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We got in touch with Arcen Games’ founder, Chris Park, a few weeks ago to discuss the impending launch of their latest game, In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor – which didn’t turn out as expected, to say the least. [This is the full Q&A. You can read the highlights in this shorter version.]
Earlier this year, Arcen faced a fair bit of financial trouble. You wrote about having to let go staff and possibly shelving some projects. Did you manage to pull out of this, and how is your team structured these days?
We have not reached financial equilibrium yet, but we have pulled out of it well enough that we've been able to work on new things.
Keith LaMothe (our other programmer/designer) has been working on Stars Beyond Reach as his main project since the layoffs, with me having withdrawn from that project after failing to get a design that any of us were truly happy with. That's been a tough road for him as well, but he's come up with some things that seem promising.
Starward Rogue was the game that flopped in January and led to our financial woes (or rather failed to save us from the woes that began with Stars Beyond Reach going waaaay over time and budget, but that's another story). A lot of the contractors who had been working on that have opted to stay on as volunteers and have made some amazing post-release updates to it. All of them have other jobs or general life circumstances that meant that contracting with Arcen was not remotely their core work anyhow, and they have a passion for the game. Despite its financial performance, it's a really good game and one that they in particular feel really close to and want to see succeed. There's the possibility that we might do an expansion for that where they get the royalties for the expansion, though the expectation there isn't that that would be super financially successful either at the moment.
Myself and Blue (Daniette Mann -- but she prefers Blue) have been working on 3D projects since the layoffs. For a lot of reasons, the 3D pipeline is actually more efficient for us to work in, and it's something that just she and I are able to manage between the two of us. At first we were working on a survival game, because my wife and I have played lots of heavily-modded 7 Days to Die but want a pretty different version of that (and so, as happened with AI War, I figured "well heck, I'll just make it myself then.")
But that project turned out to be pretty large, as one would expect with something so open-ended. We built up our 3D skills and toolset quite a bit, and during that period I found an asset on the unity asset store that was a velociraptor you could control. The controls were awkward and slow and really stiff, but I found it really compelling anyhow; there was a real mental throwback to the 1993 Jurassic Park game, which I loved. So we decided to make a game based around that concept, but with a different raptor model (also from the asset store), with custom rigging and animation by Blue, custom shader and other details from me, and custom controller code by myself.
And so she and I have been working on Release Raptor most of this time, while Keith has been on Stars Beyond Reach, and we've had the "freaking volunteers" (as they like to call themselves) working on Starward Rogue. We've also had some volunteer and contractor help, particularly lately, on the Raptor game in the late stages of preparing for Early Access with that.
Pablo Vega, our composer, is still in the picture with a track-a-month agreement that we have with him, with the ability to contract for more if need be. This is a big step down from him being a fulltime composer for us, and he and I were the first two to go fulltime with Arcen, so that really is tough. But we're glad to still be able to work together at all.
Erik Johnson is still doing our PR and marketing work on a part-time basis, while also now working with a lot of other indies in that capacity under his new (since the layoffs) company The Indie Bros.
I think that people almost expect you to come up with unexpected concepts and ideas. But even with that in mind, Release Raptor came as a surprise to a lot of people. That's a complete change in style and general direction. How did this come about, and aren't you concerned that it might alienate your core audience to a certain degree?
I think that's definitely the expectation when it comes to us, yes. That can be a blessing and a burden, honestly. Sometimes when we do something that "isn't unique enough," we get slammed for that even when it has a bunch of twists compared to other entries in a given genre. But it doesn't live up to their standard of what they expect from us, so there's a backlash. That happened some with Starward Rogue, even though I think it has a huge amount of innovation in the roguelike genre. And that's happening to a mild degree here, too.
I think that one of the big worries that some people have with Release Raptor is that it's going to be a "stupid person" game. Aka, that it's some sort of sellout or that we're trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator or whatever else. In my case, I freaking love velociraptors, and have since I was a kid. Two of our other games (A Valley Without Wind 1 and 2) both let you play as a raptor in a 2D sidescrolling sense, but we never developed it out fully. I wasn't interested in doing that in 2D. I'm kind of done with 2D platformers, and I didn't want it to just be about platforming.
One of the big things that has been increasingly frustrating me with 2D, and that especially came to a head in Starward Rogue, is the difficulty of creating a sense of place. Everything is smaller and further away, and you can't build up from smaller components in the same way as you can with 3D. A lot of things (anything to do with perspective, really) has to be faked in some fashion in 2D. So there's a huge sense of exploration and place that we just can't get at.
With Valley 1 and 2 we really pushed that sense of exploration as far as I think we could in 2D, and a lot of people responded really well to that in Valley 1. But there's still a big difference between something like Terraria and Minecraft in terms of how immersed I feel in the environment. It doesn't mean that one game is superior to the other, but it does really speak to that one aspect.
It's going to be really easy for folks to jump on that last bit about a sense of place in 2D and point to all sorts of exceptions, and there are -- Limbo is one great example. But I'd counter that if you look at Inside, you can see that the same studio that did Limbo was able to crank it up to 11 when they were working in 3D.
In a lot of respects we're doing now what we've done in a lot of our other games, but it doesn't feel like that because of the perspective switch. We've got procedural action-adventure here, which is what four of our other titles were (and one other of our titles was action-adventure without the procedural bit). So out of 10 games, we've now got half of them as action-adventure, and half of them as strategy or tactics.
But even in our action-adventure games, we tend to blend in some sort of tactical or strategic layer to it. A lot of people don't really think that's possible here I think based on what they see, and to some extent that's because I just need to add more and more content here. It's the variety of enemies that really make Starward Rogue as good as it is. With Release Raptor, I wanted to focus on making it really feel good to be the raptor, as well as giving me a sense of being in interesting places, and then have as much interesting stuff to fight as possible.
Right now it's early access and so kind of the tip of the iceberg, if you will. I think that some people who are currently feeling alienated by this direction are basically reacting as if this was Goat Simulator: Raptor Edition. I could really see that being alienating! I hope that over time as early access progresses those people will have their opinion shifted. My big fear is them looking at it and going "meh" and then never giving it a second look. I guess time will tell.
What happened next was rather unusual and sudden: after weak initial sales, Arcen completely removed Release Raptor from sale, essentially scrapping development and promising full refunds to all previous buyers.
Was nuking development in case of bad sales ever a possibility you took into account, or did you spontaneously decide to kill off the raptor?
Nuking development of a game we'd already released (even in EA form) is never something I'd considered. This option had not remotely entered my mind prior to about an hour before deciding to do it. I figured that the worst case with this game would be to struggle along for a month, maybe two, spend about about $40k doing so, and then leave people with a good $5 experience.
The problem, looking at the numbers and the early feedback and the early response from much of the press, was that I realized that we were not remotely going to recoup that $40k anytime soon, AND that I'd burn a couple of depressing months slogging out something that apparently no-one wanted or understood. Despite my own personal enthusiasm for the project, yesterday was a hard one to be motivated for.
The Rock, Paper, Shotgun article about this being so much like Goat Simulator or whatever really hit me hard. But in general there was a sentiment around a lot of press that "wow they must be hard-up for money to try and make a game like this."
In other words, this was widely seen as some sort of cash-in. We were getting Youtuber coverage of people having fun with the game and goofing off and enjoying themselves and saying how they were hopeful it would grow... but people in general are skeptical of Early Access these days. And this being our first game in this genre, most of that audience probably didn't know our studio.
With the messaging being SO drastically off about what the game even was, and the various Youtuber coverage being what it was in terms of positivity and yet literally zero movement in sales bumps from that... I realized that I was basically condemned in some senses. I have X amount of money, I would have to spend it keeping promises on this game that nobody cared about, and at the end of that term I'd have next to no money, and therefore no options.
I've seen so many other studios in that sort of situation, and it generally leads to them abandoning an Early Access title and thus earning EA its bad reputation. This was a situation I have always arduously worked to avoid, which is why Stars Beyond Reach spent so much time in closed beta only to be scrapped and reworked and STILL not released. It's why I've never done a Kickstarter, although now I'm biting the bullet and will be doing one for an AI War sequel. That's our bread and butter, and we know that backwards and forwards, so if there's any sort of safe bet in terms of something we can deliver on a schedule we understand, it's that. And a lot of people are hungry for it, versus it being some new IP, so that's an added bonus.
Back to the story, I suppose. I had completed a day of working on the second substantial content update in two days of the game being out. It was ready to go out the door, and I realized that I was condemned and that this wasn't going to get better. We've been here before, and the optimism that we once had about such things turning around is long, loooong gone. If sales were X now, then they were only going to be X/10 two weeks from now. Aka, a copy or two a day. I guarantee it.
If the press hadn't really reacted yet, or Youtubers and Twitch folks hadn't been covering it at all yet, or our advertising campaign hadn't kicked into gear yet, then I would have still had some hope. And indeed, for the first two days, as those things were just getting off the ground, I had a lot of hope. Things were starting slow, but THIS game would have a differently-shaped graph than all the others.
Once it became clear that all of those things were not making a difference and we were spending more on advertising than the game was even making, AND the game was being misunderstood and seen as a cash grab... well, that was the death of hope, I suppose. Something I had worked nights and weekends for months on, and am still incredibly proud of, was suddenly inviable and felt like shackles. I know that a lot of other devs have been in this situation.
What the key realization was, though, was that this game had sold SO poorly that I could actually withdraw it from the market with minimal financial loss compared to what I'd otherwise lose. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 of direct cost in refund bank fees, versus $40,000. Obviously the revenue would be lost on top of that, but that's not money we ever had in our pocket anyway. I'm referring to money out the door that was in a bank account we have.
After realizing that, I realized I wasn't shackled after all. I had had similar opportunities to avoid shackling myself to A Valley Without Wind 2 ($130k loss) and Stars Beyond Reach ($200k+ loss beyond the point where I should have called it off last May, and $420k loss overall). For once I could read the tea leaves early, not be over-optimistic, and make the choice that is painful and yet needed. There is no part of me that wonders "what if."
At that point I wanted to act as fast as possible and let people know, and get Valve and Humble to take down the game from the store. So I let people know, including Valve and Humble. Unfortunately, apparently I reached them too late because it's still up over the weekend, and suddenly everyone is buying it like crazy so that they get a free copy to go with their refund. I'll be stuck with all the bank fees from that. I guess I should have said "everyone who bought the game prior to X date," but it's too late for that now. If I change that around, that will just create more stir and anger people who are trying to take advantage of the situation belatedly.
I guess that generally happens to a lot of projects, but the game already being so far and in early access added some extra visibility to it.
Yeah, tons of projects get scrapped without a word, and we've even scrapped two different concepts that we hardly ever talk about (Cretaceous, a dinosaur-themed strategy game, and Starport 28, a kind of space-station simulator that we were working on right prior to Spacebase DF-9 being announced). Those ones we spent some money on and have some art and code for, and I don't have any particular bad feelings about them. They were interesting experiments and didn't pan out, and ultimately were not too expensive at all. It's the cost of trying to innovate.
For what it's worth, I think it's a bold, sensible move, true to the "spirit" of early access, where lots of abandoned games go and die a slow, sad death.
Thank you, I appreciate it. Overall this seems to have been received reasonably well, but it's early yet. I'm sure I'll take some serious slagging for it.
How much of a setback does this pose, both financially and morally? Will you take some time off to recover from this, or move full steam ahead on to the next project?
We started working on bits of the AI War sequel as far back as late last year, so we're just going to pick right up on that. I'd love to take time off to recover, but there's no money for that sort of break. Money, money, money. Sigh. I just want to make games. It's definitely a morale hit over here, but we were already starting to have that (and just trying to suppress it mentally to keep focused) with the sales numbers being what they were. Financially this is less of a hit than it would have been, and it gives us enough breathing room to get a Kickstarter together for AI War 2.
Part of me really wants to just throw caution to the wind and make a small and self-contained strategy project like Rebuild or Plague Inc., just for a change of pace. But I know how much work those sorts of things actually take compared to what they might seem upfront, so I'll restrain myself.
There has been a shift in media coverage in recent years, with Youtubers and Streamers taking over for "traditional" press and websites. Has this affected Arcen in any way and is this something you felt you can work with, or does it pose yet another new challenge in getting coverage?
I've definitely noticed it. Overall this seems to be a positive thing... I think. The Youtubers and Twitch crowd tend to have much more segmented audiences, which means that reaching out to specific individual channels can have a much bigger effect in terms of the ratio of their viewers that actually care about our game if it's a fit for that channel in the first place.
On the flip side, though, each video takes a lot longer for them to do than a traditional news post on a website would, so the barrier to entry at some of the larger channels is higher. For Twitch in particular, there has to be a way for them to get a lot of hours out of your game for them to be interested, because they're not going to make one 20 minute video and call it quits. So for a game in early access, that can pose some challenges on the Twitch side.
The gaming and distribution landscape has changed considerably in the last few years. which of these changes have impacted you the most when they occurred, and which ones are you (still) struggling with now?
Steam Greenlight has been extremely bad for us, because we were on Steam prior to that and it was way less crowded. We're still figuring out how to deal with that.
The shifts to the way Steam sales (the seasonal ones) are run has also been bad for us -- the gamified versions that they used to run were much better at getting us at least a chance at some decent spotlight. And back as far as 2011, being in a daily deal during the summer sale grossed us something like $120k. That's more than the yearly take for all the seasonal sales for ALL our games in more recent years. That was obviously an unusual high water mark, but at any rate there has been a huge dampening for us in general when it comes to the seasonal sales.
The improved Steam Reviews have been a hugely beneficial thing, on the flip side. Even though some of our games have suffered ill fates under that, it's a better system than Metacritic was, in my opinion. On super popular games I understand that it can be filled with joke reviews or reactions to specific semi-relevant things that a game does, but for smaller and midsize games I feel like it is a very good thing.
Steam curators, and the Steam queue, were two things I had high hopes for. However, I don't feel like they are set up at the moment in such a way to really maximize discovery as much as I'd hope. There isn't much motivation for the curators, and the curator pages don't have anywhere remotely like the power of the Steam front page. The steam front page itself is becoming a lot less useful unless you're looking for popular content, although the "popular new releases" change (versus just a literal list of new releases) was a very wise change.
In an ideal world, I think that curators with a certain size of external audience (say, Total Biscuit or IndieGames.com or Gamasutra or PC Gamer or whatever) should be able to maintain a curator page that mimics the Steam storefront and that gives them something like a 5% take. It's not a conflict of interest for a review organization, because they'll get a 5% return from ANY game they recommend on their store, so they are not incentivized to positively review game X versus game Y. If anything it actually puts more onus on them to be accurate, because people who feel burned by a past recommendation may go to a different curator page to make the purchase out of spite in the future.
To me, this would be a way better way for news outlets to make money from developers/publishers than traditional advertising. It's a lot more democratic. Obviously a variety of them make their money from Patreon, which is even better. But back to my core point: the curator system and queue system really kind of fizzled in my opinion. They still could be great, and I think they really are the solution to the "Too Many Games In Too Many Niches" problem, but right now they don't get the job done.
I agree with you on the curator thing. There are important features (like hiding certain curators) missing and there's a curious limit on how much stuff you can actually showcase. All larger websites will hit their limit pretty fast.
I did not know about the limit to the number of titles that can be curated -- that's very strange. Ideally the website could make their own custom categories and put games in there as they wish. For instance "Bob's Recommendions" as one category "Joe's Absolute Favorites" as another, "Best of 2014 Awards" as another and whatever else.
The ability to hide curators is there on the dev side, at least. Last I saw, I think -- I didn't mess with it, but I could have sworn I saw that.
Another thing that has been gaining momentum in the last few years were pay-what-you-want bundles. You've been there from the beginning with Indie Royale and you kept on selling most of your titles in bundles. Do you ever have the feeling that you actually "overbundled"?
You know, I was around when the original Humble Bundle was being discussed, but before it was actually out. I remember saying that I thought it was a terrible idea. Turns out I was very much on the wrong side of history with that one! It actually took a good 2-3 years before I cautiously did any bundles at all.
The thing I'd been afraid of was that the bundles would lead to a slump in regular sales and/or discount sales of the included titles. Turns out there was no such effect. Overall the audience for each bundle site seems to be fairly different from the main audiences at each distributor site. There are some bundle sites that we no longer do business with because they wind up with a lot of keys going onto the grey market thanks to lax anti-fraud systems on their end. But that's been the one negative thing that we've observed with any of the bundles.
If anything, sales either stay flat or get a slight spike after a bundle. The natural response to that would be "what about long-term, though?" Looking at the data, I don't think that there's a correlation there, let alone any sort of causation. We have seen a lot of our titles drop in their sales volume dramatically, but that happened pretty clearly at the same time as Greenlight started flooding the store. Other titles of ours that have historically sold well and which have been bundled equal numbers of times or even more have not dropped much at all.
AI War still sells quite well overall, for example, and a non-seasonal promotion does shockingly well for a game that's 7 years old. It's not what it once was, but I don't see any connection in the data to bundles. The thing that I think drags that one down, aside from simply its age, is the sheer number of games that go on sale every week on Steam. People aren't excited about something like midweek madness anymore, and they don't come and check to see what is on sale (even what few things are on sale) on a given day. Who even bothers to scroll through the entirety of the hundreds of games on sale every week now?
To end on a less serious note: you released a bunch of very different games. Looking back, could you rank them by personal preference? I know that's like asking a parent to rank their kids, but people out there seem to have incredibly differing opinions on them, so I'd be interested in your take.
Ah! That's very interesting indeed. I definitely have my preferences, I think, although I'd rank them differently if you ask me about which ones I liked most to make versus to play. So going from most favorite to least favorite to play -- out of our games we've actually released in some form -- I would say:
Starward Rogue / In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor (would be #1 if I got to finish it) / AI War: Fleet Command / Bionic Dues / A Valley Without Wind 2 / The Last Federation / A Valley Without Wind / Shattered Haven / Tidalis / Skyward Collapse
In terms of my personal part of the creation process, I would say the following order:
In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor / The Last Federation / Starward Rogue / Skyward Collapse / AI War: Fleet Command / Bionic Dues / Tidalis / A Valley Without Wind / Shattered Haven / A Valley Without Wind 2
Kind of funny how the two can diverge so much, isn't it?
Thank you for your time, Chris, and best of luck with AI War 2!
At the time of writing, the unfinished build of In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor is available from Steam as a free download. Meanwhile, Arcen Games are gearing up for their AI War 2 Kickstarter campaign.