When signing a publishing contract for a Nintendo DSi game, make sure it specifies a "retail" or "digital" release. That's what indie developer Jason Rohrer learned working on Diamond Trust of London
with Majesco, the strategy title about global diamond trading that's now found the home with Zoo Games that he always hoped it would have.
Rohrer originally began working with Majesco when the company looked to be using the breathing room earned by Cooking Mama
's massive success to experiment with unusual creative titles, like Harvey Smith's Karmastar
for iOS. Majesco got in touch with Rohrer, known for artistic indie games like Passage, Between
and Sleep Is Death
, and asked him for a meeting.
The publisher asked him to make a retail game with DSi features, as implementing them earned games special retail billing at the time, he tells Gamasutra. "[Digitally-downloadable] DSiWare was coming on the scene at the time, and they basically said there was no money in downloadable games," says Rohrer. "They were kind of discouraging me from the idea of making a downloadable game."
"So I got the dev kit, I got an office, and I worked on [Diamond Trust
] for about five months; I turned in like four different milestones to them. It was going really well, although the DS is a hard platform to program for... I got the networking and two-player and AI working, and the game was pretty much done except for the tutorial and music," Rohrer explains.
"And then the economy changed from the time they signed me up," he continues. The massive contraction in DS software hit many publishers' plans hard. "They had a bad quarter, and were probably saying, 'why are we paying for this guy's office, for him to make this little weird diamond-trading game for the DS?"
Like many publishers, Majesco appeared to realize how tough the DS market had become for everyone. "The crash was coming," Rohrer says, and it was a particularly bad time for new DS IP at retail. "They started saying, 'well, we should really consider DSiWare for this,'" he says. Rohrer was disappointed, but even moreso once he began to look at available sales data for Nintendo's downloadable platform and talking with other developers who had tried it.
The ubiquity of the DS platform as a whole was what made Rohrer want to try it, but DSi units specifically were a much smaller percentage of Nintendo's portable market. Now Rohrer found himself developing a game that he knew was niche to begin with for a much smaller segment of the platform's audience. When Rohrer raised his concern to Majesco, the publisher said it could only justify the considerable expense of printing DS cartridges if Diamond Trust
could attain a certain level of GameStop preorders.
"You need, like, 3,000 pre-orders," Rohrer laughed ruefully, knowing that was such an impossible goal for a game like his. And there was little recourse: "Our on-paper contract didn't really specify... it just said 'game for DSi,' and so it was hard to tell what [Majesco was] thinking all along. A lot of this stuff was just verbal agreements."
But the publisher made a listing on GameStop's website with a cover for the game that hadn't had Rohrer's input, a quick presentation that was not at all how he wanted to present the game: "It was, like, an outline of Africa," he laughs. "It wasn't the worst cover I ever saw, but they just put it up there, and I was like, 'but wait, I haven't announced this to anyone.'"
The listing got about 23 preorders, Rohrer says - not exactly a stone's throw from the necessary 3,000 Majesco had asked for.
"So I was just sort of digging my heels in, and then they put out this release date of June," Rohrer says - and this even though he'd suspended work on milestones pending the resolution of the distribution format issue. "Even if I had been deciding to work on the game again, going through live check takes a while, so the launch date was kind of ridiculous."
Rohrer suggested a few other solutions - rather than distribute pricey cartridges thinly across GameStop locations where they may or may not hit the audience most likely to want Diamond Trust
, why not sell cartridges only on Amazon? That wasn't something Majesco does, the publisher told him.
"So then I sent the dev kit back, and we wound everything down and terminated the agreement. They didn't fight it; at that point they probably were not that interested in having the game finished at all and were looking for the cheapest way that they could fulfill their obligations," he says.
"They just basically said, 'okay, sorry to see you go.' They were very friendly," he reflects, "I had good talks with them throughout the whole thing. They seemed supportive; I don't have anything negative to say about them. It's just circumstances, a classic trap that someone would fall into with a publisher where you're not really in control of what's happening."
Not long at all after he showed the game onstage at GDC 2010, Diamond Trust of London
was languishing. Rohrer worked on other projects, like Inside a Star-Filled Sky
, in the interim, and began doing some consulting work with Bitmob, which was at the time talking with Zoo Entertainment about promotional efforts for IndiePub, the company's independent-focused arm.
When the company asked for Rohrer's thoughts on which games might be a good fit for IndiePub, "I looked at their website, and I was like, 'wait, these guys publish DS games.' I sent them a ROM and within a week they sent me a dev kit."
Rohrer's excited to be working with Zoo and IndiePub to give Diamond Trust
its long-awaited DS release. "We don't really have a release plan ironed out, but the idea is to sell them only on Amazon," he says, holding onto the idea that traditional retail distribution would be neither cost-effective nor efficient for a game that's likely to have a very specific audience.
"Just getting them into peoples' hands is the main thing... like we'd start with the smallest run we could get from Nintendo, and maybe sign and number them? We're still thinking of how we're going to do it."
With the publishing method and partner at last decided, all that was left was to figure out the last of the game's "plumbing", and to add the music. Rohrer thought of playing and recording instruments himself - and then he had a chat with his high school best friend, with whom he had, of all things, an industrial band back in the day ("we used to wear fishnets on our arms and everything," Rohrer laughs).
This friend went on to become a career musician, and was looking for a new project to work on, and is now developing "dynamic, interactive sound" for Diamond Trust
. For Rohrer that contribution is rejuvenating the project: "I was struggling to pick the game back up and feel motivated about it, and so it's been helpful to have someone to talk to and get that energy back."
Now Diamond Trust
is on track for a fall 2011 release, he estimates, looking forward to a happy ending to the story. Friends suggested various tactics, like Kickstarter, to save the project when things looked bleak for it, but "putting any money into it myself seemed kind of risky. And there's no way you can just make Nintendo cartridges on your own - putting any sort of money into it myself seemed kind of risky. They don't just give a license to everyone."
"And then Zoo came along and saved this game from the eternal limbo it was in," he adds cheerfully.