How the indie creator of Retro/Grade bet it all, lost and came back for more.
This is the worst possible outcome.
No, that's not even right. Retro/Grade creator Matt Gilgenbach says the financial failure of his game was actually worse than that.
"It didn't go very well at all; in fact it went pretty poorly," he says. "I'm not entirely sure why. I don't think we released at the best time. It was a busy time on PlayStation Network and there were some other big titles that had just come out, so certainly that didn't help us.
"The reviews were good, which is always nice, but the sales were much, much lower than I had anticipated in the worst-case scenario. It was very tough, to sort of write off all the time I had spent on Retro/Grade."
Eighty-hour, seven-day work weeks for four years. A high price, to say nothing of the toll on his mental health and marriage, and one that he exchanged — monetarily speaking — for nothing.
Even that's too generous, grim though it may be. He and his partner Justin Wilder spent $140,000, cleaning out their savings and tapping family for loans, to get the game made, and Retro/Grade hasn't even recouped that.
"I was in a bad emotional state leading up to release and I was thinking, 'Finally, things are going to get better,'" he says. "And they didn't."
[Editor's note: disturbing animated imagery below.]
This does not, it should be noted, come as a complete shock to Gilgenbach. Even if you set the $140,000 aside, recouping cost of living for two people for four years was a high bar for any indie game on the crowded PlayStation Network marketplace.
"I knew it would never be profitable for the amount of time we put into it," he says. "To some extent it was pride in our work; we wanted to deliver on the way the game was in our minds. But I also realized I was working on it so long because I was afraid to release it.
"But I didn't really dream it would have done so poorly, I was hoping it would bring in enough money to keep me going and get started on another project."
That was the idea all along, of course. Retro/Grade was never an endgame for Gilgenbach. It's a great idea — a side-scrolling, rhythm-based shooter played in reverse, with the player's ship catching bullets it once fired — but it was only one of many kicking around his head.
Gilgenbach and Wilder (along with contracted artist Joe Grabowski) had planned to use Retro/Grade as a calling card, a way to establish themselves as a team that could make a quality game.
In that respect, at least, they succeeded. Retro/Grade has received largely positive reviews and carries a level of polish that belies its tiny development team. But Gilgenbach finds it hard to see past the financial failure, at least for now.
"It's kind of depressing. I can't play it. I don't feel comfortable anymore. Just that reminder of how poorly it's done haunts me and saps all the enjoyment I used to get from playing the game," he says.
"I'd love to compete against some of the fans we have. Some of them are probably way better than I [am] ... I thought it'd be fun to compete with them after the game was released, but there's this huge barrier. I don't know if I'll ever get to a point where I'm really comfortable with Retro/Grade and how it did."
Gilgenbach says some of his inability to process the response to Retro/Grade stems from his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even if he were willing to let himself off the hook, his illness won't allow it. One of its manifestations is personalization, a cognitive distortion which forces him to see every event in his life as somehow a reaction to something he did.
"It's kind of depressing. I can't play it. I don't feel comfortable anymore."
"I take on all the blame for something when it's not deserved," he says. "I should have been able to know it was a bad market to release [in]. I should have realized the Guitar Hero market would collapse long before we finished. I could go on for hours with all the things I should have known."
It was perhaps due to some of those obsessive tendencies that Gilgenbach couldn't let Retro/Grade alone, even after Wilder left to pursue a career in AAA development. The port of the game that now appears on Steam was a single-handed (and single-minded) labor of love.
"I had hoped [Wilder would have been] able to work on it with me, but he wasn't interested, so I worked on it myself," Gilgenbach says. "I'm still wondering if it was the right decision; the reception hasn't been super great there either. I just like the idea of giving Retro/Grade another chance."
Matt Gilgenbach spent four years and a small fortune to bring a game to two platforms where it has yet to find success. He lost his partner, abandoning the 24 Caret Games label the duo worked under. He ran through his savings. He risked his own mental health and found himself in a dark emotional place. So what did he do?
What would you do?
For Gilgenbach, the answer was obvious: He would start again.
"When you look at Retro/Grade, certainly I think it's a fun game," Gilgenbach says. "I think it's a great game, but Harmonix, for example, could create a better Retro/Grade than I could. They have the music licensing and the higher budgets, all that stuff."
He made a great Retro/Grade, he argues, but not the greatest possible Retro/Grade. So Gilgenbach and his new studio, Infinitap Games, began work with this question: What was the game he could make better than anyone else?
His simple, optimistic hypothesis is this: Everyone has such a diverse set of life experiences that if they could draw them all into one single creation, it would be the one thing they would be the best suited to make in all the world.
For Gilgenbach, that game is Neverending Nightmares, a dark tapestry of psychological horror woven from threads of his own struggle with mental health.
"I think Neverending Nightmares is the game I can create better than anyone else, just because it's so personal to me," he says. "I have all these negative images and negative emotions I can channel into making this psychological horror experience."
In Nightmares, the game's lead wakes up from a horrific dream, only to discover he's only awakened in a new nightmare, the beginning of a terrible cycle that will create a basic structure for the narrative. It gives Infinitap the ability not only to keep the player guessing about the story, but to give them a say through their decisions in how it ends.
This is not just the game Gilgenbach thinks he's best suited to make; it's also the one he couldn't bear to abandon if it turned out to be the final project of his indie development career. With money tighter than ever, he's well aware that this could be his last shot at a personal game.
The idea of a psychological thriller was one Gilgenbach originally envisioned on a grand scale with 3D, motion capture, the works. But when he decided it was the project he had to make with the resources at hand, he scaled back, peeling away any layers that didn't contribute to the central theme.
He's working in two dimensions this time, and in a black-and-white palette that couldn't be more dissimilar to Retro/Grade's neon-bathed fever dream aesthetics — especially surprising considering the bulk of the work was created by Grabowski, the man behind Retro/Grade's distinctive look.
And Gilgenbach has brought on a new collaborator, Daniel Sass, whom he struck up a friendship with a decade ago while the pair worked together at Heavy Iron Studios.
"Matt was one of the shining stars on the projects that I worked on with him and I always wanted to collaborate on something," Sass says. "When this came up, it seemed like a good opportunity to work together and do something interesting."
Gilgenbach may be sharing the development load with his team, but the subject matter and themes remain intensely personal.
After Retro/Grade, he admits that many complications of his OCD he thought he had put in the past began to rear their heads again. His struggles to overcome them are central to the creation of Neverending Nightmares. These are not old wounds he is exploring, but they have thankfully begun to close.
The connection to his illness is more thematic than explicit, but for Gilgenbach, some of the elements are quite literal. To illustrate: When at his lowest, he is sometimes plagued by intrusive thoughts of self-mutilation, including one pervasive image of pulling a vein from his own arm, an image players will be subjected to within the game.
"I'm explicitly sharing something about my experience and the horrors that have sort of popped into my head," Gilgenbach says. "To the players it won't be clear that, 'Oh, that's an intrusive thought that the developer had.' The theme and the mood are really what I'm trying to capture the most of what I experience."
"That Matt really went through all of this in his head and can still be the person he is just adds to my respect for him."
His partner Sass acknowledges that working on such a dark personal project can occasionally be a challenge. He even added debug code that allows him to turn off cutscenes so he won't be perpetually subjected to them.
"But the fact that Matt really went through all of this in his head and can still be the person he is just adds to my respect for him," Sass says. "OCD and depression are always portrayed certain ways in popular media, but there can be many different ways the illnesses manifest themselves. It's rare to know someone with it that is willing to share their unique experiences battling mental illnesses."
That education about mental illness is something Gilgenbach hopes carries over to players, especially if they themselves have faced similar issues.
"Raising awareness about my struggles, I think, helps other people," he says. "In my darkest hours, I felt like I was completely alone, and no one understood what I was going through. It was just this hell. I hope that with the game I can reach out to people like that and say, 'You're not alone; I've been there.' But more importantly, 'I got through it and you can too.'"
The response to Retro/Grade may be difficult for Gilgenbach to confront, but he keeps the lessons he learned while making the game close at hand.
He's more realistic about his timeline, aiming to release Neverending Nightmares late next year or early the year after. He's keeping a better balance of his home and work life. He wants more open development, attempting to build a community that can offer its feedback as work progresses.
He's also trying a different tact financially, turning to Kickstarter to help fund the game. He hasn't cemented his timetable for that, but he knows it will be soon, because, as he admits with a laugh, "I'm running out of money, to be perfectly frank."
He says that he's risking another bout of depression if the Kickstarer doesn't pan out, but Sass says risk is something Gilgenbach has become accustomed to.
"I remember some years back when he was first starting 24 Caret, I asked him what would happen if the game didn't do well," Sass recalls. "And he told me then, 'It's better to try and fail than to never try and regret not doing it.'"
Gilgenbach isn't immune to fear; he's making a whole game about it. But despite his brushes with disaster, he doesn't let anxiety over financial failure or lost time dictate his path. No, it seems what really scares Gilgenbach, what keeps him up at night, is the fear of never taking his shot to begin with.
Editing: Matt Leone, Samit Sarkar
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan