I've been on the fence about writing this post, as while it directly involves the development of the game, it's also more personal, and I'm not entirely sure if that's something people would find an interesting read, or just plain annoying.
However, I've promised more details in the future, and I'm seeing this as a good opportunity to give you a bit of a 'filler' before we get into the core of things. So let me explain some of what's been happening behind the scenes. Additionally, enjoy some scrumptious character art.
Do Publishers dream with electric sheep?
Publishers have always weirded me out. On paper, they sound nice, as long as you don't start reading any contracts. Then it just becomes terrifying, especially so if you're a small time dev. Even if their public relations and track record gives you a positive vibe, you cannot ever really be sure, how things will go down, once you sign that piece of paper. Your partner is still someone who has much more resources, manpower and experience in the field.
Despite this, it has always intrigued me, how much it would actually take to get signed, so last year, I did the unthinkable, and submitted a pitch to a company whom I thought would be fitting for the weird game we're trying to make: Devolver.
Usually people don't name drop anyone in posts like this, in fear of cutting off future prospects they might have, but I think there's no point talking about something in a round about way. And it's not like my experiences were really bad either.
Surprisingly, someone from Devolver responded within a week, saying they're intrigued, and that we should chat. Shocking, really, but at this point they haven't even seen the game in motion, and all they had was a 10 page document outlining what the project is, with some art attached. We talked for about 1,5 hours in detail, and things felt they went rather well, despite me doing this the first time.
Few months down the line I've sent them access to the prototype, which ultimately ended up with them passing. Which isn't bad really, as the prototype is just that, a prototype, not to mention the game started to evolve and change quite a bit meanwhile, for the better I might add (the current media available are all from that). I've also never done anything of the sort before, so having a company show any interest at all was quite uplifting.
So here I thought: well, might as well get more experience with this, not like I have anything to lose. Even if it's only wishful thinking, I might end up being able to work on the game full time, so let's try this again, shall we?
While I fully understand not every game can get or even deserves a publishing deal, I didn't let that discourage me. Again, I'm literally a no one. So let's see who else is out there?
Humble Games is an odd one. They seem to have streamlined their process of accepting pitches, and provide a template for you to fill out. They're also always looking for games to include in their next batch of monthly subscription bundle, so hey, who knows? Filled out their forms, and waited for their reply, which was to be generally within 5-7 workdays. Well, it's been about half a year, and they still haven't even watched the video I've sent them. Eh, must be busy, maybe too humble. Or our game really sucks, who knows, lol. Albeit in the meantime, I've also learned that if you do get a contract with them, you will earn the mesmerising amount of 0$ dollars from being in their monthly bundle.
Depending on what situation you're in, I'm willing to bet that most people would say 'that's OK with me', given the chance that they get a lump sum for development, and can go full time. Honestly, I would probably too. But making literally nothing off of your work doesn't sound right.
Sure, you can argue about the multitudes of aspects regarding this: you could make the game you wanted, because of their investment, people who potentially get the bundle, might never have bought your game otherwise, or that said bundle gives you exposure and all that. However, the only exposure that has ever helped people in my book was with an X-ray machine, so I'm really not fond of not getting a dime for my work. Not exactly disappointed that we never ended up with a conversation, except for that sweet upfront payment. But would that have been worth it in the long run? We'll never know.
About two months after not getting any replies from Humble, I've decided to not let their pitch template go to waste, and sent it out to a few smaller publishers: Fellow Traveller Games, Untold Tales, SUPERHOT, Ysbryd and a few others I don't remember. Nearly all of them replied within a span of one week, except for one, who profoundly apologised for taking an extra week, as they were busy with E3.
In the end, everyone passed on working with us.
Which sounds dramatic, I know. But it wasn't a bad experience at all. We've been politely told that our game either doesn't fit into their catalogue, or it's not what they're looking for. Some gave us words of encouragement or that their doors are always open for anything else in the future. Guess never say never, right? Who knows, there might be something down the line that clicks, and ends up in a collaboration.
So what's the takeaway here?
During the pitching process, I've noticed a few things. For starters, obviously everyone wants to work with a group, who already have some sort of experience. Rarely, if anyone wants to sign a deal with a person who they can't be sure of. Money IS on the line here, it's a business, no matter the artistic merit or passion an individual has. It's not a guarantee of any sort.
In our case: while there's some mods, games on steam, or even the app store in which we were involved with (to varying degrees), not every credit counts. You can have great experience in modeling, but If you don't have at least a short / tiny game that you've finished and released by yourself / with your team, your chances of getting signed are rather slim.
Secondly, not everyone you think is fit for you, will think that you are a fit for them. I ran into this, expecting something from companies who had a track record in the same / similar genre, only to be told that the they're currently not looking for said genre. Bummer.
Thirdly: our game is weird. I've talked about this before, but the sheer mention of 'Visual Novel' being involved with your title, puts a huge stigma on it, even if content and style wise, it bears little to no resemblance to it. Similarly, we're a 'Point and Click' game, but at the same time, we aren't. Creepslore is a hybrid bastard, that is hard to define properly, and the closest I've come to lately was 'Narrative Comedy Adventure'. It sounds like @$$.
So let me rephrase that: We are and aren't a Visual Novel and Point and Click adventure game. You see the problem? If you say you're part of a genre, some people will ignore you, but if you mention that you are not exactly the clear cut vanilla of said category, you will alienate those, who would otherwise be a part of your market. We're stuck between a cliff, in which case a single bad move can cost us greatly, and let us fall down into obscurity. Be it pitching to publishers, or marketing directly to players, we've certainly shot ourselves in the foot with this one.
Honestly, in a demented way, it's great though. Being an underdog relaxes some of the pressure you might feel from high expectations, and it enables you doing whatever you want. Doesn't mean you should, or that it will bring you great fortune, but at least you've been working on something that you really like, and stuck to it, until the end. Sure, money and appreciation would be nice, but having the luxury of not getting pressured is a wonderful perk.
Although the damn bread keeps costing more and more, so I might just be talking nonsense from delirium. *chews on grass*
Money should grow on trees.
Ever since the supermarket notified us of having restocked their toilet paper, the second most exciting news has been, that: We've been awarded a grant!
Well, sort of. And it only took 18 months to get it...
The country I live in, has 0 supporting measures for most things, especially videogames, so no funds or opportunities exist. The single one that is available to us, is through Creative Europe from the EU, but unfortunately, it has strict guidelines, which is impossible to meet as a start-up.
Thus, here comes the single saving grace: the grant for New Entrepreneurs! With the absolutely weirdest prerequisite ever:
1. You never had your own company
2. AND You are a NEET under the age of 30
3. OR You are UNEMPLOYED and above the age of 30
Well, coincidentally, back in 2020, I just said goodbye to an abusive Hospitality job, so I applied immediately. Then world events happened and everything changed. Delays followed delays, until I finally got a confirmation back, that I've made reserves. Cool, I thought, guess this means we'll be in business shortly, right? Wrong.
It became abundantly clear, that this is going to be a really dragged out process, where every tiny bit of thing needs not only approval, but extensive administration and a lot of hours put into it. We had to go through multiple workshops, that thought us nothing (besides basic advertising on facebook), outline and present business plans (which had to be realistic, but also inspiring) and of course, pitch our business idea to a committee. Mine was made up from 60+ year old grandmas...
If you think you've seen thoroughly confused people in your life, try explaining a super niche videogame to people who don't even know what tetris is. The only thing you can do is throw out industry sales data, and portray confidence. In this case, it somehow worked.
Flash forward to 2021, I hand in my final business plan and await approval. Which never comes. Instead, I get a message that my goals are not aspiring enough. Cool. I rewrite the plan, and using the book 'Masters of Doom' as a starting point, I proclaim to the Grant People that I will become rich and famous in the next year. Talking out of my (m)as(s)k seems to work, I get the okay.
Except, their money runs out, and they need to fuel more into the program, which takes another few months. At this point, in my mind, I quietly give up, and assume that I've wasted more than a year of my life on something stupid. One day, through some sheer miracle, I get a message, that everything is OK. I accept the contract, and await the glorious loot. Weeks pass, and yet another random encounter happens: their system farts their code out, the digital contracts have been corrupted, and we all need to re-sign it. Lucky me. I start laughing hysterically and do as I'm told.
The money arrives, in late august.
Without notice, of course. I can't believe it happened. I'm baffled, that I actually have it. It's surreal! I keep checking the balance for an hour, until it hits me, and I let out a massive shriek of joy. Almost two years down the line, but made it. I've got funding!... To basically upgrade my PC.
The amount is... Abysmal, compared to general development costs, but it allows me to buy a new rig. I honestly can't really 'upgrade' anything from my current setup, as it's 12+ years old, and even then I bought it used. While our game doesn't require a beast of a configuration, development will benefit from not having to use an AMD Phenom cpu from 2009 anymore...
This would sound nice if it ended here, but there's more to the story.
Since this is essentially a start-up grant, there's a couple of things that need to be done. Firstly: a certain income quota has to be met within a year. If it's not, the money has to be repaid. Our course leaders told us to always stand on both of our feet, meaning we have to have a backup, in case our venture fails. Because our game is not being sold yet, I've been doing some freelance work on the side. Nothing too spectacular, but combined with the excruciatingly detailed administrative tasks we need to do in regards to the fund, is more hassle than anyone would honestly think.
And here comes the second problem: quarterly business report. Again, such a thing would not seem to be an issue, except, because of strict guidelines, everything has to be accounted for, and documented in down to minute detail. Introduce a new challenger: my bank, the saboteur.
At every turn during this whole process, I've had issues with my bank account, which had to be newly created for this grant. A main account used for the business and a sub one, used for the grant. The bank 'forgot' to give me access to my sub account, charged expenditures from it (should have been the main one as a default), wasn't connected to the main account (how is this even possible?), sent me reports through paper documentation (despite opting in for digital) and had statements per transactions, instead of a general monthly one. After finally fixing all of these issues (which didn't exist on the main account) the biggest problem arose:
They cannot give me a monthly statement retroactively, if the account was not previously set up in it as their system cannot do so, nor can they manually create one, as it's against their policy. And guess what the grant needs? Monthly statements.
If I cannot provide the required documents, I'm in a breach of contract, and have to repay the grant with interest... After finally getting a PC that can run more things than Solitaire and Minesweeper, I might be forced to go back to the rig that smells like burnt toast, and unlock complete financial suicide. How fun.
Now, I pride myself in being able to deal with lots of stress (well, just ignoring it really) but I haven't been this freaked out in a decade. The single time something moderately good happens in life, there has to be someone kicking you in the shins, snapping you back to reality. With zero support and opportunities, the sole thing that could finally help you is about to be taken away, because of the incompetence of a third party... Things are still in limbo though, so we'll see what happens.
Here's wishful thinking that Lord Cthulhu shows up this Halloween and accidentally blasts the bank to smithereens. I've heard he doesn't like tellers.
The road to Crowdfunding doesn't exist... Yet.
A while ago, I wrote up an article about the improbabilities of Crowdfunding for us. The amount of tax that we'd need to pay after one, is about half the money we'd get. And then we weren't even talking about physical rewards with the cost of their production, which are one of the bigger reasons people pledge their support. Not being in the US, has several disadvantages, where Crowdfunding becomes almost impossible for us mere pleb... For now.
In late October this year however, the EU law will change. While there's some noticeable changes even now, the biggest is yet to come. Not being fully versed in the explicit details yet, as I've mostly seen the investor sides of things getting mentioned, there's hope for the future. If things go through, we might do a kickstarter later this year, with a lot of exciting exclusivities, including a lot of custom trinkets, buying the game at a discount, and even getting the original, hand drawn character art included as part of the rewards.
One character actually found a new home already. Fitting, as he is homeless.
Unfortunately none of the bigger Crowdfunding sites support our countries, so there's no way for us to do any of this. It's just a possibility at this point, nothing more.
When is the early bird too early?
I'm not a huge fan of Early Access. I've only ever backed 2 games, one was a 'dine and dash' where developers left us with a broken pile of garbage, while the other one exceeded expectations, and became one of my go-to activities. So in my personal experience, it's a 50-50 chance that something good will come out of these things. We've been dabbling with the possibility in this regard, to launch in Early Access, as it might benefit us in the long run.
We've been working too long on Creepslore, and there's still a lot to be done (especially with our rework). Having 5 individual branches is both a blessing and a curse. A curse, because we want to release everything in one big package. A blessing, because technically these are segregated, and can be released periodically.
So we've been thinking of releasing the game through periodical updates. Launch with 1 or 2 of the branches, and have the others come in at a later point. This wouldn't be the typical 'episodic' formula that most games use though, as we still want everyone to have access to the full game by the end of development. Some might say, that it's good to have separate chapters as individual purchases, just in case you don't like the first one, but I feel like that's besides the point.
People can always get a refund or just try our demo. Yes, there WILL be a DEMO in the end, so you could check the game out freely, without worrying about playtime and refunds. However, in the meantime, those who wish to support the game early, will be able to do so, at a possibly discounted rate, and tag along, first in line, as the newest stories get released.
These are all just ideas and speculation at this point, nothing is set in stone. It can go either way. We might do either, or neither. The single thing that is for sure: the next time you notice an update on our steam page, it will include a video.
Concussion or conclusion?
With all that said, thanks for taking the time reading this. As promised, I'm trying to be as clear cut and open about everything as possible. I'm not sure if this is the explicit direction we need to be heading in, but I've always valued raw honesty more than anything. With that said:
If you have any questions, suggestions, or just a witty remark, drop a line below, and tell us what you think!