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Shouting at Friends for Fun: An Interview with Henry Smith/Sleeping Beast Games

Henry Smith/Sleeping Beast Games: making everyone yell at each other since 2012.

Not many people get to work at renowned RPG developer BioWare, but one man did. And he quit.

After eight years of programming games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, Henry Smith left BioWare to start work on his own indie games under the moniker Sleeping Beast Games, and in the three years since, his first and only game so far, Spaceteam, has won numerous awards, had a members' club successfully Kickstarted, and is still going strong, with thousands of nervous and stressed-out people all over the world continuing to shout at each other.

I had chance to talk with Henry about the longevity of his popular local multiplayer game, his Kickstarter experience, his motivations, and what it means to be an independent games developer.

What was your vision when you first started working on Spaceteam?

I thought Spaceteam would be a quick free game to use as a “business card” and to let people try before selling them my "real" game, which would be much more ambitious. But it was so much fun to make and resonated with so many people that I kept supporting it. I think it makes sense to focus on it while it still has people's attention.

How has Spaceteam evolved over the past few years?

It was certainly an unexpected journey!

I added new features & challenges and made an Android version. I created the Spaceteam Admiral's Club and held a worldwide Spaceteam tournament. I translated the game into ten new languages, with the latest six just released last week! I made customized versions for various clients on commission. And I’m working on two new official versions: one for younger kids, and one for teaching English as a second language.

Where do you want to take Spaceteam into the future?

I’m getting restless and excited about new game ideas. I don’t want Spaceteam to disappear, so I'm trying to pass the torch on to the players by giving them the tools to keep the game interesting. The Lexicogulator is one example, as it lets people add their own words and phrases to the game.

How did you come up with the Kickstarter project for Spaceteam Admiral’s Club?

After Spaceteam, I decided I wanted to keep making free games. It felt liberating giving Spaceteam away. The play style also didn’t fit traditional business models, and I hate ads with a passion. But I wanted people to be able to support me, ideally using a “pay-what-you-can” model. I also wanted to create a community around the game and a stronger connection with players.

I decided on Kickstarter because it fit those needs and it had an “all-or-nothing” funding rule, which was important. I needed to know if it was possible to fund myself in this way before I committed. If it failed, I was ready to just charge money for my future games.

How was your experience with Kickstarter?

The first campaign actually did fail, but it came so close that I tried running it again almost immediately, and the second time succeeded. It was a lot of hard work though, and preparing for it took several months.

Are you planning on Kickstarting any upcoming games?

I probably won’t do it again. When the Kickstarter money runs out, I’m planning to move over to Patreon, which is a similar crowd-funding system that seems like a really good fit.

It's been a year since your Kickstarter ended; why haven’t the proposed games, Blabyrinth and Shipshape, been fulfilled yet?

A year has passed, but some of that time has been dedicated to projects that weren’t part of the original pitch. This was somewhat expected. Two projects in particular: Spaceteam ESL and a private customized version, both took some time but also had external money attached, so they didn’t impact the Kickstarter funds.

What is the current state of Blabyrinth?

Blabyrinth was put on hold for a couple of months, but I’m now back in full production. I’m hoping to have it ready by the end of the year, but it could take longer.

Does Shipshape still exist?

Shipshape hasn’t changed since my initial prototype. I’m still excited about it, but it’s a much more ambitious game, so once Blabyrinth is finished, it might make sense to work on some smaller games leading up to it. I’ve had some more new ideas, and I’ll ask the Admiral’s Club members to see what they think!

What part would smaller games have in the development of Shipshape?

There are several aspects that I think could be explored in smaller games first:

  • A procedural but deterministic galaxy of stars and planets
  • Modular ship designs
  • Inertial touchscreen controls
  • Space phenomena like nebulas, black holes, “stardust” with fluid dynamics

Any one of these ideas could start as a simpler game and then grow into what I imagined Shipshape to be, or they could end up going in a different direction. But I also have more ideas for local multiplayer games that have grown out of my work on Spaceteam and Blabyrinth, so it might make sense to continue on this path instead if people are excited about it.

How do smaller games play a role in the development process for more ambitious projects?

I think smaller games can play a really important role in a bigger project, acting as stepping stones and also filtering ideas, in or out, for the bigger game.

For one thing, you can experiment with and refine one specific aspect or feature, and then incorporate it into the bigger game using everything you’ve learned. For another, it’s possible that some of the ideas for the big game just don’t work or are not fun, and it’s much less painful to discover this in a small game.

I also think it’s good practice for me to focus on smaller ideas, because it’s easy for my ideas to grow to unmanageable sizes; I think it’s pretty common to want your game to have everything!

With so many new ideas, are deadlines just unnecessary? 

Deadlines are useful when a game is in full production, but less so when it's in the design and prototype phase. Notably, the Kickstarter project had no deadlines or release dates, because the ideas were still forming. I made estimates, but also made it clear that the schedule, and even the games themselves, were subject to change. That said, I am still really looking forward to working on Shipshape!

What are your motivations for developing on mobile?

I chose mobile because the smaller form factor forces me to keep my ideas and interfaces simple, which I know I need help with. It's also more accessible, and I like touching things.

Have you thought of developing your games for PC?

Spaceteam made me realize that mobile is great for interesting local multiplayer experiences, which I want to explore more, so I’m going to stick with it for now. However, I have had some ideas that involve a large shared screen as well as mobile devices.

Do you take inspiration from any local multiplayer games?

Most of the multiplayer games I take inspiration from are physical board games. In fact, there are board game inspirations for each of my three primary game ideas:

  • Spaceteam (Space Alert)
  • Blabyrinth (Escape: The Curse of the Temple)
  • Shipshape (Galaxy Trucker)

Spaceteam was also inspired by "digitally-enabled folk game” Johann Sebastian Joust, which I love. The other local multiplayer game that has inspired me recently is Drawful.

Do you think local multiplayer games have taken a backseat as of late to online multiplayer?

I don’t think these games have taken a backseat at all. Online multiplayer is more popular for sure, but local multiplayer has always been around, and is now becoming more popular than ever.

How has the indie scene treated you?

The indie scene here in Montreal and around the world has been incredibly supportive and welcoming. I strongly encourage people to try making their own small games.

Do you see your experiences becoming more common among others?

I think we will keep seeing more and more indies, but I think our experiences will all be very different. That’s one of the best things about being independent!

How have your experiences differed between Sleeping Beast Games and BioWare?

It’s very hard to compare working for yourself versus working for a 400-person company that’s part of a 10,000 person multi-billion dollar company. My experiences have been… different.

What prompted you to leave a major game studio to go indie?

I loved my time at BioWare, but I was always trying to make my own games on the side, and this became harder to do after BioWare was bought by EA. I was also just ready for a change of pace and scenery after being at BioWare for eight years.

However, I didn’t expect to actually make any money on my own, so my plan was to just take a one year break and then attempt to go back to work. I am very grateful that I’ve been able to stay sustainable for this long.

How did you find sustainability?

When I left BioWare, I had approximately one year of savings set aside. I just assumed that after one year that money would run out. It was a safe and practical assumption; most businesses don’t make money in their first couple of years, and most developers don’t have a hit until they’ve made several games. My goal was to make games I wanted to play, not necessarily to make money from.

My initial savings lasted a bit longer than a year, and at the same time, Spaceteam started making a bit of money. It wasn’t a salary, but it was enough to keep going. Then other opportunities started presenting themselves, and I almost always said “Yes”. To date, here is where my money has come from:

  • Personal savings
  • Spaceteam in-app purchases
  • Award money from a festival
  • Commissions for customized versions (3 so far)
  • Grant money from a university
  • Contract work for a friend’s company
  • Kickstarter funding
  • Humble Bundle royalties

It’s working so far, but I don’t know where the money will come from in the future, probably a mix of these things and others.

What do you think independent developers need to know about finding sustainability?

My advice to other indies is: don’t rely on your game selling through traditional channels. Nobody knows the formula for success. Be prepared to do other things to support your game development. Be open to crazy ideas.

For more crazy ideas from Henry Smith/Sleeping Beast Games, follow him on Twitter @hengineer, and on his official website, sleepingbeastgames.com.

And remember to download Spaceteam for free now on iOS, Android, and Amazon; your vocals will be thankful for the exercise.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published Jul. 16th 2015

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