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From failed Kickstarter to career-defining success: The story of Pony Island

Daniel Mullins discusses how he bounced back from failure to create "the smartest game of 2016"

Described by Rock Paper Shotgun as the "smartest game of 2016", Pony Island was an unqualified indie smash hit.

The brainchild of then 23-year-old Daniel Mullins, Pony Island became a career-defining success that paved the way to his ambition of being a self-sufficient indie developer.

By Mullins' own admission, his earliest aspiration for the game was to simply have something released on Steam, but Pony Island surpassed all expectations.

mullins

Daniel Mullins

Mullins' first attempt at breaking out as a solo indie developer came in 2014 with the failed Kickstarter entitled Catch Monsters, which raised around two-thirds of its $6000 CAD goal.

"Running a Kickstarter that isn't going well is brutal; usually you know early on whether or not it's going to succeed because you're supposed to get at third or more of the backing immediately when you launch the thing, then you get a big chunk near the end," Mullins tells GamesIndustry.biz.

"If you don't get that big chunk near the beginning, then the writing is on the wall, but you can't quite give up on it because it's live and you have to give it everything you've got. I was still trying to get as much funding as I could so it looked good. So that was hard."

Still fresh out of university, Mullins entered the industry formally as a programmer following the Kickstarter, and began working on Pony Island in his spare time. It would be his first commercial game and, as the release date drew closer, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Pony Island was going to be a success, selling more than enough copies for him to leave his job and become a full-time indie.

"My expectations were ballooned even more than what the reality ended up being... I thought: 'This guy has 50 million subscribers, I'm going to be a multi-millionaire'"

"I got more and more serious as I got toward the release, and when I was getting really close and sending it to YouTubers, it became apparent that people were really excited about this and it was going to be a hit," says Mullins.

"Even at that point, before it came out, I had a pretty strong feeling that this was going to make me self-sufficient financially, so it didn't take long after it released to be in that situation."

The real flashpoint came when Mullins was contacted by YouTube megastar PewDiePie, asking if he could upload a Let's Play of the game. Mullins had been granting access to smaller, indie-focused YouTubers and so this presented a substantial gearshift.

"Obviously when I started it I had very little expectations and my aspirations were it would be cool if I could get it on Steam," says Mullins. "This was before Steam Direct, when it was harder to get through Greenlight, so just getting on Steam would have been somewhat of an accomplishment... that's a cool thing to have."

Although skeptical about the legitimacy of the PewDiePie request, Mullins was able to confirm his identity and jumped at the opportunity to have his game showed off to millions of people. In true PewDiePie fashion, the video sported the appropriately enticing headline: 'WARNING: THIS PONY GAME WILL RUIN YOUR CHILDHOOD! (Pony Island)'. The video went live on launch day and currently has over six million views.

"At that point my expectations were ballooned even more than what the reality ended up being... I thought: 'This guy has 50 million subscribers, I'm going to be a multi-millionaire,'" says Mullins.

Mullins attributes a certain proportion of the game's traction to the unintentional "memability" that comes from a name like Pony Island juxtaposed against the dark and twisted game world; as the product of a game jam, Mullins says he didn't give it much thought at the time.

"I was just trying to make something fast and something fun for this competition.... so I didn't really have time to think about whether or not it would go viral or whatever," says Mullins. "So that was just a very lucky coincidence I guess."

The game jam origins of Pony Island remained an integral part of its DNA throughout development. Mullins' haphazard and speedy design approached worked to his advantage and allowed for a level of creative flexibility that's not been afforded to him with upcoming game The Hex.

"The game jam process still stays with me," says Mullins. "A lot of the time I think about how long it's going to take me to do something, and I often just get my hands dirty and I start working on something without really thinking that far ahead and that seems to work out.

"Sometimes that backfires, but a lot of the time I get my hands dirty and make something and it's cool, individual of everything else. Then I realise maybe it doesn't fit in that well but kind of force it to fit in, and sometimes that makes interesting creative things happen."

"I don't think [The Hex] will get the same level of coverage because it doesn't have the same 'memebility' or immediate allure... and I'm kind of okay with that"

The commercial success of Pony Island, coupled with its critical acclaim, cemented it as one of the "must play" indie games of 2016, inspiring comparisons to the previous years' runaway hit Undertale, for its subversive deconstruction of games as a medium.

Of course, success is its own kind of torment, burdening creators with weighty expectations from fans and critics alike.

"It made me feel like I couldn't quite do something like that [failed] Kickstarter as a follow up," says Mullins. "It couldn't just be an interesting RPG. It had to be something pushing the envelope a little bit... I wanted to have some similar elements to Pony Island, to have something they could see in The Hex where its made by the same person, and they recognise features, even though The Hex visually is quite different."

Mullins' first attempt at a follow-up game fell short and was scrapped after a month, admitting he "started to have mixed feelings about it".

"You get a lot of second-guessing and self-doubt no matter what," he says. "But I was lucky that I got out of that funk pretty quickly."

Slated for release sometime this year, The Hex has already been two and a half years in the making as a full-time endeavour. Despite his commitment to the game, and confidence in it as a product, Mullins can't see it reaching the same lofty heights as Pony Island.

"Honestly I don't think it will get the same level of coverage because it doesn't have the same 'memebility' or immediate allure," he admits. "It doesn't grab you with the title that's so strange. That's not to say it's not a better game, but I just don't think it has the virality that Pony Island does, and I'm kind of okay with that."

Mullins has a very zen attitude to his follow-up; he concedes that attempting to replicate that level of success would be unreasonably stressful.

"Even if I was very serious about pursuing that goal, I don't know if it would be reasonable," he says. "I think eventually I'll make something that might surpass it.

"I hope to be doing this career as long as I can, so I hope that I surpass Pony Island in sales with some other game. I've got an idea for my next game that I think could have that same virality, not intentionally, but I think it might have that factor. Also, I do have a plan at some point to make a sequel to Pony Island, so you could safely assume that could have similar levels of financial success."

While Mullins says the prospect of a Pony Island sequel obviously considers the potential commercial benefits, it revolves more around the unique creative process afforded by Pony Island in particular.

"I realised during The Hex that something about the lore, the background... something about Pony Island gave me a lot of freedom. I could do alot of stuff with it, and I could do it very fast because of the art style. I could just whip together screens and stuff.

"I miss that with the Hex where it's got this higher fidelity art where I can't quite just snap my fingers and have something together. So it's really the creative process and freedom of Pony Island that I'd like revist, and I think after two and a half years of working on this, I think my skills have improved quite a bit, so think I could really push the Pony Island concept a lot further now."

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Latest comments (1)

Dariusz G. Jagielski Game Developer 18 days ago
That's a very refreshing article and it gives me hope for the future of my indie game, Computer Virus Simulator (there's a devlog on TIGSource with a download at the last page for anyone interested).
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