September 9, 2016 11:15 AM | Thomas Faust
We got in touch with Arcen Games' founder, Chris Park, a few weeks ago to discuss the impending launch of their latest game, In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor - which didn't turn out as expected, to say the least.
Earlier this year, Arcen faced a fair bit of financial trouble. You wrote about having to let go staff and possibly shelving some projects. Did you manage to pull out of this
We have not reached financial equilibrium yet, but we have pulled out of it well enough that we've been able to work on new things.
Keith LaMothe (our other programmer/designer) has been working on Stars Beyond Reach as his main project since the layoffs, with me having withdrawn from that project after failing to get a design that any of us were truly happy with. That's been a tough road for him as well, but he's come up with some things that seem promising.
Starward Rogue was the game that flopped in January and led to our financial woes (or rather failed to save us from the woes that began with Stars Beyond Reach going waaaay over time and budget, but that's another story). A lot of the contractors who had been working on that have opted to stay on as volunteers and have made some amazing post-release updates to it. All of them have other jobs or general life circumstances that meant that contracting with Arcen was not remotely their core work anyhow, and they have a passion for the game.
Myself and Blue (Daniette Mann -- but she prefers Blue) have been working on 3D projects since the layoffs. For a lot of reasons, the 3D pipeline is actually more efficient for us to work in, and it's something that just she and I are able to manage between the two of us. We built up our 3D skills and toolset quite a bit, and during that period I found an asset on the unity asset store that was a velociraptor you could control. The controls were awkward and slow and really stiff, but I found it really compelling anyhow; there was a real mental throwback to the 1993 Jurassic Park game, which I loved. So we decided to make a game based around that concept.
And so she and I have been working on Release Raptor most of this time, while Keith has been on Stars Beyond Reach, and we've had the "freaking volunteers" (as they like to call themselves) working on Starward Rogue.
I think that people almost expect you to come up with unexpected concepts and. But even so, Release Raptor came as a surprise to a lot of people. Aren't you concerned that this complete change in style and general direction might alienate your core audience?
I think that's definitely the expectation when it comes to us, yes. That can be a blessing and a burden, honestly. Sometimes when we do something that "isn't unique enough," we get slammed for that even when it has a bunch of twists compared to other entries in a given genre. That happened some with Starward Rogue [...] and that's happening to a mild degree here, too.
I think that one of the big worries that some people have with Release Raptor is that it's going to be a "stupid person" game. Aka, that it's some sort of sellout or that we're trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator or whatever else. In a lot of respects we're doing now what we've done in a lot of our other games, but it doesn't feel like that because of the perspective switch. We've got procedural action-adventure here, which is what four of our other titles were (and one other of our titles was action-adventure without the procedural bit).
But even in our action-adventure games, we tend to blend in some sort of tactical or strategic layer to it. A lot of people don't really think that's possible here I think based on what they see, and to some extent that's because I just need to add more and more content here.
Right now it's early access and so kind of the tip of the iceberg, if you will. I think that some people who are currently feeling alienated by this direction are basically reacting as if this was Goat Simulator: Raptor Edition. I hope that over time as early access progresses those people will have their opinion shifted. I guess time will tell.
What happened next was rather unusual and sudden: after weak initial sales, Arcen completely removed Release Raptor from sale, essentially scrapping development and promising full refunds to all previous buyers.
Nuking development of a game we'd already released (even in EA form) is never something I'd considered. This option had not remotely entered my mind prior to about an hour before deciding to do it. I figured that the worst case with this game would be to struggle along for a month, maybe two, spend about about $40k doing so, and then leave people with a good $5 experience.
The problem, looking at the numbers and the early feedback and the early response from much of the press, was that I realized that we were not remotely going to recoup that $40k anytime soon, AND that I'd burn a couple of depressing months slogging out something that apparently no-one wanted or understood. Despite my own personal enthusiasm for the project, yesterday was a hard one to be motivated for.
In general there was a sentiment around a lot of press that "wow they must be hard-up for money to try and make a game like this." This was widely seen as some sort of cash-in. We were getting Youtuber coverage of people having fun with the game and saying how they were hopeful it would grow... but people in general are skeptical of Early Access these days.
With the messaging being SO drastically off about what the game even was, and the various Youtuber coverage being what it was in terms of positivity and yet literally zero movement in sales bumps from that... I realized that I was basically condemned in some senses. I have X amount of money, I would have to spend it keeping promises on this game that nobody cared about, and at the end of that term I'd have next to no money, and therefore no options.
This wasn't going to get better. We've been here before, and the optimism that we once had about such things turning around is long, loooong gone. If sales were X now, then they were only going to be X/10 two weeks from now. Aka, a copy or two a day. I guarantee it.
If the press hadn't really reacted yet, or Youtubers and twitch folks hadn't been covering it at all yet, or our advertising campaign hadn't kicked into gear yet, then I would have still had some hope. Once it became clear that all of those things were not making a difference and we were spending more on advertising than the game was even making, AND the game was being misunderstood and seen as a cash grab... well, that was the death of hope, I suppose.
What the key realization was, though, was that this game had sold SO poorly that I could actually withdraw it from the market with minimal financial loss compared to what I'd otherwise lose. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 of direct cost in refund bank fees, versus $40,000. Obviously the revenue would be lost on top of that, but that's not money we ever had in our pocket anyway. I'm referring to money out the door that was in a bank account we have.
After realizing that, I realized I wasn't shackled after all. I had had similar opportunities to avoid shackling myself to A Valley Without Wind 2 ($130k loss) and Stars Beyond Reach ($200k+ loss beyond the point where I should have called it off last May, and $420k loss overall). For once I could read the tea leaves early, not be over-optimistic, and make the choice that is painful and yet needed. There is no part of me that wonders "what if."
What's next for Arcen Games?
I'm biting the bullet and will be doing [a Kickstarter] for an AI War sequel. That's our bread and butter, and we know that backwards and forwards, so if there's any sort of safe bet in terms of something we can deliver on a schedule we understand, it's that. And a lot of people are hungry for it, versus it being some new IP, so that's an added bonus.
At the time of writing, the unfinished build of In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor is available from Steam as a free download. The AI War 2 Kickstarter campaign is supposed to start in a couple of weeks.
This was actually just a part of a much longer interview. You can read the full interview over at Gamasutra.