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The Unlikely Three-Year Journey of a Niche DS Game

Jason Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London nearly disappeared several times, but the magic number of $78,715 will finally bring the strategy game to life.

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Diamond Trust of London should have died years ago, but designer Jason Rohrer refused to let it go.

Rohrer did not expect to be working on his tiny DS strategy game for more than three years. If all had gone according to plan, Diamond Trust of London would have been out in 2010, published with Majesco’s logo, and he would have made a little bit of money and moved on. That never happened.

When Rohrer signed up for Diamond Trust of London, he was only starting to become known.
When Rohrer signed up for Diamond Trust of London, he was only starting to become known.

It will finally be released this year, however, because of Kickstarter. Rohrer’s Kickstarter proposal to bring Diamond Trust of London to life ended more than a month ago, more than $12,000 over its goal.

The game is a two-player strategy game set before the United Nations passed the Kimberley Process for diamond certification in Angola, an attempt to eliminate “blood diamonds.” There was a lucrative, secretive diamond trade happening in the region before this, and Diamond Trust of London turns that into a game of manipulation predicated on protecting secrets from the other player.

Rohrer was not a known quantity when he sketched out this idea, though he was getting there. Passage, a minimalistic game about death, had been released, and Sleep is Death was not far off. Diamond Trust of London was a project driven by money, a way to help support his family.

“When I signed up for this project three years ago, I had no traction,” he said, “and this publisher came to me, and I was looking at the numbers and saying ‘You know what, I could maybe make $5,000 off of this! Yes!’”

Back then, the idea of a developer supporting themselves by releasing games on their own was...crazy.

Diamond Trust of London was the result of a partnership with Majesco, back when that company was really into the idea of making video games. It published Psychonauts, remember? Majesco set Rohrer up with a development kit and an office. The game was nearly done, missing a tutorial and music, when Majesco got cold feet, and asked Rohrer about releasing on the DSiWare platform. Rohrer crunched the numbers, and didn’t like what he found.

“If you’re making a niche game, you can’t release it on a platform that’s even more niche,” he laughed.

The two ultimately came to a disagreement, and since his contract allowed him to retain rights to the game, he was left with some options. But it’s not like Rohrer could just call up Nintendo and have the game get made.

“Nintendo doesn’t let anybody just come in and let them publish a game on their own,” he said. “You have to be a licensed publisher, and Nintendo won’t license me as a publisher--they’re very strict about who they license. You have to show them this whole business plan, a whole bank portfolio showing how much capital reserves you have--i.e. millions of dollars in capital--and this huge history of publishing games on other major platforms and everything else.”

He shrugged it off, and figured the game was dead.

Then, an opportunity arose later in 2010 with Zoo Games, whose indiePub label was interested in in games like Diamond Trust of London. It seemed like a perfect match, as Zoo Games had published DS games in the past.

As the final pieces fell into place for Diamond Trust of London, Zoo Games started getting nervous, as the 3DS was not far off. It was deja vu for Rohrer, though he actually understood where Zoo Games was coming from.

“They realized it would be crazy to throw this kind of cash at something that’s so uncertain,” he said. “How many people still want a DS game at all? How many people who are in my fanbase actually want to play a DS game, and so on? I certainly wouldn’t want to put up my own money on that, and here I am asking this publisher to do this!”

Once again, a publisher wanted Diamond Trust of London released in Nintendo's digital storefront, but the prospects for success were even bleaker. This time, however, Rohrer had cartridge creation written into the contract.

For the record, the idea of moving Diamond Trust of London to another platform crossed Rohrer's mind, but Rohrer designs his games tailored to that platform's strengths. He couldn't conceive of a way to put Diamond Trust of London on an iPhone or iPad without huge changes, and so it remained exclusively a DS proposition.

This is where Kickstarter comes in, and how Rohrer came up with the very specific Kickstarter asking price of $78,715. According to Rohrer, that is the exact amount of money needed to make this happen. Most of the $78,715 figure comes from having to order a minimum number of cartridges from Nintendo, a number Rohrer was forced to dance around for contractual reasons. At the time we were speaking, not long before the Kickstarter ended, there were about 900 backers who had committed to buying the game.

“You cannot make 900 cartridges,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many you need to make, but you need to make a lot more than that. That’s what Kickstarter is raising the money for, there’s this big expense.”

The mysterious amount of cartridges Rohrer will be ordering from Nintendo will, he suspects, fill an entire room in his house. All of them are being shipped directly to Rohrer, and will be hand mailed.

Zoo Games is still involved in every step of the process, too. This couldn’t be happening otherwise, as Nintendo would not deal with Rohrer directly, even with Kickstarter backing proving player interest.

“They had promised to make cartridges way back when,” he said, “and as things were changing over time, it became less and less sensible to be doing that, but they had this promise--they didn’t want to totally screw me over. The idea of Kickstarter came up."

Diamond Trust of London is about what you know, what they know, and taking chances.
Diamond Trust of London is about what you know, what they know, and taking chances.

It’s an interesting model for a publisher, since even Rohrer admits it’s hard to imagine anyone making too much money off the game, when it's all said and done. Diamond Trust of London is more of a vanity proposition, but one that allows a project that would, in ordinary situations, lose a ton of money, to possibly break even.

The project ended with just under 1,300 backers who will receive a game. Imagine if a company released a game and sent out a press release bragging about 1,300 sales--it just wouldn’t happen. Kickstarter allows Zoo Games, Rohrer, and Nintendo to scale properly, and make sure the game isn’t some financial disaster.

“Let’s say we put the money up-front and got the cartridges made using our own bankroll, my bankroll or our publisher’s bankroll, and distributed it on Amazon or or something, right?” he said. “Let’s say 950 people bought it at $29.99, which would be a reasonable retail price point. That’s $27,000. [laughs] That is before Amazon takes their cut. Just looking at the numbers, how many of these would we need to sell at retail prices before we, given that the retailer is going to take a cut and so on, before we break even on this? This is just not [feasible]--sounds insane!”

Diamond Trust of London could be the last original third-party game produced for the platform, it seems. A quick perusal of GameStop’s upcoming lineup for the DS shows a whole lot of nothing, besides an endless sea of licensed products. Through it’s taken Diamond Trust of London years to arrive at this moment, barring any last-minute hiccups, it seems like it’s all finally going to happen.

If you’re reading this, you probably missed out on the Kickstarter, but the sheer amount of cartridges headed to Rohrer means plenty will be available through his online web store for probably some time to come, once they're finally available. The game isn't expected to start shipping to backers until August.

Patrick Klepek on Google+