Tram catenary, asset tool, map import and many improvements

We are very happy that today the newest build 7554 was released.

This update introduces three widely requested features and also aims to further enhance the gameplay, usability, as well as performance.

Trams finally get their long awaited catenaries. Players can now upgrade streets with electric tram tracks. Next to presenting a visual eye catcher, catenaries are also an optional new gameplay element.

tram_catenaryThe newest build introduces catenary for electric trams.

A very flexible and highly modable asset placement tool opens a wide range of new possibilities to polish and decorate maps with any objects. Because we have observed that the modding community wants to snap assets to tracks, we have also implemented track-aligned assets.

asset_placementA new tool allows for placing both track-aligned and free assets.

With the new option to use height maps for generating landscapes, player are now able to create truly realistic and beautiful sceneries. In combination with the possibility to include predefined seeds, this allows for creating various challenging and diverse scenarios.

height_mapHeightmaps from grayscale images can now be imported.

In addition to these new features, based on the feedback of players many improvements have been made:

Trains behave more predictable when changes are made to the track and stations. Industries grow twice as fast than before and decline much slower, making them less sensitive to fluctuations in the transport network. We also optimized city development resulting in an increased performance and reduced lags at the end of months.

The modding possibilities have been significantly widened, giving content creators more control over how the game behaves and looks.

Our volunteers from the community put much effort into improving the translations and Swedish was added as a completely new language.

There is also a long list of various small improvements and bug fixes. Please find the complete list in the release notes.

More information on how to use height maps and an example map can be found in the release hints.

We put as much effort as possible into this build and we did our best to consider as many wishes and suggestions as possible.

Let us express a big thank you to all players, modders, testers and fans. Without all the suggestions and testing effort contributed by the community, Train Fever would not be where it is today. We hope you enjoy this final update and we very much look forward to see even more great contributions from the modding scene.

At the moment we are working very hard here at Urban Games and we look forward to soon share some very exciting news with you.

Update announcement and Happy Holidays!

During the last couple of weeks, in our blog series “Behind the scenes”, we gave you insight into various topics developers usually don’t talk about. In return we received a lot of positive, interesting and valuable feedback! It’s time to conclude the series and start looking forward again.

Let us say a big “Thank you!” for a great 2015! We would like to bring the holiday spirit to Train Fever and present you with a little gift in the form of two announcements about our current and our next game.

xmasHappy Holidays!

There is a long list of features which could further enrich Train Fever. With so many people still playing, the list grows constantly and a game like Train Fever will never be truly complete.

No matter what we would like to do, we have to consider the financial aspect of the development. Finding a good balance between investing time (and therefore money) and maintaining a healthy business is challenging. As a consequence, more than a year after the release, we have to concentrate our efforts on our next game.

Nevertheless we feel the necessity to show our appreciation to our loyal players. Thus we decided to work on a final update for Train Fever!

We are excited what players and modders can achieve with the Train Fever engine. To further support this, we will introduce a tool enabling the free placement of trees and various other assets in the game world.

On top of that we would like to open more possibilities for generating maps. We are working on a way to allow utilizing external sources like height maps. If successful, we are confident that modders can then create their own landscape scenarios and thus enable completely new challenges.

We will also treat you with a widely requested improvement initially developed for our next game: Tram tracks can finally be electrified and therefore get the long awaited catenary.

To support our ever growing modding scene, we will also extend some shading modding possibilities. The first project benefiting from the changes will be the “Nordic DLC”, an extensive total conversion, created by our community over at train-fever.net.

nordic dlcScene from the fan made Nordic DLC – Image courtesy of community member Stepke

In addition, the upcoming patch also features a list of various improvements and bug fixes. We will give our best to make the gameplay more fluent and less daunting.

The patch is scheduled for release in early 2016.

And to finally answer the most frequent question: We are very happy to disclose that we will officially announce our next game in the first quarter of 2016!

Let us emphasize, that all your feedback – no matter if yet realized or not – anyway fell on good soil. Our next game will highly benefit from everything you told us and what we have learned.

We wish you and your loved ones pleasant holidays and a happy new year!

Behind the scenes #5 – Misconceptions

We get a lot of questions originating from misconceptions. People ask about the cargo system, run into problems because of misplaced signals and wonder why passengers mysteriously disappear during a train ride.

Misunderstanding the game mechanics can often lead to frustration. On the one hand, we are aware of that not everything is perfectly explained in Train Fever and we would like to apologize for that! On the other hand, we saw some amusing comments and remarks made about these mechanics. So here is our humorous approach to clear up some misunderstandings. We present the “Top 10 Train Fever misconceptions list”:

#10 Signals

Traffic on rails is controlled by signals. Worldwide dozens, if not hundreds of different types exist. So it is hardly surprising that the functionality of signals is a comprehensive source for misunderstandings.

Traditional games like Transport Tycoon rely on a simple system, the block signal. Train Fever instead utilizes path and one-way signals to regulate traffic in a more fluent way. Signals are placed on a single side of the track, not on both, and are only valid as seen from the train drivers’ perspective. Once understood, they are very intuitive to use, simply place them were a train should stop and wait!

signalsSignals regulate traffic, but misplacing them can cause traffic jams.

#9 City growth

The city growth in the game is not random nor predefined. It is influenced by the player, even though in an indirect way.

Growth is triggered by providing residents access to as many building as possible in the different zones: Industrial, commercial and leisure. The better the access, the more people will move in, causing the city to build or, depending on the land value, expand homes over time. The industrial zone will eventually run out of available jobs, the commercial zone will have no more free places where people can shop and the leisure zone will lack leisure-time possibilities. If they are at full capacity, they will expand.

Delivering goods to the city grants a bonus on the magnitude of the expansion. Covering a cities’ demand over a longer period accumulates this bonus.

#8 Cargo system

The cargo system is not obvious to everyone and can confuse players. The model resembles the real world, which is demand driven.

Raw materials are only produced when the mine or well has a consumer, respectively a factory, which processes the materials. Further on, this factory only produces cargo when it has a consumer as well and so forth.

The chain has to be complete – starting with the producer of the basic materials right up to the manufacturer of to the finished goods. The last link is the distribution of these goods to the cities.

#7 Station types

Passengers and cargo are very picky about their means of transportation and they both prefer to have their own station type.

Trains on the other hand don´t care about the station type. Passenger trains will stop at cargo terminals and vice versa. The result is one of the most common accidental mistake made by players: Using the wrong station type.

cargo_stationCargo stations are busy hubs for goods – passengers refuse to use them.

#6 Cosmetic elements

A lot of elements in the game, like trees and rocks, are used to give Train Fever a more realistic look, but are purely cosmetic.

Fields however are often attributed to serve a gameplay purpose, but they don´t. The same applies to the different types of bridges: wood, stone and steel. The construction material neither affects the speed of a train nor does it limit the allowed weight of a passing train.

#5 Trains without a path

Trains in Train Fever sometimes need special attention. If not all of their needs are fulfilled, they just won´t budge. What makes things even more complicated: They are not very good in expressing their needs clearly.

The most overlooked need is electricity. If an electric locomotive has a path ahead which is not completely electrified they stay in the depot or station.

#4 Train platforms

Trains in the real world arrive at a predefined platform. Last minute changes, for example due to reasons like delays, can be very confusing and annoying for passengers.

Passengers in the game behave in the same way. They like to line up at a definite platform and wait for their train to arrive. This is the sole reason why trains do not choose an arbitrary (or any free) platform to stop.

#3 Floating cargo

Floating cargo was sighted all over the city! Someone call the Ghostbusters!

Hold on, goods moving as if by magic is no reason to be alarmed. Cargo behaves in a similar manner as people. It will “walk” if that is the most efficient method to reach its destination. Since cargo has no feet, it is delivered by an invisible cart or worker and will float along the sidewalk.

floating_cargoInvisible workers distribute cargo within the city.

#2 The “20 minute rule”

Newcomers to the transportation simulation genre, but also veterans, are often puzzled why cargo or passengers refuse to use a line. Despite of various possible reasons, the “20 minute rule” is the most common cause.

Cargo or passengers must be able to reach the destination within 20 minutes (game time at standard speed) with a certain route, otherwise they will not use it. The considered travel time is the sum of the walking time, the time spend on the ride and the average waiting time at the departure or at changes.

To reduce the travel time, a higher speed but also a higher frequency – putting more vehicles on a line – is important.

#1 Disappearing passengers

A lot has been theorized about mysteriously disappearing passengers. Tragic events like sudden death, murder or kidnapping are very popular presumptions. Some detectives even claim the involvement of a “Daisy Armstrong”.

The solution to this riddle is not so exiting, but still somehow enigmatic. When people’s homes get rebuilt while a city upgrades its buildings, the residents are removed from the game. Where they end up is still a mystery. ;)

Misconceptions can be a source for disappointment. But more than often they result in very amusing situations. We hope that while reading this post you have learned something new about Train Fever. For sure, we left a lot unaddressed. Let us know what you would add to the list!

Behind the scenes #4 – Sales, distribution, piracy and marketing

In the last blog post we gave you in-depth insight into the release process of a game. This time we want to focus on sales and the importance of distribution channels like Steam or GOG. We will also talk about the effects of digital rights management (DRM) and piracy, an always hot and widely discussed topic.

As we explained last time, Train Fever is sold in two forms: Digitally via various platforms and retail as a physical box including a DVD and a Steam key. Typically the developer net revenue for a game sold digitally is much higher. For a low or mid-priced game like Train Fever it is about two to three times greater than retail. This can be easily explained by the fact that digitally sold games lack production, logistics, distribution and retail store costs.

If today a game should still be sold via retail at all became a controversial topic in the recent years. As a consequence of risking to miss out on a considerable amount of income, some publishers and developers stopped producing physical boxes at all or decided to sell them online only.

Anyway we decided to do so, as digital and retail serve two different target groups. Not selling box versions in stores could lose the casual customer who may buy the game due to store advertising, look for a present for somebody, or is just browsing for a new game to play. Not selling a box at all would cut out the noteworthy amount of old-school players which still likes to own a physical box and medium. Last but not least selling retail can also cover some additional distribution channels like Amazon.

While we sold about 30.000 box copies of the game, the majority – about 90.000 – of the sales were made in digital form so far. Steam is the most known platform for buying games online and with surpassing more than 125 million active users earlier this year it is of utmost importance for independent developers. Having a game featured on the Steam front page can generate millions of views and making it into the top seller list can boost sales even more dramatically. In the case of Train Fever sales via Steam account for about 90% of the generated revenue in digital form.

Games on Steam are discounted on a regular basis either within a special event, like the Summer Sale, or games are sold at a reduced price individually. This has a huge impact on the sales numbers. A thumb rule is that if a game is sold for a fourth of the regular price (-75%) sales are about 40 times higher. A common practice among Steam users is to put the game on ones wish list. Therefore even months after a game is released it still can sell a lot of copies, especially to customers waiting for a discount.

Steam follows a developer friendly policy and is therefore enjoying a good reputation among game creators. Steam also offers a lot of comfortable features for customers – like the easy access to the games library – but also comes with its downsides, one being the DRM. Steams DRM mechanism forces players to bind their bought game to their account, which can only be used with the Steam client software. A couple of players dislike Steam due to this circumstance.

One way to approach this is to sell games DRM-free via GOG. GOG in contrast to Steam allows buyers to download the game directly after the purchase from the website, install and use it without the need of a client, serial number or user account. The game is available for download to the customer for an unlimited amount of time.

A fraudulent buyer could violate the user agreement and illegally distribute his copy to other people. This is why some publishers argue that DRM is needed to fight piracy, some even implement always-online-mechanics to force players to use a server login when they want to play the game. However, in our opinion, selling a DRM-free version is more an opportunity than a problem because cracked Steam versions are available anyway. There is hardly any game which is not cracked immediately after release.

Our estimate is that in the first two months about 30% of the active players of Train Fever used a pirated version. Since then this figures dropped slightly. This estimate is based on the logs sent by the legal and pirated version of the game to our servers.

piracyActive players with illegal (red) and legal (green) copies of the game over the first weeks after release.

But the question remains: Would sales go up, if piracy could be avoided without having the downside of forcing honest customers into dealing with harsh DRM restrictions? We believe they would not, even if it is very tempting to think so. We are convinced that a malicious player will not automatically buy a game if it is not available in a cracked form anymore. Usually, for these players the price-performance ratio is not acceptable.

After the game was released on GOG, the figures did not change and still most of the illegal download sources remain to offer cracked Steam versions. This confirms that – in our case – selling a DRM-free version has no measureable impact on piracy (and therefore no negative influence on our revenue).

Improving the game over a long period of time and distributing it via different platforms is one possible method to counter piracy and make potential buyers aware of the game. Marketing the game, advertising and getting coverage in various media can also acquire new customers.

A lot of games magazines nowadays have their main presence online, but traditional press like print magazines still play an important role, especially in central Europe, which is the most important market of Train Fever. Investing in commercials is an established way to reach additional customers on top of having the game covered by magazines in the form of previews or reviews. However, one disadvantage of print commercials is that the effect cannot be directly measured (no live click or view numbers etc.).

heftAdvertisement in one of the traditional German print magazines: PC Games

Next to the traditional media outlets YouTubers and Streamers present an ever growing part of today’s game journalism. They often account for the majority of the coverage a typical indie game gets. A single YouTube channel video can get 100.000 views within days. Even content producers with a small number of subscribers are very interesting, because they have very loyal audiences which show a lot of interested in certain game genres. More than a year after the release still every week dozens of Train Fever videos are uploaded to YouTube and are viewed thousands of times.

On the other hand, YouTube videos – especially Let´s Plays – are still considered a threat to sales by some publishers and developers. They think people prefer watching a game over playing it themselves. This is definitely not true for Train Fever, as it is a very open game and can be played in many different ways. So viewers of this videos are more likely to be motivated to try the game themselves.

Our homepage is another way to advertise for the game. In the release month more than 100.000 people visited the homepage. Sending out press releases and newsletters as well as visiting trade fairs completes the package of possible marketing tools.

Having satisfied customers is of course the most important part of marketing. In general, gamers are very critical, especially players of simulation games. They check at lot of different sources before they consider buying a game. Therefore, using cheap marketing tricks and promising the perfect game is definitely not an option.

“The best marketing is a good game!“
~Basil, CEO

Making and releasing games is not easy. Selling games is yet another different story. Many aspects in regard to distribution have to be considered. The DRM questions as well as the different marketing options have to be carefully addressed in order to make a game a success for all parties. We would like to hear your opinion on our findings and figures. Let us know in the comments what you think! And of course we invite everybody to buy the game who owns a pirated version! ;)

Behind the scenes #3 – Release

Last time we gave you some insight on how we handle feedback. Today we want to share some more delicate details with you: The time right around the release is without any doubt the most stressful and tense part of making a game but at the same time the most thrilling and rewarding. We would like to tell you what we experienced and what knowledge we gained.

After Train Fever reached the prototype state in 2012, a successful crowdfunding campaign took place between September 2012 and March 2013 which enabled us to plan for finishing the development. After the campaign reached its goal of 250.000 Euros on March 20, 2013, the release was scheduled for May 2014.

gambitiousThe successful crowdfunding campaign on Gambitious funded the game’s development.

As (almost) usual in game development, it became clear that a lot of features will take longer to implement than expected. The planned feature list had grown and – opposite to the original idea – now included industrial goods, bigger maps and far more vehicles. The release date had to be pushed back a couple of months to September 2014. The two publishers paid 20.000 Euros each as an advance to cover the costs for the additional development time.

After the majority of the features found their way into the game, the beta test was finally scheduled for July 2014 with less than two months left until the release. Having only so little time for beta testing was not the only thing showing that we really ran out of time. For instance preparing the 64-bit version was probably on the tightest schedule: Testing only started five days prior to the release, luckily we got everything done in time.

But not everything was done prior to release. Although it was planned to be delayed, the Mac version was released one week after the game came out on Steam. In general a lot of polishing had to be shifted past the release and many things had to be left as they were.

Next to all the last minute tasks we also needed to take care of public relations. Even we did not prioritize it, preparing the homepage, make a trailer for the game, sending out steam keys and giving interviews to press consumed a lot of time.

In the end we were forced to publish an unpolished product. Many people asked why the release was not pushed back further to leave more time for development and bug fixes. The answer is quite simple: We had a limited budget from the crowdfunding campaign. After already rescheduling once to September it would have been just too expensive to extend the development again.

Despite all obstacles we still successfully released the game to the public. However, scheduling the release time turned out to be another challenge. Steam releases are usually within the offices hours of Valves´ headquarters between 9am and 5pm PDT (pacific time), which translates to 6pm and 2am CET (central European time). This is why for Europeans most games are unlocked on Steam sometime in the evening.

This was not an ideal situation: In addition to Steam (and later some other platforms), Train Fever is also sold as a retail version containing a Steam key. With stores opening in the morning, people buying the game on the release day might want to play it right away, so unlocking the game in the evening was not an option. Unlocking the game before stores open right after midnight would have been too early, as the potential buyers from Europe – our main target group – could miss the game on Steam. A possible hype generated by a new release could get lost during the night.

Fortunately we were able to persuade a Valve employee to stay in the office until past midnight. After having some coffees, he unlocked the game at 10am CET.

store_addThe Train Fever trailer running on all the TVs in an electronics store after release day.

Releasing digitally and retail at the same time is difficult enough from an organizational standpoint. What furthermore complicated the situation was that there were two publishers involved with different interests. Naturally everybody wanted to change the conditions according to their best interest. The retail publisher wanted to have a lower price than digital, the digital publisher wanted a discount for launch and both were not happy with each other’s decision.

We did our best to mediate and in the end, even there were notable differences in prices and discounts across the various distribution channels and regions, everything went smoothly. Still it took quite some effort to explain the situation to the customers.

Not only was the night before the release short for that certain Valve employee, also here at Urban Games people did not find much sleep. After putting the last touches on the game everybody left the office at around 6am in the morning, only to be back two and half hour later awaiting the release.

“The coolest thing about the release day is that you can stop by a games shop and buy your own game!“
~Urban, CTO

In the office it was quite a tense situation. This day would decide if the work of several years was a success or not. Finally, when the sales figures where rising and the first reviews came in – Train Fever scored an unexpected and staggering 82% at GameStar – everybody was relieved. At the end of the day Train Fever even made it into the top seller list on steam.

But the work was far from done. As mentioned in the last blog post, we automatically receive crash logs. With so many people playing the game at the same time our server just could not handle the load and gave up – nobody expected that to happen. With so much going on and everybody already being tired, in that moment it just made us laugh. A reboot later we were ready to receive the crash logs again and started working on the first bug fixes.

Everybody would have needed some time off the days after release, but encouraged by the success we kept on going.

With more and more people buying the game the amount of feedback and support request increased. Also the press showed a lot of interest in the game, asking for interviews. Still being energized from the successful launch we shared too much details about our plans and mentioned what we would like to do in our next game. With a yet unfinished product it was misinterpreted by some players. They assumed we would already be working on the next game, which in fact did not apply for another year.

Not sharing what comes next is just one of the things we learned from making our first game. Developing games is time consuming and costly. A classical beginner’s mistake is scheduling too little time for polishing after all features are implemented. It is better to cut down on features and leave more time to flesh them out.

Making everybody happy – the developers, the publishers and most important the players – is very difficult and with many people involved communication and coordination can get complicated. Deciding on the right price and having every customer treated equally, with digital vs. retail, currency exchange rates and opposing interests involved, is next to impossible.

team_orgThe original development team: (ltr) Manu, Basil, Urban, Coach.

It was our first game, so it is to be expected that not everything was done according to the book. But since then over a year has passed and we have put a lot of work into Train Fever fixing bugs, improving the performance and adding new features.

This reflects in very positive feedback from the community and the sales figures of the game: Train Fever sold over 100.000 copies, 10.000 of them from pre-orders, 40.000 only within the first month, and is considered a success.

Overall the joy it brings to release a game outweighs all the stress and exhaustion, but it is still hard work and a lot can be learned from it. Even that some mistakes have to be taken with humor.

We will utilize all the experience we gained in our next game. You are for sure eager to hear about it! We promise to share the first details with you as soon as possible! Until then stay tuned and wait for our next blog post, where we will give you some insight on sales figures and talk about the different distribution channels.