Corey Cole - Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption interview
Way back in October 2012, we were all still living the dream. Double Fine had blown the doors open to the Kickstarter craze, and beloved adventure game developers were re-emerging right, left, and center with new projects proposed. Among the acclaimed designers to appear once again were Lori and Corey Cole. Creators of the Quest for Glory series with Sierra, for decades their games remained (at least to that point) a one-of-a-kind blend of classic adventure and roleplaying elements. So when they announced that Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption would be the spiritual successor of QFG, the news was greeted enthusiastically by the adventure community, with more than 6,000 backers contributing over $400,000 through crowdfunding to make it a reality. Life was good.
But that was then, and this is now. Since that time, the bloom has fallen from the Kickstarter rose, and Hero-U has gone through many challenges that now threaten the future of such a once-promising prospect. There's been plenty of progress, as seen in the two playable demos available, but despite the best efforts of the Coles to nurse a shoestring budget as far as it would go, it wasn't enough, forcing them back to Kickstarter a second time to see the game through to completion.
Naturally, this has raised some questions (and some predictable outrage from a vocal minority) about the management of the project and the transparency of a process that clearly didn't work as intended. So what really happened with Hero-U, and what can we expect going forward? Who better to ask than Corey Cole himself, who graciously answered all our questions even as we held his feet to the fire.
Adventure Gamers: Before we wade into the minefield of Kickstarter issues, let’s start with the basics. For those who perhaps missed the Quest for Glory craze and don’t know much about Hero-U, please give us an overview of what the game’s all about.
Corey Cole: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is the first game of a new roleplaying-adventure game series set in the Hero University. In this first game, you play as Shawn O’Conner, a would-be thief who is trying to “go straight” and become a heroic rogue. In each game, you will play a different student at the University with a unique history and skills. The story is a mystery in a fantasy setting on a Mediterranean island.
Hero-U is the spiritual successor to our award-winning Quest for Glory games. Both series are unusual in that they feature a mixture of “adventure game” and “RPG” play. Hero-U feels like a point-and-click adventure game with substantial exploration and dialogue. Under the skin, we are using RPG mechanics to track your character’s reputation with other characters, stats such as Smarts and Fitness, and skills such as Tool Use and Combat.
The latter comes into play when your character ventures into the cellars, caves, and dungeons beneath the old castle that houses Hero-U. Combat is tactical, involving positioning, traps, and throwing weapons as much as melee. It is also mostly avoidable for players who prefer to play a stealth game or more as a straight adventure game.
AG: Okay, so in October 2012, you told the world that $400,000 worth of crowdfunding would be enough to make Hero-U a reality sometime in 2013. We’re now well into 2015, and not only is the game not finished, but you’re back asking for more. Obvious question: what happened between then and now?
Corey: Great question! First, I was totally off on the estimated release date, and I apologize for that. At the same time, I followed in the footsteps of such illustrious projects as Double Fine Adventure (Broken Age), SpaceVenture, Project Eternity, and… well, more than 90% of all Kickstarter game projects. All of us were ridiculous optimists basing our estimates on old data (how long it took to make a 16-color game in 1990).
Our estimated date should have been closer to Oct. 2014 than Oct. 2013, but it would still be optimistic. Our budget has had a huge impact on the schedule, with several key team members leaving because we could not afford their standard contract rates and they need to feed their families.
As for the budget, there were three issues:
1. Our actual project budget was $650K, which would have required raising $1 million on Kickstarter. Due to the success of Double Fine Adventure, we thought that was possible. However, we knew that setting that as a minimum goal on Kickstarter was a recipe for failure. No large game has ever been made with just its minimum Kickstarter goal – that is just a starter.
2. The original project plan called for modifying an existing game and making a simple dungeon crawl to which we would add story and dialogue. That plan became impossible when we could not afford to pay the original developer for full-time work. More importantly, many of our most vocal backers made it clear that they really wanted a game that looked more like Quest for Glory.
3. I based the $650K budget on our earlier projects and estimates from our lead developer. I based the $400K minimum goal on an analysis of other successful Kickstarter projects. Kickstarter pays zero to developers who miss their funding goal.
If we had received $700K or more from Kickstarter, the project would have been fully funded as long as Lori and I took no salary. As we received only $400K, we had enough to make a strong start on the project, after which we would need additional investment, a publisher deal, or a second Kickstarter.
This is the case for every major Kickstarter game. Bloodstained is currently live asking for $500,000; the project creator has publicly stated that the project goal will cover only 10% of the game budget. No major Kickstarter game has ever been built solely on the funds from its minimum goal.
I’ve posted some of our numbers in campaign updates (such as this one) – I think players have a right to know the real cost of developing a high-quality game.
AG: At what point did you realize that your Kickstarter funding wasn’t going to be enough to get the game completed?
Corey: Before we started, and I believe I was very clear about this in project updates. Our project budget of $650K covered one year of full-time work from the lead developer, a second programmer, several artists, a musician, and ourselves as designers/writers/administrators. The $400K Kickstarter goal was a kickSTARTER, not the entire project budget.
We talked to a media investment group in mid 2013 about getting an additional $500K in investment. We didn’t like the deal they proposed (it would have killed any chance of making the second game), so we reverted to the plan of building some prototypes and coming back to Kickstarter. In hindsight, I could have negotiated more with them and perhaps made a mutually acceptable deal. I do not rule out taking outside investments later if we get a more acceptable offer.
AG: There is surely a lot of naïve public opinion about the cost and potential pitfalls of game development, but I suspect most people can sympathize with unanticipated problems that set scheduling back and create unforeseen costs, which has clearly happened to Hero-U. And it’s obvious from your personal sacrifices that you’ve been totally committed to the project from the start, so no one should doubt your effort and dedication to getting Hero-U made, and made well.
The troubling disconnect comes from the fact that you led people to believe your initial target would be enough. In your own words, you said: “Our goal is the minimum budget with which we can make a high-quality game.” That doesn’t seem to leave any room for an unwritten “…but really we’ll need more, and we know that already” proviso. You’re quite right that other games have had to supplement Kickstarter totals with other funding. The difference is that campaigns like Broken Sword and Tesla Effect were transparent about the fact, and found such funding elsewhere without double-dipping on Kickstarter.
Believe me, I get why you set your initial crowdfunding goal as you did. It surely was the only way it was going to succeed. And if fudging the numbers ultimately means the difference between Hero-U or no Hero-U, perhaps the ends justifies the means. Nevertheless, it does seem to be fundamentally dishonest to the very people supporting you, no?
Corey: No, not in the least. “Dishonest” implies bad faith, and we have never had that. I can accept naive, possibly even foolish. I can also accept that my phrasing was poor; however I did believe at the time that we could make a minimal game from $400,000 Kickstarter funding. The key was that we would not make a full game from scratch – we would get $250,000 value from leveraging a previous game. And that’s where we started the campaign – here’s one of our first concept pieces:
By the start of the Kickstarter, we had already decided we had to go beyond the top-down look of MacGuffin’s Curse. We knew that would add some complexity and cost to development, but we also knew we needed to do it. However, backers made it clear they weren’t impressed. To make our Kickstarter goal, we had to do more. Here’s a concept piece we shared near the end of the campaign:
We still intended to build it up out of tiles, but a quick glance will show that there would have been so many tiles, we probably would have been better off doing each scene as a full painting. That’s fine for a traditional adventure game with say 40 or 50 scenes, but not so good for an RPG that can have 150 or 200 scenes counting all the sections of dungeons and such.
We might have been able to create multiple scenes like this with a few hundred tiles, but it would still have been a major expense increase from our beginning-of-campaign intentions. Still, we felt we had no choice. Potential backers were not supporting the campaign, and many gave the quality of the art as a reason. Lori and I also of course wanted to make a better-looking game.
Here’s what the game looks like now. This is full 3D, allowing us to reuse textures and make arbitrarily large areas (the scene continues off-screen with multiple alcoves containing practice equipment).
This is the actual budget spreadsheet I made before the Kickstarter (but with a modified “Goal” column to reflect the actual pledges we received):
There was a problem with these projections, but it came down to bad communication rather than dishonesty. We based them on three projects – our Shannara and two indie games developed by the lead programmer. We would have to roll back developer rates to 1995 levels to manage that, but everyone (including the programming and art leads, and Lori and myself) seemed to be ok with it.
After the Kickstarter funded, the programming lead admitted that he needed to make more than twice what we had budgeted to meet his living expenses. He initially agreed to work half-time on the project, but then a full-time contract came along at his normal full rate, and he couldn’t do both jobs. With a family to feed, he dropped out. We also had some personality and style conflicts between two senior artists that led to one of them leaving the project.
So, you may ask, was the project budget $400K or $650K? The earlier one I made showed $650K as a reasonable project budget. I came up with the one above based on the funding we might actually receive.
$400K was practical if everyone worked at 1995 employee (as opposed to contractor) pay rates, we made the game look a lot like MacGuffin’s Curse, and kept art and new programming to a minimum.
It was impractical once we switched the art look to isometric tiles, and it was completely blown out of the water once we lost two key team members and found we could not get any leverage from the existing source code. All this happened after we locked in the Kickstarter funding goal.
We could probably have started over, using AGS with myself and one other scripter. What we would not have gotten was the game we wanted to make – a true adventure/RPG hybrid with both typical adventure game “rooms” and RPG-style mazes. That would have been financially prudent, but it wouldn’t have resulted in the game we had promised and wanted to make.
But really, the details don’t matter. Every project has issues like these. Every game is late; every game is over-budget. The bigger the game, the more it runs over budget. Could Broken Age have been made, along with the documentary, for its original $400K goal? Of course not! They received $3.3 million and it was only a down-payment for the game they eventually made.
Indies and big publishers play by different rules. Publishers never raise money to make a particular game. They fund the company with a combination of investments and profits from previous games, then they allocate resources to each new project. If the game runs late – as all of them do – they add more team members and more money. They also cancel many games after months or years of development.
Lori and I could not cancel Hero-U; that would violate the trust of our backers. Besides, we could see the potential gradually appearing in game builds, and we believe in the game.
Instead we chose to make a serious personal sacrifice by putting all of the game design and administrative budget into 3D characters and animation from a professional art house. In effect this meant that not only would Lori and I stop taking a salary, but we would have to pay all of our first year’s salary back to the company to continue development, and we would also have to go farther into debt. We do not have publisher or investor funding, nor do we have deep pockets with which to fund an over-budget game.
What we do have is a far better game than we originally set out to make. While we were struggling with programming issues, our artists kept working and keep making more beautiful game art.
AG: So now you’re asking people to believe that the new Kickstarter goal of $100,000 is going to be enough. So two questions: after all the production setbacks so far, how can YOU be sure that number will be enough, and how can the public be expected to believe it after being burned the first time?
Corey: $100,000 isn’t going to be enough, if by that you mean will it bring the project back to break-even. It is enough to help us finish the game, with compromises. Our actual income from just meeting the $100K goal will be about $70K after fees and reward fulfillment. That will cut our current debt in half. The project will still run at least $200K over budget with that money, and we will fund that deficit with personal loans.
A better way of looking at it is that the additional $70K will pay for 7-10 months of development. By cutting every non-essential part of the game, $70K will get us to a released game. If the project overfunds, we will be in a more comfortable position – still in debt, but certain that we have time to test and refine every feature of the game.
Where we are now is completely different from where we were in 2012. Back then we had only the concept of a game and a plan for making it with a particular team. Now we have a huge number of art resources, a much more sophisticated and robust scripting tool, and a number of very dedicated developers who are willing to work at 1995 rates or even postpone their pay until after game release because they care about and believe in the game.
If we run a few months later because of new challenges, Lori and I still have enough untapped debt resources that we can finish the game.
We will finish Hero-U because it is our life currently. If we can sell 10K copies at full retail, that will wipe out most of the debt. If we sell another 10K copies, we’ll actually have gotten the equivalent of our 1990 salaries. We might not hit those numbers, and will remain in debt, but we’ll have contributed something worthwhile to the world in the form of a good game that is about heroes rather than bloodshed.
While this is scary for a partially self-funded indie developer, it’s exactly how the wider game industry works. 90% of games fail or barely break even. The few major successes fund the other games. Developers who raise even less than we did (think $50,000 or less in many cases) are self-funding all of the development time and effort. They and several friends might work on a game two or more years. Only after it becomes successful do they have any funding to pay themselves and those friends. We’re all betting that our games will do enough to break out of that “win or starve” cycle.
AG: You’re obviously experienced game developers, but perhaps not nearly as experienced as game producers (and certainly not in the modern era). What would you do differently if you could go back and start again with the benefit of hindsight?
Corey: Realistically, I’d have written a tabletop Pathfinder game supplement and asked for a few thousand dollars on Kickstarter to fund it. That would be the equivalent of getting a publisher advance to write a book.
If we were brave enough to make a full computer game, we would have posted a different sort of Kickstarter – We would have asked for perhaps $100K or $150K with which to make a game prototype with which we could get full funding.
We would tell backers from the first that we were not making a full game. Pathfinder Online was very successful with this approach, first launching a campaign for a Tech Demo, then another one for the full service. Of course, that wasn’t the model anyone else used in 2012, and never occurred to us back then.
As for game production experience, we had it except in one respect that I now realize is critical: We had a publisher funding our last “indie” game. We did not have to empty our own pockets to make the game. Everything else, we did ourselves – hiring programmers and artists, negotiating a contract for the music, design, writing, administration. It was a year of 60-hour weeks, but it never came down to “find more funding now, or the lights go out.” I’ve heard the latter story from several friends who ran truly indie studios, and it is heartbreaking every time.
AG: How has your interaction with the public changed since the start of your first Kickstarter? Like any relationship, it all seemed so fresh and hopeful and new in the beginning, but the honeymoon is clearly long over and seems to be taking its toll on both sides.
Corey: The vast majority of our backers are very understanding. They know that we are doing everything we can – and making huge personal sacrifices – to make them a game worthy of the Quest for Glory legacy, but with 21st Century production standards. They know that takes a lot of time, and that time costs money.
As for critics, we’ve had some vocal ones both in 2012 and in 2015. We’ve done our best to treat everyone with respect and answer their concerns. As a result, some former critics have become our staunchest supporters.
AG: With all the development changes the game has undergone, the current version of Hero-U seems quite different than the initial concept. Can you clarify what aspects have been modified from the original plan and which remain?
Corey: The major changes are in graphics. The original plan was a top-down dungeon crawl with some text and dialogue to develop the story. Backers told us they wanted more. Our art director told us he wanted more. We wanted more. We think the current look is vastly better than our early prototypes.
While our artists created the game graphics, Lori detailed out the story to match the new environments. We ended up with a game the size of a Quest for Glory – over 50 locations and over 20 key characters. We also developed a sophisticated scripting system that allows us to create dialogue and other interactions that we could not dream of when we were making Quest for Glory.
Still, fundamentally, the game is the same as what we originally proposed. You play as a Rogue in a University for Heroes. You meet people and develop relationships, explore the University and underground areas, develop your skills, and fight monsters.
Only the details have changed – the graphical presentation and the sophistication level of conversation and combat. We’ve developed a complex reputation system that runs through all of your conversations with other characters. That “scripting” (creating all the paths and writing the dialogue) is very time-consuming and far beyond what we could do in Quest for Glory.
AG: What exactly is the status of the game at this point? What’s finished, what’s not, and how far along are the elements still in production?
Corey: Art is about 150% complete according to the original plan, which is to say about 80% complete with the new animation we intend to add and one 3D area that is still in progress. The player can walk around the entire University and the wine cellar, but we are refining all of the areas to make them look and play better. We also have a lot of work to do on refining combat, so I’d call programming 30%-40% complete. All of the basic design and story structure is done, but we have a great deal of writing and scripting to do. So 100% design, but 30% on writing and scripting.
The hardest parts are out of the way – we have a scripting system integrated into Unity, we’ve worked out the combat basics, UI, and object placement and handling. We think it will take 6-8 months to finish all the writing, scripting, and programming. After that we expect a 3-4 month testing and refining cycle. That’s the part that got shorted on some of our Sierra games, resulting in buggy releases.
We expect to complete development late this year, and have the game ready for release early next year.
AG: With your second Kickstarter still in need of one final push, the floor is yours to tell us why we should still have confidence in this project and support it if we’re able.
Corey: Hero-U is a gorgeous game being developed by a dedicated team of artists, programmers, and designers. It is going to be a great game and a completely different one from anything else out there. By supporting Hero-U, you are supporting our developers and casting a vote for games with real story, dialogue, humor, and beauty.
One of our backers has contributed almost $20,000 so far through PayPal and the new Kickstarter. He is doing this because Quest for Glory was personally important to him, and because he believes that Hero-U will be an important new game. Another fan contributed $10,000 to our first Kickstarter campaign because she believes in our vision, and our games and School for Heroes web site changed her life in positive ways.
Lori and I have personally gone without pay for two and one-half years, and it will take at least another year before Hero-U generates any sales income to let us pay ourselves. That’s a $700K risk compared to working at full-time jobs. We’re doing that because we believe in this game and think it’s a more worthwhile thing to do than helping another company make another first-person shooter or Facebook game.
So the question to ask is not, “Should I have confidence in this project?” We’ve already answered that question with the personal sacrifices we’ve made. The question should be, “Does this game sound like something I’d like to see?” Your support for Hero-U on Kickstarter is not a pre-order; it’s a vote for great storytelling games.
If you liked our previous games, or want to find out why we earned both Adventure Game of the Year and Role-Playing Game of the Year for the same game, you should be visiting our Kickstarter page and Hero-U web site to make your own decision about whether to back Hero-U. The only question should be, “Is this a game I want to see made?” We will repay your support by doing everything in our power to make Hero-U, and more importantly to make it a great, fun, beautiful game.
AG: Thanks for taking time to answer our questions, Corey, even if some were a bit uncomfortable. You can count many of us here at Adventure Gamers as huge fans of Quest for Glory (it’s not just any series that put two games on our Top 100 All-Time Adventure list), and whatever the bumps in the road to get it this far, we’d still love to see Hero-U succeed. So we wish you all the best in your latest Kickstarter endeavour, and look forward to playing the finished game early next year.