So you want to be an indie developer, do you have what it takes? Acheron Design does, well they must because they're still around 3 years after being started by 2 guys in their second year of university, growing in that time to 14 staff, and the best part is that they've actually been able to start paying them.
In this interview with Lewis Strudwick, one of the managing directors of Australia's most poorly pronounced developer Acheron [ak-uh-ron] Design, you will find out, with no small amount of shock, that indie development is not all fun and games (well not entirely), but involves a lot of hard work, a good business network and a small amount of luck.
So you still want to be an indie and don?t know where to start? Well a good start would be to learn something from the guys that have been there and are doing that, and read on...
Firstly let me ask, what is your position at Acheron Design?
Lewis Strudwick: I was one of the original founders of the company, along with Athol Birtley, who I went to school with. I'm now one of the managing directors, and I am currently the general production manager for art and programming. As is often the case with small companies, I have a rather large number of jobs that I fill as required.
Why did you decide to name the company Acheron Design?
LS: I think we just wanted something that sounded ?cool? and ?mysterious?. In retrospect, we probably should have picked a name that more people can spell. We're running along with id Software as the most consistently mispronounced games company.
When did Acheron Design form?
LS: We founded the company when Athol and I were in second year university - we had done some games programming together before, but we just decided to go for it then. I think we just wanted to work in the games industry but still forge our own destinies to some extent - I was more than slightly concerned that I'd end up being a codemonkey in some soulless studio.
How many people was it then?
LS: We initially started Acheron Design with a couple of high school friends, including Michael de Graaf, who is now a manager of the company. In late 2005, we decided that we needed artists for the game we had been working on, and somehow managed to rope two 3D artists in part time. This was at the point where nobody was being paid anything, so the fact that we managed to get that initial 5 putting in huge hours was an amazing accomplishment.
How did you get your first paid job?
LS: We had been attending events such as IGDA conferences and Free Play in Melbourne, and through that we were able to make a couple of contacts with people on the inside, specifically Ben Palmer of IR Gurus. We took our indie game prototype (a 2D scrolling game called Renegade RX) to an IGDA show and tell event, and through that we got our first contract - finishing a soccer arcade game called Striker Pro that IRG had been working on.
Who have you worked with?
LS: Most of our dealings have been with IR Gurus, and Codemasters through them. We have also done a lot of work with Tom Parkinson and his endless fountain of DVD Trivia Games. Outside the primary games industry, we've had a lot of dealings with Film Victoria and Mushroom Interactive, as well as the usual peripheral dealings with people like Microsoft and Sony.
What games have you worked on?
LS: I've previously mentioned Renegade RX, which was our own game and our own tech, that unfortunately was just way too much work for something with extremely limited appeal. Striker Pro was a soccer arcade unit that was designed by and for a company called ICE. It contained two rings of infrared sensors designed by an Australian group called Eball Games, allowing you to actually kick a physical ball to play it. After that, we did some art and specialised work for a series of DVD trivia games, which kept us afloat. We moved on to working on Ricky Ponting / Brian Lara's PSP incarnation called ?Pressure Play?, under contract through IR Gurus, where we ported the entire game and added a few new PSP features.
How have you gone about getting business?
LS: The video games industry in Melbourne is still very personal, and a lot depends on having good relationships with people you know directly. We've mainly managed to get work simply by knowing a few people who need things done and being available at the right time. Thankfully, everyone that we have dealt with thus far has come back to us with more work, so this has been tremendously gratifying.
Were you able to get any financial support from Film Victoria to get a leg up? If so, how did you find the process of obtaining funding?
LS: Film Victoria are putting a lot of resources into the game development industry in Victoria, which is a great thing for local studios. The funding process is very competitive, however, and the application process is not one for the faint of heart. Coming from a technical background, it can often be difficult to understand the complex requirements of a large bureaucracy. A lot of work is required.
However, funding is definitely possible. The DVD Trivia Games we've worked on were initially supported by Film Victoria, and our own applications for original productions have had mixed success.
How accessible is the Victorian games industry to new indie start-ups at the moment? Would you recommend it as a viable alternative to joining a games company?
LS: I think the fact that Acheron is still operating to date is a reflection of how lucky we were to get some of our initial projects. Starting your own games company requires an awful lot of hard work and dedication, with no guarantee of success. The amount of administration and business development work is probably a lot more than most people would expect.
I also feel that, retrospectively, I expected to have a lot more control over the kind of games we would be working on. The reality of course is that we are no longer in a time where three people in a basement can make a game - the business is very much driven by those who have the money to finance production.
For most people, I would recommend finding a development studio that matches your personality and ideals rather than starting one yourself.
On the topic of government funding, do you feel there needs to be more of it available for games development in Australia?
LS: I think the Federal Government has really missed a golden opportunity to enhance the industry in Australia, by not extending the tax rebates from films to games. Games are expensive to make, and investment in development is something the industry needs in order to compete on a global scale.
If you had the chance to go back and start again, what things would you different?
LS: We would try to choose a name that people couldn't butcher, no matter how hard they tried. More importantly, I think we should have focused on developing a tech demo early on, rather than a full game that would never see the light of day. A fully completed game is not required to get your foot in the door.
What would you say the most important things is for an indie developer to do to succeed?
LS: It might be a little early for us to offer advice here. But whatever you do, make sure you don't forget why you started in the first place. There will be a lot of hard times, and you have to be willing to push through.
What size is Acheron now?
LS: We currently have 10 full time staff, and 4 part-timers. The company is currently hiring, and we're looking to increase this number significantly.
What are you working on at the moment?
LS: We've got a range of projects in various stages of development. Our latest batch of Trivia games (this time for the PC) are almost done, and we're in pre-production for two original IP titles that we're very excited about. One of them is set in the bar and nightclub scene, while the other is a sci-fi psychological thriller.
What is an average week at Acheron like?
LS: We have regular design meetings which range from broad issues about the game to specific discussions about implementing a particular feature. The development process is very fluid and flexible, and with small teams there is relatively little management overhead. The team also spends half a day a week on professional development - they are currently working on a small casual racing game. Lunchtimes always see a game of some sort being played with
the entire team, and after hours FIFA tournaments abound.
It's a great environment to work in. The team is small enough that we all know each other and get along well, and everyone is involved in the development of the games.
Q: What are Acheron's plans for the future?
LS: To acquire enough financial support to work on our own IP and make something really awesome. It's what we originally set out to do when we started the company, and we retain that goal - only now we're a bit more realistic, and understand the steps required to achieve it.