Meanwhile, as Smith's team is working on its second game, the folks at indie Haunted Temple Studios are busy on their first, which is "rapidly approaching alpha."
Founder, director, and art director Jake Kazdal has a background similar to Smith's -- in fact, the two developers worked together at EA Los Angles on the ill-fated LMNO project where Kazdal was a concept artist. There he did some interface design for Boom Blox for Wii, followed by 18 months as senior environment concept artist for Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight. After moving to Seattle, he joined indie Zombie Studios as art director on Blacklight: Tango Down for XBLA, PC, and PSN, but spent his nights and weekends working on a hobby project -- a simple iPhone game.
Kazdal admits that he really had no interest in opening his own studio, "but I got a lot of pressure from friends to do my own thing. Frankly, I didn't think I was ready. When I thought of a 'studio,' I thought 20 guys, big office downtown, big expenses, and so on. It didn't appeal to me.
"But my 'hobby project' was picking up steam pretty quickly, and my friend and I noticed that maybe it shouldn't be the simple iPhone game it had started as -- maybe, as hardcore console gamers, we could turn it into an Xbox game.
"It wasn't long before we realized we needed to quit our jobs -- which we did in March, 2010 -- and take on the project full-time. And so, my launching Haunted Temple Games, which is really just the name of my team of three, just sort of happened.
"Haunted Temple is really just a tiny microstudio of three guys," he explains. "I mean, the other two are both in LA working from home, and I work here in Seattle. We don't have a centralized space, we don't have health insurance, we don't have anything you'd think of as belonging to a real company."
But Kazdal did have his own strategy for generating funds for his first title, Skulls of the Shogun, the so-called "hobby project" that is now scheduled for release this fall. The turn-based strategy game featuring combat between undead samurai will be published by Microsoft for Xbox Live Arcade.
"We started with some angel funding from my father -- who is an investor -- just to get going and now we're getting more money from Microsoft," says Kazdal, although he says he's not permitted to discuss the details. "It's quite a difference, having been art director and a senior concept artist, making really good money. I was used to getting a paycheck every week from EA, and now I haven't had spare cash for a long time -- which has been stressful for everybody, my wife included. Hopefully that will end sooner than later and we can start moving on with our lives."
Skulls of the Shogun
In addition to his financial concerns, much of the stress comes from wearing as many hats as he does. There is always something to do over and above game development, he says, including interviews, legal matters, and business decisions.
"All of those things takes almost my whole day," he says, "and then, late at night, when all the phone calls taper off, that's when it's quiet and I can sit down and actually do the work on our game."
But, while Kazdal says the stress really takes its toll, he is delighted by the creative freedom he has, and being able to plan the game he wants to build without anyone telling him to make changes.
"It would be really hard for me to consider going back to the way things were," he admits.
However, now that Kazdal is being funded by Microsoft and there is suddenly a publisher on the scene, he recognizes the fact that he will have to "start answering to them a bit more. But, for the most part," he says, "it's been pretty awesome."
Kazdal recalls that getting his first contract -- with Microsoft -- took a lot out of him. Even though he and his team had cred as developers, they were a new unit doing something completely on their own, and so there was a long negotiation process.
"We had put a lot of effort in places like GDC and the other shows, getting meetings with publishers, showing them what we were doing, and talking to the press to make a name for ourselves. We finally had a good E3 where we won two 'best strategy game' awards and we started talking to Microsoft. A lot of good press and good comments by other developers helped convince Microsoft to seal the deal."
His best advice to developers who want to set up their own shop is not to quit their day job until they have a playable prototype up and running, "something you're proud of and can show off to publishers. It helps to get some initial money to start off with to enable you to leave full-time employment to give you the opportunity to go out and find that first publisher with deep pockets."
Beyond Skulls of the Shogun, Kazdal hopes to make enough cash off of that first title to fund the second, and not have to depend on another publisher.
"I'd really rather keep it small and self-funded rather than share the income with a publisher," he admits. "I mean, my goal two or three years down the road is for things to be just the way they are -- and to be rich! That's a much easier thing to achieve if you can do it without a publisher."