Hi, I’m JD Sorvari, Lead Writer at Rival Games. With the launch of Alien: Blackout tomorrow on your favorite mobile device, I’m here to share some of the behind the scenes efforts it took to get the game launched!
They say vengeance is a dish best served cold. I’m not sure if the same applies to justice, but seeing the end approach for our premiere season of The Detail feels like cool vindication. Oft delayed and nearly D.O.A. on more than one occasion, our struggles to bring this gloomy vision of modern morality to light seem to mirror that of our protagonists. I’ll leave further interpretation to you, and wrap up this case with a teasing peek at what’s coming…
In the midst of all the last-minute detailing on the closing episode of our debut series, we took some time to host an IGDA evening, in cooperation with our friends over at Shark Punch. What followed was the usual night of drinking, mingling, chatting, plotting, and presenting what we all know. That’s what we love IGDA nights for!
Our CEO, Jukka Laakso, tackled the business commentary on how our little series had fared on Steam and other marketplaces overall (short answer: well enough, for its size and especially budget) while the lead writer of The Detail, JD Sorvari, handled the more artistic interpretation of how the game actually got made. (In a word: miraculously.)
For the uninitiated: IGDA (or International Game Developers Association) is a global organization that brings together developers, students, hopefuls, newbies and industry veterans alike around their common passion – namely games, and their organized nights are a monthly highlight among the local development communities. I’ve often said it’s where game developers meet to plot taking over the world… one game at a time!
(Certainly if you drink enough, anything can seem possible.)
Thank you so much to the IGDA Turku organizers (Tatu Laine and all his helpers) for the wonderful event, Shark Punch for being such excellent hosting buddies, and of course Natasha Bulatovic Trygg and Toni Heinonen for these great photos! Here’s looking forward to the next one – stay tuned.
Winter is passing here in Finland, but for Reggie and the crew of the major crimes detail, things are just getting deeper. Much like the developers who toil at bringing these episodes to a close, there seems no end in sight for our heroes, who find themselves delving further into the conspiracies that drive a corrupt city. But twists await Reggie, Kate, and Joe before their tale is through, and as the story heads for its thrilling climax, will evil reveal its true face?
Yes, that’s right – in case it hasn’t been picked up by you sleuths yet, I’m here to say that Episode 3 will represent the last episode in The Detail. Though we had originally planned five, sadly the economics are against us, and while we’re proud of the fanbase we’ve gathered around the game, our sales just haven’t sufficed to cover the costs of further production. With that in mind, we’ve put every effort into making this last episode an extended one, to tie off all loose threads and bring this gritty adventure to a satisfying conclusion.
Yet there’s no bad news without some good, and the project we’re moving onto is very exciting indeed. We’re not ready to reveal full details on that just yet, except to say that expect more of the same hard-hitting, narrative-driven, graphic novel-infused gameplay that has become Rival Games’ signature style. We will of course continue supporting The Detail even as we look ahead to our next game, and we might still see Kate and others return in one form or another…
The third and final episode, Devil in the Detail, launches in early April.
Continuing our run of introductions, we have more additions to the Rival Games crew:
Kicking off with Kimmo Kari, our new chief product officer, bringing over a decade of experience in creative leadership, production, and negotiation. He’ll be putting to work his experience from over thirty shipped commercial titles to hone our production pipeline, and we’re very fortunate to have him on board! Rival Games is primed to advance to the next level as a developer, and bringing in veteran support like Kimmo is all part of our overall strategy to draw out the very best from our diversely talented team.
Next we have KJ Kallio, a highly talented illustrator and concept artist, who among other roles has acted as art director and lead illustrator for Wil Wheaton’s show, Tabletop, on Geek & Sundry. A well-known figure among indie art circles, his masterful brushstrokes are exactly what our company needs in a lead artist, and he will be directing our art team to create the most consistently excellent visuals for our games.
Then we have Janos Honkonen – author and media professional, with a wide background in journalism, TV-production, and the film and games industries. His work in novels, comics, countless articles and pieces of short fiction are a huge asset for our future projects, and he is what our CEO, Jukka Laakso, calls the “logical next step” for our evolution towards bringing a “writer’s room” together as a core company concept.
What does Jukka mean by “writer’s room” you ask?
“We’ve always put narrative at the forefront of the games we develop, and it makes sense to bring in talented writers and pool their creativity in a space where they’re going to bounce ideas off each other and create the best possible stories.”
There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth! Much more on this and other updates to come soon. Until next time – stay tuned.
As you may have noticed, it has been quite a while since we published the first episode of The Detail. Some concerns have been raised by the community, but worry not. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t even that oncoming train this time. The second episode, From the Ashes, is in active production, and will be released in May 2015!
Now for the assorted explanations and excuses.
Rival Games has always been about forging our own path as a company and making the kinds of games that we want to play ourselves. Unfortunately this automatically puts us at odds with the prevailing trends in the marketplace. The popularity of mobile free-to-play is waning thanks to oversaturation, but it is still the go-to choice for many investors. They find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea of a game with no match-3 mechanics that you actually have to pay for. Crazy concept, we know.
This does put us in a tricky position, trying to find funding while flying the indie flag. It is a balancing act, but despite the somewhat slow progress, we have continued to lean towards “keeping it real”, for your sakes as well as ours.
We are determined to give you a full season of The Detail, be it by hook or by crook. It may result in a certain “elasticity” in our schedules, but we feel it is a fair price to pay. Speaking of price, we will be rewarding our community with certain discounts as a way of saying thank you for your patience. You keep believing in us, and we’ll keep believing in you!
Year 2014 just came to an end. It is time to lay the cards on the table.
First of all, everything I discuss here is based on my personal experiences from the past year. I’d like to point out that there are some excellent investors in Finland, who are quite different than those discussed here. Likewise, everything you’ve read/heard about the Finnish game industry as a community is true: industry veterans offer their help and guidance to new entrepreneurs to an astonishing level of detail and involvement. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. I’m trying to continue that same tradition.
I have been struggling with one not-so-simple-dilemma for the past year: funding. You’ve probably read from the papers how yet another million or so was raised by a Finnish gaming startup. Yes, there has been plenty of those around, which is great for the industry itself here in Finland. However, for all the dreamers over there who are planning on launching their own game startup in the future, here is the harsh behind-the-scenes reality we’ve been bashing our head into. And sadly this reality is the truth on most of the cases currently in the Finnish game industry.
As most of us already know, you need a few things to get the investors even remotely interested:
• A team with a competitive edge (usually experience)
• A product
• A market
• A scalable business plan
Looking at us, we definitely have them. The first version of our product has been launched, and as you can see from the launch trailer below, the reviews have been excellent. The product sells on a daily basis still, two months after launch, starting to trend upward thanks to our hard work in solving the discoverability issue. There is still a lot to improve upon, but for a debut title it is decent enough.
We have a market. A huge market. Telltale Games has sold over 28 million episodes (by July 2014, the current figure is probably closer to 40 million) of their The Waking Dead. That is well over 100 Million in revenue with a single franchise, probably with a return rate of 10+ times the initial development costs. They have created a market demand for deep emotional dramas, where the core gameplay is branching narrative. However, currently they are the only one answering that demand. Especially on mobile, where the few-second-core-loop is the only “right” way to go according to most.
We have a scalable business plan, one that focuses on creating value through our own IPs as well as well-known international franchises being development into interactive dramas. Our first episode of The Detail was made for a mere fraction of the budget of The Walking Dead, yet is capable of standing on its own in comparison. Here is a quote from the most recent user review from Steam (reviews are just reviews, user are the ones who buy the games):
“With all the games made in the graphic novel vein (walking dead, wolf among us, etc.) one wonders if the next one will be just a bandwagon jumper or something truely inspired. Well, ‘The Detail’ is a true CLASSIC in the making if the next parts are up to the level that this one has. Beautiful drawings, inspired storytelling, great conversations, music fits like a glove, what more is there to say??? For the price it is now this is not a recommendation…. it is a MUST buy!”
Neither of these would have been possible without the magnificent team that we have: they share the passion that the founders have for storytelling, and bring more than enough talent to make that passion into reality. Sadly, the issue we have faced yet again, is the constant questioning of our competitive edge.
The experience issue: are we inexperienced?
The trend in the industry seems to be summing up the years each founder has in the industry. Well, we have been working on Rival Games for the past 33 months and there is four of us. So the total would be around 11 years of combined experience from the industry. During that time, we have:
• gone through a startup accelerator
• an internationally awarded startup incubator
• raised angel funding
• raised a variety of government funding
• been chosen as the finalist for Game Connection America from 350+ applicants
• negotiated with multiple international partners for mutual interests
• built an extremely experienced Board of Directors
• built a vast network of international advisors
• clarified the vision of what Rival Games will become, and how
We aren’t “young, non-educated dreamers” anymore: turning thirty next year with different M.Sc. level degrees from Universities on business, productization and entrepreneurship. Additionally, if we add our current multitalented team members into the experience pool, another 20+ years can easily be added from the games industry. Together, we have:
• launched the first episode of The Detail with a review average over 80
• achieved 97% positive user feedback on Steam (exceptionally high)
• built tools and pipelines to allow fast scale up
• a team capable of creating everything we need in-house
Still, in the eyes of the investors, we are inexperienced. For them, a few years of drawing birds as a graphic artist means more than building a product from scratch to finish and commercially launching it, while developing the company from an idea to a reality people enjoy working in. Thankfully, this is not the case between developers: we are receiving tons of applications from the major game studios in Finland and neighboring countries, because they see something they like and want to be a part of.
Personally, I still see us as inexperienced. Hell, the whole industry is rapidly changing so basically everyone is inexperienced for the things to come. There are always new things to learn, old things to improve on, forgotten things to innovate on. But compared to hundreds of other gaming startups, we’ve already learned most of the lessons that are needed for the next steps.
The funny thing is that I’m not sure if we are going to have the chance to take those steps. The game industry in Finland is constantly growing, tens of millions in funding is being raised by various experienced founders, and the media is addressing the gaming industry as the savior of the Finnish economy. I truly hope it is, but at the same time I’m scared: when the next radical innovation hits the mobile industry, can these companies adapt? The ones who have all the funding and pretty much compete in all the same markets?
If they can’t, we are up the creek without a paddle.
So the lesson here today is quite simple. If you’re dreaming of founding your own game studio, make sure to match your dreams with reality: Tekes (the Finnish government) and a few industry angels might fund you, but the larger venture capitalist seen in media won’t. Your only option is to go work for another company for at least a few years (10+ recommended) and then perhaps one day dream again about founding your own company. Additionally, you are not allowed to explore new opportunities as an entrepreneur in the current Finnish gaming industry: the safe bet is to copy the Top 100 Grossing list on AppStore, pick the one with the least copycats available, introduce a “new innovation” for it and start developing.
Don’t take me wrong, there are companies which I respect a great deal, thinking outside of this box, some of them even doing pretty well. I have faith in them being the future. The industry has and will keep changing rapidly, and these companies have the guts to try and hit the next big wave before it even begins. That is what I call an innovative company, and will do everything I can to make sure Rival Games is one of them.
If you feel like you could do a better job, why don’t you give it try in our:
As some of you have already noticed, we were Greenlit on Steam a week ago. Thanks for your support and spreading the word!
We wanted to show our support back and decided to share some of the insights we gathered from the whole process itself. Our fellow developers at Shark Punch wrote already about their experiences in getting The Masterplan Greenlit in their Devlog, where they sum up nicely a lot of the same theories we found out to be true, so we will take a little different approach in our blog.
The first logo, which doesn’t really catch your attention
First of all, we know from the beginning that getting a game like ours through Greenlight would prove a challenge. The game focuses on narrative and is quite dialogue-heavy, so creating an action trailer showing off the gameplay wasn’t an option. So we decided to go with our earlier teaser, logo and screenshots. We also included quite a sales pitch in the Greenlight page which, looking back now, was far too long and not interesting enough to grab your immediate interest. However, due to our unique visual style of mixing graphic novels, we attracted a decent amount of traffic from within Steam during the first few days. Below is a picture of our overall progress, and as you can see, the first few days are the most important. They clearly judge the amount of traffic Steam will channel to your Greenlight page.
After the first few days, we soon realized that the traffic was starting to die off completely. So something had to be done. First, we changed the logo towards a more personal one with Reggie staring directly towards the screen. Secondly, we ditched the long sales pitch and went with a much simpler version. These gained a little spike in user traffic but nothing special.
No animations, but captures the style of the game better
The next step was the logical one, bringing the press up to speed on us being in Greenlight. We started this by sending out over 100 press releases through MailChimp using our unique visual design. The package included a brand new trailer showing gameplay and a professionally drafted press release for an easy copy-paste article. We thought it was enough to get their attention.
Nope. Lessons learned: First, nobody cares about a new trailer by a random new game studio. Unless you’ve got something technologically marvelous or industry icons working on it. Second, there are tens of new games submitted into Greenlight daily, so they probably have their mailbox already full of various games begging for some time in the spotlight. Even though we got some attention on various smaller game websites, the traffic they generated wasn’t enough.
So clearly this wasn’t the way to go. After talking this with our advisors, we realized where our error lay: our targeting was completely off. Instead of just approaching the given contact emails on various websites, we should carefully choose the right reporters behind the websites. This actually proved to be quite easy: just think of similar games, check their reviews from Metacritic, and there you have it, the reporters responsible for reviewing games similar to The Detail.
An animated logo, where you’ve got a pair of piercing eyes staring at you from the screen
So next I started reading their reviews and wrote them personal emails, where we granted an access to an early demo of The Detail. After a few days, it payed off. The first bigger article was in Hardcore Gamer, which generated the first spike of traffic in late June seen above. Then Rock, Paper, Shotgun checked us out and included some of the most epic scenes from HBO’s The Wire. This resulted in a much larger spike, the highest one after the first few days in our journey so far in Greenlight. Still, this was not enough. We needed more traffic. At this point we also had already changed the logo to a detailed animated black and white face staring right through you, with the game’s name in yellow below it to break from our normal color palette.
We were constantly reading the comments on forums, the Greenlight page itself as well as the different comments section on various press articles regarding The Detail. They all had one thing in common: what is the gameplay like? This was a question we needed to answer as effectively as possible. We started to think about the traditional YouTube gameplay videos and felt like it wasn’t the right way to go. Then we remembered a couple great examples of interactive videos, where the “players” were given the possibility make their own choices within the video itself. Perfect fit for a game evolving around choices, right? The next days were spent working on the video itself and on YouTube’s own linking system. On July 3rd we launched The Detail Interactive Trailer. It worked out well, got some coverage on the sites that had previously talked about our game, and gave the players some idea of the initial gameplay itself.
However after a few days, once again, the traffic on our Greenlight page died off almost completely. We released the early demo through Alpha Beta Gamer for the public to test out a week later. It generated some traffic but still not nearly enough. We weren’t even in the Top100 list in Greenlight. At this point we looked back at the data, realized that we have done everything possible, and now we could only wait. Steam directed some daily traffic into the page but it wasn’t gonna get us greenlit anywhere in the near future. So we focused in working on the game and just let the Greenlight run on its own course.
So you can color me surprised, when our Lead Writer sent me a text on a late Friday evening on August 1st, with just a one simple word in it: “Greenlit“. It caught us completely by surprise, since we weren’t even in the Top100 and only 50 titles had been greenlit in the batch. Actually, we are even still a little confused about the whole thing, and even more thankful for getting picked over a lot of other promising titles still fighting for attention in Steam Greenlight.
As for a conclusion, like so many others have said it before me, it seems getting greenlit isn’t just about the numbers. Getting the attention of the press, the players and the community is as important as the amount of “yes” votes generated at the end of the day. From here on, our journey continues towards preparing the first episode for launch later this fall. Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest on The Detail.
Thank you for our support! Much obliged
We work on creating a mix of strong IPs and interactive storytelling for players to experience on multiple different platforms
This episodic form of gaming will allow gamers to experience branching storylines where tough moral choices will haunt them throughout the whole season.
We aim to raise the bar for dramatic interactive narrative on PC and mobile platforms.