The Indie Post-apocalypse

It was 3 years ago when the term “Indiepocalypse” blew up overnight. Because 3 years before that, Steam Greenlight launched. It took a while, but in September 2015 it was suddenly becoming clear that the massive deluge of games hitting Steam wasn’t a fluke.

Releases on Steam per year

The number of games released tripled from 2013 to 2014. Then almost doubled again in 2015. We heard about Airscape, which sold about 150 sales on launch, and innumerable games like it. And then we heard the predictions about what was to come. The warnings. The lamentations.

“If you are thinking of quitting your AAA job to go indie, you probably missed the bus by 3-4 years at this point” – Jonathan Blow

Well, we’re 3 years on. The indiepocalypse isn’t happening. It happened. It’s over and what happens after an apocalypse is of course the post-apocalypse.

Image result for the walking dead

There is a persistent belief that nothing much has changed and all you have to do is make a good game, market it, and stay persistent. I’m not quite convinced.

Just make a good game

This one pisses me off because it’s a tautology. If a game sells well, that is taken as evidence that it’s good and if a game sells poorly, it’s not good. This is circular. It’s survivorship bias.

I see good games failing all the time and the same reasons given for why those games failed can be applied equally to huge hits.

If Undertale came out today and it flopped, they would simply say “it has crappy art. No wonder it failed”. If Dead Cells had flopped, they would say “people are tired of roguelikes.” If Celeste sold poorly, they would say “pixel art platformer is a saturated genre.”

Just market it

I consider most of the advice on marketing to be total garbage unless you are already successful: start a website (no one will ever find it), write a press release (no one cares), post on reddit (woops, totally against their strict self promotion rules).

Only restricting ourselves to the decent advice (i.e. promoting your game to the right influencers), well that stuff is massively harder than it was only a few years ago. The market being flooded is only the start. Consumers have a ton more games vying for their attention, but so do journalists. So do streamers. Their inboxes are absolutely slammed with hundreds of emails on a daily basis. One thing I did while promoting Golden Krone Hotel is search for journalists who had reviewed traditional roguelikes before. I quickly noticed that, while Dungeons of Dredmor (2011) had 18 reviews on Metacritic, I couldn’t find a single new roguelike with any Metacritic reviews. It seems that niche games that could easily get press attention a few years ago can’t get any now.

Even if you do catch the attention of the press or a large twitch or youtube personality, there’s no guarantee you’ll get any sales out of it.

Aztez had five years of positive press coverage and a respectable Metacritic score of 81%. It flopped hard.

Just keep going

I see too many examples of seasoned game developers doing worse and worse. Gone Home selling about 700,000 units vs Tacoma selling 10,000 is probably the poster child, but there are many more.

Even so, I admit that building a reputation is probably the best tool indie developers have at their disposal.

Consider Into the Breach. A turn based tactics game with middling pixel art played on small grid and with permadeath? I don’t think Subset Games would have gotten the attention of anybody if it wasn’t for them having made FTL as their previous game.

Containing My Burguning Schadenfreude

So how bad can things get? Do small developers still have a shot by keeping at it? Those questions brings me to Keith Burgun.

It all started some years ago while trying to find a podcast. I enjoy listening to podcasts and for some reason it’s super hard to find a consistent game development podcast. My favorites tend to close up shop as soon as I start listening. Keith Burgun had a podcast called Clockwork Game Design. It was fairly consistent and it was one of the only podcasts to focus on design specifically, which I liked.

Over time though I started to get annoyed. I disagreed, vehemently, with practically everything Keith was saying. He hated “classics” like Go and made an unconvincing argument that new games are always dramatically  better than older ones. He said “reading” (as in reading your opponent in games like poker or Yomi) wasn’t a real thing. He tended to categorize any game other than the kind he was making as  a “toy” instead of a real game. Finally, he took a massive dump on the entire genre of roguelikes and called them Skinner boxes. That was really strange considering roguelikes were the only kind of game Keith had made and it really set me off because I was working on one myself.

Reader, I was ready for the schadenfreude. This guy was attacking the things I liked on a fundamental level and my stupid monkey brain wanted to see him fail. I’m not proud of it.

But then something unexpected happened. On a whim, I decided to play the last game designed by Keith Burgun and I loved it! Auro is one of my favorite PC games. Ever.  It’s tightly designed, easy to learn, beautiful, deep, and really compelling. I don’t put a lot of hours into any single game these days and I’ve clocked over 100 into Auro. The worst thing I can say is it has a few bugs, but I still recommend it to anyone.

I realized that I can strongly disagree with someone and still acknowledge that they’re great at what they do. I became very curious about his next game…

So here we are. Keith Burgun’s latest game, Escape the Omnochronom!,  came out last Thursday. ETO is ambitious. It’s designed to be a combination of two genres that I don’t recall ever having been mixed: roguelike and MOBA.

Take a guess then. How well do you think ETO did in its first 72 hours on sale?

While you’re pondering that, a quick diversion into estimating sales on Steam.

Reasonable ignorance

Valve doesn’t publish sales data. We had SteamSpy, but it’s sort of defunct now. We had an ingenious way of finding exact player counts using achievements and that was shut down. We’re pretty much left with one method and it’s actually not too bad. It’s called the Boxleiter Method and it goes like this.

One piece of data Valve does share publicly is review count. Even better is that those reviews are guaranteed to be from people who have bought the game directly on Steam (and not through say a heavily discounted bundle), something SteamSpy couldn’t suss out.

Since a certain percentage of purchases will leave reviews, we can simply multiply the number of reviews by a certain factor and come up with an estimate of units sold. That factor appears to be roughly 50 or 2% of players leaving reviews. Remember, it’s just an estimate but it tends to be a fairly reasonable rule of thumb

If a game has 1 review, it most likely has not sold more than 50 copies. The factor should be much lower in the beginning, since your voice counts for more when there are few reviews. If a game has 20 reviews it has probably sold about 1,000 copies. 200 reviews means 10,000 copies. If a game has 10,000 reviews, it’s sold half a million copies and has almost certainly made millions of dollars. So on and so on.

I would go even further and tell you my personal rule of thumb: if a $10 indie game doesn’t have over 300 reviews, it was probably a financial failure. That is it hasn’t provided the equivalent of what someone could make in industry in a single year.

(300*50*$10 – Valve’s cut) =  ~$100,000

And that’s rather conservative because it doesn’t account for discounts or multiple developers or development cycles longer than a year. Add all that in and 300 reviews probably means minimum wage or worse for all those involved. Remember Aztez, a game two guys worked on for seven years? 71 reviews.

Is this normal?

Using reviews as a proxy for sales, how many reviews do you think Escape the Omnochronom! has generated in its opening weekend (which could account for more than 10% of its annual revenue).

Is it a smash hit with thousands of reviews? Or is it at least on the way to a nice break even at 300 reviews?

Keep in mind Keith has 1500 twitter followers, over 6000 youtube subscribers, 43 patrons, and a popular podcast. He’s written a well received book on game design and his games have been played by thousands if not tens of thousands of gamers. His last game had a fricking 91% on Metacritic. This is what we talked about earlier: keeping at it. Building a reputation and amassing a following.

But also remember something else. It’s 2018.

Let’s Be Realistic: A Deep Dive into How Games Are Selling on Steam

Do you have the answer yet? In reviews? Sales? Dollars? Actually it doesn’t matter what units you chose. Because to a first approximation they’re all the same.

  • Zero reviews
  • Zero comments on announcements of the game launching
  • One curator, who has depressingly enough not even played the game
  • Two comments in the entire forum section

Things have been asymptotically approaching zero. Now we’ve arrived. We’ve arrived at the worst it can get because you can’t sell less than zero. An experienced game designer with multiple shipped titles and a moderately sized following shouting into the void and getting no response whatsoever….

I guess that’s the new normal, but something about that doesn’t seem normal to me at all.





Things I Hate About Roguelikes Part 4: Bog Standard Dungeons

On our previous episode, we covered bad controls. I’ve yapped enough about annoying gameplay. Now it’s time to talk about theme. Or more properly the lack thereof.

First, what do I mean by “theme”? It doesn’t have to be a message or even a concept in the same way we view a theme in literature, though video games certainly do tend to have those.  I’m not setting the bar that high.

Most of the time when people mention theme in the same sentence as video games, they simply mean setting.

Darkest Dungeon. Care to guess at the theme?

Setting is a huge part of it sure, but there’s also the aesthetic, the music, the lore, the names and descriptions. It’s the consistent application of all those things in a game that comes together as a cohesive whole to make you feel something, especially when that feeling is distinct from what you get in other games.

With that definition in mind, I ask what theme do the classic roguelikes have? The answer is they don’t really have themes at all.

The three cardinal sins of theme

There are three particular ways in which roguelike themes end up being bad or nonexistent.

  1. High Fantasy is the vanilla ice cream of video game themes

The vast majority of CRPGs and roguelikes in particular have a generic high fantasy theme that throws at you all those familiar, recycled tropes that we know and love.  I’m talking elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, trolls, hobbits, and of course dragons. This is the baseline. The vanilla ice cream of video game themes.

The lineage of all this high fantasy stuff is painfully obvious.

Tolkien -> Dungeons & Dragons -> Adventure -> Rogue -> roguelikes

  • Tolkien heavily influenced Dungeons & Dragons
  • Tolkien heavily influenced Colossal Cave Adventure
  • Tolkien heavily influenced Rogue (by way of the aforementioned)
  • Tolkien heavily influenced NetHack

And so on and so on for the next 30 years.

“You Hob-bit my whole shit” – J. R. R. Tolkien (presumably)

Each successor in the chain obviously took a great heap of inspiration from the ones that came before.  Some went further by just pilfering the terminology directly.

Dungeons & Dragons had hobbits, ents, and balrogs until it had to change the names. Rogue famously had the rust monster and floating eye, Dungeons and Dragons monsters which had to be replaced with the aquator and ice monster. Some games seemed to have dodged the copyright issues. NetHack retains the rust monster, floating eye, hobbits, nazgul, balrog, and on and on.

Tree of roguelike evolution

Several roguelikes were even named after Tolkien!

  • Angband and Zangband
  • TOME (originally: Tales of Middle Earth)
  • Mordor
  • Two games named Moria

And a bunch of games just called “DND”.

I’m not saying Tolkien is bad. Like vanilla ice cream, Tolkien is very good. It’s the monotony that is killing me. Tolkien was inspired by Norse, Germanic, Slavic, and Greek mythologies; religion; classic and modern literature; epic poems; language; opera; personal experience; and the horrors of war. So we took a richly detailed, deeply complex, epic fantasy universe and boiled it down to generic elves, dwarves, and orcs.

Let’s try ripping off somebody else for a change, eh?

Another knock off isn’t going to feel fresh to anyone on the planet. Middle Earth has inspired thousands of games and books. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are some of the top grossing movies of all time and there’s even a TV show in the works. God knows why anyone would want to see more after watching Peter Jackson remake the same movie 6 times. Anyway…

2) The kitchen sink is kind of disgusting

Adding content to the classic ASCII roguelikes was dirt simple. All you needed was to choose a letter. Half the monsters in Rogue don’t even have special abilities! Talk about easy. In time, a huge number of monsters started to become a selling point for roguelikes.

All of Rogue’s monsters

First, Rogue had to have exactly 26 monsters. Hack had over 50. NetHack has hundreds. Slash’EM has thousands of monsters.

Where you going to get all those fantasy creatures? And how are you even going to fill out the rarer letters like Z, X, Q, and J? There’s really not that many distinct monsters to pick from in Tolkien’s universe. So most roguelikes start with high fantasy as the core and then keep piling on a hodgepodge of assorted monsters and myths from wherever they can be found.

The only thing standing between you and the Amulet of Yendor

That’s how you end up with Zombies, Xerocs, Quaggas, and Jabberwocks.

We usually call this “everything but the kitchen sink”, but then again NetHack actually has a kitchen sink too.

Simply put, stuffing everything you can imagine into a game with no rhyme or reason does not make for a consistent theme.

3) No such thing as halfway goofs

When I’m playing a roguelike, I want to feel like I’m going on an epic adventure. Whether playing the hero or (more traditionally) the dastardly rogue, a certain level of seriousness aids the immersion.

Ninety five percent of the time, this is actually pretty well achieved. I get to fight wraiths and giant spiders and orc captains. Even with no graphics, decent enough enemy descriptions let your imagination fill in the void naturally. The pure insanity of classic roguelike difficulty turns the screws until the dungeon itself seems like the oozing, cavernous maw of some giant horror.

And then, because roguelike, you get this bullshit.

A toenail golem? Are you !%$*@# kidding me?

Some roguelikes are more guilty than others on this front. DCSS and NetHack only occasionally wander into goofy territory.

The source for NetHack’s Keystone Kops. It’s an open question if silent, black and white slapstick comedy translates well into ASCII, but here we are.

PRIME has monsters ranging from daleks to chestbursters, green killer tomatoes, cheerleader ninjas, and high ping bastards.

Finally, Slash’EM Extended is the worst:

  • xof (that’s fox spelled backwards)
  • 50+ kinds of dogs
  • “dwarf on crack”
  • Parry Hotter
  • 9 kinds of “prostitute” enemies
  • A bunch of other sexist crap I don’t want to even mention

Yes, I am a humorless killjoy. If you want to do humor, go big. Make the whole game comical like Dungeons of Dredmor. For me, 5% goofy leaves the entire game feeling goofy.

Good examples of theme

Plenty of roguelikes do have fascinating themes and I love it.

  • Unreal World: a real world Iron Age setting
  • Cogmind: really unique sci fi
  • Hieroglyphika: set in Egyptian underworld, completely devoid of text
  • Sproggiwood: inspired by Finnish mythology
  • Haque: cool glitch fantasy aesthetics and chill vibe

Hell yea

As much as I’ve hated on games based on Tolkien, I’ll admit Sil sounds fascinating because it “dispenses with many generic fantasy tropes” and “stays true to the writings of Tolkien”. And Darkest Dungeon, mentioned early, creates a fantastic theme by doubling down on the dungeon setting and finding what makes it truly interesting.

Even the roguelites I mentioned at the beginning of this series (Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, and Spelunky) all have great themes and consistent aesthetics, which I’m sure contributes to their success in no small part.

I theme, you theme

Lukewarm high fantasy, the kitchen sink, a sprinkling of goofy nonsense? That’s what I’m calling the bog standard dungeon. I think we can do better. Here’s how low the bar is:

You don’t have to make up a whole universe from scratch.  There is so much material to work off when choosing a theme for your game. Countless ancient cultures and mythologies, historical settings, public domain books. I think my game, Golden Krone Hotel, has a pretty neat theme. But you better believe I stole a lot from Dracula, Romanian mythology, and vampire lore in general.

I’ve spent a great deal of this article complaining that roguelikes need to stop copying from a particular tabletop fantasy roleplaying game from the 1970s.

You know the roguelike with the coolest theme ever? It’s Caves of Qud of course.


Ok we’re done here

Go make cool roguelikes and go play cool roguelikes.

If you want to check out Golden Krone Hotel, it just had its biggest update and is on sale for 50% off.