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

Changing the game

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.

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