Playing with Firewatch

Designer Nels Anderson on marketing a narrative-focused game without ruining the mystery and how much short games should cost

Campo Santo's debut title Firewatch released last month and quickly outsold the studio's wildest expectations. Though that's partly due to favorable reviews, the game's interesting marketing campaign no doubt played a role as well. Speaking with recently, Campo Santo designer Nels Anderson said there was an inherent challenge to putting that campaign together.

"Certainly Firewatch is a mystery story, so we had to be kind of cagey about what the game was," Anderson said. "There's the base premise that you're a guy doing this job. But aside from the weird novelty of there never having been a game about that before, the premise alone doesn't really convey anything at all about what the game is. So we had to balance the mood. It should feel totally like what the game is like without giving away what the mystery part of the game is."

"There was always a tension there, given that we had a narrative, story-focused game and we kind of contorted ourselves into pretzels trying not to have a bunch of stuff in the game spoiled."

While many indies marketing their games go for quantity of touch points with the audience--frequent drops of new screenshots, trailers, open development blogs, and so on--Anderson said Campo Santo limited those sorts of events, but tried to maximize the impact of each as much as possible.

"We certainly never assumed that by fiat alone people would care about the game," Anderson said. "At every event that was possible, we tried to engage with as many people as we could. It was just in a way that had to be more considered and deliberate, because you couldn't be like, 'Here's two random hours of the game, play it!' It just wasn't that sort of game." That was also a problem when it came time to engage with the Let's Play game streaming crowd.

"There was always a tension there, given that we had a narrative, story-focused game and we kind of contorted ourselves into pretzels trying not to have a bunch of stuff in the game spoiled," Anderson said.

Rather than ask streamers to avoid doing things X, Y, and Z that could tip the developers' hand too early, Campo Santo opted to create a new build of the game just for streamers. Anderson said it only took a couple hours to put the build together; the more time-consuming problem was identifying the streamers and YouTube personalities they wanted to send the build to.

"It felt like a way for a more narrative, content-driven game can still engage a community like that before the game comes out," Anderson said, adding, "It was kind of interesting trying to figure out how to engage with folks into that kind of stuff, because obviously, that's how lots of people know games exist now."

The community engagement effort didn't end with the game's release. Shortly after launch, Campo Santo artist Jane Ng responded when one customer posted on the Steam forums that they played through the game and really enjoyed it, but were contemplating getting a refund because it was so short. After Ng explained the reasoning behind the game's $20 price point ($18 during the launch week), the customer updated the post to say they would keep the game after all.

"Is this thing worth the money or not? That question has an answer, but it just depends on the person who's asking."

"It's always been a little strange," Anderson said of the subject. "It's always a weird dollar-to-hour calculus for how much a thing is worth. If you're looking to optimize across that formula, the answer is you pay $10 a month for World of Warcraft. If someone's concern is really and truly, 'How do I get the most entertainment for a dollar,' you buy an MMO subscription or play DOTA for free. You never know if it's more cause or more effect. It's kind of the culture of sales for digital games that has become more real over the past two or three years. If people say, 'I'll wait for a sale,' well that person probably would never have bought it anyway if sales for digital games weren't a thing... Is this thing worth the money or not? That question has an answer, but it just depends on the person who's asking.

"It's not the worst thing that people have the ability to say, 'I thought this was something different so I'm going to bail out.' That's cool, that's fine. But if someone finishes the entire game and is like, 'I don't know if I want my money back,' that's a thing that only a person who plays video games would ask, right? Maybe there are people who go and watch the entirety of The Revenant and then leave and tell the theater manager they hated it and want their money back. But it seems like that's far less common."

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Latest comments (2)

Aaron Houts Designer, EA Maxis6 years ago
It's interesting that people generally don't seem to have a problem with a $10/2hr entertainment cost for movies, but feel they're being ripped off with a $20/4hr cost for games.

I understand that $60/100hr games, free-to-play, and fairly regular deep discounts have set expectations that game entertainment hours are pretty cheap, but it still irks/worries me that a person would play something they enjoyed at a $/time ratio consistent with other entertainment that they buy and then be ready to write the whole experience off as not worth it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Aaron Houts on 4th March 2016 6:05pm

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 6 years ago
It does seem baffling to me that people have been getting so riled up about AAA games selling for exactly the same price as they have for years now, and even more so about high-quality indie products selling for what seem to me to be reasonable amounts.

You don't see this sort of controversy with any other product. Elon Musk is not buried under angry tweets saying he is greedy for charging what he does for a Tesla. No-one is telling Louis Vitton that they won't buy a handbag unless he allows knock-offs to be made so they can try them out cheaply first. You either buy something, save up for it, or go without. It's only with games people seem to think otherwise.

Personally, my experience with games is that they are often a money-saving measure, at least for old reprobates like me. When I'm gaming, I need both hands, so there's no temptation to put a cigarette in one, and I'm distracted so I don't feel the need. And because I'm quite pleasantly occupied, I don't need to do other things that cost money, like going to the pub or to a movie or whatever.

I've often wondered what the best way to handle Let's Play is for narrative-focused, puzzle or exploration games, especially if they're quite short and thus at risk of having all their content put out in the video and leaving the consumer no reason to buy it. Building a distinct version just for streaming sounds like a nearly ideal solution, except it sounds like a very large added expense (I guess this depends on how much they differ to the actual product) and additional timesink, which makes it a touch scary.
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