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...