Over the course of the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing dozens of talented guys and gals with a vivid passion for the art of video game creation. Some of these game developers did not only share a common interest in all things pixelated—some even happened to share a surname. From Arcadian Atlas’ Taylor and Becca Bair to my most recent profile on father and son duo Richard and Lucas Hill-Whittall, I’ve been so lucky to share with ya’ll the stories of the devs behind so many successful Kickstarter campaigns, and so many awesome freaking games.
My editor loves these stories as well—or so he tells me. So after covering last month’s campaign for CRPG Copper Dreams, I reached out to its two creators, Hannah and Joe Williams, to talk about games, love, life and all that crazy fun stuff.
Hannah met Joe by chance, at a barbeque he was hosting, as the plus one of an acquaintance of Joe’s from high school. She arrived expecting “free food” and “cheap beer”, and left having scored “a stack of ribs” and a date. She was working at a marketing company at the time, while Joe was working at a casino games company in order to sustain his video game development hobby.
Joe tells me that the casino gig paid more but the games he was creating “after (and during) work” kept him from “going insane.” Like many other indie game developers, he never planned to land a gig at a big games studio. Instead, he wanted to bring the many artistic ideas bubbling in his head to life, but never saw it as financially plausible.
Soon after they met, Joe would head over to Hannah’s on Friday nights and stay for the weekend, the two of them playing video games together. Hannah was a writer, and she gradually began making use of her skills in Joe’s video games. Soon after that, they realized that making games together was something they could be doing full-time. With “some savings and ideas,” the two promptly quit their jobs, got hitched, went on a honeymoon, and started around the clock game development. Joe tells me that he still doesn’t know “if any of our family quite understands the ins and outs of a life like that, but we love it.”
Dubbing themselves Whalenought Studios, they launched their first game—CRPG Serpent of the Staglands—on Kickstarter. The campaign was a success, and the pair raised over $28,000 with roughly 1000 backers. The game’s launch was also a success—it was rated 4.4/5 by GOG and was reviewed mostly positively on Steam, where you can still pick it up for $19.99 USD.
Shortly after the game’s release, they began putting together the campaign for Copper Dreams, another isometric CRPG. If you kept track of the game’s coverage through Cliqist, you’ll know by now that the campaign was another success, and that Hannah and Joe managed to crowdfund a solid $43,000. Joe tells me, unsurprisingly enough, “We’ve had so many kind comments from people who enjoyed Serpent that returned for Copper Dreams,” adding that they’ve got “so many more excited about the prospect of some digital pen and paper roleplaying,” a novel feature they’ve incorporated into their latest project.
We don’t get a lot of in-depth campaign trail coverage after the fact, but that didn’t stop me from reaching out to Hannah to talk about—well, the campaign—and what it was like to be on the inside looking outwards. She described it as “a rollercoaster of emotions.” Before the campaign launched on Kickstarter, she and Joe did their fair share of preparation, spending two months to get the game “in shape to be seen.” When the Kickstarter booted up, it was “fantastic” at first, especially considering the fact that the alpha was even on the campaign site—“a success in and of itself.” After the initial surge in funding, they were sitting at roughly 50%, and Hannah knew then that the other $20K would come down to their “marketing prowess.”
Unfortunately, Hannah described the latter as “quite bad,” attributing it to a lack of social media savvy. She described it to me rather aptly as an art “of posting the right things at the right times, and saying something amusing or clever or interesting with apparent effortlessness.” And so the middle of the campaign was pretty tough on the two of them, as they were both well outside their comfort zones for an extended period of time.
But they managed to push through what Hannah described as “an eternal stretch of time, where you’re both anxious for it to end because the suspense is awful, but also anxious for it to slow down so you have time to reach your goal.” They kept on tweeting about their game, doing shout outs, reaching out to press folk, etc. and in the end was “very draining,” but “completely worth it.” She added that even with the “hard moments there were really wonderful comments, support, and feedback from backers that makes you so happy that you’re opening your game up to the community.”
Joe and Hannah also discussed with me what it was like sharing a roof, love, dreams and games. Hannah tells me their “personalities are very similar,” with both of them being on the quiet and introspective side. In the game development process, this translates to a productive work environment; they rarely clash, although Hannah adds that they “do occasionally have some opinionated design discussions.” Joe says that since they’ve lived together for so long, in “submarine-sized studio apartments,” that they know what they’re capable of, individually and as a team. Sometimes they don’t see eye to eye, but that’s OK because they “disagree in constructive ways,” and changes come about quickly.
By virtue of living together, they “talk about [their] games all the time”; which Hannah describes as a “very immersive lifestyle, which is sometimes not very healthy for us but great for making a video game, especially when you’re on a tight deadline.” Joe also tells me there are definitely limits to their art and programming skills, as they both come from 3D backgrounds anCopper Dreams obviously being in 2D. The passion has to come from within, as there’s no one around to push them but themselves.
I asked Hannah whether their marriage had anything to do with the success of their game, and at first Hannah told me she didn’t think it did, although it definitely helped “[keep] their expenses low.” As a result, they’re able to “make games for a lot less than other studios,” as they do everything themselves with the exception of music and voice acting. And so she did eventually come around to the conclusion that “in a roundabout way, that makes it a lot easier to be successful!”
With another Kickstarter campaign done and dusted, it’s time for the two of them to hunker down and deliver another fabulous CRPG to their loyal fan base. Joe tells me it’s a “wonderful feeling,” to have “found a fantastic crowd of folks who believe in the vision they read on the page,” and “when they believe in it, we know we’re on the right track.” A few “lifestyle changes” are in order for the studio to optimize productivity, and they’ll continue to work hard throughout the year on engine development and game mechanics.
They’ll also be releasing “A Banquet for Fools” later this year, the expansion to their first game, Serpents in the Staglands. That and they’re excited to get the Copper Dreams alpha out to backers in due time. Hannah tells me “it’s wonderful to make our goal and have the funds to expand Copper Dreams to be as big and glorious as we hoped,” with Joe echoing her sentiments—“it’s a dream being able to bring some joy and entertainment to these people the best we can.”