“Commercially, it’s a disaster,” wrote Johnnemann Nordhagen of his game Where The Water Tastes Like Wine. “I can’t discuss exact numbers, but in the first few weeks fewer people bought the game than I have Twitter followers, and I don’t have a lot of Twitter followers.”
Despite positive pre-release coverage, the narrative-focused road adventure struggled critically and flopped commercially. Nordhagen wrote in a post-mortem on the game that the difficulties he faced and the lack of returns made on them don’t bode well for experimental or indie games.
“Joking aside — that’s dismal. And terrifying,” Nordhagen wrote. “At the end of the day it’s astounding that a game that got this much attention from the press, that won awards, that had an all-star cast of writers and performers, that had a bizarre celebrity guest appearance(!) failed this hard. It scares me.”
Nordhagen received support from publisher Good Shepherd to complete and market the game, but two months later, the game has yet to break even. “So far, I have made $0 from the game.” he wrote. “[O]nce you factor in the ~$140,000 I spent paying my contractors and collaborators for the game, you begin to see that maybe it wasn’t, financially speaking, worth it.”
While Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is just one game in a vast universe of games, Nordhagen argues that his experience is evidence of a growing trend that quality, acclaim and attention do not guarantee success for indie games.
“That last part should be worrying for anyone in the indie games industry. WTWTLW could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different. It would be far less polished, it wouldn’t have had the collaborators that it did, I could not have paid people who couldn’t afford to work for revenue share or for the love of the game (thus, I fear, cutting out some of the most valuable voices that this game was a platform for). I could have developed it as a side project, but it took me 4 years as is. Basically, I’m not sure that games like this one can continue to be made in the current market.”
Nordhagen admits that he made his own mistakes. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine received very little playtesting, especially close to launch, and despite being produced for PC, Mac and Linux was not optimized for mouse and keyboard use. “I didn’t originally have the knowledge I needed to tackle many of the issues I encountered during development," he said, adding that the game itself "was too much to take on as a solo dev, and especially too much to take on as a commercial product.”
Nordhagen was previously a lead programmer and co-designer on Gone Home, which was well received when it was released in 2014. The success of Gone Home spurred Nordhagen to set out and make his own game, but four years later, he’s unsure of the feasibility of making games like these.
“In 2014, starting a similar project seemed like a good creative and financial risk," he said. "Four years later, making any commercial game at all seems like a bad idea, and taking on the risk of an experimental, ambitious game like Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sounds terrifying.” Nordhagen’s comments echo similar remarks made by Gone Home lead writer and designer Steve Gaynor following the launch of his studio's second game, Tacoma.
Tacoma's sales paled in comparison to Gone Home’s at launch, and Gaynor said Gone Home’s launch was like “lightning in a bottle.” In a conversation with PC Gamer, Gaynor said that 2013 was "a different time for smaller indie games" that aspired to some of the technical fidelity of triple-A games.
“We were lucky to be responding to what I think was a real desire for more games that were less violent or more focused on story or whatever. And so yeah, Tacoma’s release I think has been a much more realistic version of what launching a game is usually like."
You can read the rest of Nordhagen's disappointing yet sobering experience here.