Saturday, November 2, 2013

Blackwell Unbought

So hi. You might have noticed that things have been a bit slow on the Wadjet Eye front. It's been a long time since I've blogged, so I figured I would break the silence by writing about an experience that makes me look like a total idiot.

The year of 2012 saw many things happen. We got Blackwell on Steam. We released three big games - two of which became huge sellers. We partnered up with GOG. We were very busy bees, and we had lots to talk about.

The year of 2013? Janet and I had a baby and moved four times. A big deal for us, certainly, but not exactly interesting for everyone else. Although as expected, it's slowed our production down quite a bit!

Meet Eve Anita Gilbert, Daddy's little work suppressor

We released an iOS port of Gemini Rue back in April, but aside from that we've been fairly silent on the game development front. If you follow us on Twitter you'll know that we've been working on Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth game in the Blackwell series. We're slowly crawling to the finish line, and it recently dawned on us that we had to start thinking about the launching process and all the PR that entails. But we've been so quiet lately. What to do?

I thought back to the year 2009, which was the last time things were very slow for us. We had spent a over a year working on Emerald City Confidential for a publisher, and we wanted to shake things up a bit and remind people we still existed while gearing up for our next internal release. The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was coming up, so we did a free promotion of The Shivah for a day. It was an older game that people had forgotten existed, so it seemed like a fair bet.

Sure enough, it worked. About five thousand people nabbed the game for free. Our mailing list expanded nicely, and people were talking about us again. So since it worked before, why not do it now?

My plan was simple: To give away Blackwell Deception for free on Halloween.
The goal: To get people talking about us again, and to promote the next game in the series which will release in early 2014.

What could go wrong? As it turned out, almost everything.

I won't go into all the details here, since at the time of this writing I have been interviewed about it several times and more people have discussed what happened better than I could. So click on one of those links if you want to know the full story. But in a VERY quick nutshell - I included a free Steam key with every free copy of the game. Those free keys got exploited by resellers, whose intent was to hoard as many keys as possible until after the sale was over and then sell them. Attempts to solve this problem proved fruitless, and in the end (after not sleeping and fighting with this problem for over 20 hours straight) I threw in the towel and cancelled the offer. When I woke up the next morning, I learned that a weakness in our system was discovered and the resellers had continued their work overnight. Over 30,000 keys were nabbed this way, and I had to get them all invalidated.
 Been awhile since I had an opportunity to use this image again.

I know a large part of this mess was due to our inexperience and naivete. There was a lot I didn't know and a lot I didn't anticipate (I didn't even know that Steam key resellers existed, for a start!), and it came around to bite us in the butt.  I've said before that an indie lives and dies by their reputation, and throughout this whole debacle I was so torn about what to do. At one point I removed the Steam keys from the offer, but the reaction was swift and brutal. People like having games in their Steam library, even if it's a free game. It's like if it's not in their library it doesn't count. I don't quite "get it" (I'm pushing 40, dontchaknow) but I get that this is the way things are these days. The logic seemed simple: people were mad about not getting Steam keys, so try and give them Steam keys. In most situations, the goodwill generated would outweigh any ill effects. Sadly, this was not one of those times.

What makes me saddest are the small percentage of keys that were taken completely innocently by gamers who found the link on a forum after I cancelled the offer. I felt really bad that they were going to lose their games, but there was nothing much I could do. If it was just limited to a few thousand people grabbing one code for themselves and themselves alone, I would have just let it go and chalked it up to experience. It was the people digging in with both elbows, nabbing codes by the bucketful, that forced me to disable them all. To use a trite phrase, a few bad apples had totally ruined the bunch. The most I could do was to ask Steam not to ban anybody or get them in trouble for this.

Ironically, I kind of achieved my goal. Several mainstream press sites have run with the story, and the outpouring of support and sympathy over what happened has been tremendous. We couldn't ask for better fans. So thank you, all!

(Some have accused me of doing this as a cute PR stunt. All I can muster in response is the old saying: I'm not that dumb, and I'm not that smart.)

So what's the moral of the story? I honestly have no idea. Be careful when giving away free stuff, I guess. I thought I had planned ahead, but boy was I unprepared. In the end, I suppose it was a net positive. I Learned A Valuable Lesson and got some much needed publicity. It might have cost me a night of sleep and a few more grey hairs, but all's well that ends well.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Snowed under

Since the American Northeast (and New York) is about to get attacked by Blizzard Nemo, I thought I would talk about a different form of getting snowed under. That is by emails and other business related things.

I always pride myself on a quick turnaround when it came to customer support. If I receive an email from a customer - be it a comment, question or scornful accusation - I would drop what I was doing and answer it. I like being approachable. I like making the customers happy. I love seeing someone post online about how quickly I respond. I called those moments "PR wins."

And heck - why not? That's what separates the indies from the soulless corporations. We like having direct contact with the people playing our games. A lot of the time, fans of indie games are fan of the developers as well as the games themselves. Having a good reputation and word-of-mouth is a big part of our business model. So being on top of all the emails and customer questions was very important.

A whole two years ago, back in the dark ages of 2011, I wrote about how there's no excuse to not be accessible and available to your customers. I stand by that now, but things have gotten a lot more complicated. 2011 was before Steam. It was before GoG. It was before we started publishing other games - most of which became pretty big sellers. We have many games out now (eleven!), and - thanks to Steam, GoG, and the efforts of our dedicated PR person - more people are playing them than ever. I obviously can't complain! But... more business means, well, more BUSINESS.

Over the last year, the sheer amount of "business" work I had to do skyrocketed.  Every morning, I would wake up and there would be several hundred emails in my inbox. Tech support questions, requests for Steam keys or download reactivations, bug reports, and so on. They would just keep coming.

It was easy for me to stay on top of this stuff back in 2011 when I got only a few of them a day, but now? I was going through at least a hundred emails in the morning. Emails I had to answer before I could even start my "proper" work of making a game.

Eventually, the inevitable happened. I fell behind. Sooooo behind. The number of unread emails in my inbox crept up and up and up. Every time I tried to make a dent in the pile, it would just grow. Over the last few months, I have sent more emails prefaced with "Sorry it's taken me so long to reply..." than I care to admit. Something had to be done about it.

So, I bit the bullet and hired someone to help. Miranda Gauvin - who is also one of my voice actors - has come on board as a "community manager" of sorts. Answering all the common questions that come our way. My inbox is significantly less busy these days, and she's freed me up considerably. Honestly, I should have done it a long time ago.

So if you were one of the folks who emailed me over the last year and never received a reply (or received a reply MUCH later than you expected), I can only apologize. Hopefully this should all change.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Cafe people - The Power Gamer

*blows dust off blog*

Okay let's do this.

Once in a while, I go to the Starbucks in Astor Place. It's probably the closest cafe to where I live, but it is usually mobbed by 9am. There's rarely anywhere to sit, let alone anywhere near an outlet. I used to never go at all, because it used to cost $10 to access their wifi, but sometime ago they changed that when I wasn't looking. Their wifi is now free, so I try to get over there whenever I can get out early enough.

There's one gentleman who obviously has NO problem getting there early. Every day (or at least, every day that I'm there) I see him. A dude in a black leather coat hunched over a massive laptop - one of those souped-up alienware computers with the fancy insignia on it. The laptop sits on top of a big cooling stand. There's a keyboard attached, as well as a USB enabled XBOX style controller. He wears huge noise-cancelling headphones with blinking blue lights. His gear takes up the entire table.

And what's he doing on this computer? Playing MMOs. Every day. All day.

From a Starbucks.

I first saw him playing The Old Republic around the same time I was playing it last year. Then I saw him playing The Secret World. He is always playing the current Big MMO Of The Moment.

Whenever I tell this story, I get theories ranging from amusing (he's a pro gamer trying to make it big, but can't afford internet) to practical (he's a gaming journalist) to sad (he tells his family he's going to a job but comes to a Starbucks to play games instead). Who knows why he does it. He just does. Like most of the people I see every day in cafes, I don't engage. I just observe, come up with my own theories, and file them away to consider later when I'm designing characters. Who knows, you might see this guy in the next Blackwell game.

It would be oddly appropriate.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The publishing thing

So our latest game Primordia, has just hit the Gold Candidate stage. This means the game is pretty much done.  Sure there might be a minor bug or two, but they aren't worth potentially breaking the game over in order to fix.  So unless the testers find a bug that's absolutely critical (an unavoidable crash or freeze, for example), we're leaving it to slowly bake until launch day.  

Primordia marks our eleventh game, and the third game we launched this year alone. It is also the fifth game we are publishing, instead of developing or writing it ourselves.  It was developed by a group called Wormwood Studios, and it's a gorgeous piece of work. There's a free demo available right now, and you can pre-order it for 10% off.  You can also vote for it on Project Greenlight, if you'd like to see it on Steam (the Greenlight thing is a subject for another day entirely). 

Anyway, publishing. I suppose the "indie publishing other indies" model is a pretty rare thing. It worked out well with Gemini Rue, and so I sought out other games along the same lines. Games that had tons of potential but where the developers lacked the time, experience, or motivation to finish it and get it out the door. Or they just didn't want to deal with any of the marketing/sales stuff after it was done. Or for any variety of reasons. Either way, we got involved and it's been a whirlwind.

One interesting thing I've learned about publishing a game is that it takes just as much time, effort and concentration as a game I develop myself.  That might sound weird, but what I mean is that the effort and concentration comes from a different part of my brain. It's turned me into more of a business guy than a developer guy, which has left me very little to talk about on this blog (which is why it's been so empty lately - er, not that I'm making excuses or anything). Business talk is boring, and I wasn't knee-deep in the creative process enough to feel comfortable talking about the development process. It's also left me in the complete wrong mindset to focus on my own games, which is why the next Blackwell is taking much much longer than I would have liked.

Regardless, I feel very proud that we managed to get Puzzle Bots, Gemini Rue, Da New Guys, Resonance, and Primordia out into the game-o-sphere. They are all great games - games that we (meaning Wadjet Eye) couldn't have created on our own.  I've worked with some wonderful developers and learned so much from seeing how they all  work. We are  much more financially stable - having lots of new games allowed us to pace out our releases and spread out the risk, so if one game failed we wouldn't go down with it.  Before we were just squeaking by, but now we have actual savings and enough of a "long tail" that we don't have to worry about going bust anytime soon. 

But still. I miss designing. I miss sitting in a cafe with nothing but my notebook and a bagel. Getting into publishing was AMAZING, but for now I want to get back to doing the thing that got me into game development in the first place. 
Hello, left side of the brain. It's been awhile. Have some coffee. Let's talk.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

More fun with placeholder art!

So awhile ago I announced Primordia, the next game we are publishing. It's unique in that I am not directly involved with production, aside from project management and dealing with the voiceovers. It's got the biggest team we've ever had on a single game - with a dedicated writer, artist, composer, and programmer. So it's been an interesting experience.

Since my involvement is so minimal, it often leaves me with large chunks of time where I'm not doing anything. So what to do with this extra time? Work on the next Blackwell game, of course.

It's slow going, because I don't work well when I'm constantly shifting gears, but it's definitely taking shape. I am tentatively calling it "Blackwell Epiphany" and like Deception before it, it's becoming the largest Blackwell game yet. No art assets exist for the game yet, but I am making some good headway using a combination of sketched backgrounds, MSpaint, and sprites from the previous game (which I will be replacing).

So while I can't reveal any details, I CAN reveal these lovely programmer art scenes that I've programmed!

The red bits are graffiti. That's how you know it's EDGY.

Tactile puzzle!

Mashup of photo and MSpaint.

If only I could get away with making games that look like this. My productivity rate would skyrocket. In any case, it feels really good to see Joey and Rosa up on my screen again.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Dude, where's my boxed edition?

I talked a few months ago about my "ocean marketing" moments. Moments where I did something wrong, or something just WENT wrong, or in general things didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked. One of those moments has come to pass again, and as a cautionary - albeit a bit embarrassing - tale I have decided to blog about it.

When Resonance first went on sale, I offered a digital version and a physical boxed version. I've done the physical version thing before, but that was usually just a CD in a snap case. The process in making those was always quite simple, as I always use a local duplication service (called Landshark CD, who always do a really great job).  All I needed to do was give them the art for the disc and case, as well as a memory stick with all of the files on it. Then they would create a proof for me to take a look at, and once I gave the green light they would take care of the rest. A week later, they'd call me to tell me the job was finished and I could come pick it up. They are a ten minute subway ride away, so it was a simple matter to zip over there and bring back all the packages by taxi.

However, this time around we wanted to do something different. A snapcase was all well and good, but we wanted to make an actual BOXED EDITION. A box which contained the disc and a poster, all professionally done with nice art and everything. The hype behind Resonance seemed to call out for it. If we were going to do a boxed version, now was the time.  So I went ahead and struck a deal with a manufacturer called Coral Graphics who specializes in this kind of thing. They were recommended by people I know at TellTale, so I knew they would do a good job.

But... what I did not take into consideration was how painstakingly slow the process of making these boxed editions would be.  Every piece of it has to go through an approval process, and Coral Graphics was located several states away. No longer could I just hop on the subway to take a look at the proof. It had to be mailed to me, and I would have to mail it back with my approval or rejection. If I didn't like it, they would redo it and send it back.

The disc alone took three weeks to get approved, since for some reason we weren't burning the data in the correct way. When I asked what the correct way was, we were told "We just duplicate the disc. We don't create it." While it would have been easy to get annoyed at them, the truth is they were used to dealing with much bigger companies than mine. Companies which usually have a whole department dealing with this kind of thing. In any case, a few tries later we got the data burning process right and the disc was approved. The poster was sent to us for approval, and it was much too dark. So that was sent back and we received another one, which was fine. That was another week lost. Then there's finding a warehouse to handle all the shipping, which is another logistical process that I had to learn about as I went.

The end result? It's been a month since the game was launched and the boxes are only JUST starting to be made. And if you ordered the box during the pre-order phase, you have been waiting almost two months for your box to arrive. For this, I can only say I'm sorry.

However, I promise - your boxes are coming. I have seen an early-production sample and it looks AWESOME. They just... are taking a lot longer to produce and ship than I thought they would.

An early production proof, propped up by coffee.

I have never done anything quite like this before. I should have done more research and determined how long this would actually take, and again - for that I can only apologize. Rest assured I will let you know as soon as the boxed editions are produced and ready to ship. And I will also be sure to start the process much earlier next time.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012


We launched Resonance yesterday, and with that launch came an interesting realization. This is the tenth game that we've released since we've been in business. Tenth!! We've released ten games. That's double digits, man. Crazy.

So Resonance, than. It's out and doing well. I don't do a lot of bragging on this site, but I'm happy to say that it has broken all previous sales records by, um, a lot. We're all pretty proud of it. I'm hardly unbiased, but folks in general are saying nice things about it so I think I'm justified in saying that the game is pretty darn good. It is the longest and most complex game we've ever worked on, for sure. Four player characters, a memory inventory system, and some truly devious puzzles which thank God I didn't have to program myself. Credit for that goes to my wife, who was coding away till 3am every night for the last several months.

So now that it's out I've been catching up on various things. I finally have the time to make some headway on the design for the next Blackwell game. The design stage is always the most nebulous part of the process, where I create and discard ideas like tissue paper. An idea I think is awesome one day just seems trite and stupid the next. I do have a core plot concept, and a framework to hang a game around. It just needs fleshing out. I'll be writing more about that soon.

We're also publishing another game in the Fall - a post apocalyptic cyberpunk adventure called Primordia which is looking pretty sweet. I've been pretty silent about that one because we were aiming all our PR guns at Resonance. But rest assured you'll be hearing more about Primordia before too long.

And... that's about it, I guess. Now that the game is out and crunch time is over, I suppose we have to relearn what having a life is like.