This is the second part of a series of blog posts by Ryan narrating how Squeaky Wheel secured a publishing deal from Positech Games. Part 1 dealt with his career up to the success of Spacechem, and this week we start with his experiences working on Prison Architect.
Third Big Break : Prison Architect
I've previously written about how Introversion Software first contacted me on my personal blog. The short version is that Chris Delay had played Spacechem, liked the art, and contacted me to see if I wanted to work with Introversion Software. Introversion is like the granddaddy of indie game developers. They're one of the first indie game developers that made it big way, way before Braid, Fez, etc. They had a pedigree and I knew it, and it didn't take much convincing for me to sign up to work on Prison Architect.
The story of the development of Prison Architect is kind of crazy, and you can read more about it here. Essentially the Introversion guys made some bad choices after their initial success and Prison Architect was their second chance. If things didn't go well for the game, the studio might have had to consider shutting its doors. This being their second chance, the initial timeline for the game was quite modest. Our initial contract agreement was for me to work on the game for 3 months, up until the launch of Early Access, then maybe a little more polish work after that, depending on how Early Access did. Suffice it to say that their Early Access succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, and I ended up working on the game for 4 years.
Eventually my deal with Introversion was to work on Prison Architect every other month until launch. What a sweet deal! Those 4 years were probably the least stressful years of my freelance life. It was the perfect combination of having steady income while at the same time having some freedom to work on things on the side. But towards the end of my tenure with Introversion I started getting a little worried. Previously I'd been so aggressive about posting my portfolio on all the forums I could find, I would almost always get offers for work that I had to turn down. As I grew more comfortable working for Introversion, those work offers slowly but surely started to dry up. I would need to make a big decision soon. What would I do after Prison Architect? Go back to being a freelancer? Could I still do that? Would I ever find a gig as sweet as working with Introversion?
Working with Introversion and the success of Prison Architect gave me a credibility I could never have imagined. The first time I met my friend Sagar Patel, I was hanging out with some game devs in Japan and introduced myself as “having worked on Spacechem and Prison Architect, not sure if you've heard of those games?” Sagar laughed because it sounded like false modestly on my part, but that's when it dawned on me that the games I worked on have been played by literally millions of players. Being the “artist of Prison Architect” opened doors and conversations that would previously have been closed to me. Introversion were never shy about naming me, with the most touching moment being a (very hoarse)shoutout when Prison Architect won the BAFTA for “Best Persistent Game”. I knew that I had a great opportunity after Prison Architect, and I wanted to make sure I didn't waste it, which finally leads me to my most recent break, meeting and sealing a deal with Cliff Harris of Positech Games.
The Last, Big Break : EGX, Cliff Harris and Positech Games
Cliff Harris, or rather Positech Games, is one of the most well-known UK indie game devs. His games like Democracy 3 and Gratuitous Space Battle have sold more than 500,000 copies, which is an amazing accomplishment for a single developer. Cliff decided to parlay that success into becoming an indie publisher, which is how he launched Red Shirt and Big Pharma, and very soon Shadowhand and Political Animals. I was a big fan of Democracy 3 and Cliff was always on the top of my list of possible publishers.
I first got introduced to Cliff when I rather boldly inquired with Introversion about the possibility of publishing Political Animals. I say this was bold since I was still in the middle of working Prison Architect then. I'm not sure it was the best move to ask your current employer if they'd like to publish another game you want to work on, but they seemed pretty cool with it. The short answer was that Introversion were too swamped with Prison Architect work to be able to handle another game on their own, so they asked Cliff if he'd be interested in co-publishing the game. Cliff was in the middle of publishing Big Pharma at the time, and for one reason or another, the talks never progressed beyond the initial stages. Given Prison Architect was slated to have an official launch in less than a year, I didn't have time to be too bummed about because I was too busy with work! But at least I had a foot in the door.
Introversion was going to fly me and my wife Aissa over to the UK to join them in launching the game at EGX. I knew that this was going to be my golden opportunity. We live in the age of the internet, so it's not surprising that people sometimes tend to undervalue a face to face meeting. To this day I maintain that the biggest difficulty for Filipino developers is lacking access to conventions like EGX where they can meet both fans and prospective publishers. I was going to make this trip count. I emailed Cliff and other publishers on and off (I'll go into detail on that process in Part 3 of this series) during the rest of 2015 leading up to EGX. By the time the convention had rolled over, I had secured meetings with two publishers and had primed my pitch deck (more on that in the next part of the series) and build for presentation.
EGX was great. The fan turnout for Prison Architect was so positive, and all the Introversion guys and gals were super cool. We even had curry! In the midst of all of that I had meetings with a bunch of different publishers, including Cliff. I presented to Cliff in the food court of the convention complex. We had a chat about politics, about the game, and the possibility of marketing it. I honestly don't remember much more than that, but we shook hands and he told me to follow up with a link to the build so he could review it. Later that night we had fancy burgers and drinks with Introversion and Cliff decided to hang out with us. I think we were generally of a similar temperament, quite pragmatic in our politics, so we got along pretty well. He had just helped fund a school building in Cameroon and was very excited about his new Tesla. After a few more beers we decided to call it a night (we had 3 more days of EGX left). I went back to my hotel room, sent the build, and collapsed into bed. One day later, Cliff made his offer.
The following is a collection of email responses between me and my co-founders Marnielle and Tristan:
Me: Guys, please read the forwarded email and let me know kung may feedback kayo (Let me know if you have feedback). TL:DR Positech made an offer to publish us. DO NOT SHARE THIS INFORMATION FOR NOW and do read it and give me feedback on your concerns.
Marnielle : WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! Big shout there! Obviously, I can't do feedback well due to excitement. This is great news!
Tristan: Hmm, yahooooooooo!!!!?
To be perfectly honest I was a little annoyed at how unexcited Tristan sounded (I mean seriously, what was up with that question mark?), but when I learned later on that he threw up in the bathroom afterwards from excitement and nervousness, I felt a little better.
EGX was a prime opportunity for me to meet and pitch to publishers about Political Animals. It felt a little cheeky to be going around looking for a publishing deal on Introversion's dime but I was honest with them about it and they were fully supportive and even gave me advice about getting a deal. I am fully convinced that had I not gone to EGX Political Animals would have gone the way of so many unpublished game projects, and for that I am eternally grateful to Introversion Software.
This ends Part 2 of "How Political Animals Got a Publisher" If you thought that this story about a publishing deal seems too good to be true, then you're right! I wrestled with this a bit, but I didn't want to ruin the narrative by going in and out of the nitty gritty details of preparing for a pitch and securing a publishing deal. I've reserved part 3 of this series to talk about making pitch decks, hunting down publishers emails, and presentation gaffes. Thanks for reading, and if you'd like to be updated on the latest Political Animals news, please sign up for our mailing list!