Monday, 24 Jan 2022

Loving the alien: NZ-made survival game Icarus tops global charts on first weekend

An NZ-made video has topped a global sales chart after its first weekend of release.

Despite only being released on Friday, Icarus: First Cohort was the top seller on the giant global gaming platform Steam for the week ending December 5 – despite only being released over the weekend.It beat the latest Halo installment and all-comers as hit headed the all-category chart.

Icarus’ commercial release followed more than two years of development by Auckland gaming studio RocketWerkz, founded by Dean Hall.

His gamble on a big budget, high-production-value game seems to be paying off.

“Our Version 1.0 launch has gone insanely well and we’ve only been out less than an hour. 30,000 people already playing it,” Hall told the Herald over the weekend.

RocketWerkz did not immediately release any sales figures, but at 7am this morning NZT (11am Sunday on the US west coast), there were more than 47,000 people playing Icarus simultaneously.

The Windows PC-based game sells for $39, or $112 in a “Supporters Edition” whose price includes two expansion packs due next year.

After terraforming gone wrong, you – or you and up to seven others playing online – have to survive on an alien world in a mission that could last hours or weeks.

Icarus got some great notices from gaming publications during its preview phase.

“Icarus is stunning to look at, with crystal clear rivers and lakes, towering trees that sway in the wind, and snow-capped mountains looming on the horizon,” PC Gamer’s review said during the beta. “I’m eager to go back for more.”

GameSpot said, “Our hands-on time put us in a valley that Hall said was eight kilometers square [there’s 64km square in total], where every single tree could be cut down, every rock could be mined and broken apart, and every bush could be harvested.”

And Screen Rant raved, “Incredibly promising. Not only is its premise totally unique, but it sets up an ambitious future with an ever-expanding universe filled with new biomes, threats, lore and more.”

Some early adopters were more ambivalent, with Icarus getting a “Mixed” rating on Steam’s user-ratings. Of 5346 reviews, 55 per cent were positive.

Some user-reviews said elements of the game had a pre-release feel, while others noted its hardware requirements, which are rather staunch (16 gigabytes of memory is the minimum, while 32GB is recommended. For context, your average new PC has 8GB. Dell’s gaming PCs come standard with 16GB; upgrading to 32GB costs $626. Keen gamers will shrug at the need for 32GB, and Icarus’ other demanding specs. But if you’re a casual gamer looking for a summer fling, beware your home-office workhorse probably won’t be up to it.)

A few teething issues are usual as a game emerges from beta. Overall, it’s looking like a pretty good Christmas for Hall and his Icarus team at RocketWerkz – which now occupies the top floor of the new PwC Tower at Auckland’s ritzy Commercial Bay (complete with a $5m spaceship-themed fitout) and is by investment from Chinese giant Tencent, which took a 29 per cent stake (Hall owns the balance).

Hall, who graduated from the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Initial Officer Training Course in 2001, had experience with real-life survival. At one point, while on a Singapore Armed Forces exchange programme, he lost 25kg after being dropped into the Brunei jungle on a training exercise.

During a stint in the Signals Corps, he used satellite data to create his own visual map, allowing him to beat the compass-wielding pack during a navigation exercise at Waiouru Military Camp.

A stint with game developer Bohemia Interactive in the Czech Republic followed, where he created a mod for the popular zombie title Day Z, which became a best-seller.

He founded his own gaming studio, RocketWerkz, when he returned to NZ in 2014. The startup was initially based in Dunedin, where he still has a team working on smaller titles.

Hall moved his Icarus team to Auckland two years ago, and got a bloody nose on social media from former staffers when the move was accompanied by a number of layoffs in the Dunedin office with the refocus.

And while the Government has been keen to trumpet the video gaming industry as our next billion-dollar export earner (it enjoyed 42 per cent growth to $324m revenue last year amid a lockdown boom), Hall says the sector’s success is despite, not because of, Beehive policy.

In April, he told the Herald he had 70 staff working on Icarus.

He wanted 50 more.

“But there’s a fat chance of that now,” Hall said, after learning of the Government’s latest round of subsidies to the film industry, which competes for the same pool of scarce visual effects talent.

At the same time, our Government had failed to match tax breaks for game studios offered across the Tasman.

Hall said he didn’t want a handout for RocketWerkz, but he did want a level playing field, and he said the lopsided subsidy situation made life harder for smaller video game firms.

But over the weekend, he was back on a high early Icarus sales indicated it will be a very good holiday season indeed for Hall and his team, albeit one with little sleep.

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