The Game of All Games
Like many other video game developers, I am also a major fan of playing video games. It's fun for me, and it always has been. And I also like to make games that are fun for me to play. However, as I've gotten more involved in the game development business, I've noticed a decrease in the amount of time I dedicate to playing video games. I don't think it's simply because I've gotten older, although to some extent my mindset has certainly matured. But I think it's just because I'd rather be making games than playing them. Many times I will start up a game, begin playing, only to become motivated enough to instantly close out of it and instead open up the Unity game engine. In many cases, it's actually more fun for me to make than to play.
I call this "the game of all games" because game development is, itself, a kind of game. Especially once you decide to make a real business out of it. You have to invest time, resources, and effort into a project. Then you sell that end-product, and hope you made enough money to cover all of the costs. And you don't just do it once, you do it again, and again, and again. If you don't play it smart, you won't make it very far. If you don't make a fun, enjoyable game, it won't sell. Of course, the definition of "fun" is very much up to interpretation, but my point still holds true. Game development is itself a game, where you invest resources and hope that your effort is enough to offset the cost and earn more than enough to break even.
Right now I'm in a very fortunate position, because I have the opportunity to make this dream of mine a reality. Since I was a small child I've always wanted to make fun video games for others to play. As I grew up I became curious how games are made and started dabbling in programming. It also helped that I wasn't too bad at drawing, or just in general picking up new skills and curious about learning new ideas. I can easily spend hours watching video tutorials or even college lectures online on just about anything. Learning is pretty fascinating to me. So I've always wanted to learn to make video games, and for the past several years I have definitely been doing a lot of learning of that nature. And as long as I am still in a position to give the gamedev career a shot, I'm going to do my best to make it happen.
Money for Nothing
So as a lot of you might be aware, Detective Butler was released for free on Steam a few months ago. Our primary intention was to gather a large audience and let them know we are out here, making fun and enjoyable games. Some might also try to argue that a linear visual novel isn't really a game, and that's a fair point as most people buying games want interactivity. But it was our first game, and so we thought that making it free to play would be the right decision. Unfortunately, the consequence of that is that we haven't been able to make any kind of revenue from it alone.
Think of it this way: without revenue, we can't hire contractors to do work for our games, which means it's going to take a very long time to get anything else finished. The more revenue we make, the more we can invest in talented individuals who will be able to work quickly and produce quality work. Simply put, it's in your interest that we earn revenue just as much as it is in ours.
I've considered Kickstarter and Patreon, but neither of those feel appropriate to me. I think Kickstarter is too big of a risk, and can easily turn into something negative if improperly handled. And Patreon just doesn't make sense for the kind of work we are doing, which so far has not been on a monthly basis. Suppose I got a programming job somewhere that paid $2,500 per month. For Patreon to be a viable alternative, I'd need a lot of supporters, and I really don't think we're at that level yet. Plus, I would have to invest a lot of time into creating patron-only content, and not only would that be a pain to do, but I dislike the concept of locking out fans from additional content.
On the other hand, if Patreon or full-time work is making us look at things from a monthly perspective, then why not do that in the first place? What kind of game could we create and release within a single month? What if we could actually release a game every single month? Perhaps, if we become good enough at the craft, we will be able to make that $2,500 from a single game that we could only dream of making from Patreon. Any kind of game made within a month would need to be fairly small in scope, and also very inexpensive to buy. So that's exactly what we are going to do.
The Right Price
After conducting some market research, I've concluded that one dollar is probably a fair price for a short game. Let me explain what I mean.
A decent metric for deciding whether or not to buy a game is the hours-to-dollar ratio. Typically, we might say a game that costs one dollar per hour of gameplay is a game worth purchasing. There are definitely some exceptions to this rule, if the quality of the game makes up for its lack of length, but overall it's not a bad place to start. Then the question becomes, can we make a game that can be played for at least a full hour? And will that hour be fun? What if we can make a game that can be played for two full hours, but still keep it priced at one dollar? The higher that ratio, the more likely someone is to buy it. Though again, it should be noted that those hours must be quality hours, and so you can't just put together the most boring roguelike of all time and expect people to line up to buy it just because it has an infinitely large replay value.
Then my question became one related to quality: "what kind of game would people want to play for a given price point?" You can see that gamers have high standards if it's something around or above ten dollars, and they still have fairly high standards if it's five. But when you're in the one-dollar range, as long as you have something that works properly and you don't lie about what's in the game, chances are that people will generally enjoy it. I've also observed that games with a pricetag in the range of two to four dollars tend to get more negative reviews. I suspect this is because the quality is roughly the same as a one-dollar game but more than twice the price. So if you're aiming to sell a game in that price range, you had better make sure it's of high quality.
All in all, my conclusion is that a one-dollar game should be simple enough to make within a timely manner. Or to put it another way, a game that takes one or two weeks for me to make can be priced at one dollar without anybody complaining about it being too much. Either way, the crux of the matter is the quality of the game. If I end up releasing a game that you'd think is worth five dollars but only costs one, then that's great for the both of us.
Experience is The Key
I should also mention that, while we do need to make a certain amount of revenue to keep up with the costs of running a business, that this decision to make "shorter games" isn't entirely about money. Some of the best games in history, such as Mario and Zelda, started out as very small games. Only in their later incarnations did they add more complicated mechanics and explore a variety of different ideas. In programming, it's very easy to re-use old code for a different purpose, and so through making these short games we will be able to gain a tremendous amount of experience in a short amount of time.
For example, in the game we released earlier this month for the Umineko Game Jam, we learned a number of things. We learned how to take the game engine we had been building for Detective Butler 2 and use it for dialogue sequences in other types of games, and we learned how to make it work with voice acting. We learned how to use Blender to create and export 3D animated models into Unity, and we learned how to animate them in-game as well. We learned how to switch between models (switching weapons) and how to use their hitboxes. And of course, we learned how to code the basics of an FPS game. So, we will be using these games to develop new tools that can be used for making all of our future games.
Also, just to be clear, we are not stopping production on DB2 or WDK. If the smaller games are a success, then there won't be any issues, and we'll be able to finish both of those projects even more quickly. We are not promising a new game every month either, but it's definitely a goal to work toward. If a new game isn't being released in a particular month, you can be certain it means we are instead dedicating time to our two larger projects.
There is one more thing I want to mention in this post. On Friday, October 20th, we'll be releasing one of these "small" games that I just talked about. We have learned a number of things from this game as well, including tile-based movement, generating maps from text files, procedural maze generation, and how to swap tile palettes at runtime, just to name a few. On Friday I will be making another blog post specifically for the occasion.
So, please look forward to playing Nekouzan: Maze Miner!