Making games when you're dead broke: The story of Ragtag Studios

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Andrew Hayward
September 19, 2014 6:30 PM
Making games when you're dead broke: The story of Ragtag Studios
After a dozen or more years apiece kicking around the AAA side of the games industry, the three men behind Ragtag Studio embraced independence. They've spent the last two-plus years working on Ray's the Dead, a cartoonish zombie adventure that is about to conclude an already-funded Kickstarter campaign (which ends Sunday), but going indie brings new challenges and necessary sacrifices.

For all three, that's meant a long span without salaries. But for co-founders Chris Cobb and Matt Carter, it's also meant moving halfway across the country from Chicago to Dallas and combining their families within a single rented home, which now houses four adults, the Carters' infant daughter, the Cobbs' corgi, and the Ragtag office. It's a premise fit for a reality show-but in fact, it's simply their reality for the next year or so, at least.

Call it a Hail Mary of a life change, done in an effort to finish the game following a taxing year-plus that saw a first Kickstarter attempt flatline, family members arrive and depart, and development slow to a crawl. But can this grand gamble really bring Ray's the Dead to life?
Ups and downs
The three men behind Ragtag Studio all know the AAA side of the development world well. Cobb and Carter both worked at High Voltage Software, Z-Axis and Wideload Games together, with Cobb also contributing to Thief: Deadly Shadows at Ion Storm Austin. Meanwhile, programmer Shawn Halwes logged time at the now-shuttered Paradigm Entertainment and Ensemble Studios, helping craft games like Stuntman: Ignition and Halo Wars. All seeking a change for one reason or another, they banded together and started work on Ray's the Dead in 2012.

"We should have done it 10 years ago," admits Cobb on breaking from the big-budget studio cycle, acknowledging the very adult challenges of having a spouse, offspring, and other responsibilities without steady income. Luckily, all three team members have an incredible support system, with wives that have continued to work steady jobs and pay the bills while they pursue a dream.

"She's great, she has unwavering faith in what we're doing," says Chris of his wife Tracy. "Most remarkably to me, she almost never asks what's taking so long." Adds Matt about his wife Jessica, "[We] have a long history of supporting each other in different times when we're wanting to explore life and try different things out as far as careers go." Likewise, Shawn's wife Jennifer had explored job options while he was previously employed full-time, and saw an opportunity to repay the favor: "I think she could tell that I was fed up with basically working for the man, so to speak," he says.

With work on the game well underway, last year began so promisingly for the Ragtag trio. Ray's the Dead had been revealed at the tail end of 2012, and a showing at PAX East in early 2013 convinced them that there was real enthusiasm around the game – a humor-filled, stealth and puzzle-tinged action experience with parallels to Stubbs the Zombie, which Cobb and Carter both worked on at Wideload. They decided to channel that positive player reaction into an initial Kickstarter campaign, which sought to raise $75,000 to cover engine license fees and pay external contractors.

However, with only 10 days left to go in that first campaign, they had raised just one-third of the tally, and didn't appear to have the momentum to rally enough late enthusiasm to push them over the top. Admitting defeat, they ended the campaign early and walked away with nothing to show for the attempt, promising a more polished second try once they'd regrouped. Carter repeatedly calls it a "very draining" experience in our conversation, while Cobb cites the failed campaign as "one of the most difficult experiences I've ever been through."

A silver lining appeared, however. Ragtag had quietly agreed to bring the game to PlayStation 4 prior to the console's E3 blowout last summer, and the news would be revealed during the Kickstarter run. When Cobb called his Sony contact to share that they'd be ending the crowdfunding attempt, he anticipated a negative reaction. Instead, Sony wanted to put Ray's the Dead front and center: rather than simply announce the news on the PlayStation.Blog, the company would feature the game in its E3 media briefing alongside other upcoming indie games.

"That was an awesome vote of confidence," Cobb asserts. It helped reenergize the team after the failed funding attempt, but Ragtag had lost a lot of development time promoting the Kickstarter and polishing playable demos for conventions. They vowed to sit out gaming shows for a while, despite continual invitations from Sony, and refocus on completing the game.

Things were progressing along more or less as planned-but then life started throwing curveballs their way, as it so often does. Shawn already had a daughter born early in the year, and then Matt's wife became pregnant last summer. The Carters hoped to live off of their savings rather than have Jessica return to work after giving birth, but that didn't seem fiscally feasible with their existing living situation within an expensive major city. "We could stay in Chicago, but we'd be broke in a year," admits Matt, whose daughter arrived this past spring.

Sadly, Chris experienced starkly different family changes early this year: his father and grandmother died a month apart. Amidst all of the personal happenings, the game wasn't progressing as smoothly as planned, and it became difficult to make decisions with everyone not always on the same page. "Life, good and bad, compounded the drag on development," says Chris. "We started to feel like we were never going to finish the game."

Between the Carters seeking to relocate somewhere cheaper and the overall team flow discombobulated by the recent life changes, suddenly the dream scenario of bringing the Ragtag crew together started to make a lot more sense. A loose plan emerged, says Matt: "Instead of just moving somewhere cheap, we should move to somewhere cheap where our programmer lives," they decided.

Making the move
In late July, the Carters and Cobbs departed Chicago and began living together in a rented five-bedroom house in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas. Agreeing to the venture took a little convincing, naturally, as the two families came from very different vantage points. The Carters have an infant, while the Cobbs have a Corgi. Tracy Cobb works full-time and still brings in income, while the Carters are living more frugally on savings alone. And they're simply different people with different habits, preferences, and needs.

"I was really on the fence about it. We have pretty different lifestyles. My wife's a teacher, so she has to be at work at 6:30am. Matt and Jessica are night owls, so they're up really late and they wake up late," explains Chris. "We have very different schedules, we keep our houses a different way, and I think we were all a little nervous about how it would work out. It's only been a month, so it remains to be seen how it will work out, but I think it's going OK."

"I think it's going a little better than OK," chimes Matt. Certainly, they've taken to the shared space in a very interesting manner. The Carters wanted a second bedroom for a nursery, so they got two regular rooms while the Cobbs took the one master bedroom. That left two other bedrooms, giving each family a small, individual living room. The house's actual intended living room is currently a rather empty space in which the Carters' baby rolls about and the Cobbs' dog plays fetch.

And then the dining room – the only part of the house with wooden floors-is officially the office of Ragtag Studio, and Halwes rolls in daily from his separate home to complete the team. The space is thankfully split off from the rest of the house by the kitchen, giving it enough of a feel of being a dedicated office (and not just a converted dining room). And they're seeing real benefit: everyone knows that his compatriots are focused on the task at hand, they can collaborate freely on ideas and gameplay changes, and decisions can be made on the fly.

"Being able to have easier access to each other and not wonder what everyone's up to all the time – it really helps the workflow," says Cobb, who notes that much of their combined focus thus far in Texas has been spent on the revised second Kickstarter campaign, which met its funding goal shortly after launching last month. "I think things will only get better."

And as Halwes points out, it's the little things that make a big difference with the team finally assembled and sharing the same space. "The magic of a physical whiteboard in front of everyone just a wonderful tool," he says.

A temporary fix
While the new roommates view the success of the new arrangement at varying degrees of OK-ness, it's clear from the conversation that this is a short-term fix. The lease is only for a year, and even if Ragtag is still finishing up Ray's the Dead by the time late summer rolls around next year, they admit that the families could split the shared living situation and pursue their own places in the area. Too much of their joint financial future is tied up in Ray's the Dead to be sure at this point. "I really don't know what we're going to do," concedes Chris.

Beyond the release of the game, regardless of whether it performs well and validates the sacrifices and hard work, the team doesn't know if they'll all stick around the same city. "We're all adults with families now. We all have not only our own desires, but also our wives' desires to consider in all of that. Long story short, all of us ideally want to live somewhere different from each other. That for a number of years made it hard to make any kind of move," admits Chris. "That will continue to be an issue, honestly... even Shawn doesn't want to stay here in Dallas."

"Not forever!" exclaims Shawn in the background of the Skype call.

All three members say they'd like to stick together, even if it's not in Dallas-but relocating as a unit could be a real challenge. Asked if they could work apart again down the line, Chris emits a sustained, audible sigh. That says plenty, but he suggests that a remote arrangement might work for a less intensive project, and could even influence the next game they work on. "It's funny, because I imagine that a lot of people might read this and think, 'What are they talking about? They're all old men and they can't deal with technology,'" he suggests with a laugh. "I don't know, maybe that's true."

Perhaps this wasn't the path they imagined when Ray's the Dead began work in 2012, but it's the one they believe will finally lead to its completion. If anything, the struggle and frustrations have only hardened their collective determination.

"Two and a half years in with no paycheck, each day gets harder and harder to feel like you've made the right decision. But we are stubborn, so the flip side is that kind of time investment also solidifies our resolve to finish this game and make it as great as it can be," affirms Chris. "Regardless of its reception, just bringing this project to completion will represent the successful end of a far longer and more emotional journey than any of us ever expected."

Ray's the Dead is scheduled to launch in 2015 on PC, PS4 and Vita (with cross-buy support).

[Images: Ragtag Studio]

Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, and his words on games, gadgets, and more have appeared in more than 50 publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
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