Growing up in St. Catharines, it’s hard not to get excited about a game developer whose office is mere minutes away from my own. St. Catharines is just far enough from Toronto that we’re our own unique beast, and yet close enough to have a sizable cache of game developers who commute to the big city. Maybe that’s why the whole “local boy/girl makes good” story always has a place in my heart. And when it’s the story of a gamemaker, doubly so.
Lost Orbit should have been one such story.
The first major release from Pixelnauts, a studio founded former Silicon Knights employees Chris Iacobucci and Alex Golebiowski, Lost Orbit is a game that — by all rights — should have been on the tip of everybody’s tongue when it released this summer. But it wasn’t.
The game received critical acclaim, and rightly so. It was unique, gorgeous, challenging, and controlled like a dream. Punk Lizard declared that “Lost Orbit could quite possibly be contender for indie game of the year,” and I don’t disagree. But here’s the thing: if you’re reading this, there’s a very real chance you didn’t play it. You may not have even heard of it — and that’s despite the support of Sony, and Pixelnaut’s own continuing efforts to market the game.
So what happened?
It is May 14th, 2015. I’m sitting in the offices of Pixelnauts at “the Generator at One,” a sort of local shared space / incubator for digital media companies. Three doors down the hallway in one direction is a motion capture studio. Three doors in the other, Phantom Compass, creators of the pinball / RPG mashup Rollers of the Realm.
The Generator is in the same building that once housed Silicon Knights (before its eventual closure), and while that might seem like a strange coincidence, SK was actually one of its founding members when it opened back in 2008. The Generator is a facility that’s brimming with potential, yet on the day of my visit, the tone in the Pixelnauts office is decidedly deflated. Lost Orbit released on the PlayStation 4 and Steam just two days prior, and isn’t performing quite as they’d hoped.
“We’re not buying yachts yet,” jokes Chris.
“I think we picked a hard game to market, for the first one out,” says Alex. And having played it, it’s hard to disagree. In fact, I don’t think he could be more right.
At its core, Lost Orbit is a game of avoidance. You control Harrison, an astronaut whose ship was destroyed in deep space, and needs to try and make the long journey back to Earth.
But space is full of asteroids, and Harrison’s jetpack moves mighty fast.
There’s a very real chance that my quick description of Lost Orbit has painted a picture in your mind’s eye of an endless runner. A high score drive with infinite replayability and randomized environments. Something akin to a free-to-play mobile game. If so, you’re not alone in that assumption — but the truth couldn’t be more different.
Rather than the sort of randomly generated, endless content you’d find on your phone, Lost Orbit features 40 meticulously crafted stages that you’ll have to retry again and again if you want to succeed. There’s a great sense of progression, with new challenges and skills being thrown your way at a perfect pace. And the level design is exquisite.
They’ve even coined their own term for it: “dodge’em up.”
“If we had made a game that was very definable in a genre, and didn’t really step outside of anything, we wouldn’t have gotten the same reviews that we’re getting,” says Chris. “So it’s a balancing act. We have great reviews, but it’s just like… trying to get people to play it.”
Pixelnauts have created something truly unique in Lost Orbit, but with a serious Achilles heel: it not only looks like something other than what it is, but like something that their intended audience has a distaste for — and that’s preventing players from taking the necessary leap.
If you’re judging it from screenshots and videos alone, Lost Orbit looks like yet another example of mobile game design creeping onto consoles. And most console gamers hate that.
While there’s no confusing it with a mobile title, Toronto’s Golden Gear Games are facing a similar challenge. Their debut release, Fate Tectonics, launched on September 9th — and if you were to judge it from screenshots or video, you’d have a hard time understanding just what it was, too.
“Fate Tectonics is a world-building puzzle game that’s kind of like a cross between Tetris and SimCity,” Golden Gears’ Rosemary Brennan tells me. “You have randomly generated tiles that you have to match on similar sides. So water to water, grass to grass. And all while you’re playing there are benevolent NPC characters that are watching you, and depending on what you’re doing, they may bless you with extra tiles or a stronger foundation, or they may curse you with fires or floods.”
It may not be short enough to fit in a tweet, but that’s a surprisingly succinct description of what you’ll find in Fate Tectonics. Rosemary isn’t a professional pitchmaster, though — she’s the team’s lead artist. And a pitch this good wasn’t born overnight.
“A lot of it has to do with how the game’s evolved organically, and [the evolution of our pitch] ties really to shows,” says Alex Bethke, Golden Gear’s PR guru. Some of these shows, like their four appearances at cozy Toronto mini-expo Bit Bazaar, were local. Others, like the massive yearly Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, and corresponding PAX East in Boston, were on a much larger scale.
Having been to more than a few Bit Bazaars myself, I’m reminded of what their pitch looked like just five months ago. Rosemary introduced the game to me back then as “Populous meets Carcassonne,” which is a combination that resonated deeply within my game-loving heart. As it turns out though, these comparisons might have been too obscure to work on the general public. “Most people just give you that glazed over stare,” she tells me.
And that’s how “Tetris meets SimCity” was born.
“We of course knew we had to come up with some sort of elevator pitch,” says Alex, “but it was really hard to initially get anything down [that was less than] a paragraph.” What helped them refine their pitch more than anything, I’m told, was to identify what Alex calls “the three pillars.” These are the answers to the three questions that every potential buyer needs to know:
- What is it?
- What am I doing?
- What am I working towards?
For the first question, Alex says “this is where we use the references that people know.” For the second, “we start talking about the core mechanic of the tile matching, and then having to balance the fates.” And for the final question?
“[We] tried to distill it down to three simple concepts: build, balance and beware. That’s what the game is fundamentally about.”
Purely by coincidence, my meeting with Golden Gear Games comes (like my first meeting with Pixelnauts) just two days after their game’s release. And so far, they’re not disappointed with how things have turned out.
“We definitely have modest targets in mind, with it being our first game,” says Alex. “We’re within expectations so far. We’re doing pretty good,” he adds, “thanks in no small part to the capsule images that Rosemary put together for Steam… we have abnormally high clickthrough rates on all of our Steam banners.”
Not only is the game a featured new release on the platform, but the day I visited them, they were delighted to discover that Fate Tectonics was in rotation on the main banner on Steam’s front page.
“There’s a handful of things that I attribute it [the success of our banners] to,” says Rosemary. “There’s characters looking at you, not looking off into the distance. They’re looking at the players directly. And they’re brightly colored. I find that a lot of the Steam banners are dark… it helps us stand out by comparison. I just tried to keep everything bright and colorful, and the game literally making eye contact with people.”
Alex points out that, after the designs were done, he’d read an article about how App Store icons for the most successful mobile games all share a similar approach to Rosemary’s. Colorful, and with faces that can engage the audience. Just think about the Clash of Clans icon and you’ll see what I mean.
Regardless of the reasons for the game’s early success, the optimism of the team is well-warranted, if not tempered by their realistic expectations.
“Our ultimate goal, I think in a couple of months, we hope the game will have made enough money that we can start or fund most of our next game’s development.”
Steam managed to show Lost Orbit some love too, but it never recieved a spot on the main banner. This wasn’t something the Pixelnauts team had — or could have had — any control over. Steam’s editorial decisions, it would seem, are made without any input from the indie creators. (The surprise on Alex and Rosemary’s faces when they learned that Fate Tectonics was on the main banner was all the confirmation I needed of that).
Like Apple, Valve seems to be a fairly tight-lipped about what makes it into their banner rotation. More than a few developers have suggested to me that it’s largely affected by your sales prowess in the brief window after launch.
“We were kind of expecting to be on the featured new releases list a little bit longer,” says Alex. “We were on one of those sub-banners for a day. We were on this ‘new on Steam’ banner… [but] under specials we were really deeply buried. We just didn’t get enough hits right off the bat.”
“The one thing that’s awesome about Steam is that their search is really good,” says Chris. “If you know the game you can find it instantly in tons of different ways. And I think that’s kind of what they’re counting on. I don’t think they want you to expect to be on banners, they want you doing your own marketing outside of Steam.”
The logic behind such ambiguous banner picks on Valve’s part — that a developer should invest in marketing their own game and not rely on their platform partner — seems sound. But with how crowded Steam has become in recent years, new game releases can struggle to breathe, drowning in a sea of competitors. For a developer with a great game in need of that extra push, the uncertainty surrounding a Steam feature could be enough to derail their launch. It almost seems crazy for a developer to put all their eggs in one basket anymore.
Luckily, Pixelnauts found a much more eager partner in Sony.
— PixelNAUTS (@PixelNAUTSgames) December 6, 2014
“We’ve had a lot of push from them,” says Alex. “We’re on banners, we’re on the PlayStation Plus banner, they tweeted us out yesterday too.”
In the lead-up to launch, Sony were just as supportive as they are today. They offered input on a date that wouldn’t be too crowded, ran articles on the PlayStation Blog (written by Chris), and even invited the team to showcase the game at The PlayStation Experience in Las Vegas last December.
In the end, though, no matter how many times a game is put in front of someone’s face, it all comes back to that same problem: “I think we have a lot of people who are looking at it, and still being like ‘hmmm… I dunno.'”
I’ve watched the trailer, read the press materials, and even spoken with Ottawa’s Owen Deery — but I’m still not sure I understand what Small Radios Big Televisions is.
“At it’s core it’s an adventure exploration game about searching through factories for cassette tapes that contain virtual worlds,” Deery tells me. “After collecting a few of these tapes you come upon strong magnetic devices that warp the data on the tapes so that when you revisit them, everything has changed.”
“Depending on the age of the person I’ll usually ask them if they’ve ever used a Commodore 64 or similar to load computer programs off a cassette tape,” he adds. (And if you’re trying to pin down the birthdate of your narrator, I’ll hesitantly confirm that I’m old enough to get the reference.)
Small Radios Big Televisions is coming in 2016, which gives Deery plenty of time to refine his pitch a little more — but he may not need to. Instead, he’s partnered with somebody who can do the legwork for him: Adult Swim Games.
“As a one person team making its first full sized retail release, partnering with a publisher was a pretty easy decision. 99% of my time is just focused on getting the game done to as high a quality level as I can. At the same time, the whole development process had been self-funded until they came along. I would have had the funds to finish the game, but I would be broke by the time I finished and then would have to hope it sold well so I wouldn’t be destitute. So when Adult Swim Games came in and said ‘We’ll fund your development, we’ll get you on Steam tomorrow, we’ll bring you to PAX, and we’ll use the Adult Swim brand to promote your game,’ I jumped on it.”
Partnering with a publisher isn’t without its costs, of course, but as an indie with zero marketing experience and a hard game to sell, finding the right publisher could make all the difference in the world. And if you’ve followed the Adult Swim Games library in recent years, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting overseer for Small Radios Big Televisions. They’ve helped shed light on everything from Juicy Beast‘s Burrito Bison Revenge to Necrophone’s Jazzpunk.
(BONUS FACT: both of those are Canadian, too.)
I’m rarely impressed by game trailers that focus on skits and chatter over gameplay footage, but if anyone knows how to make something weird and enjoyable, it’s the folks at Adult Swim.
Their trailer for Jazzpunk aimed to recreate the vibe of the 1995 cyberpunk classic / trainwreck (your choice!) Johnny Mneumonic, starring Canada’s favorite son, Keanu Reeves.
Is it better than the original? Maybe…
“Adult Swim Games is really the best fit I can think of for a game like this,” adds Deery. “I’ve been a huge fan of Adult Swim television for years, even naming my dog Harvey Birdman… I appreciate what they’re doing with games now too. Rather than doing licensed projects, they’re just opening up space for interesting game projects just like they did with television and music.”
A publisher will help take a significant weight off Owen Deery’s shoulders, especially when it comes to solving the marketing conundrum — but not every indie developer with a unique game is going to have such opportunities.
It’s now September 17th. Lost Orbit has now been available for 123 days, and the mood around the Pixelnauts office is much brighter. In contrast to the doom and gloom of May, when sales were “below our lowest expectations” according to Alex, there seems to be an air of acceptance with how things turned out, as well an appreciation of lessons learned.
Also, it probably doesn’t hurt that sales might not have been as dismal as they’d first thought. Lost Orbit no longer seems like the lost cause they’d once feared. “They [the numbers] got better,” Alex tells me. “I don’t know if they’re exactly where we wanted them to be, but they’ve improved.”
“Coming from AAA, that was our expectation — [that in the] first couple of weeks we’re going to get a ton of hits, that’s where we’re going to make most of our sales… That definitely didn’t happen. We did have the spike in the beginning, and then it evened out to low, but pretty steady numbers. They’re not great, but they’re steady.”
And that steady sales figure, Alex hopes, will last well into the future. He’s heard from other developers that this is the way it goes for indie; that it’s entirely possible Pixelnauts will see those Lost Orbit sales continue for upwards of five years. And that’s good, because the studio already has their eyes to the future. Their next game is well into production, and while they’re not ready to say anything specific about it quite yet, they’re more than happy to talk about how the Lost Orbit experience is informing their approach to Pixelnauts game #2.
“I think we showed the game a little too early,” says Alex. “When we showed it initially, it was a very different game [and] people’s perceptions were fairly hard to swing back once the game had really changed.”
“It [the early version] was a lot slower in some ways. It was a lot uglier when we first showed it. It definitely felt more like a mobile kind of game at that point… [and] I think we showed it [too] early and to a lot of people, where we didn’t save a lot of those moments for key announcements and things like that. We trickled stuff out over the years. I don’t know if that actually hurt us or not, but it’s one of those things you look back [and think] ‘maybe we do that differently.'”
Talking to Alex, that seemed to be his big takeaway. That marketing needed to be not necessarily bigger, but more planned, more tied to the overall process from the beginning.
Chris’s takeaway was a little less pragmatic, and a little more sobering; not just for Pixelnauts, but for the industry as a whole.
“It’s kind of equal parts luck and ability. There’s points where we could have done better here and there, I still think we did a pretty good job — [but] we didn’t really get lucky.”
At first I’m somewhat taken aback by this. With the amount of energy and planning that goes into any successful launch, I fall back on my standard “there’s no such thing as luck” mantra. But thinking about what’s worked for other studios — what’s worked for Golden Gear Games and Owen Deery — I quickly start to see what Chris means. Regardless of all of the hard work that was put into Fate Tectonics launch, they might not have snagged a spot on Steam’s main banner if a bigger game had unexpectedly launched on the same day, or if the person at Steam decided to take a long lunch and missed their sales spike. And while Small Radios Big Televisions is a perfect fit for Adult Swim Games, Owen didn’t pursue them as a publisher. In fact, he hadn’t even considered finding a publisher. His game was just in the right place at the right time for the right people to take notice.
That, in a nutshell, is luck.
“It’s a decent amount of luck and hard work,” Chris adds, not wanting to discount the incredible effort exuded by his fellow gamemakers. “It’s hard. It’s a very difficult industry.”
“People always ask for something different,” Chris tells me, “but in reality what they want… is their favorite game with a twist.”
It’s another sobering observation, and again, one that’s hard to argue with. Take a look at the top sellers list on any platform, and you’ll rarely see something that isn’t in a well-worn genre, or a new spin on the familiar.
“They [the players] want something they can jump in and know 80% of it, and then there’s 20% that’s kind of fresh and new. And if they jump in and the water’s too different from what they’re used to, they just want to get out.”
“There are so many new games,” adds Alex. “There’s a lot of competition… people need to be convinced to even look at your game, let alone buy it… [Look at] the guys who made Woolfe. They folded up. They put out the game, it did not sell the numbers they needed to sell, and that was it, right? Those guys worked their asses off. That game, they’d been developing for a long time. It looked kick ass. It was getting decent marketing and press… It was just wrong place, wrong time.”
All throughout my interviews for this article, I’ve had one book in the back of my head: Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human. It’s a book that’s not so much about salesmanship as it is about taking ownership of the fact that everything we do is selling. Seeing the nature of pitches and how different gamemakers approach them, I sort of envisioned myself making a grandiose endorsement for the book before this feature was done. But while I still think it’s a valuable read, that’s no longer the book I’m wanting to crow about.
Instead, I’d rather you knew about a book I haven’t read.
“My wife is reading this book Outliers, did you ever read that?” Chris asks me. “It’s about strange cultural anomalies. She was telling me about this one section that had to do with sports. They said that the majority of people who play professional sports were born in the first six months of the year. That’s kind of strange, but when you look at it, they’re the oldest in their grade year. So they’re the biggest, so they get the most coach attention, so they get more training. When they’re starting that first year [college] pick, those are the people that get drafted.”
“There’s all sorts of things like that — that go along with success, that people don’t even acknowledge or think about.”