Scott Drader co-founded Metalhead Software, a local game and software development studio in 2009. Last year he came out to give a “pre-mortem” talk about the game that Metalhead had been putting in long hours to finish, Super Mega Baseball (formerly known as Big Fly Baseball).
Now, after the recent release of Super Mega Baseball, Scott is triumphantly returning to give a “mid-mortem” talk, where he will be talking about the stress, exhilaration, and lessons learned in shipping Metalhead’s first title.
Scott’s talk started with a quick recap of the pre-mortem talk he gave last February. Metalhead Software started as a two person team in Scott’s basement in 2009. While building the game they supported themselves with contract work. At their peak the team was 6-8 people. They’ve showed at PAX and other trade shows, which helped them stay grounded during development. As a small indie studio they kept costs down by using open source technologies. Unfortunately they had some early tech issues which caused them to have to redo a lot of work when they needed to switch technologies. Aside from technical issues, it was challenging to make a baseball game in a city that isn’t hugely into baseball. Other expected challenges were in how to market and test the game.
On with the Mid-mortem!
Super Mega Baseball initially launched in North America on December 16th, 2014, which was a bit of an odd time to ship a sports game. Usually sports games ship around the start of the real life season when people are already excited. It was tough to get press attention right when all the people writing for game sites were leaving for Christmas holidays, but by the time the game launched the holiday rush had mostly died down and they did get decent attention.
The launch date wasn’t a calculated decision; the team was low on cash and sanity and the game needed to ship. Super Mega Baseball was originally intended to ship in the summer.
The game got some very positive press due to being fresh in people’s minds when recaps and game of the year articles were coming out.
Audience Member: Why didn’t your publisher manage press/pr & release date?
Scott: We didn’t have one.
Follow Up Question: Would you work with a publisher next time?
Scott: Depends, there are a lot of pros and cons. There’s costs either way – if you’re not paying a publisher to take care of this stuff you’re doing it all yourself.
The Pricing Problem
Pricing is a difficult problem for indie games. Metalhead Software ended up charging $20 for Super Mega Baseball. They didn’t want to undervalue their game but at the same time they wanted as many people as possible to play it. There isn’t enough data yet to know if Metalhead made the right call on price. It will take more launches to really have a good feel for it.
Audience comment: Instead of lowering the price, bump it up and have awesome videos selling the game. A higher price gives the impression of higher quality, and you need to leave room for sales later.
To Demo or Not Demo
Super Mega Baseball did not have a free demo. Having one may have really helped with visibility given the relatively small number of people that had heard of Metalhead or Super Mega Baseball pre-launch. The extra time it takes to get a proper demo together was a factor in deciding not to have one. Upcoming launches are more likely to include a demo or trial.
The game was stable and everything generally worked, which was awesome given all the bad press around recent AAA games shipping broken. Friends and family helped a lot with testing, but even with that help they weren’t able to get the test coverage they would’ve liked. Long-term team progression in particular was very lightly tested because it took 40 hours of testing to do a full test cycle.
At launch they were very worried about bugs – it was keeping the team up at night. Just because the game worked great on four friend’s machines didn’t mean it was going to work just as well for everyone else.
All of the last minute polish and refining was absolutely necessary. The game could not have been shipped successfully even a week earlier. Most bugs reported by players were known issues that the team had seen in testing and made the agonizing choice not to fix so they would have time for higher priority bugs.
Super Mega Baseball was well received. The team did a lot of research – every mechanic in the game had to be at least as good as mechanics in other baseball games… if not, why should gamers buy it? Because of that attention to detail, the mechanics worked out really well.
Scott had wanted to cut some features toward the end, but they squeezed them in, which turned out to be the right decision. For example, character customization was very last minute, but they slipped in basic customization and people loved it. Long term team progression worked out well too, even though it went in late and did not have a lot of time to mature.
The difficulty mechanic was one of the ways Super Mega Baseball differentiated itself from other games. Instead of a simple easy/medium/hard setting, it has a 1-99 difficulty slider called the Ego System. There are no dramatic changes when the difficulty is changed – some games remove a mechanic entirely in easy mode, for example – instead the Super Mega Baseball smoothly gives you less help as the difficulty goes up. When targeting at bat, at lower difficulties the game gives you more help, at higher difficulties it backs off and you eventually do all of the targeting yourself. Or when fielding, at lower difficulties your fielders run for the ball automatically, at higher difficulties you have to steer them.
The game was not featured at launch. The fact the game and company were still fairly unknown at launch didn’t help, but it would have helped to have final store assets and marketing materials ready earlier.
Reputation is extremely important, and powers your ability to get people excited about your product. Getting your name out tends to be a struggle for indies. Scott recommends a talk from Drinkbox Studios on the subject: Painful PR Lessons Learned on the Way to Guacamelee. The team has as much to learn about launching games as making them.
Super Mega Baseball’s art style was lighthearted and cartoony, which was generally received well. People loved the environments but were mixed on character style. The feedback was everything from “Barf!” to “This is awesome!” For faces in particular it would be interesting to study the psychology of how people respond to different art styles. Art was surprisingly polarizing.
A certain percentage of the audience is sports fans who want realistic gameplay, and Super Mega Baseball may have alienated them with the art style they chose. On the other hand, they wanted to make a sports game for everyone and the friendly art style probably helped welcome people who didn’t think of themselves as sports gamers. It was hard to say if a more mature art style would have worked out better.
It can be hard to reach kids with digital downloads on consoles. Given that the younger demographic doesn’t have credit cards, you’re relying on gift cards (or for kids to annoy their parents until they break out their credit card!).
Scott wouldn’t mind being on a beach in Hawaii, but is still in Victoria talking to us. They’re off to a good start given they started out entirely unknown, but they feel they have yet to reach a lot of their potential audience. They deliberately chose a hole in the market: sports games have been dominated by AAA studios for years, there are hardly any casual sports games.
The team did consider licensing real teams, but licensing can be expensive and time consuming. It’s something they would consider for future releases. On the other hand, the creative freedom that going unlicensed allowed was great. Some of the game’s jokes would likely have been cut in a licensed game, and they may not have been able to feature women in the game (which they got a lot of well-deserved kudos for).
Super Mega Baseball hasn’t shipped in Japan yet because they feel like the game needs to be fully localized. The version shipped in Europe is all in English, but that won’t work in the Japanese market.
Audience: Would you consider outside financing next time?
Scott: They hope it won’t be necessary going forward but would be open to it. They didn’t try to get outside financing first time because on paper, their inexperienced team was a tough sell, and they didn’t want to waste time going after funding they’d have a hard time getting a good deal on.
Audience: Why release on PSN only?
Scott: They just didn’t have time/resources to develop and test on multiple platforms at once. The team is working hard on porting the game to other platforms right now.
Audience: How hard will it be to move to other platforms?
Scott: Not so bad given the game is based on a cross platform engine (PhyreEngine) and written in C++.
One handy tip from the Super Mega Baseball launch is to tell people which countries the game is launching in! Metalhead forgot to tell people game was not launching in Europe right away and got many many tweets about when the game was going to come out in Europe after the North American launch.
The relationships Metalhead nurtured beforehand were very helpful. A few people who heard Metalhead’s story from the beginning were really helpful getting the word out.
It’s very easy to obsess over the game you’re trying to finish and think about nothing else even when you’re trying to take a break. You need to have other things in your life no matter how busy you are – keep up your regular exercise and at least some social activities.
What’s Metalhead doing now?
Porting, marketing, and prepping for upcoming releases (haven’t announced stuff yet though so going to not say too much for now).
- Everything takes longer than you expect
- Launching a game is an entirely different ballgame from building a game
- Reputation is huge and drives your ability to spread the word
Audience: Do you have analytics for your game?
Scott: Probably not as detailed as mobile/social platforms, but the consoles are doing a good job sharing more detailed data with developers.
Audience: If you did it over again, would you lower the price point or spend more on marketing?
Scott: Definitely more marketing spend, hard to say about price.
Thanks again to Scott and the Metalhead team for sharing what they’ve learned about launching a game! We’re really happy to hear that all the hard work and sacrifice was worth it, and it was awesome to see such a polished game come out of an indie studio in our city.