Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, Guillaume Boucher-Vidal, founder and CEO of Nine Dots Studio, talks the craft of customization, XBLIG sales and launching near Diablo 3, with Brand.
What's your game called and what's it about?
The game is called Brandand it's about building a sword fit for a king. The game is in 3D, but the gameplay is in 2D. It features three large explorable levels, in a somewhat similar fashion to games of the Metroidvania genre, although a little simpler.
How do you support yourselves, working full-time at Nine Dots with no salary? Is it worth it?
I had saved up about $25,000 before starting the business, and I started doing a few consulting jobs to fill in my pockets a little whenever I can. Some guys work on the side, while others get support from their parents. It's not an ideal situation for anyone, but we try to make the most of it.
We're all young and it's the right time to make these sacrifices. I think it's definitely worth it. The experience is unique, and even if Nine Dots was to fail, we'd still have a very strong portfolio piece, a unique background and we'd be of the very few developers who could proudly say: "We made the game we wanted to make, the way we wanted to do it." Some people have been in the industry for 15 years and can't say that.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
First, because it's easier than ever. In my opinion, publishers are obsolete, thanks to digital distribution. Now we can self-publish on most distribution channels and take a 70 percent cut on every sale. I find this way more appealing than working for a publisher, even if it means starting off with no salary. Studios rarely receive any royalty for the games they develop, and when they do it's not much. Publishers defend themselves by saying they take the risks and thus should reap the rewards, but a quick look at the staggering amount of studios shutting down every year proves that this is not true. It just takes one or two cancelled projects for most studios to go under. Publishers aren't taking the biggest risk, they just shell out some of the money they made off the back of other studios.
The truth is that working conditions in the video game industry are unjustifiably horrible. I want to change that and it starts with leading by example.
More importantly, the truth is that working conditions in the video game industry are unjustifiably horrible. I want to change that and it starts with leading by example. I strongly believe that crunch time not only can literally ruin the life of passionate developers, it is also stupidly inefficient. I also believe that when you love the project you're working on, you perform better and communicate better with your audience. Finally, I also believe that transparency is key if I want the team to have a sense of belonging and thus devote themselves to the success of the company. So if I want to see all of those beliefs tested, I needed to start my own company. To be honest I've met a lot of cynicism regarding my vision of what this industry should be and it just motivates me more. I won't stop until I've tried everything I can think of to make this a reality.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
Definitely! In fact, I started an association that gathers indie studios in our local area so that we may share tips and tricks, get to know each other better and find strength in numbers. We're now eight studios in Québec, gathering once in a while and sharing tips.
On a larger scale, I also get to talk with other indie developers through social media and mail exchanges and I am fascinated by how varied our backgrounds and methods are. It's very stimulating and I'm surprised by how welcoming this community is. I didn't expect that it would grow on me so fast.
What inspired you to make Brand?
Brand was a pilot project for Nine Dots Studio, so it's really a matter of seeing what we can do and learning from this first experience before moving on to bigger projects. Since I had to design a smaller game, I asked myself what would be the one thing I'd like to explore in detail. I'm really into customization, so I thought I'd make a game entirely around crafting and customizing a sword.
What's the coolest aspect of Brand?
What I find the most appealing is the fact that every power plays really differently. It's not about choosing fire damage over ice damage, but rather choosing if you can dash through five enemies at once or be able to attack and block at the same time, for instance.
How has the launch on XBLIG and PC gone so far?
Not well. We sold only 2,300 copies. We were downloaded about 8,000 times, which means that roughly one person out of three buys the game after trying it, which is a very good ratio, so visibility seems to be the main issue. There isn't enough traffic on the XBLIG channel. The high ratio of people buying the game based on an eight-minute trial is encouraging though. There were some criticisms about the game and we've fixed most issues through a patch since then.
We hoped that we'd have better sales on PC, but we released just before E3 and right after Diablo 3. That wasn't a wise move at all, but I felt I was in a hurry to release it as soon as I could out of respect for our contributors on RocketHub. Maybe if we get Greenlit on Steam, we could gain some traction and make our efforts porting the game to PC worth it. Please vote for us!
Do you plan on entering Brand into indie-game competitions or conferences?
We submitted to Dream Build Play this year and were among the twenty Xbox 360 finalists. We don't think we will submit Brand to any other contests and instead concentrate on our new project.
Sell Brand in one sentence:
We made a unique and challenging game with customization as its core mechanic, and Mega Man and Castlevania as the main inspirations for gameplay, all for ridiculously cheap.
Maybe get the game available on Steam through Greenlight (but I'm not holding my breath). We're now working on GoD Factory, a space combat sim franchise where you can build your ships part-by-part. We haven't announced much about it, but we've been working on it for five months now and we'll reveal more "soon."
Brand is available now on Desura and XBLIG, and is up for voting on Steam Greenlight. Play, vote and give some of that fancy sword-swinging a go.
If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.