Failed Kickstarter, no money, no problem: the story of the Descent-like Retrovirus
Cadenza Interactive's Retrovirus took longer than expected to develop. Then it ran out of money. No problem, Kickstarter's a pretty big deal, right? Retrovirus got a Kickstarter page with more than 1,000 backers. Even that wasn't enough though, and on July 7, 2012, the Retrovirus Kickstarter closed after falling more than $45,000 short of their goal. The story of Retrovirus sounds like yet another failed indie game; a quality pitch that, for whatever reason, just didn't catch on, doomed to exist only as an idea. So what's a game that exceeded costs and failed its Kickstarter doing up for sale on Steam?
Bless the broken road
Spencer Roberts, founder of Cadenza and chief programmer on Retrovirus explained that the original idea was to use revenue generated by the studio's previous game, Sol Survivor, to fund Retrovirus, a 6DoF game made in the spirit of Descent where players pilot a program inside a computer, fending off an attacking virus.Sol Survivor, however, hadn't fared as well as Roberts had hoped, and funds were short. “It got to a point where we were looking and realizing that Sol Survivor was tapering off in a way that its revenue wouldn't be able to continue to provide us the amount of time that we needed in order to finish Retrovirus,” he told the Report. “So we thought, 'Kickstarter's a big thing right now, there's a lot of people putting up Kickstarters and they're being very successful with it, and Retrovirus seems like a project that would be aptly suited for that medium.'” The situation for Roberts was especially dire, as his wedding took place the week before the Kickstarter closed. Retrovirus' failure would take place during his honeymoon. “I locked my phone in the safe in the hotel and I didn't get it back out until we left,” Roberts told me. “So we were touching down in the plane the day after the Kickstarter had succeeded or failed, and I hadn't seen the project at all for four days.” “When I saw that it had failed and that it had failed by as much as it had, I couldn't even speak for 20 minutes. I was just… I don't know. I was stunned,” he said. “There'd been so many Kickstarter projects that came back in the last minutes and I guess I had this fantasy going the whole time that people hadn't discovered it yet or something, and that they would find it and everything would be okay.”
Timing = everything
The Kickstarter was plagued with problems though, beginning with timing. Nick Mazmanian, Retrovirus' designer and narrative lead, described the period as a time of Kickstarter exhaustion, where press and potential backers were tired of the constant influx of Kickstarter stories. Retrovirus Kickstarter page was also opened in the shadow of E3, making it difficult to get the attention of the press. Still, Mazmanian remained optimistic. The team had researched successful Kickstarter campaigns and failed ones. They studied what to do and what not to do. “I was like, 'This is fine, we'll do great, we're gonna get the funding, our game looks amazing, no one else has it, blah blah blah…'” Mazmanian said. “And when it didn't go out, it was just like, '...Well. Uh. Awesome. Cool, I guess.'” “I'm looking at the funds and I'm like, 'That's my paycheck. I need this money.' And when we didn't get it, I was like, 'I guess I could eBay some stuff.'” I asked Mazmanian what it was like at home base with Roberts gone on honeymoon. He laughed. “You go into red alert, all hands on deck, and you're scrambling for the life boats,” he said. “We were all like, 'When Spencer gets back, we should make sure we have a company still.' So we were going crazy. I was emailing everyone. Like, 'Gabe Newell! We have a Kickstarter!'”
From the brink
So how did Retrovirus get to Steam? One very dedicated fan – with a little extra spending money – named Chris Davies. Roberts told me that when Davies approached him with an offer to fund the game, he was hesitant to believe the deal was legitimate. “If you get a random email from somebody that says something to the effect of, 'If your Kickstarter doesn't succeed, I can fund you myself,' you take that with a grain of salt,” he told me. Mazmanian chimed in: “It's like, 'Hi, I'm a Nigerian prince! Can I have access to your bank account?'” Roberts and Mazmanian both agreed that Davies couldn't be seen as anything less than an angel investor, and his enthusiasm for the game surprised them. “For most people I talk to, the investors for them are about how is this gonna make them money. For Chris, it was how can we get this game done, because I want to see this game out there, I want to play this game,” Roberts said. “That kind of relationship was so different from what I expected an investor to be.” “You expect fans to be fans and investors to be investors, and when a fan is an investor, it's disconcerting because you're taking things out of the natural order.” Roberts paused for a long, quiet moment. “It's odd.”
Escaping the past
Roberts said that to this day, he and his team aren't sure what caused the Kickstarter to fail. Timing was certainly an issue, but it shouldn't have been the death bell. I put forth the cynical suggestion that, maybe it failed because not enough people care? Maybe people just don't want this kind of game? Roberts and Mazmanian were quick to dismiss the notion, but it's clear they're not in denial. They follow the community, they've read up on what other titles in the genre have sold, they know they're niche. But if that's the case, I wondered, why not just make a game that will appeal to more people? Why go through this stress? “We believe that if we make the kind of thing we like that people who also like that kind of thing will gravitate towards it,” Roberts said. “I personally don't think it's healthy for a game developer to make something they think someone else will enjoy that they won't enjoy themselves.” Mazmanian agreed. “Passion doesn't always equal out to profit,” he cautioned. “A lot of time you have to go on blind faith that people enjoy the same thing you do about games and will enjoy what you have made.” The story of Retrovirus is an inspiring one: this is an independent team that, through tenacity and some good old-fashioned luck, managed to push a dream game out into the wild, and Roberts said the game is poised to exceed cost and become profitable. “I'm an idealist who believes that passion is rewarded,” Roberts said. Retrovirus is available now via Steam.