The idea hit Dan FitzGerald in the shower last December: What about a dog sledding game? The Chicago native had been toying around with various prototypes based around a lobbing mechanic, but nothing stuck quite like this. Ideas started pouring in, and he enlisted his girlfriend of three years, Lisa Bromiel, to work on the art and help shape the exciting nugget of an idea into a fully realized video game – a concept that evolved into Dog Sled Saga.
It was the first time either had embarked on anything quite like it. FitzGerald studied communications in college, and had spent time doing contract video production (including trailers for other video games) and web design in an effort to get deeper into the gaming scene. Bromiel, meanwhile, is a trained artist with a focus on material art, though she hadn't consistently worked in digital illustration. As confident as they were about seeing the concept through to completion, they didn't have much insight as to going from making an original game to actually presenting it as a purchasable product. Well, at least until Rami Ismail came to town.
Ismail, the business and development half of Dutch indie studio Vlambeer (Super Crate Box, Luftrausers), stopped in Chicago in February to give a talk as part of DePaul University's Visiting Artists Series. FitzGerald and Bromiel attended, expecting to hear anecdotes about creating their beloved games, or the painful cloning saga that marked the development of Ridiculous Fishing.
Instead they got a real lesson – Indie Game Business 101, if you will – defined by the lecture's catchy three-word title: "Monetize That Shit."
WWVD? It might not have been what they expected, but it was exactly what they needed to hear. Real, practical advice – not so much about making games, but rather going about the process intelligently and without fear. Being indie doesn't mean discarding structure or going about business haphazardly. "We were already taking Dog Sled Saga seriously as something we wanted to polish and eventually sell. However, we hadn't put much thought into that process," admits FitzGerald. "Rami laid out a lot of the must-haves of game business in a way that made them seem less intimidating."
It's not a talk that only Chicago developers have heard, nor is it the extent of Ismail's efforts to help budding indies wide and far. He's been tapped to give such talks at a variety of events, and while he says that he likes to prepare a new one each time, he often loops back to the slides of "Monetize That $hit" (as it's stylized). He also created presskit(), an elegant and completely free press site template that's being used by the likes of Young Horses, makers of the upcoming Octodad: Dadliest Catch, and the Indie Megabooth.
"Like everything we do at Vlambeer, it's a pretty minimalist view of business based on cutting out redundancy and making choices and standing by them. Our approach is to 'do things,'" says Ismail about his talk. "A lot of these things sound like common sense, but they're actually quite counterintuitive if you're just starting out."
He rattles off a list of dilemmas that face indie developers: "Would the press be upset if you email them twice if they haven't replied to your first email? Should you be worried about a negotiation partner walking out on you if you have too high a starting bid? Should you be okay with working on scout's honor with a friend instead of signing a contract? Should you name your company after a pun?"
"The answer to all of those is 'no,'" stresses Ismail. "The talk tries to challenge assumptions people make about how things work, and encourages people to approach everything as something that they need to learn to understand by interacting with it."
FitzGerald and Bromiel came away inspired. Soon, the mantra "What Would Vlambeer Do?" was being traded between the two whenever discussing Dog Sled Saga. Lisa wrote the phrase in bold black lettering on a wooden board and mounted it to their wall, above which Dan placed a sled dog facial mask. "Try to always have something to share, but don't show anything that's crap," he says, noting one of the bigger takeaways from the talk. Vlambeer's influence pushed them to pin down their plans, but now it was up to them to put the advice into action – and show something.
Pack of Indies Navigating the Kickstarter campaign page for Dog Sled Saga, you'll run across a diverse array of listed inspirations: FTL, The Binding of Isaac, Recettear: An Item Shop Quest, Pokémon. Yet the couple's game looks little like those disparate influences, and it doesn't appear to play like any of them either.
Planned to launch on PC, Mac, Android, and iOS late this year, Dog Sled Saga expectedly puts players in command of their very own dog sled team. On the move, that means dealing with the semi-randomized hazards that emerge and managing the squad's performance with mushes and lobbed treats. Between races, players take on a management role, needing to pay increasing league dues to stay active, or consider taking a week off to rest when the crew seems weary. Emergent narrative cues pop up that aim to pull you in, along with the attachment that forms with your pups, each of which has unique abilities, gear, and other distinctive features.
The couple launched the crowdfunding campaign in late April and quickly met its modest funding goal of $6,000. As of this writing, they've raised more than 206% of the goal, with a couple of stretch goals down – including time of day, weather effects and a survival 'Trek Mode' – and several more in sight. Kickstarter was considered prior to Ismail's talk, but initially disregarded. "It seemed more pure to try to finish the game with only free time, and without bringing in outside support," admits FitzGerald. "Having Kickstarter backers and promising things this early in development is scary!"
Kickstarter has been kind to Chicago indie developers, with games like Organ Trail: Director's Cut, Telepath Tactics, and Octodad: Dadliest Catch all raising five-digit sums with the service, and having that kind of positive reinforcement in the community was a boon for them. Running such a campaign also pushed them to think harder about the full scope of the game, including building out the world to facilitate the creation of physical rewards (like a faux brochure for Mount St. Something National Park), and ultimately served as a great way to spread the word about the game.
And what about that aforementioned credo? "The phrase [What Would Vlambeer Do?] isn't really much about game design, but more about working together as a duo," explains FitzGerald. The pair incorporated their business, defined their roles on the project, and reconsidered the value each brought to the project (and will ultimately pull out of it). Ismail's talk explained that Vlambeer splits its income evenly between himself and partner Jan Willem Nijman, regardless of hours invested or perceived value brought to each project. Lisa originally agreed to a smaller chunk of the eventual earnings, with Dan having invested many more hours on the game thus far, but they've since switched to an even 50/50 approach.
Ismail says he and Nijman are "so super extremely honored" to hear of the couple's tribute. "I guess the interesting thing is that the answer to 'What Would Vlambeer Do?' is 'Taking a step back, seeing what the situation is, and then doing something that is not doing nothing'. If that's what they got out of it, that's amazing." He adds, "It's obviously not our influence that made their game a Kickstarter success. Dan and Lisa did that. We just told them what we thought, and between our advice and the advice of many others and the rest of the industry, they figured out what was right for them."
Indeed, FitzGerald and Bromiel feel like they're finding their own footing and path forward with the game, though the phrase and the contents of Ismail's talk have been hugely motivational in solidifying their business partnership and getting the Kickstarter campaign off the ground – a campaign that ends in less than 26 hours. "The biggest impression the talk had on us was to just be ourselves, have some confidence, and be sure to take care in figuring out what your own approach is," notes FitzGerald.
For his part, Ismail says that Vlambeer is simply continuing a cycle that helped them launch their own studio in 2010. "It's the lovely thing about the indie scene – when Vlambeer started, indies like Mikengreg and Chevy Ray Johnston were a huge help to us. Now, we can help out others through talks, organizing events, and helping out with initiatives such as the Indie Megabooth," he asserts. "In the future, Dan and Lisa will be helping others out in a similar fashion."
"A lot of the indie scene is about helping each other – an organic collaboration of sorts – because we're stronger if we all work together."
Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. He is a regular contributor to Official Xbox Magazine, @Gamer, TechRadar, and many other publications, and edits the iOS apps and games coverage for Mac|Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.