It’s finished! At long last, Atomic Society is ready to leave Early Access.
It's been one long and difficult journey making our first ever game, around day jobs. The key ingredient was perseverance.
I'm almost reluctant to release the game. It's been such a core part of my life since late 2014, I can't really remember my pre-game dev life.
But it can't stay in Early Access forever. Time to let it go.
Thanks to everyone who's been a part of our long and arduous game dev journey - and greetings to any new players who've been waiting for this moment!
I hope you enjoy creating your own post-apocalyptic civilisation and deciding its laws, if your town survives...
(Patch notes for this final version can be found here in my last blog, including the fixes and tweaks we made during the recent beta).
The Beginner's Guide to Making a Video Game!
I can't believe we've come to this point.
In a sense, Atomic Society has been decades in the making. About 20 years ago, as a teenager, I pitched it to a British game developer, thinking that they would take ideas from a random person off the street. They didn’t of course, but they did give me a job as a tester instead.
However, 3 years as a tester was enough to convince me I didn't want to work in the AAA games industry, so I moved on with my life, and Atomic Society stayed as a daydream.
Then in 2014, a friend told me about this "free" game engine named Unity. I gave it a go and realised even an idiot like me could cobble something together that looked vaguely like a video game at home. This was only a year after Valve had introduced the Early Access system. Greenlight was still a thing back then. The indie game market was opening up and I wanted to ride the hype-train.
Naturally, I had no idea how to code, so I naïvely went onto Reddit and asked does anybody want to make a game. The internet is full of horror stories about amateur game dev teams falling apart. Obviously we haven't, and the one thing that worked was just picking the person I liked the most (Nick), someone I could gel with. Without friendship and ease of communication, we would've never made it. Anything else can be learnt.
The next hurdle was finding a 3D artist who would also work for free. Fortunately my wife saw what Nick and I were doing and thought it looked interesting. So she went and learnt Blender (a free modelling program) and taught herself 3D art, just like that. That was lucky.
Afterwards I contacted an old guildmate from World of Warcraft who made music in his spare time and asked if he’d help us with the soundtrack, if I promised to pay him back later. Thankfully he said yes.
It seemed we had all you needed to make a game: A designer/producer type person, a coder, a music guy, and an artist. And lots of spare time. What could go wrong?
We foolishly pencilled in just 3 years dev time and set to work.
We didn't realise it was going to take twice as long...
The Journey Begins
Gradually we all adjusted to the new way of life: work by day, game dev by night.
Things were fun and exciting at first but after about 8 months the sheer scope of the idea started to kick in. It became apparent we were never going to finish a game like Atomic Society if we didn't find a second coder. So it was back to Reddit again.
Fortunately I struck gold again and found a guy named Adam – who lived across the Atlantic – to join our unpaid ship of fools. He'd never made a game before either, but he had the right personality, and that's what counts.
Now we were getting somewhere: Nick could focus on systems while Adam made the gameplay features.
Then after a mere 14 months of learning the ropes, we had something that vaguely resembled a video game, at least if you didn't look too closely, or expect to enjoy it.
We took this scrappy prototype to Kickstarter with an extremely optimistic £70k fundraising goal and presented the game to the world for the first time.
And that's when realised we weren't going to be one of those amazing indie success stories you see in those documentaries. Our Kickstarter flopped and only earned about £3k.
The reception on Steam was much better admittedly, and we cruised through Greenlight, but it was a worrying sign.
Wiser devs have told me since that we should've given up at that point and chosen a different idea. Perhaps they were right, but I was in love with
idea, and we couldn't chuck away 14 months work.
So we decided to keep going and released what we had to little fanfare on our website.
We sold about 20 copies a month.
But that was great! At least to people who'd never sold something they'd made by hand before.
However, there was no turning back after that. We would never abandon a game after people had spent money on it. We had an audience to serve, albeit a tiny but loyal one.
Atomic Society had be finished, no matter what. We believed in it that much.
Having release on our website, little did I know it was going take a whole extra 2.5 years of work before the game was ready for its Early Access debut!
Why has it taken so long?
Partly because of real-life troubles. Work, family and health get in the way.
But the biggest time-sink was the mistakes that come with making your first ever game. For example, I slowly realised that Atomic Society was actually two game ideas in one - a society-building one and a town-builder one. It was extremely difficult to do both ideas justice and took an immense amount of work.
I was also bewitched by player feedback. Obviously you want to keep the audience satisfied, but I didn't realise doing nothing can be better than not living up to expectations. For example, we had many requests to add in combat and raiders (which would make the game a town, society and combat game in one!). Naturally we couldn't do 3 games in one, so we did a story thing with the raiders. That still took months and naturally wasn't what combat-hungry players liked, so in the end all this work became an optional bonus feature. There's been so many detours like that.
Coding problems added up too. Implementing a saving and loading system 18 months after starting the project (rather than at the start) took ages. And so many systems have had to be rebuilt from scratch as well because we just didn't know where we were going at the time. We've also had nightmares with 3D pathfinding, especially as we're stuck using a lot of third-party tools. AI navigation is one of the trickiest things in game development and over a year of Nick's life has been devoted to this one aspect of the game.
Then there've been things that turned out to be far harder than expected, like last year when we had to scrap a 90% complete feature after 6 months because the last 10% was too much. That was a real low-point. A lot of time and money has gone down the drain.
All these delays are expensive, emotionally and financially. Making indie games from home is cheap but still has costs. PC hardware blows up, you need a website, company email address, and online repository to upload content changes. We also have to pay for a business bank account and accountant. And most importantly we had to stay friendly with each other, no matter what mistakes were made.
Throughout these early years, the main thing that kept us going was the hope that the game might be a success on Steam, even though its Kickstarter had flopped. But it was a tense guessing game. We had no idea if the work would ever find an audience.
Our hopes increased though when a famous YouTuber made a video about the pre-alpha version (without us even asking him to). Overnight that quadrupled our sales. It also boosted our wishlist numbers into viable territory. Perhaps this crazy idea was going to be mildly successful after all?
A few publishers must've thought so, as following that video suddenly we were contacted by various companies who wanted to help us out. We had a small taste of popularity.
However, for better or worse, we turned them all down because we wanted to work at our own pace, and publishers don't work for free either.
After about 4 years of work by this point, we were too attached. We still wanted to do things our way. That has good points - it's the independent spirit - but it also has downsides...
Finishing the Fight
I still haven't recovered from our Early Access release in October 2018. I didn't know how shy and reclusive I can be until I had to do marketing!
However through gritted teeth I did what publicity I could, and after nearly 4 years of work we were ready - or fed up enough - to put the game on Steam and see what happened. It was time to face the wider public.
I can't say I enjoyed the launch. It was terrifying and exhausting and I was pretty much a wreck from nerves and working overtime by the time we hit the release button.
Thankfully our prayers were answered. The game sold. The stars aligned. People showed up! All that dreaming and hoping finally paid off.
We sold more on the first day than our entire 2.5 years of being a pre-alpha. Nobody on the team could believe it. It was incredibly exciting and rewarding, but then it started to sink in that the journey was far from over. We hadn't finished. This was just a new beginning. And not everybody was happy with the first ever Steam version of our game.
There was an insane amount of player feedback and a real pressure to come up with the goods in a timely manner.
And I soon realised I didn't have the answer to a very important question: when is this game actually "finished"?
How can you finish a race if there isn't a finishing line?
It turned out the finishing line can't be whenever you put in every idea you or a player has, because that day never comes. Ideas are endless. And as we didn't have a publisher, and were self-funding, we could've technically continued until death.
Early Access proved to be the hardest part of the journey. Months rolled by as we kept trying to create the magical version that would make the game seem
. It never came. In fact the finishing line seemed further away.
After a year on Early Access, sales and hype dried up. Our review score started to wobble as people became impatient. Team morale started to fade because 5+ years is a long time to stay energised and invested in anything, and what we did add in Early Access didn't seem to make a huge difference.
I was starting to despair, and to be honest, if I hadn't written about all last year in a blog, and if another experienced game developer (Tomer Barkin from Suncrash Studio) hadn't read it by chance and told me what to do, we might've never finished the game.
Thankfully Tomer gave me some hard-earned lessons pointed me in the right direction again.
I didn't realise that when you release on Steam, even in Early Access, the creative phase is essentially over. No more daydreaming. Now the developer's job is now just to fix complaints bit by bit, until one by one, until the players are satisfied with what you've offered them. When you launch to a big audience, the game belongs to them.
So we abandoned our never-ending idea list (mostly) and turned instead to what players were telling us instead. The Early Access audience was going to be our guide to finishing the game. Not every idea a random player had, but what they didn't like.
And that is how we've spent the last, and final year of game development: fixing what players didn't like.
Suddenly we were making progress again because we had a direction, and our review score started climbing.
But it's been the most gruelling 12 months. Partly because 2020 was brutal for many reasons. Partly because giving up your own vision is difficult. And mostly because we were exhausted!
However we didn't give up even as another Christmas rolled by, and through sheer bloody perseverance we managed to solve the big remaining problems, and double the game's length in the process.
It worked. Everything I've heard from people about the latest version is really positive.
Could it be that after 6.5 years in total, Atomic Society is finally ready? It better be!
Stuff I Wish I'd Known...
Before I wrap this up, I asked our little team for their top 2-3 tips now we've come to the finishing line:
My Tips (Designer/Producer):
Mariana’s Tips (Artist)
Nick’s Tips (Lead Coder)
Adam’s Tips (Assistant Coder)
That's a good question! God, I wish I knew.
As I say, it still hasn't sunk in that this is the end. It's over.
I wanted to do so much more marketing for this release but right now, I've spent all I've got. Hopefully you could help us spread the word, or leave a little review so we get noticed.
I'm in a daze right now. For over 6 years Atomic Society has been a persistent background thought in my brain. I need to rest and clear my thoughts.
I was probably ready to be done over a year ago, and my teammates have carried me over this final finishing line. I couldn't have got this far without them.
Before I see what lies ahead, I have to regain my energy and love of games again. Making Atomic Society turned my favourite hobby into a job. I haven't played a new game purely for fun for years and I need to get that passion back.
Then we'll see where life takes us... It's a new life chapter ahead, that's for sure.
Of course we're still going to monitor and track Atomic Society in case anybody finds a bug in the meantime. And we still need to investigate translations too. I haven't forgotten about them!
But today I just want to appreciate crossing the finishing line and turning a dream into a reality.
And to appreciate the fans, teammates and supporters who helped us turn a crazy idea into a game tens of thousands of people have enjoyed.
Sometimes crazy dreams do come true.
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...