After the barrage of sad tales about depression caused by indies turning into millionaires overnight, allow us to raise your spirits with a story about the liberating and energizing effects of complete commercial failure.
Having a sale is fun. Many people get to play your games who normally wouldn't and you receive a lot of positive feedback. But of course that’s not the reason for having a sale. The reason is always a need for money. And in our current economy, money tends to be collected from large amounts of tiny sources. It was a desperate move for us. An attempt to pay the debts caused by the production of Sunset and stay afloat while we figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.
In its 12 year existence Tale of Tales has always teetered on the edge of sustainability, combining art grants and commercial revenue to fund our exploration of video games as an expressive medium. We considered it spreading our dependencies. And that was fine, because we assumed this situation to be stable. All we really wanted was the opportunity to create.
Our desire to reach a wider audience was not motivated by a need for money but by a feeling of moral obligation. We felt we had to at least try to reach as many people as possible. To make the world a better place through the sharing of art as videogames, you know.
The drying up of funding for artistic videogames in Belgium (an issue beyond the scope of this article) did make satisfying this desire more urgent. No problem, we thought. This is an opportune moment. Several games with similarities to our own have been greatly successful. Some of their creators openly admit to be inspired by our work. So we studied theirs and figured out how to make our next project more accessible. At least more accessible to people who actually play and buy games (the others, we decided, can just go to hell for the moment since they apparently didn’t care as much about us as we do about them).
Nevertheless, even within Sunset’s carefully constructed context of conventional controls, three-act story and well defined activities, we deeply enjoyed the exploration of themes, the creation of atmosphere, the development of characters, and so on. Abandoning some of our more extreme artistic ambitions actually made work easier and more enjoyable. And that’s when we should have realized that we were on the wrong path. Because whatever we enjoy is never, ever, what the gaming masses enjoy.
We hate the idea of viewing our audience as numbers in statistics. Way back in the nineties we embraced the internet as the distribution channel for art precisely for the opposite reason: to get away from impersonal mass-market broadcasting and to establish a two-way relationship with the people who enjoy our work. And that still exists, and is lovely. But we knew all along that the small number of people we can reach and have that relationship with would not be sufficient to sustain our work. So if you talk with us on twitter, hello, we love you, but we needed to reach beyond you. Into the land of big numbers.
In the end, we spent more money than we had on the production of Sunset. Because we wanted to make it really good and reach a wider audience. Compared to the ambitions we had for the game, the extra $40,000 seemed like a relatively small sum. “Surely we can make that amount back in the first month of sales!”
We were wrong.
So far a little over 4,000 copies of Sunset have changed hands. That includes the copies for our backers on Kickstarter. That includes the sale. There’s barely enough income to keep our company going while we look for ways to raise the funds to pay back our debts.
It’s hard to deal with this intense feeling of disappointment in a context of glowing reviews and compliments and encouragement from players. A small group of people clearly deeply appreciates what we do and we curse the economic system that doesn’t allow us to be pleased with that.
Being wrong will set you free
- We studied successful games and applied our findings to the design of Sunset. And while the inclusion of certain conventions seems to have helped some people enjoy the game, it didn’t affect the size of our audience much.
- We spent a lot of money on a PR company who got us plenty of press, took some work and worries off our shoulders, and found us other marketing opportunities. But it didn’t help sales one bit.
- We even took out an advertisement on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where we figured the people most interested in Sunset would be gathered. They must all use AdBlock because that had no effect whatsoever.
- We worked hard on presenting a gentler Tale of Tales to the public. Which basically meant that Michaël was forbidden to talk in public and Auriea often just smiled at the camera, parroting words whispered in her ears by communication coaches. Didn’t make a difference.
So now we are free. We don’t have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong.
We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a “game for gamers.” We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don’t think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.
— Michaël Samyn & Auriea Harvey.