Five years ago, Tom Happ began a journey. His was a solitary journey, a quest to make a game. His game: Axiom Verge. He wrote the code, made the art, the soundtrack – Happ has created everything in the game. Happ commented, ‘Yeah, it is a bit like unleashing a personal diary or something on the world. I think it might be a bit how novelists feel, working alone on the thing while doing something else for your day job. It’s very surreal to have it treated with as much regard as a big blockbuster made by hundreds of people.”
Happ got his start in the industry through the time honored tradition of going to work for a local startup in order to get experience to work at the next better place, and so on and so forth. The first project he had was programming Game Boy Advance games. Happ explains the he worked on at least four games and none of them ever shipped. The first game he worked on that shipped was Crash Nitro Kart, but that was as an animator.
Dan Adelman is a publisher who helps indie developers with the business-end of game development. He’s been working with Tom to deal with finances, PR, and pre and post launch. Adelman’s path into the industry had a very different beginning. Dan states, “I had always loved videogames, but it never really occurred to me that it might be possible to work in the games industry. I don’t know why I just assumed that it would be too good to be true. But after graduate school, I got a job offer from Microsoft in a completely different part of the company from Xbox, which was still only a rumor at that point anyway. Once I started at Microsoft, I went out of my way to reach out to everyone I could in the Xbox team and I think my persistence paid off.”
It wasn’t long before these two decided to team up together. Dan recalls, “Tom reached out to me not too long after I left Nintendo. He told me that he was really focused on the development of the game but had no business background and didn’t know what he was doing on that front. We started off putting together a marketing plan and working on getting him set up so he could afford to quit his day job to focus on finishing the game. Since then, we’ve been working together on trade shows, merchandise sales, pricing strategy, PR, you name it. And I couldn’t have asked for a better game to work on. It definitely helps to be passionate about the game you’re working on.”
“There are a lot of little things that developers often get wrong on the business side,” Adelman explains, “Pricing their games incorrectly is a common one, but so are things like timing of reaching out to press, what to say to press, and release timing.” These business decisions, he continues, “can put games on a certain path, so making sure those decisions are sound is hugely important.”
Recently, Adelman left Nintendo to go indie. Why do indie? “It was a great opportunity to build a new line of business from the ground up,” he says. “Launching WiiWare was a great thrill, almost like being an entrepreneur inside a company. Over the years, however, things started to get routine. With every new system launch, we weren’t reinventing the wheel. Over time, the focus of my position was primarily finding good games and processing them through the system. While that was gratifying, I was hungry for a new challenge.”
Similarly, Happ left EA to go indie. To him, being indie “used to mean something like ‘not owned by a publisher’, or maybe just ‘not published by a publisher.’ I’ve also heard indie described as ‘made with a small budget.’” Axiom Verge is all of those things; for years, Happ worked on it alone with his laptop. “Because it’s promoted by Sony, I’ve had people say it’s no more indie than Call of Duty,” he says. “So maybe ‘indie’ is something you can only be until you have a contract offering you the possibility of making money, or until people have heard of you. Then the wave function collapses.”
Happ decided to make the game alone because “If I wanted to work on just part of something, I’d go back to working in the AAA space.” He equates it to eating a sandwich. “Asking why develop the game alone is like asking ‘why eat that sandwich alone?’ A lot of people have come by telling me they wised they could help me eat the sandwich; that they’d each the bread, some other guy would eat the jelly and I’d eat the peanut butter. But it’s my sandwich; it’s my game – therefore it only makes sense for me to develop it alone.”
Though the review embargo lifted just yesterday, Axiom Verge has received critical acclaim; it currently sits at a Metacritic score of 87. Many reviews of the game, including my own, have noted it’s obvious inspiration from Metroid, Contra and similar 8-bit platformers of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. “For me, exploration is the most interesting aspect of the games that feature it – that’s the biggest influence Metroid had over me,” Happ explains. NES Metroid, by holding your hand less, made the world feel more mysterious, making the secrets more rewarding upon discovery.” Happ notes that Contra’s more responsive controls and large multi-sprite bosses also largely influenced him. “In my mind, Metroid and Contra are legendary, but I did by best to live up to them.”
Axiom Verge is out now on PlayStation 4, where it is a cross-buy title with PlayStation Vita. However, the Vita version of the game has not yet been released, although Happ hinted that he hopes to be able to announce specifics on the Vita version soon, and he’s optimistic on it’s progress.