Studio Theophilus Vision for 2019

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Anyone else get all thinky and nostalgic at the end of the year? I know that I do. So, I wanted to jot down a recap and vision post for Studio Theophilus and Zodiac Axis.

This point includes some brief stats, an evaluation of the values I’m aiming for, and… the budget.

Honestly, I don’t expect anyone to find this interesting, but it helps me to have it written down. It lets me know what I need to do next. And, hey, if you find it interesting or useful for your own project, that’s all the better!

 

Cool Numbers

I didn’t expect much opportunity or growth this year, since it was primarily a production year. Most activity won’t happen until the game is released—that’s just to be expected. But we were pleasantly surprised with the awesome support that we were blessed with:

  • 3,600+ demo downloads on Itch.io

  • 1,800+ demo downloads on Gamejolt

  • 26 new beta access pledges via our online store

  • 151 people who signed up to be notified on game release

From a company perspective, those aren’t very big numbers, but every person and every story has really helped. We’ve been privileged with amazing supporters who leave encouraging words and helpful feedback.

I’m also really proud at how much we’ve gotten done this year. Stats for content we’ve created this year:

  • 400,000+ words written (but with much, much cut out for editing)

  • 900+ sprites (includes expressions)

  • 25 backgrounds

  • 24 CGs

  • 19 music tracks

That’s a lot of stuff for a small team, and I’m so proud of everyone. And, hey, I’m also proud of myself for drawing 900 sprites and writing 400,000 words. It’s not always good to soak in narcissism, but if there’s one time to do it, wouldn’t it be the end of the year?

 

Values E-value-ation

Okay, with the cool numbers and celebration of the past year over, it’s now time to look to the future and see what can help continue and improve our success.

I’ve done some thinking about what exactly I want to accomplish through Studio Theophilus, because—well, making games is really hard and takes a really long time, and it’s easy to lose motivation when you don’t have a clear vision. After considering it for a while, the answers of what I want to value was surprising.

 

Value 1: People, people, people.

People are everything. In my worldview, every person is a beautiful, precious creation of God, and needs to be valued and cared for. (I’m not great at actually acting that way, but hey, it’s something I need to work on.)

Companies often get it right in treating their customers well, but sometimes, they throw their employees under the bus. It’s extremely difficult for a game company, given how much the industry focuses on sprints and fast-paced environments—but I’d love to make Studio Theophilus a place that values people. There’s no point in making something great if you have to break people along the way.

 

Value 2: Intimate reach, not vast reach.

I heard a really powerful question this year: “What would you consider as success for your project?”

In general, the game industry prioritizes certain sale numbers, or a certain audience reach. And that’s the smart idea, because you need to make a certain amount of money to live.

But strangely enough, when I thought of success, an image came to mind of a single person crying over the story, because they finally felt understood or valid. Or a single person walking out of the room, just a little more open-minded of other people than they were before.

It’s not that I expect a video game to change lives, but I do think that media can have an extremely strong—and positive—impact on people. And I’d love for that to happen, even if it’s just for one person.

 

Value 3: Make something genuine.

I’m picking the word “genuine” for a very specific reason.

Let’s be real: at this point, thousands of years into human history, nothing is completely unique.We’re not aiming to reinvent the wheel. We don’t profess to make our games superspecialawesomecool the likes of which mankind has never seen before.

What’s important is that we, as a team of predominantly third-culture Asians, feel a space to create and explore out of our own stories, backgrounds, and memories. We’re aiming to make something genuine to us.

I think this might be one of the reasons why people often comment, “I really feel the passion behind this project.” It’s not that we’re particularly special, but rather that this is meant to be a playground for some of our own expression, self-discovery, and even emotional baggage—and players can feel that, even if Zodiac Axis ends up to not be their cup of tea.

 

Focus Points for 2019

So, with the company values now in hand, it’s time to judge what the implications are for 2019.

 

Focus Point 1: Care for dev team and contractors.

This goes hand-in-hand with Value #1: People, people, people.

Between game production and side jobs for income, my schedule is pretty packed—but I’d love for everyone I commission to feel like they’re respected, welcomed, and that their contributions are valuable.

I may not have the time or budget to plan cool parties or retreats, but I’d love to send my dev team postcards and handwritten letters from time to time.

 

Focus Point 2: More separation between public feedback and creative process.

This is sort of a surprise, and a bit counterintuitive. Most game dev culture relies on the fans: take in feedback from the fans, adapt, reiterate, and improve the product based on what your target market wants.

However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to step back from listening to feedback, and leave the job of customer care to my brother and business partner, Antioch. This is after careful consideration of Value #3: making something genuine.

We had two mini-releases this year: Common Route and Beckett’s Story. Common Route was the stronger of the two, and was made basically in a total vacuum of feedback with just the dev vision in place. On the other hand, I started to stumble in writing once I started worrying about what other people wanted, leading to some missteps in the execution of Beckett’s Story.

There are certainly times where feedback has merit, but overall, I think that visual novels are special in this area. Many video games offer extremely high interactivity, which means that there’s a lot relying on user experience. As a result, feedback and reiteration is extremely important in the development process.

However, visual novels are much closer to static media like games and movies. A visual novel is not the user’s story, but is the writer’s story. Taking in too much feedback from the users actually results in a loss of vision, ruining what made that story special.

In short, Antioch (as a more discerning editor than me) will be monitoring and implementing beta feedback from here on out. I will still be in charge of marketing and customer support, since those tend to be on the technical spectrum than the creative spectrum. Ideally, this solution will result in the perfect balance of creative vision with a polished, thorough product.

 

The Budget

Money money money. (we can’t keep doing this, bob.) If you’re curious on the cost numbers of a visual novel, here’s our expenditure recaps.

  • 2017 (Kickstarter year)

    • Income: $12,682

    • Expense: $10,582

  • 2018

    • Income: $1,145

    • Expense: $13,228

2019 Budget Projection

  • BG Art: $1800

  • CG Art: $4700

  • Programming: $1000

  • Voice Acting: $500

  • Sound Design: $500

  • Merchandise Production: $1000 (our only method of income)

  • Tools, Subscriptions, and Operations: $500

  • Taxes and Licenses: $200

  • Total: $10,200

The fact that we’re accruing debt can raise concerns, but I expect to continue taking a loss until the game is released. That’s just how startups work: it is a risk and an investment.

That being said, I have to make sure that the game is approaching release by the end of 2019. I started this project when I was 19 years old—when I was an innocent little college student who knew nothing about life expenses—but in 2019, I’m turning 23. I have to start considering what is a sustainable career, or I’ll end up in a cardboard box.

As a result, 2019 will be an all-or-nothing year, and it’s likely that how it goes will dictate a big trajectory of my life—whether I can pursue my dream as a game dev, or change onto a different, more sustainable path.

…Oof, when I think about it, that’s kind of a lot of pressure.

Conclusions

  • I really should have started with a much smaller game (but it’s toO LAATE TO APOLOGIZE)

  • Contract work is taking a lot of my time away from development, so I need to close all commissions and really all-in on Zodiac this year.

  • To stem the bleeding on the debt, I’m going to be tabling at conventions. Since I already participate in zines as a hobby, this should help provide at least a little money and exposure in the meantime.

In short, 2019 is the year we go big or go home.

I’ll see you on the other side. ‘Cuz I am not throwin’ away my shot.