Geoff Keene here, project lead on The Dead Linger and CEO of Sandswept Studios. Richard Keene, co-founder and CTO, also signs his name to this as well.
This is one of those blog posts that nobody wants to write, and most of you don’t want to read. Bear with me.
The Dead Linger was started in the infant era of alpha-funded sandbox games, before we even heard tell of similar titles, such as DayZ. We wanted to make a massive, open-ended zombie game with a huge focus on cooperative play. Some of the early response and sales were extremely promising for the game, as was the code and art development, with a skilled staff of about 15 people, some paid, some not – a testament to the penny-pinching we’ve been doing since Day 1. We’ve put every single penny from The Dead Linger’s development straight back into tools, asset creation, and salaries for the team, and it still hasn’t been enough.
Looking at the scope we’ve designed coupled with the cost of engine changes after settling on something that wasn’t sustainable for the scale we had planned, that cost is well above and beyond the sales The Dead Linger has made, both combining the original Kickstarter and Steam sales. We’ve been putting this off for many months, trying to get out what we can with our limited time next to keeping our rent paid, and we’d hoped the latest update would start to turn the tide a little. Some of you have been very excited for the latest updates, but the sales just aren’t reflecting that excitement, and as they say, money talks. The tide hasn’t turned.
The Dead Linger is something we’ve been building for the last 3 years, we have hundreds of unique assets that cost our in-house artists hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, and a good half of those haven’t even seen the light of day because we simply haven’t had the manpower to move the code forward in the timescale demanded by our budget and the community’s interest. The Dead Linger costs more per month to develop than it brings in, with a scope larger than we should have ever attempted, and gameplay focus that is far less profitable than other games in the genre. The reality we face is that we’ve been pinching pennies and it hasn’t let up. The entire team, from current staff to our former staff who were told we couldn’t pay their rent next month, have had to cut some major stuff out of our lives to see the game continue development month to month. We can’t continue it.
I’m not sugar-coating this for you as “this is no doubt a disappointment to the community.” It straight up sucks. It sucks for you guys, and it sucks for us.
As the project lead, my entire reputation as a developer has rested on the swirling vortex of negativity that TDL has become. I completely own that, and I am tremendously grateful for the support we’ve had through our rough development. Despite working a minimum of 10 hour days alongside a team of some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met, we have been completely unable to deliver on the gameplay we wanted. The scope was too large, and the initial budget was too low. As the project lead, I made a few very key mistakes during development. Engine changes aside, there were decisions made about the scope and tech that cost a lot more than we predicted, as well as some of what we’d call “bad luck.”
I’ll start with “bad luck” and perhaps the most negative part of this entire blog post.
I feel a need to clear this one up because I still get remarks about it daily and it wears me thin. This is truly my final word on it. I don’t intend to continue feeding trolls or airing dirty laundry. It actually really sucks that I have to even address this at all, and I debated not including it in this blog post, but I’d really like it done. Seeing this garbage in an actual TDL review has kind of been the final straw for me. This is not the only reason things have gone poorly, by any means, but it was a major catalyst present in the last 6 months, and I don’t mean to paint it as anything but that. So let’s get this dirty, negative crap out of the way first.
A small butterfly effect that started very early on was when we informed a few of the staff that we could pay them very little, or none at all, with the funds we had at the time. This happens frequently in indie dev, and was done entirely in favor of paying other team members we deemed more crucial to development at the time. This was even something we established as team prior to the Kickstarter launching, at which time no one, including myself, was paid.
It’s never an easy decision to include some and exclude others from pay, but one that had to be made, and one we absolutely did not blind-side anyone with. Up to that point, everyone was there because they wanted to work on something cool. A very small portion of the staff members didn’t believe what we were telling them after we had some money coming in and decided that we had simply left them out to dry in favor of lining our own pockets, despite the checks I was sending our monthly to the majority of staff, and having only funds to continue that action for 6 or so months. To stretch that money as far as it would go, some people were paid little, or none. It wasn’t ideal, but it was where we were at the time. I talked individually with every staff member to get their monthly expenses and cover them on the bare minimum that we could. Some we could not. That’s just the way it was, and we were upfront about this from the start, and repeated it often.
When these few staff members’ very short contracts with Sandswept ended, they began to spread extremely negative (and completely false) allegations about where the funds had gone, as well as some strange things about my personality or work habits. As this only came from two or three people while the rest of our 10+ staff were working hard as ever, we would’ve outright ignored these. We actually did, for a really long time.
Unfortunately, months and months (and in some cases, years later) these claims resurfaced and were picked up without verification or evidence by some blogs and youtubers and spread throughout the Steam forums, even spilling on to reviews about the game itself. We do appreciate that some of the blogs/journalists retracted their posts later on when we addressed the issue with them, and we are grateful for their integrity on the matter.
But the damage was done. It’s discouraging to see that on the internet anonymous sources are held in the same regard as the word of someone putting themselves and their work out there, with their names on it. That sort of sucks, and it seemed almost unbelievable at first, until we watched it happen first-hand. What was an upward trend alongside our improvements to the game, quickly declined as people envisioned me running off to Las Vegas with dollar bills spilling out of my pockets.
I don’t even like Vegas.
With that dirty topic out of the way, let’s talk about other things that went wrong, which were fully in my control.
For one, I heavily misread the market. I joked a few weeks ago that we should’ve done what our critics suggested we were doing already — actually gone ahead and cloned DayZ. When we switched to Unity, we might have made some really solid money early on if we’d focused on a smaller, non-procedural world, a little crafting, and a huge focus on PvP, right out of the gate. We know a few other titles did that, and they outsold TDL by leaps and bounds. As a cooperative, non-PvP player myself, I’ve been nothing but shocked over the last few years as I watch youtubers and streamers run around shooting random players for a can of beans. We set our aim high, and we missed the mark. We probably should have settled for less, and listened more intently to the wider Steam market.
We simply lost the climb against others who had similar-but-different ideas. After 3 years of non-stop development and obsession, it’s just not a climb we can compete in anymore.
I’ll be more than glad to share more in a blog post and peel back the curtain on more of our development. We’ve gone through an experience that the majority of developers (hopefully) never have to, and I’d like to share that in order to see they don’t make the same mistakes. I want people to succeed out there.
What happens now?
We are not going to move The Dead Linger into “Finished” state or “version 1.0″ and call it good and done – because it’s not, and it would be dishonest to cut it short and throw a bow on it. The Dead Linger is going on the backburner, meaning it’s effectively postponed indefinitely. We’re not officially shuttering development of TDL at this time, as we love the core ideas of the game and we may yet spur it ahead in the future, but the bottom line and main takeaway from all of this is that we can not keep developing a game that is coming out as a net loss every single month. I will update the various portions of the website to reflect this when I get the chance. Again, we’re a small team, and all of the front-end of these websites are primarily maintained by one guy – me.
As The Dead Linger is not yet a finished game, and we do not have a timescale of when or if it will be revisited and completed, we’ll be dropping the price on steam way down for the forseeable future. (EDIT: Price has been dropped to $5 USD, now in effect.) We’ll be keeping an eye on it to see what we can do to support TDL in the future, even if it’s just small patches to tidy up bugs. The forums will remain open as well.
We’re also debating what we might do with the source code and assets if we do shutter the project for good. The art we made in-house for TDL is extremely high quality and we’d like to at least show it off or share it in the future. There is a lot of really skilled, careful, and caring work that has gone into The Dead Linger, and I don’t think we’ve done a good job of showing that. Our team (and even myself, believe it or not) have had our talents squandered by the crushing weight of a game too large and well outside of our funding capabilities. It’s made us all look bad at what we do, and I take full blame for that.
The game industry commonly sees projects getting put on hold or cancelled – a lot of which never see the light of day – but it doesn’t make it any easier. I can’t muster up the words to convey what I feel right now. This is the hardest decision, and it absolutely breaks my heart.
What is Sandswept doing next?
I actually had a close friend suggest we close down and start a new company, hiding our names from future projects to avoid a bad rep.
I respectfully declined the suggestion. Sandswept will not be closing down and we will continue to make games under the same name. I own my mistakes, and I know you guys want to talk to honest faces in the industry. It’d be a shame for there to be one less of those. My cards are on the table.
We’ve learned enormous amounts from the successes and failures of The Dead Linger. Forging an open-world sandbox survival, diving into procedural generation, submerging ourselves into not 1 but 3 different game engines, and building a strong core team along the way. We are now experts in Unreal Engine 4, having delved deep into the engine’s source code to allow TDL’s Pepper Valley to sustain such a large number of items and beyond. The next thing we do will be powerful, playable, and most of all — fun. What we do in the future will be functioning and fun before you get your hands on it in any form.
With a team holding two decades of experience in game development, we’re moving on to something new. We are shifting all of our team to a new multiplayer game, which we’ll announce later on through our twitter. @Sandswept
We really love making games, and I’m deeply sorry that The Dead Linger has turned out this way. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions on the forums.
Thank you for all your support.
- Geoff Keene and Richard Keene