“Death is only the beginning” - Reanimator
One million copies sold as a studio dies. It gives rise to a slow burn, do-it-yourself, action role-playing game that stands poised to be one of the best ever created. Was there ever any failure? How did the Crate team get to use the Engine from Titan Quest in Grim Dawn? What is the key to Grim Dawn’s ultimate success?
Iron Lore and Titan Quest
Iron lore died quickly, even among gaming studios. It closed its doors after 8 years in February of 2008, citing “unrelated issues” that resulted in a failure to secure funding. Its sole work at the time was Titan Quest, and Soulstorm an expansion for the Games Workshop branded real-time strategy game Dawn of War III.
8 years isn’t long. The first two years were spent on the pitch for Titan Quest, which was their only project till its release in 2006. The Titan Quest expansion “Immortal Throne” came soon after in 2007, though it was less an expansion, closer to the final act of the game. Substantial work on the expansion had already been completed by the time of the games release. The Dawn of War expansion was finished from 2006-2007, and then the company ended early the following year.
Well, Michael Fitch of THQ has some ideas.
“if. . . people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today.” -Michael Fitch
Now Titan Quest sold a million plus copies. Is that the end of the story?
What Michael goes on to explain is that the copy protection scheme they paid for to prevent piracy caused the game to randomly crash if it was cracked. This led to a lot of chatter online about how the game was unstable. The onerous copy protection scheme drove many legitimate owners to use the crack so they could play the game.
This is on a game that made money and sold a million copies. He goes on to say:
“Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.” -Michael Fitch
Your eyes might dart over to Crate Entertainment and their Digital Rights Managment-free highly successful game Grim Dawn at this point. He further complains about the modular personal computer hardware market and goes on to say:
“Which brings me to the audience. There's a lot of stupid people out there. . .PC folks want to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their machines, and god help them they will do it; more power to them, really. But god forbid something that they've done—or failed to do—creates a problem with your game. There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault" culture in the west than gaming forums.” -Michael Fitch
What’s going on here? Where’s his disconnect? Even at 40$, one million times should be enough to keep any studio in business. This was over a decade ago, before the dominance of Steam. Another popular game of the time, Sins of a Solar Empire also had no copy protection and made a bundle of money for it’s publisher. What actually happened with Titan Quest and Iron Lore?
It has a great deal to do with how publishers (like THQ) and development studios (like Iron Lore) function. First, the studio makes a pitch to the publishers. If accepted, the studio gets an “advance”. Then once the game is complete, the sales should pay off the advance, until a profit stage is reached. However, much like movie studio accounting, very few games ever are shown to make a profit, and unless you have a breakout hit, developments studios will never see a dime past the advance.
Arthur Bruno, head of Crate Entertainment, lays out exactly how they didn’t get any money from the sales. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that many, if not most independent studios, make little or no money off the actual sales of games they develop. If you take the case of Titan Quest and Immortal Throne, information I’ve been given put the combined sales over a million copies in late 2008. At that time I heard that it had reached profitability for THQ. Since then it has continued to do surprisingly well in digital sales given its age. Yet, the owners of Iron Lore never and probably will never receive a royalty payment due to the structure of the funding deal.”
What this means is, they need to have another project ready to go after a project is completed in order to secure another advance. This did not happen for Iron Lore. Arthur explains, “Ultimately though, all the decisions the company made and all the events that transpired, lead to a situation where Iron Lore couldn’t survive a gap between projects.”
So not only did it sell a million copies, the publisher didn’t have to share that profit with Iron Lore. How did the game get viewed as a failure?
Early bad press and obnoxious copy protection
During the release, leaked and hacked pirated copies surfaced, and due to the copy protection crashed to the desktop. This combined with the obnoxious procedure of inserting a random disk on launch in order to play the game, means that many legitimate users used a crack in order to play more conveniently.
This led to a great deal of early press talking about the games instability, even though for a new release it was reasonably bug free. This word of mouth caused release sales to be very slow.
Both Brian Sullivan the director of Iron Lore and THQ believed that this action role-playing game would sell more copies than the sims. John Walker recalls "[Brian Sullivan] said, as I interviewed him for PC Gamer, how he expected Titan Quest to be a break-out success, to be a game that reached a non-gaming mainstream audience—that it would do for the RPG what The Sims had done for management games. And I didn’t really know what to say, because, well, no it wouldn’t. It was a game about hitting mythical creatures with an axe. It was slightly awkward.”
In pursuit of that ideal, THQ played a heavy hand. Arthur (née Merrida) talks about it on the Grim Dawn forums, “There seemed to be a constant fear during the development of Titan Quest about upsetting this or that segment of the audience or someone's grandmother. I was literally told by one of the higher-ups that the game should be designed so that his grandmother would want to play it (even though his grandmother had never played a game before in her life).”
Some examples of the changes they were forced to make:
- They were required to remove snow, because people might not realize it snowed in Greece.
- Enemies were not allowed to be shown using language or building any structures.
- Humans were never allowed to die.
- Human corpses were not allowed to be shown.
- No Greek ruins were allowed to be shown.
- Greek mythology had to be relegated to dialog boxes because addressing the gods, either though gameplay or in the story was too religious.
Quests were removed, ideas were formed, and the team moved on from Titan Quest. But that still doesn’t tell us how Grim Dawn managed to get made. Read part II here.