Thursday, April 28, 2016

[IndieDev] How Three Strangers Won PAX East 2016

PAX East 2016 was a total blast. I could talk about how so many people told us Eon Altar was unique, or I could talk about how busy we were, or I could talk about the hiccups we ran into during setup and after.
Eon Altar @ PAX East 2016
Instead, I want to tell a story. A story of three totally disparate strangers, who all showed up at our booth around the same time and forged what will probably be a lifelong bond, but also showed us as developers what our game is really capable of.

Excitement in the Air

After the slow start we had on Friday, Saturday was full of promise. We had gotten all of our technical difficulties solved, and some of us finally had a decent night's sleep. We were rarin' to go and meet the crowds.

As the day progressed, we had plenty of folks in and out of our booth. Most people who sat down for a combat arena session would get to about Wave 7 before falling apart, but they all left the booth with smiles on their faces. To me that was probably the biggest compliment of all: seeing folks legitimately enjoy the game we put together over the past couple of years. It was invigorating.

About halfway through the day, just after lunch, we had someone stop by the booth. He was so stoked to try out Eon Altar; it looked unique and pretty cool. But of course, as is wont to happen on the show floor, there was a line to play the game. But he was willing to wait. Shortly thereafter, a couple more guys stopped by, and they were pretty interested too.

Soon a demo station opened up, and Haydn--our executive producer--sat them down on the grey and teal beanbags, handing them each a cell phone. Once the combat arena had booted up, the game was afoot. Or a game. The game was on, in either case.

The Intrepid Trio discussing strategy
They didn't plan ahead really. They just grabbed characters that appealed to them at first glance. Baryson the Paladin, Muran the Battlemage, and Shasek the Sellsword. The first few waves whetted their appetites for the blood of their enemies--well, really it just allowed them to get a handle on the unique controls--but quickly they realized that there was more value in working together.

Cooperation Isn't Just For Sesame Street

The thing about PAX is that you often hear of stories of people making friends for life. In lines, in random games, at panels, whatever. At PAX Aus, I made a number of friends who're such an amazing amount of fun that I went back again two years later. While PAX Aus was a draw unto itself, meeting my Aussie friends a second time was honestly the better part of it. But I don't think I've ever had the chance to watch the process happen.

A different group of three players strategizing. They already knew each other going in.
Our intrepid trio, having never met before in their lives, began to talk about their characters' capabilities. Other groups had kept to themselves, often not chatting up the strangers playing with them. Not these guys. And very quickly they realized that they were a fighting force to be reckoned with.

Thanks to some pointers from Hadyn on how some of the more in-depth systems worked, such as ability, weapon, and armor advancement, and equippable/craftable consumables, the group fell into a cautious, tactical pattern as they chewed their way through wave after wave of enemies.

A few groups had managed to get past Wave 10, the second boss wave. Nearly none had managed beyond that point. Outnumbered three to one (or more!), and outgunned by Arbolek Spine Tyrants and Hound Masters, without cooperation those groups were doomed to die.

Arbolek Spine Tyrant
But these gentlemen managed to not only slay those waves, but did so with nearly full health and energy by the end of each wave. By Wave 15, they were stopping every turn to discuss their options, and combine their powers in ways we--the developers--hadn't thought of. Baryson keeping the party healed, buffed, and protected while the mage and sellsword cleared the way.

Amicis, Rei Militaris

I'll be honest. I never expected them to get as far as they did. I also didn't expect them to take five minutes a turn--or longer--as they leaned in and discussed all of their options. I knew we had worked hard to design a game that had an interesting combat system. We had good bones so to speak in the original design by Christoph Sapinsky, and Scott Penner took the reins on combat with further iterations, with some input by yours truly. But I admit I took it all for granted a little. I thought our game wasn't actually that difficult or complex combat-wise.

These newfound friends proved me wrong.

By the time they had completed Wave 25--the furthest nearly any of us had ever been excepting Luke Reynolds, our finance guy, playing solo--over two hours had passed. Two hours at a demo station! On one hand, I was concerned that we were preventing others from taking a shot at it. On the other hand, we had three people who were now all heatedly cooperating and friends for life showing us things about our game that I don't know we knew or believed. I didn't want to stop them.

Alas, some UI confusion did them in on Wave 26, and one of the trio died permanently. Shortly after the other two folded like the beanbags they were sitting on. But they had set records, and they were absolutely pumped. They had basically won PAX East 2016, as far as any of us were concerned.

These guys won so hard, it's true.

Aftermath and Emotion

We had others come through our booths attempting to replicate that feat, many of them having watched part of the epic run, but none came close. One group managed Wave 16 on their second attempt, but we had to boot them in favour of bringing more people through eventually.

Two of our heroes came back on Sunday to talk with us about our plans for the future. I'd like to say we had everything they ever wanted covered, but everyone knows indie dev can't work like that. It hurts to have to tell people, well, perhaps not "no" but "we'd like to but we can't afford it right now."

But seeing their excited faces and hearing their super intense tactical talk was absolutely like nothing else I've experienced. I enjoyed working for Microsoft, but no offense, spreadsheets can't compare to seeing people viscerally love what you've built. It's the most amazing feeling in the world. That moment alone made all the difficulties of PAX East 2016 worthwhile to me.

So thank you, strangers, for coming to play our indie game at our indie booth, and showing us how to play.
#IndieDev, #GameDevelopment, #PAX

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

[IndieDev] PAX East Bound! Marketing and Conventions

Just a quick update post, Eon Altar will have a booth with the Indie Megabooth for PAX East this year. I'll be headed out with the band to help man the booth, which is a super fun time. This will be my third convention for Eon, so I'm definitely getting the whole booth thing down. It helps that I have a few years of retail employment under my belt, as well. Not something I expected to ever use as a software developer, but hey, whatever works, right?

Our PAX Prime 2015 Booth, before the floor opened
Our booth should be even better than our PAX Prime booth, which was awesome but cramped. We've learned more about good ways to present our game, and just have more space in general. We also have a bit of help now from folks who actually have marketing experience, such as Kristen Beane of The Game Doctors, which should also help.

Speaking of help, we have Ali Baker, of Machinima and RoosterTeeth fame also helping us with our booth this time, which is pretty cool.
A lot of this comes down to as indie developers, we may know how to make games, but marketing and presenting them is another matter entirely. From the work I've done so far on the marketing side, I literally have no idea what I'm doing. I can throw together neat features in relatively shorts amount of time, I can help design our UI and mechanics, but hawking our wares? Shooting in the dark.

However, I'm still (sorta) the face of the dev team, being the most active member on social media, our forums, tech support, blog posts, and the like. And I plan on continuing in that role! But it'll be great to have people who do this sort of thing for a living to help guide us.

Marketing the meta-game around couch co-op is...difficult
So yeah, PAX East, woo! We should also have a fun patch dropping around the same time that has been "Coming Soon!" since our initial Early Access release, so keep an eye out for that too!
#IndieDev, #GameDevelopment, #PAX

Sunday, April 10, 2016

[WoW] Classic Blizzard-Run Servers? Code, Logistics, Marketshare Point To "No"

Wilhelm over at TAGN had a great post the other day on Blizzard's shutdown of the Nostalrius Classic WoW private servers, talking about the potential market and reasons why or why Blizzard might not go the route of creating their own Classic WoW server.

Personally I'm of the opinion that no, we won't see Blizzard-run Classic WoW servers anytime soon. Mostly because of code, logistics and possibly not enough profit to make the investment risk worthwhile.

" get the old hardware, the old code, because the old code is meant to run on the old hardware, the old data, the old bugs, all that kind of stuff. Of course the natural expectation is that well you would fix all that stuff." -- Tom Chilton
The biggest barrier for Blizzard's entry is probably just getting old code up and running. As Tom Chilton's quote above indicates, assuming they could get the old code out of their backups--depending on how their code repository stores 10 - 14 year old data, which is a huge potential issue by itself, especially around art assets--they also need to rebuild the old hardware for the server code. There'll be code that relies on timing or performance characteristics of CPUs, RAM, internal networking, etc.

And if they couldn't get the old hardware again, they'd have to fix any number of potential bugs that would be caused by moving to a new hardware profile. Trying to figure out if that timing issue is a bug that existed in Vanilla, or due to hardware modifications.

That also doesn't take into account that their server OS--likely a Linux or UNIX variant--has had 10+ years of security, performance, and API tweaks. They certainly don't want to use a 10 year old OS for security issues, but the code may not even compile correctly anymore because OS modules have evolved over the years. Heck, for both client and server, they may need to be adjusted for newer compilers in general. Not to mention that Blizzard's current build pipe has evolved such that it would take more work to adjust Vanilla WoW development to fit the build pipe.

Speaking of security, WoW servers would have had a number of bug fixes over the years for security and anti-cheating technology that would be wholly missing from Vanilla WoW. Blizzard certainly wouldn't want to ship security holes even if they decided the anti-cheating tech wasn't worth the effort, just because it could potentially leave the rest of their network compromised. Those bug fixes would have to be identified and ported back.

Also, Blizzard's Authentication servers have evolved over the years, including support for 2-Factor Auth and likely protocol changes to the auth service itself for security reasons. Those would have to be back-ported into Vanilla WoW.

Then there's also the client itself, which would possibly need tweaks to handle newer graphics cards. Theoretically DX11 and DX12 are both backwards compatible with DX9, but that's not to say there aren't graphics card specific issues. Even on Eon Altar for Unity we've hit the occasional graphics card that just barfs on things and needs a specific solution. The cost here is almost entirely on the test team rather than the engineering team, but it's still not cheap.

There's no Battle.NET integration in Vanilla WoW on the client or the server, so that's another feature they'd have to port, and that one's a doozy. Part of it likely would come with the auth server changes (since they hook up with BNet), but current friend lists across games would need to be re-implemented.

It also ignores any further bug fixes to the game. These might include networking optimizations to make the game more responsive/efficient, content issues, systems bugs, and so on. While folks might be okay with Blizzard shipping a buggy game as is for nostalgia value, Blizzard's quality bar internally is probably set higher than that.

None of the above is impossible. Just an immense amount of work, and not all of it easily identified, especially in the cases of security and hardware bugs.

"But kind of maintaining that many different versions of the game is just not really feasible. Particularly in a world where people that are playing right now really want more content, not less." -- Tom Chilton
Let's say we've identified all the potential code issues and now it's a matter of assigning people to perform the work. If we pretend that five programmers are sufficient--say, 1 senior lead, and a junior plus mid-level programmer pair for both client and server--for a year, you're talking about $600,000 to $750,000 for salary, benefits, HR, legal, equipment, and so on.

That also doesn’t include testers, build teams, deployment teams, server hardware, server ops people, data center hosting costs, marketing, and more I'm likely missing. Testing alone would be a massive endeavor, and a lot of the testing would have to be extremely technical in nature given the hardware and security issues we've potentially identified.

All of those people could be working on the next Hearthstone or Overwatch instead, so there's an opportunity cost here that's harder to quantify. Or, even working on more current WoW content as Tom Chilton mentions above. Splitting their development team when they can barely put out content fast enough as is doesn't seem wise.

I'll ballpark a figure of $2M over the course of a year for this project, though I may be undervaluing it significantly. I don't have good figures on how much marketing, testing, or data center hosting costs. Suffice to say, MMOs are expensive, even if you're starting with an existing code base.

Profit vs. Risk

If $2M is the price to beat, then Blizzard would have to sell ~133k subscription months to break even at $15/month, and that's if we ignore taxes. If I ballpark a ~16% corporate tax rate from these investor values, they're actually looking closer to ~155k subscription months to break even on the initial layout. That doesn't take into account operating costs for support, test, devops, community managers, game masters, data center hosting costs after the initial deployment, further marketing, and so on.

Nostralius was free, but they claimed to have 800,000 registered users and 150k active users on their server. Alyson Reeves used micro-transactions to net a cool $3M from her private server before she got shut down hard. So there is clearly money to be made, but the question is, is it enough?

If we assume a 100% retention rate for Nostralius customers transferring to Blizzard--which is ridiculous at face value--then Blizzard could likely break even, and make a little profit potentially.

It's not really an apples-to-apples comparison, mind, because Nostralius was in a gray area at best, and a Blizzard run server could garner customers uncomfortable with gray or black market activities, similar to how Blizzard did the same with gold buyers and the WoW Token. But it's also not a fair comparison because it's highly doubtful all of those people would pay $15 a month to play Vanilla WoW again. Similar to how RIAA claiming that 100% of pirated music count as lost sales is spurious--many of those people wouldn't have paid for the music regardless.

As an extremely rough guess, if we assume that a Vanilla server probably would mostly get 1 month tourists who wanted to just get that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling, then if we pretend that 650k of those Nostralius users were 1 monthers and the 150k active users were 6 monthers, that turns out to be about 1,550k subscriber months. Or 1,302k after 16% tax, or 1,169k after the initial layout is subtracted. $17.5M is nothing to sneeze at if subscriber months netted $15 each (without taking into account operating costs).

But it's also a dead-end. They can't monetize Vanilla WoW the same way they can monetize Hearthstone, Heroes, or WoW. They can't release new content for it the same way WoW expansions work today, short of repeating the process for TBC, Wrath, etc. Also, no WoW Tokens, no cash shop, and do we really think Vanilla subs will actually pay $15 a month for an old product?

So yeah, they could grab a decent chunk of change for a one-time fee, but it's not a slam dunk and it's not actually that much as far as a Blizzard investment is concerned. It'd also be interesting to see if they could actually get enough employees interested in such an endeavor that they'd choose it over a newer project with more opportunities, and as mentioned in the previous section, the opportunity cost and potential of taking these employees who could be building new stuff could be lost profit as well.

Signs Point To No

There's a lot of things to keep in mind, and I'm sure there's a lot things I missed.

Assuming Blizzard could actually get the correct code, get the hardware, and get everything set up for the modern Internet and modern systems, they could probably make a neat profit. But because there's little to no room for growth after that layout, I don't see them making a huge investment here. It just doesn't seem worth it in the grand scheme of things.

At the end of the day, Blizzard--and all video game companies--are still a business.

#Blizzard, #WoW, #GameDevelopment