A few months ago I wrote a story about a company in Copenhagen called BetaDwarf and how it ran into financial trouble while developing twin-stick shooter Forced Showdown.
The game is finally out tomorrow. You can watch me play it and listen to my impressions in the video above.
At the time of the original story, BetaDwarf head Steffen Kabbelgaard said that the game could only be completed if his staff of 18 people worked for free for the last few months of Forced Showdown's completion.
Not surprisingly, some people thought that sounded like a terrible deal for the team members. So I called Kabbelgaard and asked him what was going on. I asked to see evidence of his company's financial structure and I talked to one of his employees.
Kabbelgaard said that the company had always been set up along lines of collective responsibility and reward. The team takes 50 percent of income from its games as bonuses. This is shared out according to a vote on who deserves what. The bonuses also go to people who have left the company, but who contributed to the game's making. Crucially, BetaDwarf's books are open to all staff, at all times.
Exploitation of talent is all too common in the world today, through low wages and internships. But it seemed to me that the characterization that this was all so obviously a cheap way to exploit people was not supported by the evidence. It was certainly a gamble, it definitely carried risks, but I did not think it was a scam, and I said so.
Employers who rob their employees rarely open up their books, share their revenues or reward those who have moved on to other employers. BetaDwarf has a history of staff co-operation. According to Kabbelgaard, it's the only system that is practical for them, short of selling up and putting themselves into the hands of owners. He responded to his critics in trade outlet Gamasutra.
Recently, I called Kabbelgaard again to find out what had been going on with his staff. He said that almost everyone's wages were up to date, apart from a junior artist who has left (and will receive her share of bonus money, assuming Forced Showdown is a success), and an unpaid intern (who is also included in the bonus scheme).
For the record, I believe that unpaid internships are wrong — they tend to favor people from privileged backgrounds — but they are a common feature of the working world today.
BetaDwarf has managed to pay its wage-bill through the combination of a reasonably successful Kickstarter, a distribution deal in China and higher-than-expected console sales of its earlier game Forced. These are timely windfalls, but they are also the fruits of the company's hard work.
Forced was a well-regarded game, and its sequel, I suspect, will also do well. With any luck, the faith that the team showed to one another will be rewarded in real terms.
Forced Showdown is a top-down twin-stick shooter in which the player battles through multiple levels in order to slay a big boss. Taking a lead from the popularity of roguelikes, the levels are randomly generated. Each failure means going back to the beginning of the challenge and starting again. The whole thing is packaged up as a futuristic game-show-to-the-death.
The game also takes some inspiration from the world of card collection games. Players build decks by collecting bonuses and completing quests. Cards are presented at the beginning of each level, and can be bought for mana. When it comes to spending mana and making the best use of cards, there is a definite aspect of strategy involved. Some power-ups are one-off boosts, while others last right through to the boss battle.
It took me a while to beat my first boss, but once I'd done it, I started to appreciate the variety of levels on offer. Some of them drop you into the middle of a storm of enemies, while others allow for a more leisurely canter. Health management is always a key concern.
Still, this is definitely not a game for those people who like to feel they are always making tangible progress. There is certainly a great deal of restarting. The pleasure is in hitting a groove and collecting so many boosts and power-ups that even the big bosses are manageable.
Forced Showdown is out on Windows PC on March 29.