Josh at Pixels or Death asked me some questions about my experience with Dormouse Games. First off, it was a ton of great experience, it was absolutely worth doing. Eric and I had a blast giving it a go. Eric is great to work with, and awesome to sit down with and just have brunch and talk about games, sci fi, writing, anything. And he hosts some killer cocktail parties too. So my writing doesn’t necessarily reflect how I feel. It’s a statement of fact, and how I look at things at this moment (therefore subject to change over time). Keep that in mind while reading.
Here are the raw questions, and answers. Maybe they will use it for an article? Maybe it’s just useless venting. A good idea would be to swing by my post about Scott McMillians talk “Death of an Indie Studio”. All of the thoughts there are entirely applicable.
Yeah, marketing is a skill all it’s own. Really though you don’t have to market great games. You only have to market games which are good or below. A great game will take care of marketing for you, assuming you passionately talk about it in places where people can find it (reddit). Every successful game has this in common. Great games get found and shared. Bad games get marketing budgets. Really the marketing sucked because we didn’t have any experience doing it. We could have either had a better game, or better marketing skills and had better results.
–What made the game bad? Was it mechanically busted, or just uninteresting/not well-designed?
The game is extremely narrow in focus. It’s fun for a play through. But once you move through it, you don’t really want to pick it back up. We assumed that people would enjoy a mental challenge more than somewhat mindless levels (like . And boy were we wrong. The levels are all manually crafted. And actually making the levels was a ton of fun. But that creates an issue where it takes tons of time to make a level, but not much time to figure it out. Really for puzzle games algorithmic level generation is a must. Even if you curate that, or edit it. Also it can’t really beat the player. Some of the most fun games out there can put the player in jeopardy, or appear that way. In a puzzle game… that doesn’t happen. So even more levels are needed.
–Would more dev time have helped? –Why wasn’t more dev time given if it was your company?
More “Dev” Time would not have helped. Less Dev time would have been better. That cliche ‘Fail faster’ is so true. Especially on web and mobile. We set down a 6 month development cycle, for a 20 level puzzle game, that had a sub tens of ten thousand dollar budget. We thought, “This is small! This is Fast!” It was not nearly small nor fast enough. We should have spent 1 month on 6 games each with a $0 budget. Vlambeer was just becoming a thing as we were starting. Unfortunately not a thing we were in on. We should have done that. Release ‘polished prototypes’ via third party websites. Then finish the games people like.
–Why did you think your marketing sucked?
Results. We could get small trickle of hits to the game, and even smaller number of plays. Not even ‘play to completion’. Just play more than one level. Whether you like metrics or not everything gets measured, and at the end of the day, when the money doesn’t come in the door, that’s a pretty big indication that something (probably multiple things) are not working. When people don’t engage with the game they are sending a message by lack of communication.
–Do you think no one (including other devs) cared because it was bad?
Yes, and they were too kind to be blunt about it. They were attempting to spare our feelings. They should have been brutal. It would have made us ‘upset’, but that is fuel for development, not angst. There is nothing more creative than a pissed off artist. Be brutally honest with indie games you look at during development. Be overly kind after release, if you like the game. Now ultimately interacting with other indies is our issue, not theirs. We didn’t really hold them to it to get a good answer. We didn’t really follow up enough and get to the real answers.
–The indie community is usually so helpful… did you ever reach out to anyone?
Dormouse Games rents a desk at Intrepid Labs. We talked to lots of folks there. Had access to arguably some of the best indie devs out there. We went to Boston Indies Demo Nights, showed the game around. We reached out to a lot of folks. But not really in the right way. Not in a way that forced them to be blunt with us. To be honest and direct. They didn’t really apply their experience and say “This will not work in the marketplace.” Which would have been way more helpful than “Wow it looks great!”. It’s not their fault. They have tons of shit to do. They have small success, which just brings nightmare loads of email, and events, and trips. Scheduling becomes a nightmare. It’s hard to meet for an hour and get people to really be brutal with you. We felt like we were interrupting people. We let meetings get pushed off, and again didn’t follow through. So again, this was our issue, not others.
–Most people will just make games in their spare time, but you make it sound like you had money for your initial start-up. Where did that come from?
Yup, most people do make games in their spare time to start. And that is absolutely what we should have done. But Eric had an opportunity to get funding from investors and roll the dice. So he formed a company, got start up capital and we gave it a go. In perspective we did really well. As a counter example see Scott McMillan’s fantastic presentations called ‘Death of an Indie Studio’. [My blog post with tons of links here] He went into debt failing to make a game. We just lost the investors money, and not even all of it. Which they were ok with losing (they themselves being internet entrepreneurs). I got a day job and right now Eric is doing contract work and considering the same. We’re not in worse positions because of what we did. But I have to wonder if we really were that invested. Maybe if we really put everything on the line, wife and house and financial futures it would have turned out differently? The answer is definitely no it would not have.
–Was this your first ever game? I just want to make sure–but either way, it sounds like this one experience soured you completely. No drive to get back into it?
This was my first game which went from start to finish. Eric, the company founder/CEO, has built games for companies in the past. But never in such a position of control. My lack of experience is game development wasn’t really a problem. I never got the feeling like “Oh man, I can’t do this.” I’m a business and computer science major; a recent graduate of BU. I was there to talk about the business end of things and had input on game mechanics, story, theme, art. I feel that I held my own. But one huge issue, is I am not a writer, and I could have been so more helpful if I was better at writing.
Larp was my original passion. I started in the mid 1990’s. I only stopped larping because the game I was playing/helping run broke up. I lost my passion for years when that happened. During that time I needed some kind of creative expression, and so I thought “hey computer game design!”. Started the Zorts Project. https://sites.google.com/site/zortsgame/ Ha. Man that looks like crap now. Technically that was my first failed game project. Slightly embarrassing to look at, but then aren’t they always?