Insert 25¢ to continue: How Ottawa game studios are making coin

Ottawa game studios discover novel paths to revenue
bendy main
Bendy and the Ink Machine's developers are hoping players feel like they were "walking through a sketch."

Developers of high-budget, blockbuster games for the Xbox and PlayStation consoles are nowhere to be found in Ottawa. While Ubisoft has found a home down the road in Montreal, for example, triple-A developers (the bigger brands focused primarily on console gaming) haven’t come searching for Ottawa talent. That doesn’t mean it’s not here, though.

Independent studios are making games in Ottawa, and making money to boot. Techopia profiled two such companies, The Meatly Games and Snowed In Studios, that are taking two very distinct paths to revenue and redefining what it means to be a successful gaming studio.

Black ink

Even if you haven’t played Bendy and the Ink Machine yourself, you may well have seen somebody playing it. Popular YouTube personality Markiplier, one of many online video producers who films himself providing commentary on the games he plays, has racked up more than six million views on his Bendy and the Ink Machine videos.

Bendy and the Ink Machine began as a side project for Ottawa’s Mike Mood and his partner. The game imagines a more twisted backstory behind beloved early animations – think early Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie meets Five Nights at Freddy’s, a genre-defining game for modern horror.

Mood develops the game series with his partner, an artist known as “The Meatly.” He’s not sure what impact the YouTube spectating trend has had on his game, but he knows an effective marketing campaign when he sees one.

“It basically went viral, and millions of eyes were on us,” he says. “It’s essentially free advertising.”

Bendy and the Ink Machine – much like the creepy animations at the heart of it – took on a life of its own, and the two creators made its development their full-time jobs.

The computer game, available via online marketplaces such as Steam, is a story told over five chapters. The first chapter is free to play and will always remain so, with each subsequent chapter costing $6 each to play. Chapter two was released in April, and so far more than 300,000 total players have tried the first two chapters. Revenues rolling in for the second chapter are financing the production of the next; a creepy teaser announcing the development of chapter three already has more than 500,000 views on YouTube.

One of the ways the studio can capitalize on mainstream popularity is through merchandising. The developers recently announced they had signed a deal for Bendy toys, apparel and collectables with Phat Mojo, the same merchandiser who works with the wildly popular Minecraft series.

“Above everything else, Mike and theMeatly care about their community, which is one of the many reasons that Bendy has the makings of an excellent franchise for the long-term,” said Phat Mojo CEO Shawn McCarthy in a statement announcing the deal.

Bendy
Bendy, title character from Bendy and the Ink Machine.

Mood says the intense fan engagement has influenced the game’s chapter-based development. As players find bugs or have ideas for how they’d like to play, Mood, the game’s primary developer, is able to provide patches for existing chapters and build those features into the new ones.

While Mood says he and his partner could easily do a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the development of all five chapters, that would mean waiting a year and a half for a game that, in the end, won’t be the polished version fans want.

The continual development process Bendy is undergoing is the responsive gaming experience Mood wishes he had when he was growing up.

The only thing Mood says he’s not responsive to is fan theories about story. Though the community around Bendy is often coming up with new ideas about what’s really happening in the game, he says they’re all off the mark. For he and his partner, the chance to tell the story they’ve got in mind is as rewarding as indie financial success.

“We’re just very excited to see what people think about the game going forward.”

Traditional meets modern

Snowed In Studios has not abandoned the traditional console market, but has made a conscious effort to diversify its revenue streams away from the boom and bust cycles of working with triple-A developers.

Jean-Sylvain Sormany, founder of Snowed In and one of this year’s Forty Under 40 award recipients, says plainly that Snowed In is a risk-averse company, and he’s not trying to generate astronomical returns with an indie hit.

The company’s origins reinforce Sormany’s approach. When Ottawa’s Fuel Industries decided to discontinue its PC and console developer division in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, Sormany and a number of Fuel’s former employees decided to stay together and form their own studio.

Without access to external capital or many creative types to accompany the team’s technical expertise, Snowed In bootstrapped and relied on more inventive ways to stay afloat.

“These are good ways for us to keep a well-rounded expertise beyond traditional gaming,” Sormany says.

Monster Chase
Characters from Snowed In Studios’ independent project Monster Chase.

A majority of Snowed In’s revenue does come from work with console developers. For example, the firm provides technical support to Square Enix for its Deus Ex series. But Sormany says that while console gaming is a lucrative stream, it’s not consistent.

Consoles follow developmental cycles: As the PlayStation 3 nears its end of life, for instance, game development hits a standstill until the PlayStation 4 is released; Xbox and Nintendo systems follow similar patterns. The high revenues at the peak of consoles’ life cycles are offset by the low valleys between generations.

“For us, it’s very important to be diversified. We never know when a sector will go down and we need to be able to spin off,” Sormany says.

To that end, Snowed In has a number of client relationships outside of traditional gaming, many of which draw on the studio to create games as a means of interactive advertising.

There are a variety of ways to do this, from educational apps or games with questionnaires in the middle to promote an associated product. Snowed In Studios developed an app for marketing agency Intouch Solutions as a strategy for garnering attention on the exhibition floor.

“We sold them on the fact that they could attract people to their booth at conferences and trade shows by doing an interactive camera app,” Sormany says. “It was an immediate success. The booth had lineups.”

Though he doesn’t have an exact breakdown, Sormany estimates about 10 per cent of Snowed In’s revenues come from non-traditional game development. It’s not intended to be the main focus for the studio’s developers, who, at their core, just want to build games.

With a team of 25 that Sormany hopes to grow to 40 by the end of next year, Snowed In’s diversified revenues allow the studio to do just that.