Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Postmortem

UPDATE: Wow, this has gotten far more attention than I anticipated! In light of that, I want to clarify a few things and update you all on our plans for the future.
First, many headlines have said the game was a “failure” or a “flop”. That’s not true, and definitely not how we feel about it. Regardless of sales, this is an amazing artistic achievement and we believe the recognition we’ve gotten proves that. Sales were disappointing, but sales are only one aspect of a successful game. In addition, the game has only been out for a month, and we still have a lot of work planned to attract new players!
On that note, I wanted to give everyone a peek into our plans for the future of the game: this week we are going to be releasing a patch with new features to assist in learning how to play and cover many of the topics that were missing or not covered deeply enough in our original tutorials. Next week, we plan on a patch to fix some of the content distribution through the game, and make late-game exploration more rewarding. And then in May, we’ll be releasing new content — a whole bunch of new vignettes and the stories that result! Here’s a sneak peek:

Art by Kellan Jett

Here’s my look back at the development of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which was released about a month ago, on February 28th, 2018. You can buy it on Steam here, or on GoG.

A few of the other folks who worked on the game contributed their own postmortems:

Here’s one from Laura Michet, the editor of the game.

Matthew S Burns, who wrote the character Cassady.

Cat Manning, one of the vignette writers.

Emily Short, who wrote the character Bertha.

Bruno Dias, a vignette writer.

And Kevin Snow, another vignette writer.

Cassady in WTWTLW

However, my role wasn’t as a writer — or, at least, not ONLY as a writer. I’m going to talk about the game from a very high-level perspective, trying to cover my roles as programmer, designer, funder, “visionary” and “studio head” (those last two in quotes because they’re silly titles for various reasons).

I’ll approach this in classic Game Developer Magazine (RIP) format, starting with the things I think went well, and then the, uhh, other side, but I’m also going to talk a little bit about the reception and success of the game.

A screenshot of the Rocky Mountains from WTWTLW

What Went Right

Dupree, written by Cara Ellison and voiced by Elizabeth Maxwell
A vignette about scary children, written by Bruno Dias
Dire Wolf, quoting the game’s title early on
Leaping forward
UI is the most important art

What Went Wrong

Ray, written by Jolie Menzel
California’s Central Valley. Having a map to work from doesn’t mean you get to skip level design
How many games have the verb “Pierre”?
Probably it’s in the couch cushions

A Dim Bulb Lighting the Way Forward

Now I’m going to get in to the reception of the game and my conclusions about what it means for me and the game industry as a whole.

On a critical level, the game has not performed as well as I had hoped or expected. Coming off of all the attention, and especially the awards, I had assumed that if it failed to find an audience, it would at least be recognized by the press as something exciting. However, I forgot that festivals and awards bodies, as well as preview coverage, focus heavily on the ideas and promise of a game and maybe consider only the first few hours of play. Reviews look at the whole experience, and many places found that lacking. The game currently has a score of 75 on Metacritic. Some folks loved the game, others found it mediocre, often because of the pacing issues I mentioned above. A 75 isn’t terrible but it’s not what I wanted, obviously, nor do I feel like that number represents the actual quality of the game.

Luckily, our Steam user reviews and even Metacritic user reviews are better — we’re currently rated “Very Positive” on Steam. I think the difference between official scores and user reviews are a result of two things: one is that user reviews are from a self-selecting niche of people who are Into This Sort Of Thing, and the other is that users have the time to play the game at its own pace, which will minimize many of the problems reviewers faced.

Headed into New Mexico

Commercially, it’s a disaster. I can’t discuss exact numbers, but in the first few weeks fewer people bought the game than I have Twitter followers, and I don’t have a lot of Twitter followers (and this tells you a lot about how effective marketing via Twitter is).

So far, I have made $0 from the game. That may look like a high number, but consider that it took four years to make — that works out to approximately $0/year. Compared to the $120,000+/year salary of a 15-year veteran in a AAA studio, it begins to look a lot smaller! And then if I go into the hourly breakdown… I don’t have an actual count of hours spent making the game, but there was a lot of crunch that went into it, so I am guesstimating I made about $0/hour. That’s not a lot! And then once you factor in the ~$140,000 I spent paying my contractors and collaborators for the game, you begin to see that maybe it wasn’t, financially speaking, worth it. I guess I will have to wait a bit longer to buy that Juicero.

Joking aside — that’s dismal. And terrifying. At the end of the day it’s astounding that a game that got this much attention from the press, that won awards, that had an all-star cast of writers and performers, that had a bizarre celebrity guest appearance(!) failed this hard. It scares me.

I am going to be OK, at least for the moment. I don’t own a house, so I didn’t mortgage it to ship this game (being a millennial pays off!). I’m only responsible for myself, and I didn’t spend the last of my savings, plus I have marketable skills that I can hopefully use to keep myself fed in the future. I’m glad that I got to pay so many talented people for their skills, and that there were only a few folks getting paid through revenue share (there were a few, and I feel terrible about that). I am also very glad that many of the people who worked on this game are already using that fact and their experience to find other work with teams — if everyone else who worked on this ended up better for doing so, that’s a great reason to have made it.

Tell me about it

I debated taking another AAA job. I considered leaving games, although I am not sure where I’d go. (I recognize that I am incredibly privileged that those are my options.) Instead, I decided to drastically lower my cost of living and move somewhere more affordable than San Francisco. I will try to continue doing independent game development in some form or another, but not depend on making much money from it.

That last part should be worrying for anyone in the indie games industry. WTWTLW could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different. It would be far less polished, it wouldn’t have had the collaborators that it did, I could not have paid people who couldn’t afford to work for revenue share or for the love of the game (thus, I fear, cutting out some of the most valuable voices that this game was a platform for). I could have developed it as a side project, but it took me 4 years as is. Basically, I’m not sure that games like this one can continue to be made in the current market.

That doesn’t mean no one will make experimental games, or work with diverse collaborators. You can just have a look at the front page of Itch.io to see the variety of fantastic projects that are being created every day. I have faith that some projects of small indie studios will continue to be successful — if they can take the risk.

I wish it were easier.

The End

That’s it! Thank you for reading this far, for engaging with the story behind this game, and for playing it. And thanks to all the supporters I and the game have had through the years of development, it has been a wonderful ride. Not one I’m sure I’d take again, offered the chance, but certainly an adventure.

Johnnemann Nordhagen

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