10 min read

How contest wins and world travel helped fund, form Antichamber

Alexander Bruce's Antichamber was bolstered by contest wins. In this interview, he discusses the contest experience, and what funding he didn't take.
Alexander Bruce's Antichamber became an instant hit when it released, but like most independent developers, he struggled to get funding during the game's development. One way that he as able to gain some much-needed money was to place in contests that he entered, such as the IGF and Make Something Unreal. In this interview, Bruce discusses entering and winning contests, the tangible and intangible rewards he got from competing and traveling around the world, and exactly why he thinks that getting too much money too soon would have resulted in a worse game in the end.

You worked on Antichamber for a long time, kind of hopping from contest win to contest win to get it funded. Was that your goal when you first entered contests?

Alexander Bruce: My goal with competitions was not specifically to get additional funding for the game. I'm a pretty strong believer in working within your resources, and in finding creative ways around your finances. I originally went independent with around $20K in savings and a plan to release after only a few more months of development. I had no intention of seeking additional funding to make a game that required more money than I had, because I didn't want to put myself in any sort of debt. Shortly after I went independent in 2010, the results for Make Something Unreal came in and I won around $25K. As my circumstances had now changed, I reassessed my plan and decided that as this money came from the game anyway, I would put it straight back into additional development time to try to make the game worth more in sales. Over the next few years I was able to continue funding further development through competitions as this cycle repeated itself, until there were no more competitions to enter. So, although competitions did play a significant role in getting the game developed further, I was always creating a game within my resources, and only changed my plan as I fell into more money.

Did you develop a game "to win"? Is that even possible?

AB: I view everything as a competition, whether we're talking about festivals, press, or sales. Although I think it's extremely difficult to make a game to "win" at any particular festival, especially when each of them has different rules and criteria, I do think it's possible to take what you have and focus your attention on specific parts of it for each deadline, or make certain decisions that may affect the outcome. After I missed out on the IGF in 2010, a large part of my focus for the next year shifted towards the first 10 - 20 minutes of the game, rather than fleshing out end game stuff that people were never going to see. This was a response to the idea that judges were only going to give your game so much attention before they moved on to something else. I can remember at the time that there were people complaining on TIGSource that judges should spend hours playing all games through to completion, but the reality is that people only have so much time, and they shouldn't have to play through several hours of bad before they get to something remotely good, when there are other games that start great, stay great and end great. When the IGF 2012 deadline was approaching, I knew that my best chance at a nomination was going to be for Technical Excellence, given that the game had received an honorable mention for it in IGF 2011, and I had previously upgraded an honorable mention in 2010 to a nomination in 2011 with the Nuovo category. At the time, my sound designer was trying to get me to put a bunch of additional sound work into the game, but I felt it would be more beneficial to ensure that all of the tech worked correctly, felt nice, ran smoothly and had as few noticeable glitches as possible. It can be difficult to know exactly what impact this had on my submission, but given that I went on to win the award for it, I like to tell myself that it was energy well spent. As an example of a specific decision I made, for the Indie Game Challenge in 2011 I had the choice of entering the professional category or the non-professional category. I could have fit the criteria for either of them, and being recognized as a "professional" sounds better than "non-professional," but I felt that my chances of getting selected were going to be better if I was competing against other students. Ultimately all that mattered was that I was a finalist at all, regardless of category. If I was selected as a finalist, the non-professional category had its own $100K prize as well, so this decision also got me out of the way of games like Limbo and Monaco. In the end, though, while I managed to place as finalist, I didn't win the $100K prize, because those decisions are ultimately out of your hands, no matter how smart you think you're being.

How much of your development actually was funded by contest wins?

AB: Overall I would have received around $35K in straight up cash, but when you add in booth space and passes that were provided in the prizes, I would have easily received around $40K - $50K worth of value from competitions. I would not have attended some of these events, such as GDC China and DICE, if I hadn't been selected in the competitions, but for others, such as GDC, PAX and IndieCade, I'd have made my way to them regardless, so this was a very real saving for me. The rest of the development, which was somewhere between $50K and $70K in actual costs, was funded by savings, government grants (recouping expenses for attending events) and additional support from the Indie Fund in the final year of development, by which stage it was a pretty safe bet that the game was going to make back significantly more than I borrowed from them. I kept my burn rate very low by living at home with parents and by living like a monk. My general attitude towards spending is that if I don't absolutely need something, I won't buy it, so small amounts of money were able to stretch very far, especially when you consider that most of what I spent was on travelling back and forth from Australia for events, not on making the game itself.

How many did you enter vs. won? And were there any that were a waste of time, and if so -- why?

AB: I ultimately placed in all 11 competitions I entered, though I submitted 16 entries to achieve that, as I re-entered several of them after either missing out entirely the first time (PAX10, IGF) or after not winning an award in earlier attempts (IGF, IndieCade). Of those 11 competitions, only 5 of them actually had money as part of the prize, and though I received some of this, I didn't win the biggest awards in any of them. I have a hard time believing that any of them were a complete waste of time, though. Some of them were dramatically less impactful than others, but there was always something to be gained from all of the events that I traveled to. A good example would be IGF China. From a press and exposure perspective that event was worth very little, and I knew before even entering that if I was selected, the potential prize money from the event was far less than it cost to fly to China, even on the off chance that I happened to win the main prize. What I gained from that event, though, was more life experience, a better understanding of why foreign spaces were interesting to me (which was a primary theme of the game I was creating), and more networking time with the U.S. developers that were invited to speak at the event. I also became good friends with a designer from 2K China, who was a very important sounding board for issues that I had over the next two years of development.

Were there any other ancillary benefits, too?

AB: Some of the benefits of events seem very intangible, because you can't graph how they specifically affected the game or its reception in the short term. A key part of my strategy in developing Antichamber was meeting as many people as I could who had made games before me, so that I could learn from their mistakes and also sanity check my design decisions, marketing, release schedule, etc. Up to a certain point, a lot of the advice I was seeking was about what it would take to become successful. After that point, a lot of what I was doing was just making sure that I didn't taint my chances of reaching that success, by talking with a lot of experienced people and avoiding mistakes before they happened. Competitions and events gave constant deadlines throughout development, and they also kept giving motivation boosts. Being a solo developer working alone from a bedroom on the other side of the world, one of the biggest challenges was just getting through the process at all. Every few months my mental state had suffered, so going to events and talking with other developers would continue restoring me back to a more objective perspective on how things were going.

When you looked for funding for your game initially, what were the options you considered and what did you end up doing to get the funding you needed?

AB: The only other options for funding that I considered were when I was looking at taking the game to consoles. At this point, I considered pursuing money from the Victorian government that is specifically put away for media projects, but this would have required a fair amount of paperwork that I didn't already have, long periods of uncertainty before you knew whether or not you had been accepted, and an even longer wait before actually receiving money. Long periods of uncertainty would have killed the game, so this option was eliminated pretty easily. I also spent a fair amount of time speaking with the Indie Fund and the Pub Fund at Sony, but ultimately didn't pursue these options because I didn't want to take on board the additional financial risk involved or all of the extra business and development work related to getting the game on consoles at the time.

How easy is it to get funding as an independent developer, and is there a solution you think we need that we do not have right now that people can use to get funding?

AB: I don't have a good solution for funding that others aren't already exploring, but I do think getting funding too early is a trap, especially before you know whether or not the game you're working on is actually something people want to buy. People used to ask me what I would make if I had a million dollars, and the answer was always "probably something terrible." Most of the creative ideas that ended up in Antichamber were a result of not being able to fund my first solutions. What sounds great in your head or on paper can turn out entirely different when actually developed. I never wanted to get into a position where I was in debt and felt like what I was working on had to succeed in order to make developing the game worthwhile. Things change once money gets involved.

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