Neopix has been in the digital services industry for over three years – building websites, mobile apps, desktop applications, interactive programs for airports and malls, and more. The company’s employees share a special camaraderie – hanging out over beers and even vacationing together. Employees are welcome to voice their opinions at all times, feedback is often sought from others, and everyone feels valued.
From a contract game artist’s point of view, the next few years in the video game industry may look a little more interesting creatively — and a little lighter on the clones — than the previous decade.
“I think things are going to change a lot more in the next year or two than they did in the last three or four years. Even four years ago, mobile was still big,” said Jason Park, Concept Art House VP of operations, during a recent studio tour in San Francisco. “It feels actually exciting for the first time 10 years. It reminds me of the old days, where I actually want to be on the show floor.”
Talk about doing a 360. When Traplight Games started in 2010, they began by publishing their own in-house game The Hero. However, after that, they quickly turned into a full-time work-for-hire enterprise — working on projects for companies such as Redlynx, Supercell, and Tuokio.
When MegaZebra started in 2008, they were pioneers. Along with making games, the company also had to create the market in Europe from the ground up. To top it off, the company’s founders came from Internet and mobile backgrounds as opposed to a more traditional gaming background. This ended up proving fortunate for the company as it helped them tackle problems in a unique way as the gaming industry evolved.
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.”
Boomlagoon has achieved a large amount of success in a short amount of time, as far as new game studios go. Although they only opened their doors in 2012, they’ve already had success with two games, have secured major funding, and have just released another game.
The studio’s success can be traced to its founders’ growing team.
CEO and founder Antti Stén always wanted to start a game company ever since first joining the industry at Digital Chocolate in 2004. Though he didn’t have the skills necessary then to launch such an endeavor, he learned as much as he could from companies like Digital Chocolate and Rovio.
In 2012, he and fellow founders Tuomas Erikoinen and Ilkka Halila (who shared his vision for games) teamed up and made their first game, Noble Nutlings. “We all knew each other from Rovio and all had a very specific skill set needed for game development,” Stén says. “We decided to jump on the opportunity and never looked back after that.” He continues, “We got a lot of help and encouragement from people in the gaming industry here in Finland (and) worked hard to get our first game ready.”
It paid off in a giant way.
The game only took a few months to complete, but was featured by Apple and got good reviews from both media outlets and gamers – being downloaded over 2 million times. They managed to gather enough capital to hire two employees, and also made a sequel that was specifically targeted to LINE Messenger users called LINE Nutlings Tournament, in which they took the game and revamped it so it was a better fit for tournament-style social play. The fledgling company had a lot of take-aways from the experience, both in terms of how to make fun games and how to monetize free-to-play games.
The Funding Phase
The game also served as a “solid track record” when it came to securing funding for Boomlagoon, though Stén notes that “the team, the style of games, and the level of polish were really the things that moved the needle.”
“Our investors were impressed by the team and the quality of our work,” he says. “The whole investment round went really smoothly. We met with a number of top tier investors and ended up with the ones that we really saw eye-to-eye with.”
The team ended up securing $3.6 million from various investors which allowed them to grow the team to 13 people and open up a second game track. “It also puts us in a solid place in terms of self-publishing our upcoming games,” Stén says.
Finding a Focus
Interestingly, one of the hardest aspects of starting Boomlagoon wasn’t securing funding but trying to decide what exactly the company should do. The company was initially going to make cross-platform HTML5 games, but the founders soon realized a clearer focus was needed. It was at that point they they decided to develop iOS games on Unity. “Once that decision was made, things really started to pick up,” Stén says, noting that getting to decide what to focus on is one of the most rewarding things about having your own studio – that, and being able to “work with absolutely awesome people every day.”
Indeed, the majority of Boomlagoon’s team are veterans in the industry or possess outstanding skills. Stén notes that the company tries to focus on getting people that are top performers in their field and mesh with the company’s culture.
“From the culture perspective, we value transparency, creativity and initiative,” Stén says. “Everyone is free to contribute to all the game projects we have going on, and we feel that the discussion and the level of freedom really pushes our concepts to the next level.”
Additionally, the team seeks to “bring joy to as many people as possible regardless of time and place” and believes the mobile free-to-play business model fits that philosophy best – making it the market they have focused their efforts on. Stylistically, the company focuses on polished, cartoon style 2D games – an art style the company finds approachable to both Western and Eastern markets.
However, the company is always keeping an eye out for improvements in mobile hardware and operating systems and figuring out how to use them to bring even more immersive experiences to their fans. They also make sure not to restrict themselves to any specific game genres. “If the idea is fun and fits our process, we’ll jump on it,” Stén says.
Currently, Boomlagoon launched their newest game Monsu – a platform game featuring collectible cards where you can run, jump, fly, and even ride a llama. Players start out with the main character Monsu, a “cuddly, little green monster,” and as they progress through the game, players can collect other characters that help Monsu in his quest.
Stén is quick to point out that despite the company’s quick start and successes, the company is just getting started. “We want to make awesome games that are played by hundreds of millions of players. That’s our next milestone!”
Find out more about how Boomlagoon is doing through their Facebook and Twitter!
Tom Majewski, Daniel Miszkiel, and Max Strzelecki feel that there are too many good indie games in Poland that simply aren’t being made. But rather than simply lament the issue and complain about, they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands.
“I previously worked as a game designer for three years with Bloober Team and Nimbi Studios,” Max says. “Tom was a producer at Nimbi Studios and Daniel was a CEO for Tap It Games. We decided to join forces and create one ultimate indie game development studio – One More Level! We’ve brought with us many experienced game developers who worked with us at our previous companies.”
The trio hopes to find developers and help them release their products through their new company while simultaneously working on their own projects, effectively combining the functions of publisher and developer.
Why One More Level?
Although they considered other names, they settled on One More Level as the name for their company because “the phrase describes us perfectly. We want to make our games and our work one more level better than the others.” They also want to make the kind of games that make players say “I am going to sleep now, but…just one more level.”
On July 3, One More Level officially opened their doors, and they already have big plans in motion for their first year. They’re hoping to finish production on their breakout title Warlocks as well as release a mobile title, ZOMBIEBUCKET. They’re also prototyping and developing a new, bigger project scheduled for late-2015, although they’re mum about the details.
Warlocks: Combining Brawlers, Wizards, and Pixels
Warlocks is where all their energy is focused at the moment. They’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the title – their first time crowd-funding. Max explains that it can be hard to make players aware of such projects or get press coverage, and they’ve been working almost 24-7 to make sure the word gets out and the project gets funded.
The concept of Warlocks came from OML designer Dushan Chaciej, who wanted to combine the brawler concept in Risk of Rain with mighty wizards, while the idea to use pixel art graphics came from artist and animator Wojtek Wilk. When Wojtek showed Dushan some potential designs for the game it all “worked right from the start.”
They hope to have the game available for the PC and Wii U, but a lot depends on their Kickstarter campaign. “If we reach our second stretch goal, we will also bring Warlocks to PS4 and PS Vita,” Max says. “Maybe even Xbox One one day.”
While they’re hoping to make money with Warlocks and attract business, Max notes “it would be amazing” to have the gaming community discuss characters and tactics in their games, provide feedback, and motivate them to further upgrade the game.
As for the long-term future of Warlocks and OML as a whole, Max says they have other projects in the works but hope to support Warlocks with DLCs or other content. However, he notes, “like always, it depends on you – players!”
Having been called the latest sensation coming out of Finland since Rovio and Supercell numerous times, expectations around Helsinki-based game company Grand Cru and their debut title Supernauts have become pretty high over the past couple of years.
But what’s it like inside of Grand Cru? Who are these people? Creative director & co-founder Harri Grandholm took the time to tell us more about the company, their team and their magnificent Mad Men-esque office in the notoriously hip and bohemian Kallio neighbourhood of downtown Helsinki.
The Boss Level
Finding the perfect office space in Helsinki is not an easy feat, especially for an promising game start-up like Grand Cru. Grandholm and his fellow founders took a pragmatic approach when hunting for the office. With a founding team existing of a big group of Finnish game industry veterans aside from the younger hungry talent filling up the ranks, many Grand Cru members already find themselves juggling family and start-up life between the suburbs of Greater Helsinki and the bustling downtown area where game companies have their offices spread over almost every street.
Grand Cru settled for what many may consider a hidden gem right next to the Sörnäinen metro station, with a bus station right on their door step that features the famous 615 bus line that takes travelers straight from Helsinki’s train station up to the Helsinki Vantaa International Airport.
“We were lucky to find this diamond in the rough that nobody knew about,” Grandholm says. “Maybe because we were not put off by the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood.”
Grandholm continues sharing the history of their treasure. “The building was built in the sixties for a legendary insurance company, so we had to honor that history when redecorating the office. The top floor, which we have slowly taken over during the last three years, obviously was the old CEO’s domain where he entertained VIP guests in the private sauna. So we are literally on the Boss Level.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to note that after rumors spread about the building, a few other gaming companies also recently moved into the building. “It’s quite the game dev party now, but there’s still plenty of space in case we need to expand into other floors,” he adds.
A Well-Seasoned Team to Boot
One of the beautiful things about the Finnish game industry lies in its rich history of mobile game development. Grand Cru’s founding team has also played a big part in it, having initially worked together at mobile game studio Mr. Goodliving in a place and time when mobile games were not as big as they are today. “All of us spent several years there, two of us even a decade,” Grandholm says. “We had entertained the idea of starting our own company before, but Mr.Goodliving was such a great and laid-back place that nobody was in a hurry to leave.”
With RealNetworks unfortunately shutting down the whole company back in 2011, things started moving fast for Grandholm and his comrades. “There were other options at first, but I guess the founding team formed organically from the couple of senior game makers who felt like a good mix and wanted to take the risk of going for it alone,” says Grandholm.
The only non-Mr.Goodliving founder the team managed to persuade was from well-known Finnish game company Sulake, because the team knew they would need more large scale multiplayer server experience in the team. “Our founding team of six is also unusually big, but that’s what makes the Cru Grand,” he adds.
“We learned a lot from our time at Mr.Goodliving working with RealNetworks and also from other Finnish gaming companies,” he continues. “This is strongly reflected in our company culture and management style. We’ve tried to keep the good things and get rid of the bad. You have to be versatile and fluid and trust the individuals. It’s all about the team! ”
“We’ve also made enough games to know that it’s always a journey into the unknown. You set sail for India, but may arrive in America. Or be eaten by the Kraken. “
A Supernaut is Born
It wouldn’t surprise anyone if racking up a total of 11 million US dollars in investment funds came from how Grand Cru’s founders have been making games together for many years before.
“We know exactly what everybody’s preferences and strengths are,” Grandholm explains. “Supernauts was basically defined by the team, meaning that our first game had to be something everybody would love to do. The creative building element was a core feature that we all could agree on almost immediately. Obviously, we’re fans of Minecraft, but Little Big Planet was also a big influence. “We wanted to have a similar kind of accessibility and fun, and especially the community element of sharing your creations, he says. “In fact, we experimented with player-created missions at one point, but then decided to take a slightly different route.”
The original concept the team had set out for Supernauts was to create something closer to that of an MMO. But the team then scaled down their ambitions and took the wise decision to concentrate on building a fully functional single-player experience first.
Nevertheless, the team agreed that the soul of Supernauts would remain in the multiplayer and community. “Luckily, we are finally at the stage where we can implement many of those cool social elements that have been waiting in the backlog,” Grandholm adds.
For Supernauts, Grandholm and his team wanted to have a theme that would be unique enough to stand out of the crowd, but still be part of popular culture. The goal was to not limit the player’s creativity too much.
“For example, we were also thinking about a (fun) horror/monster theme, but that would have made it difficult for players to build, say, disco floors, “ Grandholm mentions. “The ‘comic sci-fi’ concept just felt natural, and we could also slip in a topical environmental element in there without being too serious about it, so what’s not to love ?”
Grandholm had actually written a lot more story than what eventually made it into the game, “which is probably for the best, because most of it is really bad jokes,” he adds.
Measuring the Right Things
With a highly creative concept as Supernauts, tracking the right numbers and metrics becomes super important. According to Grandholm, Grand Cru’s main challenge has been maintaining the intricate balance of getting many things just right. “And even with all the experience and best practices, there is always the unknowable,” he adds. “Of course, what we want is players playing the game frequently and for a long time, but that’s hardly unique. What I think is important is to not get too caught up in metrics so that you do more reacting than acting. It can easily narrow your view.”
One example that Grandholm considers that sets Supernauts apart from other games is that his team actively conducted surveys on their most loyal players. What they found was that the players enjoyed the creative building the most. “This was the original plan, so we’re pretty happy about that, “ he says.
Mixing and Matching
With Supernauts, Grand Cru set the challenge to combine two of the most unlikely matchable concepts: user-generated content and free-to-play mechanics. “It’s definitely not an easy match,” Grandholm concurs. ”Especially sandbox gameplay is nearly the exact opposite of what you seem to need for a successful F2P game. We knew from past experience how hard it is to control these types of unpredictable mechanics, even in a premium game, in order to make a proper game out of it, but wondered if we could actually get it to work. That would be something, right? It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you, but I think we’ve got something pretty special up and running now.”
“We just want to inspire people to build cool things. Your turfs get a ‘hotness’ rating based on several things, including popularity, and we have the Supernauts Universe top lists, where you can find the hottest turfs,” Grandholm says. “We are doing our best so that the coolest creations get visibility and therefore visitors, because that is very rewarding. You can also easily capture and share videos to the internet and link directly to your turf. Once you are invested and motivated in building something really great, then spending some money instead of time is not a big step for the players that prefer that. Or, alternatively, you can concentrate more into the production part of the game.”
The Grand Cru Culture
With the Grand Cru team being 36 members and most of them tasked on Supernauts, new concepts and prototypes are already being developed to make sure that success is also guaranteed on the long run. A massive expansion isn’t part of that plan and might well never be. “We really don’t want to grow any more than is absolutely necessary, because we want to keep that small team feel and efficiency for as long as possible,“ Grandholm argues.
Grandholm describes the working environment to be very transparent and have a “flat” way of working. “This means, among other things, that communication needs to work well so that every team member can make independent decisions. It also means that we have to be really careful about who we hire, or it can be a disaster. Finding the right kind of personality is more important than ninja skills.” Grand Cru also has a mandatory “have a life” policy. No extra long days or crunching is allowed, and use of vacation days is heavily encouraged.
But Grand Cru’s culture doesn’t stay limited to its own team. The Finnish game industry as a whole stems from having an openness towards newcomers and guests that is rarely seen in other countries.
“Finland is a small place, and I think the feeling that all game developers are in the same boat is strong,” Grandholm says. “It’s not a zero-sum game, so there’s no reason to draw lines and dig up trenches. Somebody’s always throwing a party and discussion is pretty open over a few beers. Every success story is a positive thing for all the companies: more visibility for the industry means potentially more investor interest and game developers from abroad moving to Finland, as we have already ran out of the local ones, hint hint.”
Grand Cru launched Supernauts a few weeks ago, and has already reached 1 million players in the first six days after its official launch on the Apple Appstore. Check out the game here.
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!”
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.”