This is a long goddamn post, so bear with me.
Another developer bites the dust. This time it’s the Belgian studio “Tale of Tales”, a collaborative husband-and-wife project from Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn. Never heard of them? It’s okay, neither have I up until now. They produced nine games total in their 13-year run: 8, The Endless Forest, Vanitas, Fatale, The Graveyard, The Path, Bientôt l’été, Luxuria Superbia, and finally Sunset. To get a better glimpse as to the kind of product Tale of Tales puts out, let’s look at the Steam description of Bientôt l’été:
Bientôt l’été is a videogame for two players. Two players who pretend to be lovers. They pretend to be lovers separated from each other by lightyears of deep space. They have lonely walks along the shore of a simulated ocean, thinking wistful thoughts of each other. Thoughts from ancient Earth literature by Marguerite Duras.
The empty beach, the strong wind, the gentle music and a small colony of electric seagulls are their only companions. Yet their heart is full and their mind confused. Walk along the shore, until they meet the emptiness.
I’m not even making this up. I sorely wish I was making this up. Someone actually thought this would be a good idea for a video game. To be quite honest, that the developers who made this sort of garbage have gone out of business is merciful- I’d much rather they receive thirty lashes each every week for ten years.
But let’s take a look at their parting shots, and see if we can run a sort of autopsy on Tale of Tales. The entire rant can be found in the original format here. This will be a gross copy/paste job, but I do recommend reading the original text as well. without further ado, let’s get down to business!
And the sun sets…
After the barrage of sad tales about depression caused by indies turning into millionaires overnight, allow us to raise your spirits with a story about the liberating and energizing effects of complete commercial failure.
There’s a recurring theme of “We’re totally not mad, we swear!” throughout the entire announcement. Of course, if you read into it a little more, you’d see that this is nothing more than a bitter rant, fueled by the same spirit that marked Phil Fish’s exit from game development. While this may be more articulate and subtle than Fish’s temper tantrum, it still reeks of anger and entitlement regardless.
Having a sale is fun. Many people get to play your games who normally wouldn’t and you receive a lot of positive feedback. But of course that’s not the reason for having a sale. The reason is always a need for money. And in our current economy, money tends to be collected from large amounts of tiny sources. It was a desperate move for us. An attempt to pay the debts caused by the production of Sunset and stay afloat while we figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.
In its 12 year existence Tale of Tales has always teetered on the edge of sustainability, combining art grants and commercial revenue to fund our exploration of video games as an expressive medium. We considered it spreading our dependencies. And that was fine, because we assumed this situation to be stable. All we really wanted was the opportunity to create.
This is the common theme in the rant. There is what I call the “artist’s entitlement,” the idea that creation of art is its own moral good. The stereotype of the contemporary artist as a narcissist divorced from the rest of the world is very much true, especially in this case. Tale of Tales felt that their games’ existence was justified by its own merit, and that issues such as “commercial value” were for philistines.
Our desire to reach a wider audience was not motivated by a need for money but by a feeling of moral obligation. We felt we had to at least try to reach as many people as possible. To make the world a better place through the sharing of art as videogames, you know.
This link leads to another long-winded manifesto that I’d love to pick apart (partially because in part I agree with it). But I’d like to focus, for a moment on that first line. A “moral obligation” to reach outside of your normal audience seems to convey a sense of duty and devotion. If anything, it feels like a Christian missionary’s obligation to spread the word of God wherever he goes. If you’re an irreligous type, that first line should be a red flag, really.
And make no mistake, that third line REEKS of progressive imperialist narcissism. It’s the typical idea that only through progressive ideas and ideology can the world be saved. If I may be so grand, it’s the same idea that lead to the American Civil War/War of Northern Aggression, as well as the more recent clusterfucks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya. It’s a dangerous, unstable ideology, something civilization needs to recognize as hazardous. Building empires for profit is all fine and good, but when ideological imperalism only leads to countless atrocities and waste of human life.
The drying up of funding for artistic videogames in Belgium (an issue beyond the scope of this article) did make satisfying this desire more urgent.
Maybe it’s just what TRS would call “basic bitch libertarianism” that’s speaking here, but the idea that the government spends taxpayer money on giving video game developers grants seems EXTREMELY wasteful. I’m not above the state commissioning art: it’s essentially them purchasing the goods and services of an artist. But go back and read the description for the game I posted. I can’t think of a single reason why taxpayer money should go towards, well, THAT. I’m not familiar with Belgium’s habits towards funding the arts, but I’m going to assume that the funds drying up is a very good thing if this case is anything to go by.
No problem, we thought. This is an opportune moment. Several games with similarities to our own have been greatly successful. Some of their creators openly admit to be inspired by our work.
So we studied theirs and figured out how to make our next project more accessible. At least more accessible to people who actually play and buy games (the others, we decided, can just go to hell for the moment since they apparently didn’t care as much about us as we do about them).
This right here is interesting. It feels like their final product, Sunset, wasn’t designed based on what the consumers liked, but what THEY THOUGHT consumers liked. There’s a sense of arrogance and hubris, as if they didn’t want to dirty their hands with the proles. Did they spend some time on popular discussion boards like /v/, /vg/, reddit, or even NeoGAF? Did they engage the consumers and discuss with them what they want? It really seems like the process for this was half-hearted at the least.
Nevertheless, even within Sunset’s carefully constructed context of conventional controls, three-act story and well defined activities, we deeply enjoyed the exploration of themes, the creation of atmosphere, the development of characters, and so on. Abandoning some of our more extreme artistic ambitions actually made work easier and more enjoyable. And that’s when we should have realized that we were on the wrong path. Because whatever we enjoy is never, ever, what the gaming masses enjoy.
This absolutely boggles my mind. If what you enjoy isn’t what the masses enjoy, why did you get involved in the gaming business? Why did you think that you could make money off of gaming? If your tastes are too niche to be profitable, why try to profit regardless? The entire thing is mindboggling. I’d be interested to read about the class background of Harvey & Samyn. I can’t imagine what kind of parents would possibly approve of a career in gaming knowing their children’s niche attitude. I certainly know my parents would never approve of such a venture.
We hate the idea of viewing our audience as numbers in statistics. Way back in the nineties we embraced the internet as the distribution channel for art precisely for the opposite reason: to get away from impersonal mass-market broadcasting and to establish a two-way relationship with the people who enjoy our work. And that still exists, and is lovely.
It haven’t the faintest idea how someone could possibly still think that niche developing applied to the masses and online consumer feedback can be anything but a terrible combination. I’m sure Tale of Tales wanted nothing more than to mimic the moderate commercial success of Gone Home. Yet ESPECIALLY in the era of #GamerGate, Tale of Tales should have known that putting out niche games for the masses with the specific desire to enlighten the uncultured is not going to end wall. At some point in between the review bombing and the tag trolling and the “walking simulator” jokes, they should have realized that maybe they weren’t going to have a good time.
But we knew all along that the small number of people we can reach and have that relationship with would not be sufficient to sustain our work. So if you talk with us on twitter, hello, we love you, but we needed to reach beyond you. Into the land of big numbers.
Another thing that’s bugging me here: if they were active tweeters and were close with gaming journalists, why didn’t they know how to get big numbers? Is it worse than anyone in #GamerGate thought, and game journalists are that out of touch? Is the gulf between consumer and producer that large?
In the end, we spent more money than we had on the production of Sunset. Because we wanted to make it really good and reach a wider audience. Compared to the ambitions we had for the game, the extra $40,000 seemed like a relatively small sum. “Surely we can make that amount back in the first month of sales!”
We were wrong.
So far a little over 4,000 copies of Sunset have changed hands. That includes the copies for our backers on Kickstarter. That includes the sale. There’s barely enough income to keep our company going while we look for ways to raise the funds to pay back our debts.
You know, in the wrestling business, it’s common for promoters to budget shows based on how much they expect to draw. When you have a big card at a big venue that’s well-promoted, you know to bring in a few big names to help spice the card up. When you’re running a smaller show in front of a smaller audience, you use a lot more cheaper, small-name guys with a total of maybe one or two big names at the most. So keeping that in mind, how did Tale of Tales fuck up so badly on the budget?
It’s hard to deal with this intense feeling of disappointment in a context of glowing reviews and compliments and encouragement from players. A small group of people clearly deeply appreciates what we do and we curse the economic system that doesn’t allow us to be pleased with that.
There are a lot of valid critiques of capitalism. That making a few games that a small group of people liked doesn’t amount to an actual worthwhile contribution to society is not one of them. You sell four thousand games, I have roughly one thousand readers. It would be stupid for me to make my living off of blogging, and I’ve never tried to do that, instead going for supplementary income only. Thinking that a few “artistic” video games qualifies as an important contribution to society is the height of arrogance and narcissism.
Being wrong will set you free
- We studied successful games and applied our findings to the design of Sunset. And while the inclusion of certain conventions seems to have helped some people enjoy the game, it didn’t affect the size of our audience much.
Clearly you didn’t study enough. Gone Home’s success was mostly attributed to nostalgia and what was at the time a growing boom in alternative “artsy” independent games. For starters, Sunset fails to provide nostalgia for the average gaming audience, most of whom are too young to remember the 70’s, and almost none of which came from war-torn Central American countries. And if you’ve been paying attention, you’d knownthat the halcyon days of art games are over. There has yet to be a followup success like Gone Home. When #Gamergate hit, Tale of Tales probably should have seen the writing on the wall and started over from scratch if you really wanted to make money.
- We spent a lot of money on a PR company who got us plenty of press, took some work and worries off our shoulders, and found us other marketing opportunities. But it didn’t help sales one bit.
It’s worth noting that the PR company in question seems to have been run by one Leigh Alexander. Anyone familiar with Leigh Alexander would probably know that she’s hardly a PR genius- her abrasive writing style cost Gamasutra tons in sponsor revenue, and ultimately forced her out of her job to where she is now writing for a BoingBoing offshoot. And again, #GamerGate has been going on for almost a year now. How did Tale of Tales look at all that was happening and decide that the press was the best way to promote their game? Why didn’t they reach out to someone like TotalBiscut or even Jim Sterling to promote their brand? Why Leigh Alexander, who isn’t even a content curator on Steam? What made them think this was a good idea?
- We even took out an advertisement on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where we figured the people most interested in Sunset would be gathered. They must all use AdBlock because that had no effect whatsoever.
Okay I don’t really have anything to say here, I’m just going to laugh hysterically for a good five or so minutes.
- We worked hard on presenting a gentler Tale of Tales to the public. Which basically meant that Michaël was forbidden to talk in public and Auriea often just smiled at the camera, parroting words whispered in her ears by communication coaches. Didn’t make a difference.
If half of your company has such an antisocial, hostile worldview, have you considered that it might be more than his public behavior that hurts the game? Phil Fish was an abrasive jackass, and that arrogance did shine through with the gameplay of Fez, which at times felt hostile and confrontational to the player. Perhaps Mikey’s outlook means he just isn’t cut out for commercial game design. How can you expect such a hostile, spiteful person to make a game that’s welcoming and enjoyable for the gamer who he so viciously despises?
So now we are free. We don’t have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a “game for gamers.” We really did our best with Sunset, our very best.
As I’ve shown, Tale of Tales really didn’t try their best. They stumbled around, not bothering to understand the business aspect of making games and though their artistic pretentious and technical skill was all that was needed. At best, they were ignorant of the gaming world around them. At worst, they were deliberately hostile to it, and self-defeating in their endeavors.
And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don’t think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.
— Michaël Samyn & Auriea Harvey.
Well, then I guess they learned some kind of lesson- in this case that they really aren’t cut out for making video games for a living. So, what’s next for Tale of Tales?
Were you surprised, dear reader? I sure wasn’t. Let’s take a look at those patreons.
Auriea’s patreon is for “Realtime art in old and new media, podcasts, periscopes”. I think she seems to get the message in regards to making products that people will want. She’s at $398.00 per presentation, and while that probably isn’t a lot depending on her output, it’s still a decent number. As much as Auriea seems to be that pretentious artist type I loathe, she seems to keep her head on her shoulders. I can’t say I’m actively wishing her the best, but it would be nice if she managed to make a living wage off of her enterprise.
Mikey’s patreon, on the other hand, is for “unfettered commentary on videogames and the world”. In other words, he’s hoping that his vitriol and fiery commentary will actually be profitable. At first I was tempted to say “good for him, I hope he gets hit by a fucking bus,” but then I realized two things. First, I do pretty much the same thing, albeit with far less vitriol. Second, it seems that he has learned- he’s trying to distill his anger and venom into an actual product that people will find both entertaining and informative, like a more highbrow version of whatever it is Channel Awesome does. While I can’t say I support him, I will grudgingly admit that he seems to have learned his lesson as well.
So what can you take away from all of this? Simple. Curb the ego. Your work is not god’s gift to humanity. At the end of the day, you make a product that other people pay for. That’s it. You can have pride in what you do, but remember that you are not greater than civilization. Civilization decides how great you are. Complain about capitalism all you want, but remember: you have no one to blame for your failures but yourself.