Dropout Games had its origin when Ankush Madad and Sujeet Kumar were both studying Game Design at college. During their second year, both of them, along with several other students, were working on a game that was a big hit in one of the college game jams. At the same time, things weren’t going as well at the college, with staff leaving, curriculum changes and a lack of relevance to the game industry. But they persevered, juggling courses while working on the game in the evenings and on weekends. As the end of the year approached, the project was now a polished game and they believed it had potential. So they took their game, ROTO, to Casual Connect 2014 in Singapore, where it was nominated for Best Free-To-Play Game, and on the final day they met a publisher. The team learned a great deal with ROTO, from starting a game and working it through to completion, including PR, marketing and the publishing process. As Ankush says, “It was the biggest lesson we had taught ourselves that year.”
When it came time to return to college, Ankush realized it no longer seemed worth the cost. He had applied for internships, using ROTO‘s success as an example of his abilities, and was fortunate to receive one at a great company. He also began investigating other Indian game studios making noteworthy games but couldn’t find many. A few were doing great work and there were also a few indie studios, but nothing seemed particularly exciting. Then some new indies began emerging in different corners of the country; their games were small, but they were willing to experiment. This gave Ankush the idea of starting his own indie studio.
How do startup companies begin? It’s different for everyone. For some people, having lots of brilliant ideas is the thing, and sooner or later one of them is brought to fruition. Some people polish their single idea for many years before finally finding the resources to bring it to life. For some, it’s happenstance. OWL-Studio’s CEO Vera Velichko shares her experience.
Video games play a key role in shaping the world. They provide entertainment for millions. They help the innovators, creators, and doers of the world relax amid countless late nights and stressful times. They open minds to creative notions, ideas, and problem-solving — benefiting nearly all facets of life, whether games are involved or not.
This is the philosophy of games shared by Colin Day. “Games do a lot more than entertain us,” he says. “They allow us to shift our entire mind and body from the everyday and recharge ourselves.”
It’s amazing what a group of game fans can do — if Phoenix Online Studios is any indication. What started out as a way to try and create another chapter in a much beloved adventure game has spawned into a commercial company with around 30 full-time employees and a growing studio.
The Tenacity of Fans
It all started back in 2000. A group of fans were looking to make a final chapter to the King’s Quest series by Sierra Online. “Of course, we were only fans,” Phoenix PR Director and Designer Katie Hallahan says. “It took a long time for a group of volunteers with really no experience working in their spare time to learn how to make a video game!”
The group finally released the first episode of the final King’s Quest chapter, The Silver Lining, in 2010, but the effort was not without its setbacks. “When you have people working as volunteers, it’s difficult because other things in life have to come first and sometimes we would have team members who would disappear without any word and without sending their assignments in,” Hallahan says. “It was a long road of working in our spare time, without pay, just because we all believe in the project and the team.”
Besides having to learn how to make a game from scratch and organize a team, they also faced two cease-and-desist orders. The first came from Vivendi in 2005, followed by a second from Activision in 2010. “Both times, however, our amazing and dedicated fans rallied to support us, and we were able to work with the companies who held the King’s Quest IP and get a fan license,” Hallahan says. “For many of us, myself included, it was a dream come true. We’d grown up playing and loving adventure games.”
The Day to Day
Most of the Phoenix team resides in the United States, though the company does have employees in Canada and Europe. Everyone works from home, so In order to keep things flowing smoothly, everyone stays in touch via Skype.
To stay on the same page, there is a daily meeting every morning (Pacific time) where yesterday’s tasks are discussed along with what is in store for the upcoming day. After that, everyone splits up to do their individual tasks — staying in touch as needed. The company uses various online systems to share information, such as Redmine to track bugs and assignments and Tortoise SVN to share files.
The tools and pipeline Phoenix Online Studios uses are set up for adventure games and as the company adds new features to games, they have to determine the best way to do it not only from their end, but the player’s end of things as well. Most of what goes into a game “comes from the designers, producers, director, and leads in the project,” Hallahan notes. “(They) determine how to execute the design and how to accomplish what’s called for in it.”
Phoenix Online Studios has typically focused on adventure and story-driven titles because those are the titles everyone in the company loved when they were growing up. “Those are the ones that stuck with us,” Hallahan says, “and we love telling stories that we hope will stay with our players.”
Accomplishments and Expansion
The Silver Lining isn’t the only credit to Phoenix Online Studios’ name. One of their latest projects, Moebius, was just recently released. “Our hope is that they enjoy the game and that it feels like a classic adventure game brought into the current day,” Hallahan says. “The story has (storyteller) Jane Jensen’s touch, no doubt — a layered story, a love of history, and an interesting relationship at the center of it all. I think there is a lot of potential, too, for more stories in the Moebius universe, so I very much hope we get to go there again.”
The company have also stuck their toes in the publishing waters with titles like Face Noir and Cognition. “We’d basically been building business relationships with different stores and we have people in our studio who know those stores, communities, and more,” Hallahan says, enabling them to act as a publisher. She notes that a lot of indie developers just want to focus on making games, without having to worry about publishing.
This business dynamic spurred Phoenix Online Studios to start their own publishing branch, Phoenix Online Publishing. “We want to help other devs get their games out there, and focusing on indies was a natural match,” Hallahan says. “Our community has always been a huge help to us, and now that we’ve started in the commercial sphere, we’ve been discovering there is a great community of indie developers out there supporting each other. We’re happy to be a part of it and help other indies like us out!”
The company has a line of games still planned for release this year, such as Quest for Infamy and The Last Door: Collector’s Edition. They are also working on a remake of Gabriel Knight 1 and mobile versions of Moebius. “We’ve got some plans for what comes next that we aren’t quite ready to announce,” Hallahan teases, “but we’re looking forward to when we are!”
Keep up to date with Phoenix Online by following them on Twitter or Facebook.
Maarten van Zanten has been wishing to make video games since he was six years old. When he and Dwight Lagadeau started discussing the idea for a game, they decided to look for others who were interested and soon founded Excamedia. Maarten talks to Gamesauce about the studio and their first game, A Clumsy Adventure.
Excamedia loves a good challenge. Hailing from Utrecht in the Netherlands, Excamedia was founded by Maarten van Zanten in 2013 with an emphasis on retro-style gaming as well as difficulty — an element Zanten feels has been lost in many modern games.
“I miss the challenge in most games,” Zanten says, though he understands that many games are less difficult nowadays so that they appeal to larger masses. “In one way, it’s good for gaming as an entertainment medium, but on the other hand, it creates easy games for wider audiences to make big money.”
The Ultimate Challenge
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Zanten faced was founding Excamedia. The studio began in August 2013, when Zanten and Excamedia audio composer Dwight Lagadeau secured a contract with Sony and Nintendo and got into the ID@XBOX program. But before they could secure contracts, they needed a place to call headquarters. “We found that we had to have an office to invite the publishers to, to show our professional approach while being an indie developer,” Zanten says. “The challenge basically was to find an affordable office we could afford.”
Zanten and Lagadeau eventually settled into Dutch Game Garden, a building in Utrecht that the team considers “Europe’s Silicon Valley for game developers.” In addition to providing a place to communicate with publishers like Sony and Nintendo, the office space also provided a central area for Excamedia team members to collaborate in person as well as with their international team members.
Currently, Zanten and Lagadeau, along with four interns, make up the populace at Excamedia HQ. But with Zanten working a full-time job in addition to his work at Excamedia and a team of international staff as well, online communication has become a staple for the company. “We mainly talk to each other through Skype — or if decisions need to be made on the spot, we do a Skype call, Google Hangout, or discuss one on one,” Zanten says.
Everyone brings their own special skill set and job to the table. Focusing on one job allows everyone to do what they excel at. While one person focuses on story-writing in Italy, another focuses on programming in France, and yet another focuses on 3D game elements in Nepal. The team holds weekly Google Hangout meetings to discuss things that need to be improved, things that need to be tested, complaints, workflows, and everything in-between. “Everyone is equal in the team and needs to say his/her opinion. Everyone is valuable during development.”.
Currently, Excamedia is developing a game called A Clumsy Adventure for the PS4 and PS Vita, though it will ultimately move to other platforms. The company was originally planning to release their game for smartphones, but good publishing conditions convinced Excamedia to release the game for Playstation consoles first.
A Clumsy Adventure is a story-driven game and features Zack, the main character, whose clumsiness lands him in an adventure in which he must save Earth from aliens in under 24 hours. “We wanted a character that evolves through the story and behaves like we sometimes do on a bad day when things go wrong due to your own clumsiness — and later you face a challenge you thought you couldn’t,” Zanten says. “The game has a message to never stop believing in yourself.”
Mechanically, the game was inspired by retro games, with the gamer traveling throughout the world fighting various enemies and “epic end bosses, which remind you of the old days.” According to Zanten, the game mixes the fun of Mario with the difficulty of Dark Souls all into an action platformer.
Excamedia plans to split A Clumsy Adventure into four episodes. Every episode will be evaluated by players and the feedback will be used to improve the next episode. “We have a general story to tell, but (game) elements can be added, changed or removed as we go,” Zanten says. “The gamers are the ones who will play it and enjoy it so we want to be proactive towards the gamers and listen to them.”
Funding and Running a Start-up
Zanten and Lagadeau currently use their own savings to run the company’s day-to-day operations and pay for the office space, but in April, Excamedia will begin an Indiegogo campaign. They hope to raise enough money to “optimize the development further toward the release of the game and the episodes that follow.”
In the meantime, the company is focusing on game development — which has its ups and downs. Zanten says that “the biggest challenge is to put the ideas in your mind into words. You visualize a lot of things, but sometimes you need to explain it.” However, the upside for Zanten is testing those ideas. “You can really see if what you wanted actually works or not,” he says. “It’s both exciting and tense. If it works out the way you want, it’s very satisfying.”
In addition to developing the game, Excamedia reports its progress to Sony and Nintendo. While the publishers do offer advice, Excamedia ultimately decides whether to incorporate it or not. Zanten notes that Nintendo and Sony treat indie developers very well and lets Excamedia be creative in every way.
In the Pipeline
Once Excamedia has a steady framework for A Clumsy Adventure, the company will begin tackling other projects — a few of which are already planned. One of the projects will be “Skyrim for children” and is based on a book from well-known Dutch writer Tamara Gereads-Grootveld. Excamedia is also planning to build a game around a musical album from music artist Katsuo.
Excamedia would also like to develop a fighting game and complete “Seal Space,” a game Zanten and Lagadeau were working on before the creation of Excamedia and haven’t had a chance to complete. “Although Excamedia is just starting, we have lots of ideas for compelling and challenging games,” Zanten says. “Our games will have a good focus on retro games, so don’t expect very easy games from us.”
To learn more about Excamedia and follow their game progress, visit their page here. You can also check out Excamedia on Facebook and Twitter.
Just after Casual Connect Kyiv, I visited our friends at Gamepoint in their offices. It’s a friendly little spot on the coast of the Netherlands, and frankly, I’m a bit jealous.
I arrived in Den Haag Central station via train from Amsterdam. The convenient public transportation made my meetings very easy to get to. I decided to spend the time before my meeting walking from Central station to the Gamepoint offices, going from a modern downtown area through parks, historic houses and international embassies. The feel of the city was a wonderful balance of convenience, history, and open spaces.
When I arrived at the offices, I was greeted by Rik Haandrikman. If you have never met Rik, you should take the time to do so. He is a large, fit guy with a personality that leaves you at ease despite his formidable stature. We toured the offices, stopping in each of the departments, then had a nice chat with the CEO Amon Endt, and finished the morning by having lunch with the entire company in their cafeteria.
Downstairs, I saw the Community Management Office, run by Jeffrey Otterspoor. This group handles customer support by email, phone, and in-game. They also organize on- and offline support for the community.
Upstairs, I first met the Web Development Team, who are responsible for backend and frontend website coding; then the System Engineering group, who takes care of the hardware, as well as keeping two million monthly players connected.
One of the most interesting stops on the tour housed the Game Development Team, led by Bob Christoff, who also remotely runs the game development coding team in Kyiv .This is the group that conceptualizes the games. There were a couple of walls covered with the latest top secret games, and Bob came over to show me some of the challenges. We briefly talked about the difficulties of moving games from a big screen to small mobile screens. It was a very engaging conversation for me because it just felt like the puzzle-solving room. Have an issue, a goal, or an idea? This is the place to hash it out. Maybe they should rename it the crime-solving department.
I also met the Art Team, run by Lenart Poort, where every piece of 2D art and animation is created for the games, the website and other forms of communication, such as online ads and magazines. Currently, they are working on buses that the studio will be branding in the Netherlands. The HR Department is, of course, also very important since it pays all the salaries. This department is the responsibility of Fleur van Rijmenam.
Finally, Rik showed me the Business Development or Growth Team, which he runs. This team is responsible for all types of user acquisition, retention through CRM and product improvements and monetization improvements, both in and around the games. Rik tells me his team is highly data driven, spending most of their time with their many backend tools, looking for ways to keep players engaged and paying.
During the tour, I really sensed the energy and atmosphere of the company. The offices are laid out in a typical open office environment with conference rooms and departments separated only by glass walls. Desks are turned in on each other with only a monitor and a seam in the wood to separate you from your neighbors. With this layout, the lively and friendly interaction of co-workers solving the various issues of the day came through loud and clear. Entering a department area didn’t feel like an intrusion. I felt like Norm from the TV show Cheers, walking into a bar where everyone knew my name. Of course, they didn’t actually know my name, but that is how it felt.
Lunch time arrived, and I didn’t see anyone head out the door for food. Almost all of us went into the cafeteria where Anja Zoutenbier prepares lunch each day. One of her specialties is traditional Dutch fatty sausage, a favorite of the whole group. Once everyone had a plate of food, we all crowded into a spot around three long tables. Rik and I ended up next to a couple of people from the Customer Service Team. The conversation mainly focused on costumes and parties for Halloween (rarely celebrated in the area). Apparently some costumes of Sinterklaas are hanging around the office, which is an interesting story in itself.
While lunch was going on, another group was in the game room, playing Trials Evolution, intensely involved in the semi-finals of the competition. We finished eating just in time to see one of the competitors get knocked out of the tournament. Rik later told me the Halloween party included an epic competition of Trials Evolution, which had half the company crowded around the TV, watching a nail-biting showdown between the two finalists.
Gamepoint is a place where you work hard, but you play hard, too. I could see making a lot of new friends there, given any time to stay.
Created by two brothers, Forest and Aaron San Filippo, FlippFly is an indie games company that was founded in 2010 when they quit their jobs to pursue their love of videogames. Wanting their studio to stand out, they crafted four main goals for FlippFly; these being to produce games that are always conceptually new to the brothers, fun, honest, and family friendly. Since the studio’s inception, the San Filippo Brothers made Monkey Drum, a music-production game that allows animal avatars to play the tunes you make, and Race the Sun, a racing game in which you pilot a solar-powered glider through an obstacle-filled landscape that has infinite variation and its own world creator. GameSauce recently had the opportunity to interview Forest and Aaron San Filippo about their backgrounds, Flippfly’s origin, their games, and surviving in the indie market.
Prior to founding FlippFly, Aaron and Forest were on career paths that not only differed from their current studio, but also from one another. For instance, while Aaron was working on AAA games such as Singularity and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Forest was running a sign shop that he owned. Both brothers found success in these fields, but also found that that something was missing. As Forest told GameSauce, “Owning a small business was a huge education in customer service, time management, and finances. That experience has really served us well as we navigate the business end of game development. The experience also showed me how stifling it can be to always take orders from customers and try to realize their creative vision instead of my own.”
Similarly, Aaron realized that though he enjoyed being around his colleagues, he wanted more from his work; stating, “My goal in game development was to be able to stretch my creative muscles, to make new and interesting games, and to have a sense of ownership in the work that I created.” Sadly, Aaron found that “AAA studio work in general is getting to the point where you’re mostly just a cog in a machine.”
The brothers’ desire to pursue endeavors that allowed them to explore their creativity pushed them to start their own gaming studio. It was a decision compounded by Aaron’s belief that “it’s never been a better time to become an indie developer” and by Forest’s attraction to the creative freedom that would come from starting a studio. As Forest recollected, “the opportunity to start our own studio and have the freedom to create as I pleased was an attractive idea and it has proven to be incredibly liberating.”
Like most indie game developers, Forest and Aaron wanted to indulge their creative impulses. However, the brothers also wanted their studio to have a unique philosophy towards game development. One of the founding principles that resonated most with Forest is the company’s aim to always create games that they’ve never seen before. “There are tons of great games out there and we can’t risk creating something that isn’t (at-least in some ways) new,” says Forest. “We realize that we stand on the shoulders of other game designers and that our work will always be inspired by other games, but we have to be innovative.” As such, the goal of innovating new types of games is more than just the core of the studio’s identity, it is also, as Forest stated, their “best chance of success.”
Making Music with Monkey Drum and Learning Their Business
FlippFly’s first game would truly stem from the brothers’ goals to create something they have never seen before and that was family friendly; especially Aaron. After years of working on action games, Aaron wanted to work in a completely different genre. Given that both Aaron and Forest are amateur musicians and wanted to share their love of music with their children, the brothers began to think of a new type of music game for young kids. This brain-storming would evolve into Monkey Drum.
Looking back at the creation of this app, Forest explained that “the idea of making an app that could let a very young child experience the joy of making music was really intriguing. It seems likely that many of our games will have tools built-in to let players be creative. Encouraging the artistic nature is something that is close to our hearts.” As an app, Monkey Drum allows players to accessorize their characters, as well as feed, spin, and bop them. More importantly, the player can give characters access to realistic instruments and can be made to play real music.
The process of making Monkey Drum allowed the brothers to indulge in their love of music and their goals to share it with their children. However, making Monkey Drum forced Aaron and Forest to grapple with the day to day grind of developing their game. One challenge that they encountered was time management, according to Forest. “We are both pretty good at working hard and getting things done, but game development is an excruciatingly slow process,” says Forest. “[We] learned a lot about how long things will actually take with a two-man team. To be completely honest, we are still learning that lesson.”
Released on May 25, 2012, Monkey Drum was more than just another app. For Aaron and Forest, it was proof that they could produce a consumer product. As Aaron expressed, completing this game “showed us that ‘yes, we can make a complete product.’” Its completion and consumer feedback gave them the confidence needed to go forward.
Race the Sun and Turning to Kickstarter
The next game that FlippFly developed merged the genres of intensive racing games and open sandbox worlds with infinite variability. According to Forest, this game began when Aaron showed him an image he created with Sketchup (a 3D art program that was at the time owned by Google, but now owned by Trimble Navigation) while asking “Wouldn’t it be awesome to race through this world at super high speeds?” It was a question that would be answered by creating Race the Sun.
This idea excited their imaginations and they immediately created a prototype to begin experimenting with. Much of the game’s development was less FlippFly following a clear direction and more about adding mechanics they thought would work and taking out what they felt didn’t add to the game. “The end result feels pretty intentional, but it was really a long process of trial and error,” says Forest. “We’ve found that letting the game ‘tell us’ how it should be designed is a great way to work.”
Designing this game brought about several new challenges. According to Aaron, one of the hardest parts of Race the Sun’s development was probably the server back-end. As he explained, “it wasn’t an area we had a ton of expertise in, and we didn’t have the benefit of a social layer like Steam’s when we built it. So we had to put together a system for player logins, leader boards, user world hosting (and downloading), etc.” Another challenge the brothers encountered when they were creating Race the Sun was just how demanding a Kickstarter campaign could be.
“Our approach to marketing evolved as the Kickstarter progressed,” says Forest. The goal of the Kickstarter project was to raise at least twenty-thousand dollars. But at the launch of the campaign, all they had was what Forest describes as “a solid alpha of the game.” Though this demo was well designed, it didn’t show potential donors what FlippFly wanted Race the Sun to be. “[What] Kickstarter taught us is that we really needed to show our full vision to potential players,” says Forest. “We could talk all we wanted, but putting those ideas into video and concept art were game-changers. Very few ideas are compelling enough to sell themselves without something visual to back them up.”
Luckily, Aaron and Forest were able to quickly adapt to the demands of Kickstarter’s community because their project was a success. Earning over twenty-one thousand dollars, FlippFly would be able to complete Race the Sun and release it December 9, 2013 on Steam for PC and Mac systems.
Indie Developer Lessons Learned and Looking Forward
Though FlippFly has only been around for a few years, Forest and Aaron have learned valuable lessons about succeeding in the indie-game market. In addition to gaining a better sense of how quickly a game could be developed by two people and how to properly use Kickstarter to raise funds, they also realized the importance of critical feedback. As Forest says, “It is possible that there are people who are geniuses and will make a masterpiece on their first attempt – but that is highly unlikely!”
Properly handling feedback is so important that, according to Forest, “one huge thing that we try to communicate to aspiring indies is the need to accept critical feedback.” Forest further elaborated on this point by stating, “When you spend hundreds of hours on something, it is very easy to lose objectivity. Learning how to accept (and even seek out) criticism is essential if you plan on making and selling games.”
Just as important as the experiences they have gained are the plans Aaron and Forest have for FlippFly’s future. For instance, their immediate focus will be updating Race the Sun, and following that, they will begin work on porting the game. As Forest explained, “we feel like we are only reaching a tiny portion of our audience and we want to remedy that.”
Beyond further follow up work on Race the Sun, they will also continue to honor one of the core reasons why the founded FlippFly – to innovate. Given their desire to create games that they have never played before, it should come as no surprise that Forest describes FlippFly’s future goals as what follows: “Longer term, we will be making prototypes and trying to discover something fun and new! We have tons of ideas to experiment with, and we hope a few of them are worth sharing with the world.”
With Bioware’s founders having retired, meet the ‘other’ two doctors Kai and Christian Wawrzinek. Together, they are responsible for the highly successful social game studio Goodgame Studios in Hamburg, Germany. Founded back in 2009 and now one of the biggest social game studios in Europe, the Goodgame Studios staff has camped out their massive success and exponential growth at the very same office they started out in.
From Game Portals to Social Games
The brothers started out with their first company together with a friend during college in 2003 and named it after the initials of their last names joined together, thus calling it LWW. Their initial third co-founder later left the company in pursuit of other challenges. “Being entrepreneurs and having our own company has always been a passion of ours,” Christian says. “To do the things you really want to do, while still having fun at work, work together with people you like and be passionate about what you do.”
They earned their first revenue by building websites and by setting up their first game portal a year later. “We figured out first-hand how tough it is to build up a game portal from scratch, so we figured, ‘Why not try to buy another portal?'” LWW went on to acquire their second and third portal with the revenue made from advertisements. “We experienced that it was just slightly easier to build up something just by purchase.”
In the meantime, the brothers were able to finish their studies. Christian studied dentistry and Kai studied law. “We thought it might be good to get all our degrees, just in case our entrepreneurial endeavors wouldn’t go as planned, and we could have a back-up plan.”
It was just slightly easier to build up something just by purchase.
They set out to write their business plan, “We really believed we could grow something with what we called ‘website mergers and acquisitions’.” More money was needed to make it work, and so they visited the bank. Though game companies usually don’t get a bank loan, they managed to get one. Even though the bank had no clue about online business, Christian recalls the bank officials saying: “Ok, we trust you. You are a dentist and you are a lawyer, so if things don’t work out, you’ll probably be able to pay all that money back later.”
Christian is proud of their lack of investors in the company, which is very a-typical for companies the size of Goodgame Studios. “Game companies similar to us usually have investors who tell them what to do, and tell them what they think is right or force people to go into completely different directions.”
After investing all of their savings into the company and seeing some good revenue, scaling things up was becoming an interesting prospect. “We didn’t want to go through venture capitalists, because that kind of money is really expensive. The business model that we were doing was very conservative. We bought things that already worked and made them a little better by doubling the revenue, but you wouldn’t expect it to explode.”
We bought things that already worked and made them a little better.
When the financial crisis hit that year, the chances of finding alternative sources of funding were becoming slimmer. After some market research, the brothers decided it would be worth the risk to start developing their own games. “We were always very passionate about the gaming field and playing games. Before, we always thought it would be kind of impossible to get into that area. We always had a lot of respect for game developers. I never thought it would be possible to, you know, build up your whole game development company. But because we had some nice steady revenue from the early business model, we gave it a try and then went into the field of developing social casual games.”
It took the team half a year to build the first game and establish the company as a brand, while hiring more developers and also establishing a partner program (which Christian Wawrzinek still attributes a big part of Goodgame’s success to, even today). “We were partly an investment company and partly web guys. We had some programmers: my brother does programming too, and we were kind of experienced in the web area but not in the gaming field. So we had to build up the whole structure in the beginning of 2009.”
The brothers also involved game veteran Simon Butler when setting up the Goodgame brand. He prevented them from making very big mistakes. Although they never shared the same opinion, he made sure not to just agree on everything they wanted. Instead, he would openly just say “No, I think it’s wrong, and I will tell you why.” Having a sparring partner like that is very helpful.
Balancing Creativity and Security
Things really started picking up in 2010: March marked the launch of their second game, Goodgame Farmer, and Goodgame Gangster (originally called Mafia) was made in May, while revenue streams were steadily growing. Production was constantly scaled up during that year, allowing Goodgame to produce 10 titles by the beginning of 2011. The office building that housed Goodgame was slowly but steadily being taken over by the company, with the team reaching over a 100 employees in 2011.
The absence of any investment money in Goodgame forced the brothers to play things as safe as possible in order to not risk the company from going under. “We always did lots of research without being too experimental, because we wouldn’t have been able to afford big mistakes when just starting out.”
Goodgame experimented with different kinds of target audiences for their products, in order to gain experience and apply what they learned. Eventually, analytics became an increasingly important part of their business, leading the studio to develop their first key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics and tracking tools.
We wouldn’t have been able to afford big mistakes when just starting out.
The growth spurt that Goodgame went through from 2010 to 2011 is quite common to social game companies making it big with their early titles, but when it came to hiring new employees, they took a different approach. “One of the things that I’ve seen happen a lot is that a company gets a big bag of money from an investor and suddenly, they try to act like a big corporation, with the associated structure,” Christian says. “We were fortunate to see other companies around us grow from small to big in a really short period of time and what consequences it brought, like the employees becoming really unhappy. We found that out pretty easily because sometimes we would get waves of new applications from these employees.”
Noticing this pitfall, Goodgame recently invested in a Goodgame Café area in their offices, where they frequently host events, making sure their growing team (about 500 employees at the moment) gets an opportunity to mingle and meet coworkers from all over the ever-growing studio. “We think this internal mingling is very important, because we want a programmer from one department and a designer from another department (even though they don’t work together directly) to come together and have a beer with a sales girl at the end of the day and catch up on what they’ve all been doing.”
Christian offers a few pointers for other companies that are going through a rapid growth process like Goodgame. “First of all, listen to your key employees and acknowledge what they think about the general climate inside the company,” he advises. “Give them some things that they can hold onto and provide them with some responsibilities that are gratifying, but always make sure to listen to them. The second thing would be to manage decision-making processes. As you grow your team to 30 or 40 people or so, the point comes when taking all the decisions yourself just isn’t possible anymore. From that time on, you have to put a really big focus on your intermediate management team.”
“I think it’s inevitable that you have some, as I would call it, growth-ache or so,” Christian admits. “Things change all the time when you grow fast, and some things will inevitably come up that people don’t like. But you have to anticipate that and know how to appropriately respond to it. You have to demonstrate strong leadership and let them know that you’re listening and reacting accordingly.”
Though currently still on a giant hiring spree (with over 100 job positions open), the company has reached over 500 employees. But Goodgame wants to avoid as many obstacles and challenges that come with that kind of rapid growth. “From all applications, we only select 2 percent” says Olliver Heins, Head of Games. “We really focus on getting people that are experienced and fit within our plan and the team itself. You often see a lot of hires in the game business that center around personal contacts, but that doesn’t often guarantee a great chemistry and fit inside the bigger picture.”
Having worked at Bigpoint in the company’s earlier days, Heins has had a front row seat and seen how the Hamburg-based company grew fast and opened multiple offices around the world. Upon joining Goodgame Studios in the summer of 2011, Heins had a bit of a hard time adjusting to the atmosphere of a beginning company and the structure the Wawrzinek brothers had set up. “Everything felt small again for me after Bigpoint; travel budgets were limited, and teams were small again. It really was like going back in time and seeing how Bigpoint was years ago.”
But this also made Heins a valuable asset to Goodgame, being able to foresee the challenges of rapid expansion. “I was amazed at how much Goodgame was being driven by research and analytics. We have great analytics tools to work with that allow me to quickly see everything that is happening. The focus on driving revenue and business definitely is something I enjoy here.”
Since our last visit to Goodgame Studios, they have successfully released their first mobile app called Empire: Four Kingdoms, which at one point reached the iOS and Android top 10 grossing charts. Christian has since then also announced the studio’s desire to be amongst the top 20 biggest game companies in the world, taking on the likes of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. They hope to achieve this goal by the year 2020.
Vagabond Dog is a small game studio located in Toronto, Canada. Their first game, Always Sometimes Monsters, puts you in the position to choose how you handle what life throws at you. Gamesauce had the chance to discuss both the studio and their game with Justin Amirkhani, Owner and Creative Director of Vagabond Dog, and Chief Logic Officer Jake Reardon.
A Vagabond Philosophy
Vagabond Dog was a mystical and happy accident, according to Justin Amirkhani. Created in April 2013, he insists that it was never his nor Jake Reardon’s intention to create it, but rather an idea they stumbled upon. “The idea was to take two different philosophies and combine them into one unified force,” says Reardon. “If you take the tenacity and will to survive of the Vagabond, and mix it with the heart of an arctic wolf, you get Vagabond Dog.” They continued to transform it as they moved forward, evolving into a studio with a decidedly ambitious mission: to make games that allow people to experience something that leaves them looking at their real world a little bit differently after they finish playing. “If we can pull that off, then I guess we’ve done something kinda cool,” says Amirkhani.
Along with a strong mission, the studio also has a unique work philosophy based on their faith that all team members can achieve more than they think they can. They value autonomy and independence, and emphasize their belief that if they work hard enough, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. Much of this perspective stems from the time Amirkhani spent as a vagabond on the fringes of society, as he puts it. He came away from this experience with a greater awareness of common ailments and his own place within society. He articulates what he learned: “You grow to understand that your problems are far more insignificant than you think, that you can surmount any difficulties life throws at you, and that we all have a personal choice every single minute of whether we will let our hopes fail through our fears.”
Amirkhani insists that there was no challenge to starting the company; all they had to do was fill out the appropriate forms, pay $60, and they had a Canadian business. However, challenges started soon after. They deal with the problems by focusing on them one at a time rather than becoming overwhelmed by the infinite stack of work to be done. As they would overcome any obstacles in life, they handle them as they come and emphasize the importance of never losing faith that they are progressing.
Using Their Strengths
Vagabond Dog is made up of a collection of people who are each really good at one aspect of the work. This diversity of skills, talents, and perspectives on the team allows a well-rounded view of the product they are making. They find their different viewpoints useful in some situations, and although they can also create complications at times, it is very rare, according to Reardon. “Complications don’t really arise because every idea is valid, and no viewpoint is ignored,” says Reardon. “When you work in a collaborative manner, it only leads to a positive attitude and a successfull working relationship.”
The work day at Vagabond Dog can seem a bit unorthodox, as Amirkhani admits they have a rather loose definition of a work day with little emphasis on clocks and calendars. “We’re all kinda always awake, talking through Skype, working autonomously, and getting feedback/responses from the others as we show our work,” says Amirkhani. “We have deadlines and targets and all that nonsense, but it’s really just about everyone individually doing their own thing to the best of their ability and helping each other out as necessary.”
Always Sometimes Monsters – Make a Choice
Always Sometimes Monsters began as a design document Amirkhani had written for a game he called Save The Date. The core element of this first idea, a 30-day window to win back your love, continues to be at the center of Always Sometimes Monsters. At the beginning of development, there was a single, white, male protagonist, but as they worked to increase the number of narrative branches in the game, they discovered making the protagonist a more flexible character offered a greater sense of variety. So the team began implementing different character options, building the systems for everything to work in the engine, and kept going from there. Then a different game called Save The Date was released several months before Vagabond Dog planned to announce their game. Obviously, they needed a new title, and as they looked for one, they realized the tone of the game had shifted. Finding a new title helped them solidify the core themes of the game.
Always Sometimes Monsters is created in a way that offers the players freedom through the choices they make, but when asked how difficult it has been to incorporate this choice into the game, Amirkhani insists, “There is no real choice in life, but the illusion is powerful enough to make choice-based video games possible, so that is something.” The greatest difficulty in making a game with the illusion of choice, as he points out, is that players expect to come into walls and therefore don’t fully immerse themselves in the experience. Unless the game developer has accurately anticipated what players are likely to try to break the game it is difficult to keep them believing in the game’s world. But as Amirkhani reminds us, “It’s all just a ruse. It’s all just a hoax. The questions mean nothing sometimes, and everything at others. It’s impossible to tell which is which though, and that honest deception is the key to keeping things believable – even though it’s nothing but lies.”
When asked about the difficulty of incorporating different types of stories in the same game, Amirkhani compared it to writing for a soap opera. A wide range of emotions and themes are encompassed across interconnected stories that twist and weave within each other. With each story, the developer must ask “What next?” until the story either reaches an end or merges back with the rest of the stories. In the game, a happy or sad story is the result of the choices the player makes; the developer does not create any balance to it.
Always Sometimes Monsters is scheduled to release in 2014. Keep up to date with all information regarding the game and Vagabond Dog through their website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Being a college student can be hard enough without adding game development to the workload. Few teams manage to pull it off. One such team is Tripleslash Studios. Meeting at the University of Utah, this ten-person team decided to work together to bring their visions to life, the first of which was Magnetic By Nature, successfully funded through Kickstarter in May.
The group first started out working on their senior project – to develop for Xbox Live Indie Service for the Xbox 360. But that was only the start. This team wanted to make something more than a class project, and they felt they could do that with their game’s core mechanic. “Our goal, from then on, was to take this game to a higher level of polish and bring it to as many platforms as possible for the world to see,” saysKyle Chittenden, Lead Animator and Chief Operating Officer at Tripleslash Studios. Inspired by the documentation style comments in C#, they decided to call themselves Tripleslash Studios, and hoped the sense of energy it invokes (“three waves symbolizing movement”) would show in their work.
“Salt Lake doesn’t have nearly the concentration of game developers as, say, Seattle or San Francisco, but it’s not entirely off the map, either.”
Being in Salt Lake City, their location isn’t exactly well-known for games, but the team has not had a problem working from the capital of the Beehive State. “Salt Lake doesn’t have nearly the concentration of game developers as, say, Seattle or San Francisco, but it’s not entirely off the map, either,” explains Paige Ashlynn, CEO of Tripleslash Studios. “The founder of Atari graduated from our university, and there has been a strong local game development presence here ever since.” Salt Lake City is also home to other studios, such as CHAIR Entertainment, Smart Bomb Interactive, and NinjaBee, with which Tripleslash Studios has associated with before. “We’ve been very fortunate to interact with developers from those teams, and we hope that our efforts, like theirs, will help the gaming industry not just locally but globally,” says Ashlynn.
Learning to be a Studio
Even though location was not a problem for them, they did have their fair share of challenges. Along with problems common to new studios (“miscommunications between team members, selecting less-than-ideal technology, holding on to ideas that proved too difficult to implement by deadline, and more,” according to Ashlynn), they also came across a few technical issues. “For instance, one of the libraries we made use of while developing the XNA game had been abandoned by its authors some years ago,” says Ashlynn. “We figured, ‘Hey, it’s open source, we can figure out how it works and make changes if need be!’ In the end, we made it work, but we would have been much better off picking a current technology with an active user community who we could have asked questions and traded ideas with.”
They also had to deal with learning about marketing and business. Luckily, they had good support. “This could have been much worse for us than it was though; we were very fortunate to have seasoned game publishers, reviewers, and developers to take questions to, both at school and in the local community,” says Chittenden. “Kurtis Constantine from Red Thread Games was especially supportive, and we wouldn’t be where we are without his incredible advice.”
As both students of various stages and game developers, there was a need to manage time wisely. “In addition to developing Magnetic By Nature, many of our members were taking classes, working jobs outside of school, and raising families, so it’s been intense for all of us,” says Chittenden. So how did they preserve? Why do it at all? Both questions have the same answer: their love of the game. “Probably the biggest reason we got through it without losing our minds was because we all love creating this game together,” says Chittenden. “It was a passion project from the start, so even though we had to make sacrifices, working on Magnetic By Nature always felt fun.”
Magnetic By Nature
Magnetic By Nature is the story of a robot lost underground attempting to reactivate his friends after they were mysteriously deactivated. By manipulating magnets, the player can guide the robot through the terrain and help him reach his destination.
The inspiration of the game came from a multitude of sources, such as Mistborn and games based off magnetism, according to Jonathan Humphries, Lead Designer at Tripleslash Studios. After a bit of experimentation, they felt that there was a strong gameplay mechanic in using magnets to propel through levels. “After sharing the idea with the team, it was clear that the idea had potential, and we set out to start development on the game,” says Humphries. “Since formation, we have combined all of our minds (as well as gathered feedback from the community) to refine and solidify the concept into the game you see now.”
Knowing that funds were necessary to expand the game beyond a class project, they turned their sights to Kickstarter. But that wasn’t the only benefit to going with Kickstarter. In addition to getting their name out, it also kept them moving. “We often joke that as a team we seem to work best under pressure,” says Chittenden. “Not that we’re lazy, just that our brightest achievements have so far emerged from the cauldron of a looming deadline.” After Kickstarter, they decided to keep moving forward by always keeping the next deadline, such as a conference or convention, in mind.
Starting Out and Moving Forward
Tripleslash Studios is one of many indie studios making games they love, so they have to work to stand out. One of their noticeable traits, according to Ashlynn, is their large size, which has the benefit of speeding up their production rate, but also the added benefit of diversifying the group. “We’re not developing a single person’s private art project, but instead pushing for a well-rounded product that everyone on the team can relate to and feel proud of,” says Ashlynn. “Our hope is that we’re focused enough to create experiences that feel fresh and independent, but broad enough to ensure that our titles appeal to a variety of gamers.”
The team is moving forward with Magnetic By Nature, bringing it to as many platforms as possible, and adding a few more ideas. By 2014, they want to be working on their next game, and already have a few ideas. “The only thing we can say for sure is, whatever we do next is likely to be very different from what we’re doing now,” says Ashlynn. “We don’t want to sit still!”
To keep up to date with Tripleslash Studios, like their Facebook or follow them on Twitter. To find out more information on Magnetic By Nature, or to preorder the game, check it out here and look forward to its release for PC, Mac, and Linux in the near future.