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The Failure Workshop: How four studios built success from defeat


Succeeding in the indie game industry often takes years of patience, personal sacrifice and Ramen, a lifestyle often not discussed in popular stories of underground triumph and million-unit sales. The Failure Workshop at GDC aims to highlight the failures of otherwise successful studios, this year from Supergiant Games, Klei Entertainment, Enemy Airship and Northway Games.

We've listed the lessons from each below:

Jamie Cheng, Klei Entertainment (Shank, Eets)

After Eets and before Shank, in 2006, Klei began working on Sugar Rush, a second game in the Eets universe. It was greenlit by Nexon America, but was dropped two weeks before it was set to launch. Klei then tried to pitch it to consoles, but that fell through as well. During this process, Sugar Rush went through five art changes, three closed betas and a name change -- Scrappers -- transforming from a marshmallow-inspired character design, to tween, to adult, to mature and finally to cool, and all of it canceled for good in 2010.

Sugar Rush's failure stemmed from Klei's lack of conviction with the title, studio co-founder Jamie Cheng said. Klei didn't know exactly what it wanted Sugar Rush to be, meaning feedback from every beta tester and publishing partner affected its development dramatically. However, success did come from Sugar Rush's failure.

"Shank never would have happened without this," Cheng said.

Amir Rao, Supergiant Games (Bastion)

Supergiant was so excited about gardening in Bastion that it spent an entire year crafting levels with planters, designing various vegetation and building an item system based on planting seeds, only to realize the entire thing was simply an over-complicated, convoluted way to implement a menu. Supergiant's Amir Rao played a clip of Logan Cunningham as Rucks the narrator, describing the gardening functions in his low, drawling tones.

"Find a shoe?" Cunningham's voice boomed, "Plant it. Find a boot? Plant it. Find a Milli Vanilli cassette tape? Plant it."

At the end of his segment, Rao teased another domestic function he's excited to potentially explore -- baking.

Scott Anderson, Enemy Airship (Shadow Physics)

Shadow Physics was set to be the next Braid on XBLA, developer Scott Anderson said, but eight months ago it lost all of its backing from Indie Fund and was officially canned. The concept for Shadow Physics was solid -- manipulating light on walls to enable walkways and puzzles for the singular, shadowy character -- but in gameplay, it simply wasn't fun, Anderson said.

As the title gained mainstream attention, Anderson and Enemy Airship co-founder Steve Swink became motivated by external rewards, such as fame and money -- classic indie rockstar trappings. Shadow Physics suffered from a communications "grin orgy," Anderson said, and had no champion to save it after the money disappeared.

Colin Northway, Northway Games (Fantastic Contraption)

Colin Northway described the trap that he said many indie developers fall into, when they begin a game with a concept they love, figure out it doesn't work in physical reality, and repeat to themselves, "I just need one more thing to make this work...." Apparently, that's a bad move, as Northway tried it with three titles, including Flocking and Clutter. Neither worked on a screen as they did in his head, and they eventually crashed and burned.

Currently, Northway is working on Incredipede, which is taking off smoothly, he said.

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