Without A Net: BioShock Vets Face Life After Irrational With The Flame in the Flood
[Note: This article appears in the new issue of Game Informer. Molasses Flood's Kickstarter page is here.]
[Photography: Dan Perez de la Garza, all photos subject to copyright]
In the Boston suburb of Cambridge, six people sit in a cramped room in the basement of a nondescript office building, working on a dream. In many ways, they are no different than hundreds of small indie developers; putting in long hours, pinching pennies, and subsisting on takeout pizza and ramen noodles. Unlike most of those small teams, the Molasses Flood (as they’ve named themselves) is made up of people who have worked on some of the most critically acclaimed games in history, including BioShock, Guitar Hero, Halo 2, and Rock Band.
Frustrated with the constraints of large-scale console development and worried by increasing instability in the industry, the team united around an ethos of creativity, collaboration, and friendship. Instead of pursuing lucrative jobs at major game studios, Molasses Flood – like so many former triple-A developers – is forging its own way with the promise of independence, ownership of its own creations, and the chance to build a company from the ground up. This treacherous path is filled with both possibility and uncertainty. This is their story.
Before The Flood
As modern game development becomes increasingly complex and expensive, the old studio model is beginning to break. By the time a major triple-A game is released, the development team has often swelled to several hundred highly paid professionals. This immense overhead is proving hard to maintain, especially as the studio regroups to another cycle of prototyping and pre-production for a new project, where smaller, more agile groups are needed instead of the massive production staff. The result of this is a new reality in which a job well done is rewarded by a round of layoffs. We’ve seen this story repeated dozens of times in the last few years with studios like Sucker Punch, Sony Santa Monica, and Eidos Montreal. Molasses Flood’s tale begins on February 18, the day when BioShock creator Ken Levine announced he was shuttering Irrational Games. Around the video game industry, this news was met with a mix of shock and disbelief. It seems unthinkable that a studio at the peak of its creative powers would be shut down so quickly. BioShock Infinite had earned rave reviews, a 94 Metacritic rating, and won over 42 game of the year awards. The game debuted at the top of the monthly NPD sales charts, and has gone on to sell over six million copies. If Irrational wasn’t safe from layoffs, what studio was?
Forrest Dowling, who served as lead level designer on BioShock Infinite, recalls feeling unsure about the future in the weeks leading up to the closure. “I knew there had been questions about the viability of the type of projects that Irrational had done up to that point,” Dowling says. “Games are a super tough market, and making a big, expensive single-player narrative game is a difficult and risky proposition. There was a sense that [Irrational] was going to want to try something different. It ended up taking the form of something very small that didn’t need that team size.”
By coincidence, the news came down on a day when Dowling had planned to reconnect with a former colleague, Scott “Sinc” Sinclair, Irrational’s former art director who had left prior to the layoffs. “I wanted to get back to my own art,” Sinclair says. “Before games, I’d been doing art prints and album covers for bands. My hope was that I still had a foot in that door.”
Dowling had contacted Sinclair through his art website, and purchased a couple of prints from his online store. “There was a form where you put in your shipping information. My shipping information was, ‘Let’s get lunch and catch up,’” Dowling recalls.
This casual lunch between old friends became more momentous than either could have anticipated. That morning, Dowling received word there would be an all-company meeting at Irrational. The message was clear: Nearly all of the staff was being let go. “We had the meeting and got our paperwork, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have to go back after lunch,’” Dowling says.
Naturally, the conversation over lunch turned to the future, with Dowling and Sinclair talking about the challenges and possibilities of the changing industry. As they both bounced ideas off each other, the pair left the restaurant with vows to keep in touch, but no concrete plans.
Despite the fact that Irrational had held a job fair, with companies like Riot Games and 343 Industries flying representatives down to court the studio’s former talent, the prospect of starting an independent game studio was in the forefront of Dowling’s mind. Soon, he decided. He was going indie and wanted Sinclair, one of the most respected leaders on the BioShock Infinite team, to come with him.
“I thought we could get a team of people willing to take a risk with us,” Dowling says. “All of us that were let go were given a severance, so that would give us some time to help get our feet underneath us. It snowballed from there.”
For his part, Sinclair was eager for a new opportunity in games, and felt Boston was a perfect place to start.
“I wanted to get back to a place where it’s a small team and I actually have to make the art, not just manage the art team,” Sinclair says. “At the time it happened, it wasn’t just Irrational; it was Turbine and Harmonix. I went to a game industry drink night, a layoff drink night, and it was this sea of programmers, artists, and designers – all laid off, all around the same time. You can see, even that night, groups of people splitting off and saying, ‘What if we did something?’”
Dowling and Sinclair began to piece together a team, which grew organically based on the pair’s long list of contacts and former colleagues in the Boston game community. Two members of the team that would become Molasses Flood had worked closely with Dowling and Sinclair on BioShock Infinite, animator Gwen Frey and artist Chad LaClair. Both welcomed the chance to work with their former comrades. Frey had been planning to go independent for years, quietly squirreling away savings. LaClair took a little more convincing, and even interviewed at other more established studios. However, he kept coming back to the idea of working with Dowling and Sinclair again.
“Scott called me up and asked me if I was interested,” LaClair says. “All the other interviews I had were colored by that. I had amazing studios I could have gone to, but I would have been missing out on this opportunity to work with guys that I really respect.”
Dowling rounded out the team by recruiting two expert programmers with decidedly different personalities. Bryn Bennett, who had worked with Sinclair in the early days of Irrational, had spent the last few years working at Harmonix in between tours with his hard rock band Bang Camaro.
Damian Isla, who is more buttoned-down, was one of the chief engineers on Halo 2 and 3, and he also helped Irrational toward the end of BioShock Infinite. Isla had already made the plunge into indie development, forming Moonshot Games in 2009, which had recently released the noir-themed iPad game Third Eye Crime. “The day that I heard Irrational went down, I got on the phone with one of my friends there and said, ‘I know some startups are going to come out of this so let me know,’” Isla says. “A couple days later, Forrest called and said, ‘I heard you are interested.’ I was opportunistic. It was like your crush just broke up with her boyfriend.”
For all involved, this was a rare chance to have the artistic freedom of an indie studio with the experience of a veteran team. More importantly, starting with Dowling and Sinclair, the group had the inherent trust that comes from having been through “crunch time” on major projects together – the camaraderie of the foxhole. Dowling and Sinclair were voted president and creative director by the group, but each member of Molasses Flood is an equal partner. Any future profits will be equally split six ways.
“There’s not many times when you get to jump to a company with all really good people,” Bennett says. “It seemed like an opportunity that I didn’t want to let pass by.
|What’s In A Name?|
The Molasses Flood is an odd name for a game studio, but the true story behind it is stranger still. The Great Molasses Flood (also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster) occurred in 1919 when a molasses storage tank exploded in the North End neighborhood of Boston.
Molasses flooded the streets at a terrifying rate; reports say the flood advanced at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. Over 21 people were killed and 150 were injured in the accident. Cleanup of the incident took weeks.
“We were looking for something local,” says creative director Scott Sinclair. “We wanted a name that was memorable and wasn’t a tech-company name. We wanted something that spoke to where we’re located in Boston.”
“We want to do something that’s fun and light but also dark,” says Molasses Flood president Forrest Dowling. “The Molasses Flood is very much like that. It’s weird that this molasses covered the northside, it’s weird and funny. But people died and it actually led to a lot of new regulations for industry. That’s the dark side. That speaks to the creative decisions I want to make, that contrast.”
The New Frontier
The story of the Molasses Flood is one of dozens of similar tales in the game industry in recent years. With each passing month, more artists, programmers, and designers are leaving the triple-A games space for a more creative and uncertain future in the independent development. Increasingly frustrated by the inertia inherent in teams of hundreds of people (Dowling described making large-scale changes in a triple-A game as “trying to turn a battleship”) and eager to make games of a smaller, more personal scale, high-profile developers like ex-People Can Fly head Adrian Chmielarz (now working on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) to Capcom’s legendary Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune (Mighty No. 9) have struck out on their own.
This movement has been made possible by an explosion of alternative avenues of game distribution. Services like Steam, as well as new home consoles that have viable self-publishing programs, have created an environment where games like Limbo, DayZ, and Minecraft can reach large audiences while remaining independent. You no longer need the endorsement of a major publisher like EA or Activision to reach the audience.
“It seemed approachable now a way it didn’t a few years ago,” Dowling says. “I feel like I can take a shot now. Four years ago, it would have seemed like a much crazier risk. I have a huge respect for the indies that forged this path, the first people who were getting stuff out on Xbox Live. [Jonathan Blow] or Supergiant – they’ve done a great service for people like myself. I can see a way to form my own company and make my own games. There’s a path to customers without the backing of major publisher.”
Like many experienced developers, Molasses Flood is attempting one of the most potentially lucrative – and riskiest – new forms of funding: Kickstarter. Since Tim Schafer’s Double Fine raised over $3.5 million in 2012 for an adventure game project that would become the still-unfinished Broken Age, scores of aspiring game studios have used the crowdfunding service to go directly to the fans.
If successful, Kickstarter is an ideal situation for a developer. The spoils include funding for a project, a good bit of pre-release publicity, and total creative freedom.
“Kickstarter removes all conflicts of interests and lets us work directly for the fans,” Frey says. “We get to make the game we want to make from the fans. All money comes with strings. If we accepted money from the publisher, they would have a say in when it ships, what systems it comes out on. In some cases, they would own the IP and be able to make sequels without us. Some people thrive on that pressure of ‘Ship on this date or we will cut your funding.’ We have an experienced team and don’t need that pressure; we put pressure on ourselves. Everybody here has shipped games.”
However, with any potential Kickstarter money still months away, the team had to make both personal and professional sacrifices to stay afloat financially.
“For me, it was all savings,” Sinclair says. “For these guys, it was severance. Our [Kickstarter] date has to do with our internal funding flatlining. It’s been good pressure, but we’ve done a lot fast to try to stay ahead of that. And we are in Boston, a city where overhead is high. We were lucky to find this place. Collaborating face to face was something that we deemed important... I’m used to ramen noodles anyway.”
Other members of the team have all had to make adjustments to keep the small company afloat. Frey relocated from downtown Boston to a small studio apartment in the suburbs. She also credits “Obamacare” for giving her affordable health care after losing the coverage she had at Irrational. Most of the team is quickly burning through either severance or savings. When asked about the financial pressure inherent in going indie, Chad LaClair, whose wife is currently unemployed, admits that he’s “starting to feel it.”
Despite these hard realities, the atmosphere in the office is far from tense. If anything, they seem to share an infectious sense of excitement about their new undertaking, an enigmatic, charming take on the survival genre called The Flame in the Flood.
|Kickstarter Winners & Losers
Kickstarter is a powerful funding tool, but often unpredictable. For every breakout success, there seems to be a “sure thing” game project that doesn’t reach its funding goal. Here are some of the most notable video game Kickstarter successes and failures.
WINNERS:STAR CITIZEN – No bigger Kickstarter success story exists than Chris Robert’s epic online space sim Star Citizen. Its original Kickstarter campaign blew through its $500,000 goal, earning over $2.1 million. However, the game kept taking donations through its own website and other avenues, and is currently closing in on a mind-boggling $54 million raised through crowdfunding.
LOSERS:WILDMAN – Gas Powered Games had a strong track record in the industry, with games like Dungeon Siege and Supreme Commander under its belt. After Microsoft shut down the studio’s Age of Empires Online, the company conducted layoffs and tried to save itself with a Kickstarter for Wildman, a caveman-themed action/RPG in the Diablo vein. Despite its track record, it did not make its $1.1 million goal.
|BROKEN AGE – This Kickstarter is effectively the “shot heard ‘round the world” of video game crowdfunding. As the first high-profile video game crowdfunding effort, Tim Schafer’s large cult following and the underserved adventure game audience let Double Fine Adventure, which was later renamed Broken Age, rake in $3.3 million on a $400,000 goal. It also showed the game development community that crowdfunding was a viable way to get a game off the ground. Now, if they’d only finish the damn thing.||THE ADVENTURES OF DASH – This project was the brainchild of Robert Bowling, one of the public facing figures at Infinity Ward during the heyday of Call of Duty. Bowling was well known in the game community, but his 2D action/platformer The Adventures of Dash failed to strike a chord, earning a paltry $33,121 of its $400,000 goal.|
|TORMENT: TIDES OF NUMENERA – InXile Entertainment struck Kickstarter gold with this ambitious (and still unreleased) RPG based on the Torment table-top universe. PC-oriented, hardcore RPGs have proven to be one of the most successful genres on Kickstarter, and Torment racked up an impressive $4.2 million from its Kickstarter campaign.||MUTANT FOOTBALL LEAGUE – EA’s Mutant League Football, a macabre, violent take on its Madden franchise, was a cult classic on the Sega Genesis. It’s a game that often came up on lists of titles gamers wanted to see revived, so creator Mike Mendheim decided to tweak the title, and crowdfund a spiritual successor. Perhaps there wasn’t as much interest as he thought, because the game ultimately fell far short of it $750,000 goal.|
|MIGHTY NO. 9 – After Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune fell out with Capcom, he became the first major Japanese game director to strike out on his own with crowdfunding. He was pretty upfront that Mighty No. 9 is a direct extension of his work on the 2D Mega Man games, which apparently Capcom wasn’t interested in letting him make anymore. The blue bomber’s loyal audience made this an easy Kickstarter hit, and Inafune earned an impressive $3.8 million. He’s hoping this inspires more Japanese game talent to follow his lead.||YOGVENTURES! – This proves there’s something worse than failing to fund your Kickstarter game – failing to deliver your Kickstarter game. Yogsventures was an open-world sandbox game based on the popular Yogscast YouTube channel. The design was quite ambitious for the $567,000 it eventually raised from Yogscast fans, and was also being developed by a unknown studio named Winterkewl. It was a perfect storm of Kickstarter mistakes: an overly ambitious, underfunded game design being attempted by an inexperienced developer. Inevitably, the project fell apart, causing much bitterness among backers, who were given only a Steam key for a completely different game for their trouble and money.|
Down The River
The Flame in the Flood was born out of some early conversations between Dowling and Sinclair. After the intense development of BioShock Infinite, Dowling was ready to take another genre. “I’d been doing big, first-person shooters for nearly a decade,” he says. “I knew what I did was about as critically acclaimed as it can be. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do something that’s substantially better, so I wanted to do something substantially different.”
Sinclair had been taken with the idea of controlling “little ecologies,” something that dovetailed nicely into Dowling’s recent love of survival games like FTL and Don’t Starve. However, they wanted to take the genre in a different direction, one that could best showcase Sinclair’s unique art and design aesthetic and the team’s experience in environmental storytelling. “Most survival games are about building a base and homesteading,” Dowling says. “We wanted the game to be about the journey.”
Tired of the constraints of a linear, traditional first-person narrative, the team set about crafting a game that first and foremost is based on mood and setting – one largely based on Sinclair’s upbringing. “I was born and raised in Florida,” he says. “There’s something to the environment there. My father is a farmer. I’m a skateboarder and punk rocker, but I’m visiting my family and I’m on an airboat and I’m fishing and seeing these visuals of an old car in the woods or the shanty houses along the river with graffiti on them. There’s this juxtaposition of two things I love, nature meeting the graffiti from punk rock and skate culture. I love to combine those things.”
Another major influence was the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beautiful film directed by Benh Zeitlin that follows a young girl’s journey to survive in a near-future, poverty-stricken South. The film balances gritty realism with surreal moments; this tone of magical realism resonated with Dowling and Sinclair, who hope to achieve something similar with The Flame in the Flood.
The idea of travel and flight was foremost in their mind, leading them to build the game around a literary device that’s as old as America itself: a river voyage into the unknown. “It’s the notion of a river journey,” Isla says. “That has such a rich cultural and literary precedent to it. I like the thought that it’s Heart of Darkness and Huck Finn as well. I love that aspect of connecting the games we make to the real world.”
Like the films and literature that inspired it, The Flame in the Flood is intended as an impressionistic narrative in which the player slowly learns about the world through multiple playthroughs. In many ways, it’s the simplest tale of all: a girl trying to survive in a harsh environment. Her name is Scout.
“Scout is young and at a coming of age point in her life,” Dowling says. “She’s this survivor in this world who knows how to live, but young enough that there’s wonderment left. She’s competent, but she’s just coming to that stage of adulthood. There’s a dog who’s a faithful companion, but maybe not the fierce hunter he once was. The world itself is based on the idea of the American backwater, particularly the rural South, although we don’t want to put a specific time or place.”
A catastrophic flood has overtaken this alternate version of the South, which forces Scout and her dog to stay ahead of the coming rains on a makeshift raft. The team hit upon the idea of the river as a way to have an overland map that also offers its own gameplay. As you navigate the rapids, you steer the raft toward procedurally generated islands, each of which can be explored for food, shelter, and useful items. You might also encounter the odd character that still lives in this flooded land, each of which might offer a mission or just unravel another piece of the mystery of what happened to the world.
On the islands, Scout must survive using the three pillars of The Flame in the Flood’s gameplay: stealth, crafting, and exploration. Though the art style evokes a dark children’s storybook, the core gameplay is rooted in real-world survival techniques, with some nods to the classic ‘80s adventure game Oregon Trail.
Scout must survive at all costs, and much of the gameplay involves fulfilling her basic needs: staying fed, dry, and alive. Water is a key theme of the game; in this harsh landscape, getting wet means getting sick, something Scout can ill afford. Crashing your raft or just being caught in the rain can be as deadly as any predator. Drinking contaminated water can result in dysentery.
Speaking of predators, Scout must deal with those as well. Wolves and worse populate the wooded islands. Scout has no superpowers, so she must rely on stealth and her wits to survive. For instance, a pack of wolves could be distracted by fighting over a rabbit you caught in a makeshift trap, or killed by meat you poisoned with hemlock or another deadly plant.
Crafting plays a large role in Scout’s survival. The Molasses Flood’s workspace is filled with outdoor survival manuals and wildlife guides, part of its effort to base all the tactics in the real world. If you catch the flu, you might be able to cure yourself with penicillin made from moldy bread. You can eat the roots of cattails and use the tops to pack in your coat as insulation. Dowling gives an example of how the team crafts gameplay out of the natural world: “If you burn sumac in the real world it creates a poison gas,” he says. “Maybe there’s a tool in the game where you have an empty jar, burn the sumac, and capture the poison gas in the jar and make a ‘gas grenade.’ That’s about as far as it will extend into video game territory. It’s that half step past reality.”
Mastering these tactics is all-important. Like the roguelikes that are so popular on the PC market, The Flame in the Flood features permadeath; once Scout’s gone, she’s gone.
Perhaps the biggest challenge the team faced was the desire to create a huge, endlessly replayable world that also featured an evocative art style and interesting environmental storytelling. Armed with the new Unreal Engine 4 – the key cog that programmers Isla and Bennett credit with allowing them to get the game up and running quickly – the team created a new concept for procedurally generated worlds that it hopes will allow them to make a world with endless variety and a true aesthetic vision.
“With a lot of games that have procedural environments, I feel like the art is only up to a certain level,” LaClair says. “And not just how the art looks, but the story you’re seeing and the overall presentation. We’re shooting for something that’s higher than that. I would love it if people said, ‘this screenshot looks like a storybook.’”
The solution to the problem of creating randomly generated levels that still have variety and art direction is something Scott Sinclair hopes to solve by creating macro “sets” of art assets through a system of associations. Once one objective, character, or location is triggered, large sets of assets are excluded from appearing, and others pulled in. This prevents silly visual non-sequiturs or clashing art styles from breaking the mood.
The darkly American aesthetics are reinforced by the music, something that was important to the team. Sinclair called upon an old friend, Chuck Ragan of the bruising ‘90s post-punk group Hot Water Music, who has recently been recording acoustic, folk-based music with his new backing band The Camaraderie.
“Everything about the game is tone,” Sinclair says. “It’s about feeling and mood, not a linear story. That has to come through all layers of presentation, the music being a huge part of it. Chuck and I go way back. I met him in college; we played shows together in separate bands. I’ve done every one of their album covers. I’ve stayed in touch for decades...It’s all real instruments, real singers, real journeys and travels...it’s fiddle and upright bass and acoustic guitar. It’s perfect.”
The team is upfront about how early in development the game is. Many aspects of the world, gameplay, and story have yet to be decided. Dowling says his philosophy of game development is to “start in the middle” by making sure the basic tone, art, and gameplay mechanics are right before moving on.
“That’s common wisdom in making games – you make the first level last,” Dowling says. “Because, by the time you’re making your last level, you know all the mechanics everyone needs to know, you know where you need to end up. It’s easier to know where to start once you know what the journey is going to be.”
As they flesh out Scout’s unique story, the team is drawing on lessons learned from Ken Levine about slowly revealing a larger picture through small bits of environmental storytelling and interactions with incidental characters.
“Ken is challenging,” Dowling says. “There are a lot of lessons working with him that I carry with me and inform what I do now. Ken is really good at understanding where the player is coming from – what is their point of view? You can have a lot of ideas about something, but if it’s not on the screen it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter what the elaborate backstory is; if you don’t show it and let the player understand, it doesn’t exist. Forcing that kind of honesty is one of the best lessons I got.”
Going independent gave the Molasses Flood team the freedom to create a game as unconventional as The Flame in the Flood, but it’s also forced them, just like their heroine Scout, to learn new skills to survive in a new environment.
While the team is glad to be free of the bureaucratic headaches that come with working on a team that numbers in the hundreds, there are times when its hard not to miss the seemingly unlimited resources a company like Irrational or Bungie provides. “At Irrational and Bungie, I could walk over and say, ‘I need this special jump’ and two hours later you have it,” Isla says. “There are resources that you don’t have at a smaller company.”
The team is learning that wearing multiple hats is a necessity to be able to stretch their dwindling cash reserves until the Kickstarter launches. In addition to hear animating duties, Frey does the company’s accounting and calls their lawyer for advice when necessary. Dowling, who seems to be the de facto leader in Molasses Flood’s loose structure, has had to give himself a crash course in business, finance, public relations, and marketing.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to start and run a business,” Dowling says. “What type of corporations exist? I didn’t know that stuff. The only public interviews I’ve done before this was for BioShock DLC. Other people were the public face of BioShock. My experience was one day of interviews and a press presentation. Now, I’m getting to the point where I have to show this thing to people and communicate what we’re trying to do. It’s a new experience.”
He’s also poured himself into studying Kickstarter, paying close attention what other indie developers have done, observing their successes and failures. The crowdfunding site can be lucrative, but many established developers have fallen far short of their goals due to either a poor presentation, inadequate communication, or an idea that didn’t resonate with the audience.
“In my research in looking at what Kickstarters succeed and which ones fail, I don’t think all of us having BioShock on our resume matters all that much,” Dowling candidly notes. “If you want to rest on your resume for money, going to a publisher or investor is a better path. To them, knowing that you’ve demonstrated the ability to ship something is extremely valuable. I wouldn’t expect a consumer to fund something on Kickstarter because of the resume of the person that did it. All that matters is if the game we are making looks good.”
Sinclair is more blunt in his assessment. “Kickstarter is total voodoo,” he says. “You see a kid raking it in on potato salad one moment, then I see games fail where I think, ‘How did that not get funded?’ Kickstarter is a little like the Wild West. I scan it daily. Projects come and go, and the quality and presentation level varies so wildly for each.”
In face of this uncertainty, the team’s strategy is one that places the game itself front and center. Right now, development is split between working on the game itself, and creating the in-game footage and art assets are needed for the all-important Kickstarter trailer. The team is determined to make sure that the trailer is not a CG sizzle reel, but in-engine footage that accurately reflects how the final game will look and play. This goal seems attainable; only a few months into a development, the core of the game is up and running.
“One thing we were certain about was that we didn’t want to be one of those projects with a developer in front of a camera talking about why he wants money,” Sinclair says. “Let’s shut up, let the music roll, let the game roll, and ask, ‘Was it awesome? Do you want to fund it?’ We’ll have it in-engine; you’ll see the music and the gameplay. It will be all in-game visuals. It will speak to our pedigrees. Hopefully there’s some measure of faith there, that we can make good on this stuff.”
The team hasn’t determined how much it will ask for its Kickstarter goal, but the general strategy appears to be, in the words of Sinclair, “lowball and hope that it snowballs.” Though ambitious, the team’s experience in shipping triple-A games also gives the members a hard-won pragmatism. They know all too well the dangers of over-promising and under-delivering, or committing to features that can’t be carried out to a high level of polish. The team intends to focus on the most core concepts and gameplay mechanics in The Flame in the Flood, perfect them, then move on to less central aspects of the game. The phrase “minimum awesome” is thrown around – the baseline they must achieve to create something that they feel is an exceptional game experience. Certain aspects of the game they would like to implement, like the potential ability to customize Scout’s raft, will come later or not at all, depending on how well the Kickstarter does.
Dowling is also aware of the fact that failure to reach funding is far from the only pitfall of Kickstarter. “There are examples of people miscalculating the cost of what it’s going to take to do what they say they are going to do and end up blowing the Kickstarter money on filling rewards,” he says. “If you don’t do your due diligence on how much it actually costs to print 600 T-shirts and mail them around the world, you can end up underwater right there. You need to anticipate the various fees associated with Kickstarter. You can make your goal but you didn’t realize that you have to give five percent to Kickstarter and two-and-a-half percent for credit card transactions. Twenty percent goes to tax. Some other percent goes to your tech or middleware. If you don’t anticipate those, you can hit your goals but actually get almost nothing out of it.”
Though the mood in the Molasses Flood office is one of optimism, there is the question hanging over the company: what happens if the Kickstarter fails? Though the six are getting by on a combination of severance and savings at present, at the current burn rate they will need more money to keep going through the next few months of development.
If they don’t make their funding goal, Dowling says that the team would seek other forms of backing, like publisher funding or a private angel investor, but he cautions, “If the Kickstarter fails, it’s not the end of the road, but it doesn’t help. If you go to a publisher or investor and you ran a Kickstarter that failed, then already you’re on your heels. You’re asking for money to make something and they say, ‘You had a chance to demonstrate that people wanted this thing and the demonstration was that they don’t.’ It will be rough if it fails. It’s a bet, and I’m hoping it works out. We’ll see.”
While every team member reiterated that the project would continue with or without Kickstarter funding, there are no guarantees. It’s clear that the their love of the game they are making – and their genuine affection for one another – would make it hard to walk away.
“As the game progressed to this point, the idea of failure has gotten way less appealing,” Sinclair says. “Not to be negative, but at first it was like, ‘If it works, it works; if not – no harm, no foul.’ Now, it would be pretty heartbreaking to shelve it. You’re more attached to the game. When we do launch the trailer and the prototype art is replaced and it’s firing on all cylinders, you’ll see. There’s something there that we really need to finish. We all believe in it.”
Related Link: The Flame in the Flood Kickstarter Page