In parts one and two of my series on indie games in Canada, I spoke with Blot Interactive and Drinkbox Studios, two small Toronto-based operations that are just starting to make names for themselves. While the principals behind both studios are at different stages of their evolution, they do share a definite optimism for what lies ahead.
On the flip side, there’s Ryan Creighton and what is essentially his one-man operation, Untold Entertainment. Located just one floor down from Blot in the same building in Toronto’s hip Queen Street West neighbourhood, Creighton has a different take on the indie scene.
Like all of his peers, Creighton has always loved video games. He started his career at Corus Entertainment designing web games to complement the company’s TV shows, but eventually grew restless since, he says, the job was more about following whatever was the current trend, rather than creating original games of quality.
In 2007, he took a buyout and formed Untold, a company that he first ran out of his condo. Like a lot of indies, he took on work-for-hire contracts to pay the bills while he sought government grants to work on his own project, a word puzzle game known as Spellirium.
Along the way, something unexpected happened. Feeling guilty that he wasn’t spending enough time with his five-year-old daughter Cassie, Creighton brought her along to help him out at the 2011 Toronto Game Jam, an annual event that challenges attendees to create a game in a single weekend. The result was Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, a short, downloadable game that was drawn in crayon and voiced by Cassie.
The game, released on the web and for the iPad and BlackBerry PlayBook, became something of a hit, grabbing the attention of big gaming sites such as Kotaku and Giant Bomb. It’s charm was undeniable. Despite taking all of 10 minutes to play, Cassie’s adorable voice acting makes it one of the most enjoyable—and funny—mobile games I’ve experienced.
Still, despite the attention and decent sales, Creighton wasn’t able to turn Ponycorn into a solid source of revenue—the pressure to price games low or even for free through Apple’s app store just doesn’t allow for a lot of money to be made, he says.
In the meantime, Spellirium marches on. Untold has had a few ups, but mostly downs in trying to fund the game, with some grants coming in but others falling through. Creighton eventually turned to crowd-sourcing to try and get it finished, but he chose to do so independently rather than go through established operations such as Indiegogo. That ultra-indie approach has made it difficult, although the game is nearing completion, with a hoped-for completion date of early 2014.
“It’s not a glimmer in our eye,” Creighton says. “It’s a fully functional game that needs a few more elements, like music in its third act. It’s really far along.” Here’s the trailer:
In the meantime, Creighton continues to work on third-party projects, mostly the same sort of TV web games he designed while at Corus. It’s an unfullfilling grind that he can’t wait to escape.
“We’d like to be seen as a creative house and our games as the cultural artifacts that they are, and not people saying, what’s hot – Angry Birds? Okay, do Angry Birds, but with our characters as the heads,” he says. “That’s what I get all the time.”
In the bigger picture, Creighton isn’t very optimistic about the fate of indie studios. While the proliferation of platforms has created unprecedented opportunities for developers to get their games out to the public, it has also led to a glut of releases that make it incredibly hard to get noticed. A few of the bigger or more established operations are going to continue to see success, but most independent developers are inevitably going to need the resources of big, traditional publishers in order to make it. That’s bad news because they’ll eventually have to give up something, like profits or control, in exchange.
“The window is closing on indies,” Creighton says. “Publishers are going to be the only way to get heard above the noise.”