Time for more coffee; while that brews, let’s do a blog post. Let’s talk about polish, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. (EDIT: Now with addendum.)
First off, an enormous thank you to all our beta testers. Dredmor is so much better now than it was two weeks ago, and this is thanks to your input, crash bugs, feedback suggestions, gameplay complaints, and balance issues. Hang in there guys, I know you’re burnt out. For everybody not in the beta: hang in there, we’re so close to the end it’s amazing. There have been times when I thought this day would never come.
So what *are* we working on? Polish, mainly.
There was a thread on the Positech Games blog that gave me a few ideas about what to write about while I wait for coffee. Cliff… well, I don’t actually know why I read his blog; he mainly spends his time writing about a) how awful it is to be an indie, b) why everybody should be paying $29.99 for Gratuitous Space Battles, and c) how horrible it is to have to deal with municipal planning authorities in the United Kingdom. (The last complaint is fairly universal.) Meanwhile, Alex Mosolov, whose game Starfarer you should all be playing, just gets on with making a game, and is letting you pre-order for $10 and suffer along with him as he works on the alpha. Guess whose attitude I like more? And guess who just posted, excitedly, that he decided to quit his job to work on his company full-time? (Also, unlike Gratuitous Space Battles, Starfarer actually lets you pilot a spaceship. I think that’s a selling point.)
That said, I usually get ideas for blog posts from reading the Positech blog, so there you go. Today’s post at Cliff’s blog was the usual “Argh Indie Pricing” thread. We still haven’t made a pricing announcement for Dredmor other than the < $10 thing, but we do have one in mind. It’s a shame that the final price for Dredmor isn’t higher, but there is a recession on and I will be the first to admit that there is a lot of competition out there for your gaming dollar. Nothing new there. The next game we make, we are committed to having production values that clearly justify a $19.99 price, both to ourselves and everyone else. That’s all there is to it. What is interesting in that thread, though, is the following comment from a poster – a comment that has massive, incredible value:
If there’s something I want to say it’s this:
Indie games need more polish to be able to sell for more.
Most devs don’t have the money for that amount of polish, but they do have the time, even if it means taking a part time job to survive. If a game looks unpolished, with bad graphics, bad sound quality, music, uninteresting characters etc, then no matter if it’s indie or not, it will fail, and people won’t want to buy it, not at the full price.
Yes, exactly what he said.
Shipping a game is the single most painful part of the development experience. As Citizen Daniel recently pointed out, most of the major Dredmor design decisions were made months ago, if not years ago. David took the spartan mechanics that we originally had and have polished them until they glisten. Most of the major UI strategies were worked out months ago in our basement bunker, when we originally decided to start adding tooltips to the game (a move I initially resisted, but now can’t imagine the game without.) All the content has been around for awhile. So what are we doing now? Really, all we’re doing is polishing. Polish, polish, and more polish. Of the bugs in the tracker, there is only one known crash bug in the game: if you put spores in an alchemy kit, the game will crash. (Spores are a miscellaneous item and hence a bit broken in places.) Everything else consists of little things: graphical alignment issues, UI errors, readability issues, things not firing when they should be firing, dealing with scenarios that most people won’t encounter in normal gameplay. And yet, we’re fixing them.
If you want to look at an example of a polished game, look at Braid. When it shipped, it was almost, if not entirely, a perfect experience. This is because Jonathan Blow worked it, reworked it, and then polished it until he could see his reflection in the mirror. As a result, it was successful, and very few people said that Blow should have charged $5 for it. Nobody questions Braid’s price point. If indies want to ship at higher price points, they need to go out and immediately demonstrate that their game has the level of polish that justifies this price point. This doesn’t mean it has to be running with the Unreal Engine, or to have every battle lovingly hand-painted by Gabe from Penny Arcade based on character designs by Boris Vallejo. It simply means that you have to go through, fix your little things, then find more little things and fix them some more. This is the absolute hardest part of shipping a video game, because it is monotonous, it holds up your sales, and nobody makes any money when you do it.
Still worth it, though.
This is why I was very pleased to read this feedback from one of our beta testers:
“After playing the beta for a good while I don’t have much to say other than this game is awesome. I expected it to be a charming but buggy mess, like a lot of indie games in the beta phase, but I haven’t experienced any sort of significant bug and I’ve had a blast.”
This is what I like to hear, because it means that we’re doing something right. Our beta program has been going better than I ever thought possible, we’re fixing the issues we didn’t know we had, and when Dredmor comes out it’s going to come out as something that we think you’ll enjoy, and which we hope sets the sort of standard for quality that we want you to expect from Gaslamp Games. I don’t expect Dredmor to ship in a perfect state – we have a long post-ship todo for Dredmor, both in terms of fixing some outstanding things we want to fix and in terms of adding post-purchase value, but I hope you’ll all be able to see the spit and polish invested in the game.
Right, coffee’s done. Back to work!
 In the light of day, this paragraph comes across as being a little bit harsher than I had intended. I blame stress and coffee deprivation. You can never really edit things on the web, so let me tone things down a notch and try to clarify my position:
I have no problems with Cliff or his games, other than the fact that I do think – really! – that if your game is about building ships and participating in space battles, you should be allowed to fly them yourself. I am fully prepared to accept that this might just be my taste, but I do think games should be interactive. Also, you should play Starfarer because David worked on it and because Alex Mosolov is an honorary Friend of Gaslamp; hence, if we can stir up trouble and get him some free publicity, why not do so? That said: I do think that there is a great temptation in this community to bemoan our lot in life, and that we can’t make a game that can sell for $29.99, $39.99, whatever, and can hope to compete against major publishers. Cliff is not the only one who complains about this; he’s simply one of the more vocal ones, and hence makes for an easy target in the morning. So I apologize.
Folks, whining about our lot in life ultimately accomplishes nothing. I would rather invest my energy in making a product that clearly justifies a higher price. Despite the fact that some people seem to think that releasing Dredmor for < $10 is on the low side – Ben McGraw, our executive producer, was one of the most vocal advocates of Dredmor being priced at $14.95 – it’s clear to me that while we may have an exceedingly fun and polished title on our hands, we cannot quite justify pricing it at $15. It’s unfortunate, but oh well.
As it stands – and again, let me preface this by stating that this is just my opinion, but: if you want to charge the big bucks, you have to do three things. One, you have to be willing to put in the work and the monetary investment so that you can play with the big boys. This means getting a full-time artist on staff, because you are a Programmer and you will make things that are Ugly. It also means that you have to get a full-time programmer on staff, because your game will have countless issues if you don’t have the technical training to sort out things like the awful, horrible OS compatibility things that have been plaguing me this week, and a development speed that will let you fix all your bugs. Only these two elements, operating in tandem, can actually polish a game towards a higher price point. Second, you have to spend the time and energy necessary to polish the ever-loving tar out of your game. No game has ever suffered from more slow, careful testing and iterative refinement. Third, you have to find a niche where people are willing to pay extra for your work. Paradox Interactive does this very well (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron III), as does Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software. These things are tricky, demoralizing, and time consuming… but a better investment of an independent developer’s time and energy than complaining that they can’t charge $19.99 for their stuff as it is. And if you can’t, that’s not a bad thing either. It’s possible to do well at $10, or even $5, and there’s actually some data out there which suggests that the ROI on a price cut (volume versus markup) is significant and non-linear.