I discovered a simply awesome indie game on Steam this week, Ultratron by Puppy Games. It is a retro shooter, an homage to the classic Robotron 2084, a visual lollipop of swirling color that leaves your eyes sparkling and pixelated for hours, and a game I can’t stay away from for more than a few minutes.
But it’s failing. It is selling “pitifully, pitifully poorly,” according to Cas, one of its developers.
Cas goes on to explain that none of Puppy’s recent games have been profitable except for Titan Attacks, which took seven years to break even. This despite brilliant visuals and—as far as I can see—delightful gameplay.
And yet Puppy’s struggles are hardly unusual. In this era when every unemployed software developer or Mom & Pop outfit with a half-baked game idea is making a casual game—the results usually having only a fraction of the beauty and brilliance of a game like Ultratron—skillful, dedicated game developers are struggling to get their creations noticed, paid for, and profitable.
I don’t have a solution, but I do have sympathy. Ultratron’s struggles in the marketplace make me sincerely sad—sad like you might feel if you discovered, in some alternative version of the ’60s, that the Beatles were still languishing in a Liverpool lounge in 1969, dodging beer bottles while singing “Hey Jude” to a few drunks teetering around the bar.
Cas, I feel your pain. Game development can be awful. If the actual act of developing games wasn’t so darned fun, the response of customers (or, often, the lack of response) would make it oh so very not worth it.
I got my own start in the AAA games industry working on big titles like Ultima Online, Brothers in Arms, and others you might just recognize. Between the games you might recognize were many you wouldn’t because they got cancelled or they bombed. Even the games that did well were only so satisfying to work on because the projects were huge and each individual developer was a small cog in the machine.
Since 2005 I’ve been working on casual games like what you guys at Puppy do—mostly Flash and iOS games. Some have done very well, I’m thankful to say. But it always seems like the ones I care most about are the ones that customers most shrug their shoulders at. I point at the game and say, “But look at that AI… look at those colors… look at that particle explosion! I spent five hours on that explosion and it is a perfect specimen of its species.” But the customers have stopped listening by now and are giggling along with a game that makes farting noises when you mash a red gradient rectangle with your nose.
And the fact that we’re working on small teams makes the pain worse. This isn’t just some corporate production here—this is our game that we put our sweat and blood and brain and cash into—these people right here that I’m pointing to with my fingers. We’re not some faceless multinational conglomerate churning out pixels and code for The Man. I skipped reading my kid story time last night in order to give customers the joystick support they’re so desperate for (I’m told). I’ve got skin in this game.
So you feel it when your games get overlooked in much the same way that a fellow who offers flowers to a girl only to see them tossed aside because she’s more interested in the tongue depressor that some other fellow has given her feels. The grammar of that sentence may take some time to work through. Sorry.
So Cas, this may be embarrassing for you, but I’m about to do something very American. Brace for it—here it comes. I’m putting my arm around your shoulder, Cas, as one developer to another, and I’m saying: “I feel ya brother.” Seriously. Ultratron deserves better than this. It deserves to sell a hundred million copies. Possibly two hundred million. It deserves to become more popular than Angry Birds, until little kids are cuddling up to Rocket Pet stuffed toys in their beds at night, sleeping on Ultratron sheets and brushing their teeth with Tooth Defense Drone toothpaste (“Blasts away cavities!”) and so on. It stinks that the game isn’t doing better, and I can’t explain why. Game development stinks sometimes.