Recently, the independent game company Tale of Tales announced they would no longer be making games commercially, after their most recent game, Sunset, failed to sell. Despite spending a great deal on PR, and being well received by mainstream journals, Sunset didn’t seem to click with the gaming community. Most have blamed this on the community itself, claiming gamers opposed the game on principle or “rally against” games of that type. This obviously isn’t the case. Artistic games have had a place in the industry since graphics still consisted of the simplest pixels and voice over actors were just a dream. Some of the most successful games in the industry have become successful based on their story and clever settings more than anything else, such as The Witcher franchise. So why did Sunset really fail? It would seem, because it attempted to deliver a mainstream idea to a niche genre.
Sunset is part of a genre known as “walking simulators,” games that sacrifice gameplay to dedicate more to story and atmosphere. Sunset is not the first game of its type by a long shot, but other games have faced similar problems, such as Gone Home, and resulted in people chastising the community for not being receptive to these games. However, there have been highly successful “walking simulators.” The issue with these games seems to be they are made to appeal to popular ideas but without what makes those ideas popular—a misunderstanding of why certain aspects of games appeal to gamers. So consider this a helpful guide on how to make a walking simulator.
Step One: Price your game correctly. This is a simple idea, yet many fail. Walking simulators are not meant to be expensive games. Because walking simulators tend to be considerably shorter, missing gameplay, and usually made independently, you have to price appropriately. You cannot price by the hour with a game like this. Most regular games which only clock in a couple hours can barely get away with charging US$15, unless they’re of very high quality or replay value. If you charge more that or more, your game isn’t going to sell well. Dear Esther, which was fairly well-received when first released, is US$10 on Steam. This is a fairly decent price, especially since Dear Esther was (and still is) very popular, and usually considered one of the better kinds of walking simulators. Sunset is US$15. The argument could be made that it’s slightly longer than Esther, but an extra hour of gameplay doesn’t warrant a $5 price increase. You can always price the game and lower it if you feel sales aren’t doing well.
But consider the audience you are selling to. We live in a world where you can rent Hollywood-budget movies for a $1. You have to price appropriately. Most gamers are not rolling in cash; I personally have a limited income, so when I buy a game, I have to choose carefully. I am not going to jump to spend my monthly Steam allowance on a game that will only give me two hours of playtime with no replay value. I’d rather spend my money on a game that will keep my interest over the entire month, or beyond.
Step Two: You have to have something to keep people coming back. While walking simulators are usually short, the lack of gameplay means if you want to keep players invested in the game, and interested in the story, you have to have some element that keeps them engaged. If your game is essentially a film, where you only occasionally interact with the environment, then it is akin to making a movie where every once in a while you have to pick up the remote and push the play button again to continue the story—not a mechanic, but an annoyance.
Criticism of the community has come in the shape of assuming that all gamers want is competition. This isn’t the issue though. There are plenty of successful games not based in killing, competition, or high-speed action. What gamers want in narrative driven games, usually, is atmosphere and insertion. To be able to feel like their decisions in a game mean something to the game. Remember, your character in the game is the avatar, not the player.
Step Three: Rethink what walking simulators are for. This seems to be the biggest problem; indie developers have started to use the walking simulator genre to easily tell any story they want without wasting resources on developing gameplay. But walking simulators aren’t for that. They are not an easy out to upcharge what could have been an independent short film. Walking simulators are for games who’s stories are BEST told in that way. This starts with understanding the roots of walking simulators. Amnesia: The Dark Decent and, in fact, many horror games whose focus is purely survival, are in many ways, early walking simulators. Amnesia of course has puzzles and occasional spurts of action—in the form of desperately running away from things that it turns out weren’t actually there because you were psyching yourself out—and simple mechanics that allow you to interact with the environment. It is not purely a walking simulator, but much of what made Amnesia popular are the same aspects that make for good walking simulators.
Likely the best example is The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable is a walking simulator, an excellent one. There is no action, there is little in terms of mechanics (you get to press a button sometimes, basically). The core of the game is you walk through an office and occasionally get to make decisions about which direction the story goes. And it is an incredibly popular game, played by many Let’s Players and praised by critics. Because the story of The Stanley Parable simply couldn’t be told any other way. It was a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style game, mixed with clever humor, fun situations, and the best narration ever put in a game. Gamers loved it because it gave them real choice in the context of the game. It gave them multiple avenues to choose, which increased the games length and replayability. The story was humorous and interesting which made players more invested. And the main character, Stanley, was truly an extension of the player. He did not control the story, the player did (and occasionally, the Narrator, but that’s besides the point). The Stanley Parable is a shining example of what walking simulators can be.
And Step Four: Don’t take mistakes out on your audience. It is not the responsibility of gamers to buy your games, regardless of what it is. Just because a game is artistic doesn’t mean it warrants undue praise and consumption, and certainly doesn’t mean your audience doesn’t appreciate art. To be quite blunt, it just means your art isn’t very good. And you most likely have a very limiting idea of what art is. Is Legend of Zelda, with its colorful worlds and impressive lore, not art? Is Portal 2, with its clever writing and complex characters, not art? Is Papers, Please with its dark look at realistic, historical events and fantastic storytelling angle, not art? Because these are all games that have resonated with gamers, and in some ways, built the industries around them. And there are hundreds more that remain artistic and intriguing, without sacrificing fun.
The job of a developer is to find the balance between telling the story they want to tell in new ways and making gamers want to be part of the story. That is the number one job of any storyteller in any genre. The concept of Sunset is promising, but the avenue of telling it lacking. A story about overtaking a dictator doesn’t have to be a first person shooter. There are so many other genres which are just as successful to tell such a story in. But whatever promise Sunset had, whatever chance to appeal to players, was gone the moment it was decided they were at fault for not taking an interest.
Gamers are the audience video games have. This is why they are called gamers. If you intend to make games without including them, that is your prerogative. But it is your decision and yours alone, and you can blame no one but yourself if the outcome is not what you want.