The critically-lauded sequel to the critically-lauded Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style, 2009) has not done very well. When Tale of Tales had their own very public failure a little while back I wasn’t sure we should draw any larger conclusions aside from “making money in videogames is hard, The End.” The failure of Tiger Style to capitalise on a six-year old success is being called out as the dead canary emerging from the coal mine that is the mobile game market. THE INDIEPOCALYPSE IS HERE, IT’S REAL AND IT’S NOT JUST GOING TO EAT YOUR LUNCH – BUT ALSO YOUR CHILDREN’S LUNCH.
I’m still not sure we should draw any larger conclusions aside– wait, wait. Let’s think about this.
I detested the idea of being hooked into social media every second of the day which was the main reason I was successful at not-buying a smartphone for many years. This meant I came to Spider late, in 2013, well after all the critical applause had died down. It had been worshipped as an example of mobile gaming done good. TouchArcade said it “perfectly represents the promise of iPhone gaming”. The game feel was perfect: there was joy in flicking a spider around a touch screen, spinning webs to snare insects. And there was something hidden in the backdrops of the game, environmental narrative to be deciphered. It was, after all, about The Secret of Bryce Manor.
But I tired of it. I started to wonder exactly how many more bugs I had to munch through to find out The Secret. I played less and less frequently and remembering what secrets I’d discovered became a challenge. I eventually stopped. That’s when Tiger Style chose to announce they were going to ship a sequel called Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon – and I had to wonder why. Although reviewers and critics talked up the environmental narrative – I cited it here myself in The Beautiful Dead – the gameplay seemed to appeal more to the commuter, looking for something to kill the time on the bus, on the train, on the toilet. Did the average Spider player even care about the environmental narrative sideshow?
How different, I thought, can the Spider 2 gameplay be versus the original? Why would I be bothered with a “new mystery”? It reminded me of Bioshock burnout – I had zero interest in acquiring Bioshock 2, despite all the recommendations. I just couldn’t imagine hordes of Spider players salivating over the prospect of another 2000 insect-infested levels.
Now, here’s the crucial thing, the scary thing which should put fear into the hearts of developers everywhere. Are you ready? Here goes. I actively avoided reading anything about the sequel. I was so disinterested, I didn’t even want to spend time reading about it. Perhaps the reviews suggest fantastic new mechanics that shake up the web-spinning genre, I don’t know. I didn’t even realise the sequel had become just as critically lauded as the original.
My gut tells me indies should beware of sequels because that commercial success is often a trap. It does not guarantee interest in a follow-up. People will smile and say, yeah, sounds cool, I loved the original. But think of the absolute disaster of Darwinia+ which almost wiped Introversion Software from the face of the planet. That beautiful originality may be just too perfect as it is, making it difficult to convince even your fans that there’s value going back to the same well. God, it’s not just indieware: I enjoyed Portal 2 but somehow it didn’t taste as juicy and delicious as the original and would probably hesitate to buy a Portal 3 if such a thing were made real.
Now if it’s easy to churn out a sequel and you’re reusing lots of assets and code then what you’re doing is leveraging the hardcore fans; it’s closer to DLC or an expansion pack than a full-blown sequel but DLC sells best if it comes out quickly. Tiger Style invested two years in the sequel and it emerged six years after Bryce Manor: this was no sequel-lite. Going to the other extreme, you can probably keep a game’s systems completely intact if you’re offering the expense of a brand new story – like an RPG or FPS which can feel fresh. But Spider buries its story in the background so Shrouded Moon doesn’t jump out at me as the kind of sequel that would feel vibrant and different.
In the pockegamer.biz article where Tiger Style came clean about Shrouded Moon‘s failure, David Kalina of Tiger Style said, “Making a sequel can sometimes lead you into a trap where you feel the need to outdo the previous game in every possible dimension.” Tiger Style were supposed to release in Spring 2014 but it slipped a full year. Ever since Darwinia+, my spidey-sense tingles whenever I see an indie charge down the throw-everything-at-the-sequel path. It’s the reason I have concerns about Rob Hale working on Waves 2 to fund another game called Notorious. The original didn’t do as well as Hale hoped; why will the follow-up which is probably going to look very similar in any screenshots do any better? He has to crank it out relatively quickly to ensure that every month spent on that game can pay for more than a month of Notorious development – otherwise switching focus doesn’t make any sense.
We’re really talking about issues of attention and marketing, not of design or polish. As Randy Smith of Tiger Style suggests, the market has changed in the six years since Bryce Manor hit the App Store. But Bryce Manor launched when the App Store was just one year old, during the gold rush where it seemed developers could make a fortune from any piece of crap shoved onto the App Store. Perhaps it’s Bryce Manor‘s success that we should be suspicious of, rather than Shrouded Moon‘s inability to repeat it. Think again of Darwinia which was assured a captive audience as it was one of the first indie titles on Steam: another gold rush success.
There’s a certain type of developer that believes that all you have to do is make a great game and everything will work out just like in them fairytales. Ergo, if it did not work out, you did not make a great game. If you come and read Electron Dance with any regularity, you know I have no stock in this view. Hell, I’m writing a book about the difficulties of being an “indie” and the slow death of independence. But it’s the very work on this book that has led me to reject the indiepocalypse narrative.
Smith again: “We’re just at the start of a wave of painful consolidation and reorganization in the market which is likely to eliminate certain types of games from plausibility.” This is something I can get behind. The changing market means it is expensive and risky to throw two years into a mobile game unless you’ve managed to hook into a lucrative vein like Angry Birds or Candy Crush. Even relatively cheap experiments like Threes run the risk of being killed and replaced by their own clones, with the public none the wiser this has happened mere months on.
Okay. I’ve not proved anything here and I have no experience in selling indie games. (Well, not any more.) All I wanted to do is put forward an alternative perspective on the Shrouded Moon story, that the sequel’s conception was snared in the web of the original’s success. Did anyone ask for a sequel? Was there any genuine interest? Because I can answer that question just by looking at the sales figures in the wake of great reviews and the answer appears to be no.
- Update 27 Sep / 1700: Tiger Style co-founder David Kalina responds in the comments: “But to instead use the lack of traction of our most recent game and claim our previous work is somehow suspect, to be honest, is kind of insulting.”
- Update 25 Sep / 1630: Rob Hale just hit me up over Twitter and mentioned that he was having to rebuild Waves on UE4 as a stepping stone to Notorious. Therefore, it “seemed silly not to let people buy it when I was doing the work anyway”.
- Randy Smith is of the original Thief team which is why I’m usually interested in what Tiger Style gets up to. He is also a year younger than me but this has nothing to do with anything, honest.
- If I remember rightly, Tiger Style promoted Shrouded Moon ahead of its announcement with an ARG on Twitter.
- Again, from the pocketgamer article: “For Smith, this is a deeply personal project.” The article talks about commercial failure, but then argues the motivation for this expensive project was personal. This is more a criticism of the article; I would have liked to read why Tiger Style were convinced there was interest in a sequel.
- There’s also a question of telemetry data. F2P games thrive on knowing what their customers are doing. Pay-first games often don’t spy as much, so their developers are more blind to customer interests and behaviour than their F2P brethren.
- It’s not so easy to blame “unwanted sequel” issues for the lacklustre sales of N++ (Metanet Software, 2015) as the prime suspect is weak marketing and the game already went through one successful sequel iteration.
- These are my opinions. Write your opinions in the comments below. If you have no opinions, I’ll take onions.