Way back in 1998 me and a few friends started something that changed all our lives. I was 24 at the time, just finished with computer science studies at the university in Bergen, and had moved to Oslo to start working in a company that reviewed and sold games. The company was going to build a gaming network and I was hired to help them. Here I met Claus and Bjørn Tore who had the idea for an mmo called Darkfall.
I had been nurturing a dream of making games since I was a kid, and hearing about Darkfall made me want to turn that dream into reality. From the autumn of 1998 we started getting all the pieces into place, and after a couple of false starts we founded Razorwax in May 2000, and had seed funding secured by July that same year.
Fast forward to April 2002. Our original investor told us we weren’t going to receive any more money from them, but since our offices were in the investors building they would let us stay there a while longer so we could try a last-ditch effort to get proper funding.
Determined to keep going, the next few months saw a flurry of attempts to contact publishers, local Norwegian investors and anyone else that showed any interest in Darkfall. Most of us were out of money and at least one us had to live off bottle-return money for a few weeks. Luckily we had saved all the bottles from our soda-fueled development sessions earlier!
By the end of the summer of 2002 most of us were contemplating calling it quits and doing something else. We had given the project an honorable run for the money. Somehow we still kept going, hoping that this day or the next would be the one when we found someone willing to fund us.
Then, in July, Claus got a mail from a friend he had been playing with online for several years who had a contact that was interested in hearing more about Darkfall. This guy was in Greece and they wanted to come and visit us to see who we were and what we had done so far. After a lot of discussions online and over the phone the Greek investors finally visited us in Oslo. By this time they already knew enough about Darkfall that the main objective was to find out if we would be capable of completing the game.
The meeting in Norway went fine. The only hindrance was the cost of living and running a company in Norway compared to Greece.
As a solution, we finally agreed to move to Greece and bring with us a few extra Norwegians. We were 10 Norwegians in total that ended up moving to Greece to work on Darkfall.
The development of Darkfall was a messy, slow death march, not without its awesome highpoints and heart wrenching failures. For more of the Darkfall development details, see here: http://www.sickenger.com/articles/the_making_of_darkfall/
We released Darkfall in February 2009. By this time the company had grown to 35 people, and I was expecting my second child. My girlfriend was living in Norway and I had been travelling back to Norway pretty often to be with her and our first child. I moved back to Norway just as Darkfall was being released, and my second child was born in March.
Completing Darkfall was a dream come true. We had started our own god damn gaming company with our own IP, made our own engine, and we actually got it out the door and onto customer PCs! That was pretty awesome… for about three weeks.
When the rush of releasing Darkfall was over, I started thinking. The reality of the situation was that Darkfall didn’t sell as well as we hoped, I had spent 9 years working for a startup on the first product, and that meant pay wasn’t great. I had two kids and a girlfriend and my company was back in Greece. I wanted to settle down in Norway. So I thought, fuck it. I need money and I love programming. I’ll go work as a consultant.
5 years later it’s 2014. I’ve worked as an IT consultant for almost 5 years, and co-founded my current consulting company in 2012. I now have three kids, a house in the suburbs and almost no spare time. The ‘almost’ is where it gets tricky. Most people spend their downtime watching TV or playing games. Even 40 year-olds like me do this nowadays.
I never gave up game programming when I quit working on Darkfall. What I did was try to find projects that were of a size where I actually might be able to complete them in my spare time. For me that means any time between 8pm and midnight. I started and completed an XBox Live Indie 2D action game called Ubergridder, inspired by a C64 game called SuperGridder, back in 2011, and started a new game called Gravity Run before the juice ran out.
When you have a day job, kids and a semblance of a life, you have to prioritize. Being a founding partner in my current company puts extra obligations on top of my day job, so what little time I have left isn’t much really. In a good week I might get 12-16 hours of evening work done, but that isn’t really sustainable over more than a couple of weeks unless I want my wife to start packing her things.
The quality of work I get done in the evenings is less than in the daytime. I used to think it wasn’t, and 10 years ago that might have been true. I used to see myself as a nighttime coder. I love coding after midnight. But right now, with children and work that start between 6 and 7 in the morning, nighttime coding is out. Evening coding is what I do for my games, but after 8pm in the evening the problem solving muscles in my brain are pretty much shot.
I could get stuck with a bug for over a week of evening coding, because I need time to upload the code into my brain, and then I just can’t wrap my brain around the bloody problem. Sometimes the only solution is to get up early in the weekend and fix the problem while the kids are watching cartoons.
Despite all of this I completed Ubergridder. It took almost a year, but Henning and I released the game to coincide with the Winter Uprising indie campaign (in which Ubergridder was featured!) on the Xbox Live Indie Games store. That was a lot of fun. I programmed it in XNA, and Henning made the graphics. Henning and I make games under the Badgerpunch banner.
After the release of Ubergridder we started a new game called Gravity Run, which was a more ambitious project. It would be a cross between the Descent series and gravity games like Gravity Force on the Amiga. A 2.5D gravity-based shooter with puzzle elements. It was me and Hennings first Unity3D project, so quite a few mistakes were made both code-wise and graphic assets -wise.
After almost one year of development we scrapped all the art and some of the code, and started again. It was supposed to help us finish the game faster once we got the game working again. That never happened, because at the same time Hennings workload increased at his day job, and I started a new consulting company.
Right now the project has a quite a bit of working code, a great control system, and a test-level that is fun but no where near complete. Gravity Run is a great project, but needs more time and attention that either Henning or I can give it at the moment. We have put it on hold for now, but really want to finish it.
It took almost 2 years before we had time for a new game. Dragon Dipper is our latest project. We have released it on Android, and are in the process of submitting it for iOS. It is basically a Flappy Bird clone, with better graphics, a level system, and collectable stars. I am not marketing it as a flappy bird clone. I believe it is a game in its own right, and is just another addition to the tap-and-fly genre that Flappy bird defined. Dragon Dipper is as much a Flappy Bird clone as any platform game is a Mario Bros clone. It’s an also-ran game in a swamped genre. Get over it, Flappy Bird clone haters 😉
Dragon Dipper is currently just above 2000 downloads. 250 from Google Play after 6 weeks, and 1900 in SlideMe market after 10 days. It is free and ad-ware, so 2000 downloads won’t cut it as a way of making a living.
The mobile market is a pretty unpredictable and confusing place at the moment. No one knows what will be a hit. Flappy Bird showed us that anything worth playing can become a hit on the app store as long as it gets traction. To get traction you need visibility, and that is very hard in the mobile space.
Basically, if you want to make games for mobiles you have to very good at both development and marketing. And even then it’s just increasing your chances in the mobile app lottery.
For me all this means I won’t be quitting my day job to make mobile games. I will be trying to complete small great games, and get better at it every time, and in the end maybe I get lucky.
If I don’t get lucky I am still having a great time making games in my free time, and my day job keeps the family running. I like my day job, but my heart belongs to game development.
I just have to remember to scope my projects so far down that I can complete them, but not so far down that they aren’t worth playing. My next project looks like it may be a bit more crazy. I am exploring the idea of social interaction between kids in a sort of turn based trading card setting. We’ll see how that works out…
Thanks for reading this long flow of words!