Last week, indie developer Spry Fox released Road Not Taken on the PC and PlayStation 4. It's the company's first foray into console development, its first time making a premium title instead of a free-to-play game, and its first time making a single-player, story-based game. And on top of that, the game launched as one of August's free offerings for subscribers to PlayStation Plus, even though Spry Fox CEO David Edery told GamesIndustry.biz there's basically no telling what impact that could have on multiplatform sales or the game's long-term tail.
"It's a big gamble, it really is," Edery said. "But we like gambles."
That's not surprising, given that company co-founders David Edery and Daniel Cook gave up jobs at Microsoft to go into business for themselves. And while Spry Fox made its name on the strength of Triple Town and Realm of the Mad God (which it co-created with Wild Shadow Studios), its more recent efforts made the idea of taking a few gambles a bit more appealing.
"We had just launched a couple free-to-play games that weren't doing all that well," Edery said. "It's just hard. Even if you make a free-to-play game that's fun, making it fun and have really good retention and also have good monetization and and and and and... There are so many things that go into making a successful free-to-play game. You can't just make something fun. We were honestly feeling a little burned out at that point. We were like, this would be kind of nice, almost like a break or a vacation."
"A platform that's excited about what you're doing can send you more traffic than you can get by yourself in 10 years of marketing."
As the prototype of Road Not Taken began to take shape, it became clear it would require making just that sort of break from Spry Fox's previous work. The prototype was fun, but it didn't lend itself to any free-to-play monetization model. For one thing, it was a single-player game.
"It turns out with multiplayer games, there are lots of things you can do to make them make money in a way that feel cool, that feels good even to anti-free-to-play folks," Edery said. "But when it comes to single-player games, your options are much more limited by definition, by the nature of the experience. And this was never going to be a multiplayer game."
The trial-buy model of free-to-play used by Triple Town also wouldn't work, Edery reasoned, because as a more hardcore, niche game, Road Not Taken was likely to have a worse conversion rate. On top of that, the game is designed as a parable about life, so "cutting someone off in the middle of it to wait for their turns to refresh just didn't feel right."
As for how the game ended up on the PS4, Edery said they hadn't even considered it at first. The game was originally intended for release on PC and mobile platforms until they released the first teaser trailer and Sony expressed an interest in it. For its part, Spry Fox was interested in landing on the relatively new PS4 before its online storefront suffered the overcrowding that seems endemic to so many other digital marketplaces. And given his time as the portfolio manager for Xbox Live Arcade, Edery knew what a platform-holder's support could do for an indie game.
"That can go a long way," Edery said. "A platform that's excited about what you're doing can send you more traffic than you can get by yourself in 10 years of marketing. They were interested in what we were doing, they had an uncrowded store. It got us very excited and we just said, 'Let's change our plans.'"
"I'd rather make a game that's polarizing than a game that everyone thinks, 'Eh, it's alright.' Because the latter? That game is screwed."
Sony was also the instigator when it came to getting Road Not Taken included in the PlayStation Plus subscription offering. Edery said the team was torn at first about giving away the game for free, and had concerns that it might send a negative signal about quality, or that it might hurt the game's sales on Steam when users know it's free on a different platform. They turned to about a dozen colleagues in the industry for advice, and "not a single one of them felt there would be a perception issue." On top of that, Spry Fox felt that including Road Not Taken in the promotion made strategic sense as well.
"This is a hardcore, niche game," Edery said. "There's no way it's going to get purchased by millions of people on PS4. Never going to happen. So here's a chance to build a big community that we'd otherwise never be able to build on a platform we're new to, and later we can sell them DLC, and hopefully they come to love our company and want to buy new games from us in the future. It was a bit of a community building thing."
A week after Road Not Taken's launch, Spry Fox is only starting to get the first inkling of whether or not PS Plus was the right way to go. Edery acknowledged the game's sales on Steam have been a little lower than expected, but isn't ready to put all that entirely on the PS Plus explanation. For instance, at the time of this interview, Road Not Taken had yet to be featured in the main banner of the PC Steam store, so soft sales might be due more to a lack of exposure.
"We're not super worried about it," Edery said. "People are buying it; people seem to be enjoying it. It's one of those mixed things, of course. There are people who love it and people who hate it, but as I often times tell the rest of the guys in the studio, I'd rather make a game that's polarizing than a game that everyone thinks, 'Eh, it's alright.' Because the latter? That game is screwed. You can't be an indie making 'eh' games."
"With a premium game, it really does feel largely like voodoo. You make as good a game as you can, and then you cut the head off a chicken, roll some dice, shake some bones, and hope that shit works out."
If exposure is the problem, it's not due to a lack of trying. While working on Xbox Live Arcade, Edery always told indies to market their games well in advance. He's tried to practice what he preached with Road Not Taken, having spent more than a year releasing promo videos, writing PlayStation Blog posts, making conference appearances, and even doing a press tour.
"Even then, it's amazing to us when I look on Twitter how many people are saying, 'What's this Road Not Taken thing? I've never heard of it,'" Edery said. "When you put as much effort as we did into getting your game known and still almost nobody has heard of it when it comes out, it just shows you how little control you actually have over the success of a premium game. With free-to-play, it's different. The nature of free-to-play is that if the metrics are good and you design the right kind of game, you can literally just buy your users in real-time, and that's that.
"It's scary for different reasons and terrifying in its own way, but it's straight forward. With a premium game, it really does feel largely like voodoo. You make as good a game as you can, and then you cut the head off a chicken, roll some dice, shake some bones, and hope that shit works out."
One of the terrifying things about the free-to-play market is just how rapidly it's changing, and how much it's starting to replicate the same kind of dynamic that defined the console space as it headed into the last generation.
"[I]t's inevitably becoming more and more of a rich-get-richer scenario [on mobile], where like the top two free-to-play games are just making ludicrous amounts of money and everyone else is just getting completely wiped out."
"On mobile, premium has been second to free-to-play and they just keep seeming to fall farther and farther back," Edery said. "But at the same time, it's inevitably becoming more and more of a rich-get-richer scenario, where like the top two free-to-play games are just making ludicrous amounts of money and everyone else is just getting completely wiped out... We have two mobile games in development right now, so we're definitely not turning our back on the ecosystem, but it's really hard. And if you make high-budget premium games, your options are pretty much back to what they used to be, for the most part."
Those options for premium games are to release them on Steam and consoles right now. But as Edery notes, those ecosystems are starting to open up to the free-to-play market as well. And even if that doesn't upend the console and PC market like it did mobile, there's also the abundance of subscription-based services offering premium games for free, like PS Plus, Microsoft' Games With Gold, and EA Access. Those services assume that customers will still pay for great games on release even if they have free alternatives, but that's not to say they won't have an impact on sales.
"I think the implicit subtext there is that the bar is going to go up," Edery said. "Only the truly great games that have been marketed really effectively are going to have a chance of succeeding and everything else is going to get drowned out by the titles that may not be quite as good, but are free. Or maybe they are quite as good, in which case you're really screwed."
Edery said he'll need to see how Road Not Taken sells once it's no longer part of PS Plus before he can decide if being part of the promotion was the right call. Either way, he's not about to lose sleep over the road not taken.
"One of the benefits of having been the portfolio manager of XBLA is I watched tons of people--just as smart as me, just as creative as me, if not moreso--fail on Xbox Live Arcade," Edery said. "And they failed despite the fact they tried super hard, tried their best. This is a brutal business. And I knew that when I went into it. So I don't torture myself. If we do something and it doesn't go perfectly, it's like, it's hard, right? You can be a genius in this industry and still screw up, right? Just look at Will Wright with Spore. He's my number one game designer of all time... and yet he managed to fail. And that's true for everybody. Very few people get it right every time."