Indie life is full of difficult decisions, like "do we eat or do we pay the rent", but most small start up studios are prepared to endure a few lean months, or years, to keep the dream of a Minecraft moment alive. Of course, when those lucky few do make it big, we all hear about it - and survivor bias means those stories can often become the blueprint for every aspiring indie developer.
But what happens whilst you're waiting for that big break? Are all those ramen dinners worth it? Theodor Waern, founder and CEO of Swedish studio SkyGoblin, says yes, absolutely!
SkyGoblin has been a small indie team, with three permanent staff, for ten years, keeping their options open and experimenting with genre and business model, but making sure that the founding principle of doing what they love remained the priority. For a few years, a farming MMO called Nord kept the company afloat, giving SkyGoblin the confidence and capital to move on to the development of the well-received three-part point and click adventure series The Journey Down.
With the last part of that story now in production, and all three episodes coming to Xbox One and PS4, the risks and the hard times look to have paid off, but it certainly came pretty close to the wire. Forgoing wages more than once, moving to Tanzania for a probably ill-advised break from the bleak Gothenburg winter, literally collecting rainwater to live on (see the video below for that remarkable story) - are these the realities of making an indie studio work? Theo talks us through the bad times and the good.
GI.biz: You're obviously pretty happy with your choices, and you've remained remarkably positive, but it must have brought some stress to the team. Is everyone at SkyGoblin as upbeat as you are?
Theodor Waern: Luckily my colleagues are like me, happy pancakes bouncing all over the place! Sure we've gone through some pretty stressful times but one of the upsides of staying independent is that we've always had the privilege to choose our own path. It has allowed us to pull off some less-than-genius business moves but it's also given us the chance to work on games that we're truly passionate about and travel to places that we otherwise would have never seen. And even when we find ourselves in a tight spot or stuck on a boring task, we get to dream away and make up plans for our next journey.
GI.biz: Were there points when that stress nearly broke team spirit?
Theodor Waern: Oh absolutely!
During the dark ages of this company, when paychecks were as unreliable as office printers, reality could be pretty harsh. So sometimes the best option was to simply ignore it. We learned that some mild schizophrenia can be a very good thing. Without a healthy dose of denial to go with all the hardships, we'd never get anything done. Just imagine if the actual workload ahead of you on any given project was truthfully and correctly visualized before you started working on it. You probably wouldn't even get out of bed in the morning.
"So while we're extremely happy to be where we are today, we might not have gone down that road if we knew all the challenges beforehand"
So while we're extremely happy to be where we are today, we might not have gone down that road if we knew all the challenges beforehand.
GI.biz: How close did you come to insolvency/bankruptcy/starvation in financial terms?
Theodor Waern: Well, fortunately we've shaped the company in a way that our running expenses are extremely streamlined. Our only major expense is our own salaries. So back when money ran dry, we made sure we personally were the ones left out of dough as to always be able to pay what SkyGoblin owed its contractors. This meant some pretty tough times for us privately, but due to this, the company itself was never really in threat of bankruptcy.
GI.biz: Is it always the best idea to struggle on in the face of adversity?
Theodor Waern: In our experience, as long as you're having fun doing it, yes! But if you realize you're working on something you're not even enjoying, and are also struggling to stay afloat... Then there's a very high risk you're just wasting your time. If you're not certain your project is gonna pay off, at least make sure you're having fun creating it, because there are very few guarantees in this industry. But if you're having fun, you're having fun, and you just can't argue against that.
If you love your work, it will show. If you don't love the game you're working on, what are the odds that anyone else will?
GI.biz: Nord and The Journey Down are very different games in almost every way. To what extent was Nord a diversion from what you wanted to do eventually? Why the shift to point and click when you were succeeding in the casual market?
Theodor Waern: This all started back in 2006 when social free-to-play user-generated game worlds were all the rage. We saw an opening in the Nordic Game Program grant and went for it, got the funding and had a great time building and running the game.
A few years down the line, however, we began realizing how much of our time had actually gone into community maintenance and content updates, and how little of our time was spent actually game-developing. We realized that we had lost focus of what we truly thought was fun and decided it was time to move on to something new.
Meanwhile, I had been working on an early prototype of The Journey Down in my free time, and when the rest of the SkyGoblin team started itching to start working on something new, I pitched it. To my great joy, it became our new main focus!
GI.biz: Did you expect Nord to carry the company for so long?
Theodor Waern: I don't think we ever realized that Nord was going to be a long-term project that was going to take several years to make profitable. Turns out designing, producing and launching the first 3D MMO on Facebook wasn't something you do overnight. The whole concept of free-to-play MMOs was really new and unexplored and we vastly underestimated the scope of it in pretty much every single aspect, including both the size of development and the lifetime and loyalty of the community. Nord has been offline for nearly three years now and we still get thank you emails from players every week, hoping we'll come to our senses and re-open the servers.
"Nord has been offline for nearly three years now and we still get thank you emails from players every week, hoping we'll come to our senses and re-open the servers"
GI.biz: Is the casual space something you'd return to?
Theodor Waern: As long as it's a kickass project, we're gonna love working on it regardless of its niche. Now that we're finally in a position where we can pick and choose what games to work on, we first look to projects where we know we can push the boundaries and make something uniquely awesome. Genres, platforms and business models come second.
GI.biz: You've talked about how funding rescued you from the brink once, have you ever sought it again?
Theodor Waern: We did apply for the Creative Europe program for an ultra pretentious game project a couple years back, but the concept was pretty stoned and I'm not surprised we were declined the funding.
Our biggest problem applying for funds is to decide who on the team gets to write the application, which is a pretty boring task compared to actually developing games.
GI.biz: Would you consider taking VC or angel money?
Theodor Waern: It's been really nice and simple to produce the The Journey Down series from out of our own pocket, and of course we enjoy reaping the rewards all on our own. We're now fully focused on completing the final chapter and working with Blitworks who are helping us bring the entire game series to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. We haven't decided yet where we're heading after that.
We do have a couple of experimental projects brewing on the side, some of which that we could build in-house with our existing resources, but also a few very ambitious projects that would definitely require taking in VC/angel money. Making our next project bigger and more ambitious is a very tantalizing idea!
GI.biz: You used Kickstarter to help with development - do you think crowd funding still has the impact it did?
Theodor Waern: Well, had we launched our KS a month after Double Fine's legendary campaign, I'm sure we would have got 20x as much as we did now. But compared to most kickstarters nowadays, we did a pretty good run, and although the actual money we got from the KS campaign yielded only a mere fraction of the total The Journey Down budget, the kickstarter was a success that gave us the last slice of funding we needed to complete the trilogy. And on top of that, the campaign was a hell of a lot of fun, and really helped us get closer to the Journey Down community.
GI.biz: If part 3 of The Journey Down is going to be the conclusion of the story, will you extend the IP to new games or move on?
Theodor Waern: The Journey Down trilogy will come to a very beautiful close with the third chapter. That said, we've got plenty of stories to tell about what happened before the trilogy, and several ideas about parallel and following adventures as well. We've intentionally started weaving narrative threads in the original trilogy that would be extremely fun to follow up, in other separate stories.
I feel fairly confident however, that our next project is going to be something very different from The Journey Down. Working on a completely different kind of game will help us stay excited about whatever new challenges we take on. We gotta keep it fresh to keep it fun!