Mario64 enjoyed a reputed budget of $20M+, and Wing Commander IV, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Warcraft III all are rumored to have development budgets approaching $10M. Most modern AAA budgets are in the range of $2M to $5M. So what could a few inexperienced, passionate wannabe game developers accomplish when facing these seven- or eightfigure budgets expended on behalf of teams that have hundreds of years of collective game industry experience?
One company started out making electronic pinball games Epic; another company cut up thick paper to make playing cards Nintendo; another loaned an employee a computer over the weekends and he created a side-scroller featuring a kid wearing a football helmet id Software.
In this chapter I profile Silver Creek Entertainment, as independent as you could imagine. They create, market, and distribute their own games and have never worked with another entity, let alone a publisher. This includes running their own online multiplayer service that they built and operate. These guys started off by setting their sights on no less than Microsoft!
Erik Bethke: How many developers are at Silver Creek Entertainment?
How many programmers, artists, testers, and management?
Jonas Stewart: There are five folks and a boatload of gnomes in hamster wheels. This is broken down into three development staff members: two coders and an artist (that’s me), one person who keeps the office in order and handles customer relations, and one person who deals with bipedal creatures outside our fortress who aren’t customers.
We pretty much self-manage and don’t have anyone but the marketplace to answer to. My idea of a true indie is a team that answers to no one but their own heart’s desire and the customers they produce for.
What language is used for the development of SCE’s games? C++? What tools do you use for creating the art of the SCE series of games?
Most everything is written in C++ with some Python scripting thrown in. Almost all the art is done in Photoshop with a mouse (I know it sounds bad but you get the hang of it) and on occasion I’ve used trueSpace, Bryce, and Poser. But I find I can accomplish most of what I need now in Photoshop alone. Of course you don’t exactly need Maya or Max to do card games yet.
Do you folks work on just one game at a time, or are you working on multiple games at a time?
We try to focus on one game, but we oftentimes float back to old projects to spruce them up a bit. We constantly try to improve our released games as we make new gizmos or see a way to improve something on our current project. Unless there is something making it incompatible with our current lineup, a lot of what we do can be applied to our older stuff with not too much pain The players don’t seem to mind getting a free new feature now and then either.
What is your general development process?
Our general development process... hmm. “Let’s make a card game. Okay, and let’s make it really cool with fairy dust and stuff.” Months later a card game appears in all its glory. Of course there is the daily grind that does tend to wear down the team until it’s done. It’s really just a build and polish sort of thing. We do try to keep focused on what adds something to the game or at least the intended purpose of the games. So on our multiplayer games, we think in terms of helping players have fun together with Fooms (the fireballs and magic elements), whereas with Solitaire we try to keep in mind a state of solitude and enjoying just hanging out being yourself.
We do have a mental plan that encompasses what we want to do. But we are very flexible along the way to take in new ideas that lend to the cause.
Would you say your competitive advantage is the absolute total commitment of quality that you bring to your games?
Yes, that’s probably true. We fill a niche for card games that are well crafted and steeped in a fantasy atmosphere. Not everyone cares, but for those who do, we have something to offer them. There are plenty of generic card games out there, but we try to take something that seems plain and see if we can breathe life into it. It’s kinda like a No. 2 pencil—to one person it’s just a stick with graphite that you can leave notes to get more milk, but in the hands of the right people that pencil is a gateway to wonderful worlds. They illustrate a place like the Shire or a post-apocalyptic LA. It’s all perspective and the use of your craft; we are still working on it.
There is plenty of shovelware for the rest of the folks, but that’s not what we want to make.
If I may ask, what sort of sales figures for Hardwood Spades and/or other SCE games are you comfortable releasing?
We eat and aren’t sleeping under the bridge so I can’t complain. Our main mission is to make games all day and get paid to do it, although it would be nice to have a castle. I’ll be saving my nickels for a while, though.
The way I see it, every day above ground is a GOOD day.
Have you considered retail distribution? What has been your experience with game publishers?
We may take a stab at retail when the time is right, but selling online has been a good and loyal friend. Retail is a fearsome beast that has chewed up and spat out more than its fair share of games. It’s definitely not just about making the best game… there are a lot of other factors that can tank a project even after you release it. Online at least the power of success and failure is on our hands a tad more. Of course I read that “they” just found a 2km asteroid that may collide with the planet within the next 15 years…so maybe this is all a moot point.
What are your marketing budget and/or strategy for SCE games?
“If we build it, they will come.” We just make stuff as good as we can and let folks know about it at download sites and in search engines. It’s just Internet promotion 101. Probably one of the best places to learn about online, direct to customer selling is the Association of Shareware Professionals. These folks are veteran indies…. they don’t talk much about game development, but they know a lot about the business of selling online.
What is SCE’s early story? How did you start the company?
Our early story, eh? Well after the fall of the dinosaurs and rodents ruled the earth...err wait, let’s fast forward a tad. Basically Silver Creek started after two guys, Jonas Stewart (that’s me) and Dan Edwards, decided that making games would be cool around ’93-’94. So after we realized that some epic full person shooter Blade Runner game was a bit ambitious for two guys just learning this stuff, we tried a “weekend” project, which became the original Hardwood Solitaire.
Windows was still scoffed at as a medium for games at the time, but we were shooting for releasing on Win32 (95) since we were on the OS beta. Hardwood Solitaire turned into something far more complex than a weekend project as we tried to put together something that was truly different from the other dull implementations that were out there...the main culprit being the one that came with Windows or the other “application-like” card games. We wanted to bring our gamer attitude to a card game and try to make it LOOK like a game, not a spreadsheet or word processor app. Working during the summer and living at home eating lots of Top Ramen (chicken flavor is pretty tasty), we bought ourselves enough time to finish one of the first if not the first Windows Truecolor game released. Hardwood Solitaire evolved into HWS II: The Enchanted Decks, which was a much more refined product.
We also volunteered at the Game Developers Conference from ’95-’99, which was pretty cool. That helped us keep exposed to aspects of the gaming industry, and it was pretty cool back then. Something any aspiring game developer should do at least once. After that we attended as Independent Game Developer finalists and even picked up an Indy award in 2001 for Hardwood Spades there.
After Solitaire we took the plunge into online games with Hearts, Spades, and Euchre. They are leaps and bounds more complex and trippy than Solitaire, but we grossly underestimated the effort that “tacking on” multiplayer meant. Needless to say, having a community of people is something that needs constant attention. Somewhat like being mayor of a small town and you soon realize that you don’t ever want to be president of the U.S.
Anyhow. . . I guess that was the quickie version of “the beginning.” I did leave out the absolutely massive amount of time playing Duke Nukem 3D and Doom and that we wore out quite a few joysticks playing Descent and flying guided missiles through the mines. But hey, we all did that back in the day, right?
What is the future for SCE? Do you feel the need to grow into more product lines?
For now we are sticking to card games. Trying to keep focused on what we seem to be pretty good at. Puzzle and card games are in nice small bite-sized chunks. We really don’t want to become managers to a large team of people; we want to make games, and keeping project teams small allows us to do that.
Do you have any tips for aspiring indie developers?
An unfinished project is not a game. Try to finish everything you make unless it has a fatal error in concept or design. If you are hooking up with buddies to make a game, make sure that it gets done. Most of the time it won’t when you have to count on a bunch of free help; try to keep the team as small as you can Ideally you can really only count on yourself, but working with a trusted friend as long as you both have passion will work. It might not be great, but you will learn plenty in the making.
Start small and finish it. Then make the next step; it’s not realistic to think you will be making the next big thing on your first project. Making games or any type of entertainment is really like a magic trick. There is a lot of preparation and sweat that goes into making folks who witness the magic believe in it. Make sure you enjoy knowing that magic won’t be the same for you once you become the magician. You will know it’s a trick but hopefully enjoy its construction. Err, I don’t know if that made any sense, but basically there is a difference between enjoying the entertainment and creating it.
And above all else, have fun! If you don’t have the burning desire to make games, and you don’t spend nearly all of your waking hours at least thinking about games and game design, then find another thing to try that you are passionate about. We all will eventually cease to exist . . .enjoy the time you have; don’t waste it on something you don’t like.