It was E3 2005 when Alan Wake was first unveiled.
The ambitious story-driven thriller was from Remedy, the studio behind Max Payne. A series it had just sold to Rockstar for $45m.
“After Max Payne, we could have sat on a beach sipping cocktails for quite some time,” Remedy’s head of franchise development Oskari Häkkinen tells MCV.
“But our hearts were in making games, not sipping cocktails. So we re-invested that money into our next game, which was Alan Wake.”
It took five years for Wake to reach shelves, and it was a decent title. Yet it arrived at the worst time (May 2010). Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption sucked all the money out of the market that month, and top releases – Activision’s Blur, Ubisoft’s new Prince of Persia and THQ’s UFC sequel amongst them – failed to perform. Alan Wake was no exception.
“Alan Wake got off to a slow start,” admits Häkkinen.
“Red Dead was a freight train monster of a game, and there was a lot of competition. But out of that competition Alan Wake came second. But second to a very, very big game.”
Indeed, even Microsoft Studios’’ Phil Spencer said that Alan Wake “didn’t sell as well as we’d have liked”.
Yet despite this, the series has lived on. A spin-off title was released on Xbox Live last month – American Nightmare. And the original title has also been spruced up and released for PC.
Remedy now claims that the first Alan Wake has sold over 2m units worldwide.
How did it manage that?
“Alan Wake has become a cult classic,” says Häkkinen. “People who played it felt the urge to tell their friends.
“It’s turning into something really positive. Something that has had legs. Narrative experiences have a tendency towards that.
Alan Wake has garnered quite a following. The PC release was the result of an online petition, and the title has enjoyed a new lease of life via digital.
In fact, the PC?game topped the Steam charts and recouped its development costs in just 48 hours, and, according to Häkkinen, the American Nightmare XBLA game has “done better”.
Could it be that Alan Wake’s future is away from retail altogether?
“Digital is very much in our thinking for the future,” says Häkkinen. “The nice thing that we are seeing with Death Rally [Remedy’s 1996 release which was brought to iOS last year] is that we have done ten updates based on user feedback. So we see what people like and dislike, and then we react. That is how we see the future of games.”
So was releasing Alan Wake as a retail game a mistake? If anything Wake was a title built for the episodic model. Each ‘level’ felt more like an episode of Lost or 24 – there was even a ‘previously on Alan Wake’ at the start of each chapter.
“Episodic delivery was something we considered,” explains Häkkinen.
“But at the time it felt too much of a risk to try and be pioneers in a new delivery format. And there is already a certain amount of attrition with DLC. When you have lots of DLC, there is a high attach rate to the first pack, but then we see a declining number for the rest.”
Alan Wake 2 is coming. Remedy has admitted as such. The franchise has found a niche for itself, thanks in part to its digital success.
Yet the fact that Wake is still around today has perhaps less to do with its cult popularity and more to do with Remedy itself. Because unlike other independent studios, Remedy retained the rights to its own IP.
So although Microsoft may think twice before commissioning a new game, Remedy has no such hesitation. To its creators, Alan Wake is more than sales numbers on a spreadsheet.
“When you build an IP and spend so much time creating it, it’s nothing something you can forget very easily, especially when you’re not done with it,” says Häkkinen.
“When we made Max Payne 1, we were just making one game. We didn’t know it was going to balloon into what it became. We killed off the main characters in the first game. And if we had thought of it as a franchise, we wouldn’t have done that.
“After that with Alan Wake, right from the start, we thought of it as something much bigger than just one game.”