I want to make one thing clear right from the beginning: Secret of the Magic Crystals is not for you. Despite the fact it is most likely sitting in your Steam library, and it got there because someone paid real money to give it to you.
And the developers of Secret of the Magic Crystals, Artery Studios, are really just fine with that.
“The whole thing started in 2006,” explains Tamas Bako, Artery’s CEO. “I was living in the UK at the time, working at Travelers’ Tales, the company behind all the Lego games. A friend of mine and I decided to move back and make our own games company, based here.”
Here, in this case is Budapest, Hungary.
Hungary isn't a country I've visited. In fact, I know only a handful of folks who have. But here’s what I know about Hungary thanks to the internet. The average annual take-home wage is just $12,000 a year (vs. $42,000 in the United States or $34,000 in the U.K.) So the decision to voluntarily move out of the higher-wage world and back home wasn't necessarily an easy one.
“We’d been working together since 1995, and initially just wanted to do art outsourcing,” Tamas explains. Hence the painful pun of the studio name, “Artery.” And they managed to get work — good work. When the Need For Speed developers from EA and Exient found themselves a bit behind the 8-Ball in world building, they reached out to Tamas and his fledgling team. “They flew here two days after they contacted us, and set us up with dev kits, we just fell right into the project. But of course, in those days, we had to work a lot just to convince them that we could do the job, and could take on a whole island in Need for Speed: Undercover.”
But they did, and Artery built a niche reputation as a small studio that could handle generating substantial art assets on a short timeline. That reputation has kept them in work, and their list of projects now includes support for “serious” games like The Witcher 2 and Driver: San Francisco.
Which does nothing to explain this:
For a studio full of talented artists making photo-realistic art assets and whole medieval city blocks of detail, sparkle ponies seems like an odd left turn.
But really, it comes down to a small team wanting to stretch their wings: in this case, Pegasus wings.
“We wanted to try the Unity engine,” explains Tamas. “We” in this case is a dedicated group of eight full-time people (and a stable of some 20 freelancers). One of those eight, it turns out, is a programmer. “The art stuff is really cool,” he explains, a bit shyly, “but we wanted to get our own ideas into a game. We also really want to make games for kids, without all the violence in them.” That desire to make something your kids can play seems like a universal truth for anyone in the creative process. How many famous actors, writers and musicians have taken left turns in their grown-up careers to do a voiceover for a Disney film or an album full of kid-friendly songs? “Most of the guys in our company were having kids right around the start of development. Emotionally, we all changed a bit.”
And so, in between the “serious game” work projects, they built a kids’ game, originally targeted as something a member of the team’s 2-year-old girl might grow up to play, when they were done. They developed a world, and an art style, and perhaps more importantly, taught themselves how to make a game in the Unity engine.
Initially, the team had somewhat unrealistic expectations for broader distribution. “We sent it to major publishers and there was some good feedback,” explained Tamas. “But after 6 months, none of them took it. We decided to just release it on Steam, even if it wasn't going to be particularly financially good for the company. We wanted it released so we could use it as a demo, to show to potential clients that we knew Unity.”
And the honest truth is, it worked. Secret of the Magic Crystals was released in February 2010 on Steam. By April, they’d been hired to develop the front end for a kids’ MMO called Pora Ora, directly leveraging what they’d learned making a game about grooming magical horses.
What happened in the saga of Secret of the Magic Crystals after that was a bit of a surprise. “Initially, it actually didn’t sell too badly when it was released on Steam. It was selling maybe 2,000 or so units a month at $10.” While this may sound like abject failure by American game standards, put this in the perspective of 8 artists building a dream company in a homeland with an average wage of $1,000 a month. $20,000 a month from a side project that was really designed as a tech demo is nothing to sneeze at, even considering whatever cut Steam may have taken.
After a few months sales declined, but still managed to continually sell a few hundred copies a month at a discounted price of $5.
At this point I should probably point something out.
Secret of the Magic Crystals is not a good game.
Secret of the Magic Crystals involves collecting magical horses (Unicorns, Pegasi, Demonic Fire Steeds, the usual), and then brushing them, shoeing them, training them (with 30 second DDR-style minigames) or sending them on missions. The missions sound fun: races, mail runs, difficult field-plowing situations. But the missions involve clicking on “OK” and waiting till a timer runs down.
I don’t actually find any of this entertaining. I’m sure, however, someone does. I don’t find most games on Facebook fun. I’ve never quite gotten the appeal of the Tamagotchi-pet game. I don’t find most non-PopCap casual games fun. I find them boring and repetitive.
The game brings together numerous mechanics from social games and “pet” games that have come before it. For instance, your horses come back from missions with random objects, which you can then use to, perhaps, craft potions or horseshoes:
And there is money to grind, and there are horses to breed, and there are buildings to level up. There are Steam achievements.
So plenty of “not me” people bought Secret of the Magic Crystals and, presumably, enjoyed it. And then a funny thing happened. The game was included in the Steam summer sale. The price dropped to a dollar. And it sold 25,000 in less than a week.
“That was really amazing to see,” says Tamas. “We were very happy, obviously. We thought ‘at least some people care about the game!.’” Of course, what really happened, in retrospect, is that Secret of the Magic Crystals became a meme, an internet thing, a gag. Threads popped up on Reddit and 4Chan and yes, even on Gamers With Jobs. People were gifting $1 copies to their friends as a gag.
And every so often, it happens again. Even with the game back at $5, the gift-giving happens. And once Artery got over the initial shock, they kind of just joined in on the joke. “We know the original audience for the game is children, so honestly, we always laugh.”
And here’s the other thing. Gamers — like, actual grownups with credit cards — actually seem to play the game for far longer than you might expect. Forget for a moment the 10.7 hours I logged in the game grinding out my Magic Crystals. There are thousands of screenshots posted on the game’s Steam hub page. Dozens of complete walk-throughs have been recorded on YouTube. An unscientific view of my Steam friends list has 35 owners of the game who have a median playtime of around 2 hours.
I’ve paid $60 for a game and sent it to the bin in less than two hours.
And Tamas gets it. He gets that even while most of the copies of the game were given away as jokes, people still played it.
“Two years have passed,” he explains. “We know what the shortcomings are. We know what we’d improve to involve parents or teenagers. So we've actually been working on a sequel for some time now, and we think that it’s going to be really good — and people will play it for what it is, not just for a joke.”
It’s an odd thing really. Here the internet’s been laughing at Artery, and Artery’s been quietly cashing the checks. And they’re going to use all that memecash to make the game they really wanted to make in the first place. “We’re in the design phase … tearing down the original game to its core. We’re taking out all the elements that users don’t like or just find boring, and are adding more action — more game to it. We’re making a 1.0 game.”
In the age of Kickstarter, who’s to say they haven’t found an even better business model? For all the snickering, and for all the tens of thousands of gifted “joke” copies of what is not a great game, I suspect that Artery will have the last laugh.
[Note: Previous versions of this article mistakenly highlighted UK developer Criterion as the relevant Need for Speed developer, not EA and Exient Entertainment (UK)]