27 min read

A Long Bloody Walk in Metal Boots - 8 Years to Make Dieselstormers Fly

From where Dieselstormers was envisioned to where it stands today is a bizarre path that reflects the trials of many small dev houses. We invite you to see how it really happened.

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!"

The outcome of this was a pretty bizarre Hack and Slash meets Survival Horror that never went anywhere.  Once again we're running low on time and money and scramble for an answer.  Maybe it’s not so much about mixing the game genre, as it is about mixing the environmental genre.  Privateer Press has done some really kick ass mechanized stuff that sets imaginations running.  People start thinking that the city's dark mood actually could blend really well with a powered armor and crazy machines environment.  We hook up with Helge Balzer, and get some wicked fantasy meets machine crossover images.  The city, Ravensdale, finally gets its name.

[ 2010, running with the big dogs ]

We've got a nice pitch at this point and still have the same tech demo (this time with more pipes!) we used to get Arcania, but once again our finances are on the skids.  Our latest publisher has gone bankrupt and left us with unfilled payments, so once again every day counts.  One publisher is willing to go into contract negotiations on a reasonably sized Ravensdale version, but it will take time.  However, hard work lets our sexy demo also catch the eye of an even larger Japanese powerhouse publisher who offers us a chance to build a completely different triple-A ARPG under their direction.  Dreams of greatness dance in everyone's eyes.  This could be the ticket to success!  We're finally playing with the big boys now, and pulling off this game is going to unlock EVERYTHING.  The company staffs up a ton and dives in.  There's no time and staff left over to do Ravensdale as well, but that doesn't matter because we are going places now!

There are a zillion warning signs that follow that would make savvy folks realize that we are completely screwed, but we're blowing past them and pretending not to notice.  Our publisher has a design god with this giant vision that he wants to see, only we're never really sure exactly what this vision is supposed to be.  Part of it is perhaps cultural, but mostly it just seems like he is batshit crazy, with insane demands just to push the team.  "What, you struggled to make this much content?  Then clearly you are not working your people hard enough.  Make them all stay 24 hrs/day and give me four times as much!"  Demands rise, tempers flare, and the atmosphere becomes extremely uncomfortable.  Our Head of Development steps up and tries to put a lid on some of the craziness, and our publisher demands that he never interact with them again or the project is done.  Believing there is no way out now, the company knuckles under and he is pushed aside and the madness continues.

While this is going on, our finances feel flush for the first time in a very long time indeed.  The company continues to hire like crazy (and it is contractually stipulated that it must) and the big project chugs on, crushing people beneath it's iron hooves with nonstop crunch, shouting, random changes, and a poorly ventilated building packed with far too many hot bodies.  The team still supports each other like always, but everyone is feeling the discomfort.

Searching for a way out, we do have another meeting with the publisher who was willing to sign Ravensdale before.  They're a bit less interested as consoles are nearing the end of their cycle and big projects have fallen out of vogue, particularly with a brand new IP.  Perhaps if we could design a less expensive but layered model where one product could lead to others, then they would still be interested. Our Head of Development, who now works part time, folds this idea into a new business model to make us a bit less dependent upon a single giant project.  We'll add a bunch of smaller dev teams sharing common resources to make less expensive games with re-usable knowledge and technology.  Since RPGs tended to be too heavy for this scale of game, we looked into turning the Ravensdale concept into a sidescroller.  In an ideal world we'd release several different games, each of which adds together to unlock more gameplay in the other titles (this one has the Power Gauntlet, another one has the Rocket Boots, etc... ) until together they use their Voltron-like power to assemble into the giant Ravensdale mega-game!

[ 2011, how about sidescrollers ]

We already had a bunch of nifty looking assets and a couple guys are tasked with turning our RPG engine into a brief playable sidescroller demo.  Now the player can clank through the street of Ravensdale and be assaulted by a group of goblins.  Normal attacks plow the goblins, but with the flick of a switch, your character gets charged up with steam bursting forth, and your attacks can actually perform goblin bowling, with the first one you hit setting off a chain reaction of impacts with the goblins behind him.  This is far too much fun!

We take it back and show it to the publisher who was waiting for the new Ravensdale pitch and are really pleased to see they have shown up ready to do business.  They have flown out their serious decision maker with a full team of support, translator, etc.. and can probably have signed it this day.  Wow, this is great!  We show him the awesome sidescroller demo and are feeling pretty damn good.  The exec in question keeps looking at it and basically asking "Where is the RPG?"  They get all the details, make sure they understood the new concept, put their checkbook away, and are done.

Disheartened that they don't want what we had prepared for them, we take this same concept and shop it around elsewhere along with a couple other pitches as we try to drum up some secondary business.  Interestingly, it is not so much Ravensdale the concept that gets focused on, but rather that the demo is a pretty solid indicator that we have the right skills for making a platformer.  Plus we've got a surprise ace on this one, with the company having done a famous platformer long ago - Giana Sisters, and more recently licensed out a really solid DS version thereof.  Our management team figures that this had the best chance of actually landing a deal, so we turn our platformer skills and design muscle into seeing what could be done with this idea.

With our swollen team size our old office is now too small and is causing physical discomfort to add to our emotional distress.  Constant power outages, not enough work spaces, too much hardware with too little air conditioning and we're dying in our chairs.  We've got mobile air conditioners in the server rooms just trying to keep the machines stable so we can work.  We move from our old digs on the bank of the Rhein to a new place, refurbished just for us, in a larger neighboring city.  It isn't big company sexy, but it seems pretty awesome to us, with open spaces, color coded areas, a giant plastic twisty slide from the top level to the bottom, plusworking air conditioning (well ok, usually).  It is another expense, but we had to sign for the new office before things were clearly off the deep end.

[ 2012, damn it, where are the brakes? ]

Unfortunately, even as we are moving to the new space, there's already a sense that the big project is collapsing.  We deliver the 'vertical slice' milestone and are then in a holding pattern waiting for the next step.  Then the word hits: The last milestone is not approved and no payment will happen.  In fact, the whole rest of the project is cancelled and that's it.

The company considers suing, but way too much of the work has been arranged via verbal agreements and good faith efforts.  Schedule changes, side work, etc... verbally requested by the publisher that were believed would get accounted for are hard to document and prove.  What should have been a non-issue with a reasonable partner, becomes a headache, but the amount of time, hassle, and expense required to push that lawsuit internationally made it a no-go.  Better to simply write it off and focus on moving ahead.  There is now no project forthcoming and morale is in the dumps as people recognize we're pretty much screwed.  Ravensdale gets placed on the back-burner again since it is clear we are getting more traction with Giana Sisters than with it, and the Ravensdale demo group spends some time making a Giana Sisters demo level.  Mostly we all wait for the next shoe to drop.

Management scrambles for creative solutions and looks at investors, work-for-hire contracts, serious games, etc... There's actually a fair bit lined up but its going to take some fancy financial maneuvering and fresh shareholders in order to make the company function again.  In the middle of this, one of the original key shareholders says "f** it, I'm done", and all these arrangements collapse.

Within days, Spellbound bites the dust and everyone gets laid off.  Jobs are few and far between and it is brutal for everyone.  As a company with a multinational staff, we've got people from all over the world here, and if you thought moving to Germany from England, the United States, Spain, etc... was hard to begin with (it is!), try doing that and being unemployed thereafter.  One of our guys had quite literally just sold his house in the UK and his wife was packed with their belongings in transit when the layoff occurred.  I can only imagine the phone calls he was having at the time, and I sure wouldn't want to EVER live them.

The German government steps in and starts paying unemployment benefits to everyone while it decides what to do with the remnants of the company. This could have been the end of our story right here, but it wasn't.  Instead, five of the team members - Andreas, the former CEO, Adrian our CFO, Jean-Marc our Creative Director, Johan our Tech Director, and Eric our Tech Art Director, pool together enough money from family & friends, talk a couple of the existing investors to stick around, and put together a plan to fund a new recreate the company with the existing team.  This plus enough initial contracts will convince the government to let them do it, but we don't actually have quite enough contracts yet!  A last minute drive up to Munich seals the deal we need with Deep Silver (seriously Guido, thanks!) and we're back in business. The shareholders agree that we will break the deadly work-for-hire cycle and that self-publishing is a key component of the new company's strategy.

[ 2012,  a tired and broke phoenix ]

We all grind through a boatload of German paperwork because... that's just par for the course here, and try to get as much of the team back as we can.  Most of the team has been staying tight throughout this, talking together, helping each other out, so people are pretty easy to gather, but it is still really painful to recognize who has already taken new jobs or been forced to move elsewhere.   A bit less than half the old staff is rehired and the company picks a new name - Black Forest Games, as the single name that no one has issues with, but also that no one finds overly exciting.  There's a definite air of "don't rock the boat", and anything more edgy gets a few dissenters - a dangers of the democratic process. However, Jean-Marc at least comes up with a bad-ass logo and finally the whole package feels  cool.

We take a couple small work for hire contracts to keep money incoming and we push hard to crank out a Giana Sisters demo.  There are still Ravensdale pictures on the wall, and it still looms large for a lot of the team, but mostly we accept that Giana Sisters is where we are getting the most traction.  With the wave of games making successful Kickstarter appearances we decide to try our hand at doing the same, creating a campaign within two weeks with help from Chris Hülsbeck, an old friend of the team. We are rewarded by a blast of Giana Sisters nostalgia coupled with a good demo carrying sharp gameplay and some cutting-edge morphing artwork.  Giana Sisters hits its Kickstarter and we're back in action. The great reception is a sorely needed positive boost.

We do still grab two designers and assign them to run with Ravensdale while the team is otherwise occupied.  Ravesdale goes off on kind of a weird tangent with no actual resources allocated to it except a couple designers who take what we have and try to envision how to leverage it.  This concept is initially centered all around the Axe, and later adds in a black oil (which will one day become Goop), and magnetic manipulation.  There are layered games that lead into other games (the "onion" model!), and the designers even put together a tiny playable UDK demo.

Giana Sisters - Twisted Dreams launches successfully to great critical reviews and somewhat sluggish sales as a niche-product of a just founded studio.  It eventually makes perfectly good money (and for the company directly since it is largely self-published), but it takes a long time for it to get there. What hit us unexpectedly are the weak sales on consoles. Released on XBLA, PSN and WiiU the ports barely earned their costs. At least we got a good PS+ deal with SCEE, which paid out for them and us.    We do a follow-up product, Rise Of The Owlverlord,  which got an even better metascore but mostly just helps keep the sales alive on the original product, and then we're back to looking for our next project again.

[ 2013, the kickstarter dream ]

A number of potential titles are pitched internally and Ravensdale comes to the fore as something we want to look at.  People are still carrying the torch for it after all these years and really want to see something Ravensdale-based made.  We basically need to actually do something with it, or just bury the damn thing..  So recognizing that after making two really solid platformer titles in a row our platformer-fu is strong, we decide to build off that and make a run & gun Ravensdale.  We recognize that we can't fully fund the game just through Kickstarter (Giana's $186k was nice, but that's still not what the actual game takes to build), so its just a question of how much of the game will be Kickstarter funded, and how much will come through alternate paths.  The industry is more and more focused on having an existing playable game chunk before the publisher gets involved, with publishers frequently taking more of a distribution role than one of enabling third-party development.  We also know that with new online distribution like Steam, maybe we don't even need to go the traditional publisher path any more.  We just did Giana largely self-published and could perhaps do this again with Ravensdale.

Unfortunately the no contract timer is running and people are feeling rushed again.  We don't have a playable prototype built, but we know we aced our last Kickstarter and figure we can do it again.  There's a bit of panic and things are getting slammed into place perhaps a bit too fast.  The video really doesn't feel that great but it'll probably be ok.  We lack a playable prototype and instead some of our art and animation people are tasked with envisioning the game and crafting a rendered movie of what playing it might be like without the actual design group designing the underlying game that they are depicting.  Basically we're making all sorts of implicit promises and just hoping we don't get burned.  Still, the time we picked for our Kickstarter is running out and we're going to launch.  We've done the math and have a good grip on exactly what we think we can raise.  It's not enough to be comfortable, but it should go a long ways towards getting us where we need to be.

There's a lot of internal discussion about what price to set the Kickstarter at.  We all know that there's no way Kickstarter will actually deliver the whole amount needed to make the game, but that every dollar short of the full amount is a dollar we have to somehow come up with elsewhere.  We come up with some reasonable estimates, some unreasonable estimates, and some estimates on what it would take to actually get it done.  At the last moment, we go with the final number because we're tired of just being screwed all the time.  What if Kickstarter could really work like its implicit promise, and simply provide the amount it takes to make a game?

Yeah right, you can get off the unicorn now.  We launch with the real number and it is dead on contact.  Potential backers take one look and recognize there is no way in hell that this Kickstarter is ever going to hit its target.   No one wants to back a loser, and the campaign falls over stone cold dead.

Oh crap.

We watch the Kickstarter drag and drag, reluctant to just throw the switch and admit it has failed, but knowing full well that it was over the moment it launched.

Once again our finances are trashed and we're struggling to survive at all.  We'd been trying to hold onto as much of the staff as possible, but it is clear that there's no way we can keep doing that.  People get laid off again as the company tries to get its finances under control.  Everyone and everything get cut.  The company sublets office space, and looks for whatever work it can find.  Andreas does an amazing job finding us filler work - driver's training and military simulations, porting, even a weird think tank research gig with a pharmaceutical company. Whatever it takes to let us re-hire the team, be it one, two, or three people at a time, just sothey'll be here and working together again.  Because that's really the good under all this crap. The team truly enjoys being together, as co-workers, as friends, and this same team has struggled to survive for years, and much of this team has carried the game concept with it throughout that time.

Undeterred, we used Giana earnings and build an actual playable prototype that was quite honestly, pretty damn fun.  We craft this wicked modular projectile and shot pattern engine that let us build everything from machine guns to flamethrowers, electrified spider webs, and actual rain clouds of death.  We build projectiles that can bounce and spin, act like a shield, or crawl across the floor and drip into cracks.  We have meetings where the designers try to top each other by showing off the crazy stuff they had built, actually surprising people with just how wild it was.

We start talking to one of the first parties who has a next gen system on the verge of release and come up with a way to show off one of their new features in a unique way.  All of a sudden things are looking good again and we're thinking we can get the whole team back together.  Budgets and contracts are negotiated, several approval processes are worked through, and the final signings are getting close.  You can hear everyone in the building crossing their fingers (or as the Germans say "pressing thumbs") and praying that this one goes right.

It doesn't of course. We don't know the exact reasons, as our contacts, as disappointed as ourselves, won't tell us details, but we have our own thoughts. The vendor restructured its management team at about that time and our project was now associated with the old departed management and thus dated, rather than a hot new idea from the new management.  Since at this stage of the process, all the decision making is done far above our heads inside the publisher, we can't even be there to help our advocates out.  We just get the news... "Sorry, we won't be going with this project after all."

We actually have a couple more moments during this time period where the game is almost picked up by a publisher.  In one case we are working with one publisher that really likes the game and are voting Yes to greenlight it, when one of the guys in the meeting says "Hey wait a minute, isn't that the same game that bombed its Kickstarter?"  Upon confirming that it is, the answer changes from Yes to No, and they are no longer interested.

[ 2014, it has to be for something ]

Again, our story could have ended here.  But then, it could have ended at about any point along the way, but it never did.  The team still stayed together, still helped each other out, and still wanted to make the game.  We took our prototype and started working on the final game with a small group, funding it with work-for-hire and rotating people on and off as they were needed for other projects.  We simply wanted all that time and all those tries, not to just be done without anything to show for it.

So, we decided not to let that be the end of it.  We worked on the game until we could see the path to finishing it on our own.  Since the actual Ravensdale name hadn't gotten much traction last time, we went to Indiecade and tried out different names to see which one people liked.  We built a fake Steam page and let people pick from the list, and they pretty clearly preferred Dieselstormers, so we switched to that.  We started another Kickstarter with a very modest goal to get us to Steam Early Access.

Once there we truly believe this game will rock.  We've put 8 years of passion into it, how could we not?

We want to end by saying ours was an amazing journey, unlike any other.  But I think what we should actually say is that ours was a very common journey, like many in the industry have experienced and will probably experience again.  We wish you all great luck on yours, and hope you can take a moment to give us a push on ours.



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