In my previous articles we have looked quite a bit at the indie game scene in the Netherlands. Today we have the first interview of a two part series in which we hop across the border to look at some of the indie developers situated in Belgium.
We start with Karel Crombecq the founder of Sileni Studios, a developer situated in Antwerpen.
Karel Crombecq, the founder of Sileni Studios.
Jesse: Hi Karel, thanks for having me. Tell us a bit about the history of the studio.
Karel: I founded Sileni Studios three years ago. At that time I was studying computer science at the University of Antwerpen. I was working on my doctorate which had nothing to do with computer games. However, I originally started studying computer science in order to learn how to make video games. At that point I realised that if I wanted to start a company and go make my own games I shouldn’t be continuing my studies. After all, founding your own company is much harder when you are thirty-five than when you’re twenty-five.
So after I obtained my doctorate I began looking for an investor to start my own game company. During secondary school I developed a web game called ‘Castle Quest’. And my proposal to the investor was that I would make a sequel of that game. Sileni worked on the sequel of Castle Quest for two years before abandoning the project. The game failed because of a lack of popularity. The fanbase of the original castle quest had no interest in the new game, and the reputation of browser based games among the more hardcore gamers has become significantly worse over the last few years which didn’t help us as we had made the decision to develop the game in HTML5.
After we abandoned the project we stepped to our investor and proposed to start a new project based on one of the prototypes we’d been working on. They agreed and that project eventually became Mayan Death Robots.
The Sileni Studio Cat. Camera shy or a ninja, the verdict is out on that one.
Jesse: The Dutch indie scene is quite active and well-organised. In part due to the Dutch Game Garden that acts as a nucleus keeping many of the indie developers together. The Dutch government has also been providing funds to the game industry for a while now which has helped the industry to grow. What does the Belgium Indie scene look like?
Karel: In Belgium everything is more fragmented than in the Netherlands. When I look at the Netherlands I get the impression that a lot of the indie scene centres around Utrecht and the Dutch Game Garden. In Belgium we don’t have a centralized game hub which means less knowledge and experience is being exchanged among developers. I think that is the primary difference between Belgium and the Netherlands. Netherlands is much more tightly knit and has more interaction between studios which causes them to improve each other. Instead in Belgium we are more separated on our own studio islands.
The last few years there have been a number of initiatives that try to combat this fragmented culture. Early 2014 I started the Indie Game Salon in Antwerpen. It is a monthly meetup for all people in the Antwerpen region who are interested in game development, and we manage to attract quite a crowd each month.
Since the inception of the Indie Game Salon, another initiative was started called Brotaro who organise a local meetup in Brussel. Then there is the Flemish Game Association (FLEGA) that tries to become a big unifying organisation for the Belgium game industry. So there are initiatives to bring all the different Belgium studios together, but all in all I think that we are still working very isolated from each other.
Because we have the same investor and are good friends, we are working together with Crazy Monkey Studios. But in the Antwerpen area most studios work on their own. There also isn’t a single location where everyone works like in the Dutch Game Garden, instead each company has its own office in a different location which makes it harder to visit and help each other.
The Sileni Studio attic.
Jesse: Have you looked into government funding for one of your projects?
Karel: Yes. In fact, we received government funding for Castle Quest. In Belgium we have the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF). When I requested funding three years ago there were still some weird regulations and requirements in place. The fund would finance a maximum of 50% of the project and you were required to deliver a version of the game in the Dutch language. But apart from that the funding is pretty good. They are offering a lot of money and the developers are generally quite happy with the VAF. And in the past three years there have been a lot of improvements to the fund. But we have not requested any funding from the VAF since then because we now have a private investor.
The studio cat overseeing the work of the intern employed at Sileni Studios. “Work minion!”
Jesse: What does your development process look like?
Karel: Every decision is made collectively by the development team. If there is a decision that needs to be made, the team puts their heads together and discusses the topic. This can be a everything from graphics to gameplay. From boss fights to new features. We do have a division of tasks in the team. Programmers code the game and artists create the visuals. But all decisions are made collectively with the team. And this works because we have a relatively small team. So instead of having a designer that makes decisions about what the game should be like, our game is designed by the entire team via discussion. I believe in interaction between people and giving feedback to each other. Even if I don’t know how to make art, I can still give my opinion on how I think something should look. As long as feedback is constructive and well communicated it can be valuable even if the person giving it is not an expert in the topic that is being discussed.
Mayan Death Robots’ featurelist and planning on post-it notes and the flipchart for notes and ideas during meetings.
Jesse: How do you start a project and what led to you working on Mayan Death Robots?
Karel: After Castle Quest I needed to make a new action plan to convince my investor to continue financing Sileni Studios. And while I am working on a game project I continually have ideas for new game projects which I write down. Then I can forget about it and focus completely the current project. But once a project is over I can revisit those ideas. So that is what I did. I chose a few ideas and build prototypes of them for about a month, each week a different one. I made a list of interesting prototypes to present to my investor and they said: “Ok, choose a prototype and develop it further.”
The prototype that I chose to go with was based on Worms type of game where nobody would ever have to wait. So players would perform their actions simultaneously instead of taking turns which would make the game a lot more active and exciting by taking away a lot of the downtime. And that prototype was fun pretty much from the get go. Not as fun as it is now, but it did immediately show potential.
But the real spark came later. The idea was that we wanted to do a quick game project of six months. We felt that the two year development cycle of Castle Quest was very taxing and that it would be better to create a game in a shorter amount of time. So we started with the idea to develop this as a mobile game. We added a theme fairly quickly and named the game ‘Clockwork Rumble’, reflecting the robots that battled each other. After three months we went to GDC 2014 in San Francisco for feedback, but the game wasn’t received very well because people didn’t like the art style. And we also had trouble finding inspiration in our theme. We had the core gameplay, but outside of that we had very little that worked well.
So when we came back from GDC I was about to give up on the project. But in an act of desperation I decided to ditch the theme and all the art that we had so only the core gameplay remained. The artist working on the project left us soon after this because he lost his drive for the project after we took all of his artwork out of the game. But we quickly managed to recruit our current artist Erwin, who is doing a great job on the art now, so in the end it was better for everybody.
Erwin the current artist working at Sileni Studios.
With only the gameplay remaining we started looking for a new theme that provided us with more inspiration and things that excited us. And we quickly settled on the Mayas. It kind of came out of nowhere, but instantly everything started to make sense and fitted nicely into the game. For example, we use tile based geometry in our game and Mayan architecture is essentially also tile based, so that really worked nicely. The more jungle environment was also something that was a lot more appealing than our pure robot theme. Within no time we had a game that was much much better than the version we had showed at GDC. And that gave me and the rest of the team the motivation to push on and get the game to where it is now.
Jesse: Do you have any future plans?
Karel: I can be very concise about this: No. And this is a conscious decision. It is very easy for me to get excited about a new game or concept, which can be dangerous for the current project I am working on. Because I start to lose motivation due to wanting to work a new cool idea. So every time I have a new idea I write it down and try to forget about it so I can focus completely on the current project.
Karel testing the newest build of Mayan Death Robots.
That being said, if this project isn’t a success I’m not even sure if there will be a next project. So there are no plans yet, we’ll see what happens once this project it done and we know whether it was a success or not.
Jesse: Thank you Karel for this insightful look into the studio.
In part 2 we’ll talk with Claeys Brothers Arts and Crazy Monkey Studios to look at their story and how they experience the industry in Belgium.