When a Czech studio raises 1.75 million Kickstarter dollars for its medieval RPG, then that is a true success story. Creative Director Daniel Vávra about the dark side of AAA production and his best practices in publisher bell ringing.
Disclaimer: This article was first published in issue 03/2014, which was released in April 2014.
Building a AAA medieval game as an Indie studio is tough. Experience and passion won’t do the trick alone. Simply put: you need money! A lot of money!
Our original plan for Kingdom Come was to develop a prototype in 15 months and show it to all the publishers. Given our original commencement day this was supposed to fall on September/October 2012. Unfortunately, there were some delays when starting the company, and the deadline shifted to Christmas 2012. We didn’t realize at first that you can’t actually sell anything but trees, turkeys and trinkets at this time of the year. We shifted our deadline to February and that gave us space to improve the thing (and it also cost us some extra money).
Our approach was different from the common practice of creating a fake Potemkin village to show to publishers, only to be thrown away when the actual work starts. Most things actually worked and would be used in the final game. Actually, it’s quite difficult to create a fake playable slice of an open-world RPG as this genre is a confluence of many different mechanics. While in a shooter game one nice looking level where you can shoot at things (shooting is moreover included in CryEngine by default, so it’s very easy to do) will show everybody what you have in mind and can look highly polished. For an open-world RPG you have to show much more and the result can still be a bit unpersuasive. Imagine playing just one of the Skyrim dungeons as an archer. You can hardly envisage how the complete game feels when you are playing outside as a Mage.
We preferred to create a substantial part of the world (about one square mile) that includes a town with various buildings, some of them including interiors, and the first quest with all the basic game mechanics fully functional: dialogue, cut scenes, controls, combat system, GUI, in-game map, shops, AI etc. We have also created our own tools for game production and wrote most of the design. We were able to show something that looked like a complete game and it would take you a while to find out that you couldn’t do everything you should be able to do. We did this in order to make sure that we would be able to create a game like this, give us a feel for what was the best way of doing it and how long it would take us to create. We wouldn’t have to throw anything away and we had a very solid demo that any right-minded Publisher should be able to appreciate. The drawback to this approach was that we didn’t have »wow« moment, a.k.a. »crumbling skyscraper«. Such moments are not common in RPGs, but all the same, our prototype lacked something conspicuous (even though it looked very good overall) that would sear itself into a publisher’s memory. We calculated that the success of Skyrim would teach Publishers what RPGs were about and they would be more interested in proof that we could create a game like this rather than having a cool scripted tunnel like Call of Duty presented to them.
In the end we moved the presentation till after Christmas which gave us more time to improve the planned features and add some extras. We created more cutscenes and dialogues than we originally planned, we had a completely functional GUI and map, and we even had details like accurate item pick up: the character will actually correctly grab the item it is picking up. I was really proud about our final build because it contained almost 100 per cent of what planned for it, looked very good and didn’t crash (almost).
How it works
Pitching is a thankless task. Usually you’ve got a few (score) minutes to persuade someone who’s not very interested in you to give you money for something you’ve already invested a huge amount of time and money in. And if they don’t give you the money, very often it means the end of the line.
The pitch usually has several rounds. First you have to get past the »doorman«, who weeds out the worst trash and sends you on further. Then you get to meet the producers, who really can make decisions, but even if they like you, they have to sell the idea internally to the company management and marketing division. Someone from a publishing firm once said that out of several hundred pitches a year, only about five games reach the shelves. Anyway, 100:1 odds are still better than the 100,000:1 shot for iPad, especially when the deciding factor is quality and not chance.
I admit that even though we’re no greenhorns, it would be beyond our powers to set up meetings with the right people in all the important publishers, so we employ agents. Those are people who help you sell your game and are usually themselves producers. They know who to go to, who needs what, how and for how much. I’ve known our agents since back in the day when I pitched a game to one of them when he was still working for a publisher.
The agents select their clients and the publishers know it. With a good agent you can slip past the doorman in the pitching pecking order and go straight to the producer. In our case the plan was to visit 15 publishers in two continents in the space of a few days. Organizing a thing like that is something of a marvel of logistics.
I was pretty nervous before the first publisher meeting. How will my presentation come off? Will everything work? Will we make an impression with our game? What if our competitors have done the rounds of the publishers with something much better and the benchmark has totally shifted? As a Czech, and therefore a representative of a nation unpleasantly frank and pessimistic, I was also a little anxious about dealing with Americans. Just like the majority of Czechs, I am thrown a bit off guard by extra-positive people who out of politeness say things they don’t mean (which is the European idea of Americans).
The very first meeting straightened things out, though. The presentation went down well, pretty well I’d say, and the negotiations were straightforward and open (really almost shockingly for me). The turn-up was that what we do was too expensive for them, despite the fact that we cost about a third of what a US company does. We left in a good mood though. They liked it, even if our seed will not take root there.
We boarded a plane and set off for Silicon Valley, where another big fish awaited us. Here, though, our chances were stronger. The people we were meeting knew my previous games (they had worked on similar ones) and the talks were very friendly and open. They told us straight up that for pushing our game in-house they would need materials with more wow moments than there were in our low-key quest. If we wanted to put out an AAA game, we wouldn’t get anywhere without epic moments. We assured them truthfully that »Epic is our middle name, only right now we are lacking a little thing called cash«, and we promised we would deliver them something more epic.
Big in Japan
The next day we were meeting two Japanese publishers and another big corporation. The reaction from one of the Japanese teams was lukewarm, because the real decisions were made elsewhere, and the reaction from the second lot was warm, on the other hand. Except for the small detail that they were already preparing an RPG for the next gen consoles (even though it was a lot different to ours) and therefore our chances were very slim. Anyway, we were questioned again about wow moments and the main protagonist and Sean boldly took charge of the history lecture.
To sum it all up …
… we had a good feeling at the end of all the publisher meetings. There was only one clear NO. A few more NOs came due to issues at the publishers (other RPGs in their portfolios, bad financial situations …), but the game went down very well. With several publishers we pretty much got to the second round of talks and we even had interest from people we had gone to practically just on the off-chance. More than half of the meetings ended with a promise of further talks and some turned out very promising indeed.
But it wasn’t all rosy. Quite often we heard the criticism that the game didn’t look epic enough and the hero wasn’t cool enough and looked a bit square. Our hero isn’t a boring character – the mistake was that we chose the beginning of the game, where the majority of heroes in RPGs are starting from the bottom.
The fact that our game isn’t a fantasy game and that this could be an issue came up a few times and once it totally ruined our chances. On the other hand, in at least two cases it was a huge plus. The presentation itself basically went down well. The game didn’t crash, everything worked and the reactions to my explanations seemed good and our answers to queries were satisfactory. According to our sources, no one had any problems or concerns about our ability to get the game finished.
Out of a total of about 15 meetings, at least 8 publishers were supposed to follow up. Something had to come out of that …
Market Research saved us
Sometime in early summer, when negotiations with the publishers were starting to look a bit suspect, our investor’s representative, Martin, arrived at the conclusion that until he had a contract in hand, he would come to no conclusive opinion on the quality of our game based on their remarks, because like us he was pretty skeptical about the foresight and pioneering qualities of the majority of publishers.
So he came up with the idea that we should do a survey of gamers. At first it seemed to me like a waste of money and a pretty big leak risk, but all praise to Martin for the idea. If it hadn’t been for him, we might well not be here any longer.
I’d never done anything like it and it meant quite a lot of extra work for us, but it paid off. We had to prepare the resources for selecting the focus group, a questionnaire, a video and a basic feature list very similar to the one that will (hopefully) one day appear on the back of the box our game comes in. Then we met with some very earnest looking gentlemen from the international agency that was to organize the whole circus.
I won’t bother you with the details. Quite simply we decided to conduct our investigation in the USA and Germany, which are two of the most interesting markets for us with quite a big sample of people. The whole business would be conducted for a relatively long time and thoroughly. First a small sample of respondents would answer tricky questions and, on the basis of their responses, a second, much more massive, but also more impersonal campaign would be prepared.
In the meantime, we attended gamescom and had negotiations with publishers. Most of the big ones told us it still wasn’t quite what they wanted and they hadn’t made up their minds yet. One of the smaller publishers showed great interest, though, and even arranged their own survey. It was really starting to look very promising, even though for us it seemed like do or die. If these guys were to reject us too, we were up the creek.
Well, just at the moment when things were getting tough, I got back the first results from the quality section of the research. The people who saw the video and read the description of the game responded to the questions and their responses.
The responses looked like I might have written them myself! I had hoped people would like our game, but I would never have dared to hope they would like it so much! But it could still be an anomaly and when it came to the quantitative and much more anonymous part of the survey, it might be a lot worse.
The reactions of the majority of respondents were really almost incredibly positive – 80 per cent of them regarded the historical background and the absence of magic as very attractive and original. A huge number of them would buy the game for sure. Only about 4 per cent minded the absence of fantasy elements. And this, by the way, was not some narrow group of RPG fans – we had selected the target group on the widest possible basis – regular console and PC players. Maybe we will eventually publish the whole survey, it makes very interesting reading, because we didn’t ask only about our own game.
So things were looking very promising according to the research. Gamers are evidently interested in the kind of game we’re making. Naturally, we immediately sent the results to all the publishers. In practice, we had saved them work and money and given them a pretty solid basis for deciding whether our game was commercially viable.
So the publishers had now seen a playable demo (a big part of which is also available to the public), a video demonstrating the game’s epic passages, the design documentation, the plan and a very decent budget with much lower costs than on the other side of the Atlantic. They had a co-investor willing to share in financing the game, an experienced team with some big games under their belts and now, to top it off, a big, expensive market survey, which concluded that the game had massive commercial potential. What do you think they told us? Was that enough for them?
No way. All the big publishers who were still in the running told us they were worried that the game in its current state wasn’t entertaining enough and they weren’t able to judge whether it would ever be. We should come and see them again after we had the finalized the combat system and the quests.
It somehow slipped their minds that when we had the finalized combat system and quests, the game would be done and we wouldn’t need them anymore. Certainly not to share our profit with them when they hadn’t carried the slightest share of the risk during development. I cannot grasp how a publisher who refuses to finance game development imagines their role in today’s world and what kind of economic model that is supposed to be, exactly.
Even the small publisher whom we had most put our hopes in decided to drop the game in the end. To their credit, though, I should say that at least they informed us very sincerely and in depth why they had reached that decision, which I truly appreciate. They liked our game, but the budget/risk ratio ultimately came out to our disadvantage.
So what now? Endgame? The coffers were running dry. Our investor was somewhere on the other side of the world dealing with much more pressing issues than some game. Our people were starting to ask about their futures.
We started acutely dealing with Plans B and Plan C. Plan B is of course »Work for Hire«, for which we had gotten an offer at E3. I immediately started writing a design for a movie tie-in that had been discussed and was still open. And Plan C was to look into the possibility of crowdfunding, which I personally found the most appealing as well as the most risky. It’s great if people like what you’re doing; you can dump the ivory-tower suits and make a game according to your own imagination and that of your fans. If you’re unlucky enough not to make a splash, though, then you’re finished – although even that might be better than the endlessly prolonged negotiations resulting in nothing but an even greater waste of time. So I started examining other campaigns, especially the successful ones, and trying to get the hang of how it’s done.
In the meantime, we tried to set up a meeting with the investor to decide what would come next, which was nowhere near as simple as it might seem. We told our people everything up front and waited for the exodus.
Which never happened. And I was seriously close to tears when several people told me they were happier with us than they had ever been before, so they would hang in there as long as possible. (Sorry for the violins, but that’s really how it was).
The Horror of the Publishers
In the end we flew to Amsterdam to meet our investor in a building full of businessmen handling billion-dollar trades on a daily basis. I was kitted out in the best shirt and sweater I could find at home. I’d spent the whole evening polishing my shoes and wondering whether to shave or not. And Martin and I really were not feeling too easy, because we didn’t have much in the way of aces up our sleeves, apart from the research.
Before I spill the beans about how it worked out, let me digress for a minute. Our meeting with the investor took place 13 days before the launch of PS4. What has that got to do with us? A lot, because I had deduced one interesting, almost shocking revelation from our negotiations: one of the main reasons why nobody had signed for our game was the fear, I would say almost horror, of the established big publishers that the new consoles would be a washout, that they weren’t powerful enough and that people today wanted nothing but free2play MMOs for iPad. So they were all preparing a few guaranteed mega-titles and waiting to see what happened with regard to everything else. That sent a few studios to the wall and might also result in a big drought for good console games in 2015. I get the feeling from behind-the-scenes talk and indications that most publishers have nothing prepared for that year, because they didn’t want to plan that far ahead in such an uncertain climate and now they can hardly come up with something epic in less than two years. I might be wrong, though, feel free to put me right if you know more than I do, which is entirely possible.
To the Kickstarter!
Basically, our pitch to publishers was almost identical to our Kickstarter campaign. Our original plan was to make a prototype, pitch it to publishers and sign a deal with one of them, to get funding for the rest of the development. Same goes for the Kickstarter: We don’t cheat in our presentation, our prototype is a working build with the technology we are using in the rest of the game. Features that are implemented are no hacks planned for replacement with proper code later. Everything is developed for the final game, not only for the prototype. The publisher deal didn’t happen, but we had the prototype, so we had a lot to show during our Kickstarter campaign. Of course, that was a HUGE advantage. Our game is very ambitious and I am not Chris Roberts, so if we appeared on Kickstarter with just a couple of artworks, some fake screenshots and lots of dreams, nobody would take us seriously. But since we had some actual game to show, proving that we were able to deliver what we were promising, that surely made a big difference.
When you pitch to a publisher, you pitch to a person with personal preferences and tastes and his decision is very subjective. If he doesn’t like the genre or the setting you are pitching, or if he has some previous bad experience with a similar project, it will surely influence his opinion. I don’t think that these people have some special powers to recognize good concepts. If you look at the games that were signed as new IPs over the last few years by big publishers, you will realize, that there are only very few original titles and the success of these new IPs is very low. We pitched our game to a guy who told us that he rejected »World of Tanks« and I don’t think that anyone would have signed DayZ two years ago. Anyone can sign West and Zampella when they knock on the door and say that they will develop a new first person shooter. But when the same guys come and say that they would like to do a turn based strategy, they would have a very similar chance to get signed as anyone else – close to zero. The same applies to us: if we were pitching another open world gangster game, we would probably have much bigger chance to succeed, because we have previously made a successful open world game. So pitching to gamers is much better – you can be totally honest about your features, because you are talking to your customers, you have very interesting feedback immediately, you want this feedback and if people don’t like it, you know that your game really sucks, or that it is too niche. Talking directly to people is the only way to find this out. No producer has the powers to estimate the success of a new idea.
When you think about the 1,100,100 pounds we got from Kickstarter, you might say that this is an awful lot of money, but probably only a fraction of the needed production budget for Kingdom Come. If that’s what you think, you are absolutely correct! It’s a fraction, especially when you deduct all the costs that come with the campaign and rewards. We started the Kickstarter as a last resort to save the game and studio. No publisher was interested and our investor was not willing to invest in something nobody believes in. Only reason we didn’t end sooner was a market research we did which showed great potential of the concept. So it was a »Do or Die« situation – we needed to prove that our game had the potential to recoup the investment.
Needless to say that our investor was following the campaign very closely. I guess that after everything we went through and all the trust he put in us, it was quite a relief to see that it was probably worth it. We gained a lot of trust. Before the campaign, we were swimming against the stream, everyone told us that the concept was too niche and there was little reason to think otherwise. The campaign showed that the concept may not be as niche as anyone thought it would be, so our image of stubborn weirdos shifted slightly to people who may know a thing or two about what they are doing.
We hired a PR agency to help us communicate with US and German press, but only because we are not good/have zero experience with this. We didn’t do much more. We released the teaser trailer to let everyone know that our game existed and then we just asked them if they would be interested in seeing it. They were, we showed it and the next day I woke up and our game was all over the frontpage of the biggest gaming website in the world. I thought that I was still dreaming when I woke up and saw it. So despite all the conspiracy theories about game journalism, it seems that when you have an interesting game, they will write about it no matter how big you are. Believe it or not, we didn’t bribe anyone.
Regarding our Kickstarter goal, we smashed it within 36 hours. That might seem very quick to you but comparing it to other campaigns for similarly sized projects, the results are also quiet similar. If you are a famous developer with an established community, you can raise 3+ million dollars for a concept (e.g. Wasteland, Torment, Double Fine Adventure, Mighty Number 9). When you are not that famous, but have a AAA project and something great to show, there is a chance to raise 1-2 million (e.g. Divinity, Deliverance, Project Phoenix, Banner Saga). If you are an unproven Indie, you really need to show something great and have the chance to raise hundreds of dollars (e.g. Sui Generis, Stasis, Republique) and when you are Chris Roberts, space is the limit! So when you look at it from this perspective, we did great and it would have been a miracle if we had managed to raise more.
Overall, we achieved more than we wanted, which is of course great. My personal goal, or I should rather say, my hope was, that with what we have (playable build, lots of art …) we could raise 2 million dollars. We almost got there with our Kickstarter, so I am quite happy. Most of the stuff went according to plan or even better. We really didn’t expect to have such a strong support from the press, for example. Of course there was a lot of stuff we could do better, like starting the campaign on time. Our counter went to zero, Gamespot wrote about us and the campaign wasn’t running for several hours. We all could work on our English accents to look more trustworthy in our videos, but I don’t think that it would make that much of a difference in the end.
I think that these days are as good for Indie devs as the eighties were, or maybe even better. Thanks to new business models there is a much bigger chance to make a game you want and let your target audience know about it. In the past, everything was depending on the intuition of a dozen publisher gatekeepers in the world and if they didn’t like your concept, the game was not possible. These days are over and it really comes down to your skills and your game. Which is totally awesome. I hated the old publishing model.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
About the author
is Creative director at Warhorse Studios.
Daniel has been the Director and Design Lead for »Mafia«, later he was Designer and Screen Writer for »Mafia II«. He has 10+ years of experience starting as a 2D artist on 16bit computers. Dan has been nominated for Game Developers Choice Awards Excellence in »Writing« for Mafia. His games sold more than 5 million copies combined. He also participated on »Hidden and Dangerous« and other projects.