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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
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Postmortem: Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

October 9, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

4. Win-Win Beta

For three months leading up to the final release, we ran an extended beta that ended up as one of the keys to success for the entire project. Each phase of the beta, lasting about a month, would add two more of the six total new factions to the game. These phases allowed us to isolate areas of the game for technical and gameplay testing, as well as continue to keep interest high all the way up to release day. Throughout the beta, the Sins community was fantastic in providing quality gameplay feedback and assisting in uncovering hard to reproduce bugs. We owe a lot to our fans.

However, we came extremely close to throwing this all away. Our initial plan was to hold back two of the factions for release day, so there would be a significant chunk of never-before-seen content left to discover. Instead, we took the cautious route, released all the factions as part of the beta, and uncovered some terrifying bugs that could have led to a disastrous release.

In the end it was a win-win on multiple levels. For our fans, it allowed them early access to an anticipated game and the opportunity to provide meaningful input on its development. For us, it drove preorders, kept buzz up, and guaranteed a smooth and stable release.

5. The End of Retail

Stardock has a complicated history with digital distribution platforms, as we developed and ran the Impulse service for several years. With the sale of Impulse to GameStop in 2011, we were no longer constrained as to where and how Sins: Rebellion was distributed. This led us to fully integrate Steamworks and forgo a retail release in North America and most international markets.

An argument for digital distribution

Compared to the benefits of a digital-only release, both Stardock and Ironclad didn't think the date commitments and low cut of boxed product sales were worth the hassle anymore. That choice paid off. We saw pre-orders increase by 630 percent compared to the release of the original Sins of a Solar Empire in 2008. While we don't attribute this entirely to increased focus on digital distribution, it certainly played a large part.

Relative comparison of total units sold

We started accepting preorders on the Stardock web store several weeks before they were available on Steam. When preorders became available on Steam, we saw the expected jump in overall sales, but interestingly saw no dip in direct sales of the game through the Stardock web store. We've also seen huge jumps in sales from Steam's promotions and price discounts without any negative effect on overall sales trends.

In addition to the sales benefits, the integration of Steamworks has improved the ease of beta/release/update management, error tracking, and verification of international retail activations.

What Went Wrong

1. Lack of Formal Production Practices

Despite what we generally considered a smooth and successful development cycle, we weren't without our fair share of setbacks. For the first six months of production, one person was juggling design, project management, and a number of significant project-external responsibilities.

They were -- obviously -- overtasked. It led to a lack of communication on scheduling between studio management and the development team. Initial estimates for the number of artists required were too low, and the project was starting to fall months behind schedule.

In response, a dedicated producer was assigned to take over production responsibilities. When the producer transitioned onto the project, the status of the project was reviewed with team members to ensure the current list of tasks was accurate and complete.

After the tasks were organized into a backlog, team members in each department met to give rough estimates for these tasks. Tasks were typically estimated as one day, three days, one week, or two weeks. Any task over two weeks was broken down into more detail. We rarely attempted to estimate tasks with any more accuracy during mid/long-term planning; as we'd just be fooling ourselves into thinking our predictions were more precise than they could be.

Once the project review was complete, we kept things on track with a daily standup and weekly sprint review/planning combo meeting. During sprint review/planning meetings would typically run through the following agenda:

  1. Review completion of last week's task
  2. Adjust time estimates on tasks based on lessons learned or partial completion
  3. Verify priority of upcoming tasks is still accurate
  4. Assign a week's worth of top priority tasks to each team member
  5. Discuss any recent production issues or long-term concerns team members have

These meetings would take about an hour. The producer and designer would be present for the entire meeting. The rest of the team would be present for varying amounts of time based on need so a UI artist didn't have to sit through 30 minutes of technical discussion.

While the understaffing of project management likely cost us a month or two, we were ultimately able to recover. This made sure there was more bandwidth to implement and maintain formal production processes while making sure the design was the best it could be.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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