I work for a small dev company called Black Forest Games. We currently have Dieselstormers up on Kickstarter - a run&gun game based on a concept that the team has been itching to make for years and years. It will head to Steam Early Access after that. Yarrr! Ok, now that that's out of the way, let me get to the real point of this story, which is to tell you the crazy path it took to get there. This is a story about a tight-knit group of passionate people who really poured in their hopes and dreams, with pain and tears, through success and failure, cold business, and heart-warming support, for many years of their lives. It is a story about people who still believe and aren't willing to give up.
More importantly, it is a story that reflects the experiences shared by so many small dev houses in the industry. Sure, your mileage may vary a bit, but I have to say the stuff that I saw here isn't much different from stuff I have both experienced elsewhere and heard about from colleagues. There are an awful lot of people living this every day.
I'm also going to stop saying "I" as I tell this story, because rather than separate out the pieces of it that happened while I was around, and the pieces that just come directly from people who were there experiencing it, I decided that line isn't important. The whole team lived and bled this stuff together, so we as a team will tell the tale, hopefully still carrying a bit of the voices of those who did not make it all the way to the end of the journey.
Also, this is actually the second version of this article. We wrote one up earlier that traced the product concept evolution over time and drew correlations to industry trends and the evolution of publishing models. It tried to stay upbeat and focus on the successes that came out of the rest of the crap. We read it and said "ok, well that happened, but what about all the other stuff... I mean, there was a lot of other stuff. What if we just told the truth?"
Um, is that ok? I mean, really?
Hell, I don't know. Let's try it and see.
[ 2006, our story begins ]
So let's wind back a bunch of years, when the company that would later become Black Forest Games was still Spellbound Studios GmbH. It had already experienced many highs and lows by this point, with various projects (Desperados, Airline Tycoon, etc...) and publishers, but just then it had been freshly reamed by its recent employer. Having just finished up Desperados 2: Cooper's Revenge, the company was working on an add-on for the product. We were several months into production with all milestones approved but not yet paid for. Our current publisher, like a couple others we worked with, was always in the habit of being grotesquely slow about paying for milestones, so it took a while to realize that they had gone from really slow payment to simply not paying at all. We cut things off at that point, but it was a lot of wasted manpower. Plus Spellbound's original owner actually had a second company bizarrely merged with Spellbound's financials, loading it with bonus debts and liabilities. There's definitely some WTF involved back there, but most of it is lost to time now and would require a more complex tale even than this one to unravel.
That said, this brings us to an ugly yet not uncommon juncture for work-for-hire devs. With no new project immediately lined up, we're now burning money just to stay alive and look for the next one. Although every dev tries its damdest to avoid getting caught in this state, it happens way more often than anyone likes to admit. You know that every day that passes is another day of expenses you can't afford to pay for and you desperately search for that next contract to stay alive and cover some of your mounting debt. Unsurprisingly, this puts you in a terrible position for contract negotiations. Any publisher looking to hire you can simply sweat you for a couple months to add some desperation and then get the exact same project for a lower price and let you scramble to make up the difference. People frequently talk about how crunch is the result of bad planning and failure to accurately estimate the work involved, but perhaps it is often a result of just this sort of interaction - You have to sign something to survive, your desperation leads to taking something at a terrible price, and you are stuck somehow trying to produce it anyways, all the while telling yourself that this is just filler while you look for that next great deal that will get you back to stability and reasonable contracts. Unfortunately, this contract that you just signed also tells your publisher that this is the price at which you are available, and serves as a starting point for both your and every other developer's future negotiations.
Anyways, so here's our small company shell with just a handful of people putting in their unpaid hours trying to find the next project. We're talking with all the publisher reps we can get ahold of to pull out ideas on what their publishers might be looking for. One of these conversations involves a couple of guys who suggest pitching a game based on a book that one of that company exec's wrote. Jean-Marc, our Creative Director reads this and is really taken by the feel of it. The book portrays a magic screwed-up city with a warped, wild, and altogether unforgiving fantasy environment that has a whole lot of room for expansion and twists. He's pretty jazzed by the idea and comes up with a bunch of his own ideas to build off of it.
The team works insanely hard and repurposes the existing code into something usable that gives a feel for the new game space. Our artists - Eric, Myriam, and Serge start making houses, but then get laid off from the lack of funds. Eric and Myriam continue to work from home and build the city anyways, travelling to old cities to take reference pictures and just crafting what comes to mind. Our programmers (once again, like 3 of them, probably Johan, Jacomi, and Arno) take everything and put it into the engine. A dark medieval city emerges, in front of a soaring castle with a bunch of cool environmental effects. The whole thing comes together into a really sweet looking tech demo. Right here is the moment where Dieselstormers is actually born. With this, plus a bunch of concept docs / powerpoint, we're ready to take it on the road.
The pitch went out to the usual suspects (every industry contact we knew, and we knew a lot indeed) and the song & dance commenced. As is frequently the case, it was very well received ("That looks great! Oh yeah, that'd be a really cool idea!") but this didn't actually translate into someone willing to pay for the idea to be made. The good news though, is that the tech demo is sexy enough to generate some other work possibilities. The team gets signed to make demos for Havok, and signs a deal for a 3rd person ARPG - Arcania, allowing people to get re-hired. The 'city' idea goes on a back burner, but isn't forgotten about. Jean-Marc really did like the idea and the concept work has a great feel to it.
[ 2008, try again ]
As the time comes to wrap up Arcania, there we are once again looking for new projects. During this time period the team is still envisioning big-budget publisher-backed RPGs. This is before the era of browser, social gaming, mobile, etc.. and games were typically large. The 'city' concept gets brought back and fleshed out a bit, with an idea of different districts each based on some deadly sin. A black sense of humor gets added and some recognizable character archetypes. This is a more feisty version of the game with unlockable moves, coop hack and slash, dual wielding and more flair.
Once again the pitch makes the rounds and once again publishers respond favorably verbally, but without signing any contracts. They probably figure they're being polite, but what we really want to know at this point is what it would take to move the pitch from "Oh yeah, that looks cool", into "Oh yeah, let's sign." You'd think years of experience would produce the magic formula for that, but since it is a moving target, you need to know the current answer for every publisher and the one they tell you isn't necessarily the one they live by. In this case though, one of our contacts does try his best to do exactly that. He says that in his opinion, the game simply lacks a true USP (Unique Selling Point). We suggest a cooperative multiplayer emphasis, but this gets pushed down to being a secondary USP since there is a good chance that someone else will pick up the same feature and run with it. Something else is needed.
Brainstorming follows and the team looks at associating two dissimilar genres because this is a lot easier to convey without using a lot of words. "Hey, did you hear about Spellbound's new MMO/Jump & Run?" rolls into conversation a lot more smoothly than "You know: the game with an undead warlock that transforms non playable characters into items he can place into the 9 sockets of his magic stick in order to cast really nice spells like flower attack, buzzsaw frog, and drunken piranha bee combo power!"