With all the indie studios starting up around Australia and the world these days, I thought it might be interesting to provide an insight into the potential difficulties of getting a game onto a store shelf. For other folks, this tale might be good for a healthy dose of schadenfreude.
Way back in 2003, Nick and I started Endgame with the vague idea of making original games our way. When the Nintendo DS was announced in 2004, it
seemed like a great opportunity to produce some innovative original game concepts. We wrote up 5 ideas that each took advantage of the DS in a unique way. We then pitched them to the handful of publishers that we knew. One of the concepts was a very early version of Fractured Soul –called Slidatron at the time. The high concept was a shmup game much like Ikaruga; except where Ikaruga flipped colours on the same screen, Slidatron was split across both screens of the DS.
Partly because of our lack of solid publisher contacts, partly because of the inauspicious beginnings that the DS was experiencing at the time, and partly because all we had was a bunch of words on a page, Slidatron didn’t get very far.
We were convinced that gamers would embrace the concept, but without any funding it was going nowhere fast. Distracted by other fee-for-service work, it lay dormant until the end of 2005, by which time we had enough cash in the bank to pay for a smattering of concept art, so we packaged it up into a funding proposal to show to Film Victoria.
Fortunately for us, Film Victoria saw the merit in the idea and approved a small grant for us to develop a prototype. In early 2006, we began full-steam development of this prototype with a view to showing it to publishers at E3 that year. Unfortunately, development of the prototype was delayed, thanks to an incompetent solicitor and a previous customer who was suddenly unable to pay for months of work. We were cash-starved and unable to move the project forward until we could access the Film Victoria grant money. This unfortunate combination of events compacted the development time until E3 and no doubt had a significant impact on the prototype.
Early on in development, we came to the realisation that this game could work in a much more interesting way as a platform game. It suddenly seemed obvious that this was the right direction to move the project forward: we had substantial experience in developing platform games, including seeing how the industry leaders develop platform games having recently worked with the source code to Rayman 3, and this spin on the platform game genre had never been done before. Luckily for us, Film Victoria again saw the merit in this idea and approved the changes.
We built the basic technology on the DS, and then set about designing some puzzle scenarios. The first puzzles were extremely encouraging – they were fun to play, and added a totally new dimension to the platform game genre – a genre of which we were avid fans.
With some rough puzzle designs on various pieces of paper (possibly napkins), we started to concentrate on what would ultimately form the prototype level. The big question we kept coming back to was: “how difficult should we make the prototype?” There’s no doubt that switch-screen-platform gameplay can be extremely challenging yet it could also be extremely simple. “How quickly should the game ramp up?” we asked each other, “and how difficult should it become?”
The conclusions we came to were, sadly, terribly wrong. We reasoned that the switching mechanic was what was awesome about Slidatron. It was the selling point. It’s what differentiated it from every other game that had ever been made before it. Therefore, we concluded that there was no point in holding back: we should hit the publishers with the (most difficult) puzzles that best showed off the mechanic in its most unique form, and we should hit them with these puzzles from the get go.
It was fundamentally flawed reasoning on two counts: first, we were omitting the crucial part of teaching the player our radically new gameplay mechanic and simply launching them into the deep end, and second, we made the hopelessly misguided assumption that employees of publishing companies had core gaming competence.
With that decision made, we had sealed our fate for E3 and the immediate beyond. Like the Titanic casting off from Southampton, we had a fatally flawed design, and we were headed for iceberg E3.
Putting aside this level design misstep, and a few other fairly minor design kinks, we knew we had a solid demo. For someone competent enough to play it, it showed a unique and fun gameplay mechanic, on top of robust technology, and some pretty decent art to go with it.
Still with limited publisher contacts, we pre-booked as many meetings as possible for the show (which amounted to probably 8 or 9) and prepared to do the awkward cold-calling dance that so many developers know only too well.
We worked up until 4am on the morning of the flight to the US – grabbed 2 hours sleep, then boarded a flight to LA.
The range of responses at E3 was broad, though even with our poorly designed prototype, we received some overwhelmingly good responses – so good, in fact, that they felt like publishing deals. However, we were soon to learn that when publishers say “well, sure, it seems like a slam dunk to me!” they can often just as easily mean “it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear from us again”. As the show went on and we watched representatives from various publishers attempting to play the game (or even operate a DS) it became painfully obvious that not only had we made a grievous misjudgement on the level design of the prototype, but also that the guy on the other side of the table had barely even played a game in his life.
This was still one of our first trade shows, and certainly our first attempt to pitch original IP to publishers, so our pitch was somewhat disorganised. It was the very beginnings of me formulating two of my golden rules on pitching to potential customers:
- Never let the publisher play your game unless they specifically demand it (preferably, just show a video, and give the code after the show for formal evaluation), and
- Only ever show the bare minimum required to sign a deal at any stage. Showing or saying too much and can only expose reasons for the customer to reject the proposal.
Both of which were routinely violated during E3 2005.
Despite enduring some meetings with publishers that on paper should have gone much better, we nevertheless felt that there was strong interest in the game, and that this was the right time to sign a DS game. The DS market was just starting to really kick into gear.
We’d also hired some representation help for the show – one guy in particular who was quite charismatic and who therefore handled all the publisher contacts. When we returned to Australia, he unfortunately disappeared off the face of the Earth, and publisher emails were left unanswered. By the time we’d discovered this unfathomable act of gross negligence, the trails had gone cold, and it was too late to pick up the pieces. Publishers had signed other titles in Slidatron’s stead. And then there were the publishers who during the show seemed to think Slidatron was the most amazing demo they’d ever seen, only to be completely unreachable the following week, and every week thereafter.
Somewhat downhearted, we returned to working on fee-for-service contracts to build our company profile and cash reserves. We also investigated working with game agents around this time. One of these agents quoted the depressing statistic that only 3% of game concepts/prototypes ever make it onto store shelves. We had a 1 in 33 shot.
Time passed, and it was clear to us that although we had a great concept, we had not put our best foot forward in conveying that to publishers – and publishers, we were discovering, do not like to leave anything up to the imagination. To us, it seemed utterly ludicrous that an experienced producer in an experienced publishing company would reject a gameplay concept for reasons such as:
- Not liking the characters, world, etc.
- Finding the game too hard.
Yet these are exactly some of the responses we had over the years. I’ve always wondered whether they were shocked to receive a reply from me saying we could alter the difficulty of the game, or change the character graphics.
So 2007 rolled around, and we decided to have one last throw of the dice with Slidatron. We invested in touching up the character graphics, and worked on making some gameplay improvements here and there. Sadly we didn’t have the resources to re-do the level design, as it would have taken a significant art effort. We also reworked our proposed deal terms, to offer aggressive distribution structures – there was absolutely no contingency in the deal any more. We’d heard good things about Game Connection, and so we attended it in San Francisco while GDC was on.
Thanks to the format of Game Connection, we were able to vastly improve the quality and quantity of contacts we were meeting from publishers – rather than E3, where it’s a total lottery – you may meet any random employee from the publisher.
Game Connection went really well. Shortly after the show, we had 2 offers in the mix. One publisher actually emailed a distribution contract for Europe for us to sign, which essentially matched our deal terms for Europe. They were a big, reputable publisher. The only problem was that the budget from Europe alone was only half of what we needed to make the game. We also needed a US distributor. Instead, we had another offer from a publisher who was agreeing to our terms for global distribution. They were smaller, but they were prepared to give us what we needed.
Little did we know that we were about to make another ill-fated decision. Placated by assurances from the smaller publisher that they would sign on the agreed terms once they had their DS publishing license, we rejected the European distribution deal.
Months passed, the assurances continued. Eventually, they received their publishing license from Nintendo. Immediately, they told us that the market had changed, that they’d need to release it as a ‘value’ title, and that only half the budget was now on offer.
We were shattered. Truly heartbroken and bitterly disappointed at how the publishing world worked. We politely explained to the publisher that half a budget would result in half a game, rejected their offer, and thought about how to pick up the pieces.
Now that it was around August 2007, we contacted a few publishers to see where they were at with the DS market. One, who had seemed interested both at E3 2005 and Game Connection 2006, immediately jumped at the product. Within weeks, our lawyers were talking to theirs, and a long-form agreement was being thrashed out. It took a while to finalise the agreement, and just as it was, two events occurred, and to this day I am unsure if they are related:
- The AUD soared from around $0.75 earlier in the year to $0.90. This 20% increase suddenly meant our deal – which already had no contingency – was now worth 20% less, a cost we simply couldn’t wear. So we asked the publisher for 20% more money.
- The publisher went completely cold, and simply stopped returning emails.
I attended Game Connection Europe 2007 in Lyon in November, just as all this was going on, and happened to bump into the guy in charge of the deal from the publisher’s side. He sat me down and explained that our game had divided his company down the middle. The production guys desperately wanted to do the game, because it was a genuinely fun and unique product. The marketing guys wanted to change direction and do some kind of casual or learning games. Evidently, the marketing guys won, and Slidatron was once again shelved. I believe that publisher has subsequently gone under, so I guess their marketing guys made the wrong choice.
In any case, this was the worst timing – right in the middle of a trade show. We had nothing really prepared for Slidatron to pitch to other publishers at the show, as the deal was on the verge of being signed as far as we knew.
So by the end of 2007, Slidatron was starting to feel like a cursed project. All things being equal, we probably should have been working on a sequel by now, and instead we were back at square one. Once again, we returned to fee-for-service work and shelved Slidatron again.
We still believed in the idea, but we felt we needed to refresh our thinking. Pitching it as Slidatron, a kids IP, wasn’t getting much traction, and publishers saw it as a slow-moving puzzle platformer. We felt we would have more success appealing to old school platform lovers – who were now in their 20s and 30s – and increasing the pace and combat action to be more like Megaman. Aside from anything else, we simply couldn’t return for another year to pitch exactly the same product to the same publishers.
In mid-2008, we wrote a game design document with the new mature sci-fi theme, and outlining the key changes that we’d make to Slidatron for it to become Fractured Soul. I took this document to Game Connection Europe 2008. It was again well received, but by now confidence in the DS market was on a downward slide, with piracy rife in Europe one of the chief concerns of publishers.
A few months later, in early 2009, I took the document to Game Connection GDC 2009, where we eventually found our publisher. With some further help from Film Victoria, a global publishing deal was signed in the months following. The game was developed from late 2009 through to mid-2010. Unfortunately, during 2010, publisher confidence in the DS market plummeted, and our publishing partner was unable to place the product with distributors.
We had a complete game that we really felt gamers would embrace, but no way to get it to them. We released a progress video on YouTube in July which received an incredibly positive response. People wanted more. They wanted the game. Unfortunately, though, we couldn’t give it to them. In late 2010, Game Connection selected Fractured Soul to be a “featured project”. This revitalised the project, but there was still too much negativity around DS.
Shortly after, however, publisher sentiment began to pick up – possibly due to the imminent release of the 3DS. In 2011, a small distributor signed on to take Fractured Soul to the world. And shortly after that, a separate publisher signed the worldwide rights to the 3DS version.
So all seemed good. However, last we heard the rights to the DS had reverted to N3V Games, and we’ve had to revert the rights to the 3DS version as well.
At Game Connection 2012 in San Francisco, Fractured Soul was again chosen as a Selected Projects finalist – this time on 3DS. Again, this revitalised interest in the product from publishers.
Luckily, on 3DS, eShop is here. So whether we end up choosing a retail publisher or self-publishing digitally, Fractured Soul on 3DS at least, will be available to consumers in 2012, some 7 years after the concept was first written up inside Endgame, or 5 years after first unveiling the prototype at E3.