I met Jana Reinhardt, one half of German-based developer duo Rat King Entertainment. We talked about publishers, Steam, and their newly released game TRI. This being a game about magical foxes, I felt that there was only one appropriate way to start our little chat…
Hi Jana. What does the fox say?
Uh, right. So you have a publisher now. Why do indies do that? Is that still considered indie?
Now we’re on the dark side. Actually we have always struggled with the thought of signing up with a publisher. We had the goal to go it alone because we always thought it would be pretty cool to do it that way. It was part pride, part having control of every single aspect. At the same time it’s pretty much impossible to work with us. We just cannot follow a clear schedule. We both have several different duties in development and it’s hard to keep deadlines. So that’s why we rejected the idea of having a publisher for a long time.
And now, towards the end of TRI’s development and of our savings as well, we thought some professional help would do good. Another issue was marketing, because you cannot ever be sure how much of a help a publisher will be. But it’s cool to have a backup plan, to have someone who can support you.
But [Rising Star Games] are great. We actually just met them for the first time earlier today. They’re usually doing things for the Japanese market, but they previously published Deadly Premonition and Cloudbuilt.
You actually got greenlit before signing up with Rising Star Games. Do you think Greenlight still makes sense?
There are actually several reasons for having your game on Greenlight. It helped us from a marketing standpoint. And we put up our game before ever really considering a publisher. Now the stupid thing is if we want our next game after TRI on Steam, we won’t have a contact person at Valve… which essentially means that we’ll need to put the game on Greenlight once again. That’s… less than ideal. Right now, if we want to contact someone at Valve, we’ll have to use the standard contact form that everyone else is using as well. Once you’re on Steam as a self-published indie, you’ll get a dedicated contact person.
But Steam seems to be changing, anyway… [note: this was before the new Steam frontpage and curation went up]
Steam is more or less like Apple’s app-store right now. There’s so much stuff on there, and if you don’t have someone doing the marketing for you or if you don’t have good press coverage already, having your game on there alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. It will sell when it’s on the front page, when it launches, and during sales. That sucks. And if your sales numbers are not optimal in the first week or so, Steam itself will not support you in any way.
And then there are those horror stories of games disappearing from the front page within one hour of launching. I remember that Secrets of Raetikon had such troubles.
By now, everyone is affected by this. Your game really needs to be amazing. I remember Banished being on the frontpage for what seemed like an eternity. They even made it into the featured games banner rotation. So once you’re in there, you’re in circulation. But getting in there is super-hard, and that’s where the extra marketing can help. I don’t understand why Raetikon had such a rocky start. They had excellent backup from the games press and large websites, and the game looks cool and is really fun to play. I like it. So it’s super-strange that it didn’t sell well.
Speaking of large websites: classic games journalism – that’s print magazines and websites, basically – does it still work? Or do you shift your marketing focus more towards stuff like Youtube coverage as a developer?
Tough question. As an indie developer, the first thing you do is try to contact everyone. Print magazines, especially the German ones, can be rather snobby when it comes to indie games. They appear to have little interest in smaller games. For them, it’s more about polygons and shaders and… I don’t know. It appears their readership is more interested on the technical specs, so that’s what they’re focusing on. Youtube coverage on the other hand is basically based on personal preferences. They will cover everything they consider awesome.
But this is the reason that targeting those people can be really hard. We haven’t really tried approaching the bigger Youtube personalities yet. We’ll probably wait until we can hand out Steam keys. Anyway, I’m not sure if Youtubers are actually interested in developers or just want to have some rad games to show. It’s new territory, but a lot of Youtube coverage – not all of it, mind – is not about the games, but rather the people playing them. Games are just a medium for their one man show. And that’s hard to actually work with.
Now the smaller websites and blogs are usually the easiest to work with. They’re easy to contact, they respond to you and there’s so much variety out there that there’s something for everyone – developers and readers alike.
How far are you with TRI’s development?
Oh well. I think it has stalled at 90% for quite a while now. Thing is: the game is already done, you can play it from start to finish. However, the last few levels need some extra polish and testing. We had a lot of testers, but they only ever play so far, and we cannot force anyone to play the game to the end.
So Early Access could have helped with that, after all?
That’s actually what we did with pre-orders on Desura. I honestly don’t believe that Steam is a good place to do early access. This might sound pretty old-school, but for me, Steam has always been a platform that big, perfect, finished games can be bought from. And by now it’s pretty diluted. Everyone throws their game on there – of course that’s what we’re profiting from as well. Many players don’t really seem to get Early Access. They buy those games, and then they get upset about them being unfinished. There’s a lack of acceptance for this business model on Steam.
Maybe for big titles with super-good communication, and even there it doesn’t always work. We don’t have the extra time to do that, to keep in touch and keep the communication going, and maybe TRI just isn’t a good title to do Early Access with. But we did it on Desura, and I think that’s the right platform to do it on. Everything’s indie there, and it helped us acquire playtesters.
Have you been logging data (such as playtimes) on your players, or did you exclusively use the in-built feedback feature?
When you start and finish a level, the game actually sends some information to us, but that’s only playing times and nothing else. I would have loved to have a little more data than that; how many statues [which are basically optional extras] players collect, for instance. From a developer’s perspective, that’s what achievements are good for. They offer incredibly useful statistics, like how many players finish your game. It’s often a bit scary to see that only 3% of players beat a game or only 20% make it past level 5.
Of course this can also be attributed to all those bundles. It’s become such a terrible thing! Back in the day, you used to play through games a bunch of times, and now they have become such a throwaway commodity. That’s a bit sad.
Tell me about it! There are, what, 800 games in my Steam library and I don’t even know where all of them came from!
I actually only have 55 games in my Steam account. I just stopped buying bundles for that specific reason.
But you have a choice, and you can dip in anytime. I have a friend who considers himself a videogame tourist. He’s not interested in playing through them all, he just enjoys any given game as much as he can and then moves on.
I’m more of a completionist myself. Not properly finishing a game and getting every achievement makes me totally antsy. Now the bad thing is that some games only have their first few levels polished, because most of the players move on after that. That’s so sad, and the people actually sticking with your game and should actually be rewarded, those people get disappointed.
Best game of the Indie Megabooth?
I haven’t seen all that much yet, but The Talos Principle is pretty cool. Jonas Kyratzes [and Tom Jubert] wrote the story and it looks really pretty. I’d buy that one instantly. And Broforce. That one’s awesome. It’s getting all the more chaotic the more people you play it with. Thanks to friendly fire, you’re basically just blowing yourselves up all of the time. Amazing.
Our time is almost over. Any last words?
Buy our games! Nah, seriously: check out some indie games. Finish your games and make a developer happy. At the end of one of the Ultima games you got the mailing address of the developers and you could actually send them a letter. That’s fantastic! I’d love to have something like that back. Anyway, beating games is cool. So far, only two people have beaten TRI: our publisher – which really speaks for them – and Friedrich. Not even me! I’ve got the last level ahead of me.