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.