Category Archives: Business

Should We Fail To Fund

I’m starting to get a lot of questions about what happens to Slower Than Light if the Kickstarter fails to fund.

From the perspective of my desire to do that project, I expect I’ll loose a little enthusiasm for the project due to the perceived (but not necessarily accurate) vote of no-confidence from my potential players.  That said, I recognize that I’m asking for quite a bit of money for what is decidedly a niche game.

If, all told, less than 250 people back the project, I’ll probably call the model I’m trying to publish on a bust — the game price was set at $10 because I thought the novelty value of the mechanics was worth at least that to many people, but after the very exhaustive interaction I’ve had with a number of potential backers,  I think that is less of a factor than I thought it was.  It would mean that the game is more in the realm of a Train Simulator, where in order to make back the cost of the game over the potential user base, it has to be priced more in the AAA bracket.  I don’t think STL can be produced at that quality level and still take anything other than a massive loss.

If more than 250 people or so back the project, but we still fail to fund, STL will still get de-prioritized.  I have financial responsibilities I need to keep in mind, and if the Kickstarter fails, I’ll need to start taking immediate steps towards getting a reliable income flow into my life.  That probably means finding a new job, and given that I take employment extremely seriously and give my employers my all, that almost certainly means that the Slower Than Light’s development will return to a crawl in my spare time.

Either way, there will be no attempt to refund for at least the foreseeable future.  I am confident that Slower Than Light, as it exists today, has gotten a fair shake at the amount of media attention it is going to get.  Most of the site rejections I have gotten have cited the lack of artwork and polish on the project, which I find disappointing given the project’s state and Kickstarter’s stated goals, but I can accept that the current graphics don’t stand up to the fully-rendered 3D most gaming sites like to put on their front-page columns.

While I will never fully give up on Slower Than Light no matter what, a failure to fund in 10 days will mean, in all likelihood, that this project won’t see the light of day for years.  That would make me very sad, but given the immense investment of time it represents, I cannot afford to complete it without the Kickstarter’s funding.

Project Plan, Experience, and 1,500 Hours

Recently I received a Kickstarter message from a potential backer asking me point-blank, what the heck my qualifications to run a software development project are and how I expected to handle 1,500 hours of work between April 15th and October 31st.  I thought those were all great questions that I hadn’t really addressed in as many words yet, so I wanted to talk about it a bit here.

The first software project I worked on was an e-Commerce website in 1999-2000. At the time, I believe, it was the first printing website that offered on-demand proofs of invitations and business cards available on the Web. It has now evolved into, although I suspect none of my code still runs on that site. It delivered on time on June 30, 2000.

The second software project I worked on was for the same company, and it was a ERM system to replace the DOS-based system the company had been using since long before I got there. For this project I had charge of one of the silos (shipping, specifically), and we delivered our component on-time, although the rest of the project dragged past my eventual departure from that organization in the autumn of 2003.

After that, I wouldn’t spend much time developing until 2007, when I became a sales engineer, and I began specializing in system integration for our customers. During that time, I lead many smaller, mission-specific projects.  I can’t really discuss specifics of those projects, but I can say they were all tightly time-lined constrained, small-team projects. These projects were generally between seven days and six months, and would require integration with a number of client data systems, complex analysis of the data recovered from those systems, knowledge capture from users, and metric and result reporting to stakeholders. Of the ~25 projects I ran from 2007-2013, only two ran past their delivery dates, and both for very identifiable reasons.

That brings us to the quite recent past.  When I was preparing for this Kickstarter, I needed to determine the amount of time I would need to complete the project.  To that end, I compiled a list of must-have-to-launch features and tasks.  I had already solved or routed around all the really intractable mathematical problems related to the game’s subject matter, so what I had left were a number of tasks that were at least analogous to things I had done in the past, if not direct knock-offs.  Given my extreme comfort with C# and .NET, I was able to make pretty accurate estimates of the coding load.  I talked with friends in the video game art community to get a sense of how much lead time an artist would need for the load I had.  I worked out budgets and timelines and sources and all the minutiae that goes into a well-run development project.

My final total on development time was 1,142 hours.  I multiplied that by 1.3 for overhead, unexpected delays, marketing tasks, etc.  (I didn’t just trip over 1.3, by the way, I actually took the time to derive from my prior projects that I spend about 25% of my total work time on these overhead tasks.  I don’t know if that’s high or low, but it is the observed value.)  That took me up to 1,485 hours, so I rounded up to 1,500 hours.

Conventional reckoning would tell me that’s about 38 weeks of work at 40 hours a week.  From April 15th to October 31st is about 27 weeks, which seems to present a shortfall of ten weeks.  How do I intend to make up the difference?

I need to work about 56 hours a week to make October 1st under this plan.  Normally, I work about 65 hours a week, so that isn’t a huge deal.  I’m usually at my desk from 0830 to 2300 each work day, but an hour or two each day is lost to what I might generously call “unproductive activity.”  I’m gifted with a considerable degree of focus, though, especially when I’m passionate about the work I’m doing.  Over the 27 weeks of development, I’m looking at a predicted 1,755 hours of work if I don’t push myself too hard.  In that time, I need to fit in and estimated 1,142 hours of development, which is actually just over 28 40-hour weeks.

There’s no question, I’m undertaking an ambitious schedule here, and I will be pushing hard to make my delivery date.  I am not, however, making up numbers and diving in blind.  My safety margin is nearly 35% of my total development time budget.  I don’t have time to dilly-dally, but I do have the time to develop and deliver Slower Than Light on-schedule if the Kickstarter gets funded.

I have the time, the expertise, the knowledge, and the experience to delivery this project.  I just really hope I can get the money.

Reward Tiers

I had planned to write this blog entry today regardless, but it becomes particularly appropriate because today the TECHNOLOGY NAMING RIGHTS reward tier became exhausted.  One of the questions I’ve gotten repeatedly, and with vigor, has been “Why aren’t there more rewards above the $30 level?”

That’s actually quite simple — there are, they just haven’t been opened yet.  I’m not going to enumerate everything I have in store. partially because I want to maintain some surprise, but also because not all of them have been settled as things that won’t cost me more than the pledge amount.

One place I don’t intend to go with rewards is physical rewards — actually shipping materials to backers.  Shipping goods costs about $6 for light objects (like T-Shirts, USB keys, etc.) domestically, and considerably more internationally.  That’s atop the production cost of the item itself (again, usually $5-10).  The actual handling is an issue, too — the hours of my time, or somebody else’s time, spent organizing, packing, labeling, checking, and transporting the rewards to a shipping company.   Finally, some component of that would have to go to the game’s development budget.  All told, shipping a T-Shirt on top of any given reward tier would add about $11-20 to that tier, depending on how big an order of T-Shirts I placed.  I feel like that’s not a great value for my backers, although some might disagree.  (If there is strong dissent on my opinion, let me know, and I will reconsider my position.)

Today I’m introducing the first post-launch Rewards Tier: IN-GAME PORTRAIT.  An expansion of NAMING RIGHTS, the backer can provide an image of a person to be converted into a waist-up portrait that will always be associated with that person’s name in-game.  As always, name and portrait both are subject to editorial review for appropriateness.

Tomorrow, we start a two-part series on the Time-Delay mechanics.  Tomorrow’s post will be about how it works under the hood, and Friday’s will be about how it looks and plays in-game.

Digital Rights Management

The $10 tier for Slower Than Light is “a downloadable DRM-free copy of Slower Than Light.”  This has quite reasonably raised a number of questions about how DRM-free STL will be, both in Kickstarter-edition form, as well as the final sales configuration.

The plan for STL’s distribution is inspired by the way Arcen Games handles their games.  At the very most, STL will use a license key that converts the demo version of the game to a full version.  I am old enough to remember a time when I bought games off the shelf at an Electronics Boutique or a Babbages, drove home, installed it, and never had to connect to the internet once, let alone be always-on.  I believe that that model is critical; I would much rather have a pirate playing my game than have a paying customer unable to.

Now, one of my goals with STL, if it funds, is to seek distribution via Steam.  The way Steam works is to bind applications to a user account, and many people consider it a form of DRM in and of itself.  Under these criteria, STL will be carrying DRM when purchased off Steam.  It is my intention to begin selling STL outside of Steam’s purview as well, for users who, for whatever reason, choose not to use their service, and that version will be in the same configuration as the one Kickstarter backers receive.

In related news, there will likely be a Greenlight campaign launching when the Kickstarter tops $20,000 or 1,000 backers, whichever comes first.

Submitted for Approval

Well, I was up until 0300, but I got the STL Kickstarter submitted for approval.  I wasn’t incredibly happy with the video, so I made sure I can change it before we actually launch, but I think it will be enough to pass muster with the Kickstarter reviewers.

I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do to help convince backers that this project will complete.  My timeline is aggressive, to be say the least, and because the interface is currently the weak point on the game, it is difficult to really communicate via sheer gameplay videos how close Slower Than Light is to completion.

One idea I’ve had is to make v0.1 available from here and the Kickstarter page.  I’ve been trying it this morning, and it makes me cringe a bit at the thought of putting it in front of users; it does, however, demonstrate the light-speed propagation mechanic.  I don’t really want to devote any development time to making it more user friendly, because I do need to focus on both STL’s development along with the Kickstarter campaign itself.  I may cut together a tutorial video.

Approval Process

My project plan calls for the Kickstarter campaign to begin on Saturday, and I don’t have the video completed yet.  I’m very aware that a large fraction of Kickstarter backers will just watch the video and decide based on that whether or not they should fund my project.  I want to make STL’s video contain as much game play footage as possible, so that I can show what is different about this game.  Unfortunately, that’s not very easy.

Most of STL’s engine was built with unit and integration tests more focused on the mathematics and gameplay than the interface, so I find myself in the somewhat awkward position of trying to get funding for a game that doesn’t yet look very pretty.  I think today will be entirely dedicated to producing this video, rather than splitting my time between development and support work the way I normally do.  I need to give Kickstarter a few days to approve my project, which means to meet my project schedule, I need to get the video done today.  After all; if I can’t meet my schedule for the crowdfunding part of this project, how can I convince my backers that I can meet the schedule for development and release?