Indie developers are doing their best: An Interview with Lantern Studio and Puppet Combo

An insight into independent games development, and why you, as consumers, are not being exploited by them

The discourse surrounding independently developed games and how they are treated is never-ending. We recently saw a new eruption surrounding Steam’s 2-hour refund policy, followed by vocal elements of the gaming community complaining about the pricing of indie games. But what impact do these near-constant controversies have on the people that actually make the games – whose livelihoods these decisions affect the most? We sat down with two indie developers to gain some insight into how those making the games view the scene right now.

Both Beidi Guo of Lantern Studio and Benedetto ‘Ben’ Cocuzza of Puppet Combo – two very different types of developers – shared their views on one of entertainment media’s most volatile businesses with us. We spoke at length about their development processes, the pricing and marketing of their games, and their thoughts on the discourse that never, really, goes away.

A tweet from Lantern Studio kicked our interviews off. Founded in 2016, the team is composed of just four talented developers. When asked about their inspirations and development processes, Beidi Guo told us that “The idea was based on one of my animation films back in uni. I thought I could expand it into a puzzle game.”

Lantern Studio

After getting fellow developers Fox, Wang Guan, and Wang Qian on-board, work on the studio’s first game – LUNA The Shadow Dust – began: “We thought we could finish it in 2 years, but in the end, we spent about 4 years on developing it and another half on post-production stuff like publishing and marketing. It was way over our budget and we admit that we were ambitious; we bit off more than we could chew. However, it was an amazing journey and we don’t regret any of it.”

On the other hand, Benedetto ‘Ben’ Cocuzza of Puppet Combo is a solo developer. He started his work in games development as far back as 2000, but only began to complete and publish projects in 2012 – but it would be 2017’s Babysitter Bloodbath that’d really put him on the indie developer map.

“Slasher horror is my favourite genre and I grew up on Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, everything. I saw them all. Unfortunately, the genre never really made it to games so I wanted to make that happen,” Cocuzza explains when we ask him about the genesis of his game development career.

Puppet Combo

But, like many indie developers, the line between doing something as a hobby and doing it professionally was a little blurred to begin with. “I wish I was organized enough to have a process. I usually get an idea I can’t stop thinking about, so I start making it into a game until I get bored of it and another idea takes over. Sometimes I finish them, sometimes I don’t…. I’ve been doing better on that lately.”

For many developers, getting over the crest of the hill and ‘making it’ with a profitable game is the dream – but rarely a reality. As Guo states: “As an indie team, Lantern Studio was fully aware that becoming ‘successful’ is actually a rarity instead of the norm. Only 20% of the games on Steam can break even after the release, and only 5% can make a profit. It is a harsh reality out there and we don’t want to be delusional.”

Guo and their team’s idea of success is a wholesome one, to which many small developers can likely relate: “The reason we made LUNA is simply that we love playing and making games… It should be a game WE loved to play. So for us, as long as we can complete the game in the way we wanted, it is already a success. Anything that comes after that is a bonus.”

LUNA The Shadow Dust
LUNA The Shadow Dust. Credit: Lantern Studio

It’s all well and good making games that you want to play, but striving for that kind of creative freedom – and eschewing broader industry trends – comes at a real, visceral financial cost for some indies. “Certain types of games on average are going to be more successful than others. And some games take off totally randomly… but it’s always a good idea to clearly present your game as it is,” says Puppet Combo’s Cocuzza. “The quicker you can get the message across the better.”

We asked Guo about how they chose to price their games, to which their response was refreshingly transparent. ”I personally encourage indie developers to speak about the true cost of game development to the public as often as possible… The cost of making an indie game is the same as making anything else really. There’s wages to pay, utility fees, and more. You might save office rent if you’re working at home, but without a stable income, you’re investing and risk-taking before the game is complete, the stakes are a lot higher.

“I think an indie game’s price should have its own catalogue; it doesn’t need to depend on length but rather quality,” Guo concludes. “A high-quality indie game can have a higher price. Its price should not be compared with mobile games, free games, or AAA games, because the whole production process is different.”

Cocuzza agrees. “I try to be realistic about the pricing of my games and understand that hours accumulated in development won’t always be the factor of what the end price will be. I usually look more at movies to determine pricing than other games.” Given Cocuzza’s reverence for film and how often he looks to cinema for inspiration, makes a lot of sense (even if other developers may balk at that methodology).

Puppet Combo Collage
Puppet Combo Collage. Credit: Puppet Combo

The most important thing to take away from pricing your games for independent developers, then, is being open with your audience and your pricing – advice that triple-A publishers could probably do with listening to right now, too.

We have been made aware that success rates for indie games are low, but that doesn’t make the marketing process any less important for these developers. If anything, it makes it even more vital as the Steam and Epic Game Store libraries bustle with more and more games.

Guo states: “It was and still is a challenge for us… it’s getting harder for indie games to be noticed by the crowd. We worked with a publisher for our debut game simply because we were aware of the lack of connection we had in the industry. It does help a lot. But more importantly, you need to choose a publisher that understands the uniqueness of your game and truly likes it.”

“Perseverance is key. Your game might have very little exposure in the beginning. But if it is truly good, people will discover it if you keep trying new ways to let them know about it. YouTube and social media can be helpful, but it’s also sometimes pure luck.” Guo also noted, amusingly, that: “It’s sometimes just like how certain memes are more popular than the other? Nobody knows why but it just happens.“

Cocuzza self-publishes his games. He even recently launched his own company, Torture Star, to help publish the games of other developers that he supports and believes in. When we asked him about his marketing strategy, he said: “I think showing the development of the game from an early stage is important for people who are starting out. There is the tendency for many people to consider what they are making as either ‘imperfect’ or ‘sacred’ and so they hold back on sharing the development. It is about posting your work out there and building up interest in it.”

And is Cocuzza wrong? Arguably, sharing the process as your community grows is what raises awareness and encourages support, getting folks involved in something on the ground floor builds excitement – especially as an indie developer. That’s something we’ve heard from Strange Scaffold’s Xalavier Nelson Jr. recently, too.

While discussing independent games developers and some of the hardships they often face, it was hard to ignore the recent situation with Emika Game’s Summer of 58’ and Steam’s refund policy. To put it briefly, the solo developer at Emika Games decided to leave the game industry because Steam users refunded the studio’s game after completion. We asked both Guo and Cocuzza what they thought of this, before asking about what platforms they find best for selling their games.

Bloodwash
Bloodwash. Credit: Puppet Combo

“That is a tough question. It is hard to talk about another dev’s experience and so I can only relate to my own experiences on Steam so far”, said Cocuzza. “I think the real question is how can we make the platform work for every type of product, from independent developers to mainstream ones.”

“I think it’s fair that players can choose to refund the game if it is not suitable for them”, added Guo. “The trailer and screenshots can never fully show you the actual experience… There are only a very small number of players who do that, so I am okay with this policy generally speaking.

“If someone’s game is a very short game and if the game’s playtime being stretched to over 2 hours will affect the storytelling or experience, then this policy will have a big impact on it. Steam should have a separate policy that alters the refund time for them. But if this is applied, does it mean that AAA games that have hundreds of hours of playtime should have longer refund windows too? This is something actually worth discussing in the gaming community.“

Guo is right, but as much of the community is currently aware, this change in policy is something easier said than done. A change is certainly needed to support those developers who create shorter yet quality games.

While Cocuzza does have one game currently on Steam – Murder House – and one more in the works, he opts to make most of his games available on itch.io or Patreon. We asked him why he wants to target these platforms.

PCs can install software from anywhere. Steam is just another of a billion applications. I can’t say I really understand why it’s so important to anyone. I’m not against putting a game or two on there but it’s better for me to just sell things on my own website or sites that give me better terms.”

Bloodwash
Bloodwash. Credit: Puppet Studio

We then asked Guo why they chose to sell LUNA The Shadow Dust on Steam (and Switch) instead of looking for more direct support, like Cocuzza, they replied: “Steam is still the biggest gaming market (for sales and exposure) for games, that’s the reason we went for it. Also, it’s part of our contract with our publishers… If we publish a new game in the future independently, I can’t think about any reason why we might not consider Patreon and itch.io.”

When posed with a question about their future plans, Cocuzza proved he almost always has something up his sleeve. “Much of it is secret right now, but my next big game Stay Out of the House is releasing relatively soon. Look for it this October and Happy Halloween!”

However, on the other hand, Guo’s response was somewhat depressing – and certainly not unique amongst indie developers at large. “We don’t have any plans for a new game yet, but we’d love to be able to work on something again in the future… For us to work on something new, we might simply need to live life and experience more, so we feel like there’s something more we’d like to say. Then we can make it into another game.”

And that is the sometimes sad nature of this industry. Even if people enjoy your games, they’re priced well, and you sell them… oftentimes, it just isn’t enough to be able to continue.

Almost every independent games developer is trying their best to make things work in an industry where, for the most part, the odds are incredibly stacked against them. Whether it’s because of the attitudes of the small portion of players that take potshots at indie developers, or in the platforms themselves that need to better cater to the myriad different forms of indie game out there, the industry is getting harder to survive in for smaller developers. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better for them before it gets worse.

Kelsey Raynor is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME

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