Sometime in early summer, when negotiations with the publishers were starting to look a bit suspect, our investor's representative, Martin, arrived at the conclusion that until he had a contract in hand, he would come to no conclusive opinion on the quality of our game based on their remarks, because like us he was pretty skeptical about the foresight and pioneering qualities of the majority of publishers.
So he came up with the idea that we should do a survey of gamers. At first it seemed to me like a waste of money and a pretty big leak risk, but all praise to Martin for the idea. If it hadn’t been for him, we might well not be here any longer.
I’d never done anything like it and it meant quite a lot of extra work for us, but it paid off. We had to prepare the resources for selecting the focus group, a questionnaire, a video and a basic feature list very similar to the one that will (hopefully) one day appear on the back of the box our game comes in. Then we met with some very earnest looking gentlemen from the international agency that was to organize the whole circus.
I won’t bother you with the details. Quite simply we decided to conduct our investigation in the USA and Germany, which are two of the most interesting markets for us with quite a big sample of people. The whole business will be conducted for a relatively long time and thoroughly. First a small sample of respondents will answer tricky questions and, on the basis of their responses, a second, much more massive, but also more impersonal campaign will be prepared.
In the meantime, we had Gamescom and the negotiations with publishers happening. Most of the big ones told us it still wasn't quite what they wanted and they hadn't made up their minds yet. One of the smaller publishers showed great interest, though, and even arranged their own survey. It was really starting to look very promising, even though for us it seemed like do or die. If these guys were to reject us too, we were up the creek.
Well, just at the moment when things were getting tough, I got back the first results from the quality section of the research. The people who saw the video and read the description of the game responded to the questions and their responses...
…their responses looked like I might have written them myself! I had hoped people would like our game, but I would never have dared to hope they would like it so much! But it could still be an anomaly and when it came to the quantitative and much more anonymous part of the survey, it might be a lot worse.
The reactions of the majority of respondents were really almost incredibly positive - 80% of them regarded the historical background and the absence of magic as very attractive and original. A huge number of them would buy the game for sure. Only about 4% minded the absence of fantasy elements. And this, by the way, was not some narrow group of RPG fans - we had selected the target group on the widest possible basis - regular console and PC players. Maybe we will eventually publish the whole survey - it makes very interesting reading, because we didn't ask only about our own game.
So things were looking very promising according to the research. Gamers are evidently interested in the kind of game we’re making. Naturally, we immediately sent the results to all the publishers. In practice, we had saved them work and money and given them a pretty solid basis for deciding whether our game was commercially viable.
So the publishers had now seen a playable demo (a big part of which you have also seen), a video demonstrating the game’s epic passages, the design documentation, the plan and a very decent budget with much lower costs than on the other side of the Atlantic. They had a co-investor willing to share in financing the game, an experienced team with some big games under their belts and now, to top it off, a big, expensive market survey, which concluded that the game had massive commercial potential. What do you think they told us? Was that enough for them?
No way. All the big publishers who were still in the running told us they were worried that the game in its current state wasn’t entertaining enough and they weren’t able to judge whether it ever would be. We should come and see them again after we had the finalized combat system and quests.
It somehow slipped their minds that when we had the finalized combat system and quests, the game would be done and we wouldn’t need them anymore. Certainly not to share our profit with them when they hadn’t carried the slightest share of the risk during development. I cannot grasp how a publisher who refuses to finance game development imagines their role in today’s world and what kind of economic model that is supposed to be, exactly.
Even the small publisher whom we had most put our hopes in decided in the end to drop the game. To their credit, though, I should say that at least they informed us very sincerely and in depth why they had reached that decision, which I truly appreciate. They liked our game, but the budget – risk ratio ultimately came out to our disadvantage.
So what now? Endgame? The coffers were running dry. Our investor was somewhere on the other side of the world dealing with much more pressing issues than some game. Our people were starting to ask about their futures.
We started acutely dealing with Plans B and Plan C. Plan B is of course Work for Hire, for which we had gotten an offer at E3. I immediately started writing a design for the movie tie-in that had been discussed and was still open. And Plan C was to look into the possibility of crowd-funding, which I personally found the most appealing as well as the most risky. It’s great if people like what you’re doing; you can dump the ivory-tower suits and make a game according to your own imagination and that of your fans. If you’re unlucky enough not to make a splash, though, then you’re finished – although even that might be better than the endlessly prolonged negotiations resulting in nothing but an even greater waste of time. So I started examining other campaigns, especially the successful ones, and trying to get the hang of how it’s done.
In the meantime, we tried to set up a meeting with the investor to decide what would come next, which was nowhere near as simple as it might seem. We told our people everything up front and waited for the exodus…
Which never happened. And I was seriously close to tears when several people told me they were happier with us than they had ever been before, so they would hang in there as long as possible. (Sorry for the violins, but that’s really how it was).
In the end we flew to Amsterdam to meet our investor in a building full of businessmen handling billion-dollar trades on a daily basis. I was kitted out in the best shirt and sweater I could find at home. I’d spent the whole evening polishing my shoes and wondering whether to shave or not. And Martin and I really were not feeling too easy, because we didn’t have much in the way of aces up our sleeves, apart from the research.
Before I spill the beans about how it worked out, let me digress for a minute. Our meeting with the investor took place 13 days before the launch of PS4. What has that got to do with us? A lot, because I had deduced one interesting, almost shocking revelation from our negotiations: one of the main reasons why nobody had signed for our game was the fear, I would say almost horror, of the established big publishers that the new consoles would be a washout, that they weren’t powerful enough and that people today wanted nothing but free-to-play MMOs for iPad. So they were all preparing a few guaranteed mega-titles and waiting to see what happened with regard to everything else, which sent a few studios to the wall and might also result in a big drought for good console games in 2015, because I get the feeling from behind-the-scenes talk and indications that most publishers have nothing prepared for that year, because they didn’t want to plan that far ahead in such an uncertain climate and now they can hardly come up with something epic in less than two years. (But I might be wrong. Feel free to put me right if you know more than I do, which is entirely possible.)
So we appeared at our late-evening meeting very anxious. We showed the investor the latest video from the game and told him up front about our situation: “In our research, potential customers have shown great interest, the publishers are paralyzed by fear of the future and won’t give us money and our account has run dry. So the options are: shut it down, find a co-investor – which we haven’t been able to do so far – pay for the whole thing and hope we place it somewhere in the end...” Even though we could see that our benefactor liked our game and didn't think we were talking total BS, it was practically out of the question that in such a situation he would cough up the several million dollars we need to finish the game.
So then we told him about this amazing thing called crowd-funding.
We explained to him how the whole thing works and the atmosphere in the room visibly lightened. In the end we got a promise of funding for preparing the campaign and, if we reached the agreed goal, for the remainder of development too. At the same time, this funding would be significantly bigger than the amount we are trying to raise on Kickstarter.
Our investor has shown us enormous patience. In comparison to the original plan to finance the prototype and sell the game to a publisher, he has invested much more and kept our heads above water even at times when most people would have left us to rot. The fact alone that funding the prototype had turned into covering practically the whole budget, at a time when the majority of analysts were recommending investing in games for iPad, was something quite exceptional.
So here we are. We stand here before you and ask for your support, without which our game really can’t get done. Someone told us that Kickstarter is the last, desperate step and if it didn’t work out we're really screwed and nobody would give us the time of day. That’s obviously true. But, if it works out, it's probably the best, most appealing way to develop the game – directly for the fans themselves, without secrecy, lies and censorship, in collaboration with them and without taking orders from people who don’t even play games and don’t understand them.
Had we failed, it would have been a pretty clear signal that you’re not interested in a game like this and we wouldn’t waste more years of further effort. But now it looks more like the publishers made a big mistake and interest in the kind of game we're doing is enormous, for which we are of course extremely grateful.
It's great that in this day and age it’s possible to get something new out there without having to deal with the select few with a monopoly on reason. Only two years ago, Warhorse would most probably not be around any longer in a situation like this, or we would have developed an action adventure and shoe-horned some dragons into it in mid-development. So thank you for your support!
Thank you sincerely!
|Ennio De Nucci|