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 7)
on Jul 04, 2017

tetleytea

But the primary issues are really not modable: they are the economy system and the AI. That's source code, and the source code are your crown jewels. There seems to be this push-pull relationship between game developers and customers regarding expectations. For example, the expectation that your rabid fan base will pay YOU to beta test YOUR game. And that may be so, but you first have to have that rabid fan base, and that involves your game working. Then there's this expectation that the best mods out there will do all the balancing, and that they'll be the ones that everyone ends up playing. Two problems with that: a) you have to code the AI toward the mod, and b ) the customers expect there to be a main trunk that's good and balanced to mod from. So if you want to do that, you need some form of Linux.org (like Linux did) and gatekeep what goes into the main trunk.
This.

Crusade was the first SD title I bought on release and my future buying decision will factor in, that I may be paying to beta-test it. If you release a month before Steam summer sale, I may still end up buying it during the sale.

It's not a polish-or-sophisitication decision. You have to find the right balance. Besides, it is not like polish and sophistication are independent variables. The more sophisticated your game is, the more polishing you need to do. Lots of unpolished sophistication is not fun either.

on Jul 07, 2017

zuPloed


It's not a polish-or-sophisitication decision. You have to find the right balance. Besides, it is not like polish and sophistication are independent variables. The more sophisticated your game is, the more polishing you need to do. Lots of unpolished sophistication is not fun either.
 
That's all well and good in theory, but the reality of a sophisticated 4x game is that balance (in both features and behavior of said features) is incredibly difficult, and really is NEVER done. "Polish" in the sense of game/feature balance and such - rather than a slick UI/fully vetted text/etc. or even bugfixes - is a moving target, and while a game developer can spend a large amount of time on it, it's not really ever going to please even a majority of folks at release.
 
You pretty much *must* run a large-scale public beta to get sufficient feedback from the community about WHICH "polish" features are the right ones to focus on, and which balance is the one they desire.  That is, the META of the game is pretty much unknowable by development, since it's a community attitude, and you can't really figure it out by doing surveys ahead of time.   People say one thing, then demand another all the time.  Yes, the Devs can steer it in one direction or so, but even then, there's a huge amount of unknowns that can't really be polished until *after* release. 
 
4X is not FPS, or even RPG, where the constraints are such that it's reasonable to predict ahead of time what is satisfying to the large amount of your audience.
 
This is not to say that the non-critically-essential stuff that is textual consistency, functionality bugfixes, a reasonably clean UI, and the like cannot be polished before release, and there's reasonable expectations that a certain level of finish should be there at release.  But balance is a completely different animal, as are feature priorities.
 
So, yeah, if you're buying ANY 4X right after release, you should absolutely expect that it's not anywhere near polished for your specific expectations.  Good news is that Devs like Stardock are more than happy to have the community figure out what it wants to be polished, and work on that, rather than make decrees from on high.  Bad news is that there absolutely will be some non-trivial annoyances.
 
If you want a "finished" game, then you'll have to wait at least a half-year after release, and you should get what you want (if the Devs are competent and reasonable), but you'll get what the *community* decides, which may or may not match your own personal quirks.  Which still may annoy the heck out of you, but will NEVER get "fixed".
 
 
 
 
on Jul 08, 2017

@trims2u

I partially agree. You can't avoid having to beta test. No matter how smart the people working on it are.

However:

There is also a bunch of things you can figure out beforehand. The GC3 strategy part for instance is a very complex system. The combat system however is only mid tier complicated. You can make some solid estimations. For instance the thulium hull reinforcements. You can evaluate effective hp on it vs other defenses. That estimate would have come screaming at you for having them add 20 hitpoints. But it costs rare thullium... fine so make an estimation of how much power (at least do a*HP + b*dps) you get out of a ressource. That way you don't get 16 antimatter nightmare torpedoes while doom rays are 1 elerium. Unless this was an oversight, in which case: why didn't they just play test this? Or even better have a longer beta period than 1 weak for founders only.

You can also check the way objects stack up and if there is divergent behavior on them.

Meta is not unpredictable. People gravitate towards easy to use and towards powerful.

As I said above, I don't expect a perfect game on release, it can't be mathed out. Asteroid mines for example are something I would tend to say are an ok-ish imbalance on release. But what's up with the way evasion and attack speed stack up? It's been reported and is lieing around for 2 years now. SD did not think this one through back then and they certainly didn't think about it when they added evasion to tacspeed boosters in crusade.

And even if the game is unmathably complex, than polish means planning for a sufficiently long beta period.

Balance very much is a part of polish.

on Jul 08, 2017

trims2u

Two things here:

1. In reference to "polish" - one of the biggest things that would make people's (both players and dev's) lives easier is to develop a method/system where your hardcore audience (i.e. those of us who hang out on the forums rabidly) could make updates to the system quickly and easily.  I work in Release Management and Systems Architecture, and what you folks need is some sort of CI toolchain for community "patches".  Make it simple and easy for the community to update a large number of "polish" items, and that makes everyone happy.  The simplest thing here is for textual fixes. Then XML fixes.  Yes, they need reviewed. Yes, you can pay something trivial amounts to do this, and it saves VERY valuable Dev time.  

 

2.  I think one of the other problems is NOT initial pricing. Without getting into things, $40-50 is a good pricepoint, and a reasonable ask for games where you expect to play them for a long time. Look not at mobile (since that has an audience in the 100s of millions), but at consoles, where $60 is now common, and stuff still sells there like hotcakes.  The audience is the same:  there are FEWER current gen consoles (~18m PS4, for example) in the USA as there are PCs that will run GC3. People have the disposable income (even well down the economic scale) that they're willing to spend on games.  

What the problem is has to do with Steam and how it's run its economics.  The very frequent sales is hurting all developers, and realistically should stop.  Games are a luxury item, and you DON'T discount luxury items until they're well and truly past their prime.  The price at release is what the price should stay at, for as long as the game exists under active development.  Sales should be very infrequent and not 75%, but 25%.  You'd end up with a far better (and more stable) revenue stream, and an audience that knows what games cost, instead of a bunch of entitled whiners who have no idea of the economics of development.  Tell me, really, Brad, since you have the numbers, how much money do you really make when GC3 is knocked down 75%?  If you could sell the game consistently at $25 since launch, doesn't that beat out the revenue for a $50 launch where some (read, just the hardcore folks) people buy it, then 3 months later have 80% of your total audience only purchase it for $10?

Games are luxury goods, but ones well within reach of 50%+ of your typical US households, especially ones that have relatively low HW requirements (let's face it, GC3 runs on a 10-year-old PC that's had a $30 RAM upgrade).  Stable pricing is far better than sales-based ones, unless you've borked your target audience so badly that they only buy on sale.  JCPenny found that out the hard way:  the retail clothes business has so trained the average buyer to only shop at sales times that when they lowered normal prices by 15% but didn't have sales, it screwed them over completely.  Steam has enough of a major marketshare to undo this kind of damage before it's permanent, but it's getting darned close to being irreversible now, and unless Steam changes, it'll screw devs forever.  

Start screaming at Steam NOW, if we want good games to survive.  
what probably not make this work is that steam has regular sales at certain times where people buy games on sales. These people wouldnt.pay 25 dollars for the game when.they could buy one on sale. There are probably a lot of these.

on Jul 12, 2017

SilasOfBorg
 I'm gonna keep voting for games that arrive in only moderate shape,   as long as I'm confident that they'll get cleaned up afterwards.
 

Me too. I would rather have a fully flushed out product however I can forgive lack of polish and some bugs if I believe the dev's are going to stay dedicated to there game and patch it. That being said I am still waiting for the AI to be fixed in Gal Civ III vanilla as I will not buy the DLC since they have not and my patience has warn thin on the matter. My confidence in Stardock is waning.

 

on Jul 19, 2017

My concern about periodic payments to Mercenaries is another micro nightmare.  Not just the micro for you to pay them:  but if you (or the AI) don't, they go back into the pool, and now you're constantly checking the bazaar to see if your favorite ship is back online again. 

I like the population scaling linearly, and move the inefficiency factor to the Approval system, and here's why:  first, it's simpler.  But second, I want to apply bonuses to it.  It's hard to balance if you design one faction that gets ^0.75 power and another gets square rooted.  But it's easy to give bonuses for Harmony crystals, +1 population, food, and stuff.  But yes, that's a game changer.  You have to go back and re-price EVERYTHING.

I think synthetics should have very LOW populations.  Like the Dread Lords.  It's simpler. That's their distinguishing trait:  population doesn't matter.  

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