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Cracking the nut: An indie game startup’s mission to balance passion and profit
Starting your own video game startup is a tough nut to crack. Given South Africa’s relatively small online community and few investors looking at games as a potential gold mine, the nut is even tougher.
These obstacles however aren’t stopping game developers from starting their own ventures, and finding creative ways to help keep them afloat. One of these companies is Stellenbosch-based Clockwork Acorn. Ventureburn sat down with one of the founders, Francois van Niekerk (pictured middle), to share the startup’s journey so far.
Clockwork Acorn was founded at the beginning of 2014 by friends Francois van Niekerk, Leon van Niekerk, and Hilgrad Bell. All three studied at Stellenbosch University, finishing their Masters at the MIH Media Lab. Francois completed his degree in Game Artificial Intelligence, while the other two also followed their passions studying game-related courses.
Francois’ original plan was to work for another, smaller company locally, but the ambitious trio decided to create their own instead. Between the three of them, there was enough money to support the new venture for a year. If the company closed down, at least they would have learned a lot — a gap year, if you will.
Today though, the company is still going strong.
As Francois explains:
Knowing full well from a business and economic perspective it was probably not the best decision to have, but we were really passionate about making games.
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Clockwork Acorn planned to make four to five games per year. After some prototyping, it finally settled on an idea the team liked.
Around two months into the project, the startup started taking some preliminary pre-orders and realised it wasn’t going to make a return on investment. It was then decided to cross the game off as a loss, but still take it to release. The team wanted to experience the entire game creation and release process for themselves.
Their first game, Monsters and Medicine, launched in October 2014 on the online games distribution platform Humble Store. The quirky puzzle title didn’t sell as well as expected, but the startup was still happy with its reception. It was all about the experience.
It was after this that the trio needed a new strategy. Clockwork Acorn would now create prototype after prototype until they had one that gained more traction. Between the three of them, they ended up releasing 12 titles in a matter of 10 weeks. Some of these, such as Agent Unseen, gained traction.
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Clockwork Acorn decided to show off Agent Unseen at South Africa’s massive games expo rAge that year. Even as a white-box prototype, the founders saw how much testers were enjoying it and describes the feeling as “super rewarding”.
At that time, Clockwork Acorn was still burning through its initial seed investment. It was time the company make a few more changes to its revenue model.
Since the three founders come from development backgrounds, the startup decided to utilise its information and skills. The trio looked at and sourced contract work from their connections, and eventually cemented a relationship with a Stellenbosch company, Reality Gate that focuses on building user interfaces.
The original plan was to alternate between contract work but Clockwork Acorn found that keeping a constant relationship with clients was better for business.
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Working on outsourced projects allowed Clockwork Acorn to be completely bootstrapped. The company has not had a single investment from outside parties or any help, which isn’t an easy feat in South Africa. The only reason Clockwork Acorn would have ever considered investors would be for the business experience, which is part of their learning outlook.
They had found that few wanted to invest until the company has a proven product.
Francois says the company wasn’t created as an exit investment. The founders don’t want to strike it rich and sell, instead actively want to create a business where they enjoy going to work. To them, creating games is the most interesting work they can think of, besides the contact work.
With games development, the startup uses HAXE, which is a cross-platform language. It compiles to almost any other language, such as Flash or C++. This has been ideal for 2D game development. When asked about 3D games, Clockwork Acorn would look at the Unreal Engine or Unity. Due to the team’s programme-heavy backgrounds, a 3D game would be unsuited to them and require a lot of time and investment to develop. They would need to create a range of new assets; they prefer 2D games.
They are still considering mobile development. Monsters and Medicine works fine, but there are some bugs that need to get fixed all red-tape involved with app stores. When asked about developing for home consoles, such as the Xbox One, Francois van Niekerk said it would be possible it there was a demand for it. There would still be red-tape however.
It’s just a matter of time before the floodgates open and we can go to any console we want.
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Today, Clockwork Acorn’s plan is to take on more projects, though they have hired a staff member in Cape Town and are working on a GPS-related tracking system. One of their goals is to streamline management, which becomes problematic when alternating between projects.
With regards to hiring local developers, a lot are talented but not interested in building games. As with Clockwork Acorn’s revenue streams and fulfilling its founder’s’ passion, Francois says that a balance needs to be found.