It was only when the numbers were placed on the spreadsheet that the intensity of the stakes became clearly defined.
Grant Davies and Nick Kovac left secure jobs at Torus Games in Melbourne with the kind of enthusiasm some would describe as youthful arrogance. They wanted to make new video games. They wanted the freedom and flexibility their day jobs couldn’t provide. But it was only then, battle hardened -- broken down by the meetings, the crushing disappointments, the broken promises, the frown lines on their foreheads -- that the difficult truth became apparent.
“We were in so much debt,” says Grant.
And not just the kind of debt that sinks companies, or debt that makes corporate, professional life difficult. The kind of debt that had the potential to sink both of them personally.
“The worst case scenario was basically death. Absolute personal bankruptcy.
“It’s frightening that you could put yourself into that situation because of a video game.”
One video game. Just one. A video game that started life as a simple idea scribbled on a piece of paper in April 2004. A video game released on the 3DS e-shop in September 2012.
Fractured Soul, the Australian video game that took eight years to build.
Grant Davies is on the show floor at PAX East in Boston Massachusetts. He’s demoing Fractured Soul and he is smiling. Considering he spent the majority of the last eight years of his life working on one single video game, he’s about as relaxed and unassuming as any human being could be.
“Yeah, it’s a platformer.”
“It’s kinda inspired by Megaman.”
“Have you ever played Ikaruga? It’s a bit like that with platforming.”
It’s been a long road for Grant, but Endgame studios is tantalisingly close to the endgame.
Fractured Soul. Born alongside four other high concepts, scribbled on A4 paper in response to the announcement of the Nintendo DS. Bare bones ideas created by two young developers bored with work for hire and the restrictions of licensed properties. Two screens. What the hell can we do with two different screens? What can we do with touch? In 2004 these were fresh, pertinent questions and Grant Davies and Nick Kovac thought they had answers.
The idea they liked best was ‘Slidatron’, a dimension bending game aimed at the handheld kids market. Sildatron was the game that, years later, would eventually evolve into Fractured Soul. Both Grant and Nick played a lot of Ikaruga and became a little obsessed with the idea of gaming simultaneously across two different separate universes. Both agreed that using two screens to represent this sort of dynamic made perfect sense. They began with the idea of making a shooter but later thought, ‘hey, we like platformers, let’s make a platformer’.
It made perfect sense. Both Grant and Nick spent the majority of their days at Torus working on licensed platformers. They had the expertise, they had the concept. All systems go.
They had everything except a publisher.
“We sent our ideas off to the very few publishers we knew,” says Grant. “We didn’t get many replies.
“I guess Slidatron was always on a bit of a hiding to nothing.”
Grant and Nick knew publishers. They even knew a handful of people at those publishers. They just didn’t know the right people and, to begin with, this made things difficult. Almost impossible.
The Cursed Project
It started auspiciously. Despite Grant and Nick’s inexperience, Slidatron still attracted smatterings of publisher interest. The concept was fresh, the DS was hot. At the time focusing on Slidatron seemed like the best approach.
Seemed. This is when the delays began.
In hindsight Grant refers to Slidatron as a cursed project. Each forward step was accompanied with stress and difficulties. The simplest issues began strange chain reactions that ultimately resulted in mammoth delays.
For example -- Film Victoria, a local government funding agency, were quick to get onboard with Grant and Nick’s vision with Slidatron. Both sides filled out the paperwork, said all the right things, but even that relatively simple process hit the proverbial roadblock.
Grant had made the approach for government funding for one simple reason: Slidatron hadn’t attracted any concrete publisher interest and he wanted to take a working demo of the game over to E3 in order to get the right people excited. Both he and Nick saw this funding as a way to kickstart Slidatron as a project. Make the demo, go to E3, find a publisher, finish the project. Rescue the cheerleader, save the world.
It should have been simple.
“We got Film Victoria on board but even that was delayed because we had a solicitor that was really dragging his feet. It took ages to get access to the money we needed to build the prototype. So that squeezed the deadline.
“Then we had a programmer who agreed to help us, but he pulled out at the very last minute.”
The clock was ticking. The hard deadline of E3 approached. Grant and Nick were completely cash starved. The Film Victoria money came in, eventually. But it was too late. The end result was an intense last minute scramble to complete the Slidatron E3 demo.
“It ended up being basically just Nick and I, working night and day for a few months trying to get this prototype together,” remembers Grant. “We were still working on the prototype at 3am on the morning we had to fly out to LA. We had to be at the airport at 6am.”
With two hours sleep, running on raw enthusiasm, Grant and Nick packed frantically. They hopped in a cab and rushed to the airport, praying they’d caught any game breaking bugs.
Little did they know that bugs would be the least of their problems.
The Slam Dunk
“Like the Titanic casting off from Southampton,” says Grant, “we had a fatally flawed design, and we were headed for iceberg E3.”
Grant finds it difficult to describe precisely what they expected from E3. Both he and Nick had agonised over every decision -- how difficult should the demo be? Should it represent a vertical slice of Slidatron, should it focus on one solitary mechanic?
“In almost every aspect we made the wrong decision,” says Grant.
Both he and Nick expected ‘gamers’. People who would appreciate the vision of Slidatron. Publishers are gamers, right? Surely they understand how games work? Slidatron was an innovative platformer with unique mechanics and a marketable aesthetic, but none of that mattered. None of it.
“We quickly found out that many publisher reps didn’t really play games or even have an understanding of how games worked. A lot of them were from marketing and business backgrounds. And if these guys don’t instantly get the game it wasn’t going to go any further.”
The disappointment was palpable.
“It was shocking. It was stunning actually. It really surprised me to get that insight into what the publishing side of the business was like. We had no experience. I was expecting to meet people who would embrace what we had done, but to find out that the publishers really had little idea was surprising and a little bit disappointing as well.
“It was almost like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real.”
There were multiple strange situations, incredibly positive meetings where Grant and Nick walked out believing they were close to a publishing deal. In their very first meeting one middle-aged rep declared that Slidatron was a bonafine “slam dunk”. Great, let’s move on to the paperwork thought Grant, let’s get this show on the road!
That same publisher ignored Endgame’s emails, didn’t take their phonecalls. They never heard from him again.
Grant and Nick left E3 broken and bewildered.
Slidatron: the cursed project.
“It felt as though we needed to rethink everything at that point: the art style, the IP, the way the gameplay was evolving. But we had no money left.”
The year was 2007. Grant and Nick kept their heads above water with work for hire, bit jobs on larger Australian projects. But Slidatron lingered, it never lay dormant long enough to gather dust. Pitches to publishers were made and rejected for reasons that confused Grant: they didn’t like the characters, or the game was too difficult. These were issues that could easily be fixed, thought Grant, just give us the chance.
Game Connection in San Francisco represented a last throw at the dice. A small exhibition designed to help smaller companies network and share contacts, Grant and Nick hoped the event would work in their favour. It was focused, far less chaotic than the scattershot lottery that was E3. Together they polished up their E3 prototype, tweaked the difficulty and headed to San Francisco with the intention of giving Slidatron the send-off it deserved.
But Game Connection went better than either of them could have possibly hoped. Grant and Nick left San Francisco with two very serious offers. Endgame studios had just been dealt a serious curveball. For once they had a ‘good’ problem.
“Little did we know that we were about to make another ill-fated decision,” says Grant.
One deal, from Koch Media, was 100% concrete. That contract was in writing, all it required was signatures. But Koch Media would only agree to distribute Slidatron in Europe, which was a bitter pill. The second deal was global, the kind they’d dreamt of, but there was only verbal confirmation this deal even existed.
Grant and Nick wanted the global deal. Badly enough to take the risk.
“It was a difficult decision, because the other guys were a good publisher, they had a good presence in Europe and we really wanted them to do it,” explains Grant. “We just wanted them to do it in the US as well. Had I known what I know now, I might have been able to go back to them and say ‘let’s talk about a global deal’. But I was naive, I didn’t push that angle strongly enough.”
Then, of course, it all came apart at the seams.
“Later on the guys said, ‘oh the market is falling apart, now we can only do a budget game and we can only do it for half the original budget’.
“We just looked at each other and said, what do you want us to do, give you half a game?”
Grant and Nick were already in the process of ramping up production. Plans had been put in place; at this stage there was no margin for error or reduced budgets.
Frantic emails were sent back and forth in an attempt to come to some sort of compromise, but eventually the trail went cold. The deal was dead.
Window Of Opportunity
But then Grant remembered another conversation, a vague discussion that seemed promising, but he took little for granted nowadays. He remembered that hard lesson: nothing was a ‘slam dunk’ until you had paperwork. Still, it was worth chasing up. A publisher had taken him aside and said, ‘don’t sign anything until you come back to me’. Grant was cynical but with no deal on the table he was desperate.
He made the call.
“I told him, look our deal’s falling through, you interested?”
Turned out they were.
Incredibly, after turning down a written offer and having a seemingly iron clad verbal fall through at the last minute, Endgame studios were achingly close to yet another deal. Conversations were had, emails went sent. Before they knew it there was another contract on Grant’s desk.
Then, disaster. The US dollar bottomed out; the money being offered by the US based publisher instantly lost a substantial portion of its value. It was no longer enough for Endgame to make the video game they wanted to make.
“We were close to inking a deal. Days or weeks away,” says Grant.
“We said, look the exchange rate has kinda fallen apart since we last spoke, we just can’t do it for that money anymore.
“And yeah, he just stopped replying to my emails.”
But then in a strange coincedence, after months of ignored phone calls and unanswered meeting requests, Grant randomly bumped into a representative of the publisher at a conference in Lyon.
“I saw him walking around the show, so I just cornered him,” says Grant.
“He said, look the development guys love the game. They’re desperate to do it. But the marketing guys want to do these casual games as a new direction.”
The ‘marketing guys’ won.
“He described it as this huge argument within the company,” explains Grant. “I dunno if that’s true or whether he was trying to make me feel better, but that’s how he put it.”
It was a heart-breaking situation with no silver lining. Slidatron’s window of opportunity was rapidly shrinking. It was a brand new IP in a DS market plagued with piracy, a market in the process of migrating towards smartphones and tablets. There was a sea change afoot and Slidatron was caught in a rip. Four years since its inception, and four years from eventual release, Slidatron was caught between two drastically different worlds. And unless something was changed quickly it would vanish without a trace.
“We kept on pushing”, says Grant. “To see if we could find another publisher, get something to happen. But it was incredibly frustrating and financially damaging to continue going through those situations.”
Money was tight. At one point Slidatron had the potential to break Endgame studios financially. Beyond that, it had the potential to ruin the founders on a personal level.
“We put a lot of money into this game,” explains Grant. “When you have a publishing deal you have an expectation that you will receive a certain amount of money over the life of the project. With publishing deals they tend to stack a lot of that money towards the end -- to make sure you finish the game, to mitigate their risk.
“So if they don't follow through you have to wear it. And we wore a lot of money throughout the life of this project.”
But by mid-2008 Endgame Studios had stabilised its business to the point where making a third major push at Slidatron was a possibility, but Grant wondered if he really had the stamina to endure the cyclical stress and heartbreak that came with it. He believed in the idea, the high concept of Slidatron, but perhaps not the execution. Both Grant and Nick agreed that something drastic had to be done if their dream game was become a reality.
This was the moment when Slidatron evolved into Fractured Soul.
“We thought, Slidatron is an original IP,” explains Grant. “Kids don’t go out and buy and original IP. It would more likely be people our age with disposable income -- people who seek out new IPs and are informed.
“Aside from anything else, we simply couldn’t return for another year to pitch exactly the same product to the same publishers.”
Slidatron became Fractured Soul. Out went the bespectacled child protagonist, in came a Mega-Man inspired lead. The pace of the action became more frantic, the tone more mature, with the intent of making Fractured Soul appeal to a broader audience in their 20s and 30s. A new Game Design document was rattled up in time for Game Connection in 2008, but the crumbling DS market still couldn’t sustain a new IP, no matter the tone, the protagonist, or the target market.
It came to be a familiar story. Endgame’s timing was brutal. As Fractured Soul began to take shape, the DS market continued to implode. Publishers ran for the hills.
Despite the downturn, Grant and Nick enlisted the help of Film Victoria for a second time, and used those funds to acquire yet another agreement, with N3V. For the first time since the game’s inception, Endgame had a proper publishing deal and the cash to propel Fractured Soul towards completion. Grant and Nick were fully energised. They hurtled towards release with an energy they hadn’t felt since creating the E3 demo.
Then, once again, it all fell apart.
But unlike previous deals there was zero drama. No Sophie’s Choice, no grand conspiracy; just a handheld market in transition, an industry crippled by piracy and a wide scale loss of confidence. When it came time for Endgame’s publisher, N3V, to find distributors for Fractured Soul there was a strange, discomforting silence.
“When N3V got round to talking to the distributors they said, ‘oh the DS market is dead, forget it. No originals anymore -- it has to be licensed’. So the game never went out on the DS.”
It was the closest Fractured Soul would ever come to receiving a traditional retail release.
The Last Resort
The Fractured Soul story does not follow a traditional trajectory. This is normally the part where a good natured investor swoops in, rescuing the game from certain death, or a Kickstarter campaign is launched to paint over the cracks of troubled development, but Fractured Soul’s reality was far more complex. Grant and Nick were left with a finished game and no means to distribute it. The DS market was dead and initial hype for the 3DS dissipated quickly. Any and all pitches for new IP on Nintendo’s (initially) troubled platform were routinely dismissed.
So In 2012, when Endgame finally made the decision to distribute Fractured Soul digitally on the 3DS eShop, it wasn’t done with a flourish. It wasn’t a grand, powerful gesture representative of a sweeping zeitgeist. It wasn’t a glorious moment where the little guy heroically snatched the reins from cruel moustache-twirling publishers. It was the last resort of two men who simply wanted their game to be played.
“We were just battle weary,” admits Grant. “We just figured out that we could do this on the eShop; use a little extra money and get it over the line.”
Grant and Nick’s redemption story came with the reviews. Almost instantly, Fractured Soul became the critical darling it was always destined to be. It was released in September 2012 and reviewers fell in love.
“We were really lucky,” says Grant. “We had 50 reviews giving the game 80 or above, and a few nines as well.
“It felt good to bypass publishers and get the kind of reception it did. They told us that Fractured Soul was worth something. That was vindication.”
It was this success that drove Endgame to try its luck on Steam Greenlight, where the game currently sits, waiting and hoping for a future release on Steam.
“I'm just glad we saw it through to the end,” says Grant. “I'm glad in the end that all the publishing deals did fall through because now we are the masters of our own destiny. It was absolutely horrendous at the time because of the financial strain. We were in so much debt, but long term it's been the best for us.”
But Fractured Soul’s critical success doesn’t conveniently render a wasted decade meaningful. The heroic, and ultimately dishonest stance would involve writing off eight incredible strenuous years of development as a ‘learning experience’. No regrets. It was meant to be. Yes, Grant and Nick learned a lot during Fractured Soul’s herculean development period, but those lessons are tarnished by very real, anxiety inducing regrets. Eight years it took.
“Going back ten years there are a number of things that I wish I could do differently,” admits Grant. “Not just with the product, but with everything.”
Choosing a verbal agreement for global distribution in the face of an iron clad agreement with Koch Media is Grant’s biggest regret.
“That was the big one,” he says. “It was heartbreaking to make that wrong decision. We would be at Fractured Soul 3 or 4 by now if we had signed that deal. I have regrets about that. Absolutely. The only silver lining is that the game was a better product as a result of us not releasing it at that point. But what did we sacrifice?
What did they sacrifice? Years spent working on sequels, building up the Fractured Soul IP into something commercially viable, something meaningful. Time working on something dazzling and new? What did they sacrifice? It’s a question with real pathos, with the power to fracture psyches. A question with a difficult answer or -- perhaps more terrifying -- no answer at all.
“Where would Fractured Soul be today? That’s what we reflect on,” says Grant.
“But instead? We’re just starting that journey.”
Fractured Soul was recently one of six games selected for PAX Australia's Indie Showcase and was recently given an honorable mention for 'Best In Play' at GDC Play. You can vote for it on Steam Greenlight here.