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Release Day Nerves

What does it feel like to release a game? People talk a lot about what game development is like, but a lot less about the process of releasing a game.

Cynically I might suggest this is because so many games get canned that release experience is much rarer. In practice, the people in charge of the process have shareholders and can't possibly admit to anything but excited optimism about the sure-fire hit they surely have on their hands.

I'm currently a few days away from releasing my latest indie game, Kudos 2, and it's probably going on sale by the time you read this. How does this make me feel? Well the emotions are many and varied but the primary one has to be terror.

If you talk to people at big studios, the primary emotion come release time is one of tired relief. Endless periods of crunch, unmovable deadlines, projects that seem to go on forever (I remember the list of developers who had become parents during Fable 2's development being circulated) means that for most developers, the feelings are relief, tiredness and an almost Zen-like state of calm. The calmness comes from the fact that it has passed out of your hands now. Marketing people and sales people will take over; your work here is done.

For me though, that flow of logic and emotion doesn’t hold up. I'm not just the programmer whose job is coming to an end or the designer whose job should have ended weeks ago. I’m also the finance director and head of marketing. As I've taken the first two hats off, the other two get firmly strapped to my head. There is nobody else to blame, nobody I can lean on while I kick back and chill out.

Suddenly it's close to D-day, the day on which I find out if the last year (and the development budget) was well spent, or if it would have been better invested in sub-prime loans.

For big budget retail games, you will already have a rough idea if you are sitting on an instant hit or a disaster, because pre-orders will have been taken and there will thus be some guaranteed sales. However, the flip side of this is that you will need to wait a few weeks before you actually see how the game is selling in stores, and what your chances are of breaking even.

With online direct-sales like mine, the feedback is instant. When someone buys a game direct from my site, I get an email the minute the payment company takes the money. I can see how many games I sold in the last hour – one copy of Democracy 2, to someone in Richmond, UK, just 20 minutes drive from me, small world.

All of which is scary as hell, because on Wednesday when I finally push the right button and make the purchase link live, I'll be getting near instant feedback on whether the game is a dud or a hit. When you talk to other indie developers, you find everyone suffers from the same anxiety over sales.

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Cliff Harris

If you only got sales reports once a week, you could forget about them for six days and just code, but like all indie devs, the first thing I check in the morning is the sales emails, and it's the last thing I check at night too. My mood, and how disposed I am to spending money has become directly hard-wired into the sales emails. I'm pretty sure I could chart endorphin levels alongside sales and see a scary correlation over time. If I meet a mate for lunch and order steak, he knows sales are good. A baguette though is a bad sign.

If you think I'm over-dramatizing it, think of it like this. Imagine you haven't been paid a penny by your employer for the last year. You have been living off your savings. On Wednesday, he will put your entire salary on a random stock on the stock market. You will start getting paid dividends from that day onwards. Will he pick the next Google? Or the next Lehman Brothers?

If you actually have a physical job like I used to, the earnings fear isn't so bad. A boat that's been nailed together is a boat that's been nailed together. It might sell for a lot, or it might sell for a bit less. A game that isn't fun though isn't just slightly less valuable than a fun one, it's worth nothing. Zero. Some games really do sell fifty times or a hundred times better than others with the same budget. It's pretty much all fixed costs, and the amount recouped could go from zero to a billion dollars.

Now fortunately, as indie devs go, I do better than many (though not nearly as well as some), so if the worst comes to the worst and I don't sell a single game, it's unlikely I'll actually starve. I'm a pretty cautious guy and always try to keep some cash in the bank from games that do sell, anticipating that I'll hit a dud at some point.

Being your own boss is fantastic, and I wouldn't choose a different life by any stretch, but it's always easy to say that when the cheques are coming in and the metaphorical sun is shining. Creatively, developing Kudos 2 has been fantastic fun, exciting and rewarding. Whether or not it was actually a good idea in terms of paying the rent will be decided in the next few weeks. Wish me luck, I'll be the guy staring at his inbox biting his nails.

Cliff Harris used to work at Elixir and Lionhead Studios where he worked on both Evil Genius and The Movies before becoming an independent developer. Want to wish Cliff luck, or offer your thoughts on one of his games? Do so in the forums.