What to do when you're done building 'BioShock'

After a decade making big-budget games, Forrest Dowling went indie -- but that doesn't mean you should too.

Forrest Dowling is the man who made sure BioShock Infinite's world was both complex and logical. As the lead level designer on the third BioShock installment, he was in charge of every archway in the floating city of Columbia and each tunnel in the underwater Art Deco metropolis of Rapture. After 10 years in the gaming industry, Dowling knows how to lay out the oceans, the skies and everything in between. So when BioShock's studio, Irrational Games, shuttered two years ago, he had enough experience to go independent.

He founded The Molasses Flood with a handful of veterans from Irrational, Harmonix (Guitar Hero) and Bungie (Halo) in 2014. Their first game, The Flame in the Flood, raised $250,000 on Kickstarter that same year. It's already out in beta on Steam Early Access, and will see a wider release next week, on Feb. 24th.

Things are going well -- but Dowling knows he got lucky. After years of practice and experience, he sees how rough the waters are for new developers trying to hit it big with an independent game. If he were a young developer trying to enter the industry today, he'd be terrified. Or, as Dowling puts it:

"I think I would have drowned."

And that's coming from someone who helped build BioShock's briny depths.

Paddling up the Mississippi River

Dowling's new game isn't like the big-budget AAA titles he used to work on. It isn't a first-person masterpiece of epic proportions; players aren't on a quest to save the galaxy or win a war. It's a humble, down-home kind of experience that takes place in America's swampy backwaters.

The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike-lite survival game, meaning players are punished heavily for dying, but they don't lose all of their progress every time that happens. It stars Scout, a hearty wanderer, and her dog, Aesop. They travel through the heart of the American South, battling nature's beasts and riding down the Mississippi River on the fringes of a mysterious, post-society dystopia.

Dowling and his Molasses Flood friends aren't trying to be political with the game; they're not offering commentary on the health of the American Dream or anything. Still, The Flame in the Flood does stem from a broader conversation about the roots of credibility and nature.

"There seems to be a sort of cultural zeitgeist related to survival, related to wilderness, related to authenticity. Sort of the hand-made," he says. "I feel like that was a way more important kind of touchstone for us, or a thing to think about."

The river is a crucial aspect of The Flame in the Flood's design -- the team wanted to build a survival game that encouraged movement rather than having players set up camps at static locations. They considered setting the game on the Nile or Amazon rivers, but they weren't familiar with those locations and felt they wouldn't be able to do them justice. Besides, art director Scott Sinclair -- who also worked on BioShock Infinite -- grew up on a river in Florida. The Mississippi wasn't hugely different.

"It sort of was like a 'write what you know' thing, where it just kind of made sense to do this setting that we understood to some degree, that was a bit closer to home for us," he says.

Sinclair was also friends with the perfect musician for the game, alt-country artist Chuck Ragan. The singer was hesitant to work on a video game at first, but once Sinclair laid out the mechanics and vibe of The Flame in the Flood, Ragan was all in. He wrote the game's songs based directly on The Molasses Flood's design goals.

"We knew music was going to be important to the project," Dowling says. "All these sort of things came together, piece by piece, to land on where we ended up."

They took to Kickstarter that same year, asking for $150,000. The project, advertised as The New Thing from a group of former AAA heavy-hitters, surpassed its goal to bring in $250,000. The Flame in the Flood hit Steam Early Access in September.

A lot of factors lined up to ensure Dowling's success as an independent, crowdfunded developer. He had name recognition, years of experience, contacts in the industry and a group of proven developers who were just as determined to make this work as he was.

"It seemed like it was the right time to do this, to take a risk," he says. "None of us are so old that we couldn't take a risk, but we also had been doing it long enough that it felt worthwhile to take it on."

Diving in

Dowling broke into the gaming industry in 2006, without any professional experience but with a passion for creating mods. That helped him score a job at Kaos Studios working on Homefront, but he left at the tail-end of development to take a gig as a senior level designer with Irrational Games.

"I could not say no to that," Dowling says. "I was a huge fan of BioShock."

Irrational shut its doors in 2014, leaving Dowling with a choice: Find a job at another studio outside of Boston, or try out this indie thing with a few of his fellow jobless friends. Remaining in the AAA industry would have been almost too easy for him at that point.

"Once you have a game like Infinite on your resume, it's not too hard to get a phone call with a recruiter or something," he says. But Dowling wasn't convinced he'd strike gold again; BioShock Infinite was a critical success, a shining star in his portfolio. It was unlikely he'd work on another AAA game with that favorable of a reception. Besides, he didn't want to leave the Boston area. The two other big players in town at that point were Harmonix and Turbine, but both of those had recently been hit with layoffs, too.

So Dowling and five of his buddies started their own studio and quickly got to work on their first game. The Molasses Flood is doing well so far largely because the team brought decades' worth of experience, business savvy and industry contacts along for the ride. It's otherwise not so easy for new developers to go indie with their first game, Dowling says. The latest software tools promise quicker, easier development than ever, and funding at the click of a button -- but these features can also be quicksand for people who don't understand the business side of things.

"There was a brief window, it feels like, where just making a small, interesting game was enough to sort of stand out on Steam or whatnot, and I think what we've seen in the last couple years is that indies are becoming as competitive for people's time and attention as AAA is," Dowling says.

Just keep swimming

Dowling regularly talks to students looking to enter the industry and in general, he recommends getting a job to learn the ropes before striking out solo. He also warns against extreme measures like mortgaging a house to fund an indie dream, since he's seen how heartbreaking the business can be.

All that said, he knows he doesn't have all the answers. Consider Toby Fox, a co-creator of crowdfunded indie darling Undertale.

"He's immensely successful, and if he had spoken with me and I had given him my standard advice, we wouldn't have Undertale right now," Dowling says. "So I guess take it all with a grain of salt."

In essence, Dowling advises caution. Making a game is a long, complicated process, and that's before you take into account the business and marketing aspects. "It's a lot to take on," he says. "It's not something that I would have wanted to do, having been through it, if this was like my first steps in the industry."

And that's just development itself: Crowdfunding is another beast entirely. Kickstarter can be just as much of a trap as a godsend, especially if the developers don't understand how much cash they actually need to make a game. He's seen plenty of amazing-looking games fail, even after securing crowdfunding. It's incredibly public and painful for the developers.

On the other hand, crowdfunding provides a crucial service -- a direct feedback loop with players -- even if a campaign fails. If a project doesn't generate the cash it needs on Kickstarter, maybe that means the idea wouldn't have legs in the actual market after all. Developers can ditch a bad idea before it gets too far off the ground.

But if a project succeeds in crowdfunding, the developers have a preinstalled fanbase and cheerleaders rooting them on. Dowling loves that about his own backers. Plus, the transparency required to run a successful Kickstarter campaign can keep developers honest about their internal goals, Dowling says. He offers a quick checklist for new creators considering crowdfunding; only go for it once you can answer "yes" to the following questions:

  • Do you have a clear sense of what you're making?

  • Do you have a clear sense of what it'll actually cost?

  • Can you reasonably generate that amount of money on Kickstarter?

  • Will what you're making resonate with people on Kickstarter?

There are plenty of other hurdles for independent developers to overcome, including issues with release platforms and Steam Early Access. If a game launches in part on Early Access, it's difficult to generate interest when the full game is finally ready. That's the obstacle currently staring down Dowling and the rest of The Molasses Flood. They have a trick up their sleeves, though: Among other features, the Early Access version of The Flame in the Flood doesn't include the main, story-driven campaign. That'll drop Feb. 24th with the game's complete release. Dowling hopes it'll be enough to make a splash.

Dowling is happily independent, though by no means is indie development less work than AAA. The mainstream gaming world offers essential elements such as producers -- the taskmasters of the industry -- but indie can be more personally rewarding. If it works out, at least. If you can keep your head above the water.

"No matter how simple the game, it's always worse than you imagine. It always takes longer than you imagine," Dowling says.

In the end, just keep swimming.