The Journey of Thousand Miles

A month ago we had an anniversary: Rival Games is now a one-year-old company. This is the story of how we moved from being grad students in the University to a professional game studio employing over 10 people and continuing to grow fast.

Let us go back 25 months, to the early winter of 2012. I was sitting at a lecture in the Turku School of Economics, thinking that this is some of the most boring stuff I’ve ever heard. Something that will never ever be useful for me in the future. I barely passed the exam few weeks later, just by remembering by heart the few basic topics that were traditionally asked every time on the exam. The course was called “Entrepreneurship”. Funny, how things change in life.

About two months later, I realized while watching the final episode of The Shield, that why the heck hasn’t anyone done a game out of this? Okay, I know that there is a game made of The Shield, but I’m talking about a game where the player plays the characters and not just the action. A game where there are consequences for the player’s choices and he is morally challenged with the realistic approach to the problems existing in every culture: drugs, violence and gangs. There had been games with similar themes for years, but they were almost always either sci-fi or fantasy (exceptions do exist, like Heavy Rain). Still, police dramas had been among the most watched movies and TV series for decades.

Few days later I was having a pint with a good friend and introduced the idea to him. Sadly, he wasn’t that interested (he ended up later working at Nokia). Thankfully another friend from school happened to be there. He got immediately excited about the idea of making a childhood dream true: designing your own game. We started thinking about the mechanics, built an ugly-ass prototype and implemented a few lines of dialogue. But by far the biggest thing we did, was asking two other good friends about joining our crazy idea. Between the four of us, we realized that we had a designer, programmer, graphic artist and a musician. So we could do a much better prototype.

However, the big step for us was an advertisement my wife noticed in the newspaper back in September 2012. A startup accelerator program named Boost Turku was searching for new applicants for their Startup Journey. We quickly talked about applying and decided to give it a try. We were actually pretty sure that we will never get accepted since we where just working on something minor in our “garage”. But for some reason, they decided to accept us.

During the late fall of 2012 we worked hard on creating a business idea around the game. Due to our inspirations being great TV police dramas, we decided to test out an episodic approach to the market. TellTale Games’ had already proven that it could be done, so they were a solid cornerstone for us to relate to. We also networked a lot within Finland and managed to attract a professional writer (who was also a game journalist) to join our team as a freelancer. Back then he just mostly gave us feedback (and now he has a writing team to work with). All in all, we were actually crowned as the winner of the whole Startup Journey and won a trip to GDC 2013 for the founders. We also got our first office located in the space provided by Boost Turku. It wasn’t big nor fancy but it was ours.

We expanded our team by getting a programmer to help us with making a port of the prototype for Android tablet. He has also been a crucial part of the team ever since. In March 2013, a week before GDC 2013 started, we founded the company and registered it under the name Rival Games Ltd. The name just somehow resonated for all of the four friends who became entrepreneurs that day. Just 12 months earlier I had sworn never to become an entrepreneur. Like I said, it is funny how the human mind works.

Game Developer Conference 2013 was a big eye-opener for us. I was also awarded the IGDA Scholarship for the conference, which meant that I was fortunate to meet some of the iconic figures of the international game industry. Or how else would you describe having a two-hour private lunch with Louis Castle, the co-founder of the legendary Westwood Studios? I also had a personal mentor, a board member of the IGDA helping me to get the best experience out of the enormous conference. I’m proud to say that she is still mentoring me and is an advisor for our company. And a good friend.

All the experience and advices gathered from GDC 2013 and other meetings during the spring of 2013 also gave us a lot of tools for developing the game itself. We had an office at Boost Turku and recruited two trainees from a cross-educational study program aimed for developed professional graphic artists and programmers for the industry. They have been with us ever since. That also meant that we needed a bigger office. Thankfully a space opened just right next door to us, a three times larger office space still located within Boost Turku.

We soon realized that we’d have to push harder if we really wanted to become a serious company. We negotiated with few angel investors, declined their offer (probably the best decision we have ever made) and networked as much as we could to gather feedback and advice. Then we saw another great opportunity to take the next crucial step deeper into the Death Valley. An internationally awarded business incubator program named Startup Sauna.

We applied, I pitched us on stage and we got accepted as one of the 15 international teams. The program was like the older brother of Startup Jouney: bigger, harder and more challenging. But at the same time, the rewards grew alongside the expectations. The feedback on our prototype was harsh: “The game looks like total crap”, was the exact words from one of the oldest Finnish industry veterans. But to my surprise, the team took that as personal achievement for making it better. It took them a week, and suddenly we had a game that actually looked unique and appealing.

The big stuff we ended up with from the Startup Sauna Program was our first official investment (made by Startup Sauna itself) and a government grant to tag along with it. This gave us to opportunity to hire the first programmer who had been with us for months already, and the trainees later on when their training period ended. The other big thing we got from Startup Sauna was meeting our next advisor, who became an investor later on, a co-founder of the legendary Remedy Entertainment. This guy is really a wizard when it comes to anything technical. We still haven’t figured out a question he can’t answer or at least point us to the person who can.

So after the summer of 2013, we continued to develop the game. Even though we where told about a billion times to ditch the episodic approach and make it free-to-play, we decided to keep it as it were. The reason for this was simple: our core principle is interactive storytelling and free-to-play mechanics would annihilate that. It is like Jonathan Blow said in a presentation he gave a while back, free-to-play is like the TV series of the 80s: commercial breaks decided the story structure. So the monetization mechanics were more important than the content of the show itself. At the end of the day, you always knew that Spock is going to save the day. All that changed when TV series matured. Today they are unpredictable and tell much deeper and more complex stories than movies. So why not in games?

One of the most important things I have realized along the journey, the same one I told at SLUSH 13 on a panel I attended on, is that you should always listen to experienced people, but remember that those experiences are defined by their own backgrounds. So they are more opinions rather than advices. So get used to hearing completely different views and pick the best ones suited for your company. But now back to the story.

We opened up lines of communication towards various venture capitalists, but we had one major problem: the lack of experience. We hadn’t actually shipped anything ever before. So we weren’t ready for the big money yet. I had a long talk with an expert in funding a startup company and a man I respect a lot, and he suggested that I should try to raise a small angel round, use that to gain access to a much larger government grant and validate the business case through professionals. It took me less than 24 hours to get three angel investors abroad, including the co-founder of Remedy Entertainment. With their minor investments and the government grant, we were able to employ 10 people starting from January this year.

We also finally left the overcrowded office space back at Boost Turku and after a long search, rented a reasonably priced space from the center of Turku. I’m honestly quite proud of how that turned out: we have created a office that reflects us perfectly. The interior is covered with all sorts of inspirational material, we have our own white-screen to enjoy episodes of The Wire, and enough personal room for everyone to work with. See the pictures below how the office has evolved during the last 12 months.

This pre-seed round also allowed us to participate at GDC again. We even applied to the Selected Projects competition at Game Connection America 2014, due to it being held at San Francisco during the same week as GDC 2014. From the over 200 applicants, we were chosen as one of the top 5 finalist for the mobile and handheld category. Being one of the finalists gave me a huge opportunity to meet, network and pitch us on stage (Teaser made for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87m2F5UiQRg ). I was actually told later that the pitch I made was a brilliant one. Let me tell you a secret: I’ve been using the same structure since the demo day of Startup Journey in late 2012. Of course I’ve changed a lot of the content, the slides and the way I present it, but the idea is still the same. If you focus in storytelling in games, you have to pitch it as a story!

Another interesting notice about the whole 8 day long trip to San Francisco this year: it was a completely different experience than a year ago. Last year it was just listening, learning and sniffing around the professional circles. This time it was business. Tons of interesting meetings, which might prove useful later on. A lot of new friends and contacts who will definitely prove useful in the future. For example, Game Connection felt like a three day long speed-dating marathon: you run from a meeting to meeting every 30 minutes, but you never know if that special one is the next one.

That was less than a month ago. However, a lot has happened even since. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the story is still ongoing. The Detail is still in development and we are testing it to make it the best possible crime experience for you to enjoy. We have some really interesting future projects that we are currently starting to work with. I’m also beginning to sense that especially mobile gamers are starting to demand a much deeper story experience from their games in the future. Games have the potential to become the next storytelling medium. It is about time we stop copying Hollywood and start developing storytelling much further. Check out the pictures below to see how the game became to life.

A quick thought on why I believe we have been able to grow and attract talent along the way so efficiently, is the simple reason I recently learned, while participating at Aalto Executive Education’s Game Executive Program, that we function really well as a company. My role as a CEO provides me the opportunity to take the company to the next level, mostly thanks to my CTO who takes care of all the boring stuff I would hate to do. If you know anything about MBTI personality types (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), we are almost the complete opposites. Same goes for all the team members: our talents and personalities create a highly functioning mix. I think the pictures below summarize them brilliantly.

Just as the final note, I can honestly say that with all the things I have so far experienced in the game industry, I can say I truly love what I do. The team we have working at Rival Games is passionate about what we do, and the astonishing atmosphere at the office can be felt a mile away. So even if it requires a lot of work, sweat and tears, it has been worth the ride.

Much obliged!