Keeping with the theme of working within your niche, Camshaft Software shares their story of how they found Automation in that sweet spot between a passion for the manufacture of classic cars and the desire to explore that in a game. We talk about how the idea came about, how they found the game worth making, and made $60k BEFORE launch!
We are Camshaft Software, a small group initially just 2 people. Myself Caswal Parker (Programmer) and Andrew Lamb (3D Artist). We have been working on Automation for almost 3 years now. We now have a couple more people helping us out, Caswal’s better half, Jayelinda Suridge created the game engine we are using, and is also managing the translations/localisation into other languages. Robert Hoischen our testing lead/almost a producer, who is also a nuclear physicist in Germany at GSI Darmstadt. He has been awesome at helping us out, on the provision that once we are big enough, we employ him next. 😛
With the questions, both Andrew and I generally have common opinions/consensus on these topics, so unless otherwise stated this is both of our combined opinions.
What is Automation?
Automation, is the car company tycoon game. In which you can design engines, cars and run your car company, with various factories, dealerships, marketing campaigns, to cooperate with or compete against other players and AI’s to try and become the world’s largest car manufacturer, or maybe the world’s best supercar manufacturer. We want players to be able to be an armchair CEO, and create and run any kind of car company they want. The game has a large focus on being technically detailed, and is quite sophisticated in its modelling of engine performance and characteristics.
I seems like no one else has made a game like Automation – how did the idea come about?
The game was originally Andrew’s idea, he has had this idea brewing away from around 11-12 years of age. A few years ago, we were flailing our arms trying to find something new to play, Andrew asked how cool a game like Automation would be, then it dawned on us, that we could make that game! We had the core skills necessary to get started.
We think this is crucial to our success so far. That we both loved the idea, we both have a love for cars, and how they work, and together we had the core skills needed (Programming and Art) to get Automation going. This is the first major hurdle a lot of indie/independent developers get stuck on, all members of the team have to share the same passion for the idea.
Although programmers can make a game by themselves, I think most programmers lack the artistic eye to make a game palatable to the consumer, to give it that flare it needs. Conversely most artists may be able to cobble together some Unity scripts they find online to make a platformer, they often lack the skills to really make the game feel tight and concise, run well and be bug free. We need each other, and having the time to really hone your skills, and not jump between hats really allows you to excel and together you can become greater than the sum of your parts.
You’ve got this niche community of enthusiasts who absolutely live for designing cars from scratch – what made you want to make a game for these guys as opposed to the average player (any one of the demographics that are popular in investment pitches at the moment)?
There have been a few games like Automation before us, but most of them had been targeted at a more mainstream audience, and not for the ‘average car nerd’ like Automation has been. The problem with them is they felt too generic, it could have been a tycoon game around running a washing machine company.
We felt that we could make a game that really was for people who love cars, who enjoy the technical aspect of cars more than racing them, either in real life or virtually. Somehow the default mindset is that if you love cars, you must love racing cars, completely missing that the automotive industry is one of the largest industries on the planet and there are many people who modify cars, and work on cars.
We also felt that if you didn’t want to learn how engines work or design engines for your cars, we could offer alternatives, such as buying a design or crate engines from an open market. So if you just wanted to design cars and run a car company you still could.
Automation also has the advantage that large parts of our demographic are not necessarily “core-” or “casual-” gamers, but car nerds (like us) in general. So we are not directly competing with all of the other gaming riff-raff and noise.
Looking at your site, it FEELS like the sort of place you’d go to think about designing old cars, from the leather textures to the chrome embossing of your logo. How has focusing on that niche community affected your business model and your approach to development?
The look and feel of our site took us quite a while to reach, and it is now basically our branding. It is inspired by the interior of the Noble M600 supercar.
I think focusing on a niche is coming from the wrong point of view. It makes you sound like an outsider, looking down your nose at a trainspotter.
I have a strong conviction that there is no such thing as an original idea. It is more or less impossible for the human mind to do so. If you don’t believe me, have you seen a true picture of an alien? They are always based on something known, insectoid, reptilian, squid-like etc. We can’t come up with something alien or unknown to us, we just don’t work like that. Instead original ideas come from two or more separate fields/disciplines and combined together in a new and novel way, the less overlap between these fields the more original the idea is.
I guess what I am trying to get at, is games as your passion is not enough. Imagine this as a conversation:
Guy 1: “What is your passion in life?”
Guy 2: “Oh my passion, easy, its music!”
Guy 1: “What kind of music?”
Guy 2: “Oh any kind of music, all I want to do is make music. I just love the medium.”
Guy 1: “Modern jazz? Heavy Metal? Lithuanian Folk? What kind?”
Guy 2: “It doesn’t matter, I just want to make music”.
You can’t just make music, and in the same vain you can’t just make games. I guess this should sound obvious, but for me it wasn’t. You need other passions, other hobbies that you can pull from, that you can work with. You are not just making a game, but making a game about something you care about. Then there is also a good chance someone else cares about it too, and will help you along the way. The best passion you could have, is something that is far removed from the game-o-sphere venn diagram. Then you have a chance at creating something truly original.
Also at this point, if I don’t have a small rant about lock-picking, a few friends of mine are going to be disappointed. If you google “lockpicking forum”. The first major forum has over 60,000 members, in a community right there in one place! You could make a technically complex lock picking game, if you could get 1 in 10 to buy it for $20, it is their passion after all. They will see that as good value as it is cheaper than most locks, especially for a game that will allow them to attempt to pick locks they wouldn’t normally get access to. You could make a living for yourself, release new locks as DLC. You may laugh at the idea but it would work, but you would also need to find or have a love of lock picking yourself.
You’ve made $60,000 in your first 9-10 months, much of that BEFORE launching the game, what do you feel was absolutely critical to getting buy in from people? Why do you think they supported you and your game over all the other crowd-funding projects they could have donated to?
Well, the game is still not fully launched. We are doing the minecraft model, release content as it gets completed. At the moment we have the first 1/3rd almost done, that being the Engine Designer.
Our crowd-funding was done by with Rocket Hub, who were fantastic. Great communication, very fast replies to email, forwarding the confused email that ended up at RocketHub and not us. I think that Vlad mustn’t sleep. We got all up approximately $11k AUD from our crowd-funding. Which was what we aimed to get, this covered our license costs with a little money to spare.
We are lucky, in the fact that we had garnered a strong core community of fans, who were awesome. Andrew and myself contacted a huge list of press websites (around a 100 or so) but ignoring a lot of the games press. As gamers are not our main target audience. We mainly went after various car blogs, car forums etc.
RocketHub has nice tracking facility, so here are our numbers:
Ignore the Sept 11th spike, that was a kind donation by a family member. So like a lot of sales data, the first week is crucial, we made the bulk of our funding from the first week. The large spike at the end was a huge press push again. That made about $3000 which really helped. If we were to do something like this again, it would be much more planned. This crowd-funding was done over a 90 day period. Do the same, have planned press releases, showing new content, to keep you in the public eye. Again it is all about marketing yourself. As an unproven developer, maybe we should have waited a little longer and developed the Engine Designer to a vertical slice, but we got the money we needed so it doesn’t matter. If are unproven and you have a smaller project idea (rather than the infinitely scoped monster called Automation), we would recommend building a vertical slice, a taster of what you want to make. Give it a as much polish as you can muster. It doesn’t have to be long or complex, the essence of your game, just to show the public that you can deliver what you are promising. We had to rely on the smoke and mirrors of screenshots and videos, but until the paying public has something tangible i.e. a demo, that is all your videos/screenshots are. Just some magic, smoke and mirrors. If you don’t even have videos or screenshots and are unknown or unproven I would not even try a crowd-funding pitch, as all you have is empty promises.
On the 2nd of February we started offering pre-orders on our website. With no announced launch date for the upcoming Engine Designer demo. Below is a graph of sales from our website April 8th is when we released the demo for those who preordered, April 22nd was the public release date allowing anyone to play the demo. July 4th is when we released for the first content expansion for preorder customers. Here is a beautiful sales graph:
The first day preorders started, a lot of pent up demand was released. Sales then burbled along until the frantic weeks around the demo release, dropping off severely until our next content release on July 4th. The current mean average is around $285 a day (about 10 sales), and the mode average is $90 a day (around 3 sales).
Can you tell us a bit about your journey since going indie? When did you decide to take the leap, how did you guys fund early development and when did you say “that’s it, time to do this full time”?
In Andrew’s case, it was working full time, and making sacrifices, and in my case I dropped to part time and made sacrifices too. Although if it really is your passion, these are not really sacrifices.
But by sacrifices we mean:
- No going out/social life, nadda, not a zip. (Apart from IGDA meets of course!)
- No weekends – They’re for working on your game
We would finish work, get home. Get on skype (as we were living in separate houses), stay on skype for 5-6 hours. Go to bed. Get up, work soul crushing day job (Andrew’s words), get home, get on skype. We did that for over 2 years. Managing on average about 30-40 hours a week of Automation work. It was pretty grueling, and yes you did get a bit burnt out and took a weekend off here and there, but always had that nagging feeling of neglecting the game.
Once we had built up a bit of a war chest, and were seeing constant money coming in, we did some basic maths to see that we had a buffer of a few months and took the plunge.
The thing is, we live in a very lucky and privileged country here in Australia. If it all goes wrong, what really happens? You end up on the dole, and go and find a job to pay the bills. Then start on something new as a game project.
What has been the absolute greatest thing about going indie to make your own games?
Making a game that you want to make, for a community that wants the same game that you do.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since going indie?
We got a lot of our legals sorted out early, so that was never an issue for us. Figuring out when to go from a partnership to a company was probably the biggy. Never be afraid to ask for help or advice. Even from places that you might think that don’t care about the little guy like the GDAA. We have gotten quite a few useful contacts and advice through Tony Reed/GDAA.
What advice do you have for folks about to make the plunge and go indie themselves?
Just Do it! As we stated above, what is the worst that can happen? You fail? What happens then? Not much, just find a job, or some other way to pay the bills, learn from the experience and move on, try again.
Caswal is the Lead Programmer at Camshaft Software, he previously worked as a programming teacher at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment for 6 years, and has no previous industry experience before working on Automation full time.
Andrew is the Lead Artist at Camshaft Software, he comes from a background of soul-crushing government IT jobs, and studied 3d Animation at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment
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