Our Game Studio’s Road to ‘‘Success’’

The journey of an indie developer has its many ups and downs.

It has already been 2 years and a half since we started working on Light Fall and yet, I think we have never talked about the whole process. Sure, we’ve told you about specific events, but we didn’t talk about the journey itself. Looking back now, I think it’s time we do.

Bootstrapping — Humble Beginnings

From March 2014 until mid 2015, times were simple. We wanted to make a cool game and release it one year later. The plan was also simple: we work full time on the project (as much as we could) and each individual is responsible for his own survival until launch.

The game is not the only thing that has changed a lot since the beginning, we did too.

For example, Ben was lifting boxes for a shipping company every evening to pay his rent and put food on the table. It was a tiring job and, combined with the studio, made for long days. So, nobody was upset when he would show up late in the morning the next day. In my case, I was giving a 2D video game programming class at a local college, so that would eat up about one day of my week.

But outside of our individual survival, the business also had some expenses that needed to covered. As such, we were willing to use our savings for that purpose. In the end, we collectively spent about 15 000 $ of our own savings during that time period. What did we use it for? The main expenses were:

  • A Unity 4/5 Pro Licence (1500 $)
  • PAX South 2015 (5500 $)
  • PAX East 2015 (4500 $)
  • The incorporation of the studio (1500 $)
  • The rest was for a bunch of Unity assets, contracting work (composer and voice-actor), office supplies, a storage hard drive, etc.

You can see that we heavily spent on expos. The official goal was to create awareness for our upcoming launch, but the unsaid goal was to see if it was still worth it to keep pouring time, energy and money into this venture. If the players and the press didn’t seem excited about the game, we might have stopped right there in all honesty.

Luckily, people went crazy about the game, especially at PAX South. We even made the front page of IGN. While it didn’t bring any money back, it did give us well-needed validation. It was a tangible proof that the outside world was willing to talk about the game.

The public’s reaction towards Light Fall was a welcomed sight.

The Kickstarter — Survival Instinct

At this point, we were starting to realize that we wouldn’t release in summer 2015. After 1 year, we had 2 levels of the game completed. 2 very polished levels that would allow us to show off the game and gain momentum as a business, but the game was not even close to be finished.

And our personal funds were getting thinner every day. There was no way we could keep up that pace for another year, which is what we thought we needed to finish Light Fall.

So, we figured that with 20 000 $ from a successful Kickstarter campaign, we would be able to survive another year. We would have to keep our part-time jobs, but we were willing to do it.

And thankfully, we succeeded. It was close and very stressful, but in the end we prevailed. All of that thanks to our backers, the first people to believe in us. They had spoken, they were willing to open their wallet for the project and that allowed us to move forward.

Post-Kickstarter — In Limbo

The next period spans from roughly the end of the Kickstarter (early June 2015) until April 2016. This was a very weird time for our studio…

Although we had gathered some notoriety and financial support, it still seemed as if we were stalling. You see, even though we had the players and the press on our side, we were starting to realize that we would not be able to release the game by ourselves.

Moreover, our Kickstarter campaign wasn’t the crushing success we were hoping for. We had met our goal, but barely. We knew at that point that we needed some serious help to bring Light Fall successfully to the market. That Kickstarter had been a 2 months gamble (1 month of preparation + 1 month of campaign), but we wouldn’t gamble on a 2 years project.

The Kickstarter campaign took a lot of time to prepare and manage. It had been a risky gamble and a close call.

So we started talking to some publishers and found quite a few that were both interested and interesting. But at the same time, it was still too early to get seriously involved with them, unless we started talking ‘‘investment’’. But as you’ll see below, publishers often have a hard time competing against the CMF, which is a fund that help the Canadian’s TV and movie industry as well as the multimedia (such as us) to release products to market. Although we didn’t have access to this money, we had hope we would at one point.

It’s around that time that we started doing some contracting work. We were picky and it had to be lucrative. Mat did some design contracts and I did some programming ones.

When we take into account all of those contracts, we brought back 30 000 $ into the company. It cost us about 4 months/person. Don’t panic, we didn’t stop the production for 4 months. We had 2 people working on Light Fall while the other one would bring home some cash.

We also started taking some business and marketing classes. We really needed that. It didn’t make us pros, far from it. But it did help shape the outlook on our business. We were also on the lookout for a mentor and that’s where we found him.

At that point, another year had passed and we now had a grand total of… 3 completed levels for the game. Honestly, it was quite depressing. 2 years, 3 levels. To be fair, the entire game was completed at an ‘‘alpha’’ level. But only 3 levels were consumer-ready. The situation was grim but suddenly the tide turned.

“Catapulte” — The Turning Tide

“Catapulte” is a local contest sponsored by Desjardins, Export Quebec, Quebec International and, last but not the least, Ubisoft. It was opened to every studio within the province of Quebec with an income lower than 300 000$. Suffice to say, we fit the description. It was the second edition of the contest, the first time was held in October 2014. We were still too inexperienced back then and lost.

But this time, it would be different. This time, we were ready. The first 3 levels were enough to sell the idea of Light Fall. We could demonstrate that the press and the players were behind us. We had challenged our business and marketing plans during our previous classes. We even practiced our pitch a couple times in class and at other smaller contests.

17 studios from all around the province applied. 5 of them were selected for the grand final in front of the jury and we were among the lucky ones. A grand prize of 50 000$ would be given, including mentorship with the top people at Ubisoft Quebec and free workspace for one year at Le Camp. And there were no 2nd prize, winner takes all as they say. So, we pitched, just like we’d practiced. And we won.

The idea of Light Fall charmed the local industry. It was a big gain of confidence for us.

It took us a while to realize what it meant, but on that night we just couldn’t believe it. It felt as if everything we had done so far had prepared us for that moment. That post-Kickstarter limbo paid off after all.

CMF — Reaching For the Summit

The “Catapulte” timing was perfect because 2 weeks later, we were applying for the CMF (remember the fund I mentioned earlier?). Well, we had applied twice in the past and were rejected both times. Like… really hard. The first time was in April 2014, a single month after starting out, and we got an outstanding 40% on our application. I think they were kind to us because we deserved less than that to be honest. The second time, 6 months later, wasn’t much better…

Since there are limits on how many times you can apply, we decided to keep working on our game and the way we present it before applying again. That’s what we did during that post-Kickstarter limbo. This application had to be perfect as it was our last shot. After that one, we couldn’t apply anymore. Not for that project anyway.

We spent a couple weeks filling all the required documentation, changed it several times, requested feedback from the people around us and then we waited. July 2016 came with an email from the CMF and… we were accepted! 86% was our final score. From 40% to 86%… not too shabby.

I won’t go into the details here, but it meant that we could leave our part time jobs, that we could hire our first employee and that we would have the financial support we need to properly launch the game. Nothing too crazy, just enough to do something worthwhile.

Having the CMF and Catapulte allowed us to hire our first employee!

What’s Ahead — The Last Milestone

As you already know (since we announced it earlier), we’re not launching in summer 2016. Heck, it’s fall already! But things are looking good. Having an extra hand to help out really boosted our momentum. We polished more levels in the last 3 months than we did in the 2 years prior to that. It finally feels like we’re in a real production phase. Adding another programmer to the team was incredibly valuable. The funny thing is he was one of my students at my 2D video game class, and now he works with us! Life sometimes…

All of this would not have been possible without all the people and entities that helped us along the way. Success is not a certainty yet (as the real test will be the launch), but we’ve traveled a long way since March 2014. Every step brings us closer to release and I’m really happy of the journey so far.

Would I do it all over again? I’m not entirely sure. Not that I regret doing it, far from it. But it is a risky and difficult road. But I know that right now, I am really happy of where I am and I’m thrilled to see where this road leads us.

-David

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