"5 bucks for a fifteen minute game is a bit much though, I'd love to try it, but I'll wait for a price drop"
- Comment, IGN review of Thirty Flights of Loving
We’ve seen Blendo Games achieve success with its microtitle Thirty Flights of Loving and thechineseroom with Dear Esther. Both games leveraged prior success in the free space with Gravity Bone and the original Dear Esther Half-Life 2 mod respectively - is this proof that the short-form game can court commercial attention?
Angry Internet Bro likes to complain about games that don't earn their keep. He howled when Terry Cavanagh launched VVVVVV at $15 and just this month he was busy giving Dishonored a kicking because it's “only” ten hours long. Don't forget the fierce competition from free-to-play, discounted long-form titles, a deluge of free works from hobbyists and game jams... Faced with this environment, why would a developer even bother trying to sell a short game?
So let's find out. Today, I look at two commercial horror games that take less than an hour to complete and then talk to one of the developers about the economics of short-form development.
"Great as a freeware game. Weak for Steam. If anything, it's way too short."
- Comment, Fibrillation Greenlight page
Egor Rezenov's Fibrillation is currently available for $1.95 and also has a budding Greenlight page. A demo is available if you want to try before you buy.
Fibrillation is a linear first-person exploration game featuring surreal dream-like imagery. There's no mystery as to the why of this game, which is obvious from the start. Lots of visual tricks are played out here that you will have seen before; I was reminded of SCP-087 and also Korsakovia. There's a completely unnecessary narrator who butts in occasionally to spoil the mood and also a little bit too much of a "warehouse" aesthetic throughout which suggests budget constraints rather than theme.
Still, the game throws out several clever moments that disorient the player and, while this isn't the next Amnesia, it is enjoyably tense. It will take you less than an hour to reach the conclusion and the game's brevity has enabled Rezenov to dispense with a save game option altogether, forcing the player through a joined-up experience. Playing a second time, however, is not recommended because it encourages the player to experiment – revealing exactly how the game exploits you.
There's enough good stuff in this debut title to put Rezenov on my radar. I mean, it's a game in which you can choose to close your character's eyes for God's sakes.
The 4th Wall
"It was only a dollar, so I’m not hurt over it. I’m still not sure exactly what I paid for though. It seemed more like a concept demo than a game."
- Comment, Rock Paper Shotgun post on The 4th Wall
GZ Storm's The 4th Wall (T4W) can be purchased for just one dollar. A demo is available but as the game is only fifteen minutes long it's better to just buy it outright. Really. Just buy it.
While writing this, I launched the game again to grab a few screenshots. It made me jump on the splash menu screen. That's just how T4W rolls.
The game is so short, it's difficult to say anything about it without destroying the experience for a virgin player. Let's try this: T4W is an abstract first-person puzzle game. It's not a horror game in the usual sense. What you see in this game makes no sense whatsoever and the game will have no truck with messages and metaphors. It's here to screw around with your brain and weird you out.
The brilliance of T4W is how it keeps the player off-balance - even a player who thinks they've seen it all. There is nothing familiar to guide expectations, not even in the mechanics, so the whole package nudges the player into a state of heightened anxiety.
I'll admit there's one part of the game that might damage your visual cortex but the ending... the ending is worth it.
Last month I talked to Jesse Ceranowicz, the developer of The 4th Wall, about commercial short-form projects. It turns out that for the last two years, that’s pretty much all he’s been making.
“The game took a little over a month to make in terms of ‘development time’,” Ceranowicz said. “I've been largely targeting XBOX Indie Games, and it's a safer bet to make shorter games on there because of how the market works. XBOX Indie is a small ecosystem, so if you know what you are doing you can do well.”
T4W was his first time seriously pursuing PC sales. “Originally I had created a shorter free version of the game, which had virtually no coverage and was largely ignored, but because of some great feedback from a YouTube partner and their subscribers, I decided to make a more polished version to sell. Given the scale of the project and the results, I'm pretty fine with how it all went down and I learned a few things in the process.”
He told me that T4W made $1200 in its first month and he expected to make $2000 all told in the first three months, after which sales will drop to a trickle.
“XBOX Indie is pretty good for residual sales, you keep getting a steady stream for old games and the amount depends on the quality and type of game. With PC I think it's much more dependent on getting big or continuing coverage… or having a big fanbase to begin with. Since I don't have either right now, XBLIG works well for me.”
The numbers bear this out. Around two-thirds of T4W’s sales were from XBOX with the remainder coming from PC. “Initially, in the first week, PC sales exceeded XBOX sales, but after the coverage ended for the game on PC, XBOX overtook it.” Over time, Ceranowicz would expect XBOX to form the vast majority of sales.
With this in mind, I asked whether he thought the PC version was worth it.
“XNA, what is used to make XBOX Indie Games, already runs on PC by default. The ending was already done because I had made a shorter freeware version of the game, and even the launcher was made for the freeware version. So all it required to make the PC version was making an installer, some additional graphics, and programming statements. In terms of it being worth it, for this project it was easily worth it. To me, the more important question is if the given game is worth selling on PC versus just giving it away.
“In my situation, every XBOX game I have made has been made with PC and XBLIG in mind. In fact, my previous two games (Vidiot Game, Techno Chopper) I simply gave away for free on PC because I didn't believe either would make much in sales. I gave them away to get press and to get more people playing my games. I'll admit however that most developers probably don't have this mindset, and that there are some hurdles to getting games on PC. So I could see scenarios for certain XBOX games that might have sales potential on PC, but not enough to justify the extra effort.”
He broke down the areas of extra effort: setting up a website and a payment system; making an installer; PC-specific programming overhead (e.g. retrofitting a game that was targeted for XBOX controls); marketing as “having no online presence makes this extremely tough, most XBLIG devs have little to no online presence or marketing skills”.
Ceranowicz was particularly glowing about Indievania. “Without them I think I would have sold a lot less. They have a very simple set-up for selling games and have a feature that allows customers to pay extra to the developer on checkout. Because this is a $1 game, I'd probably had made a lot less without this. So a big thumbs up to them.”
For those of us who are pushed for time, the idea of a polished short-form game versus a life commitment like Skyrim is appealing. I'd like to see not just more attempts to sell such games, but more developers having financial success with them.
Fibrillation bristles with promise; The 4th Wall confounds and subverts. Players may recoil in horror at the thought of coughing up a dollar or two for a short game, but it's high time that attitude changed.