"Starting your own business is a lot of fighting yourself"
Mr. Tired co-founders talk about starting up a studio, the unaffordable luxury of pride, and scratching that hard-to-reach niche
It's been about a year since Ryan Phillips and Nick Doerr left NIS America to start their own company, Mr. Tired Media. They left the publisher of localized Japanese RPGs in order to make something arguably a little more niche, "a visual novel dungeon crawler RPG developed in the West with a Japanese aesthetic." At least, that's the description the pair have given to Undead Darlings: No Cure for Love on the project's Kickstarter page.
"It's something we know we can pull off. It's not a safe bet, but it's something we know and know we can do well."Nick Doerr
"We're starting with what we know and what we know we can do," Doerr told GamesIndustry.biz. "The scope is understandable for us, and the subject matter and type of game is something we've got a lot of history with. It's something we know we can pull off. It's not a safe bet, but it's something we know and know we can do well."
Doerr was an editor at NIS America for years, involved in the localization of games in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series and dealing with QA and certification concerns. Phillips was the company's PR and marketing manager. Now they are Mr. Tired's creative director and "main man," respectively, two more in a long line of developers to leave ostensibly stable gigs in order to bootstrap their own companies. For those considering such a jump themselves, Phillips could only tell them to brace themselves.
"I'm not going to lie; it's been really difficult," Phillips said. "Starting your own business is a lot of fighting yourself. The what-ifs, self-doubt... Everything just doesn't go your way, it seems. But every once in a while things go right, and that makes it worth moving forward."
Preparation for life as an indie should begin long before the jump is made, Phillips said. He and Doerr started kicking around ideas while still at NIS America. Doerr had been involved with pitching the PlayStation Vita title Demon Gaze for the North American market. He said the title performed "admirably" at launch, and showed the two what sort of a market there was in the West for a dungeon crawler with an emphasis on story. Visual novels themselves are an increasingly popular genre, with dozens of localized efforts arriving on Steam in the last year, from the pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend to a host of imports from LA-based startup The Sekai Project.
However, they didn't have the financial wherewithal to jump straight into Undead Darlings, and spent much of Mr. Tired's first year of existence doing contract work for other gaming outfits. Phillips did PR for indie games like Paperbound, while Doerr loaned his services to other RPG developers in need of an editor.
"Having a solid plan before you leave is really important," Phillips stressed. "And if there's any way to think of what your plan Bs and Cs are, that's really important as well, as we've learned."
"Being ready to throw your pride on the side is also an integral part of it."Ryan Phillips
Phillips is alluding to the time the company behind one of Doerr's regular contract gigs decided it was going to halt its freelance activity and handle that work internally.
"Nothing is forever, they say, so that's one thing we've definitely learned, just to be prepared the best you can," Phillips said. "Be willing to bend. Be flexible. Humility and pride comes into it as well. Being ready to throw your pride on the side is also an integral part of it... If you really want to make games and you don't have somebody bankrolling the whole project for you or you don't come from a well-off background, those are things that will come up. And the money portion is always going to be pretty close to the pride portion."
At first, Doerr said just doing the Kickstarter felt like an admission that the company was struggling, and was one thing he had to swallow his pride over. It wasn't the only such instance.
"The way we structured the Kickstarter, basically almost all of it goes right to development of the game," Phillips said. "So Nick and I are going to have to just survive through all of it and take the personal lifestyle hit we've been taking to continue on making the game. After a while, not having a lot of money does affect you, but the good news is Medicaid helps. So we do have health insurance. And then also relying on some of the government services to help you survive through these things. We paid our taxes for a long time while we worked. While we're in this incubation phase, that's the hardest thing. I'm married and I have a son. My wife's definitely understanding, so that's another thing. That's what drives me to continue to get this game to go out and get onto Steam. That's one of the hardest things we're dealing with, the lifestyle change."
Doerr agreed, adding, "My monthly expenses are already at zero. I buy nothing, and that's just how it is."
The cost-cutting goes beyond just cutting back on personal expenses. While NIS America is based in Southern California, Phillips and Doerr moved to Washington to start Mr. Tired, in part because they didn't want to pay an $800 franchise tax in California every year. Phillips said they've also benefitted from a thriving local indie scene and a talent pool of young developers from nearby DigiPen.
"[I]t's just getting the ball rolling, finding the fans and interacting with them and nurturing that. That's our prime directive."Ryan Phillips
"The location where you are is absolutely integral as well," Phillips said. "You can do stuff remotely, obviously, and there are a lot of studios that do. But being close, especially if you're just starting up and you need to find talent, is really kind of important."
As of this writing, the Undead Darlings Kickstarter is a week old and has raised a little more than $14,000 of its $50,000 goal. There are still three weeks left to reach that target, but even if it falls short, Phillips and Doerr said they would explore every possible option before putting the game--or the company itself--on the backburner.
"We want to be a studio," Phillips said. "With my experience working at NISA, we want to have an online store. We want to have merchandising. We want to make figures and kind of create the same type of things they had. But it's just getting the ball rolling, finding the fans and interacting with them and nurturing that. That's our prime directive. We've seen that if you create that fanbase to help you survive, you can grow that way."
To which Doerr adds, "We would know we're doing A-OK if GoodSmile Company makes a Nendoroid out of one of our characters."