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Dinofarm Games in 2017: Part 1 – Background

We’ve been talking about upcoming major announcements a lot over the past four months or so. The reality is that we’ve had a number of projects happening in the background, but we just haven’t been exactly sure of how they would… happen, exactly. To put it another way, how would they fit into a “working business model”? It’s kind of a new question for us, and I think we’ve come up with a different sort of answer.

Let me start off by telling you a little bit about our company, so you know where we’re coming from.

Dinofarm Games

Who are Dinofarm Games? We are, quite literally, two guys with no money and no business or marketing expertise or resources. We have no real way to pay “staff” or to pay for any of the things that most people imagine a real game development team might need. We’re artists, game designers, composers and writers, and we have day-jobs (making art for other people’s games) that enable us to survive. We cram in the game development for Dinofarm Games where we can.

We do have the skills necessary to make games that are unique, and fun to play. I’m a competent game designer and Blake is a competent artist. (We also met in composition school, so we also produce the soundtracks for our games.) I’m not really a programmer, but over the years, I’ve gotten to the point where I can do some of that, too.

Another thing we have: the unending desire to make games. For just about ten years now, we’ve worked hard to make the games that we wanted to play. I feel like that sounds like PR-talk. Really, though—what we did was, we thought, “man, I would really love to play a game that _________, but it doesn’t exist yet, so we should make that.”

I’m proud of the games we’ve made and I feel really confident in our ability to make more great games. And it’s not PR-talk! I really mean it.

 

Our History

Our complete thought process, always, has been “let’s just make the game we want to make, make it as good as we can, and hopefully enough people will buy it so that we’ll at least break even.” A sort of “just make good things and good things will come” idea.

But the thing is… it has proven to just not be sustainable. With 100 Rogues, we spent about 2.5 years making that game, and Dinofarm Games saw zero money from it. Blake and I as individuals saw a little bit in royalties—we’d get checks for about 75 bucks each once a month for a couple years. Given how little money we have, that actually helped us a lot, but it’s a far cry from saying that the 2.5 years we put into developing 100 Rogues was financially worth it for us.

100 Rogues (iOS, Ouya)

We kind of figured, “well, it’s our first game. We just have to show the world that we can make a good thing first”. We met in music school, I remind you, so the idea of doing a lot of “pro bono” work up front is something we’re very used to. But with Auro, things got, in some ways, worse. Development took about 5.5 years this time. We had no money to pay programmers, and we relied largely on friends who were willing to donate some time, but things would grind to a halt for months at a time. There were things specific to the Auro codebase that made it much trickier than it had to be (our original sin was choosing Haxe NME as our framework back in early 2011). Since we couldn’t pay anyone, we had to start promising programmers chunks of the eventual profit (“profit share”), to the point where, even though Auro didn’t do all that badly on the market, ultimately it was a massive loss for us as a business.

This Year

We do consider Auro to be a great game, a mediocre application, and a failed business venture—which makes sense. We put tons of effort into the game and very little effort into thinking about how to actually make money with it. As to the quality of the application, we put as much effort as we could afford to put into it, but especially given that we really wanted the gameplay to be good (which means a frequently changing set of requirements), it came up pretty short at the end of the day. I think we sort of just naively hoped that if we made games that were fun to play, it will ultimately turn into a living for us, and we don’t really have to worry about the rest.

Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure (Steam, iOS, Google Play)

But it’s really been dawning on us this year that that’s just not the case. And it’s been pretty depressing. I can definitely understand why a lot of indie developers quit and get regular jobs after awhile, especially if they have other life concerns like wanting to start families and such (I have no such desire – my games are my babies!)

What we really lack is “business-savvy”. I’m aware enough to know that there’s a lot of smart people out there working hard to understand stuff like budgets and return on investment and such. And when it comes to making money off of videogames, specifically, there’s all kinds of stuff like “user retention” and ARPU and market trend type stuff that one should know about.

I think a reasonable response to this is something like, “well, learn that stuff, then.” And I think we could learn that stuff, if we wanted to.

This year, as I went through the stages of grief, I spent a lot of time thinking about turning Dinofarm Games into a company that does free-to-play games. We’ve been talking about putting stuff like keys and chests into our games (random rewards), despite the moral objections we have to such things. We’ve basically been like, “okay, we give up, we’ll get with the program”.

But you know what really sucks? Not only is it really hard to commit to doing something like that in the first place if you’re someone who is so publicly outraged by them, but even if you do, you could still fail. No matter what you do in game development, your project is likely to fail. But can you imagine making some cynical, abusive F2P thing and not only does it make you look and feel terrible, but it also fails financially?

It Gets Worse

And it kind of gets worse. Because, to make a game that competes in that sort of market, you need to have a game that looks roughly like a AAA production (or at least an AAA production with “indie aesthetic”, as many pixel-art-adorned F2P mobile games are doing these days). Make no mistake: most of those games are made with some giant corporation or super rich benefactor behind them.

Production values cost money. Any game with good production values is going to cost somewhere between 100k and 500k (for a point of reference, paying one competent coder for a year can easily cost 80k or more). Publishers, venture capitalists and other traditional routes of paying for production now really only want to take a look at “basically finished games”, and if they like what you’ve got then mayyyybe they’ll fund your marketing/QA.

It took us about a full month of work to put together materials like this image for our Auro expansion Kickstarter, which ultimately failed.

So where does the initial money—the money it costs to actually make a game—come from?

NO ONE KNOWS.

If you have a team ready and want to produce a “market-ready videogame”, here are the options that I’m aware of:

  • You or someone you personally know is independently wealthy, and willing to fund development.
  • You get a government grant. Probably only going to happen if you’re making an educational game or something that serves the needs of some government agency.
  • You find the extremely rare (possibly even non-existent) publisher who is willing to pay for production.
  • Already be famous enough (or have a famous-enough IP) to actually fund production of a videogame on Kickstarter (or other crowdfunding source).

(If you know of any other means of getting capital for game development, by all means, leave us a comment below or email us.)

A bit more on Kickstarter, since this is something we’ve had a decent amount of experience with. It’s really hard to fund videogames on Kickstarter these days. Yes, there are the huge “guy who made Castlevania” or “guy who made Psychonauts” Kickstarters that make millions. But other than that, the stories of videogames making anything more than 30k is extremely rare. This matches our own experience and I’ve had numerous conversations with people who know Kickstarter.

In short: Kickstarter just really isn’t an option for anything other than the tiniest or the most famous videogames.

So if getting actual videogame development funding isn’t really an option for us, I think our other option is to go “hard indie”. To make exactly the kinds of games that we want to make, but that somehow keep the costs extremely low.

Maybe the issue with Auro was simply that we tried to do something we didn’t have the resources to do: create a “high production values” videogame. We openly acknowledge that the software had big problems and the presentation never became what we hoped it would.

 

Going the Other Way

There are two major aspects to our new plan for Dinofarm Games in 2017:

  1. Primarily focus on producing board games. Between Blake and I, we have what it takes to produce board games. I’ve always been making unpublished/unfinished board games in the background, and I think now I’ve reached a point where I know how to deliver something of quality to people in that arena.
    And no matter how you look at it, board games are simply cheaper to make than videogames. Not only that, but Kickstarter is actually pretty happy to fund board game developers, especially just for printing. (It’s been said that this has something to do with the physical, tangible elements of board game development.)
  2. Involve the community intensely. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. Members of the Dinofarm Games forum will agree, I think, that during Auro‘s development I kept them seriously in the loop on what was going on, and many of them had a really high level of influence over what we were doing. I loved that! One of the most successful things we ever did with 100 Rogues was our “Design-A-Monster” contest. This past year, Blake and I experimented with doing some development streams of stuff we were working on, and I think it was a really positive experience overall as well.
    We’re thinking, why don’t we let people more in on what we’re doing? We should stream often, do social events like 24-hour game jams and playtesting sessions, have contests, and just generally involve the community more in everything we do. What if there was new content from Dinofarm Games every few days? More of our popular Art Barn articles? With this kind of community engagement, there’s a chance that we could use services like Patreon to at least help fund our operations.

We’ve been thinking for awhile that some kind of “subscription service”—something like Patreon—would ultimately be the most reasonable way to fund our games, because our games are services. It doesn’t really make sense to charge someone four dollars once and then support the game indefinitely, which is something we absolutely intend to do.

We’ve already had board games in the works, and we know what our first game will probably be. We’ll let you guys know about that really soon. But for now, we’d love to hear if you have any more ideas for point #2. How can we better engage with you? What are some ideas you might have for things that you’d love to see from us that would help build the community?

I’m really excited for this new plan. I feel like, in a sense, our idea about “if we make good games, it will ultimately turn into a living for us” can be true, but we have to be consistent with it, and we have to find the right channel for that. I think trying to make a production quality videogame was, and is, out of our scope. And I think having this quiet, secret development cycle followed by a big release and a one-time retail purchase just doesn’t match the kind of developers we are. Our games aren’t meant to be quickly consumed and discarded; as I said before, they’re much more like a service.

The very first step in our new community engagement is to ask you, the community: how would you like us to engage you? Do you have any cool ideas for stuff we can do? We’ve got a list we’re talking about, but we know you have some great ideas too, so don’t keep them to yourself. Let us know.

And to our Kickstarter supporters (for all three Kickstarters we’ve run), and those who have stuck by us all these years, despite it taking way too long for us to really produce things: thank you!

Stay tuned for more news.

boardgamesfundinggame developmentindie devkickstarterpatreon

keithburgun • 12/18/2016


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Comments

  1. Rob Seater 12/18/2016 - 11:05 pm Reply

    Board games offer many of the same challenges you describe, and as board games become more mainstream they suffer more and more from those issues. However, there are some notable differences, both good and bad.

    (1) Funding goals can be lower for a successful crowdfund (although the logistics work is more intense). Development costs are much lower, but distribution is costlier — a bad tradeoff in a traditional business model, but a good one if you are doing crowdfunding. That said, you need a flashy product to get funded these days.

    (2) The rank and file of the board game community tend to value novelty of design more than the rank and file of the video game community, although I worry that pre-funded fancy art and plastic minis are becoming a necessity for (bad but successful) kickstarter games. Maybe the communities aren’t actually much different, but I think a niche good game is more likely to break even in board games than in video games. At least the up front costs for failure tend to be lower.

    (3) Patching is much harder. Post-release fixes are hard and usually looked poorly upon by fans (outside of CCG circles). Even including rule changes in a 2nd edition sometimes causes a backlash.

    (4) Traditionally, there is less of a finish-then-throw-away culture with boardgamers — that is, the ‘advent calendar’ effect you described in one of your books. However, I’ve see that drop away in the past few years and players expect (and don’t seem to mind) playing a game a few times and then never going back. Kickstarter hype and Legacy/Campaign games are definitely that way, and I think even more conventional publishers and publications have to be viable without assuming the game’s sales will last beyond the initial surge. Many Fantasy Flight fans declare that a game is dead if FF hasn’t published a new expansion in the last 6 months. BGG has a vocal minority against the ‘cult of the new’, but they are a minority.

    (5) Board games have essentially zero media coverage. Maybe the saturation of the market means that media coverage isn’t that important to video games, but it doesn’t even exists for boardgames. You can reach a segment with some reviewers or BGG buzz, but that often isn’t enough to carry a game.

    • keithburgun 12/19/2016 - 11:14 am Reply

      All true. Thanks Rob.

  2. Paul 12/19/2016 - 11:57 pm Reply

    I don’t know how to put this politely. I am a massive fan of 100 Rogues, I really enjoyed it. But it feels like you’ve spent 5.5 years on Auro – a game that is at best average. I feel like you should’ve released it and moved on to a new project. It seems like you’re way too passionate about this one game that is very niche in it’s appeal. It’s not the sort of game that many hardcore gamers would play and it’s not the sort of game casual gamers get into either.

    • blakereynolds 12/20/2016 - 12:16 am Reply

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMhg53oAH2I&t=56s

      Watch this. Once you get the hang of it, Auro is about as hardcore as it gets.

      We agree that development took too long. We didn’t have any resources, so we mostly made it for free.

    • Rob Seater 12/20/2016 - 9:08 am Reply

      There is some truth in what Paul writes. Sometimes you need to finish more of the project you already have in mind (getting then ‘good enough’), rather than try to make the one true project. Sometimes you need to build a reputation more than a game, so that people who thought one game was ‘fine but not for me’ or ‘fun but I’m done with it’ look at your other games.

      I liked Auro, but no matter how much I liked it I only bought it once. You don’t need to go down the full f2p approach of paying-to-win, but there is nothing exploitative about pay-for-more-content. Expansion sets with different monsters, missions with weird monster mixes, or more sets of spells would all be ways of building on a good core that I would happily buy, take you less investment than an entirely new game, and not make me feel exploited at all. I felt the same way about Empire too — I didn’t want to keep seeing new versions of the game, each replacing the prior, so much as new variations of the game that let me explore the core system in different ways.

  3. Rob Seater 12/20/2016 - 9:23 am Reply

    As you have stated in some recent posts, the defining property of strategy games is not so much that they have decisions but that they are about actively exploring a system and understanding it. The fact that you explore the system via heuristic decisions and demonstrate your understanding via heuristic decisions are the properties that make it a strategy game rather than some other kind of game. But even a strategy game is about the joy of exploring a good system.

    That can be a core system like Go that has its own depth, or it can be a core engine like Dominion that allows you to create mini-systems to explore and ensures they function. Dominion is interesting because it is about finding the broken combo on a given random board, not because any given random board is well designed. Moving through a series of variations of the same core system that have been carefully regulated by the designer to function, but allowing for players to ‘solve’ any given sub-system is still a strategically deep experience. You are learning the underlying system and all its variations through solvable vignettes.

    The core system needs to be good, but sometimes it is the imperfectly balanced dressings on top of a system that make it enticing and satisfying to explore. That is not an intellectual cop-out and doing it well requires just as much design skill as building an elegant system, since the core system with variations

    • Rob Seater 12/20/2016 - 9:24 am Reply

      What I’m saying is that maybe what you really need it a slightly different business model that builds on the skills you’ve already built up, rather than trying to build up a different set of skills for a different domain. You are good at designing interesting strategic game mechanics, and I think you can come up with strong systems like that pretty quickly (in months, not years). The problem is that you then spend too long tweaking those systems hoping they will carry themselves, instead of building on top of them as a core framework for players to experience in different ways.

      100 Rogues let me play the same dungeon (minus some minor procedural generation) with different characters, letting me explore the system in a new light. While alternate starting characters can sometimes be cheap tricks to put new life into a dead idea, if done well they are a careful design tool to give players a new perspective on an idea that is too deep to understand with just one perspective. I would say that you would spend a bit more time on thinking about alternate dressings that will not just be superficial excuses to replay a game, but which will give players a different view of the same system.

      So, in Auro, if I played the game against with a different set of monsters or a different combination of the same monster powers, or even just a different probability distribution of monsters, I would enjoy that. It would help me better understand the original game by playing a variation of it. The key is this: Even if I ultimately figured out how to solve the blob-yeti-lich world I would have enjoyed that process and I would have learned something about the underlying system in doing so. That would be a good intellectual contribution from you as the designer.

      So, try building several branches out from a core system (and selling them as mini-expansions or quests), rather than assuming that the game has to be just one strategic perspective. I trust your design skills enough to build that kind of game right, even though many others have build that kind of game poorly.

      • Rob Seater 12/20/2016 - 9:37 am Reply

        I also think that the approach I suggest fits with an idea you mentioned in your posting — involving fans more directly. Fans can help create interesting variations of core systems that give new and deeper perspectives on that system. That approach will also help you appealing to potential customers who just want more raw content to work through.

  4. Auro Developers Announce New Direction At Dinofarm Games
  5. Joe Pooter 07/24/2017 - 8:30 am Reply

    Isn’t the big problem that all of your games are single-player? Nowadays, if your average person is going to play a single player game, they want something that’s basically an interactive movie, popcorn couch entertainment for an evening or two with AAA production values, or something that they can play for two minutes while waiting at the dentist’s office without having to learn anything. You say that F2P is the big trend (which it is), but e-sports and online multiplayer are also huge. That’s because if people are going to invest their time in learning a complex system like Auro, they want to feel like they’re actually earning something as a result, which for most people is the opportunity to beat somebody else and maybe become some sort of minor e-sports/streaming celebrity. Most people are not driven by any sort of platonic ideal of self improvement. They want to destroy other people (hopefully digitally only) and hear the lamentations of their women. Or to put a nicer spin on it, you can say that they want to test their skills against a complex sentient being, not a mindless algorithm.

    Why not reuse assets from Auro and turn it into Auro 2, a versus multiplayer e-sports title? You can make it F2P and fund its development via cosmetic purchases, so that players who aren’t any good can still show off how rich they are. If it’s really that well designed, it should be a slam dunk.

    • Rob Seater 07/26/2017 - 2:45 am Reply

      I’m not sure how hard it is to provide multi-player networking, but that sounds like a good idea for getting a larger marketing base for existing intellectual content. Spin your material as many ways as possible.

      Similar to Joe’s point, maybe make sure to create rapid play versions of the games, even if that form is not as deep — that helps capture a larger audience. One option is to create mid-game ‘puzzle’ fragments or ranked competitions; put a player in a rigged or random mid-game situation and have them achieve some weird goal with limited resources (a puzzle you design) or maximize some weird metric (a daily/weekly competition challenge). You could automate the creation of random daily situations and random mixes of metrics that would keep burden off of your time, and still create vignettes that give a different strategic perspective on the game, efficiency practice for experts, and a short experience to give casual players a reason to check back in periodically.

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