About five years ago, two guys who had worked in the Austin video games industry for a very long time and who were at separate companies decided to leave their jobs at roughly the same time.
J. Todd Coleman was creative director at KingsIsle Entertainment, working on games like the kid-friendly online hit “Wizard101.” Gordon Walton was working for Disney after a stint as general manager at BioWare Austin, where he led the development of one of the biggest-ever Austin game projects, “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”
The two friends, who shared a parking lot at The Domain and made a habit of comparing notes over get-togethers every few months, each decided to create a gaming startup. They met to talk about it.
“It took about three coffee meetings for his company and my company to become our company,” Coleman said.
Partnered up, Coleman and Walton started looking for opportunities in the massively multiplayer online game market.
At the time, mobile games were hot. Games for hardcore fans, who typically play on Windows PCs, were not, except for Blizzard Entertainment’s huge hit “World of Warcraft,” which many other large-scale online games were trying to emulate.
“We were looking for holes in the market to keep doing MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), because that’s what we do,” Coleman said.
The hole they found was PC gamers who weren’t satisfied with the cookie-cutter MMOs from studios that were struggling to replicate Blizzard’s success but lacked that company’s vast resources and polish. Many of these new online games came and went. Few of them caught fire to find a big audience.
What Coleman and Walton came up with was the idea for a game called “Crowfall,” which would be a dark, treacherous fantasy game with survival elements, less “Lord of the Rings” and more “Game of Thrones.” It would return gamers to some of the ideas that made pre-”World of Warcraft” MMOs such as “Ultima Online” and “Shadowbane,” games that Coleman and Walton helped lead, so fondly remembered. And it would be crowdfunded.
In early 2015, based on research of other campaigns that had succeeded and failed and with about 15 staffers working on a prototype, Coleman and Walton launched a Kickstarter campaign for “Crowfall” with their new game company, ArtCraft Entertainment. They promised a more intense kind of MMO where players had more control of the narrative and the dynamic state of factions in a virtual world, like a large-scale, fantasy take on “Risk.”
“That was a bet-the-company moment for us,” Coleman said.
The bet paid off. Within a day, the project’s goal of $800,000 was halfway to being reached. In three days, it was fully funded. By a month’s time, 16,936 backers had raised more than $1.7 million for the company. The company was also raising equity funding from investors and has continued to do so. In December, ArtCraft landed another $6 million in funding, bringing its total of equity investment and crowdfunding to more than $20 million. ArtCraft has since hired 12 more employees — 10 full-time and two contractors — to bring its headcount to 45.
But if you know anything about hardcore PC gamers, the ones who helped fund “Crowfall,” and who are watching its development closely, you might have guessed what Coleman and Walton would soon learn: Pleasing them would not be easy.
ArtCraft, which is headquartered at an office park in Northwest Austin, is expanding as it heads toward its goal of a soft launch for the game sometime this year. (“Crowfall” is currently in “Pre-alpha,” the founders say.)
On a recent afternoon, new computer monitors were being rolled in for employees and ArtCraft has signed a lease for additional office space in the same building as it keeps working.
Coleman and Walton share a single office with their chairs facing each other behind their respective desks and PC setups. The two, in conversation, frequently finish each others’ thoughts or supplement an idea being expressed with overlapping details. They say team chemistry is very important and say they have been careful in building up ArtCraft from among the hundreds of Austin game-development employees they’ve worked with in the past.
But what’s driving “Crowfall” most, perhaps, is their idea of the gamer who will appreciate it most. It’s the kind of person who not only wants to play the final product, but who put up money for it almost three years ago and who has been helping test components of the game and closely following the progress of the game’s development.
About 40,000 of these kinds of players currently have access to “Crowfall,” and because they are people who live in a world with the internet, they’re not shy about giving public feedback about what they like and don’t like.
“They’re helping us shape the game,” Walton said. “They’re vocal and we like that.”
Coleman explains that unlike a lot of game development that happens away from the public, “Crowfall” developers have put no restrictions on players live-streaming their experiences or speaking about what they’ve seen in unfinished parts of the game.
“As a result of that, we can’t really fool ourselves into thinking something is better than it is,” Coleman said. “If we put out something crappy, we hear about it immediately and loudly. The brutal honesty helps.”
But it can also create delays. If combat feels off to players who are testing the game, for instance, the team has to fix it. “It could add another year to the schedule that you never get back,” Walton said.
On the positive side, the rise of the online streaming site Twitch has been extremely valuable for “Crowfall,” giving it a viral promotion channel that the team couldn’t have predicted would exist five years ago. ArtCraft has spent less than $25,000 total promoting the game, and most of that was spent during the Kickstarter campaign, Walton said.
The game is bringing in about $50,000 to $100,000 a month in new pledges, even in its unfinished state. If the game ends up with a few hundred thousand players, some paying for in-game items or an optional VIP membership at $15 a month, Coleman and Walton say it will be a huge success for an independent studio of ArtCraft’s size.
“That would be staggering,” Coleman said.
The flipped business model means the company has been making money before it has a finalized product, a state the two ArtCraft founders call “pre-product, post revenue.”
The MMO community
When you look back at the history of fantasy and online games in Austin, one name that always pops up is Richard Garriott, who co-founded Origin Systems in the early 1980s and who has for many years loomed large in the local games community.
Garriott is also working on a large-scale online fantasy game at his company Portalarium called “Shroud of the Avatar.” But as befits Austin’s laid-back roots, Walton, who worked with Garriott in the past, says there’s no rivalry between the two teams, particularly since the games have such a different tone.
In fact, Portalarium offered constructive feedback on the “Crowfall” Kickstarter launch and ArtCraft has been sharing its user numbers and other information with Portalarium.
“It’s been great being able to interact with those guys again,” Walton said, “it’s very collegiate. Our game is very different from theirs; the audience is different. There may be a little crossover between the two audiences, but there’s more differences than similarities.”
Coleman says that while “Shroud of the Avatar” will seek to bring out the best virtues in its players, “Crowfall” might end up doing the opposite. “We’re a game about treachery and backstabbing and betrayal,” he said. “More anti-virtue.”
Big-budget MMOs can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market. Even with its current amount of funding, which is modest for that kind of game, Coleman and Walton are eschewing the label of “indie games,” which has become a vibrant and highly entertaining scene in Austin.
Given their ability to raise investment funds and attract publicity in the gaming press, they instead say ArtCraft is what’s coming to be known as “Triple-I,” or an independent studio with a sizable staff and a good-sized budget, the indie version of much larger AAA studios owned by publishers such as Activision and Electronic Arts. And they plan to work on other games beyond “Crowfall” as the company keeps growing.
“It feels a little grabby to claim the indie label,” Coleman said.
“It’s not three guys in a garage building a game,” Walton said.
The two founders are convinced there are enough watch-the-world-burn players who’ll want to master the online realms on offer and rule over others to make “Crowfall” a success.
“We know this kind of customer,” Walton said. “It was just a matter of building something for them that’s going to float their boat,”
Cover photo: Co-founders Gordon Walton, left, and J. Todd Coleman, right, at the northwest Austin offices of ArtCraft Entertainment, Inc., which is working on its first game, “Crowfall.” Ricardo Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN