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!