An Interview With Sky Horse Interactive’s Dave Stafford
Sky Horse Interactive, the indie studio behind Vanished:The Island is composed of four partners, Dave Stafford, Jeremy Moff, Joe Plotts and Darren Ekman. We had the chance to talk with Dave Stafford about what’s next for Vanished’s Aunt Emma, why he doesn’t think piracy of his games is a big problem, and the awesome adventure of that is indie game development
IGM: When you and your team decided to get into game development, why did you decide to go the indie route?
Stafford: The beautiful thing at this point in the gaming industry is that there is a very clear way for indie developers to bring their games to a large audience. In the past it was prohibitively expensive and almost impossible to get indie games developed and published. The big players controlled distribution and the development costs were too high. But then something very beautiful and magical happened with the advent of smart phones and the rapid development of gaming engines that could publish across a number of channels. Suddenly it was feasible for small teams or even individuals to develop games that expressed a very singular vision and bring those games to market. People who never considered playing traditional video games were now spending more and more time playing games on their new smart phones.
As we watched these events unfold we realized that collectively we had the right mix of skills to bring our own dreams to life through our games. We were never interested in just being a cog in a larger game making machine. We just wanted to make games that inspired us. We wanted to ditch the endless focus of what the market is asking more and instead look to our own personal vision and hope the market comes to us.
IGM: How was the development process? Did everyone have a separate and assigned role? What took longer than you’d anticipated?
Stafford: Many aspects of game dev took longer than anticipated. We were kind of prepared for that, but if we had to guess doing x will take three months and then it ended up taking six months. This could have been discouraging but as we iterated through our development cycles we ended up getting inspired by watching the work develop into a higher quality game.
We didn’t assign roles, people gravitated toward tasks that both interested them and fit their skill set. Initially everything was very collaborative and organic, we’d all get together and work out game concepts, puzzles and story ideas but over time someone would find a new tool and get really good at using it and take off down that road. Some of these tools were dead ends, some of them ended up being used in the game.
We are all to a large degree people who think of themselves as jacks-of-all-trades but masters of several. In this business you really have to be, if you are a master of one, you are probably working for someone else. [private_insider]
IGM: I really love that aspect of the indie game world! In this community, developers really have ownership of their projects, because they’ve taken on so many different roles, in the process, instead of a work-for-hire mentality that can creep in while working on a small section of a larger project without a lot of creative input.
Vanished: The Island blends puzzles and a point-and-click adventure to tell an interactive narrative. What games inspired you in making this game?
Stafford: We were inspired by contemporary games like the Lost City from Fire Maple, Machinarium from Amanita, but also old school classics like Myst and all the way back down to text-only adventures like Zork. From all of these games we wanted to take the inspiration to create something of our own. We wanted more story, we wanted to care about the characters more, connect with them and for me, one of the greatest challenges were friends that would say “I don’t play games” or “I don’t play games like that”. If our game feels a bit easy for hard core adventure gamers, we’re still giving those people a relaxing wander through an enchanting world with a unique story. We continue to balance our desire to create something for adventure game lovers with our need to make something that will attract people who’ve haven’t played a game like this before.
IGM: Vanished uses a traditional marketing model of $2.99 for the complete game. What advantages does this have over the ubiquitous freemium model?
Stafford: The main challenge with the freemium model is that you may end up with users who don’t take as much time to consider what they are getting and sometimes this can lead to poor reviews. If you’re a person who only loves first person shooters and then you download our story driven adventure game. Your first thought might be, “Hey this game is terrible, I want to shoot up some space aliens!” So from the beginning we wanted to be careful to gather a base of players who understood and loved the type of game they were buying and not just picking it up because it was free. Because this is our first game these first players are the most important part of our marketing plan, in a way they are the face of our company. We are still looking at all angles though and freemium is a model we may still explore.
At the end of the day, the most important thing as an indie game developer is that you need to use the flexibility and independence to adjust your gaming model based on actual user feedback.
IGM: Speaking of future work for Sky Horse, Vanished is the first in a planned series… What’s next for adventurous Aunt Emma? What can you tell us about the sequel?
Stafford: Wow, that’s hard, it’s almost painful to hold back on how much more there is, there’s a whole lot more adventure left, a lot more to the story, things that tie into subplots in the Island that never were fully answered and only hinted at. We’ve framed this entire story as the first in a trilogy of games. We are thinking of these games as a spiral, working its way out from a more comfortable center to a mysterious and strange outer ring. In the first game, we’ve started out both with familiar game play and what looks like a basic story (Go save your aunt the archaeologist!). In next game the stakes are higher and the story takes a dramatic turn that will be very unusual and I think fans of many different genres will have their interests piqued.
IGM: Game piracy is sadly a problem for indie studios. Have you encountered any problems with users pirating games? What have you done to counteract that?
Stafford: We don’t believe that it actually is. The music industry felt the same way but Itunes changed that, sure you can still copy a song from someone who paid for it but why? It is so fast and cheap to pay for a song and takes so much effort to pirate one. The folks that are pirating games are very unlikely to ever be a user who pays for our game. Instead of being frustrated about pirates we’ve adopted the attitude that every additional player that plays our game has the opportunity to like our game. If they like the game, they may mention it to someone who pays to play and in the end we may gain a player who we would have never reached.
IGM: What advice would you give to aspiring indie developers?
Stafford: If you are in this business to get rich quick, you’re not only too late but you’re also missing the point. The whole point of doing indie game development is that you become a creator and not just a consumer of games. You get to make something that you love playing and you get to see the reactions of other people playing something you made and that is a truly awesome feeling. You need to enjoy the process of building a game, not the money or the popularity or the bragging rights. People from around the world may contact you about your game and the world will shrink in a very beautiful way. A lot of developers complain about how the app store has made it hard to get found, to make much as an indie but I have to remind people, just a few short years ago we weren’t even invited to the party. Now it’s an open party but we have to earn our place player by player and game by game. We are all very very lucky to have the opportunity to do that.
When I look back at the 15-year-old me, sitting cross legged on the floor with an Atari hooked up to my parents’ 20-inch color TV, beating Missile Command at 3am, if I told that kid that one day he would get to build a video game that would sell around the world, I don’t think he would believe me. So realize what you have before you, is an incredible opportunity to do something amazing.
And: don’t forget to bathe, I would also say don’t forget to sleep, but you will ignore that.
Visit Sky Horse Interactive’s official website.