

on Jun 19, 2017

We actually used to offer a subscription service to the entire Stardock line of games.  Drengin.net

 

on Jun 19, 2017

Frogboy

We actually used to offer a subscription service to the entire Stardock line of games.  Drengin.net

 

I participated in that for awhile. Never thought of it as a subscription but that is essentially what it was.

on Jun 19, 2017

The next logical step is that Steam produces games (developed by developer studios they hire) and then offer those games to play exclusively  (for no additional cost) when you subscribe to them. So for a fee of, say, 10 bucks per month, you could play anything you want (that they'd offer) - but only in that month, of course. It's what Ubisoft (with Uplay) could do as well, it's what Microsoft could do, but I guess it's not what Stardock could do. It's something that is alreedy done by Facebook (without a fee), mobile  companies (throwing out apps) and TV producers (giving access to their "servivce nets" which include games).

These days you are not owning games anyway, but just "lease" most of them.

 

on Jun 19, 2017

Badbonez

Polish, low price and sophisticated game play?  That's not the right equation. The equation is: (Price) (Time) (Quality) - pick 2. 

You've got two qualities and a price in your equation, there should be a time element.  So in that case I'll take polish and sophisticated game play, but I want it tomorrow!

 

Polish is time.

on Jun 22, 2017

Case in point (not to beat a dead horse):

 

 

Per the devs, Introversion's new game 'Scanner Sombre' (http://www.introversion.co.uk/scannersombre/ ) sold a total of 5 (five) copies thus far.  It came out a month or two ago (not really sure, I wasn't one of the five customers, apparently so I don't remember the launch date)..

Also, some mea culpas about messing up the tablet launch of Prison Architect (great game on PC, btw, unsure about tablet).

A lot of moving parts, and a tough, tough market.

 

-tid242

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