AI War Devs In Financial Difficulty, Layoffs Imminent

Arcen Games, developers of AI War and most recently Starward Rogue, are going to let go almost all their staff this coming Monday. Company founder Chris Park explained in a post on Arcen’s site that that sales of their latest game had been much lower than expected and that sales of their back catalogue had dried up, perhaps as a result of changes to Steam over the past year.

The problems began when the company’s 4X game, Stars Beyond Reach, took longer to develop than intended. The team switched instead to a project they could finish more quickly, Starward Rogue, which was released on January 22nd. Because of the delays, the game needed sell well in order to recoup costs and repay loans. That hasn’t happened – and to make matters worse, sales of Arcen’s other games began to slow last summer. The post explains:

“…all this time spent in extra development more than doubled the cost of making [Stars Beyond Reach], and in the meantime our steady stream of income from our 2014-and-before titles started to dry up. The Steam store changed a lot, and periodic discount sales — as well as the larger store-wide sales — were no longer the huge windfalls they once had been. Our non-discount-period sales were up because of the new changes, so that was good. But the promotional income was gutted, and that was our main source of income. So we started bleeding money.

[…]

“What happened, instead, was our back catalog except for AI War and TLF all pretty much stopped earning any money around mid-2015 when some of the Steam store changes happened. And our ability to gain substantial income from periodic promotions disappeared, so we stopped having “on months and off months” and pretty much just shifted to “off months.””

It sounds as if the Steam store changes provided an increase to day-to-day sales – “non-discount-period sales” – but that the revenue was still tiny, and therefore not enough to counter the far larger decrease in money made from sales. This put extra pressure on the release of Starward Rogue, but the post later explains:

“…unfortunately, Starward Rogue has seen financially the worst launch for us except for Tidalis and Shattered Haven. Those two did worse (much worse), but we were not as large at that point. […] Anyway, Starward: we have mostly hung out in the 200s instead of in the teens, and mostly in the 250s at that, top-seller-chart-wise. We peaked, briefly, at #98. That lasted under 3 hours. Our clickthrough rate on our marketing run was over double the store-wide average, but it still ended early compared to what happened with TLF. I’m not sure why that was, but we were still getting other kinds of featuring, so there were some solid hits coming in.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Arcen had similar problems back in 2010. At the time, a slump in sales of AI War and the negative response to Tidalis put the company on the verge of bankruptcy. They made that public, their fans rallied around them, and the extra word of mouth and donations helped them pull out of the tailspin and keep making games. This new post is made in part with the hope that the same will happen again, although this time there’s not a risk of the company disappearing completely.

While changes to Steam might be partly the cause, Park is clear that the tough financial situation has happened as a result of decisions he made and accepts responsibility for the mistakes. He’s also clear about their future plans, which involve post-release support for Starward Rogue, finishing and releasing Stars Beyond Reach before the summer, and starting work on a new project he can complete on his own.

Arcen make interesting games which forge ahead into new design territory, but which are often flawed and broken and almost always ugly. I haven’t played Starward Rogue, but I’d be sad if they were no longer around. Adam summed it up when he wrote about curious god game Skyward Collapse a few months back:

“I love Skyward Collapse because, like so many Arcen games, it runs with an idea and doesn’t stop until it finds the extremes of that idea. It has flaws, namely a slow and sometimes repetitive early game, but there’s nothing else quite like it.”

From this site

67 Comments

  1. trjp says:

    Arcen are an interesting developer – they churn-out material at quite a rate but it tends to be very ‘niche’

    Tidalis is a WEIRD thing – it’s a puzzle game so freeform that you can literally make it into anything you want. Problem is, I don’t know what I’d want to do that – puzzles should be a series of challenges, not “just do what the hell you like” ;0

    Also – I knew about and was waiting for The Last Federation but this latest game caught my by surprise (and I keep up with stuff more than most) – which isn’t the way you release games if you want them to sell…

    • Ooops says:

      Tidalis had a sizeable story mode to do just that, a series of challenges. If you didn’t play attention to the actual story, it was quite excellent.

      • trjp says:

        I seem to remember it was very, very, very bizarre – and had a difficulty curve ‘all over the place’ – but memory may have faded

        OK, some puzzle games do ‘weird’ (I remember one Japanese Arcade puzzle which had a girl with snot running out of her nose in the background!!) but…

        • Premium User Badge

          tigerfort says:

          The difficulty curve did spike really badly, but it also let you skip a level if you’d failed it a couple of times (and go back later, once you had a better grasp of how to do stuff), so at least you didn’t get permanently stranded on the early peaks.

    • Shuck says:

      They are consistently interesting – and flawed. I’ve always thought that the only thing that stopped them from releasing great games was a lack of resources (that has also necessitated a quick output for their games).

    • Will the wtf says:

      Its neiche, but it was a reliable neiche. I think counter to common sense, shooting for popular appeal is actually the worst policy. Its the most competitive space in games, a damn cruel lottery. Zach of Zachtronics said as much after their mroe generic Steampunk turn based mech thing. It was their least profitable development aswell. And following that up with the genuine incredible obscurity of assembly code game TIS-100 actually brought much better financial returns. Its all in an interview on Gamasutra I think.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    Aw man, that’s terrible. I was under the impression The Last Federation had done pretty well for them.

    • bambusek says:

      It did. TLF is their second most successful game (after AI War), but what they got from it, they put into Stars Beyond Reach that is still in development. Starward Rogue was an emergency project, to release something while waiting for November Release storm to quiet down. What they didn’t predicted, what pretty much no one predicted, back then is that January will not be quiet. Deserts of Kharak were not announced yet, Rise of the Tomb Raider was, but without set date, the same goes for Darkest Dungeon.

      What I don’t understand is why Arcen limited Starward Rogue’s availability. You can’t get it anywhere but Steam and Humble Store. Why not GOG? Why not Gamersgate?

      • bambusek says:

        Oh, just found out that GOG rejected Starward Rogue :( Yet another questionable decision of GOG Staff, they seems to made a lot of them recently…

  3. Rack says:

    The world seems to be getting ever harder for developers to survive in, and it’s unlikely to improve. With games getting better, longer and cheaper all the time there’s just no need to spend money nowadays.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Everyone wants to make computer games, it makes for a VERY competitive space. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2016 and 2017 sees a little bit of die back in the ecosystem.

  4. Infinitron says:

    The Indiepocalypse was real after all?

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      One company’s decline after making a series of crappy games is not an indicator of some industry-wide trend.

      There’s always, always room for something great and unique. Nobody cares when you make things that aren’t interesting, but that’s how it’s always been.

      • Rujasu says:

        Where does the “series of crappy games” part apply here, if both of their latest releases have been positively received?

      • Premium User Badge

        Kryzn says:

        In fact, they did/do make things that are , if nothing else, very interesting. But interesting often meant rather niche, as well, which does not seem to translate to financial success.

      • Vacuity729 says:

        Starward Rogue is a fantastic game. I bought it at the weekend and have been tied to it in my gaming time ever since.

      • bambusek says:

        Arcen games are far away from being crappy. What brought this on them was going too ambitious with Stars Beyond Reach.

      • AlexClockwork says:

        You don’t really know Arcen, do you? I mean, you may not like their games, as they are difficult to get into, but “uninteresting” is SO obviously not the right way to describe their games, which have been quite positively received too.

  5. mechabuddha says:

    Park is clear that the tough financial situation has happened as a result of decisions he made and accepts responsibility for the mistakes…[is] going to let go almost all their staff this coming Monday.

    Lovely day for the people losing their jobs. Hopefully, they can find something else soon.

    • Ooops says:

      I think it’s pretty brave to admit responsibility for one’s failures.

      It’s hard enough to lose your job, but it’s even worse if your boss is making excuses.

  6. Ooops says:

    I’ve only played Tidalis, but that was a great puzzle game (except for the awful story). I don’t know why that game would fail so hard to sell.

  7. Lord Byte says:

    To be honest I wasn’t a fan of AI war or Skyward Collapse but I hadn’t even heard or seen the games mentioned above (Last Federation and Starward Rogue), and I have amassed quite te collection of games and these just passed by my radar (they’re definitely my cup of tea).
    Very strange… (Did they get reviewed here?)

    • C0llic says:

      They did. RPS typically covers all of their stuff. I’m sad to see they’re in financial difficulty, but I have to be honest. The only game of theirs I ever bought and truly interested me was AI war.

      Since AI war they’ve been more miss than hit as far as my tastes go, but they do dare to try different things. So this isn’t a thing to feel good about obviously. I really think the fact their games are very often quite ugly has been quite a big negative influence on their sales. That’s subjective opinion of course, but I see that same sentiment repeated a lot, so I know I’m not alone.

      This is a shame, and I wish them all the best.

      • AlexClockwork says:

        I saw the brilliance in AI War, but wasn’t quite my cup of tea. Didn’t really like Skyward Collapse, but then loved The Last Federation. They are incredibly original, so I really appreciate what they do. Once one of their games clicks with you, it’s amazing. If it doesn’t happen… Well, at least you get to see some nice design.

  8. Llewyn says:

    That’s a shame. I like Arcen, even though I don’t much like most of their games (Bionic Dues excepted). We need companies that are willing to do things differently, and Arcen certainly do that!

    • vahnn says:

      Bionic Dues is the one I’ve spent the most time on! That and The Last Federation.

  9. Hobbes says:

    Some developers deserve worse fates than this, Arcen deserves better, far better. Arcen has been one of those few developers that really make DIFFERENT games, they try. Even when they fail, they try, and they make original things. They may not always work out how we hope, but at least they try damnit.

    :(

    I am crossing paws and whiskers here. Arcen need to pull through, we need Arcen. Whether the mainstream really understand it or not, Arcen come up with great ideas, sometimes those ideas might get picked up on and germinate elsewhere. A.I. War has been a talking point in asymetric 4X for quite some time.

    If I was fully fit, I’d want to work for Arcen, even though I’m not, I’d gladly volunteer spare time just throwing ideas and time their way, because we need developers like Arcen, like Vertigo. Good little developers, we need them to live.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Aye, Arcen is brilliant. They are constantly making stuff which is, if not that great per se, always well worth playing if you’re in the right niche, or interesting from afar.

      I have a lot of respect for people who just make interesting stuff, even if it doesn’t wind up fantastic (but always trying to make it the best it can be). And they have managed to catch lightning on a few occasions, which speaks to the efficacy of the strategy (I guess…not financially, but for making good games).

    • Vacuity729 says:

      “If I was fully fit, I’d want to work for Arcen, even though I’m not, I’d gladly volunteer spare time just throwing ideas and time their way, ”

      If you’re in any way serious about that kind of statement, you might want to look at the response posts on Arcen’s forum (link to arcengames.com) by a user called Misery who did contract work on Starward Rogue. With the right company, it might be a real option.

      • Hobbes says:

        I can assure you, I am deadly serious on such matters. My physical health however has been degenerating over the last decade, so how much actual work I can put in is a bit of a problem, I do still have a decently sharp mind and I can provide an awful lot of ideas and shaping.

        I’ll trundle over to the Arcen forums, see what they need and see where I might be of use.

        • Vacuity729 says:

          Starward Rogue has been designed to be highly moddable, and there’s some system in place whereby community-made material can/will be/is incorporated into the game-proper, so if you wanted to try making something new and submitting it, it would be a good way to spend your spare time constructively, a way to learn new things, as well as contributing both to Arcen and to the enjoyment of me all the players.

  10. froz says:

    “Arcen make interesting games which forge ahead into new design territory, but which are often flawed and broken and almost always ugly”

    I have to say it’s true, but I can’t quite understand, why. I recently checked and 2/6 of their staff are graphic artists. I think that’s quite typical ratio for indy games, right? Or even more often the artist is also a programmer, which was not the case here.

    Anyway, the whole situation is really a shame. While I didn’t get AI wars, as it’s not quite my thing (I tryed demo), I also tried Skyward Collapse and found it a devastatingly broken gem; I recently got Bionic Dues (for free…) which was really nice and polished (though also flawed in some ways, but not much). I liked it so much that when I finished it, I immidiatelly went and got The Last Federation. Which is again polished game full of new ideas. I don’t know how they do it. However, I also found that it’s again not really to my taste.

    I really wish them all best, I think without them the game industry would loose a lot, even though many of their games are somehow… lacking. I always have a feeling that a little more, maybe the next one and they would have real classic.

    Oh, just imagine if those guys got their hands on the next Total War project. Imagine all those fantastic, creative new design mechanics instead of getting the same game with AI broken in new ways…

  11. Preciousgollum says:

    There are simply too many games – the bubble is shrinking/bursting.

    I have AI War and probably most of the expansions as an incidental part of humble bundle – never got around to playing them because there isn’t enough time to learn it or get involved in the communities.

  12. RuySan says:

    I’m really enjoying Starward Rogue. Yes, it’s mainly a Binding of Isaac clone, and probably the least original of Arcen’s games, but it still throws some curveballs that make it worth it.

    It’s at 25% right now.

    • KDR_11k says:

      I think the 25% is only for owners of TLF, others only get 10%.

      • bambusek says:

        I own The Last Federation on GOG, but not on Steam. Starward Rogue I bought on Steam, still with -25%. So probably owning any Arcen game is enough.

    • bambusek says:

      Well, they made it in 2-3 months, so it is understandably that it is not especially innovative.

    • yonsito says:

      It’s great, isn’t it?
      Bought it after reading this because I like the company. But it’s really enjoyable.

  13. shadow9d9 says:

    The last Federation had great potential, but like most of their games, it sounded great on paper, but was a terrible game. I like supporting them, but every game outside of ai war has been a letdown.

  14. jeeger says:

    Man, and here I was looking forward to Stars Beyond Reach. I’m hoping that they can finish that at least, and maybe they’ll make some money to rehire some people.

    And Arcen’ll probably learn some hard lessons from this calamity, which hopefully will make it less likely to happen again.

  15. malkav11 says:

    FWIW, describing any game as “bullet hell” makes me seriously question if I want to own it even if it would otherwise be up my alley (c.f. Undertale’s combat, Starward Rogue).

    • RedViv says:

      You can also use a chassis which pauses time while you do not move or fire. That one might be something for you.

    • Vacuity729 says:

      If you use the Redshift mech it’s essentially turn-based, which turns the bullet hell thing on its head.
      And as a person who’s not by any definition young, and grew up mostly playing turn-based strategy games, RPGs and so forth it’s an awesome way to play.

    • KDR_11k says:

      I don’t think that’s truly a problem though. This game does indeed have slow weaving through bullet patterns, i.e. the core gameplay of a bullet hell game. So you were informed correctly and if it’s not your taste then it’s good you avoided the game.

      • malkav11 says:

        Sure, for me that’s a good outcome. But that sort of reaction can’t be good for sales.

  16. drplote says:

    I read the entire blog post but I’m still unclear what changed about the Steam store in 2015 that he is partially attributing these problems to. Does anyone have an answer?

    • Archonsod says:

      ” periodic discount sales — as well as the larger store-wide sales — were no longer the huge windfalls they once had been. Our non-discount-period sales were up because of the new changes, so that was good. But the promotional income was gutted, and that was our main source of income. ”

      Or in other words the end of the flash deals and similar during the sales. Although I suspect the issue isn’t so much the removal of the deals as it is the loss of front page exposure as a result. Then again, he does compare the number of people wishlisting vs buying, so it could just be that their games didn’t hit the impulse buy sweet spot as a result.

  17. rustybroomhandle says:

    This is a studio worth rallying to save. They try different things, and while the results are not always for everyone, it’s this sort of thing that keeps the medium from stagnating.

    If everyone who reads this buys just one Arcen game at full price, it might buy them a month.

  18. DingDongDaddio says:

    Unfortunate. I keep my eye on these guys a bit just because they have some interesting ideas, but I just can’t buy any. If you’re going to start with layoffs, get rid of your art team. The games these guys make are some of the least aesthetically pleasing things I’ve seen in ages. I look at Tidalis and I’m shocked at how you could make a puzzle game this ugly. Shattered Haven manages to look less professional than an RPGMaker title. A Valley Without Wind just takes the cake… what a hideous mess. Honestly, these games would benefit greatly from just having lo-fi pixel graphics or something they are capable of doing.

    • Vacuity729 says:

      It’s worth bearing in mind that a lot of their games were made *before* they really had an art team! As a result, their most recent games are pretty good-looking compared to their older stuff. Starward Rogue is, if not a beautiful game, a pretty good-looking one.

  19. Method says:

    The article never mentions what the “changes to steam” were.

  20. Premium User Badge

    Syt says:

    Shame to see them in such problems. I’ve only ever played TLF from them after Totalbiscuit praised it a fair bit, and I was looking forward to Stars Beyond Reach because the theme appeals to me.

    But I feel many comments here kind of reflect the devs’ problem: “Interesting games, but I only like game X”/”Interesting games, but none of them were for me.”

    It seems that despite their innovative ideas they fail to develop them in a way to gain mass market appeal. I’m generally in favor of indie devs being indie, but this might be a studio that would benefit from having a publisher to work with them, maybe Paradox or UbiSoft who have a bit of history of giving dev with off beat ideas a chance.

  21. Thurgret says:

    I’m a usually silent part of Arcen’s fanbase – of AI War especially. I was/am looking forward to Stars Beyond Reach, and assumed its delay was because they had the spare cash to focus on a side-project. Whoops.

    Why bullet hell, though? Well, bullet hell or potentially finicky rogue-like, with the variant of it where time pauses. It’s not what I’d go looking for from an Arcen game, and not being a fan of the genre, I’m not sure what I’d get out of it that I wouldn’t get out of half an hour with some free game, to be quite painfully honest.

    I might buy it anyway, just as some small show of support. Or go back a bit and buy (or re-buy) an older game.

    Here’s an unlikely to be used idea: I’d shell out money without batting a lid for another AI War mini-expansion like Children of Neinzul.

  22. Cross says:

    I’m split on Arcen (Though it is always terrible to hear of layoffs). I’ve tried a lot of their games, never liked any of them, but found the concepts to be supremely interesting.

    • RobertB says:

      I want to love Arcen for a lot of reasons. They’re incredibly creative, they engage a lot with the community, they seem fanatically devoted to their customers. Unfortunately, it seems like there is something every so slightly broken in how their creativity and talent gets turned into actual games. Everything is slightly wonky looking and the mechanics are all ludicrously complex in ways that mostly seem to not matter (but maybe they do, who knows?). I think you would see better games and more enduring success if Park was the guy coming up with the wild ideas and he has a partner (or a boss?) shaping them into fun.

      I hope the company and its laid-off team members get back on their feet with as little pain as possible though.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I’ll still take him over most of the “if only they had a producer” types, since he at least delivers his crazy, overcomplicated, experimental visions.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        This is my thoughts. They really seem like a team in need of some better resources and a publisher to guide them closer to marketability. You can have crazy and new and interesting ideas and polish them into good games too.

  23. tsff22 says:

    Damn. I’m a HUGE fan of AVWW, Bionic Dues and Starbound Rogue and keep meaning to get into Last Federation. This is terrible news. D=

  24. Kaeoschassis says:

    Well that’s upsetting news. I’ve not bought everything Arcen have put out, but AI War, Bionic Dues and TLF have all eaten up an enormous amount of my time and I certainly haven’t ever regretted throwing money at them. Like most people, I definitely appreciate their creativity and originality (and occasional complete insanity), but oddly I don’t really see the glaring flaws that a lot of others do. Their games are niche as hell, sure, but they seem to me to be solid and a hell of a lot of fun. Also nowhere near as ugly as people always say – ESPECIALLY The Last Federation, which was beautiful.

    I was going to grab some games tonight anyway, guess I’ll make one of them Starward Rogue. It’s not much, but it’s all I can really do.

    I sure hope things work out for everyone involved.

  25. Sandepande says:

    Bought Starward Rogue. I was on the fence about it, but happily the decision was made for me.

  26. fuggles says:

    The problem would seem to be, as demonstrated by RPS, that these guys are nearly unfailingly called “AI WAR DEVS” – clearly nothing else they have done has caught the imagination. I am tempted to buy it now though, maybe I”ll like it more this time, before it’s removed from sale.

  27. lomaxgnome says:

    Their entire back catalog has been heavily bundled at this point, including most of their most recent games (some within months of release). At a certain point I think that would have had to impact their Steam sales as much as any of Steam’s structure changes have. And if anything I’d bet that heavy bundling propped them up financially for a while, and may be what has dried up.

  28. lordfrikk says:

    It’s also a shame the game hasn’t even been reviewed here, especially since it’s one of their best to date. I guess it’s partly due to them being really late with sending out review copies and RPS staff having enough work on their hands but still I’d like to see their opinion on it.

  29. Premium User Badge

    JiminyJickers says:

    Shame, I really like most of Arcen games. I own nearly all of them, some just didn’t click with me at the time.

    I was eagerly waiting for Stars Beyond Reach, didn’t even know that the side/alternative project Starward Rogue was released.

    I’m going to buy Starward Rogue to support these guys. Hopefully they can recover.

  30. ElElegante says:

    So, after reading this I went to their website to buy a couple of games that had been on my wishlist for a while. Turns out, I already had one of the purchases, the Betrayed Hope expansion for Last Federation. The Steam key is 7Y0MK-RATX2-VFFF3, if anyone wants it. Note that you need the main game or it won’t to you any good!