If there's one thing you're likely to take away from talking with game developers, it's that they're a passionate bunch. They're passionate about making great games. They're passionate about pushing the medium forward. They're passionate about whether "video games" is one word or two. (It's two.) But until a recent conversation with Bekah and Adam Saltsman at the Game Developers Conference last month, I had never heard a developer tell me they were passionate about burn rate.
The topic came up in relation to Night in the Woods, one of the first projects the couple picked up for their publishing label Finji, which was founded three years ago. Developed by three-person indie team Infinite Fall, Night in the Woods launched in February on Steam and PlayStation 4. The game was critically well received, but its financial performance was the focus of their attention, despite sales running "almost eerily" in line with their expectations, according to Adam. But their expectations and those of the team differed greatly. While Infinite Fall's Alec Holowka had plenty of experience working on and releasing indie games (notably the IGF-winning Aquaria), animator Scott Benson and writer Bethany Hockenberry were comparatively new to development.
"When you work with especially new game developers, or people who've never launched a game, they don't really understand how the marketplace works," Bekah said. "You have this launch weekend and it's out, and it's almost like you think you've sold your product so you'll get this one check and then you're done and you move on. But no, you'll still get money for this game in five years. This stuff will trickle in on this weird long tail forever, and that's a really hard thing to explain to somebody who's never seen the way it works... I think this will subsidize a bit of your monthly burn for a really long time, and we get really emotional talking about that."
Adam further explained exactly the emotional heft of that idea, saying, "You crossed the finish line, people are responding to work in the way you hoped. But also you can get a nicer apartment, or afford your health care every month. Your next project might not have to be a Kickstarter project. Some of your artist friends who are constantly doing gigs and contract work, struggling in the same way you were? You may be able to work with them, and provide employment for them to make some other cool, beautiful thing they wouldn't have been able to do before. And that's what we're here for."
"That's why we did it in the first place," Bekah added. "We'll put in all this crazy amount of work for years and years and years, and postpone a lot of our work on our own game... It just needed to exist. It's a magical thing, and if any of our work could help provide financial security for this incredibly talented group of people, why the hell wouldn't you do something like that? It's cool."
"The earning capacity of a premium [mobile] game is not what it once was. You can barely pay back the time you have to put into it."
Night in the Woods' successful launch marks a sort of "mission accomplished" moment for Finji, which was essentially a rebranding of a handful of companies the Saltsmans had been running before 2014, like Semi-Secret Software and Last Chance Media. The rebranding also marked a change in direction away from premium mobile projects like Canabalt and Hundreds.
"We were a mobile-centric company at that point, and we were already tracking the downward trajectory," Bekah said. "The earning capacity of premium games had already decreased, even if you were a top 10 game."
The endless runner Canabalt came out in 2009, but has enjoyed a lengthy tail and still brings in a bit of money. Hundreds launched in early 2013, but even with a best-case scenario including critical acclaim and platform holders eager to feature it, the game's long tail declined considerably steeper than Canabalt's, and it merely wound up making its money back.
"The earning capacity of a premium game is not what it once was," Bekah said of their mindset when they pivoted to Finji. "You can barely pay back the time you have to put into it. You can't just do a mobile game in six months; you have to spend two years and have a development team of five or 10 people."
Adam added, "We had a bunch of cool little mobile game ideas, but if we leave them really small and easy to copy, then the odds our work will just fund a bunch of other companies seems pretty high. So if we want to make larger projects that are harder [for others] to duplicate and out-market us, those things require a bigger time commitment. And if they require a bigger time commitment, now we have to start looking at the kinds of returns we saw on our last larger project that wasn't super-easy to copy."
"It's not a worry that there's a limited number of players or money in the market. It's more like every store they go to is going to have the same 12 awesome games that came out last week."
They decided mobile wasn't sustainable any longer, so they jumped to the world of PC and console development even as concerns about the abundance of indie game releases were ramping up. But their concerns were less about an indiepocalypse than an indie rapture. A flood of mediocre titles on Steam would be one thing, but Finji was jumping into a market where great games like Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero, and Infinifactory release at an almost alarmingly regular clip.
"The bar continues to go up," Adam said. "Overland and Night in the Woods were both specced smaller, but it's become clear as those projects have gone on how cool everything else is, so we needed to find a way to afford to beef these projects up a bit more or else they're not going to stand out like we need them to... Nobody's going to buy our thing if they don't know about it. And nobody's going to know about our thing if it just fades into the background behind all these other marvelous, inspiring pieces. It's not a worry that there's a limited number of players or money in the market. It's more like every store they go to is going to have the same 12 awesome games that came out last week."
That's created its own visibility problem, one that they've tried to solve in how they select their projects. Bekah said they've been very picky about who they work with because they know they not only need something outstanding, but they need to have projects they're personally excited about and believe in because they simply couldn't work as hard on them otherwise. One side effect of that approach has been that Finji's games tend to stand out on looks alone. Bekah noted that Finji's catalog includes four games with first-time art directors who have brought new approaches to their projects, and made Finji's job a little easier in the process.
"We have a very low market reach because we're such a small team," Bekah said. "We don't have a giant budget to throw in to marketing things everywhere, so every single screenshot of our game needs to be a way to draw people in. Every .gif, every screenshot needs to make people say, 'Whoa, that's beautiful.'"