The End of an Era

The last year has been tough. Beyond tough. As a company, as an entrepreneur, and as a human being. The raging coronavirus is just the icing on the cake, and by no means the one to blame. The saying “when it rains it pours” has a certain truth to it.

First Steps

I would never have guessed that when we started over 7 years ago, while still in school and with no experience in the gaming industry nor even in the IT business, that we’d have such an emotional rollercoaster ahead of us. Back then, we were naïve, aimed big and dreamt even bigger. We were noobs. Telltale Games had just had their breakthrough with The Walking Dead Season One, showing the world that video games can deliver emotional, interactive storytelling experiences for the vast audiences. Developing a crime noir story with a similar episodic format, branching narrative and light point n’ click gameplay felt like a no-brainer. We even won a couple of different local and national business accelerators, giving us a boost of confidence and our first team members (of which some remained until today).

Looking back, our first game, The Detail Season One, took about 3.5 years to develop, even though honestly we worked full-time only a couple of years. The reason was the first hard-earned lesson: never build your runway on expected sales from an unlaunched/untested product. The game has sold 92,110 episodes on Steam and an additional 56,467 episodes on other digital stores on PC, Mac, and Linux. On iOS, the figures are close to the same except there the game has been for free for a while already. Still, looking at the numbers and the budget per episode, The Detail was break-even for us as a business case.

On the grand scale, The Detail managed to open the doors to 3rd party IPs, and through luck (right place, right people), I managed to meet with Skybound Entertainment, most known for The Walking Dead franchise. We started talking with their interactive branch, and I can proudly say that I’ve made a lot of good friends from there during the years. We started working on Thief of Thieves: Season One, since it was more or less like Skybound’s Ocean’s Eleven and felt like a perfect fit for us.

Learning the Ropes

While in early development, we grew the company from under ten people to almost twenty. Since we are located in a smaller city in Finland, experienced people were hard to come by and we ended up hiring a lot of junior talent. Hell, we were still juniors ourselves at that point. We tried to do everything ourselves, an effect of the invincibility syndrome that is too common with young teams without experience juggling scope, budget, funding, and marketing.

While we worked on the game, Steam went through a major content explosion by opening up the platform to everyone. After the moderate success of The Detail, we had our hopes up high, but the sales did not meet our expectations. I knew that it would be a major hurdle down the road for the company.

During production, we had to raise more project funding from an external venture capital fund for the game so that we could ship it. We had no real budget for marketing nor the in-house skills to do so. We had a clear schedule and milestones tied to the funding, so we really didn’t have much room to maneuver. This was a financial recipe for disaster for the company: I understand now that loan-based project funding is a bad fit for a gaming studio, and Rival Games became a highly indebted company due to it.

In space, no one can hear you scream

We had just signed a deal to work on the legendary Alien franchise for the first time on mobile, and the spirit within the studio was higher than ever. We also had another, experienced studio (Theory Interactive) helping us on the next title and a publisher (D3 Go!) that we trusted and really enjoyed working with. For the next 7 months we did almost everything with an improved process: we had solid pre-production, a clear and time-wise in-scope vision for the product, and a team that was humble and ready to listen to each other and our partners. We worked long days at the office, sometimes feeling tired but always motivated and focused on a common goal.

The end result, Alien: Blackout, speaks for itself: 95/100 on GamesBeat, part of Best on iOS 2019 picks from Apple, and a lot of positive reviews and feedback from fans of the franchise. It was the first game we really showed our capabilities as a gaming studio and the whole game was done is just 7 months. Even with the disappointment of shutting down the studio today, this is the game that we can all be proud of for years to come, especially since there aren’t too many positively received entertainment products from the Alien franchise in the recent years.

Work-life balance

However, I recently understood that while we were working on the game, I broke the one and only rule I set for the founders of the company: always family first. My wife was expecting our second child and I was working long days at the office, and I became obsessed with making sure the game is as good as possible. The same probably applies to everyone in the team, since we shared love and passion for the franchise.

There is a saying that entrepreneurship costs marriages, and I understand that now, even though thankfully we are still together with my wife. It is hard to understand or to explain how emotionally consuming it is to try to be present at home, when your mind is trying to figure out how you can pay your team’s salaries next month. I’ve always tried to make sure the team comes first: even in tough times, I’ve tried to get at least some salary to the team members that need it the most. It might have not always been the best practice business-wise, but I like to think that it has been one of the key reasons why our team has stayed together for so long, even with the ups and downs. People first. Always.

However, from the entrepreneur’s perspective (and some of the key team members/founders perspectives) this usually means months and months with minimal or no salary. Something which is equally hard to understand or to explain at home: I’m always at work but rarely get paid enough for it to bring my share of bread to the table.

The Lucky Streak Ends

After Alien, things were looking up for a while. We signed a deal with Universal Studios for a super cool smash-up of two 80s iconic franchises for an AA PC/console narrative shooter. We had a solid team, with some serious experience, and the same development partner from Alien, a solid vision for the game, fun and challenging gameplay. In short, all the shenanigans for a great, innovative game and a good business structure for the project, that even would’ve allowed us to pay back the loans. We were months in the pre-development when, almost a year ago, the worst possible happened: Universal had a major business strategy shift across their portfolio, shutting our project down in a moment’s notice. We were coming up on a milestone that contractually allowed them to shut it down fast.

Universal did try to find a publisher together with us for the game to a certain degree, but we’d never prepared for pitching it to external publishers, so the materials were nowhere near to convincing anyone. We had to temporary layoff most of our team (wasn’t the first time) and shift focus on pitching our various original game ideas to different publishers.

The main project we pitched was The Greenhouse Effect, a third person story experience in a world where climate change has made everyday living a challenge. Here’s the early prototype trailer: https://youtu.be/cWQ4-eBMy3g

We had a build, a story deck, budgets, team, unique art style. In short, a solid vision on what the game is and what kind of a story it will tell, and the team and tools the execute that vision.

Yet, it will never see daylight. We had no resource to really make something unique that could’ve stood out enough in the eyes of the publishers, since we were running on fumes. Another problem we had was the budget: we were aiming for somewhere between $2 million and $4 million, and there aren’t many partners out there in that certain segment. The feedback for the past 6 months has been either “it is not a good fit for our portfolio” or “it is under/over our current budget scope”. Neither of these gave us any concrete feedback on how to improve the pitch itself, so we ended up creating additional prototypes and a mobile version to no avail.

While we were doing this, I was also pitching to VCs and potential partners about additional funding. None worked out, and I understand why: we were a company that had been around too long, never becoming profitable or even making any serious revenue ($825,000 in 2018 was our best). Upon close inspection, we were deep in debt and needed long-term financing to even have a chance to turn profitable.

The Chips Run Out

However, we still had some potential partnership opportunities and publisher negotiations going on at the beginning of this year. I was feeling optimistic about them. I guess I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy that doesn’t give up. Then something happened that I nor the world was prepared for: a global health crisis in the form of a coronavirus. It shut down all the leads that we had and left us lost in the dark with no way out. I know we are not the only ones there, and I hope that at least some will find a light to guide them through the darkness.

Governments around the world have kicked various kinds of help for companies, and Finland has always been known for its government support for businesses. They were no exception this time around: hundreds of millions of dollars are being granted to companies to help them make it through the state of emergency. Yet, since we are deeply in debt and have had major financial losses, such a grant was not applicable for us. They’ve funded us throughout the years, and we wouldn’t have made it here without them, so nothing but love from us to the Finnish government and their support.

Which brings us to present. It has been quite a ride. I’m humbled by the confidence the team gave me over the years. I wish all the best to everyone who has worked at Rival Games throughout the years. As a team, we are thankful for the support of our great partners, members of our Board of Directors, advisors, investors, new friends we’ve made across the globe, the guidance and help they’ve provided over the years, and hopefully some of us will get a chance to work with some of you in the future. For now, it is time to spend some time with the family, think about the lessons learned, and the future. Then maybe it is time for a new adventure.

With gratitude,

Jukka Laakso
CEO @ Rival Games

P.S. Thief of Thieves: Season One and Alien: Blackout will remain in stores normally, but our first title The Detail will be pulled from Steam and AppStore at some point.

Alien: Blackout among Apple’s best of the year 2019.

We are honored by the fact that Alien: Blackout has been featured as part of the Best of 2019 Trends of the Year on the AppStore!

Here are a few words from Apple describing the game:
“Alien: Blackout is featuring leading-edge technology, bold design and innovative features that delivered a level of depth and quality never thought possible on mobile.

Alien: Blackout isn’t a mere remake or a tribute — it is an original release that breathed new life into one of the most beloved franchises in gaming history.”

Special thanks to the awesome team that made this happen!

Thief of Thieves: Season One available now on Nintendo Switch.


We are glad to announce that our multi-award winning title “Thief of Thieves: Season One” is released on Nintendo Switch today. All four episodes are released at once so go ahead and get enthralled in the world of heists!


Based on the best-selling comic by Robert Kirkman, Thief of Thieves: Season One is a story of heists and the people behind them. It’s time for Celia, protege of master thief Redmond, to make the leap from apprentice to master. A botched job takes Celia to Europe, where she joins a new team of criminals for a crime spree. Get to know your team, choose your approach on the field, but be careful – the choices you make may have drastic consequences. Watch Celia progress into a pro thief in our cool comic style world.

Thoughts on Writing The Detail

TheDetail_bundle_XL HeaderThis Thursday marks the release of the third and final episode of The Detail. For me, it also marks the completion of the first game I have ever worked on. My position as Lead Writer on the project was the result of numerous coincidences, which began with me being invited to “consult a little on the dialogue”. Thanks to these coincidences, I now write games instead of writing about them as a journalist.

It is cliche to say that it has been one hell of a ride, but it is also the most honest way to describe these past three years. I thought that I knew a thing or two about game development going in, but the amount of things I’ve learned shines a brutal light on my past ignorance. Also, I am far from all-knowing now. Each day is a lesson.

I wanted to do something a little different with The Detail, to subvert some of the common neo-noir cliches by injecting the atmosphere with a more low-key sort of Nordic melancholia. How much of this intent can be observed in the finished product is left to each individual player. I know now how “nuance” becomes “nice to have but not necessary” in the production schedule. I know how saying X to an artist can produce a Z. A very nice Z, mind you, but it is still not an X.

Now, I am not trying to trash-talk our team here, far from it. Bringing what I’ve written onto your screens requires a chain of people passing a highly complicated message from one end of the chain to the other, and things can and will happen along the way. Learning to communicate between different departments was one of the many challenges we faced, but it is one that we managed to tackle to an extent, and learned much from.

The Detail is thus the product of a continuing process. The team improved constantly with each episode, and can now approach new challenges with a sure footing. Even if we were mostly “learning on the job”, I am proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and feel that The Detail is a game that is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of its more established genre peers. It is my fond hope that once you’ve played our game, you will feel the same way.

The Detail: Episode 3 – Devil in the Detail Teaser

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They say vengeance is a dish best served cold. I’m not sure if the same applies to justice, but seeing the end approach for our premiere season of The Detail feels like cool vindication. Oft delayed and nearly D.O.A. on more than one occasion, our struggles to bring this gloomy vision of modern morality to light seem to mirror that of our protagonists. I’ll leave further interpretation to you, and wrap up this case with a teasing peek at what’s coming…

Rival punches with IGDA

In the midst of all the last-minute detailing on the closing episode of our debut series, we took some time to host an IGDA evening, in cooperation with our friends over at Shark Punch. What followed was the usual night of drinking, mingling, chatting, plotting, and presenting what we all know. That’s what we love IGDA nights for!

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Our CEO, Jukka Laakso, tackled the business commentary on how our little series had fared on Steam and other marketplaces overall (short answer: well enough, for its size and especially budget) while the lead writer of The Detail, JD Sorvari, handled the more artistic interpretation of how the game actually got made. (In a word: miraculously.)

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For the uninitiated: IGDA (or International Game Developers Association) is a global organization that brings together developers, students, hopefuls, newbies and industry veterans alike around their common passion – namely games, and their organized nights are a monthly highlight among the local development communities. I’ve often said it’s where game developers meet to plot taking over the world… one game at a time!

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(Certainly if you drink enough, anything can seem possible.)

Thank you so much to the IGDA Turku organizers (Tatu Laine and all his helpers) for the wonderful event, Shark Punch for being such excellent hosting buddies, and of course Natasha Bulatovic Trygg and Toni Heinonen for these great photos! Here’s looking forward to the next one – stay tuned.

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Devilish Details

Winter is passing here in Finland, but for Reggie and the crew of the major crimes detail, things are just getting deeper. Much like the developers who toil at bringing these episodes to a close, there seems no end in sight for our heroes, who find themselves delving further into the conspiracies that drive a corrupt city. But twists await Reggie, Kate, and Joe before their tale is through, and as the story heads for its thrilling climax, will evil reveal its true face?

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Yes, that’s right – in case it hasn’t been picked up by you sleuths yet, I’m here to say that Episode 3 will represent the last episode in The Detail. Though we had originally planned five, sadly the economics are against us, and while we’re proud of the fanbase we’ve gathered around the game, our sales just haven’t sufficed to cover the costs of further production. With that in mind, we’ve put every effort into making this last episode an extended one, to tie off all loose threads and bring this gritty adventure to a satisfying conclusion.

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Yet there’s no bad news without some good, and the project we’re moving onto is very exciting indeed. We’re not ready to reveal full details on that just yet, except to say that expect more of the same hard-hitting, narrative-driven, graphic novel-infused gameplay that has become Rival Games’ signature style. We will of course continue supporting The Detail even as we look ahead to our next game, and we might still see Kate and others return in one form or another…

The third and final episode, Devil in the Detail, launches in early April.

As always, stay tuned!

New Blood For the Rival Games Crew

Continuing our run of introductions, we have more additions to the Rival Games crew:

 

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Kicking off with Kimmo Kari, our new chief product officer, bringing over a decade of experience in creative leadership, production, and negotiation. He’ll be putting to work his experience from over thirty shipped commercial titles to hone our production pipeline, and we’re very fortunate to have him on board! Rival Games is primed to advance to the next level as a developer, and bringing in veteran support like Kimmo is all part of our overall strategy to draw out the very best from our diversely talented team.

 

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Next we have KJ Kallio, a highly talented illustrator and concept artist, who among other roles has acted as art director and lead illustrator for Wil Wheaton’s show, Tabletop, on Geek & Sundry. A well-known figure among indie art circles, his masterful brushstrokes are exactly what our company needs in a lead artist, and he will be directing our art team to create the most consistently excellent visuals for our games.

 

 

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Then we have Janos Honkonen – author and media professional, with a wide background in journalism, TV-production, and the film and games industries. His work in novels, comics, countless articles and pieces of short fiction are a huge asset for our future projects, and he is what our CEO, Jukka Laakso, calls the “logical next step” for our evolution towards bringing a “writer’s room” together as a core company concept.

 

 

What does Jukka mean by “writer’s room” you ask?

“We’ve always put narrative at the forefront of the games we develop, and it makes sense to bring in talented writers and pool their creativity in a space where they’re going to bounce ideas off each other and create the best possible stories.”

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth! Much more on this and other updates to come soon. Until next time – stay tuned.

The Detail Episode 2 is Coming Soon!

Hey there strangers!

As you may have noticed, it has been quite a while since we published the first episode of The Detail. Some concerns have been raised by the community, but worry not. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t even that oncoming train this time. The second episode, From the Ashes, is in active production, and will be released in May 2015!

Coming SoonNow for the assorted explanations and excuses.

Rival Games has always been about forging our own path as a company and making the kinds of games that we want to play ourselves. Unfortunately this automatically puts us at odds with the prevailing trends in the marketplace. The popularity of mobile free-to-play is waning thanks to oversaturation, but it is still the go-to choice for many investors. They find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea of a game with no match-3 mechanics that you actually have to pay for. Crazy concept, we know.

This does put us in a tricky position, trying to find funding while flying the indie flag. It is a balancing act, but despite the somewhat slow progress, we have continued to lean towards “keeping it real”, for your sakes as well as ours.

We are determined to give you a full season of The Detail, be it by hook or by crook. It may result in a certain “elasticity” in our schedules, but we feel it is a fair price to pay. Speaking of price, we will be rewarding our community with certain discounts as a way of saying thank you for your patience. You keep believing in us, and we’ll keep believing in you!