Stu­dio Pro­file

Why every­thing is awe­some for this tight-knit Dutch stu­dio

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

In­side Dutch in­die stu­dio Ron­imo, where plans are afoot to build on Awe­som­e­nauts’ huge suc­cess

Ron­imo re­leased Awe­som­e­nauts in 2012, and yet ev­ery­one at the stu­dio – that’s 15 full-time staff and three in­terns – is still work­ing on it. That in it­self is un­usual, but it’s par­tic­u­larly ex­tra­or­di­nary for a game that looked like it might never come out. As late as its launch week, its fate was still in doubt. Ru­mours had been spread­ing that the game’s pub­lisher, DTP En­ter­tain­ment, was in grave financial trou­ble, and an of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment on April 30 con­firmed that the Ger­man com­pany had been forced to de­clare bank­ruptcy. The planned re­lease date for Awe­som­e­nauts? May 2.

Re­cent prece­dent had Ron­imo alarmed. “Around that time, Mid­way had pulled all its Xbox 360 games from the store,” says Joost Van Don­gen, one of the stu­dio’s founders. “So al­most up un­til launch, we re­ally didn’t know whether or not the game was go­ing to make it.”

It was a par­tic­u­larly sober­ing pe­riod, since Ron­imo had been work­ing on Awe­som­e­nauts for roughly three years – two years longer than planned. The stu­dio’s per­fec­tion­ist streak may have even­tu­ally paid off, but all that ef­fort was one swipe of an ad­min­is­tra­tor’s pen away from be­ing wasted. Not that the threat of in­sol­vency was a new con­cept to Ron­imo; hav­ing bud­geted for a much shorter de­vel­op­ment, it had al­ready come dan­ger­ously close to the wire. “We were a month away from go­ing bank­rupt,” says artist and co-founder Olivier Thi­jssen. “Twice,” says Van Don­gen, with a wry chuckle.

Th­ese were chas­ten­ing times for the closeknit group, which still boasts five of the same team that formed when its founder mem­bers were still stu­dents of Game De­sign And De­vel­op­ment at the Utrecht School Of The Arts. Work­ing along­side four oth­ers from the same course, they drew in­spi­ra­tion from the on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of the Dutch city to cre­ate a fi­nal-year project that was then re­leased as free­ware PC game De Blob. A bright and in­ven­tive plat­former, it was so well re­garded that the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter was soon adopted as the of­fi­cial city mas­cot of Utrecht. The game also at­tracted the at­ten­tion of THQ, which bought the pub­lish­ing rights from the stu­dents, be­fore en­list­ing Blue Tongue En­ter­tain­ment and Helixe to de­velop it for Wii and DS re­spec­tively.

Mean­while, four of the orig­i­nal group de­parted, with the five re­main­ing mem­bers re­cruit­ing two more staff and us­ing their share of the THQ money to form Ron­imo Games (a con­trac­tion of “robot ninja mon­key”). De­spite the suc­cess of De Blob, which even­tu­ally spawned a se­quel, Van Don­gen says the stu­dio has no re­grets. “We didn’t have any plans for it,” he says. “We were just stu­dents, and we could never re­ally have [ex­panded] the game like Blue Tongue did. They made a great game out of it.”

Van Don­gen is sim­i­larly mod­est about the stu­dio’s next pro­to­type, a 3D ac­tion-plat­former “in the vein of Ratchet & Clank” called Snow­ball Earth. De­signed around a me­chanic that had the player melt­ing their sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment to progress, the project even­tu­ally had to be shelved af­ter a year’s worth of work. Dur­ing that time, Ron­imo pitched Snow­ball Earth to sev­eral pub­lish­ers, and while many were im­pressed by its ideas, none of them were will­ing to com­mit the money to make it. The game may have been a vic­tim of un­for­tu­nate tim­ing, com­ing just be­fore Xbox Live Ar­cade and then Play Sta­tion Net­work took off as dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms for in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers, though Thi­jssen be­lieves the plans were sim­ply too am­bi­tious. “Think of all the good games in that genre that in­die stu­dios have re­leased,” he says, be­fore do­ing just that and even­tu­ally com­ing up with a lone ex­am­ple: Twisted Pixel’s The Maw. “That’s the sort of scale we were aim­ing for – we just didn’t have the man­power or know-how to do it jus­tice.” Van Don­gen takes it a step fur­ther: “If we’d tried to make it, I’m not sure we’d have sur­vived.”

Some­thing smaller and sim­pler was re­quired. Those early pub­lisher meet­ings had al­lowed Ron­imo to ob­tain a de­vkit from Nin­tendo, and it quickly be­gan work­ing on a game for Wii. With a look in­spired by a French an­i­ma­tion short, (“not even the main fea­ture, but the end cred­its”, says Van Don­gen) Swords & Sol­diers was con­ceived as a more ac­ces­si­ble brand of re­al­time strat­egy.

Star Craft was a pop­u­lar game among the team, but Ron­imo con­sid­ered it too daunt­ing as a com­pet­i­tive pur­suit, cit­ing the abil­ity of top play­ers to reach 300 clicks per minute. 2D Boy’s World Of Goo was a strong in­flu­ence, too, not only for its breadth of ideas and its pac­ing, but also be­cause its pop­u­lar­ity had sug­gested there was a big enough mar­ket for down­load­able games on Wii for Swords & Sol­diers to flour­ish.

As would be the case with Awe­som­e­nauts, the game took longer than ex­pected to fin­ish, but af­ter a year it launched to crit­i­cal praise and mod­er­ate sales, reach­ing sec­ond place on the Wii Ware charts. It was enough to sus­tain a small team for a lit­tle while and, hap­pily, ports to PC and iOS fared rather bet­ter.

Five years later, it was time for a se­quel. Ron­imo again opted to de­but on a Nin­tendo plat­form, al­beit for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. With hind­sight, it’s easy to say the stu­dio backed the wrong horse, but when Swords & Sol­diers II was con­ceived, few would have pre­dicted Wii U’s strug­gles. Be­sides, the game was built around an idea that wouldn’t have worked on an­other sys­tem with­out com­pro­mise: the abil­ity to use two sep­a­rate dis­plays meant each player could hide their schem­ing from the other. “That kind of two­screen strat­egy hadn’t re­ally been done be­fore [in a lo­cal mul­ti­player con­text],” Van Don­gen says. Again, the re­sult was pol­ished, gen­er­ous and packed with per­son­al­ity, but while the orig­i­nal even­tu­ally made it to a vast host of for­mats, it seems likely that its fol­low-up will re­main a Wii U ex­clu­sive. Could it not be mod­i­fied to work on PC, a plat­form upon

“AL­MOST UP UN­TIL LAUNCH, WE RE­ALLY DIDN’T KNOW WHETHER OR NOT AWE­SOM­E­NAUTS WAS GO­ING TO MAKE IT”

which Ron­imo has built a loyal fol­low­ing? Van Don­gen isn’t con­vinced. “Back when we re­leased [ Swords & Sol­diers] on PC, there were a few new games on Steam per week. Th­ese days, you can get like 70 games, and only one or two can stand out. There’s a lot of indies out there strug­gling to be seen. There’s go­ing to be some kind of shake­down at some stage.”

While Swords & Sol­diers II again earned favourable re­views, its cham­pi­ons were no­tably fewer in num­ber. “There are sim­ply so many games out there th­ese days that not all of them will be cov­ered,” Van Don­gen con­cedes.

Ron­imo’s de­ci­sion to fo­cus on a game with an es­tab­lished and con­sis­tent player base, then, seems an em­i­nently sen­si­ble one. And yet even the stu­dio ad­mits that Awe­som­e­nauts never looked like last­ing this long. Its trou­bles at launch saw it at­tract pub­lic­ity of the wrong kind, though Ron­imo’s high stan­dards once again won over crit­ics. But even with its name in head­lines, Awe­som­e­nauts was the ar­che­typal slow burner, reach­ing a small au­di­ence while rarely look­ing like a bona fide hit, or even hint­ing that it would even­tu­ally end up with a tail three years long.

In many re­spects, it was ahead of its time. Its Steam blurb de­scribes it as a “three-on-three ac­tion plat­former”. Else­where, it’s been la­belled “a side-scrolling RTS”. Th­ese days, it’s viewed as a MOBA, of course, though the term wasn’t widely known in 2012. Awe­som­e­nauts ar­rived just as the genre was be­com­ing a phe­nom­e­non; in­deed, a year into de­vel­op­ment, Ron­imo met with the then-un­known Riot Games at an event to play a pre­re­lease ver­sion of League Of Leg­ends. “We beat them at their own game,” Van Don­gen laughs, al­though play was sec­ondary to a lengthy dis­cus­sion about the game and its genre. Ron­imo had by then cre­ated a work­ing pro­to­type of its own, which threw el­e­ments of a well-known mul­ti­player shooter into the mix. (“Our work­ing ti­tle was Bat­tle­field Of The An­cients,” Thi­jssen tells us.) And yet Ron­imo re­alised it wouldn’t do to ape DOTA and LOL – rather, it wanted to try some­thing that would set it apart from its peers. In the end, it adopted a sim­i­lar de­sign ethos to Swords & Sol­diers, tak­ing a fa­mil­iar idea and mak­ing it more ac­ces­si­ble.

Though Xbox Live and PSN had be­gun to hit their peak as dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms, it wasn’t un­til three months later and its PC launch that Awe­som­e­nauts’ sales started to pick up. Buoyed by cov­er­age from a clutch of pop­u­lar YouTube chan­nels, the player base started to grow. “In the early [weeks], we had be­tween 300 and 400 con­cur­rent play­ers,” Thi­jssen tells us. Th­ese days, he says, it av­er­ages at around 1,000. Re­al­is­ing it owed a debt to the per­son­al­i­ties that raised its pro­file, Ron­imo re­turned the favour: Yogscast’s Si­mon Lane and John ‘To­tal bis­cuit’ Bain were in­vited to voice new char­ac­ters. But a lot of new faces have been added: Awe­som­e­nauts launched with just six playable char­ac­ters, and the ros­ter has now swelled to 23, in­clud­ing a 1930s mob­ster rid­ing a three-eyed mu­tant fish, and a crab-pi­loted mech that shoots ghostly cats.

It’s needed a lit­tle help to reach this stage, of course. The stu­dio is still forced to pay a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for DTP En­ter­tain­ment half the prof­its from ev­ery copy it sells, so it’s no sur­prise it should seek al­ter­na­tive fund­ing – a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion hardly helped by the need to ab­sorb the cost of spend­ing three years mak­ing Swords &

Sol­diers II. In late 2013, it opted to launch a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign on Kick­starter, ask­ing for $125,000 to fund a sub­stan­tial ex­pan­sion called Awe­som­e­nauts: Star storm. Fac­tor­ing in PayPal do­na­tions, it even­tu­ally quadru­pled its orig­i­nal tar­get, which en­abled Ron­imo to also add re­plays and a spec­ta­tor mode.

Ex­pand­ing an ex­ist­ing game is al­most as in­volv­ing and time-con­sum­ing as build­ing a new one, par­tic­u­larly for a stu­dio that isn’t pre­pared to com­pro­mise on qual­ity. Ron­imo is coy about plans for the fu­ture, but it seems like a se­quel isn’t likely any time soon: with a sat­is­fied player base, the worst thing to do would be to frag­ment it. “We never thought we’d work on a game for this long,” Thi­jssen ad­mits, “[but] ev­ery­one’s still re­ally ex­cited to be work­ing on Awe­som­e­nauts.”

While the game con­tin­ues to grow, the stu­dio prob­a­bly won’t get big­ger, either. Van Don­gen says Ron­imo is “the per­fect size”; any more staff, and that sense of to­geth­er­ness that pushed it through its tough­est times might be at risk. And be­sides, it could dis­turb a de­light­ful tra­di­tion: this is a group that al­ways finds time to sit down and eat lunch to­gether, some­times shar­ing game ideas, but of­ten dis­cussing non-work sub­jects too.

Though in some re­spects it’s a pity Ron­imo won’t be pur­su­ing new projects for a while, it’s hard to be­grudge its fo­cus. Af­ter a stress­ful few years, this hard-work­ing team has fi­nally found it­self in a more com­fort­able po­si­tion. “It’s been dif­fi­cult at times,” Van Don­gen says, “but now we can look back at it and laugh.”

“THERE’S A LOT OF INDIES STRUG­GLING TO BE SEEN. THERE’S GO­ING TO BE SOME KIND OF SHAKE­DOWN AT SOME STAGE”

100

Ron­imo has a care­ful re­cruit­ment pol­icy. Many of those who’ve joined the orig­i­nal seven be­gan as stu­dio in­terns

Van Don­gen was Ron­imo’s only pro­gram­mer when the stu­dio was founded, though that’s no longer the case. While hav­ing more coders has ac­cel­er­ated its pro­cesses, main­tain­ing the del­i­cate equi­lib­rium of a com­pet­i­tive game such as Awe­som­e­nauts is an on­go­ing chal­lenge

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