These young developers are keen for their experiments to hook players

Start-Up Spotlight: Lab Rats Studio

This is truly the second age of independent developers. From college students to hobbyists and bedroom coders, there are plenty of ways to get started these days.

Established developers and creative organisations have even begun setting up dedicated services to help independent developers, such as Blitz 1UP.

Lab Rats Studio was formed by four college students with the help of development incubator Joystick Labs – who also aided Gale Force Logic. Based in North Carolina, Lab Rats intend to create cutting edge interactive entertainment for multiple platforms.

Lab Rats’ co-founder and CEO Rion Holland told how they plan to nab their cheese.

How did you start your company?
Lab Rats Studio began as four students from Wake Technical Community College banding together to create a game for a final project class in our Simulation and Game Design Program. After the completion of our first game project, AfterShock: Escape from Bloomfield, we learned about the Joystick Labs Accelerator Program and were lucky to be chosen as one of the five inaugural companies to participate. With the help of Joystick, we were able to incorporate and get a boost to start the development of our first marketable game which is currently in development for iOS platforms and eventually Android. Special thanks to Walter Rotenberry for all of his help with setting up meetings and sending emails for us.

How many people work at your company?
Lab Rats Studio consists of four founders – President Alan Rueda, vice president Shadie El-Haddad, CEO Rion Holland and lead programmer Adrian Schmettau – who work full-time in the studio. As well as five part-time contractual or intern developers video/image editing Daniel Rodriguez de la Viuda, concept artist John Swope, animation Gareth Fann, and 3D artists Logan Davis and Lee Williamson. So total, Lab Rats Studio has nine people working on our current title, but we are always looking for talented individuals to help strengthen our team.

What’s your company culture like?
Lab Rats Studio is still in its early stages, so we are currently creating our company culture as we speak. We are mostly young guys who are currently in or recently finished with school and very excited to get ourselves out into the video game industry. We are very passionate about our projects and take them very seriously, but there is always room for a good laugh. We are a very collaborative team, no one person has total control over the game ideas or story. We take the best ideas from our brainstorming sessions and implement them in our games.

We are a small, tight knit group of developers and we aim to keep it that way so that we can all stay on the same page for the development of our game. We are working with some talent from the industry who will help us bring more of a structured environment for the art development on our games.

Tell us a little-known fact or anecdote about your company.
Initially, our company name was RATS Lab. The ‘RATS’ was an acronym for the first letter of our initial founders’ names. After undergoing a personnel change before entering the Joystick Labs Program and incorporation, we decided that we would lose the acronym and switch the word placement to make ‘Lab Rats Studio’. We attribute the name of the company to our hard work ethic and long hours spent in the ‘labs’ concocting our games.

Also, a random fact about Lab Rats Studio: All four founders previously worked in Italian restaurants as servers, bartenders or food runners, so we are all pretty grounded and hard working individuals.

What could you, and/or your team members, not do without on a daily basis?
Our team would not be able to cope without iTunes, headphones, and caffeinated soft drinks. Most of the time our developers are heads down with music blaring and in ‘the zone’ of creating content for our game. We come out of our tunnels each morning for a status meeting as well as talking about what we worked on the day before, what we are working on today and what is blocking us from finishing a goal. This simple version of a S.C.R.U.M. meeting helps keep us stay up-to-date on what is happening with the game each day.

Why did you decide to enter the casual gaming market?
We decided that to be a competitive force in the gaming market as a start-up with a low budget, we needed to narrow the scope of our vision of games at this point and focus on certain key aspects of gameplay and narrative to immerse the audience in an experience. We see a trend in the industry that console and PC game sales are levelling off and, in some cases, dropping, while the mobile and social markets are booming with an influx of casual gamers. We would like to cater to the on-the-go ‘core gamer’ and ‘casual gamer’ alike by bringing an immersive experience to their mobile devices. Once we establish ourselves in the industry we have plans to reach other platforms such as XBLA and PSN with downloadable titles at reasonable prices.

What games/tools/services have you made since forming, and how have they been received?
Initially, we created AfterShock: Escape from Bloomfield using UDK as a final project for our school projects. AfterShock is a third-person survival shooter that places you in the shoes of a retired army colonel in a post-apocalyptic 1950s era town, struggling to survive by gathering resources to escape to safety. We spent about 18 weeks creating the game from concept to playable demo with a small town of about a quarter square mile of playable environment with unique locations such as a No-Tell motel, police station, hospital, gas station and pharmacy.

In October, NHK (a popular television station in Japan) did a documentary on video games which we were lucky enough to be featured on alongside Epic Games. We are also going to be featured in The Escapist Magazine in an upcoming interview with some video footage on Joystick Labs companies.

What are you working on right now, and what stage is the project at?
We are currently working on an iOS title (eventual Android port) called MUSE that is a real-time 3D psychological shooter with puzzle elements and altering realities. We plan to convey the story to the player with comic book scenes and voiceovers inspired by Max Payne. MUSE will also feature mini-games and puzzles that are playable outside of the story mode in the paid version.

We are currently only a little over two months into the development of the game, but have made some significant progress in that time. We have a playable demo version of the game running currently and plan to have a free demo for the public to download and play sometime in early 2011.

What are your aspirations for the company?
We would like to be able to grow our company over the next couple of years and attract talented individuals to our team. We would also like to have a few successful titles under our belt so we can afford to pay rent on an office space. In time, we have larger plans to produce longer, more in-depth titles for platforms such as XBLA, PSN or Steam. We are also open to the possibility of being bought out by a larger company and either becoming a subsidiary or integrated into their infrastructure.

Who do you admire in the games industry and/or beyond?
We admire developers that create new and exciting gameplay mechanics in their games that change the way video games are played and perceived. We also admire companies that started out independently and grew into the successes they are today such as Valve, Epic Games and Red Storm.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your company?
We are an indie game company that needs the support of the public to help get off the ground. Help spread the word about our company and upcoming games by visiting and following us on Facebook or Twitter.

Want to be featured in our Start-Up Spotlight? Contact with details of your company to be considered for inclusion.

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