The rise of independent developer has given hope to those who have found that studio life just isn't for them. Sadly not everyone gets to simply down tools and start building million-selling hits in their bedroom – the road to independence is bumpier than that. A prime example is Finnish indie Dreamloop Games.
Like so many studios today, it began with its founding members working at another developer. While a key motivator was having a concept pitch refused, they also tired of their employer’s practices, with “employees treated poorly, paid next to nothing”.
“What drove us away was the shadiness,” co-founder and head of communications Steve Stewart tells Develop. “Contract negotiation for a fair wage was constantly prolonged or put off as a bargaining tactic, while huge promises were made and never delivered on. A lot of people were sick of the bullshit.
"The easiest part was actually getting a team together to branch out and start making a game. There was a lot of belief in Joni [Lappalainen, CEO], Hannes [Va?isa?nen, CTO], and I.
“The hardest part was asking people who we knew would have great offers to turn them down to work at a studio that was likely a gamble to begin with.”
Then there was the financial risk to setting up on their own. When Dreamloop first sought funding, Stewart was working overnight as a security guard, then hurrying home for Skype calls with the team.
Even with finance sectured the money had to be shared around, Stewart explains: "One month, I got a cheque for €300 to help with rent, but everything else of our initial funding went to the team and the company’s needs. It hasn’t been easy on my wife, either. I know it’s hard on our team’s personal lives, but I can’t help but believe the hard work will pay off, and we’ll be able to make it right in the future.” Dreamloop as a studio was slowly building momentum, until their former employer tried to sue them.
There needs to be more support for devs trying to retain ownership of their IP.
Steve Stewart, co-founder, Dreamloop
Stewart received a inviting him to revisit his previous studio to hear a potential solution to Dreamloop’s monetary struggles. First, he was offered outsourced work. Then, the true motivation was revealed.
Because Stewart and his team had pitched their game concept while working at this studio, they claimed the concept and rights to the game belonged to them.
"They were trying to take away our dream," Stewart says. "We'd been building hype in Finnish media for our game and there were stirrings about our Kickstarter plans. When our former CEO said he’d love to hear about the project, we knew he had ties to some big publishers and the studio was doing well, so we swallowed our pride and took the meeting.
“He said we were developing an IP owned by their company. He insisted they had taken ownership when we pitched the concept, and that, despite the fact that they had never bought the rights from Hannes, they owned it because the pitch with design notes and a specific name had been uploaded to their Google Drive. He then informed us of a stipulation in the contracts we had signed that said any IP we created – even in our private time – while under the employ of that company was owned by them. He said we had to change the name, or else they would sue.
“He said: ’What do you want me to do? The file is on our servers.’ I looked him right in the eye and replied: ‘I want you to fucking delete it, because it’s not yours’.”
Convinced this was a tactic to scare a competitor, Stewart consulted Taina Kera?nen, a contract law specialist. His contract wasn’t in effect at the time they pitched the game as his initial contract had lapsed and the CEO had continuously put off our negotiation in favor of a “handshake agreement”
Despite this, the Dreamloop team took the decision to change the name, tie up loose ends and make the problem go away. As a result, Challenges of Khalea continued to take shape. Stewart is keen to see that no other indie finds themselves in facing the same problem.
“Know your contract, know the law,” he advises. “In cases like that, if you haven’t explicitly sold the rights, or given them away, they definitely don’t own them.
“It’s scary as hell to think that arbitration can ruin companies simply because they can’t afford to fight back for their rights.
“There needs to be more support for devs trying to retain ownership of their IP. It’s sad that it can be taken from them with such impunity if someone has the power of a well-funded studio who might have a lawyer on retainer.”
A TROUBLED START
With the threat of legal action behind them, Dreamloop still had financial worries hovering over the studio.
The answer, they thought, would be a Kickstarter campaign. However, Finnish studios were not allowed to use crowdfunding platforms due to strict laws regarding fundraising. You could accept money without providing goods or a service.
Stewart considered moving to Sweden, but instead wrote a letter to the President of the Republic of Finland, explaining how this was harming Dreamloop and other Finnish game studios. Media attention and the support of a Finnish member of parliament paved the way for reform, but eventually Dreamloop opted for another solution.
A friend introduced the team to a US lawyer, forming a corporation that could run a Kickstarter. It would cost Dreamloop the last of its resources, but the team were determined.
Dreamloop raised over €6,000 towards Khalea. The team were thrilled. But then support dried up. Contributions stopped coming in and Dreamloop realised it would fail to meet the Kickstarter goal.
“I was gutted as it was largely my responsibility to ensure its success,” Stewart recalls. “The team sat down, talked, and decided to keep working anyway.
“We looked at the core ‘fun’ elements of gameplay and refined the idea to something more manageable. We’ve continued production, secured more funding, and started looking for publishers to keep this alive.”
They were trying to take away our dream.
A solution was presented by Vasara Entertainment. The fellow Finnish developer had taken inspiration from Dreamloop and all it had suffered. Vasara was facing its own troubles, finishing Stardust Galaxy Warriors. After discussions between both teams, Dreamloop decided to help and the two studios merged.
Work on Khalea was paused while Stewart’s team assisted with the development of Stardust Galaxy Warriors – which launched just 11 days after the Khalea Kickstarter failed.
“Merging with Vasara was a wise business decision all around,” Stewart says. “It gave us a revenue stream that would allow for continuing development, it gave us a nearly finished title that we could port to console and re-invigorate, and most importantly it gave us four strong team members to add to the firepower of Dreamloop.
“We used the merger to partner with Sony and Microsoft as third-party publishers, then used those partnerships to leverage funding from economic development agencies.
“What they got in return is a team that deeply understands project management, business elements, and knows their way around securing funding. We built a team that just won’t die.”
Dreamloop is a prime example of how indies can overcome incredible obstacles on their quest to build the games they love. The experience, though tough at times, has given Stewart optimism for any studios running out of options or funding.
No one wants to ask for help, but I honestly feel like that pride is why the success rate of studios is so abysmal,” he posits, now that presumably the worst is behind him and Dreamloop.
“Everyone is tied to their ideas and dreams, and we are too, but in this industry sometimes you need to be able to make compromises, take decisions which make fiscal sense, so that you can stay in the game long enough to make your dream projects.
“The biggest lessons learned here were that if you refuse to accept failure – because failure truly is the most readily available option – you just might make it. Might.
“We’ll find out in the coming months if we wind up with two successful titles at market, or just some memories, a lot of experience, and even more debt.
“My advice to developers is that you can’t let success go to your head, and you can’t let failure go to your heart. You also can’t take shit from people who try to bully you.
“You will run into all three of these things on the road you want to travel. But I have to believe it will be worth it in the end.”