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Making a Miracle with “miraclr”

Jenny Gibbons here, gearing up to tell you an honest and not-so-glamorous tale about the world of indie game development.

Going full-time indie

About nine months ago, my full-time job told me that I had to choose between keeping my job or “ceasing activity” with Woodsy Studio, my own company. It was an impossible decision. I had already poured years of my heart and soul into my work at Woodsy Studio, and furthermore, my husband–Malcolm Pierce–had recently joined me as a creative partner. All our dreams lay with Woodsy Studio. I could not give that up. But the studio was not yet making enough money to sustain itself, either.

Malcolm and I were lucky in that we had a decent amount of savings stored up from previous years of caution and frugality. We tried to look at the misfortune of my lay-off as an opportunity to focus all our energy into Woodsy Studio and make it our bread and butter. Although Woodsy Studio was not yet self-sustainable, at least we had three commercially published games occasionally bringing in money.

Illustration from Serafina's Crown

Illustration from Serafina’s Crown

Floundering in a sea of games

Alas, as any other game developer knows, the gaming market is brutal. Try as we might, we were unable to make a big marketing splash with any of our titles, whether old releases or new ones. Even now, I struggle to figure out where we went wrong. By a large percentage, people who play our games enjoy them and offer high praise: both critics and customers. The challenge lies in getting anyone to play our games at all. And of course, I know I’m not alone in this. The sea of released games continues to grow and flood stores every day. Only so many can survive by floating on the surface. We were drowning, but we refused to give up.

By July, we had been pure indie game devs for seven months. We were living the dream–but we were also broke.

Our seven months of focusing on Woodsy Studio confirmed for us that this is what we both wanted to do. We wanted to keep making games together, and we knew we had the potential to succeed. We just needed to create something that could excite people more than anything we’d yet produced.

Drastic times = drastic measures

In a moment of desperation, we put our heads together and tried to think of something we could do to save our studio in the little time our dwindling savings still provided. It all happened in about ten minutes. Malcolm blurted something about romancing angels, I suggested making it unfold in real time on phones, and everything clicked. We knew we had a fun idea that we could produce relatively fast and use to branch out to a new audience: the mobile market.

The two months since that moment have been a non-stop storm of writing, programming, and drawing so that “miraclr” could become a reality. Malcolm and I are both extremely creative people and very prolific writers. But we pushed ourselves harder than we’ve ever pushed ourselves before to make this project happen. We reached the point we normally would have called “burn out”–and we kept going, knowing that it was dangerous, but also convinced it was crucial to our long-term survival.

I programmed a complex story system based on real-time to handle channels, direct messages, and plot branches. Together, Malcolm and I wrote over 76,000 words of story content (but Malcolm wrote most of it). I drew 19 CG illustrations, a dozen character icons, and five visual novel portraits with multiple expressions. Malcolm figured out how to incorporate ads and notifications into both Android and iOS ports. All in two months.

Gabriel from miraclr

Burnt out, but proud

We’re exhausted. We’re burnt out. But we also know that we did everything in our power to create a fun, unique game that might be the key to saving our studio. Whatever happens next, I can say with full confidence that we took our best shot.

We sincerely hope that you enjoy “miraclr,” and that it enables us to keep providing quality interactive stories in the future!

miraclr Main Page

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.