The Story of Dark Matter: When ‘Going Indie’ Goes Wrong
It takes more than a good game for a Kickstarter to succeed, much less make millions. Unless a project revives a beloved gaming classic, boasts someone of Chris Avellone’s pedigree as a reach goal, or comes from a AAA-affiliated studio, it’s likely to fail.
It’s something that InterWave Studios has had to learn the hard way with its latest project, the 2.5D horror Metroidvania Dark Matter. Yet InterWave’s no untested, fledgling studio looking to catch a break on Kickstarter. It’s worked on high-profile projects in the past, most notably the free-to-play FPS/RTS Nuclear Dawn. So why did the studio fail to raise the £50,000 (~$77,000 USD) it was campaigning for? Sure, £50,000′s no modest sum, but it’s certainly doable for a studio with a following and a AAA history. Where was Dark Matter‘s mainstream coverage? Why didn’t the Nuclear Dawn community throw its support behind the developer?
I talked to InterWave’s general manager Igor Raffaele shortly before Dark Matter‘s Kickstarter closed to discuss the developer’s transition to indie and its current struggles in putting out Dark Matter. I was particularly interested in why the studio would voluntarily choose to put itself at financial risk to make such a transition, when it was in the relatively good position of developing a AAA-quality multiplayer game.
Nuclear Dawn and AAA Fatigue
Like many smaller development studios, InterWave got its start as a mod team. In 2006, it announced the development of Nuclear Dawn, a post-apocalyptic shooter mod for the Source Engine. After years of development with few signs of tangible progress, fans feared that the mod had become vaporware. In 2009, InterWave announced that it had worked out a publishing deal and was now developing Nuclear Dawn as a full-fledged game.
It released in 2011 to decent reviews and was enough of a success that its community continues to thrive. Though Nuclear Dawn was InterWave’s break into the world of AAA development, the experience wasn’t all that it was chalked up to be. “When you’re working on a big AAA title, a lot of your effort goes into doing things that sometimes do not always necessarily seem worth the effort,” said Raffaele. “For example, making sure that so many weapons are seen from an external point of view… from an observer. So much time is spent on assets that sometimes, the game is forgotten.”
But it wasn’t just the grind that turned the team off from AAA. When InterWave made the commitment to develop Nuclear Dawn, it worked out a deal with Just a Game to publish the game in North America. The developer-publisher relationship quickly soured when it became obvious that Just a Game’s commitment wasn’t one made out of passion. “At the end of the day, what really hampered Nuclear Dawn, which was a relatively well-received game that fans still play today, was the supervision,” said Raffaele. “The complete lack of visibility. We felt somewhat betrayed because we trusted these supposed ‘professionals.’
“Some key players really thought of making a profit out of Nuclear Dawn—a fast profit, without considering any of the future or any of its visibility. I’m not going to name names, because I’m better than that. If you see what’s happening with the main publisher behind Nuclear Dawn, you’ll have an idea of what I mean… what state they’re in today.”
Facing burnout from Nuclear Dawn, the team decided that it wanted to move onto something small for their next project. “We needed a change in pace,” said Raffaele. “We could’ve channeled our resources and tried for something bigger, but we all felt we wanted to go for a different kind of challenge. Instead of doing another big AAA-type game, like Nuclear Dawn, we decided to dedicate ourselves to a more passion-driven project where industry standards don’t make your life quite as miserable as your own passion… We wanted to focus on something more ‘artisanal.’”
Moving into the Indie Space with Dark Matter
Blending sci-fi with atmospheric horror and platforming, Dark Matter was a completely new experience for InterWave. “We had never done single player,” Raffael explained. InterWave’s specialty was in multiplayer, as evidenced in their past developing mods like Stargate: The Last Stand and games like Nuclear Dawn.
“We also wanted to try our narrative chops and see how it would work in simpler form that’s less medium intensive,” Raffaele said, “to do a big cinematic in a first person shooter is really quite complex. It requires all kinds of technology. Whereas in a 2.5D platformer, even if I show you a person talking, it’s from a certain distance and I see all the details.”
“So much time is spent on assets that sometimes, the game is forgotten.” – Igor Raffaele, InterWave
Though Dark Matter was developed independent of a publisher and therefore the team was free to do as it pleased, the decisions behind the core development of the game weren’t made on pure whimsy. There was a lot of risk in self-funding, but the team felt that it was partially mitigated by the fact that they were building on the shoulders of indie giants within the 2.5D platformer genre. “We looked at the market. At the time, and there is still today, quite a bit of attention for games like Trine and Rochard,” Raffaele said. “There was a lot of attention on 2.5D platformers of good quality. Before Trine and Rochard, there was Bionic Commando Rearmed.”
With that in mind, InterWave developed a general business plan for Dark Matter‘s future. “The plan was to refine the game on PC and eventually get them on consoles,” stated Raffaele. “Get rid of any possible bugs and then approach the PS3 and Xbox and whatever else might be out in time. Modeling ourselves on the success of those similar games.”
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. InterWave’s business model made the assumption that, at the very least, Dark Matter would sell on the PC. Based off of the Kickstarter’s performance, InterWave’s plans to bring the game to consoles now seem a little out of reach.