Insurgency a sign of the times
New World's Steam Early Access-funded shooter underscores how business models have been turned upside-down
There's a revolution going on in the game industry these days, and Insurgency is as appropriate (and appropriately named) an example of it as you're likely to find. When the multiplayer first-person shooter first launched as a Half-Life 2 mod in mid-2007, the traditional game industry was reaching a peak. The "fewer, bigger, better" approach to blockbusters was producing success after success, and it would be another year before Braid served as the tip of the spear for a reinvigorated indie scene.
Developed by New World Interactive, Insurgency is a testament to how much has changed since then. Alternative funding models, social networks, and lower barriers of entry to game development have conspired to turn much of the industry on its ear. New World's Andrew Spearin and Jeremy Blum recently spoke with GamesIndustry International about the ways their effort tied into these trends, and how that has shaped their plans going forward.
"To be truthful, it honestly saved our company. We were not looking too good before we put out [Insurgency on] Early Access last year."
Like any proper insurgency, New World Interactive wasn't going to bankroll its efforts in the usual way. At the height of the Double Fine-fueled Kickstarter craze in July of 2012, the studio launched a campaign seeking $180,000. Unfortunately, it failed, attracting a little over $66,000 in pledges over the course of the campaign. But where other developers have taken that as a sign of audience apathy, New World was undeterred.
"Once we didn't hit our mark, we figured we still have a game, we still have an audience, and we know there will be a demand for this," Spearin said. "It just made sense that we wouldn't give up because we'd come so far."
A private seed investment had allowed them to keep working on the game even without crowdfunding, but they would not have been able to complete it had it not been for the timely arrival of Steam's Early Access program, which allows companies to sell unfinished games as a way to fund future development on them. Insurgency was one of the first games to arrive on the platform after its launch, and it proved to be a fine fit.
"To be truthful, it honestly saved our company," Blum said. "We were not looking too good before we put out [Insurgency on] Early Access last year. It allowed us to keep going, to keep working on the game, and to get Insurgency to where it was when we finally launched it this year. None of that would have been possible without Early Access."
While the funding Early Access provided was crucial, it didn't come without its drawbacks. Spearin said that the fanbase became a little more vocal about what they want in the game once they've started paying for it, while Blum said it takes a lot more work to cultivate that fanbase on a personal level.
"Just having to work through your community and from that grassroots level is a lot more difficult and time consuming than spending X amount of dollars on Y amount of visibility," Blum said. "We have to dedicate a lot of time and attention toward building that community."
Spearin said the community needs to be nurtured, demanding nearly constant feedback and updates on what the team is working on next. But at the same time, Spearin is reluctant to talk too much about specific details or deadlines, since failing to deliver on promises or execute on announced plans undoes much of the good will earned by being open about that sort of thing in the first place.
The community interaction isn't just a one-way street, as Spearin said the game's Steam forums and player reviews have helped the developers immensely.
"There's not much difference between an opinion columnist, a website, and a YouTube personality in terms of sway on the user, the potential player."
"We really value the reviews that are on Steam from our users a bit more than actual critic reviews," Spearin said. "If they post a negative review, it's usually about a stability issue, and we can respond directly and say, 'Let's help you fix that.'"
There's also the issue of what's more influential on the game's success: Is it the 20 critic reviews that combined to give the game a Metacritic average of 76, or the more than 3,000 Steam user reviews, a significant majority of which give the game a thumbs up? (The number of those reviews from players with hundreds of hours logged also serves as its own testament to the game's quality.) As the barriers to entry for making games have come down, so too have the barriers to entry for publicly talking about games.
"There's not much difference between an opinion columnist, a website, and a YouTube personality in terms of sway on the user, the potential player," Spearin said. "We're definitely taking that more bottom-up approach in terms of approaching our users first and then finding our validation with them...Ultimately, the mass media is kind of inverted in a sense. Traditionally, large groups of people have to congregate around a press outlet that receives the information from a developer, and then that disseminates down to the users. But right now we can just bypass that, and put it out there directly to the users. The most effective marketing is word of mouth, and if we're able to facilitate that through the social networks, then it's very worthwhile to focus on that."
After their experience with Insurgency, Blum and Spearin are sold on the Early Access business model. It gives them the time they need to get users, iterate on feedback, and, as Spearin put it, "to discover the direction of the game creatively." Even if New World Interactive became a bigger studio capable of funding its games in a more traditional manner, Blum and Spearin would still be inclined to work on Early Access games. For developers on the fence about the model, Blum offered a small piece of advice.
"Put a lot of effort into the users you have, and that will translate into more people coming on board," Blum said. "If you build a good game and you support your community, then your game is bound to take off eventually. I guess the question is just whether you keep building it or not, and I think Early Access gives developers the opportunity to do that."
Insurgency completed its initial development and moved from Early Access to the main Steam storefront in January. Its first new major content since the official launch, the Molotov Spring update, is set to go live tomorrow.