A Conversation with Tim Keenan Part Four: An Epilogue Named Tom

Note: Further context in the form of Part One can be found here; Part Two here; and Part Three here. Alternatively, the whole unabridged interview may be enjoyed aurally here.

Part Four: An Epilogue Named Tom


Tom Towers (TT): ‘And if you will indulge me, I’d like to ask a few questions about A Virus Named Tom because that is one of my favourite puzzle games—at least in recent history—and I’ve actually got another criticism for you! regarding the plot, which is: What was Globotron’s motivation in sending in robots full of the virus for Tom to blow up; thus releasing the virus?’

Tim Keenan (TK): ‘Wait! Oh, so…I’m a little confused by this.’

TT: ‘In the latter levels, the cockroach-style robots; they had these green robots, right?’

TK: ‘Mm…the, yeah. The ones that had the infection in them?’

TT: ‘Exactly. And up to that point it had been implied that Globotron—’

TK: ‘Oh—sorry, you mean MegaTech.’

TT: ‘Sorry! yeah.’

TK: ‘Globotron’s the giant robot.’

TT: ‘My mistake. That’s the robot you destroy, right? One of the things you destroy?’

TK: ‘Um, no you don’t ever destroy Globotron. He was the one in the beginning of the game that was trying to kill people [laughs]—was trying to eliminate people that weren’t using the moving sidewalks.’

TT: ‘Okay, yep; so, clearly I have no idea what I’m talking about.’

TK: ‘But MegaTech—no I get it, like: Globotron, GloboTech, MegaTech—yeah. I actually think Globotron might’ve been the original name of the company back before we changed all that stuff around.’

TT: ‘Maybe I did extreme homework, and—’

TK: ‘[laughs] So yes, so MegaTech: Why in the world would they send anti-virus drones that were infected with the virus? The idea I thought behind it—and maybe this wasn’t clear in the e-mails and stuff—Doctor X was kind of telnetting in and initiating the virus, and you were spreading it; and so the idea was: Is that by the time you got there, they had invented these anti-virus drones that would absorb the virus so that you couldn’t spread it; and the only way to spread the virus was to then destroy those drones: hence releasing the original source.’

TT: ‘Then that makes perfect sense, and I retract my criticism.’

TK: ‘[laughs] It probably wasn’t explained very well in the e-mails; it’s one of those classic things where, as the writer, you’re like: Oh I understand all this; and then you sit down in front of somebody, and you realise how little you conveyed.’

TT: ‘Screw the audience, though, anyway; that’s what I say.’

TK: ‘Right, yes. Let them—let them have their game.’

TT: ‘Exactly. And, speaking of the writing: I was wondering, given my reading of your short stories which I did enjoy; but I noticed they were quite full of typos. To say the least.’

TK: ‘[laughs] Amazing—that doesn’t sound like me at all!’

TT: ‘[laughs] Compared to your wife’s blog which was perfectly proofread, so I was wondering—you wrote A Virus Named Tom, right?’

TK: ‘Yes.’

TT: ‘Was she the proofreader?’

TK: ‘Yes. Absolutely. She also takes my five paragraphs of dialogue and melts them down into one. [laughs]’

TT: ‘So she’s the editor?’

TK: ‘She’s the editor; and the proof, yeah. But you know what’s funny is that all the time I would just like edit a word, and you’re editing it in an IDE design for programming languages, so they don’t have a spell check or anything like that like when you’re editing a string, and so even now on my prototypes—like when I put out Duskers or whatever—there’s just like typos all over the place in them, and people will be like: “Oh you spelt mission wrong” or this that or the other thing, and it’s just like, you know, when I’m just like blazing through it’s just not something that I even think about.’

TT: ‘You only need to spell the code right, the rest doesn’t matter.’

TK: ‘Right, make it not crash; but hopefully there weren’t any in the final edition of the game, though. I know that at the very end some of the team was definitely catching some [laughs]—some apostrophes that weren’t right, and some words that weren’t spelled, and maybe some that don’t even exist.’

TT: ‘There weren’t too many that I could remember, and bear in mind that games are generally very poorly proofread anyway. So even if you missed a few you’re not in bad company.’ [Not that I can talk.]

TK: ‘Right, there you go. I’ll just melt into the herd right there, and I’ll just go along.’


TT: ‘Exactly, and most of my questions about A Virus Named Tom were actually asked elsewhere—except for some of the more boring ones which I wanted to ask anyway, mainly related to the sales, because it was very well critically received; I think it’s got a MetaCritic in the seventies, right?’

TK: ‘So, it was very well critically received, and the average was usually a seven or an eight out of ten.’

TT: ‘I gave it a three point five out of five, so that would be a seven.’

TK: ‘Right, but then, the problem with MetaCritic is that they only let so many publications on there, and usually they’re the larger ones. When you get something like Gears of War, you know, it’ll have like two hundred reviews so that’s a very nice sample size. And with A Virus Named Tom, it was something more like five or seven or something like that, and also the larger sites; whether or not they love indie games is up for debate.

‘But, what was really upsetting to me is that our average was somewhere right around an eight or something like that, and our MetaCritic was a sixty five because I think PC Gamer just didn’t like it at all and so that just dragged the whole average down; so that was kind of discouraging, but other than that I have a spreadsheet of all of the reviews, and yes, it got a lot of love; and that felt great after spending that much time on a game—to be appreciated by what I would consider my peers, because these are people that play a lot of games and have informed opinions on them.’

TT: ‘Excellent, and I regret my score of a three point five because that was mainly based around the structure of the game, and probably if I was looking at it more in an indie context it deserved a four.’

TK: Well, yeah, I appreciate that; but, you know, indie games should be compared alongside other games—the only thing that’s tough, like I don’t mind if you say: “Oh your gameplay isn’t as good as Grand Theft Auto” because I feel like I’m on par with Grand Theft Auto as far as it is a game that you pay—well, you pay a lot more money for that—but that is a game you pay money for; and mine is a game you pay money for.

‘The thing that’s a lot harder [are] things because of the size of the team—like when we get slammed about things like not having online multiplayer which is just a very expensive thing for an indie to put into a game. I don’t want to have a handicap on my score: I’m making these games, and I want it to be on its own merit; but I think that those areas are the only ones that I feel like sometimes it’s tough when you get slammed for not doing something that if you had a giant team you would have done but you just don’t have the money for it.’

TT: ‘But did that critical success at all translate into sales? Did it sell well to begin with, and is it still selling? Because a lot of stuff gets released on Steam to large success, but then isn’t supported later on in the future.’

TK: ‘A Virus Named Tom did well, but not great. Basically, as an indie releasing our first title, there’s nothing that I really can complain about; seeing as a lot of indies with their first title don’t get to get on Steam. We’re very fortunate for the path that we took, and we got in a Humble Bundle; things were going out on Vita soon; things have gone really well for A Virus Named Tom.

‘But yeah, because I was at DreamWorks before; I had this career; and I live in an expensive area—it definitely wasn’t one of those things where it’s like: Oh, I made as much as I would have made if I hadn’t been an indie. It was definitely one of those things where it’s like: Wow, if I eat Ramen noodles, and all those years of my life that I dedicated if I just I forget about those, you know, we might be able to scrape by for a little bit; and you extrude that, and that’s how it’s been.

‘It made enough money that it’s kept the lights on, and then we were able to get in the Humble Bundle, and then that’s another push that kept the lights on, so the fact that it’s been like two years where we’ve sat here and I’ve been able to still be making games full time, I think that’s awesome. So, I certainly can’t scoff at that, but it definitely didn’t put us on Easy Street, and it unfortunately didn’t make enough that we could fund a second title.

‘It’s a tall order for a game to recoup what you spent on it, and then make enough that you can then make another title; but that’s why we’ve been trying to either find funding for our second title, or, we talk about Kickstarting or whatever because we just didn’t have enough money from it in that way. So, it’s a grey picture that I’m painting, but that’s kind of the way that it is, right?’


TT: ‘I think you’ve gotta still consider that a great success because a lot of indies would release a game as well received as A Virus Named Tom and not make enough money on it to be working on games full time.’

TK: ‘Right, yes, and that’s the thing. I joke around that when you’re an indie and you’re talking with other indies; you have to be sensitive because there’s a guy on your right that did way, way better than you, and there’s a guy on your left that did way worse than you, and it doesn’t matter how well your game did, that’s always the case, right? So it’s just different tiers; so I’ll sit there and I’ll be like—’

TT: ‘—Well, unless you’re Notch.’

TK: ‘ [laughs] Right, then there’s no guy to the right of you! But sometimes you’ll talk to someone, and you’ll be embarrassed; you’ll be like: “Oh my God, you made that much money? like, I don’t even want to tell you my sales figures”. And then you’ll be talking to someone else, and you’ll be whining about something, and they’ll be like: “I’m in Greenlight hell right now, just trying to like get my game on Steam, and your game released on Steam” and it’s just like, oh now I feel embarrassed the other way—like: I’m still a dick.

‘Holly and I both believe: it was our first game out there, and it got a lot of love; it built us a community; it got us money; [there’s] definitely nothing that we would say is not a success about it, but just given our financial situation—our mortgage and having a kid, and all that kind of stuff—it’s definitely like: Holly’s still working full time, and I am like working my butt off to try to get some kind of investment or something like that so we can make a second title. I just think that’s a small business thing, right? When you run a small business, you are just constantly a month or two away from going under [laughs]; until the next thing comes along.’

TT: ‘It’s a constant struggle.’

TK: ‘Yep, it is.’

TT: ‘But a fulfilling one.’

TK: ‘It’s amazing; it’s amazing, it’s certainly a rollercoaster—at times you question it, ‘cause you’re like, what am I doing? I should just go back and get a regular job; make a decent pay cheque, and not be stressed out all the time, and not be working these nights, but then you think about not doing it, and you’re like: why would I ever not do this? If I have one more month where I can do this full time then I’m gonna spend that month doing this full time; which I think is why you end up doing it—you just burn right through all the money you make up until you have like none left, and then usually something comes about.

‘At least this is how it’s been for me; I’ve been very fortunate where we’re on the cusp of being dead, and then all of a sudden something happens; something goes through: like, we’re in a daily deal; like, we get in this bundle; something happens where we have a new infusion of cash, and I’m like: Ah! we’re alive, and then we dwindle that down to nothing, and it’s like: uh we’re back here again; like: what’s gonna be the saving grace at the eleventh hour this time?

TT: ‘And it always comes through.’

TK: ‘So far! Knock on wood, yeah.’

TT: ‘And, that would be a good note to end on, but I’ve got this interview neurosis where I always have to ask some even more dull questions than the previous few that the person probably isn’t even going to answer, and the first of these is: What cut do you get from each Steam sale? What percentage of each dollar that is paid for A Virus Named Tom goes to Misfits Attic, and what percentage goes to Steam?’

TK: ‘My contract is always vague on like sales figures and stuff like that—I’m pretty sure I can’t disclose that—but I do know that most deals usually with Valve do follow that kind of industry standard cut of seventy/thirty; I don’t know if my particular one does that or everyone’s does that, but, I do know that in the general sense that’s usually the average.’

TT: ‘So there is room, however, with the contracts with Valve for there to be different percentages worked out?’

TK: ‘Oh, I’m sure. Any time from my dealings and the world in general, no contract is written in stone: when they say boilerplate; it depends how important you are [laughs], and how much leverage you have, you know.’

TT: ‘And, were you more successful in terms of sales and money made from Steam sales, Humble Bundle or when the game launched and had the most hype at full price.’

TK: ‘Oh, that’s a good question. When you say Steam sales, you don’t mean Steam; you mean like Daily Deal?’

TT: ‘Yep, that sort of thing.’

TK: ‘Yeah, I guess between those three? It would probably be the Humble Bundle.’

TT: ‘And is it possible to disclose what sort of cut you get from the Humble Bundle? Is it related to, entirely, the number of games in the bundle; or is it more complicated than that?’

TK: ‘It’s more complicated than that because the games that are out for the full two weeks are driving sales for longer because actually A Virus Named Tom came on after the first week. The formula is a little bit more complicated than that—I actually, honestly, at this very moment, probably couldn’t even tell you what percentage of it I got.

‘Those guys are awesome, and they totally do a fair deal; they’re the type of people that when you sign the contract it’s like three pages, you know what I mean? They’re not in any way trying to screw you or anything like that. I mean, I looked into it when we were doing it, but I trust those guys; so, it doesn’t get divided by number of developers because it’s uneven; the amount of time they’re participating in the sale: but it’s even within those fields, I believe. [laughs]’

TT: ‘Excellent; [laughs] something along those lines at least.’

TK: ‘Right, numbers numbers numbers, complicated complicated.’

TT: ‘Too much for you to comprehend.’

TK: ‘Yes.’

TT: ‘And, before you go, I will just congratulate you on making it into the 2013 Game of the Year list on this podcast.’

TK: ‘Oh, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that—and I also appreciate how much you know about the game and how much you know about all of this stuff; it’s like—not to be disparaging toward media—but I don’t always do interviews where people have done anything other than Google some things like the minute before they talk to me; so, it’s actually really cool to have an interview with someone that’s a fan of the game and that actually played it and actually knows a fair bit about all the other stuff; I’m kind of flattered, honestly.’

TT: ‘Excellent, and well the same can be said for you given that the last interview I did took six months to chase down and ended up with them sending me answers to someone else’s questions.’

TK: ‘[laughs] Well, to be fair it did take you awhile—us—to do this one, because it just seemed like with the time difference and GDC and everything going on it was just like we were going back and forth for awhile, so I’m really glad we were able to do this.’

TT: ‘That’s true, but the result at the end was at least enjoyable to do.’

TK: ‘Yeah! And since it’s not a written thing I don’t have to worry about sending the wrong questions [laughs]; it would be really awkward if I answered the wrong questions in this.’

TT: ‘That might’ve actually made for very entertaining listening, though.’

TK: ‘I just answer whatever question I want.’

TT: ‘[laughs] Exactly. So, thanks a lot for putting up with this interview that lasted about an hour longer than I said it would!’

TK: ‘[laughs] Well, there were technical difficulties. I’m half to blame—I always joke around: it’s like asking a professor what he’s researching; you talk to an indie about their games and they’ll just keep talking [laughs].’

TT: ‘Indeed, so thank you Tim Keenan; and have a good day.’

TK: ‘Thank you.’

And thank you.