Saturday, April 30, 2011

Agile Game Development: Magicka

Update 2011.05.09: Arrowhead posted a reply to this post.

This post is a tribute to a company which, judging by the looks of it, is kicking ass, agile style.

"This sprint is really going down the drain" from the first scene
of Magicka in adventure mode.
What's this about
The company is called Arrowhead Game Studios, and they've made a game called Magicka.

Now, I'm not going to write so much about the game itself, but it's awesome. I used to play a lot of computer games growing up, all the way through my studies. Since then, it's been pretty sporadic. Until I tried out Magicka. I've been playing it for over 50 hours, which is pretty good value-for-money, considering it cost 10€ (plus DLC's, which are a point I'll come back to later).

How successful is it?
In the first 17 days it was for sale, it sold over 200.000 copies. At times it topped the stats for most-selling game on Steam, at one point selling 30.000 copies in 24 hours. Its gotten pretty good reviews all round, and some rather high ranking game reviewers have completely fallen for the game.

Take into account that this is an indie game which was/is developed by eight Swedish students turned game developers. The only other game I've heard of that comes close to this phenomenon is Minecraft.

Why is it agile?
They ship early and they ship often.

Early because they launched the game while it was still early alpha and crap-full of bugs. Often, cause after they went live on Steam they were patching on a daily basis (the Steam automatically upgrades the game, a bit like the Windows update). Since then they've eased down to more of a weekly release cycle.

Now for those of you who haven't been playing a lot of computer games lately, to me this is pretty radical. A big "Hollywood" game usually takes weeks to produce their first (well needed) patches, some times even months.

Lots of people have been complaining about the instability of the game and the bugs from early on. Then again, so do many big budget games. For a small company of eight developers, it's hard to keep coverage of all possible hardware drivers and configurations, so this is understandable. 

But they fix the problems continuously. These releases are pumped out so regularly that I hardly notice them anymore. They've gotten really good at not letting new bugs slip through. This is continuous delivery.

Humble, Open and Honest
The developers seem incredibly involved with their users. As an apology for the early buggy releases of the game, they released a new avatar in: The Mea Culpa Wizard (granted some new magical powers: summon bugs, and the spell Crash To Desktop). By now you can probably guess that there's a lot of geek humor in there.

They communicate frequently with the world through twitter and forums. They often take in suggestions from players into patches and new changes. They post release notes and weekly community updates.

They are honest, continuously maintaining a list of things they know are still buggy. They admit it when they mess up and they apologize. They say thanks when they get feedback.

Even though I've never met them, it feels like the developers are practically my buddies, eager to understand and help me have the best possible gaming experience.

I really had to smile when I saw the Scrum board from the first scene in the game (see screenshot in the top of this post). I mean, how many gamers out there know what Scrum is? That is clearly a wink to other devs out there :)

Pay per use
Its important for the developers to keep the players happy, and keeping them playing, also after that they bought the game. They've shipped some downloadable content, some of it is free, others cost a few euros.

I bought the game for 10€. I then bought the Vietnam extension for 5€, and then I *had* to get the latest level as well for a meager 2€. Later on they are going to release Player-vs-player mode (PvP) for free, due to heavy demand among the fans.

They are tip-toeing the fine line of keeping players paying for more, while not giving the impression that they are exploiting (like some other games have tried).

Courage
Arrowhead have really challenged a lot of the existing conventions in the gaming industry. They heavily under-priced (games are usually 30-50€). They launched the game without a 6 month QA period. They did no traditional marketing (apart from getting on Steam, which was probably a big part of the lift-off). They sit down to play and discuss the game, while streaming it online. It's a spelled-based game where there is no mana-bar, for crying out loud!

Rounding off..
The XP values are Communication, Feedback, Simplicity, Courage and Respect. I think these really ring through every time I have read on the forums. Just to paste some quotes from their change log announcements:

From early on:
Right now we've got so many players posting on the steam forums we're having a hard time keeping up answering posts. But we're reading all of them and are adding stuff to our "to-do"-list. [...] We'll monitor your response closely and keep patching the game as often as possible. Please let us know if the patch helped!
Later on:
We (devs and publisher) are still super committed to fix stuff that's broken and make sure you guys can have a great time with the game. Additionally we've also have a bunch of improvements planned and will be patched in as soon as the major issues are out of the way! These are based directly off your input.
Later:
As we've released new patches we're seeing much fewer reports of the game malfunctioning. More and more players are reporting that the game is working nicely for them. We're also noticing that the problems that exist are A) known and being worked on and B) centered around fewer different things. 
And then things are really becoming stable:
So the last patch squashed a lot of bugs and we're glad to report that we're getting fewer error reports and the reports we're getting are about a smaller number of problems.
So we're definitely getting where we want to go! BUT that doesn't mean we're done. We'll keep updating the game and improve it as we go along. We will also try to add additional features that you guys are requesting. 
And since then they've done another ten patches. This is agile straight out of the book (or into it, depending on how you look at it). Really inspiring to see how successful they are.

Update 2011.05.09: Arrowhead posted a reply to this post.