Postmortem: Ironfell by David Colquhoun

10th April 2015 2:05pm

Ironfell was an indie hex-tile MMORTS where conflict happens massive persistent universe spanning all of time and space. With Ironfell I hoped to build a game that captured the same feeling as early Civilization and Ultima and be profitable enough to become my full time job. Ironfell was creatively a huge success, fun to play, people loved it. But financially it failed and was closed down in December 2014.

What went right

With any massive multiplayer game and the quality of the the community is critical. Early advertising targeted at role playing gamers (from stumbleupon) worked incredibly well for Ironfell. This meant that the core players were older and able to communicate well. Having a sociable and supportive community was the best thing about Ironfell. They made it fun for me to hang out in the game and talk to people. Months after the game was shut down players still send me emails like this:

“i miss ironfell soo much, especially the community :(“

The server’s behind Ironfell were four MacMini’s (quad-core i7, 16GB Ram, SSD) hosted at MacMiniColo. This was an unusual choice for servers, usually I’d use Amazon Cloud servers. Ironfell’s servers had high CPU and memory requirements, so being able to buy the server hardware up front and the fact that the servers were needed long term made the MacMini’s half as much as the Amazon cloud equivalent. Also developing on OSX and using OSX for the server operating system greatly simplified testing and deployment.

Ironfell’s lack of balance was a huge experiment (and risk). Ironfell did not have instanced or tiered battles, you always had all your resources available to fight with. So players who had been playing for a long time and players who payed for resources had an unfair advantage. Safe newbie areas and realms that only advanced players can use helped control the divide between the rich and poor. But most effective was having an end game plateau. Players reached a point where they had so much of every resource that resources stopped being important. Then allies, strategy and and skill became what mattered most.

Player quote: “I think I have enough resources to completely cover the islands in wood walls so nobody could move”

I’m a terrible illustrator, so getting Damon Keen to draw the character artwork worked incredibly well. What he came up with was absolutely perfect. It was retro cute and of such a high standard it made me proud to show people Ironfell.

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What went wrong

About one in a thousand players were complete assholes. Those few players were able to ruin the game for everyone else. One psychopath intentionally forced most of the long term players to quit Ironfell. When his account was deleted, he kept coming back with aliases and spent 14 hours a day 7 days a week trying to destroy Ironfell. I wasted almost 400 hours on this one person – that’s 10% of the total time spent on Ironfell! That time could definitely have been better spent improving Ironfell. I underestimated the amount of damage a single person could do to a community. Next time I would make dealing with the worst people a core part of the game design.

Marketing a game is a huge effort and it takes an enormous amount of time. Easily a third of the time I spent on Ironfell was marketing. And I don’t think I spent enough time on this. The most effective piece of press was on Rock Paper Shotgun from simply sending out a press release.

Financially Ironfell was a failure. It had $13,648 in income from selling in game resources but subtracting artwork, servers and advertising… Ironfell made a loss of about $8000. And that does not include my time.

During the 3 years I worked on Ironfell, I spent over 4000 hours on it. The dollar value of that time is absolutely horrifying. Unless I win the lottery I will never be able to spend that much time on a non-paying project ever again.

Conclusion

Ironfell was incredibly ambitious and I’m happy so much of it worked as well as it did. Financial reality means that Ironfell has been closed down, but hopefully I can take what I’ve learnt from Ironfell and make an even better game one day.

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Name Ironfell
Genre MMORTS
Description Time travel themed hex-tile MMORTS
Platform Browser, Mac, Windows, Android and iOS
Website www.ironfell.com
Developer Blog www.datasmugglers.com
Development Started December 2011
Open Beta May 2012
Live January 2013
Closed December 2014

1 full time developer.
1 contract artist.
1 contract copywriter.
Over 30,000 players.
4.7 million Ponies.

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