Flat Earth Games Origin Story (or How to Create Your Own Luck)
This is a story of two Australian brothers who grew up playing games (as brothers do), never expecting to one day make their own. Imagine their surprise when they find themselves with a distribution partner, funding and a development team in an industry where this kind of thing supposedly ‘never happens’. This is their story.
Little over a year ago Rohan Harris (creator of Sharehouse Zombie Apocalypse and one Harris of the Harris Brothers’ team behind recently launched Flat Earth Games) calls me and asks to catch up for coffee. We don’t see each other regularly, but when we do our conversations amble from science to art and back again (and that’s my kind of conversation), so I take a night off and wait to see what’s on his mind.
When he sits down he looks torn between excitement and trepidation, just itching to tell a story, so we skip the “how’ve you been” preamble and he appreciatively starts sketching out a game idea.
Rough still, just impressions and a core experience, a seed that plants itself in dialogue and grows with each “what if…” – we must have spent a couple hours talking about the world, how it would feel to play, who would enjoy it.
It couldn’t have been more than a week later when I got a call, and with the tone of someone suddenly aware that what “never happens” is actually happening to him, Rohan says “So, that game we were talking about…I think I get to make it”.
For as long as I’ve known Rohan he’s wanted to be a games developer – and he was more surprised than anyone when he and his soon-to-be-creative director-brother, Leigh Harris, found themselves with funding, a distribution partner and a development team bringing their idea to life.
In the Beginning, There Were Games…
Rohan: I grew up with games. Not all were on computer, mind you. When I was in primary school, the video game options at our house started out by being limited to the few minutes per week Leigh and I were allowed access to the PC our dad had bought for managing his small business. When we did get on there, it was mostly stuff like Solitaire or some text-mode games in BASIC that the machine had come with.
So, we played board games, role-playing games (the Fighting Fantasy series) and even made some of our own from time to time.
Once we finally got a ‘family’ computer (our parents didn’t seem all that keen on splashing out for a game console), we started getting video games. The first ones I remember buying were a three-pack of Microprose simulations. It had Knights of the Sky, Railroad Tycoon and Lightspeed. The latter was the one that I pretty much got addicted to, although as I got older my appreciation for the other two grew enormously.
Leigh: This was, of course, when we were both at an age where a lack of understanding of precisely how the videogames worked didn’t seem to be an issue. Nor did an impressively large amount of bugs. At that age, if your parents weren’t too flush when it came to buying you new toys, you loved the ones you had to death. It didn’t seem to perturb either of us that the art of taking off in Knight of the Sky was like a Jackson Pollock when orchestrated by our feeble brush-strokes. Or that (at least for me personally) I got excited when a ‘recession’ was coming simply because I liked the sound of the word (in Railroad Tycoon), thought ‘casualties’ on an away mission was some kind of precious gemstone (EGA Trek), and didn’t realise a high score on golf was a bad thing (erm… Golf).
Rohan: Of course, getting games was easier said than done, and instances like us getting the Microprose games were pretty rare. We had no money to speak of, so instead of buying games, I had to do the next best thing – use the BASIC interpreter our machine had (the awful GWBASIC) and attempt to type in the games from a big ‘book of games’ our school library had.
The only problem?
GWBASIC was a thing for text-mode programs, and all but one of these “example games” relied almost exclusively on the graphics which the respective machines could produce (it was made for machines like the C64, the TRS-80 and a few others – half of which hadn’t even come out in Australia, much less had a chance of existing in or near our household).
Leigh: True, but some early attempts did come to fruition from our delicate, tender young minds. Some marvellously cringe-worthy efforts to make early games, mostly either Snake, Asteroids or some kind of novice strategy title. I still remember barely understanding even the basics (no pun intended) of Pascal in high school and managing to fluke an exam and lean on a partner to the extent that I pulled first in my computer programming class in year 9, while I was certainly in the bottom half in terms of actual understanding. Probably my most stunning achievement was a selection of cool visual effects I made Pascal do which you could choose between from a menu. Of course, every single one of them was an accident while I was trying to get it to do something else, but let’s not discuss that. Lest my old teacher get wind of it and we wind up in a Billy Madison scenario. Not funny.
Rohan: I kept programming, mostly because at that point in gaming history (the early to mid-90s) it seemed to me that the programmer did more or less everything. So if I wanted to make video games, I had to program. It didn’t occur to me until much later (about the time of Doom level editing) that maybe just designing was an option.
So I became a programmer. I did it in high school, I did it after high school. By the early 2000’s, I had stopped being so interested in making games. Not because I didn’t love the idea of making games… but because I’d stopped loving video games so much. By this time, the things I most loved about games seemed to generally be on hiatus, being replaced with uninspiring 3D action crap.
Me? I preferred either a very strong narrative or the kind of insane detail you’d generally only get in huge open-world games, and so my interest waned.
For the next few years, I began to get into filmmaking instead, supporting myself with my day job – as a software developer.
A Full Life of Writing, PR, Film and Programming…
Leigh: Yeah, there were a few great times in there towards the end. Making Duke 3D and Doom levels, that one space-trading game (which I thought really had some legs) which was kind of like the late 90s game Hardwar but 2D and took itself a little less seriously (and seriously, if you’re into your space traders but find the usual crop a bit dull, Hardwar. This is the one. Stops time. Tell your friends). But, as you went off to do film stuff, I ended up with a foot-in-the-door job in the industry and just kind of ran with it, learning as much as I could on the publishing side about marketing and PR.
Working in PR does a few things for one’s understanding of games. It makes you understand markets, audiences, critics (especially) and perhaps most importantly, it makes you thoroughly cynical and very able to play devil’s advocate about anything at all.
So the next real question for me, and I guess for us, was what would it take to get us back into gaming? I mean I’ve never stopped loving the games I love, and I mean really loving them and using them as a cultural crutch to enlighten myself in many instances, but that didn’t mean I still had an interest in making them.
Rohan: I started making films in 2006. By late last year, I had made two features, a dozen shorts, two web series’, and a handful of other projects, some still being made. But the main thing I’d learnt by doing all these projects was producing.
Whereas before I’d been a programmer and a giant nerd, I had become a nerd who started thinking about how the heck you manage people and projects. If you need to get 20 people on set to do various things, how do you structure that project? How do you deal with the people involved? How do you make it fun for them? What about the day-to-day matters such as food and call times and estimating the time it’d take to shoot a scene?
While making movies, I had also started getting back into playing games. Probably due to the advent of 3D sandbox games thanks to GTA and the revival of large-scale open-world RPGs like Bethesda’s work. I even started reviewing games and writing opinion pieces for GameArena.
During this time, as a result of one of my random meetings, I had gotten to know Morgan Lean who had started Epiphany Games in Sydney. He specialised in technology, building all kinds of interesting utilities and features for existing engines & middleware – all while working on some of their own projects.
He and I got along very well, and it became a regular thing to meet up for beers every so often. I enjoyed hearing about what he and his company were doing, and he enjoyed my work in filmmaking and some of my articles on video games. They were always good conversations.
And then the ‘Impossible Opportunity’…
Leigh: Then Rohan called me one night with a manic tone to his voice, as he is wont to do, to enthusiastically tell me about a game idea he’d had. Ordinarily, I’d tune out slightly, not because his excitement wasn’t infectious, or because the ideas were bad, but just because the ratio of ideas to finished games wasn’t really that stellar. (Rohan: Infinite ideas to zero completed games is a pretty bad ratio, I’ll admit) And on this particular evening, I was quite wiped and don’t think I satisfied Rohan’s requirements as a sounding board.
So, he gave the same hi-octane rant about his idea to his friend Morgan. After a good half hour, Rohan had thoroughly infected him too and he says “Hmm… yeah, I think we may be interested in funding that.” To which Rohan replied… “Huh?” having had no idea that such a rant to such a person might yield such a result.
Not off the hook for that night, Rohan called me back to explain that if he read between the lines carefully enough, that mention of interest in funding our game could be read as interest in funding our game. Suddenly, he was talking about it as our game. I suppose we’d always worked on previous game projects together, and had made quite a team when we wrote and directed a short film earlier that year, so it was kind of an automatic inclusion.
I got caught in the gravity of his funding.
He asked me to come along to the face-to-face meeting so I could apply my industry savvy to this potentially dangerous creature and make sure he wasn’t going to make off with our doubtlessly world-changing idea and split for Mexico.
Rohan: I have to admit that I hadn’t quite realised precisely how my pitch was going to come across. What had happened was this – I’d been writing this opinion piece, discussing a specific sub-genre of game and its future. In my head, as I wrote it, I’d been mulling over potential ideas for unique ways to use this sub-genre. I wrote four of these into the article as ‘theoretical’ ideas. But one of them I quickly removed.
Not because it was a bad idea, but because it was a good one! The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. In fact, it wasn’t just a good idea – it was an idea that I desperately wanted to make, and the iPhone was the perfect platform to do it on.
So, after briefly talking to Leigh, I decided I’d test the idea. I figured I’d talk to Morgan, he was in the industry, and I wanted to see how a theoretical pitch would fly. If it really was a good idea – he’d tell me as much. So I’d texted him with “Do you have ten minutes to hear a game pitch?” He’d said yes, and so I called and gave him the 30 minute pitch. (I’m sometimes temporally askew when excited).
When we got to the end of the conversation and he sounded genuinely interested, I realised that I’d just pitched the game to him. I hadn’t tested anything – I had literally just pitched the game to him, and he was interested. So I rung Leigh up, and the next day we were going to a lunch meeting at a pub (where all important meetings seem to take place in this industry).
Leigh: So I guess a lot of it was just fortuitous. Morgan’s skill set and general interest was in game design and coding, his company had experience with iPhone development and just had a real penchant for building middleware and making creative people around them do what they did best. And since Rohan and my experience was more in waffling design ideas and (by this point) a good idea of how to manage small teams and what kind of things were commercially viable, we ended up being a pretty good match.
He offered a fairly decent chunk of investment in the form of his team’s time and effort, and the three of us got along well enough and trusted each other enough that we thought we could do business.
We were all comfortable that no one was trying to shaft anyone (which was great, because workplace romances rarely work out).
5% Great Idea, 95% Hard Work
Rohan: This wasn’t some offer based solely on this 30 minute pitch, of course. It’s one thing to get someone’s interest with an idea. When we met him, we’d discussed not only how the game would play and how it’d be released (in this case, the Apple iOS App Store) but also how it’d be continued – what addons and other projects could be attached – and how we’d go about getting people interested in the game. In short: we’d pitched monetisation and marketing plans, too.
But even after this meeting, there was something else we’d need before anyone would be officially offering anything or writing up any contracts – documentation. Loads of it.
I’d already written the video game version of what in film-making circles we’d call a “treatment” – a summary of the project you’re about to engage in. But we needed a design document.
That’s no small feat. We spent the next month odd working on a larger-and-larger design document, with enough information inside to describe the game in such detail that if we had a producer, he could take this document and build our game pretty close to our idea, with no further input from us required.
But there would be, of course…
Leigh: The design document was presented at the next meeting, which, for the first time, included the programmer who was to be the lead coder for the game. He was very single-minded, in a good way. Every aspect of the game we brought up, rather than appraising it, he’d be discussing how to manage it technically. This portion included telling us what was achievable, and what we’d need to scrap. We both of us had to be open to the realism of having some of our ideas be too much for the game at this point, which was hard.
Following this, we were off to do a similar document to the design doc which specified the technical requirements for the coders. We had to consider things like whether or not our trees were going to spawn algorithmically or whether they would be hand-placed. If they were hand-placed, what file format would work best for our maps etc.
The largest arguments (of which there were a few) came out of the core game design though. Something as simple as camera controls would erupt into virulent and embittered debate concerning where we wanted to be directing the player’s gaze, and at what time. In the end, we realised we’d need to put ourselves in the player’s shoes, so we came up with the idea to run a mock tutorial.
We sat down, drew the game world as it would first appear to a newcomer, and talked through what our initial impulses would be and why. Would a person who’d never played before know to touch certain parts of the screen to do certain things? Why or why not? Would it be obvious to touch an object to gain resources? How could we communicate that imperative to the player without forcing them through a tutorial? Was it unavoidable? Did we in fact *need* a tutorial? Did that need mean that our game was too complex from the outset?
All of these things came to light in a big way through the simple act of pretending you know nothing about the game and having a mock play. It helped us see our project immensely clearly. Every impulse, every motivation, both on screen and off, was dissected and interpreted at such an early stage. That idea gave us more confidence in our title than any of the extensive documents we’d prepared up to that point.
Rohan: So, they signed off on developing the game on the strength of these meetings and our documentation. They’d commit a certain amount of man-hours to the project (primarily in the form of time from their coders, but also in other fields if we needed it – help with the art, sound, etc) and in turn they’d get a cut of the profits.
If nothing else, it was encouraging to see that our idea was considered a worthy enough investment to throw their time and energy into.
Leigh: Of course, we’d have to find a way to get artists, sound designers and stuff on board to make it happen. Without our own legal team (obviously), it was helpful that the contract we signed with the developers could easily be modified to work for our purposes of getting other people on our team to be remunerated with a share of each copy sold, so all we had to do now was find some good people who weren’t contractually bound not to moonlight with the likes of us scumbags.
Rohan: Sydney has a really great community for independent developers. I’d known this for a few years – I’d been going to the IGDA meet-ups in Newtown, and I’d become friends with a few people who were involved with teaching game design and development at a few different places (Epona: Hi!)
So I contacted some, figuring we’d need a character designer first. We’d effectively been offered a coding team, and some assistance with some of the art-work, but we’d have to do the specific art direction and character design ourselves. We wrote up the specs for what we were after, and over the next two weeks we got a whole slew of submissions from students (from the AIE and a few other places) and from various other amateur and semi-professional artists.
Leigh: Naturally, our first port of call was to a woman named after a horse. (Rohan: This joke is awful. You’re fired.)
Epona: (I am quite a bit older than the game, but thank you for hinting otherwise!) I got a call from Rohan about finding an artist in the midst of preparing for a 6 week trip to Seattle – I had just enough time before leaving to select a group of artists I felt would be the most help to a startup and design an art challenge that would give the Harris brothers an opportunity to compare concepts in the context of their game world. Rohan sent through a brief and, from the gloriously WiFi enabled Seattle cafes, we reviewed applications by email while I coached the artists on contract negotiation.
Rohan: The biggest problem I found when I started looking at them was that there were a lot of good ones. But finding the best artwork wasn’t the point – it was finding the best for our game. That’s a totally different thing. It was a question of who had something which fit the idea we had in our heads. It was interesting to see from all the designs which came back, just how much scope our words had provided. We vowed to be clearer and more specific from there on in.
There were two or three on our shortlist, and not long after that we organised a meeting with Justine Colla. It was a great meeting! We were sure after that that she was the artist we wanted to work with.
So, then, we had to get into some of the more drab stuff… starting a company.
Starting the Company…the Necessary Evil
Leigh: In our case, it was because although there weren’t any contractual issues with the two of us signing on as individuals, it was more that we couldn’t actually control what happened with our game on the iTunes store unless we were a registered company with an ACN (which is for some reason different than an ABN). Either way, we were in acronym city and ought to start learning to love it.
So, I dove head-first into seeking advice from friends who’d started their own companies, from our new partner in crime on the iPhone game, and least importantly, from the Internet.
The bottom line was that although it was quite conceivable that I could have poured myself through reams and reams of pages from the Corporations Act and figure out all the outs and ins of what was necessary to get a company started, there were three reasons to go for the safer option of having a professional accountant set it all up for us.
First, it makes the whole process of getting registered with ASIC, getting a TFN and ACN, prepping the paperwork for opening a bank account and all that other fun significantly less of a chore.
Secondly, it’s actually going to get done right. As much as a DIY approach may have worked, the likelihood of me missing something would’ve kept me up at night.
Thirdly, I don’t know about you, but I just love… LOVE… dropping a few thousand dollars on an accountant. Nothing makes you feel so alive! “Oh, that guy? Yeah, he’s my accountant. Just think of him as a servant at my court. He counts my money.”
Rohan: I think the other reason why we chose to start a proper company – and why I’d recommend the same for other independent development teams, is purely for motivational reasons. It’s one thing to say “We are [Insert Indie Studio Name Here] and we make games”. It’s another to register as a sole trader or a partnership and drop a few dollars on a trading name and some business cards.
But when you have a company, with a constitution, an ACN, shares and directors… it feels like Shit Just Got Real. Money has been spent. Contracts have been signed. Come the end of the year, we’re going to have to produce an end-of-year statement. (Leigh: Are we?!?)
It’s a way of indicating seriousness.
In a sense, Leigh and I have been developing the skillsets and experience to start this kind of business for our entire lives thus far – but this is a way of making it more than just a dream or a drunken conversation at the pub which starts with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
We are now Flat Earth Games, and we are going to design, produce, release and monetise our projects.
Advice on Going Indie
Leigh: And I suppose that final notion that we now have to monetise our projects is the key difference, and one any budding indie developer should consider.
We’re all willing to commit our time to labours of love, but would you sign a deal confirming a certain number of months’ work, invest several thousand of your own dollars just for the paperwork stuff without seriously thinking about the commercial potential of your project?
If you answered ‘no’, that’s fine! There are countless people right here in Sydney who still make games just for the love of it – look no further than the constant stream of Game Jams getting announced on IGDA Sydney.
But if you are looking to get seriously invested in it, look honestly at your skills as a businessperson, marketer, publicist and other traits almost every single indie developer neglects to think about, and decide whether or not you can really start your own business. Maybe you just need one good partner who can fill in the blanks you miss. Maybe you just love to make games.
Regardless, be honest about what you can do, seek out others to compliment your skills (and I’m not just talking value adding skills to the game itself), and for the love of all things holy make sure you speak to people in the industry – they’re happier to let you pick their brains than you might think!