Arcen Games

Other => Game Development => Topic started by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 01:54:01 PM

Title: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 01:54:01 PM

Postmortem sounds so grisly, doesn't it?  I was tempted to call this a retrospective, but that sounds a bit foofy.  So here we are.  This isn't even a true retrospective, because AI War is still going strong and looks to remain that way for some time.

The time period this postmortem will examine is May 2009 through the end of May 2013.

As an example of what I mean by "still going strong," AI War has grossed another $30k since the end of the period that we're considering.  Not grand numbers compared to some indies, but pretty unusual for a game that is older than four years I expect.  I bring this up because I think this demonstrates the validity of the ongoing-support model that Arcen has used for AI War, which is a model I hope to see more game developers adopt.  More on that later.

I will warn you that this is perhaps excruciatingly long of an analysis, so feel free to skip around to the parts that interest you.  On the other end of things, for other indie developers (and prospective ones), I hope that all the detail will prove useful.

First, Some Sales Numbers

So that we have some context for what I'm going to be talking about, let's look at the performance of the game in the metric that matters most to game developers who want to stay in business: sales.  The strong sales of AI War are in fact all that has allowed us to develop almost every game that has come after it at Arcen, incidentally (an unfortunate trend we have only recently managed to break).

The values below are all gross sales prior to distributor cuts, so typically that means our actual cut was 30% lower.  Except that's not always quite true, because in the case of our direct sales our cut is only 8% lower.  Oh, and this is all in USD to be clear.

Total Sales
The red line shows our total cumulative sales over time, by year.  This is probably the clearest view of overall earnings, since it's a very very literal representation of earnings on each year.

The biggest caveat on total sales is that both 2009 and 2013 are only partial years:
This data is not 100% complete, but it's close enough:
Wow that was long.  I'll go ahead and post that chart again so you don't have to scroll up and down while you read the below sections.  The below chart is the same as the one higher up.

Year By Year
The blue line is a very literal representation of sales volume per year.  Overall the yearly gross numbers were (since they are hard to see on the chart):
Of course 2013 looks depressingly low if you take it out of context, but please don't take this as looking like AI War is tapering off this year.  If anything it's having a huge resurgence since a low point of 2012.

It's hard to know where exactly AI War will end up for the year, but it's already at around $120k.  From my projections based on recent performance, I think that a good range of total expected income for the year is between $185k on the very low end, and $250k on the upper-middling end.

It could blow past that upper end of my projections, which happened in both 2010 and 2011, for instance, but I like to keep my projections of future income as conservative as possible.  Even doing that, I still shoot myself in the foot more often than I would like with projections for games-that-are-not-AI-War.

Still super long!  Let's see that same graph again so you don't have to scroll back up:

Adjusted Yearly
The green line is not a literal representation of anything, but rather attempts to show the gross rate of sales on a year by year basis.  In other words, it's looking at the periods of time in question and trying to show how fast the game was selling on each period.  The numbers it came up with:
2009 is way off, but it's good enough to be somewhat illustrative I guess.  I was trying to represent how fast the game would have sold if it had been on Steam the entire year.  Looking at the actual numbers more closely now, probably something closer to $200k would be more correct, but it's hard to say.

2013 is actually on the lower-middle end of my projections, so that's a really good guess! 

I arrived at the numbers on the green line simply by extrapolating linearly from the months-on-Steam versus months-in-the-year, and for 2009 that came out way too high, and for 2013 it came out in the range of accurate, but slightly conservative (since it doesn't account for seasonal fluctuations in sales volume).

Distributor Stats
I didn't run these statistics on a year-by-year basis, but over the lifetime of Arcen here are some interesting statistics.
Stats By Game
It helps to have some context for AI War in terms of Arcen's overall library.  We've handled each game differently, and this helps to explain why.  Unlike the sales numbers and the by-distributor numbers, these are rough approximations.  But they'll do for our purposes here:

Releases, Updates, and Major Events Timeline

Okay, so now we have some sales numbers year by year.  Let's put these things in further context.  The links go to the release notes on our wiki, if you are interested in those.

2009: $118,517.39
May 14, 2009: 1.000 (First Official Release)
May 23, 2009: 1.003 (First Release On Impulse)
June 29, 2009: 1.008 (First Release On GamersGate)
October 20, 2009: 2.000 (First Release On Steam and Direct2Drive)

Prior to the game releasing on Impulse, we had literally zero sales.  Ouch.  Once the game game out on Impulse, then we started doing really well.  During some mild discount promotions we were able to repeatedly get up into their top 5 best selling titles, and we made a surprising amount of money with them.

Enough, between them and GamersGate, to fund the art revamp and other improvements that went into the 2.0 version that was the first one that went on Steam.

We had a curious amount of good luck with Impulse in particular, because their audience at the time was so space-game focused (what with Stardock's games at the time: Sins of a Solar Empire, etc).  On Direct2Drive, by contrast, we had really wretched sales by their and our standards.  Other indie games were doing far better, but for whatever reason our game just didn't connect with their audience at all.

That's been something that has actually been a theme with most distributors, actually.  Aside from Steam, Impulse, and GamersGate, AI War has done very poorly with other distributors.  I guess it really has a lot to do with the audience in question and what they are interested in.

2010: $274,360.51

January 12, 2010: 3.000 (First Official Release Of The Zenith Remnant)
September 14, 2010: I freak out over flatlining sales.
September 14, 2010: I respond to the huge outpouring of support.
September 16, 2010: I clarify that we are debt-free, and what stands to be lost.
October 26, 2010: 4.000 (First Official Release Of Children of Neinzul, First Unity Release)

Q4 2010: Waaay more than 50% of our income hits from October 26th onward, thus nullifying my freak-out from September (happily).  I don't have exact numbers handy, but on Steam alone it was about $146k, so that's 53% of our yearly income right there.  At that time we were still making only around 70% of our income from Steam, so I can estimate that around 69% of our yearly income came in Q4 that year.

In other words, my freak-out was entirely justified at the time, and we did indeed have to shed staff in the middle of 2010 (only time we've had to do that).  But then we bounced back almost immediately after that.  In many ways I regretted the freak-out because it then gave us a reputation for being financially rocky and unsuccessful in general.

But on the other hand, would our income have been so high in Q4 had I not spoken out?  We got lots of support from both players and press when our predicament came to light, and it's impossible to quantify how much that helped us actually pull out of our predicament.

2011: $381,443.77

January 27, 2011: 5.000 (First Official Release Of Light Of The Spire)
May 25, 2011: AI War: Alien Bundle Released
July 05, 2011: AI War As Daily Deal In Steam Summer Sale (85% Off)

2011 was a bit funny, because for most of it we were not even working on AI War very heavily; we were focused on Valley 1 almost exclusively.  We did fewer updates in 2011 than in any other year, I'm pretty sure.

However, this worked out well timing-wise because the 5.0 version was extremely good and there had been a lot of fatigue in our core playerbase from all the changes that came in quick succession around the end of 2010 as we moved into the 4.0 era and then the 5.0 era.  So having a relative respite from huge numbers of changes and additions, where players could just play the game, was clearly welcome.

The Alien Bundle's release, on the other hand, was a massive success for us with almost no effort.  It wasn't a bundle in the modern sense of bundle; it was just a "gold edition" sort of thing that packaged the base game plus the first three expansions all into one package for one lower price.  This sold like crazy, and was a big part of the ongoing financial success of AI War.

The other huge thing in 2011 that made it an unusually record-breaking year was the Daily Deal slot in the Steam Summer Sale.  Holy smokes, we made around $136,000.00 in 24 hours with that.  Never before or since have we made that much in that short of a period of time.  That was averaging $94 per minute for 24 hours, which is just crazy.

2012: $153,527.69
October 19th, 2012: 6.000 (First Official Release Of Ancient Shadows)

This was our first new paid content for AI War in 22 months, which was crazy by our standards.  To say that our players were hungry for more would be something of an understatement. 

We'd been focusing on Valley 1 for so long that I think a number of them were wondering if we'd largely put AI War into cryo freeze.  That had never been our intent, but Valley 1 wound up requiring way more time and resources than I'd ever predicted -- that is a whole other story of mixed folly and success, really -- and we could only focus on so many things at one time.  So AI War stayed on the backburner... and stayed... and stayed...

We had picked back up work on doing more updates in 2012 than we did in 2011, though, for sure.  So it wasn't like the game was stagnating during this period by any stretch.  It actually evolved quite a bit in terms of the polish and so forth on the core mechanics.  The 6.0 release was really quite a cumulative perfecting of everything that had come before, alongside the new expansion.

Even so, just doing one expansion and focusing the rest of our time on free updates/polish alone did not make this a stellar year for sales.  Though I'd say the real culprit was the Q4 low sales volume in general.  The holiday season just wasn't strong for anybody, since consumer spending was down.  On average this year might actually have been north of $200k for AI War had it not been such a lousy holiday sales period.

2013: $87,920.69 (as noted we've had another $30k added to that since May)
June 7th, 2013: Arclight Bundle with IndieRoyale
June 17th, 2013: 7.000 (First Official Release Of Vengeance Of The Machine)
June 17th, 2013: AI War Four Year Anniversary Edition Released
October 2013: AI War Expansion 6 To Be Released

Bear in mind that none of the events above are reflected in the $87k figure, and that the $30k figure includes only the AI War portion of the Arclight Bundle and less than a day of sales of the Vengeance expansion and the new Four Year Edition.

All in all this year we're making an effort to bring AI War back to a more middle-ground level of updates and new content.  Rather than being really paltry like in 2011, or super heavy like in 2010, we're going for somewhere in between.  So far so good, and players seem really happy, so that's great.

Some Stats On Total Updates

The Post-3.0 Through Pre-7.0 Timespan (Once The Game Reached Baseline Maturity)
Overall this period spans 3 years, from May 10th, 1010 to June 17th, 2013.  The stats for this period:
The 1.0 Through 3.0 Period (Pre-Full-Maturity)
The game was solid during its first year, and picked up awesome reviews and lots of new players.  In fact, Metacritic named AI War the 40th Best-Reviewed PC title of 2009.  A figure which includes both AAA and indie games, so that's pretty darn cool.

All that said, it wasn't until the game reached version 3.0 -- alongside the release of the first expansion, The Zenith Remnant -- that it really reached its full potential.  And of course it kept growing from there, but 3.0 marked the turning point of where the base gameplay experience was truly what I had wanted it to be in all respects.

Anyway, the stats:
Lots And Lots of Words
The release notes for our games are always really long, because a lot changes and there are a lot of things to explain and people to thank.  All in all, the AI War releases through version 7.0 are comprised of 235,188 words.  As a point of reference, the novel "Tom Sawyer" contains 70,570 words, and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is about 473,000 words.  So... lots of words.

Wow that was a lot.  How about a trailer to break up the wall of text? ;)

The Various Models Of Selling Games

I said that I really believe in the model of ongoing updates that AI War has used, and that I hope other developers will also use this model.  Most developers I've seen tend to fall into one of four camps:
The model that I'm proposing are a fifth and sixth, which I don't think I've seen used aside from AI War.  Or at least that isn't publicized very well, and that not many developers use:
The benefits of the models used by AI War and Skyward Collapse are manifold.  Certainly there are financial benefits to the developer.  However, the benefits to players are also immense.

Assuming that each paid content expansion gives players an exciting value and isn't over-expensive for the developer to produce, that's a win on all sides.  However, it also does something that you can't accomplish any other way: making huge huge huge game worlds that players can inhabit for years.

We have players that have logged more than 600 hours in AI War, and loads and loads more who have logged 100-200 hours or even more.  There are some who still consider themselves "new" to AI War despite having more than 100 hours logged in the game.  That sort of longevity just isn't possible unless you are running an MMO subscription, or you happen to have an incredible outlier bestselling title like Terraria or Minecraft.

What I believe is demonstrated by AI War is that niche products can still be treated in similar ways, and see similar growth.  AI War is a poster child for the success of serving a small niche: Strategy games themselves are a small niche in gaming.  But ultra-hardcore strategy games are a small niche even within that niche.

That AI War can gross more than a million dollars (and growing) while serving that sort of niche -- and have players happy about the prices they've paid, and not grumbling about it as they do with certain $80+ titles that I can think of -- is quite something.  It shows that there is a lot more life in the "small spaces" that the big AAA publishers are ignoring.  And it's something that I think should be a hopeful sign to players who love various "dead" genres.  Most "dead" genres could provide this level of developer income and this level of player happiness for the right game sold the right way, I'm convinced.

The Skyward Collapse model takes things even further.  It broke even within three days, but we're already working on the first paid expansion for it (as well as already having released tons of free content updates).  We expect to put out two expansions for Skyward this year in total.  The thing is this: it will take 5 Skyward expansions plus the base game of Skyward to equal the original cost of the base game of AI War.  That's... an astoundingly good value for customers, really.  And obviously doing great for us as a developer, as well.

The Benefits Of The AI War Model

I don't really think that the Skyward Collapse model is the end-all model.  There's a place for every model of selling games in the market.  And when it comes to games with a higher cost to initially develop, the Skyward Collapse model simply isn't feasible.  In our case, all that engine development we did during the development of all our past games made it possible to create Skyward Collapse for a much lower cost than otherwise would have been the case.

In the cases where the development costs remain high, however, there's nothing stopping you from using the AI War model of ongoing support, and that's the coolest thing to realize here.  Lots of people talk about the long tail, but AI War isn't quite in that model if you look at it from Arcen's perspective (if you look at it from Steam's perspective, then all indie games absolutely are part of the long tail for them).

But for Arcen, we've been able to see mostly-steady-ish income (accounting for environmental factors and other related secondary influences) from AI War for four years now.  This is not the way a sales graph for a four-year-old product is supposed to look!

The expense of creating a new expansion for an existing game is vastly less than the expense of creating the base game itself.  The release of new expansions also drive further sales of the base game itself.  AI War's fourth expansion, Ancient Shadows, broke even on its creation expenses within a week when you look at increased sales of the base game plus its own direct income.

Given that, it only makes sense to pack expansions full of so much awesomeness that they are clearly an excellent deal for players.  Don't give me any of that horse armor junk!  Make the expansion so exciting on multiple levels that it is an obvious choice to buy it for the players who are into the game.  This is not only something that helps keep the existing game afloat, but it also lets you self-fund further games that your playerbase may quite enjoy as well

And most importantly it lets you not feel the need to abandon supporting that existing game when you potentially hit it really big with a title in the future.  Regardless of if Skyward Collapse and/or other future titles come to eclipse sales of AI War, we won't stop doing new AI War content until players lose interest to the point that the release of new AI War expansions is becoming unprofitable.

The funny thing is, I've worried about that day coming "soon" ever since early 2010.  I was really pleased with how AI War was selling in early 2010, but knew that couldn't last forever.  So it was time to diversify and do our second full game, Tidalis.

The only thing was, Tidalis flopped financially (as noted above).  It was a huge loss for us, even moreso at the time it released.  And around that time, sales of AI War itself seemed to be drying up, too.  Tidalis was supposed to get all our eggs out of one basket, but instead it cost us tons of money and left us in an even worse predicament than when we started.  Nevermind the hugely positive reviews that Tidalis got; that didn't make a difference in the marketplace.

So hence my panic in September of that year.  Things looked incredibly bleak.  There was no way we could have funded working on a completely new game at that point, and even if we did there was no guarantee that would do any better than Tidalis in terms of breaking even (and if you remember the Valley games and Shattered Haven, you'll see just how true that is).

What saved this company is a renewed focus on AI War and ongoing support for it.  The huge upgrade to AI War 4.0 and moving that to the Unity 3D engine (thus adding Mac OSX support and a host of other cool things), and the two new expansions that hit around that time period, turned a bad year into an awesome one.  With more than a little help from our friends (players, press) of course.

This Company Is Built On AI War

The AI War franchise is what funded the development of both Tidalis, Valley 1, Shattered Haven, and Skyward Collapse.  Valley 2 was funded by Valley 1.  And all of the expansions for AI War were funded from their own franchise.

That is incredible!  AI War has not only evolved into something better and better that pleases its players directly, but it is also responsible in a fairly direct way for all the enjoyment that anyone has had from any of the other games we've made.  It's allowed us to remain publisher-free (and in business at all) despite some missteps over the years, and it's allowed us to really push the boundaries of a number of genres and do some cool and unusual things.

And as much as I worried that AI War was going to "dry up" and no longer be able to support the company very well in 2010, 2011, and 2012... now I'm not so worried about that.  Mainly because all our eggs aren't in that one basket anymore (hooray for the Valley games and Skyward Collapse), but also because the AI War engine just seems to keep going and going.  It's a pretty crazy thing to see.

What I'd like to see is other indie developers pursuing a similar approach and coming up with similarly huge game universes.  I think that big game universes are really fun, and as a player I'd love to see more of that sort of thing.  And as a developer, I think that this sort of thing is also just good business sense, when the right game comes along.

Obviously, it takes the right game.  We're pursuing this with AI War and Skyward Collapse precisely because they had the legs to do so.  We didn't pursue this with any of our other games, because they didn't have the same legs.  With each game we had planned to, but when the sales numbers didn't work out then we abandoned any plans for expansions with them.  Sometimes the base game just has to stand on its own and that's that.  With something like Shattered Haven, I'm extremely proud of it but the larger market just doesn't feel the same way.  And so that has to be that.

An Amusing Aside

I've been doing hobbyist game development and level design since I was around nine years old.  It's just always been a thing I did, I never thought of it as a career.  I did mods and levels and such for dozens of games.

Once I became a professional programmer, then as a hobby I programmed games.  First I worked on Mario clones that were also adventure games (none of that code was used for Valley 1, but the lessons I learned about making platformers sure were).  This was round about 2002-2003.

Then in 2008 I started working on a game called Alden Ridge, which later got renamed to... Shattered Haven.  This was something I was really passionate about, and worked on for most of that year.  Then I kind of got stuck on one aspect of the game design, and put it aside for "a little while" (turns out that would be four years, in the end).

Specifically, I put Shattered Haven aside to work on a "side project" called AI War.  I'd had the idea for it, and was frustrated with the sorts of co-op strategy games that were on offer in general in the market.  So I decided to make it, mainly just for myself and my dad, uncle, and my uncle's co-worker.  I still didn't have any thoughts of selling it, until early in 2009.  Suddenly it kind of hit me that "Oh hey, I might actually be able to sell this!  It's a cool game."

And that's how I became an indie game developer, completely by accident.


I hope that the facts and figures here are useful to other developers, and interesting to both our players and to others who follow the gaming market.  I know I always love reading meaty postmortems.

We do things pretty unusually here at Arcen, both in terms of how we make our games and how we sell them.  We don't always get everything exactly right (who does?), but AI War has been a really big win for us and I think is worth emulating in terms of how it is sold and supported.  So I hope this is at least interesting food for thought if you're a developer (or want to be one).

Thanks for an awesome first four years, everyone!

(...And 6,000 words later, he was done writing this huge thing.)
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: doctorfrog on June 18, 2013, 02:19:38 PM
I feel like I'm in a shareholders meeting!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: relmz32 on June 18, 2013, 02:26:23 PM
This was a great post.

It is still hard for me to believe that Tidalis did so poorly...

But other than that, you guys have done awesome. I hope your run of great results headlined by Skyward continue with your next releases.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 02:47:24 PM
Thanks much!

And haha, doctorfrog. Bear in mind that of course we keep track of performance metrics like this, because its pretty vital to us continuing to make good decisions. It does get overly business-y when looked at in bulk like this, but I guess that's just the nature of it. If you want to quantify how a business is doing, you have to actually look at the numbers!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Histidine on June 18, 2013, 02:58:07 PM
Fascinating read :)

I am a little worried about what the Tidalis/Valley/SH precedent means for future titles (I was particularly looking forward to Exodus), but I'm glad Skyward Collapse is doing so well - not just because it's an enjoyable game in itself, but also because I think your efforts at trying new things in a market full of rehashes is something worthwhile. And, well, it's good for us players as well as you to have another revenue source. As much as I like AI War, having to think of it as a cash cow franchise would be kinda painful.

Out of curiosity, what does the RoI look for Valley 2 vs. Valley 1, if the two figures can be meaningfully separated?
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 03:08:35 PM
I don't think the precedent of the games you mention is all that worrying, really -- it would be if we weren't learning from it, but that's why we've shifted development styles starting with Skyward. Smaller base games like that means its easier to break even.

Also, there's the matter of engine work. We've always had to do tons of that with every game, but no longer is that the case. So that helps enormously with keeping costs lower.

We've also taken more direct control of our art pipeline, so we can do that more efficiently as well as driving toward better and better art without breaking the bank.

For Valley 2 the ROI is really hard to separate out. It's very poor in the main, probably much worse than Valley 1. That said, that's just the initial release data from it. Longer-term I think it was a good move for a lot of reasons: repairing reputation, financially, etc. And I just think it's a lot of fun, too.

Two years from now there's a chance the Valley games will have broken even. And Shattered Haven may yet break even by the end of this year (still ignoring my labor from 2008). So if that happens, then in the end Tidalis would be the only one that was a loss, even though Shattered Haven would still be the lowest earner overall.

It's hard to project that far into the future with any accuracy, though. We'll see what happens!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Pepisolo on June 18, 2013, 03:12:14 PM
Really really interesting write-up. A game that sort of shares a similar model might be Killing Floor. Killing Floor has had great success, selling over a million copies since 2009 by mixing free content with paid for DLC -- this is not identical to your model in that the KF paid for DLC is predominantly skin packs, cosmetic stuff, but it does show that continual free content updates can keep driving sales.

It seems like a nice way to keep the game fresh, it also helps generate a little extra regular publicity for the title, and of course over time the game itself should continually be getting bigger and better which can't be bad.

KF has quite an interesting development history, it actually started as an Unreal Tournament mod in 2005. Tremendous game, albeit getting a little silly lately. I still find it far superior to Left 4 Dead, though. Going a bit off-topic so I'll just say thanks for the interesting postmortem... that does sound a bit grisly.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 03:20:18 PM
Very cool to know on Killing Floor. I still need to try that at some point, as I love both L4D games.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Pepisolo on June 18, 2013, 03:40:12 PM
The Left 4 Deads are great games. The thing that elevates KF for me is the gunplay which is some of the best I've ever played. There is no proper story/campaign mode, though. You just select a map and have at it. The perk system is pretty good too, so you can choose to be a Support specialist, a Commando, Firebug etc. This helps vary your role in the team a bit and makes things far more tactical in co-op. In single player, L4D has the advantage I think, but for co-op it's KF all the way for me.

Oh... and to make this post not completely off-topic the development model is interesting and stuff.  ;)
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: KingIsaacLinksr on June 18, 2013, 04:03:41 PM
A great read Chris, thanks for typing all of that up. A very interesting perspective on how your games have been doing.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: relmz32 on June 18, 2013, 04:11:45 PM
This is definitely going to shape some of my ideas for development in the future.

Thanks Chris!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 04:30:54 PM
My pleasure!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Castruccio on June 18, 2013, 04:43:23 PM
A fascinating post Chris, especially for someone interested in the business side of indie games.  Back when Valley 1 was cutting its teeth I worried that its relative failure might mean that we had seen the last big "opera" from Arcen, i.e. that you were going to start making cheap games that were low risk and quick to develop.  I find your new business and pricing  model intriguing, and I am willing to pay for the big opera games in bits and pieces instead of all at once if that helps the company.  That said, I did think SC was a tiny bit rushed (the alpha was what a couple weeks?) and that some of the features you've implemented in the past 2 weeks should have been there for 1.0.  I'm all for the new pricing model, in other words, but I don't want that model to mean that you're rushing things out the door before they are fully ready.  Skyward 1.0 was great, don't get me wrong, but if you'd have waited another three or so weeks then 1.10 could have been 1.0 and it would have been that much better.  Random maps, for example, were a huge addition that can really make or break the replay value of a game like Skyward when people are talking about it on other forums.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 04:52:15 PM
In terms of the big "opera" type releases, it's definitely not something we're shifting focus from, just methodology about.

In terms of Skyward's original release, I don't think it was particularly rushed; most all of the things that were reported post-1.0 were not found prior to 1.0.  The private alpha for that game was IIRC closer to a month.  A little over three weeks anyhow.  Though we did it in stages, so not everyone was in there the whole time.

In terms of rushing to market, that's not something we're intending to do either, but bear in mind that prior to Skyward we were coming off of two knock-down failures (Valley 2 and Shattered Haven) from a revenue standpoint.  I'd had to forgo all personal salary for myself, and put in some of my own money on top of that, in order to keep from having to lay off staff.  Given that we get paid on a net 30 delay most of the time, if the calendar month flips before money from a release is captured, then we have to wait almost 60 days to get it rather than 30.  In other words, we don't quite make it to the bathroom when things are very tight.

Anyhow, it was a rough quarter one for us despite the fact that by now we've earned about 75% (or something close to that) of our total earnings from 2012.  It's all about when the money arrives versus the expenses, etc.  So the timing of Skyward was pretty well something that could not be changed short of me shedding staff.  With the expansion for Skyward, and the Bionic Dues game, we have more time thanks to the breathing room that Skyward has given us, and so we're using that time.

Things are always different when you're absolutely stretched to the limit versus not; we've been back and forth in what mode we're working in here.  Our income has always gone up each year, but so have our expenses as we've taken on more staff in an effort to both be able to do more, and do better.  And reduce the insane workload on me, so that I can have more regular hours (which now I can, but it came at a lot of personal cost over the last few years to get to that point).
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Castruccio on June 18, 2013, 05:01:56 PM
Totally understand the business decision and can't argue with what you say here.  I also don't mean to say that SC was overly buggy on release--it wasn't at all.  I just mean it wasn't feature complete, as they say, because you added some pretty big features the past couple weeks.  I am grateful you added those features as you could have just put them in the expansion and charged me for them.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: doctorfrog on June 18, 2013, 05:07:46 PM
Thanks much!

And haha, doctorfrog. Bear in mind that of course we keep track of performance metrics like this, because its pretty vital to us continuing to make good decisions. It does get overly business-y when looked at in bulk like this, but I guess that's just the nature of it. If you want to quantify how a business is doing, you have to actually look at the numbers!

Of course, I meant my comment in a very positive way! It's rare in my experience for a games company to be this open with their finances. Fascinating post.

And in a way, I do feel like a shareholder in Arcen games, and I don't think I'm alone in this. It's not easy to engender that feeling in your customers.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 18, 2013, 05:51:52 PM
@Castruccio: All good, and understood. In terms of not being feature complete... well, I would argue it is not feature complete now. Neither is AI War. That might sound like a disingenuous answer, but the reality is that none of the features implemented post 1.0 on skyward had been thought of prior to 1.0 (aside from the random maps, which I had forgotten about). With AI War, you might be surprised to know that FRD mode was a player suggestion post 1.0. So was auto scouting and a ton of other "core" stuff. It's stuff that I didn't think of, or things that I did but not until players sparked an idea based on a complaint, or a mix of the two.

To me, if there is NOT a rush of new features and tweaks after the first really large audience gets their hands on it, then something is up. Ten thousand players will always always find many things that 50 do not. Burning more time in alpha is not a guarantee that we'd collectively have caught any of those things. Or at least not most of them.  That might sound like post-hoc reasoning, but honestly it's what I've observed every time. Except with the releases that tanked (hmm).

@doctorfrog: Ah, that's a very good way to put it, now I see. :). Glad you enjoyed it, and I'm glad to share.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Aklyon on June 18, 2013, 11:14:30 PM
I think thats the first time I've seen the same graph 4 times in the same message. But its an important graph!, and it was generally interesting to know about, especially the 1.000 page. I didn't know you had a page for that! (I'd gone tinkering with the url of the release notes page before and only gotten back to the 'current post-4.0 release beta' page :) )
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: mrhanman on June 18, 2013, 11:48:20 PM
I feel like I'm in a shareholders meeting!

I was thinking this very thing the whole way through!

I was one of the ones who bought AI War during the summer sale.  I had seen it a few times on Steam, and was curious about it.  Ashamedly, I was scared off by what I thought was a steep learning curve (thanks to AI War, steep ( learning curves ( are attractive ( to me (  But there was an achievement (,13358.msg151927.html#msg151927), which led to a ticket, which led to a prize I probably didn't care about.  Nevermind all that, it led to one of the most awesome strategy games I've ever played.  Honestly, in my eyes, Warcraft, C&C, MoO - even the venerable Civilization franchise - can barely measure up to the awesomeness contained within this unassuming game.  You won an instant fan in me, and I'm sorry for not yet being able to purchase the latest expansion.  It's something I plan to resolve very soon.  I've gotten so much enjoyment out of your games, that you could stamp your name in a turd, and I'd preorder* it first day just to have a chance to throw more money at you.

Anyway, I wish you continued success far into the future.  Though, if you ever tire of making games, may your IP sell for millions to the highest bidder!

*Not a true statement.  Please don't do this.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: LaughingThesaurus on June 19, 2013, 02:54:37 AM
What I'd suggest, Chris, is calling this the four year anniversary analysis of AI War. Postmortem makes it sound like AI War is doing badly and is dead.
I just want to give Tidalis a hug after seeing this thread. 3%? Now I'm not very good at the demo or anything but it deserves a lot more than that. I must do my part and buy it full price sometime later. Skyward Collapse is doing REALLY well by the sound of it. Incredibly well. I'm really happy to hear that. If only you really could compare it to AI War at the time. But... AI War at that time of release was at 100% of your revenue I imagine.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 19, 2013, 08:48:28 AM
Thanks again for all the kind words, folks.  It really means a lot. :)

As far as the term "postmortem," guess this may not be well known but it's a general industry term: (

Aka, often developers do postmortems for games like God of War or whatever right as soon as the game comes out.  It's referring to the development of the game being done, I believe, rather than anything else.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: LaughingThesaurus on June 19, 2013, 10:26:53 AM
Ahh, I didn't know that. I've more applied it in the more conventional uses outside of the games industry, so that's what made me a little sad.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 19, 2013, 10:40:16 AM
For sure, I understand. :)  Definitely not dead or dying in any sense, though!
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Billick on June 19, 2013, 01:02:36 PM
Thanks for posting this Chris.  I find this sort of stuff fascinating.  It's nice to see that niche type games can be profitable.

For those who are interested in this type of stuff, the guys from Hitbox Team (Dustforce) did a similar blog post a couple months ago: (
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: x4000 on June 19, 2013, 01:16:27 PM
Nice, and yeah -- I've seen that Dustforce article before.  I love seeing the various data from people as well, so that there's a bit more out there in the market in terms of earnings from various developers.  Helps everyone understand the market better, know where to set goals and expectations, what is reasonable, etc.
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: TechSY730 on August 20, 2013, 09:33:25 PM
Aw man, how did I miss this awesome post for so long and thus had to resort to what would of been a large-ish bump if it wasn't for the fact this was already stickied (as of this writing).

I will warn you that this is perhaps excruciatingly long of an analysis


I love excruciatingly long analyses! (as you can probably glean from some of my own posts. :D)

Thanks for the detail, and the very frank analysis.

Of course 2013 looks depressingly low if you take it out of context

Um, yea, I can think of a very good reason for this. As of this posting, 2013 is less than half way through. ;)
(You do mention that earlier on, so that was covered, but still, I found this "warning" amusing)

I'm still amazed though, that while some of these games may have been financially questionable to downright financial failures, NONE of the games have been bad games from a design or a gameplay perspective. Probably the closest to a "bad" game was Valley 1, and even then, IMO, that was more of a "lack of extra polish" due to that game's model being "hard to polish" (I guess that's one of the reasons why Valley 2 changed a bunch of the core mechanics). The concept and most of the implementation of the game was pretty solid and fun. (In fact, I think I want to do some "spelunking" again soon, if for no other reason than "scratching" my exploration "itch")
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: eRe4s3r on August 22, 2013, 08:04:24 AM
A very interesting read.. gonna just add my 2ct's because... well *reasons* ;p

Imo the problem with Shattered Havenwas the lack of a demo. Even after watching a gameplay video I had absolutely no clue whatsoever what the game was about. And even reading about it here didn't help. Of course, had someone told me it's pac-man with exploration, dialog, combat and inventory i'd have laughed and called em a madmen ;p

And A Valley Without Wind..... well lot's of talk about that in the past. AVWW1 was *fun* if slightly unpolished, and AVWW2 was something I don't think should even have been made. What that added in polish it basically lost because by the time people were aware of it.. well we had seen Dust: Elysian Tail ;) Not particularly identically games but after that I will never again want to read "We can't do idle animations" Dust is one of the prettiest and smoothest 2D-Sidescrollers there is. And it made me, who doesn't much like (modern) Sidescrollers, appreciate the genre.

Imo AVWW2 could have been a better (and it's own titled) game with a more unique mechanic, maybe a simulation style town building element where rescuing people and finding cool stuff in a random dungeon and world for the town would have been the main drive. Alas, it has a strategy element very much unlike that... I didn't like it ,/ Now AVWW1 owners got AVWW2 for free, and that was very nice. But I would have bought a new game with a much more unique take on the idea.

AI War and Skyward Collapse are by far the most interesting games in the bunch. I like both, although I don't own Skyward Collapse simply because the gameplay style itself doesn't appeal to me. The game seems very well balanced and fun though. It just isn't for me. AI War is for me, and I love it. Though I still didn't get the last expansion.... ought to get around to that at some point.

And Tidalis... I loved Tidalis. But I hope nobody was surprised that this didn't sell so well. It was a hardcore puzzle game at heart and a very good and unique one at that. But not a lot of people want to puzzle with a reflex element. And some of Tidalis' puzzles require reflexes and precision that no casual player will ever have. Which is why I loved it :D

Either way, I hope to see more strategy/tactics/dynamic/emergent games from Arcengames.  ;D
Title: Re: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)
Post by: Cyborg on August 24, 2013, 04:15:10 PM
AI War is still the reigning masterpiece. I can't get into skyward collapse. Part of it is the appearance, and the other is I feel annoyed by the gameplay. Trying to get enough of this resource, or enough of that resource, and convert those into something else all the while the numbers going around the board…I don't get that "pay off" as a gamer.

But apparently, a lot of people like that! More power to them and congratulations on another profitable title. As long as we still get our AI fix, doesn't really matter. Someday, when it's not profitable anymore, I hope you implement modding so the war never really has to end for good.