Is It Time for Legal Crime?

How hard is it to develop a game title and get it into the retail channel? Two Finnish gamers find out.

Finnish gamers Jari Saarhelo and Teemu Puskala thought they had a great idea for a real-time strategy game. Instead of playing a city manager, or assuming the role of a noble human leader beset by nasty orcs, or stepping into the combat boots of a battlefield general, why not give players a chance to juice their joneses for bribery, extortion, murder, vice - an opportunity to indulge in all the not-so-noble impulses? Wouldn't it be good, or at least cool, to let players be bad?

Yes it would, Saarhelo and Puksala thought. So they and their friends formed the company Byte Enchanters and spent two and a half years working on Legal Crime, a real-time strategy game played over the Internet. Players take the role of mafiosi competing to control a city that resembles Chicago in the 1920s.

Saarhelo and Puksala still think it's a cool idea for a game. They just wish more people had heard about it.

Because if you have heard of Legal Crime, you're one of the lucky ones.

The problems and roadblocks Byte Enchanters has encountered in bringing its product to gamers' attentions serve to illustrate just how tough it is for a small company to crack the computer games market - especially for a company without the backing of a GT Interactive, an Electronic Arts, or a Microsoft to fall back on.

The Internet was supposed to change all this, supposedly to put the little guys on the same footing as the big guys, supposedly to cut out the costs of marketing and distribution and allow computer game makers to forge direct contacts with their audience, with potential buyers.

It hasn't quite worked out that way.

Byte Enchanters distributes its game over the Internet. The free demo available includes all the features of the regular game, but the playing time is limited to 15 minutes. It attracted nearly 5000 players for the game's beta test period, and now that it's launched the title, it continues to upgrade it. Legal Crime "families" such as the Notorious Thugs and the Brusie Brothers, akin to Quake clans, have formed over the Internet.

The problem is getting the word out.

"We are a small company and our resources are limited," said Saarhelo, who was responsible for Legal Crime's game design. "We tried some commercial banner advertising (when we launched the game), but the results were dismal. Designing a commercial campaign is out of the range of a small company like us and so are the display costs. As a result, we have given free game licenses to gamers who have decent gaming sites and who are willing to display our banners or buttons on their sites."

Saarhelo says that sales of the game are growing by about 30 percent a month, "but that amounts to next to nothing since the starting figure is so small."

Still, Saarhelo and his cohorts are satisfied with the course they've charted. He said he considered trying to get the game distributed in stores through GT or one of the other major players in that arena but opted against it. "We are all good professionals and we can get good money by doing other jobs," he said. "We are after a dream, not money. If we sell out to GT or EA, we'd sell a dream for a commission. We could have done that by working for another company."

But Byte Enchanters is keeping its eyes on the future. "Online sales have not really started yet," Saarhelo said. "People are not used to buying games this way; they go to stores. We believe that we will be satisfied by the results later. We hope to see fast growth after there are enough Legal Crime gamers.

"The game is great and gamers love it," he said.

That should be enough to secure the success of any game. You would hope.

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