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.

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4 Comments on The Story of Dark Matter: When ‘Going Indie’ Goes Wrong

lol

On August 8, 2013 at 12:45 am

So people cry about EA being big but then cry about indies being too small? LOL

Nobody Important

On August 8, 2013 at 11:10 am

First, I think you’re overstating the success of Nuclear Dawn. I haven’t played it, and it may well have been a great game, but it was not AAA by any fair measure. The Metacritic alone is only 71. So it’s likely that the community you’re referring to isn’t actually that robust. Better to be your own harshest critic than embellish your achievements – the indie community (i.e. gamers that enjoy indie games) can see through that kind of up-talk and respond negatively to this kind of boasting when there’s no backing it up. Be humble, let others tell you that you’re great.

Second, it doesn’t feel like they really went indie for the right reasons. Being burned out or uninterested in the work that goes along with bigger games is certainly a reason, but the more successful indies are in that space because of the content they otherwise couldn’t make, not for the breather. Besides, making indie games is actually a lot harder than AAA.

Third, they say they wanted to do something artisanal, but at this point (and out of fairness) I’ve watched several YouTube gameplay videos for Dark Matter and although personally I think some of the ideas are great, it doesn’t have a clear sense of authorship or style that indie games typically do. Compare it to last year’s Dust and you’ll get my point. A good indie game, like a good indie film, needs to express a point of view and offer gamers some perspective and unique thinking.

Fourth, going indie doesn’t mean going “retail light”, i.e. just making a smaller version of a homogenized boxed product. This is a bit further to my point above, but my feeling is that this game really needed a much different style and presentation. The time and cost involved with trying to make a 2.5D metroidvania game that’s meant to look like big budget boxed games is both pointless and self-defeating. If people want something AAA pretty, they can go get Uncharted 3 in a bargain bin for $20 USD right now. Brand new. So why buy this game then? Especially when it tries to look like bigger games and simply falls short, i.e. can’t compete at that level, so it comes across as mediocre, as expressed in many YouTube comments. What people buy indie games for is usually visual style that they CAN’T get in the next Call of Duty (again, re: Dust), and I feel as though the team here really missed that point.

Fifth, the differentiation wasn’t clear enough. Metroidvania is a crowded genre and even Ron Gilbert couldn’t make it work with The Cave (as far as I know it hasn’t done well relative to how much he spent making it). If they want to work in that space, they need to do something really focused, clearly and wildly different, and offer a unique experience that’s easy to see and easy to talk about. I don’t really feel like crafting or environment interaction hit that target, and puzzle elements related to enemies are the norm. If there’s some sort of differentiation that I’m missing and somehow it’s there, well I think that speaks to my point anyway, in that I spent 20 minutes looking at people play this game and it never came across.

Finally, I’d encourage the team to keep trying! Failure is a natural part of reaching success, and the only true defeat is if you give up.

Sanity Prevails

On August 9, 2013 at 5:54 am

Looks like GameFront finally realised that their constantly exaggerated take on gender issues and sexism in gaming meant absolutely bugger all as long as they remained just about the only entirely-male mainstream games site in existence.

Phil Hornshaw

On August 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm

@Sanity Prevails

…What?