Two Million Sales to Freedom

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Two Million Sales to Freedom

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At this point, we all know the story: no-name indie developer with a fresh idea wrestles a game to market, makes his or her millions, and moves up in the world. It's hard not to love the concept - great games deserve great reward - but sometimes, it's just not that simple. When Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti formed Playdead to produce Limbo and wound up selling an unexpected two million copies, things should have been so straightforward. But they weren't. Two years after enjoying success that most new studios can scarcely dream of, Playdead has barely broken even. Nearly everything Jensen and Patti have earned has already been spent, just to keep their company from being sold out from under them.

The year is 2006, and Jensen and Patti had just joined forces to take Limbo from vision to product. The pair had initially planned to develop the game by themselves, but as its scope widened, both realized that additional capital would be needed to finance the game. At this point, Playdead had already been approached by numerous publishers, in some cases offering Jensen and Patti nearly anything they wanted in exchange for rights to the IP. Jensen, however, declined, claiming that publishers would never be able to afford them the freedom to allow for what he called "chaos and experimentation." "To me," he said, "these offers felt like a contract with the devil.

"I've never liked the idea of business people being in control of creative decisions, and I firmly believe that money and creativity shouldn't be mixed. Business people always want to measure progress but the fact is creativity cannot be measured."

Still, if Playdead was to produce the Limbo that Patti and Jensen had envisioned since forming the company, they'd still need the capital to finish production. With publishers off the table, the team was left with but one option: gathering independent investors to help finance the game instead. But while both Jensen and Patti ensured that any financiers they signed with couldn't alter the game, their backers' inexperience with game development proved a constant source of aggravation, forcing the team's attention toward coping with external pressures and wasting time with what Jensen considered "pointless and endless board meetings." Still, despite the hassles, Playdead was eventually able to reach its end goal, and by 2010, had created the Limbo it had always intended - even if they'd had to go through external business partners to get there.

"When we showcased the game to the public for the first time during GDC 2010, we got massive reactions and I became pretty confident about the potential success of the game," Patti said. And he was right. Though it had been impossible for him to know at the time, Limbo would go on to earn countless awards, including two during its initial outing at that very conference. In fact, within just one month of the game's release later that year, Limbo had already sold 300,000 copies, the same number Patti and Jensen had hoped to achieve from the game's entire lifecycle. Unfortunately, around the same time that Playdead's flagship game hit the spotlight at GDC, its financial partners made it clear that they had different plans for the company: they wanted to sell, a decision that would have put Patti and Jensen in the exact situation they'd partnered to avoid.

During the following years, Limbo sales exploded, eventually reaching nearly seven times initial estimates. But while their game was finding unexpected successes, Jensen and Patti were trapped in a struggle to achieve independence from the very people who'd helped fund it, and hold on to the company they'd built together.

Finally, by August of 2011, Jensen and Dino were able to make money enough from their once small project to take back both Limbo and Playdead, exhausting much of the profits their breakout hit had made them in the process. "It was a fight that lasted two years," Patti said," and cost us the majority of what we earned from Limbo. I still think it was worth it."

Now, with many of the initial proceeds of Limbo gone, and no interest in attracting a publishing parent, Playdead is once more just a small team of passionate people eager to create without the oversight of a third-party. While some may consider that trade a disappointment, to Jensen and Dino, it was worth it. "I am so proud of what we achieved," Jensen said. "With one game we earned our independence."

When Jensen says "earned," the term expands far beyond profits. Game development is an arena where both money and creativity forcibly collide, often compelling compromise to see a project grow from mere conception to completion. But where other designers have been forced to bend their ideas to meet the will of their funders, Playdead chose a route of sacrifice, willfully reinvesting the success of one vision to lay a boundless foundation for what, hopefully, can be countless others.

As for what's next? With a beautiful new collector's edition for Limbo just recently released, and a few years of development already under their belt for a top secret new project, Jensen, Patti, and their team of twenty are still hard at work on what will be Playdead's first truly independent game, set for tentative release in the next few years. And Jensen couldn't be happier about it. "Now that we have achieved what I have always been fighting for, to be uncompromising and independent," he said. "I feel like we have only just begun."

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Good for them. Glad to see an indie company of such greatness stay indie.

"I've never liked the idea of business people being in control of creative decisions, and I firmly believe that money and creativity shouldn't be mixed. Business people always want to measure progress but the fact is creativity cannot be measured."

Eaaarrghh.

That's a nice notion and all, but a bit of a silly one. If the creativity costs money then that bright, fluffy, angelic creativity is going to end up mixing with the sleazy, greasy, quantifiable money no matter what.

Still, I'm curious to see what they come out with next. Limbo was pretty cool.

Zhukov:
That's a nice notion and all, but a bit of a silly one. If the creativity costs money then that bright, fluffy, angelic creativity is going to end up mixing with the sleazy, greasy, quantifiable money no matter what.

Money and creativity should be a partnership, but one in which interference is minimal. You just let the other guy do their own thing; it's much like a marriage that way. The wife doesn't ask why the husband spends so much time at the all-male gym and the husband doesn't ask why the wife goes on so many business trips with her hot boss. Everyone's happy.

It works both ways, of course. The money guys shouldn't be meddling in the creative side, but neither should the creative guys be allowed to run rampant. Alan Moore wanted to release, with every copy of LXG: Black Dossier, a vinyl record of him singing metal songs or something which were set in-universe of the story. He was pretty much told "No, Alan, you nutty old bastard. That would bankrupt us and awesome as it is, nobody really has record players anymore"

Couldn't they have just taken all that money, quit, and started up a new company with actual money this time?

That seems a little more practical.

Zaik:
Couldn't they have just taken all that money, quit, and started up a new company with actual money this time?

That seems a little more practical.

It is about owning what is yours. I dunno I guess you would have to be a artist to get it. I would imagine the game is like their baby to have it taken away would be devastating.

There's a collector's edition of Limbo??

Mike Kayatta:

Unfortunately, around the same time that Playdead's flagship game hit the spotlight at GDC, its financial partners made it clear that they had different plans for the company: they wanted to sell, a decision that would have put Patti and Jensen in the exact situation they'd partnered to avoid.

They are either incredibly naive or incredibly arrogant. Why did they think people invested in the company in the first place? They wanted to make money, they took the risk that the game would suck and not make a profit on the bases that if the game was a success their share in the business would be worth more than they paid for it. Jensen and Dinos' attitude to their investors almost certainty convinced the investors that Jensen and Dino were not worth risking their current profits. If you bite the hand that feeds you don't be surprised when it stops feeding you.

Know what? Power to those guys. Gotta love it when someone stands up for what is theirs. I never played Limbo (despite owning it for a while) because of the hype-machine surrounding it, but I still hope these dudes do well. A great story to make up for a shitty day.

I am not sure I understand... They sold shares of the company to raise the required funds, and then bought them back after making the game, breaking even? The article isn't really clear at all for me, but maybe I am not familiar enough with how these things work...

Good on them. Support these guys going forward. :)

I always wonderded what made games so expensive to make. their are tons of free engines that you can use, and everything else can be made without money, I think.

I'll keep my ears peeled for more developments of this new game. I loved playing Limbo even if it was keyboard-pounding frustrating sometimes.

It started out like a pretty bleak article, but it ended up in a cheerful note. Even if they are "poor" they own what they love.
Good for them

A horrible business decision that risks all the material goods they've worked for, for the ability to do what they feel should be done.
Now that takes pride, and now I have huge respect for these guys.

Triaed:
It started out like a pretty bleak article, but it ended up in a cheerful note. Even if they are "poor" they own what they love.
Good for them

I doubt they are poor. If they own their company, than they probably could sell it for more money than I could ever make in my whole life. They probably don't have too much cash, though.

Am I the only one who didn't really like Limbo that much?

Anyway I'm sure with the recent flood of Kickstarter successes, these guys won't need to worry about funding.

Mike Kayatta:

Mumorpuger:
There's a collector's edition of Limbo??

Yeah, it's pretty nice, too: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/118208-Limbo-Special-Edition-Enters-The-Third-Dimension

How did I miss this? It was apparently reported on my favorite website, Escapistmagazine.com.

shinsei-J:
A horrible business decision that risks all the material goods they've worked for, for the ability to do what they feel should be done.
Now that takes pride, and now I have huge respect for these guys.

If they hadn't done this, they would probably have enough money to start their next project with more freedom, while now they'll probably be forced to search for investors again. It's not just a bad business decision, they probably harmed their next project, too, just for fear of what could happen to their game... After it was already done. So it's a matter of ownership, they felt that nobody should profit from their work, even if it cost them a lot of money.

Or maybe I still don't understand what's going on, since the article is obscure, and nobody answered my previous post about how this thing exactly worked.

Zaik:
Couldn't they have just taken all that money, quit, and started up a new company with actual money this time?

That seems a little more practical.

I'm not saying this is definitely true in this case, but when my aunt sold her film company she had to continue working for it for two years before she could walk. (It makes sense if you think about it; the people who build up a company are what makes it valuable.)

Of course, it may just be the case that they didn't want to lose the rights to Limbo!

mdqp:
I am not sure I understand... They sold shares of the company to raise the required funds, and then bought them back after making the game, breaking even?

That sounds like it to me. The main problem would have been that the shares had risen dramatically in value since they sold them. But you're right - the article is quite vague. Sounds almost like there were legals costs involved somewhere.

joonsk:
I always wonderded what made games so expensive to make. their are tons of free engines that you can use, and everything else can be made without money, I think.

Time. Software takes lots and lots of time. People's time costs money. That's what makes it expensive.

Even in the case of a doing-it-for-the-love-of-it indie game, you still need a team of people working on your project full time if you want to make a game with a decent scope (and not have it take so long that it loses momentum or becomes redundant before you release). Those people may love your project, but they still need to pay their rent, buy food, etc.

Small games with a very restricted scope can be done in people's free time (if they're willing to give it). But you couldn't create Mass Effect like that.

mdqp:

shinsei-J:
A horrible business decision that risks all the material goods they've worked for, for the ability to do what they feel should be done.
Now that takes pride, and now I have huge respect for these guys.

If they hadn't done this, they would probably have enough money to start their next project with more freedom, while now they'll probably be forced to search for investors again. It's not just a bad business decision, they probably harmed their next project, too, just for fear of what could happen to their game... After it was already done. So it's a matter of ownership, they felt that nobody should profit from their work, even if it cost them a lot of money.

Or maybe I still don't understand what's going on, since the article is obscure, and nobody answered my previous post about how this thing exactly worked.

That's it.
I don't know there current financial state but breaking even's ok for not making anything in years and still paying those who are currently making something, especially after buying back a company. So say they get some good sales from the Limbo SE along with lasting sales of the regular edition and this new game has 1 to 2 years left on development, they could still have enough to do it.
My guess is it's a gamble for them, they could remain completely independent or they might have to sell some again.
If it's a close shave and they don't sell and then the new game doesn't sell the company may flop but this is still the risk they are willing to take to have their work free from the world of corruption that's money. As I said it sounds like a matter of pride to me.
The ideal for all developers is to make art and art is hard to make in a corporate environment and I respect them for striving for that.

I'm just gonna say I have no idea of the company outside of this article, this is just my interpretation and logical deduction from my knowledge.

Zhukov:
"I've never liked the idea of business people being in control of creative decisions, and I firmly believe that money and creativity shouldn't be mixed. Business people always want to measure progress but the fact is creativity cannot be measured."

Eaaarrghh.

That's a nice notion and all, but a bit of a silly one. If the creativity costs money then that bright, fluffy, angelic creativity is going to end up mixing with the sleazy, greasy, quantifiable money no matter what.

Still, I'm curious to see what they come out with next. Limbo was pretty cool.

I had to really try hard to read on after the whole "deal with the devil" bit. Urgh. I, like a lot of people, think the indie scene is a force for good in the wider industry, but dear God some of the people who work in it could use a good slap sometimes, having apparently got it into their heads that what they do is more than just a force for good, but the be all and end all of the industry *coughJohnathonBlowcough*.

Speaking as someone who want a career in 'The Arts', it really annoys me when people I want to be able to look up to display such bare-faced pretentiousness and stupidity. You can't separate business from art. You shouldn't separate business from art, because without business there is no art. A lot of the most shining examples of artistic expression throughout history that we still praise to this day, such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only got made because somebody commissioned them, and you can bet your bottom dollar that whoever did always kept a close eye on their sizable investment. We may praise the efforts of individuals like Michelangelo today, and rightly so, but what a lot of today's artists seem too immature to accept is that the force that both sustained and shaped their work was money.

The best results happen when both sides, creators and investors, are prepared to give each-other just a little bit of trust. We need more investors who, yes, want to make a profit, but also care about the larger industry and the specific product being made, and as such are not averse to taking risks in order to be part of something truly meaningful, as well as profitable. We also need more artists who realise that what they do is entertainment, and that there's nothing ugly about that. People who have big ideas, but are not so arrogant that they need everything to be done their way. People who believe that so long as the finished product conforms an acceptable degree to what they had first envisioned, and is at least capable of connecting with its intended audience, then it was a worthwhile undertaking, even if it didn't turn out 100% how they would have wanted.

I'm glad for them. It must be a personal hell to produce such a successful game that made millions only to find yourself beset on all sides by vultures and lawyers.

Granted they made Faust's deal, in a way.

But unlike Faust THEY'RE FREE!!!

GO TEAM PLAYDEAD!!!

P.S.: Am I the only one who copied the article's picture?

Sgt. Sykes:
Am I the only one who didn't really like Limbo that much?

Anyway I'm sure with the recent flood of Kickstarter successes, these guys won't need to worry about funding.

I'm with you. I'm not a big fan of advancement through repetition on a good day, but with Limbo it felt like the game was laughing in my face with every death. And no, I don't think black dangers placed on a black ground in front of a black background is clever trap design.

"True" artists are inspired, prideful, and somewhat masochistic (AKA 'retarded' to the average person, especially fiscally). Case in point all those famous painters/artists/musicians/etc. that basically lived in poverty. It's kind of sad really, the artistic temperament. A good businessman thrives off exploitation of these people. But then again, they kind of 'ask for it'

antipunt:
"True" artists are inspired, prideful, and somewhat masochistic (AKA 'retarded' to the average person, especially fiscally). Case in point all those famous painters/artists/musicians/etc. that basically lived in poverty. It's kind of sad really, the artistic temperament. A good businessman thrives off exploitation of these people. But then again, they kind of 'ask for it'

Many of them DO ask for it.

I remember a girl in high school who was in love with the romantic image of being a 'Starving Artist' for the longest time: The dedicated but misunderstood artist who stayed devoted to his/her work no matter the lack of positive reception from others.

She eventually grew out of it, largely due to a older mutual friend of ours who repeatedly emphasized to her that 'Starving Artists" starve...as in THEY GO HUNGRY!!!

She wasn't stupid or silly. She was just young.

Investors are parasites who will suck the life, joy, and purpose out of any project. Find a way to self fund or do without. Distil the essence of your game down to the fundamental element of joy and build around that. Innovation is free, assets are expensive.

Many great things have been produced with the only investment being the time and passion of the creators.

It's a nice view, but yeah I'd have to agree that it's a little naive.

As an Aussie I always root for the underdog, in this case indie game devs, but...
If you did go out of control with the creative side you may run the risk of sending your own company under. Investors are usually the leash that kicks them into gear. It's not always a positive thing but that's just how it works.

I don't know; I think it's one thing to want to trade in a creative people's products, and another to want to bank on their reputations- which is kind of what you're doing when you decide, as a financier, to sell out of an otherwise successful business. If doing so risks putting those creative people in a position where their freedom is significantly curtailed, it's kind of a "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs" situation.

In any case, I'd argue they're still better off for having a very well-received game they can point to when asked what they're capable of. If we ended up seeing them on Kickstarter or the like, worse things have certainly happened.

I only recently got to play Limbo, through the Humble Indie Bundle, and I was quite impressed.

Stay awesome Playdead, you may end up see me buying one of your games in the future.

First double fine, then Mojang, now Playdead...

Studios start to grasp the principle of liberation again, instead of gettin under the clingy safe wings of publishers. :D

In their shoes I would have sold the Limbo IP for the big bucks and then create a new IP for myself.
True creativity doesn't like sequels anyway.

Failing that, I would have gone with the investors and sold the company, then resign and form a new company. Again you lose one single IP and you gain the money to be truly free to create what you want. Limbo was cute, but I have no interest in a Limbo 2.
A game company name is only worth the IP it owns. The only true value here is in the skilled developers and they are not owned. So sell.

antipunt:
"True" artists are inspired, prideful, and somewhat masochistic (AKA 'retarded' to the average person, especially fiscally). Case in point all those famous painters/artists/musicians/etc. that basically lived in poverty. It's kind of sad really, the artistic temperament. A good businessman thrives off exploitation of these people. But then again, they kind of 'ask for it'

I don't think it's really fair to define what a "true" artist is. Nor do I feel your definition is all that accurate. There's plenty of artists that live quite well from their art (the music industry has many millionaires), that their art is more mainstream or popular doesn't mean they are any less talented.

Limbo was revolutionary tbh, Not my kind of game but still made enough of an impact for people to think of Limbo instantly when thinking of indie games. Good to see they arnt sellouts and are continuing on.

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