How Legend of Grimrock's dev rolled the dice and won

Releasing an old-school first-person dungeon crawler was a risky move, but Almost Human was determined to do just that with Legend of Grimrock, even if it ended up dooming the company.
Almost Human never imagined Legend of Grimrock would have the commercial success it enjoyed after launching for Windows two weeks ago. At one point, this self-funded downloadable game from the four-man team was the top-seller on Steam, beating out multi-million dollar titles from major publishers. Legend of Grimrock's success surprised many others, too, as it's not often to see a first-person dungeon crawler inspired by the Eye of the Beholder games at the top of any sales chart, at least not in this millennium. With a few exceptions out of Japan (e.g. Etrian Odyssey series, Wizardry) and iOS, you hardly see those games at all anymore. Even though conventional wisdom suggests there's no market for an old school game like Legend of Grimrock, the Finnish indie team wanted to make this dream project anyway, and it was willing to risk the company's future to self-publish this game -- the studio's first shipped title. "We pretty much had [all] our eggs in one basket," Almost Human co-founder Juho Salila admits to Gamasutra. "We started the company fully aware of the risks." The team formed in February 2011, made up of veterans from bigger Finnish game companies like Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake) and Futuremark (Shattered Horizon). He adds, "We're all seasoned professionals, so we weren't that concerned about getting another job if the game failed. ... In the end we thought that if the game failed and the company died, so what, at least we tried, so it wouldn't bother us the rest of our lives for not having the courage to try." "All the passion and monetary pressure drove us forward at a great pace. Naturally that meant a lot off stress and long working days. The stress was easier to handle because we could see the end near. Our development time was really short, just around 10 months, so we could pace ourselves according to that."
Thanks to the dungeon crawler's initial sales, which have already covered the game's development costs a couple of times over, Salila says "the company won't die. Now we can actually plan our future because there is one, when before we just focused on finishing Legend of Grimrock. The success of the game gives us some room to breathe and consider our options." The idea of creating a retro-style game for a niche audience seems less risky now, thanks to Kickstarter, where indie developers can appeal to that same small audience to finance their project. But that wasn't a route Almost Human could take due to local laws that prevent it from accepting direct donations. And the developer wasn't interested in pursuing a publishing deal. "We looked for crowd-funding opportunities, but the Finnish law system makes it hard to apply for them," says Salila. "We never properly considered getting a publisher because we wanted to have full control over the project. And besides, we don't think that many publishers would've taken the risk with fair terms on reviving an age-old, nearly dead genre." Instead, the studio funded the game the old-fashioned way -- it completed contract jobs for other Finnish developers until it could afford to start work on its own project last June. Salila says those opportunities allowed the team to learn how to work together and to develop its pipeline at the same time. "All the years of working in larger companies prepared us to build a game all on our own, and it really helped us to concentrate on the important things," says Salila. "With our combined experience, we managed to really focus our very limited resources and make the right decisions to finish the game before our money ran out." As for why Almost Human thinks the game has been such a big hit, Salila believes the team was able to strike a crucial balance between staying true to the dungeon crawler genre's essential elements (e.g. difficulty, grid-based movement) to appeal to players' sense of nostalgia, and updating the game's graphics, audio, and user interface to meet modern standards.
With Legend of Grimrock well-received by critics and consumers' wallets, Almost Human can put its worries about staying open aside; it can instead concentrate on releasing patches and updates, and on porting the Windows game to other platforms like Mac and iOS. "We'd like to someday see Legend of Grimrock on mobile devices simply because the game mechanics would fit the platform pretty well, but the exact execution is still under consideration," says Salila. "We have a bit of some crude tech for iOS, but it's still long way from being a proper game. Whether we do the port in-house or outsource is still to be decided."

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