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.”
Day is the founder of Spellbind Studios — a small, independent studio based in the San Francisco area. While the studio doesn’t have the same resources or funding available that larger studios might, they aren’t lacking for talent and skill.
The Talented Team
Day has been a programmer in the gaming industry for 20 years and worked on such high-profile titles as Diablo 3, Marvel Heroes, Command & Conquer: Generals, Nox, and Hellgate: London. Alongside him are Clay Retzer, who worked at New World Computing and Activision and “possesses a phenomenal sense of game design;” Tricia Gray, co-founder of Plan of Attack; Alex Madrigal, who has worked at Gas Powered Games and has “brilliant 2D artwork;” animator Aden Scott who “really brings the characters to life;” and Jeane Wong and Tyler Nagata who are big believers in Spellbind Studios and focused on grassroots campaigning.
For Day, the hardest part of building Spellbind Studios has been finding the right people to work with. “Not only do I have to find great talent, but I also need people that can work well together and share in the vision of the game,” he says. However, putting the team together was also the most rewarding part of the studio-building experience. “Combining all of our talents allowed us to do more than we ever could alone. The result: a beautiful and engaging game we’re all proud of.”
That game is Rogue Wizards, a project that has been in development for a year — a significant investment in both time and money for the up-and-coming studio.
In the game, you take on the role of a wizard and use magic to conquer dungeons and ultimately rid the world of dark magic. It features both town-building and RPG dungeon-crawling, and travel is done by portal — a combination not often seen in games which provides for singularly unique gameplay.
The game also features randomly-generated dungeons so each user will have a different experience. “No other player will have the same dungeon or find the same items,” Day says. “Not even the developers know exactly what you’ll find — and that’s pretty special.”
The game is designed to reach an audience looking for a “deep role-playing experience” on either a desktop or mobile platform and is meant to be intuitive for both. “Mobile games have a reputation for being very ultra casual, and I wanted to take some of the core mechanics usually found in desktop games and make them accessible on a mobile device, too,” Day says, noting that while some companies have tried to combine in-depth games with mobile devices, the controls are often clunky and hard to use.
“I’ve strived from day one to include core mechanics that feel natural whether using a mouse and keyboard or touchscreen,” he says. “Rogue Wizards has been designed … to give mobile players a bigger and more core game experience. At the same time, we don’t want to make that experience so light that it alienates desktop gamers more accustomed to deep, complex RPGs.”
Day came up with the game’s concept and had been working on the game as a hobby before Spellbind Studios was even formed — eventually deciding to transition the game from a hobby to his full-time job. After leaving his lead programmer position in June 2013, Retzer came aboard, and the two bounced ideas off each other. Some early ideas for the game featured a floating island for travel and discovering dungeons on a world map.
Not ever having done the indie thing before, Day gave himself a six-month deadline to work full-time on the game. If he wasn’t happy with where it was going or the project was draining his bank account too much, he’d find another job. “Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and I made a lot of progress,” he says. At that point, he decided to officially form Spellbind Studios.
Fanning the Flames
With a game in development and a new studio, securing funding and getting noticed has been important. Currently, Day is funding everything out of his own savings — which “isn’t really sustainable.”
In order to secure more money for Rogue Wizards, the company started a Kickstarter campaign. It’s Day’s first attempt at using Kickstarter, but he has had a lot of support and help from friends. Spellbind Studios has also brought attention to the game by submitting it for voting on Steam Greenlight.
“I’m really lucky to have such wonderful and supportive friends who have helped motivate me along the way. They love to call it ‘stoking the world’ and ‘offering you a lighter for your lamp.’ … Getting word about the game has to be a grassroots effort and we intend to keep building this base through to the final release,” Day says. “This helps us find our fans now so we can include them in the development of the game — the only thing better than making a game for our fans, is making a game with our fans.”
One of the innovative ways Spellbind Studios has included others in the game development is by releasing a piece of concept art — a magic stone — and asking fans what should be done with it. “That magic stone was a test to see what it would like be interacting with the community and if being involved in the game is something they would be interested in,” Day says. “The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’”
The original idea for the stone was for it to be a “forgestone” which could be use to level up items. However, the studio received “a lot of really awesome and wild ideas” from fans, including using it for a teleportation stone that would open when used. Day’s favorite, though, was suggested by Blizzard game director Mike Booth who thought the stone could be used as a magical wheel: “Throw a valuable gem into the inner ring of runes. It spins around rapidly like a roulette wheel. Whichever rune the gem stops on invokes a magic effect, consuming the gem. Different gem (equals) different effect.”
“I just might have to use that,” Day says.
The company also takes note of how people are responding to Rogue Wizards on places like YouTube and Steam’s forums — taking both positive and critical feedback to heart. Overall, “the reception has been outstanding” with the Kickstarter campaign off to a great start and Rogue Wizards trending on Steam Greenlight.
Modern technology has made it far easier to make games and get them into the hands of gamers than it used to be — even for small studios like Spellbind — and Day has big plans for the future.
However, money is still important to the process and Day’s ultimate goal is to keep Spellbind Studios independent and move the company forward in a sustainable way. He’s hoping Rogue Wizards and Kickstarter can help him achieve this goal.
And he hopes gamers will enjoy the ride. “We all need a break from the daily grind, and it’s fun to lose yourself in a fantasy world for a while. I hope that when people play Rogue Wizards, they’ll enjoy its fun, light-hearted, and very accessible approach to the fantasy RPG genre while also experiencing, at the same time, it’s deep and rich role-playing experience.”
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.”
InnoGames has always enjoyed prosperous, organic growth, and has been able to maintain a solid user-base of dedicated fans. But were there tough times as well? Were there struggles? Have battles been fought in order to preserve the company and its ambitions? They never intended to start a company in the first place, that’s for sure. Founder and CEO Hendrik Klindworth takes us through the history of the company that he founded together with his brother Eike and Michael Zillmer.
Just for the Fun of It
“The original idea was to create a game which was fun for the three of us and our friends. It was never supposed to be a game for millions of players. We were inspired by games like Inselkampf (a very early browser-based game), but also by Age of Empires II, which was the game we played most in those days.”
Though the ‘hobby’ project kept on growing, it wasn’t until four years later that they founded InnoGames. “In 2005, we already had 50,000 active players and we knew that the ‘premium accounts’ business model worked for us,” Hendrik says. “That gave us a good feeling about starting a business in 2006.” The brothers called their company “Klindworth Internetprojekte” and one year later, they founded InnoGames, solely to run Tribal Wars. Aside from the money they accumulated through the game, one of the main reasons for starting their own company was the feeling that is was a “now or never situation”. The early bird catches the worm, and it was with this mindset that they set out in 2006 to develop professionally, in part because they would need all the advantages they could get, not possessing huge funds. The risk involved was minimal: “Eike and I were still studying and Michael had an IT traineeship, so we were also not risking too much by founding the company,” Hendrik explains.
Having already established a steady revenue stream and accumulated years of experience, their start-up encountered almost no hurdles. Pretty much the only challenge was the formal side of things, to which end they decided “to hire an accountant quite soon”. Other than that, it was smooth sailing, with international success to boot! “Particularly the Polish version became extremely successful,” he says. Their second game, The West, also did well and after five years, they had experienced barely any setbacks. “One or two cooperative projects ended quite disappointingly, but we got over it quite quickly.”
Which left plenty of room to learn from their successes, the major one being that “speed and timing matters a lot”. Tribal Wars would not have been such a success if they‘d had the idea five years later. “It is very important to do the right thing at the right time,” Hendrik says. “That is why we strongly value flexibility at our company.” Another lesson is focus. “It is better to handle one project with a lot of focus than spreading it out over three projects.”
The vivid company culture at InnoGames extends far beyond the office itself. Their core values are determined by “company goals, management, but also a lot by the employees we have,” according to Hendrik. They have a young team at InnoGames, “although our average age has reached 30 for the first time in 2012”. The vivid company culture simply reflects the vivid and lively people that work there. “The majority of us have turned our hobby into a profession,” he says. “This applies to us founders, but also to our colleagues. That obviously influences team spirit a lot, too.” It should come as no surprise then that they sum their company culture up as “fun + passion + professionalism”.
Keeping that culture going strong is a bit more tasking though, now that the company has grown to the extent of employing a couple of hundred people. “We want to maintain the start-up feeling to a certain extent, but we also see that we have to evolve,” Hendrik says. A great example there is the internal communication: “When it was just twenty of us, we used to have an all-hands meeting on Friday and everyone summed up what he or she did during the week. That way, everyone was in the loop about everything. That obviously does not work with a couple of hundred people, so we had to find new mechanics and new communication flows.”
Attributing their success to ambition, they note a distinct difference between browser games and retailed games. “You don’t stop working on them just because you released them.” With update cycles of a few weeks for every game, they also have development teams for each of them (including Tribal Wars, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year). As such, growth is simply necessary, aside from wanting to start new projects. “Furthermore, we believe that the growth was also necessary to prepare our company for the competitive state the industry is by now in, compared to four years ago,” Hendrik says.
As far as how to measure their success within the company, the answer it quite simple: “The most important measure is the fluctuation. We are losing very few employees and in these times of ‘warring for talent’, this is extremely important from a business perspective,” Hendrik says. When it comes to distinguishing themselves from their competitors, they take pride in preferring quality over quantity. “One of the major differences is quite obvious in the portfolio: ours is way smaller than most.” They believe this leads to a more sustainable growth pattern and a high ratio of successful titles. “In a market environment of masses of games and increasing marketing costs, this is essential,” he says. And as soon as they believe a project isn’t good enough for a commercial launch, “we’d rather stop it than just launch it anyway”.
Even now, they still focus their resources on just a few games a year, a strategy that might not seem too safe. “At first glance that might appear risky, as both could fail. However, we believe that the chance of having a major success with one of these games could even be higher since we can focus more on each of them,” Hendrik explains. “That definitely paid off with Forge of Empires, which was the most successful launch of a browser game in 2013, worldwide.”
When you focus on so much on just a few games, fostering the community takes on an even higher level of importance. Finding a formula that works is key. “You have to find the right balance between localization and centralization in community management. We have a lot of local community managers and supporters who know best about local culture and regional preferences. It is very important for us to stay close to the players and to understand their demands and needs,” Hendrik says. “But on the other hand, central tools which are provided by the headquarters can speed up the support processes.“
Entering New Markets
Their overall success has seen them exploring different continents, and even different platforms. “We believe that mobile games have huge potential. It is quite likely that the tablet will become one of the major gaming consoles.” As such, they see now it as the time to evolve from a browser-based company to a cross-platform company. “Our goal is to publish our games for smartphones, tablets, and the browser, all in the same time frame, and with the best possible quality on all devices,” Hendrik says. Making the switch to a cross-platform company is a big step and needs quite some effort, but they are sure that it’s “somehow essential for the future”. Not believing that the market for browser-based games will remain the same, moving in a new direction is “needed for future success, you just have to go with it”.
But branching out doesn’t limit itself to other platforms, as said before, new continents were explored as well. “InnoGames Korea was originally founded in order to buy Asian licenses and to publish those games in Europe,” Hendrik explains. They tried that with Bounty Hounds Online, but that didn’t really work out for them. As a result, they switched their focus there to publishing their own games in Asia. “In Korea, you legally need a local company to do that.” This also brought some insight into Korean company culture. “There is no sense in adapting all of them in Europe, but a new perspective on some topics definitely helps,” Hendrik says.
They didn’t stop there, however, and are currently entering the Brazilian market as well. One can imagine it being a far cry from the Asian markets. “The Korean gaming market in general is very big, but it is quite dominated by MMO client games and the browser games market is not that big.” The user’s willingness to pay for games and items is quite high, due to a good economic climate. That way they can do well enough, even without a gigantic number of players. “Business wise, it is the other way round in Brazil,” Hendrik says. The amount of browser gamers is huge, and they already have “more than 20 million registered players there, but the average revenue per user is quite low.” This means having to find smart ways to use marketing, but also finding feasible payment schemes. “We believe that this is most likely to be possible with a local office.”
Focusing on just a few titles has paid off in terms of having a core of extremely loyal players, but what is key to creating such a player base? “Game design is very important. Tribal Wars, for example, is a classic ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ game, maybe a bit like chess even,” Hendrik says. By focusing on player-versus-player, the tactical and strategic situations keep changing. “Even after having played for a long time, you could find yourself in a new situation quite quickly. That makes it interesting to play the game for years,” he says. Another factor is the “fair premium” model. By making sure the player never feels ripped off when making a purchase, you ensure a long game life.
Right now, plans exist to launch some initial titles in the mobile market. “If we enter the mobile market successfully, this might be one of our biggest strikes in the company’s history,” Hendrik says.
The untamed wilderness is the last place you would think to find a game development studio. Yet that is exactly where Another Castle’s Best Newcomer Studio, Developer, or Publisher of 2013 winner Hinterland can be found. Established in 2012 in Northern Vancouver Island, a team of seasoned veterans formed to create captivating games they could be proud of. With everyone having 10-15 years of experience in the AAA industry, they decided to break free and make something personal.
Raphael Van Lierop, Founder and Creative Director, worked in various positions during his 13 years in the industry, but he felt it was time to do something different. It wasn’t because he wanted to “be an indie,” but he did want to work in a studio with a foundation he could believe in. “I wanted to be able to work on something that felt more personal, more artistic, and more of an expression of individual thinking,” says Van Lierop. “That’s hard to do in the established industry where teams and budgets are so big – we all know those dynamics really work against creating original games that are trying to push against the mainstream.”
Other veterans felt the same way as Van Lierop and joined him on this new path. “We’d all pretty much hit that same point in our careers, where we still wanted to work on great games with great collaborators, but wanted to do it under our own terms,” says Van Lierop. “Hinterland is about being independent.”
Due to all the experience the team has, it took almost no time for them to get down to business. As with all studios starting out, they had their share of challenges, but they got through by evaluating the situation and making the best decision that could lead them forward. “This is one of the huge benefits of working with a small team – you can turn on a dime and you don’t have to lose time waiting for someone to give you the greenlight to make a major change or whatever,” says Van Lierop. “You just do it.”
Hinterland was established to enable the team to create games they wanted without having to sacrifice themselves to do it. “So really, I had to found Hinterland to make the kinds of games I wanted to make in a more ‘humane’ way, which didn’t require people to uproot their families and lives to be able to do good work,” says Van Lierop. To be able to do this, they incorporate many online tools to keep things running smoothly, such as Basecamp, Skype, and Dropbox.
The day starts off simply: discuss what needs to be done and then work to complete it. Van Lierop determines the project direction and works with the team to distribute it into different areas. As pros, they are good at working together. “We test theories, try to evaluate – honestly and objectively – the strength of the ideas or implementation and make the changes we need to improve things,” says Van Lierop. “We’re not overly precious about ideas, which isn’t to say we don’t have a vision, we’re just all experienced enough to know that ideas are meaningless without a strong execution behind them.”
When starting the studio, it wasn’t about going indie, and it isn’t like they are thinking of trying to incorporate AAA into indie development. It just happens. “You don’t stop to think about how you’re breathing, you just breathe,” says Van Lierop. “We just make games.” Rather than think of themselves as indie, Hinterland is independent, and Van Lierop believes there is a difference. “It’s not like, here’s my triple-A handbook, and here’s my ‘indie’ handbook, and I flip between depending on the game,” says Van Lierop. “I think there’s this popular notion that if you come from the triple-A space, you don’t know how to make an ‘indie’ game – like somehow your ability to think independently atrophies because you worked within an established studio.” Yet scope and agility are the only real differences between AAA and indie projects, he believes. Also, the lack of a publisher limits what they can do, but they still push forward with their mission of creating meaningful games.
Creating Thought-Provoking Games
The public often does not take games seriously. Van Lierop wants to change the view into games being “a mature medium for delivering a variety of meaningful experiences that touch people on multiple levels.” Years from now, he wants to feel proud of the work he’s done. “It’s not about making a ‘product’ or a ‘best-seller’ or any of that stuff,” says Van Lierop. “It’s about creating something and knowing that other people thought it was good enough they were willing to assign a value for it, both in terms of their time and money.”
To do this requires making good choices about content, tone, and mechanics, according to Van Lierop, and investing yourself into creating a new kind of experience. They hope to accomplish this with their first title, The Long Dark. Coming from a concept Van Lierop had considered for years and enhanced by the team, they wanted players to have a fascinating experience. Without a combat mechanic, they hoped to immerse players through tone and content. Van Lierop says, “In terms of tone and content, a lot of this comes down to things like world design, art direction, narrative, etc., and for that, I think our approach is pretty simple – respect our craft, respect our audience, and try to do something that would be worthy of any medium, so that people don’t just say ‘Wow, that was a pretty meaningful experience *for a game*,’ they say, ‘that was a meaningful experience for *any medium*.’”
To realize the game, they decided to crowd-fund using Kickstarter, and believed it was a great experience. “We’ve never really been in a position to talk about a game so early in development, so it was simultaneously energizing and scary as hell,” says Van Lierop. The game was successfully funded on October 16, 2013, raising more than $50,000 past their initial goal. But for the team, it wasn’t just about the funds. “For us, the Kickstarter was almost more about announcing the game and studio, staking a claim on the concept, starting the process of building the all-important community, and basically saying ‘We’re here. Watch this space.’”
The team is excited to produce their first title, and are overcoming many challenges to make it a tribute to their mission, but Van Lierop thinks meeting both the team’s and players’ expectations is the most challenging. “What we want players to experience is really simple: something that impacts them, makes them think long after they’ve finished playing, and is unlike anything they’ve played before.”
Hinterland hopes to provide years of thought-provoking entertainment with the help of a dedicated, supportive community. But for now, the team is concentrating on The Long Dark, hoping to release it October 2014. Fundraising for stretch goals are continuing on the game’s website. Stay updated by following the team on Twitter and Facebook.