Hi All !
My meeting this morning fell through as a result of a train strike so suddenly I find myself with a little free time, exactly the opportunity I needed to do another status update.
It’s been pretty busy over here – if you remember from last time, we were quite nervous about announcing Dragon Commander and I had nightmares of my team and me sitting in a booth at GamesCom with nobody coming to see our next game. I envisioned that we were going to have a very hard time explaining the game because of the “genre-busting” we were doing and thought people were going to declare us completely bananas, shaking their heads and saying – see, that’s what happens if developers don’t use a proper publisher and go off trying to everything themselves.
Boy was I wrong
I don’t think we could’ve dreamt of a better introduction of the game – and I was literally speechless when I saw the first articles appear from the major press guys. They were friendly! And then all the comments started appearing, and we saw plenty of people starting to say things like “day 1”, “take all my money”, “I love you Larian”. How cool is that!
If it weren’t for the RpgCodex guys who gave us a good dose of their healthy cynicism, on par with many an acquisitions guy at major publishers, there was a real risk here that we were going to start floating on the positive buzz. Luckily the trials and tribulations of independent development were there to ground our feet, though they were also such that they made us stay on course.
Let me explain:
Other than showing the game to the press, which was handled well by Farhang I think (you can see how he did on the gametrailers footage,) my main purpose at Gamescom was seeking out distribution in retail, so that one day you can actually buy a copy of Dragon Commander in stores. During the conversations I had for that purpose, I quickly realized that even being called the biggest surprise of the show by many a site does not impress some of the dinosaurs of the games industry
“You know, marketing did research on Dragons for one of our own major properties, and they told me positively that there’s no audience. Nobody will buy it.” was a statement I heard from one of the guardians to retail heaven. I had been building up quite some enthousiasm as I was presenting him the game, at least in my head as I was imagining all the cool things we were going do in Dragon Commander, and I honestly couldn’t imagine him not being at least moderately positive this time. I’d presented quite a few games to him in the past with little success, but this time, fresh from the enthousiastic reception I’d been experiencing the previous days, I was sure I’d struck gold. I of course didn’t think about what marketing would have to say – I just wanted to hear if he liked it.
As he politely started explaining to me why Dragon Commander would be a total failure, memories of a similar conversation popped up in my head, where I was equally politely told by the same guy that maybe I should focus on our kids titles because clearly we had nothing to seek in the “real game” space. He didn’t remember that I think, or didn’t want to remember it as the success of the Dragon Knight Saga was too tangible a proof that his predictions had a tendency of being iffy. So as I was waiting for him to tell me that “jetpacks might raise global warming issues among the audience” (which to his credit he didn’t say), I suddenly realized that the best endorsement I could get was this guy telling me that it was going to be a complete and utter failure! Or so I liked to think.
And it continued. I met major publisher after major publisher, meeting completly risk averse people, seemingly brainwashed by their marketing departments and thinking about games as SKUs. I had to look up what a SKU was, so for the equally ill informed, a SKU is a number or code used to identify each unique product or item for sale in a store or other business (at least according to Wikipedia). To be blunt, my feelings about thinking about a game as a SKU can be summarized as - Yuk! Yuk! And Yuk! But that’s just me. It’s cliché to talk about majors like that, but hell, why do they have to honor those clichés ? A little bit of out of the box behavior would make these meetings a lot more fun!
After a couple of these I said to myself – right, before sinking into complete depression, remember that you’re doing this because you wanted to hear their thoughts and learn from it – not because you actually want them to buy it because the only thing they’ll do is swallow your studio and spit out the remains afterwards like they’ve done with so many of your peers, the last thing you want is some executive producer stepping in and making it his game, not yours, and besides, you don’t need their money anyway in order to finish the game.
If the latter part of that phrase comes as a surprise, we really did sell a lot of Divinity II’s, putting us in the comfortable position of being pretty stubborn about what we do and don’t do. I think the best example of that was one of the majors coming in to tell me that I should rejoice, because they had an add-on for a well-known brand that needed to be made, and they were thinking of us ! I was flattered in a way, because it really is a cool brand on which I wasted many hours of my life, but I was also insulted, because it was for the add-on, whereas I thought Larian could make the original game a million times better
I think they were slightly upset that I said no, small developer that we are, especially since they brought so many people to the meeting, but it did feel good to be able to do that, even if I did appreciate them at least thinking of us. Ordinarily, we should’ve jumped at the opportunity, and probably one of my fellow developers will, though actually, I would advise him against it.
Anyway, it’s not like I expected anything else from the major labels, but it did strike me as strange that while publicly we were getting all kinds of extremely positive impressions of Dragon Commander, I was sitting there in front of people who were telling me all kinds of stories on why this particular type of game probably wouldn’t sell. Not that I really cared because I knew we were going to make the game anyway, with Dragon Commander being sufficiently cool for us to at least break even, but something didn’t make sense.
The contrast was enormous wih the sub-major labels. They were all over it – distribution deals were signed – proposals were made and in general the reception I got was similar to what Farhang was experiencing when showing the game to the journalists, of which at least a large proportion I suspect are still gamers at heart, looking for something different than the same old formulas regrinded, covered with some idiotic innovation presented as the next big thing such as “now with true dual wielding !”. These sub-major labels are small enough that there is still some idealism left, even if they too obviosuly need to focus on the money to ensure they stay in business, just like ourselves, but at least they don’t call a game a SKU, and in my book a big +1, they expressed their enthousiasm about the game we were trying to make rather than tell me why it was doomed not to work.
Funnily enough, the same majors I was ranting at in this update started contacting us after the show, telling us, you know, your game actually has potential. I imagine it had something to do with us gently pointing out all the coverage the game received, which probably opened the eyes of at least some marketing departments. We even got our first offer for a worldwide publishing deal, which we, shockingly, respectfully declined, at least for the time being. The reason– being madly in love with Dragon Commander and not wanting to lose creative control, something that automatically happens when signing one of those deals (For the understandable reason that people do get very nervous once they committed millions to something so they want to have a say)
It was the type of offer we would probably have accepted several months ago, when we were dead nervous whether or not the concept would have some appeal, and I’m sure had it been offered then I would’ve had sleepless nights trying to figure out if refusing such an offer would doom the company because we might not get any other.
But now I’m sure, and that’s because of you lot. Your support, your comments on a large variety of fora and newposts, your encouragement, clear for all to see all over the internet, was all that was needed. You have no idea what impact you have on a developer and his ability to bring his dream to fruition. Judging from the reactions we received, it’s straightforward to see that if we don’t ruin things, there’s enough of you out there that want to play this game, so we can risk all of our cash on it and if needed, even self-publish it which is actually Larian’s ultimate goal for our future games. I’m a big advocate of the stance that it’s about time developers stop being the farmers of this industry that do most of the work but get least of the profits, forcing them down roads that at heart they don’t want to travel.
Anyway, I’m mentioning all of this because I’ve seen comments from people who were surprised at the advanced state of Dragon Commander (which really isn’t the case considering all the stuff we still want to put in), but were worried that there wasn’t a publisher announced yet. But we don’t need one a global publisher at this point – we we want to develop this one our way, not the way somebody else tells us (and it feels really good btw). By the time we’re done with the game, we should’ve figured out how we’ll bring the game to the market., and actually, in certain territories we already have – but that’s something for another day