It's only been a short time since we released the latest big update to Atomic Society, so this month's blog will focus on behind-the-scenes stuff. Next month we can start to show off the new content. However, there's still plenty to talk about...
Update 6 Launched
The 6th big update to our fledgling pre-alpha version is now available if you missed it. Existing customers will need to re-download the game. The latest patch notes are here. I hope everyone enjoys testing it as we keep shooting for that Early Access release.
Discord Server Now Available
If you fancy a relaxed and friendly place to hang out with the devs and any other people interested in Atomic Society, there is now a Discord server (aka a glorified chat room) for the game here. Feel free to pop by and say hello. We'll see if it gets used or not.
One Year of Being on Sale
April 20th marked 1 year since we started selling our pre-alpha to the public. It's been a hell of a year.
We hadn't intended to go public with the game until about now, but coming off a failed Kickstarter in early 2016 we were left with 3 choices: try Kickstarter again, give up development, or sell what we had and hope it would keep the lights on. Believing it was better to live by what we were able to produce than rely on Kickstarter hype, we of course put the game up for sale way earlier than intended.
That marked the moment Atomic Society moved from being a dream to a reality, where money was on the line and people could actually judge what we were doing.
Out of all the decisions we’ve made, selling early still ranks as one of the best. Player feedback has produced good ideas and helped us focus on problem areas with no downsides (aside from the time it takes to replying to messages). And of course the tiny bit of money AS brings in each month covers basic expenses, like replacement PC parts and bills that would otherwise put us in personal debt - or kill the project entirely.
A lot has been added to the game in the past year, more than I could list here. Big things like 3 new maps, execution and prison systems, improvements to citizen behaviour, new buildings and ruins, many more new UI elements, tweaks and gameplay improvements, more music, and most gruelling of all – the damn saving and loading system.
Saving and loading is the crucible for a lot of indie games in this genre I think. If a team can manage that, they’re probably going to make it.
Last Minute Stress
The last tweak for Update 6 was actually added to the game a few minutes before it was uploaded. Not being on Steam, it isn't simple for us to just release a hotfix or micro-patch. Any update we release has to be the final. And being a perfectionist, I was tweaking the lighting on our new Iceberg map right up to limit. It's tense as games are essentially a house of cards, a single change can knock everything over.
After I'd successfully uploaded the new version, I was about to announce it when I realised we had a problem. One of the big new features in Update 6 wasn't triggering. I'd totally missed it. Innocent citizens were supposed to be killed for crimes they haven’t committed if you choose execution but it wasn't happening. The police force in our game is one of the most complex, and fragile systems in the game and this flaw had gone unseen.
The new version was already online at this moment. Thank God the programmers were still conscious and online (working long-distance that's not something you take for granted). However, Nick and Adam were able to fix the bug at once and then I had about 90 minutes to test it and balance it. Mariana was stuck in front of the computer, recording on a notepad how often the effect occurred. She crunched the numbers. I trusted my feelings, uploaded the now-fixed version again and collapsed in a heap.
Coming at the end of an exhausting final sprint to get the version ready, this wasn't easy on the emotions. The game is getting big now, and there's so much to check.
Testing Vs Making
To be fair, despite the pressure and exhaustion of the testing period, it does pay off. To date we have never needed to release a fix for a released version. When it's out, it's out and we can start working on new stuff. There are lots of moderate bugs in the game of course, we have a huge list, but nothing game-breaking for the vast majority of players. This could change though as more and more people try the game out and we face more and more obscure hardware configurations. We'll see.
Bug-fixing is essential. I used to be a tester at Rare, so it's drilled into my brain, but bugs damage a game's reputation more than anything else (over-promising in marketing aside). There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a player unable to enjoy the game - not because the gameplay is bad - but because a stupid issue got in the way.
The Youtubers Are Coming...
We receive quite a few emails a month from Youtubers who want free codes for the game. That's fine, but I have to keep telling them all we're not marketing the game yet in a big way (I'll save the limelight for Steam). Sometimes that doesn't put them off though. So this month, 2 little Youtubers decided to make videos of the game. They bought the game out of their own pocket so I can’t control what happens after that!
Video series by British Curmudgeon (Part 1) and Merric Gaming here.
I feel like a patient expecting bad news from his doctor when I watch strangers play our game. Are they going to understand it? Will it bug out? What unexpected thing will they try to do that I would never think of? But both the Youtubers seem to ultimately come away with positive things to say.
Early User Reviews
As the game slowly spreads to new players, I've been collecting positive comments that people post about the game in various places. They're a great motivator and I find it absolutely amazing some people enjoy playing a game we made. Making videogames is still magic to me, so that we're creating a thing people can enjoy is freaky. You can read the latest ones here.
Making and Selling an Indie Game With Anxiety
This might seem like a weird topic to talk about here, but it does affect the making of Atomic Society on a daily basis, so I thought I'd bring it up. Like plenty of others out there, I personally suffer from social anxiety. I'm speaking broadly here, but social interactions, online or otherwise - even with good friends - can cause me to literally pass out with panic. It's rarely ever that bad, but it's often unpleasant. My whole body feels as if something terrible is coming to kill it.
Like most long-term mental illnesses, you learn how to cope with it. Get good at it, and people will even think you are relaxed, when on the inside you're terrified. Making an indie startup has been a huge challenge with this condition. I had to find strangers to work with, work out contracts and make tough business decisions, have daily discussions, including giving negative feedback and disagreeing. I have to reach out and do "networking". I have to be constantly talking to customers on social media.
All of that scares the crap out of me, to point sometimes I just can't function. But I also gladly volunteer to do a lot of the social stuff because as game designer, I understand the vision of what we're doing better than anybody, and I have occasional quiet periods where there's little to do - unlike a programmer who is always overburdened with tasks.
Social anxiety does hold us back. There have been opportunities that I have turned down because I can't face talking to strangers and I market the game sparingly for fear of "bothering people". I also assume everything I write or do is going to be mocked.
Yet here we are, still making and promoting the game. We soldier on. Anxiety slows us down but it can't stop us. And though it might cause us to miss out on opportunities, it can't control if we make a good or bad game. And that's ultimately all that matters. Anxiety might win a few battles, but it can't win the war.
Forum News & Stories
Our forum was busy this month. A few chatty folks bought the game evidently. There should be plenty of new threads and feedback if you haven’t checked it out for a while, so take a peek if you're curious. In a strange coincidence two recent users happened to be writers and posted their post-apocalyptic fiction. It was quite surreal.
We also had a bit of random publicity because of the new update, which is always pleasant, with a small sites covering it and IndieDB tweeting about us, making us at the time the 2nd most popular game on their entire site! It's always surprising when stuff like that happens.
We're hard at work on Update 7 and the first few elements of it have been added, but there's a long way to go. We'll share the first fruits next month. If it all works out, Update 7 (or 8 at worst) could, in theory, be the final one before Early Access. But we'll see how stupidly misguided I was in saying that later in the year.
See you next month!
The Road to Release
Every month we release a personal and honest look at the making of Atomic Society.