Indie Fund Talk Q.U.B.E. And Dear Esther

By Jim Rossignol on December 15th, 2011 at 2:19 pm.


With Q.U.B.E. coming out on Friday and Dear Esther coming out in February, we thought it might be timely to talk to the sinister cabal of successful indies behind the Indie Fund. That’s the name of the non-publisher group that are financing these games, as well as the exciting heist game, Monaco. What are they up to? And what is so special about the indie games they are financing? We found out, below.


I talked to the Indie Fund’s Aaron Isaksen of mobile devs Appabove, and Matthew Wengner, formerly of Flashbang Studios. Isaksen did most of the talking.

RPS: So who are you guys? What is the Indie Fund?

Isaksen: Indie Fund, a short description of what we do: we aim to support games as a medium by helping independent development by funding independent development. So the crucial point here is that we know that sometimes takes money to make games. And we were tired of seeing people take deals with publishers that were… screwing them? That’s how we’ve described it internally! And we didn’t want that to happen. We want people to be able to go publishers for other reasons: marketing support, or just a publishing being able to get stuff that you couldn’t get… just going to them for money because you couldn’t finish game? Well, we wanted to come up with better terms. Hopefully the existence of this fund will start to change the terms for developers, for all developers, by putting another point out there. Another point of data to consider. We’d be very happy if people were putting competing funds out there. Right now we are not competing with anyone. The more people that are being funded like this, the harder it will be for publishers to work with terms that are detrimental to developers.

RPS: So how did you come that conclusion?

Isaksen: A few years ago at GDC we had a few indies meeting for pizza, and I brought up the topic of “wouldn’t it be great to be able to fund ourselves?” You know, instead of having to go through this publisher process? Contracts, complicated stuff… Ron Carmel and I emailed back and forth, he’d been speaking with Jon Blow about something similar, so the three of us started putting together some simple ideas about how to do this. Before we actually formed a company for this we helped fund a game called Fez, and that was with a bunch of people. I think we had 13 people invest in that. After that we started Indie Fund and we brought in different people, for different perspectives and different investment amounts. So the people in the Indie Fund now are Jonathan Blow, who did Braid and is now making The Witness, Ron Carmel and his business partner Kyle Gabler from 2D Boy, makers of World Of Goo, myself (we do a lot of mobile titles), Matthew Wegner, who did Flashbang, Kelly Santiago, the president at That Game Company, and Nathan Vella, president of Capybara Games. We’re all industry veterans, we’ve all been doing this a long time, and we’re trying to share some of the stuff we’ve learnt with people that we fund.

RPS: So, moving on to Q.U.B.E. – how did that come to you? Are people pitching stuff to you for funding?

Isaksen: The big problem with setting up a fund is knowing who to invest in. You can do a lot of research and try and pull people in, you can set up an open forum and let people submit to you, and we’ve tried to do both. For a while we had an open submission process where people could submit a Youtube link, some text about why they wanted the money, and so on. This was difficult because we ended up spending a long time going through the submissions, a lot of which was not suitable for us, and the people submitting their games were often spending a long time doing that, too. Q.U.B.E is actually the only game we’ve funded through this process. These guys were still in school, or just new graduates, at the time, possibly their last semester. We were really impressed with it. We played the prototype and got excited about making the game bigger than it was. We did a round of funding, and after that it became clear that the game needed some more time, some more polish, so we did another round, and in the end we did three rounds of funding. And I think it now looks really great.


RPS: What was so exciting about it that you wanted to back it with money?

Isaksen: I think what’s really exciting about it from the player’s side is that it is a really easy to play first-person game. It’s not violent, there’s no shooting – there’s a lot of puzzle solving. The interface is really simple, and it’s a really clean, beautiful-looking game. There’s not a large art budget, but what they have done is really good looking. The puzzles introduce new ideas. I think that’s been really successful as an approach for indie games. You don’t just throw out the same level but bigger, you add new ideas, new features. Braid does that really well with each world, World Of Goo does that with new goo species, and QUBE does that with new lighting effects, new cube types, and new interactions.

For a developer there’s a very interesting perspective here, too. With Q.U.B.E. there’s no programmer on the team. Everyone at Indie Fund has made games the classical way, where there’s code underlying it all. But these guys have made Q.U.B.E. with scripting languages and visual tools. They’re doing it using UDK. I think that it’s cool that they could make this game without having a dedicated computer-science background.

RPS: QUBE feels like it’s part of wave of Portal-inspired first-person puzzlers. Is that fair? Do you think the first-person puzzler is trending?

Isaksen: I don’t actually like first-person shooters. So I think it’s cool to have first-person games that are non-violent… actually, it’s not violence, I don’t mind that, it’s actually more that it does not require accurate, twitchy targeting. In QUBE you can take your time and look around, so it’s not an action pace. It’s thoughtful. An exploration pace. Those are the reasons why we think QUBE will do well, not just because Portal set the precedent.

RPS: There’s a certain gamey appeal to QUBE, you can see why it’s mechanistically interesting, and why that would appeal to investors from a game dev background. But I was bit more surprised that you invested in Dear Esther, which is far less gamey, and is from an academic background. I’ve been involved in a few discussions about whether it’s even a game at all….

Isaksen: I think that we want to have the world of games be bigger than it currently is. One way to do that is to invent a game mechanic and then build out a game and a story around that. Certainly lots of successful games do that. It’s a great way for engineers to make games, because we break things down mechanically. But there’s another way to come at this stuff, such as coming at this from a visual standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint, and so on. I think it’s exciting to see a game that is focusing on story-telling. It’s a Half-Life mod originally, so the basic first person mechanic is that, but what’s important about it is the experience you go through when you are playing it. There’s good value there from the money you put in from buying the game. It’s not one of those games where you get better by playing the game over and over, but instead have an experience more like reading a book, where you don’t know how it’s going to end, and the thrill is in finding out. Whether that is “actually” a game or not doesn’t matter to me at all. I think that it’s great that there’s discussion. If that gets people to play it and think about it, then that’s good. Some of those people will say “Wow, I’ve never done that before,” and that will make it worthwhile.


RPS: Do you think there’s a bubble with Indie gaming? A lot of people have been pointing to the sudden crowded space of indie bundles and indie sales? Can that bubble burst?

Isaksen: For a bubble to burst you’d have to have games that are not that good being put into bundles. If there were too many games that weren’t that good being sold in these bundles, because people thought indie meant “good”, then you’d have a bubble. As long as the bundles that are out there are selling good games, they’ll keep making money. There’s a curation problem there, of course. The other issue is that some games appear in bundles over and over, and you reach a point where gamers are seeing less value for the bundle. If they already have some of those games the bundle is worth less to them… I would say, though, that bubbles are bad when you have speculators trying to make a quick buck, and the truth is you can’t really make a quick buck from indie gaming. Most people do not get rich. You really have to love what you are doing. The goal is really having a long-term life doing what you like to do. That’s the goal to have, as opposed to becoming millionaires.

RPS: So, coming back to your own stuff – ff these games aren’t successful is that the end of the Indie Fund?

Isaksen: Yeah, if none of the games recouped… it’s not likely to happen. We get paid back first from our loan, so the games would have to make no money at all for us not to break even. But this needs to be sustainable. We’re not trying to give away money. We’re not going to make much money, either, probably, but the goal really is to find out what works. We are working on finding the right model. But yeah, if you invest in five indie games and none of them making any money, you should not be investing in indie games! That seems like a pretty clear statement! But I don’t think that’s going to happen. We will break even or do better. This will be an exciting year.

RPS: It certainly will. Thanks for your time.

Q.U.B.E. is released tomorrow.

, , , , , .

20 Comments »

  1. wccrawford says:

    I really want this game. So why hasn’t it been put on Steam? I see ‘coming soon’ at the top of the page, but… Why not let me pre-order it on Steam?

    I’m guessing because it won’t be on Steam at launch. I think that’s a mistake.

    In fact, I can’t find anywhere to throw money at them, and their forums say ‘coming soon’. This is not inspiring confidence.

    • MondSemmel says:

      On http://qube-game.com/, it says:
      “Q.U.B.E. Release Tomorrow!

      Q.U.B.E. is scheduled for release tomorrow! The 16th December 2011! We’ll be releasing QUBE for PC via Steam, Desura, Playism AND Gamersgate selling @ £9.99 / $14.99.”

  2. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Interesting. Thanks, RPS and the guys from Indie Fund!

  3. Jabberwocky says:

    The indie fund is an awesome example of successful game developers trying to make their field a better place. Thumbs up!

  4. Alliance says:

    Is there a place where I can get Dear Esther and QUBE other than steam? their main site or such? I love steam for blockbuster games, but for indie games I’d much rather give them as mush of the money I pay as possible.

    • MichaelPalin says:

      Same question here, although different reason. Is there any ethical reasoning to force indies to release without DRM?

    • Josh W says:

      There’s self-interested reasoning to want them to go without DRM, and as indies they are probably more likely to listen to their customers.

      The closest to an ethical reason is probably that by building an honest market outside of the main DRM networks, it means people have less fear of operating outside of them, which means that the cost (in terms of revenue share) of things like steam will never get that high, because people will always be able to release outside of it.

      In other words long term higher shares of the incomes for game makers, not market makers, and generally more power to the game makers.

    • terry says:

      Not to be a dick, but this information is on the site. It’s on Desura, Steam, Gamersgate and Playism (whatever that is).

  5. Just Endless says:

    I would like to purchase that game. Good luck , Indie Fund. It’s a cool idea.

  6. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    I hereby declare it cool to hang out with Indie Fund.

  7. SeeBeeW says:

    Let’s not have any illusions about what Indie Fund is or does.

    Indie Fund provides better funding options for successful indies. Without a submission process, the only way to get through to Indie Fund is through having press and community success already. It does little to address the game development oligopoly (a small number of very successful producers with a vast majority of people who cannot make enough money from their work to live).

    Giving successful indies a less predatory funding option is better than putting your money in a huge pile and breathing fire on anyone who approaches. But players who enjoy a diverse community with interesting and new work should understand that this does little to create that kind of environment.

    Also, to further extend my cranky-old-man judgement—questions about an indie game ‘bubble’ don’t really get addressed here. A bubble is a run of eager over-investment which drives prices of a commodity far above actual value; the problem in indie games right now is actually an issue of falling value (and correspondingly, falling prices).

    The issue with indie bundles is that they drive down prices through higher unit sales. This has a corresponding effect on the value of a developer’s work, and puts pressure on developers to drastically boost their sales numbers to make the same profits. When prices drop from $25 to $5 on a full-length indie game, this further harms developers who make most of their money through word-of-mouth sales.

    Effectively, the majority of producers cannot compete with bundles.

    In my opinion, within 5-10 years the indie market is going to look a lot like a miniature version of the mainstream market. As someone in the thick of it, I can confidently say that the kind of diversity and creativity that everyone appreciates among independent games is already becoming financially unfeasible for many people.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      ” the only way to get through to Indie Fund is through having press and community success already”

      That’s not true of QUBE though, is it? Which is what they point out in the interview?

    • Matthew says:

      Matthew from Indie Fund here!

      Indie Fund actually began with an open submission process. Anyone could submit their game to us via a Google form; our minimum requirements were a video and some information about your funding requirements (how much you thought you needed, how you planned to spend it, etc). If the game caught our collective eye, we would request a build and then discuss it on one of our monthly calls.

      We handled 375 submissions through this process. Q.U.B.E. was the only game we funded as a result! Our other funded titles were all “in network”, to some degree or another.

      So eventually we decided to abandon the open submission process. It was a ton of work all around–lots of work for us, since we emailed every submission personally, but also lots of work for people submitting their projects. We also had a lot of submissions that were very clearly off-base from what we were interested in (concept-only submissions, item sales platforms, down-the-line genre invocations, etc).

      The new model of “let’s talk” is working well so far, despite the risk of falling too far into the realm of “if you have to ask you’ll never know”. We wring our hands quite a bit about our visibility/radar into projects that could use independent funding. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we might be missing, how we could be more effective, and how to reach out to people we could affect. And it’s not like we’ve stopped looking for projects actively, either! We’ve just abandoned the process of filtering hundreds (!) of public submissions as wasteful…

    • SeeBeeW says:

      Thanks for the response, Matthew. It’s good to hear you’re still actively working on pursuing lesser-known projects that could use funding.

      And I understand it sounds a lot like I’m saying “Indie Fund isn’t good because it solves this one problem and not this other problem.” I think still this is a valuable service for some developers (I mean, I’d probably be looking your way if I wasn’t already working on a funded project), but I worry about public perception of angel investment groups like this as covering up broader systemic issues in independent development.

      This is still not strictly speaking a viable industry for most participants. Maybe it’s possible that if many more funding options like Indie Fund existed, this would result in a vastly more accessible industry, but I still have my doubts. I’m concerned that with projects being community-vetted, you’re likely to end up with more of the same. Lifting up projects that are already on the up-and-up doesn’t address the broader issue of getting enough money to even just eat and pay rent to the vast majority of producers in the medium.

      Again, I don’t doubt you do good work as an investment group, but I have my reservations about claims that this helps the medium overall (instead of just helping a few producers, which is still obviously a good thing for those producers, who work hard and absolutely deserve their success).

    • Matthew says:

      Agreed that the indie dev is a lot harder than many people initially expect! It’s very difficult to attain the experience required to make great games on your own. Most people wash out before they reach the tipping point, usually due to finances (but sometimes just basic frustration/motivation/etc issues).

      Indie Fund isn’t aimed at helping people reach this tipping point, either; we aren’t any kind of incubator. Rather, we’re simply trying to offer a better deal to people who could make a great game, if they only had the money to buy their time away from a day job or whatever.

      Helping more people reach the tipping point where they could produce awesome work would definitely grow the medium more quickly than helping talented producers become independent. I don’t know how to make the first thing profitable, though (or even self-sustaining). Indie Fund’s composition is much better suited to helping great people amazingly great things, so that’s our focus for now…

  8. beema says:

    Wait so Dear Esther is being… remade? Why exactly? I mean it was a nice artistic gaming experiment and worked perfectly as a half life mod. Selling it now though? I mean, the whole thing takes like an hour to play.

    • quincunx says:

      Yeah, where have you been? They’ve been remaking it for quite some time now. Like, since May 2009.
      http://dear-esther.com/
      http://www.littlelostpoly.co.uk/devblog/page/4/

      Basically Dan Pinchbeck hooked up with Mirror’s Edge level designer Rob Briscoe and self proclaimed ‘code-monkey’ Jack Morgan. They’ve been remaking it with the updated Source engine. It looks fantastic, will have a revamped soundtrack by Jessica Curry (who is also responsible for the original soundtrack) and I believe will have some extended game play. This includes some additional narration. It’s looking simply amazing for Source and as a fan who loved the original, I can’t wait to throw down ten bucks for it.

    • KillahMate says:

      Selling it? I believe that you will find that the price is quite reasonable, and that it’s the most beautiful thing ever to have been created in the Source engine.

  9. whoistheprotagonistofthehalflifeseries says:

    I wonder what kind of money they are talking about. cheapskate 10k for a man-year living a scurvious life in a cardbox and off macd’s leftovers. Or the 150k something big publishers pay. or something inbetween?

    Somehow this indie fundie thing sounds like a cheap and less risky way to get talents into working their ass off on titles that would have been successfull one way or another, innit?

    Then again I’m glad someone helped the qube people to get things going.
    The name Indie Fund is quiet justified so I think. Though it leaves a quiet insipid taste in ones mouth to say things like “talking to the indie fund” rather than “talking to the publisher called indie fund”.

    Aside those mixed feelings … I think its nice that there are publishers for smaller games now too.
    Gonna stop blabbering now.

  10. fhfghf says:

    Happy 2012 new year,Merry Christmas ,Christmas top gift
    http://is.gd/yj9vRG