From indies to indies: Neil Yates from indie MMO Dead Frontier
As you might know I’m just about to officially release my new MMO Star Corsairs and the closer I get to this day the more anxious I become. Will people like it? Will they even know about it? Will I have to go back building websites to pay the bills?
So what’s a good way to fight this anxiety? Well talking to an indie dev who released a successful MMO can be a good way! Neil Yates (the dev of Dead Frontier) kindly accepted to answer some questions for this new From indies to indies post.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Neil Yates, a 24 year old game developer from South East England. I’m happily married with one young son and another on the way.
For how many years have you been making games?
I started out at the age of 7, making little text adventures on my old second-hand Amstrad CPC 464 in Basic. I continued to tinker with programming all through my childhood and early teens. When I left school at 16 with only basic GCSE qualifications I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After many failed attempts at getting a ‘normal’ job, it suddenly hit me that I should make computer games for a living. I’ve been doing it as a commercial endeavor ever since.
What are your previous projects?
Nebula, Astral Phantom, Arch Wing, Xeno Assault, Xeno Assault II, Desperate Space, Mighty Rodent, Realspace 3, Dead Frontier: Night 1 2 & 3, Dead Frontier: Outbreak 1 & 2, Dead Frontier Online
For how long have you been doing this full-time? Was Dead Frontier the project that allowed you to make the big jump to full-time indie?
I suppose I’ve technically been doing this full-time since I left school. Although in the early days I didn’t make much money at all. I lived at home with my parents and they were supporting me financially for the first year or so. After I had released the Xeno Assault games, I started making a bit more money, and was able to cover all my food, bills and rent so my parents weren’t technically losing any money with me staying there. However, at that point I still had no where near enough to live on my own.
Soon after I released Desperate Space I managed to get a part-time job working for ArcadeTown. This was really good for me, as it allowed me to make some ‘real’ money while still having spare time to work on my own games. I made Mighty Rodent (which again, didn’t do very well) and then ended up being contracted to make Realspace 3 for ArcadeTown on top of my normal work. At that point I was able to buy a small house and live on my own. But still, I suppose I wasn’t really a full-time indie at that point.
I guess the leap to ‘real’ full-time happened after I lost my job with AT. Luckily Dead Frontier had just been released as Beta and I was making enough money to survive without it.
How did you end up creating an MMO as an indie? Was it always some kind of project you had in mind, did it build up based on your experience or does it just felt like the way to go?
I never really planned to make an MMO, it just kind of happened. After finishing Realspace 3 I started working with Flash and made a neat little zombie shooter. ArcadeTown were interested in using it to promote their site, so sponsored a 3 part series. I saw the potential in the game engine I had made, and figured it could do well as a traditional downloadable single player game. However, as I got further along with the development it suddenly dawned on me that I was setting myself up for another failure. Downloadable shoot em ups had never made me much money in the past and I didn’t see it making me a millionaire this time around either.
Around this time I had been thinking a lot about the importance of keeping your own audience, having social elements to your site, building a community etc. So instead of a downloadable I decided I’d just make a cool little site where people could come for free and shoot some zombies, upload their high scores, chat with other zombie lovers etc. I was planning to just make money off of banner ads and see how that worked out.
As time went on I started adding more and more competitive and RPG-like features. Eventually it dawned on me that this should actually be a browser MMO. I looked around and saw that there was almost zero competition for something like that (at that time anyway). I’d just started hearing some stories about the idea of Free to play, and how it was proving to be a solid business model, so I decided to go with that. I was very wary of going the traditional subscriber route as I knew I’d have problems achieving a critical mass of players that way.
“Indie” and “MMO” don’t naturally fit together for most people. Have you encountered people who tried to “prevent” you from doing such a “mistake” (or maybe just people who were really good at telling you that it was foolish)? If yes were they able to put some doubts in your mind or was it in fact more helpful than anything else?
I heard a lot of stuff like this, but I wasn’t really bothered by it. I knew that I was never going to make something that would compete with WoW. My aim was just to create a neat little niche browser game. I think the only person who attempted to talk me out of it was my wife. I guess she preferred the idea of me making a real product that sold for a fixed price. The idea of F2P just sounded really alien and risky to her. Though she soon came around to the idea. (she now plays tons of F2P games on Facebook!)
Did Dead Frontier had a slow start or did the previous Flash games helped to build an initial crowd?
The 3 Dead Frontier flash games had done quite well, and a lot of people had found DF pre-release site and forums by searching on google. I think the night of the beta release we had something like 100 people on our chat room. So yes, due to the flash games’ popularity I had a solid user base right from the word go.
In the very first day of Beta I had made about $50 . Doesn’t sound like much, but to me that was a lot of money and I knew that it wasn’t like a downloadable game that would only make its money in the first few weeks. I knew that it had the potential to be a very consistent form of income going forward. The idea of making an extra $50/day, every day seemed like a dream come true to me , and at that point I knew I had definitely made the right choice.
I know you have a developer blog in which you post updates about Dead Frontier but beside that I can’t seem to find any Twitter account, blog, etc. Lack of interest? Time? Don’t you feel you might be missing an opportunity to help promoting Dead Frontier?
There are a few reasons for this:
I simply don’t feel like I have the time to raise my personal profile. I still work quite a lot of hours on DF, and when I’m not doing that I like to spend my time with my family.
I don’t feel that being more famous would actually make much of a difference to my level of success. Maybe it would open a few doors here and there, but I think I can generate significantly more revenue by focusing my time on improving DF or making new games.
Releasing a successful game as an indie is hard enough but with an MMO the work is never over. There’s always new features that often bring new bugs so that creates a different kind of interaction with players. How do you handle communication with players? After operating Dead Frontier for 4 years which tricks have you developed to deal with the many ups and downs of your relationship with players?
An MMO is indeed a completely different ball game compared to a single player game. People play SP games for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks max. MMO players tend to stick around for months, or even years. When you play a game that long it’s impossible not to have a lot of opinions, criticisms and ideas for improvement. And when you have all those thoughts, you tend to want to express them in one way or another. All of this is completely natural for a well-rounded human being.
The trouble is that the mental health of a developer can be seriously compromised by hearing such a high volume of these opinions. When you’ve worked a lot of insanely hard hours on something, it hurts when somebody says something negative. Sure, most people can brush off these type of comments providing they aren’t heard to frequently. But when you have literally 1000s of people expressing a lot of negative views it can be real hard to keep your cool. That can then completely destroy your motivation. If your motivation is low, you get less done, and players start to get frustrated and post more negative opinions. The whole thing can lead to a pretty nasty downward spiral.
Therefore, I now limit my interaction with the community. Sure I’ll pop into the forum every now and then, but I try hard not to get caught up in disagreements or complaints. This saves me time which I can use to better improve the game, keeps me more motivated, and basically prevents all these negative feelings.
I’d like to point out that I don’t consider community interaction to be purely negative. There have been times where players have given me great ideas or suggestions, or just inspired me in some way by posting something else. Also, there are a lot of players who do seem to be genuinely grateful when they get to chat with me. It is definitely somewhat of a balancing act in that respect.
As for customer support, I employee my brother Ian to do that for me which is great because it frees me up to focus on the development of the game and company.
We all know we can’t change the past and that sometimes mistakes can actually be helpful but is there a particular past mistake that you wouldn’t mind skipping while working on Dead Frontier?
It’s really hard to say, as it’s never easy to tell if things would have actually improved if done differently. For example, I have often thought that the idea of releasing such an incomplete game into Beta was a mistake, as once it was released the speed of updates suddenly became much slower (due to dealing with players, server issues, business stuff etc). On the flip side, if I hadn’t of done that I might not of had the money to develop the game to the standard it is today. In addition, I may have missed out on some of the benefits of being the first decent zombie MMO.
One thing I would 100% say was a mistake however, is the time created a bug which ended up giving every single game account on the game 2200 credits (about $70 RL value). I worked out I gave away about $7m in total that night! Of course we rolled back the database to the previous day, but a lot of players were very unhappy (as you could imagine).
And now which would be the one thing related to the development of Dead Frontier that you are particularly proud of? I’m not talking about its success but maybe a feature, a way of handling a particular aspect of the game or maybe just something related to your way of doing things.
I’d say the fact that it’s a true survival game. In DF, food and healing items often cost more than weapons. Some people might call that bad design, but I think it’s absolutely essential for a game like this. There are also some relatively harsh punishments for dying or even just not keeping your character fed.
Rapidly regenerating HP, low death penalties and cheap heals is something I feel is destroying a lot of the strategy in games today. Take Dead Island. When you die, you re-spawn in the same spot you were in after just 10 seconds. Your character is on full health, has all his items, and none of the enemies have regenerated. The only thing you do lose is 10% of your money. Once I discovered this the game became pretty boring for me, since I knew I could just brute force my way through any obstacle. I definitely don’t want DF to feel like that.
I’m also pretty fond of the near 100% player ran market place. It’s constantly in a state of utter chaos, but I think that makes it all the more fun. Does anyone really expect a post-apocalyptic economy to be stable?
Were there any funds beside your own wallet when you started to work on Dead Frontier?
Not really, it was just money that I had saved up from past games and working with AT. I think the original cost of DF was only about $1000 + $200 for first month of server hosting. Of course I spent a lot more than that as time went on, but the game funded all that stuff itself.
Dead Frontier has been in beta for quite some time though you recently removed the beta tag. Did it helped to make players aware that the game was still a work in progress or do you think it was a problem?
Truth be told, I don’t really consider labels like Alpha and Beta really apply very well to games like this. The game is never going to be finished, and therefore it’s probably technically only in Alpha. Of course you can’t say that to players, because they’ll assume your game is buggy mess that’ll crash every 5 seconds etc. One of our most common questions in the forum from new players was something like “When the beta ends, will my character be deleted? If so, I’m not spending any money!”. Basically I didn’t want players to be afraid of things like this anymore and since the game is now very stable and relatively bug free I just didn’t see the need for a warning.
Are your working alone on Dead Frontier?
A lot of people have chipped in here and there, but it’s not really what you’d call a proper development team. Essentially, I do 99% of the programming and hire out various contractors for stuff like art and sound. My server admin Matthew helps out with a bit of programming every now and then too. My brother Ian does support, and my dad helps out with marketing. I tend to put everyone who has ever contributed in the credits, even if it was quite small, hence the big-ish list of names.
Are the moderators listed in the credits players? If yes what tells you that you are selecting the right people for this position? What is the process you go through to make sure you can trust a player for this job?
Yes they are almost always hardcore players. Usually we just look at how they act on the forums and chat, any past offenses etc and go from there. We have made a couple of mistakes in the past, but most of the time it works out nicely. These guys know the game inside out, know most of the regular players well (unlike me) and normally just want to make the game a better place. Of course we do get the odd scandal where someone is accused of abusing power etc, But it’s usually not that hard to deal with.
What’s the technology behind Dead Frontier?
The game client is now built in Unity3D, but a couple of years ago was Flash. As for the backed, that’s just a combination of SmartFox Server, my own custom PHP scripts and an SMF forum.
I know that you used sponsored Flash games to promote Dead Frontier. Are you still doing that? Any other things you do to help to promote the game? Does marketing work occupy a lot of your time?
Yep we still do a lot of flash sponsorship. I’ve really never understood why more indies don’t do it to be honest. Assuming your genre’s match closely, the return on investment can be a lot higher than normal paid ads. Though, it can be a bit of a gamble, you may well spend $2000 on a game and have it do badly. In that situation your money has basically gone to waste. Luckily for DF, that’s not the norm.
Other than that, we primarily use stuff like Google Adwords, CPMStar, Facebook Ads etc. We also negotiate the odd deal directly with certain sites. Newsletters, Facebook and Twitter are also very useful in getting people who tried the game in the past to come back and give it another go.
In all honesty, I don’t spend anywhere near as much time on marketing as I should. That’s something I’m planning to change in the near future.
Bugs. Sometimes they are real and sometimes it’s just a player that made a mistake but try to convince you it’s a bug. How do you handle this in Dead Frontier?
When it comes to item loses it can be tricky. In the early days it was actually possible for items/money to disappear due some ugly race conditions in our server programming. Back then I would always try to reimburse players, especially those who had spent real life money on the game, and generally I’d just give them the benefit of the doubt even if there was no proof. Of course I had to use some common sense, if a low-level player was claiming he lost the best weapon in the game I’d know I was probably being tricked.
These days all those type of nasty issues are gone, so I’m way more suspect of people claiming actual loss. In most cases it’s just the player making a mistake, for example being confused over what his actual bank balance was, or accidentally clicking the wrong button etc. In those cases our policy is not to do anything unless it involves real-life money (ie they bought the wrong gun by accident). Then there are people who die while their computer stalled or crashed and want to claim back lose cash or exp. Again, in those cases we don’t do anything. If we were to actually spend time reimbursing these things I’d probably need to hire another 2 support guys. It’s just not worth it.
Is there anything about being an indie that would make you consider working for a game studio instead?
There is no way in hell I’d willingly give up being my own boss! The freedom to do exactly what I want with my time is such an amazing benefit. I really do feel sorry for the people who have the get up every day and go to a ‘normal’ full-time job. The downside is I probably spend way more time either working, or thinking about work than people with normal jobs do, but given the choice I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What was it like in the first weeks after the release of Dead Frontier?
It was both a very stressful, and an exciting time. I would literally wake myself up a couple of times a night to make sure the server hadn’t crashed. That used to happen all the time back then, because I had no idea how to run a dedicated server properly. Once I got Matthew (my server admin) on board things changed for the better quite rapidly. The servers stopped crashing all the time, and him being in a different part of the world meant he could monitor things when I was asleep.
One thing I did fairly recently was sign up for ipPatrol. I can’t believe I’d never done it before. It sends you an SMS text message to your phone whenever your site goes down. If I had of done that from day one I think things would have beeen much better. Really, anyone trying to make money with a website or online game should have a service like this setup.
Do you often receive emails from people with little or no game development experience who want to create their own MMO? What are you telling them?
I get tons of these type of emails, and these days I rarely have the time to answer . But if I do reply, I usually tell them to at least do a couple of single player games first. Whilst I don’t believe an MMO is all that hard to achieve for an experienced developer, for someone who’s just started it will be such a massive hurdle that will probably leave them very frustrated, and quite possibly broke.
What goes through your mind when you go to bed after a day working on Dead Frontier?
Usually I go to bed dreaming of all the cool new features I will add to DF over the course of the next 12 months. I also tend to fantasize about the day when we have 20k players online at one time (right now we max out at only about 3500). Or, sometimes, I just go to bed feeling utterly relieved that I finally got that feature added, that bug fixed, or that new deal negotiated.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to mention that this guy is talking a load of crap. We have 4 million accounts, and we didn’t need 100 people to make it =)