The other day I was lucky enough to talk to Marten Palu, founder and CEO of Gamecan. Gamecan is an indie studio behind the game Overtsep. Overstep’s website explains the game’s story as such.
“The game takes place on the planet Elido, a world that is slowly being torn apart, and where the only way to survive on its surface is to not be alive in the first place. The Homo-Sapien race has nearly depleted all of Earth’s natural resources and is now looking to go beyond the planet to find a way of sustaining themselves. After discovering a dark vortex that can take them to an unexplored sector of the universe (dubbed Sector 9), they find Elido, a planet with many similarities to their own, right down to its inhabitants which seem to have a similar evolutionary path (called Homo-Peregrinus). But the Sapiens did not come to negotiate; instead they have come to take. And so the Outer Earth War between the Sapiens and the Peregrinus has started.”
Me and Marten discussed what it is like to be involved in indie game development these days, as well as any tips Marten had for fellow indie developers to help them on the road to making their dream a reality. We talked about the struggles of funding and gathering a team, as well as why we think indie will gain popularity in the years to come. After our talk, Marten explained that he very promptly had to leave for a meeting and so our talk was cut short. He asked me to add this last piece of advice for any indie developers who feel like they are struggling.
“We believe that a lot of indie game dev teams are struggling with task management and source control. For the first steps, what I can suggest is first write your project (including a marketing plan) and add some visuals to it. Then apply to BizSpark to get free access to Azure Server services. Then set up GIT, with SourceTree for example. For the task management side, set up a Trello Board. The platform is rather self-explanatory. For further questions, feel free to drop a question on our Facebook page. For early asset management, we personally used OneDrive.”
Ben: Why don’t we start with who you are and what it is you do?
Marten: Where do you want me to start? When I was born?
Ben: (laughs) Let’s go with in-terms of game development.
Marten: In terms of game development? How I got into it was actually very interesting. I started my first company when I was really young. I only went to school for nine years and then I started self education on everything from psychology to economics, and after I had gotten my first business to be successful and basically running on it’s own (pauses) One of my favourite game franchises is Assassin’s Creed and we were actually a really strong clan. There was about 700,000 gamers on the leaderboard. Some moments were in the top 10. The people I played with knew that I have a lot of experience in video production and a guy asked me “Okay we’re trying to make a game or something, but we need someone to make the menu in After Effects. Can you do that?”. I went “Okay, can you send me the project file?”. And he asked “Send you the what?”. Then I told him “Screw the menu for a few days. I’m gunna make a project file. Just send me a notepad of what you’re planning”. Then I sent them an eight page project file, based on my business experience. And they were really happy, but there was only four people plus me. The game was called Sector 9, and the idea of it was just that on another planet robots are fighting and that’s it. So I hired a few more people, like a game designer and so on, and within two months I had gotten together a team of at least 20 people. Made a great project file with I think 30 pages or something. Had gotten a contract with Microsoft. Then the guy just asked me “Okay do you wanna take over the project?”. But the case was, I knew next to nothing about game development. I had no idea. I didn’t even understand how could one person make Flappy Bird. But it has always been my dream to create a video game. So I thought “Why not?”. I read 900 pages of PDF and watched all the videos about game development and the industry. And then I took over the team. Then we changed the name to Overstep. We elaborated on the game design a bit more. That’s actually how I got into this. Just thanks to playing Assassin’s Creed and being good at it.
Ben: Do you have any advice for those looking to start an indie project, and what was your biggest challenge when you started?
Marten: The main thing is that if you start an indie project, you wont have a lot of money for it. So, the main problem with the gaming industry in my eyes is that AAA companies don’t take risks in game design. So you almost always get the same thing that just looks better than the last one. AAA is not flexible. Now most indie teams are small, maybe they know how to make a game. But they rarely have any business background. I believe out there are amazing games, that are better than the AAA titles out there. But no-one knows about them. I think the biggest challenge for an indie game developer is the balance between game development know-how and business know-how. And if you don’t have money in the beginning it’s really hard to get people who know about that stuff to work together on a project. It’s been challenging to find the right people that would work for free just based on the vision, wanting nothing more in return than a paycheck post-funding.
Ben: So what tips would you give to any people who are trying to get a team together for an indie project?
Marten: I once wrote and published a PDF titled “8 tips of Indie Game Recruiting”. The PDF goes over the process I did. For example, you need four to five people who have experience in the gaming industry. Who have been in projects. So you make something like this.(shows a diagram illustrating a company hierarchy). There’s a CEO, Chief-Executive Producer, marketing team and so on. And then you start hunting those people down. And the way you do that is, for example, if you need a 3D modeller you actually go out to DeviantArt all of those websites and Facebook groups and you find about 20 or 30 people who’s work you like. Then you contact them and the statistics are that, based on what you write to them and what you offer, about half of them will reply to you. Then with the half you give them a task. For example if it’s a 3D modeller then obviously you’ve gotten a concept artist before that. So you give all of them a concept and tell them you have a week to deliver something. Of those ten to fifteen people, five send you something. Then you have Skype calls with them. Understand what they know and how they think. And then with your core team you choose who to take on board.
Ben: Okay. So from day one you have always viewed this as a mix of business and a personal approach?
Marten: Of course. As I said the main thing that most indies are missing is professionalism. It’s still business, it’s still a company. Even if you’re vision is that you want to make the whole world of gamers really happy, it’s still a business. You cannot make anyone happy with a good product when you don’t have the money to build it, market it, pay your team members. So from day one you have to perceive it as a serious business.
Ben: It’s interesting that you mention money. I’m sure this is a big worry for many indie developers. What advice would you give to those looking to get funding for their project?
Marten: If it’s a mobile game then you can make a prototype in 10 hours and show it to someone. If it’s something like Overstep, a project that time wise usually takes two to three years, then showing a prototype of that to someone actually doesn’t help. Because, regarding Overstep, the main unique thing will be the environmental and gravity changes. But it would be unwise to work on them from day one because it’s just inefficient. So first you have to do the programming, the art, and right at the alpha stage you put them together. For us, we had to work at least a year to get something to show potential investors. So until that, every cost to be covered I just found the money. I worked on my first company, I worked on Overstep. I did some video production, web development. Everything to just earn money myself and invest it into the company. But now we’re at the stage where we actually have something to show that’s already unique in visuals. We’re preparing an equity crowdfunding campaign as well.
Ben: What is it you think sets indie apart from AAA games?
Marten: The story. People can relate themselves to someone executing ideas differently. We’re [Overstep] not going to go the traditional marketing route. If we have 100,000 euros we’re not going to put it just into marketing in the way of paying 100,00 to a marketing agency. one of our ideas that we want to pursue is, if we have 3000 euros per month for marketing, we don’t do Facebook ads. Our team will select one person a day who is streaming Overstep on Twitch to support with a 100 Euros donation. They don’t have to be the biggest streamer on Twitch, they don’t have to have the most views. They just have to be noticed on that specific date. We’re just not building a game. The main vision behind Overstep is changing how people get into eSports. Because it’s becoming a serious profession. But if you look at AAA games, especially first person shooters, then all of the competitive first person shooters cost money. Some cost 60 euros. That means less people can get into it. And if the player pool is smaller, that means the concentration of skill is higher. So for new people who want to get into eSports, for example with Call of Duty, it means that the cost of prowess they need to have to even feel good after six months of practising is really high. But with Overstep, as it’s free to play, you can get into it. Some people say “Okay you have these chaotic game mechanics, all the gravity and environmental changes, the learning curve will be huge”. We have a solution for that. If in Call of Duty your hit points are 100, and in Titanfall the Titan has 1000, then in Overstep you play with about 500. So it means an engagement between a tank and a close-quarters combat guy can last two minutes. What that means is that will give you time to make mistakes, learn and so on. The base of our vision is, not just developing a game, but eSports.
Ben: I think that’s one thing that annoys me in Battlefield. I love the game but as a soldier if you turn the corner and see a tank, you are pretty much done for. It’s the same with Call of Duty: I always hated panic-knifing.
Marten: We’ve even made a blood-pact within the core team that there will not be one kill headshots in Overstep. Period (laughs). You will have time to learn, to make mistakes.
Ben: (laughs) That would be nice. But why do you think more gamers seem to be taking an interest in indie games, over those AAA titles?
Marten: If it’s a one word answer then story. Indie teams have a story. People can relate to them. Most indie game developers are just hardcore gamers that wanted to create something. That relates. Would it be different if a high position guy from EA came to you, without a suit, just jeans and a shirt. And told you “Hey let’s get some KFC and play games together”. Would that change your perspective of what AAA is?
Ben: Well yeah honestly it would, I would think this guy is just like me.
Marten: Exactly. And that’s why indie is, and will be, more successful. You can relate to it. They have a story, they have hustle, they have struggle. It’s not just like they had 200 million euros and there was just some guy that, through psychological tests, understand how to make the most money out of the next game. They [gamers] don’t feel used by indies.
Ben: Do you think we will ever see a shift of AAA trying to become more personal? More like indie developers.
Marten: I’m afraid not. Nothing general, of course some companies will. If you look at Blizzard they’re kind of getting into the middle ground. But for most AAA it’s too risky for them, it’s all about turnover. Every new game, I would bet that they have agreements that it can have 12% unique game mechanics compared to the last game. And so on, so on. They don’t take risks.
Ben: Going back to you saying that indie team have a story. I think that the one thing I love about indie games the most, and why they stand out to me as a gamer. You know that this was made through blood, sweat and tears by genuine gamers who have a passion for video games.
Marten: It makes you emotional right? That’s why the story is so important. Emotion is embedded into it. If one day I release the whole story about how we got to this point people would cry.
Ben: What annoys me the most is that I get the impression that it’s the higher up people who are causing issues with AAA games, opposed to the developers themselves. It feels that they’re so obsessed with making money that they don’t care about the gamers. Only the profit.
Marten: That’s the thing. I doubt the main string-pullers are gamers themselves. And they just know it’s a huge market. I don’t know if you know the statistics from last year about big industries, but the music industry revenued about 15 billion. The gaming industry revenued 92 billion. And next year it will be over 100. People who just want to make money understand this. They look for AAA and say “I’ll invest 100 million euros, but I want to get my money back plus 50% by that date”. And of course they take the money”.
Ben: So is there any particular AAA company you aspire to be like?
Marten: The company I look up to is CD Projekt Red. They inspire me a lot.
Ben: Why’s that?
Marten: Their story. How they started, how they can make a huge game with 25% of the budget that an usual AAA would have is just amazing.
Ben: Hypothetically. Let’s imagine that Overstep takes off and Gamecan ends up as this well known AAA company. How are you going to keep your indie flare?
Marten: That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The main solution is by 2018 I want to have the team size at 80 people. But no more. I personally feel that’s where we lose the personal side of the company. How we do that is by focusing on eSports. If you need to make a single player campaign, that will take an extra 5000 people (laughs). But Overstep will just be a one off. We’re not going to make Overstep 2 or 3 or whatever. Overstep will be a platform that we develop and support as long as there are players that want to play it. To do that, the 80 people team will be sufficient. With that number of people we can still be personal. Even in our project plans we have already decided how the customer service is going to be felt. If you call customer service they’re going to use your gamertag to talk to you, they wont be too formal. Every single bit of that is already planned out for our vision to be the same Gamercan we are now, but bigger.