Post-Kickstarter Finance By The Numbers; A One-Man Studio Postmortem

Full disclosure is the primary purpose of this post. The backstory – in March of 2013, I ran a 30 day Kickstarter for my cyberpunk 2d shooter ‘Contract Work'; it finished just over it’s goal of $5000 with 110 backers. Although the campaign was a success, the initial public release was a dismal failure, selling only 3 copies (though many more people did play the game). This is a breakdown of the money numbers and thoughts on what worked, what didn’t, and what happens now.

Final Kickstarter Total: $5086

Cost from Kickstarter/Amazon/failed pledges: $4627 (-$459)

Taxes (rough estimate after deductions applied): -$500

Personal Development Costs (I only count costs for 2 months @$1000 a month for living expenses, see note below): -$2000

Material Costs, broken down as follows:

  • Subscription to GameTextures.com (7 mo at $20/month): -$140
  • Asset purchases from GameDevMarket.com: -$40
  • MediaLoot & TextFX licenses (GUI assets): -$70
  • Replacement Video Card: -$110

Hosting (dreamhost.com at $13/mo): -$234

Marketing (hiring a marketing firm, at discount): -$1440

Customer Acquisition (via Facebook): -$647

Freelance Artwork (multiple pieces): -$300

Freelance Content Creation (LetsPlay video): -$50

Total Cost through Sept, 2014: $5990

Total Revenue Post Kickstarter: $9.99

Note –  I only count April & May of 2013 as time I spent working full-time on Contract Work while funded. I was laid off in Jan of 2013 and besides a little freelance work (~$1000 worth) I paid all my development & living costs out of pocket while planning & executing the Kickstarter. At the end of May 2013 with I started contracting which turned into a full-time job. I don’t the cost of my developing Contract Work while working full time (there is probably some associated opportunity cost).

The $1000/month figure for cost of living is very conservative. My rent alone is more than $1000, but I admit that I could have found cheaper lodgings (it would have taken time & money, and I hate moving). For that reason I feel that taking $1000 as my own ‘salary’ while using the Kickstarter funds is reasonable (the rest of my costs being paid out of pocket).

What Didn’t Work

Let’s start with the unhappy stuff. First the obvious – the marketing spend and customer acquisition didn’t result in the sales I was looking for. Importantly, I don’t blame the company I hired for my marketing campaign; they really did their best to raise awareness, even getting several articles published on bigger sites. But there was some serious cart-before-horse syndrome, as the game I was selling didn’t have good marketable points. Graphics? Meh. Concept and environment? Fuzzy at best. Gameplay? Disjointed, confusing at times.

DivX Plus Player 2013-07-20 12-44-55-51

Good marketing won’t save a half-baked title (in retrospect, the game really needed another 6-9 months of development time to shine). Ultimately I think the unreasonable time frame I set for myself (zero to commercial product in 9 months) doomed the marketing campaign from the start. Given the knowledge I have now, I would have avoided a traditional marketing campaign altogether.

The customer acquisition is more interesting. First, the Contract Work page has over 1,300 likes, which is not a bad for the spend ($0.50 per like). However, the likes have not translated to engagement or sales; it’s hard to determine whether that’s due to the quality of the fans or the quality of the game. The same goes for sales – the game has a decent number of plays, so the issue with converting plays to sales may lie more in the game/ purchase process than the quantity or type of player being directed to the site.

This has also created a standing community, albeit a quiet one. I remain hopeful that users can be engaged through quality content sharing and outreach, and am planning to try expand the community in the future through organic and paid ads. Another upside is that I’ve collected an e-mail list of about 300 addresses from players of the game that I hope to engage as well. There is definitely potential.

If I could do it all again, I’d wait until the game was in better shape to start my community, then spend a lot of time refining the purchase process before asking people to buy the game. I always feel the first part of good marketing comes from having a good product to sell.

A last note on some of the unhappy realities of Kickstarter – it sucks seeing 9-10% disappear instantly, but worse is not accounting for the taxes on the money later. I believe just about every state Kickstarter counts as personal income for tax purposes, so plan as such.

What Worked

In terms of ‘bang for buck’, the clear winners were artwork & assets. This will differ from team to team, but my skillset is primarily programming with some knowledge of art. Good art takes me a long time to create and therefore it’s almost always worth it for me to pay for art and focus on development. I feel I’m lucky in this regard – I can always move forward with placeholder art, while it might be more difficult to make progress without a reliable coding resource.

The GameDevMarket assets were the best value, but I’ve utilized the most assets (in term of raw numbers) from GameTextures. Both GameTextures and GameDevMarket are new resources that (to the best of my knowledge) did not exist when I finished my Kickstarter, but I’d expect more sites like them in the future.

My collaboration with a couple great art contractors (Pui Che and Tyler Johnson) has been nothing but delightful. Not only does it save me time but boosts my motivation every time they deliver a cool new asset. Many thanks to Robert Lockhart for referring me to these talented folks; obviously not everyone will be as good as these guys, but I feel that using personal recommendations goes a long way to finding like minded and talented people you want to work with.

The final combination of purchased & contracted art assets - much prettier than what I could do!

The final combination of purchased & contracted art assets.

I’ve also just started contracting with the talented team at P1PR to start generating content. They’ve finish an excellent first look ‘LetsPlay‘ video which has gotten good responses. Again, this is an area that requires a lot of effort and time on my part to generate quality content, so it’s a good investment in my opinion.

In general – figure out your weaknesses and use your resources to counteract them. For me the biggest time sink was art; investing more early could have saved me a lot of time and effort in the long run.

What Now?

I’m working on fulfilling my backer rewards now. Even though I didn’t offer any physical rewards, I did not budget enough time to finish the rewards in my original plan. I’ll also be co-ordinating with my contractors for the artwork tied to these rewards, so expect the cost for contract artwork to continue to rise. I’ll continue to utilize my team at P1PR to generate quality content to try engage my existing community, and use some ad spend to grow. Long term I plan to work on getting the game on Steam Early Access/Greenlight (if it still exists) as well as additional portals for distribution. But, as I’ve learned, it’s important not to get ahead of myself; the primary goal right now is to make Contract Work a great game to play.

I’ve had the enormous luxury to be able to get a head start on my game through Kickstarter funding and survive a bad launch by having a full time job. The time commitment sucks, but it has given the runway and resources to put the game into a state where it has a better chance to succeed. I also feel fortunate that I planned this as a one man endeavor; no one else was ruined by a terrible launch or bad planning. On the bad days I don’t have to worry about a crazy high burn rate. It can get lonely, but I know that as long as I stay motivated that Iterative Games won’t die.

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Winston Churchill is quoted as once saying “Success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm”. I might add that includes going from failure to failure without bankrupting yourself (too badly). So at the end of the day, even if I didn’t make a cent from my first release – Contact Work is still alive, I’m still getting the chance to do what I love, and I really can’t ask for more.

Many thanks again to my loyal and patient backers. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Asking Why

In Simon Sineks now famous TED Talk, he reveals a pattern among great organizations and leaders (if you haven’t seen it, it’s certainly worth the watch). He states that most people operate from the outside in – we have a clear idea of what we do, some idea of how we do it, but few can articulate why.

“But the inspired leaders, the inspired organizations, regardless of size or industry, act from the inside out…They know beyond a shadow of a doubt their purpose, their cause, why they get out of bed in the morning.”

This lead to the big insight – “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” The competitors may be just as qualified, but we choose the inspired companies because they inspire us.

It’s worth repeating. People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Why this is so important for indies? Look at the market right now – most will agree we are at the end of the Indie Bubble (thoughts from people smarter than myself @spiderwebsoft, @tiedtiger, @gamesbrief).

The easy routes are gone – if your WHY was to make boatloads of fast money, stop reading and get out now. The indie game scene has grown into a market with hundreds of competitors, just like other industries. It’s not enough just to be an indie anymore – you need to convince your customers that you are the indie company they want to support.

Transistor from Supergiant Games

So how does WHY work? Let’s consider an indie success story, Supergiant Games. Compare these two pitches for their title Transistor:

1. “Play a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites players to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as they fight through a stunning futuristic city.”

2. “We’re Supergiant Games, a small company of artists that creates beautiful, soulful titles. We craft our games to be as stunning and unique as any painting. We believe in powerful audio and spare no expense in creating amazing narrative and music. Play our sci-fi themed action RPG…”

They’re both the same product, but that 2nd pitch is the one that grabs you, right? The first pitch could be a random title on the Steam Store. The reason you chose Transistor isn’t the description or price; it’s because Bastion, because of that trailer, because of that music! Other companies can make sci-fi themed action rpgs that are longer/cheaper/use more pixels. But you pick Supergiant because of their WHY.

CodemancerSample

Codemancer, from ImportantLittleGames

But what if you aren’t an established brand? Take look at my friend & colleague Robert Lockharts Kickstarter for his first independent title, Codemancer. Again, compare these pitches:

‘Codemancer’ is an educational game, set in a fantasy world, designed for 9 to 14-year-olds. Players will code their way through a fantasy world full of rival sorcerers and their minions. It will be available for PC, Mac, iPad and Android Tablets.

I’m Rob Lockhart, and I’m building a game to teach the magic of programming to children.The goal of the game is to be as broad and inclusive as possible. A gender-neutral fantasy setting, a female protagonist, a narrative backbone, and a language designed for accessibility; these are all ways to knock down barriers that prevent some kids from engaging with programming.’Codemancer’ is an educational game, set in a fantasy world, designed for 9 to 14-year-olds…

Rob knows his WHY and communicated it effectively. I’m happy to report his campaign was featured by Kickstarter and finished at over 4x the original goal (you can support it as well by pre-ordering the game here).

This isn’t a good long term strategy

Could you just make up a WHY as a marketing pitch? Yes, but it won’t have any lasting power. It’s manipulation instead of inspiration. Being an indie success is no longer winning the Steam/iTunes lottery; you are competing in a market of experienced, perhaps jaded consumers that have many, many options. Manipulative sales tactics – forced virality, exploitative micro-transactions, price slashing – are becoming less effective. Inspiration is becoming more important, especially with technology (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube) that makes your fans your biggest advocates. Inspire people to follow, support and love your company.

WHY isn’t just about selling; it’s a powerful tool for your own decision making and motivation. Having a problem deciding which idea to work on? Pick the project that fits your WHY the best. Not sure about using that partner or publisher? Learn their WHY is and see if it matches up. Wondering who you should connect with at a conference? Pick people who have a powerful WHY that is similar to your own.

Perhaps more importantly, WHY makes you look in the mirror and decide if indie gaming is where you want to be. If you don’t have an intrinsic love for game development & design, you’re probably in the wrong industry. If you don’t have a desire to build a unique brand and message, you’re probably better off joining an established studio. And if you’re just looking for a quick buck, there are much better places for that.

Consider your WHY

I’ll be honest – when I started working on building Iterative Games, I didn’t take the time to sit down and figure out my WHY. I had a nebulous idea that I wanted to do games, that I wanted to start my own company, but there was nothing unique I could articulate. From my personal experience – it doesn’t become easier to figure your why when you’re knee deep in development and marketing. And if you don’t figure it out, it’s easy to get lost. You make mistakes. You become unsure if the work and the opportunity cost are worth it.

It will take some serious time and effort, but it’s worth it; that is why I’m taking the time, finally, to write and share the WHY of Iterative Games:

Iterative Games – Better games, better lives, to share with the world

Better Games

We are a company of innovators that push the limits of game design and user interaction. We see gaming as a dynamic and interactive medium, distinct from cinema or literature. Our titles seek to increase player agency, create emergent narrative and support user expression. Our games will always create value for players and the development community through implementing new ideas or by improving & combining existing ones.

Better Lives

We believe we can make amazing games and improve the quality of life for all our employees and partners.  We respect our people and place them before profits. We will pay a fair wage, we will not crunch and we will do everything we can to earn respect and trust. We know that happy and healthy employees produce better games. We understand technology has fundamentally changed the way we work and support innovations such as remote work, third party collaboration and employee-entrepreneurship.

To share with the world

Whenever possible, we will build our games to be inclusive; to utilize technology as a tool to enable, not deny, access to our products. We seek to design and create games that do not discriminate against any gender, race or creed. We will share our ideas, experiences and innovations with as many people as possible through transparent development, early access and releasing open source. Finally, we support efforts to utilize game development as a tool to inspire, educate and empower people around the world.

Thanks for listening. I can tell you already that I’m not always going to get it right. I’m also certain I’m not going to be making a lot of money; I don’t know if it will ever be enough to quit my day job (I do hope it is, someday!). But to me, a little progress toward those goals is worth getting up early in the morning (or, more likely for me, staying up long into the night)!

It’s a brave new indie world – time to figure out why you want to be a part of it.

Final homage to a company that knows WHY

I’m Kee-Won Hong, the founder of Iterative Games, and I’m working on my first title Contract Work. If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter.

Being the Best Unsuccessful Indie

If you want to go only by the numbers, stop reading this post. My company, Iterative Games, ran a $5,000 Kickstarter that was barely funded (thank you again backers) and then sold only 3 copies of that Kickstarted title ‘Contract Work’. Mistakes were made. I had to go back to a day job in the cubes and took a 6 month hiatus to recover from burnout. You’d be better off reading about the one guy who made a bunch of money, right? As it turns out, maybe not – allow me a couple paragraphs to explain why:

I recently discovered this article on Survivorship Bias (thanks Jay Margalus), examining logical errors we make when we focus only on successes. The famous example goes like this – during WW2, allied brass wanted to know where to add armor on bombers to improve survivability. They examined bombers that survived combat and decided to add armor where those bombers had been shot. Logical, right? It took brilliant statistician Abraham Wald to point out their error; they were examining survivors, not victims. The areas not shot in the surviving bombers should be armored. A simple yet important example of the danger of survivorship bias.

I’ve also been considering “The Myth of Lone Genius”, as explained Austin Kleon in his book “Show Your Work”. The myth is that a few individuals appear with superhuman talents and without any outside influences, create masterpieces released with great fanfare. “The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements”. The problem? The ‘Lone Genius’ teaches us nothing – you either have it or you don’t. Kleon supports instead the concept of ‘scenius’, a model where great ideas are birthed by a group of creative individuals who develop an ecology of talent.

Thanks for sticking around. Now you’re familiar with survivorship bias and scenius, here’s why I think it’s important for unsuccessful indies like myself to share our experiences: by contributing information about our failures, we can increase the chances of others in our scenius succeeding. With todays tech, it’s never been easier or faster to share & collaborate. And those of us yet to succeed have the best perspective on how to help our peers; the fellow student can be a better teacher than the professor because they relate to our situation.

Don’t underestimate the power of sharing your experience. Consider the 4 minute mile, a feat once considered physically impossible. For 9 years, the record stands at 4:01.4. On May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister finally breaks it with a time of 3:59.4…and within 2 months his record is broken, at 3:58! Within 5 years, two other runners will break that mark. The task did not become easier, but once it was done, it became easier to repeat. “Once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly” (Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman). By simply telling the story of overcoming your obstacles, you increase the chance for others to do the same, and vice versa. If you’re willing to be honest, you don’t have to sell a million copies of your game before you can contribute. You’re not a genius, exactly like the rest of us.

And while we’re being honest – openly sharing and receiving is HARD to do. It can be scary to tell everyone that you spent over $1,500 in marketing to sell 3 copies. But sharing that information helps everyone else, a little ‘Demon’s Souls’ type marker that warns other developers ‘Here, there be dragons’. I know the indie game scene can feel like a zero sum game where you ‘lose’ sales to your fellow indies. But when we view it as a co-operative ecology, successes increase the pie for everyone. The latin root of Competition (competere) means to strive together. We compete to bring the best out in all of us.

So let’s help ourselves out. Don’t let the numbers discourage you from sharing – we’re right there with you, and we’re all striving together to build better games and better lives in our scenius. Let’s all be the best ‘unsuccessful’ indies we can be.

To wrap it up, here’s a few small things that have been working for me:

  • Personal A/B/C testing – when I’m not happy with a feature, I’ll build multiple quick versions instead of iterating, then pick the one I like the most. It frees me mentally from the fear of ‘losing’ a version I like and opens up crazier experiments.
  • Curating Facebook content – I’ve been selecting games and ideas I like and sharing them on the Contract Work Facebook page with a few thoughts of my own. Engagement on these posts has been 2-3x times better than just regular development updates.
  • Friends help friends – My friend Rob Lockhart introduced me to his artist Pui Che who helped me finish an art piece as part of my Kickstarter rewards (personal recommendations always feel best). It’s been a very productive collaboration – the final piece is amazing and it’s inspired my development and provided new ideas for the Contract Work Universe.

Contract Work Art Book Cover by Pui Che

The Flow Path: How I beat burnout and started having fun making games again

This is a response to my post Mistakes Were Made, which covered some of the missteps I made while releasing my first title, Contract Work. I was surprised how many developers this resonated with (thanks for your kind feedback, everyone!). Since a few have asked what I’m doing differently now, I’ve been working on some follow-ups posts.

There are tactical/marketing things that I’d like to share, but this post focuses on what’s been helping me on the emotional/mental side. I will introduce some new/somewhat unproven concepts, so I understand if you choose to TLDR; please take these words with a grain of salt and a dash of patience.

Burnout

It was the end of September 2013, and I had spent the entire year creating and releasing my first indie game ‘Contract Work’. I had also finished two expensive ad campaigns; one to drive reviews, the other to build Facebook presence. I logged into Paypal for the umpteenth time to check the net return of my effort & investment. 3 copies sold over 2 months. It was a crushing moment, when I saw the full size of the re-work iceberg. Tired and discouraged, I walked away; it was the last time I touched the code for 4 months.

Our ‘Death March’

I really enjoyed Benjamin Quinteros post on crunch. He talks about the work-hard-or-get-out culture of the games industry:

There is too much at stake as each person on the team takes the world on their shoulders.  If everyone isn’t working to their fullest potential (translated to some ratio of a 24 hour clock) then clearly that is the point of failure.

He’s speaking as a member of a studio team, but the same struggle applies to indies (maybe more so). You put yourself under relentless pressure to work more, and when things aren’t working, you blame it on your lack of effort. If only you’d tried harder, slept less and ignored more of your friends – then you would have succeeded. Promises made during an optimistic Kickstarter campaign added to my weight. I told my backers that I would release in the game next month, and I can’t let them down. But the thing I learned is that my game – and my life – only started to improve when I allowed myself to step back and rebalance my priorities.

Know Thyself – Understanding Flow

During my time away, I stumbled upon the book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler (I’m sharing a couple concepts from it, but it’s worth your time to read the whole). The central theme is ‘flow’, described (from Wikipedia) as ‘The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity’.

It’s likely you are already familiar with flow. You could probably recall at least one time when you were so immersed in work or an activity that you completely forgot yourself and all perception of time (flow actually shuts down these areas of your brain off for max efficiency). Accessing this state allows us to become, in Kolters words, ‘Supermen':

“Researchers believe flow responsible for most athletic triumphs, major scientific breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts. In business, a ten-year McKinsey study found executives in flow five times more productive than their steady state peers.”

In conjunction with enhancing productivity, flow produces chemicals in the brain (dopamine, anandamide, seratonin) that makes us feel really good (How good? One of the primary effects of cocaine is increased production and hindered absorption of dopamine). Flow makes us more productive, more creative and happier. So naturally we should just be in flow ALL THE TIME, right? Not quite…

Understanding the Flow Cycle

According to the research Kotler has put together, flow operates as a cycle in four stages.

  • The first stage is struggle, where you build up (extrinsically and intrinsically) information.
  • The second stage is release, which preps the brain for flow by severing prior thought and emotional patterns.
  • The third stage is flow itself.
  • The fourth stage is recovery, where the body replenishes and the brain absorbs the new memories from flow.

You can’t stay in flow permanently – flow literally drains us to the point where we have to recover. The harder we force ourselves back into flow (when we should be in recovery), the harder it becomes to achieve.

“In today’s world, rarely do we give ourselves permission to recover; rarely does anyone else. Finish one project and there are always a dozen more deadlines to be met…If we want to flow from cycle to cycle, we need to take full advantage of recovery to regroup and recharge…you have to go slow to go fast.”

Without the time to release/recover, we short-circuit the cycle; the longer we sustain the forced march (crunch), the less time we spend in flow. The less time we spend in flow, the less happy and productive we become. We drift straight into the unhappy cycle that ends in burnout.

Going with the Flow

The good news is that we can stop this spiral and get ourselves back to flow. Kotler suggests simple hacks for the flow cycle:

  • For struggle, novel/new stimuli help prime the brain to take in information; things as simple as brushing your teeth with your off hand or taking a different route to work.
  • For release, doing something completely different than the task at hand makes it easier for the brain to move into flow, such as taking a walk or watching a movie.
  • For recovery, taking a short nap is a great way to speed up the cycle.

If I may phrase it more simply – live the rest of your life. Find new things that excite you – try a new restaurant, start playing a sport, travel to unknown locations. Take some time during your day to read a book, play a game or watch a funny clip. Nap when you’re exhausted. Worry less about  ‘trying’ hard enough – flow is a powerful intrinsic motivator and will naturally draw you back into your work. Understand the time you take off is as important as the time you put in.

The Path Back

I’m certainly no scientific authority on flow and I can’t guarantee results from this advice. But I can tell you that I discovered, quite by accident, that taking time to recover and learn was exactly what I needed. I spent my hiatus reading, re-connecting with long neglected friends, playing some new games (Risk of Rain being a great inspiration) and spent a week in the Dominican Republic learning to surf and hand-fish in the ocean.

When I returned to Contract Work again, I felt a similar excitement as when I first started. Design choices, coding, art…everything felt easier. Development no longer felt like a burden, but (once again) an opportunity to make something amazing.

It’s still a struggle for me to keep myself in flow and out of crunch, but I’m working to be better at it; I take little breaks during my work cycles to clear my mind, I’ll give myself a day off on weekends to watch a movie and try a new restaurant, and I schedule big chunks of un-interrupted time so I can enjoy the hell out of my time in flow.

I don’t know if Contract Work will ever be the game I dream it can be, but the passion and the love has returned to my work. There’s no longer any need to lie when I say “I’m living the dream”.

The difference a little time off can make – transforming .gif of the Contract Work release and the in-development Contract Work: First Day

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Mistakes Were Made

After the Kickstarter Lights Go Out

It’s been about a year since the Contract Work Kickstarter and while things are good, they aren’t exactly what I hoped. Let me say first that I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I’m at right now: A successful Kickstarter campaign completed, good health, a stable job, and a great circle of friends; it’s more than a lot of people have and more than I probably deserve.

With that said, there’s definitely some disappointment – Contract Work barely sold any copies, received mixed reviews (at best) and I’m back in the cubes instead of being the next indie gaming success story. Mistakes were definitely made – here’s my short list.

Not Making a Great Product

I’ve worked long enough in software to understand that it won’t be perfect; shipping a product is hard enough. But Contract Work utterly failed the ‘Is this game worth your time?’ test. Things that I really screwed up on:

1. Art & Style

I’m not a great artist, which from the beginning meant that I should have been smarter about the Contract Work art. At some point I tried to transition away from pixel art to taking advantage of my 3d rendering knowledge, but I didn’t finish the transition. I also brought in some outside assets to help fill some gaps. Take a look at this screen:

DivX Plus Player 2013-07-20 12-36-53-59

The security stations are in a pixel art style. The enemies are 3d renders. The floor tiles are outside assets. There are multiple types of disjointed lighting effects. There is so much text on the screen! As Adam Smith from RockPaperShotgun writes:

The graphics, taken as a whole, lack character, even if some of the robot designs are attractive in isolation. It’s all too busy, which added to my initial sense of disorientation and difficulty. The screen presents too much information, the camera is a little too close, and the character feels beset from all sides, even before the real action begins.

What I needed to do was clean everything up, take more time to establish a consistent style, then make sure that style was used in every part of the game. It retrospect, it was a hot mess.

2. Complexity Over Polish

This is a personal bad habit: making things too complex. In this case, my desire to provide enough ‘feature flair’ caused me to end up with many half baked features and not enough refined systems. As Michael Westgarth from IndieGameHQ writes:

Citing Contra as an inspiration, it then seems odd that Kee-Won Hong has gone for a more complicated control scheme. The A and D keys move the player left and right, S lets players drop through specific platforms, W jumps and double jumps, R reloads, Q switches weapon, the shift key must be held to sprint and E is held down to hack. This is all carried out while aiming and shooting with the mouse. If Contract Work’s control scheme sounds cumbersome, that’s because it is.

And he’s right! Somewhere along the line, a simple side scroller grew into this mess of keys and controls. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”. And I don’t think I worked hard enough.

3. It’s boring

The dreaded b-word. I don’t know if there’s an easy fix, but the answer isn’t to add more features! For Contract Work, I think the answer may lie in ‘juiciness’ – making every jump, shot and movement feel good. If you want an example of a game that does this well, check out Towerfall. These guys also do a pretty good job showing how juiciness makes a game better: Juice it or Lose It!

The Business Things

For the past almost 10 years I’ve been building software, but I’m totally new and awful at selling it! Here’s just a couple things I did badly:

4. Demo zzzzz

To start playing you have to register an account (booo!). Then you get to play the ‘demo mode’, which starts with the training level and sloow basic levels…not a good way to sell the excitement and mystery of the full product.

5. Why should I buy? How do I buy?

Contract Work’s demo mode is also too long. Based on the stats, lots of people have played Contract Work, but not many choose to buy it. So besides the previous ‘bad product’ issues, playing the whole demo satiates or bores players. Also not helping – the buy process is only through Paypal, which isn’t everyones cup of tea.

6. Unsocial Media

Until very recently, I had about zero understanding about how to use social media to build real fans. What I did instead was throw a decent amount of money to purchase a lot of likes…of people that weren’t that interested in the game. My social media was fake marketing, and I got fake engagement in return.

7. The Personal

I’m can’t capture it all here, but Jan-Jun 2013 were some of the toughest months of my life. I know there’s no perfect time to start your dream (I was laid off in Jan of 2013), but I was definitely not in the best financial situation when I started. Straight after that I made a month long, $5000 bet on myself that left me utterly exhausted physically and mentally (I lost over 10 lbs over the course of my Kickstarter). Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an awesome experience! I’m still deeply grateful to everyone who helped me (seriously, thanks forever backers!). But I lived in a state of almost constant anxiety for 4-5 months, which eventually started causing small panic attacks. Even with friends all around me, it was one of the loneliest times I can remember. It’s hard to be creative when you’re that scared…a lot of the fear was manufactured, but it began negatively impacting development. Things that should have been simplified, re-done or thrown out were kept because I felt I couldn’t afford the time or effort to make the change. Which is exactly what the game actually needed – some time for me to step back and re-assess, experiment, simplify and polish.

Continuing Forward

In retrospect I was tremendously lucky. Lucky to get funded. Lucky to find work that kept me afloat, lucky to have a great network that continues to support me, lucky to have a second chance to do at something I love doing. Hardly anyone finds that much luck! I now have the luxury to continue my updates to Contract Work without constantly worrying about where rent is going to come from, and I think it’s helped. I have time to fail and learn from the failures. Time to do crazy experiments. Time to learn and connect. Time to understand myself better. My final thought is this: becoming a great artist or businessman takes great patience, effort and failure; you have to be willing for all of them.

Announcing Contract Work: First Day

First Day is the demo of the upcoming major Contract Work re-design. First Day is a short-form experience, designed to allow you to play it painlessly and to let me to make quick updates and design changes. I’ll be releasing more information on First Day soon. Thanks for reading!

Creating Contract Work

Hey everyone, if we haven’t met, I’m Kee-Won Hong and I’m a one man Indie game team. I’ve developed a few commercial mobile titles and I’m running a Kickstarter for my first original game, ‘Contract Work‘. I heard some of you might be interested in how I ended up with this concept, so here’s a little insight.

First, thank you to all my collaborators and my Kickstarter backers! This project would never have made it here without your support, input and help. You all have my deepest gratitude.

From the beginning I knew there were a few key mechanics I wanted to include: unique customization, emergent gameplay and open narrative. I knew I wanted to build a HTML5 web game, so I chose the Impact engine for my prototype. Finally I decided that I wanted to do a side scrolling shooter, a genre that is easy to play and one I’ve always loved:

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Ok, not technically a side-scroller, but I wasted ALL my quarters at summer camp on this.

I started with really simple artwork (the first prototype had a smiley emoticon as the hero and red-eyed angry emoticons as enemies) and added really basic functionality (move, shoot). Then I started adding extra toys, mostly to mess around with. A terminal you could hack. A generator that enemies would attack. Now I had a group of actors that I could start putting a game around.

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This was our hero. One cool dude. The games title was ‘SpaceTower’

The next ‘phase’ was lots of iterating, and involved throwing out a lot of ideas. Like the elevators that connected each ‘floor’ on a level, which were replaced by jump pads and escape vents. I played/watched lots of shooters (Megaman, Contra, Intrusion) to learn from them. Once I added the final basic ‘game’ requirements – win/lose conditions and a barely functional interface, I started beta testing and thinking about the games theme.

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Robots are badass villains

Since the early prototype, I had always pictured the enemies as robots, so they ended up that way. I thought about what would drive our hero to fight them. As I was going through a somewhat exhausting job search at the time, the idea of our hero as a freelance gun-for-hire appealed to me. They answer only to themselves. They have a unique, valuable skill – destroying robots. They could work as highly sought after contractors for rival corporations. Money from those contracts would give the freelancers freedom to customize their gear and leverage to create their own narratives. All of which supported my original goals (awesome!). So now – powerful corporations with robot armies? Smells like cyberpunk to me…

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Optic Camo…all the cyberpunk hipsters are wearing it

Creating the universe details ended up involving a lot of immersion into cyberpunk source material, like the TV Tropes cyberpunk database, Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell. Taking a lot of notes on how things operated, how they were visually displayed, what kind of colors existed…this all became part of the universe of the game, a consistent set of rules by which everything operates. Art and design become much easier once you have this framework to utilize, and everything begins to fall into place.

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Freeing the statue from the stone

So now you know the origins of the cyberpunk rpg shooter Contract Work. Is it going to be a success? I can’t know, but I do have a hunch about when things are working. I get the feeling that I don’t have to do all the creation; rather I’m just revealing the game, ‘freeing the statue from the stone’. The players will tell me if I’m right, but I’ve been having more of these ‘aha’ moments recently, so I think Contract Work is on the right track.

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Thanks for taking the time to read, and please back the Contract Work Kickstarter!

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Contract Work Kickstarter

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The Kickstarter for my new game ‘Contract Work’ has launched! Contract Work is a player customizable, cyberpunk 2d shooter where you can create your own unique gun-for-hire. Contract Work is a HTML5 game, which means no installing or downloading plugins; just go to the website and play the game on your browser!

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Set in a future dystopia where corporations control the world through massive robotic armies, your freelancer is one of the last truly independent humans. Even the most powerful corporations still depend on your expertise to handle delicate ‘situations’. This contract work is high risk but higher reward, and for those with the right skills there is unlimited potential.

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In this dark future, every action has consequence. You must find your own balance between your place as a free human and the bottom line, whether you will seek to be an asset or a liability to your corporate financiers. Every dollar in your pocket helps you customize your deadly mercenary, but there is almost always an opportunity cost for the contract that put it there.

Contract Work is less about me telling a story and more about your narrative. It’s a game that anyone can pick up, play and have a unique story to tell. Maybe your freelancer will be an alpha level hacker, shutting down an entire base and walking in without a scratch. Maybe they will be a master sniper, a hard boiled gunslinger, a deadly explosives expert or a mad pyromaniac. Maybe they were a corporate lackey, a ruthless two timer or a dark hero. The story can be yours to write.

Please check it out, back and share!

Game Design Exercise: Kill Box

Elevator Pitch: This one is based on an intellectual exercise in combat design. The player is placed in a room. The room will be of varied size/shape and will have physical architecture such as blocks to hide behind, a vent to hide in or a tower to climb. The room may also contain hazards and traps, such as acid, crush blocks or automated turrets. It also contain weapons in pre-selected locations or in the players inventory. At a given time(s), a set of enemies will spawn into the room. The player must defeat all enemies to win.

Core Mechanics: The ‘design atoms’ of the game are weapons, physical space, environment and enemies. These elements will be changed for each killbox scenario to promote strategies. There may be one winning strategy or many, and some strategies that  will be designed to disguise the winning strategy (red herrings).

Example Killboxes:

Fish in a Barrel: Players are presented with pistol, shotgun and grenades. Enemies are large, heavily armored and do considerable damage at short/medium range. Environment is small but includes an air vent system that is too small for enemies to enter. Suggested strategy is to enter air vent and then lob grenades at enemies from safety of vent.

Toxic: Players receive pistol and flare gun in inventory. Players face off against enemies with toxic gas grenades. Gas slowly accumulates in room and will poison player if not dispersed. Environment includes fire suppression system that can be triggered by firing flare gun at heat sensors. Fire suppression will suck all air out of the room when triggered, flushing toxic gas.

Now you see me: Players start with a sniper rifle. Environment is a long room with an exposed sniping position at the end opposite of the enemy spawn. Enemies are invisible, melee only but do lots of damage. Weapons in the room include a knife, sword a chain-saw (all red herrings) and smoke grenades. Invisible enemies will disturb the smoke as they move through it, allowing the player to snipe enemies.

Nik Davidsen Clause (Monetization)

Pay for content model – first 20 killboxes are free, then each set of y killboxes after that costs x dollars. Sets include new killboxes, weapons, enemies, etc.

Game Design Exercise: Intelligence Officer

Elevator Pitch: 

An free to play, asymmetric co-operative multiplayer game where a player assumes the role of an intelligence officer covertly uncovering enemy secrets. Encourages slow, deliberate play with short play sessions spaced out over long intervals. Complete functionality on mobile platforms. Integrates with team based first-person-shooter (the intelligence officer’s ‘field team’). Works to encourage communication and teamwork between two very disparate player bases.

Core Mechanics: 

The intelligence officer’s main goal is to increase their pool of intelligence, which is a resource that can be generated and spent. Intelligence can be increased by:

  1. Website Hacking (minigame)
  2. Research (minigame involving custom built wiki/microsites/social sites)
  3. Developing intelligence assets (minigame of turning an enemy target)

Once intelligence has been generated, it can be spent on a number of things, including:

  1. Training – increases your minigame proficiency
  2. Field Assets – items like keycards, UAV drones, medical support, improved weapons or airstrikes that can be given to a field team for use on a mission. A field team can also request a field asset from an officer at any time for immediate use, provided the officer can pay the intelligence cost.
  3. Special missions. Special missions can only be carried out by a field team and give large bonuses to both sides for completion. (See Example Special Mission).

An intelligence officer builds ‘reputation’ based on how many of their special missions are successfully completed. It is in their best interest to provide good field assets to their teams to increase their chances of success on special missions. Reputation is visible to all field teams when choosing to accept a special mission.

Example Special Mission:

  1. An intelligence officer spends points to learn that a high value enemy terrorist leader will be meeting for an arms deal in Munich for the next week. The mission is to assassinate the leader at the arms deal. The officer must find a field team within the week window (real time) to execute the mission.
  2. The mission itself is a timed based objective, where the field team must eliminate the enemy target within a variable time window (can be shortened by the target discovering he is being attacked). The enemy leader will have an escort of guards (computer bots) that will defend him if attacked.
  3. To aid in the success of the mission, the intelligence officer can supply items like remote explosive charges, sniper rifles, UAV strikes, access to the terrorist leader hotel or even the real-time location of terrorist leader himself by spending intelligence points.

Nik Davidsen Clause (Monetization)

An intelligence officer can use ‘private funds’ at any time to purchase extra intelligence points immediately. Some situations (special missions, field team requests, developing assets) will have time based requirements for intelligence points, making it crucial for intelligence officers to have the needed intelligence points (or purchase them if necessary).