Days away from launching our first ever game? Time for the longest dev blog ever then…
The Decision to Sell So Early & Marketing
So we’re about to launch the game about a year earlier than I expected. This might be the best or worst decision I’ve made so far as an indie. But after deciding to run a Kickstarter that only earned 3% of what it needed, I’m not too worried about bad business decisions anymore.
I can’t see how selling so early can go wrong? If no one buys it, that’s cool, we haven’t sold a copy yet anyway. If people don’t like it, that’s okay, you’re not supposed to like it yet - it’s pre-alpha.
Despite saying that, I am scared of Early Access despite us being Greenlit, as I think that could hurt us if people posted negative reviews. That’s why we’re just selling it on our own site until there is more content. I need our close, intimate group of customers to tell me when the game gets good. When our community of fans have convinced me that Atomic Society is good, we’ll go to Steam where the less sympathetic public can judge us.
The best lesson of the failed Kickstarter was that it taught me there is no indie checklist you can follow and everything will work out. The Kickstarter saga was me trying to piece together the modern indie dev plan and obey it. It was a silly thing to do. My lesson from now on would be just do whatever you’re comfortable with, don’t follow the herd. Freedom to be yourself is the ultimate perk of being an indie dev.
For example, I have barely made any Twitter posts since the Kickstarter failed. This is a “bad thing” according to the indie dev success plan which says one tweet a day is crucial. But I don’t really like Twitter and so I stopped using it. And, as is usual, the less I play the marketing game, the more attention the game seems to get. Being authentically you is the most important thing.
But I'm still a bag of fear and anxiety right now. In a matter of days’ random people on the internet will be playing our game. And giving their hard-earned money to do so. As someone who is too hard up to buy new games, I don't want to let people down.
When we went on Kickstarter and Greenlight, suddenly people I’d never met were chucking comments and ideas my way (sometimes quite rudely), and I had to come up with answers. Rather than being annoyed by this feedback, I found it was great and it forced me tighten up the design. The reinvention of the law and ethics system (our USP) was based on random comments that probably saved us months of work making something that was a bit flawed in its conception. Not that anybody stated outright “Do it this way” but just having to explain to people made me clarify the whole thing in my head.
Secondly, I read a book, (which can be dangerous in my case as I get big ideas in my head). Anyway, I read the Lean Startup book, which is like the Bible of the Silicon Valley set (not the TV show ). I hate the cheesiness of the startup world but this book does raise a damn good point that when you’re starved of cash, as we are, don’t waste your time making features nobody wants. Get your product out there as soon as you can, learn from feedback, and start using it. We can’t afford to spend a year making a game nobody wants. This book confirmed my own thoughts. So that's what we're doing to do. You can tell us what pisses you off the most and we'll work on that next.
Absolutely everything about the design of Atomic Society, from its title screen to its UI and controls and buildings and balance came out of my head. The rest of the team made it a reality and improved it, but the basis of everything in the game is just a product of me looking into my imagination. That’s fun and empowering, but slightly terrifying. Hence, I need the public more than anybody.
Demo & Piratebay
In a recent interview we gave to the press, I alluded that there won't be a demo for Atomic Society because people can just pirate the full version. To make that statement clearer, the copy of the game we release on our site will be DRM free. If you don't know if you want to buy AS, just pirate it and play for a bit. You have my full permission. The other team members have agreed.
I'm a guy who, when not creating Atomic Society, works a minimum wage job as a janitor. That's just how life is. I can't afford to buy a game I don't like (well I can, but then I'm stuck with it for a month until I can afford to pay the developer of a better game). Sometimes I pirate stuff. But I always buy a game as soon as it gives me an hour of pleasure. If you're unsure about Atomic Society, pirate it and if it gives you an hour an of pleasure, buy it.
If you won't buy it after enjoying it for over an hour, wait until the game is cheaper on sale (though it won't be cheaper than our pre-alpha version for some time). If you don't buy it after enjoying it for hours, fuck you, I don't care what you do.
We will not be pirating our own game ourselves (is that philosophically possible?). I don't have the time to do so and keep it updated. But I'm sure someone will if we make a good enough game.
If not one pirates us, damn, we must be doing something wrong.
Almost everything you read about from now on is content that went into the game in the last 16 days. (It would be 30 but I forgot to take enough notes). I can’t quite believe we, despite being unpaid part-time devs have managed to achieve so much.
There were no drastic new inventions this month. We need to hold off on adding big new features. Whenever you add any new feature into a game it will create bugs that take days to solve. We don’t want serious bugs spoiling your game (I used to be a QA tester so I’m fussy about that).
New Feature 1) New Navigation System
This was a massive task for lead programmer Nick. There is a third-party asset called A Star Navigation. It’s used in a lot of big indie games, such as Prison Architect. If you want lots of NPCs moving around, it’s the thing you use (unless you have a year to invent your own custom solution). Until now we were using a free trial version of A Star because we couldn’t afford the proper version. Well, a few weeks ago the big daddy version went on a 50% sale and we could just afford to pay for it!
Implementing this has been a HUGE task. NPC navigation is arguably the core system in Atomic Society. We have 200+ people walking around each other, around buildings, around changing landscape. If that goes wrong, even once, it causes game-breaking bugs. All it takes is one citizen not being able to enter the storehouse, for example, and you’ve got a dead game. Setting it up was a complex nightmare and high-pressure. When someone is working solo on something for weeks everybody gets a little impatient and it’s hard for that person because they’re working their arse off. But Nick pulled it off, though he only turned in about 100+ hours of work on this feature, the lazy bastard (let’s see if he reads these blogs).
The upside of that for you, the player, is that citizens are less likely to bug out and do their own thing, they are more realistic in how they move (maybe we’ll outlive those zombie animation comments), and citizens get stuck a lot less. And we’ve also had a big frame-rate boost which will help low performance PCs.
Dawid Dahl, glorious Swedish composer who survives solely on snow and blood, turned out not 1 but 2 new tracks this month in-between his hectic schedule of being a famous Scandinavian wizard and death metal star (Dawid has literally been signed by a record label since I recruited him for AS - but he is still working for free with us). His new tracks sound great. I love collaborating with him on the music. We now have implemented his songs into the game and they play on a shuffle system. They add to the mood so much. I am an audiophile but anybody who’s heard our soundtrack so far has had nothing but praise for it.
And top tip – if you buy the special edition version of AS, you’ll get high-quality mp3s of the entire soundtrack. Mmm. Make Dawid happy before he sacrifices more virgin goats.
Town Leader Construction
Everybody’s favourite American-forced-to-work-with-a-British-team - aka the legendary Adam Gwin - delivered the goods this month. Among other stuff the biggest feature he made is that now the Town Leader character you make at the start of the game can help with construction - if you control them. All you have to do is left click on a building and the avatar will now either build it single-handily or help the people already making it. Aside from solving the problem of wtf a player does when their citizen builders are murdered, it is just a really useful feature to have. I get bored waiting in other games, like Banished, for some moron builder to finally make their way to the construction site. In Atomic Society, if you’re as impatient as me, you can do it yourself. This really helps eliminate boring downtime.
A small but important feature, the game now has a pop up box that tells you what the hell the controls are, and you can access this at any time by clicking a question mark button. Until we have a fancier tutorial system, this should do the trick. I hope the game has a decent control system but it will be fun finding out what the public thinks. I believe controls are the most important element of any game. So please tell me if you hate an aspect of them.
Speed Up Time UI
No city-builder is complete without the ability to skip past all the boring bits, and you can now do that in AS. You’ll see it at the top right of the screen along with a brand new day and year counter. A day in AS currently lasts 30 seconds. You can speed that up to 6x. You probably won't want to do that very often though as everybody will die.
The “Punishment Centre” Is Progressing
Around the time of our Kickstarter, I put down a police station in one of the videos. Well, that police station has now been... adapted. It is now a PUNISHMENT CENTRE (for some reason writing that all in caps feels good). This is the building all citizens who you strongly disapprove of will be taken to, where they will be either flogged or hung depending on what you choose. Top artist Nani made the appropriate adjustments to the model (you can build this in the pre-alpha version, it just won’t do anything).
The Most Important Ruin
We’re slowly adding more and more ruins each level, trying to give it that modern Fallout game sense where the ruins kind of tell a story of the past and making the big open environments look a little more like a town that nature overtook long ago. Nani is currently working on making the plane wreck a convertible home. But the most important ruin she created is of course, the traffic sign. You can even salvage it. A traffic sign. Excite.
Nani also created the new shack model. This is the cheapest and most basic home and I think it looks rather cool. Each category of buildings in AS has a different strategy. Housing is the only one where you as player have to solve the challenge of crap building – average building – good building. The cost goes up but the capacity goes down. The shack is probably where you will start out.
Remember there was a thermometer shaped bit of UI in the Kickstarter videos? Well that’s gone now. It looked nice but it wasn’t that useful. We now have, for the first time, a population counter that shows you how many citizens you have out of how many in total you need and a happiness icon (like Tropico) that shows you how chilled your people are. Not a big change here, but definitely one that helps you play.
Landscape Changes & Lighting Improvements
Aside from being the guy who invented this mess of a game, I am also the guy who made all the 3D environments and designed the lighting in the game. It’s one of the few tangible things I made in the game so I want to show off a bit. It also means I am now obsessed with the landscape and can barely play the game because I’m always judging the quality of the scenery. Anyway, this month we implemented a new way of doing the lighting that gives the game a much more saturated look and I re-jiggled the textures to make it look more realistic. It’s not fair to compare the game to a blurry Youtube shot but it’s the easiest way to show you a before and after.
One Month Ago Version
What happens when you press escape in a PC game? Why of course a menu pops up. We now have a pretty one of our own that Adam put in. Every time you press escape in the version we give Adam one cent in payment.
Ruins Now Have Deep and Moving Descriptions
There are lots of ruins in AS that you can’t turn into housing (try living inside a lamppost). Such ruins now have their own evocative flavour text. I knew that creative writing degree would be worth something eventually. Try clicking on one and reading it to be moved when the pre-alpha is out.
The Most Important Change
When you convert your first ruin into a storehouse at the start of the game, the game asks you to enter a name for your town. It’s a big decision. But what was spoiling it for me was that you had to click the accept button after naming it. Hideous. Now, thanks to the wonder of programming genius, you can press the enter key and it closes the naming box for you. Oh yeeeeah.
But Wait? Most of Our Time is Spent Fixing Bugs
Wonder why indie games take so long to come out? It’s because of bugs. You have 1.5 programmers. You can tell them to create new features of fix bugs. They're your 2 choices. If you tell them to create new features, it creates 10 new bugs. Most of game dev is fixing bugs. I won’t go into all of these but over the last 2 weeks here are all the meaningless bug fixes that took ages and lots of head scratching to solve. This list will have no doubt grown in the days between this blog and release. I'm aware this won't mean anything to you now, but it will when you're playing the game soon.
- Many problems with citizens getting stuck/lost corrected.
- Dying debuff has a new icon.
- Day counter no longer resets at 30.
- Scavengers no longer pop in and out of buildings.
- Storehouse UI now shows accurate amount of resources.
- Citizens no longer change appearance when they die.
- Citizens are no longer always doomed to die if they get the dying debuff (it can be removed).
- Context menu crash when citizen dies has been fixed.
- Migration now carries on beyond 60 citizens.
- Citizens no longer die on all the same day.
- Citizens should now leave a building when they’re going to die, so you can see the corpse.
- Scavengers will now loot a broader range of resources.
- Character models restored to the character creation screen.
- Citizens don’t run away from their murderer permanently anymore.
- A ruin on the Dunes level is no longer underground.
- Ruins can now run out of loot again when salvaged.
- The avatar can now carry more salvage.
- The avatar can no longer run across water or get stuck on the shore.
So that’s it. Almost. But First an Issue of Trust.
If you ever want to make an indie game, even if you pour all your heart and soul into, you need to be aware of one fact.
People will think you’re a faker/abuser/scammer.
That is what I’ve discovered. And it hurts to hear people call you a faker. The glory days of indie dev faded before they’d ever begun. Too many indie devs have poisoned the well already. The days of 2012 when you could go on Kickstarter and show a bit of concept art and get $100k are long dead (that's probably a good thing). People are cynical these days.
For example, I messaged one rather important and well-respected indie dev this week (who shall remain nameless) just asking for basic advice on how to sell a game online. His reply? Give up now, why bother releasing a game that you’re going to walk away from? People don’t want your game, your Kickstarter failed, etc.
And that's coming from someone who has already walked the walk we're walking.
But I don’t blame this person too much. He assumed we were just indie game in the endless chain of mediocre crap that’s out there on Early Access.
So I've learnt to get used to being distrusted and not-believed if you make a game with an ounce of ambition these days.
Of course the buyers of games have been pretty supportive but there will be a very vocal set calling you a scammer before they’ve even played a second of your game. It’s tough.
Let it be said here - Atomic Society will not die. Even if we die making it, I’ll get this game to be good somehow from the afterlife. I can’t promise the game will be better than your favourite existing city builder. But I can tell you it will be one hell of an interesting failure at least. And when you’re buying obscure indie games, I think that’s more fun, right?
See you next month. When anybody who has read this far is perhaps playing the game!