In 2008, Kim Haar Jorgensen had scored greenlight meetings with Microsoft and 2K Games, among other publishers. But the financial crisis took the bottom out of the market, and he couldn't get his title -- Interstellar Marines -- signed.
At the time, he'd assembled a team of 20 -- small by triple-A standards -- and created a demo in Unreal Engine.
He burned through his initial investment, but he learned a valuable lesson: "no publisher's going to pick up a small indie studio with a hugely expensive idea."
Now, he's got a core team of four in a small office in Copenhagen, and he's switched development to Unity. So, too, have his plans changed. On Christmas, Zero Point Software will release the first version of Deadlock, its first multiplayer offering, to a closed slice of its community. This will be the team's third release, following Bullseye and Running Man, two earlier prototypes.
"The first release is going to be for our closed community that we have, and we're going to commit, through using Scrum, on releasing more content on a bi-weekly basis -- kind of like Minecraft was doing when they started out," says Jorgensen.
The promise is this: "In two weeks it's going to be better, and in four weeks it's going to be even better." The team will set up a thread on the forum for each sprint -- and "let them see our next sprint commitments... we might even have votes."
Up till now, he says, "it's been about us talking about the things we're doing, and not allowing people to see or play it -- and that's just changing from Christmas forward, and there's going to be progress on a regular basis."
In fact, the company has a dedicated fan base already assembled at InterstallarMarines.com, its community website -- which is even somewhat gamified, as users can buy badges that show up on their profile for $6.25.
The real core of their plans, however, is "a small prologue story is going to be developed with the community, iteratively," says Jorgensen.
"Play the game, comment on it, have fun, and see it constantly evolve. That's the main experience we want people to have," says Anders Antoft, lead artist and programmer.
"We had this idea if we just showed our work and let people preorder it ahead of time that might be a revenue generator for us," he says.
Jorgensen had big dreams, you see, and he didn't want to let go of them. When he was telling Gamasutra about the story of the game -- which involves the best of the best of Earth's elite soldiers being recruited for a special forces unit to be sent into space -- it's clear that his triple-A ambitions don't end with polished gameplay.
"For us, arrogantly speaking, it is our Star Wars. It is the game we believe could become a really successful high quality franchise. The war we're fighting is, is it possible to do that starting small, or do you need to have $25 million dollars?"
"In science fiction, you look out the eyes of the character and you are the marine. It's not something we take lightly," he says.
Even though the game is being distributed online, he has no illusions of the bar that he has to reach: "the kind of crowd we're catering to is triple-A shooters, and they're used to playing polished, triple-A experiences like Battlefield and Call of Duty."
He's banking, instead, that people are getting bored of the "copy-paste" of mainstream games.
Working with the community, however, will present its own challenges for a team with a very distinct vision (and plans for not one, not two, but three triple-A quality co-op campaigns in the long run.)
"The big challenge for us as we see is that we know exactly what type of game we want. Obviously having people commenting and giving feedback allows us to take the best feedback, if it's in tune with what we want," says Jorgensen.
"The core of our game is the cooperative experience," he says. "The challenge for us is to hold back and focus on what's best for the community that's playing, as well as -- for us -- we have a hidden agenda in the background."
Right now, Zero Point is selling lifetime subscriptions to the game for $48.75, which will include all updates and all three planned single player installments. There are cheaper options, too.
"We can try and sell the larger picture as well, hopefully more and more people will be interested, but it is an uphill climb," says Jorgensen.
He's not quite sure what the future could bring, but he does see big possibilities. "It all depends on the type of support that we can get. The things that Notch is doing with Minecraft -- it could have been World of Warcraft. He could have poured all of his money into that."
Still, the team has no plans to grow large, says Antoft.
"It's a huge leap to take that right now, to pay $39 for something that's so immature and in development, but it's going to be so attractive if it goes the way we planned... When they're finished it's a good deal, right now it's a leap of faith," says Jorgensen.
Still, says Antoft, hardcore Interstellar Marines fans are convinced. "Right now, we have people saying, 'I need more value, and I'll pay for more.'"
"This is the first time that we feel that this is going to be doable. Without having us talking to a lot of investors and gathering a lot of money, we can sort of build it up."