After a frantic summer trying to resurrect our little game dev business following a difficult start to the year, things quietened down while we focused on making one of the biggest updates so far.
If all goes well, this next update could bring us to the end of our Early Access journey, if we manage to get it all done in a single update (if not, we'll break into two parts, both coming this year).
Things are going reasonably well so far, given that it's been little more than 6 weeks since our last update. We haven't hit any big problems yet, as we did with the dreaded path system, and the business and teamwork tweaks we made (focusing on complaints, giving each other daily progress updates, and so on) made working part-time from home around day jobs a lot more productive, which is just as well as lockdowns mean we can't get together as a team any more, even to say hello.
The core focus of the upcoming version is addressing the last major complaint some people still have: that Atomic Society is too short and could use more depth. If our ideas pan out, the upcoming changes should add a lot more value and interest, at least for those already enjoying the game.
Here's what we've been working on so far (note: screenshots are from a work in progress dev version, so excuse any weirdness)…
New Goals System
In the top right you can see the new goals tracker. For the next update, we've redone and expanded the goals aspect completely, making it more addictive and interesting. Goals are now pinned to the screen (you can minimise them) and divided up into stages or tiers. Each time you complete a stage you get a large wave of migrants to deal with.
Each goal stage is different and bigger than the last, and some stages have unique goals. We've also added in some new goals to spice things up a bit. This should also make the game easier to learn.
On top of that, we've also added new "extended goals" for hardcore players and those who really want to make a big settlement. You can activate these when you beat a map, and the reward will probably be an achievement (as we don't want to force players to go for them). At the moment an extended goal involves going for 800 citizens, double the current amount, among several other tasks.
New Town Reputation System
In the bottom left of the above pic, you may also notice a new vertical progress bar (ignore how it looks, we're trying out different styles).
One of the problems I've been trying to solve is the old survival game problem of the game getting easier rather than harder as you craft stuff and get stronger.
To help with this in Atomic Society we've added a new reputation feature. From now on, as your population grows, your town becomes more attractive, and migrants will start coming faster (there's levels of intensity) rather than migration being random, as it is now. On top of that, the higher your rep gets, migrants will become weaker as they've travelled from further away to find your sanctuary.
When we've balanced it properly, this new feature should help maintain some of that addictive pressure from the start when it feels like you're being overwhelmed with mouths to feed and corpses to clean up. It's going to be tricky to balance it correctly though, as overcoming that survival challenge and building a strong town is part of the fun, but we'll try to find a decent middle-way.
This feature should also help with those lulls when you're just waiting for people to show up. Now you're always working towards something, the next reputation "ding".
Mining and Ore Processing Buildings
In the picture above you can see two brand new buildings that we're working on right now for the next update. Given in mind people will try to make larger settlements, thanks to the new features I just mentioned, we're also going to let advanced towns become completely self-sufficient. In the next update you may eventually be able to get to the point that you no longer need to salvage at all, but you'll have to plan your town around resource areas instead, if you want to go down that route.
The new mine and refinery structures both need to be researched. When you try to build the mine, certain areas of each map will be highlighted, showing where you can get ore from, and you can order the mine to focus on stone or metal. The refinery obviously converts it into useable building materials. This should make those pesky mountains a lot more useful and hilly maps may now be inviting.
After putting it off for so long, as the text in our game kept changing so much, we've finally started getting quotes to translate the game into other languages. And it isn't going to be cheap. Each translation is essentially a month's entire income from Steam (for us), but apparently it pays off as it opens the game up to a new audience. I suppose we could get fans to translate it, but this is apparently slightly risky, as an unprofessional translation can lead to bad reviews, and it's also something we'd need to manage and monitor on top of everything else.
We haven't ordered a translation yet (as we'd just have to redo it after this version) but we're probably going to test the waters with a popular language first of all, to see if it pays off.
More Features Coming
What you see above is just the things we've started on this month. The biggest feature for the next update isn't quite ready to talked about it yet as it's still early days. But I will do so in future blogs.
My hope is that, despite 2020 trying to destroy society, we can get this update out by December. Hopefully it won't be like last year we were working until 11pm on Christmas Eve to get a version out. That sucked. It should be sooner than Xmas, but if anything goes wrong I'll let people know so nobody thinks the game is "dead".
I know quite a few people just read these blogs to hear about the ups and downs of trying to make your first ever game with zero experience, so the rest of this blog will focus on that.
Fortunately, I don't have any new disasters to share. As mentioned, we spent the summer trying to make amends for six months of work on a feature nobody actually wanted, and were close to being flat broke after several months of losing far more than we earned. But after getting some great advice, I'd started focusing on what players didn't like about the game (as such people hurt the review score, and thus our bottom line) rather than just focusing on fan requests (although of course if somebody requests a great idea, it won't be ignored) and my own personal vision for the game.
The response from existing players of the game to being open and honest about the development woes was incredible. If you look at the review graph on the store page, you might see a large big spike straight after the previous blog. I'm amazed by this response. And the review encouragement came just in time. Steam reviews are percentage based, so obviously the lower you go, the harder it is to climb back up. If we hadn't changed course to deal with what the dreaded "red thumbs" were saying, we may have never climbed back out of the mixed zone.
We had a nervous month checking the store page as the trend of reviews changed from negative to positive. For one ludicrous whole week our review score literally hovered on 69.9% until somebody pushed us over the edge at long last. That was a good day. And to my surprise, it kept on going and levelled out at about 71% where it's now holding, which I think is fair, though I'm not exactly objective.
We'd hoped getting above 70% would automatically increase sales for the game (after all, not many people will take a risk on a "mixed" rated Early Access game) but unfortunately getting above 70% hasn't really made a huge difference to our daily sales. We've started gaining wishlists again instead of losing them, but I think people may just waiting for us to leave Early Access, considering we're almost there. It may also be that we've taken too long making the game (by picking such a big game as our first project, unavoidable health issues and day jobs). When we first went public with Atomic Society, rival games like Frostpunk, and Endzone and Surviving the Aftermath just didn't exist. Now they've come along and eaten our lunch to a degree, though I personally prefer Atomic Society... but I'm not exactly objective.
But it isn't doom and gloom. Following my business "mentor" Tomer Barkan's (of Judgment: Apocalypse Survival fame) advice, I took the risk of running a sale on the game. This was a gamble. Sales attract people who aren't especially interested in the game, and such people tend to leave bad reviews if they're unimpressed. It could have very easily undone all our hard work getting the review score back up.
I didn't think we could recover it twice.
Fortunately the sale worked. It gave us just enough cash to press on without having to think about spending more time to staying alive rather than making a game that is draining the bank account.
The picture below is Atomic Society's sales graph from the past 12 months. That mountain on the right is the aforementioned one week sale at a 20% discount (the other smaller bumps are the Steam summer and winter sales from the past year). In fact, we haven't seen anything like this most recent since around May 2019 (our first ever sale).
As you can see, daily sales remain quite low (5 copies a day is normal right now). Therefore I don't check them regularly, so you can imagine my coffee being spat out when I saw this sale spike surpass all expectations. The sale marks the first time we've broken even financially for over a year. In this regard, focusing on complaints really worked out.
And thankfully, the game's review score held above 70%. It took a little battering but didn't decline.
But everything's relative. That spike equates to about 8 weeks of funds for us. But that's all we need for now to finish the new update and get the game out of Early Access.
Beyond that, I don't really know. We've been tottering on the edge of going broke for so long. There have been several moments where I've wondered if I should take more hours at my day job, or apply for development job elsewhere, assuming anybody would hire me (and I'd be willing to move). But I try not to think about it. Staring into the unknown is a good way to spoil the present day and tarnish past successes.
It's quite possible that with the right, positive mindset, we could continue to turn things around and become one of the rare indie dev successes out there...
But There's a Catch
Having Tomer as my business mentor (he isn't really a mentor, just a nice guy) made a huge difference to our survival. The changes we made by becoming complaint-focused fixed the review score and gave us a great sale. It was fun and manic seeing what we were doing wrong, and implementing business changes. But it was also like getting a new job I hadn't applied for.
It seems that to survive as an indie dev, while keeping a team of 3 employed (plus contractors), you 100% have to be passionate about business and marketing unless you have a hit. In fact, "business dev" might need to be your first passion, with game development coming second. And though I can muster the energy to act like like Mr. Business on occasion, I'm realising I'm not that guy by nature. In fact, I joined a group of professional game developers over the summer, and to be quite frank, I feel stressed just looking at their conversations. I don't want to live my life around wishlist conversion numbers, percentages, and Valve's latest blog. I don't want to be controlled by numbers like that, by anxiety over the unknown. If you're into business and marketing, it probably doesn't feel too bad, but I listen to people like the Clark Tank and I just think "I'm middle-aged, I'm going to be dead in about four decades at best, I want to follow what I love". And marketing just ain't it.
On top of that, now we've fixed many of the biggest complaints players have, a new complaint is slowly emerging that wasn't noticed before: "This game isn't unique enough". It seems if you focus on complaints, you will inevitably start making a generic game because complaints usually compare you to something else that person likes more. However, on the other hand, if you follow your passion and personal vision (at least if you're me), you get bad reviews and go broke.
I'm now wondering if you can actually make "art" (e.g. something you feel passionate about) for anonymous people on the internet rather than following your own heart. You can definitely make "products", but if making products or answering complaints is your thing, there are lots of better paid day jobs out there. I could spend the next 2 years adding in everything players want, but in the end, I'd just have to ask myself "why did you even want to make this game in the first place?"
I know this just sounds like I'm ranting or depressed. I haven't figured it all out myself and write largely to figure out what's in my head. I do like solving problems/complaints and I'm enormously grateful to have made it this far, to have created a game that's far more ambitious and successful and even liked than expected, but who do I want to be? And what am I willing to pay to be that person? I think for me, personally - and I certainly don't speak for the whole team - I'd rather be broke than make "products", but I still have my health, which not everybody does.
Whatever I personally think, we will absolutely finish Atomic Society, hopefully addressing those last major complaints as best we can in the coming version. This doesn't impact any of the new content we've already started making. And I do still love our game. You don't spend 5.5 years making something if you don't love it. But what should Game 2 be? A game for you... or a game for me? It's not so easy to take a middle road when passion is your fuel.
Thanks to everybody for reading my muddled thoughts! I will check comments as always and I'll be in touch to let you know how this version is progressing next month.
We appreciate all the support and big thanks to anybody who left us a positive review and helped keep the lights on. Making your first ever game is always an adventure...
What a roller coaster of emotion it's been since my last dev blog.
At the very end of May I outlined all the difficulties we were with Atomic Society. Should we put aside almost six months of work on the path/road system? The feature was way over-schedule but was close to being done.
Well, things have changed a lot since then. This dev blog will cover everything.
Firstly, some might think that my last dev blog, a 3000 word diary saying "we’re really struggling" wouldn't go down well on Steam, but it did. A lot of people read the whole thing. Lesson learnt: Bad news is better than no news! Early Access players don't seem to mind if you're having development problems as long as you explain them honestly. And these dev blogs are more important than I realized. Thanks to everyone for the support.
Holding Out For A Hero
But writing didn't fix my problems. I was still in the same situation, still stuck with an almost finished feature that was causing us to be massively behind schedule, and uncertain if it would make a difference even if we could finish it in time.
Then the man behind successful indie game Judgment: Apocalypse Survival read my blog and contacted me out of the blue. As I mentioned, one problem I had was not knowing any other indie developers. We make Atomic Society from home in our spare-time, and live in a small town. Everything we did making Atomic Society felt like one long guessing game. Fortunately Tomer Barkan (the maker of Judgment) said I could ask him anything. And I certainly did!
In fact, I sent him 5 years worth of pent-up queries and questions about making indie games. If something was worrying me, I turned it into a question. To my surprise, he replied with detailed answers almost immediately. It was the best business chat I've ever had. Here was a person who’s been down the road we’re walking on, and made a success of it. He knows how to run a good business - and that's required to make good games. Everything he was saying was causing light-bulbs to go off in my brain.
The Main Lesson
The number 1 thing I learnt from him was to stop guessing what features to add to the game and start focusing on our Steam review score. Use that as the guide rather than just guessing what to add. Listen to what players are unhappy about and start fixing their complaints before you get around addressing their requests. I hadn’t really understood this distinction before.
In fact, I was completely ignoring bad reviews. "If they don't like it, the game's not for them" I used to think. But bad reviews drag down the game’s overall review score on Steam. This drastically decreases sales, especially if the game goes below 70%. And the lower it goes, the lower team morale goes, for all our hard work adding content seems to having a negative impact (because we weren't addressing specific complaints). It was incredibly confusing and disheartening.
But the information I needed to fix that was right there all along. All I had to do was read it!
So after my chat, I decided to read every single bad review and every single refund reason for the game in a single night. I hadn’t done that for a very long time, and never with the right attitude.
Reading 100+ complaints about something you’ve made isn't pleasurable but this time I could handle it. I didn’t feel so sensitive because I viewed the bad reviews more like a "how-to" manual on what to tackle next. I summarised all the complaints and ordered them by frequency so I could see what the biggest issues were. A plan of action unfolded. I didn't need to guess anymore. People were being very specific about what they disliked!
Naturally, certain complaints will always be beyond our meagre resources to fix. We’re a no-budget tiny team making our first game, and some early mistakes can’t be undone. However many of the issues appeared to be relatively easy things to resolve (or at least mitigate). For example, recent bad reviews tended to focus on two things: slow updates (because we were stressing out over the path system) and certain bugs... Nobody was leaving us a bad review because we didn't have paths.
This led to an obvious conclusion: why don't we put the path system to one side and put out an update that happens to contain bug fixes - thereby curing our two biggest types of complaint in one go?
It kind of sounds so simple in hindsight. And it is. But I needed experience to make it sink in.
Turn The Ship Around!
Refocusing our little part-time team to be all about the review-score involved shaking-up the way we’d planned versions since the start. It also meant recommitting to Atomic Society and reigniting our hope for the game and our struggling income. It also meant handing over ownership of the game in a sense to the players/reviewers and accepting the customer is king from now on (even if we can’t always help them), like any other service job. My role as designer would evolve from “ideas man” to a guy who comes up with creative and practical solutions to player feedback. It's fine to be the "inspired artist" before you go public, but afterwards you have to adapt to what people want.
On top of these changes, getting an update out ASAP obviously meant shelving the 80+% complete path system which coder Nick had been slaving over for 6 months and looked really cool. But as Tomer pointed out, spending a lot of work time/money on stuff that just "looks cool" isn't going to help the bottom line. He told me that when a feature is slipping behind schedule ask "is it going to pay off?”
The path system had long passed that point. As I've said before, if you're lucky enough to pay someone the basic minimum wage in England, 6 months indie game development (full time) will cost about £8000 for one person - and that's just to break even. We get about £6-7 net income per copy of Atomic Society after deductions so you can guess this path system was going to sell a lot of copies to pay-off. But the only people who wanted it were people who already owned the game.
It’s not that we don’t want to make the game better for fans of the game of course. We’ve spent the last 18 months improving the game for them. But fixing stuff people strongly dislike - and therefore the review score - might help us achieve a degree of financial stability and then we can help everybody. It has to be our goal.
I had to tell our coder Nick that the path system was doomed even though he’d spent so much hard work on it. I wasn’t sure how he’d react. But Nick is a pro. Unsurprisingly he'd rather spend his time trying to save the company than bashing his head on a low-priority feature. We finally said farewell to the path system and spent the first half of June in a frenzy of bug-fixing, based on what people were complaining about in reviews, hoping it would all pay-off...
Will the path system ever return? Right now, I don't know. It touches upon another piece of advice Tomer gave me, that no feature is better than a half-baked feature. In fact, sometimes it's best to actually remove stuff from a game to keep players happy.
I was a bit shocked by this as I was under the impression that any content you can get into the game is better than nothing at all. Who wants less things to do in their game? But I was wrong. “Half-baked” features please no one. To use an analogy, I'd rather have no chicken than an undercooked one.
As exhibit A for this, I present the raiders we put into Atomic Society. We added raiders way back in our pre-alpha days because a lot of our early players requested them. But combining a fully-fledged combat system with a complex town building game was beyond our budget and skills. So our version of raiders became a text-based story event, which was better than nothing, I thought.
But when I looked at my collated list of bad reviews last month it turned out raiders were a top 3 complaint! A sizeable portion of all our bad reviews were about a gameplay feature that was bug-free and working. We were being hammered for having content.
The reason? It was half-baked. Certain players saw this post-apocalyptic game had raiders and came to conclusions we couldn’t do justice to (though I wish we could on a future game). To them our product was supposed to do X and didn't so they left us a bad review.
So for the June update I put my trust in the advice and “demoted” our raiders. I couldn’t bring myself to rip them out of the game entirely, but the story event became a bonus difficulty mode which we only recommend people try on their second play-through. And it’s clearly labelled it’s just a story. 5 months of arguably wasted work was put behind a toggle that took about 2 days to code/test.
Did It All Work?
So after an exhausting shift in attitude and goals, and putting together a version in 3 weeks (without the path system), we managed to get an update out in time for the Steam summer sale - our first major update this year. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be releasing content again.
And after releasing it, we went on a modest discount for the summer sale. This was a lower discount than we had offered before (just 15% off) for Tomer rightly pointed out, sales attract crowds and you better have a product that can keep them happy when they arrive or the review score will suffer.
And so far, at time of writing, it seems to be working.
At the start of the sale we had our biggest day for almost a year, even beating the bigger Christmas discount. We actually broke-event as a company for the first time in a scarily long time throughout the sale. And fortunately, the extra attention didn't hurt the review score. In fact, it went up and it’s never gone up since launch. As I write, 87% of our recent reviews are all positive, which is I think is a new record. And our overall review score (which matters most) climbed and is now hovering on 69% positive - just 1% below the 70% threshold where things kick up a notch apparently. All because we resolved a few common complaints.
I’m not saying we’ve turned everything around. We’re still losing money finishing Atomic Society now the sale is over, but the wolves have been chased a little further away from the door, and if we get to 70% positive reviews we might even stay afloat. Most importantly it gives us hope. After 18 months of seeing absolutely zero reward from our efforts (in fact our hard work caused more complaints), we’re at last seeing tangible proof we can make a difference. I know Atomic Society isn’t the best game in the world, but if at least 7 out of 10 people have a good time with it, that'll suit me for my first ever attempt at game-making.
And all the changes to our way of working and business strategy caused another bonus...
New Update Almost Ready!
Right now we’re mere weeks away from releasing another sizeable update to the game. The last one took 6 months. This one has taken 4 weeks so far. Time estimating tasks in advance, having daily progress check-ins, and focusing on things we can do easily to fix complaints has really helped. It might be the fastest we’ve ever made an update of this size.
There’s no huge gameplay changes coming naturally, but I know people would rather have all the improvements we’ve got. The update will contain fixes for various bugs and glitches that we’ve been putting off for ages (because I didn’t think they mattered) and a lot of balance tweaks players have been requesting. .. Or rather complaining about!
I’m hopeful it will be out this month. The one thing holding us back right now is…
The Dreaded Save Bug
We're going to wait slightly longer to release the new update just to see if we can fix a very rare save bug that is plaguing us. The bug causes the progress bar gets stuck when you make a save and it doesn't work. We’ve done various things to fix it but we can’t reproduce no matter how long we play the game.
Only 1 person has mentioned this bug to us since the last update, so it seems to be extremely rare, but if anybody gets this bug please, please stop what you're doing in the game and read this forum thread. It will only take 2 minutes and you can send us vital information to help us fix this. Unless a player gets this bug and sends us the info I'm not sure how we'll fix this problem, but we're doing everything we can to track it down in the meantime.
If we can’t fix it in the next 2-3 weeks, we’ll release the next update anyway, but I think we can afford to spend a little longer hunting it down. After all, if we release a new patch in less than 6 weeks my brain might explode with the novelty of it all!
Hard Work Not Over Yet
Not all our complaints and problems can be solved easily.
The biggest complaint of all is that the game is too short, or rather, it doesn’t keep people's attention for long enough. We do get nice reviews from people who somehow managed to play the game for 100+ hours but most people average out at about 5-10 hours which is fine for some games, but people want a lot of content from a town building game.
But doubling the amount of content is not an easy thing to do.
I think part of my problem is the original design. My personal favourite builders and management games are all "level" based, like Tropico or Pharaoh or anything by Bullfrog. You make multiple cities/things on each level and then do it again through the campaign. But I don't think a campaign mode would work in Atomic Society because our game isn’t about reaching the "high scores" of money and resources.
I have one idea about how to solve this, which is essentially ramping up the speed migrants arrive as your town expands - so your town is always under pressure and you’ll have to make an enormous town to keep everybody happy, maybe even cover the whole map. This combined with self-sustaining resources (mining) might help, but I don't know.
If you have any ideas for changes that would A) Tempt you to reply the game multiple times or B) Keeping building your first town for another 5-10 hours, let me know! Seeing things from a player's point of view is always useful.
Did You Know Reviews Are Important?!
I couldn't finish a blog like this without begging for reviews at some point! As someone whose game is currently just 0.6% below the threshold on Steam where it will be considered a "mostly positive" game, I just have to ask kindly it if any owners of game would leave a sentence or two (or an essay) on our review page.
Just find Atomic Society in your Steam library or go to our store page. You should see the option to leave a review there if you own it and you're logged in. Thanks to anybody who does this. And reviews are probably the best way to support any other little indie devs you know.
Another Month Rolls By
Somehow this blog turned out to even longer than the one where I told you of all our troubles. The words just come out. I hope people who enjoy our game development adventure (currently 5 years long and counting) enjoyed this latest episode. We'll get there in the end.
Next month we should hopefully have released the next update, and we'll see if we can hit that 70% review threshold... And if it makes the difference we need to survive. The roller coaster ain’t over yet.
Thanks for reading!