The consequences of failure
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'd like to think I'm a reasonably emotionally stable guy. I'm sober, passionate about what I do and not one to easily be distrought. The last time I cried was when my pet rabbit died and I do get angry and frustrated from time to time, I'm human.
Games are for me a medium to make people experience emotions, to tell stories. Captivate people in a world different from your everyday life. That's why I make games, to do exactly that and I will try to do that until I'm forced to stop.
My first experience with making a game that was to go public was probably instantly the worst experience possible. We made a tiny arcade game for a school project and send out pressreleases to all the big sites. They probably weren't gonna pick up on it, but it never hurts to try right?
Boy was I wrong. The title of our game was by some, interpreted as racist, or at least controversial. It sparked a discussion on the internet with several articles on big sites like Kotaku, Polygon, Giantbomb, etc. Even though we still think that the racial connection was a little far fetched, we decided to change the name of the game, to prevent any further trouble and make sure we didn't step on anyones feelings. So we decided to team up with some other developers and try our luck with a new game, with more ambition and a bigger scope. I mean, we had already experienced the worst thing possible, so why not!
We decided that for the game to be successful, it needed to be special It had to do something new and couldn't just be another iteration on so many games already out there. We sat down to come up with some ideas and fast-forward, came up with Lumini.
Lumini is a relaxing emotional adventure game, in which you control a swarm of creatures that you as a player need to keep safe and guide through the treacherous world around them. The game was meant to be an experience that would play with your emotions through art, design and sound as a complete package. A trully immersive adventure.
We worked on it for two years, from September 2013 until release on September 3rd 2015. Man were we proud of what we had accomplished. We had succeeded in all our design philosophies. We had been nominated for a few awards over the past two years and press never stopped telling us that we had possible gold in our hands. On every event people stopped by, curious what 'this beatiful game' was about. Played it and left in awe, telling their friends to go play it as well. We made a lot of friends with developers all over the world and played many other cool games. We were full-fledged developers now.
So that's my story till about three months ago.
As I said earlier, Lumini was about making a game that was different from what was available on the market. It drew a lot of inspiration from Journey and Flower, but with more traditional game elements thrown in the mix. The idea was to create a game that was not about reaching a goal, but about making a journey, in which the player was responsible for the protaganists (or in this case a whole swarm of them). Making the journey successful was in your hands and the game was gonna let you do it in every way that you wanted to. No intrusive tutorials, no unneccesary UI reminding you of it being a game, no telling you what was right and what was not, other then through elements and mechanics present in the gameworld. There was a story, but not one we as a developer were gonna tell you. You needed to figure that out through the environment of this planet you're exploring, through the emotions that you felt when you're swarm was dealing succesfully with obstacles and by the decisions that you as a player were free to make. That all, with the goal to not make it to 'artsy', it still was a game in it's core after all.
Our school immediately sides behind this idea. Being an art school it loved the innovative nature behind the concept and we presented them with a solid team of diverse skills and experience in every facet to make the game a success. Or so we thought. We found out that marketing your game is a little bit more difficult when it's not controversial or provoking.
However, when we released our first demo after three months of hard work and let everybody know about it, we soon felt that we were on the right track.
We did not initially get the high profile media exposure we were hoping for, but knowing that we still had to go through Greenlight to be able to distribute our game on Steam, it was understandable that our game was flying under the radar. The people that did play it however were really enthusiastic and didn't shun to compare it to Journey in it's visual quality and overall atmospere. Yay! Job well done right?
We decided to throw the game on Greenlight in Januari 2014 and see how it would fare and were greenlit in May. Around March 2014 we were contacted by the first publishers that wanted to know if we were open to making a deal to publish the game on PC. We had never thought about that, because based on experience from teams around us, you needed to contact a publisher if you wanted one. The luxary position of having not one, but multiple publishers looking to sign our game, while it was far from done made us somewhat proud to be honest. So in the summer of 2014 we had everything going for us. We had positive media exposure. We had publishers battling it our for our signature and we had praise from a lot of people in the Dutch game development scene. Yes, some people were telling us , that we should not let the attention get to our head. But we knew the game wasn't done yet and a lot of issues would need to be tackled to make this promising demo, into a full-fledged game fit for release. We weren't idiots, silly people!
After doing a lot of events in the first half of 2014 and finishing our mandatory internships, we were ready to go at it full time around September. We got two more artists on the team, because the game was gonna be art heavy and got a brand new 'office' assigned by school. One year we had to make our dream a reality. We were Greenlit, we had a gentle-men agreement with a publisher that we trusted most we has a team and a place to work. No excuses to not finish this game!
Now I'd love to talk about every hardship we encountered during development and what design decisions we made, but this blog is gonna be long enough without it, so maybe for another time.
There are a few things that I do like to mention though. We got nominated for the student art direction award by the Dutch game awards (that we lost to Lionade games currently working on Check-in, knock-out, with the other nominee being Grotman games with the Indiecade award winning Tribal&Error) and got invited as a nominee for the indie game showcase award for Momocon in Atlanta. Our trip to the US, finally gave us the means to get in touch with some mainstream websites as both Kotaku and The Escapist were represented in the jury. We got the contacts and postives that we came to expect, but this time by even more respected people in the industry.
And that's what the problem is. Throughout these two years I grew accustomed to positive feedback , even though I knew that the game was likely to fail and we were just starting out. You can't block out all the 'experienced' people telling you the game is gonna be big. You'll start to believe and every critical thing you tell yourself, is just a facade that you pull up, to not come of as arrogant. I mean these two or three people telling us that we should really plan ahead for a big financial failure, because games nowadays almost always fail, can't know it better then the other 95% right? Lumini had been on national TV, national newspaper, more websites than I can count and during Gamescom 2015 we had five more publishers lined up to talk, even though we already had a deal. You start to believe in the fairytale.
The first real wake up call came through fellow classmates of ours that worked on their own game during roughly the same time. They were developing this asymmeterical multiplayer suspense game that got even way more attention and praise than we did. They made all the big sites and got a massive hype going before release with this crazy idea of making the game available for a limited time through a shared lifepool mechanic (some of you might know which game I'm hinting at).
They released a month before we did and had even higher expectations. Well they failed, and big time. The game got a lot of criticism and made me aware for the first time in a long time, that we might actually do not as well as I thought we were gonna do. Well no way back for us now.
We finished the game right on time and made our deadlines. So the game was set for release early September 2015. We agreed to gather at our programmers house to celebrate the release of Lumini. The game we worked on for two years with blood, sweat, tears and most of all passion.
We made a game, as students, and were releasing it on Steam fresh out of school.
We had accomplished all our goals, which we wrote down on paper and stuck to the wall in our office and accomplished design wise what we had intended. We had a publishing deal, media contacts and did a lot of events. So according to everything you can learn about marketing your game on a limited budget, we did everything right and had everything in order to go.
The game was going live on September 3rd 14:00 PM EST. We had implemented google analytics to track the amount of players playing our game, so we could track how we were doing. Our expectations were not big, we had learned from teams before us and were counting on maybe between 500~1500 sales.
Well, things were looking good, we had a small amount of players, but we did get 3000 players the first two weeks and were happy. Lumini was played on all the continents in over 150 countries. To put that in perspective, we were students, with no real industry experience beyond internships and this adventure of making, finishing and releasing a game. This was gonna be the first time for us that people all over the world could buy and play our game.
Doomsday, the first sale reports from our publisher came in. I was brave enough to ask them to share early numbers. We had sold...almost nothing. Approximatly ~250 people had bought our game and sales numbers were dropping fast. We did not hit the Steam front page, we did not do as well as our numbers showed. Harsh reality check, 90+% of our players had pirated the game. They played and enjoyed our hard work for two years and payed nothing for it. This wasn't the biggest problem, because at least they enjoyed it (I hope at least). But the impact of piracy was way bigger then we anticipated and the response from people pirating the game, was what hit me personally the most.
We just graduated and had made the game during our last two years in college. Most of us had spend personal money on the development and marketing of the game. We had spend time developing and not networking with the aim of getting a job like most of our fellow students. That meant we took a big risk with releasing our game. But we only needed 2500 sales to play even and be able to sustain ourselfs as a company and being able to pay our living expenses. But 250 sales? This meant most of us had immediate financial problems and had to drain their personal savings right after graduation. The response of players when confronted with this? “It's just a pity bargain, you have your own company, you are rich enough”. The public opinion was that we were rich enough and they had the right to not pay for two years time of our lives and I can't even blame them. We traveled, got media attention, got on national television. All these things are associated with succes and succes with money. But dealing with this harsh reality was something I personally wasn't prepared for. Instead of people being happy with the game we made, they saw us as people wanting to make money of them with releasing our game. Yet we hardly made any money, let alone got our personal investements back.
The other thing I learned the hard way concerned the media involvement around our game. We had spoken to a lot of journalists and most of them liked our game and we're interested in covering it on release and contrary to a lot of stories about media in a negative way, most of them did. But the impact of reviews was near to nothing. We had received a lot of positive reviews (and some negative, everyone has their own opinion) but none of those ever sparked even a little spike in sales. So the fact that our game was received positively, people didn't pick up on it. I had no clue as to why or a way to track it. At the moment of writing this blog we still have a 97% positive review rating on Stream. 40 our of 41 people rate our game positive. Yet we're in the dark what should have been done better and as a designer thats hard to swallow.
So that's our story from my own perspective and I'll try to tell you why I told you this. I'm a proud person and not easily bothered by mistakes. I believe failing is part of learning, because that's what I'm thaught. I can deal with dissapointment and am always ready to go on. I still am. When dealing with dissapointment I tend to make jokes about it and so I did now. Problem is, some of the jokes hold a truth. I have joked about not being able to sleep because I can't handle the incertainty about what went wrong. I have joked about being a bad designer with a big ego. I've joked about ending up in a gutter somewhere making card games for hobo's.
But I do not sleep, I do doubt my skills every moment and most of all, I do not deal well with the uncertainties caused by this situation. People tell you if you can't handle criticism you shouldn't enter the industry, because of all these things. But they do not stem from criticism, they stem from uncertainty because I just don't know and no one is able to give me reasons that ease my mind.
I had this idealistic idea about making people happy with games I make, I don't need to get rich, but I do need to pay my rent, that's enough. But I feel like I'm an enemy towards the people I make games for and a failure to people that share my passion. My health is suffering, because I'm not able to accept that I failed, because no one can tell you how to fail. There are countless blogs about succes, but a few about failing. None of them deal with the consequences on a personal level, none consider the emotions of the creative people behind the product.
I'm not writing this down for pity. But I do believe that anyone reading this, who's working on their own game should keep in mind that there is an impact. Succes or failure, you'll have to deal with, everything that's thrown your way. I have a wonderful girlfriend who supported me all the way and cried with me when my game failed. I have great friends that I can talk to about stuff that bothers me. If you're making a game and intend to release it, be sure to have a social safety net of your own, you'll need it. It might be the single most important thing after releasing your game.
Isn't there anything positive about releasing your game? For me there was. I learned more about making games and selling them then I ever could have, if I did not take the plunge in to the deep. I have met people from all around the world and many of them I now call friends. I have played many awesome games that are still to come. I have a resume that says I released a game and went through the entire process of releasing it. I know a lot of faces behind the games that I love to play.
As a designer, the most positive experience of all was when a YouTuber shed tears over the ending of our game (https://youtu.be/nsJs2dpQqHs?t=863). For me that's the proof that I can achieve anything I want to. I will not stop making games for as long as I can. Even though gamers might see me as the enemy (not all of them, a lot of them are great) I do aim to make them experience and enjoy the worlds, stories and adventures that I create.
We're working on our next game, that is totally different and hope that people will enjoy it just as much. It's gonna be completely different because for us, developing games is a journey that teaches you new things every day and an opportunity to keep trying something new. We've learned a lot and are confident we can do a better job. I mean, it can't get any worse this time around right?
If you want to share your story or have any criticism on what I wrote down. Don't hesitate to contact me on Twitter (@Ithunn) or send me an e-mail (steven[at]speelbaars[dot]com)
Thank you for reading this large wall of words and I wish you all a happy 2016!