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Postmortem: Klei Entertainment’s Eets: Hunger. It’s emotional.

Indie developer Klei Entertainment reveals serious insight into distribution wrangling and the importance of community building, in this exclusive Gamasutra portmortem of independent PC puzzle game Eets: Hunger. It's emotional.

In June 2005, Klei Entertainment Inc. released an online preview of Eets: Hunger. It's emotional, and received an impressive amount of feedback. With zero budget in marketing, we garnered 7,500 downloads over a single weekend. Much praise has to be given to Tycho from Penny Arcade, whose link distorted our web stats by the hour (we could literally see the stat bars rocket upward, AT, or “After Tycho”), and to Fileplanet, who graciously hosted the demo and placed it on the front sidebar. These players flocked to our forums, and gave us high praise and invaluable feedback on how to improve our game.

Armed with this information, Steve Chen (Klei's former President) and I met with our agent, Warren Currell (www.sherpagames.com), and flew to the usual suspects to ask for large sums of money. We primarily wanted to port our game to the handhelds, (in particular the Nintendo DS and PSP) arguing that our easy-to-pick-up, easy-to-put-down gameplay and instantly appealing artwork would fit well in this market. However, as an original IP with an unconventional gameplay concept, nearly every North American publisher felt that it was a risky project, especially considering this was before Nintendogs had come out, and the DS had yet to truly prove itself.

And thus, after some initial interest, we were turned down, mostly during the marketing review stage. The consensus was that we had a great game, but the staff had no idea how to market it to the general public. I felt this was a very valid point, (Warren didn't) and at this time, we took another blow: Steve Chen decided this was not his calling, and decided to leave to pursue a career in another industry altogether.

Online Distribution

The lack of interest from the publishers was a definite blow to our Jenga-style stability, but I was glad we explored the area and could now focus on self-publishing. In fact, from the beginning, we knew that relying on publisher funding may not be our best bet, and we had already begun talks with online distributors to see if there was a good fit. Around October 2005, we began serious discussions with Valve to distribute Eets over Steam. A programmer by trade, I felt this was an excellent fit. We wanted Eets to be extremely community oriented, and what better way to constantly update your game via new content and patches than releasing it over Steam? We could upload new content whenever we wanted, and it would be almost transparent for the player.


Eets, a quirky, original game

In terms of demographic, Eets appealed to people who used to play a lot of The Incredible Machine and Lemmings. We also have bright, vibrant art, which would be something different amongst hoards of FPS and dark tunnels. Valve also boasted millions of active users, although we knew most of them came from buying Half-Life 2. Finally, we felt like we might be missing the female demographic altogether, but decided that if the game became sufficiently successful, we could start to do an advertising push toward that market.

And so negotiations began. And continued. And continued.

After going back and forth for months on the contract at least half a dozen times, we felt like we were closing in on an agreement. However, Valve wanted to have exclusive online rights to Eets (unless it sold poorly), and we could not make the business case given the reluctance from Valve on providing us with their Steam sales numbers on similar games, nor would they provide basic user information such as active installed base of female game players, and region-by-region active Steam users. The final sticking point came when we discovered the contract would put us in conflict with distributing a retail German version with German publisher Frogster Interactive.

In the middle of January 2006, Valve and Klei mutually agreed to part ways and we had to move fast to find a new distribution channel.

Today, we are happily distributing primarily over our own site, using Trymedia's ActiveMARK DRM protection. With them handling our copy protection and order processing, we were able to focus on polishing the game. Thus far, working with them has been a great pleasure. Their support has been fast and effective, and I would happily recommend anyone to give them a shot. By comparison, Trymedia encourages us to not be exclusive to them, provides real-time sales data, complete with graphs and details on who our customers are and how they bought the game. Plus, we earn a lion's share of the profits sold from our own site. Heck, I have Trymedia's Account Manager for Eets on my MSN contacts.

Of course, any third-party solution has its drawbacks, (I've all but lost the ability to do seamless patching) but we were definitely not in a position to vertically integrate a protection and order processing system.

What Went Right

Lots of iterations. In the summer of 2004, "The Eets Group", as we were then known, released a version of Eets to be entered into the IGF. I still have that version of the game, and every once in a while I'll dust it off to prove a point – an idea is nothing without good execution. By that I mean, our original version of Eets contained exactly the same gameplay, and yet was incredibly boring and unappealing.

Since then, we've had three or four major revisions to the game, each time improving the game immensely. I would say that, in terms of game mechanics, we only spent about 20 percent of our time there. The rest of the time was spent polishing these same mechanics and the user experience so that every thing a player does is very satisfying.

Polish makes or breaks a game. That's something every AAA developer knows, and yet this ideal often gets lost when you make the transition to independent games and casual games. Every developer can learn from PopCap – how is it they are able to make popping jewels and balls so very satisfying?

Getting an Agent. So how does a developer who knows a lot about developing games, has only an instinctive business sense, and doesn't have the contacts, get a successful game out? Warren Currell is not only Klei's agent, but someone I consider both a mentor and a friend. Without him, it's safe to say Klei would have fallen into many traps, and not gained the huge opportunities that have presented themselves today.

There are many advantages to having an agent working for you, which more than pays for his/her cut. For example, it is a well-known fact that the worst person to negotiate for you is yourself. You are simply too invested to make good judgment and an agent can leverage both his experience and portfolio to your needs.

Of course, finding the right agent is equally important. I was fortunate to have been referred to Warren via my good friend and colleague, Raphael Van Lierop. You obviously need an agent you can wholeheartedly trust, and I think it probably took about four – five months for me to really get comfortable with our arrangement.

Community, not as an afterthought. When we switched gears to being a true independent, which includes self-publishing, we knew what people like Stardock knew – community is what will give us the added value. From the beginning, we insisted that we must lower the barrier to entry for our community, and get rid of ingrained practices such as having to copy levels into the level directory, or run a separate application to create your levels.

Our Puzzle Maker is built into the game, and is tuned to be very easy to use. It's very tempting to add a ton of features into a level editor, but as every usability expert knows, choice is not necessarily a good thing. We decided to make it a priority to allow players to very quickly build fun, great-looking levels, and a lot of effort was put into making the experience a pleasant one. In addition, we implemented a one-click solution for downloading levels.

Finally, many developers leave it up to the fans to create a community for them. For certain, you save time and energy on not having to do so yourself, but you also end up with a fractured community – one you have much less control over. At Klei, we believe there's a vast amount of potential in building your own community, and learning from successful “Web 2.0” communities such as Flickr and Yelp.


We concentrated on making the Puzzle Maker extremely easy to use, and at the same time was the tool our Level Designer used. To do this, we had to limit the number of choices available, and at the same time make it extremely powerful.

Art Direction. If you read the reviews of Eets, they all agree on one thing: Eets looks great. Considering that Eets had only three part-time artists, was done on a shoestring budget, and is 2D, I'd say that's not an easy task.

Luckily, we had three to four iterations to get it right, and it became increasingly clear what the strong points of our visuals were. I began annoying our Art Director that we needed to do everything we could to make the game really come alive. So then came the butterflies, the parallax clouds, the cotton candy trees, the subtle lighting of the fireflies, and so on.

Being the articulate man I am, I was adamant that everything that happens on screen absolutely must “look fun”. As a result our amazing Art Director Michael Agon made sure none of our objects were static, and came up with some amazing ways to do so.

We need something that shoots light? Don't make a laser gun, make a humanoid Ginseng Factory shooting out Radioactive Flying Ginseng. Thank God Mike and I have known each other since high school or he may have actually killed me.


None of the characters in Eets are static – this is one of our concept drawings of the Ginseng Factory

Retain IP Control. We fought tooth and nail to make sure we retained IP control, and indeed it has paid off. By completing the game on our own dime, we were able to have flexibility to change features on the fly – removing things that did not add enough value, and adding polish to much needed portions of the game. Realize of course that we are not purists – we made the game on a shoestring budget and hence we had both man power and time restrictions, but no promises needed to be made for features that were either unreasonable or unnecessary.

By the time we released an Alpha in December, we were ready to look into retail opportunities, and we found a great match for the German speaking territories with Frogster Interactive. Our experience with them is what I can only describe as amazing – they have been extremely good to us both in their enthusiasm and in their promptness in all aspects of the business. In turn, we are doing our best to provide them with a very high level of support.

In addition to deals such as this, having control over IP means we are eligible for government funding. Eets is partially funded by the Telefilm New Media Fund, and both parties couldn't be happier with the arrangement.


What Went Wrong

Not enough iteration on tutorials. As many iterations as we did, we ended up falling into an old trap of not budgeting enough time for tutorials. Yes, we spent a good month tweaking the tutorials and testing it on users who have hardly played a game before, but in retrospect we should have started earlier, and used more rigorous testing methods.

The tutorial needed to be more robust, shorter, and more responsive. Even more so than the rest of the game, a tutorial should feel rewarding in every thing you do, and be incredibly intuitive. This is something we are adamant on getting right next time, and for a game that depends on a 60-minute trial, this was a misstep. To be sure, our conversion rate is currently slightly above industry standard, but I believe we have the potential to do a lot better.

Loss of community after preview. During our July preview period, we had an active community in our forums, begging for more content. Of course, we had none to give them, and the preview was built to simply solicit feedback. We then made the huge mistake of letting the community die out, as we spent all our energies creating the final version of the game. Now, we must rebuild the community.

A large part of the problem was we didn't know what to tell them. Were we going to be on handheld? Self-published online? Retail PC? We essentially had to have an information lock while we negotiated with the publishers. Even in October, we were not sure whether we would release online ourselves or over Steam. Had you asked me in November, I would've guessed we would eventually go with Valve.

I still don't believe we could have kept an active community going for nine months before the release of the game, but one thing we definitely should have had was a newsletter signup to let them know when an announcement was made. Today, we have an optional opt-in for a newsletter on the same page as the demo download, and our newsletter user-base is increasing steadily.

Tight budget / Low man power. When I started Klei, our initial capitalization was whatever I had saved up. Note that I was 24, and you can begin to understand that much of the work that was done up to the release was done on sweat equity. In addition to working on a shoestring budget, Eets was the result of an immense amount of favors. We would have been in a much better position to finish the game quicker if we had some level of capitalization.

I am extremely fortunate to have so many talented friends that believed in my vision of the product and company. Without their support, Eets would never have existed.

In addition to outside help, we were lucky to have multi-talented staff. As an example, Marcus Lo, our brilliant level designer, actually has a programming background. As such, he wrote much of the logic of the items via Lua script, without as much support as a conventional designer might have needed. I acted as programmer, artist, designer, and executive.

On a side note, our Art Director is actually a programmer by trade. Thus, between me and Mike, 90 percent of Eets consists of programmer art!


A casual game, and yet with fancy lighting!


90 percent of the art in Eets were done by people trained as programmers.

Blurry Target Market. Upon inception, Eets was created as a prototype to see what a group of friends could do in their free time. We wanted to know how far we could go, and learn as much as possible in the process, using as high production quality as possible. At the time, little thought had been given to commercialization, and thus no target market was formed.

Our problem was that the art style led people to believe we're a children's game, whereas our game truly appealed to an older crowd. In fact, we've found that kids do enjoy our game, but after much debate, we decided to focus on two core groups:

  • The under-served 24-40 year old gamers who are fed up of spending 30 hours a week on a single game. These people have many things they need to fit in their day, and a high quality $20 game that they can pick up and play whenever they feel the urge is perfect.
  • The casual crowd. The proverbial Bejeweled player.

We were able to successfully make the necessary adjustments for our demographic, but things would have been much easier had we decided this from the beginning.

Unclear ship date. The constant shifting in priorities and dates put a significant strain on the company and staff. In the course of nine months, I made at least six different schedules, to take into account the different paths that we could take. We were delivering proposed timelines to publishers, and at the same time looking for staff to make sure we could hire if we signed a deal.

When it became clear we were self-publishing, I needed a new schedule and a new feature list. As we neared a deal with a distributor, we budgeted time to integrate into their system, and then the contract fell through, so our product was delayed, giving us more time for polish as we looked for the best deal for our company.

The delays turned out to be a blessing in disguise – we were able to polish the game to heights not usually known in the independent scene – but made it a nightmare to keep our financial models and cash flow documents up-to-date.

Conclusion

Eets, like many games, was a very ambitious project. Klei's staff went out on a limb to create the best independent game possible, using our team's experience on AAA games to break away from the notion that indie games are built with low production quality, and are rough around the edges. We believe that not everyone wants to play games with cut-scenes they can't skip, cost upwards of $50 per copy, and feature more than 100 hours of gameplay.

Certainly, we're learning as we go along, and we've had our fair share of problems. But Eets was originally created as a learning experience, and boy, have we learned. We had a lot of fun making this game, and we are lucky enough to be in a much better position then when we started. Our next project is proving to be even more exciting, and I look forward to writing another one of these essays that remind me of being in school again.


 
Developer:
Klei Entertainment Inc.
Publisher: Klei Entertainment Inc.
Number of Full-time developers: 3
Number of Contractors: 10
Length of Development: 3 years part-time to get to prototype, 9 months full-time from prototype to Gold.
Release Date: March 27th, 2006
Platform: PC (Windows)
Development software used: Visual Studio .NET, Flash, Photoshop, Maya.
Development hardware used: Various PCs.
Project Size: Released game is compressed to 19.9MB, uncompressed 50MB.

 

 

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