Hi, I’m Ryan Wiemeyer (indie darling?), one half of The Men Who Wear Many Hats. We made a game called Max Gentlemen; an arcade-style extreme manners simulator about stacking hats, inspired by a spam email for penis pills. Let’s discuss this game about hats and gentlemen that lost us a lot of money.
Max Gentlemen is a game that was first created in one month for an arcade cabinet. It was designed to be an arcade game. I even heard the famed creator of Robotron and Defender, Eugene Jarvis, said something along the lines of, “Now this is a great arcade game.” We might have just left it at that but we brought the game to PAX East 2013 on a tiny arcade enclosure for iPad and everyone kept asking us when they could buy it. “Oh, I guess we should put this out,” I concluded.
Hot on the heels of Organ Trail’s success, I was experiencing imposter syndrome. I was worried that no one took us seriously as developers since our hit game was just two pop culture phenomenons mashed up together. I wanted to feel original and creative. Max Gentlemen was a game to legitimize my design skills to myself.
Meanwhile, a peer of ours, Whitaker Trebella, got his game Polymer in some free Starbucks promotion and broke 1 million units (or something) in no time flat. I thought to myself “I want to make a game that puts out 1 million units!” I was jealous and inspired. Those go hand in hand for me (jealspired… inspelous). So I get this great idea, to spend 3 more months on Max Gentlemen, clean it up a bit and put it out for free as a sort of good-will promotional game to grow our audience.
Now, I’ve always struggled with the value of my own games. No matter what price you put a game out for, there will be a handful of people saying the game is too expensive or not worth it. This is something I have dangerously internalized and I constantly devalue my work. Organ Trail was $2.99 on mobile with at least 4 hours of gameplay, compared to one round of Max Gentlemen which took 2 minutes. The idea of charging for it was out of the question. This was mistake number one.
The game that Max Gentlemen eventually replaced, Wizards and Warpdrives, was a massively scoped game where you control a variety of spaceships in a co-op experience that took advantage of cross platform play between mobile and PC.
We weren’t 100% sure how well we could get the cross platform play to work but we thought that Max Gentlemen would be a great testing ground for the tech since it was just a small game. This was mistake number two. Fuck it, this was such a bad idea, it’s also mistake number three. We thought it would be a cool selling point but players don’t even understand what cross-platform co-op even means.
We were also discussing business approaches to Wizards and Warpdrives. We wanted anyone to hop in and play a really simple version of the game for free with their friends, with the full game being the purchase point. We thought we should test this model for Max Gentlemen as well. This was mistake number four. Inspired by great free co-op experiences like Space Team, we figured it was more important to get users playing against each other and that making the barrier to entry as low as possible was necessary. We even knew that Space Team had poor conversion and we still pushed on.
We had a lot of ideas for characters and hats that we could sell. I hated the idea of selling content that had design differences, I was afraid of the pay-to-win mess a lot of games have, so we went with pure cosmetics. Let’s call this… mistake four and a half.
There were very many more mistakes but I’m going to stop counting them.
We never thought that this game would make very much money but we had hoped to make back various out of pocket expenses like contractors. I hoped for about $10,000 in profit. It was a planned failure since we never intended to pay ourselves for our time but mostly break even on costs, get new fans and do something fun.
So the plan was:
- Make a free game with In-App-Purchases
- Up the quality of the art and add more
- Launch on iOS, Android, PC, Mac and Linux all at the same time
- Touch, keyboard and controller support. (and arcade cabinet)
- Cross-platform co-op
- Make >= $10,000?
Our core team consisted of two programmers (one terrible (me)) and one part-time artist. We all somehow thought, “Yea, we can do this in three months.”
Max Gentlemen took 1 year to finish and 1 more year to release the final DLC pack.
Since this game was going to be more “for show”, promotion and having a good time than anything, why not run a Kickstarter campaign? We had a success story with Organ Trail after all. There was enough Organ Trail money lying around that we technically didn’t need funding for Max Gentlemen but I found that Kickstarter was the best place to share your game, find an audience and cultivate it.
We decided to have fun with it. We came up with ridiculous merch ideas like the body pillow or the temporary tattoos. We made a funny video and fake stretch goals and we launched with the insanely low goal of $500. We tried to keep all the pledge tiers as close to the cost of the goods involved so we would just barely get to keep anything and more people would want to back the game. It was promotion first and fore-most. We were showing off and having fun. The Kickstarter is still my second favorite part of the game. We raised $12,345.
So we totally fucked up our Kickstarter. Like… really fucked it up. Running a Kickstarter, even a goofy, kind-of-fake, not-really-fake one takes a lot of time. It adds at least one month of work. Follow up is a constant thing you have to think about as well. Even though we got a third party to deliver our physical goods for us, there were a lot of mistakes that ended up coming back to haunt me, generating a lot of ill will and stress. I still haven’t put together the art book yet. *sigh*
But worse than all that, we made promises. We promised the game was free. We promised cross platform. We promised lots of extra content to entice backers. We promised to add you into the game for the low low price of $400 (+all previous reward tiers). These were promises that trapped us in bad decisions we made early on that I wasn’t comfortable backing out on. I’m still unsure if I would do any of this differently but it sure felt stifling.
Let’s take a moment to talk about other distractions. I had a lot of frustrations while working on Max Gentlemen. As well, I was sort of wallowing in a very odd creative space because I didn’t have any real deadlines. I didn’t really need to work because Organ Trail was bringing in passive income that kept me alive. Motivation was hard to come by. Side projects started piling up; I started a co-working space, I was teaching at a University, we had a kickstarter and I needed to make a launch trailer. I was also making a custom arcade cabinet for Max Gentlemen.
The arcade cabinet was amazing and awful. I would use it as an escape when I was frustrated with code or waiting on someone else. I discovered that I loved working with my hands. I impressed myself and my friends. Adding an arcade mode with special menus and controls broke the build a dozen or so times. We brought it to PAX East 2014 and it was super fun. It takes up a lot of space now but it’s a great MAME machine.
My partner Michael also started another company and started working on another game. Most of his time was spent on his project. We had poor communication and I spent a lot of time waiting for things that weren’t coming when I expected. His project also blew way out of its initial scope so deadlines for both games were being constantly pushed back.
Our artist, who we were asking full time work from after her full time job (sorry!), started working 80 hours a week at her day job. We based a lot of our schedules on the speed we completed tasks during the initial one month game jam version, when she had more free time and assets were lower quality.
Months passed. I was often left staring at a half finished game. I would panic and add something new. When I was left to my own thoughts, I would come up with new ideas. The game continued to grow in scope. New characters, new modes, re-doing UI over and over, rebalancing controls every week. It was pretty shitty.
Probably the dumbest thing I did was react badly to some feedback from a friend of mine. He playtested the game and told me the controls on mobile were a little too complex for him. I decided to make a new mode with less controls (dodgey mode). This meant that every character’s assets doubled. And actually, we made the other dodgey level use different art, tripling the needs of each new character I was piling onto the roster.
Benn (additional artist) and I spent many hours painting fake bricks for our trailer, which we had to rewrite and re-shoot after the first pass was garbage. The trailer, is the best part of the game. It was a lot of fun to make but the game was still kind of crap.
For many months in the middle of development, honestly up until the last month, I wasn’t confident in the game and it was hard to approach. I didn’t let anyone play it because I was scared to show it off when I knew it was wrong. It didn’t feel good enough but I wasn’t sure how to fix it without adding complexity. I didn’t think there was enough to it. Why would you play it more than once? I added a metagame where you unlock hats. It still wasn’t enough. I kept wanting to add AI but I always thought it was too big and for some reason this was the feature I would avoid adding to keep the scope down. In the end, I added AI in 3 days and it improved the game immensely in my eyes.
We launched August 2014, about a year ago as of writing this and two years after Organ Trail went on sale. We had a lot of launch issues. iOS didn’t go up on the right day and probably other junk I forgot went badly but that’s just normal launch stress at this point. We did a decent job marketing it, for a free game. A few YouTubers picked it up and played it. All I could see when I watched them was bugs. I honestly started to ignore it after launch because it didn’t do well and I was ashamed. I still can’t even really remember much of what happened after launch.
We got a lot of bug reports and very specific problems on Linux. We gave ourselves two weeks to fix as many bugs as we could before we moved on. It sucks but it didn’t make sense as a business to spend all those hours bug-testing for our smallest user base.
We didn’t see it really pick up traction at any point so we stopped pushing it not too long after launch and moved on. I was still holding my breath on the 5 characters we needed to add from Kickstarter. That ended up taking another year as everyone had other priorities and we knew it would be our least popular DLC, especially being released so late after launch.
Let’s go over some charts showing how Max Gentlemen (a free game) compares in units and profit to our other game, Organ Trail (out for 3 years now).
First off… fuck me! iOS and Android were not worth the effort. Making the game cross platform, all the controls tweaking, stress and bug testing for 15% of units. I don’t think players even realized they could do cross platform play and most of them haven’t even tried, based on anecdotal evidence.
Organ Trail currently has a total of 927,512 units and Max Gentlemen has 215,438 downloads. It’s not 1 million but it’s still a decent chunk of units. You can see the largest difference is Humble Bundle. However, I’m pretty happy with the Steam units being similar in about half the time (let’s ignore that the game is free).
We never really followed up with Humble Bundle. Partially because we lost steam, the game didn’t feel complete without the last DLC and there wasn’t a solution for DRM free DLC through the humble store.
It would probably be a good idea to bundle the game up into a “Complete Edition” and pitch it to them but we’re currently two weeks out from a huge expansion to Organ Trail; and that’s our goose that lays the golden eggs. (follow us on twitter to keep up to date @hatsproductions)
Was it a failure? Yes. Obviously. But not as bad as you might think from looking at the above chart. I’m a firm believer in good karma. There is more to business and branding than direct profit.
The whole point was to raise awareness for The Men Who Wear Many Hats. If I look over sales figures for Organ Trail the month after launching Max Gentlemen, there was a 50% increase in sales. As well, even though we did not get a feature in the app store for Max Gentlemen, I can’t help but wonder if it’s release reminded Apple that we exist as they invited us to a Halloween sale for Organ Trail the next month.
So while, to date, Max Gentlemen has made $3,700, that single month of boosted Organ Trail sales was about $5,000. My completely out-of-ass pseudo-math estimate for total boosted Organ Trail profit is about $20,000. It’s hard to say how long that boost lasted and what influence it had on the Halloween sale but I like to believe that if you do cool things and have fun there are a lot of hidden rewards. Overall I’m just trying to make a fun company with some cool products.
So what sort of inflammatory statements can I use to round up what I learned from this whole mess?
- Games take a long time to make, especially when you’re a perfectionist
- Mobile sucks without a feature in the app store
- Cross-platform co-op is a bad return on investment and confusing to players
- I’m never launching on 5 platforms at once again
- Steam is cool
- We need to keep pushing a game after launch if we want it to keep selling (duh)
- I’m going to make bigger games I feel comfortable charging for from now on
- I’m human and flawed and so is everyone else so try and plan for that
- Playtest earlier and more often (duh)
- Organ Trail was probably a fluke and has thrown off all my expectations
To conclude, I’m really happy we put Max Gentlemen out. I think we made an amazing free game for our fans. I love love love all the art and promo materials made for this game. The world and characters we created are really fun and I would love to come back to them in a more profitable fashion some time in the future.
Although this game was not directly profitable, we had the money to burn from Organ Trail and we always knew the risk. We could not make a game like this without the reserves we had. Consider the game a charitable donation from us. It’s good to get our sophomore slump out of the way. Now, on to something fun and profitable this time, fingers crossed!
Thanks for reading. Go buy the DLC and support a foolhardy indie dev!