Post Mortem - Destination Primus Vita
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A pixel in the Steam ocean.
Destination Primus Vita’s first episode was launched a few months ago, already. It’s a 2 to 3 hour-long narrative, puzzle game, in a sci-fi setting. We made this game in 7 months, with a team of 10 developers, composed by an equal mix of vet’s and fresh-out-of-school devs. In detail, at Epsilon Games we are five associates, four of them with +10 years in game development-mostly at Ubisoft- in Narrative, Marketing, Art, Programming and Managing. Our five junior employees (just out of school) are Level Designer, Audio Designer, 3D Artist, Animator and Programmer. A good balance of freshness and experience. Aside from the video game, we also released two issues of our Comic Book series, also based on Primus Vita.
We had a very limited amount of time to make our first episode – with the level of quality that we wanted. We are unfortunately not financially independent, so we had to pay ourselves and – most importantly – our employees. The last three months of development, we prioritized paying our employees, and skipped our pay. Looks like this situation would continue for a much longer time.
Although we received few reviews (we can count around 25), most of them are really good, with some words like ‘’masterpiece’’ ‘’strongly recommend playing this game’’ ‘’creative visuals and a thoughtful story’’ ‘’ epic narrative backdrop’’ ‘’ excels in both atmosphere and graphical presentation’’ ‘’a strong start to the series’’ ‘'Well-written characters, interesting plot and gorgeous puzzles’’. I could continue with the good words. But you get the picture: the reviews we had, mostly, were amazing, and reactions of players, strong.
Here is Jadesilk right in the climax of our game.
Obviously we also had cooler reviews, mainly from reviewers finding our characters too cliché, who didn’t like our lack of systemic gameplay or too easy – or too hard – puzzles.
But mostly the reviews were in the 80s. Which, considering the time we had and the small team we have, is a score we’re all proud of. IGN gave us a 8.5! (It’s IGN Greece, which is weird that this score isn’t on the main IGN site – does this mean IGN Greece is less reliable than IGN USA? Its value is considered not good enough to par the US reviewers? I question, here).
Anyhow, we are proud of the reviews. First studio, first game. Good reviews.
But no sale.
I don’t mean bad sale figures. They're very bad. Nobody knows this game exists.
Our game is about 3 hours, its quality is pretty good and is you play it through the end, you might even cry - at least have the shivers.
Like I said, we have good reviews. We hired a PR firm and signed a deal with a publisher, knowing we’d need as much visibility as possible. And we thought, innocently, that making a good product, keeping it affordable, it would eventually sale.
Innocent girl I am. Nobody gives a damn sh* about the game we've put all our heart and soul into. When we were presenting our game at Gamescom last August, one journalist fro Berlin tried it, then played it all, on spot. She spent 3 full hours at our uncomfortable booth playing it, loving it, and saying after completing it ''wow, it's so good. It's EXACTLY my type of game, and there aren't so many like this. How come I never heard about it?''
My emotions started boiling and my frustration climbed to Everest’s height. I’m trying to calm down. I spent the next months trying to calm down. Writing this post mortem is me attempting to rationalize what happened, and help me accept it, because we were writing and designing the next episodes to come (Hayao and Artemis) and oh boy - we couldn't wait to make those.
What went right
Delivering a high-quality, cohesive and unified vision of a universe. Our characters, the idea of what could happen in long-distance space travel, the global vision of Primus Vita. Although certain journalists thought our characters were a bit too cliché, most people really got into them and really got the depth we wanted to bring to the series. And the challenge was there: we started with Austin, the cold, rational scientist. We know she’s not the kind of woman one will appreciate right away. We had to carefully build up her relationship, and make the player relate, if not to her, at least to the others. And we succeeded.
Bringing the shivers, or even tears to key moments in a video game (or in any media) is a hard thing. I have to say I still have the shivers when I watch or play this ending sequence where we give a chance for the player to understand why the protagonist has so many issues fraying her emotions. Driving her to flee away from them. Even if it’s been approximately the 500th time I play or watch it. Proud of what the team did here. And I can point out the work of every single person from our team. To succeed delivering such a climax in the game was possible only with a cohesive work and vision.
Planning. This point is debatable whether it went right or wrong, but overall I think we did an amazing job. We shipped a new game in about 6 months! Planning is one of the hardest things in a video game, especially when you are building a new IP, a new type of game and, when you do something for the first time in general, with people that are doing stuff together for the first time (and for half of the team, making a game for the first time of their life!) That’s a lot of firsts.
As a reminder, here is the definition of planning: The planning process identifies the goals or objectives to be achieved, formulates strategies to achieve them, arranges or creates the means required, and implements, directs, and monitors all steps in their proper sequence.
The planning was simple, in some way, because we made a lot of decisions based on a retro-planning: we could only go on until we ran out of money.
Everyone knows this: the easiest thing is to have ideas for a game. Everyone has them. The complexity comes in binding them together, respecting the general idea and themes we wanted to work on, and the feasibility of them. One of the things that I really appreciate about our planning is we didn't over think it. By experience, I know that things change a LOT in a video game production. A LOT. All the time, at any moment, from everybody. But then some people are really uncomfortable without a very clear, precise and micro-detailed plan. We sometimes had to fight each other about this and occasionally stress jumped in. We struggled a little to find the perfect balance of not losing so much time in planning way in advance (things that were unclear) vs making an efficient plan with clear tasks for everyone.
But overall, we managed. We did more detailed planning when needed, and learned together to let go. We knew we had to finish by a certain date, constrained by money, but we left the door open to change some features and even some entire sequences - and thank god we did this. I personally think that we were able to make good, major changes to our game in April due to this somewhat not so rigid planning we had. Then, when we were all convinced that the features we were making were good, the planning got tighter and we went with precise tasks for everyone, week to week. One of the things that was difficult about our game was aligning the programming planning with the rest; we didn’t have a lot of systemic game play. Regarding the puzzles, they were, for the most part, unique, although some mechanics were re-used. Our game is a linear experience, and it relies a lot on the final realization of the whole to have a clear idea if the arc is good.
Going all in
Our team was all-in. We’ve put an incredible amount of love, hours (nothing new here) and energy into our game (and comic books). Like I said earlier, it was a first time on many levels, and the first time you do something always takes longer than the second time, third time, etc. Yes, we’ve put in many hours. But it was nothing crazy: I’ve seen way more crunch on many projects while working on AAA games. It’s the energy and the heart that was all there. And this is why, also, we all felt so exhausted at the end of production. I’ve never, ever put this amount of thinking, energy, stress, and focus on something for this period of time. We were rushed by our lack of funds – we managed to ship the game in half the time it would’ve normally taken us.
Let me tell you that, the majority of time, the level of energy in the studio was very high. We’ve concentrated all our efforts into one big, compact sprint. It should’ve been a marathon, but we ran the whole way at full speed. The wind in our faces felt good, the result is there (good reviews!) but there is no medal at the end (the money…)
What went wrong
Going too fast
We innocently thought that bringing a good game would be enough. The reality is oh, so far from this.
We’re that little pixel lost in the midst of the Steam Ocean.
We didn’t get noticed, despite a good PR firm, good reviews… But here’s what I think: we’re too nice. We didn’t stand out. I feel that in this adventure, I shifted from the girl full of hope to a raging bitch. I should’ve shown this rage a bit more – especially IN the game. We’ve put everything else in it: our guts, our fears, our psychological awkwardness, our heart, our sadness, our philosophical questions, our humor, our fears… all went in the game, and we thought it would be enough.
All our energy was mostly centered on the work we were making. Our marketing efforts didn't work.. But we tried! We didn’t overlook it, as first-timer-indies could do. We hired a community dev, a PR firm, a publisher (although this one came at the last minute). We launched a Twitch stream so people would get to know us, with social media and all. But this was not enough, we went too fast – to build a community, it really takes a lot of time and effort. We wanted to have a small base, and then, with a good quality product, the rest would join. We were building a Universe: Primus Vita isn’t only one game. It’s a possible futuristic story of the Human Race. Nothing less. The game was just a very small parenthesis. Larger, bigger, different games would follow. And this is a lot to ask from the public, the customers. We ask them not just to buy something, consume it, and throw it away. No. We ask them to emotionally invest in our products. This is a lot to ask. This is a nice challenge for, let’s say, the Nike publicists. They would be good at selling Primus Vita. Because there’s a lot to sell in this story. It’s quite rich. We’ve written over 1000 years of history, with compelling characters, antagonists and protagonists altogether. With nice twists. Hey, this story has been worked on for 9 years. So a lesson: put as much money in Marketing as you did for the entire production. And take some time. Every day. Take some time every day to communicate what you’re doing, who you are. You have to let the entire planet know you exist, and this takes time, and it’s hard to achieve.
Nobody gives a shit about your project. There are thousands of projects on the planet. Over 25 games per day released on Steam.
Coby Blair-Moreno giving Crew 121 a motivational speech.
Going all in. Going all in killed us. Emotionally, it was the hardest. Going from a confident, passionate and very positive person to a frustrated, stressed and enraged about everything and nothing.
Everyone knows, rationally, that starting a studio is a LOT of work. I knew it. I was ready for it. But searching, looking, asking for money is an exhausting activity that gets in your blood. I will not mention so much my family situation but let’s say I really did an all-in for this project, this company. I’m a believer. I hoped.
But money drains everything, even hope, for a while. In Quebec, we’re lucky: we have those tax credits we can receive from the governments (both provincial and federal) on the salaries we paid over the year. We knew this. We hired a firm to help us out. We did our homework quite well. We submitted everything in February. Now, in November, I am still calling e.v.e.r.y. d.a.y. to know where the file is, when we should get our payment, etc. Ten months isn’t that long, you could say. But believe me it is, when you have employees to pay. After a while, it starts eating you from the inside. All the time. At every single hour of every day and night. A few months ago already, the bank account was really getting empty. So, as the founders of the company, you decide to not pay yourself to pay your employees. But this is a short term solution, of course. You know you will launch your game, soon. You say to yourself that it should be ok. ''You have a publisher, a PR firm, it should be alright. Even if the game doesn't hit the sky in terms of sales, it should do somewhat well. Already, the reviews are good!''
And here we are. We did a little miracle, because our game IS a little miracle. It went to the heart of a few people, really, and ths is the achievement I'm most proud of. We successfully made a good game. Is this enough?
But you realize you are, in spite of the good reviews and the little miracle, just a pixel in the Steam Ocean.
I'm really dreaming of one day, seeing the other episodes take form. Geez, they'll be amazing!
But the good news: our fabulous game IS still available! :D
Anne Gibeault at CGLX in Toronto. On this slide, an accomplishment list we looked at on Ship Date. We financed our project, built a kick-ass team, made a prototype, changed LOTS of things from the learnings, did the blueprint of the game, made a demo for PAX, realized the beginning of the game (the demo) wasn't good, refactored it, received prizes, revisited the Bluerprint back from PAX, made the game. Released it.