What it feels like to launch an indie hit

Shadow TowerFall creator Matt Thorson as he releases his breakout game.
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The faded paint, the patchy yard, the bikes strewn across the driveway — who would guess this three-bedroom, two-bath doubles as an incubator for a handful of the best young talent in video games? But it is, indeed, Matt Thorson’s home, blending into the sleepy Vancouver suburb of Richmond.

Thorson, 25 years old, lives with Noel Berry, Alec Holowka, Hannah Boyd and Chevy Ray Johnston. The five housemates have, in many ways, shirked the traditional expectations of early adulthood. Where other locals their age have moved into solo apartments and taken corporate jobs in pursuit of the traditional career, these five have chosen a different path.

The band of independent game designers calls the arrangement Indie House. And after a year and change of existence, it's bracing for the first trial of its sustainability: wealth. One member of the commune may become a millionaire. On this chilly week in March, Thorson will release TowerFall Ascension, a follow-up to his critically beloved, humbly sold multiplayer game, TowerFall. People who spectate game launches — outlets like this one — predict Ascension will far surpass its predecessor in sales.

Wealth could redirect the path of Thorson's life. He will, for starters, be able to afford a home of his own. But Thorson doesn't want change."Because I'm really happy," says Thorson. "This house is like one of the best things in my life. I don't want it to change."

Matt Thorson has waited for this day since childhood. And he fears what might come after it.

The "million dollar" humble idea

Inside an old, ruled notebook, plucked from Thorson's bedroom shelf in the Indie House basement, hide pages of video game level designs. The 2-D worlds, sketched long ago in an elementary school classroom, mash up Nintendo’s greatest hits: tubular platforms from Mario lead into ladders from Donkey Kong. Thorson fans the pages, each one filled with faded ink. This, he giggles, is the second book in a series.

In the late 1990s, Thorson’s mother helped her game-obsessed teenage son find Game Maker, an easy-to-use software for game creation, which introduced the young creator to dozens of like-minded developers online. It was through Game Maker's community, for example, that Thorson met Chevy Ray Johnston and made a lifelong friend.

By the end of high school, Thorson made his spending money developing pay-what-you-will downloadable games via Game Maker. By college in 2006, contracts to design browser games were paying his tuition and rent.

He'd attended college to secure a job at one of Canada's major video game studios, but the appeal of working in a studio waned, until, as Thorson recalls, he had a life-changing pre-graduation epiphany: "I was like, 'OK, [making games] is like a career now. This is something I can just do.' And then I realized I didn’t have to work at a studio, so I never did."

Work on TowerFall — which would become Thorson’s first commercial standalone game — began a couple of years after college, at a Game Jam, one of those now ubiquitous events in which designers, coders, artists and musicians produce a working prototype on limited time and plenty of cheap snacks and soda. This was before Indie House.

After college, Thorson moved into an apartment in downtown Vancouver with Chevy Ray Johnston. The two, regularly joined by visitors crashing on the floor, would bat around ideas. It was a visit from Holowka, then living in Winnipeg, that inspired TowerFall.

Thorson and Holowka started with a simple premise, a multiplayer game inspired by The Legend of Zelda that rapidly became something quite different — a single-player platformer. The two designers planned to add a number of weapons, but the first one they coded, a bow and arrow, felt so good that they stopped there. They built stages, added items and a store and ...

... Voilà, the duo created TowerFall in its earliest form. As a chubby archer, you climb a tower, dying and retrying, collecting more skills and tools, ascending higher and higher, ultimately facing, at the tippy top, a boss.

"We were actually thinking of pitching it to Adult Swim," says Holowka, "because Chevy and Matt had done a bunch of those and we were like, 'Why don’t we just do it?' Easy money kind of thing, but then Matt started prototyping multiplayer and that’s when everything changed."

Multiplayer — that first early kernel of an idea from the Game Jam — became the soul of TowerFall.

Both TowerFall, and its successor, TowerFall Ascension, are local multiplayer games.

They are easy to learn but tough to master, like checkers or Tetris. You'll know how to play within minutes, but entire tournaments have been built around competitive, high-level play.

As roommate Hannah Boyd puts it, "TowerFall is the first multiplayer game that I've been able to play without feeling like I needed to complete years of intense training prep to get anywhere with, and that makes me super happy."

The rules are simple: Two to four players kill their friends by shooting them with arrows or hopping on their heads. The experience is like Joust meets Super Smash Bros. — or if you don't play video games, it's kind of like 2-D paintball.

The TowerFall games aren’t gory or slathered in a brown color palette like so many modern multiplayer games. No, they’re colorful, cute and fantastic, like old-school arcade classics. And like those games that devoured your allowance, they're addictive.

In the words of so many friends of Indie House, the moment you tried TowerFall, even in the earliest days, you were hooked.

Matt
Matt ThorsonMatt

A-party-ment

Matt

The apartment Johnston and Thorson shared in downtown Vancouver back in 2012 was a testing ground for what TowerFall — and Indie House — would become. On the roof, there was a barbecue and a hot tub. On the floor, there were some mats and a futon. Crowds and noise came and went.

Yet, Holowka speculates, the regular parties, the get-togethers and the loud late nights of video games are all responsible for shaping TowerFall into what it is: a party game.

"Without having a lot of people around," he says, "it would be hard to develop that game. Like if Matt was just living on his own in Winnipeg, I don’t know if he would have even come up with the idea of making it multiplayer. ... You’d sit there and play, and everyone was excited to try it out and stuff, so I think that, definitely, it fed into the game and then the game fed into the culture in the house too; they're kind of joined at the hip a little bit, which is mostly cool."

But Holowka understands that TowerFall is Thorson's baby. That it doesn't truly belong to the house. Not long after the Game Jam, he left his role as co-designer, allowing Thorson to spearhead the project.

In the week of release, it feels like the great convergence of the house and the game: Johnston drawing TowerFall characters onto party balloons, Holowka plucking the TowerFall: Ascension theme on the piano, everyone skimming the internet for reactions to Thorson's big day.

It’s a big day for Thorson, yet TowerFall’s release feels like a bigger day for Indie House. TowerFall is his, but it's also theirs.

House

The house

The housemates moved into the house in October 2012, after some prodding from Johnston. Almost every day since, they’ve gathered around their dining room table to work, eat and hang.

As Hannah Boyd puts it, "Moving into the house has been pretty awesome. It's been a while since I've lived in a place that felt like a home, and Indie House is comfortable."

There's Alec Holowka, who made a name for himself, and a good deal of money, off Aquaria, an adventure game he developed with Derek Yu, the designer of Spelunky. Holowka is currently designing the Kickstarter-funded adventure Night in the Woods with artist Scott Benson. Though Holowka is no longer a co-designer of TowerFall, he is credited with penning the TowerFall soundtrack, something he’s done for a number of popular indie games.

Next to Holowka is Noel Berry. Despite being 21 years old, almost a decade younger than Holowka, the two became fast friends back in their hometown of Winnipeg. Last year, Berry left college and moved into Indie House. Berry’s currently spearheading their group project, an open-world, exploratory survival game called Skytorn. On the side, Berry crafts websites for fellow game designers, a supplementary income that helps to cover rent.


One thing's for sure; it's not an office — it's a home.

On the other side of the table, there’s Chevy Ray Johnston, who makes games, specializes in mastering game engines and also teaches at Vancouver Film School, commuting by train into downtown.

There is also Hannah Boyd, Johnston's girlfriend, who works at a local Apple Store and designs art for one of Chevy's projects while writing on the side. The latter two, the housemates agree, are the heart and energy of the house. When you’re down, they keep you going. When you have an idea, they hold you accountable to it.

Indie House's members behave like a post-modern nuclear family, with each person alternating the role of parent. Sometimes Johnston cooks and sometimes Berry cleans; somehow everything gets done and the house stays standing. (You might even call the place clean, if you ignored the mountain of loose Netrunner cards stacked between the living room and kitchen.)

One thing's for sure; it's not an office — it's a home.

Overnight success, one day at a time

You see these family moments in Indie House. They can be small, like Thorson preparing extra breakfast for his guests. They can be big, like the housemates rallying to boost the spirits of Johnston when he briefly dips into a state of bummer.

They can even be life changing. Twelve hours before Thorson's 2013 San Francisco flight to introduce TowerFall to the public, the young designer noticed his passport had expired. So Holowka agreed to show the game on his roommate’s behalf.

Thorson is grateful Holowka helped. From that small demo at the Game Developers Conference, TowerFall received a surge of attention from press, publishers and hardware manufacturers.

Thorson signed an exclusivity contract with Ouya, the low-cost Android console that had become famous off a successful Kickstarter campaign. The move surprised many industry spectators: a system in dire need of a hit secured just that, seemingly beating its much bigger competitors.

"So I could have just [gone] straight to PS3," says Thorson, looking back on the decision, "but the jump from where the TowerFall community was, which was like my basement, to [selling the game on] PlayStation 3 is a huge jump. I wasn’t ready for that and the game wasn't ready for that. But the jump to Ouya wasn't super intimidating.'"

Thorson hired independent audio team Power Up Audio, artists/designers MiniBoss and Holowka to handle the game's sound, graphics and soundtrack, respectively. Like those days in the apartment, the house blended parties, development and game testing so well that Thorson sometimes struggled to distinguish work on his game from everything else.

The more Thorson worked on TowerFall, the better it got. There’s something addictive, Thorson explains, about adding something to a game and immediately seeing improvement. Progress becomes tangible. At its busiest, the three-bedroom home housed seven, four of whom were feverishly working on TowerFall. "That was one of the best experiences of my life," says Thorson.

In June 2013, Thorson published TowerFall on Ouya. Critically speaking, the downloadable game was a colossal hit, punching way above its weight class and landing on many sites’ year-end top 10 lists, including this site's. By the standards of the young, experimental console, the game performed well in sales. As of June, Thorson estimates the game has sold 7,000 copies on Ouya. At $15, that’s $105,000 in gross revenue.

After fees and debts, however, the payoff from TowerFall wasn’t an overwhelming sum. But, as Thorson sees it, the profits from the Ouya release have helped him continue development on the project so he can make the best possible new version: TowerFall Ascension. The follow-up game will include more weapons, more levels and more variants on how it can be played.

Thorson signed a contract to release the new game on PlayStation 4 and Steam as soon as the exclusivity deal with Ouya lapsed. Between June 2013 and March 2014, he could continue to make TowerFall.

Plus, a tacit bonus: Thorson could extend this moment in Indie House. More parties, more TowerFall, more time together, more thinking about a bright and exciting future without actually changing the present dynamic. Because, like Thorson says, he doesn’t want change.

TowerFall
Chevy Ray Johnston (left) and Alec Holowka (right)Piano
Party

The waiting game

TowerFall party

Thorson also doesn't like to talk money. Though that hasn't stopped others.

Take for example George Broussard, a game designer who made his own fortune at a young age from crass 1990s shooters like Duke Nukem 3D. A few days before TowerFall Ascension's launch, the industry vet sent Thorson a sweet, albeit financially minded, congratulations: "Hope you're ready to be a millionaire, son :) It should nearly 100% happen due to Steam + PS4 and long tails etc. :) Congrats..."

Thorson chuckles at comments like Broussard’s and the many others flying into Indie House from across the internet. It's hard to tell if he thinks they’re funny or presumptuous or flattering or if he secretly fears validating them will jinx everything, rendering all the work of the past couple years a wash.

Thorson doesn’t know if TowerFall Ascension’s a million dollar game.

"It seems like this is the day I get to see how much it's worth to people," says Thorson, "how much I get reimbursed for my work. [...] It seems like the ideal is not to care about sales. Ideally I shouldn’t. I do care. I do want people to buy the game and like it, and I want lots of people to play it, but I think I structured just the development of the game and my life so I can get a lot of satisfaction out of making TowerFall before it’s even released, and that helps a lot with being really Zen in this moment I think.

"I feel like [money] would give me freedom. Like I already feel like I have enough money to live comfortably and make what I want to make. I guess it’s just, just having money to not worry about paying the bills and stuff, but I’m already pretty much there, so."

What will he buy with a bank account full of cash? Indie House doesn’t have a car. They get around by foot and bike, which can make grocery shopping a headache. So maybe a car, Thorson says.

Before the launch party, Thorson takes his girlfriend Ashly Burch, a voice actress and video game personality in her own right, to a fancy dinner. She’s visiting from Los Angeles, so they make the most of their time together. They’re gone for awhile. They have to walk.

The housemates sit around the table, as they always do. "TowerFall's gonna blow up," says Johnston.

"I've been afraid for a long time," adds Holowka. "This configuration [of Indie House] will probably change at some point. You can kind of see the hints of how it might change and I’m sad about that. But everything changes, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. It'll be interesting to see if everyone sticks together.

"Like, say Matt becomes a millionaire and moves to California. Well that's going to be different. That'd be a different dynamic, right? But, if he becomes a millionaire and stays here, it's like, well would he want to stay here?"

"I think the only benefit of having something really successful," says Noel Berry, "is then being like, 'Hey, I have enough money now to not have to worry about it and be able to make whatever I want for as long as I want,' and not have to go out and say, 'OK I need to get another contract now. I have to finish something now because if I don't, I have to figure out the rent.'"

Every so often, these anxieties eek into plain sight. And then the gang grabs beer, hops downstairs and plays video games.

Launch day starts early

The house gets loud, so loud you can feel it. The screams of winners and losers blend together into a howl, clashing with all the other sounds emanating from the rooms: musicians singing the Frozen soundtrack in the living room, guests knocking at the front door and local game makers showing off projects and talking shop in the kitchen.

A potpourri of indie and traditional game developers mingles in Indie House, everybody unified by a shared positive attitude and eclectic style.

"These are the nicest, most passionate and creative people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing," says Kayla Kinnunen, a director at Roadhouse. "Our community is stronger when we can come together, be supportive, learn, laugh and share stories, and I feel so fortunate that we have this in Vancouver." Indie House is the micro to Vancouver’s macro.

By the time Thorson and Burch arrive from dinner, a couple dozen friends have scrunched into the small house. The jubilant hoots and hollers of Chevy Ray Johnston, celebrating his birthday with a display of dominance in a virtual deathmatch, lure the remainders downstairs, pied-piper style. TowerFall Ascension, in this setting, is magnetic: one person's fun attracts more people, and so on — exponentially.

This has been, in a perverse way, Thorson's life for the past nine months. Not the party, but the obsessive playing of his game. Holowka and other housemates recall the many times Thorson turned down invitations to join them at other, non-TowerFall parties so he could code. It was all he could think about, all he could do. Tonight, that's not a problem.

Party guests are still in the house the morning after the party. In fact, the room is speckled with stragglers from the night before. Maya Kramer, a publicist for indie games and friend of the housemates, kicks back in a pink sweater and pajama pants, and two other designers from the night before are still wearing the same clothes.


"It should be [on the PlayStation store] soon, hopefully."

Everyone is crowded around the kitchen table, plugged into their laptops. They're punchy as kids on Pop Rocks, partly because of the lack of sleep and partly because Twitter's down and they want to read the internet's reaction to Ascension's release. "I have to go eat, but what if I miss Twitter coming back," says Maya. Everyone laughs.

Thorson woke around 9:30 a.m. to post the launch trailer online. Then he waited until noon when he received an email from Valve saying it wanted to push Ascension to its online storefront, Steam, and into the computers of everyone who wants to purchase it.

Now Thorson wants to check Twitter, and why isn't it working?

When Twitter comes back to life, a slew of fans, eager to play the game, message the designer, asking why TowerFall isn’t available for download on PlayStation Store yet. Thorson doesn’t have an answer; he only knows the game should appear within a general window of time. "It should be there soon," he says, "hopefully." Meanwhile, the game's climbing the Steam sales chart, becoming the eighth best-selling game of the moment.

Reality is sinking into Thorson's sleepy consciousness, but not necessarily how you’d expect. Thorson considers, of all things, the tech support angle. If people can't get the game to run, he'll be the one to fix it. These Twitter questions, they're only the beginning.

Worse, a clump of antagonistic messages plops onto Thorson's Twitter stream from people upset that TowerFall Ascension lacks online multiplayer. This gripe has followed the game since its release on Ouya. Thorson's considered adding the feature, but it would require programming skills he lacks. With the time between the Ouya release and Ascension, Thorson instead made single-player and cooperative modes. He leaned into the notion that his is a game you play on a couch with friends.

Besides, that's what Thorson cherishes: that feeling you share with others in the room. It's a communal thing, like a bunch of friends sitting in their pajamas around a dining room table the morning after a really fun night.

Aftermath

Months later

In an interview with Eurogamer in late April 2014, Thorson says TowerFall, in its various forms, has grossed over $500,000, with the PlayStation 4 version surpassing Ouya and Steam for best overall sales. "[One] reason it's done so well on PS4 is support from Sony," Thorson told Eurogamer. "They've featured and promoted it really well." After the troubled launch day, the game appeared on the PlayStation Network’s front page and has received additional promotion.

A half a million dollars isn't quite the million dollars George Broussard had casually predicted in March, but there’s still time and opportunities left for the veteran developer's prediction to be validated. Thorson has begun work on an update that might add a level editor to the game that would allow players to create and share new stages. TowerFall is being ported to Mac and Linux, but it hasn’t appeared yet in a Humble Bundle or Steam sale, or as a PlayStation Plus free game of the month, all methods for older games to push considerable sales long after their initial launch. Then there are the fighting game tournaments and fan conferences, like EVO and PAX, that have become such a boon for these sorts of multiplayer games, evangelizing players months if not years after the initial release.

By early May, Thorson has learned how to take a break from his game. Thorson has made hundreds of thousands of dollars off TowerFall and TowerFall Ascension. The cash should bankroll his work for the foreseeable future. So far, it's only bought him a phone.

And about that car: he began car shopping shortly after the game's release but found the process annoying. The car dealership guys, all fast talk and loud tone, aren't really his style, so for months he stuck to his bike. But in the minutes after finishing this piece, I receive a short email. "An update," writes Thorson, "I bought a car."

Thorson might work a couple of hours a day, either prototyping a new idea or adding new things to TowerFall.

He confesses he's tempted to continue working on TowerFall. "[But] TowerFall feels closer to complete to me now," he says. "Like the Ouya version did not feel finished; it just felt like a good opportunity to expand the audience and get more feedback. I feel like every step where I expand the audience I understand the game better, but at this step I’m not sure if I'll gain much because I'm not sure how much deeper I can go into TowerFall. And once I can't go any deeper, what am I going to add to it?"


"35's like — I've never thought as far as 35. I think, for right now, this is perfect for me. I think it could last another few years at least."

Thorson enjoys the opportunity to think about something other than games. Like Burch, whom he’s been visiting regularly in Los Angeles.

This isn’t the end of Indie House. He still loves it there, and, he says, moving from Canada to America is exactly the sort of headache he’s been avoiding in this time of peace.

In an email, Hannah Boyd catches us up on the house's status: "Matt got a car and has been away a bunch, but day to day the house feels the same to me. Everyone's working on different stuff: Noel is working on Skytorn; Matt is working on TowerFall updates and other projects; Alec continues to chip away at Night in the Woods and his three thousand other commitments; Chevy is doing some more contract work and working on side projects. Life goes on."

Thorson does wonder if the house is the same, though. "It's a lot more scattered now," he says and speculates that TowerFall may have unified them. Or maybe that’s just how it felt to him. He never knew Indie House without TowerFall.

Thorson's not worried. The house doesn’t afford a ton of privacy, let alone space, but when someone's down, the house picks them up. When things are scattered, the house brings them together. Thorson has the money now, but what he’s always wanted, he’s had all along.

It might not last forever, but it's special and sweet and it's here right now. Thorson was 25 years old at Ascension's release, 26 today, but if he decides to stay at Indie House, what's life like at 35?

"Yeah 35's like," he pauses, "I've never thought as far as 35. I think, for right now, this is perfect for me. I think it could last another few years at least. I feel like eventually someone will move out, maybe someone else will move in. That kind of thing, just as people are at a place in their lives where it doesn’t work anymore for them. That's fine. I think we'll all always be friends regardless. I have a dream of starting a co-working space based on Indie House in Vancouver where people can just come and do creative stuff. That might be one thing I could do if I had more money, too."

But for now, Matt Thorson got his wish: relative sameness. Babykayak


Images: Jimmy Shelton

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