What went wrong?
1. Compatibility testing
I think mainstream PC developers are shielded to a certain extenút by the publisher's customer support department. We thought we had tested on a wide range of hardware, but we were wrong. The public beta seemed to attract a certain type of person, they all seemed to have reasonably new hardware with ATI or nVidia video systems. When we went live we suddenly had a large number of very old and exotic pieces of hardware appear. Laptop's in particular seemed problematic with their built-in low spec video hardware and shared-memory architectures. A hectic 4 weeks followed as we bought a wide range of weird and wonderful video cards and input devices so we could quickly patch the game.
2. Online community of beta testers
Although the community was a great resource for new ideas and tweaks the lack of formal structure reduced its effectiveness in identifying bugs. In the end we had to hire a dedicated tester and put a strict test plan in place to help with the final push through beta. With hindsight we should have done that much earlier, volunteer tester's just don't want to play through 3 hours of game 5 times in a row to nail a particular elusive bug.
3. Website technology underestimated
Having dabbled in HTML, mySql and PHP we thought we could handle website development ourselves. We soon realised this wasn't going to work, it was taking up just too much valuable time. We managed to get a good freelance web developer and that decision saved a lot of time and resulted in a more professional look and feel to the website (http://www.moonpod.com).
4. Poor in-house tools
Starting from scratch was difficult, we didn't have the time or manpower to create the kinds of tools we were used to. A lot of functionality came in late during the project, as always this makes life hard for the artist/level-editor. If the tools are lacking functionality, too complex or time consuming then the end result is that the game suffers. Programmers generally dislike tool development and often see it as artists/level-editors moaning. However, it is vital the tools work well and are working early in development. Listen to your artists and level-editors, if you make their lives hard then your game will suffer, if you go out of your way to help them then you are helping your game and its sales.
5. Self publishing
"Good games sell themselves on the internet", we had heard this statement a lot and although we weren't na´ve enough to totally believe it we did wonder. OK maybe it's true for Quake, but it became clear quite soon that a lot of work and money was needed to raise awareness of the game. The Internet is an ocean and we are just a little fish, easily missed. There are also a lot of sharks out there full of false promises eager to snap you up. We had hoped to get by without using third party publishers, but that is just not possible. Word of mouth is indeed powerful, but you need to expend money and effort both to start it and then to maintain it. Word of advice, if a publisher isn't prepared to offer you a sizeable upfront advance then think very carefully before signing away game rights. However, if you do find a publisher, do whatever it takes to maintain a good relationship with them, they are like gold.
NEXT > Conclusion