Overall, we feel that the game was received very well. We experienced far less rejection than we had anticipated, even when people didn't exactly like the game. Perhaps a sign that games culture is maturing?
Peer response from the indie game scene was a little odd. The Graveyard was regularly compared to Jason Rohrer's Passage because it deals with similar subject matter. Often, however, our fellow game designers and indie game fans found Passage a superior product because it uses a conventional game structure to convey its message.
To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because "it is not a game". That was also the response of Jonathan Blow when we proposed to show The Graveyard in his Experimental Games Workshop at the Game Developers Conference. The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc. because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines.
There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn't find a clear message. It's as if they, even when looking at art, couldn't shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.
This is all very interesting for us as designers. But in the end, what matters is the response of the audience at large. On top of the numerous spontaneous compliments from random strangers, we're very happy and proud that The Graveyard was selected by the IndieCade festival and nominated for the European Innovative Games Award.
Downloads and Sales
In the absence of publishers or portals, we distributed The Graveyard virtually exclusively from our own website. As mentioned above, the script we had written to count the number of downloads failed several times. The total number of downloads we recorded so far is around 120,000. But the real number is likely to be a bit higher, since we literally lost count a few times.
One of the remarkable outcomes of this project for us is how succesful it was with Mac OS users. It was the first game we ever released for that platform and a quarter of the downloads came from Mac users (well over the 7 or 8% market share that Mac supposedy has, which seems to correlate with our website's visitors). And it gets better when we start looking at sales figures.
In raw figures The Graveyard did not sell well. If it would have been a commercial project, it would have failed. To date we sold 400 copies -- enough to by a new TV, but far from sufficient to sustain our company.
As to be expected, most of these sales happened in the first two months after the release. After that, the "long tail" kicks in. In the first two months we sold well over the amount of copies that we sold in the subsequent half year. The question is now how long this tail will become. Not that there is even a remote chance that The Graveyard could become a commercial success. If the current rate of sales would continue (unlikely), we would have made our development budget back in 15 years!
Currently, in our long tail, we're selling an average of 25 copies per month. At this rate, we would need to have 60 games on sale to keep our company afloat. And at the three months of production time that it took to make The Graveyard, it would take us 15 years to create 60 games.
More fun with numbers! A bit more pertinent now. With the huge amount of downloads versus the low amount of sales, the conversion rate of the Graveyard was pretty disastrous: only 0.34% of the people who downloaded the trial actually bought the full version. Interestingly, if you divide up the numbers per platform, the conversion rate for Mac users is more than double that of PC users! They download less but buy more. Which leads to an interesting end result of 44% of sales being the Mac version, almost half. So it seems that the Mac platform is definitely worth pursuing if you make artistic games.
Ultimately, we consider The Graveyard to be a succesful project. It served as an illustration of our ideas about game design. And those ideas were met with sufficient positive response to be encouraging. We will continue along this path!
Businesswise, The Graveyard doesn't count as a good test, because we had no commercial intent whatsoever. So we're still in the dark about whether making small games like this is a viable enterprise. This is something we will explore with another project.
It is heartwarming to know that over 100,000 people have played our game. That's a staggering amount of people, more than would ever visit any media art festival or gallery exhibition. It's nice to receive such confirmation that our choice of medium is not as insane as it may seem to some.
Article written by Michaël Samyn between May 21 and November 2, 2008. The interviews with Laura Raines Smith, Gerry De Mol, and Kris Force which follow, as appendices, were conducted via email and rearranged a bit for the sake of storytelling.