In case you ever needed a reminder of how tough game development can be, the creator of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine recently offered a painfully vulnerable one on his Medium page. Johnnemann Nordhagen, the story-based adventure game’s independent, primary designer, opened up about how many benchmarks it failed to clear — including its astoundingly poor first-month sales.
“The game has not performed as well as I had hoped or expected,” Nordhagen wrote, breaking down the PC game’s post-launch success and failures. “Coming off of all the attention, and especially the awards, I had assumed that if it failed to find an audience, it would at least be recognized by the press as something exciting.”
But those awards — like an Independent Games Festival nomination and featured spots at SXSW and PAX — didn’t translate into widespread recognition or critical acclaim. And those four years in production, which weathered disasters like both of the game’s artists exiting, nearly leaving it in development hell, didn’t seem to ultimately benefit Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
By Nordhagen’s own admission, despite the breadth of writers and voice actors he was able to get help from, his own lacking skill set was another major factor that affected all aspects of development.
I didn’t know how to run a business, how to structure contracts, how to direct voice actors, how to market a video game, how to approach business deals, or how to manage contract employees. I don’t even think I knew the term “narrative design” when I began this project. Unfortunately, right about when I was learning how much there was to know was also when I was running out of money to hire additional experts to help, and I had to tackle most of the above myself.
Here’s the heartbreaker, speaking of money: Nordhagen has made a total of $0 off Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. With less than 4,000 copies sold (according to him, who said he has more Twitter followers than the number of copies sold), the game is a flop. Nordhagen poured around $140,000 into the project and came out with a shattered sense of pride. The developer’s takeaway isn’t that this is a specific, unique failure, but a warning sign for the independent games industry at large.
“WTWTLW could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different,” he said. “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 ... 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.”
We were among the critics who had a lukewarm response to the game, which we’d define as an ambitious if esoteric project upon execution. Where Nordhagen will head next is unclear; whether this postmortem will increase the game’s visibility, too, is unknown.