St John's, Newfoundland would seem to be one of the least likely locations for a company to make a splash in the highly competitive video game industry, however this is just what Celsius Game Studios is doing. After enduring what Colin Walsh, owner and sole developer at Celsius, calls a "successful failure" in their first attempt at entering the iPhone game market, his second offering, Red Nova, was launched to many positive reviews. Red Nova in fact earned nominations in several categories on the 2010 "Best App Ever" awards, and briefly achieved top 100 download listings in the Arcade and Action game charts on the US iPhone App Store in December of 2010.
I sat down recently with Colin to discuss his views on where Celsius Game Studios has been, and his advice to other independent game developers in Atlantic Canada.
JG: So before we jump into Celsius Game Studios, can you tell us a little more about your background? Your influences?
CW: "I've been gaming for a very long time. I can remember playing games on a Tandy TRS 80 color computer 3, and Commodore 64 was my second computer. I would have got my Nintendo when I was 9 [years old] back in 1989. You hear about people who kind of like have these first computers and they got into programming right away, and i was like for some reason I just really not got [it], like i knew you could do something with them but I never really quiet got the concepts. So I was into games and i was writing little simple games in BASIC, but it never really clicked until I was older. It was in the early 90s that I was starting to wonder how does this work, and I was thinking more of the technique. Obviously they were doing something to make all this happen, what do I do? I started fiddling around with QBasic that came with DOS at the time, and Turbo Pascal where I wrote my first programs. [In high school a friend and I] wrote at one point a multi-player dungeon that used shared files on Novel Netware. The networking on the game used a shared directory and we wrote these files that the MUD used, and it was like we brought the [school] network to its knees. The teacher thought it was hilarious.. it was an interesting learning experience for sure."
"A game I consider very influential would be "Out of this world", in some places called "Another world". It was created by this one guy in over two years, and in my head I'm thinking this one guy made this fantastic game that went on and sold millions of copies, if I learned how to do this then this is something I want to do. So I decided that I wanted to develop video games. The catalyst [for starting Celsius] was the [Apple] app store. For a while there it was looking like to get into game development you needed a big studio, and have triple A titles, hundred million dollar budgets, and things like that. [Now] there is almost a renaissance of garage development, in the last five or ten years, where your seeing people with one, two, three man teams becoming over night successes. I'm not disillusioned, I know it's hard, and these people are lucky. However I think there is an opportunity there. If you work hard and you hedge your bets then you can make the dice roll in your favor."
JG: Operating in St. John's have you encountered any special challenges?
CW: "There wasn't really a lot of people I could turn too [here when I was starting Celsius]. There wasn't a game hobbyist development community in town that you find in other places. [So] it was a surprise to me to discover the size of the [video game] industry in St John's. There is [close] to a dozen game shops in town ranging from small garage operations to larger offices with dozens of people. It wasn't until I started Celsius that I discovered the extent of the industry here. There are organizations here [in St. John's] that are designed to help entrepreneurs but they are very generic. I was lucky to have access to the Genesis Centre, their a technology incubator for high growth, they really helped me kick start the business, giving me access to resources I'd normally not have access too."
JG: You have described your first release title, Chromodyne, as "A Successful Failure", could you explain what you mean by this?
CW: "The motivations around creating it this was 'lets create a puzzle game', which happens to be in a market segment that is over saturated. I tired to make it amusing, it had a cute little story line about aliens trying to blow up the earth, trying to put my own spin on the Sci-Fi theme. Ultimately I wasn't sure how well it would do, I was hoping it would do well.. but the single biggest issue on the app store is discoverability. If no body knows your there, no one is talking about you, your not showing up on news sites, then the total number of sales will be miniscule. I'm ok with that, it was a learning experience. I learned about getting noticed on the app store [which would help me on my next title]." For readers wanting to know more about his experience with Chromodyne Colin has an in depth postmortem on his development blog.
JG: Could you share any advice for other independent game developers trying to start up their own game studio in Atlantic Canada?
CW: "[Not specific to Atlantic Canada but] I think my biggest piece of advice for anyone getting into this, is that people think just making a game that is good is enough. It isn't. I see it all the time. Independent developers with a good game and they leave it here on the app store, and they may as well be leaving it in a dumpster in a back alley because it has the same affect. Part of the development process of Red Nova was getting the word out. Going to all of the sites that I knew I could interest in reviewing the game, because ultimately your audience is the media. As a developer the strategy you need to employ is to try to get enough exposure, by what ever means works for you, in order to get into the top 100 or top 50 downloads - that's where the real money is made. Half the time I was developing Red Nova I was developing connections, getting the word out. Marketing is 50% of development."
"If you can't get support locally then you can definitely get support over the internet, [the internet] really breaks down these barriers [to specialized skills]. So if you discover a deficiency in talent then you can contract from somewhere else in the world the work you need to have done. The only problem you encounter there is dealing with time zones, and being able to work together at the same time."
"I think there is a movement to have nearing shoring, larger game studios, bringing game development work to St. John's [and else where in Atlantic Canada]. There may be opportunities there. St. John's has a lot of talent here that doesn't want to go away, [in the past] they felt that they would have to move away to get work, and I think there is a mentality in the video game industry now that it doesn't really matter where you work, you now work where you like. You don't need to move to a specific city, you can do it here at home."
JG: Is there anything that you would warn independent game developers to avoid or be careful approaching?
CW: "Developers need to be careful about the impulse to launch when their title is approved. Your launch is one of the factors that you can control. When you do this your title shows up in the new release list, which can lead to a few sales. What you want to have is the best possible environment for game to succeed, so have your advertising strategy prepared."
"Be careful of the race to the bottom when pricing your game. The cheaper the price the more people can potentially enjoy your game, but it's risky because you now have to make it up on volume. It's all about volume."
"When it comes to buying tools, when it's a matter of cost over convenience, don't be afraid to spend a little bit of money when it will make your life easier. It sounds cliche, but some times you have to spend money to make money. Having the right tools may speed up development and allow you to be more agile."
"In the case of Red Nova, i did not want to be too ambitious. I figured that it would take me about 6 months to develop - it took somewhat longer. Red Nova was brought to the market as episodes, allowing early adopters to get in early and enjoy the game while I'm creating more content. The old axiom is true, the first 90% of the effort takes 90% of the time, the other 10% takes the other 90%. There will be a million things that you need to get done before a release, things you don't even know you need to do until it's release time."