‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
There’s a lot for me to reflect on from the past year and a half.
I left my job at Mohawk Games at the end of September 2019. I had been unhappy there for months and felt utterly drained, creatively and emotionally. Afterward I decided to take some time off before starting anything new or looking for work, just to decompress.
One week later, an idea came to me out of the blue. Something I felt was brilliant and new. It was such an obviously good idea that it couldn’t fail, as long as I found the right support for it.
The prototype for Severed Sky. Created by Loa and me, with in-game art by Miranda Schneider.
The idea was to take the bones of a turn-based 4X strategy game, reduce your unit count to just a handful, and make every unit a unique character. They would all have their own backstories and develop relationships with each other as they worked together during gameplay. The elevator pitch: Civilization meets Fire Emblem.
I was thrilled to have had another creative idea, and I couldn’t wait to start working on it. Soon I brought on my friend and Sumer partner Loa Gunnars as a co-designer. First, we built a (digital) paper prototype on Tabletopia which turned out to be quite promising. We briefly worked with the writer Tori Schafer, who suggested its “solarpunk” theme. Loa and I immediately took a liking to the genre’s bright, hopeful aesthetic and focus on environmentalism. The game would take place on floating islands and be called Severed Sky.
Game logo design by Jim Alley. Background: concept art by Matt Houston.
But how to find funding? We needed the rest of a team. I proposed working with several of my ex-coworkers from Mohawk, and while they were interested, the one key person who could have easily secured funding for us declined to get involved. After shopping it around a bit we decided the budget was no longer viable, so we scrounged up a more junior team and pitched at a much lower price tag. In the meantime, I secured a small investment from a friend and co-founded a company with Loa: Ancient Mariner Games.
Company logo design by Miranda Schneider.
So we sent our pitches and I reached out to my network, and waited… and waited…
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
…and waited. Ultimately, we sent out 15 pitches and only even heard back from 3 places, all rejections. By now it was March 2021 (the time of writing) and I’d been working on the game for about a year and a half. The team had been patient so far, forgoing work opportunities for the chance to work on something cool that they could have an ownership stake in, but I felt like I owed it to them not to drag it out any longer. Today I sent a message saying that we’re planning to shut the project down and encouraging them to go look for other work.
So what went wrong? I’ve identified five possible failure points: the concept, the prototype, the pitch, the team, and the budget.
- Concept: I’ve always felt that our concept was incredibly strong. It’s easy to explain (unlike Sumer) and it combines the cores of two super successful franchises, bringing a new twist to the underserved 4X genre. I almost always got a positive response when I explained it to other people. Nevertheless, I’m biased in favor of my own idea, so it might not be as great as I thought.
- Prototype: While the mechanics of the prototype are quite simplified compared to our ultimate vision, I felt like they did justice to the core concept. Especially after Neil Quillen added music/sound and we implemented Miranda Schneider’s art, in my opinion the prototype was quite strong. I don’t think this was the problem.
- Pitch: We spent months and most of our investment money working on our pitch deck. However, we could have gone into a lot more detail explaining the core gameplay loop and progression. It’s also possible that my lack of experience and salesmanship harmed us when writing intro messages or filling out pitch submission forms.
- Team: Our team had a mix of experience levels, including two members who had never worked in games before and zero who would be considered “senior” at a typical game company. Now in my opinion, we had a surplus of talent and would have had no problem executing our vision. However, I can see why a publisher just looking at the number of years under our belts would have felt otherwise.
- Budget: This is the one that kills me. We were asking for a little over $1 million for a 5-person team plus 2 freelancers to work for 2 years. No office rent, low salaries. The sense I get is that this is way too high… but I don’t understand how the hell you’re supposed to bring it much lower. Even if we’d eliminated all expenses but salary, we would have ended up at $750k. I think indie games are supposed to be created by teams who are making virtually no money and just living off their savings or doing it as a side hustle. This was very frustrating to discover.
There’s one other major point to bring up, which is the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic started just a few months into the development of the game, meaning we never got to pitch it in person at events like GDC. It’s totally possible that this all would have worked out if not for the quarantine. But we’ll never know.
In any case, it’s time for me to move on. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. The one bright spot is that I’ve recently become a citizen of Austria, which frees me up to live and work anywhere in the European Union. I’ve started scoping out possible landing spots across the ocean. Even though things have been very bleak and I’ve been struggling with my emotions recently, I can still be excited at the possibility of starting fresh somewhere new.
If I’m lucky, I’ll at least have learned something from all this, like the Wedding-Guest in the final stanza of the Rime:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.