Sunset, Tale of Tales, and Making Art for Money

Tale of Tales, the developer of the indie game Sunset, left commercial game development earlier this week. Whether or not you want to lament the fact that another developer simply up and disappeared, there’s several parts of this particular case that should make you take notice.

Tale of Tales made, primarily, experimental video games. Did you ever play Bientôt l’été? I certainly didn’t nor do I have interest in this strange game, nor can I pronounce it. Yet, in a weird way, I am glad they exist. I like to think of them as interesting failures, all said, in my grand hierarchy of video game classification. They use weird ideas and try to express them in video game form; while, on one level, they are utterly unengaging due to, say, artistic temperament or intention, that doesn’t mean someone somewhere doesn’t find them interesting (*cough* Joshua Cauller *cough*).

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Like, what is this?

This makes Tale of Tales’ exit from commercial video games and its tempestuous market easy to understand; their business model, even from an outside glance, exists to sustain, not to make money, and that will inevitably place you on a financial tightrope. The moment you make a mistake, a big one, you are bound to go under via the risky nature of your own decisions. Taking out a $40,000 loan, for example, does not strike me as wise when Sunset retails for $19.99. Valve takes a 30% cut off the top, so functionally speaking Tale of Tales receives about $14.00 from each purchase; that doesn’t take into account the cut that other digital distribution services take. Consider that Tale of Tales never revealed the actual number spent on the game; if they sold 4,000 copies, as state, then they would pay off the debt at around 3,000 customers or so. Clearly, someone took way too much money out of the bank without considering whether the product itself would sell. Add in other factors (like their PR firm, for example), and things look even more grim.

If there’s one thing I have learned by analyzing this market, prior successes cannot be used as a barometer for future ones. Large, multi-billion dollar corporations can create a success out of thin air (MOSTLY) just by the money they can dump into various media outlets. An indie developer, on the other hand, cannot do this. They must engage in social media market that targets, conveys effective messages to its core demographics, and then also figures out how to remain on the Steam Top Sellers list for as long as possible (which, by any standard, does not represent an easy task). Sunset, by all accounts, does not seem like a game with a message or presentation designed for easy digestion. Does it seem any wonder that it massively bombed?

Let’s take a look at the methods Tales of Tales used to, hopefully, make the game a success:

  • We studied successful games and applied our findings to the design of Sunset. And while the inclusion of certain conventions seems to have helped some people enjoy the game, it didn’t affect the size of our audience much.

Problem is, what makes one game a success does not hold true for other games in the same genre, or even games that look similar. Your game’s unique qualities need to shine through the advertising and design. In a market as competitive as this one, a game must stand out with clear messaging, and Sunset looked confusing (to me, at least) from the outset.

  • We spent a lot of money on a PR company who got us plenty of press, took some work and worries off our shoulders, and found us other marketing opportunities. But it didn’t help sales one bit.

A public relations company does not exist primarily to promote your product. They act as an intermediary between you and the press, not a sales team in and of themselves. They let you work on the game while they deal with other issues. Unfortunately, like most things on this list, the quantifiable results from their work remains very difficult to predict. most of the work they implement would seem, at the very least, an intangible asset, like most things on this list.

  • We even took out an advertisement on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where we figured the people most interested in Sunset would be gathered. They must all use AdBlock because that had no effect whatsoever.

Even knowing your core audience, and where they frequent, does not guarantee a sale. It puts the game in front of many eyeballs, sure, but advertising itself does not convert a customer into buying it. You need to provide, or at least communicate, some value that the customers perceives your product will provide. That benefit can even prove to be an “artistic” game; Gone Home certainly sold quite a lot, but it also tapped into a cultural context with a topic of great import in today’s society without necessarily trying (gay rights, for lack of better terminology). You can’t control such external factors, but you can certainly analyze trends and respond accordingly.

  • We worked hard on presenting a gentler Tale of Tales to the public. Which basically meant that Michaël was forbidden to talk in public and Auriea often just smiled at the camera, parroting words whispered in her ears by communication coaches. Didn’t make a difference.

This, I think, is a fundamental mistake. Just because other people tell you not to talk means either 1. your abrasiveness has hurt sales in the past or 2. you have no idea how to communicate the value of your game to a mass audience. Either way, this probably tells you more than anything why Tale of Tales failed in the commerical market place. You must find a way to reach the general consumer in the video game space in some fashion, or your product will fail (also, all the money they spent is just one additional problem).

None of the people they consulted were “wrong”, as if these methods can be quantified. Everything can look like it’s going well for a company – until their product releases. No matter how many experts tell you something can succeed if it does X and Y, complex ideas and product with no mainstream viability will not sell unless that idea can be communicated and remembered. Sunset does not seem like it would fit into this vein at all, and to try to make it work seems foolhardy.

And it’s wonderful that Tale of Tales hates capitalism and all, but plenty of artists on Earth work within its constraints, and even in other multi-billion dollar businesses, and do just fine. Blaming external factors for a lack of financial success certainly won’t help you. Frankly, I don’t think people who want to make true outliers in an industry should make a living off that industry; rather, they should feel happy to work, and then to create artistic works on the side. “Doing what you love” only makes sense in a coloquially way; often, when you turn what you love into your primary means of support, you can grow to hate it with a passion (and the people that stilled that passion by not buying something they didn’t want, as they seem to say in their “WE QUIT” blogpost).

This is why I don’t make money off Theology Gaming, or support it via donations. If the Apostle Paul was a tent maker who supported himself throughout his ministry, I see no reason to rely on the kindness of strangers when I don’t need it. This is my “art”, for lack of a better term, and I enjoy it knowing it involves no financial constraints or limitations on what I can and cannot say. And honestly, let’s say this much: being a big video game failure isn’t the end of the world. Your art can continue to exist…non-comercially.

23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19:23

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.