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Mistakes Were Made: After the Kickstarter Lights Go Out
by Kee-Won Hong on 04/02/14 06:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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.


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Comments


Kyle Redd
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You should include a link to your game here somewhere, even thought there's already one on your profile page.

Also a question: Why did you decide that players must create an account before they can play... even for the demo? Was that just unfortunate circumstances, or an attempt at some sort of anti-piracy DRM?


Edit: And after taking a look at your website, I certainly agree there's a problem. There's an unskippable cutscene right at the start (on a website??), followed by a mandatory account creation screen before I can even get the first piece of information about your game. That is not good.

Scott Tykoski
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Great post-mortem, and despite is all, let me give a huge congratulations on FINISHING AND SHIPPING A GAME! :)

Wrapping something up (that's not a 1-night Flappy Bird clone) and getting it out there is a huge accomplishment...and the fact that you can look back, critique, and grow from the experience? Those are the REAL skills that lead to greatness.

Aaron Dave
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Totally agree!

Adriane Kuzminski
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Exactly!

Daap Lok
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Huge accomplishment!
We all need to be less hard on ourselves.
Your next one will be twice as good!

Peter Eisenmann
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With everyone telling stories about how work-intensive, time-consuming, nerve-wrecking and plain crazy doing a Kickstarter campaign is, I am more and more happy that I have decided against it and basically do what all garage developers did before: make the game besides my day-job and only spend reasonable amounts of money on it. Money will come in when the game does well, but not months or years before. No obligations, no pressure but your own. It's actually liberating.

Felipe Budinich
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As someone that also had a "succesful" kickstarter (followed by a government grant), and then failed miserably, I can say that yes, the garage approach is a perfectly sane way to go about it (it is what I'm currently doing).

Bruno Xavier
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This is exactly why I'm against Kickstarter and try my best to fund my projects by myself.
Also the 'stretch goals' bullshit makes me sick. Finishing and shipping a complete game is already hard enough.

Tanya X Short
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Your article is really interesting, honest, and bravely written. Thank you.

Do you know what you'll be doing next? I'm interested to see how/whether you apply these learnings to your next game and marketing strategies.

Guillermo Aguilera
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easy men, "your first ten games will suck", good luck next game :)

Billy Clack
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Thanks for the article, it's rare to see an honest "failure" story in any discipline, I think there should be more of them since we all fail at one point or another, and it helps to know other people are in that position. But seriously, what you see as a "failed" project is actually a success. You went from concept to shipment of a game, and that's really amazing and hard to do no matter what, congrats!!! You have experience now and you will apply what you learned to future projects. Also, don't read too much into reviews, at the end of the day all that matters is whether you are happy with what you have created. If not, there is always next time!

Payne McDowell
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An honest and helpful post... thanks! Most inspiring of all, is your ability to accept criticism and use that criticism to identify ways you can improve in the future. That is not an easy thing to do.

Congratulations on completing and shipping a game! I look forward to seeing your next project

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Great writeup. It's also interesting to see the consequences of not spending enough time improving your game before release. With all of the backlash kickstarter projects have received for going over their budget and timeframe, it's easy to forget what happens when a game gets released before its ready. Obviously we don't always have the option to hold onto something, but spending a little more time can be a huge benefit.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I love the attitude exhibited in this post, being willing to learn from mistakes and grow. I have no doubts you will have a bright future with your talent and that attitude.

Kee-Won Hong
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Thanks to everyone for the feedback and kind words; I'm very happy that other people are finding this useful!

Here's a link to Contract Work in it's current state: http://www.games.iterativegames.com/ContractWork

@KyleRedd - the login process was part of a hurried monetization implementation, something I'm planning to fix. And the unskippable cutscene is definitely a no-no as well.

I'm working on an article about how I'm planning to improve Contract Work and my overall work process that will hopefully be out next week. In the meantime, I'm always available to chat if you have questions!

Jonathan Ghazarian
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I do have one question that wasn't addressed in the article. I was wondering what the response has been from your backers. Have they been understanding? Do they feel that they got what they paid for? Have there been any people that have been angry at the state of the game? I'm very curious how that has played out versus how it has played out in the public eye.

Kee-Won Hong
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I honestly haven't had much feedback from the mid-level to low level tier...could be indicative of dis-interest or satisfaction with the product, not sure how to interpret that. I've been in touch directly with my higher level backers, since I only had a few of them and all were personal acquaintances. Some have expressed dissatisfaction that their rewards haven't been completely fulfilled, but letting them know that progress has been continuing in spite of previous mistakes has been helping.

Overall, my backers have been mighty patient with me...even though my Kickstarter was certainly overambitious, I tried to keep it as honest as possible (with frequent open demo builds) which I think helped level expectations. Financial and self created pressure were definitely bigger issues for me than anything from my backers.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Good to hear. Thanks for the response.

Maria Jayne
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Perhaps, it would have been more beneficial to just make a flat fee purchase game. I feel perhaps you were thinking too big, planning to live off it for a long time. Obviously if that happens great, but you don't see many successful indies using monetization strategies for after sales.

Make a game people like, sell it and then make another. Build up a reputation and a fanbase. Try not to aim for the big time on any one game, obviously you want to do it for a living, but that shouldn't be how you aim to design a game. Nothing creative and fun comes out of thinking "how can I make more money from this?".

However it's great you can see the mistakes, even if it is painful. Now use it!

Ameen Altajer
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Thank you for this post-mortem!

This is definitely gonna help many indies in taking their games to the public.

Marc Vaughan
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Congratulations on shipping a game - thats an awesome achievement, even more so working as an indie.

Never see that as a failure; a learning experience yes, but a failure no ...

(I've found I frequently learn far more from products and concepts which don't go to plan than from those which are seen as a success)

Ryan Sumo
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This is a great article, especially for people like myself considering crowdfunding in the future. I think everyone realizes that the crowdfunding bubble has popped, and that while KS and indiegogo remain legitimate ways to gather money to make a game, people are starting to be more resposible about it.

Are you working with someone else for your next project? My sense is that if you had a partner on board it would have helped you focus on programming or marketing and let someone else focus on the art, which I feel is a much healthier situation.

Rasmus Rasmussen
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Wow - I feel as though, I could have written this article myself. I was pretty much nodding the whole way through. Having had a similar experience, I have made the following decision: for my next big project, I will get a partner in crime. Working with someone else will help raise the overall quality (provided we work well together, of course), and also help to avoid pitfalls and shortcuts.

I'd love to hear more about what changes you have made in your approach - how you've implemented the lessons learned.

Wes Jurica
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Whoa, this is strange. Our first game was a success, but I still came away with mostly the same lessons and concerns as you. This makes me wonder two things:
1. No matter how good and/or successful the first game(s) is/are, maybe developers will always feel inadequate. I suppose, being so green, there is just so much to learn and so many places to improve.
2. Will these feelings always be there, no matter how many games you make? Will you ever really feel like you nailed it?

On a technical note, how do you think your choice of technologies, frameworks, languages helped or hindered your success and are you going to use these on your next game or try something new?

Kee-Won Hong
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@Wes - Thanks for the feedback! I'm planning to keep a lot of the same technologies in my next title - Contract Work was the first game I built using the Impact Engine which definitely added an additional learning curve on top of everything else.

There were great benefits to building a HTML5 game (time to deployment, metrics, social integration) but definite drawbacks (performance, browser compatibility).

Overall I feel my lack of experience was a bigger factor than the tools themselves - for example, Elliot Quest (http://ansimuz.com/elliotquest/) has been successful with the same engine. I'm hoping the extra year of experience will allow for faster/better development in the future.

Ennio De Nucci
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A lot of respect man! :)
As already said, your auto criticism and honesty in writing about failure is admirable!
Especially because fail is the best way to improve, but first one has to recognize failure...

That said I want to add a thought about "successful crowdfunding"

Setting a goal and reaching it, is FAR from being a success.
A wrong goal will means A FALSE SUCCESS and since the goal is something that the creator sets...it may be wrong as many other stuff in a campaign. Even more wrong, because the side effect is "an illusion of success" that can actually ruins many of your months after the campaign's end.

Like in any other kind of business, with crowdfunding you have to build scenarios and business plans, you have to know how and where to sell your product after the campaign and you have to look at numbers.
i.e. Gathering 1000-2000 backers on kickstarter it's what you can define "a success", but from a business perspective...is actually nothing more than "a start" !

Kee-Won Hong
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Thanks for the feedback everyone...it helps to know there are other devs that understand your situation that you can talk with. I'm working on a follow up post that will cover some changes in my development strategy and mindset that have been v. helpful to me and will hopefully be useful for the rest of the community as well.

Muhammad Helmy
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It is a success itself to know your mistakes ! Good luck with your coming projects ;)

Bernardo Lazo
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Great post! Mistakes = Lessons. I understand Peter Molyneux's very first game sold around two copies total.


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