Digital distribution may limit audience for games - Coldwood

Unravel developer would love to see Yarny's adventures on a disc, says current digital storefronts are too obscure

Last year's Unravel was a breakthrough title for Coldwood Interactive. After more than a dozen years as a work-for-hire outfit turning out little-remembered winter sports games and PlayStation Move titles, the Swedish studio struck a deal with Electronic Arts that would see the giant publish the heartfelt platformer while allowing the developers to retain creative control of the project.

Speaking with at the Game Developers Conference last month, Coldwood creative director Martin Sahlin and technical director Jakob Marklund had nothing but good things to say about EA, but there seemed to be one thing they would have changed about its distribution.

"I would want to see Unravel on a disc, on a shelf, in a store," Sahlin said. "The concept of Unravel had a really wide appeal. A lot of different people who weren't at all into games, or were actively disinterested in them, said it looked like something they would want to try. But all the means of actually getting the game are quite niche. You have to be in these obscure online stores, and the people who are not involved in games don't care about those. But if you could get it in the supermarket, that would be a different thing. I would rather do that."

"It's good to include more people, and it's good to have the input of more people. So it would be nice if we tried to reach everyone instead of just trying to reach the niche."

Martin Sahlin

He added, "It's not necessarily, 'Oh, it's an untapped market.' That's not really how I look at it. It's more that it's good to make gaming more diverse. It's good to include more people, and it's good to have the input of more people. So it would be nice if we tried to reach everyone instead of just trying to reach the niche."

Marklund echoed the desire for a physical copy of the game, though his reasons were a little different.

"Not all of us, but quite a few of us are failed musicians at Coldwood, so we'd really like having [a physical edition]," Marklund said. "It's nice to have a box. This is my game. I bought it and care about it."

The discussion came up as a tangent to a line of questioning about the games-as-a-service model and how it's quickly becoming the norm, even in the packaged AAA industry. Sahlin wasn't especially thrilled with the trend, which Coldwood actually has a little experience with. Prior to Unravel, the company also worked on a free-to-play project called OnGolf. When asked about it, Marklund simply said it was a fun project, to which Sahlin laughed and responded, "It was super fun for me because I wasn't involved in it. I was standing on the side looking at it, going, 'Oh this is a train wreck.'"

Marklund offered a more diplomatic assessment, explaining, "That was a VC-capital-financed project that had very ambitious ideas that weren't that realistic, to be honest."

The motion capture studio Coldwood tapped for that project still uses it as a cautionary tale to developers and an example of how not to do mo-cap work, Sahlin said.

"They still shudder when they talk about it," he said. "It had to have this perfect finger alignment and club placement... I don't know. They were like, 'People are not going to learn golf from this; don't worry about it.'"

Asked what Coldwood learned about free-to-play from the project, Sahlin replied, "We learned you can dig a really big hole and just pour money into it and it never stops."

"And never do it again," Marklund added.

"Unravel was, in many ways, a game borne out of frustration: frustration with how we'd been doing things in the past and how previous projects had worked."

Martin Sahlin

As for what they would do again, Coldwood's next game is another Unravel title. And while a sequel sounds more like the pragmatic sort of business decision the work-for-hire Coldwood of old would make, Sahlin sees it as an opportunity to revisit the world through a different lens.

"We definitely want to say new, different things with it and try different things," he said. "Unravel was, in many ways, a game borne out of frustration: frustration with how we'd been doing things in the past and how previous projects had worked. Unravel was basically, 'Screw all of that, we're going to do things differently.' But now we have a completely different position, which means we can build the game based more or less on happiness, I suppose. So it's going to be quite different in tone."

The way Coldwood works internally has also changed. Marklund said the studio has always welcomed people working beyond their core discipline (accepting creative input from programmers, for example), but added that the process is more formalized now. The studio's still small (about 17 people), but they're working harder at involving everyone and taking a consensus approach to development.

"Unravel started out as something that was extremely personal to me, and then everybody added their own heart into it," Sahlin said. "It portrays the studio's ambition to really get it right. I think you can feel that in every single asset and feature, that somebody was really passionate about this and wanted it to come out great. And in our previous pragmatic games, you didn't see that because the goal was to get it done and keep the lights on."

Marklund added, "We're in another position now, where we don't need to be so pragmatic. Before we had to do something to make a living. Now we can choose the projects we want to do, and people may trust us again because we've done something good, at least."

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Latest comments (6)

Garry Williams Licensing Director, Sold Out Sales and Marketing Ltd4 years ago
[Deleted for violation of our house rules: No soliciting please. - James]

Edited 2 times. Last edit by a moderator on 4th April 2017 6:34pm

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Jordan Lund Columnist 4 years ago
Digital Only games suffer two-fold:

1) They're invisible at retail, which is still the prime location people buy their machines. This was one of the many things that hampered Vita sales, Sony did a big digital push, but nobody could see them in stores and the console failed to sell because the narrative became "it doesn't have any games."

2) Hard to see them in the storefront. In most cases, you have to know the name of the title you're looking for in order to find the title. There rarely is a "browse" option or a "show me all the games released this year" option.

Both of these problems could be fixed using systems we already have now:

Stores sell PSN and XBL cards right? General purpose points cards for their ecosystems.

The publishers should make game specific PSN and XBL cards for digital content. Make the cards look just like boxes, with cover art and screenshots. No value on the cards until they're sold at the register. Redeem the code, get the game.

Then you change the dialog from "There aren't any games!" to "Where did all these games come from?"

No literal physical edition needed.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
"The publishers should make game specific PSN and XBL cards for digital content."

@Jordan Lund--Gamestop, Walmart, Best Buy and Target have been doing that in the US since last generation. They don't have full boxes but they do have cards with individual games right next to the XBL Gold and XBL prepaid credit/money cards. Same with PSN cards. Obviously they don't have cards for EVERY digital release title but the fact that they have been doing this for years now is definitely a step in the right direction.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 7th April 2017 3:24am

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Garry Williams Licensing Director, Sold Out Sales and Marketing Ltd4 years ago
Trying without the URL this time. You need about 6 months for publicity, distribution and sales on your boxed retail version. This needs to be planned as you make the digital release. It is not either/or. Take both lots of revenue. Make digital and boxed! Also, the eyeballs and publicity from the boxed version adds around 20% to your digital sales. One big publisher focuses on their boxed release as part of the digital increase.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Garry Williams on 5th April 2017 12:53pm

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James Coote Independent Game Developer 4 years ago
For me, the real change in mindset comes from understanding that Console/PC is niche. If the audience is on mobile or facebook, that's where you've gotta go. Sure, these guys had a bad experience before with OnGolf, but can't moan about digital limiting their audience when digital storefronts for mobile and facebook have literally billions of users.

That said, I think physical retail does play a part in increasing brand visibility. Especially, as mentioned, places like supermarkets Or by association when sat on the shelf next to family friendly Nintendo titles for example.
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Mark Foo Bonasoro President and CEO, Q8ISMobile Inc.4 years ago
@Garry Williams: It really depends on the kind of game your want to make. For a game that is sold for 6$, which is a puzzle game, certainly wouldn't make any sense to be physical because of the minimum costs for buying the medium costs more than the actual product.

But yeah, I couldn't agree more that there is this reach gap between physical and digital.
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