Shout-outs, and EU games

Two things.

First, Dark Storm. There is a cool looking game with a female protagonist on Kickstarter. It’s a stealth-action game about a lady named Amber Kingsley who’s trying to save her friend in an Arctic research base that’s contested between Russia and the USA. There was something about Deus Ex in the description, so if you liked that, you might like this. Their concept and art pressed all the right buttons, for me at least. Gaming needs more protagonists like Amber. If you have money, please consider backing them.

Second, the end of Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries and the company that made it. An indie game from Belgium, using Unreal Engine, a 3D platformer where you play as a gothic Red Riding Hood bent on revenge. The company went bankrupt after releasing the game, despite selling at least 35K copies. You can read the sad story on their website. Why am I posting this? Because this is a fate that can threaten any small indie production that tries to emulate the triple-A look and feel. The guys who worked at GRIN have my heartfelt compassion. They got very far with their vision. Woolfe looks very, very good for a small indie game. And chin up, guys, at least you released the game you wanted to make.

Why did Woolfe fail? It looks like they ran out of money despite a successful 70K $ kickstarter. Apparently the game just didn’t sell enough to recoup the expenses (it sold at under $10 on Steam, probably mainly because it’s only 2-3 hours long.) 35K sold copies is nothing to sneer at of course, so I have to wonder where all the money went.

Woolfe was shot down in several reviews. Actually, some reviewers gleefully obliterated it. Youtube can be a rough place, and so can Steam. This review called Woolfe “a horrible cash grab piece of trash” – that’s pretty harsh. The game looks stunning, the gameplay, story and characters are OK, and it’s an indie game made by 5 guys. What do people expect? Miracles? Unfortunately the general public has very little idea of the realities of game development and what it takes to make something like this. Expectations are very high, almost unrealistically so, and even a good indie game will often fail to meet them.

The main things that were criticized, from what I can see, were the combat (too simple), the voice acting (a very usual complaint about games, especially European games, despite it being mostly a matter of taste), the short play time (despite it being an indie game made by just 5 people, this apparently doesn’t count – only results count), and (mostly American reviewers) – that it reminds too much of “American Mc Gee’s Alice” (“ripoff” is really an unfair criticism but a very common one – it makes you look terribly smart on Reddit if you can point out a ripoff, doesn’t it, no matter if it’s actually true.)

This last point – comparing it to Alice – is a typically American thing to do. It’s a story about a girl in a fantastic world – a fairytale even – so it must be comparable to Alice in Wonderland or the Wizard of Oz, right? No, duh, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a European folk tale, why not accept it as such. It’s a European developer, even. Maybe there is a cultural difference at play here. I have heard American critics chide European games for “cliches” a few times now. Woolfe is one game that got this criticism, The Dark Eye: Drakensang by German developer Radon Labs was another (it also got the “ripoff” comments that seem to be unavoidable for some reason.) American/British critics seem to be very fast to label fairytale references and a certain kind of humour in (continental) European games as “cliche” when that might not really be very accurate. It’s just a cultural difference. Why can’t it be respected. You respect it in Japanese games as well, right.

Indie developers can’t afford marketing teams to tell them that this kind of humour or that kind of story motif “doesn’t fly in America.” Why not cut indies some slack here. They do the best with the resources at hand. You can’t reasonably expect Hollywood or Disney-type stuff from European indie developers that meets the American taste. And why would you.

“Woolfe” appears at times lovely, even entrancing. Its platforming is pretty solid. Combat was a point of contention, I can’t exactly see why, perhaps people today expect more flashy combat with various combos etc by default (the focus on combat all the time in most games is unfortunate anyway.) Perhaps it wasn’t playtested enough. Who knows.

Here’s a more positive review of Woolfe.

What to take away from it? Well, the importance of playtesting obviously, and as always, the core gameplay needs to be good. Perhaps they focused on graphics just a bit too much – 2/3 hours play time is very little. A few additional levels might have helped. But the question that remains is the one about cultural differences between continental Europe and the US that seem to be understood very little – it seems to me that both sides expect their tastes in games to be similar, but that might not be entirely true. Certainly people in Germany play a lot of American video games, but that’s not true the other way around. Sure, there is Crytek, but their games are not very typically European. In fact games like Crysis are thoroughly “Hollywoodized” which seems to be key to sell overseas. Tanks, military, explosions, superpowers, machine guns, aliens and robots. The usual stuff. (Battlefield is the same.) Compared to that, something like Woolfe seems quiet and introspective.

An upside of euro-games, perhaps a strength, might be the potential to be deeper, slower, more deliberate and more complex. The “Dark Eye” ruleset of the Drakensang games is an example. It’s fundamentally similar to the American AD&D, but more complex and thus more challenging. If we could stop seeing that as a problem and turn it into a strength, and if gamers were willing to develop a readiness to accept it, complexity and slowness could enrich games. Similarly desirable would be an acceptance of taking things like fairytales at face value, instead of feeling the urge to demonstrate how much that is below you and how much of a ripoff of game X it must be, or constantly comparing euro-fantasy to Alice and Oz. It’s not the same, and it doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t mean that it’s a ripoff. Finally, comments of the sort “this game is gay” are horrible and I wish everyone would understand that. Personally I think all those American superhero games are horrible but I don’t have to post 500 comments on youtube about it.

Looking at youtube let’s plays and such, I’m led to believe that e.g. German fantasy games might find a more welcoming market in Eastern Europe than in the US. Funnily enough, a few franchises from Eastern Europe in turn sell well in the US, such as the Witcher and Stalker games. Perhaps that’s because of the focus on combat.

So I guess, if you’re a (continental) European indie dev and consider markets and translations, looking to the rest of Europe first and over the pond second might not be the worst decision. The cultural differences are ill understood by most game developers. And you’ll never be able to compete with the marketing power of American triple-A publishers in America as an outsider. There are worse games than Woolfe or Drakensang that sold better because of sheer marketing. Perhaps aiming your marketing at a few EU countries (and thus having to shout less) is not a bad thing. There’s more than enough people here who buy games. I keep thinking that games like Woolfe could probably have sold their 35K copies in Europe alone with the right marketing without ever trying to sell them in the US. According to wikipedia, Drakensang sold 200,000 copies in Germany alone; the developer (in a parallel to Woolfe dev GRIN) went bankrupt after making the sequel because they couldn’t recoup the investment of over € 2 million. The games didn’t sell outside of Europe. So, don’t spend so much money, and don’t assume you can compete in the US, it looks like.

Instead looking into German, Swedish, French and Polish translations might be smart.

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8 responses to “Shout-outs, and EU games

  • KillPixel

    Interesting. It’s a shame about Woolfie. Wim Wouters’s post was pitiful, what a crushing experience. It’s a strange thing; have confidence and imbue your project with passion but don’t allow your confidence/passion/optimism to give you tunnel vision. Unfortunately, experience wasn’t there to say “hey, take a step back for a second and try to look at things a little more objectively.” It also seems they weren’t expecting the amount of effort and complexity that came from pushing the envelope just a little bit more.

    I wonder how much was funded internally. I don’t believe they did it with only the 70k from Kickstarter, that sounds nearly impossible. If they sold 35k units, even just through Steam, they should still taking home 200k-250k. In that post he stated they couldn’t even afford postage for the Kickstarter rewards. Yowza.

    Note to self: Have measured confidence and keep your passion under control. Know your project inside and out so you can plan thoroughly and address issues before they even happen, allowing you to deal with unforeseen issues that will surely come up. Plan for the worst case scenario, if worst case is still acceptable then anything else is gravy.

    Also, don’t have your game critically panned :/

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      Yeah, there must be more to the money side of Woolfe than the kickstarter. A postmortem on gamasutra for instance would be nice, so others could learn from it.

      Yep, you need to be confident, but you definitely have to test your core gameplay a lot and with people from your target demography. Core mechanics is the most important thing. Second most important IMHO is level design and a decent play time.

      And yeah, if you’re spending that kind of money, better have a really good plan. And know your market.

      I’d love to know what exactly went down at GRIN. Perhaps they got a really shitty deal with a publisher or something.

      Regarding reviews, this is a disadvantage of indie games. Getting some good reviews with a lot of views probably makes a huge difference. And some people just love to pan games.

      The red riding hood idea probably just wasn’t viable on the US market though. Perhaps with more cleavage it might have sold better :-S

  • toneddu2000

    Thanks for this article, gb. I really thought, before read it, that, one day, I was gonna release some game of my own but, after this article, I won’t try at all! 🙂 I mean, after endless hours of developing, modeling, texturing, level design, testing (and re-testing), crying and suffering… the worst thing that could happen is that audience review your game as trash. I’m really sorry for the Woolfe team fate. What can I say? If someone wants to create an indie game… be at least prepared to fail! 🙂

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      Or don’t use a lot of money on the development, or don’t make money your main goal, or hire someone who’s good at budgeting. A lot of indie devs seem to overestimate how much they need to pay for assets, for instance. In short, people seem to spend too much money too easily.

      My best guess is that making a really good working prototype or vertical slice on your own time and then trying Kickstarter for no more than 25K to finish it off and perhaps build more levels might be a reasonable route. It’s something like that I have in mind for SJ.

      From personal experience, many people are also not determined enough to learn new software for example. IMHO an indie game developer / potential team leader needs to be willing to learn and do a little of everything. The more you can do yourself, the less people you need to hire.

      Woolfe looks to me like they hired a professional environment artist, probably for quite a bit of money. IMHO they should have focused more on level design and core gameplay. It’s the bread and butter of most games while visuals are the topping.

      • toneddu2000

        Well. I must say I agree with you fifty/fifty. Regarding how much pay for an asset, I could say: “or use Unity Asset Store models/textures/sounds/etc (which some of them are great) or be prepared to pay A LOT of money for a real professional artist.”
        Last year I dediced to make a commercial game and I immediately understood that paying people is the fist thing not to understimate. In Europe, for a single character model, textured but NOT skinned, be prepared to pay 1500,00 / 2000 € from a trained, well-known, professionist. For a fully animated character you can reach the 4000€ in no time. In Unity Asset Store a complete model with 15 animations, in sale, could be payed 45€(I bought some awesome ones). But, in the latter case, you’ll probably use only the skeleton + animations and modify a lot the mesh to match your style (otherwise it’ll end up in a copy&paste game which no one will buy), so, again a lot of time + money.
        That was just an example (tested by me in person) of why a guy should’nt understimate money resources.

        Regarding Kickstarter presentations, every day that passes by, audience is asking MORE: more stunning graphics, more super wow environments, more super fx, and so on. So, I see thatm, it’s every day more difficult for a game company with a very original idea, to reach the goal. IMHO asking for 25K is just like to be prepared to fail before even starting. Because people say “oh, just a 25K goal? This guy won’t do a AAA super cool game. I’m not in”. A concept that some people don’t understand is that a succesfull kickstarter campaign requires a WONDERFUL presentation. A wonderful presentation requires hiring a lot of professional artists (so = lots of money) or dedicating a HUGE amount of time all by yourself to the presentation planning / costruction (so = lots of time which it’s lots of money that goes away for food, electricty, bills, house rent, etc).

        When you say “IMHO an indie game developer / potential team leader needs to be willing to learn and do a little of everything”, I say that I tried to learn everything all by miself, but this ended up in huge amounts of time wasted that could have been spent in developing gameplay. And, when you want to start developing gameplay, money are finished to pay bills, electricity, food,etc in advance. And, after that, you could even discover that you didn’t do a great job in learning this or that software / tool!

        Probably we (all) thought that, when UE4 and Unity5 arrived, everyone would have become a super rich game developer, making supercool games and becoming a star. Probably things are not changed too much since game devs were 20 in all the planets and only them were the ones to make money with videgames! 🙂

    • KillPixel

      I think asking for too little, via Kisckstarter and other places, is an easy trap to fall into. Ultimately, you need to have a solid plan and whatever it costs is whatever it costs. The project should determine the budget, the budget shouldn’t determine the project. This is a pretty broad statement for something so varied and nuanced. Just my two cents.

      I agree that the project lead should know, and be willing to do, a little bit of everything. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will be doing everything yourself. Having this knowledge will make you a more effective communicator and help you to develop more accurate budgets and development plans. Game development encompasses many different disciplines. As the project lead, it’s critical you at least have a firm understanding of the concepts and practices of each one.

      “I say that I tried to learn everything all by miself, but this ended up in huge amounts of time wasted that could have been spent in developing gameplay.”

      I’m sympathetic to this way of thinking. I don’t know how to program, I didn’t (and currently don’t) feel it’s cost/time effective, in the context of my particular project, for me to put a majority of my time and energy in learning until I reach the level of proficiency required. HOWEVER, my lack of this skill is costing me time and money and I regret not picking up programming years ago. My advice: learn what you can, while you can, about anything you can.

      • kneedeepinthedoomed

        My friend, after a vertical slice, all the heavy lifting is already done. Please look up what a vertical slice is. All that’s then left is to expand it to full game length, which for an indie game mostly means a few more levels and a nice dressing.

        That’s why in such a position, IMO, you don’t need to ask nearly as much money from investors – your game basically already exists.

        That is what I was talking about.

        And yeah, programming is basically a required skill for an indie developer, unfortunately.

        I’m not dead set on finishing my game alone – I’m open to the idea of bringing in more people to help polish it after the vertical slice has been created. I’m just saying, learning gamedev skills is NEVER a waste of time if you’re an indie game creator. IMHO anyway. If you want game dev to be your life, then definitely.

  • kneedeepinthedoomed

    @toneddu, my reply got too long for a comment so I’ll reply in a blog post.

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