Tentacle Zone

Further adventures in the Tentacle Zone – applications being accepted until April 8th

Nisha Valand

Incubators are nothing new in the gaming industry, but when Payload Studios announced the Tentacle Zone a year ago, there was something altogether different about it. It seemed that after initiating its own Game On diversity initiative in 2019 and then helping to launch Ukie’s #RaiseTheGame initiative a year later, Payload was keen to take a markedly more proactive step towards addressing the diversity imbalance in the games industry, this time by establishing an incubator program specifically designed to support any and all underrepresented groups. It was an initiative that garnered widespread attention and support as soon as it was announced. It also, it should be noted, looked like being a fun and friendly endeavour.

“We were thrilled by the industry’s response to the incubator’s launch in 2021” says Payload’s Nisha Valand, program director for Tentacle Zone. “Tonic Games Group, Creative England’s Creative Enterprise, Ukie, University of Greenwich and Green Man Gaming came on board as partners. So many industry folks stepped up to be mentors and give talks to the cohort, including many of the residents in our co-working space.”

Those mentors included Des Gayle, Kat Welsford, Leon Killin, Ian Masters, Astrid Rosemarin and Jason Della Rocca, as well as Payload founders Russell Clarke and Vincent Scheurer, all of whom are keen to share their wealth of skills and experiences for a second term, alongside a number of familiar new names. The intention is that the incubator be almost as beneficial to the mentors as to those being mentored.

“Improving equality, diversity and inclusion in the industry and within Payload Studios is a long-term goal for us,” says Valand. “The incubator is one of the ways we’re working towards this and the work is far from over. It’s a two-way street: We share our expertise with the founders but we also learn from them, which in turn helps us make improvements at our own studio. This idea of using community to create and improve is the foundation of Payload Studios’ approach to development, so it all ties together.”

GIVING BACK

Last year twelve start-up studios were accepted into the inaugural intake, most of them at least partially UK-based. Across four intense months each was afforded access to industry talks and roundtables, workspace access, social and networking events, as well as introductions to business leaders and potential investors. However, despite the impending focus on the next gen intake, the initial twelve are yet to be cut loose from the program.

“While the incubator is a four month programme, our relationship with the cohort doesn’t end after that period,” says Valand. “One of our aims was to use the Tentacle Zone’s knowledge and contacts to support those studios who were committed to building their business. We’re still supporting 2021’s alumni; hosting talks and helping out with advice and connections. They’ve made terrific progress – some have secured publishing deals, hired new people and secured funding. It’s been gratifying to see them succeed.”

As you’ll read in the testimonials that follow, the feedback from the 2021 group has been universally positive. “They’ve been so engaged with the programme that they also had suggestions for areas we can improve and things they’d like to see more of. We’re delighted that our 2021 cohort will stay with us as informal mentors this year and share their experiences.

“We learnt from last year that although some founders often have industry experience in their discipline, actually running a business, shipping a game and raising finance are often complete unknowns to them. We found that our programme of technical, production, design and development modules, as well as business, marketing and finance worked well, and we’ll be making sure they are covered again.”

OPEN SEASON

Applications for 2022’s Tentacle Zone founder intake are being accepted until April 8th. All early-stage game developers from underrepresented backgrounds who are based in the UK or in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) regions within the GMT +4 time zone are welcome to apply.

“We’re fortunate to be in a position where we’re able to give something back to the wider games industry,” says Valand “Improving equality, diversity and inclusion in the industry and within Payload Studios is a long-term goal for us. The incubator is one of the ways we’re working towards this and the work is far from over. We’re keen to emphasise that sharing knowledge and supporting developers internationally as well as in the UK is important to us.

“Everyone contributing to the programme has last year’s experience fresh in their minds and we’re all well placed to make sure that 2022’s cohort get the most from taking part.”

Laure De Mey, Balloon Studios

How are your efforts coming along since being accepted into the programme?

After joining the Tentacle Zone programme, I received a lot of mentoring to perfect my pitch and demo, and by the end of the programme I signed a deal for Botany Manor! We’re now fully in production, and are in the middle of scaling up the team in the art department.

Botany Manor is a first person puzzle game where you play as a retired botanist, who wants to cultivate her collection of mysterious seeds inside her beautiful manor house.

What’s been the biggest surprise so far?

I honestly never expected to have gained such strong connections with the people in the cohort. Everyone was incredibly talented, lovely and supportive. I thought it would be hard to form friendships over Zoom, but it all went pretty naturally! In a time of a pandemic, it was actually pretty great to have such a tight community for four months, and still be ongoing. I even ended up working with fellow cohort member Samantha from Clockwork Raven Studios as my narrative designer on Botany Manor!

What’s been the most important benefit of the incubator program?

The biggest benefit for me personally was mentorship towards my pitch and publisher demo. I was also able to be introduced to publishers and investors I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise. The incubator also offers pitch practice, which really helps loosening up and feeling confident talking about your game.

What’s been the weirdest thing?

It was sometimes weird to think how these really amazing, high profile people from the games industry were my mentors!

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone thinking of signing up to join the 2022 intake?

Make sure you have a good idea of what you want to get out of the programme. You’ll get access to many mentors and workshops, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with help and information. It’s easier if your mentor knows exactly how to help you, and you can bring specific questions to them. Also don’t be afraid to apply! I’m very good at coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t apply, but you never know what other people see in you. That’s definitely been my biggest lesson from being in the incubator!

Jeffery Thompson Jr

Jeffery Thompson Jr, Epoch Media

What have you been working on?

We are working on our game Pension$, the game is a third person stealth action game set in midwestern America, specifically Oklahoma. Pension$ tells the story of a financially strapped college professor who is approached by a mysterious cowboy that presents him with a lucrative opportunity—to manipulate the state’s pension program by killing off retirees.

We are currently looking for more equity based investment and looking to meet with investors in the UK that want to invest in a diverse founder with a project that has transmedia appeal (we also have a TV series and graphic novel in the works).

What have you gained that you didn’t expect?

The continued support that’s given well after the program has ended, and meeting so many amazing people I’d never thought I would’ve got the chance to meet.

What did you expect would be the benefits?

Expanding one’s network. I would’ve never had the chance to connect with gamers from the UK industry like I have until this incubator. I’m very grateful for it.

Briefly, what words do you have for those about to follow in your wake?

Work hard, both on your game and in terms of networking. Make friends with your fellow cohorts, you never know who will be successful and may be able to give you a job one day.

Elena Höge

Elena Höge, Yaldi Games

What is your game about and how is it coming along?

Our game is called Wholesome – Out and About, it is a life simulation game about family, nature, friendship and food. Explore beautiful landscapes, forage wild food, recover lost recipes and befriend the local townsfolk. Wholesome goes beyond digital and enables players to learn to identify real plants and mushrooms and download the recipes to recreate at home. We want to inspire outdoor activities and analogue craft and play.

Since completing the programme last year, we’ve come a long way. We have a stunning vertical slice, got overwhelmingly positive scores when user testing, and grew a community on TikTok who are actively engaging with feedback and ideas. We’re also talking to publishers who are very interested and we have won three more grants that will support the development of the game.

What’s been the greatest unexpected benefit of joining the incubator?

The growth of my network through mentors and the friendships made during the incubator were benefits I didn’t expect. The weirdest thing is that we haven’t seen each other yet – ever! It was all online and still we created such a connection. I can’t wait to catch up face to face some day.

What’ve been the benefits of joining the incubator that you DID expect?

The sessions with experts were amazing! The way they were set up was extremely efficient. We were able to learn and use the new knowledge and the opportunity to ask questions in relation to our own situation – which made everything more relevant.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone thinking of signing up to join the 2022 intake?

Always apply! There will be a bunch of interesting and amazing people like you in the future cohorts, so you could make connections that will last a lifetime.

Matt Hall

Matt Hall, Made by Titans

How is the game shaping up?

Production is ticking on nicely on our current game Squishy Sports, a couch competitive, physics-based 2D party/sports game where the characters are shapes and everything is squishy! The game is coming to Steam soon! Game dev knowledge is vastly improved and I can’t wait to use it all on a fresh project!

What’s been the single biggest benefit of joining the incubator that you didn’t expect?

Definitely the friends you make on the cohort – they have been an immense network of support and people I can go to to discuss things I’m thinking about.

What’ve been the benefits of joining the incubator that you did expect?

Knowledge of running a game dev is ten-fold now. I was immersed in knowledge from all areas and reached a level where I’m confident to approach and tackle any aspect of running a game dev business.

What’s been the oddest thing?

Meeting Popeart at one of the incubator digital networking events, discovering he was from near us location wise, and then him posting our indie game art on his channel in his style and it receiving lots of attention!

What advice would you give to someone considering applying?

Say yes to and get involved in everything. If it makes you feel a bit anxious then it’s probably a good thing to do and will help build your character and confidence.

Lisa Evans, Wabisabi Play

At what stage is your game at?

We were very happy to have shipped our first game, Growbot at the end of October 2021. Growbot is a wholesome adventure about a robot saving her home from dark crystalline force. Since then we have been excited to get stuck into a new project, and we’ve been using the knowledge we gained from the incubator to inform our business and development decisions.

What’s been the biggest benefit of the incubator?

Meeting lots of lovely people, and learning from their knowledge and experience.

What did you hope to get out of it?

I hoped to learn more about business development, and how to create games that are both creatively fulfilling and financially successful. As a result of the incubator I have a much better understanding of what steps to take to try and achieve this.

What’s been the weirdest thing?

Meeting people from the incubator in real life! You get so used to seeing people virtually, that when you meet in person it’s exciting and lovely. 

What would you say to those thinking of applying?

Have fun, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Salman Shurie

Salman Shurie, Gesinimo Games

How busy are you?

Although at any given time, I’m usually juggling 2-3 projects, right now I’m mainly focused on releasing TAP TRICKS. It started out initially as a jam game that went on to be seen and played by over a million people within its first week of release, it’s probably helped a bunch that it was playable on anything with a touch screen or mouse. It should be coming out in February on the web and a month later on mobile.

I hadn’t thought about my recent accomplishments till recently. Getting published on Humble Monthly. I released several games (8-9 games) in 2021 alone. Thanks to connections I ended up getting paid gigs that respected my labour, and paid well for once. One of my jam games is going viral; hitting close to 1mill hits in a week. Signing a couple fruitful deals that should translate well in 2022. There’s more but I’m afraid of it sounding like bragging, it feels so unreal!

Has anything surprised you since joining the incubator?

I believe the biggest benefit was being able to make connections with people that I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to meet pre-pandemic due to issues that could range from travel to time. The incubator has helped to bring a bunch of opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.

What’s been the strangest thing to happen?

I’ll be honest, nothing weird has come about as a result of the incubator, though one funny story I have is someone livestreaming one of my games and turning it off when they were 95 per cent finished after hearing a voice that sounded ‘British’, it hurt my feelings a bit since I recorded that sound but it was hard not to laugh about it.

Briefly, what words do you have for those about to follow in your wake?

Try to build connections where possible. Try to fail as fast as possible to succeed quicker where possible.

Sidhhant Girhotra Abbie Foster

Sidhhant Girhotra and Abbie Foster, Flightful Pear Studios

How are your efforts coming along since being accepted into the programme?

Since Tentacle Zone, we’ve actually started to completely redesign our game Maive from scratch. With everything we learned during our time on the incubator program, we really felt we could rebuild the project better with all the new skills we have. This progress is pretty slow, as Abbie now has a full-time job, but the project is coming along slowly, with a much stronger foundation.

What’s been an unexpected bonus of joining the incubator?

We learned to work together better as co-founders, which was something we didn’t expect we needed to work on. We realised how important culture is, and how that’s something that’s built rather than something inherent. We came into the incubator looking for practical solutions to our perceived struggles, but ended up coming away with not just that, but so much knowledge about the social, personal and emotional side of running a studio.

What have been the benefits?

We expected to have our network boosted, finding connections in the industry that would help us on our journey. We got that and then some, meeting so many new people whose experience and perspective is invaluable to us. We also learned lots about the business side of things, which we’d expected.

What’s been the weirdest thing?

The weirdest thing was definitely when we had a practice pitch session with one of our dream publishers, where they recognised us and basically said “why haven’t we signed these folks already?” (That didn’t end up panning out, for technical reasons, but was the wildest experience we had at the incubator.)

Any words of wisdom to pass on to the 2022 intake?

You take out what you put into this experience, so give it your all. Even if you think you know about something, there’s still more to learn there, and so much you can gain from listening to the diverse experiences of mentors, speakers and other members of your cohort.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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