Zero Sum Games - 2015 Post-Mortem

This past year was a great year for Zero Sum Games. With StarDrive 2 launched out the door in April, a whole new set of players joined us to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate throughout the galaxy.  Before outlining what's coming up in 2016, let's take a few minutes to look back on 2015 and talk about how we did with StarDrive 2.

StarDrive 2: What Went Right

Overall I'm pleased with the design of StarDrive 2. I aimed to bring Master of Orion 2 into the modern age and I think in that regard the game was a huge success. To hear stories of kids in that 10 to 12 age range losing themselves in my galaxy - that's what this was all about in the first place. I was once that kid and I wanted to give that experience to the next generation. 

I also wanted to make a game that was objectively better than StarDrive 1. I really didn't know what I was doing when I started StarDrive. When I catch grief from folks for its various shortcomings, I don't think they truly understand where I was coming from as far as game-making knowledge. On a scale of 1 to 100 I would say my knowledge was in the negatives, because things I thought were true about making games before I started making them turned out to be untrue. Even so, the average play time for StarDrive 1 across 150,000+ players is 18 hours and 43 minutes. However, the median play time was only 4 hours and 43 minutes, indicating that a smaller number of players just played a lot.

For StarDrive 2, the average play time has raised up above 36 hours, while the median play time is at more than 18 hours.  Judging by how much play StarDrive 2 has had, I think it's clear that the second version held player attention with at least...double...the attention-grabbing power of StarDrive 1. We haven't sold as many copies of StarDrive 2 as we have StarDrive 1, but we may get there. That's another post for another time. My takeaway from this data is that of those people who are playing StarDrive 2, they are playing it for longer and generally they are enjoying themselves more.

All-in-all, our reviews are substantially better for StarDrive 2 over StarDrive 1. We have a professional metacritic score of 70 vs StarDrive 1's 61. Our Steam player rating is 65%. I would loved to have done better in all of these metrics, but I'm happy enough with a 70. It's better than a large swath of games out there.

I feel that I achieved my goals with StarDrive 2. That said, there was a lot that went wrong along the way, and it's important to learn from what's gone wrong and so we should dig on into that too.

StarDrive 2: What Went Wrong

The first thing to really go wrong coming out the gate was that the game was too damn hard. I had a group of veteran 4x gamers helping me test the fun-factor of the game, and I had a group of cynical QA professionals helping me find bugs. All of these folks were extremely good at exploiting every weakness in the game to achieve absurd economic results, and so I was constantly striving to defeat them by upping the difficulty. As a result, the launch-day difficulty of the game was too high for the average user, and that turned people off.

Another thing that went wrong is that some people just didn't like my design decisions; that is, I failed to make a game that had a universal appeal. A big-time PC games critic, TotalBiscuit, played and reviewed my game on his YouTube channel. He didn't like it. That was a big blow. A lot of other YouTubers liked it quite a bit, and that was a big help, but having even a single big-ticket reviewer not like your game can hurt sales. For example, the day TotalBiscuit reviewed and liked StarDrive 1, we got 5,000 sales in one day.

The final point of note in the "what went wrong" category is that the ghosts of StarDrive 1's various failures haunted the launch of StarDrive 2. There were folks who were still carrying pitchforks and torches as a result of my decision to move on from StarDrive 1 development to make StarDrive 2, and some of these folks did everything they could to badmouth me and my game at every opportunity. That kind of word-of-mouth, grassroots assholery has an effect, both on sales and on morale.

Things I Learned 

One of my biggest resolutions coming from this past year is that I'm not going to rush any commercial products to market.  Being a solo indie is to constantly be worried about where the next paycheck is coming from. If you don't ship games, you don't get paid. Period, end of story. So you have to seek a balance between producing the game of your dreams and the game that is going to get you paid to continue working.

For StarDrive 2, I could have and perhaps should have entered a period of Early Access on Steam, but I was so focused and determined on just getting the game out there that I made the decision to publish. Early Access would have allowed me to identify the difficulty issue earlier and to also address any major technical hiccups that our QA didn't catch. In the future, I think I will release games on Early Access as a matter of course. There is no downside that I can see now.

I think I am way better at interacting with my community now. It's hard to find the right balance of interaction and distance. I have found that if I get too close, I can get burned by the passions of the crowd. People start to expect you to be there all the time and when you aren't, they get mad. If you get too far away, then they start to think you've abandoned them and they get mad for that. The best remedy for all of this is to check in periodically and to continue to produce content and updates for your software largely without commentary. Once-a-month patch notes do a good job to let folks know what's going on, and in between that time I've found that scanning the forums and being helpful or funny where I can has paid off.

What's Coming Up

I'm going to do a whole preview post outlining the software that I'm working on this year. The first thing up is an expansion pack for StarDrive 2 called Sector Zero. I'm excited about how this is going to really improve the StarDrive 2 experience. I've aimed to address what I think are some of the biggest design flaws and also to add a bunch of new content for people to explore and enjoy.

I've also got two prototype games that I've been working on, and I'm really pretty goddamned jazzed about them both. I've also got a third Virtual Reality implementation of StarDrive that will absolutely knock your socks off. Previews of all of these things will be forthcoming. 

Until next time!