Getting Physical with Limited Run Games

For a while there it looked like physical gaming almost turned into the spleen of the gaming body.  It serves a purpose but is easily forgotten about, and even when remembered doesn’t get much respect.  So much of gaming is digital nowadays that physical releases get relegated to AAA shootfests that still need day-1 patches to function properly.  A few companies served the niche market but they’re mostly for Japanese titles, and even those that aren’t only take care of the games that fall under their publishing banner.  That left a whole lot of gaming to the variable whims of the digital marketplace, which is great for today, but what’s that going to look like in ten years when the old console marketplace shuts down in favor of the next big thing?

Mighty Rabbit figured there was something it could do about this and so created a sub-company called Limited Run Games, which does exactly what it sounds like.  It prints up small batches of games, with the biggest run so far being only 5,000 copies for the PS4 version of Oddworld New ‘n’ Tasty, selling them through a Shopify storefront directly to fans.  It’s worked out well so far, with the first two titles selling far more quickly than expected and even the larger number of Oddworld only lasting a day.  I got to sit down with Douglas Bogart, one of the two people in charge of Limited Run Games (Josh Fairhurst is the other), to talk about everything Limited Run Games in a sprawling 90-minute conversation that wandered so far off topic that only a small percentage of it is getting summarized here.  It was a fun talk, sure, but does anyone need another reminiscence about configuring the Dreamcast broadband adapter to work with Phantasy Star Online?  Probably not, so here’s the relevant bits instead.

BreachClear

Breach & Clear, the first title from Limited Run Games

Limited Run Games was the brainchild of Josh Fairhurst, who like Doug is an avid game collector.  The publisher is currently a division of Mighty Rabbit and still only two official employees strong although they draft their office mates when and as necessary when the stock needs to be moved.  The need to shanghai co-workers will probably be changing with the next game, Futuridium EP Deluxe, which will test using a distribution center rather than ship from the Mighty Rabbit office.  This should speed up processing and reduce the pressure if it works out, and thankfully it’s got the flexibility to work with international shipping where orders need to be marked as “gift” or valued at $10 in order to avoid insane customs charges.

Due to being a new company, LRG is still in the process of building a stable cash reserve, but once Oddworld and Futuridium ship that should sort out the printing costs for two titles per month, frequently in both PS4 and Vita formats.  Not all months will have two releases, thanks to issues like physical production and QA both being semi-unpredictable variables, but the plan is to release as much as is reasonably possible without flooding the market.  The business model is sustainable with a straight 70/30 split on the gross in the developers favor due to a couple of factors.  Mighty Rabbit is a second income stream for now, although it’s fairly likely LRG will eventually spin off into its own independent company.  LRG itself also has low overhead, only needing to pay two employees and not marking its games with (expensive) ESRB symbols.  Of course, this means no retail distribution, but that’s not an issue for the foreseeable future.

SaturdayMorningRPG

Saturday Morning RPG, game numbers two.

While retail isn’t any kind of concern, knowing what people might want to collect is, and to that end LRG recently ran a survey covering a number of topics.  The question about alternate consoles basically put a stake in the idea of publishing on Xbox One, thanks to a 75% No vote being a little difficult to overlook when the minimum print run is 50,000.  The Wii U fared only a little better at 56% No, although this may be because of the region locks in place on the system and amount of international fans involved in the voting.  This isn’t a major factor for a game like Fatal Frame 5, however, thanks primarily to it being released in every region but North America and that also holds true for the 3DS Phoenix Wright.  Minimum print runs for those games are around 20,000 each, which seems reasonable thanks to them being well-known properties.  In the case of the larger print runs for bigger companies, LRG would end up being the distributor rather than publisher, handling the distribution side while Koei Tecmo (for example) takes care of printing.

The survey also revealed what extras the fans are looking for, with the top five being, in order, instruction manuals taking the top spot, art books next, steelbooks and soundtracks tied for the third and fourth and figures in fifth place.  It’s good to know what people want but plans on how to produce this are still in the works.  Figures, for example, are expensive to ship, while steelbooks would probably need a slipcover so they could blend in better with the rest of the games on a shelf.  Soundtracks would need either larger packaging or a two-disk case.  It’s all a work in progress, which makes sense seeing as LRG is only three games in to the eventual plan of publishing around 24 titles a year.

Oddworld

Oddworld, of course. Game number three and currently shipping.

As a new company they’ve also got a problem persuading some developers that printing copies is worth doing.  Those that get it, get it instantly.  The Eastasiasoft partnership, for example, came about because General Manager Nils Ngai ordered a copy of Breach & Clear, and after talking for a little bit decided it would be well worth seeing his company’s games get the physical treatment.  Other developers just don’t seem to care all that much, making it fairly unlikely a game like Outlast will be sitting on anyone’s shelf any time soon.  There’s also a problem in that any game getting a physical release really needs to have a full offline mode, because otherwise it’s just a coaster in a fancy case.

Another issue with physical gaming is the desire to have as complete a game as possible, including any DLC and all patches.  The point of a disc release is that it’s not dependent on an internet connection, after all, and so far all the LRG games have been ones out long enough to include the extras.  It’s not going to be too long before the window between digital availability and the LRG on-sale date is minimized on a fairly decent percentage of titles, though, but there are contingency plans in place.  If a game has early DLC planned that’s a good reason to hold off printing, although if the window for signing is small then it might be necessary to jump rather than wait.  While games won’t ever be reprinted, that doesn’t mean a Game of the Year edition isn’t possible once all patches and extra content have come out.  It would be nice to get everything, all at once, on every release, but sometimes the realities of business are going to get in the way of the optimal resolution.

Futuridium

Futuridium EP Deluxe, game the fourth coming along soon.

One of those realities is dealing with the Shopify store, which can get touchy when under heavy load.  It’s become obvious that the current storefront isn’t going to cut it, especially with some very high volume titles projected for the future.  Roughly 5-10% of people get a false “out of stock” error when ordering, and from personal experience I can say that it’s maddening to see the percentage left drop to 10% or less and each attempt at buying something you can see in stock results in a denial of purchase due to an overwhelmed web site.  What the solution will be is a work in progress, but it’s clear that the current setup is only going to last so long.  In the meantime one possible solution is bumping the number of release windows from two to three for the higher print run games, which will have the added effect of giving a greater number of fans a chance at ordering.

In addition to all of the above Doug and I chatted about any number of things off-topic and off-record, before, during, and after the interview.  If it wasn’t obvious before from the way Doug and Josh are constantly talking with fans in various forums and on Twitter, listening and responding and revising plans based on feedback, and chasing after new games to publish ranging from near-mainstream (Oddworld, Fatal Frame) to obscure (Futuridium, Rainbow Moon), it was clear after the interview they’re in it as much for the desire to make something cool and keep an aspect of gaming they view as important alive as they are to make a living.

CosmicHeroine

Cosmic Star Heroine, still in development but sometime this year.

It’s still early days for Limited Run Games and there’s a lot of learning left to do, but the company is off to an excellent start and has major ambitions in chasing after excellent games both big and small to publish.  True, the 24 games per year maximum is going to eventually impose a certain level of choosiness on the process, but like a lot of issues for a new company, it’s something to deal with as it comes.  In the meantime PAX East was filled with developers ranging from indifferent to eager to have a physical copy of the games they’d worked so hard on sitting on their shelves.  Lots of people were talked to, plans were made, agreements hashed out and wheels set in motion.  Some will pan out and others won’t, because that’s how these things work, but with even the slightest bit of luck there’s going to be a ton of releases to liven up the libraries of collectors and fans of great gaming.