Later this summer, Blue Isle Studios will launch Valley, a story-driven first-person game it has spent the last three years developing. The studio only announced the existence of the project in mid-April.
While quick turnarounds and short marketing campaigns aren't unheard of in the games industry, it struck us as at least a little unusual to see Valley, a game with visuals that might easily be mistaken for the work of a AAA studio, foregoing the extended hype cycle. So we recently spoke with Alex Tintor, managing director of the Toronto-based nine-person studio, to find out exactly why Blue Isle settled on its release strategy.
"It's something we talked about a hell of a lot internally, and something that was very hotly debated within the studio," Tintor acknowledged. "We actually came very close to announcing the game almost two years ago, but what we realized looking at some other titles and our experiences doing [Blue Isle's debut game] Slender: The Arrival, is that setting consumer and fan expectations has become very important to us... We didn't want to show something that was going to be cut from the game or something that would be misleading to people, so we basically waited until the game was essentially done 100 percent. So we knew anything we showed would actually be in the game and we wouldn't be misrepresenting anything."
"We learned a lot about what not to do, to tell you the truth. [Slender: The Arrival] was our first time ever promoting a game and dealing with a very passionate fanbase."
It's clear from talking to Tintor just how much of the Valley strategy is informed by what happened with Slender: The Arrival, a commercial follow-up to the freeware hit Slender: The Eight Pages, created in collaboration with original designer Mark Hadley.
"We learned a lot about what not to do, to tell you the truth," Tintor said. "It was our first time ever promoting a game and dealing with a very passionate fanbase."
Among those lessons were "Don't overpromise," and "Don't announce a release date until you're sure you can hit it."
"We had an interesting experience with Slender where we'd announce a release date and we'd either miss that release date, or we'd show something in the game that wasn't part of the final shipped product," Tintor said. "And we saw a lot of interesting reactions to that which we actually found to be a little bit detrimental to the game development process."
Tintor clarifies that the detrimental impact of those reactions was simply having a situation where voices outside the development team were guiding its decisions. That happened on Slender when the game launched without some scenes that had been shown in the promotional trailer and screenshots.
"We didn't think it was a big deal at all to cut this," Tintor said. "We just thought it was a level in the game that didn't really work out very well and it wasn't adding anything new, so we'd cut it and that's that. When the game came out, we were actually really surprised a lot of people remembered these screenshots and those scenes from the initial trailer and said, 'Hey where is that? Where are they?' And we caught a little bit of flack from the community for that, and as a result we ended up having to add that back into the game."
Because the cut level hadn't really worked in the first place, the team rebuilt it from scratch to make it better, which ended up delaying the release date for the game's console ports by months. So in trying to do right by one segment of the game's fans, Blue Isle managed to upset another segment just the same.
"It wasn't a huge deal. I wouldn't say it really hurt our reputation or tarnished anything with the fans, but we're a small indie studio and we very, very closely interact with people who buy and play our games. And seeing people be genuinely disappointed really kind of hurt us, and we thought, 'Damn, I wish we didn't do that,'" Tintor said, adding, "We don't regret doing it, but we said to ourselves that we don't want to go through that experience again. We'd rather do our development and launch with a fully complete product, one and done."
"There's been a lot of debate within the studio whether this is the right way to go. I know a lot of other games will announce years in advance and we were initially planning to do that, but we thought we'd take a bit of a risk and see how this one works out."
So with a decision made to launch Valley just a few months after announcing it in the first place, what's Blue Isle's marketing plan of attack?
"Our marketing strategy as a small indie studio with quite frankly no marketing budget is just to show people the game and hope we can spread through word of mouth," Tintor said. "At the end of the day, if people are liking the game and talking about it, that's good for everyone involved. What we're doing is probably a little bit unconventional, and that fact is not lost on us. There's been a lot of debate within the studio whether this is the right way to go. I know a lot of other games will announce years in advance and we were initially planning to do that, but we thought we'd take a bit of a risk and see how this one works out."
As an indie studio, Blue Isle isn't likely to get many cracks at press coverage from the big media outlets. So the plan is to focus efforts around a few strong marketing pushes. The first was the gameplay announcement back in mid-April, which was exclusively revealed on IGN as the game's official website and Facebook page. That was followed up by a coordinated wave of preview coverage earlier this month on IGN, GameSpot, ShackNews, etc., and Tintor is promising a third big push just before launch.
"We know we're an indie studio and we're only going to be given so much coverage," Tintor said. "It's not like we're a AAA studio where if you have even a minor piece of news it'll be covered because you're a big game. We know a small piece of news probably won't be covered, so we have to pick our points."
Fortunately, Valley's not a blockbuster-or-bust proposition for Blue Isle, thanks to the success of Slender and a management philosophy to build the studio with enough padding to absorb an occasional setback. But in light of Slender's sales performance, one might wonder why Blue Isle wouldn't then reinvest that money into a marketing budget for Valley.
"We looked at a lot of different strategies, but we had to make a decision on where to direct our financial resources, and we all determined we wanted to pour everything into the production of the game and make it as good as possible," Tintor said. "Because we really do believe that if the game is really good, people will talk about it and want to play it. If the game is good, it'll stand on its own two feet and sell itself."