Why everything is awesome for this tight-knit Dutch studio
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”
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