For any new indie studio, the correct way to navigate the path from total obscurity to financial success is akin the games industry's very own theory of everything; knowledge so valuable that people work tirelessly to acquire even the smallest piece, and yet it remains hidden - even to those who somehow find themselves at the path's destination.
Such is the case with Robot Gentleman, a Polish studio with a flair for theatrical branding (its team are always on message, dressed in steampunk themed outfits at industry events) and an enviable track record of one release and one surprisingly large hit: 60 Seconds!, a witty and precise Cold War-era survival game, in which the player must shepherd a family through the dropping of a nuclear bomb and its aftermath.
"60 Seconds was a massive success that we did not anticipate," says Dominik Gotojuch, the studio's founder and both its creative and technical director. "We hoped to sell 10,000 copies in a year, which was the optimistic number of sales for an indie."
"When you start a company you feel like you need to be ready for failure, but you also need to be ready for success. It can also be challenging"
As we sit down to talk at Poznan's Games Industry Conference, 60 Seconds! is closing in on 700,000 copies sold across PC, Mac and mobile. It carries a premium price on each of those platforms, and while that price has been discounted in the past, it has never been included in a bundle. According to Gotojuch, with as many as 200 sales a day more than two years after launch, there has never been an incentive to do so.
"When you start a company you feel like you need to be ready for failure in case something goes wrong, but the thing is, you also need to be ready for success. It can also be challenging. We were hoping for 10,000 because we calculated that it would keep us afloat; it wouldn't necessarily recoup our costs, but it would give us momentum, and maybe an audience so that we could create a second game."
"It was survival money," adds Juliusz Zenkner, a longstanding friend and collaborator of Gotojuch's who became the second member of Robot Gentleman's team. "The success was a shock"
Robot Gentleman was founded at the very start of 2012, but more as an idea than an official entity. Gotojuch had previously worked as a gameplay programmer at Lionhead, that great and now sadly defunct British studio. It was 2009, and Peter Molyneux was still very much at the centre of the company. It was a "chaotic" place in how it was run, he says, but chaotic in a good and broadly beneficial way.
"It contributed to the creativity both from top to bottom and from the bottom up. Everyone felt like they contributed, even though it was big. It was an amazing studio, full of talented people, and most of these people had worked at Lionhead for over ten years. There was a very, very strong core team, with a very clear identity, and all of it centred around Peter. It all worked, until he left."
Gotojuch looks back on Lionhead as an "ideal place" to start as a game developer, a place where someone could learn both technical skills and a sense of how to build an inclusive internal culture. When he left after just over a year, he was increasingly confident that he had enough experience and insight to start his own studio.
By the time Gotojuch started his second job in the industry Robot Gentleman already existed, but the chance to work on Cyberpunk at Poland's most successful developer, CD Projekt Red, appeared to be the perfect way to fund his own projects. However, if Lionhead was an invigorating experience that made him consider starting his own studio, CD Projekt was a chastening one that left him with no doubt about the road ahead.
"I went in, on my first day, expecting to go to the Cyberpunk team, and the lady at the desk directed me to The Witcher 3 team," he says, noting that the company was just about to expand rapidly to fulfill its ambitions for the game.
"Lionhead was an amazing studio, full of talented people, and most of these people had worked there for over ten years"
"Everyone finds their own way to work. Some people enjoy being part of a big studio that does very ambitious and very big projects that take a few years. That's what CD Projekt was turning into. Back in the day, when I started, there was 50 people on The Witcher 3 team, and overall it was something like 100 people including management and all the marketing stuff. Now it's what? 700?
"It's a pretty good company to have on your CV. It's a pretty good place to learn a lot, because the people are fantastic. It's not a pretty good company to work for; at least, it wasn't when I was there, and that's why I decided to leave. I knew I would prefer to go on my own sooner or later, but if there was anything that pushed me towards this it was my experience at CD Projekt."
With 60 Seconds!, Robot Gentleman has built success of its own; on a much smaller scale, granted, but still a lot to manage for a a team of just three people at the time of the game's launch. When asked to reflect on that success, to shine a light on indie development's theory of everything, Gotojuch responds with the same modesty that so many in his position do when probed on this matter.
"I'd like to say that we were very savvy, and very clever, and we had this strategy that worked out. Unfortunately, what we did was make the very rookie mistake of not having enough time and money for marketing. One of the only things we did for the marketing side was create a fantastic trailer for the game."
That was down to Zenkner, who combined years of frustration from watching banal game trailers with his experience working in the film industry. The trailer got 60 Seconds! a Greenlight on Steam in just five days, providing Robot Gentleman with its clearest evidence yet that the game had potential.
"People don't want to see five minutes of your gameplay; if they want that they will go to YouTube," says Zenkner. "They want ideas, the mood of the game. That's what we did right. That's what we did very right.
"We greenlit in five days, and at that time that was still really fast. For us it was information: 'Okay, people like it.' 3,000 people upvoted us, so there was at least that many people who were really interested."
Robot Gentleman's only other marketing activity came as a result of this affirmation, Gotojuch says, the company paying a PR agency $300 to put together and send out a press release to its contacts. 60 Seconds! had a simple, sticky premise, one that could be easily explained in a few sentences without diluting its appeal. Combined with the trailer, it was enough to build some momentum around the product.
"What we did two years ago, it was a different time then. It's not like we can replicate that"
"It just spiralled out of control," Gotojuch says. "The $300 we spent generated interest in the lower tiers of the press - small YouTubers with 50 subscribers, smaller websites - and that generated a buzz, and then larger guys got interested. All it took was one [large] streamer doing a stream and then all of their followers picked it up and did their own movies."
The question Robot Gentleman now faces, however, is just how much of the world in which it launched 60 Seconds! still exists. Certainly, Markiplier and PewDiePie streaming your game without prompting or payment is the stuff of dreams for most indie developers, and somewhere between difficult and impossible to replicate. Greenlight, which provided a platform around which the game's community could gather, no longer exists. For indie developers, everything can change in two months, let alone two years.
"What we did two years ago - over two years ago - it was a different time then," Gotojuch concedes. "It's not like we can replicate that, and a lot of things were beyond our control. And that's fine, because we had an impact through the things that were under our control: designing a game that's approachable and accessible, and presenting it in a way that the audience can understand and helps them to get enthusiastic about it. That is something that any developer can do.
"The same with marketing. Ideally, you'd have a lot of money to put into marketing, and if you don't you have to be clever. Our knowledge from movies helped us to do with the trailer, which definitely contributed to the game's early success."
Robot Gentleman is now working on a sequel, 60 Parsecs!, and despite the revenue it has earned - substantial for any indie developer, but particularly for one based in Poland - it is not taking a proportionally bigger risk than it did with the first game. The team has grown to 11 people, and the studio now has an established community and contacts among journalists and streamers. Robot Gentleman has advantages that Gotojuch could only dream of when 60 Seconds! launched, but he understands that, as an indie, you can't guarantee success; but you can put yourself in a position where the things beyond your control can fall in your favour.
"You can't be sure that your second title will sell as well," he says. "We would like to keep going, and we would like to focus on small to mid-sized games, so there's no need for a huge team."
Instead, it has invested its money in other indie studios, particularly those in Poznan. One example is Monster Couch, which is working on its debut title, Die for Valhalla!, in the indie collective started by Robot Gentleman, and is also lending a hand on some of the technical work for 60 Parsecs!. The aim, Gotojuch says, is not to turn Robot Gentleman's pile of cash into an even bigger pile of cash; it is to make sure the number of established developers in Poland continues to grow, and the recouped money can be invested into the next studio.
"We don't anticipate that there will be a big studio in Poznan, like CD Projekt Red, but we can have a cluster of smaller indie studios," he says. "We do feel that, since we achieved our success, we have a certain responsibility. Internally, we feel that what contributed to our success was that we are based in a country that allowed us to more easily grow our business, because the costs were lower, because we were in some ways established here.
"Someone who is maybe very capitalist might say that this is insane and altruistic, and it is to an extent. But it is investing in a bigger ecosystem that will benefit everyone. If there's a way of giving back, we want to be able to do that."