The Lucas Factor

Between the new game modes, Mac and Linux ports, and updated Steam release I did for You Have to Win the Game and the free DLC David did for Eldritch,  a common trait that’s emerged across Minor Key’s releases to date is substantial post-launch support. When I finished Super Win the Game, I had no intention of adding any new content; the game said what I wanted it to say, and that was that. Nevertheless, opportunities have arisen in the months since launch to bring me back to that game, from the anaglyph 3D mode for the IndieBox release to recent changes to better support fan translations. I haven’t been documenting that work on this blog because it’s not directly related to Gunmetal Arcadia and I wanted to stay on message.

This week, though, I’ve found myself with nothing to write about because I haven’t done any work on Gunmetal Arcadia. I’ve been focused on some new stuff for Super Win, and as that has impacted the development of Gunmetal Arcadia, I want to  discuss it. I don’t know what form this blog will take next week, or whether I’ll have returned to Gunmetal by that time, but I have another few days to figure that out.

I’m planning to showcase Super Win the Game at regional events this summer just like I did last year. This time, though, since the game is already complete and released, I’m in a place where I can be more flexible in how I choose to demo it. Last year, the demo was essentially just the current build of the game with saving and loading disabled. It would always start from the beginning, optionally with a tutorial, but without a clear indication of what the game would become, either in terms of mobility upgrades and platforming challenges or in terms of narrative.

In discussing ideas for a new demo with David, I first considered launching the demo build in a state where the player already has a few upgrades and starts at the entrance to one of the dungeons, as this would be a better representation of the gameplay experience. Then I thought about building a new demo level, possibly cobbled together from scenes from the actual game, that would be a small, finite space that could more immediately convey the experience of the full game.

A few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night and had the idea to promote Super Win at shows by turning this demo level into a competition. Beat the best time and win a free Steam key! And then that quickly turned into, hey, as long as I’m tracking the time that the player spends in a level, why not turn that into a real game feature? And that led me to write up a design document for a new speedrun mode, and for the first time in six months, I was excited about Super Win the Game again.

I prototyped the skeleton of a speedrun mode in a day, with options to choose from a number of courses, each of which may prescribe a number of upgrade abilities that may be granted or removed for the duration of the course. In this way, I can build levels with specific abilities in mind and not have to worry about when the player might visit an area or which upgrades they might or might not have and whether they could get stuck. This opens the door to a purer experience, less diluted by adventure/RPG trappings and more directly focused on the fast-paced platforming challenges that have been the core of the Win the Game titles.

So I guess that’s the official announcement. A new speedrun mode is coming to Super Win the Game! I don’t know when this content will be ready for release, but I’ll be figuring out that messaging in the near future. I’m obviously motivated to get back to working on Gunmetal as soon as possible, but I also want this content to be substantial enough that it’s not just a blip on the radar. It’s easy to imagine this would be a “major update” in Steam terms, and it could be timed alongside a sale, but I’ve already seen how Super Win performs on sale, and it’s not amazing. It’s enough to get by, maybe, but that’s it. (Thanks to the magical intersection of statistics and public-facing APIs, you can see how well it’s doing on SteamSpy.) So then I started thinking, how could I make this a bigger deal? And one of the things that came to mind would be to go back, address some of the most frequent complaints with the game, make it the best, most polished version I can, add some new content for everyone who’s played the game already, and then relaunch it at a new low price.

So, that’s an interesting thing. I feel like I’m well outside the window of a price drop looking like an upfront pricing failure, but of course I’ve talked in the past about how I think the original launch price probably was misguided. And no matter how many reviews and reviewers agree that Super Win is worth its asking price — and most have — I just can’t seem to shake the disconnect with the public perception that a pixel art platformer is an easy thing to make and should be cheap, if not free, by necessity. Hopefully this new price, whatever it may be, will better align with consumer expectations. But that’s only half the story. Lowering the price also makes sense in the context of Gunmetal Arcadia. After seeing how Super Win performs (and also observing numbers of other genre-similar titles on Steam Spy and getting a feel for where the ceilings lie), I’ve been feeling like Gunmetal needs to debut at a lower price than Super Win initially did if it’s going to be any sort of a success. But that’s a difficult and confusing thing to do in light of the fact that Gunmetal will be a larger game than Super Win in terms of scope and ambition, and pricing it lower risks creating the perception of less value, of this one being a step down from the last. My hope is that by preemptively dropping the price on Super Win, I can then launch Gunmetal at an appropriate price: higher than where Super Win is now because it is a bigger, better game, but lower than where Super Win originally was because I’m starting to think that’s just too much to ask in 2015 for what I do.

I don’t have a timeline or a specific list of features for this relaunch. I’m going to run with this idea for as long as it’s exciting and try to make it the best thing I can. I can say for sure that by popular demand, I’m adding a minimap. It’s already done. I finished it on Saturday. More may be coming depending on how I feel. But there are a few things this won’t be, and I want to establish that as early as possible. I’m not doing a hardcore mode. I’m not doing a cat mode. I’m not doing a remixed campaign. Those ideas worked in You Have to Win the Game, but they aren’t things that I consider to be core to the series, and I’m more interested in finding things that work for this game rather than retreading the same ground.

Likewise, there’s always the fear of running into “the Lucas factor” and wanting to fix up every little rough edge while I have my hands back in that codebase. I’ve made a few tweaks to the CRT sim between Super Win and Gunmetal, and it’s easy to imagine that I might want to port those changes back to Super Win. But the danger is, if I’m constantly sharing every relevant change among all associated games, then it will take me longer to finish new games, the new games won’t be as fresh and exciting as they could be, and it will be harder to pin down a definitive version of each game. It’s probably better to save the new stuff for the new game and allow each shipped title to remain representative of what I wanted to make at the time it was made. It feels a little silly to talk about my games in these terms when, for instance, I’m only a few months out from releasing Super Win, but at the same time, it really hammers home just how much progress I’ve made on Gunmetal in that time, that Super Win feels like such a distant memory.

To ramble a little bit longer, I was certain in early 2012 when I was closing in on the finish line of You Have to Win the Game that it would be the last indie game I ever made. Once I finished that one, I thought, I would be done, I would have made that one game that I’d be known for, and I wouldn’t have to kill myself crunching all the time like I’d been doing. And to be fair, nearly three years later, it’s easy to think that You Have to Win the Game will in fact be the game I’m known for, if I’m known for one at all. And that’s cool. I still think it’s a great game. I think it’s a more concise, more focused experience than its sequel was, and I think it hit a sweet spot where it was substantial enough that its low, low price of free felt generous and attractive.

I didn’t think I could ever feel good about Super Win the Game after its launch. I was burned out on working on it, talking about it, and trying unsuccessfully to promote it. It was anathema for a long time. It’s hard to say what changed, but I’m happy to be over that. It took half a year, but I’m finally proud of Super Win again and excited to be revisiting and updating it.