Independent games have never been more accessible and prominent. Hordes of fans are turning to titles created by small teams taking risks to tell stories and produce realities that often go unseen in the mainstream. One such game is Thirsty Suitors, an upcoming release from studio Outerloop Games. Chandana Ekanayake, the co-founder of Outerloop, spoke to me to demystify the route a project like Thirsty Suitors takes to reach our storefronts.
Colourful and irreverent looking, Thirsty Suitors tells the story of Jala, using an assortment of turn-based levels, including skateboarding and cooking. Jala is a character of South Asian origin who is returning to her hometown after a few years away from her family. “She’s here to make things right and not everyone is happy about her being back,” describes Chandana. “We like to say it’s a game about disappointing your parents and battling your exes”.
The unique concept for Thirsty Suitors came to Outerloop after completing the studio’s first game, Falcon Age. “I wished to tap into my background more this time. We based Falcon Age on anti-colonial sentiment set in a fantasy, sci-fi world. It focused on British imperialism in India.” Chandana wanted to explore his own Sri Lankan culture in the new game and thought about his family and parents who “moved to [to the USA] to have a better life,” exploring it “as a theme from a perspective that [he understood]”.
Thirsty Suitors was initially about arranged marriage, but, because of a lack of familiarity with the topic, the team reverted. Eventually, a storyline formed around Jala “and her journey of finding herself, playing off themes from the Outerloop team’s lived experiences”. With an idea in hand, Outerloop took the practical steps towards making it a reality.
Finding the right people
Chandana emphasises how essential it was to set up a team before beginning the game. “Unless it’s a solo project, you need to find a group of people with whom you can build”. To create Falcon Age, Outerloop assembled a group of seven to nine individuals. Despite not working alone, Chandana still found it overwhelming. “We were trying to do too much with too small of a team. I was doing many jobs – running the business, doing the design work, art direction, trailers and marketing”.
It takes a multi-disciplinary village to make a game and for Thirsty Suitors, Outerloop expanded to fourteen members, including Chandana, his partner and programmer Justin Lalone and animator Aung Zaw Oo amongst others with expertise including sound design, effects, and illustration.
The next step was developing ideas further. For Thirsty Suitors, Outerloop began with three different ideas – “I have a Google Doc I’ve kept for years and whenever a random idea comes into my head, I’ll throw it into the Doc and noodle on it for a while”. It’s vital that a developer is mindful of the scope of their first projects. “It’s easy to make your first projects too big because you want your game to be special,” he says, but because of the overwhelming number of responsibilities involved in a game “keeping the scope smaller makes it more realistic”.
Once the idea became clearer, it was now time for the game to be pitched. “We put together a pitch deck that had visuals and a video for each of our three ideas.”
Making the pitch
Outerloop underwent a round of pre-pitching. “I reached out to platform holders and publishers and set up meetings with them,” explains Chandana. Industry events are vital for independent developers. “There’s a show called Dice in Vegas. Dice has 1000 people in attendance including publishers, marketing folks, studio heads and other people pitching”. Chandana used Dice as an opportunity to organise meetings with the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Epic and Nintendo. Pre-pitching focused around presenting a soft overview of Outerloop’s ideas without too much detail. From arranging around 20 meetings, feedback showed that Thirsty Suitors was a winning idea.
After the event, they spent a year working on a playable demo and fleshing out a full pitch. “We focused on how the battle system is going to work. We thought about what the game was going to be – what is it like, what is it not like, what are the themes, story and levels and how much is the budget?”. This period was self-funded by Outerloop and culminated in a prototype with a marketable vision for publishers. “We did a round of pitches with folks that were interested in the first pitches and considered who was a good cultural fit for the themes we were exploring. Looking at the games Annapurna Interactive had published before, it was a good match. We had longer discussions and signed with them.”
Teaming up with a publisher
For an independent developer, teaming up with Annapurna Interactive guarantees funding for their project. Aside from finance, Annapurna has enhanced Outerloop’s promotional abilities. “There are more people making games than when I was starting out and the quality of those games is at a high level” Chandana says. “You’re competing with very talented folks. Annapurna gives us access to platforms, promotion and upcoming events that we would not have as an indie”. Chandana acknowledges that some independent developers view game making as more of a hobby, but the access a publisher supplies allows Outerloop to promote their games to a wider audience, to turn more profit, and fund future projects.
Publishers are looking to profit from the capital they inject. This means contract negotiations that consider both parties’ investment, storefront fees and long-term profits and other legal protections. The back and forth between lawyers over a contract can be drawn-out and took a year for Thirsty Suitors, a challenge considering Outerloop was “still running a studio and paying salaries to fourteen employees”.
Finishing the game
With a contract finally signed, the process of building, developing, and fine-tuning the game was underway. Thirsty Suitors is still at this stage, with a release planned for later this year. Launch day still won’t be the end of the road. Once out in the world, Thirsty Suitors will be a work in progress. “We’ll be monitoring. We will have to make sure the game is working and fix any breaks. From there we’ll continue to plan out the next patch or update”. The team will decide on future DLCs and platform roll-outs – informed by fan feedback.
In Chandana’s view, the challenging journey is worth it to be able to have the freedom working independently gives to his work and the relationships he can build with his audience. “The cool thing about indie games is that fans have direct access to the creators – the games we’re making and the themes we’re exploring are personal to the developers,” he explains. “If a fan wants to support a game, they can just find out who the studio or creator is and let us know what you think. It’ll help us build our base and know that there will be an audience for the next game that we make.”