Welcome to the official post-mortem of Dead Meets Lead! In this post-mortem, I will try to convey the adventure of DML from ours, the developers, perspective. I will go through topics such as; developing a DIY game, 80,000 pirates, mixed responses and choosing a business model.
The idea with the whole text is to most of all criticize ourselves and our game, so that other people out there who wants to start a computer games business (or to some extent any business) at least have a chance to avoid doing the same mistakes we did.
Since this whole text is mostly picking out what went bad in our project you might get the idea that everything went bad in our project, so before I start I’d like to say; on the contrary! We did lots of things right, and in many ways this project has helped all of us to advance our lives and careers at an express speed, and gaining knowledge and experience that would have taken years to gain otherwise. We would wholeheartedly recommend going on an adventure like this to anyone in that mindset. Just read this text before you do and maybe, maybe, you can avoid hitting some of the same bumps we hit!
The history of how Keldyn came to be is quite long, and involves several smaller projects with at least subsets of the team all the way back to 2004. But lets not go all the way back there, instead we’ll start at 2010. Three of us had just graduated, with masters degrees in computer science. All four of us loved games, and loved making games. We had a sizable but incomplete codebase already. “Now or never” we thought. We registered a company, drew up a quick design for a game and started hacking.
We didn’t even bother get proper funding for the project. This was going to be a quick and small project to get us started and generate some income for our next project.
We quickly got into a routine of being extremely productive. Each day we’d look back at the issues we had solved and marveled at how much could be done in a day. Nothing seemed impossible to us. That mindset, in combination with being three programers and having no funding, set us of on a DIY rampage. Whenever we needed something that would cost money, we’d just do it ourselves. Graphics engine, physics engine, sound engine, all the sounds, marketing… Nothing seemed like too big a project. And lo and behold, we were right too! In the end we were able to create a complete game engine and a game at the same time.
What we didn’t know beforehand we learned along the way. Making sound effects. Accounting. Marketing. Making videos. And of course everything about how to be an extremely efficient team. Boy, did we learn a lot this past year.
This all went on, and by February we felt we were close enough to have a finished product that we could set a release date: May 3rd.
As we got closer and closer to release we planned and adjusted to make sure everything was all set for the big day. The Challenge, our demo for the game, was released a few weeks before the release date and helped us find most of the major bugs in the engine and the game.
Finally, the release day came. Best described perhaps as a mix between the experiences of Christmas day as a kid and exam day as a student. The game went live, and everything seemed to work. We were all at the edges of our seats; would it become a success or would it not?
After a few days it was clear that it wasn’t going to be an immediate financial success. Sales were extremely low, less than our most pessimistic forecasts. Demoralizing as it was, we still sported a vague hope that people would like the game and tell their friends, and that thus we’d get a peak perhaps a few weeks after release.
We waited. Time went by. And three things happened:
First of all we started getting reviews of the game. They were, to say the least, mixed. The largest review was The Cynical Brits video review, WTF is Dead Meets Lead, which was less than favorable. Other pages thought the game was alright. Some minor pages even featured some really positive reviews of the game.
The second thing we noticed was that that even though no one bought the game, lots of people were playing the game (we had some statistical software implemented from the beta phase to collect anonymous statistics from the players, to see which maps were too difficult, which weapons needed balancing etc.). Actually, thousands of people started playing the game. Before long, thousands turned into tens of thousands, and by the end of the summer some 80,000 people had played the game, of course all of it attributed to piracy. Most people would probably assume we were furious that people didn’t pay up, but that wasn’t our reaction at all. We were actually thrilled so many people were interested in playing the game! (Explaining exactly why we didn’t “blame” piracy for our failing sales would require a whole article itself, so I’m just going to leave it unexplained here for now. )
The third thing that happened was that we were elected Game of the Year at Swedish Game Awards. This was huge for us. Getting some appreciation for what we’d worked so hard with the past year, getting the acknowledgment that what we had done was indeed something good, was a huge relief for us. It was absolutely thrilling to go to Stockholm to exhibit our game in the middle of the central station, and to go on stage to receive a prize for our beloved game. And of course meeting lots of other developers and professionals withing the gaming industry was a great experience for us.
Now, several months after release, we can safely say that the release was a financial failure for us and a critical… hodgepodge. But at least a lot of people played the game, and we sincerely hope it entertained and inspired people (or at least gave them a somewhat plausible past-time for a few hours).
A critique of our game
Lets go back to the critics though. Was there any credit to their harsh reviews? In retrospective, we have to actually say; Yes. There are things with DML that are sub-optimal, things that we completely missed when we tested the game (even though we had people over almost every week to test the game). The most important ones, according to us, are:
Balancing and difficulty level. The game is simply way to hard in many areas, and there are no ways to control the difficulty yourself (for instance, in some games you can take detours to get buffs, which in effect is trading time for lower difficulty level). Our idea was to go for the hard-core market, to make the game stand out by being more difficult than any other game. This turned bad for us in two ways; we failed to convey it in the marketing (all games say they are challenging, no matter how casual they are) and it put us in a situation where balancing became the most important part of the game. Balancing a single player game so that it’s both completable and challenging to as many as possible is almost impossible, and no matter how much time we spent on balancing (and we spent a lot) we could never get it just perfect for everyone.
Repetitive combat. The combat was just too repetitive, especially the sword. More than anything, the early levels suffered from this, as they all were based on teaching this fairly bland basic combat (the later levels were more enjoyable as they relied on lots of different twists and quirks instead of basic combat). This also made the game seem kind of flat.
Lacking rewards. We play games to feel good. We want rewards. If there’s too little of them, we feel the effort of combating these enemies (or whatever the task at hand is) is just not worth the reward. And DML simply had too little rewards, and those that existed were too loosely coupled with the effort that produced them.
Of course, these are just the issues we considered the absolutely most important ones. There were lots of other, minor, things that we could have done better as well. Worth mentioning also was the lack of co-op, which would most likely have made the game a lot more enjoyable, but we knew from the beginning we wouldn’t have time to included it in the game.
Caveats, mistakes, errors and other things to consider.
Right! We’ve now done a critical review of the final product. Let’s not stop there. I will here also do some criticizing of how the product came to be. Hopefully, someone who’s about to start their own game studio (or actually, this probably apply to most businesses) will read this and at least have a chance to avoid doing the mistakes we did. (Though I’m sure you will find lots of mistakes of your own to commit! ;)
Which came first? The team or the product? This was one of our most profound mistakes. Our team was great, but for it’s purpose; to create a computer game, it was less than optimal. Having the team that we had dictated what we could do whatever we wanted to do. This was one of the strongest reasons we created our own game engine. The resource we spent on creating a game engine would have been much better spent on for instance game design or a longer polishing period. Form a team around what needs to be done, instead of inventing what needs to be done to accommodate the team.
Don’t sell single player games online in 2011. Sure, it can be done (just look at Amnesia). But why bother going with a sub-optimal business strategy? Try to find something that fits both you and your customers better, there are lots of alternatives (F2P, microtransactions, DLC-centered) that does a much better job these days.
We’ll fund it ourselves does not equal free. Obvious as this may seem, it’s way too easy to fool yourself that not funding the project somehow makes it not cost anything. Make a proper cost calculation before embarking on an adventure like this and ask yourself “can I afford losing this money?”. In our case, we were right this time too (as with the DIY attitude); all of us were able to survive by working week-ends, spending savings and loaning money. But it’s a huge psychological difference to have that worked out before-hand instead of just surviving month by month.
Don’t sell sand in the desert. That is; don’t create a product that no one will want. Make sure that either there is a need for your product, or that you can create a need. Of course, there’s no knowing here, but do everything in your power to be as certain as possible.
A video is not enough. And our final tip; make sure you got a really good marketing strategy. If possible, try to make the product “market itself”; for instance make it beneficial for customers to recruit friends. Try to maximize the amount of time people are conscious of your product (it will make it more likely they will tell people about it). Don’t just rely on traditional marketing, try to utilize as many things like these as possible.
There we go! The official DML post-mortem. I hope it’s been an interesting read and at least provided some insights to someone. One final question you might have is “So what now? What will happen to DML and Keldyn?”. The answer to that is that for now, Keldyn is going on a hiatus (can a company go on a hiatus? anyway, time off, so to speak) and won’t be making games professionally in the near future. We’ll see again in a few years if the itch for creating games becomes too great, but until then; take care and enjoy our game!
Fredrik Norén & The Keldyn Team