The idea of a successful indie game was foreign to the masses 10 years ago. Everyone had just assumed that the most successful games had to come from a major studio, backed by millions of dollars, and massive marketing campaigns that spanned multiple forms of media. But August 2008, that changed; Braid was released. After getting onto Xbox Live, a game with little to no marketing, created by one man, would sell so rapidly that Jonathan Blow would earn $4 million in less than a year. Of course, Braid cost about $200,000 to make back in 2008 – leaving Jonathan Blow in debt of about $40k before it was even released.
Since then, the ability to share indie games has increased exponentially. Minecraft led to Markus Persson becoming a billionaire. Entire companies were created after developing apps.
Johnnemann Nordhagen experienced first-hand how developing an indie game could propel someone into the spotlight with Gone Home, the critically acclaimed adventure game by Fullbright released in 2013. Within six months, Gone Home had sold over 250,000 copies. That number continued to grow as the game was ported to consoles. Nordhagen stepped away from Fullbright in order to travel the world, and when he came back he founded a new company: Dim Bulb Games. He then recruited a team and spent the next four years working on a game of his own: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It was nominated for and won multiple awards, received tons of publicity from gaming news websites, and had Sting—yes, that Sting narrate the game. WTWTLW was released on February 28, 2018. Nordhagen invested $140,000 of his own money into the game.
As of March 30th, 2018, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine had sold less than 4 000 copies.
“So far, I have made $0 from the game” Nordhagen wrote on his Medium post, “At the end of the day it’s astounding that a game that got this much attention from the press, that won awards, that had an all-star cast of writers and performers, that had a bizarre celebrity guest appearance(!) failed this hard. It scares me.”
He’s not wrong. It probably scares plenty of would-be developers. And current developers. So the question lingers: How did this happen?
The hard truth is, a lot of things went wrong. Nordhagen admittedly didn’t have the skillset and expertise to run a development studio. “I didn’t know how to run a business, how to structure contracts, how to direct voice actors, how to market a video game, how to approach business deals, or how to manage contract employees.” In the end, creating a commercial game requires an acumen for business, and it sounds like Nordhagen is admitting he didn’t develop one.
Nordhagen also admits that the two artists working on WTWTLW stepped away just as he was beginning to flesh out the game, which nearly led to its cancellation. Additionally, there needed to be further play testing of the game, as well as fine-tuning controls. Combine all of these over the course of development, and it’s not exactly a shock that the game is receiving mixed reviews.
He also recognized that the development timeline was far too long. What was supposed to take around 2 years to complete ended up taking twice as long. For comparison, Gone Home took 1 year and 9 months to complete. Nordhagen blames this on ambition; the scope of the game was too big.
An indie game gains commercial success by being accessible to a wide audience. Accessibility usually translates into a myriad of qualities, such as interesting gameplay, depth and scope, originality, and a polished experience. To develop and refine these types of things in a game can take a lot of time, and a lot of time can equate to costing a lot of money.
Some might argue that not all indie games need to be commercial, and Nordhagen addresses this by explaining that it would undermine the integrity of the project:
“WTWTLW could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different. It would be far less polished, it wouldn’t have had the collaborators that it did, I could not have paid people who couldn’t afford to work for revenue share or for the love of the game (thus, I fear, cutting out some of the most valuable voices that this game was a platform for). I could have developed it as a side project, but it took me 4 years as is.”
One of the biggest things to note is that WTWTLW’s development story isn’t exactly unique. Braid earned more than enough to cover production costs, but Blow’s next game, The Witness took seven years to make. Blow confirmed that he reinvested all of the profits he made off of Braid into his new project. When he used up all of those funds, he had to get funding from somewhere else to finish the game.
The Witness was released on January 26th, 2016. In one week, it sold nearly 100,000 copies; this was the same amount that Braid sold in one year. This amounted to about $5 million. The total development cost for the game was just under $6 million.
If The Witness had experienced the same sort of problems currently plaguing WTWTLW, there’s a chance that Blow would have dealt with the same stresses that Nordhagen is presently dealing with. The Witness had development delays, was able to eventually show off the game at expos, was nominated for and won plenty of accolades, and had plenty of press buzz similar to Nordhagen’s developmental journey. In the end, one studio is on the verge of shutting down, and one already has the funding for its next project.
Nordhagen is still proud of his work and the people he worked with. He still has plans to release more content for the game, and says that he’s not in a dire financial state because of the loss.
“I debated taking another AAA job. I considered leaving games, although I am not sure where I’d go…I will try to continue doing independent game development in some form or another, but not depend on making much money from it.”
It’s disheartening to see that even a successful indie developer like Nordhagen might be forced to leave an indie studio he created in favour of a massive commercial company. Even though it appears that Nordhagen might be okay financially, it doesn’t appear he has as much faith in developing indie games as he did before – and with good reason.
The last line of his post-mortem of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a thought most likely shared by plenty of other struggling indie developers:
“I wish it were easier.”
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is currently available for PC on Linux, macOS, and Windows operating systems.
You can follow Geet Arora on Twitter at @AroraarorA for more takes on games, film, and acting stuff. Because he totally does that. The acting stuff, that is.
One thought on “Awards Don’t Pay Bills: A Sobering Look into Indie Game Development”
Yeah, the commercial & money side of game development is quite difficult sometimes. I feel like a lot of it comes down to marketing, but it’s certainly disheartening to see projects that win a lot of awards for innovation or originality not be rewarded for their efforts.