“Oh God, I need to take down the Sting tweet,” I thought to myself on the day Hypnospace Outlaw was nominated for Independent Games Festival awards. I had literally fallen out of bed thinking about Sting, which I am completely comfortable admitting on the front page of one of the largest gaming outlets in the world.
I had spent the previous night pretending to “discover” that Sting was a member of The Police on Twitter, to the howls of my friends and peers. The thread started to get wider traction right before I went to bed. My phone buzzed itself into oblivion that morning; I was convinced I had created a maelstrom that would somehow destroy my digital life. And all it had taken was tweeting about Sting.
But the tweets were congratulatory, not enraged about my agonizing youth. The IGF award nominees had been announced, and we were up for several of them.
I should have been exuberant. Instead, I felt even more adrift.
Hypnospace Outlaw is an alternate-universe, Y2K-era internet simulator. You play as an unpaid moderator for a Geocities-like playground filled with blogs, fandoms, brands, hoaxes, and viruses, all telling the stories of the unique digital people who log on every night. Hypnospace Outlaw had been nominated for multiple awards before we’d even implemented its final act — the Independent Games Festival grand prize among them.
It’s also 2019, the video game ecosystem as we currently know it is on fire, and despite all indications and assurances, I still have no idea how well Hypnospace is going to do.
Remember when YouTube was the secret to success?
This uncertainty would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The right YouTube video or positive review could spur a game’s sales into the tens of thousands. An indie game that gets any kind of attention is a miracle, let alone a game breaking through to the degree that Hypnospace Outlaw already has.
But I also see friends post increasingly desperate Twitter threads about their long-tail sales being decimated by storefront algorithm changes, and long-awaited independent games are often released without making a dent in the sales charts. Our game is dropping into this bewildering void, where nothing makes sense and everything seems to be in flux.
The biggest fear facing independent developers in 2019 isn’t that there are too many games, or that the games in question are bad, or that visibility is broken, or that platform holders who inherently profit from their success may do little to promote their games to interested audiences.
It’s that those issues all work together to create the most stressful aspect of game development, one that’s unfortunately been a part of our industry since its inception: a terrifying lack of stability. The number of variables involved in releasing a new game has increased dramatically in the past few years, and following established best practices no longer guarantees success, or even recognition.
Are streamers the key to a good launch? Can post-launch support save a game that might have already failed in conventional terms? Will blood sacrifices get us on enough Steam wishlists to please the algorithm?
No one knows.
Learning how to survive
Being a professional game developer has always meant that you’ll be shaped by the market and environment, and it’s hard to have a long-term career without a plan for how to deal with any changes that may come up.
Developers like Jake Birkett of Regency Solitaire often speak about how they survive in this evolving environment, shifting between different revenue opportunities and contract work to stay afloat.
It will always be essential to know how to adapt, especially within a medium as notoriously unstable as games. Even companies as big as Microsoft and EA have to make guesses about what players may want to play, and how those players may want to pay for it. The ways we develop and play games are constantly changing — look at services like Microsoft’s Game Pass — and developers are forced to look ahead in order to fit into each new version of the industry long before it arrives.
Being a hired gun for other studios used to insulate me from this uncertainty a bit, but now I have a stake in a game’s success that goes far beyond how it will look on my portfolio. This is my life, and my possible future livelihood, on the line, and that’s terrifying.
I joined the Hypnospace Outlaw team a little over a year ago as the game’s narrative designer, but Hypnospace has been in development for roughly four years. It has a final team of roughly seven, which includes our publisher, No More Robots.
Last night I found myself doing emergency recording and setup for a promotional tweet while testing the game for bugs. Before that, at some point, I was writing raps for a sub-genre that didn’t yet have music. Right now I’m doing a lot of last-minute stuff that crosses job description bridges, but previously my work ranged from creating strange lore for other creators to draw upon to actual writing.
Our team thinks we’re in a good place. We’ve got an award-nominated title within a proven niche of games about operating systems — that’s a proven niche, right? — and an eye-catching aesthetic, unique gameplay values, and a launch that slips in right before AAA titans like The Division 2 gobble up the news cycle.
We followed the adage of “just make a good game” (as if that has ever really been enough), and then added a significant marketing effort to actually support it. Our publisher spent hundreds of hours putting together multiple reactive ARGs to keep our Discord audience engaged.
But I’ve spent too much time writing about games and following the industry to feel secure in those efforts. Good games are being released — and then ignored by the public — all the time.
The game is launching soon, so emails to the press and influencers aren’t enough. We’re hammering out DMs and personal messages and GIFs as fast as humanly possible, and trying to make the most out of every opportunity to talk about the game.
I’ve tried to champion some of these forgotten games on this site, but there are always more that could use the attention, or lost a deserved spot in the sun. We’d be among good company if we failed to live up to our sales goals, but that’s the coldest of comforts when you’re trying to think about your future.
Launching a game is like being an exposed, live wire. We’re vulnerable. Anything could happen, from technical issues to another surprise release taking over everyone’s time, money, and, perhaps most important of all, their attention. Every little bug and imperfection that’s reported registers in my head as physical pain. There are only so many hours in the day, which means there are only so many problems you can conceive of, protect yourself against, or fix.
So you do your best, which is the best that you can do, and you hope you don’t short out along the way.
Problems pile up as launch gets closer
Time distorts when you’re about to launch a game. What would once stand out as an exceptional or funny moment in development fades before the monolithic reality of your release date. I can’t remember what I was doing this morning, let alone yesterday.
Was I working on a rap?
I think I was making up a rap.
About a buffet.
God help me.
When I take a break from the panic, I realize that I’m seeing a part of game development I’ve never experienced before. I’ve launched solo titles, enjoyed the release process of projects I contributed to (from a safe distance), and celebrated the new games of colleagues.
Being an internal part of a small team with so much invested in a single project is very different from any of those things. Four years of lead designer Jay Tholen’s life is hanging on the next few days of last-minute additions and bug-fixing … and that’s just one person. The weight of it all is crushing, and there’s no sign that it will let up in the near future.
We’re launching a game, but the part that should feel like a celebration, or a winning lap? It instead feels like a crucible. The audience will inevitably unearth more bugs once the game is live, and the modern market demands post-release content updates. Releasing the game just means that the work is entering a whole new phase of unknowns.
So how am I spending the days before launch?
I see what glitches cause immediate concern on the team, or which ones get swept under the rug as we try to hit our final milestones. I watch as super-cool ideas get cut from the game or shifted to a post-release update, because the audio engine isn’t working any more.
And why isn’t it working? We need to burn 50 CDs for reviewers on Monday, and the merchandise people need us to collate the soundtrack, and we forgot to sign contracts with the contributors, and some don’t even want to get paid. Now the rest have signed appropriate contracts, but all the tracks have this weird clicking noise because of how Construct 2 handles audio, and we gotta find a way to fix that, because Jay is an audiophile and clicks make his ears bleed.
Now the clicks are gone because we took the parts that didn’t click and made them loop and became FRAUDS IN THE PROCESS, but everyone does this, right? Hacks are normal and fine, and the players won’t know what we did — they’ll just enjoy the game and, wait, but the audio engine was working yesterday, and all we did was ADD A PAGE SO WHY ISN’T THE AUDIO WORKI—
Linux just wants filenames that are lowercase.
I knew that games are built from dreams and tricks, but seeing first-hand how much it hurts a team to not put in a last little detail that might add cohesion to a world because there’s a critical bug elsewhere made me reconsider how I see the rest of the games I play.
You may know what I mean if you’ve ever released a game on a deadline, at any scale. You know what this ruthless last-minute priority-setting feels like, and you become increasingly impressed at how many people are able release games at all. Mistakes are suddenly much more forgivable in other games, because you’re scared you might be making similar mistakes right now.
There’s an air of helplessness in the air here, even as we work ourselves to the bone.
I see Tholen straining to keep true to his vision of a weird, empathetic, and complete ’90s internet, while there are still fixes and tweaks that need to be made. Programmer Mike Lasch knows that we’re only likely to see 500 or so copies sold to Linux and Mac players, but he’s struggling to make the game work on those operating systems anyway. The game continues to break across all platforms as he does so.
All I can do at this point is watch, encourage everyone, and give Jay an awkward picture of my face to use for a character, because we forgot to capture an image for him. The character is a comics writer who created a bestselling story in our world, and had the IP stolen from him by the corporation he trusted. He now has my face. I am this man.
Being part of something bigger than myself
Hypnospace Outlaw isn’t me, or Tholen, or Lasch, or our other programmer, Corey Cochran, or our publisher. The game involves dozens of people at this point, in some way or another.
I think of Thomas Hopper, a game developer who took time in the middle of his day to make us six hellishly period-accurate smiley emoticon GIFs at the drop of a hat. I think of Sean Oxspring, a man obsessed with bees who made an entire page on our fake internet about those bees, and did so at least 60 percent against our will. I thought of Jazz Mickle, who created the most potent channeling of late-’90s nu metal in a video game to date for us, and weaved Doom level names into the background of the track so seamlessly that I didn’t notice until Jay pointed it out to me in secret.
I’m sorry I told everyone our secret, Jay.
Hypnospace Outlaw isn’t a few guys wracking their heads for alternate-universe Y2K culture. It’s many people wracking their heads for alternate-universe Y2K culture. Hypnospace actually exists for us, and we know the names of every person who truly gave it life. I’m honored to be one of them.
The secret, terrible blessing of the pressure cooker that is launching a game in 2019 is that, even given social media metrics and Steam wishlist numbers, we can’t afford to consider whether the game will sell. We don’t have time.
The core team alone spent almost a decade of our collective lives creating what I think is a seamless, stunning, hilarious, and mystery-filled picture of an alternate-universe Y2K-era internet. Hypnospace Outlaw is exactly what it needs to be, and if we get the opportunity and resources to expand it, it will become even more of that. We had the opportunity to collaborate with talented garbage poets from around the world to write things that flesh out our version of the long-past, strange early days of the internet, displaying their work in a universe that truly becomes greater with every single strange contribution we can throw at it.
And on March 12, it will be released. The Steam wishlist numbers and social media metrics tell us it will probably do well. We hope it will. There’s a lot at stake, and I’ll know much more about what the next stage of my life will be like by this time next week, after the game has been on the market for at least a few days.
But I am only certain about one thing, whatever happens: This journey was worth it.
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