In an extensive post-mortem submitted to Gamasutra Danny Hayes describes the gruelling five-year development of parallax platformer Poncho. He says that he and his two colleagues have yet to make “a single penny from Poncho” and puts much of that failing on the game’s publisher Rising Star Games.
However, in describing Poncho’s development and his interactions with RSG, it looks like many of Hayes’ problems may have been of his own making. Hayes was initially ambiguous about RSG’s involvement in Poncho’s development, saying
After negotiating through all our options, we landed on Rising Star Games, mainly because they were in the same country and seemed to know what they were doing with indies. I also thought they seemed like nice people at the time. We got funded for slightly less than what we asked for in our kickstarter, but we were funded. We did have much higher offers, but turned them down since other publishers asked if they could change the game.
Now, this is where writing this gets tough. For legal reasons, there’s a bunch of events here that we can’t talk about. There would be massive repercussions if we do, and we’ve been told as much. I would, however, suggest this to all you other developers out there: Think very, very, very hard about whether or not getting a publisher is right for you.
Later in the article Hayes states that Poncho’s ports were taken away from his studio, Delve Interactive, and outsourced to another company.
Shortly after publication, Hayes’ post-mortem picked up traction on Twitter with many developers discussing its contents. The publicity of the article led to Rising Star Games posting a response in the comments of Destructoid, where a summary of the post-mortem was being discussed:
— RSG Team (@RisingStarGames) January 9, 2017
The statement from RSG begins by explaining why the company chose to comment when it would normally remain silent:
“The piece from Danny Hayes calls into question our professional abilities and may impact upon our games publishing business – we’d like to set the record straight or, at least, provide some sort of balance.”
The statement goes on to say RSG struck a deal with the studio to advance funds to the team as it completed development milestones “proposed by Delve”. RSG also funded Poncho’s marketing, which included getting it on the show floor at events like Rezzed and Gamescom in 2015. However RSG went on to say that:
[N]ot one development milestone was achieved to schedule by the dev team. Consequently, the game release was postponed. RSG kept spending. Delve kept working but eventually communicated ‘It’s just too much for one person to handle’ – the game would be many more months in development.
As a result of these delays, RSG took the PS4 devkits from Delve and hired another studio to handle the port.
Development of the Vita version of the game remained with Delve and Rising Star says that “The first notice we have received that the PS Vita version will not be completed by Delve is in the post-mortem posting across the weekend.”
It is worth spelling out what this means, inasmuch as RSG has learned from the media that a game it had contracted and scheduled for release is now cancelled. RSG now has to inform the platform holder and distributors about this cancellation, after everyone’s already read the news.
RSG’s statement ended with what, in the circumstances, is a restrained summary of Poncho’s development and their involvement. It is striking that Delve, who ended up making a 2D platformer over five years, should attribute the game’s lack of success almost entirely to a publisher that got involved at a relatively late stage.
“We are desperately upset that “Poncho” wasn’t a hit product,” Rising Star Games says. “We funded and promoted at each turn – determined to give the game its best shot. It’s what we do for many games from many partners. This one didn’t work out. We got things wrong too but to suggest that RSG caused a series of “events” that largely contributed to Danny’s parlous state ignores the repeated failings of the dev team to deliver on the promises and agreed work.”
Two hours after Rising Star commented, Hayes responds in greater detail about the publisher’s actions through Poncho’s development, saying that “Rising Star Games have decided to take [sic] their dirty laundry out in public.This is the very thing we restrained ourselves from doing while writing the post-mortem, which we wrote for other developers in order to stop them from making the same mistakes we made.”
Hayes begins by saying what Rising Star provided:
“They provided the following things for Poncho: Localisation, a trailer, taking the game to a few big game expos and doing interviews there, provided sony dev kits and sending out a few press releases as well as some social media posts. We agreed on funding Poncho for £25K, which we calculated as the bare minimum we needed, as long as we got a small amount in advance, as you may remember in the postmortem, I said that I had less than £100 personally at this time.”
Hayes then admits that while Delve Interactive negotiated “an ‘on delivery’ milestone system”. The day after signing the contract he contacted Rising Star Games asking for “a small amount of start up funds”. Rising Star said no to providing an advance and Hayes told the publisher this would cause delays. “ Now of course, it's my fault for not having this amended in the contract, but they could have easily paid a couple thousand in the beginning to ensure smooth development,” Hayes writes. “As a result, we had to work part time immediately and take time off the game to be able to live, plus we couldn't pay anyone to work on the game.”
Hayes admits to missing milestones, saying “this bump caused a ripple throughout development.” He also says that he contacted Rising Star “many times” asking for £2,000 or more in advance to get back on track.
The final milestone Delve Interactive and Rising Star Games had agreed in the contract was that on completing the game and all its ports the final 20% of the game’s development funds would be released to the developer. As Poncho’s Vita port remains uncompleted, Delve has not fulfilled that final milestone and so has still not received the final 20% of development funds.
Hayes then claims that Rising Star Games has blocked Delve from being able to complete its final milestone by not providing the studio with a PlayStation Vita development kit. “I knew, and they knew, that sales had been disappointing,” Hayes writes. “It just wasn't worth it to [Rising Star Games] anymore to give up some thousands for the vita version. So they blocked us. Not officially, but by not allowing us a dev kit and not allowing [port developer Just Add Water] to work on it anymore.”
Update: In a clarifying email, RSG's COO Martin Defries said "To develop the PS Vita version the developer doesn't actually need the dev kit to make the game – just to test it in a Vita environment. So we use our kit to test the builds he sends to us – we make use of the same kit for other games we are working with. He had continued to make builds and send them to us. They were unsatisfactory. It appears he has now ceased to do that."
Finally, Hayes says Delve tried to end its contract with RSG:
I offered many reasonable terms, including still giving them a hefty percentage of the game as a divorce fee. Their return offer was to threaten to sue us for hundreds of thousands of dollars and take control of the game if we attempted to go through with it. We were stuck. We were also told that we couldn't run a second kickstarter or look for funding elsewhere. It felt like we were being sabotaged by our own publisher.
RSG didn’t want to comment further than its statement on Destructoid when I contacted them for this article.
I also contacted Hayes, asking if Delve had given RSG any indication it didn’t have the funds to complete the work for the first milestone before it signed the contract. Hayes doesn’t answer explicitly, repeating what was in the Destructoid comment, saying “our initial impression was that the first milestone would be paid in advance, and the milestone deadlines that we provided were based on a plan that depended on this. Despite having already made a couple of amendments to the contract, we obviously made a mistake and missed a few things before signing since we then had to deal with the fact that we wouldn't be receiving funding for some time.”
Sticking with finances, Hayes said “it literally only came down to that single miscommunication on the first milestone being an advance or not. We stipulated in the postmortem that £22,500 was the absolute bare minimum we needed in order to successfully develop the game, based on how much we all needed to survive and still work full time. This is why we set that as our kickstarter goal. As well as the miscommunication surrounding the first milestone causing delays, 20% of the funding we agreed on with Rising Star was set to be withheld until all development including ports had been completed, which means that we then had to deal with not being able to use 20% of the agreed funding on the actual game. We tried to explain to Rising Star many times how little sense that made, but again, we couldn't reach an agreement. I don't think they realised that we literally had no funding except what they gave us, which turned out to be less than the bare minimum goal we had set for the kickstarter. Since we didn't have enough to fulfil our plans, development was affected, but we pushed through and still released a game on multiple platforms, we'd never take someone's money and run away with it.”
However, while Hayes puts all the blame of financial struggle on not getting an advance from his publisher, the fact is that if a publisher hadn’t signed with Delve then the team was out of cash. In Hayes’ post-mortem he says that he was down to his last £100 when RSG approached the team with a deal, having spent the last of his money and taken out a loan to exhibit the project at EGX.
Delve is returning to Kickstarter for its next game: Change. Considering the financial trouble the team struggled with throughout Poncho’s development and its failings with sticking to its schedule, I also asked Hayes why potential backers should trust that Delve can deliver its next game.
“Potential backers can feel safe in knowing that we won't let them down, especially since development of CHANGE is already 80% complete; we learned from our "Don't quit your day job" lesson and have been developing it over the last year,” Hayes answered. “The funding from the kickstarter will be used on porting costs as well as an overhaul of the art and music. Additionally, one of the backer rewards will be a download of the beta on the same day the kickstarter ends, and there will be a demo available publicly in the next month or so. Because of this we hope people will have faith that CHANGE will be in their hands soon.”
It’s certainly refreshing to know there will be a demo of the game available to try.
It’s a huge effort to take a personal project from conception to completion and I have the utmost respect for anyone who manages it. Poncho is a testament to the rigour and dogged determination of its makers. But the game’s development has mistakes which I don’t think the post-mortem really comes to terms with.
The games industry is not unique in that you shouldn’t negotiate a contract you can’t meet. Delve set up a deal with a company that stipulated it would only be paid on completing its first milestone, but it didn’t have the development funds to do that work. Delve asked for an advance on the first day after signing this contract. Delve then proceeded to miss every deadline it had. It seems blinkered to blame the publisher for every problem in Poncho’s development.
Whatever the truth behind this dispute, it serves as an object lesson for young developers. There is much to learn from Hayes’ post-mortem, but perhaps not in the way he thinks.
Clarification: Hayes' post-mortem was posted on Gamasutra through its developer blog system and wasn't commissioned by Gamasutra.
Update: A clarifying statement from RSG regarding how the publisher handles PlayStation Vita development was added.