08 June 2015
Friendship Club - Early Access Early Retrospective
I first wrote this blog post over six weeks ago. Since then a good many things have changed. So, rather than telling you what we're going to do I'm going to tell you what we've done (and then a bit of what we're going to do). I apologise in advance for messing-up my tenses...
As most of you know, Friendship Club hit Early Access a few months ago now, March 24th to be precise, and since then sales haven't been setting any records*. Given that we are making a local-multiplayer game that's still early in development we set ourselves very low expectations. and it would seem those low expectations have just about been met! So, if things are going as we expected what's the point in writing all this? Well, I wanted to pull back the curtain a bit and give a glimpse of what life project managing a game like Friendship Club can be like.
I've Paid My Money - What Now?
First things first, I'm going to discuss Friendship Club's current state and some of the tough decisions we've had to make over the past couple of months. Since hitting Steam, our programmer Ashley has been offered some 3rd party development work for another local studio, people who I myself sometimes do work for to pay the Force Of Habit bills. Fear not, all the 3rd party stuff we do goes back into Friendship Club development. Ideally Early Access sales would have taken up some of this slack and allowed us to accelerate development by not needing to take on these types of jobs. However, that's not been the case so in order to make sure that Force Of Habit still exists in six months time we've had to take the work. It comes to around three days a week, leaving two days free for him to do Friendship Club stuff, and checks in at around three months in total.
A look into the past, the present and the future. Notice there aren't many dev tickets at the moment.
It's frustrating as we were really excited about getting back into a strong production schedule once we had the release out of the way, but there's little we can do about it. We pay ourselves almost nothing to get by and Ashley sometimes omits paying himself altogether as he doesn't pay rent where he lives (pretty much all of my money goes on rent/food/bills to the extent that my birthday present from my girlfriend was some new shoes as mine had fallen apart**).
I suspect that this is the reality behind some (or most?..) of the indie studios you see, who for all their work aren't making the money you might presume.
When you consider that in one day of working on 3rd party stuff Ashley would make Force Of Habit roughly 15-20 times the amount of money we would make on sales (across all our games) you can see why it's a necessity for us to do this and you see why (in Bristol at least) so many of the games studios actually function far more like digital agencies than games companies. The Humble PC & Android Bundle that our first game (Toast Time) was in has definitely helped, but not enough to be financially able turn down the work that's been offered us. Long story short - I want to make sure Friendship Club is as awesome as it can be and that's going to take time, during which we'll need to pay ourselves at least something.
Where Does The Money Go?
Having been over some of the accounts lately, the rough breakdown is that we've spent around £5,000 on marketing Friendship Club over the past year. This goes on travel, hotels, stands, merchandise and so forth and doesn't represent the time spent doing marketing work. For a big show we're looking at around £2k all in, hiring the stand is over a grand up front, then you've got accommodation in central London for four people plus travel to get there.
We had a lot of fun building these lightboxes.
General consensus is that you should aim to spend a good portion of your development budget on marketing. This is hard to calculate with something like Friendship Club which has no fixed budget that we're working from - it's a labour of love. If we were paying ourselves industry rates on the work we've done on the game so far we'd probably have burned through around £100,000 in development time so far. For now we will be winding down some of the grander marketing efforts, reverting to cheaper things like blog posts, videos and perhaps streaming. The intention is that when we've got a bunch of major new features in we will look to do some events again.
As mentioned above, we pay ourselves very little, less than minimum wage by UK standards, and have done for two and a half years now. It's tough and there are a lot of sacrifices that get made in our personal lives, but we're here by choice and should the worst happen we have people around us that would be able to support us in some fashion or another - something that cannot be said for large swathes of the population unfortunately.
One of the reasons I'm sharing this information is that I feel there is still significant confirmation bias within the community and media about life as an indie developer. There has been talk for a long while of the indie bubble bursting, but I think it's more in a constant state of inflation and deflation. A Shepard tone if you will. In an industry in which many companies exist without shareholders or investors there wont be the dramatic swings in confidence associated with a bubble bursting. It's hard to measure losses in a swarm.
Yeah, That's Great N'All But What Does It Mean For Friendship Club?
Obviously having to do 3rd party work affects the speed of development, it also affects what kind of features we can or cannot work on. Ashley will be context switching between two major projects so I don't want him having to leave large features hanging as it might contribute to a messy, less stable codebase.
Our super-customisable old-school puzzle platformer with a BASIC interpreter built in…
With this in mind, we initially determined that major new updates such as new environments will have to wait in favour of more advanced modifiers, which by comparison are quick to develop but give a large amount of additional gameplay through combination with other modifiers, examples being the new Armour, Hardcore and Unlimited Ammo modifiers in the recent releases. However, it's since become apparent that trying to cram development into short windows is not a great way to maintain code integrity. As a result Ash is now spending his spare time working on our press system and ZXZXZX rather than trying to rush Friendship Club features in. We have now decided that when he's in the studio he'll work on prototyping future Friendship Club features. This will help the rest of us make decisions about which assets to work on next and means he will have time between prototyping and final implementation with which to think about the best approach to refactoring the game.
Tom and Sophie have continued apace with work on the illustration and animation of the game, much of our focus shifting towards concept art and juicing and improving what's already in. Similarly, they have their own business to manage so occasionally have to drop in and out on Friendship Club as they have done throughout for much the same reasons as us.
Sophie organising various Friendship Club sketches she's drawn over the months.
One major change we are going to make in the immediate future is switching to a monthly rather than fortnightly release schedule. Releasing a (hopefully) stable build every two weeks was creating too much downtime when combined with reduced development time. We're also going to have a look at the possibility having an unstable release branch.
In conclusion, we're still working our vestigial tails to nubs to make Friendship Club the game we know it can be, it's just sometimes that might involve having to do other things along the way in order to realise it. Before I go I just wanted to say a big fat greasy THANKS IN THE FACE to EVERYONE who's been along for the ride so far***. Your happiness (and our insurmountable egos) is why we do what we do and we've appreciated the support you've given us so far.
Man, I'm tired...
P.S. I'm assuming you've already bought a copy of Friendship Club, right? ;)
* You can ignore Steam Spy, that's mostly press copies or keys from the Greenlight Bundle we did last year.
** Since I first wrote this I'm actually in the process of moving in with her - both for romantic reasons and financial ones!
*** except for the person who left the Steam review calling it 'unplayable' which we still haven't managed to actually decipher.