CG Spectrum students were privy to a live, online interview with the Founder and Co-owners of Astral Clocktower Studios, a women-owned indie game studio based in the Northeast US. They are developing their first game, Kristala, a Soulslike action RPG using Unreal Engine 4, which recently won the Gamer's Choice Award from the AT&T Unlocked Games Contest.
Our guests were Alexis Brutman, Studio Founder and Producer; Tiffany Gomez, Owner and Lead Level Designer; and Sarah Schaffstall, Owner and Marketing Director. They shared valuable insights into starting your own game studio, covering a broad range of topics relevant to both those already working in games and people looking to break into the industry.
Meet the Astral Clocktower Studios Founders/Owners
The event was hosted by CG Spectrum Game Design Technical Assistant Alexios Vasilakis, who has shared some of the highlights from this special event.
How Astral Clocktower Studios began
After completing their studies in Game Design and Programming, Alexis and Tiffany took a leap of faith — starting from scratch, they jumped into their first big project together, a Soulslike game called Kristala. Shortly after, Alexis and Tiffany teamed up with Sarah and created Astral Clocktower Studios (ACS). The name of the studio lends itself to their love for the Soulslike genre — true fans will understand the reference!
Kristala early gameplay trailer, released at the start of this year
Challenges of starting your own game studio
Like any new business, starting a video game studio can be tough. Alexis, Tiffany, and Sarah outlined some of the main challenges they faced when starting Astral Clocktower Studios. One significant issue for them, particularly in the beginning, was retaining staff.
Starting a studio while waiting for funding to come through is a balancing act and maintaining a regular payroll for your employees can be challenging. Their advice to those looking to start a studio of their own was to carefully consider financial sustainability from the beginning.
Kristala game art
They laid out some of their other obstacles too, like not being sure how to approach each aspect of the game and having to spend a lot of time experimenting with the engine. But this was also a valuable learning experience for them, which was a great lesson in itself.
Tips on how to fund your video game
Tiffany emphasized that it is good practice to polish your prototype, demo, or vertical slice before looking for and approaching sponsors.
A bad first impression may end up costing you much more time in the long run than just holding off a couple of months until your work is more polished. This also applies to self-funding platforms like Kickstarter. You only have one shot at this — make sure it's ready to make sure it counts!
Unreal Marketplace assets can save your studio time and money
Kristala was initially populated with assets and frameworks from Unreal Marketplace. This allowed the team to test their ideas right off the bat. Creating your own assets and systems can be expensive and time-consuming and is often something that can wait until later in the game development process.
Hiring & building up your game studio
When hiring staff, Alexis and the team used many avenues for finding quality team members. We've listed a few of these, below. (NB: These tips also work in reverse, for people looking to get hired!)
Reddit — A great number of Astral Clocktower Studio's hires were recruited via Reddit, which is known for its large and active gaming community.
Facebook — Although it may be slowly “decaying”, some Facebook groups are still active and thriving, including some popular game development groups. The team successfully sought out these channels for new hires.
Referrals — Alexis, Tiffany, and Sarah also found some great new candidates through referrals. Whether it’s a friend, a co-worker, or a fellow student, knowing someone can help land you a job in any industry, especially when the team is smaller and feels more like a family. This underlines the importance of networking and making connections in your chosen industry!
Still from Kristala, a dark fantasy action RPG game
Creating a new game in an already saturated market
Developing a Soulslike means competing with a real Titan in the industry. However, the ACS team is not discouraged! Because of this genre's popularity, there is still plenty of room for emerging Soulslike games to enter the market, provided that they are innovative and bring something new and exciting to the table, which they believe applies to Kristala!
Successful marketing for your video game
Marketing is a vital component of any video game's success. As Marketing Director, Sarah's first goal was to pinpoint Kristala's target audience. Once their market was determined it was time to reach out! Their approach needed to be fun, relevant, and attention-grabbing. They discovered that, when marketing themselves, although a picture may be worth a thousand words, a video or a gif are worth a lot more!
The team having fun with videos and gifs (originally posted on their Facebook page)
Sarah believes online events have helped the studio to build brand awareness and grow its following, two vital components if you want your game to have every chance of success.
Contests are another great way to gain exposure for your video game. Not only that, competitions help you to test your mettle, adhere to deadlines, and are an opportunity to win funding and prizes. An honorary badge in Steam never hurt a developer!
Base armor concept art for the desert-dwelling Sykomanan Clan, just one of the six clans of Anagativa within the ACS game Kristala
Additional advice for aspiring game developers
Alexis, Tiffany, and Sarah believe it's important to continue working on your own projects, outside of your job! These personal projects are a great opportunity to work on your weaknesses, learn to use different tools and systems, and connect with like-minded people.
Support Kristala on Patreon!
The Astral Clocktower team was happy to announce that they will be providing regular dev builds via their Patreon! Fans who join gain access to exclusive development content, which they can test out and provide feedback on.
CG Spectrum events can lead to unique career opportunities
Just ask CGS Game Design student, Manuel Bissonnette. After attending the Astral Clocktower Studios talk with Alexis, Tiffany, and Sarah, Manuel sent them his CV and cover letter and has recently been hired as an intern! He will be the Assistant Game Director on Kristala.
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Shoshanah has almost a decade of visual effects production experience, coordinating VFX teams in Australia and London. Her credits include Mad Max: Fury Road, Ant-Man, John Wick: Parabellum, Game of Thrones, and Christopher Robin. She now enjoys getting to write about the film and games industry.