Is the videogame market ready for polarizing games? Lessons learned on CORPSE OF DISCOVERY.
(This article was written before the flood of "my game did poorly" Gamasutra articles. Apologies for adding one more!)
CORPSE OF DISCOVERY is about giving everything to be successful, leaving behind the ones you are doing it all for, and failing. It is about chasing a dream and getting your soul crushed. It is a game about the dangers of choosing work over living a life. It is a game about using the limited time you have in life poorly. And failing, over and over again, in the attempt. It very much reflects about the experience many of us have making videogames.
It is a very polarizing videogame. It is game that only resonates with an audience that has experienced some sort of loss or failure, someone who has missed out on things or has regrets from their choices. It won’t resonate to people just starting their adult life. It won’t resonate to most of the young streamers just wanting to have fun. It won’t resonate to players looking for escapism, or deep survival systems or quirky innovative indie mechanics.
We knew we were making an unapologetically niche game with a limited audience, but it was a game we really wanted to make, as we didn’t feel anyone else was exploring these themes that we face. But we didn’t realize that it would be so polarizing.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
A problem is that the game looks like something else; it attracts a more mass market gamer. It looks Suvival-ish ("Can you craft?"), procedural planets ("Is it a PC version of No Man's Sky?"), hints of a mystery ("Is it about aliens or a conspiracy?"), but it isn’t. We've previously had a game covered by PewDiePie, and any audience of ours looking for that kind of game, is not just going to be disappointed, they are going to think the game is terrible.
CORPSE OF DISCOVERY is a "non-game" that has gameplay. It is a 'walking simulator' that has a jetpack and double jumps. And some creatures hunting you. And environmental threats. And also some platforming. But still a walking simulator non-game, whose core theme won't resonate with many people. It is completely fair that it won’t be a good game to many people.
What we have experienced though with being "polarizing" vs just being "niche", is that polarizing means people dislike it. And people that dislike it, rate it so low that it scares away people that might enjoy it, and then nobody who might like it will discover it. If half the people like a game and half the people hate a game, you have a 50 rated game. That is a pretty big, unique problem in our industry.
THERE IS NO GENRE RATINGS OR CLEAR GENRE AUDIENCE
Rock music fans don’t stumble into buying Jazz records and then rate them poorly for being Jazz. Fast food fans don’t accidently end up in a French restaurant and say it is bad for being French food. Blockbuster movie fans don’t end up in small indie movie houses and then hate a movie because it isn’t like Transformers. Yet in games, that is exactly what we do on Steam.
There is no real difference in how players consume games, they are all presented to the audience as somewhat equal. There are some clear genres - if you hate sports games, it is somewhat obvious you shouldn’t pick up Madden and then complain about it for being a football game. But following that analogy, it is unfortunate that a person who hates sports games has an equal review weight to somebody who loves sports games. As a consumer, wouldn’t you rather know if Madden is a good game based on people who play a lot of football games, vs somebody who would never like Madden anyway?
It is possible with curated lists, this problem could diminish, that genre advocates will stand out and be trusted for recommendations, the same way a Jazz critic will be a respected resource for Jazz music vs a Rock critic for Rock music. But we aren’t there yet. And to be clear, this problem existed when consumers had their review recommendations from magazines or websites, but it is exacerbated by how quickly the variety of games is growing and how many players just see a quick score attached to a game and make a snap judgement if they are further interested or not.
Much of this could be from the stage we are at in games- that these new forms of games don’t have solid genres to belong in- they are "Interactive Experiences", or "Art Game", or "Walking Sim", or whatever label that really doesn’t explain much of what this genre is, and maybe when more games exist it will be easier for the audience to know if they are looking at game that might be a good walking sim vs it being a bad survival game.
This sounds like pointing blame to "the system" vs ourselves, and obviously there are many things we did wrong at launch. And also to be fair, a player might be the audience for this game- that they loved Gone Home or Dear Ester- and they still hate our game, and that is okay, the above issues exist regardless.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE GAME
CORPSE OF DISCOVERY was originally developed as a Multiplayer Procedural World prototype for a hugely successful movie IP. The IP holder came to us, and asked us for a proof of concept that we could have a high fidelity procedural world, they wanted something like Minecraft, but that it would look more real. We chose an off-the-shelf voxel engine and did a small prototype of jetpacking around a key planet from the IP. Like many Work For Hire deals, it eventually fell through.
It was kind of fun to jetpack around the planet, so we developed further ideas to make the prototype its own game, almost like an app or toy. This game kept evolving into what is now CORPS OF DISCOVERY. The game had a very small staff: 2/3s of the game was made with a revolving staff of just 2 people, the last 1/3 was done with about 3 people, and the last few weeks about 5 additional people jumped on to help ship the game.
What we should have done to mitigate some of the polarization
With the theme alone, we couldn't remove all the polarization with the game we made, but we did make big mistakes in selling this niche game:
Should have been in Early Access:
We wanted to avoid the stigma of early access, as it is a story based game, and we didn’t want players to think there was more story coming later that we wouldn’t be delivering on or that it was an incomplete experience. However, a lot of issues showed up from first players that we did not internally witness.
Bad Perf on machines outside studio: One of the issues was some users were facing massive perf issues that made game unplayable. Some media reviewed it like this, and knocked us very hard. This is actually still an issue somewhat (although we expose many more options now that hopefully address this), and in hindsight, if the game wasn't originally developed as a procedural game, we probably could have just used baked terrains and avoided all these issues entirely.
Skipping Story Elements: Another issue we noticed was players were bypassing a lot of the optional content. We wanted to give the player some agency to uncover story bits, but because the 'waypoints' for their primary goals were too noticeable, everything else was ignored. Skipping this content, you will complete the game quickly and it won’t make any sense. Watching a few "Let's Play" quickly showed us this. We added icons and decreased some waypoints to give more equal weight to everything you can discover.
While we could have addressed these issues with wider hardware testing or more external playtesting, this was a small project that couldn’t afford those resources, so Early Access could have easily excavated those issues before it would get wider reviewed.
Priced too high for game length
The game launched at $15, with a $12 sale price. Originally the game was supposed to be priced low, $10 plus sale ($7ish). At some point a few months before we shipped, it was taking our QA team 6 hours or so to complete the game, and a decision was made that it was closer to a more 'normal priced' indie game. However, as we were finishing the game, a lot of the content felt like 'fat' that didn’t not convey the theme or make it more interesting, so that content was cut, but we never re-accessed the price until it was too late and already was set in Steam. We thought we could adjust the price and offer refunds, but there is a time set for how long something needs to maintain its original price in Steam.
Didn’t find an audience before launching
While all games traditionally have PR months (or years) before release, we thought we could find an audience from word of mouth once we were out, sort of similar to how many mobile games are launched. The issue we did not anticipate, is the game is so polarizing between people who like it and people who don't, that the people that dislike it weigh all reviews down, and scare away players who might be interested.
For a polarizing niche game, it was crucial we should have really found this audience first, given them beta keys, build up fans before we were even out, so our review scores and base were already getting established before players could discover and hate the game.
How could we have found this audience? Events like PAX are great. We took the game to PAX while it was being released, and we were bummed out by all the bad review scores, but then found that people at PAX really liked the game. The demo we took to PAX could take 30 minutes to complete, and out of the 450 people that played the game the first few days, about 50 or so actually completed the entire demo- they traded their valuable PAX time to play our game instead of checking out the much bigger name games. And then they would talk about how much they liked it.
If we could have built up this base first going into the store, we could have possibly attracted the larger audience we were catering to instead of the one that discovered us.
Didn’t make a Streamer friendly game
The game deals with some dark themes. There isn’t a lot of "viral fun" like jump scares, MP ownage, making crazy contraptions, etc. There is some strange content to uncover, but it is spaced apart and encountered later in the game. We should have considered starting the game with more of the unusual things you uncover early, instead of setting up too much of the 'hard sci-fi' normalcy that we later tear down. This is how games in the "Let’s Play" era need to be considered, new users just won't latch if they aren’t grabbed quickly enough, and there should be a clever way to maintain story integrity and still appease this requirement in today's market
In the end ...
So we did many things wrong, that we would change if we could. The good news is that slowly some of the audience for the game are discovering it. Our Steam reviews went from mostly negative to mixed, and users are sending us many positive messages- we have had a few very personal messages in particular that went into depth about how much the game has touched them, and they had the exact takeaways and response we were hoping for, and they expressed really how much the game meant to them.
It really vindicated to us that we didn’t fail and make a 50 rated game, we just made a game that isn’t for everyone, but there is just not a system to accurately convey that yet.