"I'm not sure that games like this one can continue to be made…"
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine developer Johnnemann Nordhagen reflects on his game's surprising commercial struggles
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seemed like an indie game with a lot of things going for it.
It had pedigree, as the game's programmer and designer Johnnemann Nordhagen was a co-founder of Fullbright Games, the studio behind Gone Home. It had visibility, as it was unveiled as part of The Game Awards in 2015, and received a fair amount of coverage from a variety of gaming outlets, including this one.
It had critical approval, as it was nominated for Independent Games Festival awards, won the Developer's Choice and Gamer's Voice awards at IndieCade and SXSW, respectively, and garnered Best of E3 recognition from sites both broad (IGN) and specific (RPGFan.com).
It lent itself to word of mouth, featuring over a dozen talented writers (each with a following of their own) who worked on the game's anthology narrative. The final marketing push before launch also included the stunning reveal that it had secured Sting to anchor a roster of voice actors already acclaimed in the gaming world.
All that said, the game released at the end of February, and as Nordhagen acknowledged in a post-mortem write up, things did not go as hoped.
"Commercially, it's a disaster," he said. "I can't discuss exact numbers, but in the first few weeks fewer people bought the game than I have Twitter followers, and I don't have a lot of Twitter followers (and this tells you a lot about how effective marketing via Twitter is)."
As of this writing, Nordhagen has fewer than 4,500 followers on Twitter. He hasn't made any money from the game yet, and said he spent around $140,000 for his collaborators' services.
Nordhagen was honest about a number of problems with the game, from a lack of playtesting that led to pacing problems in the later part of the game, a lack of experience that made some tasks harder than they needed to be, and misjudging the scale of the project. (What he had expected to take two-and-a-half years to make took almost four.) There were also some issues a bit beyond his control, like losing a pair of crucial artists at key times, and the general landscape of the indie games market in 2018.
"This is a tough, tough time for indie games (and maybe AAA games) of all sorts," Nordhagen said. "When I started this game I was fresh off Gone Home, a niche, experimental narrative game. It had been well-received, and in the light of that, in 2014, starting a similar project seemed like a good creative and financial risk. Four years later, making any commercial game at all seems like a bad idea, and taking on the risk of an experimental, ambitious game like Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sounds terrifying."
The experience had Nordhagen considering returning to AAA (he previously worked at 2K Marin on BioShock 2) or abandoning games entirely, but his current plan is to leave San Francisco for a more affordable city and to continue trying to do indie game development with lowered expectations about how much money it might bring in.
"WTWTLW could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different," Nordhagen said. "It would be far less polished, it wouldn't have had the collaborators that it did, I could not have paid people who couldn't afford to work for revenue share or for the love of the game (thus, I fear, cutting out some of the most valuable voices that this game was a platform for). I could have developed it as a side project, but it took me 4 years as is. Basically, I'm not sure that games like this one can continue to be made in the current market."