"I spent 300 days on the road last year meeting developers"
August 28, 2019
Like many indies, Triple Topping CEO Astrid Refstrup went to GDC this year on the hunt for investment.
She had a new narrative-based project called Elk and was in need of some financial backing to get it made. Investors were intrigued, but there was something proving a deterrent.
"Our first game did not make us rich," she explains. "I think that is often the case for indies starting out. So I had to go and find extra funds to start Elk, a project I very much believe in.
"Around starting working on Elk I also expected my first child -- which is awesome -- but I soon had to face the fact that talking to investors with a very pregnant stomach was a real challenge. Most of my business meetings at this year's GDC feared I was not able to run the company, work on our two next games and have a baby at the same time -- which is weird because most men do exactly this.
"But I knew the team behind Kowloon and they never once asked me on how I would do this, they looked at the game, my pitch and Triple Topping and decided to work with us. I'm very grateful for this."
Kowloon Nights is fast becoming the industry's best known games fund. This is partially because it's backing Fumito Ueda's next project, but also its titles are attracting attention from big partners -- its last big reveal was Spiritfarer from Thunder Lotus, which was unveiled on stage at Microsoft's E3 press conference.
The firm has now backed 20 titles to the tune of more than $25 million. It's been handing out investments from $150,000 to $10 million. Last year it visited 50 cities and almost every games show -- it's even at today's GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit.
"Last year I spent 300 days on the road, going to different countries and cities," says Garavaryan. "We make the effort to meet the teams in person and go to regions where developers perhaps don't have the ability to go to conventions. They can't all travel to the big shows. If you just operate around GDC, Gamescom and TGS, you are going to miss out on a lot of content. So we try to cover even the smaller shows. Through that process we have met some exceptional teams. After a conference, we like to spend three or fours days in the city or the country, so that we can visit studios after that."
Kowloon doesn't demand regular milestone updates. It doesn't take any form of creative control. It is hands off, only offering feedback when needed. It even builds in extra money in case the scope of the project changes. It also connects all its developers together so they can support one another, even throwing on mini-talks and networking events.
"At first, I was slightly mistrustful," says Florent Maurin, founder of The Pixel Hunt which is working on an unannounced project. "We've never worked with a video games fund before, and I was really worried there was a trap somewhere. But early in our discussions I met with Alexis [Garavaryan, founder and general partner of Kowloon Nights], and we discussed games in general, he told me about the super odd and bold projects Kowloon had already signed, explained their process and philosophy, we had a chat about his thoughts on [our previous game] Bury me, my Love... and after one hour I had become super adamant to work with him."
Garavaryan adds: "The thing that I've found out throughout my career is that if you are hands off, the results tend to be better. You also create a lot less friction between the two parties. If the team has to work on lengthy milestone reports and documentation, and wait weeks to find out if it's been approved, that puts an enormous amount of pressure on the developer and it slows everything down. So we try to pick teams that are quite buttoned-up, and don't really need any support from that stand-point. We do a fairly deep analysis to make sure that we have judged the chance of delays, the chance of re-scoping, and we put aside sufficient funding to support the project."
The catch with Kowloon Nights is that this isn't a publisher. The firm has contacts and has the experience to offer advice, but it doesn't sell, promote or market games. It'll introduce devs to platform holders, it'll look over contracts, but it's still up to the developer to have the meeting and sign the deals.
Kowloon can introduce developers to publishers, but actually Garavaryan isn't convinced a publisher is always necessary.
"We think some publishers do an excellent job of giving titles visibility. But it's about trade-offs, right? If you work with a publisher, it can also dilute the developer's brand a little, and sometimes the studio identity can disappear a bit behind the publisher label. [Having a publisher] might be something really positive in the launch of a title and in generating sales, and the publisher can bring their own community that can create momentum. But if you look at the longer term, it's important for studios to create their own community that will be able to follow them across titles. We try to let studios make their own decision in this area, but I think it's important for developers to learn how to publish themselves, and to learn the process and how to maintain a community.
"One thing that we think is important, for all developers, is that they should control their own destiny. That means keeping control fo the IP and keeping control of the commercial decisions. For example, platform exclusivity, and keeping creative control. They should also make sure that the revenue share and the terms of the contract are very fair. Ultimately the blood, sweat and tears that they put into each game means they should be seeing most of the upside from their work. That's certainly not always been the case."
Niklas Åkerblad of indie studio Hadoque, which is working on another unannounced Kowloon project, recalls: "I remember a particular situation where we did ask a certain big publisher for a very small amount of money and they had us constantly fixing arbitrary details like bugged IK animations. It was weird, getting into work and finding a list with these obvious fixes saying: 'do this now if you want our money' instead of focusing on larger issues. Things have certainly changed since then."
The lack of a publishing element may be a detractor for some, but Kowloon's developers have enjoyed the learning process.
"Working with a fund allows us to have more freedom in the way we want to present the game," says Phil Crifo, one half of indie studio Awaceb that's working on Project:Caillou.
"Most mid-size publishers try to be as open and flexible as possible, but at the end of the day you still have to fit their vibe and find your place within their catalogue. Working with a fund means we have no one but ourselves to answer to regarding marketing and production decisions, and even though Kowloon's advice has been very helpful, they ultimately won't veto any decision. That does require us to be more involved and extra careful, but it's also liberating and removes a lot of potential frustration."
Refstrup adds: "We have released one game with a publisher, but I want to become more skilled as a business owner. A fund can support me financially, but I have to go and find the best PR people, do marketing and read up on all the things a publisher would normally do. It's a good stepping stone for us to learn and grow as a company."
Another advantage of its non-publisher status is the freedom it has to sign what it likes. There's no style or genre to stick to. However, there are a few trends in Kowloon Nights' portfolio -- a high number of its games are non-violent, and a third of the studios it works with are run, or co-run, by women.
The firm's reaction, or rather lack of reaction, to Refstrup's pregnancy perhaps speaks to why they have such a high number of female partners. But Garavaryan says the company isn't specifically targeting women.
"They were just generally the projects that we thought were the most interesting," he says. "The percentage of studios we see founded or co-founded by women is very small, under 10%. We would love to see more. But there are initiatives trying to support woman-led studios. There are funds coming out that hope to encourage more women to create studios, and then they can make products to pitch to us. The things we see from women tend to be of really good quality, which is why they probably over-index in our portfolio."
It's an interesting time for those investing in video games. The opportunities have expanded greatly over the past 12 months, whether that's through the growth of subscription services, the arrival of big streaming platforms, and even new digital stores such as Epic's controversial outlet.
Kowloon's team has views on all of these. Streaming, it says, "could increase the aggregate player base, it could reduce the pain points and the barriers to entry for gaming". However, developers need to be aware of players accessing a demo immediately and then exiting. "Developers would need to attune their game to the new audience and technology," Garavaryan says.
Subscriptions, it notes, is good for consumers. "They're also a great way to de-risk your project." However, indie studios will need to find the right partner in order to break their way into these closed platforms.
As for the Epic Store, Garavaryan is wary of exclusivity deals. "More platforms coming in means more money flowing through the industry, which is better for the developers in general. We always recommend that you should not alienate your community when it comes to which platforms to launch on, you need to respect any commitments you made to them. The money that can come with an exclusivity deal can be alluring, but the value of your community in the long-term is much greater."
All of these developments are potential opportunities for studios, but Kowloon feels the opportunity for them lies in an existing underserved area -- prototyping.
"There are developers stuck in the pre-production stage, where they have a lot of conceptual ideas, and some form of design document, and they're working towards putting together a demo in order to get that next round of funding," Garavaryan says. "So we have started to provide prototype financing to select trusted teams. We believe this gives developers some breathing rooms to experiment during this prototyping stage, to make this a place where you can really flesh out ideas. This allows Kowloon to trial out more risky projects that have yet to be proven, and it also gives developers a lot of options in regards to what the game will shape up to be."
There is a limit to Kowloon's investment capabilities, although for now it's still spending all its time travelling, meeting developers and signing games. But what about beyond that? Garavaryan says the dream is to become unnecessary for his partners. He hopes the studios they're signing today will have no need for him in the future.
"If every team we sign doesn't need us for their next project, we would be satisfied," he concludes. "Our goal is to bring financial freedom to the developers we sign. We build our deals that way. We'd love to fund every team we signed on future projects, but really our goal is for them not to need us on the next game."