Grandma's House used to smell like cookies. But it's not over a river or through any woods. To get there, you'd have to travel to Austin, Texas, an incubator of video game creation.
You'd drive — maybe in a Mustang, maybe in a Lexus, maybe in a modest sedan, its silver paint fading from years of punishment in the Texas sun — winding your way though a few middle class neighborhoods filled with beige stucco houses and ringed by low walls. Then, at a stop sign at a forgettable intersection, you'd find a modest office complex tucked away on a corner, shaded by trees.
There's a doctor's office on the first floor of one dark brown building, but if you ascended the staircase from the lobby up and opened the first door on your right, you'd find it there: a single, small room ringed by desks, under a ceiling that slopes low toward the parking lot. The lights would be off to keep the heat to a minimum, thanks to wonky air conditioning that the landlord can't or won't fix. Computers and monitors suck so much juice out of the sparse electrical sockets that the water cooler won't be plugged in. Wouldn't want to trip another breaker.
On the walls, you'd see a poster for the action game Darksiders. On top of the room's only cabinet, you'd find Death's mask from Darksiders 2 and a statue of the first game's hero, War, astride a horse. Also, a Han Solo statue, just because it's cool.
You'd also see five people, the whole staff of an independent game company that’s less than a year old. They might be fixated on huge monitors, a couple of which sit on each of their desks. Or they might be sitting in a semicircle, huddled around the office TV, which takes up the only wall space not claimed by furniture or a makeshift whiteboard. Whether they're animating, coding, drawing or playing, they’re building a game they spent the last several months creating in obscurity.
Every one of them is a former employee of Vigil Games, the developer behind the Darksiders series. Two of the men in the room, Joe Madureira and Ryan Stefanelli, co-founded that studio a decade ago. They scattered after Vigil folded alongside its parent company, THQ, in early 2013.
In 2014, after Stefanelli's stint at another studio that folded, after Madureira finished a limited run drawing comics for Marvel, the two decided to start over. Joe's brother, Steve Madureira, heard the news, insisted on following, and they incorporated the new studio in September. The three founders christened it Airship Syndicate, a name that simultaneously evoked a Japanese role-playing game trope and teased the team's first project.
Around the same time, a friend told them about office space he was stuck with. It was small, and it was hot, and that was fine. Airship subleased, moved in and filled the tiny, empty space with budget-conscious Ikea furniture. In Airship's earliest days, for reasons nobody understands, it always smelled like cookies, which is how Grandma's House earned its nickname.
Today, the smell is gone, but the tenants remain. The name stuck, too, as did the reason for moving in: Airship Syndicate is transforming Madureira's old cult favorite comic book, Battle Chasers, into a game called Battle Chasers: Nightwar. Almost 15 years after the comic ended on an unresolved cliffhanger, Airship will bring that back, too.
Most of this unfolded in secret. But next week, for the first time, Battle Chasers: Nightwar will leave Grandma's House and arrive on Kickstarter. In full view of the public, its developers hope to convince fans of the comic, of the founders' previous projects and SNES-era JRPGs to back its continuing development, one crowdfunded dollar at a time.
Joe Madureira’s Battle Chasers: Nightwar cover in line art (left) and final colors (right)
Airship Syndicate begins with a game, but its founders don’t see that as an end. They've designed Airship to outlast its first game. This is their opportunity to learn from the rise and fall of Vigil, to create a small and sustainable studio, to apply its lessons to a new way of making games that didn’t exist when they founded the house that built Darksiders. And it will do this, they hope, independently, with the unparallelled creative freedom that route offers.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar's five-man team is acutely aware of the risk involved. They have children, families. They have bills to pay. Those things accentuate the uncertainty of going it alone.
But this was the plan all along.
People never stopped asking about Battle Chasers, and that never stopped surprising its creator, Joe Madureira — or Joe Mad, as he's known to comic fans, partly because that's how he signs his artwork, and partly because nobody knows how to pronounce his last name.
Madureira is a natural artist with skills you don't have to be a comic fan to recognize. His career began at 16 when he joined Marvel Comics as an illustrator. There, he gained widespread popularity on titles like Uncanny X-Men.
He's also among the first generation to grow up alongside video games. He became enamored with Square's Final Fantasy role-playing games and other Japanese RPGs. Their sprawling worlds, the Eastern take on fantasy and turn-based combat appealed to Madureira, who learned about role-playing games as a young Dungeons & Dragons player.
In the mid-'90s, Madureira started working on an original comic. Credited with pencils, story and additional inks, he published the first issue in 1997. That comic, Battle Chasers, is Madureira's loves laid bare.
Battle Chasers combines the aesthetics of Western comics, the fantasy of D&D and the Japanese sensibilities he found in comics, graphic novels and JRPGs. It tells the story of a motley crew of travelers and archetypal warriors: Garrison the angry swordsman; Gully the girl with the powerful, magical gloves; Calibretto the stone war golem with unimaginable power and a tender heart; Knolan the wizard who keeps Calibretto alive despite orders to destroy him; and Red Monika, a bounty hunter as deadly as she is sexy.
Over the next few years, in fits and spurts and at two publishers, Madureira released Battle Chasers. The ninth issue hit in 2001 with an infamous cliffhanger. It wasn't supposed to be the final issue, but life and other opportunities intervened, and Battle Chasers slid into indefinite hiatus as Madureira switched careers to make video games.
"At that time, I was heavily into games and transitioned into the game industry, so the book was never finished," Madureira says. "It's funny because, over the years, I thought people would just lose interest in it, but it's the single most asked about project of my life's work."
He's occasionally returned to the comic book landscape, but video games have been his primary focus for most of the last two decades. Madureira's foray into video games had its fits and spurts as he transitioned between developers like NCSOFT and his projects. In 2005, he co-founded Vigil Games with three other NCSOFT employees, including his Airship co-founder Ryan Stefanelli.
In its early days, the small studio helped other developers complete their games, which helped keep Vigil afloat. Stefanelli says the team nearly made a prototype for a Sly Cooper PSP game and nearly partnered with NCSOFT, but it decided against both — not because the team wasn't excited to do them, but because it had larger ambitions. It held out and partnered with THQ, which purchased the developer and infused it with cash. Then Vigil started making Darksiders, a Legend of Zelda-inspired action RPG. Released in 2010, Darksiders earned critical acclaim, but it wasn't an unmitigated sales success.
Vigil kept making games and took on other projects for THQ. What began as a four-person studio grew to nearly 100. By the time it released its second game, Darksiders 2, in November 2012, the studio had more than 200 employees.
Like its predecessor, Darksiders 2 was successful, but not overly so. And by the time it was released, Vigil's parent company, THQ, was failing. Joe Madureira read the tea leaves.
"After Darksiders 2, I knew we weren't making Darksiders 3, and I wasn't that interested in whatever was going to happen," he says. "And THQ was so dicey. And I had a cool Marvel contract, and I was like, 'Comics? That's good right now.'"
Stefanelli and others remained, and Vigil kept working on THQ's fabled MMO, Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium, and another project that was little more than a prototype and a code name, Crawler.
In January 2013, just two months after Vigil shipped Darksiders 2, a federal judge ordered THQ's assets to be divvied up and sold off at a bankruptcy auction. In April 2013, a little-known European publisher, Nordic Games, acquired a significant portion of THQ's remaining intellectual property, including the Darksiders franchise, for $4.9 million. Nobody in any auction bid for Vigil. The studio Madureira and Stefanelli started was no more.
"It was a strangely numb feeling, actually," Stefanelli says. "Part of it was because we started it, and the studio was amazing, but it did become THQ's at some point. So, its fate felt tied to THQ's, and I think, in a way, that changed our own feeling about it. If it was still our studio, and we were still independent, and that had happened, I think that would have been more painful than it was — not that it wasn’t."
In a sense, that was the spark that would ignite Airship's flame.
"I think that was sort of the start to my own desire to get back to a smaller studio," Stefanelli says. "After that, I went with a bunch of guys from Vigil, and we were approached very quickly by Crytek about starting a studio for them. I think, even then, some of us wanted to do a smaller studio, but there was this immediate opportunity to save 30 to 40 jobs. We were all sort of rattled by the THQ thing, as well, so we said yes almost immediately."
Madureira's younger brother, Steve, joined Stefanelli at Crytek USA. What appeared at first to be a phoenix rising out of Vigil's ashes became anything but. The pair lasted about a year there before bowing out. By mid-2014, Crytek USA shut down.
Madureira and Stefanelli kept in touch, kept meeting for lunch, kept talking about making games. They talked about recreating Vigil's culture, about the benefits of keeping a studio small. The more they talked, the more a game started to take shape. They could use Battle Chasers as its core. They could even do a comic book. They could wrap it all in a genre that they've always loved but that developers aren't making anymore — the old-school, SNES-era JRPG — keeping what they loved and modernizing the rest. And they could do it independently, without corporate overlords or bean counters, without all the difficulties of managing hundreds of employees. They could build it with the freedom of a wholly owned project, backed by people who wanted to play the game.
Then, one day last year, they decided to stop talking and start developing.
"Joe and I flirted with the idea and talked about doing a smaller studio and making this kind of RPG, almost casually, but then that was the time it was right," Stefanelli says. "It was like, 'OK. Let's take our fate into our own hands for a project and not leave it up to, necessarily, big corporate interests. Let's do it on our own.'"
Joe's brother Steve insisted on joining. He didn't ask. He told them he was coming. Airship Syndicate was born.
Vigil Games started with a game, not a business plan. That wasn't a mistake its founders were going to make again.
For the better part of a decade, Vigil got to work on the game its founders dreamed of — and then its sequel. The ex-Vigil employees at Airship are proud of what they shipped (and even the never-released games they didn't). They wanted to make AAA games, and they understood that there was no way to do that without turning Vigil into a somewhat unwieldy beast with a couple hundred people.
It wasn't the plan, but it became necessary.
There isn't a hint of animosity, not a trace of bitterness when they talk about the studio that Vigil became. Anything they didn't like — the office politics, the difficulties communicating to everyone — they chalk up to invariable aspects inherent in human nature. But they'd rather not do that again.
"I'm happy we went that route," Madureira says. "For me [when thinking about what to do next], I wasn't interested in doing games again for a large studio. I feel like," he pauses to laugh, "Vigil was as close to great as it's ever going to get — for me, personally, as an artist. "I just feel like the dream that you have when you first get into the game industry, at least for me, it was just a couple guys making this passion project. That's what I imagined. When you have two or three hundred people and all the producers and meetings and stuff, it doesn't feel like that. Not to say that it wasn't — it's a very valuable experience. But I came from working in my room alone, by myself, for years. So it was a culture shock for me."
When they had a chance to start again, they decided to do things differently. It's impossible not to see the contrast between Vigil, which was huge, and Airship, which is tiny. Part of that is reactionary, and part of it is based on a very old notion that only became possible recently.
"In the early days of Vigil, there were 12 guys, 15 guys," Madureira says. "It was the most fun for me as a developer. I didn't feel like you could be successful in the gaming industry without doing that, until recently. Now there are guys who are becoming successful with a team of, like, three. And it's like, 'Holy shit! This is a thing now! We could actually pull this off!' It just didn't seem possible before."
Everyone at Airship speaks with an honest assessment of the risks involved and the potential of this new kind of old game. But there's something mostly unstated in all this talk of starting over again and doing things differently. For all of their happiness, for all of their achievements, something has eluded them: a genuine commercial success.
Both entries in their dream franchise were well-received critical darlings, but neither was a bona fide AAA hit, financially. But that didn't dampen their enthusiasm.
For their next project, those who created Darksiders are engaged in another dreamlike game, one that aims to rekindle and grow a childhood spark — and one in a genre more niche than their previous projects.
Despite the over-the-top success that eluded them, Airship's founders didn't take the lesson of Vigil to mean "go make something big like Call of Duty" — nor do they begrudge anyone who chooses to do that.
"I think quite a few guys like working on the blockbuster movie," Stefanelli says. "They don't want to work on any film. They want to work on the blockbuster Hollywood movie. And that's great. There's always going to be a place for that. I want to play those games, too."
Instead, Airship looked inward and focused on culture and size. When development gets difficult (and it often does) and people disagree (and they often will), it's an advantage to lean on camaraderie and a shared vision. That's a lot easier to do that in a small room with five or 10 people than in a studio with 200 plus, which makes communication difficult.
"I've realized that so much of game development is problem solving," Madureira says. "It's literally one problem after another. 'Oh no! I put this in, and this doesn't work. If we do this, how's this going to happen?' And then we sit around going, 'Can't we just take the thing from there, and do this?' 'Oh, yeah, that's great!' And that happens dozens of times a day."
"We were struggling to define the vision of the game, and the team started to show signs of cracking."
Developing games isn't all hand holding and singing "Kumbaya," though. Some cultures, including Vigil's, don't work for everyone. In the early days, the studio shed employees who didn't buy in, who didn't fit. Those who stayed were, in some sense, a self-selecting group who saw and believed in the Darksiders mission enough to see themselves reflected in it.
Airship is nothing if not a self-selected group. Its three founders created the studio with Battle Chasers: Nightwar in mind. And they sought out their first two employees from the pool of like-minded Vigil alumni. It's no surprise that, when it came time to start building Airship's first game, they took the lessons from their former studio and employed the same methods that produced Darksiders. Those methods, though sometimes painful, culminated when they shipped a game they could be proud of.
Darksiders began without the kind of strict game design document that developers sometimes create at the outset of a project. GDDs exist to create cohesion, to get people from varied disciplines — artists, designers, musicians, programmers — collaborating on a shared vision. To hear Airship describe it, Darksiders began more as an outline than a game. And that meant, in the short term, an extended period of experimentation.
That process of refinement helped the team understand the game it wanted to make. It also taught some people who'd joined the team that this wasn't the studio for them.
"We were struggling to define the vision of the game, and the team started to show signs of cracking," Stefanelli says. "And some people left because we hadn't achieved fun yet." That learn-the-game-as-you-make-it style of development can breed frustration. It forces decisions, which forces conflict, which forces compromise, which is where cultural homogeneity substitutes for a strict, predetermined design document. If you trust the people around you, the theory goes, you'll allow them to follow their vision, even if you don't necessarily agree with it when the decision needs to be made.
It's more than a theory for the five employees of Airship games. It's how they created Darksiders.
"Eventually, I think we got lucky, and we found the right mix — the right types of personalities came together," Stefanelli says. "And when [we] got our first dungeon done, and it was fun, and everybody looked around the room, and they said, 'OK. The dungeon's good. This completes our vision for the game and how we can finish it.' Everybody in the room still liked each other. 'Let's go kick some ass.' That's when that game turned the corner."
"In 12 months, I think we did 80 percent of the game."
They repeated the process for Darksiders 2, which came together much more quickly than its predecessor. They'd learned from their mistakes and successes, which made the second round easier.
Vigil had the luxury of doing that in part because it had THQ to fund development. But, of course, its pockets weren't bottomless. Before everyone decided they could kick ass, they were under the proverbial gun — a "pressure cooker," as Stefanelli describes it, that at points even had him doubting their plan's efficacy. They faced deadlines. They had limited time and resources. They couldn't experiment forever. They needed to figure out their game.
When they did, everything changed, everything flowed from there. Just as importantly, they didn't experiment or build it in the abstract. They did both by creating the first part of the game.
"In 12 months, I think we did 80 percent of the game," Stefanelli says.
"Yeah," Steve Madureira says, finishing his fellow co-founder's thought. They do this often at Airship, unintentionally demonstrating the existence of the culture they describe. "It's not even an exaggeration."
At Airship, they're using the same approach to create Battle Chasers: Nightwar. The first part of the game already exists. It's what they've been doing in Grandma's House for the last five months. The big difference is that, this time, they're not relying on the deep pockets of a publisher who's already approved their game. They're relying on you.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar began in much the same way that Darksiders did: with malleable ideas. The narrative foundation and the characters came from Madureira's comics. The gameplay foundation came from classic JRPGs. Neither add up to an actual game, though, and the team didn't have the funding to play around more or less indefinitely. It had some money, but it was again in a pressure cooker of its own making. The team worked the plan, became frugal and stretched every dollar it spent.
Airship considered launching a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year but decided to defer. Better to start building, it figured. Better to understand the size and scope, to define some portion of it. It'll show better, and the group will have a better idea of what it can make. The team returned to its roots — and brought the first two employees to Grandma's House to help.
Chris Brooks was the first to board the Airship in late January 2015. A nearly two-decade industry veteran, he's known Stefanelli for most of that time. They first met when the Airship co-founder served as Brooks' intern at a small development studio in Arizona. In 2015, Brooks' former intern has been his boss, twice, and this time they hand-picked him. But convincing Brooks to come aboard wasn't easy.
The video game industry has porous borders. Studios rise and fall, they expand and contract as a matter of course. It's rare to hear of a developer who's spent a career in one place. When Vigil disbanded, for example, the diaspora spread across the industry landscape and real-world geography.
Brooks knows this well. He's worked at several companies. He's had his own. When Vigil closed, he went to Certain Affinity, another Austin-based studio founded by ex-employees, though this time of Bungie. In recent years, that developer has been best known as assisting 343 Industries on the Halo franchise. While Brooks was there, he worked on that series and even id Software's Doom. But he grew weary.
"I moved on from that, and I actually left games completely," Brooks says. "I was just disillusioned working on this huge team and feeling like it was so hard to contribute." In the meantime, Airship Syndicate was ramping up, and it needed a technical director, and it started calling Brooks.
"It took a while for these guys to convince me that I wanted to come aboard," he says.
In part, that was because he was making a comfortable living as a one-man website developer. And, he says, he wanted to work on something he believed would ship. The simple truth about Airship is that it's a startup. It's not like Brooks was being asked to work at the electric company, which always has customers. Stability at a three-man studio is anything but assured.
Eventually, and after some tenacity on Airship's behalf, the combination of reuniting with people he's known and worked with for more than a decade and his belief in the fundamentals of the game they wanted him to help create convinced Brooks to come aboard.
With a technical director on board, Airship Syndicate quietly began building Battle Chasers: Nightwar about five months before Polygon visited its office.
The team has been working the plan all along, and now it's time to enter the next phase. That's the one where the plan gets a bit fuzzy because the team doesn't know what it'll be able to make. It's not because it doesn't have the ability to choose, but because the full scope of Battle Chasers: Nightwear won't be determined by a publisher or a profit and loss statement. It'll be determined by Kickstarter backers.
Development, in other words, is easy in comparison.
"The part coming up is going to be the hardest part. We have to get a bunch of strangers on board," Stefanelli says and chuckles at the thought.
Ask an adult raised in the '80s and '90s what they thought video games would look like in the future, and you'll hear dreams of consoles with bits in some multiples of eight along with prettier platformers. It felt like the future would make what people knew prettier.
Those understandable predictions failed to take into account the 3-D revolution. Incentivized by hardware advances, a spontaneous order emerged based on polygons, not sprites. There weren't so many 2-D games being made anymore.
Even when franchises endured the spatial shift, Mario and Sonic and Final Fantasy changed. Built on the foundations of the past, they also embraced a multidimensional future.
But then, not long ago, digital storefronts like Steam, mobile app stores and branded marketplaces built into consoles empowered the rise of independent game makers. So did ever cheaper utilities for making games.
Many indies riffed on the games their developers played growing up. Soon, 2-D platformers and their contemporaries returned from exile. Sometimes, they look deliberately old school. Sometimes they look modern and are limited in scope. Either way, they're infused with the sensibilities of days gone by.
When it was at Vigil, the five-man team currently at Airship Syndicate was anything but indie. They embraced the new 3-D world. They're smaller now, but the inertia of AAA development is strong. Airship doesn't want a retro design. It wants to mix the old with the new. It's burned many calories finding a balance.
Part of that decision is practical. There's a limit to the size and scope of a game that a very small team can build. But limiting also keeps the established JRPG gameplay aesthetic alive, which is evident as soon as the game starts. Battle Chasers: Nightwar’s current prototype represents the game's beginning: A slice of combat, exploration and story that sets the tone for what the team will build next. There are three basic modes. There's an overworld, just like in old-school JRPGs, where you walk around and explore the landscape. Within that, there are dungeons that you find and enter. And in both areas, there are roaming monsters to fight, which bring you and your party of three into the turn-based battle screen.
That basic structure is standard issue fare, familiar to fans of a certain age. What sets Battle Chasers: Nightwar apart, even at this early stage, is the additions and simplifications that Airship makes to the formula. None of those is more striking than the game's visual style. You can see the evolution from pen and paper art to 3-D world in the original comics and the concept art Madureira and others created for the characters and the environments.
Every pixel looks like it was born from a comic. This is by design. The JRPG was born there, and the developer is graphing that aesthetic onto an isometric world with a hybrid between 2-D and 3-D assets. The overworld and battle backgrounds are 2-D paintings, for example, but the characters traveling and fighting through them are 3-D. When they're in a dungeon, 3-D characters walk through isometric levels that look, somehow, flat and multidimensional at the same time.
The result isn't incongruous. They look like they belong together, as if someone took a straw, blew air into some a comic page and brought the drawings into another dimension. And that's more or less what happened, minus the magic straw. Everyone in Battle Chasers: Nightwar began as a sketch drawn by a renowned comic artist.
The 25 minutes of Battle Chasers: Nightwar that Airship showed Polygon gave off a constant reminder of the team's ability to blend old and new. Overworlds and dungeons are old concepts, but the roaming bands of monsters and the dungeon's traps are examples of modern sensibilities.
Unlike in old-school JRPGs like Dragon Quest, Airship's encounters aren't random. They put walking monsters on the screen, allowing players to identify upcoming battles or run away and avoid fights. Video game staples like environmental traps — a rotating, bladed stick shuffling across a path in a dungeon floor and an old-school spike trap in the floor, for example — add a layer of challenge to the exploration. Those cut both ways, too: Players should avoid them, but they can also lure enemies to them and soften them up before battle.
And because each of the comic characters already has built-in abilities, different dungeons and enemies will play to different characters' strengths, so assembling a party will be part of the strategy.
The battle screens felt like a warm blanket of nostalgia, split between the players' party lined up vertically on the left side of the screen and the enemies on the right. Turn by turn, Airship selected attacks, balanced its use of depleting resources and planned several steps ahead in the battle, thanks to a system that telegraphed its multiturn moves and those of its enemies.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar is, in every respect, precisely the kind of game that you'd expect a group of old-school JRPG fans to make, and it's easy to see it gaining credibility among genre fans. At the same time, the combat system is also somewhat overwhelming. Airship will need to teach players how to survive within the rule book it creates. It'll need to work extra hard at that if it wants to attract newcomers.
It could be a tough sell to those who haven't been steeped in the genre. Though many comic fans will see the attraction of a side story set in Madureira's Battle Chasers universe, JRPGs aren't for everyone. They can be confusing. Airship knows this and hopes to mitigate some of the challenge with simplified systems based on games it loves.
But simplification doesn't take away from the game's hardcore aspects. It's tuned to be an explicitly difficult game, in the tradition of Dark Souls, something that can't be overcome with button mashing, luck or automatic attacks, of which the game has none. And as any fan of From Software's RPG series can tell you, brutality can make a game more meaningful. Airship understands this. Rare is the deliberately difficult game that achieves mainstream success. Once again, Airship's choice is likely to be an attractant to fans and a repellant to others.
The team's not unaware. This was the plan all along. Airship is here to make games its creators want to play, to pitch them to like-minded gamers while starting over at a new company that's small, nimble, player supported and designed to last. It can shift if it needs to. But before it can realize any of those ambitions, the team has to make a game. The future of Airship Syndicate is inextricably linked to Battle Chasers: Nightwar — and possibly to you.
"To be completely fair," Stefanelli says, "if your first game isn't good, then screw your business plan."
Airship Syndicate is equal parts excited and nervous about the future.
The three founders incorporated Airship Syndicate last September. They spent the next few months, as Stefanelli says, "considering exactly what we wanted to make, doing preproduction." Brooks made four in January. The fifth employee, Environment Lead Jesse Carpenter, arrived in July.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar is Airship's vision given form, the game the studio was founded to create. It is a risk, and the team knows it.
It's easy to understand why traditional publishers might not want to extend the financial risk to a niche project like Battle Chasers: Nightwar. And that is, perhaps, the strongest argument for taking it to Kickstarter, a place where the most dedicated fans have an opportunity to fund the game they want to play.
As excited as the developers are, they're also nervous about this new way of funding. Kickstarter is an all or nothing proposition: Either you make and receive all the money you ask for or your project fails. They've done their research. They've talked to and made new friends with developers who've gone through the crowdfunding gauntlet. They're as prepared as they think they can be.
"I think that's one of the cool things about doing Kickstarter," says Carpenter. "Getting out early, it hurts in some ways a little bit more, because people seeing your unfinished stuff; they don't always understand that it's unfinished.
"A good example is that my dad always had these muscle cars out in his barn, and they were always unfixed. He fixed them up years later. Some people came over, and they were like, 'Oh, yeah. That's going to be amazing!' And other people see it, and they're like, 'Why do you keep this around?'
"At the same time, being able to see your stuff early on lets you make changes in stride before the game ships. Whereas, otherwise, they see it after the game shipped, and you go back, and you're like, 'Oh, they're right. That would have been a good fix, but it's too late.'"
"When you've gained and lost something like we did with Vigil, it teaches you the importance of caring about the company as well as the products it's creating."
But there is a looming possibility that, for any number of reasons, Airship won't receive the funds it needs to complete the game. And if that's true, there's an argument to be made that the team is making a game that not enough people want to play to justify its existence.
That has not deterred the studio from taking the calculated risk. And, as Stefanelli points out, there's a counterargument to Kickstarter failure: Some games might not be right for crowdfunding. Yes, publishers have approached Airship. No, it hasn't made any deals with them. The team believes that Battle Chasers: Nightwar is right for Kickstarter. Independence funded by backers allows the creative freedom it craves, even if it comes with struggles of its own.
"It's like, OK. Let's take our fate into our own hands for a project," Stefanelli says,"and not leave it up to, necessarily, big corporate interests. Let's do it on our own."
Madureira echoes Stefanelli's sentiments.
"We knew we were going to struggle with finding people that would be available," he says. "A lot of guys wanted to help, but they were in jobs. Some people could only work part time, and some people can't work without pay.
"There's all that stuff when you're doing a startup that you have to manage. And obviously we can't go forever. We don't have unlimited resources. But it was important to us to stay indie, and we knew we wanted to do a small game with a small team. I'm happy we went that route."
They're not just making a game. They're making a company alongside it — or a game alongside a company, depending on how you look at it.
Airship is doing all of this with the experience — the good, the bad, the mistakes, the successes, the failures — of Vigil Games behind them. If its founders' plan works, Airship Syndicate and the culture it incubates will endure longer than its first game.
"When you've gained and lost something like we did with Vigil, it teaches you the importance of caring about the company as well as the products it's creating," Stefanelli says. "Kickstarter is exciting, it's fun and going straight to fans is something that most developers may not get the chance to do. It feels like there are a lot of Kickstarter campaigns, but obviously there are a lot more games that fund through traditional means than through crowdfunding."
Battle Chasers: Nightwar's developers are excited and hopeful, but they temper both before they morph into bravado. They are thrilled to share their secret game with the world, but they're also worried because it's not finished, and so much depends on people they don't know.
They may be veterans who used to work among hundreds, but here in 2015, they're mostly alone. They have the same worries any developer would have. They don't have the funding of a parent company or a publisher to see their next game through. All they have is their savings and some angel investment funds to help shepherd them through these early stages. And they have an ethos. The way Madureira sees it, if they have to go through a publisher to get this game made, they've done something wrong.
They've done the work. They've followed the plan. It's time to see if it pays off, this month and beyond.
"I think we'd all kick ourselves if we didn't try," Madureira says. "Because who knows how long this opportunity is going to be here? Everything sort of converged. It's like, holy crap! Indie studios are happening right now. Fans are funding these games. You can make a JRPG in the year 2015. It doesn't have to be Call of Duty.'"Photos: Ben Sklar