Cultist Simulator: Five Tricky Design and Production Decisions
On Tuesday 16th October, we’re releasing our first major update for Cultist Simulator, along with the Dancer DLC. It’s a bit of a monster – the update + the DLC altogether increases the amount of content in the game by about a third. We have a release candidate for the update on the gateofhorn beta branch right now if you want to take a look, although the DLC won’t be live until Tuesday. [EDIT: whenever you’re reading this, it’s all live now.]
I thought I’d share some of the meat of some of the fiddlier decisions we had to make along the way. If you’re a dev, you’ve probably run across similar questions, or will. If you’re a player, this is how the sausage is made.
URGENCY VS IMPORTANCE. We’re a small studio with minimal QA resource and we like to get early feedback from our audience – so generally we release new content on to a beta branch as soon as it’s out of the oven.
And we set a deadline early, as we like to do (though we actually slipped it by a couple of weeks). That meant that if we ran into delays, we’d have think about what content to cut . So we had to think carefully about prioritisation – should we do (and beta-release) the Dancer DLC, or the free part of the update, first?
The Dancer DLC was more important. We wanted to buy advertising around the launch, and there was an implicit promise to Perpetual Edition owners (all DLC free forever!) that there would in fact be some DLC, and that they wouldn’t have to wait forever. So if we went live with no Dancer DLC, that would be embarrassing and commercially difficult.
But some of the mechanics in the free update were more urgent. The Dancer DLC is fairly self-contained, but Follower wounds and gifting – NPC romance – NPC followers turning rivals – these are all complex systems with interlocking effects on game balance. I really wanted to get as much feedback as possible, as early as possible, while we still had time to change them; and I wanted some of that sweet beta tester bug reporting.
In the end, we released Follower Wounding – the most significant balance change – on to the beta branch early. Then I hunkered down and wrote Dancer. Then I went back to Romance and Rivals, which had a slightly lesser impact on gameplay, and we added a couple of weeks closing work at the end of our timetable so I had some time to fix up stuff if it didn’t work (this is why we slipped the deadline a couple of weeks). I’d rather have had more feedback time, and we might set a more generous deadline next time, but that’s gamedev – delay is expensive.
This fed into the next decision.
THE POTENCY OF RIVALS. How commonly should Followers turn Rival? It happens very rarely, at the moment, unless you’ve romanced someone and then dumped them. I was strongly tempted to make them appear more often – the Rivalry mechanic was a big part of what we promised for the update, and people have responded well to it. But, as above, the Rivals mechanic hasn’t had that long to bed in, and – key point! – most of the people testing it have been veterans who know their way around the game. A mechanic that feels gentle or pleasantly tense to veterans can feel bewildering or brutal to less experienced players.
So I skewed cautious. Rivals are still relatively rare, though you can see the mechanic if you want to, by dabbling unwisely in romance. We can always tune it up so they appear more often later… but we have enough planned around NPC behaviour that I suspect we won’t want to crowd it out.
DLC PREVIEWS? Were we going to make the Dancer DLC available on the beta branch?
On the one hand, we could really use some of that feedback and testing.
On the other hand, we’d lose some excitement at launch; and how would we deal with players who didn’t have Perpetual Edition, unless we allowed DLC pre-orders? Would everyone see the DLC, and then lose it at launch?
And there was another issue. DLC is complicated, especially across four storefronts, one of which (itch) doesn’t offer DLC at all and where we’d have to add it manually to Perpetual Edition. We didn’t want to have to keep deploying and undeploying and redeploying different DLC versions to different branches while trying to handle support requests about why DLC wasn’t showing up on a particular batch of Kickstarter backer GOG keys, or whatever –
In the end – and I cannot stress enough how important this is for a small team – simplicity was the deciding factor. The simplest thing was to leave it all out until launch, so that’s what we did, although I semi-accidentally let everyone see a preview of some of the early Dancer content on the beta branch. (Semi-accidentally means ‘I realised before I deployed it, but didn’t think it was important enough to take out’).
DLC PRICING: Cripes, this was difficult. Price it too low, and you’re giving away your work. Price it too high, and everyone calls you a gouger. Where’s the sweet spot?
Lottie went away and researched what looked like similarly-sized DLC for other games. From comparisons with those other games, we could have priced it as high as 8.99 USD (nearly half the price of the whole game, better be worth it!) or 1.99 USD (less than a dollar a unit sale, after platform cut, publisher cut and refunds). Lottie suggested 2.99 USD, and I held out for 3.99 USD. Then she convinced me, but meanwhile I’d convinced her.
So we went round and round, but in the end we settled for 2.99: because this is largely about fulfilling implied obligations, and providing a little trickle of revenue to cover our free updates. We don’t expect to make that much money anyway – DLC won’t, at our scale. So we announced it as 2.99, and the overwhelming reaction was ‘yipes, that’s cheaper than I was expecting‘.
So, annoyingly, we probably under-priced it. Honestly, I did too much work on Dancer. I got nervous and wanted to do the Best Job Possible and over-designed it, and we had to cut back on that and it’s still too big really. And it’ll be harder to raise the price for future DLC.
But I think that’s a silver lining and it was probably still the right decision. We’re running a lifestyle studio, not a profit machine, and I’d much rather be able to do little bits of DLC in a relatively relaxed way and not have to worry too much. So in the long run I think this was probably okay. WE’LL SEE.
Anyway this decision affected the next one, too –
POWER, ENLIGHTENMENT, SENSATION… AND CHANGE. You can’t romance an NPC unless you share their deepest desire – one of Power/Enlightenment/Sensation/Change. Power, Enlightenment and Sensation Desire are existing routes to game victory, and Change – the bone-deep inexplicable desire to ttansform yourself – is the new route to ascension for the Dancer DLC.
So I went through our existing NPCs and assigned a relevant desire to each one, and jiggled the assignments until everything made sense and was reasonably balanced. And then I wrote the romances. And then I realised that, hey, I’d just put 25% of our NPC romances behind a DLC paywall. I didn’t even realise until that late, because I had all the Dancer content there in my workspace.
So I dithered about this for a while. Would people object? would people go hunting for the romances and get frustrated when Leo or Clovette was unromanceable? If I put a note in the game saying BUY DLC TO ROMANCE THIS CHARACTER, would that be worse or better?
In the end, what made the decision again was simplicity. The romances were in the game; they worked; a few of them failed gracefully if someone didn’t have the Dancer DLC; and the Dancer DLC, as above, was probably too cheap anyway. And, as it happened, if someone really wanted to romance Leo or Clovette or one of the other Change-ys, they could edit their save file very easily. So I wasn’t going to worry about [% of people who fancied Clovette] x [% of people who wouldn’t buy the DLC] x [% of people who would object to the romance being unavailable without DLC]. And if anyone got confused, we have a very helpful community and I’m active on the forums. They’d work it out.
(What’s going to happen if I add more Desires and ascension methods? I’LL WORRY ABOUT THAT LATER.)
Those were the decisions! Let’s see how they work out. And here’s the Dancer DLC. It’s cool. You get to take your skin off as well as your clothes.