At Casual Connect USA 2014, Amy Dallas, the co-founder of ClutchPlay, described her views of running an indie company during a panel. “When you’re starting a company with other people, you’re essentially getting into a ‘business marriage’ in that you’re legally bound to those people for as long as your company is around. So, you need to know that your co-founders share your goals and values and that you’ll stick by each other when times are tough,” she said. She was excited to announce the release of ClutchPlay’s second game, “Skullduggery!”, in Fall 2014 on both iOS and Android.
What is “Skullduggery!”
She describes the game this way: “”Skullduggery!” is an atmospheric, fling-based physics platformer, in which you’ll play a Semi-Organic Autonomous Skull, working as a collection agent for the INFERNAL Revenue Service. Your mission is to collect taxes from the ‘deadbeats’ of the afterlife. You do so by using the elasticity of your own brain to flick yourself around the fortresses of the netherworld’s worst tax dodgers as you repossess their underworldly belongings. You also get to do a lot of other cool stuff like slow time to avoid deadly obstacles, pull off crazy trick shots to collect riches, discover hidden caches, and slip past surly guards. We also have a multiplayer mode we’re calling ‘head to head’ which allows you to play against your friends to become the afterlife’s most successful agent. Oh, and you also get to fill out paperwork and reflect on the inherent emptiness of existence. And I ask you, who doesn’t want to do that?!”
“Skullduggery!” also features an endearingly grotesque art style created by Bill Mudron and inspired by the Max Fleischer animations of the 1930′s.
It was announced earlier that “Skullduggery!” will be featured in this year’s “PAX 10” Indie Games showcase at the PAX Prime event. “Being part of the PAX 10 is a tremendous honor,” says Dallas. “We could not be more honored that “Skullduggery!” was chosen.”
Determination & Experience
Dallas co-founded ClutchPlay in 2012 with Bernie Rissmiller, Jon Guest, and John C. Worsley. The studio they had worked for was downsized, so the four seized this opportunity to create their own studio. It wasn’t an optimal time to start a company with no promise of a salary for any of them. Dallas’s husband had also been laid off, Rissmiller and his wife had just had a baby, Guest had two children, and Worsley had upcoming major travel plans. They had no VC, angel investors, or funding of any kind. But they knew they had the right team, so they took a giant leap of faith to begin their company.
What they did have was determination, lots of experience, some savings, and an idea that became Little Chomp. Within their first year, they had developed a proprietary cross-platform game engine and had launched Little Chomp on both iOS and Android to great critical success. Little Chomp was selected as a featured game in the 2013 PAX East Indie Showcase. In their second year, they did a contract project for KIXEYE, Inc. which involved using their proprietary game engine to take KIXEYE’s Facebook game, Backyard Monsters, to mobile. Besides their consulting fees, KIXEYE licensed their engine source code, and the proceeds from that are funding the development of “Skullduggery!”.
She says, “So far, it’s been the scariest, craziest, and most exhilarating time of my career, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It’s true what they say. Feel the fear and do it anyway!”
Because ClutchPlay is a small, four-person studio, and Dallas is the only one who is not an engineer, she does almost everything else, and is, among other things, the producer, chief of ops, QA, and biz dev person. She has worked at a number of different game and tech companies and has been a producer most of her career, so that part of her work is second nature. But other things, such as marketing, have involved a giant learning curve. She claims, “If you aren’t at least a little freaked out at your work, then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough or learning anything new.”
Another Discovery Challenge
Discovery is unarguably the mobile industry’s biggest challenge, especially for indies, according to Dallas, given the sheer volume of games flooding the market. It isn’t enough to make a great game, you also have to be great at marketing it. But that is difficult for indies who lack the resources to compete with products from larger producers with more experience and greater resources.
“As a developer,” she insists, “you have to do everything possible to keep your game visible”. At ClutchPlay, they do this by going to as many festivals and conferences as possible to meet press people, reps from different platforms and, of course, other developers. She is amazed at how willing the indie community is to help each other out. They also share their development process through blogging, forums like Touch Arcade, and weekly events such as Screenshot Saturday. This is a good way to whet people’s appetite for the release of the game.
Dallas believes the next few years will bring the release of more premium games, especially on iOS. She disagrees with those who believe free to play is the only way to go on mobile. Free to play titles do have the potential to bring in more revenue for a longer period of time, but they also costs more to produce, have on-going maintenance costs, and require huge user acquisition budgets.
Bigger Spend Equals Bigger Risk
The more money you spend developing a game, the more it must bring in. This pressure leads to taking fewer risks and going with a formula you know will succeed. The result is a lot of very similar freemium games, which is why Dallas believes premium is due for a renaissance. Some of the exciting titles out now, such as Badland, Duet, Monument Valley, FTL, are all premium games at a higher price point. She claims that these games are made by small, scrappy companies who can not only afford to take risks, they NEED to, and because risk is at the heart of innovation, we’re going to start to see a lot more really weird, cool, interesting games come out of the premium space. And so far, people are buying them.
Dallas says that the best thing about working in the games industry, by far, is the people. Game production can be brutal, grueling, and utterly exhausting. Sometimes, she feels blown to bits by it. But what gets her through is the people. Game teams will do whatever it takes to support each other and get the job done. There is a passion and camaraderie that she hasn’t found in other industries.
More and more, she realizes she is a mobile gamer at heart. She doesn’t have time for epic console games or MMOs. But on mobile, she can play in short, concentrated burst, which fits her lifestyle much better. She has just finished Monument Valley and has recently been playing Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, which has just been released by another Portland studio.
Dallas has discovered that when you are an indie working from home, the line between work and personal life becomes blurred. When not working or playing games, she gets as much exercise as possible “to keep from physically fusing to her office chair.” She also loves to cook, describing herself as a huge food nerd. She enjoys reading and is working on writing a novel.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.