Caspian Prince's Puppy Games is a veteran of the indie scene, having been quietly releasing ambitious, lo-fi strategy games for the PC and Mac for over a decade. They didn't earn enough to keep Prince away from day jobs in programming, however - until late last year, when latest game Revenge of the Titans was made part of the second Humble Indie Bundle. The pay-what-you-want collection went on to bring in over $1.8 million ten days, which made a profound difference to Puppy Games.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the British developer about just how much the Bundle and Titans' recent appearance on Steam have brought in, the perils of programming in Java, why Minecraft might not exist without him, and about his work on the infamous, cancelled Panasonic Jungle...
Q:What was your background before Puppy Games? Were you part of a larger studio beforehand?
Caspian Prince: Well, not exactly. My personal background is the typical 80s, pre-teen, Commodore 64, BASIC kind of thing. Then I ended up going to university in 1991, going straight into CompSci then straight into industry from that in 94. And I thought very little of games from about that point onwards, although for my final year thesis I actually submitted a game for the Amiga called Xap! I got on the cover disc of the 94 Christmas edition of a magazine. A piece of history. [Laughs] I spent all my time in industry doing database stuff for insurance and all kinds of dull stuff like that, and then an accident got me involved in Java. So I got involved with that, and thought it was quite good - it's like hard programming but easy. I'm not very clever, you see.
Whereupon another complete coincidence ended up with me working on the general elections for the BBC in 2000, so all the results for the last few local and general elections have been going through my system there. Still nothing game related, but then we found out the contract price for the graphics for the BBC's election systems. They were charging about £600,000 to do the laser swingometer with Peter Snow, the 3D virtual studio. And I thought "just a minute, we can do better than that with our Java results system." But Java was rubbish at the time, so I tried to make some live television graphics happen with Java. To cut a long story short, I got interested in doing games again once I'd got this graphics library done. So in 2001 I bumped into Chaz again, my erstwhile colleague from way back when we were 12 years old. He'd disappeared for a few years, having been a wonderful 2D artist, and came back as a wonderful 3D artist. In a twist of irony, we no longer do 3D games. So we wrote a game in 2003, called it Alien Flux, and the less said about that the better.
There was a time about in 2000-odd when you would submit any old shitty game to download.com, and money would flow in.
Q:Was the plan always to be indie, or was this a stepping stone into joining a studio?
Caspian Prince:We had absolutely no intention of ever joining a studio. One of the reasons was, back in about 2001, there was a big thing going on in the indie games scene, set up by a guy called Steve Pavlina. He's an interesting chap to go and Google - he's got his own self-help website now. He did indie games, and kind of lured a whole lot of people to his forums to build his business when it comes down to it. 'There's gold in them thar hills!' but it was all snake oil and things like that. But he was almost right. There was a time about in 2000-odd when you would submit any old shitty game to download.com, and money would flow into your coffers, and it was a golden age. Of course, like everyone else we started just after the golden age and we made about £1000 on our first game, having spent six months on it. That then carried on for the next ten years. [Laughs.]
Q:Presumably it's changed in the last few years though?
Caspian Prince: Well, I wonder. It's always been there, bubbling under. Some of the reason indie exists is indie press, effectively - TIGSource, RockPaperShotgun, Indiegames.com, that sort of thing. Before they weren't mainstream enough for anybody to care about, but now they're actually getting proper coverage. The strange thing is the lesson we learned back in 2001 - by the time you hear about the goldrush, whatever it is that was making people rich has been milked dry. In the last ten years, several fads have come and gone. There was Facebook games, that came and went because Zynga sewed that up. Casual games was the big thing in 2004 or 2005, but BigFish sewed that up. Hidden object games shortly after. I think iOS is the latest fad, but of course now we've heard about everyone getting rich on it, it's a dead cert that if we port anything to iOS there's going to be no money in it.
Q:So you're worried you're damned to forever be the bridesmaid?
Caspian Prince:Well, we've got a slightly different tactic now. We're going to get more and more weirdy and nichey, I think. Specifically we're going to exploit the things that you can only do on the PC. All our games are unashamedly aimed at the desktop. While everyone else flees the desktop to chase these new fads and goldrushes, they're leaving a big space behind. There's not an awful lot going on in the PC space. It's getting something of a renaissance now thanks to Steam, I've lots of praise for Steam.
Q:Not at all tempted by tablets, then?
Caspian Prince: I've got a message here from someone hassling me for Revenge of the Titans on iPad actually, but he doesn't really realise that the amount of sprite-flinging going on is way beyond the capabilities of the iPad. Even the iPad 2. Right now I'm looking at a really simple scene with not much going on, and there appears to be about two and a half thousand sprites, running at 60 frames per second. I don't think tablets are going to cope with that for a while yet, so bah. And there's lots of little things like feedback - when you move your mouse over you get feedback, which you don't really get with a finger. I've a feeling there are quite a lot of things like that which will be tricky to overcome.
Q:You're still using Java at the moment - any interest in HTML5?
Caspian Prince: Well, yeah, but it's slow. It's going to remain slow for quite a long time - I can't see it catching up for another ten years, to what I've got at the moment tech-wise. Which is Java - we're famously an exponent of that, but not many people use it. Although there's a couple of other famous ones around: Spiral Knights, they've been using Java since the beginning. In fact they use the library that I created.
Q:Do you get royalties from that?
Caspian Prince:Well, no. This BBC election thing goes back quite a long way, you see. The graphics library I wrote to do all this was basically an OpenGL binding for Java. This became open-sourced and became known as the lightweight Java game library, or the LWJGL. This is basically the de facto platform for writing games for Java. Minecraft is a LWGL game - so I've known Markus Persson for a very long time, but he wasn't rich or famous for most of that.
Q: So you can say Minecraft wouldn't exist if it wasn't for you...
Caspian Prince:That's actually quite probable, yeah. I cry myself to sleep every night thinking about the money I could have made on the library if I'd only released it under a royalty license. Although I'm not so bothered, because you've probably guessed by now that my plans have finally come to fruition after all these years.
Q:So is this down to being on Steam, or in the Humble Indie Bundle?
Caspian Prince:It was actually the Humble Bundle. I spend a lot of time networking - my girlfriend describes it as nerding on forums - but I actually meet a lot of people a lot of the time, and I go to things like the World of Love conference, and I've been talking to Cliff Harris [from Positech] for years, and other name-drop people like that. So I got to know Jeffrey Rosen [from Humble Bundle creator Wolfire Games], who was planning this Humble Indie Bundle 2. He said "can we chuck Droid Assault in as a freebie?" and I said "what do you want that old crappy game for? Nobody likes it. How about you put our brand new game, Revenge of the Titans, in. We can release it in the Humble Indie Bundle." He did somersaults and was ecstatic, and it turned out to have been a fantastically good move.
At least Steam said no - I don't think they even do that these days, they send a robot to reply to you.
You may or not know the numbers, but essentially the Humble Indie Bundle made $1.8 million in about ten days, and we took home 10 per cent of that in the end. $180,000 - and that set us up for maybe a year or so. It also got us on a few radars here and there, but we'd already managed to get in on the Steam thing before the Humble Indie Bundle even took off, thanks to another friend of ours called Brian Kramer. He wrote Fairy Solitaire, which is very popular.
Q:Were you trying to get on Steam under your own steam before that?
Caspian Prince:Yeah, we went "hey Steam, here's all our games" and they went "no." At least they said no - I don't think they even do that these days, they send a robot to reply to you. There is some possibility I'll get the ultra-bundle on Steam once they see how well we did with Revenge of the Titans, because there's been a lot of people asking for it.
There is a method to the madness. Revenge of the Titans last January was not the game you see today by any means. It looked very much like our old games, little mini square window things, pretty uninteresting looking. It was at that point that Brian Kramer said "look, you've got to try and get this on Steam" and I said "ok, what do we need to do to it?" So we thrashed it out for six months or something, bringing the game up to the level that we thought Steam was going to require. So we were specifically targeting Steam at this point - we thought "this is where we're going to make our mint now." And it paid off. We aimed at Steam, and we hit them bullseye, I think. The style of game - it's not cute, and it's not really retro. It's quite modern in a lot of ways. What the modern gamer wants but it's also relatively forgiving.
Q: So you've been on Steam for just a little while now - how's it going?
Caspian Prince:It actually exceeded our expectations. We've been on Steam for three weeks now. If you want to know some numbers, it's over $100,000 and nearly 10,000 sales. It's great. That's bought us approximately another year of development - so we've got approximately two years of development in the bank now.
Q:How has that affected your planned projects?
Caspian Prince:Well, I wasn't actually planning to become independent. At the time, when I agreed anything with Steam, I was still working at Sony as a contract programmer. And making a mint, as you do when you're a contract java programmer. So I didn't have any plans to quit Sony or anything like that, and then Panasonic sneakily turned up with an interesting project that they wanted me to work on. I thought "what the hell, I've been at Sony for a year" so I went off to do this Panasonic project - which then immediately folded, leaving me without any work.
Q: That wasn't the Panasonic Jungle handheld, was it?
Caspian Prince:It was. I have one in fact behind me in a box, which they want me to post back. It was actually a pretty reasonable piece of kit - it was an NVIDIA TEGRA with half a gig of RAM in it and a posh little screen, running Linux. About the size, I'd say, of a Motorola Android phone, the screen is. It would have been a good piece of kit, and it ran Java and Flash as well as native stuff.
Q: Why did they can it?
Caspian Prince:I've no idea. I've got a funny feeling someone might just have got cold feet at the higher echelons of Panasonic and said "what's this?" It's probably a good idea that they did, because Sony unleashed their PlayStation phone shortly afterwards, and I thought "that's it then, basically." There's the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation phone, and between them that's all everyone's every going to want for gaming if they haven't got an iPhone already. And the NGP. There was suddenly a heap of competition there. If Panasonic had got it out a year ago, they'd have been OK, but they didn't.
So that was canned, and suddenly I was left with no money at all. That would have meant I'd have gone back to contracting, except that Jeffrey turned up with the Humble Indie Bundle, and that did so surprisingly well for us that I thought "great, we'll just carry on." And here we still are, carrying on. I'm full time on this now, although it seems like I'm doing the 90 per cent that nobody ever talks about - crapping around with adverts, and forum support, and interviews. It's all good, it's all important, but you don't realise that being able to code is only about 10 per cent of what you really need.
We've got to get our arses into gear and start making things quicker. If we muck up and don't make a successful game, we're doomed.
We'd still be nowhere without the Humble Indie Bundle or Steam. We've made $45,000 this year so far in direct sales, which is the best we've ever done. Those numbers have been buoyed by traffic bleeding from the Humble Indie Bundle and Steam, which I find a bit strange as in both instances you could buy our game cheaper on the respective thing that they were being launched on, but people would come to us and buy direct anyway. It always seems to happen. The other big thing that happened to us was the RockPaperShotgun.com mention in May, which flattened our servers and immediately made us $10,000 in a couple of days. I spent quite some time after that beefing all the servers up...
Q:Would you consider bringing in new staff, like a community manager, so you can concentrate on coding?
Caspian Prince:Well, I'd really like to, but even with all this money floating around, we've only got enough to live modestly for two years. Revenge of the Titans took three years to make. So first of all we've got to get our arses into gear and start making things quicker. The other thing is that if we muck up and don't make a successful game, we're doomed. We've spent two years and then suddenly we're broke and have to go back to contracting and that's the end of that. It's a really crappy situation to be in, where every project you do could be the last. So we don't want to basically go hiring loads of people then realise that there's no money to pay them after six months. So it's just going to be me and Chas for now.
Q: Won't there be ongoing revenues from Steam though, especially if they do some of their crazy sales?
Caspian Prince:Yeah, I have two more sales planned. I don't know what their plan is. And sometime in the next year we're going to do an expansion pack thing, with a few more buildings, maybe an extra game mode, just for a little blip and maybe do a little deal on that. Then no doubt something around Christmas, whether it's 75 per cent off or some other crazy promotion that Steam occasionally does. They're likely to bring in a fairly tidy sum, so I have a feeling that by the time 12 months has elapsed we'll probably have brought in a quarter of a million dollars off Steam.
The graph is quite amazing to look at. It's just a huge peak at the start - literally massive. Then there's a series of five or six peaks getting smaller, then suddenly it's just dwindling along as if it's been forgotten about. However, even though it's been completely forgotten about, it still made $1500 yesterday. Barely worth getting out of bed for! [Laughs]
As I understand it, the revenues we made in our first week were particularly impressive for an indie title.
Q: You've been on the Mac for quite a while too - how have things changed there over time?
Caspian Prince:The Mac has actually gone a bit strange. When we started out with our cross-platform strategy, maybe seven or eight years ago, the Mac was making maybe 50 per cent of our sales. In fact, when we released Titan Attacks we made more money on the Mac than on the PC - surprising given the relative percentages of Macs out there. Nowadays we're seeing more of a realistic split, less than 10 per cent of our revenues come from Mac and it's dwindling and dwindling and dwindling. I have a suspicion this is to do with Steve Jobs' App Store policies. We're no longer featured on the Mac's software store that they used to have, a page that used to say 'download stuff from here' with links. Now, of course, they're promoting the Mac App Store, so that's been deprecated. They won't accept our games on the Mac App Store because they're written in Java. It's crazy, isn't it? I can't quite see the logic in that.
Q:Is there no tool to export it to something they would accept?
Caspian Prince:No, we're slightly boned in that respect. There is no path away from Java once you're in it that's easy. There are a few tools that do stuff, but they're either expensive or incomplete, and I don't think it's worth it for us. We can still sell stuff for the Mac, and we're about to find out what the Mac Steam numbers [for Titans] are in fact. That'll give us some direct comparisons for what amounts to completely separate Mac launch, as it's a month later than on PC. So all the buzz from the PC version will have died away and we'll be able to see just how good it is. I think the Mac Steam is taking over where Apple have screwed up.
Caspian Prince is owner of Puppy Games. Interview by Alec Meer.