Problems of Developing Games in Non-Developed Territories: The Usual Suspects (Part 1)

In the next couple of posts I’ll be examining a number of reasons for what’s holding back certain territories and countries from having a strong and lively games industry. This will be a multi-part series and I’ve been planning to write this series for a very long time now. Before I start, I recommend reading Rami Ismail’s post on the different stages of a game dev community development. It helps to use as a frame of reference since I’ll be using my own country’s community/industry as an example.

For starters, I’d say Iran’s game dev community is somewhere between stage 3&4, depending on how you define it. International knowledge exchange has been established and if you’re to look at it from a checklist, Boolean perspective it’s made a lot of progress. It’s got an IGDA chapter, it has an international convention, a national game award and arguably even has a couple of “heroes”. On the other hand, it’s also not making much progress when it comes to the quality of games being produced, there is still almost no contact with the international games press and media, the goal of most game developers isn’t even “to make it big in the West” and more along the lines of “get rich” or “just survive” depending on who you talk to, and arguably we don’t have any hero yet either.

I believe there’s a lot of influencing and intertwined factors that go hand-in-hand that halt the progress of dev communities such as ours and there’s been a lot of talk like in GDC 2018 from those observing and walking this path. This year’s #1ReasonToBe talk was entirely focused on this issue and I also recommend it a watch. Developers and community members from all over the world in developing territories came and had their say. For me almost everything they say is a familiar story that I’ve experienced myself or heard from someone I know.

In this first post of the series I’ll be going over the most common causes and reasons given that stand as hurdles for developing territories in game. These are the things that are most obvious, that you might have heard of and if you’re in such a developing territory, probably already thought of. I’ve simplified and grouped some of these problems since I feel that they are pointing to the same thing and just codified them for the sake of simplicity. Let’s examine each of these and see how they impact the growing industries.

Culprit#1: “There is no established games industry!”

Publishers

“Well sheesh captain obvious” you might say, what’s the point, don’t all industries in every territory start from somewhere? Technically speaking yes, every game industry territory around the world started without an existing big game company, but the starting conditions for the games industry in America, Japan and all the other territories that entered earlier had a vastly different business environment comparatively speaking. For instance, according to game industry veteran David Mullich, you could build a high-end game in 1990 with a budget of $40,000. Don’t take his word for it, just go look at the credits of games in the 80s and 90s and games today. Sure, today we have freely available game engines, but the requirements and market expectations are much much higher than in the past. The past half-decade has also seen a drastic shift with the “Indiepocalyspe”, and now it’s harder than ever to get recognized.

So what does the lower and easier requirements of the 80s and early 90s mean? It meant that you could get a game studio going and competitive from off the ground with little more than raw talent and small investments. This is how Blizzard, EA, Atari, Activision and even Bioware started off. A small group got together, pooled their available resources and talent and grew as a company. That’s just not possible today, whether in the West or in newly formed game dev territories. That’s the part of why the developed countries have big game companies and how those territories were built from nothing. However it goes without saying that besides the big AAA studios, the game dev communities of the stage 5+ territories also produce better, more successful indie games and non-AAA games. In other words, these territories are just more robust and strong from all perspectives.

This is a case business clusters and the agglomeration of competencies. A big AAA studio doesn’t only produce AAA games, it also fosters technical competencies among its employees. Those employees may quit sometime in the future and go indie or form another smaller studio with their friends. These employees also will have friends who want to become game devs and can help them and give advice. There will be conferences that of course local dev-wannabes can attend much easier than those far away from the territory. They will also be much more likely to meet press members and befriend them. I could keep going with this and these are just small glimpses of the clustering effect and benefits of how a territory will become stronger through a big company inadvertently trickling-down a lot of positive things.

Basically when there is no games industry there’s a less of an incentive for prospective students to choose it as a career path and also less potential capabilities to support those that do.

I want to go straight to the next of our suspects, but let’s step back for a moment and evaluate this culprit. It’s not exactly obvious how big a domino effect such a thing can have and I think that people generally underestimate the extent to how much this keeps back any growing game dev community and territory. It’s certainly a big reason, bigger than we might initially realize, but it’s also possibly the only thing that doesn’t have a solution at all. What are you going to do about it? If a game dev territory gets a big player then by definition it’ll be a stage 5+ community. It also might seem that I’m talking all doom and gloom about this as if it’s a self-reinforcing prophecy, which it is, but it’s also definitely possible to break away from it as Poland and South Korea did.

Culprit#2: “We don’t have proper access”

unity bloked

This is possibly the most commonly expressed reasons by those already in established territories like America who are also sympathetic to national and ethnic diversity. It shows itself in different forms and degrees for different countries and it’s a mostly a political issue. For Iranians, this is probably more pronounced than other game dev communities, so I’ll break it down using Iran as an example.

As an Iranian, I don’t have access to America, as in I can’t possibly get a visa to go there for any reason related to the games industry. As part of government sanctions, Epic Games and Unity don’t offer access to many of their tools, licences and documentations. Also as part of government sanctions, my bank account is not connected to the global banking network, so I can’t pay for anything with a Mastercard or Visa card, or with Paypal. That means I can’t buy almost anything on the web, so no Unity asset store, premium memberships or paid courses. That also means I won’t have access to receiving money with any of these, so no Patreon money either.

There are workarounds for all of these though, but workarounds are hard, time-consuming and more expensive than default. So it’s a matter of practicality more than mere possibility. For example I could go to gamescom, but I’d have to apply for a visa first, which is very time-consuming and may or may not be given in the end. Paying for a booth or even flight tickets also pull much more weight from me than from someone in a richer country. $100 for is a lot more valuable than $100 for someone in New York or Toronto.

That last point is a shared concern for almost all game devs in developing territories. We’re poorer and we have to pay a bigger chunk of our wealth for access, and in the end we just prefer not to because it won’t be worth it for us.

Let’s evaluate this problem now. First off, I think it’s actually less important of an issue than it’s usually made out to be. Yes it hampers growth and it’s something that breakthrough territories like Poland incidentally didn’t have to deal with. However, the benefit of a lot of these access aren’t all that big. Fortunately we can still watch most of GDC through its mostly free content. We have access to the free game engines out there that indie developers use and learning resources are so vastly available on the internet that it would be an excuse to say we’re behind because of these. Game expos and conventions like gamescom and PAX though can be incredibly influential in getting exposure and networking and those really are sorely missed. It’s one thing to be verbally humiliated by Unity claiming your country has been blocked, but it’s another thing to actually miss an event and all the pros that come with it.

Unlike the last problem, this one is not impossible to solve but similar to it, it’s still out of the hands of those inside the developing game dev territories. The important solution to this is in the hands of those already living and working in developed countries. They could ask to relieve sanctions, loosen visa laws and also share more for free. This is the type of activism and advocacy that people like Rami Ismail engage in. I can only be thankful to them. It’s an altruistic cause though and it’s hard to ask people to spend time and energy that has no benefit for them personally.

Culprit#3: “Our talent leaves us…”

airplane

Also known as brain drain. Once again I’ll use my home country of Iran as an example since it’s apparently one of the leaders in this social phenomenon. Human capital flight is when talented individuals leave a country and migrate to a more developed nation in search of a better life. Without getting political, let’s cut this short because it’s a very sensitive topic.

For whatever reason, because of this phenomenon the talent pool is always constantly drying up before it reaches a sizable mass. Not all talents leave of course, but I can attest that I’ve seen teams broken up before they could even release their game because of this. Game development is also a team effort and team-building is often overlooked when talking about the subject. A team that knows each members’ strengths and weaknesses, who know each other on a personal level and can trust each other can go a much longer way than if those exact same team members each met.

So not only the good talent leave, the teams are also internally disrupted. Both on a macro level and on a micro level this hurts the development of the community and teams building games. This one’s also on us to leave, but again, who are you going to blame if someone wishes to live a better life? The long term solution is of course to tackle the root causes of human capital flight and help build a business environment where individuals can be hopeful about their futures.

The wrongly accused suspect: No game schools

001

This is a reason that I’ve seen a lot of people from this side of emerging territories bring up and in my honest opinion, it’s wrong. There is no formal game education, therefore we can’t make games. Hopefully without burning any bridges here, let’s look at the state of game schools and game academia right now. Ernest Adams, a game educator who’s also written university textbooks for game design is on record of saying this:

If you want to teach yourself game design, get some books on the subject, and a few dice, a few tokens like coins or poker chips, and some graph paper and colored pencils. That’s all you need at first.

If you want to learn about video game development — programming, art, music, animation, 3D modeling, storytelling, and all the rest of it — there are many tools, books, and courses out there to help you.

David Mullich who also teaches games at university has said this:

You do not need any particular degree to be a game designer, although many studios require job applicants to have a Bachelors Degree in some field. Game designers I’ve known variously have degrees in art, computer science, film, history, literature, music, physics, anthropology or philosophy. And in practice, it helps for a game designer to know at least a little bit about each of these areas.

Digital art & design seems like a fine major to have if you one day want to be a game designer, but be aware that game design is not an entry level job — not at a game company of any significance. You would have to develop a game design portfolio on your own and/or start as a tester, production assistance, artist, or level designer and work up to becoming a game designer.

Many graduates of game schools have explicitly said that the degree was not worth the time and money it took, and most of those that later became successful in the industry have attributed their success to their own personal hard work and self-learning rather than what school taught them.
It’s not hard to see that virtually every big name game developer out there with a few exceptions like Kim Swift have come from traditional backgrounds in their higher education studies.
Game schools aren’t the thrust that moves a game development community forward. Far more important is the sharing of knowledge and experience.
We don’t need game schools; their addition would be welcome, sure, but there are much more important obstacles that are in the way.
That’s it for now. These are the common reasons and problems that can explain why emerging territories are lagging behind and what problems they face. In the next posts I’ll be continuing with my findings, but will dive into problems that are subtle and not-so-obvious from the outside anymore, and in some of the later entries, that are not even always understood by those inside these emerging game communities.

Tribound Podcast Episode 1 — Keith Burgun

Welcome to the Tribound podcast. In this podcast I’ll be inviting guests from within the various sections of the games industry and talk about game design, development and related issues.

Our first guest is Keith Burgun, an indie designer and developer who runs his own website keithburgun.net . In this episode we talked about design and indie dev.

Enjoy!

Download link

 

Postmortem: Amazia, a CCG for mobile

Amazia was a strategy card game built with the CCG model in mind for mobile that was released around 4 months ago. For those who don’t know about the game, it was originally planned to be built for Kickstarter and PC but midway through its development pivoted to be developed and released for mobile devices in the local Iranian market.

The game was well received and has been featured extensively by the local app store Cafe Bazaar, with over 20,000 active installs and generally favorable responses from players, however the game has been an absolute disaster financially. The game’s revenue hasn’t even matched 5% of its meager budget to this date and continued development had to halt due it not even making enough for its ongoing operational costs.

If you’ve by any chance ever heard of me talk about the game before its release, I never was hopeful for it to succeed after the major pivot and in this postmortem of the game I’ll be obviously talking about the bad and what went wrong a lot more than what went right. So in the spirit of critical examination I will start with the negatives and at the end write about the few positive consolation points. In both categories I’ve ordered them by importance with the most important factors coming in sooner.

What Went Wrong

1.The vision of the game was not shared among the team members

If there’s just one lesson to give from the development of Amazia, it’s that a shared and clear vision for a game must be established and held onto through the entire dev cycle. This is especially true of a small indie team like ourselves, and even more critical that it’s shared between the co-founders. The problem in the case of Amazia was that I had laid out a vision and a strategy to achieve it at the start of pre-production and the game was being developed with this vision in mind for some time until my partner and the lead programmer of the game decided that it would be a better idea to pivot to an easier and more manageable target of releasing for the local market. I was convinced because it was supposed to be a soft launch to gather feedback about the game. In an unclear vision though, targets shift and change and some months down the line we were not soft launching, we were in full production mode for the game.

It’s easy in theory to settle this problem with having a team member like the game designer or producer be the person making the final calls, but in reality team dynamics are more complicated than that. Game development is a team effort and there’s no place for a dictator. At the same time, that shouldn’t be an excuse for the team to lack vision and direction as well. Sometimes the lack of clear vision is not critical but for Amazia it was fatal.

2. Basic marketing theory was disregarded

Both of the co-founders for Amazia have academic backgrounds in business, so it’s astounding how we missed some of the very basics of marketing. No, I don’t mean advertising and public relations, I’m talking about market analysis and strategy. Though I had initially done an STP analysis and guide for Amazia, it was all thrown out after we switched to the local mobile version, because the entire market was changed. Keep in mind that originally Amazia was meant to be a game that was targeting a niche of players who wanted a deeper game than Hearthstone but easier to access than games like Yu-gi-oh or Magic. It’s a niche that’s also been attempted to be filled by many other games such as Duelyst, Faeria and Shadowverse, so it wasn’t as if the competition was light, but that’s also where the smaller details of the marketing strategy come in play as for where to focus the PR message on.

These plan would be no more after the pivot. Everything changed, the whole landscape was different, from the audience, to our product, to our distribution and communication channels. Worse however was that we didn’t sit down and re-do these marketing basics. We never segmented the local market, or thought how we could reach them. We didn’t consider what need we were fulfilling. What was our core product? A strategy game. Ok, now does that core product have demand in this local market? These were all questions that should have been answered and weren’t answered all the way until it was too late and there was only blame to pass.

Our marketing was terrible. We targeted the wrong market, we didn’t give our target what they needed, we didn’t have a plan to get fans involved and we could never position ourselves in a place that fit our game.

3. There was only one dedicated programmer

An online F2P CCG that was to handle many different features was a massive task. It was made even bigger by the fact that pretty much all the programming was done by one person. That’s not to say no one else did any programming ever, but the contributions were small and in the long run the team was hit hard by this constraint, especially towards the end where our programmer was getting somewhat tired. It’s a remarkable achievement nonetheless and when talking to different publishers, both local and abroad, they were all astonished by the feat of completing the entire thing with all its features in one year.

That being said, as the designer on the team, there were many work-hours that I felt I wasn’t contributing as much as I could. Now I’m not exactly a programming illiterate, and I did code the different cards of the game which was the bulk of the content, but I could have been a sort of junior programmer as well, working on systems and other features. Maybe I could have done the tutorial, or improved the game feel. Our lead never agreed on training me, always arguing that it would take time and we’re just about to release and finish the job. This went on for months unfortunately so he wasn’t justified in his assumption. Should the game had more than one programmer, we could have saved on time and money more and the power dynamics of the team would have been more balanced.

4. Game Feel and polish was lacking

A lot has been said on the importance of polish. It’s a bit of vague term. It could mean balancing and fine-tuning the gameplay, it could mean getting rid of bugs or it could mean getting the art to be that little bit prettier. In our team what we usually meant by polish was game-feel and sparkly animations and effects. Allocation of funds was lopsided to say the least. We ended up with very high quality card art, but we didn’t get any animations or visual effects to go with the game, so as a result we implemented a generic animation that would be used for all effects, only differing in its sound effect and color depending on the type of effect it was producing.

Games like Hearthstone and all other Blizzard games live by their high degree of polish. It was a shame Amazia lacked this quality as it was evident that younger and casual players in particular had a harder time getting into the game due to it not being exciting enough.

5. Monetization was thrown together near the end

Of course conventional wisdom tells us not to do that. Conventional wisdom tells us everything’s important though and we can’t leave out some aspect of the game for late in development to think about. As with most other parts of the game, monetization was also thought of in detail for the original vision but had to be changed for the new game. The scheme we went with was the Hearthstone path of buying packs that open random cards. Later I decided to add the Clash Royale “3 cards-a-day” rotational offer as well to buy with real cash.

Nothing seemed to work despite our much lower prices compared to our competitors. This is the result of a society not valuing paying for games after decades of pirating them for free. Iranians just don’t pay for games. Our conversion rate only increased after I added a one-time purchase value offer that gave a lot for a very low cost, but even then it was much lower than anything sustainable.

We found too late that for a game to be financially successful in this local market, it must have the capacity to practically earn endless amount from a paying consumer. This is the targeting whale strategy, and due to very low sub 1% conversion rates, it’s the only viable strategy to earn money with games. This is the case with Clash of Clans, Clash Royale and most other Clash clones that have been financially successful earning thousands of dollars from individuals. Amazia had no bottomless pit to spend money in. You could get all content with around $50 in microtransactions, and that’s without playing and earning cards with in-game rewards.

Consolation Points 

Scoping was done accurately 

Apparently scoping and increasing the scope of a game midway through development is a bane for many game projects. Our original estimate for the starting strategy was to get on Kickstarter by September with a demo of the game. We ended up finishing the entire game by November despite a massive change of plans in the middle. A single programmer created an online competitive turn based strategy game with microtransactions and friends. That’s server backend, game client and database all done by one person in a relatively short time by game industry standards. It might not have ended up as the prettiest game out there, but that’s more an issue of our lack of artists than our scoping.

Even with the changes in place, every step I tried to make sure that adding and removing more content and features could be done with the minimum cost to our overall schedule. As designers we should be very conscious of what changes require as their needs.

Scoping was accurate and it was also heavily constrained by a very tight budget of only $28,000 spread over a period longer than a year. Considering all the expenses it was only made possible by being very picky on exactly what would be put in the game and what was not worth it. Do we need in game chats, or can we just use pre-made emotes? How much does adding more than one background to the game improve it? Is each and every card in the game as useful as possible? These are all questions that were answered well along the way.

The game’s design was successfully simplified

The game of the original vision never got made and put in the hands of players so I can make no judgement of its value. Amazia after its pivot though needed some simplifications. These simplifications were necessitated by two reasons: First we knew that the mobile market has a much more casual base of players compared to the niche of “deeper than Hearthstone”, and second because the mobile device supports far less inputs and a smaller screen, thus the UX must be easy to flow and navigate. The game’s design went in a period where I had to cut as much as I could without cutting too much. It’s a painful task, but in the end it went rather well.

Amazia ended up as a game about as simple and accessible as Hearthstone but with maybe a bit more depth. That was great. My wife who had previously only played Candy Crashed got so deep into the game that she was on top of the game’s leaderboard. Iran’s gaming community has historically never touched strategy card games before and it was a pleasure seeing so many people enthusiastically playing the game, many whom weren’t avid gamers. This was made possible due to these simplifications and cuts of features. Most of the game’s core was still intact in the end and we managed to bring in new people to play.

This is not to say that the game was very successful in attracting new players entirely. The very nature of the game and the target market’s gaming literacy in regards with the genre made it an uphill battle. Our day 1 retention rates never hit above 30% once we got featured in the app store’s front page and got opened to the masses. Still, the status it has achieved is not bad and should be taken as a positive.

Art was outsourced without any hiccups

We outsourced our art out of necessity; we just couldn’t afford a full-time artist. That was certainly damaging and a major point where we could have improved. Our outsourcing experience surprisingly ended up very pleasant. We could depend on our artists with much simpler lenses. We paid money for a set of pieces of work, and in the time that we agreed upon they would always deliver the works. It made planning much simpler.

We both knew how much it would cost, and when it would be finished. That was a great blessing to work with.

Ending

The development of Amazia truly was a roller-coaster ride. It’s a real shame that the game never managed to hit any financial success or even fail a bit more mildly that we could cover our operating costs and continue with the original vision in mind. It’s been a bit sad writing this but also reflective of all the missteps that were taken. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below.

Devlog 0: The Journey So Far

It was the summer of 2016 that I started my game dev journey. While walking in the campus of my university, I saw an ad for a game design position. Having studied game design for 5 years at that time and also nearing graduation, I decided it was a good time to also enter the world of game development and start my career. I called and soon I had an interview with the founder of an indie game studio. In the interview I understood that as a small newborn indie studio, they didn’t have much resources or a game designer, so I fit in as a co-founder. So it was me as the game designer and my partner as the programmer. We also had a couple of interns from the computer department that would come and leave often. Our studio was also about to start a new project and I pitched in a couple of different games, most of them simple. What got chosen in the end was my idea for a card game, possibly the second most ambitious of the proposed ideas.

The idea was for a rather unique and innovative card game in the genre of CCGs like Hearthstone and Yu-gi-oh. At first I began designing the game with paper prototypes while also writing design documents that were as quickly understandable for technical people as possible. The initial plan for the game was to get a clean demo version and launch a Kickstarter campaign by the next summer (2017). I scheduled a budget and also wrote a business plan and pitch deck which we spent a couple of months using (and sometimes adjusting) to pitch to investors.

These pitches didn’t go all that well, since we didn’t really have much to show. We would bring decks of paper cards to show the game and investors aren’t usually very game-savvy. Some time later we had a digital prototype running, after around 3 months of work. This first prototype was also pretty unimpressive. It had no art, it was buggy, and it had no polish or nice touches whatsoever. With some more work, we achieved a more functional version of the game with placeholder art I got from the internet that would also act as reference material for our artists who were sketching concept art for the game.

amazia early prototype

Still, despite this improved and palatable prototype, the most interested publisher declined our offer, citing too hopeful numbers in our business plan and a too competitive environment for card games which they deemed us hopeless to compete in.

By winter of 2016 we were running out of funds and my partner was uncomfortable working without money. Desperate to keep the project together, I convinced an investor who was a friend and business partner of my father to invest in our project. The amount we asked for was a rather small $30,000, not much for a rich investor but a lot for a game project in Iran where wages are around $300-1000 per month. Since he wanted to help rather than take a serious business venture, the deal was extremely favorable to us as I’ve learned now. We gave a 44% share of our future company, while really all our assets was some code and design documents. As part of the deal, we’d also be taking monthly wages of around $500, which is a pretty good amount considering the job market over here.

Nonetheless, we were funded and now we could continue, which we did very well! At around March 2017 though there was an internal debate on what path we should take the project. I was in favor of the original plan to get on Kickstarter. I proposed that we build the game with only one of the 4 planned factions complete for a demo at Kickstarter. My partner was unsure of our success chances on Kickstarter, which he considered too risky of a step. He also feared that our company would collapse should we fail at the crowdfunding site. He instead felt that the local market has potential and that we should release the game locally on the mobile market and with its revenue go for a global launch. I found this very unappealing and dangerous. For one, the local market just doesn’t understand strategy card games, there is no culture of CCGs like there is in the west and even worse, the mobile market is a mostly casual market. Second, our game would suffer, both in its mechanics and quality, and in its schedule to deliver on time for Kickstarter.

The debate went on for around a month, and by the end, my partner threatened to leave. I compromised on the promise that we’ll only do a “mini-release” in the local market to test the game and get feedback, and that we’ll go for Kickstarter with a short delay.

For close to a year since then we worked on the game. It got released, and after around 4 months of flailing in the market, despite getting featured and having close to 20,000 active installs, it failed miserably. We ran out of our investor’s cash and we’ve practically closed down. I offered to work on what I considered the original and main project, but my partner doesn’t work without cash.

Now, my journey continues. I’ve started the project anew from scratch, and I’m doing this alone. I made mistakes and I’ve got to own up to them. I shouldn’t have compromised on the game’s vision. Now I am now doing what I have passion for. I’m making a game as a total indie that I can be proud of and can hopefully guide to success. Stay with me for the rest of the journey.

This post has been a recap of the last year. In my next post I’ll be writing a postmortem on Amazia, my game that failed for many reasons that indie developers should be aware of.