From Passion to Success – A Moment with Howard Tsao

From the neon fantasy backdrops of CreaVures to the steampunk-inspired air battles of Guns of Icarus Online, Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, has proven that he and his team know a thing or two about creating unique gameplay experiences. “I’ve always been drawn to the worlds that games create and the stories they tell,” Tsao explains, and as a hard-core gamer since the days of Atari, he’s had years to observe the successful techniques of others. Gamesauce recently sat down with him for a discussion on what it takes to pull success from passion, and reel in the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide.

Howard Tsao

Howard Tsao is CEO of Muse Games, an indie studio located in New York City. Their most recent release is CreaVures, a cute action platformer for PC, Mac, and iOS. CreaVures won the Independent Propeller Award for Best Mobile Game as well as a nomination for the same award from the IMGA.

All Is Fair In Love And Gaming

Tsao’s love for the industry and eye for detail coalesced shortly after grad school when, after leaving a virtual world and web integration venture that became stagnant, he took three of his former co-workers with him and set out on the path of game development.

“I’ve always been drawn to the worlds that games create and the stories they tell.”

“While 3D visualizations were fascinating, games were really what we were passionate about,” Tsao admits, “and since we had built up quite a bit of knowledge and experience with the Unity engine, we decided to go with that as our development engine. That’s how Muse Games was born. The transition from a project and venture that failed to starting over was tough emotionally, of course, but we were finally doing what we all wanted to.”

Logically Speaking, Communication Is The Key

Play as five fantastical creatures in the puzzle-platformer CreaVures

As a Chief Execuitive Officer of a successful video game company, one must be in possession of a broad range of skills, and one must be able to rely on one’s team to reflect these qualities as well. Of these skills, Tsao finds two to be of the utmost importance – logical problem-solving and communication. “I think that once we decided to embark on the startup journey, a lot of my earlier ideas or experiences about how to do things in a larger corporate environment went out the window. With project management for example, there’s an agile development framework that we experienced or implemented elsewhere, but when we came together as a team, we had to take any framework or tool and mold it into something that fits with us. That takes a sharp and inquisitive team,” Tsao continues, “and while I’m not sure how much of communications is skill, and how much is willingness – I like to think it’s both – we do communicate a lot.” Skill wise, Tsao had to learn to be concise and clear – to be issue focused, and to be something of a moderator. “We do get into debates from time to time,” Tsao says, “and what really gets us through is that willingness to communicate and the ability of our team to solve problems on a daily basis.”

“One mistake we made in the past was to not communicate and post things during the development process.”

This penchant for communication was learned through trial and error, Tsao confesses, and he hopes other indie developers heed this advice as they move forward: “One mistake we made in the past was to not communicate and post things during the development process. We tended to get into the habit of just working away in isolation – away in our room – but we realized that the progress and mistakes we make, the jokes we tell, or the references we find, are the best ways to tell people who we are and what we’re working on. We also used to just rely on distribution platform or publishers to do everything, without trying to build more of a community through social media.”

Kickstarting The Future of Games

Guns of Icarus Online’s Kickstarter campaign surpassed their original goal by 350 percent.

Kickstarter has become the de facto method for generating crowd sourced funding, and Tsao has undoubtedly used it to his advantage. Muse Games launched their Kickstarter campaign in December of last year, and their project, Guns of Icarus Online, was successfully funded by late January. Tsao and company set a modest goal of $10K, but in the end received over $35K which surpassed their original goal by 350 percent. “This was before Double Fine and Kickstarter were really taking flight, but it was an awesome time to be on Kickstarter,” Tsao explains. “They continue to do a great job with featuring indie projects, and we were also part of the first Kickstarter Arcade at Pax East.”

“Kickstarter was an amazing way for us to interact with fans and spread the word about the game.”

When Muse launched their campaign, their game was really already in alpha, so what they were aiming for was a way to reach out to players, build a community, and recruit alpha and beta testers. And they were very successful, as Muse was able to get more than 1800 players and backers to help during their alpha and beta phases. “Kickstarter was an amazing way for us to interact with fans and spread the word about the game,” Tsao says, “and our Kickstarter backers were really supportive in helping us test, suffering through bad bugs, and helping us to reproduce them.”

Tsao and the team at Muse Games are not content to rest on their laurels, however. They see even bigger and brighter things for the future. “Right now, indie devs have unprecedented access to a wide world of development tools and distribution. This diversity in the game industry drives innovation and creative risk taking. I think if this continues, the future for indie games is bright.”