“When we’re finally done with it and have no more updates and put it on the shelf, we want it to be kind of like a masterpiece.”
Trent Kusters is the co-founder and co-director of League Of Geeks, the Melbourne-based development team responsible for Armello. That’s the game he’s talking about. A mesmerising digital board game featuring a dying king, brave heroes and dice rolls. Launched in 2015, Armello has crossed boundaries of gameplay and art design to become one of the most impressive and successful games that the Australian games industry has ever produced.
The world of Armello is immediately compelling, filled with treacherous characters and tense battles draped across a gorgeous yet confined fantasy landscape. The role-playing elements seep into every corner of the game from the stats in a battle to the intricate decks. With its multiplayer, the whole experience is at once comfortably familiar and refreshingly new. As Kusters tells me, the positive reception to the game’s release was expected. Well, sort of. “It’s kind of an arrogant thing to say but we knew for a long time that Armello was going to be successful. We just didn’t know to what degree. We had designed the game to be successful. We didn’t just think “Oh let’s just make a really cool that we like”, we very specifically positioned it and every part of it to do well. We talk about this thing called ‘The Three C’s’ here at League of Geeks. Basically what we try and do with all of our games is to attain Critical, Commercial and Cultural success. It’s a possibility and you can go for all three on a single project. It’s not just about the art or to completely sell something out. There’s blue-sky money to be made in a game that’s incredibly critically amazing and pushes cultural boundaries. There are examples of that like World of Warcraft and Spelunky. That’s what we aspire to. So we’ve been very deliberate about how we’ve positioned the game and how we launched it, how we designed it and the process that we went through. To be honest, it was not as successful as we had hoped but it was successful enough that we were like, well if we complain then that technically makes us arseholes.”
Here’s the thing. As much as Kusters doesn’t want it to be, Armello’s success is unusual in independent games. Increased by a colossal magnitude when you reduce them to just the Australian market. Steam is still considered a Xanadu-like paradise when it comes to publishing your small independent game. It’s a simple route to self-publishing that holds the distinct and proven possibility of huge success. While some games flourish and some disappear forever, the perception of Steam remaining on this indie game throne isn’t going away anytime soon.
Part of that is a result of more than just a great game. Kusters and the team at League of Geeks (about a dozen members plus contractors when required) have been witness to the throw of the dice when it comes to the launch of a new game and what that game can unexpectedly bring back after you release it into the world. But the flip-side of that tantalising dice is the unstoppable glut of daily releases a platform like Steam has been drowning in for years. Trying to make a dent in that crowd is difficult but not impossible. Positioning yourself and staying there is key.
“Steam has a hundred million active users so if you just have an image of your game on the front page, it really converts,” Kusters tells me, from obvious experience. “Back in 2010, the goal was to get in bed with Humble Bundle and a few others. You launch a game and you want get as high as you can on Steam. Then you would have a Summer Sale and you’d get another spike. But what we had on our hands was this game that went out and then didn’t really plateau. We were like, ‘What if we do another update?’ and we did and people came back. Then we did another one and people came back again. Even then, we were thinking about moving people off it and onto another game. Then we did a Midweek Madness Sale and we had more people playing it than ever before. Like, three times as much. That was nine months after launch. The surprising thing came from how long our tail has been and how well the game has gone post-launch.”
League Of Geeks themselves have a long history of perfecting game development, which seems to be part of the reason why Armello is so focused and deliberate. Founded in 2011, the studio is comprised of producers and developers with experience from mobile games to triple-A blockbusters. But coming together under one roof forced them, and Kusters, to rethink how to design, release and support something to keep it alive way beyond the date when most games are long since forgotten and sent back into the black void of Steam.
“A couple of weeks before we were set to launch the game, I was at Valve and I was talking to them about different things and something that I just kept thinking about was that during early access we had done these “branded” major updates. Instead of just saying every couple of days that we changed a font size and then push a build, we would save up all these changes so that at the end of the month we say ‘Here’s the new 0.32 update!’ and have branding and bump the press about it and tease out features and drop everything like a big bomb. That worked really well. The game wasn’t exploding but it was certainly growing. So I said to Valve, just as a hypothetical, what if we just kept doing the early access style of development post-launch. Just act like the game is still in early access. Robin Walker (developer on Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2) put his hand on my shoulder and said “You get it. That’s how you keep a multiplayer environment going”. League of Geeks developers that worked on titles for Warner Brothers and worked in triple-A. Some of the guys shipped Bioshock and then that’s it. But here, once it’s shipped, we can get the chance to continue refining it. A lot of it is responding to the players and we take the collective hum of the community. For example, with one the heroes that released in DLC, they were all like ‘He’s so overpowered, I’m not playing this game until you fix him!’. And we look at the stats and he’s not overpowered but there is a perception there. So we tweak his power a little bit.”
There’s a balance to be made for a games studio once the game is out. Handling updates, fixing long-standing issues and looking towards the future. But once you brush away the Trickery decks and new hero powers, the reality of running a games studio becomes clear. This is a business and it needs to be profitable. Especially when you’ve gone way beyond making a game on your own or between two people. We’re talking about a team of over a dozen who need to make a living. Paying wages, office leases, utilities, development kits and equipment need to factored in. Otherwise, the dream of working as a games developer at this level dies a lonely death. Part of that business is marketing. Another is forward-thinking. However, what League of Geeks quickly realised was sometimes the best course of action was not to jump too early and keep focused on what your initial plans were in the first place. Because the plan pays off. For everyone.
“When Mario Kart comes out, you never hear anyone saying ‘Oh I’ll just wait until it’s twenty bucks’. Mario Kart now, I guarantee if I walked into EB Games, is the same price as when it came out. So there was a lot of chatter around the indie scene about cannibalising ourselves and racing to the bottom. You see, games come out and they’re huge games and then three months later they’re 50% off. I’m like, what the fuck are you doing? With us, it’s been over a year now since launch and we’ll probably only now in the next few weeks, go down to 30% off. 25% is the highest we’ve gone. We didn’t need to go any further because doing that kept us going for months. Right now at this point I would have thought that we would be starting work on a new game. But the team is still on it and we’ve turned a profit every quarter. I think we’re creeping up on handing out three-quarters of a million bucks in profit shares. It’s been a really good year.”
Once you reach this next level of game development, you can realise that these small but confident steps can be just the beginning. Since the launch of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, more attention is being paid to indie games on consoles. The companies send reps to game shows to secure deals for the next calendar year and have the money and the experience to make it happen for the smallest of developers with the biggest ideas. In the last few years, Sony and Xbox have woken up to not only the amazing concepts being delivered by teams that didn’t number in the hundreds but exactly how these groundbreaking games could benefit them and their platform well into the next decade. There’s something about having your game on a bonafide video game console that strikes back to our happy memories of Sega and Nintendo. Which is undeniably priceless.
Everyone making Armello was aware of this. “When you do early access,” Kusters says, “the scariest thing is coming out of that period and making it feel like a real launch. Like, the game’s out but it’s already been out for six months. So one of the big tickets items was to ship on a console. We knew that if we shipped on one, as opposed to two at the same time, that we would get better marketing deals. Obviously because if it’s an exclusive, they will put some muscle behind it. If we could do that, we could feel like we’ve launched because it would be the first time it’s ever come to a console. Then we would have the full support of Sony or Microsoft behind us. We spent a day at Microsoft in Seattle with the ID@Xbox team. There were 60 or 80 other independent developers in the room and the team from Microsoft spent the day telling everyone how to get the most out of the platform. It works for them because what indie games do is diversify a platform’s portfolio. A Call of Duty map pack is going to make more money than every small game combined but what it does by having a nice diverse line up of indie games is that it ships consoles. It adds to their platform and that’s why they still care about exclusivity. It’s beer change for them to fund some of these indie games. They throw them a couple hundred thousand and that’s their wage for like, four years.”
“We knew that controls on console wouldn’t be an issue. We made sure that it felt right. The big thing is the multiplayer connectivity. Talking to Xbox Live and talking to the Playstation servers and making sure that it all works. If you work with Steam, you just have a back-end that you run. You have all your own stuff, there’s documentation everywhere for it. It’s very straightforward and it goes worldwide. But Playstation and Xbox are big ships and it takes a long time for them to turn around. The infrastructure that you’re dealing with was designed, in principle, ten or twenty years ago when there were games built for retail-driven platforms with divisions like NTSC and PAL. That’s why you sill have things like American developers dealing with SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America) whereas Australians deal with SCEE (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) because we fall into the PAL region. These are the weird things navigating as an independent developer. But the stuff that we’ve proven with League of Geeks – I don’t want that to just be an anomaly. I would love to see others distributing the wealth and lifting others up in games. Armello is the gift that keeps on giving. We’re in a really special position where we just really love working on it and that’s a really rare thing.”
The future for League Of Geeks will soon see them put Armello on the shelf for good and move onto a new game. Whatever that may be, this team have proven that they are ready to take their studio to even greater heights. All while staying true to what they want to achieve in art, storytelling and game design. As innovative and refreshing as Armello turned out to be, it feels like the first step from an outsider’s perspective. The way Kusters and the rest of this development team are heading, it’s obvious they are only just getting started and have learned a valuable lesson that saw them named Studio Of The Year by the Australian Game Developers Awards the day after this interview. The lesson is: stick to the plan.