[This feature was published in the November 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Selected projects: Tiny Trees
Who are they? A Newcastle start-up team, which is part of Microsoft Ventures’ Accelerator programme
Microsoft’s involvement: Providing an incubator for new studios to help make their start-up a true business
For independent studios devoted to the notion of ‘indie spirit’, success can prove a tricky business. Partnering with platform holders and publishers, making your studio into a business and generating cash are all things cynics might suggest undermine the defining qualities of what it is to be indie.
Start-up Whispering Gibbon, however, is proof incarnate that a studio can be an independent entity and a true business. For the team of ‘three-and-a-half staff’ have signed up to a number of Microsoft initiatives conceived to support small teams, all the while ticking plenty of boxes that highlight the outfit as a bona fide indie.
Having turned their back on work for giants of triple-A development, the core team are currently based in Newcastle, and as part of Microsoft Ventures’ London Accelerator programme are spending 12 weeks commuting between their home city and London, some 250 miles away, staying on friends’ floors and sofas each week. They are making a distinct game in the form of the horticulture-themed Tiny Trees, and are collectively a world away from the corporate world of sequel-spawning mega studios.
But, says founder and director Joe Stevens, having signed up to Microsoft Ventures’ London Accelerator initiative, they are learning how to become a robust business without sacrificing creative freedom, thanks to a programme conceived by Microsoft to mentor early-stage start-ups and condense the time a given team’s game takes to reach the market.
“Microsoft Ventures’ London Accelerator sees us working from London for 12 weeks, and for us it’s been about building a company,” offers Stevens. “There are so many indie devs out there that are talented at what they do, and that can make a good game, but sadly these days that doesn’t mean you’re going to go on making a living out of it.
“There’s so much to learn about business; about the speed you grow, where you focus and so on. So the Accelerator, for us, has let us turn from an indie that loves making games into one that is an indie company; a place that’s indie and a viable business. And it’s working for us, and it’s bringing us together as a team that are also a business.”
FROM ABERTAY ONWARDS
Like many indies suddenly making their presence felt in the UK development space, Whispering Gibbon’s story has some Abertay funding in its early chapters. The money from the institution, which is famously supportive of the games industry, afforded Stevens and his team to build a bolstered version of an existing prototype that suitably impressed Microsoft, and soon Stevens and his colleagues were applying for the Accelerator.
“It’s focused us so much,” says Whispering Gibbon systems programmer Kyle Whitelaw of the journey the team has taken. “It’s so easy as an indie to have so many ideas and not focus on what you need to do as a company. The Accelerator’s also really helped us with developing an identity, and making decisions as a business.”
And for Whispering Gibbon, the support from Microsoft does not stop with the Accelerator. The team have long been signed up to BizSpark, granting them free access to a wealth of development middleware and additional use of Microsoft’s Azure cloud back-end.
Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Whispering Gibbon is well into the process of securing funding from Microsoft and trade body Creative England’s Greenshoots collaborative initiative, which offers up to ten independent developer start-ups funding of as much as £25,000, along with a wealth of technology, services and other assistance.
LIVING THE DREAM
Ultimately, in showing it is possible to harness not just one, but a number of Microsoft programmes targeting start-up studios, and by proving you can remain indie and work with technologies biggest companies, Stevens and his colleagues have been able to move towards something of a dream.
“We just wanted to get back to being creative, and get excited about stuff that’s a bit different,” reveals the studio director. “To me triple-A has become increasingly stale over time. That’s understandable, as over time some big studios have had to take less risks, because it is costing more and more to make games. To me, though, that was the ideal time to jump ship, and take what I’d learned from triple-A back to my childhood passion of making really unusual games, and plenty of stupid stuff too.”
Stevens may joke that his ideas are ‘stupid’, but Tiny Trees is already looking promising. And there are no regrets for Whispering Gibbon, who are learning what it is to be a true indie company, without having to commit to giving away a share of their company or working solely on Microsoft platforms.
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