How an indie studio from Uruguay created a strategy game that conquered the world.
It's January 2013 and inside a closed room at Rovio's headquarters in Finland, three Uruguayans are waiting. It's their first time in Europe and they think that the developer of Angry Birds is interested in creating alliances with Latin game studios or maybe wants to publish their next game. But that's not the case.
After a few minutes, an executive from Rovio enters the room, and the Uruguayans find out the real purpose of the meeting: Rovio wants to buy their studio.
Ironhide Game Studio was founded by Álvaro Azofra, Pablo Realini and Gonzalo Sande in Montevideo, Uruguay in 2010. They had been working freelance jobs for a while, but they wanted to do something together. Azofra discovered great games at web portals like Kongregate that made money through sponsors, so the three formed a team to try the same.
After making a couple of small Flash games working part time, they decided to try something bigger. The result? Kingdom Rush. The team invested half a year in making the game and it paid off. The game took off, first as a Flash title, and then it went mobile. Less than two years after assembling the team, the trio had made one of the most popular tower defense games in the world. And when they flew to Finland, they were preparing a sequel.
Now, sitting in Rovio's office, the three stare at each other with disbelief. They decide to take some time to make their decision, so they travel back to Uruguay.
They think about the the plans they have for their studio, its future. And they send an email to Rovio refusing the deal. They don’t even negotiate. It's clear that Ironhide is an important part of their lives and they don't want to return to being employees again. Even more, they are confident that their next game is going to surpass all expectations.
Unlike other Latin cities like Buenos Aires, Lima or Santiago, Montevideo has a slow pace. It's a city with old buildings everywhere and displays in the streets that still advertise PlayStation 2 games. It's difficult to think that a game studio would be a couple of blocks from the town's center, on the second floor of one of the busiest streets. Inside the studio, it has a cozy atmosphere, with the team of 15 sharing the same space: programmers, artists and game designers are all mixed up in a room with large tables and a kitchenette at the back of the room. But it wasn't always like this.
The studio began at Azofra's place, with just the three of them at that time. It was a small room with a computer and a couple of chairs, half the space of the meeting room they have now. If you go to that room today, you'll see the marks the chairs left on the floor. At that time, tower defense games were very popular, but they had simple graphics and mechanics. The team liked this tug-of-war style of strategy and decided to make its own version by mixing up all the elements they loved in the games they played when they were kids. "We wanted the players to feel they were inside a battle," says Sande. The team members chose a medieval theme because they had seen a lot of references to knights and wizards in books, comics and movies — and because all three were veteran Dungeons and Dragons players.
In Kingdom Rush, players must defend their base from enemy hordes of goblins, wargs, yetis and countless other creatures. Unlike other games in the tower defense genre, players need to be very active during each battle, using their powers and upgrading their towers.
Sande was in charge of the art, and he proposed a cartoonish look with a lot of detail on the animations and effects during the battles. The result is towers disintegrating your foes with purple rays and golems coming out from the skies. Azofra also talks about certain elements of humor in the game, like references to pop culture and Easter eggs. Kingdom Rush had everything it needed to be a hit.
Even so, the team wasn’t confident the game was going to have the appeal it needed — they hadn’t received any feedback while making it. And the three of them had run out of money, didn’t have any more savings, didn't have a sponsor and didn't have the strength to face a failure. Their friends and relatives didn’t understand well what they were doing and they had invested a lot of time in the same project. Then they realized that if their game didn’t succeed it could be the end of the studio.
But they got it right. Players loved the game and in the first days after launch they made it to Kongregate's top spots. It was a phenomenon they never expected while they were isolated inside a room working and designing each level while joking about new enemies. Since then, users have played it more than 15 million times and the game has remained one of the best-rated titles on the portal. The team was safe.
A few months after the success of the Kingdom Rush Flash version, companies like Warner Bros. and LucasArts offered Ironhide work-for-hire contracts. The team of three, who grew up watching Star Wars movies and loved The Lord of the Rings, suddenly had the opportunity to make games for these iconic franchises.
For many studios it was a dream come true, but Ironhide declined so they could continue working on Kingdom Rush. The trio realized that many studios do this kind of work to get the money and the experience to create their own games, and Ironhide was already doing this. For them, it would have been like taking a step backwards.
Their next goal would be mobile. "We always thought on porting the game to mobile devices," says Azofra. After the release of the game, Realini, who was in charge of programming, bought an iPad to experiment with it and saw that it was the perfect platform for the genre because players could interact directly with the elements of the map. The team closed a new deal with its previous publisher, Armor Games, that allowed it to start working on the mobile version immediately. Realini learned how to code for that platform, and after four months, they had it done. Kingdom Rush for iOS was released at the end of 2011 and its success — getting to the top of the App Store charts in several countries, including the United States, with more than 100 million downloads worldwide — enabled the next phase of the studio.
Kingdom RushKingdom Rush
"We wanted the players to feel they were inside a battle."
"The most surprising thing that happened to me was when somebody at an Apple Store recognized the logo [on] my jacket."
Since 2012, the week of the Game Developers Conference has been a special time for Ironhide. The whole team goes to San Francisco, sleeps at the same hostel, goes to sessions and parties together. The studio pays for all the expenses — GDC is part of its culture, after all. It’s like a family trip with Azofra, Sande and Realini as the big brothers.
The first time the team went was in 2012 after they won a game contest in Uruguay with Kingdom Rush. They went to San Francisco to get to know more about the game industry and meet some fans.
"The most surprising thing that happened to me was when somebody at an Apple Store recognized the logo [on] my jacket and asked me if I made Kingdom Rush," remembers Azofra.
They also found out that they were leaving plenty of money on the table. Players couldn’t spend as much money as they wanted to after buying it because there weren't any in-app purchases. Some they met at the conference advised them to include some kind of currency in the game along with premium items. At first, they hesitated, but they ultimately decided to include it in an update. And they made sure it didn't mess with the game's balance.
In 2013 they returned to GDC but with another goal in mind: spreading the word about their next title, Kingdom Rush: Frontiers, a sequel that would expand the lore of the IP and introduce new mechanics. It was also an opportunity to build the monetization design in from the start.
The team even released comic books that expanded the story — and adjusted the difficulty by giving more personalized options for each tower. They had a clear directive to stick to the original recipe but to add new ways players could interact with their units and the environment, like giving heroes special powers and skill trees and having players decide between different upgrades for a single tower.
At GDC 2013, they met with other developers, the press and more publishers — much like they had with Rovio in Finland — but they were clear on the idea that they would self-publish the game. They simply wanted everyone to know they were making a new game.
Self-publishing would turn out to be tough decision for Kingdom Rush: Frontiers. For the first title, Armor Games was behind the marketing and commercial strategy, which included getting the press to know about the game, dealing with the Apple and Google stores and doing all of the paperwork. Ironhide was only involved in developing the game and knew nothing on how to reach out to the press or to big stakeholders like Apple, Google and Steam. It would be difficult for them to succeed in this part of the business.
But after the great results they had with the original Kingdom Rush, the team was confident. That's why they turned the Rovio deal down. That's why they turned down publishing offers from other companies. Their confidence paid off. The game rose to the top charts in most countries upon its release — and fans loved it.
How did a small team based in Uruguay with almost no experience making games manage to become a worldwide success? At the offices of Pomelo Games in Montevideo, a group of indie game makers try to formulate a theory. They say that the secret recipe is the attitude of the three founders. "They are a trio of perfectionists," says Máximo Martínez, one of the team at Pomelo Games. He's known Azofra and Realini since they were teenagers, when they organized LAN parties. "I studied with Pablo [Realini] at college," another Pomelo employee says, suggesting that everyone in the game community in Montevideo knew one another from before. Like a group of kids who grew up together playing games who are now developing them, side by side.
Gonzalo Frasca, one of the most well-known figures in Latin American game development has been making games in Uruguay for several years, and he thinks that Ironhide's success is because of the effort the team put in its game from day one. "They have great taste," he says.
Frasca has been the public face of the industry in his country for years and is now passing on this responsibility to Ironhide. While his studio didn’t develop an original IP, he was focused on making games for companies like Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. while also fostering a career in academia. His studio closed some years ago, but most of the people who worked there are now at local game studios, including Ironhide.
This is a reminder of how small the games industry in Uruguay truly is. There are around 60 developers in the whole country and there is not an official games association. "Sometimes I get invited with the people of Ironhide to give some talks or attend events in other countries. And I always say, ‘If something happens to the plane, almost half of the Uruguayan game industry will disappear,'" says Frasca.
Azofra, Sande and Realini are the cornerstones of the team. They don’t hesitate when they're asked about the future of their studio. The three of them are always working alongside their employees, and although the studio has grown, they still do all the paperwork for the company. All three seem to have the same personality type: they are low talkers, reserved and always focused on getting things done. They don’t like giving talks, as it separates them from working on their game, but they don’t have any problem guiding newcomers on how to prepare for publishing meetings, how to deal with stores or even how to talk with the government.
Efforts have been made to promote the industry in Uruguay based on the success of Kingdom Rush, and promising studios are starting to appear. The government created a board for addressing the problems of the studios and developed programs to help them. At the offices of the Montevideo Chamber of Commerce, almost two blocks from Ironhide’s, Javier Peña, the team's head of international commerce, says that they are working with the ministry of production and other entities from the government to organize contests and workshops and bring experts from around the world to help the small number of studios grow. Uruguay is considered one of the most liberal countries in Latin America after legalizing same-sex marriage, abortion and the use of marijuana last year. Its president, José Mujica, is not a traditional chief of state — in fact, he's quite the opposite. He lives without luxuries and takes public transportation to his office.
"Sometimes I get invited with the people of Ironhide to give some talks or attend events in other countries. And I always say, ‘If something happens to the plane, almost half of the Uruguayan game industry will disappear."
The first Latin developers party at the Game Developers Conference happened in 2014. At a local bar in San Francisco, dozens of Latin developers gathered and shared their experiences. There were people from big companies, academia, small indie game studios and people who just wanted to know more about the games in the region. Unlike other game scenes, like the American or Nordic scene, Latin America doesn't have big events that gather developers in the same place, so GDC was the best place to do that.
With Latin America growing both economically and in access to digital content, game companies of all sizes are starting to look at that part of the world.
The Ironhide Game Studio team went to the Latin developers party but only stayed for a while. They had been in touch primarily with Argentinian studios, but they hadn’t met many developers from other countries. They tried to keep a low profile, supporting studios that asked them for help but without travelling too much around Latin America. They preferred to stay at their own studio, working on new ideas for games. However, at GDC’s expo floor, people recognized them easily because of what they wore: like the red jackets of the Angry Birds’ developers, Ironhide decided to wear black hoodies with the logo of the studio on the back (an orange armadillo). This time, unlike the previous years, they focused on going to the workshops and conferences. "There is no point of comparison between the knowledge you can get here from the things you get back home," says Azofra, who attended the game design workshop with his design crew.
In Latin America, where the game industry is starting to form its own attitude, Ironhide, along with other independent studios like Ace Team in Chile, Behold Studios in Brazil and Squad in Mexico, is trying to create original intellectual property with a Latin influence, but without being too focused on using cultural elements in its games. There are over fifty studios in the region trying to launch their first games while making games for others as a way to pay their expenses and gain experience. Many of them are focusing on creating stories that appeal to themselves, using cultural references as way to attract interest from foreign gamers. Paradoxically, the studios that have had success in the market all worked on games with almost no references to its Latin heritage.
Back in the Ironhide offices in Montevideo, thousands of miles away from Helsinki, where they were tempted to change their path, the team focuses its efforts on new versions of Kingdom Rush: Frontiers for other platforms and on expanding their intellectual property. But something else has changed in the last four years. Ironhide Game Studio began as a small team without any prior knowledge of the games industry, making small steps toward the release of their first game. And now they are a strong studio, and they are confident. They know that, although they come from a place that isn't famous for producing games, they have the talent to design great ideas and the people to execute them. They compete head to head with other developers. They may not have known what they were doing in the beginning, but they certainly know now.
Images: Ironhide Game Studio