The Stanley Parable creators are struggling with success, and why the best thing you can buy is time
“We never really planned for this level of success, we knew about how much money we needed the game to make in total to continue doing this kind of work full time, and in three days we made about five times that,” Galactic Café’s Davey Wreden told the Report.
The Stanley Parable began life as a Half-Life 2 mod, and has since been expanded into a full game, being sold for $15 on Steam. It’s the sort of thing that rarely finds mainstream success, but the game has sold over 100,000 copies since its release last Thursday, leading Wreden to write an honest, often introspective blog post about what that success means for him and the team behind the game.
The idea that success can be just as hard to process as failure is rarely talked about in creative fields, you often receive notes from others saying they’d be more than willing to take these problems off your hands. This leads to creative people struggling in a situation that is wholly new and uncomfortable, without much of a roadmap for how to move forward.
Success can be as challenging as failure
“William [Pugh, the other half of the game’s design team] and I both immediately fell into a kind of mental trap that I've heard other indie devs describe as well, where the more money we made the more dissatisfied we became with it,” Wreden explained. “On day one when I knew I'd have money I was absolutely on cloud nine. On day two when that money doubled, we began thinking about all the money we WEREN'T making.”
Everything from revenue splits to licensing went back under the microscope as Wreden began to worry that, in fact, they could have made much more money with their game.
“I felt myself becoming competitive with other devs who had made a lot of money, becoming upset if I hadn't made as much as they had, or if I had made some decision that left money on the table, etc. It's a really toxic mindset, and in talking with other people in this situation I found that it's something everyone goes through, so it was nice to realize it's not personal,” Wreden said. “William and I were talking on Skype and we both started describing these feelings and each breathed a sigh of life saying ‘okay, I’m glad I’m not the only one!’”
This is an incredibly destructive and counter-productive way to deal with the launch of your game, and it led to Wreden searching for different ways to process what was happening.
“So the solution for me is not to think about money as being money, but as being time,” he said. “What I made was not a lot of money, I made a lot of time to do whatever the hell I want. I can go for many years and do basically anything creatively that my heart desires!”
Things came back into focus once he stopped thinking about money as a high score, something that could and maybe should be maximized, and instead thought of the success as freedom to focus on the next game, now with even fewer restraints on content, timing, and financial support.
The power of small teams
The industry is a place where selling three million units is often considered a disappointment, so it’s hard to reconcile the world of large studios with this sort of success story.
To put this into some perspective, The Stanley Parable is on sale for $12 at the moment, so 100,000 sales is around $1.2 million in revenue. You need to think about the cost of the time put into development, and Steam takes around thirty percent of that, but even after those costs the game has made its creator’s very comfortable. This is especially true when you think that these sales only occured in the first few days, if not hours.
“It's really disorientating and quite scary - suddenly all these plans and failsafes you had in place are just not relevant anymore,” Pugh told the Report. “It's like being dropped into a weird alternate reality. Thankfully Davey and I have been talking a lot and keeping an eye out for each other and I think it's helped us both stay relatively grounded.”
Pugh had his own internal goals for the game. If he made £10,000 he wouldn’t be in a terrible financial spot, and £20,000 would mean he could become a developer full time and everything would be, in his words, “awesome and wonderful.” The reality exceeded those goals by a handy margin.
“Davey and I decided we didn't want to check sales data on launch day because we had enough to deal with what with the all the press and the crazy place our heads were in - bringing money into that just seemed like something we didn't want to deal with,” he explained.
“So we waited about 24 hours and we got on Skype and Davey opened up the financial info and it turns out that our game sold more in one day than we hoped to sell in one month and now my goal figure I set a few months earlier is dwarfed by how much I've earned in 3 days,” Pugh continued.
Time, not cash
The change from thinking about money as a goal in and of itself to thinking of it as time they can spend creating new things has clearly energized Wreden, and he sounded excited for the future.
“100k sales is not a lot of money for a big studio because it's not a lot of time for a big studio, that'll get you a few more weeks or months?” he said. “For me, it means that with this launch week alone I'll probably have about 5 years to live absolutely however I want and do whatever I want to. That's amazing! It also frees me up to be a lot more weird in my creative work, to take risks that wouldn't have made sense otherwise. So yeah, now that becomes more tangible, I'm more capable of applying myself to that idea and taking action that will make healthy and constructive use of it.”
This is the best case scenario: An interesting game is finding an audience and, with the financial burdens removed from the creators, they're free to work on a new project without worrying about diluting their vision for a wide audience.
Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy time you can spend comfortably working on something you're passionate about. For creative people? Well, that might be something at least close to happiness.
The Stanley Parable is out now, and my suggestion is to buy it and play it before you hear anything else about it. Trust me.