Interview with Rick Dakan – indie game developer behind ‘Mob Rules’: How he works, his experiences, Kickstarter funding

The founder of Cryptic Studios offers an insight in to what goes on behind the scenes at his independent studio - and his experiences in the indie game scene, funding development with Kickstarter, and having his users vote for which games he develops next

Rick Dakan

Rick Dakan was the founder of ‘Cryptic Studios’, famous for developing popular MMOs including Champions Online, and City of Heroes. After leaving Cryptic from dissatisfaction with the way they work, Rick formed his own independent studio, called ‘Mob Rules Games’, consisting of a himself, Jonathan Wills as programmer, and Austin McKinley as designer.

Mob Rules have three games currently in development: The Last Second, Guerilla Gorilla, and Haunts, and they want the community to vote for which one gets developed. We talk to Rick about this interesting development strategy, the ideas behind the games, his opinions on current-gen gaming, and his past in the industry.

What is ‘Mob Rules Games’, and what do you stand for?

‘Mob Rules Games’ is a small start-up based around the idea that it’s a great idea to build both the game, and the community of players at the same time and that the first should be in some way beholden to the second. It might not actually end up being a great idea, but we think it is and we want to put it to the test.

Where did the ideas for your three games come from? Were they the ‘brainchild’ of one person, or a collaborative creation between all three of you?

I originally had four ideas. One, for a sword-fighting game, it was bigger than our small team could handle. The other, a game about conspiracy theories, only ever sounded like fun to me. Guerrilla Gorilla was something I’d wanted to do as a book or comic years ago, and some version of the Last Second has been in my head for a couple years, ever since I saw a few episodes of that TV show where they show things exploding in super slow motion. Haunts came out of talks with Jonathan Wills, our programmer, who wanted to do an asymmetric, Dungeon Keeper style of game. That and my love of haunted house stories and games.

The Last Second

'The Last Second' Screenshot

When coming up with your games, did you have any inspiration? Both in the design and gameplay areas.

Gameplay wise, I play a lot of games on my iPad these days, and I really enjoy turn-based games on there. I don’t think it’s great for action games, personally speaking; but there are tons of great board games and turn-based strategy games on there, as well as the puzzlers and adventure games. Basically, I wanted to make the kinds of games I’d like to play, but which don’t exist yet.

Why did you choose to let your fans and fellow gamers vote for which game gets developed?

First of all, we really do think getting the community deeply involved from early on will make the whole endeavour more fun and more successful. I don’t think we would have done the voters choose thing if we didn’t have multiple ideas we loved. But coming up with a great idea is easier than making one into an actual game, and now it really would be hard for us to choose. At this point it’s a huge relief – we can see which idea is most popular with our potential customers and we don’t have to argue with each other about it.

Mob Rules' Three Games

Art for Mob Rules' Three Games

Initially, you choose to seek out funding from your fans using Kickstarter. Why did you decide to go down this path first?

I’d had some friends who had great success and raised a lot of money on Kickstarter, so it seemed at least plausible. Part of the goal is to get the community of players actively supporting the game from before its release – theoretically it would have let us bypass traditional investment models which come with a lot of conditions and loss of control over the final product.

Despite not being as successful as you’d have liked with Kickstarter, do you think it’s a good way for indie developers to seek out funding?

I do, absolutely. I’ve seen it work for others and I think Kickstarter’s a great resource. But you need to do the groundwork first and have a set of fans you can go to who already know your stuff and can help spread the word.

Could you explain more about your new investment from the ‘Lewis Charitable Foundation’?

The LCF is all about supporting open and transparent business models. From the beginning, we knew openness and transparency were core values for us. We also knew we wanted to run the business and investing side differently. Investors don’t buy shares of the company – they take a stake in the success of individual games. We have a profit-sharing system based on employee contribution (by working). Investors get a share of those profits as if they’d drawn a salary equal to their investment. So, they count the same as an employee for profit sharing, but only actual employees have any control over the company.

Do you think that this investment will be better for you in the long run, and why do you think Kickstarter didn’t do as well as you may have expected?

I’m not sure, of course, but I think if we had an established fan base or some existing products we could point to, it would’ve gone much better. We tried to Kickstart with basically nothing but an idea. Actually three ideas, which also might’ve been part of the problem. I think we tried to put together too many different parts at once: crazy business model, multiple games, voters choose.

Kickstarter Logo

Kickstarter - 'A platform for funding creativity'

Many gamers may have been put off by the fact that you were essentially making people pay to vote, do you think people got the wrong impression?

I absolutely do. In my head, I saw the more money equals more votes thing as more analogous to an investment, except with influence instead of monetary returns as the outcome. In retrospect, that had problems – with people donating just $7 being totally overwhelmed by the big donors. I think that’s the biggest silver lining in the Kickstarter failure – we can be more democratic.

Now you’ve made voting open for all, do you think it will be overall more successful, and draw more attention to your games, since this isn’t something that happens very often?

I hope so! Right now, we really just want as many people as possible to register and voice their opinion – the attention is great, but really it’s their opinion about which game most excites them that we really need.

How did you break into the games industry, and what’s your experience been like?

I broke in the old-fashioned way – I knew somebody. That’s often how these things work, right? I had an idea and knew an investor and it took off from there. I was really lucky, and it worked out OK. My experience has been, I think, totally atypical.

What advice would you give to people wanting to get into the industry?

Make something. There are so many tools out there right now to help people make games and prototypes – and nothing will speak louder for you than something you’ve actually created a little game that’s clever or fun or even just well-done.

I Made a Game

Indie hit: 'I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1' -- clever, fun, and well done.

Has your paper-based RPG past helped you at all during development?

Definitely. Both the paper-based RPG stuff and the minigame stuff I’ve done have been wonderful assets. Over the years I did that full time, I learned to write, learned to build fictional worlds, and learned about creating characters, plots, and stories. I also learned about game balance and statistics and odds and a lot about what’s fun and what’s not.

Being an independent studio consisting of only three people, how hard is it for you to effectively enter the market? And what problems have you encountered so far?

So far the biggest problem is getting noticed, and I’m sure that will continue to be a big challenge moving forward. As for the problems coming up – I don’t even know, but I’m sure there will be a ton of them. But really, getting the word out is always going to be a huge challenge for any small company. We hope that building the community from had one will help with that.

As the founder of Cryptic Studios, and original lead designer for the quite successful ‘City of Heroes’, has your experience with such a large scaled game helped in your development?

It has – in many little ways. But the biggest lessons I learned were about working with others. I did not do that very well when I started at Cryptic. Part of that was from my insecurity at the time, and part of it was general pig-headedness. Since then I’ve worked hard on collaboration and discussion and stripping away the egotistic nonsense.

Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes

Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes

Why did you choose to leave Cryptic, and why did you choose to form your own independent studio? Were the constraints of a corporation impacting on the games you created?

Well, I left Cryptic a long time ago and it was a combination of me screwing up and other people screwing up and there just needing to be big changes to make that company and that game work. I still worked on City of Heroes for 18 months as a full-time contractor after I left. I stopped doing that because I wanted to give novel writing a shot. I wrote five books (four published so far, the fifth comes out next year) and got a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I never had any interest in going back to another huge, 100-person project like City of Heroes, but the idea of making smaller, cool, fun games for download and mobile really appealed to me.

All three of your games are exclusively for PC / Mac. What was your reasoning behind this, why not release on the Xbox Marketplace or Playstation Network also?

Don’t forget Linux! And iPad. The two big console markets are just a much bigger, more complicated process and we’re such a small team on a relatively tight schedule. If the games do well, we’d totally be into putting them on consoles, but right now it’s not feasible for us. We want to get the games to market as soon as they’re done and fun.

What do you think has been the biggest, most fundamental change in the gaming industry during your time working within it?

Online everything, for sure. Broadband everywhere, every game seemingly has some online component – DLC or multiplayer or leaderboards or all of the above. And with that digital distribution. I remember worrying in my first weeks at Cryptic whether or not enough people would have the bandwidth to play our game. Ha!

Many people consider the PC as gaming’s ‘master race’, and consoles inferior. What are your opinions on the current console generation, and the direction that it’s heading?

I personally play a lot of console games, probably more than anything else. I think this current generation has been immensely important and influential. It has driven players online. It has opened up DLC and online markets. It has become a portal for movies. I think five years into the next generation, the retail stores will be dead and the PC and console will have basically merged. But what do I know?

Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3, maximum settings -- The force behind many pro-PC gamers' arguments

What do you think the future holds for the industry?

I’m not sure. I hope the indie scene thrives and grows. I think it will in the medium term. Ten years out, who knows. Maybe the big publisher will have found some way to maintain their dominance. I like the mix – I like big budget mega-games and I like indie games.

What games are you currently playing, and what games are you looking forward to?

Skyrim! More Skyrim… Elder Signs on the iPad (UK) has sucked me into its transdimensional vortex lately. I heard some rumor that Alpha Centauri was going to be ported to the iPad, which would be amazing.

What are your top five games of all time?

In chronological order I played them:

AutoduelX-COMCivilization seriesPsychonautsPortal

Rick Dakan

Mob Rules Games are currently holding the vote for which game gets published, and everyone gets one vote free of charge. You can choose ‘Guerrilla Gorrila’, a turn based squad combat game, ‘The Last Second’ an artistic turn based action puzzler, or ‘Haunts’, a turn based horror explorer. Head over to their official site, and register to cast your vote on the game you like most, every vote counts, so support and promote the one you want to see get made!

Do you agree with Rick’s views on indie developers, the current generation, and Kickstarter funding?