Well folks, I never thought we’d be here; but here we are.
When Dischan Media first appeared in 2011 many, including myself, had high hopes for the group. Despite being unproven, the group had several things going in its favor including a unique, atmospheric look and a fearlessness in telling stories that were not being told at the time. In two years, Dischan’s work won public recognition, critical (and possibly commercial) success and, at least from this website, honors. It seemed that with Juniper’s Knot and Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1 as the group’s foundation, the sky was the literal limit for them.
Then this year happened.
I won’t lie to you: this is probably the most difficult feature I’ve had to do on VNs Now so far. Dischan started to gain notice around the same time that this website launched so I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to have seen Dischan’s beginning, rise and fall. I never thought this would be something I’d see in my tenure, yet it has and a very strong part of me wants to do nothing but reminisce on their work. But, in order to do that I would deluding myself into thinking Dischan’s cause of death wasn’t self-inflicted and ignoring a problem that could cause problems for other commercials developers. No one should have to fall like Dischan did, but the only way that can happen is if we acknowledge their failures and learn from them.
So there is less of a retrospective and more of a post-mortem. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what happened, but just from Jeremy Miller’s actions and the way this all unfolded, my opinion on the matter is something I think we can all use. In the meantime, if you want a retrospective history of Dischan here are a list of links of VNs Now content and blog posts from the incident itself that covers the gist. I’d definitely take a look at those if you haven’t.
- Juniper’s Knot Review
- Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1 Review
- First Jeremy Miller Interview
- Second Jeremy Miller Interview
- Dysfunctional Systems Episode 2 Suspended
- Jeremy Miller Explains What Went Wrong
- Jeremy Miller Refuses To Answer VNs Now’s Questions
So, what went wrong? For that we have to go back to 2014 and pay close attention, because you’ll see Mr. Miller’s biggest mistake before I tell you if you do. In Early 2014, Dischan held a kickstarter campaign which raised 67,450 CAD; a little over $50,000. At the end of the campaign the updates were semi-regular, but usually positive as they put the game together. It was more or less expected by the backers and fans of Dysfunctional Systems who, for the most part, where just happy that things were progressing as of Christmas 2014 when they got the final update of 2014 promising a release date very soon. Things changed on January 2nd of this year, when Miller released the following statement onto Kickstarter:
We are halting full-time development on the Dysfunctional Systems series. We will be offering partial refunds to backers who pledged over $5 and who ask for a refund. Backers in the $5 tier received the product they paid for, so they will not be refunded. If you would like a refund, let us know via Kickstarter. Please be considerate when asking for a refund as most of the money is gone so I will be using my personal funds to make up the difference. Please note that refunds may take some time to arrive, first of all because bulk refunds are difficult on Kickstarter, and secondly because once our current funds run out I will only be able to refund backers as I earn the money to do so.
Now, most fans in the aftermath were shocked but tried to be understanding. After all, there are no guarantees when you donate to a Kickstarter project and the rush to refunds wasn’t immediate. That slowly changed, however, thanks to the admissions that Mr. Miller would make following the announcement. The post pointed to a wide-range of issues that plagued the group that centered on bad management. The Kickstarter funds were badly handled, people were brought onto the team that were not needed, miscommunication reigned for months on end and, ultimately, Mr. Miller lost interest. Please note that I’m not allowing for the excuse of ‘they bit off more than they can chew’ because paying people a salary out of fifty grand has nothing to do with the scope of the project. That’s just bad management. I also specify Miller alone when it comes to losing interest because the artist who replaced Saimon Ma, R-til, said at the time of the January announcement that he would’ve volunteered his time to finish Episode 2.
To make matters worse, instead of being upfront with his Kickstarter backers, Miller repeatedly mislead them (at best) to keep everything looking kosher. I strongly believe this is what led to many backers requesting a refund because the lie is never the problem; it’s the cover-up. But there were many fans who wanted to forgive them. However, in the Backer comments and in public forums, many of those fans also had a request which sprang from Miller himself: Episode 0.
Dysfunctional Systems: Episode 0 was slated to be a prequel to the events of Episode 1. By all accounts, it is finished. While it, by its very nature, will not be the same as the promised Episode 2 many fans, and this critic in particular, called for Miller to at least release that. Perhaps seeing that reaction coming, in the announcement on Episode 2’s indefinite hiatus, Miller had this statement:
Yes, Episode 0 is basically finished. It’s part of the reason for this decision. To put it simply: it’s average. It’s not good and it’s not bad: it’s average. Playing through it makes me feel like releasing the game would only disappoint the people who expect more from us. Therefore, we will not be releasing it.
Once it became clear that nothing funded by the Kickstarter campaign would see the light of day, interest in Dischan cratered. Miller attempted to draft in new team members for a new IP, but it was to no avail which led us to the situation of the day where Dischan has announced it is closing its doors. Next month, Dischan store will close down and presumably the current Dischan catalog will be pulled from third-party platforms. Many reasons have been given between developers and fans, but for me those are the symptoms or side-effects of the real problem here. Yes Miller did not manage his finances correctly. Yes he was absolutely wrong to mislead his backers. But those things were not what led to this rather public collapse. What led to Dischan’s fall is something we see everyday and an MBA isn’t needed to understand it and that is lack of trust. More specifically, Jeremy Miller did not trust his audience.
The tragedy of the Dischan situation is that Miller had something many independent game developers would have death matches over: an audience willing to put their time and money behind Dischan. While we will never have the official direct download figures for Episode 1, since it launched on Steam in 2013, the title has claimed over fifty thousand owners according to SteamSpy. On top of that, I have been bombarded since this thing began of how vital Saiman Ma, the lead artist of Episode 1, was to Dischan’s success. Yet, knowing that Ma was out and R-til was in as lead artist didn’t seem to matter too much to the fandom who (just to remind you) gave nearly twenty-thousand dollars over the requested budget for Episode 2’s Kickstarter. These fans were all-in and fully ready to do whatever needed to be done to help Miller and Dischan reach their goal.
In exchange they were repeatedly mislead and the money they gave in good faith was abused and wasted. While this can be forgiven as bad management, the next obvious step is to learn from your mistakes and make sure the fans who gave you said money knows how much your appreciate what they did. While I do believe some sort of refund should’ve been issued once Miller admitted what happened behind-the-scenes, unless he has a high-paying job or has family money, it’s going to take awhile to complete those ‘partial refunds’ to the satisfaction of his backers. In between that time, answering questions and trying to give as much from that project as you can is the best route to show you really wanted to do right by your audience.
Instead, Jeremy Miller has ignored or avoided any public questions. This, to me, shows that for all of his supposed admissions and the ‘lessons’ this debacle has taught him; Jeremy Miller has learned nothing. Well, actually, it’s that and his attempts to form a new team after deciding not to release anything from Episode 0 or 2; effectively snubbing the work of his former team members who could’ve used the professional recognition. Seriously, apply logic to the situation: why would anyone work under the Dischan umbrella when there is no guarantee theirfinished work will ever be shown if Miller decides that it’s just ‘average’?
And none of this had to happen.
The Dischan team deserved better. The fans deserved better. If, at any point of this mess, Jeremy Miller put the same faith in his fans that his fans put in him, we wouldn’t be here right now. Instead he refused and became disconnected from everyone around him who was willing to help. Instead of admitting mistakes and seeking help to correct them because his team and his audience deserves his best, tried to cover up his mistakes and lied to them. His lies and cover ups led to contempt for the very project he was working on and, in that contempt, he buried everything he could. Under this type of leadership, there was no way that Dischan could rebuild after Episode 2. Collapse became inevitable and responsibility for it is something Jeremy Miller will have to shoulder alone.
Hopefully though, by discussing this in public, we can put more focus on the best prevention of this type of absolute failure and that solution is in the audience. And for any of the EVN developers reading this article and preparing to explain to me how I’m not a fellow developer therefore I will never understand what ‘really’ happened with Dischan, can you tell me who it is who plays your games? Do they like your work because it is a work unique to youor just because you can successfully emulate a Japanese visual novel? Do people pay full retail price if you are a commercial enterprise or do they wait for a sale? If more people wait for sales for your work then what is the real worth of your visual novel? Oh, here’s a very good one; has anyone in your audience told anyone personally about your games? Not online; face-to-face?
If you’re an EVN developer and you cannot answer those questions, might I humbly suggest you start asking them to your audience? Your base audience are the ones who will help you grow. They are the ones who will get the word out on your behalf and get people who never would’ve considered checking out your work to give it a shot. An audience that solidly believes in you and your work will sacrifice from their own bank account again and again not only because they enjoy what you’ve done, but also because they know some of that money is going to you and they trust you. And when you’ve pushed as hard as you can and don’t think you can go any further, they are the ones crazy enough to believe in you and will be the ones to get your through it. Anyone who has that kind of loyalty to any developer deserves more than passing recognition and if the EVN community is going to reach it’s full potential the fans have got to come first. That’s the only way this thing is going to work.
I’m sad to see Dischan go, and despite Miller’s shortcomings I will always appreciate the good work he and his team did. If you haven’t played Dysfunctional Systems Episode 1 or Juniper’s Knot yet, I would get them now before you lose the opportunity. Also, the team members of Episode 2 are all excellent at what they do and I’d hate to see them leave the EVN community on such a bad note: especially Kristen Jensen who is a very talented musician. I’ve including links to their Twitter accounts which should also link to contact information below. If you could use someone with their skills, please do not hesitate in getting them on your team;
- Terrence Smith
- Kristian Jensen (CombatPlayer)
- Ryan Miller (R-Til)
Above all else, I urge everyone to remember all of Dischan: the good and the bad. And, if you are lucky enough to have an audience that believes in what you do, be sure that they know you appreciate them whenever and however you can. JP3: Out.