Free DLC for indie games: financial suicide or smart politics?

In the dawn of the success of CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 and their welcomed, arguably innovative, or perhaps retro attitude towards free content, it is easy to see why even the little guys may want to follow those giant footsteps. But is it viable for indie developers to do so? And more to the point, why do it at all?

 

As the quest designer and writer of a small indie studio, it fell to me to share our wisdom and folly with the indie community. To discuss the subject I will dissect our recent experience with free DLC’s and talk about our own journey, the good the bad and the damn right ugly.

 

So who are ‘we’ exactly?

Thea: The Awakening is a strategy/survival/4x/rpg made by MuHa Games with a core team of four people and more importantly, only one programmer. As such, we had our limitations, both financial and physical, to overcome as our project grew in scale and scope. In an effort to gain funds we proudly failed two Kickstarters and raided our personal savings.

 

 

The saving graces came largely from selling our own framework (Honey Hex Framework) on the Unity Asset Store (http://u3d.as/9e1), which boosted our tight budget and allowed us to finish the game. At the very end of the development process we also found a publishing partner who took over the sales and distribution of eventual box sets and localization costs. While this partnership had no impact on our production budget, it provided additional possibilities for the game’s development, although the effects of this cooperation would only become available post-release. Thea was published on Steam Early Access in September 2015 and then fully released on November 20th 2015 and up to date, we’ve sold approximately 70k copies. We also released two major DLC’s since and both of them were provided for free.

 

So why choose to give away content, and did it work?

 

Nothing in life is free, right?

 

So why do it? Building a relationship with our fanbase and building our ‘brand’ as we want it, that was one of the key reasons for releasing free DLC. Sounds idealistic and it is. That is what being indie is all about, or at least it is in our books.

 

We really do value our fans and we do believe in free content for a game you already paid for. We have shown this by listening to  feedback, carefully considering reviews, even the bad ones, staying very active on the Steam forums and implementing much of the user feedback we get straight into the game, sometimes within hours after we received it. Now, this isn’t supposed to be bragging, but I just want to make clear that providing the free DLC’s is part of our larger company ‘policy’ which is simply to do the best we can for the gamers who already invested their money and trust in us.

 

In case you think we’re a bunch of starving idealists, or we’re lying, I’d like to make it clear that Thea’s sales covered our costs within the very first day of the launch and up to date (date of this article that is) we have sold just over 70k copies. While this doesn’t mean we’re swimming in cash, it did mean that we had more money than we expected after release. With that in mind the decision was made that we will now give back to the community and create the content. Thanks to the sales, we were able to consider features either requested by people on the forums, or things we always wanted to add, but had no resources to do so before.

 

And so, our first free DLC, The Return of the Giants was born, adding such features as localization, full voice-overs for all events in English, over 70 more events, including a new main storyline, an event editor, more art, music and an abundance of gameplay improvements and features.

 

It is during this phase that our partnership with a publisher bore fruit, as they were able to cover the costs of the localization. Seeing as our game has over 250k words, this was no small task and one that would not be able to cover ourselves. In exchange, the publisher got the rights to distribute our game on all platform except Steam, Humble, GMG and GOG as well as box sets and we would split profits from those proceeds.

 

Did Giants pay off?

 

Well, financially speaking the crude answer is: NO.

Postmortem of the Giants DLC:

The cost of development of this DLC ended up being around 90.000 euro. The DLC was free and about 8000 of our players have enjoyed it within the first two weeks after the release. Sales after the DLC brought about 10.000 euro above what we were usually selling without the DLC, and normalized in about 10 days.

 

So if we were to judge things by those figures alone, we would have lost a big chunk of cash. Working with a publisher was a huge saving grace here, as we did not carry the costs of the localization which the publisher invested in, to eventually regain from the box sales. Still, for us, the Giants did not prove to be a huge financial hit and it was disheartening.

 

So was it all bad?

Well, not entirely. While we did not increase our sales, we did continue to build a loyal and loving fan base. People began to create forum threads encouraging others to buy Thea for their friends, organised their own giveaways and even doing their own community translations.

 

The work that our programmer put into creating an event editor for community modding was very valuable, both for this project and for our future work. Players who create their own quests and ask questions or request features inevitably give us precious feedback and ideas we would never get being limited to our small team. Much of the work we do for Thea is in part a learning exercise or at least an open arena for honing our skills, mastering working as a team and building up for whatever we do next.

 

Why do we think Giants didn’t do so well in terms of sales?

There are several lessons we’ve learnt from our Giants experience. Lesson number one: timing is key. Localization of more than 250k words took a long time. It is not only the translation itself, but implementation and testing that really took a toll. For various reasons, we were forced to push our release by almost a month (and that was on an already delayed deadline) and we believe this was very detrimental to our sales. Why? Simply because features like localization or voice overs have the strongest impact when they come out asap, while the game is still ‘fresh’, otherwise, a lot of the players already finished it and won’t come back, even with a DLC. Another reason we are considering, was missing a Steam sale at the end of March, as the figures from our second DLC will show, launching a free DLC while the game is on sale is bound to have a greater impact, so this was another boat we missed with Giants.

This graph shows our sales figure during the March Steam Sale vs the sales we got for Giants (the smaller red circle).

 

And then you decide to give away a second DLC, are you crazy?

Yes, well, it is likely that we are. Still, our main reason for offering free content updates remained unchanged and despite the setbacks, we wanted to test the ‘lessons learnt’ and give it another go.

 

What did we approach differently?

 

We set a deadline in stone and we did not allow external parties to influence this date. In order to achieve this goal and to minimise the costs we made a decision to only localize key events and UI, and also to limit the voice-overs. The editing tool we created for the Giants, the event editor, allowed us to cut down considerably on the word count, and so this goal was achieved with ease and minimal cost.

 

Focusing on features that would not stretch our budget and yet make some real quality improvements to the game was step number two. So while we limited the costs of the story content, our main focus for the second DLC was implementing a co-op mode for Thea. This was a huge task, but one that only cost our coder’s sanity and sleep, so nothing new there.

 

Multiplayer for a 4x, why?

Well, to quote our programmer directly: ‘I wanted to play Thea with my wife.’ Yes, I kid you not, this was the actual leading reason and one we pride ourselves on. Why? Because that is kind of how Thea came to life: ‘What type of game would we enjoy?’ was always the question that led our discussions.

 

But, there were other reasons. The feature was on a wishlist from the community and it is something that we wanted to do from the get go for our next project. So, to put it bluntly, doing the co-op for Thea was the perfect occasion to test our skills and see how it works.

 

Trying things out and community testing is actually one of the biggest advantages of providing free downloadable content to your players, especially when you have a small team with limited resources. With four/five people on our team at any given time, we were never able to do large scale testing and one thing all creators know is how claustrophobic it gets to interact with your own creation.

 

And so, having provided a free DLC we feel more comfortable in knowing our players will inevitably help us discover many areas where tweaks, fixes or added features are needed or wanted. Some of our fans have remarked that they’d rather pay for content than get something half baked. So, it is crucial to note here that we never publish unfinished or unplayable content!

 

Even during early access we only pressed the publish button once our game was fully playable and feature complete – albeit back then, it had a lot room for growth. We have the same policy for our free DLC’s. They only come out once they are truly ready, but once they are out, we are happy to work with the community to make them even better.

 

From the moment we released Thea in early access till the release of the second DLC, we did over 160 updates, patches, fixes and features and although the time has now come to slowly move on to the next project, we will certainly continue to support Thea: The Awakening in whatever way we can.

 

So was it all worth it?

YES!

I mentioned earlier how timing was an issue for Giants, and I believe we have learnt our lesson. We stuck to our deadlines, used a faster service to do our shortened localization, and we released the MultiPrayer DLC during the Steam Summer Sale. Our sales this month had a +1572% increase from the previous month on Steam, and while the sale is likely the main culprit here, we still think combining the two was the jackpot.

 

And more importantly, our relationship with the community grows. Only this week we had one generous fan donated $1000 for us to spend on more artwork and a dedicated group of French gamers did their own translation for the game (because the ‘official one’ turned out to be terrible, so a word of caution on localization here!). Over the course of making Thea, we had people offer free proofreading, testing, recording videos and so much more. I believe this kind of a relationship with your community is priceless and worth all the hard work.

 

Inspired by our community constantly asking us for ways to pay us for the DLC’s we’ve also come up with Coffee for Coding, our only ‘paid’ DLC to date, which includes some awesome cards with Thea artwork as a thank you for those who want to support our efforts. This new model, a ‘pay-if-you-wish’ DLC, seems like the perfect way to stick with our ideals but also give people the chance to say thank you without imposing it on them.

We’ll never know how much of the summer sales is due to the 40% price cut and how much the free DLC helped, but it certainly looks better than with Giants!

 

Free DLC’s for Indies – yes please.

One thing to note when considering free content is actually the prime rule for indie dev anyway: don’t overestimate what is doable, don’t overreach and only do things that are well within your team’s competence. Our community requested many features, a lot of them were well outside the scope of our game, and if we did succumb to these requests, this story could have had a much worse ending. So keep your budget tight, only do things that are achievable in reasonable time limits and without blowing your already limited budgets!

 

The Indie market is a tough one. If like us, you have a small team, limited resources and a tight budget that simply cannot stretch to huge marketing campaigns, you need to think outside the box. For us, this meant putting a lot of emphasis on our community in hopes of the power of the ‘word of mouth’. This strategy has paid off and we do believe it is a valid route for other indies. Create a good product, respect your client and the rest will fall into place – sounds idealistic, but it certainly worked for us and I am sure it can work for you.

 

 

MultiPrayer update is now live!

MultiPrayer

The second big DLC has just hit the stores! The main focus of this DLC is a co-op mode for 2 players, where you’ll be able to play with your buddy and overcome the dangers of Thea together!

So, how does it work? Both players start with their own village, not too far from each other, and lead their people autonomously under the banner of one god. Each player has their own Inventory, Experience Points and Research tree unlocks. They can trade supplies and villagers and work together to complete the main game events, but random events can pop-up for each player independently. Turns are played simultaneously and while you can’t jump in to help your friend in a fight, you can resolve your own fights while you wait for your buddy to finish theirs.

Of course the DLC is not only about it. It also includes new stories, art, UI improvements, a new building and of course bugfixes.

So, stay on your toes, it might be a good occasion to introduce your friend to Thea and enjoy its perils together.

* (yes, we are aware that multi technically means anything more than one. But two is more than one and we just couldn’t resist using the MultiPrayer name for this DLC).

Here is a changelog:

New features and improvements:

– Co-op mode (as a separate download – see DLC section),
– A set of new events, fully translated and voiced,
– A set of additional events in English (as a separate download – see DLC section),
– Recipe screen now tells what are the chances of obtaining a good quality item,
– Turn Summary will show the amount of resources received and indicate if they come from gathering or from a building,
– Gathering tasks show the amount of resource currently in the group’s inventory,
– Added Community Language – French,
– Entity Info screen and event drop list now displays information if a weapon is 1- or 2-Handed,
– New icons on Research/Crafting recipes screen,
– New icons for dozens of items (and 1-handed weapon icons can be more easily told apart from 2-handed weapons),
– Entity info screen now shows materials and properties on one page (no tab),
– New Building – Blessed Paths – increases gathering range of the player’s Village,
– New icons for difficulties 6 to 10,
– Re-balanced armours and shields,
– Re-balanced unliving rats.
Fixes:

– Mokosh lvl 5 now properly gives +4 Health instead of +1 to your villagers,
– Setting craft count to maximum possible should work correctly now,
– Fixed a bug in the Scholar Village, where you should learn Herbalism but didn’t. Also changed the prerequisites for Medic training, so that only existing medics will be able to improve their skill, not a random person,
– Fixed a bug in the Cosmic Tree quest where you had a dialogue option with the Leshy that should not have been visible till later,
– Fixed Weatherer using incorrect graphics,
– Preset group loading fix,
– Fixed a bug where a gatherer would get unassigned from a task if there is more than one resource of this type available for gathering,
– Fixed a hang in the Events Editor that happened when two lists contained no elements in common,
– In bloodbath mode, a character having 0 life no longer shows as critically injured as it effectively has 0% chance to die,
– Fixed damage received when fleeing from a fight in Bloodbath mode,
– Fixed “- -” that was displayed during event resolving, when a wound tag was removed,
– Fixed calculation of the time it should take for a tasks to complete (if fuel supplies changed).

Have fun!

“Hey, I’d like to make a video!”

I have no idea how many games get released each year, but I it’s more every year. Gamers have a good choice of titles, but only some titles are worth the time and money. This is where reviews come in, either in the form of written text in a big magazine, or store page reviews. But there are no truly impartial reviews and a reviewer may like different things in games than we do, right? Different things annoy or give joy to different people so the best idea of what a game is like is to watch someone play it. YouTube has gained a massive popularity among gamers in the recent years, there are tons of content makers spitting out various video material. But from the dawn of game development, the custom is that reviewers don’t buy the games they review. They get it from developers.

If you’ve ever published a game, you most likely also received tons of key requests from YouTubers. This is all fine, if they actually intend making a review. I won’t go into detail whether gameplays/reviews on smaller channels have any impact on sales or even awareness of the game. I’d like to write about how developers give keys away for free and see no profit from it whatsoever.

(I admit I am writing this post to get some steam off, as I’ve just discovered I’ve given out at least 15 keys in the past 3 weeks to scammers).

We all know there are impostors around. Guys that claim to be owners of a big YT channel. In most cases, there’s an obvious mismatch in the e-mail address they write from and the one listed on YT. Smarter crooks use an e-mail address looking very similar to the legit one and if you don’t double check, you’ll miss the difference. But in general, these are easy to catch. We’ve been checking every single request that we receive, thinking we’re safe. But there’s a new scheme that we only caught recently.

Say you’ve got a channel with several videos and a 1.5k subs. Not bad right? Most smaller devs, who badly need promotion, will be happy to give you a key or two. Or even more, “for giveaway”, if you ask nicely. So you e-mail every indie dev you can find and get some keys from them. Then you wait two weeks, change your e-mail, your channel’s name and artwork and repeat. Anyone who doesn’t want to spend too much of their valuable time on checking for scam attempts will give you another set of keys. Rinse and repeat after another two weeks. Heck, make a dozen channels like that and you’re set for good! Especialy that it’s quite easy to sell any amount of keys through sites such as G2A or Kinguin.

So what tipped me off? There was this repeating pattern of someone writing us on our contact e-mail, asking for a couple keys (“for me and my friends who help run the channel”), a fuzzy link (with a random alphanumeric link instead of name) and an encouragement to check the e-mail address with the channel’s about section (which was always matching). If unanswered for a couple days, the person sent exactly the same e-mail again. So having a backlog of around a week, I went through with checking the channels and noticed the same page opening from two “different” e-mails that were sent around a week apart. Then I compared the links with the key giveaway record we’ve got and it turned out that it’s a couple channels writing us over and over again, only from a different e-mails. But channel links matched.

So, name and shame (actually listing these channels’ names is pointless as they change frequently, so just links):

www.youtube.com/channel/UCyiLhupGSGOgoh4IcL4rkpg
www.youtube.com/channel/UC_TgLJm0paPjmJQTWaHqDhQ
www.youtube.com/channel/UCzOhUFVqJSGk20eB0kFCyOg

Knowing how this works now, I’ve decided to have some fun –  I’ll play ball, but they’ll be getting only keys that I’m sure were already used, as many keys as they want. They can’t check if the key is good or not without actually using it to get the game so they most likely sell it. So either it wastes some of their time, or it teaches a lesson some poor kid who bough the game from an unauthorized reseller. Sorry if you’re that kid.

Speaking of returns…

Today a couple words about returns and refunds.
As you know, some time ago Steam has introduced refunds, which I think in general is a great idea. People are less afraid to try out new games and if something doesn’t go right, whether it is a hardware problem or the game just turns out to be something else they anticipated – they have no feeling of being cheated.
On the other hand, refunds can get bused in many ways. Some are obvious – when a cheap short game gets refunded even if the player enjoyed it. Others are more hidden. A fiend once told us he was inspecting a group of accounts that roughly at the same time bought a game, left negative feedback and refunded the game. While for games with already a lot of feedback these 10-12 negatives may not really affect, smaller and recently released games with only a handful of reviews may suffer a great deal. Their positive to negative ratio drops significantly, changing a Very Positive rating to Mixed (or worse) very quickly. What influence does it have on new sales? I don’t need to tell you.

Anyway, from time to time we browse refund reasons. These can really tell all sorts of problems the users encountered, that they in most cases didn’t want to bring up on the forums or didn’t bother to try and find a fix for. Such as mouse cursor being offset for non-native resolutions (thank you, Unity). And while some refunds could not have been avoided, from others we can draw conclusions as to what might have gone wrong and what can be improved. The percentage of returned purchases stays around a modest value of 4.3%, so it is a bit below average. Yet still, some are absolutely hilarious and I can’t help but to share with you the 5 best that I found (and I haven’t even browsed through all 2000 Steam lists). I truly hope their authors, even if not named, will not be upset 😉 Kept original spelling.

5. Accidental buy by my child, measures have been taken
//it’s so unfair to punish the poor kiddo for having a good taste… On the other hand PEGI rated Thea as “12” so it’s not appropriate for youngsters 😉

4. It’s cool but I really can’t afford this game now and need the money back thank you.
//behold the ancient Slavic Curse of Spending!

3. Purchased as gift- gift was declined.
//this almost broke my heart x]

2. Didnt know there was no multiplayer, bought the game twice to play with a friend. Angry
//I though this was funny but then Khash told me he’d like to try adding multiplayer. It was 1st of April so I’m still not sure if he really meant that 

1. dont like the game. I thought it was a first person game.
//it also isn’t a space shooter, in case anyone asks

Till next time!

The Giants return to Thea!

The DLC we promised is finally here! Have a look at the trailer, which sums up the most important features:


Below is a list of stuff you can expect:

New features:

– Localization to German, Polish, Russian and French,
– Full English voiceover for all events,
– Story Events Editor,
– 70 new events,
– 4 new building types,
– 9 new music tracks,
– Additional characters, items and events artwork,
– New human classes and monsters,
– New Quality attribute, which can modify equipment parameters,
– Compare items popup on Equipment screen,
– Research – clicking on a researched resource will show a popup, informing if it was found on the map and add an icon on the top of the HUD, allowing you to view its location,
– Logbook – added eye icon, which locates places linked to the quest,
– HUD – added Pause Menu button in the top left corner,
– HUD – New Turn message when your turn begins,
– Difficulty levels above 5 (up to 10),
– Lair spawn rebalanced to provide more variety and better difficulty control,
– Some recipes can now utilize the least valuable resources such as clay,

Changes:

– Improved Auto-resolve,
– Research costs are varied, some techs cost more than 1RP,
– Vine and Spiderweb give bonus to Ranged weapons,
– Inventory – added two +10 buttons when moving stacks of items,
– Village Warriors can wield 2-handed swords in one hand,
– Card Minigame – clicking on a message dismisses it

Fixes:

– Jewellery items now correctly take up one slot, allowing characters to wear two pieces of jewellery simultaneously,
– Reshuffle should give a different outcome every time,
– Crafting screen – requirement checking should now correctly take into account catalyst requirement.

We’ve been working hard on this addon for the past 4 months so hope you have a lot of fun with it!

Fun Facts!

Here’s a couple numbers related to development and sales of Thea:

  • The production started 19 months ago, in June 2014
  • Core development team of four was supported by several members of “friends & family” throughout the whole time of production
  • Cost of assets, outsourcing and other development-related (excluding living costs) totaled to ~£15.000
  • Over half of that cost was covered by revenue from selling Honey Hex Framework on Unity Asset Store, which is also a base used for Thea
  • As of end of January, the game has been sold to ~40.000 players and further ~100.000 have Thea on their wishlists
  • During 54 days of Early Access (28 Sept – 20 Nov 2015) we have released 110 updates, which greatly improved the game, thanks to community feedback
  • Thea earned 9% of its total income in one day after release from EA
  • 300 copies were sold to Mac and Linux users, even though we do not officially support these platforms (but we do offer working builds for them)
  • Top 5 countries, where we sold the most copies:
    • US – 34.4%
    • Germany – 9.3%
    • Russian Federation – 7.5%
    • United Kingdom – 7.5%
    • France – 6.0%
  • Total word count (including not yet released DLC content) amounts to ~200.000
  • Thea consists of ~60.000 214.360 lines of code (seems that Visual Studio’s counting is bugged so we counted line end characters and ended up with almost 3x as many lines).

Back to 5.1.4

I am writing this as a follow up, as 5.2.3p3 and also 5.2.4 turned out to be crashing quite a lot. It was actually crashing not only the build but also the whole editor. A couple days later 5.3.1 appeared, but the texture bug from 5.3.0 remained.

So the last stable, relatively bug-free release was Unity 5.1.4, which we’ll probably stick with for longer. All this testing and wasted time, only to move from 5.1.1 to 5.1.4… But there are also good news, and I only discovered this today – the button-offset-on-non-native-resolution bug seems to be fixed in this version! Now, off to delete the other 6 versions of Unity to save some disk space…

Love – hate relationship

Today I wanted to write a little bit about our planned update from Unity 5.1.1 to 5.3.0 and why it’s taking so long.

First, let me say, that Unity is a great engine. We really enjoy working with it. I might be more difficult to pump out high-end graphics on it (not that we care, we haven’t got resources to provide AAA graphics anyway), but it’s easy to work with and its UI editor is the best I’ve worked with so far. Having said that, I sadly have to admit that most of the recent releases have not been ideal (and I’m being diplomatic here).

5.1.1 we used so far was released in June, 2015. The major problems with it was the resolution glitch – when the player selected a resolution that was of different aspect ratio than their monitor’s, all buttons’ hit areas where offset significantly, making the gameplay rather difficult and navigation extremely annoying. Some of those, who encountered that problem, found a solution on our forums, but others just assumed the game is faulty. I don’t need to add, it resulted in at least several refunds (and I do understand that, as a buyer I would expect the game to work without having to look at forums for solutions). 5.1.1 also caused a sticky keys problem on Linux build (which is officially not supported, but if that’s something we can fix then we would). So, we waited for Unity 5.2…

Unity 5.2.x fixed all of the above and also, among other improvements, added dropdown boxes, which we wanted to use in the Event Editor we are working on. But life would be too easy if everything worked correctly, right? So this time, there was something messed up with physics. Profiler, even on a new, empty scene, kept showing spikes on physics every few seconds, up to 160 ms. This, unsurprisingly, resulted in poor game performance and framerate drops. So, we waited for Unity 5.3…

Unity 5.3 was released on 8th Dec. It did fix the framerate drops, so we started using it for the last week and were very optimistic that all serious issues from previous releases have been fixed. Until we started testing on DX9, Linux and Mac. Mac build was crashing straight away. Linux and DX9 had a very serious graphical glitch, were upon interaction with an animated element on scene, several other animated elements on that scene was assigned a different texture for 1 frame (like – a Cancel button was getting a font atlas texture). The visual effect was that half of the screen blinked for a split second. Not something we could have present in a release build…

So we scratched our heads and the best option was to revert to an earlier Unity build. There was only one candidate – 5.1.4, which in theory should be working without 5.2 physics spikes, but with sticky keys for Linux fixed. This was all fine, but it would mean the resolution bug would still be present, at this bug alone was the main reason to move away from 5.1.x. And we would lose about one weeks worth of changes to try and apply it to an earlier version.

So we scratched our heads even more, and discovered that at the end of November, Unity released version 5.2.3. This one had resolution problems fixed, sticky Linux key fixed and no spike on physics. It also includes UI dropdown boxes and fixes some glitches with Input fields. But because it’s still 5.2.x series, it has no texture flickering glitch, that was added to 5.3.0 as a side effect of asynchronous texture loading to improve performance. At this point it needs more tests to use it for a release build, but we have high hopes.

So the past few days were full of very emotional reactions, thanks for the thrill Unity! 😀

Top Seller on Steam

We’re now one day after launch and things are looking really good. Since yesterday we have sold as many copies as through the entire Early Access period. That’s mostly thanks to improved visibility on the main page, but also a number of people avoid EA titles until they actually get released (as many is not). At the time of writing this, we settled on the last 10th spot of Steam’s Top Sellers list. Very serious competition sits above (and below too), so let’s see how long it lasts. Here’s a memorial screenshot, when we were on #9 😛

Top Sellers

20th November!

So, here’s the official announcement – Thea: The Awakening will be out of Early Access on 20th November!

ReleasePic

The game is DRM-free, so once you download it, you may copy it to any PC you’d like and also play with your Steam client off.

Thanks to IMGN.PRO, our publishing partner, we’ve got a hub, where you can see all stores selling Thea and choose the one you prefer. Click here.