In Part I, independent developer Dave Gilbert discusses what went right in the creation of adventure game sequel, The Blackwell Convergence. In Part II, he discusses what went wrong.
What Went Wrong
1. Some Marketing Efforts, While Earnest, Were Quite Amateur
I had a brilliant idea. I was going to create a bunch of short animated cartoons starring the two characters from the game and start spreading them around the internet. Curious about the characters in the cartoons, people would come to the website to learn more about them. Viral marketing! That's what it's all about.
So, I brought on board a few writers to write the cartoon sketches for me. Six were written, and I brought in the actors to record the lines. Now all I needed to do was nab an animator to make the cartoons for me. Easy, right?
Heck, no. I was a bit naïve, and I figured I could just hop onto Newgrounds and find some budding young animator who would be happy for the opportunity to make these in return for a bit of cash. I found some soon enough, but not a single
one of them followed through.
In the end, I ended up hiring a professional animation studio to do them. They gave me a generous rate, but even still I could only afford to make three of the cartoons and I had to severely limit the amount of animation in each one. But, hey at least they got made. So I had my cartoons, but it wasn't long before I realized I had no idea what to do with them. I put them on the usual places like YouTube, GameTrailers, Newgrounds, and announced them on various game sites, but they did not generate the buzz I was expecting.
I like the cartoons. They are funny and people seem to like them. The idea of making the cartoons was sound, but my limited marketing experience left me with no idea what to do with them once I had them.
2. Getting a Publishing Deal
What? This is a bad thing? Well, not really. But read on.
The second game in the series, Blackwell Unbound, was released in August of 2007. I soon announced that The Blackwell Convergence would be finished by March of 2008. What I did not expect was that I would get a call from a major game publisher who was interested in hiring me to design and produce a fully-funded game. This was an offer I couldn't refuse, so I accepted, and soon, Emerald City Confidential was greenlit and on its way.
Getting this gig meant many good things. I was working with a genuine budget, and could create a game with real production values. I was working with a real marketing and sales department, who could help guide me into making something that would really sell. Also, for the first time in years, I had some semblance of financial stability.
Unfortunately, this also meant that I had to put Blackwell Convergence on the back burner. I didn't have the energy or the manpower to work on both projects at once, so production on Convergence was almost completely halted. This disappointed many fans, who had been promised a new game by March and weren't going to get it. When they asked when the game was coming out, I could only reply that I didn't know.
Blackwell Convergence came out in July of 2009 -- almost a year and half after it was promised. Do I regret what happened? I don't. I learned a lot working on Emerald City and the money I earned while making it enabled me to pay for the new artwork that I mentioned above, so Blackwell Convergence emerged significantly improved as a result. I do regret disappointing the fans, though, as well as not giving as much attention to my own budding community while I was working on the bigger game.
3. The Notebook Interface
In the first two Blackwell games, Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound, your character carried a notebook with her. As you went through the game, you'd collect clues and you'd write them in your notebook. These clues acted like inventory items that you could combine together and get more clues.
This interface was touted by the critics as being very unique and innovative (although Discworld Noir did it first), but the players told a different story. For most players, the notebook gave them the greatest amount of frustration.
"It's obvious that Cecil Sharpe and the band C-Sharps are related," complained players of Blackwell Unbound. "Why doesn't my character know it too?" My suggestion to combine the "C-Sharps" and "Cecil Sharpe" clues in the notebook was met with replies of "Oh. That's annoying.
At first I shrugged off these complaints, but they were right. Combining clues in this fashion was not an intuitive way to get through a puzzle, even though it's a very appropriate mechanic for a mystery game. I had originally designed Blackwell Convergence to include the notebook mechanic and incorporated several puzzles with it, but after the umpteenth complaint about the system I knew it was dead weight and I had to remove it.
However, this caused a problem. One the one hand, removing the notebook made the game much more streamlined and pleasant to play, but on the other hand it removed a significant amount of challenge. In the end, I decided that making the game more fun was more important than making it more challenging, so I removed the clue-combining aspect of the interface completely.
The result? Many more players mourned the loss of the notebook than I thought would, especially the hardcore fans of the previous games, and the critics. A lot of reviews said that the "simplification" of the game was the one thing holding it back from being the best in the series. I still stand by the decision, but I wish I had made this decision earlier so I would have had time to come up with something better to take its place.
Will the notebook return in the fourth game? Perhaps. At least now I can now plan ahead and make a solid attempt at making a clue-combining interface that is both intuitive and fun to use.
4. Higher Production Values Made Little Difference in Profits
I mentioned earlier how the production values of Convergence were significantly better than those of the previous games.
This also meant that the game cost significantly more money to make!
The slicker production values did help Convergence sell much better than its predecessors, but it also took much longer to earn back the production costs. So in terms of pure profit, my earnings are exactly the same as the previous titles. I am satisfied enough with how the game is selling, but I do have to ask the question: would I have been better off keeping the lower production values (and cost) of the original games?
Honestly, I don't know. Perhaps some kind of cost/sales analysis would shed some light, but as an indie developer with very little experience with business or sales I wouldn't know where to begin. Either way, on a personal level I love how the game looks and sounds. It easily conveys the dark mood and atmosphere of the series perfectly, and is exactly how I envisioned the game when I first started out.
5. Over-Reliance on Distribution Channels
When the first Blackwell game, The Blackwell Legacy, was accepted by the game distribution portals I was a nervous wreck.
At the time, I was struggling very hard to sell my games and I figured their success on the portals would make or break me.
When the game leapt up to the top 10 charts of game portals like Big Fish, PlayFirst, and iWin, I figured I had finally "made it" and had discovered the secret to successfully selling my games. In a nutshell, I was going to rely on the distribution networks to do it for me.
That was in 2007. Now, a whole two years later, things are different. A lot of distribution channels have lowered their prices to the point where it's very difficult for a developer to earn any serious money. In addition, the competition is a heck of a lot more fierce and the economy is severely limiting the number of games people buy. The result is that customers are buying fewer games and paying less for them.
So when Convergence went up on the portals, I was not surprised to see it struggling to get noticed. I learned my lesson very quickly: I could no longer rely on the game portals to sustain the majority of my income.
They can make up a part of it, but relying on them completely was a bad idea. I had to -- gulp -- actually do some marketing and PR work myself. This forced me to become much more self-reliant, as I explained above.
In reading over this postmortem I realize that most of my "rights" are about evolving the series and my "wrongs" are about sales and marketing, which I guess shows where my priorities are. Being an indie studio made up of me and a couple of freelance artists, there are limits to what I can accomplish.
I have a story I want to tell, and this is the medium (no pun intended) that I've chosen to tell it. I am constantly re-evaluating what works and what doesn't and trying new approaches in how to tell an interactive story, but for too long I ignored the business end of things and that became a liability. I'm glad I finally noticed this and took steps to correct it. Learning from your mistakes is important, because it enables you to make room for more!
[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra.]
Dave Gilbert has been interested in adventure games ever since 1986, when his mother made the mistake of buying him a copy of Wishbringer. Since then, he has authored over six successful freeware games, including 2004's award-winning Two of a Kind. In 2006, he turned his hobby into a fulltime career and founded Wadjet Eye Games.