Staying in the black.
Wlad Marhulets seems to be one of those people who’s just good at everything. He’s traditionally made his living as a composer, writing everything from clarinet concertos to the score for an upcoming VR film about Eminem (I don’t know either). You’d think he’d be happy with the several awards he’s won for that work but, in 2015, he decided to try something new in his spare time, a little creative hobby project. “I downloaded Unity and learned a little bit of coding and 3D modeling”, he tells me over email. “A month later I had a little demo – it was 2-3 minutes of gameplay maybe, it was barely playable.”
What he’d created was the first version of Darq, a horror-soaked puzzle-platformer about a boy who becomes aware that he’s inside his own nightmare, and uses the fluidity of lucid dreaming to get out. After a friend urged him to create a trailer and upload it to the now-defunct Steam Greenlight, it became one of the top 10 most upvoted games on the service (of almost 2,000) within two weeks. Articles were written, social media discussion was had, and Marhulets made the fairly radical decision to turn Darq into his full-time job.
With that public and press interest came another major P in the games equation – publishers. You may already know the story because, last month, Marhulets posted about it on Reddit’s r/gaming. The title of the post, sitting above a single gif of the game in action, read:
“I rejected 12 offers from major publishers to make my first game Darq the way I dreamed it to be. They told me “you can’t make it without us” and wanted up to 80% cut and IP.”
It went on to hit the front page, and subsequently settled among Reddit’s most upvoted posts of all time, with over 191,000 at time of writing (yes, Marhulets is good at Reddit, too). There’s a reason for that reaction. In an industry that sees indie games increasingly fighting for space among themselves, not to mention what would have traditionally been indie games receiving publisher backing (see: Bandai Namco’s Little Nightmares, the EA Originals label or the Square Enix Collective), it’s as surprising as it is refreshing to see Marhulets take this path.
I was amazed they wanted to work with me – I don’t think they realized how little I knew about game development to begin with.
But that isn’t to say he was immediately against the idea. “I was getting tons of new emails every day, and a lot of them were coming from publishers who wanted to schedule a meeting or a phone call”, he tells me. “I spent the next half a year meeting with some of them, trying to negotiate a deal. I was amazed they wanted to work with me – I don’t think they realized how little I knew about game development to begin with. I was grateful to be offered funding at all, given that I had no prior experience making games.”
The problem came out of what those publishers wanted in return. “Many of the publishers wanted to own the IP, have creative control, have the ability to limit / censor my ideas. Not to mention revenue share of course (some wanted up to 80%).”
Their approaches could differ (“some publishers were friendly, others tried to intimidate me”) but the outcome always seemed to be the same. Darq wouldn’t truly belong to Marhulets if he accepted someone else’s money:
“I could not accept what was offered to me. I spent a lot of time trying to negotiate, but to no result. I felt the only way I could make Darq into the game I wanted to make was to do it myself, without giving away creative control and the IP.”
Essentially, being told he couldn’t make the game without someone else… well, it made him want to make the game without someone else. Marhulets estimates he’s put in 9,000 hours of work since then, but reneged a little bit on the “working alone” thing – he’s since taken on a few extra staff, primarily for sound design and engineering.
His gamble seems to be working. The game looks quite different to its initial trailers, but that’s done nothing to dampen public enthusiasm. It’s one of the 100 most wishlisted titles on Steam (and in the top 10 for horror), it won a Best of the MIX critics’ choice award at PAX West 2018, and the hubbub under that enormous Reddit post is almost unanimously positive.
He puts the equation quite simply: “There was a lot to learn (programming, modeling, texturing, game design, animation), and a lot to overcome (financial struggles, lack of connections, loss of motivation, questioning my life choices) but I believe it was the best decision I ever made.”
It’s important to note that, despite his pride in the project, Marhulets’ point here is not to name and shame publishers – he’s made clear on Reddit and to myself that he’s not against the idea of working with one on a notional future project, and is sure there have been success stories elsewhere. More pragmatically, he explains that “nothing good can come from making powerful, well-connected enemies with infinite monetary and legal power.” Fair enough.
He’s also clear that those discussions weren’t a negative, or even useless, experience: “Meeting with publishers taught me how to be strategic about the development process, set realistic goals, and encouraged me to make a lot of research about the ins and outs of the industry. I still made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I try to learn from every single one.”
I ask, more as a joke than anything else, if the viral success of his post about rejecting publishers led to more publishers getting in touch: “Amazingly, yes.”
Someone on Reddit jokingly said that if Darq had a major publisher behind it would have had micro-transactions, loot boxes, and a Battle Royale mode.
It’s clear that Wlad Marhulets is good at many things – composition, promotion (hell, one of his old posts on an indie development forum includes a long section titled “Contact a lot of journalists” – guess how this article began life), and, if early signs are anything to go by, game creation. I think his greatest talent, however, is probably having the sheer brass balls to do any of this in the first place.
The biggest question, for me, is what Marhulets thinks his game would have looked like if he had been cowed into taking on a powerful partner. He takes a different tack:
“I guess I will never know exactly”, he explains. “What I do know however is that I managed to make a truly personal game full of crazy ideas that have never been done before (as far as I’m aware). Some of the ideas might have not ended up in the game if the creative control was in the hands of a business person. Someone on Reddit jokingly said that if Darq had a major publisher behind it would have had micro-transactions, loot boxes, and a Battle Royale mode.”
I ask him why, now years after the fact, he chose to post on Reddit at all, to make that decision to reject publishers so very public. After all, no matter how pleasant he is about it all, he’s likely still going to be pissing off some powerful people. His response is somehow simultaneously altruistic and self-serving (another talent?):
“I’m finally close to launching the game, which made me look back and reflect on how it all started. I was told that I couldn’t do it without a publisher, and now Darq is an award-winning game and one of the most wishlisted titles on Steam. I wanted to share the story with people and hopefully encourage somebody to go after their dreams, whatever those may be.
“And needless to say, I wanted to promote Darq before the launch – did I mention I’m doing it all on my own?”
Darq will be available on Steam in the first half of 2019.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor, and he is ready to enter the Darq place. Follow him on Twitter.