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Post Mortem: Recettear

Recettear, o Recettear. The out-of-nowhere translation of EasyGameStation's Japanese indie shopkeeping/dungeoneering hybrid has done pretty well for itself, recently passing 100,000 sales with barely a whiff of marketing or promotion. While that's just 10% of Minecraft's paying userbase, it does proves that you don't need to go mega-viral to make the creation and selling of indie games a plausible career choice. Given that milestone and given the recent announcement that Chantelise will be US translat-o-developers Carpe Fulgur's next project, it seemed like a good time to chat to the team's Andrew Dice about what happened, what he expected to happen, more about Chantelise's when and why, and what game(s) they're hoping to turn their attention to next. Go words!

RPS - Obvious but important question: how did you expect Recettear to pan out, from a commercial point of view, and what did happen?

Andrew Dice - The realistic expectation was that we'd sell something on the order of ten thousand copies in six months, and that was toward the "optimistic" end of the scale. We had a lot of reasons for suspecting this kind of number: we were a brand new company nobody had ever heard of, thus there was no pre-existing confidence in us, our product didn't have any real promotional material beforehand, it was Japanese and therefore Weird in the minds of potential customers (and yes, Japanese games do often struggle in the Western market on principle a bit these days), and relatedly, the smallish group of people who follow indie games from Japan already are notorious for engaging in piracy (because there was no real way to get content otherwise), and the game had been out for a few years already. We anticipated a "piracy rate" of between 95% and 98%. Most non-online PC games have a piracy rate somewhere between 50% and 80%.

This might seem pretty pessimistic, but we knew from experience and watching the industry that this would be a hard road to hoe; there's a reason both Robin and I were looking for "established" jobs before trying this as a last resort. We'd read about things like how The Oil Blue did, and we knew that, realistically, we couldn't expect to sell many copies, especially if we didn't get on Steam. So our expectations were low - if we could get 10,000 copies, we'd be able to continue, at least a bit. We expected less, though, and for the game to be nothing more than a portfolio piece.

Instead, of course, we broke six-figure sales during Christmas. I'll admit I had one or two "la-dee-da, head in the sky" moments where I thought "gee, wouldn't it be cool if we sold a hundred thousand copies of this videogame" but I immediately pulled myself back down to Earth because it was silly. You can literally count on both hands - without using all your fingers - the number of "franchises" (that is, individual games or games that became series) from Japan that've broken six-figures for the first time in the previous decade. It basically doesn't happen anymore, and we were certain it wouldn't happen to an obscure indie game, even with great results from Steam. That Recettear managed it - in the face of other franchises, from various countries, struggling - is still kind of staggering.

Two things contributed, I think. First and foremost was the demo version of the game. The entire idea of coming out with the demo first was basically taking a page out of the old id Software/Epic Megagames "shareware" days (the era I first started cutting my PC gaming teeth in, actually) of coming out with a strong product demonstration to get attention and to tempt people into buying the game by giving them a representative portion of it, and boy howdy, that has worked for us. While it's a little hard to get perfectly accurate inforation at this point (with the demo available in so many places), but data from Steam and elsewhere points to the demo having a coversion rate of around forty percent. If you read the linked Oil Blue article from earlier, you'll know that forty perfect is a completely ridiculous number for this sort of thing. Most game demos are lucky to manage 10% or higher. Clearly we hit the nail on the head with that demo, and the plan is to continue to provide such demos for future products - if a client doesn't have such a demo already, we're going to encourage them to make one.

Second was the great word of mouth we got from basically everywhere. I know some people accused us of going "viral", but the only places we posted were on SomethingAwful, which is where Robin and I first met online, and I sometimes posted on NeoGAF, Penny Arcade and RPGamer, and always under my SpaceDrake nom de guerre. Everywhere else? That wasn't us. We submitted the game for review consideration far and wide (hint to other indie developers: do this, send your game to as many places as you can) but all the discussion and good buzz was generated purely by people liking the demo and the game. Eventually it reached a kind of critical mass, seemingly, and we just kept getting more and more people talking about it.

For the record, as of now we're a sniff away from 110,000 copies sold across all platforms, although this isn't the kind of "milestone" we'd really trumpet on the main site. We are expecting sales to die down at some point, though, since the game does have to have some kind of market cap and I suspect we're very rapidly approaching it.

RPS - You're going full-time as a result, aren't you? What are the practicalities there -how many people, how much breathing room have you got before you need to get another game out, and how will it affect your development of the next project?

Andrew Dice - We are, indeed, going full-time now. At this point we need only release a couple of games of even a quarter of Recettear's magnitude of success to see us comfortably deep into 2012. We aren't expanding the staff just yet - boy, do we get a lot of emails about this - mostly because the volume of potential work hasn't yet reached the point where we'd actually need more staff members. In fact, I've admittedly been faffing about a bit on our current project over the holidays and we still plan on having it out relatively soon, with lots of room to spare in the rest of the year for other projects. There's just no need for more staff yet - we can't pay people to do nothing, after all - but if or when we need people, we'll be sure and advertise it.

At our current burn rate, we've got enough money to pay everyone all the way to January 2012, and that assumes Recettear makes us NO money from this point on. Once we get another project or two out the door, we'll take stock of the situation again, but at the very least we're doing extremely well financially. And a small part of the money is going to go toward getting me moved out to the west coast so that Robin and I are in the same timezone. That said, our next project is actually not as text-heavy as Recettear was, so it'll still be rather quick all told.

RPS - How did translating/republising Recettear go? Was it a straightforward project, or where you regularly encountering weird-ass stuff you hadn't banked on?

Andrew Dice - Well, the entire concept was a bit "weird-ass" - common wisdom had said that what we did wasn't really possible, taking an independent Japanese game and releasing it onto the wilds of the American Internet. That said, we had a pretty good idea of the way the process worked when we began the project, so there weren't any truly huge surprises waiting for us. About the only thing that dragged on longer than I would've liked was work on the item list. A whole heap of factors contributed to this, from the item list's staggering size to the fact that it wasn't rigged for plurals initially (plurals as we know them not existing in Japanese) to delays caused by weather in the places Robin and I live in. The actual "publication" bit, getting distributors to nibble, took a bit longer than I would have hoped as long as was probably realistic for a new company with an unproven product. All in all, it went very well and smoothly - and, sadly, a bit boringly for the purposes of this interview.

RPS - What's the key stuff you've learned during the process? And what would you do differently if you could do it again?

Andrew Dice -The main thing I've learned is confidence. All throughout the process of working on Recettear's script, I was afraid there'd be backlash against any "changes" I made to the script. Our presumed core audience, mind, was going to include people who were already familiar with the game and I assumed that they'd pick through the script, line by line, looking for places I'd "failed". I was actually mentally prepared for a huge backlash telling me I was a terrible editor.

With only a tiny number of exceptions, though (and only one who had any "problems" with the script) everyone who played the game seemed to love the English script. It was actually the single-most consistently complimented part of the game; even people who didn't really "click" with the game otherwise loved the script itself. So I've learned to have a bit more confidence that I know what I'm doing and that I know how to write an appealing script. That's not a carte blanche to start messing with scripts needlessly, mind, but I can go at future projects with a bit more confidence.

Now, what we'd do differently? Above all else, EXPLAIN THE DAMN KEYBOARD CONTROLS. This was our single biggest screw-up in the game and it's the one that keeps me awake at night, wondering how many sales we lost due to this. The number one email in our support inbox is "the game doesn't work! I press buttons and nothing happens!" when it turns out they didn't check the config utility for the controls and didn't grok that "z" was the main action button... and, in retrospect, why should they? It's been a standard setup in JAPAN for years and years, but it's unknown here. That was a serious screw-up, and it'll thankfully be fixed in Chantelise on various levels. A bit late to salvage it in Recettear, unfortunately.

RPS - Some of the more, ah, set in their ways RPS commenters observed that the game's art style meant they outright refused to play it. Did you encounter this mentality in terms of promoting the game, and to what extent might it have affected success?

Andrew Dice - Oh goodness yes. As I pointed out above, Japanese games these days operate under a kind of pall these days - there's a lot of people who look at the art and country of origin and whatnot, identify it as FOREIGN and therefore STRANGE and DISGUSTING and they won't play it just based on that, even if they'd enjoy it otherwise. It's the same kind of logic that's been used to... well, do a lot of things that are a bit outside the scope of an interview on RPS. We didn't encounter it when talking to the media, but the reaction was a common enough sight on various parts of the Internet. We'd anticipated it so it didn't sting too badly, but it was still a bit sad.

As far as how it affected success goes, it's hard to say. I mean, it's hard to complain in any way about selling one hundred thousand goddamned copies of a game, regardless of situation. On the other hand, we see Western-developed games like Super Meat Boy, Monday Night Combat or Amnesia, which are all thoroughly excellent games, by the by, ahead of us consistently in the weekly sales charts and we do have to wonder, a little, just how many people are passing us up due to the "eww, Japan" factor. Still, though: with 100,000 copies sold, obviously it isn't that many people, and we hardly have any room to complain!

RPS - How has it worked out for Easy Game Station? A few people seemed to be moaning that they hadn't gotten the credit/renumeration they deserved - while I personally have no idea whether that's anything more than idle speculation, is there anything to it or are EGS pretty happy about how it all turned out?

Andrew Dice - EGS is pretty much thrilled with how things turned out. I actually haven't seen much of any carping about EGS not getting proper credit - that's actually a concern of ours and we do try to bring their names up wherever possible - but as far as "not getting enough renumeration" goes, I'll point out again what I said in my blogpost: EGS gets the largest cut of each retail sale out of everyone involved. This was, in fact, part of our deal with them, making sure that they got the largest slice of the pie. Which they completely deserve, mind you. Obviously NDAs and the like prevent me from throwing around exact numbers here, but EGS gets plenty of money from each sale and we've made them asubstantial amount of money. So yeah, they're thrilled with the way things are going and are eager to keep working with us.

RPS - How successful have you been in terms of getting the media to take notice? Have you observed any sneery or dismissive attitudes towards PC and/or indie gaming from anywhere?

Andrew Dice - It's funny. We haven't gotten any real sneering - I think we got one sarcastic email reply that might've been a sneer, but it's hard to tell on the Internet - but there are some sites that just haven't paid any attention to us, at all, even after we contacted them multiple times. I'll be professional and not name names directly, but a few of the places that never seemed to want to talk to us struck me as odd because they're otherwise supposed to cover "our kind" of software, the indie underground or otherwise offbeat stuff, and a few places just seem to want to pretend we don't exist at all.

In general, though, the media has been great. We got a lot of attention from "specialty" sites like RPS (with its PC focus), RPGamer and RPGFan (with their RPG focus) and DIYGamer and (with the indie focus). That's another hint to aspiring new developers or publishers: go for the focused sites. They'll be happy to report on stuff, so long as you have a product worth reporting on. It was that initial burst of attention that really began to propel the game forward toward success, so we're very happy with the way things turned out. I just wish a few other places would, you know, return my emails, if nothing else.

RPS - Can you give any hints as to what your next game is? And is the studio going to remain focused on third-party Japanese titles or seek to branch out?

Andrew Dice - Well, obviously we've announced our next title already, Chantelise. It's a bit of an older title from EGS, but it's still an excellent dungeon-crawler and it deserves a release in the States and beyond. We actually have full, worldwide rights to it, the European rights passing from DHM Interactive (who closed down recently) to us. Yes, for our French fans, we know this begs the obvious question, and the answer is: we don't yet know if we'll include the French version of Chantelise in our release of the game, but it's rather unlikely at this point. So we'll be getting it out there, hopefully on Steam, for everyone to enjoy some time during the first half of this year. Probably the first quarter, but if I know anything about this industry it's don't give firm dates until a week before that firm date.

In general we're going to remain focused on Japanese titles for now, since that's what we're set up to work on. We have a few more titles we're looking at - Robin was at Comiket (the big Japanese indie shindig) late last month and brought home a few candidates for release. We're also rather keen to work on Territoire, EGS' upcoming multiplayer-enabled strategy gamem which was originally going to come out at this past Comiket, but EGS has pushed the game back a bit further to work on the game even more now that money is far less of an object, but obviously it's a bit early to actually talk about that until the game is ready to go in Japan, so that's a later-this-year thing at the earliest. There's also a kind of side-scrolling, sort of Metroid-or-Zelda-2-esque multi-party-member thing called Fortune Summoners that we've been looking at (RPS first here, folks!) It's even cuter than Recettear, to be sure, but the gameplay is solid and interesting. especially once you pick up all the party members, and the 2D graphics are gorgeous.

This one's a bit of a pickle, though, because we're actually having a devil of a time reaching Lizsoft, the team behind the game. Their lead man, a dude who goes by the nom de guerre MEL, hasn't answered our queries and he also wasn't at Comiket, which takes things from "kinda frustrating" to "rather worrying"; we don't even know if he and the rest of Lizsoft are properly in business anymore. So if any of our more Japan-savvy RPS readers know of a surefire way of getting in touch with Lizsoft, we'd, ah, appreciate it.

We do have a couple other ideas we're pursuing, but those are things we really can't talk about just yet, I'm afraid. It's enough to say that, should everything come together, we definitely have enough work to keep us busy for the entire year. And after that... well, in this business you don't want to look TOO far ahead, right?

RPS: A few of those pesky commenters of ours have claimed that Chantelise isn't as exciting a prospect for them as Recettear was. Should they have such concerns, or are you pretty confident that Chantelise can knock it out of the park in the same way?

Andrew Dice - Well, naturally I should be bullish and say that all of our games will be equal successes and are all heartbreaking works of staggering genius which everyone should play, forever. In the interest of brutal RPS honesty, however, I'll admit that Chantelise isn't quite as wildly innovative as Recettear was. It's "just" a well-put-together third-person adventure game and doesn't have any wildly new mechanics like Recettear had with the shop. Although the magic system is fairly cool - we'll talk more about that when we're closer to the release and have a demo out and whatnot. It does re-use a few graphical assets from Recettear (or, rather, the other way around, as Chantelise was produced first in Japan) but by and large it's all new material and while it isn't 'high-def' - the game's designed to run on a GeForce 2, for crying out loud - there are some environments and scenes that I'm confident will impress.

It's worth pointing out, perhaps, that since the game isn't as "big" as Recettear, we are going to be asking less for it, we're just not sure how much less yet. It'll still be a fair price, however.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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