How Political Animals Got a Publisher : Part 1

In this blog post Ryan writes about his gamedev career and the path that led to a publishing deal with Positech Games.

I love hearing stories about how people achieve success in their careers. It's interesting to see how unique each story is, but also how similar. There is always hardship that needs to be overcome. There is always a benefactor or a stroke of luck that the person, if they are generous, credits with their success. It seems a little self-serving and egocentric, but I've been wanting to share my story for a while. It's important to show that publishing deals like this don't happen overnight, but are the result of hard work, persistence, and a whole lot of luck. 

Starting in the industry

Nokia 6600, once the top of the line Symbian device.

Nokia 6600, once the top of the line Symbian device.

I got into the game dev industry after a yearlong stint at a call center. I'd graduated with a Fine Arts degree in Visual Communication, which usually leads to an advertising career. I couldn't land a job with any company, but luckily I had a good command of the English language. Working nights and talking to angry American customers burned me out though, so when I saw an ad looking for a mobile games artist, I jumped at the opportunity. That was the first mobile game explosion, the one that hardly anyone knew about. Tiny J2me games that you downloaded on WAP, where the telcos got a huge cut of the sales. The App store wasn't even a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye, and without a marketplace, one mobile games company after another folded. The company I joined lasted a year. Same as the next company I joined. The third one belonged to a giant media company that paid shit wages, and so by the time my first big break came, I'd already left and was working a cushy job designing UI for a mobile messaging company.

First Big Break : Disco Pixel

Disco Pixel's latest game, Jungle Rumble.

Disco Pixel's latest game, Jungle Rumble.

Trevor Stricker from Disco Pixel contacted me out of the blue in 2007 asking if I'd be willing to meet up while he was in Manila. He'd resigned from SEGA after working on NBA2K and wanted to put his royalty money to good use. He'd found my portfolio on Deviantart and thought I would be a good fit for a DS game he wanted to make. I can't remember if I was suspicious or not. This was 2007, and this kind of micro-outsourcing was still pioneering at the time. I guess I was a sucker for compliments (my kindergarten teacher once noted that I respond best to praise) and at the very least he was buying dinner, so I had nothing to lose.

It's weird the things I remember from our meeting. We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant called Sugi. I told him he was the first Jewish person I'd ever met. He told me I was the first Filipino he met that didn't eat meat (I do eat meat, but at the time a tofu and mushroom meal sounded really good to me). We got along well enough, and towards the end of his trip he said that I was the one that really “got” his project, and he wanted to sign me on as his lead artist. I was excited and terrified at the same time. My UI job paid pretty well and in terms of salary as an artist I thought I'd pretty much peaked. Trevor promised to pay me a lot more, but that also came with the risk of his startup failing. I was 26 and had nothing to lose, so I accepted his offer.

About a year later, the 2008 financial collapse happened. Disco Pixel had been talking to some publishers about funding the game. It actually had gone as far as internal reviewing with some major publishers, but ultimately Trevor decided to fold the company for the moment and find a job. I had just lost the goose that laid the golden egg. My wife and I like to joke that “By the grace of Trevor” we were able to travel around Asia (shoutout to Cebu Pacific) and put a downpayment on a condominium. Little did I know that downpayment was going to haunt my dreams for years to come.

The experience with Trevor and Disco Pixel opened my eyes to the wider range of possibilities when it comes to a career in game development.  Previously, I felt limited by my options in the Philippines.  Working with Disco Pixel showed me that the internet had created a whole new world of opportunities.  But had Trevor not taken a chance on me, I probably would never have dared to risk going freelance in 2008.

Intermission : Learning to Freelance the hard way

After Trevor decided to take a break from being an entrepreneur, I was faced with my own major dilemma. I'd already been replaced at my old company. The game companies that were hiring at the time all paid substantially less than my previous gig with Trevor, and with monthly payments on my then newly bought condo looming, I needed to make money fast. I had a bit of runway left from my leftover savings, so I decided to try my hand at being a freelance artist. I had no idea what I was getting into.

All I had to my name was my portfolio. So for the next few months I signed up for all the internet forums with job ads I could find, looking for any job that would pay me so that I could create portfolio material. I didn't say no to anything, and ended up working on a 2D side scroller built by a man who had created website to cater to family friendly games all the way to sprites for a “Thong Girl” video game. I would literally wake up every single day looking for jobs and negotiating with clients in a singular, desperate effort to make sure I could pay for my mortgage every month. It was the white collar version of living hand to mouth, and I spent many sleepless night worrying about the inevitable drought of work.

I have to say that I was never the best artist out there. But I was willing to work hard, often for below US rates, and I'd like to think that my communication skills also helped. They certainly helped when my next big break came in the form of Zach Barth and Spacechem.

Second Big Break : Spacechem

I forget which forum I found Zach's ad looking for help with Spacechem. What I do remember is playing the free games I found on his website and thinking “This guy is on to something.” He had a small but devoted fanbase and an obvious knack for creating games that caught people's attention (his game Infiniminer was the inspiration for Notch's Minecraft). So when he replied to my inquiry I was super excited to start working with him.

Spacechem was the first ever game that I accepted a royalty agreement on. Previously I never wanted to risk royalty agreements for work because I never believed that the games would make any money. I believed that Spacechem had a chance at being successful, but still couldn't bear the risk, so I negotiated with Zach and we arranged for a smaller royalty in exchange for a minimum monthly payment. Looking back I probably should have stuck to the original, larger royalty agreement. But I've never been much of a risk taker, which is something that will continue to come up in the future.

The success of Spacechem is now a matter of historical fact. It allowed Zach to leave his cushy Microsoft job and start Zachtronics Industries as a full time gig. My Spacechem royalties finally gave me some breathing room from the day to day grind of freelancing. I toyed with doing concept art a bit, bought some videos and practiced hard. I wanted to see if I could get a job as an illustrator, painter, or concept artist instead of working on in-game sprites. But it was not meant to be. A couple of months after the successful launch of Spacechem I got that fateful email from Chris Delay of Introversion Software. He'd liked my work on Spacechem, and was wondering if I'd be interested in working on a game called Prison Architect.

Spacechem came out at the dawn of the indie revolution.  It was part of the list of games like Braid, Minecraft, and Fez that were the vanguard of indies making a dent in the game development industry.  While these games would never match the graphical fidelity or budgets of the AAA developers, they didn't need to.  They proved that it was now possible to survive as a small independent developer serving a niche of gamers.  Zach's success with Spacechem was probably the first time that I ever thought about the idea of making my own game or building my own studio.

Intermission 2: The Best 2 weeks of my life

There is a two week period that I will always refer to as "probably the best two weeks of my entire life". My wife Aissa and I were on our honeymoon in Japan. I had just gotten my first royalty check from Spacechem. I had sealed the deal with Introversion Software and was already sending some concept work to them. The “hardships” of the past were behind me, I was enjoying a wonderful, hard-earned present with my wife, and the future looked very bright indeed.

This ends Part 1 of "How Political Animals Got a Publisher" .  Next time, I will discuss more about my work with Prison Architect, how I met Cliff from Positech, and if there's enough space talk about the nitty gritty of hunting down publishing deals.  Thanks for reading, and if you'd like to be updated on the latest Political Animals, please sign up for our mailing list!