“I was completely unprepared for releasing a game in the modern marketplace”
Sol Trader developer Chris Parsons shares the benefits of failure ahead of his Develop:Brighton talk
In June 2016, Chris Parsons of Revelation Games finally released Sol Trader, his crowdfunded space simulator.
The project launched on Kickstarter in September 2015, gathered more than £10,000 in donations from over 500 backers. The following nine months were spent not only polishing and honing the final product but also preparing for the launch.
Parsons read up on how other solo indies had launched their games, planned out his marketing, contacted the press, and raised Sol Trader's profile via social media such as Twitter and Instagram. In his own words, the developer "tried to avoid as many documented mistakes as possible".
And yet almost from the beginning, it was clear something wasn't right.
"The first reviews on Steam were negative, citing problems with crashing and graphics card issues," Parsons tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"As positive reviews were also coming in, I started by putting the problems down to esoteric hardware. But then insightful negative reviews came through, showing that I'd fundamentally misread the Steam audience and made some drastic design errors."
This was by no means Parsons' first ever project. He had previously worked on AAA games as part of a larger studio - but Parsons admits this experience only lasted until to 2004. It led the developer to a disappointing realisation.
"I was completely unprepared for releasing a game in the modern download marketplace," he said.
"[When I was in AAA] we were still shipping on DVDs and large patches were impractical for a lot of people due to slow internet connections, so we had to make sure the game was right. I thought that we'd moved past that era, and as long as I shipped something and continued to improve it over a few months, I'd be fine."
The demand for high-quality games is nothing new - blockbuster publishers such as Ubisoft and Bethesda are regularly lambasted online for any glitches or errors in their titles, but it appears this expectation of perfection even extends somewhat to indie games. That's a lot of pressure for one-man studios such as Revelation Games to face, and is perhaps why so many developers appear to hide behind the perceived shield of Early Access.
There's another issue. Many indies get caught up in the passion and excitement of bringing their vision to life and sharing it with the gamers of the world. Are they - Parsons included - perhaps guilty of neglecting the business aspects of what it takes to release a game?
"Many devs are still unconsciously incompetent, although I think many more are now consciously incompetent - like me"
"Yes we're totally guilty," Parsons admits. "Many are still unconsciously incompetent, although I think many more are now consciously incompetent - like me. But I know the value of a publisher now. That's still not clear to many indies who think they can simply launch on Steam and be successful.
"Conferences and networking with more experienced developers are a good way to educate indie developers on this: I found GDC a great place to learn more about the business of being indie. Many won't make it to a conference, so I guess it's up to people like me to try and spread the word online."
The shortcomings of his solo title are the subject of Parsons' upcoming talk at Develop:Brighton in July, where he will present a session entitled 'Five Ways I Screwed Up Sol Trader's Launch'. It's a title with a level of frankness that has become increasingly common at developer conferences, with more and more games-makers taking to the stage to share their failures rather than their successes. Is this not a less-than-motivating way to pass on learnings to your fellow developers?
"Avoiding others' mistakes is no guarantee of success, though - I avoided plenty of mistakes that I read about only to make some big ones of my own"
"People are desperate to succeed, and there's a perception I think that hearing how someone else failed might help you to avoid the same mistakes," Parsons posits. "Avoiding others' mistakes is no guarantee of success, though - I avoided plenty of mistakes that I read about only to make some big ones of my own.
"It's also important in battling the indie imposter syndrome thought pattern that goes 'everyone here is successful, except me'. I'd bet 90% of the people at Develop feel like that. Additionally it combats survivorship bias - if we only hear from the hugely successful indies, we can make logical errors about what might be a good course of action."
Having survived the troubled launch of Sol Trader, Parsons urges more developers - particularly indies - to think about their own mistakes carefully. Simply avoiding the same problems on future titles isn't enough. The lesson has to be deeper than "Well, I won't do that again".
"Developers have a choice when things don't go well: give up and quit in a cloud of regrets, or keep going and build resilience," says Parsons. "Eventually we'll figure out what success looks like for us, and whether we can realistically achieve it. If I ever leave the games industry, I'll do so through making a positive decision for common sense reasons, not because I feel like quitting."
Parsons says he has certainly learned from the launch of Sol Trader, and knows how he would handle it if he were to go back and do it again.
"I'd sign a publisher deal to help with marketing for a percentage of profits," he says. "I'd launch in Early Access, and delay the proper game launch by six months to polish the gameplay hard, and then polish the gameplay a little more, ensuring it's the game people want to play.
"I've spent a lot of time in business software, and games aren't like business software. When you properly launch, they've got to be great."
When it comes to launching a game successfully, Parsons believes the most crucial decisions needs to be made at the very beginning of the project, not towards the end. Ultimately, developers have to decide why they are making their game: is it for fun, or to have a commercially successful product?
"If it's the former, just enjoy yourself, do what you like and make the game of your dreams," says Parsons. "Don't assume many people will discover or play your game, and don't plan on giving up the day job.
"If the latter, congratulations: you're now an entrepreneur and your game is a start-up. You don't have the luxury of simply making the game you feel like making. Don't make the wrong game. Find a game idea that you've the skills to make, that you'd love to make, and that people would love to play. Don't be afraid to throw away lots of ideas until you're certain you satisfy these criteria."
Develop:Brighton 2017 takes place from July 11th to 13th at Brighton's Hilton Metropole hotel. GamesIndustry.biz readers receive a 10% discount on all tickets when they use the code EHLDGW, thanks to our ongoing media partnership with the event. Ticket prices can be found here.