As part of an upcoming retrospective on Oxenfree, MCV spoke to Night School Studio’s Sean Krankel about the studio, Oxenfree and their latest title, Afterparty.
Night School Studios’ Afterparty seems to be an obvious fit for a Halloween release. The developer’s latest title sees its dual protagonists doomed to an eternity in hell following their untimely deaths. In order to escape damnation, the pair must party their way across the underworld, with the ultimate goal of beating Satan in a drinking competition.
From the setting alone, its release date of October 29th – two days before Halloween – seems to make sense. Not only is this the studio’s first title since their horror cult-classic Oxenfree, but the inevitable cast of Halloween horrors seems, on paper, too tempting to miss at this time of year. Indeed, the game has seen impressive reviews from various outlets, reaching a commendable 81 on Metacritic.
Despite this, as Night School Studio co-founder Sean Krankel tells MCV, the game’s performance has been something of a mixed bag so far. “Without going into too many details, we have seen a lot of success in some places, and not a lot of success in others” notes Krankel. “I’m still trying to figure out why that is.”
The first answer that jumps to mind is the October release date – Fighting every game out there in the Christmas rush. While it may not seem like an obvious rival, releasing just four days after consumers have sunk £50 on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can’t have helped sales.
Then there’s the curve balls of being exclusive to Epic Game Store at present on PC, plus being on Xbox Game Pass as well. Which places the game well outside the usual envelope for PC and console sales predictions.
“Obviously it’s a hard time to fight for eyeballs, but also it’s very thematically cool with Halloween and with the fall and all of that. So while we’re happy with how it’s moving, I think in the next two weeks, there’s a lot that we’ll learn, that may change how we market it, change how we communicate it.”
It’s this ability to recalibrate after launch that shows the story has just begun for Afterparty – as much like its unfortunate heroes there’s life after death, or rather life after launch in this case. And Night School Studio has been down this road before.
Despite being known as a cult classic today, Oxenfree initially struggled to find its audience – a source of considerable stress for Krankel at the time.
“It took a while for Oxenfree to really take off,” says Krankel, “it was about four or five months until we were comfortable with where it was headed. “By the end of the first year we were really happy, but at month one I was scared out of my mind. It was not selling that well, and the reviews were not matching what the expectations were internally. So yeah, I thought I thought we were going to go out of business for the first couple of months for sure, if not the first six months.”
Despite this initial disappointment, the game eventually found success through two main avenues: Livestreamers, and effective communication with the game’s initial audience. Since then, the game has attracted a passionate following – Inspiring countless fan art and cosplays, and proving successful enough to keep Night School Studio open and able to produce their next game.
“That’s something we learnt from Oxenfree. We changed how we communicated. Early on, we only messaged the mysterious aspects of the game, and didn’t give a give a lot of insight into the story because we were paranoid about people spoiling it. In reality, that shit doesn’t matter. We don’t care about that at all anymore. So over time we change the messaging depending on the platform. So either we lean more toward the mind fuckery of the game, or say in iOS we lean more into the coming of age story, and how it’s this tween-friendly adventure.”
“I feel like one of the things that’s been most effective for us is, in particular with Steam on the PC front, is being able to communicate with your audience directly and have things like wishlists and have the ability to have an ongoing dialogue. That was really helpful for Oxenfree in creating a very long tail.”
“So with Afterparty, time will tell. Should we be leaning more heavily into the partying aspects? Should we be more heavily into the fact that it is an emotional adventure through the afterlife? The game has a lot of different levers we can pull and right now we’re just kind of throwing-it-all-at-the-wall and seeing if any of it sticks. So yeah, review wise, we’re very happy and we’re cautiously optimistic about how sales go.”
While Afterparty’s initial sales may not have soared on every platform, there’s still plenty of time and space for the game to grow its audience across the board – belying the philosophy that a game’s initial launch window can make or break a title.
With an established fanbase from Oxenfree, and a launch trailer showcasing the game’s excellent sense of humour, there’s plenty of hope for fans and livestreamers to bring a long tail of success for Afterparty.