Building a Successful Studio After a First Indie Game
Through the Canada Media Fund’s Accelerator Partnership Program, indie studio Thunder Lotus Games worked with incubator District 3 and earned over $1 million in revenue. Founder Will Dubé recalls the journey, from crowdfunding his game Jotun to building a successful business.
Jotun, the first game from indie studio Thunder Lotus Games, is a hand-drawn action/exploration game inspired by the epic stories of Norse mythology. It’s only fitting that its founder, Montrealer Will Dubé, himself underwent an epic journey to get to this point.
Initially launched as a PC version in 2015, Jotun has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Wii. It received some help along the way from the Canada Media Fund, but it all started with a dream and a risky move.
“In January 2014, I quit my job as a mobile game designer to put an indie PC game on Kickstarter. At that point, I had no idea for a game we wanted to do,” says Dubé.
After researching ideas, Dubé says he fell in love with Norse mythology. After settling on the concept and the name Jotun (which means giant in Old Norse), he reached out to former colleagues who specialize in 2D art.
“Originally, I said two to three months and we’d have a Kickstarter campaign. It ended up taking about seven months to get the idea for the game, a video concept and the full pitch for Kickstarter,” he explains.
The work paid off. Jotun raised $64,000 in one month, i.e., $14,000 more than the goal that Dubé had set.
CMF Funding and District 3
Dubé also received funding from the Canada Media Fund: $210,000 from the Experimental Stream and $30,000 as part of the Accelerator Partnership Program (A2P). The studio used part of the A2P money to attend trade shows.
“That is super important for any game studio, especially a small one. That’s where you meet media and talk about the game, meet fans, collect emails for your mailing list, meet biz-dev partners, and talk to consoles,” states Dubé.
The funding was also used to hire another programmer to develop a Wii U version of the game to enable the studio to access the highly lucrative Nintendo market.
Dubé says the funding was crucial, but it actually wasn’t the most valuable aspect of the A2P. In December 2014, with the CMF’s help, Thunder Lotus Games joined District 3, an incubator and accelerator for start-ups based at Concordia University.
“It was office space, it was support from the District 3 staff, coaching, mentorship, but I think the best thing that came out of it was the contacts with other founders and start-ups, people who are going through the same things you’re going through,” he says.
“If you need to set up payroll, for example, you turn to the pod next to you and say ‘Hey, you guys set up payroll, how do you do that?’ Then they tell you. It’s a lot of knowledge sharing, which is super important to have when you’re starting out because there’s so many things you need to set up in a business that it really makes your life easier.”
Support = Success
While at District 3, Thunder Lotus Games launched Jotun. Since that day in December 2015, the game has sold more than 300,000 copies and earned $1.5 million in revenue. It’s enough cause to celebrate, says Dubé, and more than enough success to keep his studio ‘in the game.’
“Jotun was not a major mega hit. 2 to 4 million copies sold are mega successes, but there are like 4 to 5 indie games per year that achieve that. But Jotun was profitable, and that’s what builds a studio’s foundation,” he explains.
After Jotun, Thunder Lotus Games was able to move out of the incubator space at District 3 and set up shop in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district. The building used to be where RCA made vinyl records. Now it’s a hotspot for gaming companies, and Dubé feels the surroundings are key to his studio’s continued success.
“I think the hardest thing was adapting to the emotional stress levels that come with starting a business. I think I knew it was going to be hard, but there were certain moments when I didn’t know it was going to be that hard just in terms of stress and on a personal and emotional level,” he states.
“The key to surviving that is to have a really good support structure around you: family, friends, girlfriend or boyfriend, and a great team that you’re working with. That shared space in District 3 and the shared space with the other studios around is the support structure you need to be able to move forward.”
Marrying Marketing with Game Design
Thunder Lotus Games embarked on a considerable marketing campaign with the release of Jotun. Dubé feels it is half of the battle when it comes to creating a successful indie game.
“What you can control is having a great game and having great marketing... There are a ton of great games that don’t do well, that don’t have the proper marketing investment. On the other hand, if you only have great marketing [and not a great game], people aren’t going to talk about it and it’s not going to work out. It’s the marriage of both that produces results.”
This is especially important now, says Dubé, as the indie games market has become very competitive.
“If we were releasing an indie game in 2010, all we’d have to do is put the game out on Steam and make money if it was decent. But now that the floodgates have opened, you need a super good product and really good marketing to make it,” he says.
Being a Game Studio Vs. Making Games
Thunder Lotus Games is now focused on its second game, Sundered, a “horrifying fight for survival and sanity.” Due out on Steam and PS4 in July, Dubé says it will be a better game than Jotun. He adds he has been able to leverage his first game’s success in the industry and optimize his studio’s marketing skills.
“It really comes down to what you want to do. Are you making games or are you building a business? Those are two very different things a lot of game developers confuse,” he says.
“Making a game is a part of building a studio, but if you’re only interested in making a game, then you probably want to go get a publisher and find someone who knows about marketing games. If you want to be a game studio, then it’s not just about making games it’s about running a business. It’s all about execution.”
Click here to learn more about the Canada Media Fund’s Accelerator Partnership Program.