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my own indie game studio - a recap

A short recap of how we founded our indie game company mooneye studios and how we overcame the struggles any indie studio faces in the first years.

Tobias Graff, Blogger

November 11, 2016

31 Min Read

I’m sitting here in a camper van in a middle of nowhere without wifi, while three friends who don’t know what they’re doing try to cook something edible. We certainly didn’t think we’d end up like this when we first started thinking about founding our own game studio.

Now, before I start writing about how we got here, let me just show you very quickly what we are doing at the moment:

This is our current project: Lost Ember. I think it’s obvious with such a small team as ours that we put everything we got into making it. I won’t go into too much detail about the game, that’s not what this post is about. You can find out more on our homepage at lostember.com, if you like. This post is about how it all began!

This is gonna be long, btw, so maybe get some snacks and a drink or something ;)

We met 2014 in a game development masters program in Hamburg, Germany (that picture is us a little over 2 years ago, when we first met. I'm the left guy, btw, Tobias). All of us started studying with the goal of founding our own company someday. None of us believed that day would come that soon. It wasn’t really surprising that we found each other and started working together just a few weeks after the first semester started, as we all had the same vision for our future: working in our own, independent studio on our own game. Something different, something new, something that would not only entertain, but fire up emotions. I’d like to think we’re on our way to achieving this. But you can judge for yourselves some day when we finally release our game.

Anyway, getting to where we are now wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. We did have to overcome some obstacles on the way. The first one was just founding the company. Maybe when we got lost on the way to the registration office and ended up in the wrong building where a very confused receptionist didn’t really know how to respond when we said “Hi, we’d like to register a company today”, it should have been the first sign that it wouldn’t be as easy as we hoped. But after a whole day of getting sent to different parts of the city, we really did end up being a company. And started working. At this point we all were motivated as hell and thought the sky was the limit! We knew we were all skilled enough and made a great team to build something amazing! But of course we didn’t have the money for it at first. Which was kind of a downer, but hey, you don’t just become a game studio overnight, right?

At the beginning we started doing some low-paying contract work and side jobs to just build up some kind of capital. We still had our student loans that paid our rents, so we weren’t too concerned about money and our main objective was just getting more experience and establish all the workflows. We were still studying besides these small jobs, so it wasn’t that big of a deal that we didn’t make a lot of money. Or none at all. We were happy just building up our company. Our plan was to work on some paid jobs at first, while starting to work on the concept of our main project Lost Ember (which was still called “Desire” back then).

And it all seemed to work pretty well at first. We got a few jobs and the money slowly but steadily started to come in. It also started to take up more and more of our time, though. And as we were still studying we had to make a decision: did we want to concentrate on university and get our master’s degrees as soon as possible or did we want to follow our dream and continue working on our company? It wasn’t a very hard decision :P Of course we continued working at mooneye and started to let university slide a little… Don‘t judge us, we were motivated as hell and didn’t want to let anything stop us! And our professor’s actually still kept supporting us immensely with workspaces and hardware and they established some important contacts. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we wouldn’t have made it without them, so thank you very much, Ralf and Gunther!

This is us in the university lab. Without Matthias (who is hiding behind the camera) and Florens (who worked mostly from home at that time), but with Marco and Miriam, our first two interns that helped us a lot with our projects. Thanks guys :) And that red thing is Rudi, a BubbleMon, but I’ll come to that later ;) Miriam actually made that herself! This is actually a screenshot from an old interview we did with a small youtuber, btw, because apparently we don’t have any pictures from this time, which is a shame… But I guess it will have to make do.

Anyway, pretty soon we got the first indication that this was the right decision. After working on the first concepts for Lost Ember and setting up a very basic homepage with just a few sketches and very early screenshots, we got featured in an American games magazine – the IndieGameMag. Nothing too fancy, but they even wanted to follow the development of our game and feature us every month for a whole year, so we were thrilled! And after the first issue was released, it got even better. Some day we got an email. An application email. Just asking if we already got someone for sound and music and if not, offering their help. You get those emails a lot, even small companies like ours, so it wasn’t that special. They said they already got some experience in the gaming industry and previously worked on some other projects. For example as the music director and senior audio designer for Rockstar North on games like GTA 1-5, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire and more. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We certainly needed to. We were psyched, but at the same time we couldn’t really believe that guys like that would want to work with us. We actually believed it was some kind of spam until we jumped on a skype call with them and actually saw that they looked like their pictures on google :D I’m talking about Craig Conner and Will Morton, maybe some of you have heard of them before. They both are absolutely amazing guys, btw, and a few weeks after that skype we gathered up the rest of our money for a short trip to Scotland (where they live) to meet them and discuss how working on Lost Ember might look like. We only were there for 2 days, but it was an incredibly awesome time and you cannot imagine how happy we were to be able to work with these really talented and amazing people!

And then we were brought back to harsh reality. When we arrived back at home we got a letter. A bill, obviously. A pretty big bill. We started “upgrading” our company (there are several business forms in Germany for differently sized companies. At this point we were a „GbR“ which is basically nothing. The next level is called „UG“ and is basically what a „Limited“ in the UK is. I don’t know what the US equivalent is, but maybe someone of you does?) a couple of weeks before our Scotland trip and we heard of a lot of things you can do wrong with that, so we decided to be responsible and go to a professional legal advisor that would work everything out for us and get us the best possible deal. Right. I think they totally screwed us over, because they didn’t tell us about half the bills we had to pay although we specifically asked about it and charged us for every second we talked to them… We ended up paying over 10% more than in their “worst case” scenario, but we couldn’t do anything about it and of course had to pay everything (they were legal advisors after all, so every contract was ironclad).

So yeah, we thought we had everything figured out, spent money on the Scotland trip and then, after 2 amazing days and a huge motivation boost from meeting Will and Craig, we were close to bankruptcy. That didn’t really go the way we planned it. In fact, it felt pretty terrible. Working extra hours and night shifts for months, mainly on projects that weren’t even our own, just to be back exactly where we started: sitting in the university lab with no money and no time to work on our game. But still, we got our first international press partner and Will and Craig on board. We knew we had something special that could interest a lot of people, so we didn’t give up, of course.

We returned to doing contract work and even more extra hours. The lab basically became our home for about a year. Most of the time we worked on weekends and until late into the night. The lab doesn’t have any windows, so there were some weeks when we didn’t see any daylight at all… Which can get kind of depressing after a while, but you have to at least go with some of the programmer clichés, right? :P And of course it was mainly because we wanted to work on our own projects and not only on the contracts. In fact, we decided it might be good for us to actually release something and see how releasing a game even worked. We wanted to found a game studio and not some kind of media service agency after all. But obviously Lost Ember still wasn’t even close to a point where we could release anything. So we started working on our first, small mobile game “Super Carl”. It was based on a university project that we did a couple of weeks before that and that was really fun. We thought we should give it a proper re-design and balance out some mechanics and planned to do that in about 4-6 weeks. The base mechanics were already there, after all. And of course that worked out perfectly… Not. It took us, I think, a little over 3 months to finally release the game. We lost a lot of time, but hey, we released a game! It actually felt pretty cool to just have something of our own out there and the players really liked it! But of course we weren’t exactly successful. We made like 50 bucks with it. But that wasn’t our main goal and we did learn a lot. Especially how long polishing and balancing really takes and how important playtesting with other people is. Of course we had heard that before and technically knew this, but experiencing this with your own project is worth far more.

With our 2nd project - “BubbleMon” – a match-3 game designed for a platform based on fun short-term games – we learned but one thing: don’t rely on others (if you can prevent it). Sounds pretty harsh, but we based the game on this new platform that was developed by another startup and were one of the top games featured on there. I think it would have worked out pretty well, actually, but then their developers couldn’t meet the deadlines, the platform didn’t go live in time, and eventually they went bankrupt and left us sitting there with a finished game for a platform that would never see the light of day. We published the part of the game that didn’t rely on that platform anyway, but it was just half a game and of course didn’t succeed in any way.

So as you see, up until that point a lot went wrong for us and we had a couple of pushbacks. We were a little bummed out at that point and on top of all this, we got the news that we had to leave the university lab soon, as we had already been in there for over a year and the new semester with new students that needed the lab began. We had to find an office which of course meant paying rent and buying furniture. And rents in Hamburg are pretty high. We didn’t really know if we could afford an office at first and discussed working from home for a while. But in the last couple of months we noticed how good it is for the development to be able to work in the same room and immediately get feedback from everyone and just seeing what everyone is up to at all times. At least for us this worked a lot better than working separately at home as we did at the very beginning. So we had to get an office and that right at the time when our student loans ran out and we had to fully fund ourselves with the money we made with mooneye.

We ended up being extremely lucky with that! Another indie company founded by a couple of friends that planned to move to Hamburg in a few months just rented a room in a shared office space with other indie devs that they only needed on 1-2 weekends a month for now. And they offered to sublet it to us for ⅔ of the already pretty low price! We immediately jumped on it and moved in!

Having our own office (with windows!!!) really got us all back into the saddle! Working here among all the other devs was great. Sharing knowledge and helping out on a few tasks here and there is what makes the indie scene (at least here in Hamburg) really special and fun to work in!

We took moving into new rooms as an opportunity to think about what we wanted to do with mooneye. Of course that was still Lost Ember. But with all these contract jobs and small projects that weren’t really what we wanted to do, we didn’t come that much further with our ideas for it. So we decided to stop doing contract work for a while and get regular side jobs. We’d work half a week in those side jobs and the rest of the week would be free to work on Lost Ember without having to worry about getting the next client or run after the other because he wouldn’t pay us in time. Clients are the worst, everyone who has to put up with them will probably agree. And we could also finally really make a project plan of Lost Ember. Before we never really knew if we’d be working on Lost Ember or another contract job in the next two months, which was obviously not that great. Regular side jobs would allow us to reserve a few, fix days a week for Lost Ember. And this turned out to be the best idea we could have had. We didn’t make much money and barely could pay our rents, but we did manage to come a long way with Lost Ember! Up to a point where we decided to submit our concept as a newcomer project to the German Videogame Award – the most important award in the gaming industry in Germany. We worked our asses off for that, let me tell you that! 12 hours or more (sometimes a lot more) on 7 days a week. Of course that was only ourselves and our perfectionism that pressured us into crunching that hard. But we did come a very long way! And then came the day of the submission deadline. The deadline was at midnight at January 31st (I think). We submitted our game 10 minutes before that. We thought we had everything worked out about an hour before the deadline, but then the internet connection in our office decided to leave us hanging and went out for half an hour. And we panicked. We panicked hard. But at some point it did start to work again and we made it just in time. Boy, let me tell you, that celebration beer felt particularly great!

And it shouldn’t have been for nothing: we won the 2nd prize in the best newcomer category and with that 25,000€ (which is about 27,500$). Amazing! We never had that kind of money! And as it turned out: we still hadn’t. The gala where they gave out the awards was in April and I’m sitting here in November and still haven’t seen a cent of it. German bureaucracy, I guess. But still, this was a turning point for us! Our first big win (even if it was just the 2nd prize) and with that a lot should change. Especially German media suddenly knew who we were and we were mentioned in a lot of national and international press. It was a door-opener for a lot of other events for us.

We got a lot of support from so many people and got invited to Quo Vadis (the most important game developers’ conference in Germany) and the A MAZE. Festival (an a bit underground, indie games festival) in Berlin, which both were amazing and lead to us meeting a lot of interesting people. For A MAZE We even started working on a short VR demo of Lost Ember. We were thinking about implementing a VR mode in Lost Ember at that time and just wanted to test how it could work and how people would like it.

And they loved it. And not only the players loved it, someone from Epic Games (the creators of the Unreal Engine 4 that we use for Lost Ember) saw it and immediately signed us up for a free HTC Vive that arrived at our office just two weeks later! So after some more weeks of testing how this could work, we decided to go for it and promoted “VR Mode” from nice-to-have to must-have!

The next big event (and with that an important deadline) for us was the gamescom 2016. We wanted to show a demo of Lost Ember here and for the first time make it publicly playable beyond the scope of the simple tech demo that we showed at A MAZE. But we weren’t quite there, yet, when we decided this. So we knew we had some stressful weeks in front of us (again). And stressful it should be!^^ We ended up working night shift after night shift and even had to continue working during the first days of gamescom to fix the last bugs… We actually wrote another blog post about that on our dev blog at http://www.mooneyestudios.com/blog/51-gamescom-2016, so I won’t repeat everything here… Just let me tell you that it included 5 days with basically no sleep at all and a lot of last minute adjustments to the game and to the trailer that we wanted to release during the event! We even had to cut the final version of the trailer right there at our booth with people watching and playing on a second PC next to us :D It was crazy, but also a lot of fun and really amazing seeing people enjoy our game and giving such incredible feedback!

But we didn’t just showcase our demo at gamescom. We also started talking to a lot of publishers in the weeks before the event and had a lot of meetings during these few days. We didn’t want to keep working half-time on Lost Ember forever and after the award and the great feedback from Berlin we thought it was time to change that. Publishers are of course the first thing that comes to mind. And we actually managed to get meetings to a lot of big publishers and basically all of them really liked our concept and Lost Ember in general! We didn’t expect that kind of reaction from publishers and were surprised by how fast it all seemed to go. A little too fast for us, actually. We just wanted to start talking and see how the first reactions were and gamescom seemed perfect for that. But we still wanted to keep working on the final concepts and features of Lost Ember without someone in our backs telling us what to do and what not to for a little while. Of course not all publishers are like that and in fact we were surprised by how many of them didn’t want any kind of creative control at all! But of course having a publisher means committing to certain deadlines for certain features and that in turn means not being able to experiment that freely. And we didn’t want to give that up just yet. There were still too many things that needed some testing before we could set deadlines for them.

In fact, we just had gone through some major changes in the concept of Lost Ember. Originally we planned to release it in five smaller episodes and wrote a story for that format. We thought it would be easier to just work on one episode at a time, which would allow us to release faster and get feedback to make the later episodes even better. But it didn’t quite work that way. Of course we still had to keep the other episodes in mind and carefully decide what we could put in the first episode and what not. What if we would want to change something in the story or the world or anything later and already released the first episode? So of course we had to plan every episode beforehand and every decision for the first episode was accompanied by the thought of “what if that’s cool in the first episode, but then prevents us from doing something a lot cooler in the last?”. I guess I don’t have to tell you that this ended up slowing the development down and was a lot more work after all. So just a couple of months ago we finally decided to let the episode format go and instead make Lost Ember a single game. Of course that meant we had to adjust a lot of things. The story ended up being the hardest part and now is basically a whole different story. A great one which I cannot wait to share with you some day!

But these changes were what kept us from signing anything too soon. If we would have had a publisher back when we made that decision, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. We would have had to pitch the new single-game concept as basically a new game and if they didn’t like it we would have had to keep working on the episodes although it meant more work, stress and insecurity for us. And that not only sounds like a big motivation killer, it most certainly is.

So it was decided: no publisher for now. And no publisher-money for now. But with everything that happened in the weeks before and at gamescom, we couldn’t go back to working half-time on Lost Ember! We needed a way to finally being able to work full-time on our own projects.

That way was Kickstarter for us. We started researching different Kickstarter campaigns a while back because we always discussed this as a possibility. Of course Kickstarter is always an a little difficult subject with a lot of people. And we weren’t sure if we would want to go with it. But at this point we met not only other successfully funded kickstarter creators, but also some people from kickstarter itself who told us what kickstarter could do beyond just funding the development. It’s a perfect way to see if your idea actually is something that people want to see (something that we originally wanted to find out with the first episode before putting all the work in the whole game) and of course to building an engaged community that really is part of the development (instead of just pushing the facebook like button and then forget about it). Also it is one month of campaigning together as a team which for us is some kind of team-building challenge to see how well we can handle media and press and everything. And of course it has the potential to get huge visibility and media attention which could benefit Lost Ember itself, but also help getting the best possible deals with distribution or marketing partners for the atcual release. With a successful campaign that has proven to be interesting to a lot of people it is less risky to spent money and, if we were to go back to doing contract work for a period of time, it’s of course an amazing thing to have in your portfolio. So we started preparing.

One of the first things people will tell you, if you ask about advice on crowdfunding, is that you need to already have a decent community before you start your campaign. (And we won’t tell you any different!) So how should we do that? I think we had about 300 facebook likes, a little less twitter followers and even less newsletter subscribers at the time. Not nothing, of course, but not much, either. Especially because a lot of them were obviously family and friends. We couldn’t just start our campaign with a community this small. If we had like 5000 newsletter subscribers, we thought, then we could start without worrying too much that no one will even notice. So how to get from a few hundreds to 5000?

The best way to grow your community is of course giving them enough incentives to try growing it themselves. That’s why we came up with a little challenge. The number of 5000 subscribers that we talked about a couple of times became a very real number, when we decided to actually make this our kickstarter launch deadline. We wouldn’t start the campaign before reaching that goal. And we didn’t keep that just in the team. In fact, we implemented a counter on our website that should tell people how many subscribers were still missing at any time and hopefully encourage them to tell more people to sign up. That way, the community was already very involved in the whole kickstarter process and with that the game itself. And it did work extremely well! Within a week after announcing this challende we got to over 1,000 subscribers and in early October we actually got to our 5000 subscribers. A little later than when we first wanted to start the campaign, but that wasn’t that bad actually, as it is really time consuming to prepare a kickstarter and we could really use that extra time.

At the same time, we started thinking about ways to promote the campaign and because we knew we had to do something to spread the word but didn’t have any kind of marketing budget, we came up with something that would allow us to show Lost Ember to thousands of people and at the same time be an interesting story to write about for the press. Noone will write about just another game on kickstarter. But they might write about this: We planned to rent a camper van and roadtrip across Europe to visit youtubers, press, and other developers, play our demo with them, and show Lost Ember at four major events that happened to be scheduled in a month’s span in Germany, France, Spain, and Poland (which we didn’t know at first, of course, as we didn’t know when we would really launch the campaign, but it was a really lucky coincidence). I don’t know about you, but we thought this sounded like an awesome plan! It still would cost us a few thousand bucks just for renting the camper, gas, the camping grounds, and food, though. Money we didn’t exactly have. At first we thought we’d try contacting different companies who might want to sponsor the tour in exchange for being mentioned in our tour vlog (oh, yeah, totally forgot about that: on top of everything else we wanted to film the whole thing and upload videos of it every few days to let our community get to know us a little better and provide them with short, fun videos during our campaign. You can actually check out the first videos at our youtuber channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/mooneyestudios). We had already spoken to a lot of bigger youtubers at the time and were sure to be able to reach an audience of a few million people with the campaign. So it didn’t seem too farfetched that someone wanted to contribute. But of course no one did. We wrote a lot of different people in all kinds of industries (and yes, we even wrote pornhub^^ We figured the gaming industry and pornhub might have some overlapping target audiences... ;) ), but none of them really showed much interest and declined. Our campaign was about to fail before it even started (well, at least the roadtrip part). Until my mom and uncle offered to take care of the camper (which was the biggest price point on our list) and a friend of Pascal’s offered to lend us some money. We were, of course, extremely grateful and happy that we could do our tour after all! We still weren’t absolutely sure it was the particularly clever, though. I mean, handling a kickstarter campaign with answering all the questions, managing social media, posting updates, and on top of that cutting and uploading our tour videos every couple of days while driving around in a camper van in foreign countries… You probably get my point. But at the end we decided to just go with it. It’s something new, something awesome, and something that would allow people to get to know us far better than if we were just sitting around in our office typing emails.

When we finally reached 4500 subscribers we knew it wouldn’t take too much longer until we could start the tour and started making appointments with everyone we wanted to meet (we did write them before, of course, but without exact dates) and got more and more nervous. I mean, this could totally change our lifes. We might be able to work on Lost Ember full time without worrying if we could pay our bills the next month. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not particularly helpful during the development. But if we were to fail it could also mean that all the publishers we already talked to lose interest and we wouldn’t be able to get any funding at all. Which would mean we’d have to go back to contract work, but who knows when we would have been able to release anything, then, and if we even would survive that long. So it all could mean everything or nothing.

The last days before the campaign were insane. We basically worked around the clock to get everything done until October 11th (the day it all should happen) and couldn’t really think straight anymore. Everything was set to Kickstarter. A couple of days before that we needed to get our demo ready that we wanted to send to some youtubers. Two of Germany’s biggest Let’s Players Gronkh and PietSmiet were kind enough to offer playing it on their channels right after the start of the campaign. Which of course was absolutely amazing for us (thanks again, Erik and Peter!!), but also meant that our demo would have to be perfect. I don’t know how we pulled it off, but we actually managed to implement a lot of new stuff and fix lots of the old stuff in the two days prior to sending out the demo which improved it by at least 200%! I think we work pretty well under pressure^^ We were practically dead after that, of course, but we had a nice demo. For now that was definitely worth it ;)

And then came the day. We decided to launch the campaign in a live stream, although we weren’t sure if that would be the greatest idea (I guess we weren’t sure about a lot of things with this kickstarter^^ But I think sometimes you just have to go with your gut), but we thought it would offer people a nice way to get their questions answered immediately and it could even be kind of interesting for them to see how it is like to launch a kickstarter. So we just did it.

We were worried a little that noone would show up for the stream, and we’d end up just entertaining a single viewer for 2 hours, but we put a countdown to it on our website a couple of days before and some people actually noted the time and showed up a couple of minutes before our launch and asked about the stream. And then it started. We clicked the start button on kickstarter and stopped breathing for a minute. We refreshed the page and already got a few hundred bucks! It felt amazing! We had some viewers in our stream who kept asking questions and seemed really engaged and people were actually already supporting and backing us! In fact, they did a lot more than we expected! There’s this magic number in Kickstarter that can tell you if your campaign is about to be successful. If you reach 20% of your funding goal in the first week, your campaign is (statistically) likely to be successful. We reached that after 4 hours. We never EVER would have expected that! I think our weeks of promoting the kickstarter, our newsletter challenge, and then putting a countdown on the website really payed off, as a lot of people seemed to have waited for this day! So many, in fact, that we reached our funding goal of 100,000€ (~110,000$) in just a little over two days! Two days! We were funded before we even started our promotion tour! I don’t really think any of us fully believed it at that point (and now, two weeks into the campaign and over 200% funded, we still can’t really believe it). We did it. We actually did it. We could go on developing Lost Ember on our own and could do so full-time. Maybe we can even take a weekend off now (although I’m kind of a workaholic as you might have noticed and probably will keep working way too much^^). We came an awful long way from students without any money, but a vision, to four business owners with the chance to make that vision come true. Now we’re facing the challenge to not screw up and actually use this chance that we got to create something awesome.

And I guess that’s it. That’s everything that happened to us in the past two years until this day. It got a lot longer than I expected and I’m not sure if anyone is gonna read all this… But if you did, then hey, you made it! Congratulations! Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it :) And if you plan to go into game development yourself, maybe you even could take something with you.

You can still support our Kickstarter for a few days, until November 14th, so go check out the campaign at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1391673869/lost-ember!

And if you want to follow me on Twitter, my handle is @tobiasgrf, the whole team is @MooneyeStudios.

See ya!

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