From Game Jam to Atari Published:
How Two Indie Developers Had Their First Title Published
To someone outside of the video game industry, the prospect of finding success within this industry can seem daunting. Heck, even people within this industry will often find it difficult to succeed or continue to succeed. For this reason, I think stories such as my own can be incredibly encouraging, especially to the solo indie developer questioning the possibilities of getting a game published with a known publisher like Atari.
Just a little over a year ago I was graduating from Saint Louis University with a degree in Conservational and Ecological Biology, questioning whether or not I wanted to pursue medical school. Holding back my medical pursuit was my passion for creative outlets. Writing music, story telling, developing philosophies, etc, I love it all. Phil Snowbarger, my best friend and main video game partner had graduated a year ahead of me with a degree in interactive design and had been working at a local video game studio Graphite Lab for a couple years as an artist. Though he had already worked on a couple games for Graphite Lab, we had always wanted to make a game of our own, and with the continued development of the highly accessible game engine Unity, we figured it was time we had. During my final semester at SLU, we signed up for a game jam, Brackeys Game Jam. I had 0 experience with game development and Phil had experience primarily in art with a couple Unity tutorials under his belt. Our goal was to gain experience and complete a project.
Putting in the Effort
The game jam lasted a week, so we took an approach that would allow us to make a solid playable prototype of a game without all the fluff. We focused on having a really solid gameplay loop and mechanic that made our game unique and fit the theme of the game jam. The theme was ‘Stronger Together’ so we came up with a concept of a puzzle platformer where the characters would grow “stronger” or more capable as the characters combined together. Our ‘fluffless’ approach translated to the main character being a ball, avoiding triangular spikes, and navigating a geometric environment.
The unique mechanic to separate us from the crowd was that there were multiple ball characters on a given level, each controlled by the player simultaneously.
After some quick geometric shape creations, many YouTube tutorials, and even more mistakes, we were able to move our balls simultaneously through a geometric environment, avoid deadly obstacles, and merge balls together. I crafted a series of levels that challenged the player to combine balls of different obstacle immunities together in particular orders, while paying attention to all the balls. It took us to the very last night of the game jam (or rather, early morning hours before the final submission) to finish the entire prototype. We quickly built our page, gave it our first goofy name (comBallnations later renamed to Kombinera), and submitted our game. We then promptly passed out.
As the game jam went into the voting phase, many participants played our game and voted on its quality. We shared our game throughout the jam, while also playing others and voting on theirs. By the time the voting phase was up, our game placed in the top 40 of the thousands of submissions. For our first game, Phil and I were ecstatic. We showed a bunch of our friends, Phil passed it around at his work, and we started talking about what to do next. With this being a game we wanted to learn on and fully complete, we knew we wanted to keep working on it past the game jam. Knowing that people liked the prototype ignited our flame to push forward. We started tinkering on it, cleaning it up some, and were talking about whether we would try to contact some publishers to help finish and release our game, or if we would self-publish. This is when Matt Raithel, Phil’s boss and owner of Graphite Lab approached us. He asked us what we were planning on doing with the game and offered to show the game around to some publishers he had contacts with.
A Publishing Deal!
After Matt showed the game to several publisher contacts that he had made over the years, Atari responded back with great enthusiasm. After a little back and forth on contracts and timelines, we had a signed contract In front of us and a team behind us to build the prototype into a full-fledged game. Joystick, composed of me and Phil, joined with Graphite Lab to bring the game to its fullest potential. Brendan Chapman took on the role of lead programmer, while Phil completed all the art. I took on game design/level design alongside leading 2 others, Brad Austrin and Abram Donovan. Many iterations later, we were able to bring forward the product we see today.
After roughly 6 months of development, we had a game that Joystick, Graphite Lab, and Atari were all proud of. After spending a good amount of time setting up the store pages and porting the game to each platform, we were able to release Kombinera.
Where I am now
We had a number of experiences that blew us away such as announcing our game in an exclusive article with IGN. Then after release, the Playstation Twitter account tweeted about our game. Small events like these feel both unreal and amazing. Phil and I have been gamers together for so long and to see our own game talked about by the very organizations we have followed for all these years is intoxicating.
While keeping up with Kombinera, we at Joystick have started the prototype of our next game that we are excited about and ready to push the momentum forward.
It is a humbling experience to be able to break into the industry with a critically acclaimed game released on all platforms, that I helped create, without having a laundry list of past experience.
Often, we refuse to chase our goals or dreams out of fear that only “more qualified” people can succeed, leaving us without success from not having tried. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is this.
One, don’t assume you can’t and then give up. Give it a chance and chase it to your fullest extent.
Two, Game Jams are a great way to take a bite sized attempt at making a game, and can even lead you to a publishing deal.
Three, find others who can help you achieve your goal. Without Phil, I wouldn’t have had a Graphite Lab connection. Without Graphite Lab, there would not have been an Atari Connection. There exists a concept that we are only at most six degrees separated from any person. Try your best to use those connections and make more.
I hope you get a chance to check out Kombinera and I can’t wait to bring you more!