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New Zealand is the easiest country in which to start a business, apparently. Even so, I always resented paperwork, even if it was fairly easy to get through. Shares? Directors? Annual reports? Whatever. Just get out of my way so I can get back to making games.
My name's Tristan Clark. In the middle of 2006, having just finished a degree in English Literature (which really is more relevant for game design than you might think), I founded a company called Launching Pad Games. I had no idea what I was doing, and even less idea of what I didn't know -- but I was determined to cling on to blind faith, expel all doubts, and give it a go regardless.
This is the story of that company, the tiny yet amazing team that formed its core, and the often painful lessons learned along the way. As of the middle of 2012, we've had to put Launching Pad Games on ice, so it's not a completely happy story -- but I hope that within the next few thousand words, you'll be able to learn something from both our mistakes and successes.
It was 2006, and I had never finished a game in my life. I had started dozens, of course, including an RPG that pottered along for about five years in various forms before dying away, as these things do. There's a lesson: don't make an RPG on your own. A rare few can manage it (well done, Spiderweb Software!), but most can't.
And then one day, I was talking to my future sister-in-law. She was having a go on my Nintendo DS, and remarked that she'd like to play a game that let you dress people up in clothes. I thought, "I can make a game about that!" The reason the game got done? I managed to trick my brain into thinking it was someone else's idea, and I didn't want to let them down. Somehow, that worked.
What also helped was getting a publisher on board and convincing them to give me some upfront money. I had settled on a platform and a target market, and in 2006 the obvious candidates for the game were the online gaming portals that offered up casual downloadable fare. I felt extremely lucky when I found a great contract artist in Vin Rowe, who offered his services for a staggeringly low amount of money, as opposed to everyone else I was in touch with, who -- quite reasonably -- were charging highly unaffordable rates for someone who was still a student.
In any case, with Vin's help I made a prototype and shopped it around. Within a few weeks, Oberon Media offered up a contract -- and once that was in place, I had more people I didn't want to let down, basically guaranteeing that I was going to finish this game no matter what happened.
The first game LPG ever released. I'm still surprised by that.
I'd love to hear more stories about how other people working largely on their own managed to finish their first project. It's such an important hurdle to overcome, because once you've finished one game, you know how to finish more -- it's habit-forming. For those who have yet to release a game, definitely try something like this Ludum Dare challenge!
In retrospect, everything came together at the start surprisingly well -- not that I knew how uncommon it was to snag a publishing deal, having approached the situation with several buckets full of naivety. But it was still a gruelling 12 months working on the title that would become Fashion Star, a PC downloadable dress-up game. It launched at $20 on portal sites like Big Fish Games, and it's sold about 100,000 copies since 2007. My cut as the developer was roughly $25,000, spread over half a decade. Nothing to write home about, but I was happy -- no, I was absolutely thrilled -- that my first game was out there and making some money.
There were a number of hard lessons learned. A lack of prototyping meant it wasn't until six months in that I realized the core part of the game wasn't going to work: it was starting to resemble a full-on adventure game with multiple paths through the game. After far too much backpedaling and wasted time, it became what it should have been from the start: a dress-up simulator that had a variety of eclectic fashion editors sniping about your wardrobe choices. Obviously.
Developers will also be pleased to know that I backed up my game files only once in those 12 months of development. My heart still skips a beat when I think about that.
I thought Fashion Star would be a small, simple game. I was utterly wrong, and learned a valuable lesson in how much worked needed to go into even the tiniest of games. And I also discovered how much I wanted to collaborate with others: working alone wasn't something I was keen to repeat (Vin is based in the U.S.; I was in faraway New Zealand). Luckily, the "proper" Launching Pad Games would get its start soon enough.