Corey Cole - Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption interview

Corey Cole - Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption interview
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 Cole

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.

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Jun 5, 2015

“Our actual project budget was $650K, which would have required raising $1 million on Kickstarter,”
It feels like this number has changed multiple times. And it just keeps boiling down to that they asked for less than what they needed, and they knew it. So is 100k what they actually need now? Far as i can tell from the breakdown on their kickstarter update, they calculated this 100k against their deficit without accounting for: additional physical costs and kickstarter fees.

Corey Cole Corey Cole
Jun 6, 2015

@zane - It is what we need, *not* the project budget. Currently Transolar Games owes Lori and me a little over $100,000. We of course keep our personal accounting completely separate from the company’s accounting.

Let’s say we exactly reach the $100,000 Kickstarter goal. About $10,000 will go back to Kickstarter in fees, and rewards will cost us about $20,000. (That number may be less, as most of our backers are choosing all-digital rewards that are inexpensive for us.) But let’s use the higher number.

That’s $70,000 that goes into the company, instead of coming out of our pockets. Since our pockets are empty, that means in turn that we don’t have to take out additional loans. The project’s burn rate is about $7,000 a month, so $70,000 translates directly into ten additional months of development without us having to get additional loans. That will get us at least into beta.

Our calculated budget pre-Kickstarter was $650K, and we really hoped to make that much. When it became clear we couldn’t, I talked myself into believing we could do the game for $400K. After the team fell apart in January, not long after the Kickstarter ended, I recalculated everything and decided we needed at least another $300K on top of the $350K we had from Kickstarter after their fees. So at that point the budget was back to $650K.

I asked the investors for $500K to give us a safety margin and to pay for marketing that wasn’t in the original budget. When that fell through, I tried to get SBA bank loans, but the banks weren’t interested since we had no current cash flow (the Kickstarter funds didn’t count for them). Eventually I got the home equity loan instead. Having spent six months chasing funds, I decided that we would try to fund the game ourselves until we had enough to show that we could come back to Kickstarter.

So, no, this Kickstarter will not fund the rest of the project. It won’t get us out of debt, and it won’t allow us to draw salaries even at the $20/hour level we originally planned. But it will give us enough time to finish the game. With luck, we’ll sell a few copies and at least reduce our losses.

Is there still a market for Quest for Glory style games? Our fans say so, but only 7,000 out of more than 250,000 Quest for Glory players have supported us so far. We will need at least 20,000 full-price sales to make anything from 3-1/2 years of work.

Jun 6, 2015

Yeah.. i get that more is better than not more.
But just really hoping to avoid hearing “we only got 70k out of the 100k, what we really needed was 200k, but we asked for 100k because it was obtainable.. and we didnt even really get that”

Corey Cole Corey Cole
Jun 6, 2015

Sure, zane, but we’ll be fine with the minimum goal this time - the game is much farther advanced and more predictable after 2.5 years of development. In 2012 we “had a clue”, but didn’t have everyone on the same page. Now we have a dedicated team of people who really care about the game. We know what we can and can’t do in one year.

There’s still a possibility of slippage, of course, because Lori and I have a more difficult writing job than ever before. She relied on programmers to script previous games; this time she’s doing most of the dialogue scripting herself, while I focus on other messages and object behavior. So we’re going to get this game done as quickly as we can, but some parts take a lot of care.

Financially, the minimum $70K funding from this Kickstarter takes us out of the “red zone” of needing to tap out every credit card and life insurance policy to finish the game. That’s good enough for us. We have untapped resources that will ensure we can produce and ship all the rewards once the game is finished. Our risk is high; the risk of failing to complete the game is very low.

Jun 6, 2015

Game development is a tough biz.  Good interview that shed more light on what the difference between estimates and reality can be.  I do not blame the devs much for all this.  It sounds like they are doing everything possible to get the game to the finish line and meet their promise to all the backers even at great personal sacrifice.  I wish them luck on meeting the timeline to finish it up and get it released.  Going into that much debt for a project is quite scary, I wish them luck!

Orange Brat
Jun 10, 2015

Interesting read. I don’t think the bloom has fallen off the KS rose at least in general terms. There’s a game on there right now that’s getting ready to break the $4 million mark with an original $500K funding goal. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is from the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night guy and he’s bringing David Hayter and alot of that crew along. There’s lot of KS games raking it in at least based off what I’m seeing. Now, how many of those are going to get released is anyone’s guess. I think Bloodstained will have zero problems, since it seems they also have non-KS backing based off the KS video (they wouldn’t fund unless they saw that the community would back it…I think they have spoken).

Orange Brat
Jun 10, 2015

” No major Kickstarter game has ever been built solely on the funds from its minimum goal.”

I wouldn’t say that’s an absolute certainty. The word “major” is broad and subjective. I’m sure there are plenty of large, major, big, humongous, etc., Grin games that have been made that used that minimum goal wisely. It comes down to execution I suppose.

Advie Advie
Jun 10, 2015

a great approach of AdventureGamers (as always) to clear the air toward a certain issue or project.
thanks Jack for the effort.

Corey Cole Corey Cole
Jun 10, 2015

@Orange Brat - No problem - I invite you to find one. I said “major Kickstarter game” to be safe, but the statement probably still holds if you change it to “game”. A major industry executive told me the other day that he has read many game post-mortems, and in every single one the game exceeded its original schedule and budget.

The only reason I used “major” is that many smaller projects do not count any cost for labor. If several developers spend several years on a project, even part-time, that has a real cost in human effort and should be counted.

Also note I said “minimum goal”. For Broken Age, that was $400,000. The game ended up costing around $6 million. For Bloodstained, the goal was $500K - The developers have publicly stated that’s less than 10% of the budget.

So I invite you - Find me a single counter-example to my original statement. I’ve posted this publicly before, and haven’t found a taker. I am very willing to have my hypothesis disproven - that’s science - but nobody has managed it yet.

Jun 10, 2015

has any “major” game kickstarter just barely made its goal ? Wink
Major implies they get major funding and if they didnt then they werent major. So its a trick question Wink

Corey Cole Corey Cole
Jun 10, 2015

@zane: Of course they have. Hero-U is a major game. We asked for $400,000, got pledges of $409,150, and actually received about $407K. SpaceVenture asked for $500K and got slightly under $540K. Pinkerton Road asked for $300K and got $435K (quite a bit over their minimum, but not a huge amount).

I’ll define major as any project with a $150K or larger goal. But I didn’t post anything about whether the project “just barely made its goal”; my comment referred to whether the project budget came in under that goal. Not only has that not happened, but I doubt many of them came in under the actual funding level. I’m certain of the first, merely consider the latter as “probable”.

All games run late and over budget. I’ve come close on a few of them - Hero’s Quest was only a month late, and as far as I know had no budget (but we blew out the disk budget, using at least 3 more disks than Sierra expected and driving up the cost of goods for the game). Quest for Glory II was only two months late, but cost more than double what Sierra spent on Hero’s Quest and used even more disks.

Castle of Dr. Brain was on time and under budget - I know of no other game produced by any team while I was at Sierra that could say that. Mixed-Up Fairy Tales came close.

Jun 12, 2015

I was one of those in doubt in 2012. Today I’m a believer. Not because of the graphics change, but because the concept sunk in a bit more. I love the return to the ‘hero’ focus of the series being front and center. The whole Hero-U concept is much better than I gave it credit for in 2012.

That said, with the Hero’s Quest community I speak with, most of us did minimal funding of the first KS mostly only because we wanted to thank the Coles for impacting our lives. I don’t know anyone personally who liked what they saw in the 2012 campaign. I still wonder if that was the correct motivation. A better concept could’ve drawn in a lot more initial funding, so seeing the initial KS fail may not have been all that bad.

Overall though, we felt watching something fail would brand future efforts too negatively and spiral.

Today, one thing people are missing is that this game will give the Coles a new franchise to build on. That in itself is worth money, and all the groundwork being put in today will make subsequent games much easier to predict for dev time and increase the profitability over game 1.

I only have one complaint with today’s game other than not being finished. I dislike the art style as much as the original concept. I prefer the colorful cartoonish look of QFG1/2. EGA wasn’t too bad if you ask me. Something was lost with VGA and onwards. Same with losing the text parser.

That’s not a big deal though, and I’m looking forward to playing the game.

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