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Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Path
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Postmortem: Tale of Tales' The Path


July 22, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 8 Next
 

What Went Right

Did it

We succeeded in what we set out to do: to create a mid-sized video game from start and finish and publish and distribute it to an audience.

This may seem obvious. But each video game that is created is a little miracle.

Video game production is a constant struggle with what the technology is capable of and what it will let you do. And developing with a small team on a limited budget does not make that easier.

So whatever anyone may think, however we may feel about the outcome, we are proud simply of having made this thing. Because, as we often say, it's better to make something than nothing.

Accessible technology

One of the main reasons why a small team without engineers is able to create a complex piece of software like The Path is the technology that is available now.

We did all of the modeling and texturing in Blender and all of the programming in Quest3D. The latter deserves a special mention because it is quite a unique tool.


(Click for full size)

In Quest3D, you don't write code. You express your ideas about processes and interactions through flowcharts -- much like the flowcharts a programmer might draw to design a certain routine before coding it. However, in Quest3D, the flowchart actually works, with no additional coding. And it works in real time! As you connect the elements of your flowchart, the behavior of your application changes. The visible programming interface combined with the direct feedback makes Quest3D a superb tool for artists to work with software.

The biggest downside to Quest3D is that it can only output applications for Windows. Luckily we found Transgaming, which was willing to port The Path to Mac OSX through its Cider technology. This was not straightforward, but between the excellent engineers at Transgaming, the personal assistance of the Quest3D team, and our own modification of the game, we succeeded in making a Mac version of The Path by May 2009.

Working with artists

Each member on the development team for The Path is an artist. Not just an "artist" in the games industry sense of the pairs of hands required to make Thee Mighty Code look and sound pretty to human players, but an artist in the sense that they are capable of communicating on a profound level through their medium.

We chose to work with certain people because of their artistic gift, not to fill vacancies. Between Auriea and Michaël, there's sufficient skill to make an entire game at Tale of Tales. But we knew that the contributions of Laura, Jarboe, Kris, Hans, and Marian would make The Path immeasurably better.

Common knowledge has it that artists are difficult people to work with. They tend to have strong personalities and huge egos and are all but team players. We are artists; we know. But our collaboration with these people came out of a deep respect for their work. We did not just need people to do the stuff we had no time for. We really wanted their contribution in our game.

Sometimes we felt like gallery owners setting up a show for them. We created a place for their work in ours and expected them to fill it with greatness. And this turned out to be an excellent way to get a group of headstrong individuals to create a thing of beauty together.

It probably didn't hurt that most of us were female, but that's another topic.

Testing

Before The Path, we had never done a lot of playtesting for any of our projects. Here and there, we had people try out early versions of our work. But this rarely had any real impact on the design of the game.

This time, we sent a message to our mailing list to invite people who live in or near Belgium and were available for an entire day to come and play The Path at our studio. Many people responded, and in the end we made 12 appointments. Each tester would come to our studio and play the game in a room set up for the occasion. The first few hours we would sit there and watch them play without saying much. Then we would evaluate their experience over tea.

After that, we would leave them alone for a few more hours, to play the game in private. This series of thorough playtests has really been eye-opening to us and probably greatly contributed to the accessibility of The Path.

Many things were changed in response to these tests. Sometimes it was difficult to find a balance between fine-tuning the game for a specific audience and opening it up to a wider one. So we had to make some hard decisions about whom we were making the game for (in the end, the enthusiasm of the newbie player trumped the skepticism of the hardcore gamer).


We observed the testers playing the game. and wrote a short summary on the blog at the time about each session.

A second round of tests was done when the game was almost finished, mostly to find technical errors. This test was done through the internet. Testers would download the latest build of the game and play it for hours, days, weeks. Some people were very dedicated. They would report their problems via a web-based bug tracking system (Mantis). Using a bug tracker was also a first for us. We are -- and all players of the game should be -- very grateful for their devoted volunteering because it made The Path as stable and reliable as it is today.

It's counter-intuitive for a creative person to allow an outsider to influence their work. But we're very glad we did it. It's not like you lose control over your work; you just add a few more factors to the decision-making process. No artist is ever completely certain about anything. Doubts are, in fact, an important motivator. The reactions of outsiders are not the only outcome of playtests. Your reactions to these reactions are important as well. And together they give you a lot more data to inform your creative decisions.

Marketing

We had always been very active on the internet. In a way, the internet had been our home, our country, for a long time. When Web 2.0 happened, it felt like our land was being overrun by immigrants. And we retreated... into video games, actually.

So when, a few years later, we figured out how to publish a commercial game independently, reconnecting with the internet felt like exploring a land that was still very familiar but where lots of things were done differently. But we felt more than comfortable with the idea of using the network for the promotion and distribution of our new work.

As of then, to some extent, everything we did online served as marketing for The Path. The Tale of Tales blog served as a central hub. It wasn't like we didn't have any controversial ideas, or interesting thoughts. We just didn't have a lot of desire to share these ideas and thoughts. Our "Game Design Forum" had been quite sufficient for that (although it had been overrun by the players of The Endless Forest by that time).

But thanks to the blog, publishing our opinion pieces instantly became marketing for our game. And that was all the motivation we needed. It wasn't always fun. We actually get deeply upset by the extreme flaming our deviant scribbles sometimes provoke on the internets. But it did do the job. By the time The Path was launched, the number of visitors to our website had more than quadrupled, with an all time high of 14,000 unique visitors on 21 March. And even now, a year after launch, we still get 4,000 people per day.

Next to the main Tale of Tales blog, we also ran a development blog, to share information with dedicated followers, and also to keep a record of the history of the project.

The blog was only one aspect of the marketing, though. We also created a plan of sending out one press release per month throughout the entire production to a list of email addresses we had started for The Endless Forest but which grew exponentially throughout the production period of The Path.

We did these press releases not necessarily because we were hoping for a publication (which often didn't happen), but to get the journalists acquainted with our work. So that when we were ready for launch, they would at least have heard the name of the game before, or perhaps even be familiar with some of our ideas.

A special element in the marketing were the LiveJournals that each of the Red Girls kept during production. These were probably not very effective as marketing, but they were the reason we felt comfortable including text in The Path. For multiple reasons, we have never been a great proponent of written or spoken text in our work.

The Path did not contain any text in game up until the playtests. When we saw that some players had difficulty to let their imagination work when playing, we came up with the idea of showing some of the protagonists' musings on screen, to give the player's mind a little nudge. Since the response to the LiveJournal writing had been so positive, we felt it could even add something to the game for many people.

And a final key element in the marketing was the release of smaller titles. We added a Halloween feature to The Endless Forest in November 2007 and a Carnival feature in February 2008. And in April 2008 we gave the players of The Endless Forest a dedicated community website where they can keep blogs, share fanart and organize events. We released The Graveyard in March 2008 and Fatale post-launch in October 2009. Switching between projects turned out to be beneficial for the work on The Path as well, because it allowed us to refresh ourselves and prevented burn-out.

Press and audience

The biggest surprise for us has been the overwhelmingly positive response of the gaming press. While almost every article starts with the warning that The Path may not really be a game, and that as such it may divide the audience in extreme camps, almost every journalist ends with appreciating either the experience itself or the boldness of our design.

Only a few "rogue websites" published articles that bordered on declarations of war in which each and every feature of The Path was destroyed. So there was some controversy but overall we got pretty lucky and The Path ended up with Metacritic score of almost 80. This is kind of amusing, since many journalists refused to score the game because they considered that to be inappropriate -- since it was considered to be an art piece first. We're actually quite proud of having instigated that mini-rebellion.

The audience, however, was a lot less united. There were many blog posts that celebrated the experience of our work. But at some point it seemed like it had become fashionable to hate not only The Path, but Tale of Tales and everything it stood for.

When The Graveyard was released, it confused a lot of people but that didn't lead to public outrage. The Path, on the other hand, got a lot of press, and a lot of positive press at that. This may have been too much for the hardcore gamers on the internet. Not only did our design insult their sensibilities, it was also celebrated by people in ways they failed to comprehend.

It's hard to say what effect the controversy has had on the success of the project. On the one hand, it's not very nice if people say bad things about your work. But on the other, while they are talking about it, they keep the work fresh in the mind of the community.

Girls

It's a bit of a cliché by now to discuss female gamers, because the success of casual games and social games with women, and the explicit acceptance of hardcore gaming by some girl-oriented blogs and websites has diluted the point somewhat.

But that doesn't diminish the pride we take in having created a video game that women can really feel is about them. The Path doesn't just give girls a female avatar to play boy games with, and it doesn't paint everything pink with smiling faces and hearts. The Path is a game that is about things that can be deeply important to women, and it is played in a feminine way.

Artistic success

Despite explicitly trying to make something with at least some commercial viability, The Path became an emotionally deep and intellectually stimulating experience for many. Myriad are the expressions of virtual disbelief. Many people had no idea that a video game could be so artistic. Even the games press universally sang the same song: The Path is not a game, but it's an amazing experience.

This puts us in an awkward situation: when we try to make something widely appealing, it is received as being excessively artsy. So what would happen if we would try to be artsy on purpose? We have not tried that yet. But we have made games in which we don't put a lot of effort in the public appeal (like Fatale and Vanitas). What happens is that people largely ignore them.

Of course, it could be that The Path became a better work of art because we cared more about the audience. We're not as romantic as to believe that good art should always be exclusively personal. Perhaps by making The Path less art, it became art for more people.

Next to the online success, The Path has also been part of several festivals and exhibitions of artistic games. Since The Path is such an intimate experience, we tend to be a bit reluctant to show it in a social context. But our vanity often gets the better of us. It's nice to be a part of this international trend of featuring certain games in a fine arts context. And it's nice to see how most of these games are independently created, like The Path. It's a form of recognition we are not really looking for (the online community is far more important to us) but it's pleasant nonetheless.

Financial success

If The Path had been a pure for-profit project, it would have been a financial failure (at least so far). But The Path was not purely commercial. Less than half of the production budget came from a source that required a return on investment. And The Path more than returned that investment. The rest of the budget came from multiple non-commercial art grants. So our accounts are clean; we're in the black.

It's true that part of us was hoping that, despite of the fact that it wasn't necessary, The Path would return sufficient money to cover its entire production budget. Then it could have been used as proof that experimental artistic games could be commercially viable.

But the more important conclusion is that it is possible to create this kind of work without going bankrupt. This is important because we think the medium of video games needs to be explored and experimented with much more than is happening today. And the financing of The Path shows one way in which this research can be funded. Of course, this particular way requires the explicit desire of the creator to make a work of art (in order to get access to non-commercial arts funding). But the games industry could do a lot worse.


Article Start Previous Page 6 of 8 Next

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