Colony Ship - "Taking Care of Business"
After five years of work we finally released Colony Ship’s first chapter on Early Access (Steam) and Games in Development (GOG). It's the second most important milestone (the first was the combat demo), because the hardest part - the long slog of building the foundation, the systems, the assets - is behind us now, and we can finally focus on the content, which is the best, most exciting part of development.
To give you a quick analogy, imagine wanting to build something from LEGO bricks, only before you get to enjoy it, you need to 3D-print all the different pieces. It took awhile but we finally have all the pieces. Now we're ready to play.
What took you so long?
We switched to Unreal 4 in 2016, when we finished working on The Age of Decadence. Making another game with Torque would have been far easier and taken less time, but the engine wasn’t getting any younger and sooner or later we'd be forced to switch. Switching to such a powerful engine brings many benefits but it also means starting from scratch. There’s a huge difference between an engine you’ve just downloaded and a well-oiled RPG engine with all the systems, and this difference is measured in years of work.
It took us 3 years to get to the first playable build, 4 years to shape it into a combat demo. Combat demo sounds deceptively simple - nothing but combat there, right? - but it’s essentially a small slice of the game with most systems in: character & party, combat & combat AI, upgradeable gadgets, dialogue, inventory, grid & pathfinding, ending slides, save/load, etc.
We released the combat demo in Apr 2020. It took us two months to process feedback, improve the design, and fix reported issues. Only then we started working on the first chapter, still missing many critical components (we added the stealth system in September, the code for non-human enemies only in Oct, etc). The final missing piece (the party management screen) was added last month, so now we can fully focus on quests, locations, and balance.
Why Early Access?
No, it's not beta testing or raising funds, although the extra money will certainly help and go toward development, allowing us to do more. The main reason is to run everything by our core audience and get instant feedback, which is the most important development tool there is. Anyone who isn't using it is working blind.
Essentially, players' feedback is guiding the development, pointing out everything that should be improved, changed, or expanded. Now that chapter 1 is 'approved' by the players, we can focus on one location at a time and so will the players, acting as the ultimate quality control.
Rapid updates are key here: we already released six updates, fixing everything we overlooked before the release and implementing many great suggestions and quality-of-life improvements. While it's tempting to delve deeper into the systems, nobody's going to be happy if by the end of the year we still have only 3 locations available. Right now we spend 80% of our time on the next location (the Factory) and 20% on improving the first chapter, systems, and balance.
Slow and Steady…
The game is well-received (86% based on 321 reviews) - thank you very much to everyone who decided to support us. The Age of Decadence did well for a hardcore indie but Roman fantasy with ancient mysteries and Lovecraftian elements is one thing, a colony ship with well-familiar political themes, without any overt space opera or over-the-top futuristic elements a la Mass Effect, is another.
In the first month we sold 14,271 copies. In comparison AoD sold ~3,300 copies during the same period in Early Access, so we can consider it a very promising start. I never hype our games but if the players liked the first, fairly low-key chapter, they're going to love what comes next.
Regional data: I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that the United States reigns supreme - 54% of all units are sold in the land of the free. Russia is the second biggest market with 7%, UK 6%, and so on and so forth.
Wishlists: we were sitting on 30k wishlists (courtesy of releasing the combat demo last year), it went up to 50k in the final week (after the first videos), then quickly jumped to 100k a week after release. Promising on this front as well.
Demo downloads jumped up by 2,265% so demos certainly remain an important tool that shouldn’t be underestimated.
AoD's sales went up 3,400% in the last month, which is an unexpected but very welcome bonus. Our development budgets are generated by our sales (which allows us to stay independent), so the stronger the sales, the more we'd be able to do to bring our worlds to life.
"Loved AoD, didn't know they were working on something…"
Letting people who might like your game know that it exists is probably the biggest problem indie developers face. We didn’t have much luck with the mainstream media this time around (while they covered AoD, they completely ignored Colony Ship and our emails), but fortunately the media landscape has changed as well. Before, if you couldn’t get a mention on one of the major sites, you were dead in the water. Now, there’s an army of influencers and you can find people who like and cover exactly the type of games you’re making. Big or small, it doesn’t matter as the numbers add up.
Contacting friendly YouTubers turned out to be a lot easier than contacting formerly friendly mainstream journalists. We also hired The Indie Bros to do 3 promo rounds, so overall Colony Ship got well over 300k views, SplatterCat accounting for half of that all by himself.loading...loading...
You and me, boy, we gonna be partners...
Colony Ship got a lot of interest from various publishers, so we had over a dozen inquiries last year alone. While encouraging, these conversations usually go this way:
Publisher: Your game looks very promising and we'd like to help you bring it to the market.
Developer: Really? That's great! Can you tell me what exactly you’re going to do for us (that we can't do ourselves)?
Publisher: Why, marketing, of course! You know, that thing that plants crave. It also helps sell games.
Developer: Marketing? Hmm, it's so crazy, it just might work! Tell me more please.
Publisher: I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you. Marketing secrets and all that, surely you understand?
Developer: Thanks but no thanks.
This is where it gets interesting. Mind you, these aren’t some two-bit publishers looking for their first clients, but well known names.
Publisher A (scare tactic): Do you know how many games are being released on Steam every day? Billions! You think someone gonna find your stupid little game in that pile of shovelware?
Developer: But I thought our game looked promising?
Publisher A : It did, 15 min ago. Since then 500,000 new games were dumped on Steam and they all look more promising.
Publisher B (business manager): Of course you can, but these things take time and can be very stressful. Wouldn't you rather focus on coding in your basement while we handle all the business aspects? Think of the freedom it will give you!
Developer: Gee, mister, you must really know a lot about business.
Publisher B: You betcha, just look at this viral hit we slapped our name on.
Developer: What about these other games under your brand that sold fuck all?
Publisher B: /disappears into the sunset
Publisher C (paint by numbers): Lemme ask you this: do you have a focus group? The studies? The market research? No? Then you ain't got shit, son.
Developer: Why do we need a focus group?
Publisher C: How else would you know what your audience wants? We put together a group of 100 people who have played at least 3 vidya games before. Their combined wisdom will ensure that your game is a hit.
Developer: What happened to [insert the name of a flop] then? Too much guidance?
Publisher C: /disappears into the sunset
The game would have to sell 40% more just to break even (for us to get the same revenue we could get on our own). It sells 20% more, we're losing money. Thus it's one hell of a leap of faith and we aren't prepared to take this jump yet, so we'll continue with our ‘business model’ where revenues of the first game aren't a reward but the operating budget for the second game, and so on and so forth.
While it's tempting to think that partnering up with a publisher (someone who promotes games for a living) is a good idea, I think the best partner we could possibly have is you, the Early Access player.
Information aboutColony Ship
Release: In development