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The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale

Many indie developers try their luck in the market, but what does it look like when a studio goes from naive ideals to harsh realities? In this feature, founder Tristan Clark, now of King.com, writes about the origins, games, and fate of Launching Pad Games.

New Zealand is the easiest country in which to start a business, apparently. Even so, I always resented paperwork, even if it was fairly easy to get through. Shares? Directors? Annual reports? Whatever. Just get out of my way so I can get back to making games.

My name's Tristan Clark. In the middle of 2006, having just finished a degree in English Literature (which really is more relevant for game design than you might think), I founded a company called Launching Pad Games. I had no idea what I was doing, and even less idea of what I didn't know -- but I was determined to cling on to blind faith, expel all doubts, and give it a go regardless.

This is the story of that company, the tiny yet amazing team that formed its core, and the often painful lessons learned along the way. As of the middle of 2012, we've had to put Launching Pad Games on ice, so it's not a completely happy story -- but I hope that within the next few thousand words, you'll be able to learn something from both our mistakes and successes.

Early Days: Fashion Star

It was 2006, and I had never finished a game in my life. I had started dozens, of course, including an RPG that pottered along for about five years in various forms before dying away, as these things do. There's a lesson: don't make an RPG on your own. A rare few can manage it (well done, Spiderweb Software!), but most can't.

And then one day, I was talking to my future sister-in-law. She was having a go on my Nintendo DS, and remarked that she'd like to play a game that let you dress people up in clothes. I thought, "I can make a game about that!" The reason the game got done? I managed to trick my brain into thinking it was someone else's idea, and I didn't want to let them down. Somehow, that worked.

What also helped was getting a publisher on board and convincing them to give me some upfront money. I had settled on a platform and a target market, and in 2006 the obvious candidates for the game were the online gaming portals that offered up casual downloadable fare. I felt extremely lucky when I found a great contract artist in Vin Rowe, who offered his services for a staggeringly low amount of money, as opposed to everyone else I was in touch with, who -- quite reasonably -- were charging highly unaffordable rates for someone who was still a student.

In any case, with Vin's help I made a prototype and shopped it around. Within a few weeks, Oberon Media offered up a contract -- and once that was in place, I had more people I didn't want to let down, basically guaranteeing that I was going to finish this game no matter what happened.


The first game LPG ever released. I'm still surprised by that.

I'd love to hear more stories about how other people working largely on their own managed to finish their first project. It's such an important hurdle to overcome, because once you've finished one game, you know how to finish more -- it's habit-forming. For those who have yet to release a game, definitely try something like this Ludum Dare challenge!

In retrospect, everything came together at the start surprisingly well -- not that I knew how uncommon it was to snag a publishing deal, having approached the situation with several buckets full of naivety. But it was still a gruelling 12 months working on the title that would become Fashion Star, a PC downloadable dress-up game. It launched at $20 on portal sites like Big Fish Games, and it's sold about 100,000 copies since 2007. My cut as the developer was roughly $25,000, spread over half a decade. Nothing to write home about, but I was happy -- no, I was absolutely thrilled -- that my first game was out there and making some money.

There were a number of hard lessons learned. A lack of prototyping meant it wasn't until six months in that I realized the core part of the game wasn't going to work: it was starting to resemble a full-on adventure game with multiple paths through the game. After far too much backpedaling and wasted time, it became what it should have been from the start: a dress-up simulator that had a variety of eclectic fashion editors sniping about your wardrobe choices. Obviously.

Developers will also be pleased to know that I backed up my game files only once in those 12 months of development. My heart still skips a beat when I think about that.

I thought Fashion Star would be a small, simple game. I was utterly wrong, and learned a valuable lesson in how much worked needed to go into even the tiniest of games. And I also discovered how much I wanted to collaborate with others: working alone wasn't something I was keen to repeat (Vin is based in the U.S.; I was in faraway New Zealand). Luckily, the "proper" Launching Pad Games would get its start soon enough.


Starting Small: Run Boots Run

It was just before Fashion Star was released that I met Tim Knauf. I was somewhat intoxicated at a party, he turned up and said he liked making games, and a week or so later we were in business together. Easy.

These were fun days: Tim was working at a bookshop, and I had just gotten a job as a technology writer for a magazine. In our spare time, however, we were plotting what to make together. It had to be tiny, simple, and a quick way of learning a new framework. For whatever reason, we chose to make a Flash game, and so began my love/hate relationship with the crash-prone Mac versions of Adobe's programs.

Run Boots Run is a simple endless runner -- made before they were cool! -- that has you controlling a… thing, possibly a cat… through a semi-random level that gets faster and faster.

You can collect diamonds as you run along, but -- in a hilarious showcase of our beginner-level design skills -- they don't do anything. We just couldn't think of what they might add to the gameplay, but stuck them in there anyway, and watched as players still tried to collect them even after they realized they were functionally useless. If nothing else, it gave me a taste to learn more about player psychology.

Never underestimate how good your players might get. Tim made a non-looping music track that was about two and a half minutes long, but we started seeing high scores popping up that went significantly longer than that.

It's so easy to be smug about how difficult you think you've made something, only to have your cockiness punch you comically in the gut when your players blast through the seemingly solid walls you've created.

Either that or they found a way to cheat. Probably that.


Boots is meant to be a cat, but I couldn't work out how to animate a tail in Flash.

Scaling Up: The Pretender

We'd released one game together, and suddenly thought we knew enough about Flash to make something a lot more complicated: a puzzle/platformer trilogy with a tragic tale of love and hubris weaved into it.

To say this was a step up from Run Boots Run would be quite an understatement, but it allowed us to flex our storytelling and puzzle design muscles: two things that are very important to Tim and me.

After roughly three months of development, in June 2009 we put The Pretender: Part One up on FlashGameLicense.com to see what kind of bids it might attract. Within a few weeks, we had a bid from Spil Games for US $5,000 for a primary license. This allowed us to also sell cheaper secondary licenses to other websites, so Part One ended up making closer to $9,000.

The game was very well received, and it's around this time that I discovered how sadistically amusing it could be to design super-hard puzzles that few could solve. But as you can see, the amount of money gained wasn't enough to ensure any kind of stability for our company.

Compounding this problem was the fact that we were aiming for a trilogy, but at the same time were very eager to move on to completely new projects. We produced the Pretender sequels in between other games, and we didn't manage to finish the trilogy off until November 2011 -- nearly two and a half years between the first and last episodes. That's far too long, and it meant we had to constantly refresh our memory of the story and try to drum up enthusiasm for something that had, in our own minds, been relegated to the past already. If you don't like consolidating and iterating on a single product or franchise, then never promise multiple games!

Still, it's been lovely seeing fans discuss levels online, and it's always a good feeling when people take it upon themselves to create video walkthroughs on YouTube of your games!

Making the Jump: Zoo Lasso

The iPhone had come out, and more importantly, the iPhone 3G had just been released: the first iPhone to hit New Zealand. It looked like a fun, lively market with a low barrier to entry, so we decided to take the plunge -- along with just one or two other developers.

As with Run Boots Run, we knew we had to keep our first game on a new platform relatively simple. Zoo Lasso came from a mechanic Tim had thought up some time ago, involving drawing loops around groups of bugs for points.

Interestingly, we released at the start of the "race to the bottom" period of the iPhone market, when 99-cent games weren't nearly as common as they are now (and quality free games certainly weren't dominant, what with no in-app purchases available). In fact, right up until launch we were seriously considering launching it at $1.99. Times change!

Zoo Lasso ultimately suffered for a few reasons. Both Tim and I were still learning about game design, and didn't have the skill to fully develop the game's concept. As a result, it feels underdone, like half a mechanic in search of a game.

Marketing was another sticking point, one that would remain through all of our projects. We released Zoo Lasso and saw practically no sales for a week. There was no budget for marketing, and frankly we felt like we were floundering: we had tried to get gaming websites interested in reviewing the game, but those few that did cover it didn't add to sales in any significant way.

And then a week later we got onto Apple's "New & Noteworthy" section on the App Store and shifted 10,000 copies. We were over the moon -- but of course, as soon as the feature spots ticked over a week later, sales plummeted once more. It's here that we had our first experience of the agonizing roller coaster of emotions that is watching chart positions. I had to force myself away from the computer after a couple of days -- I wasn't doing anything except refreshing and seeing how high we were (or weren't) climbing.

As a learning exercise, Zoo Lasso was a great introduction to the iOS platform, to Objective-C, and to the Cocos2d framework we ended up using for all our iOS titles. What it wasn't: a successful enough title to make us both quit our jobs and go full time. But for better or worse, we didn't let that stop us from quitting our jobs anyway.


Scaling Up, the Sequel: Scarlett and the Spark of Life

Mirroring the jump from the tiny Run Boots Run to the sprawling Pretender, we vaulted from the simplicity of Zoo Lasso to the complexity of a full-blown LucasArts-style adventure game. Build on our existing engines or growing expertise in genres we'd already tackled? Not for us!

Instead, Tim and I followed our hearts: we were both itching to flex our storytelling muscles once again. And after a text message arrived on my phone from Tim saying, "Furious princess builds a horse", I knew we had something fun to sink our teeth into.

Creating Scarlett was deeply satisfying, and it remains the closest I've gotten to the kind of games I want to make. While it too doesn't fully live up to its own potential, it managed to connect with players in a way that none of our other titles have. The Scarlett fan base was small but passionate: they really responded to the characters and story.

But the most gratifying moment -- probably of my entire career to date -- came when a fan sent us a special photo: she had made her own Scarlett costume and cosplayed as the sassy princess at a convention. It was fantastic! We were really happy that a character that had emerged from our brains had inspired this sort of thing.

The game didn't sell well. Once again, marketing was tough -- this time around, at least, we had enlisted the help of the wonderful Emily Morganti, a freelance PR agent who shared our love of adventure games. We got more press coverage than before, especially from writers who had a soft spot for the adventure genre. But again, the vast majority of our sales came from another "New & Noteworthy" spot on the App Store.


The dark days before James came onboard, when I was still drawing the Scarlett graphics.

We initially priced the game at $2.99, again a subject of great debate. (As time passed, we experimented with other price points, eventually finding that $1.99 was the most profitable in the long term.) We were consciously trying to target a premium market instead of entering the 99c lottery, but if you're going for a smaller group, make sure you're accessible to that entire group. By releasing only on iPhone, it felt like we were catering to a niche of a niche, and the sales reflected that.

Also creating pressure for our bank account was our inability to schedule. In a fit of adorably misguided naivety, we thought we could crank out an adventure game in two months. In the end, it took nearly nine months -- hell, Tim had his (lovely) first child during that time, when the plan was to be done well before that particular life-changing event. To keep going, we had to borrow money from our wonderful friends and family, which was an awfully humbling experience.


James' first pass at blocking out every Scarlett location. (Click for larger version)

And for the first seven or so months, I was drawing the graphics. Oh sure, it meant I learned a lot about making Flash animations, but the original Scarlett looked like a mutant. I reached breaking point late in the day, and we started casting around for a great local artist who was looking for work.

Amazingly, through an absurd amount of serendipity, we found James Ellis. He had just quit his job and was looking for freelance work. Though he was busy, we managed to snag him for a brief time to completely do over the Scarlett graphics. The lion's share of the final artwork you can see in the game was done over two Red Bull-fueled weekends. It was very hard work, but at least the sleep-deprived hysteria was fun -- and it felt like our team was finally complete.


A storyboard of the ending sequence. (Click for larger version)

Scarlett and the Spark of Life was released at the end of 2010, and while it attracted some praise, it certainly wasn't producing enough revenue to keep us in business for very long. Nevertheless, the three of us were determined to soldier on with Episode II (persisting for some reason with the idea that episodic gaming was for us) and really realize the potential of what the Scarlett games could be. Art boards were created; world building was begun; hilarious ideas were brainstormed.


Change of Course: Mighty Fin

And then we had a self-imposed reality check. Money simply wasn't going to last: we could try and rush out the next Scarlett game, but it would be truncated and compromised, and we'd still be left penniless by the time of its release.

I still remember the day we met up in a café to discuss what to do. It was really tense! We basically had to decide whether we wanted to continue doing the thing we love in the face of likely extinction -- or shelve that ideal for now and try to pump out a smaller game that would hopefully get us back on track.

Whether you're talking about making games that aren't close to your heart, or doing contract work for other people's IP, it's easy to justify when you're looking to stabilize your business and put some money away for the glorious day when you can get back to your dream projects.

But as many people have found, it's extraordinarily hard to pull free from the kind of projects that only allow you to limp towards the next project. We had certainly seen it before, and were simultaneously hugely wary and strongly idealistic: two traits that made this a hard conversation.

Eventually, though, our goal became to spin the roulette wheel and get a 99c game as far up the charts as possible.

This time, we were determined to do things properly. We entered into a two-week concept phase with the goal of generating a series of prototypes, from which we could pick the best one and develop it further.

One idea soon emerged as the leading candidate: a one-touch endless runner -- well, swimmer -- starring a fish travelling through some very hazardous seas. Very early on, we nailed the concept of buoyancy, and the (not entirely true-to-nature) idea that the deeper you dived, the higher you jumped. That core proved to be a winner with everyone we showed it to, and it became the basis for Mighty Fin.

There followed an eight-week development period. I wouldn't recommend it. The good part: it was fantastic working alongside Tim and James, extremely focused and now experienced enough to give this a good shot. Our roles were set: Tim on programming and music, James on the art, and me on design, level creation and... asset wrangling? This was probably the peak for us working as a tight little unit, and while it was stressful, I also enjoyed it immensely.

The bad part: eight weeks for a game we wanted to get to number one? Against the likes of Angry Birds and Tiny Wings? Crazy! The tight deadline meant we had little room to make mistakes in: Mighty Fin had to be great from day one.

We knew by this stage that marketing was going to be a tough sell. Who would care about yet another casual-looking endless runner? So I doubled down and focused everything on the one thing we knew about: a feature spot on the App Store. I managed to find more contacts at Apple, and tried to put our best foot forward when it came to the release.

Relying on this was an awful feeling: it's like relying on the lottery. But it was hard to know what other route to take: we knew what website coverage we did get wouldn't translate to many sales, and the kind of people who would be most receptive to buying Mighty Fin wouldn't be reading those sites.


The first prototype. We always wanted to put that red triangle in the final game as a costume.

In the end, we got a fairly good "New & Noteworthy" spot on the U.S. App Store. It propelled the game up to 39 in the overall US charts in the first 24 hours, and shifted 29,000 copies in the first couple of weeks. Again, though, it quickly spiked and sank, despite doing whatever we could think of for marketing the game.

It was enough money, however, to continue supporting Mighty Fin, and we felt there was still a lot we could bring to the game. One and a half months after release, we unleashed a huge update that doubled the number of levels, added unique music for each level type, made a new game mode, and doubled the number of collectible costumes. It made the game significantly better, and user (and critic) reviews reflected this.

And thanks to being named "Game of the Week" on the Australian App Store, the update sold better than the original release. In fact, it topped the charts in Australia, briefly outselling Angry Birds in the region -- our biggest claim to fame, financially speaking.

To date, Mighty Fin has sold 81,948 copies, and sits with a 4.5 star rating around the world. It remains our best-selling title, but as you can appreciate, it still wasn't enough money to survive for very long. We had to size up our options: what else could we do in a short timeframe? Should we even be continuing at all?


Once More: Monster Flip

That last question had been rearing its unwelcome head for a while now. At what point should we just cut our losses, get jobs elsewhere, and pay back the money we had borrowed from amazingly kind friends and family?

We had a lot of unhappy discussions about this, but in the end we determined to have one last throw of the dice -- call it collective delusion if you like, but we knew we were getting better at making games, and we simply loved it so much that it was incredibly hard to let go. It was, frankly, a drug: the lows were frequent and extreme, but the highs were so easy to fight for.

Towards the end of 2011, we prototyped a bunch of game ideas and soon discovered the one that would become Monster Flip. The fact that it was a match-3 game was a surprise to all of us, but we found a few twists on the traditional gameplay that made it interesting enough to develop.

This time around, we signed up with local iOS developer and publisher PikPok to help us with our game. We knew we needed more marketing muscle behind us if we wanted a shot at surviving, and working with the talented folks at PikPok turned out to be a uniformly positive experience. They helped make the game better, through QA, the amazing audio of Jeramiah Ross, and the great work done by Mike Cosner on the trailer.

Most of our games are associated in my mind with the flat I was living in at the time. I have very strong memories of the late nights we spent at each and every dinner table in those places. When James came on board to re-draw Scarlett, we spent two consecutive weekends crunching in my lounge (I was living with a very kind and patient flatmate). We set up tables for myself and Tim, while James was using the PC that was hooked up to my flatmate's 55" TV. It looked a bit ridiculous using that setup for Photoshop, but we had to make use of whatever computers we could.

When you're working out of home, it becomes incredibly important to keep it separate from your home life, for the sake of your own sanity. After years of doing this, I'm not sure I ever managed to properly find that balance, so it was a huge relief when -- as Monster Flip kicked into life -- we finally got an office to call our own.

We had a lot of fun in this office -- what developer hasn't blasted out AC/DC at 4am with the windows open while they're frantically finishing a title? -- but we were all too aware of how desperate the situation was, and how burned out we were all getting from sheer worry.

Monster Flip is, to my mind, the most tightly designed of our games. You can chart a huge amount of improvement from our first titles to this one, whether in the unified color palette and art style James created, or the sheer slickness and amazingly bug-free coding Tim produced, or the system and level design I strived to make as good as possible.

Despite that, though, the game came out and promptly sank without a trace. In this case, we released in what ended up being a very busy week, minimizing the amount of feature coverage we got from Apple. And being a casual match-3 game, Monster Flip didn't manage to snag much in the way of press.

The game itself, meanwhile, is probably too much of a subtle slow burner in a genre that really demands bright colors and a ton of audio/visual fireworks to stand out. I think the gameplay systems we put in place are really solid and deep, but it could take a while for the game to reveal those systems. This could probably have been solved with a longer development cycle, but -- again -- there simply wasn't enough money to develop for longer than eight weeks.

When the game didn't do well, I think we all just felt resigned. I was amazingly burned out by this stage, having invested a huge part of my own self worth and identity in the fortunes of the company -- as so many developers have done in the past, I'm sure. We released one update to Monster Flip (again enjoying a high App Store rating if nothing else), and officially called it a day and put Launching Pad Games on hiatus.

Good and Bad

To me, the story of Launching Pad Games is one of pursuing enjoyment over sensible decisions -- and of often never even knowing what a sensible decision was.

We started this company with very little knowledge of finishing and releasing high quality games, and were sometimes too slow to recognize our own limitations or knowledge gaps and seek to overcome them. When that was combined with a huge amount of idealism, it resulted in a large number of missteps and often painful lessons learned.

It's all too easy to list those lessons: Don't jump into full time positions before the numbers add up. Be more pragmatic and analytical about the markets you target, even if you're unwilling to compromise much with the game itself. Reach out to fellow developers at every opportunity instead of repeating mistakes they could have helped you avoid. Consolidate your skills instead of forever starting afresh in completely new genres or markets. Seriously consider alternate monetization schemes like free-to-play even when you have a natural aversion to them. And for God's sake, acquire better marketing skills.

As developers, you'll be able to easily look through our titles and pick out the flaws, whether in the games themselves or in the genres/platforms we chose to target, and see why the numbers never added up. I find it all too easy to do that myself.

But despite all the setbacks and hardships, this has also been the single most enjoyable time of my life.


The Viking, the Hipster Nerd, and the Emo: playing dress-up at the Mighty Fin launch party,

We've all learned so much about game development over the last few years -- these are skills that will help us out for the rest of our careers. The lessons were both retrospectively obvious and excruciating, but they're learned now.

These years also helped focus us and crystalize what was important to us in this industry. I now have a very clear idea of what I want to contribute to the medium throughout the rest of my life, which is a surprisingly big comfort.

And most important of all: I got to work with two really amazing guys and enjoy the support of so many fantastic friends and contractors. Together, we had so much fun, even in the face of a mountain of stress caused by money worries and short deadlines. That stuff can wear you down until you're nothing but a husk, but having the other two around me never stopped being anything but great.

I feel extremely lucky to have been part of a good team. I've known people who've never managed to find decent collaborators, who have been burned so many times by people they've worked with. Tim, James, and I managed to instantly click, and keep clicking all the way through the darkest times. There wasn't a single day -- not one -- where I didn't want to get up and go to work.

I personally emerge from my time at Launching Pad Games a hell of a lot wiser (I hope), with a clear idea of what I want to achieve with video games. We're a cautionary story, perhaps, of what happens when you combine beginner's ignorance with a desire to follow your heart instead of your head. But for all that, I am so, so glad I did it, and always will be. So keep an eye out for the three of us in the future, because wherever we are, we'll be striving to do great things in this young, exciting, confusing, frustrating, diverse industry.

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