Archives 2019

Super Icon – The Long Slow Death of an Indie Studio

Our History So Far…

I began developing games back in the late nineties; Xtreme Racing on Amiga was my first game, and ever since then I have only ever worked at my own development studios.

Starting with Graphic State; initially a sub-contract artwork studio, later moving into handheld game development on the Gameboy systems. This then evolved into Icon Games; focusing on small-ish console games on PlayStation and Wii.

You can view a full list of all the ‘Icon Games’ releases here:

·        IconGames_Catalogue

And ‘Graphic State’ releases here:

·        GraphicState_Catalogue

I founded Super Icon in 2012; an ‘evolution’ of Icon Games; like the transition from NES to SuperNES! At Super Icon the focus was on creating the games that we wanted to make, rather than trying to ride the coattails of current popular games or casual games. The focus was always trying to make great games, as good as we possibly could – games that people enjoy playing.

Our first proper release was Life of Pixel on PlayStation Mobile. We released a second PSM title around that time too, called MegaBlast.

Back in 2016, after the release of Life of Pixel on Steam and our Battlezone type shooter Vektor Wars, we decided that it would probably be best to partner with a publisher going forward. Our sales numbers were low, and we failed quite badly at building any sort of interest in the games. They didn’t completely tank, but the numbers were poor, and not enough to sustain a business.

At the time we lived in London, and during that period (we were there for about 4-years), we had tough times. I say this as possibly the world’s greatest understatement!

I attempted to document that period a couple of times in the past couple of years, and in the interest of completion I have finally released an account of our time there, which you can read here:

·        RHW_MentalHealth

 In addition to the financial difficulties, it covers mental health issues and was very difficult to write.

Following the above period, we moved to Cornwall – which is where we are today. Just after the move we ran a Kickstarter for another game; Best Buds vs Bad Guys. It was successful, and we managed to get funds to help complete the development. During the Kickstarter I started chatting to a great bunch of guys at a studio called Whitemoon Dreams.

The upshot was I explained we were not having much success at selling/promoting our games, and they agreed to act as a publisher on Life of Pixel and Best Buds going forward, to take them over onto PlayStation and Switch.

We worked together with them, releasing Super Life of Pixel onto PlayStation 4 and Vita in December 2018. Also, during the development phase, we pitched another title we were making, called Platform Maker. After a fair few rejections, we finally found a publisher in pQube. We renamed the game to PLATAGO, and it was released onto Steam Early Access in 2018, with a full Steam and Switch release in June 2019.

Current Development Phase – 2017 to 2019

Unfortunately, despite most players seeming to enjoy Super Life of Pixel, the sales have been poor. So bad, in fact, that Whitemoon decided they were unable to continue publishing for the time-being. As such, in the first quarter of 2019, we saw our income pretty much completely grind to a halt.

I haven’t been given any PLATAGO figures, but I suspect they are poor – it probably didn’t help that we released a couple of weeks before Super Mario Maker 2 on Switch!

We also developed Vektor Wars for Switch and PS4. Switch is out, but sales were low – since July just under 300 units. PS4 is complete and in Sony QA.

Again, my family and I faced a spell of homelessness this summer, our landlord decided to sell – and we were given 8-weeks to move out. We came closer than ever to not having a home this time, as it coincided with us also earning no revenue at Super Icon. We got lucky in the end and found a small place that we have for one year (the owners are selling early 2020), but it was scary. Added to that we have no savings or fall-back money; it was a tough time. I’m 46 this year, with three great kids who are now that much older, and it is tough for them. I think being a penniless indie develop is a younger person’s game!

Speculative development

I did have a plan though, and it seemed a good one…

In addition to the games we released above, I developed a game called They Came from Beyond (TCFB), which off and on took about 18-months (it is pre-Alpha currently). I pitched to a few publishers, and while there was interest, I didn’t manage to secure a deal. I worked on this while Steve handled code on our other projects.

Hand-on-heart, I thought it was a strong concept, and the best game we have created so far. I was certain I would secure a publishing deal to fund the completion and release, and perhaps finally have a popular game out there. The plan seemed solid – ongoing releases generating income, with a new deal secured in the later stages for our biggest project so far.

I still f#&king love TCFB too, I really do. I KNOW there are bits I need to revisit, and it needs plenty more love and content before it is ready to release, but it appears my faith was entirely misplaced.

You can read an overview document of TCFB here:

·        TheyCamefromBeyond_Overview

 I pitched TCFB to a lot of publishers, several of whom replied that they really liked the game and the concept, but it wasn’t a good fit for them. I would say the most common comment was that many of the publishers told me that they are shifting away from smaller indie releases like TCFB to larger scale, bigger budget projects – those with budgets up to about half a million dollars. More ‘AA’ than indie really.

So, the lower than expected sales, in combination with failing to secure a deal on TCFB has really proved to be a terminal blow.

I have also developed another title over the last 6-months, called Gates of Hell; which is a sort of follow-up FPS to Vektor Wars. Arcade action, short bursts of high score chasing.

You can read a brief overview here:

·        GatesofHell_Summary

 Even now, I am still developing; working on a new 2D game. A NES plus visual style shooter; with several game types in there – top down, zoomed out top down, platform run and gun. I had planned to call it ‘The Lost Carts’, but everyone I asked says that name is a bit shit!

The concept is as follows:

Some experimental NES carts have been found, which were created using a custom ‘SuperPowerFX’ chip – which allowed a 1000% increase in enemies, effects, bullets and mayhem. Unfortunately, because of the sheer numbers of enemies and arcade action these games put out, the chips used to overheat, and production had to be cancelled. Only now have the carts been unearthed, and machines are now just powerful enough to handle the gameplay without melting! I had a small series of a few games in mind.

And… one failed concept

Not long after we moved to Cornwall, I also spent about a year (off and on) on another speculative game, called ‘The Tower’.

I pitched to various publishers, and it was a no. I stopped work on The Tower, as without funding it was just too ambitious. There is a blog for it (updated until I stopped working on the project):

And you can read the pitch doc here:

·        TheTower_PitchDoc

  Studio Limitations

One of our key strengths as a studio is a proven track record of creating and completing games, often with very minimal budgets. In an ideal world, we would love to expand our resources so we could fully realise the vision we have for our games.

Personally speaking, I love creating games. I love the whole process; from the initial research and prototyping phase, through to making the various ideas a reality, adding little touches and cool ideas, putting it all together and trying to make it all as good as I can.

Continual restriction on resources limits what we can achieve. The result is that we make good games, but not quite great games, and unless you are very lucky, a game needs to be great to really stand out.

It also means that certain elements take longer than I would like, such as graphics and level design. These are typically the bulk of project time, and I create most of them myself, which has several drawbacks:

Quality – I am good at some things, less good at others, and I know I can find others out there who can produce far better-quality graphics than I can alone. When I do commission art, I usually have to request the minimum amount of animation and number of enemy designs. Reviewers and game players notice this instinctively they notice the quality dips, the sometimes overly generic art and lack of animation.

Limiting Factors – often our games are good fun to play, but lack that something to make them stand-out. Throughout development, there are so many ideas for cool visual & gameplay elements – bosses, new enemies, set-piece background art, cut-scenes and story artwork – that we don’t do because we can’t afford to commission artwork.

Level Design – I also handle the level design for every game we do; 2D and 3D. This way of working is probably the single most limiting factor, as you are getting ideas from just one person, and when you play the game, it shows. Most games are the product of a combination of ideas, usually from a range of different people with different tastes and experiences. Without that combination of thoughts and suggestions, a game can lack that special something to make it stand out.

Why did we not try and expand?

Both Steve and I have gone without income at times, to fund development, and when we do take income it is minimal to allow us to fund development as far as we can.

I didn’t believe we had a strong enough track record to secure financing to expand, so I didn’t pursue that option. As a studio we have developed and released more games than most; they haven’t really been successful enough financially. Also, I am on the Autistic spectrum, and this does play quite a pivotal role; I have amazing drive and focus, determination and resilience but saying I lack people skills is an understatement! I mention this because it has been the cause of without doubt the studio’s single biggest downfall; promotion.

I seem to have a complete inability to successfully promote our games, to create compelling game presentations/store pages/social media posts. I have tried many times, and never seem to get anywhere with it. Additionally, when I pitch proposals to third parties, I don’t do justice to the game and vision. As a person, I am very honest, down-to-earth, quiet and reserved – almost the opposite of someone who achieves great things through self-promotion and building a strong network of contacts.

In the past, I have sought advice from several people in the industry, showed them our proposals, asked for feedback – I have tried to improve this aspect. Most recently, when I pitched, They Came from Beyond, I managed to confuse many of the publishers who had no idea what the game was about from the proposal! I revised and adapted based on their feedback, but usually, you only get that initial chance to show the game, publishers don’t tend to revisit once they have said no.

That said, I have pitched quite a few games over the years, and secured several publishing deals – but usually for smaller amounts that are just about enough to get a game completed.

The End of an Era

From day-one, Super Icon has been a rough ride.

As covered above, our biggest issue was always been getting our games noticed and finding an audience. The actual development process is always smooth, and our game reviews are usually reasonably good. In general, everything works quite well, especially given the lack of resources we’ve always battled with.

However, we are not making money, and it has now got to the point where we need to make an urgent decision about our future.

I considered quietly closing the studio down, but I thought I’d see if there was any possibility I could sell or perhaps find a partner/investor. We don’t have much debt, a few hundred, and everything is in good order. We have accounts for each year since incorporation, prepared by our accountants EXCEED based in Surrey.

I spent the last few days reaching out to some contacts of LinkedIn; some amazing, talented and successful people – kind of a last attempt to salvage the studio as it is.

I put together a couple of docs which covered the various aspects of Super Icon, the way the studio has worked, the whole development process. You can read them here:

a.      Studio profile doc: LINK

b.      Overview of our development process: LINK

 This morning though, I have reached the conclusion that we are done. The feedback has been that our games/studio is essentially pretty much worthless. I expected this, but there is always a small glimmer of hope – perhaps that has always been my biggest failing?

Years of fighting tooth and nail just to survive, just to live. Messing up my family’s stability and security, mentally breaking down, and so often treated like shit by landlords, accountants, etc.

I have tried so very hard to make it work, and I always had that hope I could one day do it. Unfortunately, I am now middle-aged with zero pension, no savings or home and a very uncertain future. Time has a way of creeping up on you, one day you think – I still have a long time to turn things around – then suddenly you think, shit, I’m nearly fifty now; an Autistic games industry fuck up with terrible people skills, crippling self-hate and an on-going mental health battle.

I have made A LOT of games that aren’t worth shit, I have an impressive inability to self-promote and perhaps I am now rather out of touch with the industry as a whole?

The main practicality though is that we just can’t afford to continue. Super Icon can’t afford to get the accounts done or pay the monthly studio bills. I don’t really earn much beyond a few hundred here and there, and every week we are running out of money to even buy groceries and essentials for the home.

We just notified the company accountant that we were unable to do the accounts, and this was their typically hugely helpful response:

“My colleague will issue the P45 for Richard and will close off the payroll. As the accounts will not be submitted, there will be some penalties and we also believe Companies House will strike off the company at some point (you may apply for strike off but not sure whether they will allow you to do so and also depends on possible buyer you are looking for). In the given situation, unfortunately we have to terminate our services till this has been resolved.

If you manage to find a suitable buyer and manage to pay the debts, we will be more than happy to reinstate our services.”

 So, whatever the future holds, I think Super Icon has run its course. I feel a lot of different emotions, but ultimately, there isn’t much more I can do.

A huge thanks to everyone who bought and/or played our games over the years, and to the other indie developers and indie peeps who have helped us over the years.

Special big thanks to: Jay Koottarappallil, Christian Phillips, Matt Spencer, Rusty Buchert, Jack Littlejohn, Harry Holmwood, Jools Watsham, Garry Williams and probably several others that my currently frazzled brain has forgotten!

Richard Hill-Whittall

September 14th, 2019.

END

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MY JOURNEY WITH SUPER ICON

A Turbulent Beginning…

Super Icon began after my previous studio, Icon Games, failed. I’d never really been happy with many of the games we created at Icon, where I tried to develop more casual games or emulate other games. We were also hampered by using our own engine – which was a massive task to maintain and take over to other platforms. After the demise of Icon, I started experimenting with Unity, which we have used ever since.

Super Icon was a new approach – the focus from the beginning was to try and make the games I really wanted to make, games that I loved, passion projects as it were. It was a tough transition, but I definitely believe it was the right one from a creative POV.

  The Years from Hell!

I would describe myself as a creative person, and like many creatively minded people, I have suffered with mental health problems – self-esteem, depression, social problems – and although I have never been officially diagnosed, I think there is a strong chance I have Asperger’s Syndrome.

I’ve only ever made video-games, it was my first full-time job, and I have been doing it ever since – which is about 27 years now.

After Icon, we were financially in a very bad place. At the time we lived in Richmond, which is a borough of London. Rental costs were crazy high, and constantly increased while we were there.

I am married and have 3 children, back then they varied from late toddler age (my youngest, Spencer) through to final year of junior school (my daughter Holly).

We had struggled for money for a long time, our games didn’t sell very well so we saw a lot of income spikes – long periods of little income while developing new titles, which we were self-publishing. It was very hard, and incredibly stressful for a number of years, but we got by.

The biggest kicker was when we got evicted for the first time for being late with rent. The landlord had insurance to cover his rental risks, and these insurers were rock hard. We were a few days late, and we got evicted – because that was the was the policy worked. You then have a couple of months to find new housing, which in a place like Richmond is tough, expensive and near impossible when you are out of money.

The long and short of it was, I broke. My mind fell apart, I began self-harming, drinking, crying randomly. I felt so guilty, letting my family down, and such a failure for getting us into this position. I also felt hurt, deeply hurt really – we had done nothing wrong, yet were treated so very badly.

Later I also discovered I had a brain tumour at this time, a benign one, but one that caused some quite profound changes to hormone levels. Essentially it was a tumour on the pituitary gland, and what it did was stop testosterone production. As well as the more obvious physical effects, mentally it kind of fucks you up – and extenuates the effects of depression, stress and so-on.

This situation continued for quite a while, with a steady deterioration of my mental health and the stability of my family. We continued to have major money problems – and the very worst of times came when we had to move again because we couldn’t afford the rent.

We had a dog called Dexter, a beautiful Vizsla, and when we had to move again we couldn’t find anywhere to rent we could afford that took pets. We had to re-home Dex, fortunately to a lovely new family where he gamed a sister, another Vizsla – and I know he has had a wonderful time with his new family. This was the lowest point – the day before they came to pick him up, it was my daughter’s birthday. I remember in the evening, sitting on the kitchen floor, arms pouring with blood, hugging Dexter and sobbing, with my daughter and wife there. Just the lowest point, I felt shame, despair, god it was so bad. For my beautiful daughter to have to go through that. For my wife, for the boys, just the worst of times.

During all of this, I made a game – and the game was Life of Pixel. It didn’t perform very well, but it was the first game I had made for a very long time I felt pleased with, a game I felt was worth people’s time and money to play. I followed that with Vektor Wars, my tribute to 80s wireframe sci-fi visuals and Battlezone. That one sold really badly!

I tried hard to build up a community, but it just didn’t work – I think perhaps because as someone with the social skills of a plank of wood, building a community is pretty much the hardest thing to do. Plus trying to do it when your life and head is falling apart is not great. I just can’t think how to phrase tweets, messages, all that sort of stuff – it is a bit like trying to speak a foreign language! I dislike putting myself out there, on so many levels… I am sure many other indies feel the same, trying to promote a game and your studio, when every aspect of your personality screams against it.

We also for the third and final time got evicted again for falling behind with rent. This time we had to make a heart-breaking decision to move away from the area, as it was just too expensive.

And it was heart-breaking because of the children – perhaps most of all for my middle son, Lucas. He has Asperger’s and struggled at times with school life – but the school he was in, they were like a family to him, they were kind, supportive, understanding – they were wonderful. Lucas loved them and we had to take him away. All three of the children were doing so well in their schools, we were so proud of them. What a wrench that was – but we had no choice, so we relocated. It was fucked up though, and neither my wife or I have ever really got over it – the wrench, the guilt for what we had to do to the kids.

  Rebirth of Super Icon

After the move, I started a new game about Lucas and me – Best Buds vs Bad Guys. We call each other Best Buds (well, we did at the time, he is a little old for that now!).

I also started getting treatment for the tumour – testosterone supplements – so mentally I was starting to really pick up. We ran a small Kickstarter for Best Buds, and as mentioned in the previous post, that was successful, and we met the guys from White Moon.

If you haven’t read the previous post, it is here, and covers what happened after Best Buds and the current position we are in.

The reason I wrote this follow-up post was to try and explain WHY the current situation has hit so hard. It explains the journey up until now, and perhaps highlights why indie development has taken its toll.

The thing is, I love creating video-games, and to most people they would probably think, what are you doing? Just get a fucking job. BUT once I do that, I think that will be it – no more games, so it is such a major step, to turn away from all you have known professionally. Weirdly also when you go through so much doing something, the thought of walking away seems even harder. Also I am scared, scared that in the job marketplace I am worthless, a 46 year old washed out indie bloke – who the fuck would want to employ someone like that!?

But on the other hand, I know I can’t ever go through an experience like Richmond again, for my family, it just can’t happen again.

Hence the cry for help, one last try; and I have to try, and I still have hope – hope that I can turn things around once and for all. But it is certainly the last chance saloon now!

If you are still reading after this rather shameful example of shitty indie development, any chance you can help me build up a community? Consider this post my nuclear option ‘call-to-action’ – it was tough to write, and I feel so embarrassed to write it, to admit to this all. I’ll probably delete it before you read it!

Richard Hill-Whittall, March 30

  Links

You can follow us in the following ways:

Website:                             https://www.supericon.co.uk/

Blog:                                    https://supericonblog.tumblr.com/

Twitter:                               https://twitter.com/SuperIconLtd

Discord:                              https://discord.gg/vPBTFtf

Instagram:                         https://www.instagram.com/supericonltd/

Facebook:                          https://www.facebook.com/SuperIconLtd/

Youtube:                            https://www.youtube.com/user/SuperIconLtd

SUPER ICON NEEDS YOUR HELP

Our History So Far…

I began developing games back in the late nineties – Xtreme Racing on Amiga was my first game, and ever since then I have only ever worked at my own development studios.

Starting with Graphic State, which initially was a sub-contract artwork studio, later moving into handheld game development on the Gameboy systems. This then evolved into Icon Games, focusing on small-ish console games on Playstation and Wii.

I then founded Super Icon in 2012, with a focus on creating the games that I wanted to make, rather than trying to ride the coat-tails of current popular games or casual games. The focus was always trying to make great games, as good as we possibly can – games that people enjoy playing. Like many other small indie developers, we’ve had ups and downs, but I think the games we’ve made are the best of my career so far. Our first proper release was Life of Pixel on Playstation Mobile.

Back in 2016, after the release of Life of Pixel on Steam and our Battlezone type shooter Vektor Wars, we decided that it would probably be best to partner with a publisher going forward. Our sales numbers were low, and we failed quite badly at building any sort of interest in the games. They didn’t completely tank, but the numbers were bad, and not enough to sustain a business.

At the time we had just finished a Kickstarter for another game, Best Buds vs Bad Guys, and managed to get a little income in to complete the development. During the Kickstarter I started chatting to a great bunch of guys at a studio called Whitemoon Dreams, in particular its CEO Jay.

The upshot was I explained we were not having much success at selling/promoting our games, and they agreed to act as a publisher on Life of Pixel and Best Buds going forward, to take them over onto Playstation and Switch.

We worked together with them, releasing Super Life of Pixel onto Playstation 4 and Vita in December 2018. Also, during the development phase, we pitched another title we were making, called Platform Maker. After a fair few rejections, we finally found a publisher, pQube. We renamed the game to PLATAGO, and it was released onto Steam Early Access in 2018.

Fast forward to 2019…

  The Current State of Play

So, here we are. Unfortunately, despite most players seeming to enjoy Super Life of Pixel, the sales on Playstation have been DIRE. So bad, in fact, that Whitemoon have decided they are unable to continue publishing for the time-being. As such, in the first quarter of 2019, we have seen our income pretty much completely grind to a halt.

Our income wasn’t much before, and we have had several very tough times since the later Icon Games period onwards, where we’ve had little or no income for months at a time. This time though, it is all a little different, I’m kind of burnt out. I’m also getting on a bit, I’m 46 this year, with a family, including three great kids who are now that much older, and it is tough for them.

I think being a penniless indie develop is a younger person’s game! Certainly not conducive to maintaining a stable family life and keeping the wolves from the door.

  A Tough Decision

So, I have come to the decision that, unless this year things improve and we break this cycle, I don’t think I am able to continue making games.

I love making games, but there comes a time when you think if no-one wants to play your games, and you can’t support your family – perhaps it is time to re-evaluate.

Another thing I have done over the last couple of years is develop and pitch other games – the first a horror game called The Tower, the other an Action RPG called They Came from Beyond. The plan was to make sure we continued to maintain revenue once we completed the on-going projects.

I pitched both to various publishers, and they were both rejected. I stopped work on The Tower, as without funding it was just too ambitious. There is a blog for it (updated until I stopped working on the project):

I continued with They Came from Beyond, for the following reasons:

  • I love the game and believe in it
  • I have enjoyed every second of developing it
  • Although larger in scope than our other titles, it was still a realistic scope
  • It is my last chance, perhaps, to continue making games

You can download the in-development build for free from itch.io:

Alas, I can’t get any interest in it at all, which kind of breaks my heart. I’ve also been working on it now for 15 months, completely un-funded, so there is a big personal commitment there.

So, there we are, but I do have a request…

  If You Like Our Games, Support Us

We need your help!!

If you like any of our games – Life of Pixel, Vektor Wars, PLATAGO or like the look of They Came from Beyond – can you help us spread the word?

Without more support and a much larger community of followers, it will be impossible for us to continue making games. We just can’t continue without income – and I’ll be honest, it is a constant gut punch to try and continue developing when everything you do fails.

So, if you can – spread the word – help get us a little more known. Join our community on Discord or elsewhere, tell other gamers, sites or anywhere you think might be interested in our games. Without more followers, and more people buying our games, we’re done.

This was a tough post to write, and I hope it doesn’t come across in the wrong way – I just don’t know where else to turn. If anyone out there plays and enjoys our games, and wants us to continue making games – well, we can’t do it without you now.

Richard Hill-Whittall, March 26

  Links

You can follow us in the following ways:

Website:                             https://www.supericon.co.uk/

Blog:                                    https://supericonblog.tumblr.com/

Twitter:                               https://twitter.com/SuperIconLtd

Discord:                              https://discord.gg/vPBTFtf

Instagram:                         https://www.instagram.com/supericonltd/

Facebook:                          https://www.facebook.com/SuperIconLtd/

Youtube:                            https://www.youtube.com/user/SuperIconLtd