So! You may or may not know, but we've been working on getting a variety of mockups for A Valley Without Wind in order to significantly improve the quality of the art. The art quality of the game has been really divisive among players since before beta for the game even started, but we never had the funds to do anything about it directly.
After almost a month and a half of mockups and work and rework, we've finally selected Heavy Cat Studios to do the rework.
No More Kickstarter Plans
There had been much talk of our running a kickstarter campaign to fund half or more of the art rework project... but that just hasn't sat very well with me for a lot of reasons. A few of them, in no particular order:
- If the kickstarter succeeds and we redo the art, BUT then sales of AVWW don't pick up, we would still be obligated (in our minds and in the minds of at least some of the backers) to keep pouring on lots of free updates for quite some time. "What do you mean I invested $100 into the art of this game and now it's only getting small updates only 4-5 months later!" The last thing we want to do is either be put into a situation where a project is becoming a financial drain on the company (thus threatening overall company stability) or where players feel ripped off if the tides of fate don't go the way that we want. I much prefer it if they get an excellent value right from the start, and then any of the updates are just gravy/bonus; that wouldn't be the case if we did a kickstarter of this style.
- Doing a kickstarter would not be the most efficient use of your money, or our time. Not all the money you give through kickstarter actually makes it to the person or company you're giving it to (which is of course understandable), and so that makes the amount of money we'd have to raise from you higher than the amount of money we'd have to put in directly. And to make matters worse, to do the various incentives on kickstarter typically requires a lot of work on our part. Plus making videos and all the other administrative things. Not doing a kickstarter lets you keep your money and us keep our focus. If you're looking to support us as a company, I hope you'll tell your friends and acquaintances (and strangers you meet on the bus) about us.
- Running a kickstarter also somewhat undermines the natural flow of development on the new art style, as well. As I'll show you below in this post, the art style is coming along really well. However, there are many details that are not yet hashed out (more on that in a bit). Having the kickstarter as a goal after just a month would have meant that we'd have had the artists distracted with that and trying to rush through the early style-setting phases rather than taking the time that is properly needed for them. We're going to have five major milestones in this project with Heavy Cat, and the first of them is going to be substantially longer than the last milestone -- that's just the nature of any project that begins with substantial R&D (like AVWW itself did). Though on the positive side we are really winding down in the R&D phase thanks to the last month and a half.
- Lastly, if we were to do a kickstarter asking for more money to redo the graphics of a game that is already out, there's a good chance of some negative reaction to that from some parties. Our core fanbase was either neutral or jumping up and down at the chance to contribute, but this would just give further fuel to people who are already (for whatever reason) skeptical of us or the game. All in all, I think that we can agree that on principle it's really a good thing to not ask your customers for more money for something they already bought. From the outset I hadn't wanted to do that, but I had also not wanted to shoulder the burden of an art revamp project all on Arcen's own. I thought it would be a lot more expensive than it is turning out to be, which is one thing that helps, but additionally I had viewed the kickstarter idea as a "let's see if those people who say that they'd want the game if it didn't make their eyes bleed are serious" test.
Given that the forum thread about the art is now nearly the most popular thread we've ever had on our forums, and the reaction from some of the press who happened to notice what we were working on, that the interest in this revamp is self-evident.
So How Are We Avoiding The Kickstarter?
Heavy Cat have a really efficient way of working that let's them get work done in volume quickly. This has made them really cost competitive for us, which in turn has made the entire project more feasible. Even the estimates from the other two studios were half of what my original projections has been, however.
Further, in order to really maximize the use of funds, there are certain key areas where we are able to reduce the scope of the art rework in order to keep the costs down. For example, there are many redundant backgrounds of middling (or in a few cases low) quality at the moment. Instead of trying to redo all those, just focusing on redoing a few of them and reusing those makes a lot more sense. If you think about most games, this is what most of them do already.
Not to say that you'll be running through identical corridors all the time or something. But that's where things like furniture and other goods come into play. We'll be able to make those stand out a lot more (in a good way) as part of the rework process, and that in turn will help to make the building interiors feel more unique than they did anyway just by having four or five different variants of brick walls.
I'm as confident as I can be that the art rework project will at least be cost-neutral to Arcen as a whole. In other words, the existing players all get better art for free while the upgrade drives enough new sales that we make back enough money to at least cover the cost of the upgrade. Nothing is ever certain of course, but the financial outlay is low enough (and we're coming into a key time of year) that it seems like it will really be likely.
What's Next For A Valley Without Wind, Anyway?
When version 1.2 came out, I talked a lot about plans for what we would be doing as part of version 1.3. Unfortunately, this summer has not been a good one for us in terms of income, so we have had to adjust our plans. The summer hasn't been horrible, either, mind you -- it just isn't nearly as good as last year, and so it became evident that we needed to make some course corrections or else we were going to run into trouble a few months from now.
Originally when AVWW came out, it was selling 3x faster than our best-selling previous title, AI War, had on its debut on Steam. This was really major for us, and was the sort of thing that would have supported us just continuing to do lots of free updates for AVWW on an ongoing basis to keep people's interest.
Then a funny thing happened -- Diablo 3 came out. Literally the next day, our sales plummeted to 1/10th the value they had been the day prior. The whole game industry saw a contraction, even on the iOS, for a week or two there, from what I could tell. Keith remarked that it was like "a massive whale jumping out of the ocean and the ocean level falling for everyone else." That seems an apt analogy to me.
The thing is, our AVWW sales never recovered after that point. We had hoped that the Steam summer sale would spur things back to where we wanted them to be. But while the sale itself was a success, we earned a lot less this summer with all our products than we did just with AI War alone last summer (man that was a good summer; it added 6 months to the development time of AVWW and let us hire Keith fulltime and Josh at all).
As fate would have it, the Steam summer sale coincided with the 3-month mark of AVWW being out. Prior to release, we said that we'd be running hardcore post-release support for the game "as long as player support is there," or at least three months no matter what. Well, the support of players isn't there at levels that can sustain us without my having to lay off at least Josh and Erik, unfortunately. So that's why we're having to do some retooling now.
The biggest thing that players who have not bought the game gripe about is the graphics. And almost every review griped about the graphics, too. So that's something that we've decided to address instead of the things we had previously planned for 1.3. Our 1.1 and 1.2 updates were huge and ginormous, and made the game worlds better than it was at release simply from a gameplay and design and fun-factor standpoint. However, those releases got very little attention from press or from players outside our existing fanbase. Sales continued to slide rather than being buoyed or even sustained.
So, again, hence the course correction. Since art seems to be the main barrier to a lot of people taking this game seriously at all, that's what we've decided to address next. That actually frees up our staff to work more on other projects, anyhow, which is a good thing. All our eggs aren't in one basket anymore, so to speak. Keith is heading up the new AI War expansion, and I'm working on a new project that will be fully revealed in mid-September or so.
Meanwhile, Heavy Cat is doing most of the hard work on the new art for AVWW, and I'm overseeing that as well. I'll also be putting a new spell into the game every week on average; last week there were no new spells, so this week there are two. That's a really big shift from what I'd planned on doing for AVWW, but it's quick enough to fit with my overall workload/schedule, and it's also something that players really seem to want as well, so that's win/win as far as I am concerned.
By the time Heavy Cat is done with their reskin, it will be about November or so, and we'll have another 12ish new spells in the game alongside the usual bugfixes and balance tweaks and the all-new art (the spell particle effects, in the main, are one of the few bits of art that are being retained, hence my focus on them for now). The new version of AVWW that results from that will be called 2.0, because it's going to really feel like a completely new game with the new art.
After that, if interest in the game picks back up -- which we hope it will -- then we'll be revisiting the 1.3 plans for 2.1 in December and January. What happens beyond that is really down to what the verdict of the market is over the holiday season. If we think that there's sufficient interest in an expansion to the game, then I'm sure we'll start one in the first or second quarter of next year. But if the interest isn't there for whatever reason on the part of players, then we certainly have oodles of other game ideas.
So What Does This New Art Look Like, Anyway?
That isn't yet finalized, but we're getting a lot closer. The actual broad structure of the art is something that has been settled on now -- which means that we can start the process of doing pencil sketches, animation rigging, and all sort of other things -- but the actual final shading and coloring is still not quite there.
We're getting there on the actual color values, and I'm quite fond of a lot of what is going on in the image below, but there's a bit more of a cartoony look than the final art style for the game will have. Here's where things have evolved to so far:
And here's an example of what I mean about the pencil sketches. This is an example of the character in a pencil sketch form, ready to be animated and then later to be colored and shaded/textured.
This process that Heavy Cat uses is really something that gives us a lot of flexibility to get exactly what we want in terms of the art, because we're able to look at it at each stage of creation and request changes. That keeps them from having to do too much rework while at the same time getting us to the final result faster.
More news to come soon!
UPDATE: The forum thread on this post has had a lot of interesting discussion, if you're interested in more.