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!

Happy Valentine’s Day from Rival Games!

Since the beginning of this year, we have been working extremely hard at our new office in the heart of Turku, Finland. The atmosphere here has been amazing since day one, and now that we finally got the rest of the needed equipment, the progress during each week is amazing. People working in the game industry certainly do love what they are doing.

Big thanks also goes to Jimm’s PC-Store (http://www.jimms.fi/ ) for fast, reliable and professional help in getting all the necessary gadgets and machines for the new office. They sure do have everything a game developer needs in almost a heartbeat. I’m sure our new partnership will be fruitful in the future for both.

As a little gift for the Valentine’s Day, here is a quick glance at how our graphic artists build that unique graphic novel style of The Detail. In the first set, you can see how one of the backgrounds of the “to serve and protect” department is starting to shape up. The second part shows the same thing with our character design. The character in question is one of the members of the notorious Northside 13 gang. These images are still work-in-progress from the alpha version, so they do not reflect the quality of the end product.

Next time I’ll give you a tour around the new office and some info about becoming a beta tester for the first episode of The Detail.

Pitching up!

East met west at Pocketgamer’s Very Big Indie Pitch in London, where Rival Games was fortunate enough to attend an event combining talent from around the globe. Fifty indie developers, having already passed a scrutinous first-round screening of their games last year, pitched their hardest at a hectic meet-and-greet with top mobile industry professionals, journalists, and publishers – where the three highest-rated would advance to the final round and compete for the grand prize package worth $25,000 in promotion and services.

Very Big Indie Pitch #1

Indie developers and industry professionals gathered from around the world

While Rival Games was on excellent form during the manic ”three-minute speed date”dash with five tables of judges (ducking between waiters’ proferred canapes like seasoned pros) we regrettably were not shortlisted for the final round. However, the feedback was extremely positive from everyone who tested our game, and players seemed genuinely enthused to be sampling a brand new adventure game – especially one also coming to tablets and mobiles! Overall we made a variety of new contacts and friends across the mobile development scene, and considering that The Detail is not the usual mobile app fare, this – and the chance to soak in some local London culture – was enough of a win for us.

Very Big Indie Pitch #2

The venue and schedule were both packed

Rival Games Is Proud to Be Part of Slush 2013

Slush_logo

What is Slush ?

“Slush is one of the top startup events on the globe, focusing heavily on Northern Europe and Russia. In 2012, Slush attracted $40 billion worth of venture capital, some of the world’s top media, plus 3,500 attendees.”

Find out more about Slush!

This will be a wonderful opportunity for us to meet some of the most influential persons in the startup scene, and we’re looking forward to taking part, having fun, and showing what we’ve accomplished so far!

Be sure to check out some of the other companies in the first wave of 100 startups attending the Slush event.

Presenting The-Detail.com

We at Rival Games are proud to present a new page for The Detail, which you can find at http://the-detail.com.

The Detail Logo

At the moment it’s simply a landing page, but we plan to launch a full-scale site when we are closer to the release of the game.

Be sure to check back for updates from time to time!

As a teaser for things to come, we are ready to show updated artwork for our main character, Reggie – while still very much “work in progress” we are getting there!

Click the image for full size.reggie_set promo2

The Detail – Developer Preview

We are proud to present a new video about The Detail. Going more in-depth to what we want to bring to the players, even though we are still early in development. Enjoy!

http://youtu.be/qFa_R_wDpHI

We were contacted by Videolle.fi and asked if we wanted to make a developer preview clip, and here is the result. What do you think? We would love to hear your comments and feedback, and if you want to see more from us!

Remember to check out the Videolle.fi if you need a video for your company or project. We at Rival Games can highly recommend them to anyone needing a world-class video, and as added bonus they are a great bunch of guys!

The Team and Support

JukkaJukka is our co-founder and the proud CEO of the company. He is planning on graduating later this year as a M.Sc. (Tech.) majoring in Productization and Business Competence. He is a passionate gamer and the mastermind behind The Detail. His responsibilities vary from game and story drafting to dialog and graphical design. One thing he keeps his hands off is coding though, since his skills in that field are nonexistent. 

Sami is one of our co-founders and the CTO. He is justSami about to graduate as a M.Sc. (Tech.) majoring in Networked System Security. Aside from the occasional bouts of coding, he additionally keeps the office organized and is responsible for making sure we don’t run out of coffee. Sami is also known for his “Tom Selleck –wannabe” mustache and thinking/whining out loud for everyone’s delight.

ThomasThomas is our third co-founder, and has graduated from the School of Applied Sciences. He has a vivid imagination and therefore is one of our concept artists; and thanks to being a U.S. Citizen, he also has a major influence on the dialog. Thomas enjoys playing blues music with his guitar, and has had to deal with a lot of weirdos during the graveyard shifts of his work.

Ville is our fourth and last co-founder. He is a VilleDoctoral student with a long background and passion in music. He is responsible for a lot of the music heard in-game and in other related materials. One thing especially distinguishes him from the rest of us: he is the odd-bird who hasn’t played games for a really long time, which gives him a unique perspective into development.

 TimoTimo is our main programmer. He is passionate about designing puzzles and game mechanics, and has the ability to prototype them quickly through Unity. Many of the in-game mechanics have come from the depths of Timo’s brain, and countless trees have lost their lives for the notes he uses to fill all available surface areas he can find in the office. But for sure, those trees have not died in vain.

Mika is a reporter for the Gamereactor magazine, and a JDskilled, versatile writer. His favorite TV series is The Wire, which makes him a perfect match for us. His responsibilities are the writing the story, dialog and thematic design with the rest of the team – so he is the guy who will shoot down most of the ideas others think are ingenious, and brings us back to reality in our design and development.

SamSam is another bilingual wonder on our team. He is a jack-of-all-trades kind of member, whose main focuses are dialog, graphic editing, game design, and programming. With an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming history and trivia – and the team’s largest game collection – he is never short of an anecdote or innovation, and his industry-standard beard makes him a front-runner for the annual Beardiest Team Member award.

Roman is the man behind the visual look of our game. He knows Romanhow to take prototype concept art and drive it towards a more final and uniform look. Immersing himself deeply in worlds, he draws inspiration from his wealth of gameplay experience; and although he modestly denies it, his ambitions rival those of established talents in the comic drawing industry. A great developer who is also quick on the draw.

TommiTommi has experience of audio design for ten years, with credits from being the sound designer for movies and games. He also occasionally lectures about his passion: designing audio for game. One of the highlights of his early career was being the game and sound designer for Bugbear Entertainment’s Flatout in 2004, and this experience gives him the ability to identify a specific car engine just by listening.

Tony is currently making a game of his own, a tribute to imaginative Tonystorytelling and classic point n’ click adventures: a game called Bunker (http://www.bunkerthegame.com/ ). He is currently giving us a hand in various different areas ranging from graphics to animation, and while he shares our passion for creating intriguing games, he hasn’t yet quit his day job as a human behaviour analyst.

Advisors:

SamiVSami is one of Remedy Entertainment’s founders. He recently stepped down from Remedy, after working there for 17 years as the Lead Graphical Artist for the Max Payne series, and later as the Lead Technical Artist for Alan Wake. His technical skills are among the best in the world, and he has already proven to be a valuable advisor with extensive knowledge in almost every aspect of game development.

SheriSheri got her start in the game industry over 15 years ago and has more than 30 game credits under her belt. As an avid philanthropist and fierce advocate for the betterment of the video game industry,  she dedicates much of her free time to volunteer organizations including Women in Games International (WIGI), the Red Cross, and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). She also serves on the board for IGDA, as an advisor for Rival Games, and a personal mentor for Jukka.

Enjoying the summer in a Sauna

We had the honor to participate in a hot startup accelerator, the Startup Sauna, in Helsinki during the beginning of the summer. The program (http://startupsauna.com/ ) helps promising startups develop to a stage where they’re ready to take the next step, be it entering their target market or raising a seed round of funding. Their coaches, who are some of the region’s most talented serial entrepreneurs, investors and other professionals, help the startups achieve this goal.

So what did we learn and achieve during the program?

First of all, we got pre-seed funding to help us really make this work. The investment was enough to help us to hire talent, acquire equipment and develop the game with higher efficiency. We also made some amazing friends and contacts from the coaches and other participating teams. As a cherry on top, we managed to get an experienced industry veteran as an advisor.

Me pitching Rival Games for the audience of hundreds

Me pitching Rival Games for the audience of hundreds

As some of you have already noticed, we had a couple of major developments regarding the game itself. First of all, the game has an official name now: The Detail. It has a nice ring to it, and it works as the perfect name for the game due to its multiple different meanings.

The two main characters: Detective Reginald "Reggie" Moore and ex-con Joseph "Joe" Miller

The two main characters: Detective Reginald “Reggie” Moore and ex-con Joseph “Joe” Miller

Second, we released a Presentational Alpha –version of a part of the game. It was just to test out a couple of things and measure the interest of adventure gamers. As a result, we got press coverage in multiple game websites and a lot of feedback. Thank you all for that, especially the negative feedback!

From now on, we will be introducing a new way of updating this blog. By offering you insights from all the necessary aspects of game design, ranging from graphics to audio and narrative design, you’ll get a front row seat in game design and our development process. The game has seen some major developments on all fronts, and progress thus far is steady.

But first, let me introduce you to the team behind Rival Games in my next post later this week.

The Road to GDC2013 Part II

Even though the trip to our first GDC didn’t start out as expected, thanks to the never-to-be underestimated luggage delivery rate at the LAX, it turned out to be an amazing journey into the heart of gaming industry. During the week we got to experience, chat and meet with a variety of the developers behind the top-selling, innovative, and unique games that we have been experiencing throughout our lives.

With the IGDA Scholar -badge hanging around my neck, the overall experience of the GDC2013 was exponentially lifted compared to what it might have been without it. Just to pick out some of the best moments from throughout the week, from which I own a big thanks to my mentor Sheri Rubin for making them happen:

  •  Meeting one of the former executive directors of the GDC and getting a personal advice from him in things related to our first game in development and how to move forward with it. It was surprising to realize that he found our game to be a brilliant approach on a known genre.
  •  Having lunch with one of the original Westwood co-founders and the lead designer/producer behind an all-time favorite game of mine: The Blade Runner from 1997. That game is still an engineering masterpiece from the storytelling point-of-view.

These two meetings were just the tip of the iceberg. As I was sitting in the Game Developers Choice Awards ceremony on Thursday I suddenly realized that some of the people on the stage being awarded were the ones who sat with us scholars on a lunch on Tuesday on the Scholar/Mentor Lunch. The host of the awards was Tim Schafer himself, who gave us a Q&A at the tour on his studio couple days earlier.

Just some pictures along the way

Of course one of the main things about the GDC is the sessions themselves. We each managed to catch a good amount of them and found them to be extremely interesting and inspiring. Just to mention a few of the best:

  •  Jesse Schell was on fire telling about the future of storytelling
  •  Scott Campbell from Double Fine turned a lecture into an interactive character design drawing contest
  •  Telltale Games told interesting facts about the way players made choices in their award-winning The Walking Dead
  • Evan Skolnick gave a full day bootcamp on game narrative, which will most definitely prove useful later
  • The importance of live instrumentals alongside with virtual instruments are a great way to enhance the musical experience

These are just to mention some of things that left a mark in our simple minds.

Overall, our first GDC turned out to be even greater experience than we could have ever imagined. We all made some really cool connections and I would definitely recommend the IGDA Scholarship for anyone who dreams about being a game developer or an entrepreneur in the industry. The connections and friends I made during the week are certainly worth the sweaty and restless trip of 38 hours it took us to make it to San Francisco.

Finally, a small piece of advice for the future first time attendees: choose your parties carefully based on do you want to party in a fully packed and earsplitting night club? Or do you want to be able to talk to people? We tried both and decided to focus on latter one from now on. Or perhaps we are just getting old 😉