The Final Countdown – Reflecting on 6 Months of Missile Cards

View of Tunnel

Buckle up, folks! Here’s a personal post about making/launching a game thing in 6 months, what it might or might not mean for my future, and what I’ve learned from the process.

Roughly six months ago, I started creating a quick little prototype for a strategy card game in GameMaker: Studio. I set out to mash-up the retro vibe and bombardment defense gameplay of the classic Atari game Missile Command — a game I played obsessively as a kid — with more strategic turn-based solo card game elements.

Retro inspiration aside, the core concept for the prototype I settled on was this: dangerous shit falls from the sky, you have to arm yourself and blast it away before it annihilates you — except everything is turn-based. You have to make tough strategic decisions on when to play cards, which cards to use, and when to sacrifice some of your base infrastructure to absorb a non-lethal impact.

This quickly led to building a deck of virtual cards packed with three key elements:

  1. A variety of damage-dealing hazard that would trigger and fall from the sky towards your bases.
  2. Basic weapons defenses to deploy, charge, then use to whittle away at the oncoming hazards.
  3. Special / Utility cards that would let you gather resources, influence weapon charge speed, and deal with increasingly complex and challenging hazards.

Surviving a match meant clearing the deck of all hazards while being very strategic about making best use of the cards you draw.

Within a few days, I had a working prototype, but what surprised me, was that it was both a) actually fun to play and b) very “grabby.” It had the “just one more game” feel to it, even in a super rough form. It’s rare that I enjoy playing most of my early prototypes when they’re a couple days old, but this one had me playing match after match for hours. It was enough to make the decision to flesh it out into a proper game.

Missile Cards was born.

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A slightly outdated screenshot from the Missile Cards Beta in action.

For me, the whole point of Missile Cards was to create something small, fast, fun, and polished in a very limited timeframe. To make and launch a game in a few months instead of the year and a half or more (my average larger project dev cycle). I needed to start and finish something, and I wanted it to be a high quality, low risk project. Something I could craft, polish, launch, and feel good about, without taking every second of my time.

That, and hopefully make a little income from it, obviously.

Six months later, the game has REALLY come together into something special, thanks in large part to my great team of Beta testers who’ve given me a lot of useful feedback to improve the game this past few months.

I’m really excited and cautiously optimistic about this crazy thing I’ve created… and more than a little nerve-wracked with anxiety over its impending Steam launch on April 7th.

dark, rain, raindrops

IT’S JUST A GAME… BUT THERE’S MORE AT STAKE HERE

Every aspect of Missile Cards as a whole has been designed to keep a tight reign on scope creep, make something small and polished, then hit the finish line and get it out there as quickly as possible.

This is meant to minimize risk, but it also lets me sell the game for a reasonable price tag of $5 — and it increases the chances that the game will become profitable faster, given the short dev cycle and limited (RE: nonexistent) budget. I’ve been bootstrapping the whole thing.

Making Missile Cards has been fun to make. I’ve approached it with both the hope that it finds a moderate level of success AND the understanding that it might completely flop.

If I’m being truly honest, however, I think there’s a lot more riding on this project succeeding than I’d care to admit.

I’m in a need of a major life change. For the past three years or so, I’ve been doing game development on the side while pivoting my full-time freelance work towards corporate clients out of necessity (you can’t really make games and write about them for games press outlets). Freelancing for those corporate markets pays well and it can be very interesting a times. I enjoy the work for the most part, but my heart isn’t 100% in it of late. At least not when I think of where I want to be long-term.

Games were the entire reason I became a freelancer in the first place, over a decade ago. Writing for a ton of the top games magazines and websites I grew up reading was a dream come true, until I hit the ceiling and realize there wasn’t a lot more for me in that space. (That, and most of the good paying outlets either shut down or cut their freelance budgets).

Making games was an accidental side-track that started around that time, but it’s something that I’ve found is even more rewarding and interesting than slinging words about them. Making shit, in general, is in my blood. It always has been.

Freelancing has empowered me to do a lot of things I’d never have been able to do working a regular 9-to-5, but it still often feels like work. Grindy at times, not always fulfilling, necessary. Gamedev can be the same way, too, but it’s a different animal for me.

My true passion has always been in creating things. Music, books, art, writing, and other projects. I’ve been doing this obsessively since I was a kid, and those who follow what I’m up to know that I haven’t stopped.

When I think of what my life might look like 5, 10, 15 years down the road from now, my happiest imaginations find me making cool shit and being able to sustain myself financially, at least in-part, through these creative projects. I see potential for that to become a reality through game development, but I also am realistic about the hard realities of the industry and in standing out in a crowded market.

I need positive change in my professional life and I’m driven as hell to find it– perhaps to a fault. I know how to fling myself at the wall, pick myself up and wipe the blood off, then do it again and again until I climb higher.

That said…working FT as a freelancer while making games on my own in my spare time AND and running a small indie studio in addition to that…it’s wearing away at me like a millstone. I’ve been juggling too much for too long, and it’s negatively affecting me on many different levels. I’m worn, weary, often depressed and feeling less and less a part of the world. My physical and mental health has not been good these past few years. Things have been rough. I haven’t felt or been my best self in a long time.

I need a win. Or at least something good to happen. A catalyst to spark the momentum I need to gain traction towards positive change. I’ve done this before, with making the jump from a day job to a successful freelance career. I’m trying to do it again. And hoping I can survive the process once more.

Having gone through several game launches – including some utter failures – I’ve experienced firsthand the ultra dark tunnel you can find yourself in when it feels like all the hard work you’ve been pouring into a thing is all for nothing.

No matter how much you steel yourself against this, launching a thing (and a game on Steam no less) is always difficult. I’m ready for the hustle of launching the game itself, but I’m not sure I’m fully prepared for what might happen – good or bad – once the game is out there.

I’m cautiously optimistic. And slightly dreading it.

Missile Cards is one of several games I’m launching this year. I realize it may fail…hell, it’s been designed from the get-go as a minimal risk, minimum viable project, despite taking 6 months to make. But it’s part of a bigger plan to at least attempt pushing towards making games on a more financially stable level.

I don’t have to sell a TON of copies to get a win from this one. But I know that it’s dangerous to set any sort of real expectations with these things before-hand. Instead, I’m setting a goal. A minimum ideal target to shoot for.

Setting goals, amassing small wins, and using that to propel you forward and upward has been a central component of my success as a freelancer. So as I approach the launch of my next game, I’m applying that in a different, very transparent way as part of my launch / marketing plan.

Fog Glass during Daytime

MY QUEST FOR 5,000 STEAM SALES

To have something specific to shoot for, I’ve set a personal goal of selling at least 5,000 copies of Missile Cards in the first month of its launch on Steam. I’m doing this in part so I can track my own progress with launch efforts, and also potentially give friends and followers a means to see how I’m doing (and hopefully help cheer me on so I can survive the intense craziness of another Steam launch without falling apart).

So…why 5,000 copies and what does that mean?

At a price of $4.99 for the Steam edition, Missile Cards is pretty affordable for the amount of replay and content that’s in there. It’s not the biggest game scope-wise, but there’s a lot to unlock and shoot for…and it’s been designed for high replay. I feel comfortable selling it for that, and it’ll be launching at a small limited time 10% discount to encourage early adopters.

5,000 copies is the number of sales I need to hit  at that price point in order to financially “break even” for the time cost of developing the game for six months.

Normally, I work FT freelancing while slinging game side projects. Missile Cards development is a little different, in that I started working on it right at the point just before roughly 90 percent of my freelance gigs evaporated all at once. This tends to happen in some shape or form over the holidays/New Year, but this year I took a big hit when several key clients decided to cut their budget or move in different directions.

So for more than half of Missile Cards’ development, I was focusing on it as my day job while hustling on the side to line up more work. Things have evened out again,  as I’ve solidified a few more opportunities for the moment, but I desperately need to recoup some of that lost time and income.

After Steam takes it’s cut of each sale, 5,000 copies sold in the first month should roughly be enough for me to make back most of what I would have made during that time. It’s a weird position to be in, but that’s where I’m at.

Thus the Quest for 5,000 Steam sales.

To put that in perspective…5,000 copies sold in the prime launch month window is consider an epic failure by most game standards. At the same time, many small indie games don’t even sell 1,000 copies in their entire lifetime. So I realize that my goal is extremely ambitious in some ways, and nowhere nearly as high I need to shoot for to hit the true “success” mark in other ways.

Still, If I can hit that threshold in the first month, I can exhale at the end of April feeling good about the time I poured into making the game. That income would help me pay off a portion of a few looming bills and debt. Going above and beyond that would be amazing, and potentially have bigger implications for what the rest of my year might look like…

Baby steps.

5,000 feels like a not-crazy number to shoot for, and yet realistically, it’s probably going be like pulling teeth just to hit that mark unless the game gets serious traction with press, YouTubers, etc (something I’m not counting on but will be working like hell to try to lock down).

It’s not going to be easy. I’m doing all of my own marketing and PR, and handling every facet of the game’s creation, launch, and outreach. And I’ll be solely responsible for any launch week bug fixes that might be needed (hopefully not!) and responding to players on the Steam forums.

When I launch this thing, that whole week is basically going to be burned by me hustling like hell to get traction during that critical stretch. It’s going to be tough, draining, and who knows what will happen.

Hopefully some of you will be cheer me on and help keep me rolling even when my limbs are falling off and I begin speaking in tongues. Errrr. Yeah.

Moving on.

blue, clouds, cloudy

A FEW THOUGHTS ON WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM THIS

This has been a pretty personal, gloomy, candid post. But I want to wrap things up on a high note with a few positive thoughts on what I’ve learned from this project so far.

  • Its helped me learn to code better. Missile Cards is the first GameMaker project I’ve done entirely in GML. That’s a big deal for me, especially given how complex the game’s systems are under the hood. I no longer use the drag-and-drop training wheels, and that’s really opened the door to making much cooler things. It’s also inspired me to start tinkering with Unity and wrapping my head around C# down the road.
  • Its been a great exercise in battling scope creep. Setting tight constraints for your game, then sticking to them, is the best way to combat scope creep. I knew I wanted to turn this game around from concept to launch in a matter of months, and that helped me make some VERY tough decisions to trim the fat and limit/focus the content. It also means that if the game tanks at launch, I didn’t spend years of my life on it only to fail miserably (again). If it does well, I can pour more energy into it and bring it to other platforms. If not, I can feel ok about moving on (though I’m hoping for the former vs the latter).
  • It feels damn fucking good to be so close to the finish line. Seriously. Since This Book Is A Dungeon, which only took 3 months to make, all of my other projects have been much bigger, more ambitious slow burning things. The fact I’ve been able to make something as complex, fun, different, and polished as Missile Cards in only  6 months feels really great. It’s not a perfect game, but I feel like I’ve leveled up some of my skills in the process of making it. I definitely plan to aim for making more smaller, tightly scoped projects like this in the future alongside my larger slow-burning things.

mcmaincapsul

If you want to get notified when Missile Card launches on Steam next month, why not head over to the Steam page and add it to your Steam Wishlist! And stay tuned…I’ll be rolling more details on my Quest to 5,000 Steam Sales and other launch-related stuff soon.

Thanks for reading!

-Nathan

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