By all accounts, Last Call has been a retail flop. The title failed to gain positive momentum among retailers despite a strong PR blitz. I participated in radio interviews around the country. SSI secured great coverage in Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Time magazine, The Washington Post, and numerous game magazines. In the sea of products, Last Call did not stand out. We had always intended a nontraditional retailer effort -- targeting stores such as Urban Outfitters, Virgin Megastore, and college bookstores. But as we would soon learn, the bulk of sales go to the big software and budget chains.
Other Lessons Learned
Especially with niche-type titles whose basic design premise have no market track-record, do anything possible to test your assumptions while keeping costs low. Document the game flow in intricate detail. Don't just create flowcharts: live the game, play with dolls, annoy your friends with annoying questions. Consider all possibilities. You will be launching into uncharted waters, so be prepared the scope of work to expand dramatically. Very quickly, our design document became a relic. Instead, budget permitting, this document should be a current snapshot of the title, its game flow, technical and design assumptions. On a shoestring, this is close to impossible: either you start with something solid and stick to it, or wander into the unknown.
Bring diversity to your team -- student artists, comedy writers without game experience, and the like, and give them the power to influence the game narrative. Many of Last Call's funniest moments and characters originated and/or were enhanced by people who had never played a game.
Always know your ESRB rating!
Consider your price point and your publisher's expectations. Sure, a 3D bar with customizable recipes, a character editor, and other features would have made a great game -- but at $19.95 the expectation for a shoestring title is considerably less ambitious.
Consider other funding options for niche products. With some extra time we may have been able to pitch Last Call as a hospitality training tool, or spirit promo tool. We could have made an online version with less functionality but more promotional appeal. Research alternatives for your product and get some feedback from potential customers. I initially sent Last Call to all the major liquor companies cold turkey, and even got some first-person feedback from the director of marketing for Absolut.
In general, the saying "One game does not a company make" holds true for all but the largest game franchises. If you intend to start a "company," be prepared to start pitching new projects immediately after the completion of your first title. You might be lucky if one out of ten titles actually earns royalties. Keep this in mind when negotiating your deals and pitching new work. If you want to build a company around a single niche title, then be prepared to diversify your product offering and fund derivative titles internally. Most smaller developers fund their efforts with less exciting but more profitable projects. If you don't see yourself as a "salesman" -- pitching development work -- then consider how you will survive moving forward.
On a personal
level, consider your individual future in the game's business. Gamasutra
had to poke and prod me for this article, so I certainly haven't done
everything possible to leverage my game-making career! Keep in mind that
starting your own game company doesn't necessarily qualify you for a job
with another company -- especially if your role was nontechnical. You
may (like yours truly) need to start again from the bottom. You might
be better off interning for zero pay.