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How  Legend of Grimrock 's dev rolled the dice and won
How Legend of Grimrock's dev rolled the dice and won
April 25, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

April 25, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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Almost Human never imagined Legend of Grimrock would have the commercial success it enjoyed after launching for Windows two weeks ago. At one point, this self-funded downloadable game from the four-man team was the top-seller on Steam, beating out multi-million dollar titles from major publishers.

Legend of Grimrock's success surprised many others, too, as it's not often to see a first-person dungeon crawler inspired by the Eye of the Beholder games at the top of any sales chart, at least not in this millennium. With a few exceptions out of Japan (e.g. Etrian Odyssey series, Wizardry) and iOS, you hardly see those games at all anymore.

Even though conventional wisdom suggests there's no market for an old school game like Legend of Grimrock, the Finnish indie team wanted to make this dream project anyway, and it was willing to risk the company's future to self-publish this game -- the studio's first shipped title.

"We pretty much had [all] our eggs in one basket," Almost Human co-founder Juho Salila admits to Gamasutra. "We started the company fully aware of the risks." The team formed in February 2011, made up of veterans from bigger Finnish game companies like Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake) and Futuremark (Shattered Horizon).

He adds, "We're all seasoned professionals, so we weren't that concerned about getting another job if the game failed. ... In the end we thought that if the game failed and the company died, so what, at least we tried, so it wouldn't bother us the rest of our lives for not having the courage to try."

"All the passion and monetary pressure drove us forward at a great pace. Naturally that meant a lot off stress and long working days. The stress was easier to handle because we could see the end near. Our development time was really short, just around 10 months, so we could pace ourselves according to that."


Thanks to the dungeon crawler's initial sales, which have already covered the game's development costs a couple of times over, Salila says "the company won't die. Now we can actually plan our future because there is one, when before we just focused on finishing Legend of Grimrock. The success of the game gives us some room to breathe and consider our options."

The idea of creating a retro-style game for a niche audience seems less risky now, thanks to Kickstarter, where indie developers can appeal to that same small audience to finance their project. But that wasn't a route Almost Human could take due to local laws that prevent it from accepting direct donations. And the developer wasn't interested in pursuing a publishing deal.

"We looked for crowd-funding opportunities, but the Finnish law system makes it hard to apply for them," says Salila. "We never properly considered getting a publisher because we wanted to have full control over the project. And besides, we don't think that many publishers would've taken the risk with fair terms on reviving an age-old, nearly dead genre."

Instead, the studio funded the game the old-fashioned way -- it completed contract jobs for other Finnish developers until it could afford to start work on its own project last June. Salila says those opportunities allowed the team to learn how to work together and to develop its pipeline at the same time.

"All the years of working in larger companies prepared us to build a game all on our own, and it really helped us to concentrate on the important things," says Salila. "With our combined experience, we managed to really focus our very limited resources and make the right decisions to finish the game before our money ran out."

As for why Almost Human thinks the game has been such a big hit, Salila believes the team was able to strike a crucial balance between staying true to the dungeon crawler genre's essential elements (e.g. difficulty, grid-based movement) to appeal to players' sense of nostalgia, and updating the game's graphics, audio, and user interface to meet modern standards.


With Legend of Grimrock well-received by critics and consumers' wallets, Almost Human can put its worries about staying open aside; it can instead concentrate on releasing patches and updates, and on porting the Windows game to other platforms like Mac and iOS.

"We'd like to someday see Legend of Grimrock on mobile devices simply because the game mechanics would fit the platform pretty well, but the exact execution is still under consideration," says Salila. "We have a bit of some crude tech for iOS, but it's still long way from being a proper game. Whether we do the port in-house or outsource is still to be decided."


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Comments


Bruno Patatas
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Fantastic news, and all the success guys. One of the best games I played in a long time.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I bought and I like it, but I find it to be more of a puzzle game than a dungeon crawler. Its a solid base to improve upon, I hope they continue in that line.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I don't know how much experience you have with dungeon crawlers Mathieu, but they tended to be like this back in the day and Grimrock clearly draws from those examples.

I think that Grimrock deeply draws inspiration from games like Arx Fatalis.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I played Rogue & rogue-likes, all Eye of the Beholder, Dungeons Hack and others. What is it with the "I disagree so Im going to assume you havent played as many games as me" attitude on Gamasutra lately?

Anyhow. What I found is that the combat, magic system and character abilities in Grimrock lacks depth compared to the dungeon crawlers of my youth, while the puzzles are very imaginative and challenging. Thus, compared to say EoB, the puzzles are a much bigger part of Grimrock's experience than the rpg part.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I wholely don't understand why you have to be snippy about this. I dont know what you play, thats why i qualified my statement with it.

I wasnt secretly berating you but inquiring why you think as you do, im not psychic.

Bevan Bennett
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Bard's Tale and their ilk, which I'd say this first person dungeon crawl reflects pretty directly on as an early influence, were actually extremely puzzle heavy. Sure there's lots of "walk into the room and kill everything in it", but there was also a (shocking for today) amount of riddles and verbal puzzles, as well as the more common physical "put this there" puzzles.In the 70s and 80s, pretty much all the dungeon crawl games I played (PC and PnP) had a strong puzzle component, although the quality of puzzles would definitely vary. I would almost go so far as to say that one could not properly claim to be an "old school dungeon crawl" without having a heavy puzzle component, because that's just the way it was.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think you must be remembering this genre wrong, because this is exactly what they were like.

These were not meant to be rogue-like games (I've seen this brought up in a few reviews) and all about combat - they were meant to be dungeon exploration games, which includes a lot of puzzles as well as combat.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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@Aleksander

Ive been a bit jumpy, I apologize.

@everyone

Sure there's always been puzzles in dungeon crawlers, but there's always been other elements too, whether its things like picking locks & disarming traps, interacting with other characters, finding other to join your group, a deeper magic system, etc. Grimrock is almost only about the puzzles, which are still excellent and very entertaining.

Vinicius Mendonca
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Hi. A little late, but I must agree with @Mathieu. There are certainly much more to explore in this game genre, both in terms of mechanic as well as plot.

They could give a lot more color to non-warrior classes.

Thieves in Grimrock are just a different kind of warrior, based on dex instead of str. They don't do lock picking or warn you about hidden traps/buttons. Also, non-offensive spells in this game are either shields or the lame light/darkness. Adding passive magic, like haste or feather fall would be a nice touch.

I also missed other NPCs to interact with.

It's not a bad game, tough. In fact, I really enjoyed all the puzzles, graphics and general gameplay. And it certainly does have the old school dungeon crawler game feel. Certainly a masterwork considering that this is just an Indie game - with a budget significantly smaller than Westwood or Virgin, and not supported by D&D franchise.

Bret Dunham
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As an old wizardry/eye of behold fan this really brings me back. And I don't have to worry about having the right "old" hardware to play. I think their timing is perfect.
~Dragonhill

Guy Cole
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EoB, 1991. Dungeon Master, 1987. EoB was the cherished re-make of an even more classic game - FTL's Dungeon Master. And yes, it was choc-full of tough and chewy puzzles!

Lex Allen
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I'm curious about why this defied expectations. I'm not sure if it's because business people are out of touch with what consuming people want. Maybe people are regressing to retro games because of the bad economy?

The game could of course be really awesome. I'm just not sure why everyone thought this game was walking around with a reaper on its back.

Maybe it's because all indie games have bad odds are something.

Jeremy Reaban
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Well, there really literally have not been any games in this genre for years from Western developers (for PC at least). It's as close to a dead genre as it gets.

Even though for decades, probably half a dozen games a year like this game out.

Andrew Chen
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Lex, one way to view the success of this game is that it gives us another good look at what the big-box game industry has evolved into over the last decade-plus.
As gaming hardware improved, both industry revenues and development costs increased dramatically alongside it. We reached a point some years back where by and large those who controlled the funding vehicles in the industry could not justify spending what had become a standard development budget on a game that appealed to "niche" markets. Thus, even if creators believed they had a viable market, publishers were unwilling to risk the projected costs...but it is starting to look like the production pipeline truly grew outta whack.
What we are seeing recently is the continued evolution of the project-funding model. Thanks to low-cost, low-barrier distribution and funding platforms (Steam and Kickstarter being the most famous recent examples, respectively), dedicated creators can proceed with projects at more realistically scaled-back budgets and directly target a specific market.
I would recommend watching inXile's Kickstarter video to hear one content creator's struggle for funding in the crazy "modern" structure. Sure, its satirical but sums up (hilariously) the types of walls many developers found themselves trapped behind.
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/wasteland-2

Igor Queiroz
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I'm extremely satisfied about how game industry is changing and rebuilding itself. I'm really excited about this change, because I wanna make an old school game too. Long live the Almost Human, long live the Indie Developers.

Matt Cratty
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The most wonderful part of this is my hope that other developers/studios will finally bang it through their thick heads that there is a significant set of audiences out there just desperate for games like these and a huge variety of other genres that are currently "dead".

Whoever makes the real spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate 2 is going to have a huge indie hit on their hands.

Alan Rimkeit
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"Whoever makes the real spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate 2 is going to have a huge indie hit on their hands."

I would love to work on a project like that much less buy a game like it. I miss turn based RPG's like those built on the Infinity Engine. I wonder if the code for the Infinity Engine is open for licencing.

Bruno Patatas
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@Alan You have here an open-source implementation of Bioware's Infinity Engine http://www.gemrb.org/wiki/doku.php?id=start

Nathaniel Marlow
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There's a lot of genres or sub-genres that I would love to see more of. How about some new space sims? Maybe shooters where you end up carrying a dozen weapons? Shooters where you spend at least 10% of the single player campaign looking for a door switch? Ah, memories. I have a switch shaped hole in my heart. A flat, crude switch with a humorously large green light on it.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Bruno Patatas - Thanks man, that rules! :D

Glenn Sturgeon
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I was telling a friend a couple of weeks ago, "Maybe theres enough of a market for Grimrock to be a success?"
To be honest, i'm not realy that suprised there is and at a price of $15 i'm not suprised its done realy well in sales.
Congratulations to Almost Human for the success and for having the guts to go for what you wanted to do!

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutraís Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Travis Flynn
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This game is great. My only gripe is that it ended and I can't bring myself to play through it again now that I know all of the puzzles.

I think successes of this type are evidence as to why the AAA publisher model is less than ideal. To be honest, is this was publisher funded it would probably be a failure, with the publisher likely to spend significantly more on marketing, and rushing it out the door sooner to see the return on investment sooner. Partly a problem with the games industry, and partly a problem with western business thinking in general (particularly US) which values short term profits too much due to investor appeasement.

Aaron Casillas
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ooo Eye of the beholder? Must download and play!

Michael Joseph
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Every self funded game that succeeds helps to affirm the legitimacy of these games and the model in the minds of customers. This is the the most important aspect I think and why independant developers should be cheering on the success of their fellow indies.

sean lindskog
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I was just about to write something exactly like that.
But instead, I can just say, "What Michael said". :)

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Yes, I think it is important to know that might be able to do what you like. At a game related education I went it was kind of a mantra that you'd never get to do what you like or believe in but that you have to sell out to the mass market and do the stuff "the customer" wants. And this was coming from ex-AAA lead guy. I guess some just get burnt by publishers :).

Kristian Roberts
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My Kingdom (which is, admitedly, a very small apartment) for a store!

But seriously, it is (as many have already said) a great example of how a relatively basic, yet polished product can succeed.

Joshua McDonald
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"Salila believes the team was able to strike a crucial balance between staying true to the dungeon crawler genre's essential elements (e.g. difficulty, grid-based movement) to appeal to players' sense of nostalgia, and updating the game's graphics, audio, and user interface to meet modern standards."

I actually don't like this line because it suggests that the elements of a dungeon crawler game are appealing because of nostalgia and not because they actually provide fun gameplay.

While I admittedly haven't played Grimrock (yet), I have recently gone back and played similar games such as Bard's Tale II or Might and Magic VII (not the Heroes TBS games) and found them to be quite fun, while many other games that were fun back in the day are pretty painful experiences, now. Nostalgia, even with updated graphics, is not enough to make a good game.

I would be interested to hear from people who like/dislike Grimrock who never played any of the old school first-person dungeon crawlers.

John Flush
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Well, if it comes to iOS I'll buy it there too and still have saved $30 over retail 'hyped' games. I only wish it was more 'wizardry' like - the inn, the dungeons, getting and selling, and more encounters, etc. But the game is what it is and I still love it. They knew it too and priced it right - I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Jason Bakker
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This quote is repeated twice in the article... is that intended? "All the passion and monetary pressure drove us forward at [a] great pace." If not ignore me!

Jason Bakker
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Also, great article! Success stories like this are incredibly inspiring :)

Lance Thornblad
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I've wanted to do a game like this for some time, since I am a huge fan of the original Dungeon Master. I take my hat off to the 'Almost Human' team. Their approach to this project was exemplary, imo.


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