A few weeks ago, a gaming GIF made its way to the top of Reddit. "I rejected 12 offers from major publishers," the title, a quick showcase of gameplay from psychological horror adventure DARQ, read.
According to developer Wlad Marhulets, the publishers that initially reached out were fairly blunt: accept their help, or your game will be a guaranteed failure.
This story has been republished to mark DARQ's release on Steam this week.
It's not the first time DARQ has gone semi-viral on social media. The game's grim, dark artstyle, as well as the shifts in player perspective, are well suited for short clips and GIFs on Reddit and Twitter. That look and style is partially why the game first took off a few years ago, back when indies needed a bit of a social media presence to get through Steam's Greenlight program.
In a conversation over email, Marhulets explained to Kotaku Australia that he first began development in November 2015. He wasn't an experienced developer, instead plying his trade in the film industry as a composer. "At the time, I had no idea about making games and thought it would be a cool hobby to get into," he said.
"Having spent a month trying to learn basic coding / animation / modelling, I put together a short demo, which was 2-3 minutes long. I had a lot of fun making it and at that point I had no intention of developing it further, or making it into a full commercial project. I had no skills to make it into an actual game, nor did I have the time."
Marhulets' time off was coming to a close, and the composer was preparing to return to his old job in the movie industry. But having seen his work, a friend convinced him to go through the Greenlight process.
To his surprise, DARQ shot up the Greenlight charts. The resulting interest - almost 100 press articles were written about the game at the time - encouraged publishers to come calling, which is where things got tricky.
"I was getting a ton of new emails every day, and many of those were emails from publishers asking me for a meeting or a phone call," Marhulets said. "I spent next 6 months trying to negotiate a deal with some of them."
Two major elements ended up driving Marhulets away from the table. The first was that some, but not all, publishers kept emphasising that the game simply couldn't be made without their help. "I honestly didn't know what I was doing at the time, so what they were saying was not entirely unfounded," he said. "Given my lack of experience, I'm also not surprised that some of them were trying to take advantage of me."
The position is partially understandable - first time developers are liable to be pretty naive about the development process, and the business model of publishers is designed to simplify that by taking things off the developer's plate in exchange for a cut of the game's profits.
And in all the conversations that Marhulets had, the one common thread was that Marhulets would receive a cut of net revenue. "As a developer, you have no control over the publisher's expenses," he explained.
"Hypothetically though, it could also be a $50,000 fee the publisher paid their web designer friend to make a new website for your game. I don't believe this is a common practice, but I did hear enough horror stories from other developers to make me cautious."
That lack of visibility was ultimately what encouraged Marhulets to go it alone, although the lack of leverage he would have had as a first-time developer wouldn't have helped either.
Development on DARQ continued, and after the Greenlight process was shut down Marhulets continued to promote the game through various GIFs and short clips. We covered it a couple of years ago, back when the game was originally scheduled to release in 2018, although the side-scroller is now aiming for a 2019 launch.
Marhulets estimates that, once all is said and done, he'll have spent around 10,000 hours in development. "Most of the actual development took place in the last two years," he said. "Almost all the work I had done in the first year of development did not end up in the actual game."
"Even though some [of those hours] were filled with suffering, struggle, financial hardship, fear, questioning my life choices, anxiety and sleep deprivation, these have been the happiest and most rewarding hours of my life."
I asked what advice he would give to other devs in the same position, and how much added stress not having a publisher has contributed. He said that while publisher support would have allowed him to delegate a lot of skills that he was forced to teach himself - like animation, texturing, modelling, things that would have been covered by another staffer - the experience was invaluable. It was personally rewarding, but more importantly, it also meant that he got better bang for his buck from the contractors that were hired to work on DARQ, because Marhulets was able to ask better questions and provide better feedback.
And while he's not against the idea of having publishers on board - he's had many positive conversations over the last couple of years, and recently after DARQ gained the attention of Reddit - Marhulets noted that developers still need to foster their own communities and supplement their marketing to cut through.
"Signing with a publisher doesn't automatically solve all developer's problems. You would still have to learn to effectively market your game and grow a community around it. You would still have to learn how game distribution works. You would still have to learn how to talk about your game at events. And many other things."
DARQ is scheduled for release on August 15.