Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale
View All     RSS
October 30, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 30, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale

November 6, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

New Zealand is the easiest country in which to start a business, apparently. Even so, I always resented paperwork, even if it was fairly easy to get through. Shares? Directors? Annual reports? Whatever. Just get out of my way so I can get back to making games.

My name's Tristan Clark. In the middle of 2006, having just finished a degree in English Literature (which really is more relevant for game design than you might think), I founded a company called Launching Pad Games. I had no idea what I was doing, and even less idea of what I didn't know -- but I was determined to cling on to blind faith, expel all doubts, and give it a go regardless.

This is the story of that company, the tiny yet amazing team that formed its core, and the often painful lessons learned along the way. As of the middle of 2012, we've had to put Launching Pad Games on ice, so it's not a completely happy story -- but I hope that within the next few thousand words, you'll be able to learn something from both our mistakes and successes.

Early Days: Fashion Star

It was 2006, and I had never finished a game in my life. I had started dozens, of course, including an RPG that pottered along for about five years in various forms before dying away, as these things do. There's a lesson: don't make an RPG on your own. A rare few can manage it (well done, Spiderweb Software!), but most can't.

And then one day, I was talking to my future sister-in-law. She was having a go on my Nintendo DS, and remarked that she'd like to play a game that let you dress people up in clothes. I thought, "I can make a game about that!" The reason the game got done? I managed to trick my brain into thinking it was someone else's idea, and I didn't want to let them down. Somehow, that worked.

What also helped was getting a publisher on board and convincing them to give me some upfront money. I had settled on a platform and a target market, and in 2006 the obvious candidates for the game were the online gaming portals that offered up casual downloadable fare. I felt extremely lucky when I found a great contract artist in Vin Rowe, who offered his services for a staggeringly low amount of money, as opposed to everyone else I was in touch with, who -- quite reasonably -- were charging highly unaffordable rates for someone who was still a student.

In any case, with Vin's help I made a prototype and shopped it around. Within a few weeks, Oberon Media offered up a contract -- and once that was in place, I had more people I didn't want to let down, basically guaranteeing that I was going to finish this game no matter what happened.

The first game LPG ever released. I'm still surprised by that.

I'd love to hear more stories about how other people working largely on their own managed to finish their first project. It's such an important hurdle to overcome, because once you've finished one game, you know how to finish more -- it's habit-forming. For those who have yet to release a game, definitely try something like this Ludum Dare challenge!

In retrospect, everything came together at the start surprisingly well -- not that I knew how uncommon it was to snag a publishing deal, having approached the situation with several buckets full of naivety. But it was still a gruelling 12 months working on the title that would become Fashion Star, a PC downloadable dress-up game. It launched at $20 on portal sites like Big Fish Games, and it's sold about 100,000 copies since 2007. My cut as the developer was roughly $25,000, spread over half a decade. Nothing to write home about, but I was happy -- no, I was absolutely thrilled -- that my first game was out there and making some money.

There were a number of hard lessons learned. A lack of prototyping meant it wasn't until six months in that I realized the core part of the game wasn't going to work: it was starting to resemble a full-on adventure game with multiple paths through the game. After far too much backpedaling and wasted time, it became what it should have been from the start: a dress-up simulator that had a variety of eclectic fashion editors sniping about your wardrobe choices. Obviously.

Developers will also be pleased to know that I backed up my game files only once in those 12 months of development. My heart still skips a beat when I think about that.

I thought Fashion Star would be a small, simple game. I was utterly wrong, and learned a valuable lesson in how much worked needed to go into even the tiniest of games. And I also discovered how much I wanted to collaborate with others: working alone wasn't something I was keen to repeat (Vin is based in the U.S.; I was in faraway New Zealand). Luckily, the "proper" Launching Pad Games would get its start soon enough.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Related Jobs

CCP — Newcastle, England, United Kingdom

Senior Backend Programmer
Guerrilla Games
Guerrilla Games — Amsterdam, Netherlands

Animation System Programmer
Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Square Enix Co., Ltd. — Tokyo, Japan

Infinity Ward / Activision
Infinity Ward / Activision — Woodland Hills, California, United States

Senior Sound Designer - Infinity Ward


Rami Ismail
profile image
I disagree with the conclusion. Indies, please run before you can walk, please start hopeless projects, please start companies that fail, please learn design by throwing games at the audience. Please up the stakes, please work long hours. It's not forever, it's until you either fail or realize the way you're working is a bad idea and become wiser for it.

I also disagree with some other of the conclusions: if you want to make a game, make said game. If you want to challenge new genres, challenge new genres (I'm co-organizing Fuck This Jam this weekend, a genre specifically aimed at doing just so).

However, talking to fellow developers all the time and learning how to market your game are extremely important.

Thanks for writing this piece, though - for those that might start running just now, it is extremely valuable information and a nice look at things they might avoid while doing their own run.

Either way: look at what you've achieved in just three years from not having a safety net, by having to manage a company, by having to learn how to market and by having to push yourself beyond and by working with great people. You couldn't have learned that walking. Keep running!

Christer Kaitila
profile image
This is such an inspiring and informative article. It may ultimately be a cautionary tale of indie gamedev failure, but underneath the doom and gloom is a positive, enthusiastic vibe. I'm on the same journey as you and expected to come away discoraged. Happily, I feel motivated and enthusiastic. Great work! You deserve tons of success and I expect you're on your way to great things.

Wasin Thonkaew
profile image
Really inspirational thing I ever read. I can say the same as Christer's comment above that I'm on the same route which ever takes me to at the end path. Despite the result that you guys cease things up, but those precious progress and wonderful collaboration you guys have, those things some people would never appreciate or experience. Good luck to you guys, and me too on this path of walking.

Muir Freeland
profile image
I really enjoyed this. I'd love to hear more details about what you guys would do differently if you decided to do it all again.

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
Great story! Enjoyed following you through your journey. Thanks for sharing.

TC Weidner
profile image
Look at your first sentence, you already have won, you live in New Zealand. ;)

The only mistake I saw that you made was to try to make this your primary income source. Jobs and family take up time, but still leave time for hobbies and passions. So a full time 8 week game production may prove to take 6 months in a part time environment. So what, you have way less stress, the added time allows for better perspective, testing and reflection making for a better game.

Some guys hobbies are building cars, some guys play golf or ski, guys like us like to create games. Its actually cheaper than some hobbies. See it as a hobby first, see you creations through, if they hit the lottery and make money, great, if not, so what..

Brandon Van Every
profile image
Treating development as a hobby is giving oneself permission to slack off, be vague, not set real goals, not define the scope of the project, not ship, not learn the customer base, not deal with business, etc. It is a recipe for decreasing the chance of ever arriving at a sustainable full time business model. If you want to do games in your spare time, potentially for the rest of your life, fine. If you want a full time career, treat it like one.

Tristan Clark
profile image
Hi all! Thanks so, so much for the comments.

Rami: Encouraging a 'walk before you run' attitude really wasn't my intention - it's certainly not something I'll ever heed in my life! But there were a bunch of mistakes we made that I think people could avoid, while still shooting for the stars, so I wanted to share them. Going full-time so early, as TC Weidner mentions above, is probably a very good example.

My biggest fear writing this was that people might think we all feel defeated, which just isn't true. I tried to emphasise that what it's really done is crystallise what I want to achieve in this industry, made me smarter, and made me want to try even harder next time around - and there WILL be a next time. :)

Neal Nellans
profile image
Thanks for the informative article.

You said, "It launched at $20 on portal sites like Big Fish Games, and it's sold about 100,000 copies since 2007. My cut as the developer was roughly $25,000, spread over half a decade"

By this account your first games gross was $2,000,000 and your take of that was $25,000. That is a net operating income of 1.25 percent. I suggest that if you start a new company your first hire be an accountant or a contract lawyer.

Jane Castle
profile image
Even prostitutes get a much better cut from their pimps......

Lex Allen
profile image
No, no, no! These numbers don't add up. You have to realize that most people did NOT spend $20.00 on that game. They probably spent more like $6.99 or less depending on what promotions were being run.

Brandon Van Every
profile image
Let's guess that the download market changed and the game found its own level. 2k copies @ $20 = $40,000. 8k copies @ $7 = $56,000. 90k copies @ $1 = $90,000. Total gross $186,000 of which he took $25,000. Net operating income still doesn't look very good.

Craig Stern
profile image
Great piece. I tend to agree with the gist of what Rami is saying: make a game because that is a game you're passionate about making, not because it's easy or likely to make money. (That said, there's nothing wrong with taking a few months to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of development before taking on something huge and ambitious.)

Of course, if you *were* going to make a game purely for the cynical purpose of going after money, Neal is also correct: your fashion game made $2 million in sales over five years. That's very, very good. In your moment of desperation, I'm a little surprised that you went for a Match 3 game instead of tapping into a proven market where you already have a good track record.

Josh Todd
profile image
Excellent article! I see a lot of myself in there. I think the important thing is that you did take the leap, and look at all you accomplished!

Kevin Oke
profile image
Great read, thank you!

Will Burgess
profile image
This is why I love indies; they're like living, breathing Disney characters. Thanks for the great write-up.

We need more "Studio Post-Mortems" like this. :)

James Hofmann
profile image
My indie story feels very reminiscent of this one, the only difference being that I've stayed solo, I haven't stopped yet, and as of late I've latched onto the idea that I should be increasingly radical with each successive project, because, in Yogi Berra-esque fashion, "low risk has become too risky."

The experiences from trying to "flip" a wide variety of projects in a timeframe of a few weeks or months - which, as in this story, I had a little bit of success and mostly failure at - really crystallizes when you decide to go for a moon shot, because even if there's a major design or technology challenge, most of it is stuff you've become aware of previously - specific business processes and a sense of "maturity" about the production and marketing that allow you to course-correct over the dev cycle without expensive/disheartening setbacks.

Lex Allen
profile image
97%+ of us share the same story. The biggest mistake that they made was quitting.

You guys know what went wrong! Fix it and try at least one more time!

Craig Page
profile image
Your story was very entertaining, but I don't see why it has to end.

Instead of renting an office, and doing this full time making a new game every 2 months. Why not do it as a hobby and make 2 games a year?

Galen Tucker
profile image
Awesome story! (Albeit disappointing ending... thus far). Postmortems, both positive and negative results, are some of the most valuable sources of information in this or any other industry, in my humble opinion. :)

I do look forward to seeing what you 3 get involved with in the future. Indie game development isn't for the faint of heart, in fact, while the entry barriers (often sweat equity and some computers you already own) are very low, the number of skills/luck/support/etc... are actually very high.

Now, as to the assertion that publishers might be the answer... well... here's my take on that:

Good luck with your future endeavors!


Will von Bernuth
profile image
It seems like marketing for iOS is always one of the culprits. A lot of the indie stories about success and failure talking about how difficult it is. My belief is that more than just the quality of the game you need the $$ to spend on marketing which is tough.

The quality of Tristan's iOS games certainly are good if you believe gaming reviews. For example, my site, AppMyWorld, tracks professional review scores for iOS apps / games and the three iOS games mentioned in the article all score well:

Mighty Fin - 83 AppScore based on 16 professional reviews:

Scarlett and the Spark of Life - 78 AppScore based on 4 professional reviews:

Monster Flip - 78 AppScore based on 6 professional reviews:

Babak Kaveh
profile image
Great Story! Even though I felt you closed on a pessimistic tone, you guys still made plenty of games for such a small group, and a lot of players played and enjoyed your games, so, chin up! Based on the article, and please correct me here, besides too little experience in development, I think the biggest mistake you guys made was the constant dilemma you had between making the game that you would absolutely enjoy making, vs. a game that you thought will pay the bills.

Now, working at a large studio before going indie is a great way to gain experience in making games, specifically it will teach you that:

1. Make a game that you would enjoy playing - vs. making!

2. Only go for a genre-buster if you and every other industry insider you talk to about your game is absolutely in love with the prototype.

3. Don't make the games you think you should possibly make, rather, make a game that you can make really well (i.e. in a polished pro looking package). Unfinished concepts, and unpolished executions will not make back the money invested in them, even if it is a tiny amount of money.

4. Don't ever make a game just so you can earn petty cash - make the game that you BELIEVE will get you a huge return.

If you cannot fulfill all of the above on a particular PROTOTYPE don't quit your day job, or rather, get a job in the industry before setting out on your own.

Despite all of that, you guys now have a great portfolio of lessons learned and we are grateful you shared some of that with us.

The Le
profile image
Not really understanding why people are claiming this is an "informative" article. There is very little information at all. Every page is exactly the same - "we wanted to make a game, so we did, and we sold X copies". There is very little details in any of it to be of use.

Tim Knauf
profile image
Hi 'The Le', we're definitely keen to help others out by being as informative as possible. What is missing from this article that you would have liked to see?