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

Kickstarter and the Publicity Nightmare

InterWave launched its Kickstarter campaign with a modest goal in mind: raise just the required amount of money to finish developing the game and give it its final polish. The team wasn’t looking to make a profit just yet. The hope was that after the game released, it would drum up enough sales to recuperate the costs of development. Due partially to bad luck and self-induced unfortunate circumstances, Dark Matter couldn’t get enough attention for it to reach its Kickstarter goal.

The problem with commercial game development is that production is only half the battle. Publicity is a crucial factor in a game’s success. A project can easily be lost in the myriad games that are out there vying for a gamer’s attention. AAA games can distinguish themselves with loud marketing, a perk of having a large budget to work with. For indie games, finding publicity is a little more difficult. Often without a marketing budget, indie studios are often left praying to be covered by media outlets or for success via word-of-mouth. Of course, since AAA titles are much more likely to drive reader traffic due to aforementioned marketing blitzes, indie games are often forgotten or ignored by major press.

When developing Nuclear Dawn, InterWave didn’t have much trouble gaining traction in the PR department. “We received a lot of press attention,” stated Raffaele. “We were a Valve licensee and it was a big AAA shooter. It was a good time in between releases. We had a very easy time.”

To expect the same amount of press for a much smaller release like Dark Matter would be ludicrous, but the team was shocked at just how difficult it was to market a game on the indie side. Emails to media outlets often went ignored. Even outlets that InterWave was on good terms with turned the team away, citing the fact that they were far too busy with AAA releases to cover an indie game.

One of InterWave’s key mistakes was reaching out for publicity at a poor time. It began pushing for its Kickstarter campaign right around June, during E3 season. With next-gen hype and new AAA game announcements, it’s no wonder that media outlets wouldn’t give Dark Matter the time of day. “After E3, with everyone’s minds on next-gen—PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One,” said Raffaele, “the bigger outlets were flat out not interested. We’ve been distributing preview code and some of the key media outlets wouldn’t even look at it because it wasn’t AAA. It wasn’t next-gen. Therefore there was no media space for it.”

With mainstream coverage out of the question, InterWave looked to the community for help. During the time spent developing Dark Matter, however, the developer had grown a little out of touch with the Nuclear Dawn community. “We were not quite disconnected from our original communities, but we haven’t really been massively an active part of the original modding communities and our original development communities since Nuclear Dawn came out,” said Raffaele. “When we went back to them, we ourselves felt a bit like: ‘We already made a AAA game and now we need you again.’ It didn’t go quite as well as we’d hoped. ”

Rather than garnering support, InterWave was forced to fight off attacks generated from preconceptions about its success with Nuclear Dawn. Many gamers that had heard of the game thought that it had earned the team a lot more money than it did. “We’ve had a bit of a strange reaction. People said, “You made Nuclear Dawn. Why do you need money?”" Raffaele said, laughing. “You’re fighting against all sorts of preconceptions, one of them being that Nuclear Dawn was an absolute smashing success that made us tons of money and that we’re floating in our own pool of molten gold. That’s not true.”

Dark Matter‘s funding period closed on July 18th, 2013 with only £6,227 raised, barely over a tenth of the amount InterWave originally asked for.

Looking to Steam Greenlight and the Future

Though the circumstances aren’t ideal, InterWave does have a Plan B to move forward now that the Kickstarter’s failed. Without any room left in its budget, the team must wrap up the production process immediately and look to releasing the game.

“We are going to split up Dark Matter as it is now to do smaller episodic titles and basically try for part 1—well, episode 1, if you will—and go on sale with that one,” Raffaele explained. Essentially, the content for the current beta build of the game will be released. Should it generate enough profit, InterWave may look into developing the rest of the game and releasing it as episode 2.

Raffaele hopes that at the very least the game will generate enough interest over time to be released via Steam Greenlight: “I suppose all we can do is push until we get on Greenlight and then we can go on sale there, because we have noticed in the past that’s the key to commercial success, especially when we have invested as much as we have into making a game.

“As a company, you’re not just in a situation where any profit is better than nothing. We do have certain costs to recuperate. It’s not greediness. It’s not that we want to make a killing. Nuclear Dawn didn’t ever actually make a real profit. We decided to set a certain amount of budget aside for Dark Matter and we need to at least recuperate that in order to go on in some capacity. Otherwise… yeah…”

The words don’t need to be said. The sad reality is that InterWave risked financial dire straits with its self-funded passion project.

But Raffaele was optimistic about his team’s success, discussing what InterWave could do to improve the outcome of its next project. “Show much more, much sooner,” he stated, “because people will criticize, but then they’ll also become passionate if you treat them right.

“That’s what I’m definitely going to do next time around.”

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


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