There aren’t many game developers in New Caledonia. In fact, there’s not much of a scene at all — but it’s not nonexistent. Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura recently started a team called Awaceb; they’re New Caledonian developers and friends working from France to create a video game inspired by their home.
“We asked ourselves what makes us different, and it was our origins,” Crifo tells Polygon. The team now consists of 12 staff.
New Caledonia’s main island sits like a skipped stone permanently scraping across the surface of the water. People that live in the French territory call it le caillou, French for pebble — that’s why Awaceb chose Project Caillou as the working title for its first big game, an open-world adventure set in a fictionalized version of the islands. Off the east coast of Australia, the cluster of islands is lined with beaches, coral reefs, and knotted mangrove forests. Along the south side of the main island, dirt is bloated red with nickel and iron, with its unique microclimates spreading north into tropical rainforests and dry savannas. It’s an area known for its unique biodiversity, which spreads from city life to its vast remote spaces.
Awaceb is using the quickly shifting landscape of New Caledonia as inspiration for their fictional archipelago in Project Caillou. Players take control of Project Caillou’s main character, a young girl with magical abilities and a ukulele. She can take control of items on the island — crabs, coconuts, birds, shells — and use this to reach new places and solve puzzles. That’s about all the information Awaceb is willing to share right now; the game is still a ways away from a release date.
Awaceb’s initial project, a smaller, self-funded title called Fossil Echo, was like a test run for the studio. “It wasn’t a huge success, but it was enough to give us the confidence to actually go ahead [with a larger project].” Project Caillou needed more funding, and the team pitched it to publishers for six months last year. That’s when they applied for funding through Kowloon Nights, an investment fund led by ID@Xbox founding member Alexis Garavaryan and games consultant Jay Chi. Kowloon Nights doesn’t operate like a publisher; it allows its funded studios and projects to retain intellectual property and sequel rights — the developers, more or less, have full control, regardless of if they’re an industry veteran like Fumito Ueda or a team working on its first game.
“The philosophy [for Kowloon Nights] is that the studio should be as independent as possible,” Crifo says. “They’re very hands off. They trust the developer to deliver.” And so that’s what Awaceb is now trying to do with Kowloon Nights’ investment — deliver a game that represents New Caledonia culture, something with global appeal.
The past year
A year has passed since Kowloon Nights first went public with its investment fund. In September 2018, there were 10 games signed on for funding, including a project codenamed Game #4 from GenDesign’s Ueda, Spiritfarer — which was officially revealed at E3 2019 — from Thunder Lotus, and an unannounced game from Hyper Light Drifter developer Teddy Dief.
Now, Kowloon Nights has added 10 more games to its lineup: Project Caillou from Awaceb, Consume Me from Beglitched developers Jenny Jiao Hsia and AP Thomson, The Red Lantern from Timberline Studio, Elk by Triple Topping, and unannounced games from BAFTA-nominated developer The Pixel Hunt, Sonderlust Studios (composed of former Campo Santo, Bungie, and Telltale developers), Hadoque, and Redhill. The final two projects to round out the total of 20 haven’t been revealed just yet.
Plenty of things haven’t changed since the initial announcement of Kowloon Nights. It’s still not revealing the investors behind the fund; the only details are that they’re based in Asia and part of the games industry. Kowloon Nights is still branding itself as “developer-focused,” still looking for visually strong games from unique perspectives. The mission has stayed largely the same: to give developers creative freedom to make the best games possible. The stories they really want to tell.
Of course, there’s money to be made, too — in that way, it’s not too different from a publishing structure. “We provide funding for the game and we support the team,” Garavaryan tells Polygon. “If the game isn’t successful, they don’t have to repay us anything. The key difference is that our projects don’t have a recoup — from the first unit [sold], developers get revenue coming in. They know that as long as the game ships, they’ll make money.”
And Kowloon Nights’ investors, too, will make money. Thunder Lotus founder William Dubé tells Polygon that Kowloon Nights will share “a percentage of revenue” on its upcoming game, Spiritfarer, funded by Kowloon Nights and called a “cozy management game about dying.”
Kowloon Nights’ investors understand that there are risks involved in funding video games, which “removed a lot of the financial pressure you see in a typical fund,” according to Garavaryan in a 2018 interview with Polygon.
“I think for us, the incentive is much more signing great games, signing things that [...] people will remember, and hopefully they also are profitable,” he said in 2018. “But we’re not, first and foremost, revenue-driven. That’s not the philosophy.”
In 2018, the scope of Kowloon Nights’ projects ranged from $500,000 to $5 million in budgets per game. It’s changed slightly in year two, with games falling in the range of $100,000 to $10 million. Figuring out each game’s budget is a collaborative process, they say, not determined by how much money a game could potentially make, but on what it’ll take to make the best game possible — and if things change during development, that’s OK, too. Lindsey Rostal, former vice president and head of production for developer The Odd Gentlemen, works with Kowloon Nights as advisor in a role that makes her almost a developer’s advocate. Because Kowloon Nights isn’t using a publisher’s structure, Rostal encourages developers to be open about what they need or if there are problems. (Rostal’s studio, Timberline Studio, is also funded by Kowloon Nights for its upcoming roguelike resource management game, The Red Lantern.)
“It’s a huge mind shift because I’ve traditionally only worked with large-scale publishers, where you keep a lot closer to your chest most of the time, because you’re like, ‘I don’t want people to key in on this bad thing,” she says. “Having that open dialogue that we’re all learning and building from only makes the projects better.”
Breaking the rules
Though plenty remains the same — save for the additional 10 projects now funded by Kowloon Nights — the team’s broken some of the rules it originally set for itself. One of those guidelines? That they weren’t interested in mobile games. But then they got a pitch of Hsia and Thompson’s mobile game Consume Me, described as a personal, dark humor game about disordered eating and the competitiveness of dieting. (Consume Me is not purely a mobile game, and will be available on PC, too.)
“We all absolutely fell in love and said, ‘We should just support them. This is a project we all love, and we should just do it,’” Garavaryan says. “We gave ourselves a bit of flexibility.”
Everyone’s got their own ideas of what a mobile game could be, and then there’s the challenge of working on a platform it’s potentially less familiar with. Hsia points to developer Mountains’ mobile game Florence for its success in the space, a reminder that not all mobile games are what Hsia calls “score-chasing games,” where there’s more focus on gameplay loops than storytelling.
“A lot of the space in mobile games is very focused on things like that,” Thompson adds. “Games along those lines have a huge market share. Consume Me is just very different. It’s a blend of narrative and gameplay in a way that you see on PC or sometimes on console. But you don’t see it as often in mobile games, at least until recent time.”
When it comes down to it, Kowloon Nights says it’s focused on unique, compelling projects from diverse, passionate voices in the industry. And Hsia and Thompson’s Consume Me checks all those boxes, regardless of what platform the game’s on.
The other outlier is with Redhill Games’ new free-to-play, unannounced video game. From former Wargaming and Remedy developers, the game is expected to iterate on the tactical shooter genre. Redhill’s involvement with Kowloon Nights was announced in July, noting a $11.4 million investment round that included money from Makers Fund and Play Ventures, too.
“We initially did not want to do free-to-play titles, but we felt that [Redhill’s project] was one that we absolutely wanted to support,” Garavaryan says. “We’ve grown to accept that sometimes the rules don’t make sense, so we try to give ourselves as much flexibility to pick things that we’re passionate about even if [they don’t] fit the original framework we had.”
To self-publish or not?
Most of the games on Kowloon Nights investment list will be funded from start to finish — or “from soup to nuts,” as Kowloon Nights advisor and Camouflaj studio founder Ryan Payton puts it. But that’s not the only option. Once the game’s finished, plenty of the studios will self-publish the game with support from Kowloon Nights, but if they want to find a publisher, they can do that, too.
The Last Guardian designer Fumito Ueda and his studio, GenDesign, are an example of the latter. The partnership is unique: Kowloon Nights has funded the initial development of the unannounced game, and as that phase has been wrapping up, Ueda and team have been looking to sign with a larger publisher.
“We’re providing funding to help developers create their games in order to help them get up to a point where they are ready to establish new partnerships beyond what Kowloon Nights can offer,” Payton says. “We provide funding for teams to allow them to just focus on the game they want to make. When the timing’s right, we help them find that perfect partner if they want to go beyond self-publishing.”
In Ueda’s case, the team “made no promises of an actual game that would be commercially released,” Ueda tells Polygon. The arrangement let the team focus on the game’s design, research, and development.
“They’re able to grasp the idea by just showing them a gray-box level, which eliminates the need for us to prepare an extensive presentation,” Ueda says. “That valuable time is spent working on the actual game instead. When the partner isn’t as familiar with production and the steps of creating a game, there is a tendency to care more about the visuals, thus spending extra time perfecting that aspect rather than the core of the game’s design.”
And it’s worked, at least so far. Ueda says GenDesign spent the last year prototyping a few different ideas before moving forward with one of them. “The extensive prototyping period was worthwhile and we are making very good progress,” Ueda says. “I believe this project will showcase both unexpected and familiar elements in one.”
Other developers funded by Kowloon Nights are interested in that similar sort of flexibility, but are drawn to the idea of self-publishing, to keep hold of the game and the idea. There’s no need to bend and twist a game to fix itself into the idea of what a game from this big publisher or that big publisher should look like. “There are some entities that are so large, that even technically if you are an external developer, if you’re making a game with them, your game just disappears into the identity of that publisher,” Firewatch designer and Sonderlost Studios co-founder Nels Anderson tells Polygon.
“There are a lot of really great publishers, but we are building this new thing and we have a lot of big dreams and a really great team with great people,” Sonderlust Studios art director Lyndsey Gallant adds. “We think our ideas are really special. We don’t want to get swallowed up by being this publisher’s game.”
She echoes Ueda: “I’ve had points in my career where I’ve had to do lots of mock-ups just to prove that my idea makes sense. It’s already hard to make video games. It already costs a lot of money. You want to do it quickly and efficiently — a publisher that can get it and trust you and doesn’t gum up the works is really, really appealing.”
Last year, the Kowloon Nights team told Polygon that there’s no real common thread in the game’s it’s chosen to fund so far. If it’s talking about genre, audience, or budget, that’s still true. But the team’s began seeing similarities in what it’s drawn to — strong creative voices. The team wants games that will be remembered, that have a clear voice or distinct style. Games that are instantly recognizable in a flood of great games.
“I’m also fond of how much color is in our games,” Kowloon Nights advisor Rostal adds. “If you look at the screenshots, we have lots of different colors versus the grays, browns, and blacks. There’s nothing wrong [with those colors], but there’s times where I’m like, ‘Oh, we can see the spectrum of the world.’” (Case in point: Spiritfarer from Thunder Lotus, which debuted at E3 this year with immense praise for its bold art style and color design.)
That diversity in Kowloon Nights lineup of funded games is due, as well, to the diversity of the developers it’s choosing to work with, whether that’s gender, race, or nationality. The team has actively sought out — and continues to seek out — developers that might otherwise be underrepresented in the games industry. Kowloon Nights is funding developers from Japan, the United States, Spain, Serbia, all over Europe, and, of course, New Caledonia. The fund recognizes that there can be a barrier to entry that keeps some developers out of the industry.
“We go out seeking games from all around the world and from different creators,” Rostal says. “We want to make sure that we’re not only getting [developers from] the major cities that are easy to get to.”
“We skew much higher on having female leaders on our teams, which is really interesting to me,” Rostal continues. “These are the projects we’re drawn to and these are the ones that are standing out to us because they’re coming at something from a different angle.”
Update 8/27: We originally reported that Awaceb consisted of two team members. While it started that way, the team now employs 12 people. We have updated the story.