Jeroen van Hasselt and his team at Dutch indie studio Vogelsap had high hopes for their first release, the exclusively multiplayer horror title The Flock; and why shouldn’t they? The game’s gutsy new “population” gimmick had garnered massive attention from press and the gaming public alike. Preliminary reviews at gaming events were good, and developers believed in The Flock‘s potential for success. Vogelsap was living the dream of every burgeoning game studio: riding high on positive initial feedback and a whole lot of hope. But the launching of The Flock on August 21, 2015 was a complete, unmitigated disaster. A nearly unplayable game build led to universally bad user reviews and a cringe-inducing Metacritic score of 33 (that’s out of 100, in case you were wondering). In van Hasselt’s own words, “What the f**k?”
Vogelsap wanted The Flock to be different, and (surprise) they actually succeeded, at least on some level. Without going into soul-crushing detail, here’s how that groundbreaking population game mechanic is supposed to work: A counter corresponding to players’ in-game lives was attached to the game at launch; and now, every time a member of the titular flock dies, this counter ticks down. When it reaches zero, the plan is to take the game off the market, leaving its self-described “climactic” ending available only to those who were wise enough to get in before the buzzer. And if that’s not enough, after the ending, The Flock will never be playable again, ever.
Because innovation is about taking risks, and if this one had worked the way Jeroen van Hasselt envisioned, it might have been really cool. In a presentation he gave at Control Conference 2015, he highlighted the fact that the Steam platform, through which The Flock was released, is growing by a frankly ridiculous margin every year. “This was a very tough market,” he said. “We needed to do something different, to stick out, to be that lamp that everyone would notice.” The population mechanic was indeed their ticket out of obscurity, but not in the way he imagined. The idea was to bring the game out of a strictly fictional realm and into one where player experience had a tangible effect on the real world. That’s cool, right? That’s the sort of thing we look for in our interactive experiences: a blurring of the lines between what we’re living and what we’re playing. Unfortunately for van Hasselt and Vogelsap, the greatness of their vision didn’t come through in its execution, at all.
In short, almost everywhere. Van Hasselt swears The Flock was tested two weeks in advance, but upon its release, it was riddled with crippling problems, not least of which was an incompatibility with the newly-available Windows 10 OS. These problems are attributed to an influx of major additions at the end of production, a subject he doesn’t elaborate on except to say that the changes wrecked the stability of their game build. Lack of dual-window functionality meant that The Flock was off-limits to Youtube streamers, who have been a huge vehicle for indie horror games in the past. And all that press coverage we mentioned? Gone, once the media realized what a mess the official release had turned out to be. At the end of the day (there were 20 negative reviews in the first live hour), van Hasselt was left reeling. His game was an abject failure, his company name sullied. “It’s a … grim situation for me personally because a lot of my own things are on the line at the moment.” The Flock has sold 3000 copies; its population counter began at 215,358,979. We’re going to go out on a limb and say that might have been a little optimistic.
There’s no getting around it, really: The Flock was an abject failure. To the team’s credit, hope springs eternal at Vogelsap, and there are plans for the upcoming Halloween season, including a price drop and a load of new content in the form of game modes and a map. Vogelsap isn’t ready to bail on this arguably sunken ship, so rest assured that we haven’t yet seen the last of them. If nothing else, kudos to Jeroen van Hasselt for being able to power through after gazing so far down into the game developer abyss.