Helping indie developers work faster, better
Fire Hose Games on planting the seeds for indie success.
It's November 2013, and the monthly meeting of Boston Post Mortem, a gathering of Boston-area game developers, is about to begin. Everyone is assembled on the top floor of Tommy Doyle's, an Irish pub in Harvard Square. People are eating fish and chips and drinking pints of beer at packed tables, and it's standing room only around the bar in the back.
Attendance at Boston Post Mortem varies, depending on who's giving that month's presentation. This month's speaker is Eitan Glinert, the founder of Fire Hose Games. His studio has developed two original titles, Slam Bolt Scrappers, a mash-up of a brawler and a puzzle game, and Go Home Dinosaurs, a blend of tower defense and a collectible card game. Fire Hose has also done contract work for Harmonix, one of the largest AAA developers in the city.
Glinert is known around these parts as the founder of the Indie Megabooth. Following a bad experience at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle in 2011, where indie developers were in a space separated from the main expo hall, Glinert decided that indie devs at PAX needed a better way to show their games. He had the idea of indie developers banding together to purchase a large, contiguous space on the main expo floor, rather than running their individual, small booths.
The Indie Megabooth debuted at PAX East 2012, and has since ballooned into a massive success. At PAX East 2014, the space occupied by the Megabooth was as large or larger than show floor spaces set up by 2K Games, Bethesda Softworks and Microsoft.
Now Glinert has an idea for a similarly cooperative, mutually beneficial endeavor, and he's chosen to announce it at Boston Post Mortem on this chilly November evening.
Glinert goes over his thoughts on what makes indie developers successful. They work in small teams. They almost always have past industry experience. They're part of their local scene, which helps with making press connections and getting feedback from colleagues. They know how to talk about their games, to get people excited about them.
Indies fail, says Glinert, because they don't have the experience to match their ambitions. They lack funding, are isolated from other developers and lack the ability to promote their own game. They fall in love with their work and can't process feedback, so they don't know when to iterate or kill a project.
"There are problems that every single indie has to deal with, and some of them clear the hurdles and some of them don't," Glinert says. "What if a studio, that actually had some resources, came in and removed those hurdles for people? That would be doable, right? Fire Hose is, as of yesterday, reinventing ourselves as a video game incubator. We are going to be a different studio than we've ever been, and we are going to help indies make video games."
The man planting the seeds
It's February 2014. Glinert is sitting in "the war room" at Fire Hose Games in Cambridge, Mass. A faux leather loveseat and couch are on one side of the room, opposite a red accent wall. The other walls are white, like the dry erase board hanging next to a television with a stack of game consoles resting below it.
There's still a three-ringed target drawn in red marker on the dry-erase board, a remnant from a Nerf gun precision shooting session with Sean Baptiste, the head of communications and propaganda at Fire Hose. Baptiste is also the lead designer on Fire Hose's new game, Let's Quip. When the interview with Glinert commences, Baptiste is in the room on the other side of the red wall, playing indie games and speaking with developers on Fire Hose's Twitch.tv channel.
Glinert graduated in 2005 with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. He started applying for jobs anywhere and everywhere, landed an interview with the American Federation of Scientists and fell into his future career.
"I was meeting with this woman, who would later become my boss, and she asks me during the interview, 'Do you play video games a lot?'" Glinert remembers. "And I'm sitting there and I'm thinking to myself, 'They must have had someone who just fucked around and played video games all day, and they had to let that person go. So I say to her, 'No, I think video games are a distraction, and they're a waste of time, and I try to keep my head focused on work, because work is what matters to me. That's what I'm passionate about,' because I'm thinking that's the right answer.
"And her face deflated at that. She goes from smiling to 'Oh,' and I instantly knew I did something wrong. And so I start testing the water, and I straight up start contradicting myself and backpedaling. 'Well, I play a few video games,' and she starts perking up, and I say, 'Well, I play a lot of video games,' and pull a complete 180 and she's clearly interested.
"And she's asking me questions about the video games, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'What the fuck am I applying for? What is this thing?' And I find out through the course of the interview — because I'm such an idiot, I didn't even think to find out ahead of time — that it's for an educational video game position. They need someone to help them make an educational video game."
That game, Immune Attack, was designed to teach children about how the immune system works. In 2006, Glinert met famed media scholar Henry Jenkins at a serious games conference. Jenkins was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, and asked Glinert to come back to Boston and meet Philip Tan. Tan was heading up the GAMBIT Game Lab, a joint venture between the university and the government of Singapore.
Glinert returned to MIT for a master's degree in computer science and electrical engineering. He received funding from the Singaporean government for AudiOdyssey, a rhythm game designed to be accessible by the blind. While Fire Hose Games may currently be a studio that primarily develops games built for entertainment, when Glinert founded the team in 2008 it was a serious games company.
"Our motto was initially making games with positive impact. It ended up getting rejiggered over time, but that was the initial goal," says Glinert. "I think that shows through with what we're doing now with this new seed fund, as well. I've always kind of believed that you need to go out of your way to do the right thing and help people."
"She goes from smiling to 'Oh,' and I instantly knew I did something wrong."
"There are a million people in the games industry that are trying to pick the next winner."Go Home Dinosaurs
Why Fire Hose needed to change
Since its founding in 2008, Fire Hose has largely supported itself by contracting its services to other studios. It worked with Harmonix on Dance Central and Rock Band Blitz. It helped port Twisted Pixel's Ms. Splosion Man from Xbox Live Arcade to Steam and Games for Windows Live. And Fire Hose is currently working on a military training simulation for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Slam Bolt Scrappers, the first of Fire Hose's original titles, was released two weeks before the infamous PlayStation Network outage in the summer of 2011. It was a Sony exclusive, meaning that no sales could take place between the PlayStation Network’s outage and restoration, and discoverability for the game took a hit. The outage arguably cut into the earnings potential for Slam Bolt Scrappers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop.
Fire Hose released Go Home Dinosaurs, its second original game, on Steam in early 2013. "Our sales [for Go Home Dinosaurs] were OK. It did all right on Steam. It didn't break world records on iPhone," Glinert says. Development of Go Home Dinosaurs also had a price tag of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Glinert tried to figure out how the company could make more profitable games. "I didn't want to go back to contract work so much," Glinert explains. "It feels like a treadmill. You're always working on other people's stuff. I don't want to knock it — working with Harmonix is awesome — but it's just not what we really want to do in the long term."
He came up with an idea: create multiple small teams working on games, quickly find the element of fun, then make the minimum viable product, and get it to consumers. Fire Hose tested the idea with an internal game jam in May 2013, which led to several small games, one of which is Let's Quip, now in beta on Facebook. Two players each get a word. They have 140 characters to argue whose word is best, and then an audience on Facebook votes for the winner.
Glinert realized that there was no reason Fire Hose had to limit this philosophy of small teams and rapid prototyping strictly to teams of existing staff members. The same formula could be applied to outside developers that Fire Hose would bring into the studio and offer assistance to. This is the basic operating model of a seed fund. A team of experts supply knowledge and hands-on assistance to help entrepreneurs bring a new product to market.
"We bring the teams into our space, so we have everyone co-locate here," says Glinert. "We have dedicated staff that float between the teams and help them with stuff. ... We'll have a producer type, and maybe some shared art and QA resources, and shared audio resources." People in those static roles would be available to assist dev teams on a day-to-day basis.
Glinert says he especially values team members who understand both game design and marketing — such as programmers who are active on social media.
In the model Glinert envisions, Fire Hose will give developers in the seed-fund program a living wage to alleviate the financial pressures of going indie, and to allow the developers the security of focusing on their games. "It's ramen money," says Glinert. "The really interesting thing that we offer is unbelievable amounts of support, development help, marketing help — that's the real thing that we offer."
When the game is released, Fire Hose will take 70 percent of the profits, and the developer will get 30 percent until Fire Hose’s investment is repaid. Once that happens, profits will be split 50/50 until Fire Hose has made twice its initial investment, and then the split will drop to 30/70 in favor of the developer, in perpetuity.
The indie developers who participate in the seed fund will own the IP, and can walk away from Fire Hose with their game at any point in the process. And Glinert understands that eating losses, if games aren’t finished or don’t sell enough copies for Fire Hose to recoup their investment, is a risk his studio will have to take.
Where most accelerator/seed fund programs require participants to enter the program with a specific idea in mind, Glinert doesn't want to invest in individual games. He wants to invest in game developers. "I suspect that if you have really good developers, and you just give them creative freedom and an environment that's conducive to making good games, they'll go and make good games," Glinert says.
"There are a million people in the games industry that are trying to pick the next winner. They're trying to talk to teams, figure out which game's going to be the next 'it' game and back them. And frankly, I think that on the average they don't do better than like the stock market. Like sometimes they hit it, and a lot of times they don't," Glinert says.
Glinert has a different strategy: Find good developers who know how to make great games, and focus on that.
What indies get out of a helping hand
Boston's Indie Game Collective is a group of small, indie game development studios who co-work in Cambridge, Mass. at Intrepid Labs, a huge loft space filled with dozens of long tables. People in cushy office chairs are typing away on computers of all shapes and sizes. The IGC occupies a smaller table toward the back of the room, with individual signs bearing the member studios' names hanging from a thin, white support that juts down from the dark wood ceiling.
At one end of Intrepid Labs is a lounge with low chairs and tables, vending and coffee machines, and an arcade cabinet loaded with emulated games. There are also glass-walled meeting rooms along one side. It's in one of these that some members of the IGC have agreed to share their thoughts about Glinert's seed-fund idea, and the help they could have used when their indie careers began.
"I think one of the biggest challenges I faced [when beginning a career as an indie developer in the fall of 2012] was that I didn't know what I didn't know. I knew nothing about business, I knew nothing about marketing, but I didn't even know the right questions to ask at that point," says Jenna Hoffstein, developer of The Counting Kingdom, a tower defense game that teaches basic math skills.
"When I think back to the things I was underestimating, [one of the biggest was] the amount of time [it would take to get up to speed with] all the people I didn't know," says Seth Sivak, CEO and co-founder of Proletariat Games. His studio is currently working on World Zombination, which blends tower defense mechanics and human and zombie teams fighting for control over the game world, à la cooperative efforts in Clash of Clans.
Sivak had no relationship with platform holders, like Sony or Microsoft, or game publishers. "That stuff is so important. I spend a large amount of my time just fostering and working on those relationships," he says.
"It's so easy, as a solo developer, to get infatuated with your own idea, and maybe you take ... way too long," says Erik Asmussen, founder of 82 Apps, the studio behind PWN: Combat Hacking, a cyberpunk-flavored real-time strategy game. "Sometimes you need someone else to say 'This isn't continuing; it's not working,' or you need to change it so drastically."
"Indie Fund [a collective effort of indie developers which provides funding for independent game development] has an identity that multiplies. Your association with them associates you with all their other great products," says Ziba Scott, founder of Popcannibal. His puzzle game Girls Like Robots is part of Adult Swim's growing lineup of indie titles. He's also partnered with another Boston-based studio, Dejobaan Games, on the development of Elegy for a Dead World, a game about writing stories while touring the remains of ancient, alien civilizations.
"If Fire Hose gets that, if Fire Hose becomes a place known for great things coming out of, you just want to have that light shed on you. That's why I signed up with Adult Swim. I wanted to be seen lined up next to the rest of their products," says Scott.
"It's so easy, as a solo developer, to get infatuated with your own idea, and maybe you take ... way too long."Girls Like Robots
"Oh, what the hell am I doing? This is crazy."
Enter the guinea pig
It's March 2014, and Fire Hose Games is showing some of its works in progress in the Indie Megabooth at PAX East in Boston. Fire Hose's booth is laid out on a red carpet. In the back of the space, Sean Baptiste talks a PAX attendee through a demo of Let's Quip.
Up front is Catlateral Damage, a first-person game in which you play as a cat knocking objects off shelves, desks and cabinets. The player has a time limit to earn points for knocking objects over. The art design plays off the cubist appeal of Minecraft.
A playable version has been available on the web for months, but PAX East is the first time Catlateral Damage's developer Chris Chung has ever given demos to fans at a professional event. People waiting in line to play are spilling out of the Fire Hose booth. Eitan Glinert tosses down a pair of small throw rugs, which completely clash with the red carpet that defines the main booth space, for the players to stand on. That way, they’re technically standing with the Fire Hose booth, versus standing in the hallway between booths.
"How indie is that?" says Glinert with a grin.
Six weeks later, Chung sits down for an interview in the war room at Fire Hose Games. He was employed as a full-time quality assurance tester at Subatomic Studios in Cambridge, Mass. when he attended a seven-day first-person shooter Game Jam in August 2013. Chung came out of the jam with a rough version of what would become Catlateral Damage.
In September, he began working on the game as a side project. "I was posting it on Reddit, on r/gamedev; they do a Feedback Friday every week. So every few weeks I would post the new version, just to get some playtesting in," Chung says. He worked at Subatomic during the day, conducting quality-assurance tests on ports of Fieldrunners 2, and worked on Catlateral Damage at night.
Alpha Beta Gamer is a website that posts news about new video game alpha and beta tests, to encourage testers to download and comment on the games in progress. In January 2014, the site mentioned Catlateral Damage on its Tumblr page. "They posted a bunch of gifs, and I think that's probably what caught people's eyes. And I think that post got — the last time I checked it in January — it got like 100k [hits]," Chung says.
When the video game press picked up on the story, Chung knew he had to parlay the attention somehow, so he posted Catlateral Damage onto Steam Greenlight. The Steam community voted to greenlight the project eight days later. "I think the last statistics I saw before it got greenlighted was number five of all Greenlight titles. It was crazy," Chung says.
It was around this time that Chung started talking to Eitan Glinert about Glinert's seed-fund idea. "Before we took anyone on, I was trying to figure out how to make this work, and I had two pitches that I was working on — one for investors, and one for developers," Glinert says. "And the one for developers I was pitching to the Independent Game Collective, but the thing is, I know all those guys. And Chris is someone I had just met that I didn't know."
"He would send me some stuff about the program, I'd give him some feedback, as a developer," Chung says. "Eitan was like, 'Ask everything. Break down this thing completely.'"
"He wrote back this email that I swear to God was five pages long. And he picked apart the whole thing, and he asked a million questions, and I looked at it and was like 'Oh, what the hell am I doing? This is crazy,'" Glinert says. "And then I was like 'Wait a second, why don't I actually read through this?' And I read through it and I responded point by point for the entire goddamned email, and we ended up talking back and forth for like a month."
Glinert and Chung were still discussing the fine points of the seed-fund program when Irrational Games, the developer behind BioShock located in Quincy, Mass., shut its doors in March 2014. Glinert made an offer of free desk space at Fire Hose for any former Irrational devs who wanted to make a run at going indie. Based on their professional relationship to date, Glinert made the same offer to Chung.
"I had this free desk space, and this game, and I was like 'Well, I don't want to be stuck in QA forever. I want to work on this game.' So it was kind of that tension. Do I want money, or do I want to work on [Catlateral Damage]?" Chung says.
He asked his bosses at Subatomic if he could cut his hours to half-time, to spend time working on Catlateral Damage. He worked at Subatomic in the morning, went to Fire Hose Games before lunch and worked on his game. After one week of this schedule, Subatomic let Chung go due to budget cuts. And the week before PAX East 2014, Chung officially became the first indie developer to participate in Fire Hose's indie seed fund.
Fire Hose makes a difference
"It was kind of bittersweet," Chung says about his appearance at PAX East. "It's great, but I miss the gamer side of it. Being at PAX as an exhibitor is like the next chapter in [my] career. I don't know if I've made it yet, but I'm getting there from just being a gamer, or a QA tester, to being a developer. So I feel like that's really great. I would not have been able to be there without the seed fund."
Financially speaking, Chung is making around the same amount of money as when he was working QA at Subatomic Studios. He's happy with this. "Just the fact that I can work on what I want to without losing money, I think that has some value — just being able to work full-time on my own thing ... I can actually relax when I go home instead of basically working two jobs for the same amount of money," he says.
Being at Fire Hose means he has constant access to fresh sets of eyes, which Chung thinks is much better than the old Feedback Fridays on Reddit for gameplay tweak suggestions. "One of the earlier features I had was a sprint feature, like a generic FPS where you hold shift or whatever to run. I hadn't realized it, but when I was playing I was always holding shift down," Chung says.
"And Eitan said, 'Why don't we just make the base movement speed twice as much?' The base movement speed was so slow and I just didn't realize it because I was playing it so much."
Chung isn't just receiving feedback on the ideas for Catlateral Damage that he brought with him to Fire Hose. Glinert and his studio are also providing guidance for fresh development. "An idea some people had suggested, and that Eitan suggested, was having a laser pointer in the game," says Chung. "When I had thought about it originally, I think it might have been some feedback, some community feedback, it wasn't a feature I was thinking about, but [Eitan] suggested it, and he was pressing like, 'This would be a really cool thing to add, a really good talking point.'"
Chung posts about his game to Twitter and Facebook, but Baptiste and Fire Hose Games can put the word out much faster than Chung can. "When I overheard [Baptiste] doing his stream, he'll always drop that they're working on Let's Quip and Catlateral Damage. Getting the word out about the game [to people] that I normally would not be able to reach, that's been great."
Chung receives an expense report every month, so that he can track the size of the financial investment Fire Hose is making on the development of Catlateral Damage. Like any developer who signs on to the Fire Hose seed fund, Chung will have to give up 70 percent of his profits until Fire Hose recoups their investment. Chung will then hand over 50 percent of his profits until Fire Hose has doubled their money.
"If you add up the desk space, and being around other developers, and the marketing help, and just having more experienced people working with you, rather than working on it alone, yeah, I think it's definitely worth it," Chung says. "Before we had talked about me becoming a part of the seed fund, I had done some of my calculations and just kind of seeing, if I were to work alone, yeah I would be getting 100 percent of the profits, the revenue, but would the game be as good, or would the game come out as fast?
"Working with the seed fund is definitely going to make the game better, so the end product will end up making more money, so even with the splits I'm pretty sure that I'd be making more than if I was working by myself," Chung says. "Plus, just the experience of learning more things about development, things about marketing, just things about the industry that I wouldn't be learning by myself, so it's all that experience, too, compounding ... I think it's definitely worth it."
"If I were to work alone, yeah I would be getting 100 percent of the profits ... but would the game be as good, or would the game come out as fast?"
"He lost his job; he high-fived me when that happened. ... That's the right sort of mentality."
Fire Hose has made its bet
Glinert's original plan was to raise money from investors to support the deployment of multiple, small teams. "Raising money takes a lot of time," he says. "[In February] I was like 'Maybe we can raise it in three months,' and as it turns out, no we can't." Not without a proof of concept, which is why Glinert is testing the formula with Chung and Catlateral Damage.
"It's easier for us to raise money if we're showing success," Glinert says. "Just having [Chung] on board, and showing success with Catlateral makes everything easier for us. The game itself will bring in money, so we can bootstrap with that. It's a small bet from our side, because it's just one game."
Fire Hose ultimately needs to be producing multiple games at the same time to reap the cost savings that the seed-fund plan should make possible. It is making a "portfolio play," as Glinert puts it. Chris Chung is the proof of concept, and Fire Hose thinks he's the best gamble they could take.
"He is not just a prototype. He is deliberately and specifically a guinea pig. This isn't like some weird accident," Glinert says. "He really understands games, and he's very knowledgeable about games. He is risk prone. He lost his job; he high-fived me when that happened. He was very excited about that. That's the right sort of mentality," Glinert says.
It's important that Chung is willing to engage on the marketing front, like using his own social media feeds, podcast appearances, and livestreams to promote Catlateral Damage. He’s willing to accept Glinert's advice and keep the scope of the game in line with a tight design, and a release date that doesn’t stretch out due to feature creep.
"In many ways this is basically going to be an advertisement for other developers. 'Look, we worked with Catlateral; we're happy to work with you.' [Chung] can give a testament to what it's like working with us, and we're not some weirdo publisher that's going to drive you crazy," Glinert says. "We'll make you work hard, but it's going to be a good experience and it's really going to help. And that's the ultimate end goal. ... Making a bunch of money off the game would be nice, too, but that's actually less important than everything else."
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