I've been meaning to write this for a while now, but I wanted to give myself some time to consider it all. As the calendar year comes to a close, and I look towards releasing a new game again at some point next year, now seems like a good time to talk before I put too much of this behind me.
Firstly, I'll say I still love Test Tube Titans for the unique and fun game that it is. After finishing Jettomero I had some ideas floating around, but gave myself a bit of time before jumping into this one. I wanted to try something very different from Jettomero, and made much more of a 'traditional' game with scores and intentional destruction. Although this decision was certainly shaped by an attempt to make something more commercially viable than something as loose as Jettomero, I don't feel I compromised my sensibilities to create any parts of Test Tube Titans. I learned a lot in the development process. On a technical level, I think I made something way more advanced than my previous game (in less time too), and it was exciting to be able to expand on ideas much faster than before.
One very important part of the process this time around was that I wanted to get player feedback early on in the process. Jettomero had been solely story-driven and didn't lend itself to having early players revisit iteration after iteration. Test Tube Titans, however, was all about replaying the same levels with new titans, and the experience was always shifting in unexpected ways. So I opened up the game publicly an entire year before releasing the game, and started a discord channel to communicate with players. The response was constantly underwhelming when I encouraged people to join the 'pre-access' version, which may have just been me over-estimating the reach I had on social media. Thankfully, a handful of dedicated players were quite active in trying out each new version and were a huge help with regards to tuning and expanding the game. I was extremely thankful for the micro-community that I had, but was definitely still disappointed that I couldn't gain more traction in these early days.
In the summer of 2019, increasingly frustrated by the state of society, I made some decisions about what to do with the story-side of the game. Originally, I had planned to write a satirical story about all the horrible people who worked at a lab creating giant destructive monsters, but it occurred to me that the satire might not be clear enough - more and more it feels many people end up siding with the satire unironically (sarcasm is a cynical and ineffective tool these days). So I felt that writing a sincere story was the only ethical way to approach it, especially given the fact that the rest of my game was all about killing people and making money. I felt that if my game wasn't willing to let its players know where it stood then I was taking a cowardly path of neutrality and ultimately apathy. Including as many other voices as I could, the game featured one-on-one conversations with individuals working at the lab - all of them somehow conflicted by the nature of their work. It was a way for me to explore many of my own doubts around my participation in our destructive, capitalist culture. Unsurprisingly, many players hated this element of the game (despite the fact that they could still play every level without entering story-mode). But others appreciated the messaging. I still feel that as creators, it is our job to ask audiences difficult questions, particularly when our content could otherwise be consumed in a way that might be antithetical to our beliefs.
Having worked on the game for just under two years, and nearing my original target release date, I decided the game was ready to be called finished. Realistically, it was at a point where I could have shopped around for further development money to use for expanding and polishing the game. Up to this point I had been burning my own savings to fund the game (which was essentially just paying for my rent and food). Given the lack of enthusiasm I'd managed to conjure, it seemed like the safest bet was to release the game, work on updates, and move on. I thought the game was feeling great already anyway, so it didn't feel like a compromise on quality, and from a scheduling perspective I nailed my targets. I dropped the game on Steam (it had already been on itch.io for the past year) to little fanfare and watched as players started to engage. I think a total of three lovely people covered the game's release in a writeup. Despite the fact that I had sent out individualized messages to numerous other writers (most of whom had also covered Jettomero), there was essentially no visible press around the game, which was very disappointing.
It seemed like most people enjoyed the game, with the exception being people who couldn't figure out the controls (fair) and people who said the game was too political. One person played the game on Steam for over 100 hours, which justifies the entire project to me. Sales weren't great, but they were coming in, and I guessed I might earn myself minimum wage for my work over time. To keep myself busy, I worked on monthly updates for the game, adding some excellent tweaks and improvements (including a difficulty modifier at the request of my friend's four-year-old). The community had grown ever so slightly and I found it a great source to test and receive ideas for new changes to the game. I also released a free 'light' version of the game so that people could play the multiplayer with friends over Steam's remote play together system. Because of the world-wide quarantine that had recently started I was giving out free keys to anyone who asked on Twitter as well.
About three months after the game was released, the events around George Floyd's death blew up, and certain systemic injustices became intensely magnified. As someone selling my game on Steam, a place that had formed and fostered incredibly toxic, racist, misogynistic communities, I became incredibly aware of my participation in their passive approach to dealing with hateful voices on their platform. Despite the fact that my main source of revenue was coming from sales on Steam, I made the difficult decision to pull my paid games, while also letting the people at Steam handling the request know exactly why I was choosing to do so. I also reached out to the game dev community on Twitter, trying to start a discourse on the ethics of selling on a platform like Steam, and I was met with an almost deafening silence, save for a few friendly and thoughtful folks. While I knew that not everyone had the luxury to pull their game from Steam, I was stunned and dismayed by the fact that very few people even wanted to talk about it. I feel it has had a lasting impact on my relationship to the game dev community to this day, and I have lost a great deal of interest in engaging with it as a result.
Unsurprisingly my choice to remove my games from Steam drew out the tired old trolls, who harassed me over most of my channels for about a week. Actually surprising: the fact that two other devs and I had pulled our games from Steam made the rounds across a number of game news sites. It felt incredibly strange that a small-time developer like myself ended up being interviewed as a voice against racism in the games industry, when it seemed there had to be bigger, more influential people who should have been there in my place. But it was just the three of us. Anyway, I'll wrap up this tangent by mentioning that a 'curator' on Steam wrote up a blatantly racist review of my game as a result of all this, and despite the fact that I reported it twice, it's still up there today.
The main effect of me pulling my game from Steam meant that almost no one was playing it anymore, so development on updates also dropped off. At some point I'd love to port it to a console or two, but I've been thankfully too busy working on an exciting new project to make any more progress with Test Tube Titans lately. I learned a ton creating Test Tube Titans in all respects, and though I do feel it didn't get a fair chance in the world of games, I don't think this story is necessarily over. The whole experience has substantially shifted my perspective, and while this year could have been a real downer for me like I know it has been for many, I've had an overall positive time thanks to the handful of wonderful people I've had the pleasure of having around me, both physically and online.