March 24, 2011 9:00 PM | Tim W.
The Vancouver-based Klei Entertainment made its name with downloadable titles including Eets: Chowdown and Shank, both of which taught the studio important lessons about achieving success as an indie developer.
Shank, the company's most recent title, payed homage to the classic side-scrolling beat-em-up by combining traditional arcade mechanics and fast-paced action with a bold 2D visual style.
Jamie Cheng, CEO of Klei Entertainment and executive producer on Shank, admits the game did not become a runaway hit, though the title gave the studio plenty of experience and resources to direct at its future endeavors.
After completing work on Shank, Cheng has taken a slightly more business-oriented role at Klei as the company transitions into its next big project.
Gamasutra sat down with Cheng to discuss Shank's post-launch success, how publishers influence indie marketing, the state of the downloadable market, and more.
Let's talk a bit about Shank and how it did for you guys, and how you feel about it post launch. It didn't exactly become a huge blockbuster, right?
No, Shank wasn't a huge blockbuster, but it did do well for everybody involved. You never go out expecting to make a blockbuster. I don't believe that that's something that as a developer we do. One day if we have a blockbuster, great. But we're just here to make the games.
Shank really set us up for the next thing. We're not talking about what the next thing is right now, but what I can say is for sure, it was huge learning experience, and you read all about that in the postmortem we did for Game Developer magazine.
You previously discussed how you're transitioning into even more of a business-oriented role. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Yeah. It's not quite correct to say that I'm just doing business, because we are still pretty darn small. We're apparently at around 20 people, and we may end up at around 30. That's still quite small, so it's nothing like what you might expect a business person to be like.
I am still very much involved in each and every project. I'm there every day playing those games and making sure that it's doing well. But it does free up time for me to be able to take care of the business and build that culture, which is really, really important. I think that the best companies always a have a fantastic culture, and that's not by accident. That's built on purpose.
How do you approach the marketing side? With smaller and more independent developers, there's been a whole lot more ability to market in different weird ways, like all those pay-what-you-want deals and the like. Have these alternative marketing strategies entered into your consideration at all?
With marketing, we work with publishers often. So we're working in tandem with them, but a lot of the times they just let us do whatever it is that we want to do, whatever it is that we need to do. So that's great. I do have a little bit more freedom on games I distribute myself, I self publish.
So for example, Eets just came out on the Mac last November; it's actually done very well for us. Being able to again put it on sale on Steam and have it have visibility again and have people re-experience the game is great. I'm still getting comments now, saying, "Hey, I missed out on that game. It's awesome." There's talk on putting it on more platforms and more channels. It's fantastic, five years later.
It's always an issue for everybody including independents, including publishers. How do you get your name out there? How do you get the title out? I don't have the answer to that. I am definitely trying to focus more.
Yeah. One thing you said in the Game Developer magazine postmortem was you find that when you're pitching to a publisher, they often support your game with marketing as much as people already know about it. How can one orchestrate that kind of thing?
That's if you are an unknown entity. It's different, obviously, if you have a name or a backing or a track record. Those are all things that can help you. But I see publishers normally as a multiplier on my marketing efforts. So if I have zero marketing efforts, then you multiply that and you still get zero.
How do we do it? Again, I don't really have the answer, but we did it. It worked well for Shank, because it's a very visual game. As soon as you see it, you know what it is. Eets was not that. It was a completely different experience with Shank. People would walk by at conventions and then they'd stop and stare.
With Shank you mean?
With Shank, exactly. And with Eets, they'd just walk right be and be like, "What the hell is that? It makes no sense." So that helped us a lot. Not every game can be marketed that way. It worked for us, and the demo that we showed was fantastic because, again, it's one of those games where you can just pick it up and you know exactly what's going on. And I enjoy marketing those games because it makes my life easier.
Changing gears a bit, how do you feel about the game industry in Vancouver right now? There's a lot of talent now in Montreal and Toronto as well.
Talking to all the different people in the Vancouver area, all the different people who are running the studios, we all agree that Vancouver's not dying, it's simply changing. It's always been a hub for game development so you can see that change quite plainly in that area. I don't think anybody would disagree that doing massive retail box games is the way to go to. I think that the rewards are only there for a very small number of people.
So, these companies shutting down and laying people off, I think that it's just a facet of that change. I don't know what the scenario is going to be. The worst case is that all this talent goes away. As even as my studio, I want that talent to be in Vancouver. I want these companies to succeed.
So digital distribution is obviously a direction that you want to go. How do you feel about that on console compared to PC platforms and browser stuff? Where do you fall on that? Because the 3DS is going to eventually have a marketplace, and the NGP is going to be very download-oriented.
Yes. In regard to the 3DS and NGP, we'll see what happens. I'm not in the initial push for those. That's not what I do. For all of these different platforms in terms of console and PC and iPhone and all that, they all coexist well, and I think it's always weird to me when people say things like, "This is the platform to be in, this is the one, the other ones suck", it just doesn't make any sense to me. They all coexist quite well and they actually lift everybody up.
The games that we made, Shank specifically, rather not the games we made, Eets was a very PC oriented game and putting that on Xbox was unnatural, honestly. It was a good game but it was an unnatural thing. Shank is a console game and when we put it on PC we recommend that people play it with a controller because it plays way better with a controller than with a keyboard.
My take is that I don't really have a preferred platform I guess, besides that we will build our games for the right platform. We build the right games for the right platforms and we come up with our own ideas and we make our own games. That's what our studio is about, so the more platforms, the better for us.