I can’t believe it’s been 16 months since I originally launched Gem Wizards Tactics already. I mean, part of why I can’t believe that is that for almost a full year after the launch, I was furiously updating the game: two new factions, a new game mode (arguably two), a map editor, tons and tons of balance changes, polishing, bugfixes, you name it. Not to mention porting the game to iOS, Android, Switch, and XBox.
At this time, I don’t have any plans to add much more to the game. As an app, it’s pretty robust – there’s a lot to do in there. So now might be a pretty good time to talk about the game: what went right, what went wrong, etc. Here we go!
What went right
(This is the boring part that you skip over.)
- The main thing that went right with Gem Wizards Tactics was the thing that I really focused most of my effort on: the basic gameplay. The actual tactical interactions in the game are, I think, really really brilliant, and there’s nothing else like it out there. I’m really proud of the way it plays, just, looking at it in a vacuum, I can’t really think of too many ways to dramatically improve it for the kind of tactical bumping wargame that it’s going for. Basically, I was going for “Auro with a bunch of units” and it really works, I think. One of my favorite things about it are the castles – I feel like I really got a good gameplay goal in there of capturing the castles, and they each give a benefit and heal you up – it’s a really cool dynamic and it feels really good to do!
- For what narrative, lore, and worldbuilding is there, I’m really happy with it. I played through Story Mode the other day and I really liked it. I love the intro that Pete Siecienski and I made together for the game! I love Derby Pocket and I love the anticapitalist theme. There’s lore in this game that I’ll be using in future Gem Wizards games for years. The Splashmaster is awesome!
- I’m really proud of the soundtrack. I think the White Faction music is some of the best music I’ve ever made! But I’m proud of the whole thing.
- Some of the art is really good. I’m pretty proud of the tileset. I think overall, it ends up just looking “ok” because it’s not as cohesive as I wanted, and I probably should have hired more amazing artists to do more large art and effects for the game. For the budget I had for the game ($0), I think it looks pretty good though.
- It was really cool to win that Game Design award! Kind of a strange fluke, I feel like, but still – very cool! Also the game has great reviews on every platform it’s on, which is nice.
- I also think, actually all told, the whole dev process was pretty darn short. I started it late 2019, worked on it throughout 2020, and released the game in 2021. For me that’s a pretty quick turnaround, especially given that during that time I dealt with finishing/printing Dragon Bridge *and* made the digital port of Universal Paperclips at the same time.
- On the title screen, you can click on the little gems and they play a note, so it’s like a little GWT ocarina!!!
What went wrong
(This is why you’re here! I’ll try not to disappoint.)
Probably the top regret I have about Gem Wizards Tactics… well, it’s a pair of regrets. Or maybe three regrets. I don’t know what order to put these in, but… here are three of my top regrets:
- My biggest regret is that even people who follow my work and enjoy my thoughts on game design, the majority of them, I couldn’t get them to really get excited about playing the game. One of the most annoying things about GWT is not what people said, but how many people said nothing at all. The few that did play the game and tell me about it, did seem to really enjoy it and play it a huge amount; my friend (and well known game destroyer) Vivafringe said that there’s something about Gem Wizards Tactics that, even though he enjoys the game very much while he’s playing it, when he isn’t playing it, he doesn’t want to start. I totally understand this, and I even feel kind of the same way. Once I’m in a match, it’s super engaging and fun. But I don’t really find myself wanting to start it up. This is a really curious thing that I’m going to investigate a lot – I’d love your comments on this as well. (I really want more comments about this game, in general. I promise I won’t be defensive if that’s what you’re afraid of!)
- The lowest hanging fruit regret that I have, is not putting the game into Early Access back in Feb when I originally launched the game. This isn’t because the game “wasn’t ready”; I do think it was great even on launch. But having the game in Early Access would have allowed the game to get seen and picked up (theoretically) by a publisher during that time. I talked to some publishers later on about GWT and they all said “yeah, once you’ve launched it, we’re not interested”. I think I’ve come to recognize “the launch” as being more meaningful than I realized: you sort of have one opportunity (at least, in theory) to get people’s eyes on your game. I personally had no feelings at all on EA when I was working on the game; I put it into Early Access because my marketing people at IndieBros told me that Early Access was a bad idea. I’m sure they had some data to that effect, but for this game I do think it was probably a mistake overall.
- I regret not looking for a publisher before launching the game, although as I’ve been finding out recently, it is really really tough to get a publisher. There is a very good chance that the effort to try get a publisher (which, btw, it takes a lot of effort to do) would have just been wasted time. That said, on the astronomically small chance that I could have gotten one, having a budget for development would be a game changer. So far in my career the largest budget I’ve had to make a game was roughly $11k, for the Auro kickstarter back in 2011. The actual cost to make videogames is easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention marketing budgets – and these are the kinds of budgets that publishers can really help with. I would love to know what a Gem Wizards Tactics 2, made with publisher money behind it, might look like! Maybe someday we’ll find out!?
- As much as I love how the game looks, I think I shot myself in the foot by making the game look too colorful and cutesy. I think there IS actually an audience for this game – wargamers. But that crew doesn’t think that this game is for them because they’re mostly used to playing historical games with highly desaturated artwork. Meanwhile the people who might think this game IS for them – a fire emblem/advance wars type crowd, is probably put off by how systemic and non-narrative this game is. So yeah. This also leads me to my next point…
- If I were starting Gem Wizards Tactics today, I would have made it a lot more narrative-focused. This goes into my article from the other day on “giving up on the 1P strategy game” somewhat. Although to be clear, I think I could probably get 70-80% of the tactical goodness of the current game in a story-focused, long single player campaign version of Gem Wizards Tactics. I think also an advantage of doing this is that I could have a gigantic chunk of the game be tutorial, which I think a complex game like this can really use.
- This is a minor one, but I sort of think the game is a little bit more calculationey/tactical than I wanted. Playing matches of GWT is pretty intense, sort of similar to playing chess or something, even though it has randomness and hidden information. It’s because you have basically 6 Auros running at the same time, against a bunch of monsters, each of which you have to pay a lot of attention to. So it’s just a very intense experience. For GWT2 I would probably make the abilities and stuff more random, and maybe shrink the maps overall, and maybe have more units that have 0 or 1 abilities.
- This is also a minor one, but probably hexes just aren’t worth it. Hexes are better, from a purely tactical standpoint, but squares look better and people are way more used to them. Especially given the Advance Wars-ish look, I think I would have gained more from making the tiles square instead of hexagonal.
- Financially, GWT has made something somewhere around $20-25k putting all platforms together which honestly is actually a shockingly large amount of money for an indie game, believe it or not. But I definitely lost money on the game overall – by a huge margin when you consider all of the costs. I don’t even want to think about how much I put into development, even if we don’t count my own labor. I was definitely hoping it would do a lot better. Maybe that’s not reasonable to hope for on a marketing budget of like $5k. I’m still kind of hoping that some streamer or something discovers the game and it takes off, but not holding my breath.
Overall I’m really proud of Gem Wizards Tactics, and I’m so happy I made it. I do also think that right now we have an atmosphere that is more hostile towards indie games than we’ve ever had: there’s just such a hyper-saturation of indie games, while at the same time the actual oxygen for indie games is completely sucked up by 20 AAA companies. So there’s kind of fewer resources for more developers; I try to keep this in mind and not be too hard on myself. It’s kind of a miracle if anyone finishes any game.
I also think the Gem Wizards Universe has a really exciting future, with TWO games in the universe being developed right now. I would love to do a sequel to GWT – especially if I can get a budget, but frankly, even if I couldn’t. Maybe that’s one of the best things about GWT is how much it taught me about games and game development. I really feel like a much better game designer after having made it, and I hope to show that growth with my future games.
Thanks for reading! <3