Membraine Studios is an Australian indie outfit with a lot of ambition. It’s in the process of developing Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire – a tabletop wargame in the vein of Warhammer 40,000 for PC, and though the Indiegogo campaign to fund the game missed the mark, the team learned a lot from the experience and don’t for a moment think the project is dead and buried.
We sat down with Josh Anderson and Mark Sheppard from Membraine Studios to get an idea of the business behind indie development, and the team’s dreams for the future.
Digitally Downloaded (DD): What inspired you to set up your own studio?
Josh Anderson (JA): The gaming industry is out of control. Triple-A titles cost an exorbitant amount of money to produce and are generally just sequels or re-hashes of existing games. On the flip side you have the mobile market which is a “race to the bottom” to produce the smallest viable product and release it at the lowest possible price point.
We’re inspired by independent developers and the unique experiences many of them offer. Membraine Studios’ goal is to create interesting, unique and fun experiences – our agility as an independent developer allows us to experiment and offer consumers something genuinely different in a market that is saturated with mediocre conformity.
Mark Sheppard (MS): Breaking into the games development is hard. Arguably harder than setting up your own studio. So we took Option B and started our own.
DD: What challenges have you encountered as a start-up indie developer working in Sydney?
JA: Sydney is a great city to start-up in. There is a large, helpful community of start-ups and investors who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you as well as mature government initiatives to offer financial aid to businesses. Even with this great structure in-place, it’s a competitive market and the games we have in development are not sure bets. The challenge is to give your body and soul to the start-up business without completely burning out – we have a three-year roadmap in place and we need to sustain our momentum to deliver it.
MS: Cashflow is the single biggest challenge from a business perspective. We keep foolishly squandering our money on things like food and heat, so we’re always on the lookout for ways to shore up our revenue and ensure long-term viability. We do that through our casual games, consulting works and other custom business apps.
That’s why we ran the crowd funding campaign, of course—had the campaign taken off, we would have been able to focus on nothing but making Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire (EW:FE) because we wouldn’t have had to worry about cashflow for the duration of the project. Sadly, that didn’t work out, so we’re now back to making casual games, custom apps and doing consulting to ensure we have enough money coming in that we can afford our hardcore turn-based strategy games development habit.
DD: There’s a relatively small development community in Sydney – why do you think that is?
MS: Really couldn’t say, to be honest. Sydney’s great. It’s not the cheapest place to set up shop, though—that’s probably a factor.
Ironically enough, none of us are actually from Sydney originally. I was living in Melbourne just a few years ago, but we moved up here for personal reasons not related to Membraine. Josh is from Melbourne and moved up less than a year ago to work full-time for Membraine. And Glenn has been in Sydney for a few years, but is originally from Geelong.
JA: I have not been here long, but I’ve found the general start-up/ entrepreneur community to be large and helpful. In terms of game development community – we’re working on becoming a part of it. Unfortunately, living and working near Gosford limits our ability to network with some of the great teams in Sydney.
DD: What are your short-to-medium term goals for the studio?
MS: Since our crowd funding campaign for EW:FE did not hit its target, we’ve had to shift our focus back to our casual games, so the short-term goals are to promote the first of those casual titles and release it into the wild.
Our main medium-term goal is release of the first EW:FE playable build, which will probably be the Alpha. We need to do that to show our community that we’re “keeping the faith” and progressing EW:FE as quickly as we can—we didn’t hit our crowd funding goal, but there are still a lot of peeps out there who backed us and put their hopes and trust in our hands. That’s not something we take lightly, and we’re doing everything we can to live up to that support despite the limited funds we can devote to EW:FE right now.
On a related note, we’re also looking at engaging with investors.
DD: Fractured Empire looks like a lot of fun – how did it come about?
MS: Several years ago, back in the middle of 2009 while I was taking some time off, I had an idea for a computer game that would capture, as much as possible, those things I loved most about miniatures wargames: collecting minis, developing that “killer” army list, and playing a tactically challenging game. Most importantly, the game would need to capture the tactile nature of tabletop gaming, with minis to pick up and move around. This game would eschew the traditional computer-based strategy game conceits of the grid or the hex, and instead allow freedom of movement, like you experience on the tabletop. In short, it would be what I thought of as a “true tabletop game” on your computer.
Warhammer 40,000 around that time—which is a game I’ve been playing since 1987, coincidentally—and I had also recently discovered 6mm wargaming in a big way, throwing myself into games like Blitzkrieg Commander and Epic: Armageddon, so that original game design ended up being a mash up of all those systems and others.
No surprise then that it didn’t work as a game, and I ended up shelving it.
Fast-forward a few months to the period in time where Josh, Glenn and I were coming together for the first time to talk about making games. My miniatures wargame concept came up and had a moment in the sun while we bounced it around and we reworked the design considerably, adding and deleting in equal measure, but it was ultimately decided that it was “too niche” and too complex for our first game, and we moved on (we ended up releasing Orbital Defence for the iPhone a few months after that, so in retrospect that was probably the right choice).
Following the release of Orbital Defence, which received great reviews from players and press alike, we all took a break for several months to regroup. After that break we returned to making games with a vengeance. We went through a process of rapid prototyping that saw us create more than 20 prototypes, each of which was scrutinised and brutally assessed for its suitability for our next project…before each was summarily relegated to the shelf as “not quite right”.
That process went on for more than a year. It was really only about six months ago that we finally hit gold and found what we were looking for—when, upon review of old ideas, we finally managed to rework my old miniatures wargame design into something that worked! EGAD!
Yes, it took three years and more than 20 prototypes to get there, but get there we did (which goes to show the value of never throwing anything away—compulsive hoarders, I hope you’re taking notes).
Being armed with a game design that we believed in energised us as a team, but we recognised the hard truth of it—that this was still a ridiculously niche design. So what could we do to broaden the game’s appeal?
Luckily, it didn’t take us too long to decide that that was a flawed approach, and we decided to instead embrace the niche-ness and pitch the game directly to the wargaming community.
This is where Exodus Wars comes in. I had been familiar with Exodus Wars for several years thanks to my involvement with the 6mm fraternity. Steel Crown Productions (SCP) makes a great range of 6mm (and now 28mm) minis, and has developed a great sci-fi lore around its IP that is a fantastic parallel for the American War of Independence. It’s meatier than most sci-fi wargaming IPs in that the background for the unending warfare is both reasoned and believable, which makes the universe that much more compelling than the average fare.
I reached out to Tom, the owner of SCP, about what we were doing with our game, and asked if he’d be interested in seeing his Exodus Wars IP on computer screens. It turned out he was very much interested in such a proposition, and a couple of months later we had an agreement in place and a project title in Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire (EW:FE).
DD: Tabletop strategy games typically involve a complex rule set and deep strategic understanding wins the day. How does a small team implement such complex AI to make an effective strategy game?
MS: We have Josh. Josh is an absolute guru developer. His background is in engineering, which already indicates he’s a smart cookie, but on top of that he’s a bit of a genius. I tapped Josh early as someone with whom I wanted to start a games development business. I pretty much grabbed him and haven’t let go.
JA: My hyper-inflated ego aside, there are always multiple solutions to any problem. Does a turn-based strategy game need a hyper-intelligent AI to offer the player a solid opponent? As tabletop wargamers, there are mental short-cuts we use that are quite easy to engineer as AI – target priority, threat assessment, pre-measuring, expected effectiveness – you might be surprised as to how effective a very basic AI can be. Sometimes though, that isn’t enough – occasionally players like to beat the AI.
The example I like to give is bots in first-person shooter games. It’s almost trivial to create a bot that instantaneously headshots anything it sees. What is difficult is making the bot “fair” or more like a human player (“dumb” :-P).
DD: You listed your game on IndieGoGo to raise additional funding. You didn’t reach the target, but how did you find that process, and what advice would you have for anyone else running a crowdfunding campaign?
MS: I guess the main advice I’d offer is that going out without a playable build is a mistake. But we’re hoping that, once we release a playable build, the traction we’ve built up to-date will translate into lots of people checking EW:FE out, and hopefully lots of games media commentators like yourself taking an interest.
Go with a Fixed Funding model instead of Flexible Funding. While totally appropriate for what we were trying to do, a lot of people don’t understand that Indiegogo is different from Kickstarter and offers a different approach.
Hard as it was, especially considering the bitter, BITTER disappointment of missing out goal, the experience was still amazing. We missed out on buckets of cash raining down and funding EW:FE, sure, but what we gained was a community of TBS wargaming fans. We had more than 20,000 people visit our campaign and more than 10,000 of those viewed our pitch. That’s a truckload of people who had never heard of us before our campaign, and having the kind of profile we now enjoy is a great start.
DD: Who inside the games industry inspires you most?
MS: In terms of computer games, I’m a long-time fan of Julian Gallop’s work. I still play X-COM today, which is a testament to his game design skills.
Outside of strategy games, I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect games, so I’d have to say the Doctors inspire me. I very much want to get to the point where we’re telling such engaging stories through our games.
JA: Sid Meier and Derek Smart.
Sid Meier has made some amazing games over the years but the real inspiration is that his name is part of the games’ titles: “Sid Meier’s Civilisation”, “Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon”. Imagine if your name was enough to sell a game! Derek Smart for having a vision (Battlecruiser 3000 AD), pouring his heart and soul into it and his methods of dealing with trolls and critics 🙂
DD: What advice would you offer for someone looking to get into game development, especially in Australia?
JA: There are a few things I’d say:
Don’t do it for the money. The industry is cut-throat, competitive. If you’re striking out on your own, make sure you’re ready to work very hard for very little initially. You have to believe in what you’re doing and love it even during the hard times.
Find a team. Even if you’re a magical unicorn with artist and programming superpowers, there’s simply too much work to do. Find like-minded, talented people and build something amazing together. When I pitch a game concept to Membraine Studios, the team improves it massively within five minutes. After a week or two of periodic discussion, the core idea I pitched has been turned into a compelling, marketable game – this is not something that one person can do.
Release something. It doesn’t matter how small or simple, just release something. Make it free and post it on your blog – it doesn’t matter. Make your friends and family play it and get their feedback – the act of finishing a game teaches you so much.
MS: When you finish packing, take out half the stuff and take twice the cash.
Being serious, though, the only advice I have is to just do it: like the old saying that “writer’s write”, so too do “game developers develop games”. Stop talking about doing it and do it. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do, but that’s how you get into games development.
JA: Membraine Studios is always interested in talking to talented people. Drop us a line via our website (http://membrainestudios.com/) or e-mail (email@example.com).
"Yes, it took three years and more than 20 prototypes to get there, but get there we did (which goes to show the value of never throwing anything away—compulsive hoarders, I hope you’re taking notes)."
Digital hoarding is a weakness, I can admit it. Glad to know some of my ideas from my PC 10 years ago might still come to fruition!
Good read, and thank you and the guys at Membraine Studios for taking the time to do it.
Hopefully EW:FE can get the funding/support it needs, and turn out like they hope.
"Being serious, though, the only advice I have is to just do it: like the old saying that 'writer’s write', so too do 'game developers develop games'. Stop talking about doing it and do it. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do, but that’s how you get into games development."
Excellent advice/point as well. You have to hit "publish" or "print" or "ship" at some point.