Archive for March, 2006

Round-Up

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

Various entries, links, musings too minor to merit a full topic-heading.

In regard to the art style for my next game, blogged about here, I decided to go with the cartoony style (tweaked a bit). Thanks for all the comments/feedback.

BTW, if you’ve only been reading the main entries on this blog, you’re missing out. Half the good stuff is in the comments – I thank all those who respond to the articles, even if they strongly disagree (especially if they strongly disagree). In particular, check out the back and forth on the Hobbyists vs. Professionals article, and the Portals are Good article.

A couple of interesting spoofs/pranks on the casual game industry have recently come out on the IndieGamer forums:

First, Chuzzle author John Raptis posted (in disguise) an announcement of a casual game generator, threatening to render us game developers obsolete. It’s revealed as a prank towards the end of this thread. Pretty clever.

Second, there’s the Casual Game Name Generator. Self explanatory. It suggests that my next game should be called “atlantis gem shopper jeweled”.

For gamers out there of a certain age (ahem), there’s the Video Game Critic’s Atari 2600 Reviews. Lots of good reviews and screenshots of the old classics. Good nostalgia for me. I’m not sure if I should be proud or embarassed that I played and remember almost half the games listed there.

Interesting article here on 13 issues/enigmas in science that do not make sense.

Check this out – the leader in the ESPN NCAA bracket pool (currently #1 of 3 million entries), has all four of the current final 4 teams correct, including George Mason, and had 7 of the elite 8.

[Edit – No More] Get a Free Copy of Bonnie’s Bookstore

Monday, March 27th, 2006

[Note – I’m no longer offering this.]

Currently, there is very little in the way of marketing/p.r. for casual games. There are no print magazines dedicated to casual games, and few websites, amateur or professional, other than the portals themselves. Therefore, to stir up a little bit of p.r. for the game, here’s what I’m doing:

If you have a blog, on any subject (i.e. doesn’t have to be games – could be gardening or politics or anything), I’ll give you a free, full copy of Bonnie’s Bookstore (i.e. not just the 60 minute trial, but rather, the full unlocked game).

All you have to do is agree to write at least 75 words about Bonnie’s Bookstore on your blog. It can be a mini review or any other kind of blurb. It doesn’t even have to be positive. If you play the game and hate it, go ahead and tell your readers that (though I think you’ll like it). 75 words is easy – this post alone is 278 words.

Final condition – your blog has to have a reasonable readership – at least 15 visitors a day. That’s a pretty low bar, but will hopefully prevent people from setting up a Blogger account purely to snag the game. Alternatively, if you don’t know your visitor count, but your blog has clearly been up and at least moderately active for 2+ months, that’s fine, too.

Want in? Send me an e-mail with your blog’s URL, and tell me whether you want the Mac or Windows version of the game. I’ll send you the download link and the registration code. Then you’re on the honor system to write something about the game at some point thereafter. I reserve the right to reject requests for bogus blogs or for any other reason.

E-mail me at psteinmeyer A T newcrayon D 0 T com.

Deep thoughts…

Friday, March 24th, 2006

from Tommy Hilfinger of all people, who Microsoft decided to use to pitch Windows Vista at a recent conference:

“When you combine people and technology, you have a very powerful combination.”

Well there you go. I wish I’d thought of that.

Forbes columnist Daniel Lyons rips into Microsoft and Vista here. (the column is also the source of the above quote).

This column quotes an insider source saying that up to 60% of Windows Vista code must be rewritten before it’s January ’07 launch. That just doesn’t make sense. Either the source is wrong, or he’s misquoted (perhaps some subsystem needs heavy work), or Vista will NOT hit January ’07. You can’t rewrite 60% of an OS you’ve been working on for 4.5 years and ship it in 10 months. My guess is it’s the middle scenario – one section of Vista is a mess and needs heavy rewrite.

Overall, signs bode poorly for MS’s software capabilities.

Vista is WAY late. Internet Explorer is dead in the water (When they resumed work on I.E. in January ’05, they promised 7.0 would be delivered in summer ’05. But there’s no sign of even a public beta yet. [Edit – the public I.E. beta was just released 3 days ago]) The .NET initiative had underwhelming results. What has MS delivered in the last 3 years?

Portals Are Good

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Anybody who explores the casual/indie development scene quickly runs into it’s dark secret: the industry is dominated by about ten major portals (i.e. RealArcade, MSN, Yahoo, Shockwave, etc…).

The portals restrict mass-market distribution to about 100-200 titles a year, and take a stunning 60-70% or so of the revenues for the games they sell, for a seemingly easy job – putting up a basic web site with a back-end order processing system. The other hard part is hauling all that money to the bank while laughing hysterically…

Many developers react to this by pouting that they refuse to sell their games through portals, or by kvetching endlessly about setting up an ‘indie portal’ run by developers, that will be fair in all ways.

Any many students in the 60s frustrated with modern society set up communes to grow beans and bake bread.

Burying your head in the sand doesn’t change the reality. Portals are here to stay. They aren’t perfect, but they exist and thrive for a reason – Portals Are Good.

Not necessarily good for you the developer. But your opinion isn’t the critical one. Portals are good for consumers.

When I want to buy a book, I don’t drive to the publisher’s warehouse in New Jersey to make my selection. I don’t even go to the publisher’s web site to order it there, even though in many cases you CAN order books directly from a publisher’s (or author’s) web site.

Depending on my mood, I either drive to my local Barnes and Noble, or log on to Amazon.com, and buy what I need. This works when I have a specific book in mind, a general subject, or no subject at all, and I’m just in the mood for a good read.

I do it this way because both the physical and virtual book stores are easy to find, well-organized, safe, and already known to me (and therefore, comfortable for me to use).

Looking only at the virtual bookstore (Amazon):

Easy-to-find: Well, I’ve known about Amazon for years. Even if I was a web neophite, I’d have heard of Amazon from my friends, or seen their manifold advertisements (lots of Google Ads), or just seen the site talked about by other book buyers and sellers.

Well-organized: Amazon runs one of the best websites out there. The ability to search is well implemented, as are their recommendation lists, their top 100 lists, and just about everything else about the site.

Safe: The Amazon site feels safe. It looks professional. I know Amazon is a big reputable company that won’t rip me off, and if I do have a problem, I have multiple channels to resolve the problem or return the book. My credit card info is not at risk.

Known to me: I don’t like to learn a brand new buying experience every time I buy something. I’ve already bought things at Amazon before, I feel comfortable buying things there again. Given two sites on the web to buy something, I will always prefer a site I’ve already had a favorable experience at. Why? Because I’ve had a few unfavorable experiences buying things on the web. So when I find something that DOES work, I stay with it.

The astute reader will no doubt notice that I have been setting up an elaborate parallel to the on-line game buying process. Frankly, none of the major game portals are quite so well run as Amazon… yet. But by and large, they fit my four criteria above MUCH better than individual game company’s sites do. So, even though I’m an independent game developer myself, I don’t go to other developer’s sites to buy games, rather, I buy them from the portals (where possible).

The portals provide a valuable service. Consumers obviously appreciate that service, as the portals control a VAST majority of the traffic of game buyers. And you’re fooling yourself if you think the portal experience can be replicated on the cheap, just by throwing up an ‘indie-community’ portal – a little Frontpage job or Wiki you cooked up in an afternoon.

I can understand that there are business models that don’t fit within the portal paradigm. But if you try to go it alone, you’re like that self-published author who can’t get his book in any bookstores and tries to sell it from the trunk of his car. A (very small) number of self-published authors do break through. But I’d rather be on the front display table at Barnes and Noble.

No Level Editor

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

For all of the big commercial games I worked on, including Railroad Tycoon 2 and 3 and Tropico, we created elaborate level editors. So good and polished, in fact, that we shipped them with the game.

It was, for the most part, a waste of time. It took a lot of effort to polish those editors to shippable quality. Very few users spent much time creating maps – perhaps 0.1% of the people who bought the game ever created a semi-polished map. A slightly larger percentage, perhaps 5%, ever downloaded user-made maps. But the programming effort spent on the level editor could have gone to the game itself.

As I was thinking out level designs today, I debated making a simple level editor for my casual game. But I know if I started with a simple editor, I’d add bells and whistles, and try to get it to be good enough for end users, leading to a whole new set of support issues.

In the end, I decided to just edit a big header file called LevelDesigns.h. Which, incedentally, is exactly what I did for Bonnie’s Bookstore. It took an hour to get code support for the features I wanted, versus days if I’d developed a bona-fide editor.

I know an editor is necessary for some types of games – certainly for more advanced commercial games. But I think in general, programmers should resist the urge to create uber-editors, and focus on their game instead.

Windows Vista, no earlier than Jan. 2007

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

Microsoft has confirmed that Vista won’t ship to consumers until at least January 2007.

http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060321-6433.html

Oof, this thing was already two years late if it shipped in summer ’06. Now I’m glad I bought a new PC about 4 months ago (I had been contemplating holding off until Vista came pre-installed).

Steve Jobs was spotted dancing a little jig at the news…

Hobbyists vs. Professionals

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

On sites where small game developers congregate, there’s a lot of verbal sparring between ‘indie’ developers and ‘casual’ developers.

‘Indie’ developers tend to make esoteric/niche games, often harkening back to the mid-80s when shoot-em ups ruled the arcades and action and RPG games dominated the C-64/Amiga markets.

‘Casual’ developers tend to make match-3 games, looking to Bejewelled and Zuma as their inspiration.

‘Indie gamers accuse casual developers of making only clones. I think both sides are making clones, it’s just that the games cloned by indie gamers are 20 years old, versus 2 years old for the casual gamers.

Really though, I think the split comes down to this: Indie developers are quite often hobbyists, casual developers are professionals. Hobbyist developers want to make games that they love, and if it makes money, that’s a bonus. Professional developers want to make games that make money, and if they love the game, that’s a bonus.

I don’t mean to be disparaging in calling indie developers hobbyists. Hobbies are a good thing. If your hobby has a small income potential, so much the better. Once upon a time, semi-pro ‘crafty’ hobbies were quite popular. Men would use their elaborate tool sets to make wooden crafts and sell them at craft fairs. Women would make quilts or knitted sweaters. Payback for time invested wasn’t that high, but they were making what they loved, and a bit of income off of it, too. If that’s how you view game making, then good for you – go ahead and make your old-school retro classic, and you might make $500-$2000 for 6-18 months of part-time effort. That’s more than I make for my hobby – watching Law & Order episodes.

But on the flip side, if this is your primary means of putting bread on the table, then you have to make concessions. Sure, make something you enjoy, but also make something others will buy as well.

And both sides, realize that the actions of the other side are different in large part because the motivations of the other side are different.

More on game profitability

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

Various follow-ups to my article from a couple days ago about the profitability (or lack thereof) of many/most casual and indie games, and another article I wrote on converting web traffic to sales.

First, I forgot to link to an excellent article by Jeff Tunnell, head honcho at GarageGames, on game profitability written shortly before mine.

Thomas Warfield blogs about my web sales article, critiquing my high-level approach to marketing Bonnie’s Bookstore on the web. I agree with him that Bonnie’s Bookstore is not conceptually a great title for selling from my own site (due to various design decisions, which he enumerates well). But I made a conscious choice with BB to go primarily for web sales. Changing aspects of BB to, say, triple sales from my own site, at the expense of portal sales, wouldn’t have been good decision, as sales from my own site are only <1% of total sales anyways.

On the Rampant Games blog there’s a bit of discussion of the issue. Their game, Void War is a nice, polished looking indie game (not casual), that only just broke even, after having been released a year and a half ago and winning a number of indie-game awards.

Art Style

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

So, I’m debating between two different art styles for my next game.

Check out the mockups here,

then tell me whether you like the realistic style (images 1 and 3) or the cartoony style (images 2 and 4) better.

E-mail me at psteinmeyer A T newcrayon . c0m

Converting Web Traffic To Sales

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

A lot of indie developers still scoff at the portals and sell their games primarily or exclusively from their own websites.

Some developers have had success with this, including Thomas Warfield, who sells Solitaire games, Positech, maker of detailed strategy sims like Democracy. Other casual developers, like PopCap and Retro64, derive a lot of their revenue from their own sites.

Still, I was skeptical that my own site would be much of a revenue driver, and, after a bit of data gathering in the last couple months, I’m now even more convinced.

On the surface, selling from your own site looks great. You have complete control over the marketing experience, get to capture nearly 100% of the revenue (minus maybe 10% for order processing and 1-2% for bandwidth costs), and you get to ‘own’ the customer relationship.

But the problem is volume. When you start your superfragilistic game company, nobod knows you exist. They’re not googling for your game. 100% of $0 is still $0.

Yes, others have drawn some traffic to their web sites and built a business. But they were generally pioneers of their genre, and have been going for 5-15 years. The half dozen-ish indies that can make a living this way are dwarfed by the hundreds who try to sell their game from their web site and fail (see some of the examples I posted yesterday).

I wouldn’t recommend (or try myself), to sell a game on your own, without external distribution (portals or otherwise). But assuming you are going the portal route, can you capture extra revenue on your own website?

I do have a website for my company, New Crayon Games, which sells my own game, and a few others. But it took a bit of effort to set up.

To sell my own game, I first had to make sure that in my negotiations with my publisher (PopCap), I carved out a right to do so. Fortunately, they went along with this readily (they probably knew my own site’s sales would be a flyspeck). Then I had to buy a copy protection system (Software Passport), for about $300, then set up an account with Plimus (an order processor), then set up a website with Dreamhost, and design a website with Dreamweaver. I would probably have done the website even if I wasn’t selling, but I certainly spent more time on it because I was selling from it.

All told, I spent at least 2-3 days of effort, plus a few hundred dollars, on my website.

Results so far? Well, relative to sales through my publisher’s site, my own site has generated less than 1% of the sales (in units and dollars) that my publisher has generated (and paid me for). And that’s not counting sales through 3rd party portals (I haven’t gotten those reports yet). So bottom line, my own site hasn’t paid off.

About a month ago, I signed up with Reflexive Arcade, which allows you to sell other people’s games from your website, earning about a 30% commission. It’s somewhat easy to use, though probably not as easy as it should be (and their documentation is poor). Because I’m only earning 30% of sales, rather than the ~90% I earn from selling my own game, the sales are certainly going to be less valuable. But will it generate any sales volume?

It’s been weak so far. For every unique visitor to my company web page, I generate 0.23 downloads of Bonnie’s Bookstore, and 0.08 downloads of all the other games combined (originally I had 2 Reflexive games up there, now I’ve got 3). The volumes are too low to make really firm statements about conversion rates, but assuming they hold at about industry standards, I’ll generate about 10% as much money from the 3rd party games as I generate from selling Bonnie’s Bookstore on my site. And as I said, I’m not generating much selling BB. Perhaps the 3rd party game sales will grow, and I admit I could probably invest more time and do a better job selling the 3rd party games, but there’s just not enough value there to justify it for me.

Some may point out that my site only has 3 3rd party games, and I’m not hooking to the whole Reflexive library, as some sites do. Perhaps more revenue is possible that way, but running a site that clones Reflexive’s own site, but with smaller margins and much less traffic than Reflexive own site, just doesn’t seem like a great business model to me.

The one thing I do consider valuable from the 3rd party games is the opportunity to gather a bit of data. Once you get a handle on it, Reflexive has a decent data reporting system, and I’ll be able to see which of my hosted games draw the most downloads, the most completed downloads, the most sales, and so on. This data is rarely disclosed for front line titles, so there is some useful information value there.

Bandwidth costs

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

One issue that a lot of people raise at some issue in regards to casual games is the cost of bandwidth. When 99% of your users don’t pay you anything, do the 1% that do pay adequately cover the bandwidth cost?

In the past, I asked around about what bandwidth costs per GB, but never got a solid answer. The problem is that the typical ‘plan’ for small businesses includes a large block of bandwidth, which the ISP grants as a splashy come-on, knowing that most customers will only use 5% or less of their bandwidth. If you actually build a successful business, additional bandwidth provided by your ISP can be much more expensive than the first lot. Moreover, really taxing your host by using a lot of bandwidth can overwhelm the smaller servers and connections these hosts typically rely on, resulting in poor service for your customers.

For New Crayon, I use Dreamhost, and although I haven’t tested their bandwidth out with huge traffic, overall, I’m pleased with them.

They charge $8/month, and provide 1000 GB of bandwidth for that. So, 0.8 cents/GB.

Amazon just launched a ‘pro’ service, S3, with quality standards the same as what they use for their own site (i.e. it uses their internal network). It’s a ‘pay as you go’ service, for 20 cents/GB.

That’s a big swing – 0.8 versus 20 cents / GB. I’m sure Dreamhost would be losing money on you as a customer if you regularly used exactly your allotted 1000GB. Incidentally, Dreamhost charges $1.00 for every GB over 1000 that you use. So if you use 1000 GB, you pay $8 / month. If you use 1100 GB, you pay $108 / month. Clearly there’s some weird price scaling here.

Let’s use the Amazon number, as I frankly trust it more as a gauge of what high volume, reliable bandwidth costs (with adequate coverage for peak periods). What does that mean to the casual games biz model?

A typical casual game is 10MB, sells for $20, and has a conversion rate of 1%.

So, users will download 1 GB (1000 MB, i.e. 10 * 100) for each sale you ring up.

Even at Amazon’s 20 cents / GB rate, the bandwidth cost would only be about 1% of your gross sales (i.e. $20). Even if you allow for traffic for the users that visit your website and don’t download anything, and make other unfavorable adjustments like assuming a larger game size or a smaller conversion rate, bandwidth costs are not likely to be very significant.

GDC

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

Quick note – I will NOT be at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this year. I DO plan on attending the Casuality conference in Seattle in June. If for any reason you want to contact me and had been hoping to bump into me at GDC, just drop me a line instead.

My e-mail address is on the About Me page. I’m also more than happy to talk to folks on the phone, too.

But traveling to West Coast conferences is a pain, so I’m limiting it to one this year.

How much does an average casual game make?

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

This is one of the most important questions for anyone interested in this business. After a year or so of puttering around in this genre, I’m still looking for a solid answer, but I’ll throw out a few opinions…

First, the use of the word ‘average’ in my question posed above is intentionally sloppy. The average can be either the median or the mean, and in this case, there’s a very big difference. If 10 casual games are released, with 9 of them earning $1000, and the last one earning $1 million, then the mean is just over $100K/game, but the median is only $1K. 9 of the 10 developers are likely NOT going to be happy with their measly $1000 for many months of work, and various costs that almost certainly add up to well over $1000.

The hypothetical I’ve just outlined is in fact, not that far from the truth. Casual games sales, so far as I can tell, are on a huge geometric curve.

The hits (Zuma, Bejewelled, JewelQuest, Luxor), will generate multiple millions in revenue over the course of a few years. Developed by small teams with low costs, the vast bulk of that revenue is pure profit.

But don’t quit your day job too fast. These hits are rare. I would venture that:

The average* casual game loses money.

*median

Most casual games are made by small developers spending $1-5K out of pocket on things like contract art and music, plus whatever value you attach to their own time that they’ve put in. If you put in a reasonable estimate of the value of the programmer’s time (say $10-20K for 3-12 months of part time work), I doubt many of the games recoup. Even looking at the out-of-pocket (i.e. cash) costs alone, many games lose money.

Example 1:
The Cursed Wheel – a competent, but undistinguished match-3. Distributed on Big Fish, Reflexive, GameFiesta, and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – a bit under $4K. Revenues – around $1K. Data here.

Example 2:
Xmas Bonus – a competent JewelQuest clone with a Christmas theme (released in December). Distributed on BigFish and Reflexive and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – about $500. Revenues – about $3.5K. Data here.

Example 3:
Cactus Bruce and the Corporate Monkeys – a cross between breakout and a bubble popper. Distributed on various (smaller) portals and the developer’s own site. Hard costs – ???. Revenues – ‘tens of thousands’ (probably about $20-40K, by my estimate). Note that this game had a 5 man team developing it, probably about 10 man-months of development, and salary costs probably well above revenues. Data here.

If you browse the Business forums at IndieGamer, you’ll find other similar examples.

My point is not to beat up on the games or developers listed above – I thank them for publicly sharing some of their sales/cost data. But I want to make clear that, while a few well-known hits make a lot of money, there are very likely far more small developers in this area losing money or at best earning a VERY low return on their own time.

An old Railroad Tycoon casual game

Monday, March 13th, 2006

As a marketing gimick for Railroad Tycoon 3 back in 2003, we commissioned an RT3 flavored web game – basically an updated version of the old game Loco-Commotion.

I thought that this promo game had been pulled off the web long ago, but one of the original authors of the game posted a link to it in a comment to this blog. It’s actually a fairly fun time waster for 15-30 minutes, and plays for free in your browser, so check it out.

PC progression

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

My parents’ old e-Machines PC died on them yesterday, and I helped them setup the new PC, also an e-Machines. The old one was whatever e-Machines was selling for $399 3.5 years ago, and the new one is what e-Machines is selling for $399 today.

There has been surprisingly little progression.

The case was, in all substantive details, physically identical. The only differences I noted were slightly different stickers, a different color LED for the power button, and the new case was a very slightly darker shade of black (though perhaps the old case had just faded).

I didn’t go over the specs in detail, but they were rather similar. The CPU had moved from a 1.8 Ghz to an AMD 3000+ (i.e. sorta 3.0 Ghz), but that 66% improvement in ~42 months pales in comparison to the old standard of 100% improvement every 18 months or so.

The CD/RW was now a combo DVD reader with CD/RW capabilities, and there was now an 8 in 1 memory card reader (for camera cards). There were probably minor improvements in video card/chip and perhaps HD size, but they’re moot for my parents and I didn’t look closer.

The OS (Windows XP) was the same.

I suspect rates of improvements will slow even further in the years ahead. Manufacturers seem to have given up on CPU speed improvements and instead are touting multi-core processors. But the programmer in me knows that adding a second processor will not double the effective horsepower of your PC – most of the time it will feel like a ~10% improvement. Going from 2 to 4 processors yields even smaller benefits.

[Borrowing an anology I read somewhere]

From Wilbur and Orville’s first airplane flight in 1903, to the Apollo moon landings in 1969 (i.e 66 years), there was an almost hockey-stick like growth in air/space flight capabilities. The future seemed to promise more of the same. As a boy in the 70s, I read fantastic predictions of 10,000 people living on a space station by the year 2000. But, as we all know, air/space flight improvements slowed dramatically from 1970 onward. Modern jumbo jets are certainly more efficient than the 60s era jets like the 707, but the improvements are only incremental. And in space, needless to say, little from the last 35 years has really surpassed, or even equalled, Apollo and the 1969 moon landings.

The computer industry started with ENIAC in 1946. We are now 60 years old, almost as old as the air/space industry at the top of it’s arc in 1969. I suspect that in 40 years, my children and grandchildren will mark this time period as the one in which the geometric growth in computer capabilities finally started to slow down. I don’t think computers will stop improving, and they’ll probably improve much more over the next 40 years than airplanes have over the last 40, but still, the ‘golden era’ is over.