Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Graveyard
November 27, 2008 Page 5 of 10
What went wrong
The return on investment through sales was far too low to get even near to breaking even (details in the last part of this article). Technically, this is not a failure because the project was not designed to be commercial, but to only be a parody of a certain business model. And the fact that it was non-commercial was instrumental to acquiring the arts funding in the first place, commercial and artistic being largely considered mutually exclusive here in Europe. So not selling well is in fact a bonus in some weird way. But still it would be nice if a project like The Graveyard could be made solely through the support of its audience.
No publishers or distributors
Maybe we could get closer to that ideal if major distributors would be involved with it. We asked the friendly people at Steam but they didn't see The Graveyard fitting in their offer or appealing to their audience. Neither could we, really, but somebody is going to need to do something at some point on the business side to make this dream of an artistic games medium a reality. Distribution is everything. Unless we want artistic videogames to go the tragic way of video art.
Apart from a few websites that mirror the trial download and some magazine cover CDs, The Graveyard is solely distributed from our own website. We talked to Steam. They didn't want it. We asked Manifesto. They didn't respond. We were scared of approaching the portals. The Graveyard is a difficult game to position. But we're certain that if it would be distributed through other channels, it would find a much bigger audience, even within the gaming public, but certainly outside of that. But there is no real distribution channel for these kinds of small games.
Too little time/money to make everything perfect
This is also a double-edged sword. We would have loved to have more time/money to improve the quality of the game. But the small size of the budget was important to get it approved by our funders. And the small scale of the project actually suited very well within our workflow (which is mostly focused on production of The Path these days).
But in an ideal world, yes, we would have loved to have been able to put a little more time in the production of the game.
It's kind of pretty. But it's wrong. We wanted the titles to fade in and out. But some bug prevented this
The Graveyard is a very stable application overall, thanks in large part to the Unity engine. But some things don't work. Fading GUI elements didn't work across platforms. We caught that before publication. On some Windows machines, the game takes a long time to start up. For some users, the avatar does not move forward -- we have no idea why. And the latest upgrade of the Mac OS has messed up the shadows when you run the game in anything but full screen mode.
This made us realize that, in the future, we need to reserve some of the budget for post-launch patching, something we hadn't even thought of now. It's nice to produce a small project from start to finish and experience some of the problems on a small scale so we can prevent them later when we're working on bigger projects.
Faulty script to track downloads
We had created a PHP script to track the number of downloads per version and per platform, hoping to get some interesting data that would help us with marketing of other projects. But the script we made was too simplistic and it couldn't handle the traffic peaks caused by The Graveyard's popularity. So we lost a lot of valuable information because of this.
4. Out in the world
The Graveyard is not a commercial project. The fact that we distribute it as a shareware game was an artistic decision, not a commercial one. We wanted to challenge people's assumptions about what they pay for in a game. Not seduce them to spend money (we'll experiment with that in other projects). Hence the almost symbolic price of 5 U.S. Dollars (or, for us in Belgium, little over 3 Euros).
As a result, the critical response to the piece is far more important than its commercial success. We'll offer some business details at the end of this chapter, but we'll look into the hearts and minds of the audience first.
The Graveyard was released on March 21, 2008, for both Mac and PC. Virtually immediately, it was picked up by several web publications, resulting in an enormous increase of visits to our website. The Graveyard literally doubled the amount of web visitors for two months (to over 70,000 unique visitors per month). Which, much to the chagrin of our web host, resulted in over half a terabyte of bandwidth used by our little old lady in March and April.
People found our website through links from some 200 articles published in all corners of the internet. The article in the Wired game blog was by far the most important channel (12,000 hits), followed by the Apple game downloads section and a mention on Boing Boing (each good for 6,000 hits). Heise (DE) sent 5,000 people our way, GNN (TW) 4,000 and Joystiq (U.S.) 2,600. Most of these simmered down after a month or less, except for the Apple site, which is still directing people to us (down to about 200 hits last month).
Many of these articles are fairly short and transmit our challenge to the audience faithfully: I dare you to click on something that sounds so strange and lame. But some articles went deeper. John Walker's preview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun was lovely. Even the comments were interesting -- for a change. We were very happy with Chris Kohler's post on Wired as well. Other memorable articles were Eric Simonovici's post on Over Game (FR), Simone Tagliaferri on Ars Ludica (IT), Joris Dirickx on Jouw Games (NL) and Deirdra Kiai's thougtful criticism on Adventure Gamers (US). There was also a nice article in GMR magazine by Niels ‘t Hooft (NL).
"Interactivity is a powerful thing. The Graveyard could have been a short film on YouTube and lost none of its presentational qualities, or its message. But the very limited interaction you have with the character -- you can walk her forward and backward, or turn -- instantly makes the connection deeper and more powerful than it would have been if you were simply watching." - Chris Kohler
"From the realistic birds flitting about to the way the sounds of the street fade as you move further into the sanctuary, Tale of Tales again demonstrate a remarkable capacity for crafting ambience. The music, the particle effects, and perhaps most of all, the realistic clouds and their effects on the shadows of the graveyard, all envelope you in this single moment." - John Walker
"Le titre de Tale of Tales, lui, fait peut-être le choix de mettre plus franchement le joueur face à l'ultime game over, presque un tabou dans un monde où la mort, aussi violente qu'elle soit, n'est généralement rien de plus qu'une formalité, et une perspective d'autant plus dérangeante qu'elle est ici aussi inattendue que définitive." - Eric Simonovici
Overall, the reactions to the game (gathered from the articles, their comments sections and personal messages), fall into three categories.
Of course there is the expected response of the typical gamers whose desire for zombies whenever they see a cemetery is apparently insatiable. They tended to describe The Graveyard as "boring". Of course.
A little bit up the ladder of human civilisation, we find the people who were turned on by the idea but turned off by the actual experience. They were "disappointed". From what we can see, this was either caused by a failure on our part to maximize the qualities of the game or by certain expectations coming from the player.
Despite the fact that games are supposed to be interactive, many gamers still seem to be incredibly passive when it comes to the meaning of their entertainment. They expect to be spoonfed and don't seem to have any experience with literature, modern theater or fine art (or even art films) which require active participation, not just of thumbs and index fingers but also of heart and brain.
A final type of response was the simply "delighted" one. These people really enjoyed the game. And/or they were happy to see the experimentation that we're doing with the medium.
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