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Solar Sail Games on debut title Smoke and Sacrifice and the challenges of funding indie games

At around 18 months old, Solar Sail Games may not be as new as other studios we’ve covered in this section in the past, but over that time the developer has been quietly working on its upcoming narrative survival game, Smoke and Sacrifice, which launches soon. With only four employees, the studio is very lean, but the two founders are veterans of the UK industry, having worked together at Kuju Entertainment almost a decade ago.

“Tancred [Dyke-Wells, co-founder and art director at Solar Sail Games] called me up about two years ago,” says Neil Millstone, co-founder and technical director at the studio. “He’d recently left Headstrong Games where he had been creative director for many years. We hadn’t worked together in nearly ten years, and I was surprised that he even remembered who I was! I was working out a contract at the time, and jumped at the chance to start something new and exciting.”

It’s a common tale at this point: veteran developers stepping away from management to get closer to the nitty gritty of game dev.

“It was an easy decision for us to form an indie development company, something we had both wanted to do for a long time,” Millstone continues. “We had a burning need to make the games which appeal to us as players, and also as game designers.

“Tancred and I worked together previously on Art Academy, a Nintendo DS title from 2009. It was a very small team, a little like the indie developers of today. That game was incredibly successful and we learnt loads about Nintendo’s design philosophy working with them.”

Together, Millstone and Dyke-Wells are creating a top-down survival game with a narrative focus, but before they could get started they needed a little help.

“The first person we recruited was Justin Cheadle, who also worked on Art Academy and whose writing and game design skills we would need to create the narrative that would drive Smoke and Sacrifice,” Millstone says. “We hired Dan Saxon later in the project, a very talented designer who worked on the combat and level design, who was the only person on the team we hadn’t worked with before.”

The team has an office space in east London, which prevents them from losing their minds by working from home every day, as Millstone explains: “While we both have spaces to work in at home, spending time at our respective homes working alone in our pants is not always good for our mental health! We found an office in a converted factory in Bethnal Green, which was home to a diverse collection of startups and was the perfect fit for us.

“The UK is a great place to form a new indie. There are great indie communities in many cities and the culture is very open and friendly. The recent explosion in the number of indie games being made is very exciting, and it’s humbling to see how much talent is out there today.

“The UK has a long history of game development, and punches way above its weight. Looking back, the current indie wave feels like a continuation of the bedroom coders who developed a huge number of games for 80s home computers like the Spectrum. I feel that the quirk and charm from those early days of game development still influences many of today’s indies.”

Having said that, Millstone recommends that any new studios should have a solid demo to pitch around in order to gain funding. With the explosion of indie developers in the UK, competition for investment is fierce.

“Finding funding for indie games is difficult, but there are many possible routes, including the UK Games Fund and various investors with SEIS schemes. I feel that if you have the right game, the investment is out there. We were not only looking for funding but also assistance with the marketing and PR for our game, which we knew we would need help with. Finding the right partner was really important to us.

“Having a good demo really helped when pitching. When we first got together, the two of us built a demo of the game in about 6 weeks. We took care that the demo demonstrated that the mechanics we intended to explore in the game would be fun. Not only does a good demo communicate what the game is about, and persuade publishers that the game is worth making, it is also evidence that the team can work effectively together and produce a quality result, reducing one element of risk.

“After pitching the demo to many investors, we ended up partnering with the lovely people at Curve Digital, a traditional publisher who saw the potential in Smoke and Sacrifice and generously decided to fund us.”

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