A bit over a year ago, a game called Where Shadows Slumber had caught my attention at the 2016 Playcrafting Spring Expo. I got a card from the developer and decided to keep an eye on the game while it was under development. Right before Play NYC 2017, I heard back from that developer, Mr. Frank DiCola of Game Revenant. The game was nearing completion and he wanted to talk about it.
Where Shadows Slumber is a puzzle game about a mysterious robed figure with a lantern. The lantern illuminates a small area around you, but it’s not the light that’s important insomuch as it is the shadows that are important. The game features an interesting mechanic: a shadow passing over an object will change it as if it sprung forth from another world. (Perhaps it has!) It’s an interesting concept, and Mr. DiCola had a lot to say about it (as well as many other things). Before we press on, let’s have a look a trailer for Where Shadows Slumber:
TechRaptor: Let’s start with your name, the name of your company, and the name of your game.
Frank DiCola: My name is Frank DiCola ([spelled with a capital C], something people always forget), the company is Game Revenant (two words, I can talk about the nerdy reason for that a little later although it’s kind of a dumb story), and the game itself is Where Shadows Slumber.
TR: Hey, I love dumb stories. What’s the [story behind the name] Game Revenant?
FD: Oh, funny you should ask. Did you ever play Warcraft III?
TR: An uncomfortable amount of Warcraft III. So, yeah.
FD: Okay, you would know even better than I did. I just remember they had really interesting mobs, like jungle mobs that you could attack. And there’d be stuff like Fire Elementals, Water Elementals, Thunder Elementals. And then, the level up of Elemental – the next best thing, the Level 7 version, was a Revenant. And I thought that was so awesome, a “Fire Revenant”, an “Ice Revenant”. For the company, there was a lot going on in my head when I made it. I had a few failed companies before. I don’t know, I just kinda liked the idea of combining that. Something coming back from the dead – ’cause that’s what Revenant means, it’s a fancier word for “zombie” – but also a monstrosity created out of “Game”. Like, the element “Game”. So, Game Revenant. It’s kind of a weird conglomeration of things, but that’s the story.
TR: Now what you said there is interesting aside from the [Warcraft III] part. Some people, they may be reluctant to say, “Oh, I’ve had ventures in the past but it didn’t really work out.” I think that’s pretty much everybody. Just for some reason, some people aren’t as comfortable saying [something like that]. Now when you [talk about past ventures failing], was it just companies in general, were there gaming ventures, was it a mix? What’s the story behind that?
FD: [I don’t mind] talking about that. I kinda have this Silicon Valley mindset, I guess, which is, “Fail fast!”. It’s almost like bragging rights: “Yeah, I’ve had seven failed companies.” [laughs] (I haven’t.) I think that’s a cool thing, it’s a millennial thing I guess. You don’t work at a place for 20 years, instead you kind of say, “I’ve worked at these companies,” or, “I tried this and it failed.” For me, the first company I was officially a part of was back in college. It was with a professor. It was called Proxemic Technologies. And I’m not sure if it’s still around, but I had left. They were trying to do some cool stuff with gaming but it was very much based in [Kinect and motion controls]. I thought they were [trying] to ride the technology wave and I wasn’t feeling it. I felt like the only game dev they had on staff which was pretty bad – [so I left]. The second company was Margrave Games which was something I started with some friends in college, essentially just to produce the board game I worked on before I worked on [Where Shadows Slumber]. It’s called Mr. Game!. That one fell through just because we all went our separate ways after college. So it’s not like terrible stories of failure, but just – as someone who’s always wanted to have a video game studio, I was a bit disappointed with my first two attempts. But, you know, third time through, I’m the only person at the company in an official capacity and I think that’s kinda the way it should be. So, third time’s the charm.
TR: Okay, so, it’s nothing completely out of sorts. You left one company because you didn’t feel it was going in the right direction and the other company was [formed] as a one-time thing to complete the one mission and then everybody went their separate ways. [It] happens a lot in universities. That’s actually not all that unusual even outside of Silicon Valley.
FD: Yeah, that’s why I’m not too embarrassed about it. I will say there’s definitely some friendships lost which is a shame – I think that’s always a risk you take going into business. [But that’s just a part of how business goes.] I was a founder at all of them, I should mention. It wasn’t just companies that I worked for, I was a founding member of all of them and it just kind of disbanded. So it feels bad, I may have some enemies out there, but that’s okay.
TR: That’s understandable. That happens in the business world. Now, for Game Revenant, are you the only person that’s on the paperwork for the company or are there other people as well?
FD: Yes, I’m the only official person at the company. CEO, 100% owner. That’s not to say that I’m the only one working on Where Shadows Slumber, though, and I guess we’ll talk about that later. As far as Game Revenant is concerned, at this time, I’m the only employee – but I’m not even an employee because there’s no salary. But yeah, I’m the guy.
TR: [For indie games, that situation] is not all that unusual. You would be surprised [to see] at Playcrafting and the indie scene in general just how many one-person companies there are. [They] rely on friends and contractors to do the work, because once you start picking up extra people, you might have to give them some equity, you pick up additional responsibilities. It’s the most sensible way to do things on a small scale, especially when you’re starting out. So that’s actually very common [in] my experience for the indie world, and that leads into my next question: who else is working on [Where Shadows Slumber]? So that’s not coming up later, that question’s coming up now. [laughs]
FD: Okay, yeah. [laughs] Really, the only project happening right now is Where Shadows Slumber, that’s full steam ahead. I’m working on it as [an artist and designer], and then Jack Kelly, my friend, is the game’s programmer. So it’s really like a dynamic duo between the two of us, that artist/programmer combo. Also, in sort of a smaller role, our friend Caroline Amaba who works at Buzzfeed is doing our website. If you go to www.WhereShadowsSlumber.com, that’s all her beautiful work, she made it work for mobile, too. She’s not working on the game itself, like in Unity, but she was nice enough to take a small cut of the final game’s profits just to get our website up and we really appreciate ’cause we’re definitely not web guys. That’s the team right now.
TR: What about music and sound? That seems to be the one core area you kind of left out.
FD: Good question. We’re gonna be bringing on a sound person, a dedicated person [probably around] the beginning of September]. We’ve been simultaneously looking for some extra funding for the game and interviewing some sound candidates. There’s a lot of really awesome people in the area that we want to bring on. I [wish] we could bring them all on, but we just have to pick one, though. An announcement for that will be coming a bit later, I guess.
TR: Yeah, I totally understand that sentiment. I always thought if I hit the lottery, I would make a game a company – but I wouldn’t run it. I’m bad at making those [kind] of decisions. [I’d be like,] “Oh, your story’s so sad and you seem like you love what you’re doing – here, I’ll just hire you.” I know that’s terrible for business.
FD: [laughs] Yeah, I’m worried about that for my future. I might be the guy that hires all his friends. I don’t know, I already went through that with other companies so I know that it’s not a good idea to get too close with the people you’re close with in business. Does that make sense?
TR: It does.
FD: It’s an impulse, yeah.
TR: It is, keep it a professional relationship.
TR: Tell us about Where Shadows Slumber. What’s the game all about, just in general?
FD: So, top-level view. Your first impression, you would say it probably looks a bit like Monument Valley. That’s people’s first reaction. It’s this [isometric] view of a tap-to-move puzzle game where you’re controlling this little lonely figure through this desolate world. Now, where it differs from Monument Valley is in our kind of strange interpretation of physics. I don’t know if you’ve played Monument Valley, but it has all of these kind of M.C. Escher puzzles where you use the isometric angle to connect the dots. It’s really cool. But, Jack had this really strange idea which was “a world where…” How would I explain it? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the uncertainty principles of quantum physics applies to larger objects. This idea that if you cannot observe something, the next time you observe it you really have no idea what state it might be in. It’s a puzzle game where that is applied to large objects like entire bridges or walls. Your character has this tiny little lantern that’s casting this really bright light and really dark shadows. You go around a corner, you see a broken bridge. You go back around the corner, you cast a shadow on it, and then the next time you see it the bridge is healed. So, either you’ve gone back in time or you’ve just observed it in a different state and it’s healed. It’s a really strange puzzle mechanic. We’ve gotten some comparisons to Antichamber for that. But I think it’s definitely unique.
TR: I was gonna bring that up, there are a few games that do that. Antichamber is one. Another one that’s lesser known is called Wooden Floor, same basic concept. You leave a room, you exit, [things in the room have changed]. But it is a concept that’s not really used very much and it is something I would really like to see used a lot more because that’s a thing that you could really only uniquely in [an interactive medium]. You could really only do it in a gaming medium because you’re physically changing the world, sometimes in ways that is physically impossible. If you think about if you wanted to try to make a funhouse maze on those principles, it would be a ridiculously expensive endeavor and a massive engineering effort to try and figure something out where like somebody turns around and in the two seconds they turn around a door appears. Without them hearing it. Games are uniquely suited for that kind of concept being executed.
FD: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s definitely experiential. Now I’m gonna be thinking about this the whole interview, an actual funhouse where the walls move. You’d still have to have someone behind a desk hitting all the buttons, like, “She’s not looking, raise the mirror!”.
TR: That would be really cool, and now I’m gonna be pissed off that somebody, one day, is going to read this and they’re gonna have like five million in Silicon Valley venture capital because they hand out money like candy, and someone’s gonna make. If you’re reading this and you make it, damn it I want a royalty. (I’ve been watching too much Shark Tank.)
FD: [laughs] You’re absolutely right. It is something that’s hard to recreate in a medium where you’re not in control but also just in general. The trope I usually point at is, um… you know in spy movies, when they’re looking for Jason Bourne, and he’s on a sidewalk, and they’re like, “There he is, it’s Jason Bourne right there!” And then a bus drives by and then the next time you see that area he’s just gone? And you’re like, “Wow, where’d he go?” Try that in real life, you can’t run that fast, right? [laughs] But obviously, we’re faking it. We’re doing all sorts of crazy programming tricks to disappear things in the blink of an eye so it is possible in video gaming.
TR: Now, in fairness to Jason Bourne, as fast as he runs – I don’t think he runs that fast. From what I’ve gathered, I think he’s aware of where he is being watched from or most likely being watched from and then he takes the opportunity of vision being obscured for a second to break that line of sight. You wouldn’t even have to run that fast, you know? All he has to do is when the bus goes by, dip into a shop or something like that, and he could just walk away at a brisk pace. ’cause he never runs unless someone’s shooting at him because that brings attention to you.
FD: That’s a good point in fairness to Bourne, you’re absolutely right. I never thought of it from that angle.
TR: I’m one of those nerds that reads too many spy novels and watches too many movies. I love that stuff. Now, I’ve noticed from the demo videos on your [Facebook page] that all the action takes place on one screen and the screen doesn’t appear to move. Are these screens levels or are they just sections of a level?
FD: The screens are definitely levels. This is something we borrowed heavily from Monument Valley but [it’s actually] a rule they break. One thing I really like about that game is that every screen of Monument Valley is like a really awesome poster. You could take a screenshot, blow it up, put it on your wall – and it’s beautiful. So we wanted to try to do something similar. Definitely, every screen is a level and then if you leave that room or that zone you go on to the next level and there’s a little loading screen. You’re gonna hear me compare [Where Shadows Slumber] to Monument Valley a lot, but I really did see that game as a massive success that could be improved upon. One of the issues with Monument Valley was that people really blow through that game. People really just tear through it. Because they don’t realize how quickly they’re racing through the content. And so something we wanted to do was kind of atomize it a bit more and say like, “Okay, you beat a level – just remember, there’s only so many of these.” ’cause as many people have pointed out, you can’t procedurally generate this. These are hand-crafted levels. So it’s important to let people know, “Okay, you’re moving through the game at a pretty brisk pace there my friend, slow it down.”
TR: You know, that actually makes me think… you probably could procedurally generate something like this by having interlocking puzzle pieces and that’ll probably be the next iteration of the idea or at least the next interesting one.
FD: Someone else could try it, I definitely wouldn’t want to be that person.
TR: Oh, it’ll be a nightmare. But it’ll cool [if they] pull it off.
FD: [laughs] It’d be really hard.
TR: That was actually my next question, how many levels do you think will be in the game overall on completion?
FD: Right now we’re really hoping to get in seven game worlds – each with five levels – plus a short tutorial thing at the start. I don’t know if I’d really consider the beginning levels “levels”, [there’s maybe] three of those. I’d say pretty much all of the levels are designed. Some are still on paper, [we’re] trying to get them exactly right. It’s tough to design those final levels because we want them to be super hard. [We’re aiming for] 35+.
TR: Okay, roughly how long does it take to complete a level? For your average person.
FD: Good question, it really does vary on what world they’re in ’cause it gets harder as the game goes [on]. I don’t know, I don’t know. I will say that I brought the game to Awesome Con and we had the first three worlds for people to try. I would say people beat that little demo in maybe 25 minutes, half an hour or something (if they were gracious enough to stay the whole time). It’s really just a few minutes, and then you’ll occasionally get into one level that’s just, so hard.
TR: You get stuck.
FD: Yeah, you get stuck. I don’t even think there’s any levels that are that hard, but people will sort of trick themselves into thinking that the solution is somewhere else and they’ll get stuck for like ten minutes. But it’s not too long for each level. It’s like a nice kind of bite-sized experience.
TR: What initially stood out to me when I first saw this game at a Playcrafting exhibition [around a year ago] was the vibrant colors and the art style. Now, you said Monument Valley was a big inspiration for [your game], and just looking at it I’m like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, that totally makes sense.” But, your choice of colors, things like that are a good bit different. What led you to make things the way you made them in terms of the artistic style (aside from the inspiration from Monument Valley)?
FD: I would say a big cue that I was working on (since I’m the artist) was Jack’s direction for shadows. So, the shadows in the game are totally a work of programming. It’s a shader that makes the shadows [a] really deep black. And if anyone has used Unity before, go into Unity, make a light, and look at the shadow. You’ll notice that it’s very soft-looking, it’s almost realistic. But what Jack went in and did was he made it very hard, very intense. The moment your light ends, the darkness begins. There’s literally not a pixel in-between. It is light or it is completely black. And so I had to [take] that and say, “Alright, in this world where we have really stark contrast with the shadows and the light, it would probably be a good idea to [also do stark geometric shapes and a lot of high contrast with the colors]. I wanted to make that work. I knew there’s some things in a game when you’re working on the artwork – you know you can’t get rid of it. The shadows are here to stay and I love them. I’d rather work with them than try to fight them. Just the fact that our game has shadows made everything a bit harsher. Harsher differences in colors but even like a harsher storyline which I think is really cool. And it took us in a bit more of a unique direction, for sure.
TR: You contacted me roughly, I’d say, a year and change after I first saw you at Playcrafting. And at the initial expo, you just had a picture showing the title screen, [you told me about the game and its’ general idea] if I remember correctly. I have terrible memory, so I might be completely remembering it wrong. But, between that expo at Playcrafting and today, what’s changed in the game?
FD: That’s a great question. Okay, if I remember, that was Spring 2016 so we had… I think we showed three levels that day, or like four. But it was really not a lot. What we were actually showing that day was a piece of our demo. What’s changed about the game since then is that we actually released the demo, so… November 1st, 2016, we put the demo out on both stores. The App Store and Google Play. People kind of raised their eyebrows at that, I guess demos are not really done these days. I’m kind of old-school like that, I like demos. It was good for us, too. [We were able] to put this together, release something for free, and just say, “Check it out!” and then we kind of moved on. So, the demo has ten levels and a little story cutscene and then that’s it. What we’re doing behind the scenes that we haven’t really released as much is the full game. All the worlds, all the levels. I would say, at this point two of the worlds are in really good artistic shape. The rest kind of come together as the artwork gets put on them. I haven’t really made too much progress on the game’s story cutscenes because by definition it kind of has to come last but that’s gonna be in there, too. You’ll kind of have weaveed throughout the levels, you’ll have these little vignettes that tell you about this character and about the world he’s in and the quest he’s on.
TR: Where Shadows Slumber will release on Android and iOS. Any plans for Steam or other platforms? [Not] all mobile games end up on there but I am familiar with some titles that did like Fallout Shelter, Toadled. They’ve popped up on the platform. So, do you think you’ll be going in that direction at all or are you gonna stick strictly to mobile?
FD: I can definitely say right now, we won’t have a joint release on Steam. We wouldn’t be able to do mobile and Steam. Afterwards, I think it’s gonna be totally based on market demand. I know that might sound like a dodge, but we really did create the artwork for the game with a portrait resolution in mind. That’s actually an important thing to say, you can only play the game with the [phone or tablet] held vertically, you can’t do the horizontal thing. It’s just how the game’s laid out. That’s pretty tough to translate over to the computer because everybody has, you know, a widescreen monitor.
FD: Landscape, landscape. Exactly. Transferring the artwork over to landscape is… it’s not something I’m excited about. Just ’cause I worry it would really mess with all of our visuals and I don’t want to release a subpar product. But, having said that – if this game just explodes and it’s so popular and we’re making tons of money, then I could probably see- I could justify spending the months of time it would take to port to Steam. And we do have some friends we met at Playcrafting that are super-interested in that. We couldn’t really make it a priority right now because we’re so mobile-focused. It may never come to Steam, I’m sorry about that.
TR: So, it seems to me that it’s mainly because it’s locked in a portrait orientation. If that weren’t the case, would you be less reluctant to do it?
FD: Oh yeah, so if we had a different kind of game [that was] more flexible, I wouldn’t really mind as much. Unity makes it super-easy to go from platform to platform. So, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But, it’s just the nature of the game we made, yeah.
TR: Because when it comes to portrait orientation, nobody likes watching a portrait-oriented video on a landscape-oriented monitor.
TR: And then when you look at the solutions that are out there, there’s things like, “Oh, we’re just gonna mirror and blur the video on the sides.” That looks better than a black screen but it’s still kinda “eh”. You could just extend the background art off to the sides, but then again nothing’s really happening there and all the action is still focused on the center. That’s more ideal but still may not be as ideal. It’s completely understandable. Okay, so – post release, what’s next for your company? Do you have the next game in mind yet?
FD: I definitely do have an idea for something of what I would do after Where Shadows Slumber. I will say, I don’t want to make the same mistake I made with Mr Game! where I feel like I didn’t push that product hard enough because I wanted to move on to another thing. I think with Where Shadows Slumber, I will definitely be spending the time after launch to really promote this, really go for it. But, so, let’s say a year after that’s out or maybe two years after that’s out. I’d love to do something with VR before VR drops off the face of the earth. I’m kind of a skeptic with VR. But, I do have a good idea of a game I want to make. It’s kind of crazy, it really only works in VR. And I think those are the kind of games you go for. You go for it. So I would probably start looking for funding for that, just ’cause I’m a little squeamish when it comes to VR. Just to compare mobile and VR, I don’t have any problem with mobile. I think it’s gonna be great. I think there’s so many people that have smartphones on the planet that we can sell globally. But, that totally changes when you’re going to make a virtual reality game and now you’re selling the game to like a few thousand people who’ve bought a dev headset. It’s just totally different, you’re going to such a small install base. But, having said that, that’s the project I’m passionate about now. As for Jack, I’m not sure. I think the game dev process has definitely burned him out. I think he wants to relax on a beach somewhere for a year, maybe. [laughs] So I’m not sure if he would stay on for another project or if he would want to do his own thing. That’s totally up to him.
TR: On the VR/mobile thing, I would actually completely disagree with you personally [for] somewhat the same reasons – I just have a different take on it. You say there’s a lot of phones out there, right?
TR: Lots of install base, right? But the market’s also saturated all to hell.
FD: That’s true.
TR: Any mobile dev will tell you. Now on the other hand, the VR [install] base is small, that’s completely fair. But, that’s also because it’s still a relatively new technology to the consumer market and the people who did have it did drop anywhere from $500 to $800 for their equipment. And, there’s not really all that much software out there now. There is a lot, but there’s not really that much. So a lot of people are really hungry for new products.
FD: That’s entirely fair, that’s fair. Yeah, I guess you could call it a captive audience, right?
FD: We’d release it, they would definitely play it. That’s a good feeling.
TR: I wouldn’t say they’d definitely play it, but I would say there’s gonna be people looking for new stuff a lot more enthusiastically than they might be on mobile or other platforms just because [it’s] still relatively new and devs are still ramping up trying to get stuff out there.
FD: You’re right, I hadn’t thought of it that way.
TR: Me personally, I’m skeptical of all things to one degree or another and VR… I was a little bit, at first. [I thought,] “I really hope this takes off but I’m not so sure.” But, when we started seeing stuff like the PSVR, Sony’s… despite the Vita not doing too well and despite motion controls like the PS Move kind of doing okay but not super well… one of the things I’m confident in is that Sony wouldn’t have likely invested in making the PSVR unless they thought it had a really good chance. That’s one of the big things for me, and the other big thing for me is that I think the costs are still high because it’s still so new and I think it’ll come down some more. It’s gonna be really unlikely that [your] average consumer would be willing to drop $600 on a headset, but once they start getting it down to $400, $300, $200, maybe even $100? Then, when [it’s priced more like] a peripheral instead of buying a medium-end monitor? I think it can hit that point. I think it’s still fighting even though it might be a little rough right now.
FD: Definitely, and it’s funny you mentioned PSVR. That would be the one I’d target in particular with the idea I have right now. I would definitely be going to Sony for some funding. ’cause that’s the upshot of it: if they are serious about VR, they’re spending money now. They know it’s a growth period and they will invest in devs. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. I can pitch to them and they give me some money. It’s not something I have any experience with besides Kickstarter for a board game I did. I haven’t really used investor money. But this is something I’m so confident I think they would want to fork it over.
TR: Do you have an idea when you’ll be releasing Where Shadows Slumber?
FD: Yeah. [Spring 2018]. I am being a little vague about that only because I just realized today that there’s like three big conferences that happen in March. There’s GDC, SXSW, PAX East. I just think we might get drowned out if we release around that time so that could get pushed back. It could also get pushed back for development reasons, but that’s what we’d like to do right now.
TR: What do you think the price point will be for the finished game? Will it be free, ad-supported, a one-time payment? Some kind of mix?
FD: Oh, just about the business model?
FD: Okay. We realized that this is region-specific. We kind of thought you could do one size fits all for mobile, but the caveat of global publishing [is that you] have to play to each region. A one-time payment for like US and English regions and that kind of thing. It’s definitely the premium model. You pay five bucks, you get the game, done. For other countries, we’ll be pursuing something a bit different. That could be that the price drops significantly. I also think in some Asian regions we’re gonna end up basically giving half of the game away for free and then doing some kind of paywall halfway through. It might sound weird, it might sound like more work for no reason, but it’s just what experts have told us about different consumer patterns. Americans tend to feel a little bit cheated if they secretly find out they have to pay halfway through an experience. But in Asian countries, it’s a bit different. Free-to-play is big over there and we definitely aren’t doing ads and stuff. So really, the only thing we can muster is, like… you can call it an in-app purchase, but [it’s] unlocking the game halfway through.
TR: That might explain why Super Mario Run is the way [that] it is. They give the first few levels and some basic features away and then if you want the rest you have to pay. So, I didn’t know that. So that’s basically the Asian way of doing things, then?
FD: Yep, exactly. I’m really glad you brought that one up, because that was what I saw and I was like, “Oh, okay. We can’t do this in America.” Because I saw the backlash and I was like, “Look, this made perfect sense to them over at Nintendo”, but they were.. I think that was poor business localization which is surprising from them. They should have let Americans just pay up front for it. And they would of.
TR: Well who knows, maybe you can. There have been a few devs that are like, “Look, we’re gonna do this strictly episodically. The first three levels of the game are free. If you want the next three levels, it’s [X amount of money], and then the next three levels…” and just do it like that bit by bit. Or you could buy the entire thing wholesale. Although, some companies still do that, some have started, and some have stopped. Telltale [Games used to allow gamers to] buy the individual episodes piecemeal if you feel like that and nowadays they’re pretty much like, “Eh, just buy the whole thing.” Almost everybody buys the whole thing.
FD: Yeah, at a certain point it does seem like more work for more options. Then, I’m not sure what people will choose. We had considered the episodic thing for a little bit but we just knew we wanted to release a full game and we didn’t want to give ourselves [the] luxury of an out. We knew if it was episodic, then we’d be like, “Well, now we can add the dragons that we cut! Now we can add this other stuff, right?” Because when you do an episodic game, you’re kind of working on some of the game while it’s out there and while it’s selling.
TR: You don’t want to fall into a trap.
FD: Yeah, exactly. I think we’re both ready to show the game to the world. I know, Jack for sure, because he works full time and does this at the same time. He’s ready for a bit of a break.
TR: Jack’s a hero, man.
FD: I don’t blame him at all. I can’t believe what he’s going through. He’s [working] his ass off.
TR: Now that I think about it, the model that’s in Super Mario Run that you said Americans in general (just from market research, not to stereotype) are less accepting of and the Asian market is more accepting of – that’s the demo/finished product model. The only difference is that it’s all packaged in one thing and it’s not really made super clear [that this is a trial and you have to pay for the rest]. But when you make something separately as a demo, it is. So if you think about it in a really roundabout way, you’re already would kind of be doing that but in the smart, traditional way that nobody has really has had a problem with doing it.
FD: Yes, that’s true and that’s kind of what I envisioned. You search Where Shadows Slumber on the store and you see [the demo & the game]. One costs $5.00 and one is free and so you could try before you buy. Because again, I’m just a little old school, I remember people used to do demos back in the day. It was cool, it was nice to try a game out and just have this little short experience. Now, yeah, people bundle it together I guess ’cause it’s easier but it also just feels worse than it needs to. To just get hit up in the middle of an experience for money. But, if some cultures are fine with that, I’ll do it. I just wouldn’t do that in the U.S.
TR: Now, just to go back to something you’ve said twice now already, just to be sure – is $5.00 going to be the price point or are you just using that as an example?
FD: That’s definitely where I target it. We’ve gone back and forth about this, Jack and I. I think he’s worried that that price is a bit too high. I definitely think the game’s gonna be worth five dollars and I’ve seen that as kind of a common price. Just using some games as reference, I know Monument Valley was $4.00 plus $2.00 for the DLC. We’d like to have more content than Monument Valley out of the box so then it would be $6.00 versus $5.00. I definitely like $5.00. If that changes in the future, don’t sue me. It would only go lower, $5.00 would be the maximum.
TR: Well you’ve committed to that now. If you had investors, they probably would kill you.
FD: [laughs] I could see it going higher. I know Minecraft is like $8.00-
TR: But that’s Minecraft.
FD: That’s Minecraft. Yeah, it’s really hard to make it too high in mobile.
TR: That’s something I actually wanted to ask about. I’ve asked some devs, and this is something I strongly believe in and it might seem weird, but [it does] seem like you’ve given it a lot of thought. The way I look at this stuff- anybody who plays at some points has a game idea. It’s impossible to talk to game developers without thinking, “How would I do things if I did it?” And my thought is, if I would do things, I would price things like… borderline discount bin cheap. Even if it was really good. [I’m not saying] that you should, I’m just trying to give you my perspective. The reason I think of [it] like this, I call it the cup of coffee theory. Nobody thinks about spending 75 cents on a cup of coffee. It’s not gonna kill me to spend 75 cents on a cup of coffee and if I do and it tastes like ass, okay, no big deal. It’s 75 cents. One of the things I’d been thinking about is a lot of devs, I hear a lot of devs – I hear a lot of indie developers outside of the mobile market being like, “We’re going $10, $15, $20” and me personally, from my perspective as a consumer – I’m extraordinarily careful with how I spend my money because I don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on games. I’m one of those guys where I’ll spend $200 in one go but I’ll do it on a sale and I’ll come out of it with like 30 games. I think when Steam has an install base of [67 million] active accounts, you have  million potential customers – if you priced [your game] really, really low – [I would think the low cost would drive volume sales.] You don’t have to worry about supply and demand. You don’t have to worry about shipping the incidental, per-unit costs like you would with an online game potentially. There’s no infrastructure behind it. You don’t have to worry about shipping it or the throughput in the store. Google Play is not gonna crash because you sold a million copies of your game nor is Steam. [I get the feeling] that developers might not be considering [the perspective of volume sales.] What would you personally think about that?
FD: I definitely hear you, and it’s funny – this sounds like conversations I’ve had with Jack. We’ve gone back and forth about it. We knew what the size of the game would be and then it was just an argument about, “Well, what should we price it at?” My big thing is, I guess three main points for why you could price the game a little higher. The first is just value, I remember this was from a marketing class I took at college. We were looking at brands where the prices were intentionally high and my initial reaction is, “This is just stupid. Why wouldn’t you compete with your competitors? You gotta lower the price, get those customers.” It was for luxury products and lifestyle products and it was really strange. The conclusion we came to was that sometimes you price something higher because you want it to look better. I know that sounds so shallow, but it’s like the Lamborghini that costs $200,000 – does it really need to? Probably not, but that combination of fiery red sports car and huge price tag makes you think to yourself, “Wow, that is an impressive product.” It’s that kind of thing. We’re coming from a disadvantaged point, we’re indie devs, we don’t have a ton of experience, no one really knows us. I don’t want people to look at the game and kind of look down on it. Of course, they could also look down on it and say that [we] priced it poorly. So that’s one thing, but then there’s two other smaller ones. I mentioned the regions. Although it could be $5 in the U.S., it’ll be like 30 cents in India – and don’t hold me to that, because I’m bad with the currency conversions. Just because of the way the dollar and the rupee interact. It could even be less than 30 cents. We’ll probably get some of those volume sales in other countries at a really, really low discount. But then, for the U.S. it’s one of the richer countries, I feel like we can get away with more.
TR: Well, that’s the way the market works. Games in Russia are priced at 10% of their Western price. If it’s a $60 game, it prices for the equivalent of $6 in rubles. And if they didn’t do that, you know what would happen? Russians don’t give a damn, they would pirate it. And they still pirate it a lot, because after the USSR folded they had no money and their economy was in shambles. It’s not a big surprise.
FD: That’s definitely an element of it. We can charge U.S. gamers because we could take legal action but then there’s people we can’t go after in Venezuela so it’s like, ah whatever. Although no, we’re not gonna sue anybody. Regions are definitely a part of this. Even in China, I don’t think the game will be like two dollars. Just because, again, it’s this currency conversion. I think it was like $1.75 we talked about. It’s really weird but that’s an amount of money that makes sense in yuan. Oh, and the other thing I didn’t mention was sales of the game. I think a reason to price things high at the beginning is because you’ve got to leave yourself a little bit of room for a sale. So, a 99 cent game is super-cool, that’s the bargain bin price. But the problem is then a half-off sale doesn’t matter as much so it’s almost like you can’t quite use the sale as a coercion tool. That sounds really bad. If a game goes from $60 to $19.99, you say to yourself, “Wow, I gotta buy it this weekend or I’m just a dummy.” And it’s like you said, you spend a ton on these sales. But, if it went from like 99 cents to 49 cents, eh. That’s not really gonna make someone tip over the fence. I definitely think giving yourself that room, being able to have the game at five dollars, maybe it goes on sale. Two years after launch, maybe it goes down to $1 permanently and you have legacy sales. I like to have room to breathe. I don’t think you could ever really raise the price after you launch unless you bundle some kind of expansion pack into it.
TR: Well actually, we do have a real-world example from that. Paradox did that exact same thing. They raised prices for their games without necessarily adding new content because of the ways currencies changed and it pissed off a lot of people. And then they rolled it all back and [they issued refunds]. I think you’re completely right about all of that, you can’t just [raise the price arbitrarily]. More or less, your line of thinking: we don’t want people to think this is a piece of junk and we need room to be able to move downwards [in price for sales and eventual permanent reductions]. And from that perspective, now I totally get it a lot more. [It sounds like you’ve done a lot of research on the matter.]
FD: Thank you, I hope so. Otherwise, I’m making a big mistake. [laughs]
TR: [laughs] We’ll find out in seven [or] eight months, hopefully.
FD: Oh God.
TR: Good luck, one way or another. Is there anything else you’d like to get out to our audience about you, your game, anything like that?
FD: There’s the kind of rote stuff like, “Oh, follow us!” We do a dev blog every Tuesday. If you want to follow our progress, it’s up to you how much you follow. Newsletters get sent out really infrequently but then there’s Facebook, Twitter, and our blog. And you can always tweet us, we will tweet back. Comment on YouTube videos. But about the game itself… I would say, give the story a chance. That might sound cryptic now, but it is a bit shocking. It may disturb people. Definitely give it a chance when you see it and keep on pushing through because there is a point to it. It can rub people the wrong way. And don’t be confused. Kids can play this, the gameplay’s fine for kids, but the story is definitely not for younger kids. I don’t want to get like, YouTube comments like, “Oh man, my four year old played this and saw some weird stuff, what’s wrong with you?!” I do worry about that a little bit because it looks so cartoony, people might…
TR: Have the wrong idea.
FD: You’ll hear a lot about like, “Oh, we played Monument Valley as a family and my four year old played it and grandma played it.” That’s awesome, that’s super cool. Our game is rated M.
TR: So if it were rated, it’d be rated E and not EC.
TR: Early Childhood. That’s for the people you said should avoid it entirely.
FD: Uh, I think it’s rated M, just the demo.
FD: Yeah. Now that’s a weird thing with mobile stores, you kind of fill out your own survey. It was like, “Does your game have this?” and “How bad is it?” and they give you four options. [A question might be] “Does your game have gambling”, [and the options would be] “Not a lot of gambling”, “Some gambling”, “Tons of gambling”, and “The whole game’s about gambling”. So yeah, based on my responses to those questions, that’s what it spit out. What I’ll do though, when the game is at a more finished state – especially the story sequences – I’m gonna return to that survey, probably talk with some people at Apple about it, and just ask, “What do you guys think?” I overshoot things, I’m kind of cautious. I wouldn’t want us to get pulled from the store because people are like, “Whoa, you should have answered this question this way.” That could be me just being too cautious.
TR: [The South Park movie intentionally put an overabundance of raunchy humor to give the MPAA things to cut so they could keep the stuff they really wanted in. I feel like] giving yourself a little bit of room to play when it comes to ratings and stuff like that.
FD: Wow, I’d never heard that. And just to explain the philosophy behind that, I realize that’s another thing that could hurt sales. People see this game, it looks like it’s for kids, and then they see like a T rating or an M rating. But, you know, my response there is that since we are so small we do have to put something in our game that’s gonna make people talk about it and share it and ask questions. It’s a gamble I’m making here – we may lose some of the early childhood buyers who are buying apps for their kids, but we may gain a little bit of attention from people who like stories in games and kind of want a more adult story than some puzzle games have where it’s just like “Oh, you got to the end of the puzzle and the world was happy. Great.”
TR: [laughs] That’s completely fair. Alright then, I guess that’s it then. Thanks for your time.
Following my conversation with Mr. DiCola, I took a crack at playing the Where Shadows Slumber demo (which is out for both iOS and Android). The first few levels established the concept of the game pretty concisely – use your lantern to create shadows which change things in the world. I breezed through most of the levels at a reasonable pace until I hit the very last level in the demo – that’s the point where I really had to slow down and think for a good bit.
The demo of Where Shadows Slumber was an interesting experience that I enjoyed. Judging by my conversation with Frank DiCola, it’s evident to me that a lot of love and care has gone into this game by everyone involved in the project. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for it when it releases sometime in Spring 2018. Be sure to check them out on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. To stay apprised of the game’s progress and see what’s new, you can head on over to their official website.
What do you think of Where Shadows Slumber? Does the idea of a puzzle game where shadows can change the world intrigue you? What other games with reality-warping elements do you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!