What a strange beast making a Kickstarter is! You pour your heart and soul into your dream and ask the public for their hard-earned cash to keep it going. Marketing and hype wrapped around a dream.
Atomic Society didn’t set the world on fire. It was the Waterworld of flops. In the first, vital 7 days we could attract only 122 people to back us. To me, 122 is a massive amount. But we’d need 1000s to succeed.
Countdown to the Apocalypse
Preparation for our Kickstarter started months before we released. Over a year ago. It was always our goal to go on Kickstarter from the moment we started the game. For me – someone so excited about becoming a game developer - it was something I dreamt about daily. I have draft notes of how our Kickstarter would be planned out on bits of paper from early 2015 and I refined those notes almost every month.
There were so many questions and things to find out. I spent more time drafting our Kickstarter page than any of my university assignments. And don’t get me started on trying to make a captivating trailer for a game that is barely 20% complete.
But I believed in our concept. So I decided to write a script for it that explained why the game deserved to exist in a market where there are a million games already. Every sentence in that trailer was scripted, re-scripted, and re-recorded multiple times (using sound recorded equipment held together with tape). I readied myself to present my vision to the world with my own voice on it. On the internet. Where anybody feels free to say anything.
Things weren’t made any easier when a “rival” game named Endciv appeared on Steam Greenlight as we were going into final preparation. It’s another post-apocalyptic settlement game from the look of it. I wish them well. But to see the internet go crazy over a game vaguely similar to yours less than a week before you go public was stressful. Would people even care about us when we came up?
Life lesson: The public don’t care about rivals at the theory stage. They only care about the end result. Whatever product you want to buy, there are several options these days. Games are no different. Quality and price is all people care about.
In the final week before Kickstarter, our tiny team worked extra hard, pulling overtime on top of exhausting day jobs to get the trailer version ready. We were almost set for launch but tired. The only thing holding us back was pressing submit on Kickstarter and going for it.
Kickstarter say it takes 2-3 days to review a Kickstarter before it goes live on their submission button. This is misleading. When you press the button, it then magically says you can launch immediately. This sudden freedom to just go for it freaked me out so much I had to walk around the block 3 times late at night just to decide if we should launch now or later. My impulse is always to go now. But I decided to wait 2 more weeks until the game was in a better state and it let us tighten up the video. But it was hard telling the team about the delay.
Ultimately, 2 weeks later than we intended, I hit the submit button for real. We launched at 10pm UK time to be friendly to those the US. And I had to be at work sweeping floors the next day. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink as the first backers rolled in. I started throwing out press email after press email to any gaming website or journalist I could find an address for. I launched the Steam Greenlight page and held my breath.
The first 24 hours were one of the most mentally manic moments in my life. I was not fit to drive to work the next day really - I literally felt drunk with the adrenaline of our game being exposed. And being stuck at work when all I wanted to be doing was contacting the press was torture. The mania was scary but gave me the courage to flagrantly advertise our game. I can be timid and self-promotion is difficult for me, but Kickstarter is the best energy drink ever and overcame that.
I think the peak of my mania was when I sent a very long, and very rambling email to Peter Molyneux. He remains one of my gaming heroes. (Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Fable, Populous, Syndicate… I could go on.) I find his passion for game design inspirational. He helped create the “God-Game” genre. To my surprise he replied quickly with some very positive feedback about Atomic Society and some tips. Not that it really helped as we were already underway by then but it was a thrill. One of those “did that really happen?” moments.
But as the first evening came, I knew we were dead in the water. All that work, and it was doomed already. We had to be at 10% in day 1 to be comfortable. We didn’t even hit 1%. Nearly 30 days later, we still haven't cleared 5%.
It was crushing. Suddenly all the things you felt so certain about – about your game and your future - turn out to be things you regret. “I’m sure it will earn £69k!” becomes “You idiot?! Why did you ask for £69k?!” It was an awful feeling because part of you still has hope that maybe the game will go viral. But 95% the press emails that I’d spent ages drafting and personalising for the press went unanswered. I don’t mind that, it’s normal in a world of a million games, but it’s grim work begging people for attention and putting on a mask of professionalism when you know your game is too early to really captivate.
You’ve hyped up your friends, fans, and family and they’re all watching you, and your teammates have done the same with theirs. And then they get to watch you crash and burn in slow motion. There’s a weird denial you have to deal with. You can’t just say everybody “abandon ship!” – you have to act and pretend like it’s going to work. So you continue sending emails, posting on forums, talking on social media, etc for days. You can’t give up even though it’s hopeless.
Then you come to terms with it. Things improved after a couple of weeks. Not in terms of us earning money, but in terms of how I felt about it. What seems like an apocalypse becomes just another misstep. You learn to appreciate the goodness among the failure. You learn to love it when a friend of a friend donates a small amount. When a random stranger on the internet ups their pledge, maybe more than they can afford. We started to learn the journey isn’t over, it’s just going to be much longer than we thought.
The one thing that could’ve changed everything, and made me come close to despair, would be if Steam Greenlight had let us down too. Failing hard on Kickstarter is one thing, but an epic fail on the store where you’re going to earn 90% of your money is something else. It probably would’ve hurt me more.
But Greenlight was the victory in all this. Funny, considering I was the most scared of it. Steam caters for millions of customers and they’re not shy of telling you what they think. Here we were with a crude trailer. And yet comment after comment was positive. Over 6100 people voted yes for our game is just over 2 weeks. In the first day we rose to the top 100 and kept on going. We levelled out at 9th overall despite receiving almost no media attention.
At the end of 30 days of weirdness, If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this it’s don’t do what you wouldn’t do yourself as a consumer. Personally, as a gamer, I rarely ever back Kickstarters. So why was I even using it? Because the indie dev wisdom says go that way. I made the mistake of doing something I don’t believe in. I don’t like Kickstarter. And that probably rubbed off in how I treated it. I hate hype without substance. I don’t disparage the devs who have made it on Kickstarter, they can handle that marketing circus, but it’s not for me. Chasing after the press, selling stretch goals (which we refused to do), and getting people to spread the word are all things that kind of make me want to vomit. The backers are awesome, but the process is so fake.
So ultimately coming out of a failed experience but working out what makes you feel good is a plus overall. That's why we're now going for plan B. Plan B's tend to be the most exciting path. We're going to make a product, and sell a product. No hype, just making a game, getting feedback, working with a tiny group of customers, and making it better. I can’t wait. I won’t have to go chasing after attention. We can make it our way and hopefully the little bit of money we’ll earn will pay for development. (If you haven't read elsewhere by now, Atomic Society is going to be on sale in the next 2-3 weeks.)
It seems to be that game development, and perhaps all businesses - and perhaps even life in general - is just a case of making mistakes in public and learning from them. As long as you keep learning and you have the passion and skill to learn quickly, before your rivals, you’ll be fine. I've learnt now.
Are we about to make another mistake selling so early? Probably. But at least it will be one we feel comfortable with.
What a crazy month (and a bit). Because of Kickstarter madness, this is going to be a 2-part Dev Blog.
Part 1 will cover new stuff that went into the game over in the last 30 days. Part 2, in the coming week or so, will cover our battle on Kickstarter.
So, without further ado, let’s start talking about new content. I'll start by listing the most interesting stuff and then do a an extra "stuff added to the game" at the bottom.
And because this is a Kickstarter special, I should just stress all these changes were done by an unpaid team (with day jobs) in about 5 weeks... And we'd really like to work even harder than this... And we're not sure if we'll be able to... So please visit our Kickstarter page buy your copy in advance (/begging over.)
And if you're a Kickstarter backer reading this, why not go to the front page of this website and sign up for our monthly newsletter? You can always print them out and use them as fuel for the nuclear winter!
And if by the time you read this our Kickstarter is over, then why not give us a free vote on Steam Greenlight and help us get on Steam for later down the line?
And if by the time you read this, we've already been Greenlit and backed on Kickstarter... Then we love you.
Moral Choice Interface
This month Nick started work on the UI for the Moral Choice System. This had to be in the game, in some form, before Kickstarter. Atomic Society is all about picking laws and handling the consequences (or failing miserably to!)
The concept of this UI was based on cards, not that we had time to go to town on prettiness. I imagined the "cards of fate" being presented to the player, big decisions that would influence 100s of lives. It was also a huge challenge to try and write compelling and even-handed text for a range of views. As designer, I never seem able to fit into the right or left wing camp, and love encountering different points of view, so this was a fun challenge at least.
The choices you see above were intial ideas on what you might do with murderers but since the Kickstarter started I've developed the system a lot and we've now got a much better formula on how to do moral choices, which I'm going to talk about in a special one-off dev blog soon.
Right now, Nick made it so you build a Town Hall (where your leader lives) and then you can access the law interface. This shows all the issues that are currently active in the game. And you just click on one to deal with it.
Elderly Citizens & Art Improvements
Mariana created the models for the last members to join our apocalyptic society, elderly citizens: male and female. It's hard to say how many citizens will live into old age in Atomic Society, but surely some will. The citizens will eventually age on their 59th birthday currently and gain grey hair as well. I suppose if there was radiation sickness they wouldn't have any hair at all. Not wanting to deal with radiation as a designer is one of the reasons the game is set decades after a nuclear war, when Chernobyl style, radiation should have receded (any science expert who thinks I'm wrong on that, please comment and educate me!).
I also adjusted the textures somewhat, getting rid of some of the insane levels of bump-mapping we had and made things that should shine, shine. You could see on the skin of the citizen above, for example, how it has a more natural sheen.
Firing Workers & UI Improvements
Adam has been working away on the UI as is rapidly becoming our UI expert (a title he will hate). He has implemented the ability to fire workers, which will be essential for players as it's not always good or wise to have the max number of employees in a workplace (if it's unpopular). We might add a debuff that makes fired citizens grumpy or something later if you sack them.
He has also been greatly expanding the amount of information you get on a workplace's menu. You can now see what specific workers are up to at any time, how quickly the building is producing something, and how much of the building's internal storage is taken up. Information is power in a city-builder after all.
Long-time followers of the ugliness of our UI may also notice that the buttons look a look chunkier and inviting to press. Mariana is a fun of Blizzard-style UIs and I love a chunky UI too, so our buttons look better now.
Post-Apocalyptic Delivery Service
Winner of "didn't think that'd be so hard" task this month has been delivery. Adam started implementing the ability for citizens to visibly deliver goods. Until now, goods just teleported from workplace to storehouse.
Now they visibly get delivered by people who have inventories.
It sounds obvious to deliver a box from one building to another, but what if a citizen is delivering a good with a full inventory but she wants to pick up a bottle of water at the same time because she's thirsty? What does a scavenger on the far side of the map do when the storehouse fills up? You can imagine the challenge of having 100s of robots/NPCs carrying goods around and having their own individual needs at the same. Needless to say, it led to deliveries going missing.
Atomic Society, is - I believe - one of the few city building games where workers deliver their own goods. There are no labourers or specialised delivery people. I find games where you have to rely on a third-party to deliver goods rather tedious and occasionally unrealistic.
So NPCs now deliver, NPCs now know how to queue properly, NPCs know what to do when they have an urgent needs a job to do, and basically the complex simulation of production and delivery now works.
This makes playing the game a lot more bearable!
Death & Ways of Dying
Believe it or not - no citizen in Atomic Society had ever died - until this month. Even the murderers we implemented last month merely tried to assassinate immortal targets. This month Nick added ragdoll deaths for murder victims. I was so happy about that because I love unscripted anything in games, and the fact all deaths in our game will now be physics-based and unique will lead to much amusement. You’ll never see 2 dead bodies in the same position.
Such a pity this wasn’t ready in time for Kickstarter but Mariana also created a cool prison-style shanking animation for the murderers and perfected a new system for creating animations that means we can churn them much more often in future. Right now we're focused on just making the citizen do the thing he needs to do, then we can add in an animation for it.
First Attempt at Balance
Have you ever tried to balance an unfinished game? Probably, if you've ever played a multiplayer game. It's a nightmare. But I had to try so I could just play the game. Under the surface Atomic Society is a game of numbers. How hungry someone gets, how often a murderer kills someone, how much water a water well makes, how long a citizen sleeps... All these things are working and I wanted to try and find a comfortable range for them all. That's a lot of numbers to hold in your head. To do this Nick created a calculator tool (which might be familiar to anybody who has used a DPS meter in an MMO) and I can now edit all these settings and immediate feedback. It’s helping a lot and should make fine-tuning the difficulty in future much easier.
Remaining "Patch Notes":
Coming Up in March:
These are some of the tasks lined up for us over the next month or two.
Final Thanks to Our Growing Community:
We are still a small family of people who know about Atomic Society, and Kickstarter hasn't yet changed that (despite 3700+ voting that they'd buy our game on Steam). Game development is a tricky and lonely road sometimes, and to everybody who has supported us in any way, be it just reading this far, thank you for being half the reason we carry on (the other half being the game itself!)
I'll see you for part 2 - The Kickstarter Wars - shortly. :-)
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.