It's harder to release a game now - Cliff Harris

Rising advertising costs, discoverability getting worse, says Gratuitious Space Battles dev

Last week, Cliff Harris' Positech Games launched Gratuitous Space Battles 2 on Steam. It was the first full game the developer had launched on Valve's storefront since 2013's Democracy 3. Over the weekend, he posted a blog entry with his takeaways about how the experience of launching a game has changed in that span of time.

"Holy fuck, it's got harder," Harris concluded.

Much of the stress surrounding the experience was familiar for Harris. He likened it to having a year-and-a-half's worth of income riding on a roulette wheel that will keep spinning for weeks or even months before you find out if you won. So far, Harris said the launch has gone "OK." The game has landed in the Steam sales charts and there's already some user-generated content in the Steam Workshop, but it has yet to break even.

Chief among Harris' takeaways is a bit of perspective on just how many games are out there competing for people's attention.

"There are so many games, the media (including YouTubers/Twitch streamers) won't care that you released a new game without real hand-waving and pleading," Harris said. "Just being a good, quality game isn't going to cut it anymore. Unless your game has a famous actor in it, or is hilariously weird in its premise, or has some other non-game related 'hook' for the press to get excited about it, you can forget it. I hate worrying about all that. I'm a coder at heart, and this is meaning it's getting tougher for me."

Beyond that, Harris said the cost of advertising has increased in recent years, whether you're talking about a full site takeover or even Facebook and Google AdWords promotions. That problem is compounded by the intense downward price pressure in the industry right now. It's keenly felt by Harris, who is charging $25 for Gratuitous Space Battles 2.

"People moan that the price is too high, then say they only ever buy games at 50 percent off," Harris said. "There may be some logic there but I can't quite see it myself. Every game I've ever released on Steam has had a thread saying its cost too much. I suspect every game on Steam has that thread. I suspect it's the same posters too."

Finally, Harris said Steam users generally don't leave reviews unless they had a problem with the game. As of this writing, Gratuitous Space Battles has 33 positive reviews on Steam, and 25 negative ones.

Even though the experience as a whole has grown more difficult, Harris did find cause for optimism.

"I'm guessing things are a bit quiet because [the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V] just came out, and it just started getting nice weather," Harris said. "Games are a long tail phenomena these days. GSB1 made 1 percent of its total earnings to date in its first week on sale. By that measure GSB2 is going to do well. Fingers crossed, anyway."

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Latest comments (13)

Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Mobile games are a red ocean market now. That was simply going to happen given the rapid growth in the number of developers.

You can't sell a game on the merits of the game alone anymore. Now you need Kate Upton's boobs. Which is rather sad on so many levels.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jim Webb on 20th April 2015 9:16pm

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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 7 years ago
I'm tasting sour grapes here over the shaky response to his game on Steam.
Yes, you get bad reviews when the game has problems, but that swings both ways, doesn't it? You'll get folks wanting to boast about how cool the game is when they do like it.

GSB2 is essentially a DLC-grade update to a 6 year old game that was ok/average at it's time. You are bound to have a hard time selling this for $25 in 2015.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
There may be some logic there but I can't quite see it myself.
The logic being that people don't really want to pay much for a game these days. Certainly not $25 for something one man can make on his own.

It doesn't get any better if you completely remove the price though. We have mixed reviews which about killed Combat Monsters on Steam. And the tragedy is that a lot of the negative ones have played for 0.1 hours. They invested no money and no time and never gave the many free things chance to appear, too busy running off to say the game is pay to win because they lost a battle.

I utterly despair of user rating systems. They can sink or float a game, but people that have not bothered to even try the game properly seem to get the casting vote.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany7 years ago
Even the strongest and more famous of games is going to suffer heavy impact in sales numbers without a marketing campaign backing it up. May not be the best scenario but that is how things happen in every entertainment industry out there.

Germany is the best example for games: most of people still believe that Germany bans a lot of tittles although the truth is that those are only a very reduced number. The big chunk of the games absent from German shelves are because companies refuse to release a game the can't advertise (which is what happens when your game goes into Index A)
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany7 years ago
@Paul "the tragedy is that a lot of the negative ones have played for 0.1 hours"

I was talking recently about that, suggesting that Steam should put a minimum play time before somebody can review a game. (I bet a good percentage of those "0.1 hours played" people are cases of "game crashed at the start", which, at least in my book, is not a fair review)
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 7 years ago
And the tragedy is that a lot of the negative ones have played for 0.1 hours.
A kind-of fix would be Steam requiring "X hours played" before allowing someone to post a review, but this can 1) be gamed by idling (though it's a lot of effort just to post a lame review), and 2) means that if the game is so broken it doesn't start, that person can't warn others.

That said, I don't think there's any game that literally doesn't start, and it would definitely be an improvement on the system right now.
Yes, you get bad reviews when the game has problems, but that swings both ways, doesn't it? You'll get folks wanting to boast about how cool the game is when they do like it.
But people are far more likely to give feedback when they've had a bad time than when they've had a good time (in everything - games, films, retail customer service). People are slightly mean-spirited and selfish in that sense. :/

Ha! Alfonso - great minds think alike. :D

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 21st April 2015 8:41am

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development7 years ago
The review scores could be weighted by time played (up until some threshold), which eliminate negative reviews of the dabblers who never got it or had random technical issues while, being weighted, would still capture mass technical issues since all the low scores world be equally weighted.
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When in time did it ever get easier? I been through 19 years of this and I really can't remember seeing articles about "Now it is easier than ever before".

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tobias Sjögren on 21st April 2015 5:35pm

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Dear Cliff, about your comment
"I'm guessing things are a bit quiet because [the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V] just came out, and it just started getting nice weather,";
It is quiet because you have too high of a ratio of bad user reviews on Steam, 33 positive vs 25 negative is not a good ratio. I'm sorry to say but based on my experience your sales will not improve if it starts raining....

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tobias Sjögren on 21st April 2015 5:37pm

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Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software7 years ago
Some people already have pointed out some clear pointers in regards to the title's perceived quality and price point so I don't have to go there. Instead I'd state that it actually has become easier than ever to release a game (seriously, any half-brained middle school student could do it) but it is harder to be successful when doing so. Releasing is easy as hell compared to 10 years ago, and across all platforms too. Maybe it was just as easy in the 80s but simply packing your cassette tapes in an envelope to send to people that ordered it sounds way more work than getting a game out there now. Success has very little to do with how hard it is to release a game, it has to do with quality, word-of-mouth, price point, advertising, luck-of-the-draw, amount of (competing) games released that week...or even that day and as Cliff says "the hook" of the game, which apparently surprised him, that you would need something to make your game stand out (I realize that that is an amazingly hard concept to grasp).

Might be just me (and everyone I know or talk to about games) but hiring a famous actor has never sold many extra copies of games as far as I know. I don't think Linda Hunt sold God of War, or Patrick Stewart sold Castlevania, or whoever it was sold Skyrim...sure I got excited when Mark Hamill starred in Wing Commander and James Earl Jones / Michael Biehn in Red Alert...but that was more because it was something new and awesome. I usually just frown at the enormous extra cost it involves to have "a name" in your game. Recently, I was most excited about a voice actor when "Buzz" Aldrin did the ending for Mass Effect 3 (ok, ok and Dwight Schulz in Final Fantasy X but come on, he's Murdock!).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ruud Van De Moosdijk on 21st April 2015 9:42pm

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
. I'm sorry to say but based on my experience your sales will not improve if it starts raining....

How about listing the top 5 things he can do to make his game better (from an experienced Publisher's perspective)
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
Publishing a game is different than developing a game. It often takes a different mindset to see the things that would make it successful. This is difficult when the same company is developing/publishing a game.... but exponentially more difficult when it is the same PERSON doing both.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 made several publishing mistakes (in comparison to GSB 1). Here is a short list:

1. The game appears to be a sequel, but does not meet the customer expectation of a sequel. You can see this in the feedback (you know, those bad ratings) from the customer. You either have to make enough changes to the game to meet this expectations, or really change how the game is presented (to avoid these expectations).

2. The game started at a medium price point. It is not a cheap expansion (easy no brainer to buy). It is not a well developed new game (content that justifies its value). It doesn't have a lot of range for discounting to drive the 'value' appeal. Overall it is not at a great price point for anything. You can either plan on sales via discounting, or you can try to expand the content via DLC and then use this expanded content to create a higher priced package.

3. Lastly, GSB is an odd, in the middle game. It is a fun sandbox to play with for space battles. It is an improved version of what is often just part of another game. This leads to an opportunity to create an additional market for this product as a engine. For example, I am currently playing another Steam Game called StarDrive 2. It is a 4X space game that has space combat as a feature. If you had developed this as a space combat engine, and licensed/sold it as a toolkit, it could have been used for the combat in a game like this. This allows other developers to have a higher quality space combat engine, while saving time and money for development. It also makes games like GSB a proof of concept game (Doom, Unreal, etc).
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Thanks Marty, you make a very good point, I feel bad about my snotty comment now. I'll make my best to make up for it even though I'm not as experience from a publishing perspective but been more on the developer side of things most of my time in the industry. Anyhow, 5 points it was, I will do my best below (in no specific order of relevance);

1. Is the game relevant to the market? There is a time for everything and it might just be that your game is great but it is on the wrong platform, the competitors are better or if not better wins the awareness of the customers. A "GTA IV but in space" would probably have a hard time right now even if it would be a bit better because GTA IV have already won over that crowd. If it isn't relevant can the game be changed to become relevant or should it just be sunset? Also, there is always the "platformers are dead" kind of trash talk of different genres so your game might of course be the game that comes in and redefines a genre and open it up again.
Also, of cousre try it on people before the release, do everything you can before the game releases to make sure you don't get those bad user reviews on Steam or other places like Metacritics! Have others manage the tests for you and report back as if you do it yourself you might affect the result.

2. How do you explain the game? I'm sorry to say but it does come down to that elevator pitch... Can the game swiftly be easily described in such a way people get excited about it it has such a much better possibility to find its way through the noise. Iterate and train to pitch the game from the start of production, pitch it to friends, to family, people who play a lot of games and total noobs and see their reactions and how they perceive the pitch and alter it during production and then best case you will have a great pitch when it is time to start talking with journalists and others. And whatever you do, please don't marry the first pitch of the game.

3. Timing and pricing? Price points do play into peoples perception of the game and does have an impact on ratings for sure. It needs to be the right price point, too low is as bad as too high. And timing of the release, very difficult but lets say that Novermber to mid December probably isn't great if you don't have a lot of marketing budget. However, mid-December to Christmas window.... You never know, but do try to find a spot that is good for you.

4. Do you have the stamina and mindset for running the full mile? At Paradox we treat our paid games as games as a service supporting them with patches and expansions long after release and many of our games had a lousy first 2-3 months and then grew to some of our biggest successes.

5. How have you handled the perception of the market? Do they know about the game in the first place? If you are doing an early access or open beta, have they already grown tired of the game? Who are the best to talk to about the game, Youtubers, journalist, gamers, others? Also, of course awareness costs money, do you have the cash to actually get professionals to help you build the awareness?

6. Bonus point; you do need that strike of luck. Notch tweeting about it, be that game on iPhone just when everyone buys one, etc. This is the macro-timing part. It is a bit of magic and that is why it is a fun challenge to work in this industry in the end.

Marty, thanks again for your comment! I hope you found the above useful.
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