My attempt to fund the game on Kickstarter has been a total failure. There are a great many reasons for this, the most important of which is that the game was not good enough to present to the public. It did, however, trigger a great many constructive criticisms, which prompted me to make substantial improvements in the design.
Needs more turns
I implemented only one specific suggestion: that the game have more than one turn. I had actually designed the game to readily permit the use of any number of turns, because I knew that the correct number of turns would have to be determined towards the end of the development process. I had set it to a single turn to make the model easier to tune. I used that single-turn version for so long that I simply forgot about it. When people suggested more turns, it took about three hours to make the change. And that was only because a few alterations had crept in that required correction in order for multi-turn games to work. It now has three turns.
Too hard to learn
I came up with a radical change in the design that permitted me to re-organize the levels so that the lowest levels are REALLY simple, with the complexity increasing steadily as you climb to higher levels. This is a huge improvement in the design and would not have been made without those criticisms.
The index is dull
Well, an index isn’t supposed to awe you with amazing CGI; it’s supposed to be a list of things in alphabetical order. However, while contemplating this criticism, I came up a neat idea that I’m now trying to implement: instead of (or possibly in addition to) the index, show the map of causality. It’s quite a spaghetti-diagram, with causal arrows snaking all over the place, but it will certainly give the player a clearer understanding of how everything fits together. This will not, however, work for the Backgrounders; they’ll still have to be in index format.
The pages are dull
This comment was common, and several people sent long letters trying to explain what this meant. I pressed each of them to suggest something specific. The suggestions were pretty weak. One fellow complained that it just doesn’t look professional. I compared my pages with pages on serious websites and found that the primary difference is that the website pages are much busier than mine. There’s lots of text organized into multiple columns, separate boxes, and so forth. I could achieve this effect by making the images much smaller, but I don’t see how this would improve matters.
A related complaint was that I use mostly photographs rather than custom artwork. This complaint perplexes me; isn’t a photograph of coal cars more evocative than a drawing of coal cars? There are a few images that could be improved by use of professional artwork, and I’m looking into replacing those.
Needs some indication of the relative magnitude of causation
This complaint has a lot of weight to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to address the problem. I came up with two ideas. First, sort the causes of each factor by their relative importance. The first cause in the list of causes has the greatest influence on its value. This is a weak indication, however, so I tried to come up with some other indicator. I considered making the size of the font in which the cause is written proportional to its relative influence, but found that some labels just wouldn’t fit. I still haven’t solved the problem. I’m considering using color (red indicates big effect, blue indicates low impact) or a tiny indicator next to the label for the cause.
As you can see, I have a lot more work to do.
There were also lots of nasty comments, usually on game boards. These are some of those complaints:
“What’s he need $150K for? The game doesn’t look that expensive!”
Absolutely correct: the game doesn’t look that expensive. The expense went into making it act expensively. The great bulk of the effort went into the simulation, not the imagery. This is not a game so much as a simulation; I couldn’t just make up whatever numbers I wanted or were convenient. I spent at least a thousand hours researching every number used in the simulation. In many cases, the number I needed was simply not available and had to be calculated based on a set of numbers that measure somewhat similar things. Between the actual values, the coefficients, and the highest and lowest acceptable values used in the simulation, there are at least 300 numbers that had to be researched.
But it’s a lot more than just the raw numbers: there are also all the equations that went into the simulation. In order to give the player the opportunity to adjust the coefficients, every formula had to be linear. There were some hidden formulae, such as the calculation of supply versus price, that were not linear; that particular algorithm uses a complex convergent algorithm that took several months to get right. And once all those equations had been entered, they had to be tuned. The first runs of the simulation yielded crazy results; it took months to stabilize it. Even then, as late as three weeks ago, somebody found a lock on victory, requiring more adjustment, more retuning – more work.
This complaint is informative about the attitude most gamers have: that the cost of a game lies in its imagery. More money must mean better imagery. If the game has inexpensive imagery, then it must be cheap. In fact, I calculated the effective rate of pay that Louis and I would be earning if we got the $150K: a little bit less than what an entry-level programmer earns. Suffice it to say that neither Louis nor I are entry-level programmers; our experience levels would earn us at least twice what we’re paying ourselves. That’s our charitable contribution to the effort.
“It’s no fun!”
This was a very common complaint, despite the fact that in the video I made it very clear that this is an educational simulation, not an entertainment product. I don’t know how many times I’ve stipulated that Balance of the Planet will never be as much fun as your typical RPG, platformer, or FPS. It’s not that kind of product, and it’s unfair to compare it to such games. The appropriate question to ask is, “Is this more fun than the amount of reading or class time you’d have to spend to learn as much about environmental/economic problems?” The answer to that question, I’m pretty sure, is a resounding YES.
“This is the worst Kickstarter presentation I’ve ever seen!”
I suppose that this complaint is based on a comparison of Balance of the Planet with the standard RPG, FPS, and platformer proposals. This is really just a variation on the “It’s no fun!” complaint. I put perhaps 40 hours into design, preparation, rehearsal, shooting, and editing of the video. Even that, I fear, was too much: my job is to make a good product. The video is not aimed at the gamer audience; it is aimed at the environmentalist people whom I expected would be the primary contributors.
“The rewards are crap!”
Well, duh! The people complaining about this didn’t seem to notice that this is fundamentally a non-commercial project. The declared goal, stated several times, is to give away the software. Giving people rewards for donations just adds to the overhead cost of a charitable project – and a charity is supposed to have the lowest possible overhead costs.
“Crawford is an asshole”
I certainly do provoke a lot of anger from some gamers; this is perhaps the best indicator of how close to the mark some of my criticisms hit. If I were just wrong about everything, nobody would pay any attention. In any case, discussion of my character flaws is idle gossip; what say we talk about design issues?
Some specific quotes
Lastly, I present some specific quotes from the Gamasutra article about this project; these are the most egregious, but they do reflect the attitudes of some people:
“…you want $150,000 so OTHER people can get it for free, well i may as well wait and be one of those people.”
“Gamasutra is for games. Crossposting this here indicates he wants to position it as a game, which it isn’t.” [I didn’t write the article about Balance of the Planet]
“The game is going to be made even if the Kickstarter fails, so why do they need a Kickstarter?” [to make it free]
“I crave for visual stimulation!” [see my essay Eye Candy]
“I think he missed the part about “creative”: he should have called it Sim Planet and added some rampaging monsters, invading aliens and zombie outbreaks - and then show the environmental impact.”
“I don't think I want to pay for a game that would only me feel guilty about my life choices”
“Considering that depth of research and coding is the only heavy work for the project... yeah, he just asked way too much.” [Yep, research and programming are lightweight jobs… the real work is in the animation]
“He's an idealist. That's cute.” [Wow, cynicism so dominates our thinking that idealism is merely ‘cute’]
Here are three quotes demonstrating that some people have limited attention spans. The subtitle of the project is “An educational simulation of environmental/economic issue”. In the video I pointedly say that it’s an educational simulation and is not intended to be fun so much as educational.
“The main issue is that, to me, as a gamer, Balance of the Planet didn't sound like it would be a lot of fun.”
“You are making a video game, of course it has to be fun. It is not a school thesis or college assignment. It is a video game and has to be fun.”
“the #1 job of any game is to be fun. If you don't do that, none of the education will happen.”
And to see some REALLY vicious remarks, check out the comments to the Escapist article. Makes gamers look pretty bad, doesn’t it?
Please be aware, however, that these people are only part of the mix, perhaps a small part. Almost ALL of the contributions to the Kickstarter project came from gamers, not environmental people. And in the end, there were over 250 such gamers who contributed to the project. The lesson of this for me is that, for every loudmouthed, poorly educated, blog-dominating, puerile gamer cretin out there, there’s at least one mature, thoughtful gamer who cares about somebody other than himself.