Arcen Games released the roguelike bullet hell Starward Rogue last week to near-universal acclaim: As I write this, there are 97 user reviews on Steam, and all but one are positive. But studio founder and CEO Chris Park said in a blog post today, roughly a week after the game was released, that the positive response has not translated into sales. So even though Starward Rogue is “possibly our best [game] yet,” Arcen is going to lay off almost its entire staff.
“We’re lost in a sea of other titles,” Park wrote. “About 9,000 people on Steam have wishlisted the title, which is awesome—next time this goes on discount, hopefully they’ll pick it up (but I mean, it’s only $11.99 USD and it’s 10% off already!). By contrast, about 2,100 people have bought the game across Steam and Humble.”
Arcen was actually “relatively cash-rich” when it started work on Stars Beyond Reach, the 4X game it announced in mid-2014. But that evolved into a bigger and more demanding project than anticipated, eating up extensive R&D time and beta testing, and the extra time spent in development more than doubled the cost of making it. At the same time, revenue streams from Arcen's previous games began to dry up, thanks in large part to changes in the Steam store that drastically reduced their promotional income—“our main source of income,” Park said.
Eventually, the decision was made to push Stars Beyond Reach into 2016, and to go all-out on Starward Rogue instead. “October rolled around, and we were basically hitting a point where my projected income put us running out of funds just prior to the end of December. IF things went really smoothly with SBR, which seemed unlikely, then we might be able to release it into the maelstrom that is the November release schedule. That would have been suicidal, and so that would mean releasing SBR in the new year,” Park wrote. “But that would be really putting ALL our eggs in that one basket, and if we couldn’t release anything until January anyhow… well, that might just be enough time to make the game that went on to become Starward Rogue. Going for that, and taking on some debt to accelerate the project and thus get it out faster, seemed to make more sense.”
Even now, he maintains that it was the right decision, and things from that point on actually went entirely according to plan. The accelerated development schedule was too tight for a proper PR campaign, but some attention was drummed up through a Bionic Dues giveaway, and Park “couldn't be more proud" of the final result. “It’s such a cool game! It’s possibly our best yet, and certainly better than anything other than AI War. Players seem to agree. Our beta testers had started out iffy in late November, and had really helped us shape this into something they were all hopping around excited about. Threads were popping up all over our forums about 'I love this game!' and 'Where did this come from?' and so on.”
But it didn't sell. “In the past when we have done a launch, generally we wind up on the Steam top sellers list in the top 40 at around the low side, and peak somewhere in the top 10... Usually we hang out in the teens for a few days and then drop off,” he wrote. “That’s where we make our money.”
With Starward Rogue, on the other hand, “we have mostly hung out in the 200s instead of in the teens, and mostly in the 250s at that, top-seller-chart-wise,” he continued. “We peaked, briefly, at #98. That lasted under 3 hours.” And so instead of a month of relatively high earnings that would cover previous losses and build up a cash buffer for the next project, Arcen is likely going to take another loss in January, and will lay off almost its entire staff on Monday: Only Park, Lead Programmer Keith LaMothe, and Art Director Daniette “Blue” Mann remain, and Mann will be laid off as well if things don't improve within the next few months.
Park is open and unequivocal about accepting responsibility for the decisions that led to this point, although he says he holds out hope that Starward Rogue will eventually find its audience. Regardless of how it ultimately works out—and hopefully it will work out well in the end—it's a cautionary tale about just how fragile and fraught indie game development can be. Two years ago, Arcen was riding (relatively) high; today, despite creating a game Park thought “would be a new chance to live life properly and not run around with my hair on fire all the time,” his studio has been gutted.
Park's full blog post isn't the happiest thing you'll ever read. but it's well worth the effort for anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes at an indie game studio. His follow-ups in the comments are informative, too. Get the whole story at arcengames.com.