Interview: Bit Barons on Astroslugs, funding, portals and publishers

In today’s interview I talk to Alex Zacherl from the small Munich-based game studio Bit Barons. As usual, I simply ask about the things I’m most interested in – behind-the-scenes stuff that you don’t hear about that often.

Your studio consists of three core team members. How did you meet and why did you decide to start a company together?

We met at GDC Europe 2009 where Alex Widl and Sergej showed their prototype “Qubox”. I went to their booth and played the game. We started talking and quickly found out that we all wanted to make our own games instead of getting jobs at one of the big studios. We needed a legal vehicle to facilitate this so we founded the company and got an office.

How long did the development of your puzzle game Astroslugs take and how did you fund it?

Hard to say. If you count the prototyping phase during the last months of university and the time we spent working on it part-time then it took us nearly two years to release the game. We worked full-time on the PC/Mac game from November 2009 to January 2011 and then about another six months on the iPad/iPhone version. We funded the development both with our own money (more than legally needed for a GmbH), a good amount of public funding (94.000 EUR from the EXIST Gründerstipendium) and some smaller contract jobs.

Astroslugs has been released on iOS, as well as on PC and Mac where the game is available to buy directly from your website. What were the most successful platforms for Astroslugs, both critically and commercially?

iOS definitely was our most successful platform, both from a monetary and reception standpoint. Astroslugs got about 600 user reviews so far and 90% of them are the full five stars. It was also featured by Apple which gave us some pretty nice sales numbers for some time. Compared to that, the PC/Mac version was not very successful. We got good reviews and great player feedback but nearly no one bought the game in the first place – neither on our on site nor on any of the portals. Retail was also pretty negligible for us.

The game is also available on 15 different game portals including OnLive, Desura and GamersGate. With the overhead in paperwork and supporting different APIs, was it worth it to get the game out on as many channels as possible?

No. In hindsight it didn’t make any monetary sense as the portal sales were so very small. In our experience, no portal other than Steam justifies any workload that is bigger than half an hour – at least not for a game that received so little promotion as ours. This may have changed with the rise in popularity of some of the indie portals like Indievania and Desura though. We haven’t had to support any APIs – but the paperwork and networking needed to get the game on the different portals was immense.

One game portal is conspicuously absent from the list. As a small indie studio, what’s your opinion on Steam?

Steam is pretty good for consumers and seems to be a great distribution channel for many indies. We were not able to convince them that our game would make sense on their platform so we were left out - that’s life. Should we ever make another computer game we’ll definitely try again to get it on Steam.

Astroslugs is also available at retail stores. How has your experience working with a publisher been?

An old indie wisdom says that all publishers are evil. We were lucky because working with the guys from Headup Games was pretty smooth and transparent. Though we had a long contract we never had to actually get to it – just calling them on the phone made things work pretty well. It helps that they’re about our size. Though this can obviously also be a weakness, as a small publisher (with a small game such as ours) will never be able to push the same number of boxes as the big ones (but with whom you can’t really work). Compared to that, working with another publisher who is in a completely different time zone, who we can only contact by email and who is less transparent is something we won’t do again.

How do you react to player feedback and user reviews?

We answer e-mails and comments almost immediately when they arrive. At least when this is possible. It’s a big problem that you cannot communicate with the players and commenters on the App Store at all. Most problems only require a few words to fix them or the confirmation that there is really a/no change planned.

Can you tell us about the next game you’re working on? What’s your approach for developing the idea of your next game?

We’re working on different games and game ideas that are in different stages already. Our next release will be an awesome board game that we’ll bring from the physical space to mobile – the money for this comes from a big German board game publisher. Then there’s our trading card game which has been a physical prototype for too long and which we’d love to get out of the door next – negotiations are at work. And then there’s our Monster RPG called Guardians of Era which is still only a concept with a small prototype and for which we’re trying to secure funding (it’s a pretty ambitious project). After that, there might be an MMORPG or two. =D

Do you feel you’re able to fund the next project from the revenue stream of Astroslugs?

No. This has always been our plan but it didn’t really happen. We had pretty good sales when Apple featured the game on the App Store but since then they have been very low. This probably comes from a lack of promotion (and funds for that), from a rather stupid business model and a focus on a very casual audience. Our next games shouldn’t have these problems, so we’re confident that we’ll be able to finance 100% of our costs from our games’ revenues once they are out in the wild.

What’s your advice for people who want to start their own game studio?

Do it now. Start part-time if you must. Go full-time as soon as possible. Make some small games first. Don’t think casual games are easy. Make a game that you love. Have fun. Strive to be independent – don’t give up when you’re not. See Rat King and Mimimi Productions for guys who are doing it the right way.