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Starting an Indie Game Studio

Snowcastle Games: The crazy Norwegian indie devs who decided to make a full blown RPG as their first real game – and actually succeeded after a series of near death experiences and some other lessons worth sharing.

Somewhere along the way, I have promised my investors, Kickstarter backers, friends and family that I will write a little about Snowcastle Games and the journey we’ve been through the last few years. Here is the first chapter. I plan to follow it with a few more covering some subjects in more detail; One about the Kickstarter Campaign, one specifically about funding, and one about my ultimate goal of building a team of talented people who work together in a creative environment.

Before Snowcastle

When I go to work every day at Snowcastle Games I look forward to collaborating with my wonderful coworkers and to the interesting challenges of running a game studio. I think one of the reasons we all love our job, is that we make stuff – fun stuff to play with! We also want to tell stories, and I think the combination of game mechanics and storytelling is particularly powerful. We also dream about creating something truly great that can outlive us. So when I go to work I feel lucky. It has been a bumpy road getting here, and though there have been times I almost wanted to give up, I didn’t, and for that I am grateful.

Back in 1997 during my studies, I played one of the first graphical MMOs called Ultima Online. I probably played way more than I should have, and all while doing so, I realised that instead of completing a Master in MEMS, (Micro Electro Mechanical System) I wanted to make games. However, back then games were non-existent in academia so I had to change my Master to the closest field, which was Virtual Reality. A little more than 3 years later I completed my degree and immediately started my first company, against all recommendations from friends and family.

This was in 2001 and the game company I wanted to work for had just laid off a huge number of developers. The timing for a poor ex-student to start a game studio was terrible, so instead I started a game-analysis company called gameXplore. After seven years working really hard trying to make that first startup a success, I realized that it was time to move on to something else. It was painful, but along the way I had learned from the many mistakes made in the process.

Early Days

The year was now 2009 and it felt like the perfect time to start a game studio. Together with a few of the people from my former company, we started Snowcastle Games. It was finally time to make great games.

Having failed with the first startup we didn’t have much cash, so the newly founded Snowcastle started off on a shoestring. I had to borrow money to pay my part of the funding capital. We did however manage to get a gig with a national TV Network to produce some 10 mini flash games over the first three months. The pay would barely keep us afloat for for the duration, but at least we were making games.

The team was only 4 people back then - none with prior experience in game development. Lack of experience was compensated by enthusiasm. We delivered the 10 flash games and were quite proud of our first little accomplishment. Next, we began dreaming about our own project, but to make the ends meet we had to do more work for hire. The only problem was that the sales job to get the business cost a lot of time and the pay was never enough to finance our own project which as a result barely moved forward because of all the external jobs we had to do.

I faced two major challenges;

i) we needed more funds to create our own product and
ii) we needed more talented people to make it at the quality level we strived towards.

Scraping by with hardly any funds we completed a proof of concept that we called a hybrid between a book and a game. In reality it was an adventure game. We had tried to sell our ideas to panicking book publishers - explaining how the new iPads would be the ideal place to tell interactive stories, but they were highly sceptical of computer games. In the end we just gave up trying to get them to finance anything and instead made our own children’s adventure game called Hogworld. Our self confidence got quite a boost from all the praise we received, crowned with Hogworld making Apple’s coveted list of Best Apps of 2011. We were proud and it looked like we would finally begin to make some money.

The First Big Downer

Boy, were we, wrong! F2P was just sailing up to be the leading business model for apps and our premium game aimed at children 5-8 years old began its fall from the top of the sales charts much faster than anticipated. In only 3 months we watched it sink to the bottom. It felt like we were going through financial purgatory - the perfect anticlimax to the glorious release of our first self made product.

What really happened was that we did the same mistake as so many other creative groups have done before us; We grossly underestimated the importance of marketing and did not put enough effort into saving Hogworld from drowning in the App store. In hindsight, I see that we should have continued to work on Hogworld with new content and updates on a regular basis. We should also have continued to seek out press for reviews like we did right before and after launch. Instead we were already fully geared towards creating our next game.

At that point we applied for a game development grant from the Norwegian Film Institute and just as I began contemplating closing down the company, we got the grant! For the first time in the company’s history we now had over six months of cash flow!  

So I gathered my battle worn team of now 6 and updated them on the financial status - that we had been given another chance and now we had to decide: i) we could continue to do work for hire and prolong those six months to maybe a year or two but likely with little progress on our own project, or ii), we could do like Geronimo and run for the edge of the cliff, confident that we would somehow build a bridge in the process. The team yelled Geronimo in unison and so we ran.

A True Near Death Experience

The ups and downs repeated almost as regularly as the seasons of the year, and in April 2014 we were again faced with imminent bankruptcy. After a failed Kickstarter campaign in December of 2013, we were so emotionally depleted that only iron will, enabled us to do one last push. We rebooted the Kickstarter campaign and to our great relief it succeeded, and brought in almost $180,000. On top of that we were given another development grant from the Norwegian Film Institute. Another emotional high point where we for the first time ever could see a clear path to the finish line. (I’ll write more about the Kickstarter in another blog post)

Success at Last

Fast forward and it is now 2017. We finally completed Earthlock: Festival of Magic. It is a work of passion that the team, now counting 17 members, have spent the last 5 years making. We are relieved and extremely proud that we managed to complete this project, which at times looked way too ambitious for such a small and inexperienced team.

We have just started working on the next game in the Earthlock series and the studio is buzzing with creative energy and enthusiasm. Although we are at the end of the road in terms of Earthlock: Festival of Magic, it feels more like a beginning. We have only completed the preparations and the real journey is just about to begin!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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