SB: You mentioned earlier that you’ve been working on Grim Dawn for over two years. What made you decide that now was the right time for Kickstarter?
AB: Two years ago, we didn’t even know about Kickstarter. We basically just set out to do this on our own. Looking back, it was a pretty crazy decision. I think even having development experience and being informed about what we could expect and what the development process was, and having the Iron Lore technology to build from – which is what really enabled us to take on such a task by ourselves – it’s still been a long road.
We’ve put up a pre-order system that’s also helped, but even that only brings in, on average, a few thousand dollars a month, which has been great for outsourcing, but isn’t enough to bring on a fulltime person. A fulltime designer and programmer can get a lot done in terms of creating the core gameplay, and getting the game feeling good, and we’ve had part-time artists and animators helping us out, which has allowed us to create this foundation of environment sets and a collection of enemies and common equipment and everything like that, and we’re at the point now where a big part of the task left is filling out content.
Action RPGs need a lot of content. Content development, no matter how efficiently you work, isn’t something a couple of guys and a few part-time people can really bang out in a short amount of time, especially when we can’t count on the consistent availability of the part-time guys. We’re looking to hire people on full-time, and we have looked at Kickstarter in the past, but I saw that the biggest projects on there – except for a few anomalies for stuff like iPhone addons – the successful ones were only doing about $100,000.
In games, the most successful games at that time were only pulling around $50,000, and we thought ‘maybe if we put together a good video and project that we could get $100,000.’ But that wasn’t really enough, and we couldn’t promise a delivery date. We didn’t want to go on there and say ‘Hey, give us some money to help finish this project. We don’t actually know when it will be done.’ So, we thought Kickstarter wasn’t a good option.
Then, a little down the road, Double Fine launched theirs, and Wasteland 2, and Shadowrun, and we saw how successful they were, and the fact that you actually could generate some real funding. At that point, we thought ‘maybe we should give this a try. Maybe we can generate enough money to promise a substantial project and a delivery date.’ And, here we are. Looks like it’s worked out.
SB: Yeah, it seems to have really paid off. But let’s step back a little bit. Are there any big lessons from Titan Quest and Iron Lore that influenced the development of Grim Dawn?
AB: Well, I mean, there are a lot of things. I spent a little over seven years at Iron Lore, and Titan Quest was the first action RPG I worked on, so just as a designer, I learned a tremendous amount. There were a lot of lessons over the course of the development, but also in terms of the whole business of trying to start a game studio and making a game. One of the hard lessons at Iron Lore was that the traditional publishing model is really risky if you’re launching an independent studio.
Iron Lore got a great deal from THQ for funding to build the game, and they were able to hire up a very talented team, but all of the funding you get is an advance on royalties, so you have to pay it back out of the small portion of the development royalties you’re collecting, which means that it can often be a long time before the developers see any profits, if at all.
Also, you’re typically giving up the rights to your IP. So that left Iron Lore, and many studios like it, in a place where they’ve got this money, they’ve got the quick start, where they were able to get a lot of funding, hire up the team they needed, and produce a game, but afterward, they’re basically left with no revenue, and they have this big team in place that is incurring a significant burn rate. they have to be able to line up their next deal immediately, or they go out of business.
When we started Crate Entertainment, we started to consider really carefully if a publishing deal like that made sense to us. The conclusion we came to was that it didn’t, because even though it would be the short term easy way to go, where we’d have all the funding we need right away, in the long term, it’s very risky, because you put all this work into starting this studio, and after you develop the game, it’s like a roll of the dice whether you can line up that next project fast enough. From there on out, you’re sort of on a treadmill, where you have to keep doing that project to project, until you have a big success, where you can actually earn some royalties.
SB: On the subject of starting Crate Entertainment, did the idea of Grim Dawn begin when you were still at Iron Lore, or did it come later?
AB: That came after. Basically, at the end of Iron Lore, I think a lot of us felt sort of disillusioned, and we weren’t sure what to do next. Around 2007, and 2008 when Iron Lore actually closed, there was really this feeling – especially when, at the end of Iron Lore, I was going out and pitching to publishers – that the PC market was dead. That’s pretty much what we were told. And digital distribution hadn’t taken off to the point that it has now, so there was this feeling that to get any funding to develop a game, you had to pitch a multiplatform game, and that’s what Iron Lore was working on at the end, before they went out of business.
When Iron Lore closed down, I sat around for a few weeks, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It took a while for the whole thing to sink it, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to just go off and get a job at another studio and repeat the process. I wanted to do something different. I felt like it was the only time in my life where I would be able to do that: I was in a place where I had saved up a reasonable amount of money to live off of, and I didn’t have a family to support or a lot of financial responsibilities, so I thought ‘let’s see what we can do. Let’s give this a shot.’
I got a couple of other guys interested, and we actually worked out a deal with a local studio, where they had a lot of contract work coming in, and had more projects than they could really manage, and were looking for art and design leadership. So we worked out this great deal where we could go out and work internally for them, and they were going to allow us to start hiring on our own people and start taking on our own projects, and from there we could have kind of jumped off to do our own thing. It would have been a very easy way to start our own studio.
Except that at the end of 2008, the economy crashed, publishers became very hesitant about signing up new projects, and the studio that we were working with, the contract work dried up for them, and they basically said, ‘we can’t float you guys anymore project,’ and we were out on our own. That was really a tough time. It was kind of a ‘dark stage’ in Crate Entertainment’s history, where it looked like it might be the end. Some of the guys that I was working with had to basically throw in the towel, because they couldn’t support themselves financially without any revenue, so they went off to jobs with other companies.
For a while, I sat there and thought ‘what can I do?’ At that point, trying to get funding for anything was nigh on impossible. So I thought ‘is there anything I could do without any funding? Just with the help of the people I know?’ I realized that the Iron Lore guys, the owners, had gone off to jobs at other places, and they weren’t doing anything with the Titan Quest engine. I met with them, and worked out a deal to acquire the engine for our own use, and basically that’s what enabled us to start working on Grim Dawn. At that point it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s get back to making traditional PC games. Let’s make another action RPG.’ Digital distribution was taking off, and it provided a model by which we could actually potentially do this thing by ourselves. From that point on, we just kind of sat down, and got things up and running, and we were thinking about what kind of action RPG we could make. Grim Dawn evolved out of that.