In July of 2015, MMORPG fans were stunned to hear that John Smedley was stepping down from his post as president of Daybreak. After all, he had been in the captain’s chair at Verant, SOE, and now Daybreak for nearly two decades, helming the company as it handled some of the most influential MMOs of the early generation, including EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies. Fans were curious to know both what happened and what Smedley was planning to do next.
They didn’t have to wait long for the latter. A month later, Smedley announced that he was starting up his own studio to work on a new game. Using his industry contacts and years of experience in game development, Smedley pulled together a solid team to craft Hero’s Song, an online fantasy survival game that would provide huge, customizable worlds. The team went into a flurry of activity, putting out dev blogs, holding fundraisers, and pushing early access out the door.
Yet by the end of 2016, the project was dead, refunds were being distributed to backers, and Smedley’s studio was dissolved. So what happened? Why did Hero’s Song fail when it had so much going for it? Now that a couple of months have passed, it might be time to step back and perform a post-mortem on this fascinating and doomed game. I posit that there are five key reasons why we’re not right now playing Hero’s Song and anticipating its official launch by the end of the year. Hindsight is 20-20, after all, so what could Smedley have done different?
Problem #1: The Smedley legacy
Game developers, especially public ones, tend to become divisive figures among the community, and John Smedley seems to have attracted as many haters as he has fans. There are those who will simply never forgive him for the NGE, the shutdown of beloved SOE MMOs (rest in peace, Free Realms!), some of the more boneheaded statements that he had made or tweeted, and his lopsided attention that was given to some titles (particularly PvP-centric ones) and not others.
What I’m driving at here is that there are those who simply want to see Smedley punished and to fail at any future projects (or simply not take part in any more), and so a new game was going to have a built-in base of detractors that would be quite vocal and serve to pull interest away from the game from the start. That’s not to say that there weren’t fans of Smedley to counter this — there undoubtedly were. But he had just come fresh off of Daybreak with very little time for people to let go of old grudges before starting up a new project and presenting himself as an easy target.
In short, Smedley had to prove himself all over again to players who weren’t necessarily going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He obviously has a lot of passion and experience for games and game studios, which played in his favor, but it wasn’t uncommon to see him try to be his own PR machine on Twitter and Reddit when he should have left that up to a CM professional that could stay on topic. He was the big boss in a small studio with no one to override him or rein him in, and occasionally this caused some issues in social media that didn’t help the overall cause of Hero’s Song.
Problem #2: A muddled message
It’s one thing to have a vision for the game you’re making, and another thing entirely in being able to clearly communicate and sell that vision to a potential audience. Pixelmage was quite passionate about its vision but did a slapdash job coming up with an elevator pitch that fans could grasp and share with friends.
Hero’s Song was a hybrid of a lot of ideas and game types, including CRPGs, MMOs, survival sandboxes, roguelikes, and action-RPGs. The end result, however, wasn’t quite like what most people were expecting and wasn’t easy to summarize. The Steam description lists the game as “an open-world roguelike fantasy action RPG with a beautiful 2-D pixel art style,” which certainly checks off a lot of buzzword boxes without getting its true vision across.
We always want to know what makes a new game special, what sets it apart, and why we should play it. To this day, I would have a hard time trying to make the case that Hero’s Song was bringing something bold and refreshing to the table. Interesting, perhaps. Or as one Steam player put it, “The game had potential, but that’s all it was, potential.”
You see, having scads of features and ideas for a game is ancillary to the game core itself. If you can’t make the core gripping, playable, and understandable, then all of the frills and extras don’t matter. The core of Hero’s Song looked somewhat bare and bland, even dressed up in pixel art. I think a lot of people were meeting the game more than halfway by imagining that it was going to be a lot more than what we actually saw in early access.
Problem #3: Not an MMO and no official servers
You have to believe me when I say that we here at Massively OP were quite excited to hear what Smedley had in store for his first non-SOE project. And when Hero’s Song was revealed, we found ourselves torn between attraction to the art style and various concepts and the fact that the game was lacking two important aspects: It wasn’t an MMO and it didn’t have official servers.
I’m not saying that every game has to have these or be these, of course, but Smedley’s name and legacy carried with it expectations that he might be off building the next spiritual successor to EverQuest. Instead, the ambitious feature set of Hero’s Song was offset by the studio playing it smaller and safer by not running its own shards and keeping the size of the worlds’ populations to about two dozen players. It was a bit of a letdown and, in my opinion, a key missed opportunity here.
Imagine that Smedley had announced Hero’s Song, an open-world MMORPG done in pixel art style with persistent communities and servers that would occasionally restart with new rules, a la Crowfall. It would have been much bigger news and rallied a lot more of his fans to the cause.
Like it or not, Smedley was known for MMOs — and his first solo project wasn’t one. Running one’s own servers with a handful of friends isn’t always what MMO players are looking for in new online games and proved to be a dealbreaker with some fans (and us).
Problem #4: Fundraiser follies
I think problem #1 was unavoidable and had to be muscled through (although I would have waited a half-year or so post-Daybreak to get back into the business). Problem #2 could have been fixed over time, and problem #3 was limiting but not necessarily a game killer in this pro-survival sandbox climate. Maybe just a shift of messaging was all that was needed. But then we get to the fundraising and here’s where the whole deal started to fall apart.
Video game crowdfunding has to be done smartly and requires a lot of effort to pull off just right. I swear, I truly believe that Smedley assumed that the mere initial announcement of Hero’s Song and the star power of his name was all that was needed for a successful Kickstarter for how Pixelmage ran that initial campaign.
It was a disaster. Pixelmage failed to “prime the pump” of community excitement in advance of the Kickstarter campaign, instead opting to push it out quickly and expecting that $800,000 to roll in. Even worse, the studio didn’t post regular updates to the campaign, instead going very quiet for far too long and giving the media (i.e. Massively OP) nothing to talk about. Better and much more communication in advance and then during the campaign would have been invaluable to raking in the much-needed funds.
Instead, the team took a black eye by having to pull the campaign once it became clearly apparent that millions weren’t going to flood in via magic and wishes. The team acknowledged that it made mistakes and promised that it had investor money to finish the game “all the way” despite the campaign failure.
I sincerely doubt that statement, since the game obviously wasn’t funded to a full launch and by the fall of 2016, Pixelmage was running another crowdfunding campaign, this time on Indiegogo. It might have been a different platform, but the result was much the same: The studio was lackluster on communication during the campaign and failed to hit its target goal (this time $100,000).
What if Pixelmage had been better on its talking points and driven a stronger campaign? What if Hero’s Song had managed to draw in the hundreds of thousands of funding from players and kept a stream of donations incoming? It would have been a literal game-changer.
Problem #5: Rushed production
To the team’s credit at Pixelmage, it did spend most of 2016 working hard to produce a game from scratch — and it did get one to a playable state, thanks in part to the choice of a 2-D world. But the team was also under the gun, needing to get that early access out to drive publicity and sales.
Taking in account the fundraising situation, the accelerated development, and the premature release of the early access points to a studio rapidly running out of money and time. The November release was a hail Mary pass that even Smedley couldn’t cover up.
“It needs more time and love, but I’m confident it’s going to get that since it’s our sole focus,” John Smedley confessed to fans. “It’s releasing earlier than we would like, but our commitment to updating it at a constant pace and to the vision that has always been there for what we are trying to make will keep us making it better and better for a long time to come!”
The reception to the alpha and the early access client was, to be fair, mixed. Some people were content to be patient with the developing game and enjoyed what was on display, while others slammed what they saw was a half-baked product. “It is truly early alpha and it shows, there is no endgame content, there is nothing really to do outside of grinding at the moment,” a Steam player wrote.
With two lackluster crowdfunding campaigns and an early access launch that fizzled fast, Pixelmage was out of options. “Unfortunately sales fell short of what we needed to continue development. We knew going in that most startups don’t make it, and as an indie game studio we hoped we would be the exception to that rule, but as it turned out we weren’t,” Pixelmage Games wrote in December 2016.
If the game had more time, more money, and a better message, Hero’s Song could have had the space it needed to develop into the title that Smedley and company had envisioned. Instead, it will have to serve as a cautionary tale to future projects and a reminder that making and funding games is quite difficult indeed.