If you are interested in the process of making and selling games, have I got the blog for you!
Last week I had the honor of being the MC at the 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards. These awards, in conjunction with the Game Developers Player’s Choice Awards, constitute what are essentially the Oscars and the Sundance of video games. Not only did I have the opportunity to honor some of the best and brightest stars of the “indie” game development scene, but I also had the opportunity to briefly meet many of my heroes – literally the Picassos and the Rembrandts of our young artistic medium. The event was in front of 3500 people and broadcast to 21 million via Gamepot (a snippet of the ceremony is here and the full video is here).
(thanks to Drew Sikora for taking some great photos of the event, photo (c) Gamedev.net)
I’m also going to be announcing a partnership with a fairly major wildlife protection program soon… but not quite yet.
I’d like to take you back to when I started this little adventure and show you how Pocketwatch Games got to the point that we’re at now.
In the Fall of 2004, I was working at TKO Software in Santa Cruz, CA on a contract for Electronic Arts. EA had commissioned us to help them finish up Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and we were screwing it up horribly. I had been itching to leave the company for a long time, in fact, I had literally been in the parking lot, telling the CEO why I was leaving, when he got a phone call from EA asking us to work on Goldeneye. I knew that a good friend, Michael Saladino, had probably helped lobby for us to get the work, and I didn’t want to let him down. It was also a high profile project. So I stuck around. And I was miserable.
Things were going badly up in Santa Cruz, and Michael, a hard-nosed guy, yanked us from our homes for 3-4 months to come down and work in LA at the EA offices. We got little sleep. I was pulling an all nighter almost every week. The game was going to be bad. TKO was sinking. So I started applying to business schools. I was going to come back into this industry as a businessman, so I could make REAL decisions and FIX things and go home at 7! I was going to CHANGE THE WORLD with my MBA!
In my spare time, I applied to:
In December, 2004, after we finished Goldeneye, I quit. I knew that I would be going to school in September, and I had about $160,000 dollars saved up from my grandmother’s inheritence (about 90K) and from putting away a portion of the engineering salary that I had been making over the past 5 years (70K). I figured with 9 and a half months, I could make a little game, sell it on the internet, and get a head start with my business career. I christened my little company Pocketwatch Games.
A month later, TKO went out of business. I began to recruit my out-of-work friends to work on my game in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Ken McAll (technical artist) and Greg Lemon (animator) started helping out immediately. Later on, two old colleagues, Nicole Anguish (web design) and Nate Clowar (modeler) started helping out in their spare time. As the project progressed, I had more needs, so I met Adam deGrandis (environmental artist), John Seguin (audio), and Mathieu Lopez (mac engineering) through internet communities. An old college friend of mine, Artie Moffa, contacted me, and I recruited him to do the writing. These people were spread across the globe from Hawaii to Paris. For the most part, they worked for free (royalties). I was eventually able to pay them back for their faith in me.
The game design that I settled on was an ecosystem simulator set in Africa. The player could create and control zebras, lions, and elephants. I was going to donate a portion of the revenue to help protect animal habitats. I was going to SAVE THE WORLD.
I moved back down to San Diego to live with my then-girlfriend, and I started blogging about development as I worked from my bedroom. I spent pretty much every day alone with the dog in front of a computer in a crappy east-San Diego neighborhood next to the Food 4 Less. Just wait, soon I’ll be in business school, then I’ll be rich and I can live on a yacht! Or maybe a lighthouse!
In the following months, I began to get more and more lonely. The press had started picking up my blogs, though, and when GameTunnel.com picked Venture Africa as one of their most anticipated games, I was able to leverage that into a deal with a big distributor, Trymedia.
Then, just as things were starting to feel better, in a single week the following happened. I was rejected from:
I was not going to get an MBA. What the hell was I gonna do with an MBA anyways, change the world?
A month later, a reporter from BusinessWeek saw was I was doing with Venture Africa, and wrote an article about “indie” game development which centered around my little mini-company. I promptly turned and gave the bird to the following four schools:
Soon, I had signed a deal with a retail publisher to get the game in a box on store shelves with MumboJumbo, the 10th largest video game publisher in the world. The game came out for online sale on October 31, 2005, 10 months after I had started. Including rent, some small contractors fees, business travel expenses, and two new computers, I had spent $8000 dollars to make the game. Goldeneye, the game from EA that flopped miserably, probably cost somewhere around 15 million for development costs alone.
Our sales for Venture Africa were not spectacular. On the other hand, when I started making the game, I had intended it more as a proof of concept and a proof our our pipeline, and a learning experience. I had predicted between 1,000 to 10,000 sales. So far, we’ve sold over 60,000 copies. The game was in Wal-Mart, Target, Gamestop, Apple Stores, and more.
In comparison to other titles from MumboJumbo, we probably weren’t too stellar, and we had a number of support problems (the game was buggy and I wasn’t prepared to provide support to 60,000 customers). In fact, there were times when I got so stressed about dealing with unhappy customers that I found myself unable to work on anything at all. But we also got a lot of praise.
We were selected as a Grand Prize finalist in the 2006 Independent Games Festival and in the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. I’ve had lots of kids say that it’s their favorite game they’ve ever played, and I’ve had parents tell me that when they sat down at the dinner table, their kids wanted to talk about how ecosystems worked. We had one kid start a fan site and a teacher began using it in his 5th grade classroom as an educational device.
I also began to put some of my experiences to good use. I spoke at the Art Institute of San Diego, and later I spoke with at-risk kids in Torrance about game development. Through these contacts, I picked up Pocketwatch’s first employee, an intern named Ryan Peterson. Soon after, I hired our first full-time employee, Donnie Bugden. Donnie will soon become a partner in the business, as he is approaching his one year anniversary at the company.
It has been surprisingly easy to give back to the community. I don’t understand why more successful businesses don’t do it. Perhaps it’s easy for us because working in games is “cool” and people want to hear about it or be a part of that. Anyways, I’ll be donating $2500 dollars to a wildlife protection program and helping to promote their program with our games. We’re also giving away Venture Africa for free to schools, and we’re developing an educational package to give to educators as well, which my sister, Katie, is helping to create.
March, 2006 was tumultuous for me. My fiancee and I broke up, which meant I had to move, and we didn’t win at the IGF. I was having tons of support problems on Africa. I was a mess. I still hadn’t actually written myself a check after all these sales, and I knew that I couldn’t keep the business going on my own energy alone. To this day, I still haven’t had a paycheck (28 months later), and I’ve invested an additional 20-30 K in the company. Luckily, I still have about 100K left in the bank. But I’ve never missed a payday with Donnie, and I don’t ever intend to.
In March, we began work on Venture Arctic, the second title in the series. We redesigned much of the gameplay as we planned to make this be our first big hit. Players now take on the role of mother nature, and they must deal with the threats of climate change and extinction while trying to keep their animal ecosystems in balance. The art and story incorporate environmental themes as well as traditional Inuit art and lore. The game is almost done, and it’s going to be incredible.
Fast forward through minor growing pains, moving to an office (on the corner of 5th and University, in the heart of Hillcrest), and negotiating another deal with MumboJumbo for worldwide rights to Arctic. Jamil Moledina and Simon Carless, the Chairmen of GDC and the IGF, respectively, asked if I would host the IGF ceremony this year. One of the awards recipients proposed to his girlfriend on stage. I got to give an award to an old friend and colleague, Dan Paladin (who I owed a hug to).
Â During the second half of the show, I got to sit back stage and meet a bunch of my heroes. Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts), Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, Wii Sports), Richard Garriott (the Ultima series), Patjinov (Tetris), and more came through. It was such an honor to feel worthy and comfortable sitting with these people and talking to them about our art. We are, in my opinion, creating the most influential art of the 21st century. And while my work may be small fries compared to theirs, I feel as if I’m contributing.
(See the links at the top of the article for videos of the ceremony)
I’m also quite active in a number of internet communities, such as the GarageGames community and indiegamer.com. I also started this little blog aggregator, Qatfish. I’ve learned so much from watching others struggle and fail or struggle and succeed; I wouldn’t be here without having been actively involved in the “indie” movement.
So… what’s the point of all this? Partly, I just wanted to write it all down. But also, partly, I wanted to describe what it means to be an “Indie” game developer, and what, in my opinion, game development SHOULD be about. I never got my MBA, but I still plan to change the world.
Speaking of which, Venture Arctic should be coming out sometime next month, so please come back and download it when it’s available! :)
Hope you enjoyed this brief history our my little startup. We’re growing now, and we’re becoming financially stable, and we plan to be around for a long time.
Thanks for reading…
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