Time has come for Time Machine Games
Lee Cullen: "Your [game-play] mechanics have to be insanely good to hook the people"
It’s less than a year old but the staff and management of Time Machine Games have already learned some harsh lessons about business and venture capitalists.
In their short time as game developers, the management and staff, all in their twenties, have attracted the attention of a number of big players: Harvey Smith of Arkane Studios – developers for Dishonoured, probably the most acclaimed and popular new game franchise of 2012 – praised them on Twitter. Time Machine had also been contacted by British group Double Eleven, the makers of Little Big Planet and Grasshopper Manufacture of Lollipop Chainsaw fame from Japan.
The most promising lead was a US venture capitalist who said he intended to invest €20,000 for a small percentage in Time Machine Games. However, after a lengthy courtship, the money never materialised.
“It kept getting prolonged, but the numbers he promised kept going up,” says Lee Cullen, lead designer and joint acting chief executive of Time Machine Games. “The company he was with were [themselves] looking at being bought out by a large Chinese company, [which was] looking to get into media, specifically games, movies and music. Over Christmas we hadn’t heard from him for four weeks. We just assumed he’d pulled out.”
Ultimately, Time Machine found their own way to keep going. Their new business model doesn’t even have a name. It’s similar to Kickstarter, but fans invest after the development of the game has begun.
“How it works is you release it in alpha,” says Steve Siew, joint acting chief executive and co-founder. “But the people who invest pay for the game.”
This technique is already being used by some bigger indie developers such as Klei, best-known for the Shank series. “They released a game in alpha,” Siew agrees, “it’s rough around the edges, but people are playing it non-stop. Then they release another build, but it’s still in alpha. You can still buy it while it’s in this phase. People will play it, and then more people will. If you have a thousand downloads, they’re helping you make the game.”
“While it’s being made, people are buying and funding its continuous development,” Cullen adds. “You’re taking feedback from your users.”
“It’s possibly the perfect way to make a game,” says Siew. “But it all rests on the goodwill of the people.”
Currently, Time Machine is working on two games: Twisted Feary Tales: RED and a game with a working title of Project Scrapheap.
Loosely inspired by the Red Riding Hood story, but much darker, RED is an app game with attractive, painterly graphics.
“You must manipulate the environment to protect Red from enemies, the big bad wolf and various traps,” says the press release. If RED is successful, they plan to make other games inspired by traditional fairy tales, the Pied Piper and Hansel and Gretel.
Project Scrapheap is a puzzle/exploration game in which you build a futuristic vehicle using fallen debris and explore a strange planet.
RED is the more complex of the two and has been a priority since the company formed in September, while Project Scrapheap is a more recent development that started life as a college project.
Grinding it out
“Around the world, it’s no longer a recession; it’s a depression,” says Siew. “The only way for things to get started is to grind like this. If you’re trying to bank on, well, a bank, you won’t get anything out of it. This way the people who stay with the company are working for the benefit of the company.”
Their business model wouldn’t work for all games, claims Cullen. “Your [game-play] mechanics have to be insanely good to hook the people, get them to pay and tell their friends. [Customers] get updates for free. We’re looking at that for the second game. The core mechanics are there. [Project Scrapheap is] easy and fun to play. Version one was the prototype, and version two is the prototype with more features.
“You can draw comparisons between that and Kickstarter. With Kickstarter you’re buying into the promise of something, whereas with this you get a little something back immediately. That’s the difference between Kickstarter and this model – the model which has no name.”
Time Machine Games, despite not having released a full title yet, is attracting the attention of gamers and high-profile developers. Staff make a point of communicating with fans on Facebook and believe that their good name is a long-term investment: “In my eyes if you win the hearts of people it’s worth more than anything,” Siew says.
Twisted Feary Tales: RED will be released in late March, and Project Scrapheap will follow later in the year