(Photo by Yael Borofsky)
Auditorium was the first born of Old City gaming outfit Cipher Prime.
To hear them talk about the game is to endure the pride of doting parents. To some extent the pride is founded — the award-winning, color-saturated, whimsical game opened the door to improbable outward success for a duo who admits they had no game development experience.
Inwardly, however, money and the legal issues that accompany it have been a constant struggle, they say. Now the group, led by cofounders Will Stallwood and Dain Saint, want to make a sequel — Auditorium Duet. But after what they describe as a souring on video game publishers, they’ve launched a Kickstarter to raise the $60,000 minimum they need to build what they call their dream game.
“I mean we have other projects we can and obviously are working on,” said Stallwood.” But the thing is we really want to make this game.”
“We think it’s a much more honest way of doing business,” said Saint.
Cipher Prime isn’t the only video game developer fed up with the publishing game. Double Fine, a San Francisco-based game development company, launched a Kickstarter in February. They hit their fundraising goal in less than a day and raised $2.4 million in just a few days, according to reports from Joystiq and NPR’s Morning Edition. The trend of creatives asking direct to consumers for funding to avoid middle men has been a sign-of-the-times trend piece for at least as long as the internet has been changing fan habits.
If this effort works, they say, Cipher Prime could leapfrog into a group of more serious, more widely respected, small videogame development shops. So will it work?
Auditorium Duet will be a complex multi-player iteration on its older, simpler sister, Auditorium, which was originally intended to be a ship bombing game, Stallwood told Technically Philly. Judging by the elegant streaming light particles you direct to fill sonorous music boxes (Saint wrote the music), that plan went seriously and happily awry.
The sequel will be based on those same rainbow light streams and tinkling music boxes but will allow players to make strategy and play simultaneously, directing light beams from one computer screen to the other, filling music boxes one player may not actually be able to see.
The game will be intricate and ambitious to make. It will also be expensive. Stallwood estimates that in total the game will cost $120,000 to build. But right now they only need $60,000 to be committed via Kickstarter in order to get started.
But this isn’t the first time Cipher Prime has tried alternative strategies to raise money to make games. The group put the first Auditorium online for free, then funded it through PayPal donations, Stallwood told Technically Philly. Today, you can still play a significant of portion of the game online for free, but must pay to get to the more advanced levels.
“That was actually how we bootstrapped the company,” Stallwood said. “It was very successful.”
Auditorium put Cipher Prime on the gamer map, but when Stallwood and Saint tried to enter into an Xbox deal with Microsoft, they say they were stymied by fine print they’d missed in their original publishing deal. Stallwood could not disclose the name of the publisher and further details were not independently verified by Technically Philly.
In short, the pair say they missed out on a lot of obvious revenue plans for Auditorium because of contract details they didn’t fully grasp. At the time, Stallwood and Saint were making less than $24,000 per year by their own estimates.
Stallwood added: “we’ve been screwed a lot, business-wise.”
When Stallwood says “a lot” he’s also referring to their experience with Fractal, a puzzle game Stallwood affectionately refers to as Cipher Prime’s “demon baby child.” After a dispute with their publisher, Cipher Prime pulled Fractal off the iTunes app store then re-released an updated version of Fractal, as Cipher Prime wrote on their website and Geekadelphia reported late last month.
“Making this game was hell. It was a really bad decision in so many ways. This was sort of our sophomore slump,” Stallwood said. “I am bitter, but it’s actually a pretty fun game. It came out really well. We just overshot so high. Whereas Auditorium is such a simple concept, this is a lot more advanced.”
The Fractal experience was a significant blow, Stallwood says, largely because the company cannot get access to purchasers of the original version of Fractal sold by the publisher. To acknowledge the deluge of complaints, they re-released the game for free for a day then started charging for it. But the financial damage had already been done, says Stallwood.
“Just to give our customers the game back, we lost all the money because basically anyone who wanted the game got it for free,” said Stallwood.
Cipher Prime shoulders at least some of the blame for the obstacles it’s confronted with Auditorium and Fractal, admitting that limited business savvy may be partially to blame for some of these bumps in the publishing road.
“Honestly, we’re really green and we don’t really know what we’re doing,” Stallwood said. “We came from the interactive media world where we had a lot of experience and made a game by accident that became a huge success. Whereas we knew nothing about the business.”
With Pulse, Cipher Prime’s third title, the group decided to self publish, says Stallwood. Pulse, with its rhythmic, popping dots, is a bit like Dance, Dance Revolution for your fingers, Stallwood pointed out. The game won a spot in Apple’s list of Benchmark Games and was an iPad Game of the Week, among other gaming acclaim it has earned.
“Pulse was our first self-published game,” said Stallwood. “We never wanted to do a publishing deal. Ever. But we didn’t have any money and it was the only option at the time.”
Now they plan to self-publish Auditorium Duet, as well, but first they need money.
“There’s lots of ways to fund a product. Typically the way you would fund a product is by already having the money. I mean, the best way to make money is to have money,” said Stallwood. “But we don’t have money. We started out with five bucks.”
Stallwood and Saint won’t go looking for any venture capital because say they want to do it their way, but they also want to do it without bankrupting the company or themselves. While not everyone likes the Kickstarter policy of only allowing campaigners who meet their fundraising goal to keep the money, Stallwood says they view this policy as a built-in escape valve.
“We basically can’t afford to make the game if it’s not a success,” Stallwood said. “We want to know if people want the game before we go out on a limb and literally sacrifice our whole entire livelihood to make a game.”
Saint, Stallwood, and some of their staff all mentioned receiving significant criticism online for using Kickstarter to raise money in the first place, bu the crew pulled in $10,000 on their first day. At the time this article was published the meter was hovering around the $22,000 mark.
“We’re really hopeful and really frightful,” said Saint. “I can see exactly how close to the finish line I didn’t come.”
The fate of Auditorium Duet will be decided on March 30, when the Kickstarter expires. Until then, the group — four full-timers if you count Stallwood and Saint as well as a couple of interns — is waiting to see if this new crowdsourcing strategy will pan out as magically for them as it has for Double Fine.
“Basically,” said Stallwood, “it’s like you’re waiting a month to find out if your girlfriend is going to dump you or not.”