Five Years of Pirates and Traders

pt_3According to my records, Pirates and Traders is exactly five years old today.

I started work on Pirates and Traders almost immediately after having released my first game – “A Brief History of Rome” – on the Android market on January 30, 2010. I wanted to do another historical game, because historical games are what I enjoy, but I didn’t want to do another war/4X game just yet. At the time, I played around with two ideas: either doing a trading/piracy game or doing a role-playing game set in Roman times – think something like Nethergate, but more heavily based in history (I’m a Roman history nut), and set on the Roman-Sassanid border. Sanity won out though. I had leave at the time, and knew that I needed to finish something playable during the few months off from work if I were to publish it.

The development of the first version of the game took about two and a half months. I was taking care of my first kid, but he was pretty easy at the time, so I was able to work long hours during the day while he slept, in addition to evenings. I’ve probably never worked as concentratedly on any of my game project either before or since. The game released the game on April 21, 2010.

That was five years ago, Pirates and Traders didn’t make me any real money at first, since – living in Norway – I could not sell the app on the Android Market. But the game gained enough of a following that the ad income actually became noticeable, and all the feedback I received compelled me to work more on the game. Eventually, the ad income accumulated to the point where I felt that it would be worthwhile to spend money on an art upgrade.

pt_4Around the same time (sometime in 2011, IIRC), Google opened up for paid apps in Norway. At this time, I made a mistake: I released the paid app, with a promise that the income from sales would be used to upgrade the game’s art and music. This was a mistake because – by the time the new version (2.0) of Pirates and Traders was ready to release, it was a significant remake. It had a different skill system, new stories, in addition to new art and music – Pirates and Traders version 2.0 was essentially a sequel to the original. However, I don’t run from my promises, and thus the game was released as an upgrade to the existing app.

This was a disaster. Savegame incompatibilities meant that many people experienced trouble upgrading, and it took almost a month before I had all those problems sorted out. In addition, many people found the new version inferior to the old one; they loved the simplicity of the Sld versions of the game for those people). I – of course – also lost money on the decision, although that was less of a concern to me. All in all, it would probably have been a better decision to simply have released the current version of the game as Pirates and Traders II back then. I suspect most of you would have forgiven me.

Five years.

More than 800,000 downloads, but obviously this has slowed down significantly in the past years. I guess it will never hit that million, which would have been cool – but I can’t complain. The active player population today is around 7-8%. This is to be expected on a free app, though. Lots of people download the game and delete it later – and that trend is of course marked for such an old app.

Revenue on the game has been respectable, but never close to the level where I would have been tempted to go full-time. If I built 5-6 games which brought in the same level of revenue as Pirates and Traders in parallel, perhaps… but as Daniel Cook discusses in his article on sustainable development, game dev is a hit-driven industry, and one should expect several flops for every success. I prefer to live without that stress.

pt_2Around 70,000 lines of Java code and 25000 lines of comments.. Considering that I rewrote the game almost completely for version 2.0, I’ve probably written around double that amount of code over the lifetime of the app.

Almost 75,000 words of narrative text, which is about the size of an average novel. Shout out to Stuart Lloyd, with whom I co-wrote the three major quests in the game.

Finally, thanks to all of you, the fans. Without you, this journey wouldn’t have been possible.

A cunning plan…

I am very wary of making promises wrt game development. Although I try to maintain a steady tempo in this work, it remains an activity that I primarily do in my – all too scarce – free-time.

The past few months have been harsh on my free-time. Part of this has been the move that I’ve already mentioned; that sort of stuff takes time. I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel now, although there’s still a lot to be done (e.g., the bunch of Ikea bookshelves waiting to be collected behind me). The other part is that work is just that my bread and butter work has been hectic for the past many months. I’m not complaining, mind you – I love what I do for a living – and I pretty much decide what (and how much) I work myself. But overtime spent on day work means less time for other things – and usually means I cannot work as much on my games as I would like to.

I spent some time planning out my (real-life work) projects a couple of weeks ago, which was immensely cool (we’re going to be doing some really fun stuff if you’re into open data and apis). But it also made me realize that I’ll be immensely busy for the rest of the year – and I’ve spent some time for the past weeks considering the various projects I’m working on. And the easy conclusion is that the Pirates and Traders 2/Dwarf Kingdom games I would like to deliver in the first version are probably more ambitious than is realistic. Understood in the way that I probably won’t be able to finish either of them this year.

So after some hard planning, I’ve decided to go back to basics. For the next month or so, I’m going to be working on preparing the minimally playable version of Pirates and Traders 2. Essentially the core gameplay experience – trading, travelling, and sea battles. No land combat. No duels. Limited storylines (I’ll convert as many as I can, of course, but I won’t delay the game release because of this). As soon as I feel that this version of the game is stable, I am going to release it on open beta. I’m aiming for April or May this year. As soon as the open beta indicates that people are able to play it without things crashing constantly, the game will be released in its free version.

I’ll then iterate over the released version over the following months (and perhaps years) and slowly add in all of the features that I have planned (and – as always – listening to your feedback and comments). Those of you who have been playing the game for many years, will be familiar with the approach – it is exactly the same way that the first – very simple – Pirates and Traders game developed into the game it is today.

I know that not everyone will like this approach, but from my point of view, this seems to be the best option. It means the game comes out faster and it means I get better feedback faster (and thus am better able to gauge which ideas are good or bad, allowing me to be more effective). In fact, simply releasing the game is of benefit – it is always extra motivating to see something one has worked on being (hopefully) enjoyed.

It will soon be five years since I released Pirates and Traders on the Android market. I can – quite honestly – say that it has been a wonderful journey. I hope that very many of you will join me when Pirates and Traders 2 sets out on its journey in the hopefully not too distant future.

Taxing week

Have I mentioned how much I hate doing taxes? Oh, I did? Ok, nothing to see here.

Apart from dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on paperwork, this week has been spent on fixing stuff in the story script engine. That seems to be done, now, so I’m starting to move on to other tasks. I’m still thinking of releasing a small app for writing Story Script modules in, but I’m not quite done testing it yet, but I’ll be playing around a little with it during the week, and if it seems solid, I’ll probably make it available for anyone who feels like beta testing it. Secondly, I’ve started working on the core Pirates and Traders 2 code itself.

Unfortunately, nothing that is worth taking screenshots of yet, but as soon as I have something, I’ll post them. Currently, I’m working on the Character Status view, which has a number of interesting issues. I’ve previously written about my intent to set up more “permanent” relations for the player; i.e., characters that you’ve interacted with a lot should “remember” you, but for that to work, there needs to be some very clear feedback mechanisms in place in-game. After all, it is not reasonable to expect that a player can remember that the Comte Domingo de Viamonte is really, really pissed at them – this information needs to be available easily. I’m still thinking on how to represent it in the story dialogues/scripts, but in the status window, my plan is currently to create a social map (i.e., sort of a wheel with the player in the middle, and the color of the spokes indicating the relationship between PC and NPC). I intend to build something similar for the in-game factions (as suggested by a couple of people for the game before).

Working on the status views will probably take the rest of the week (at least), but once that’s done the game should be closing in on “playable”.