Steffen Kabbelgaard guides us through the Forced developer’s incredible three-year journey to make a game
Formed just three years ago, Danish developer BetaDwarf has just released its first game on Steam, four-player arcade action RPG Forced. The game has since sold more than 110,000 copies, and is still selling hundreds a day.
The young studio’s journey to get there however has been a unique and rocky one, and CEO Steffen Kabbelgaard tells Develop how the team nearly went homeless, and how it required a Kickstarter campaign, a large bank loan and sheer determination and passion for games to survive and ensure the title was completed – all the while not knowing if it would be a success.
Living out of a classroom
BetaDwarf’s journey started at the University of Aalborg, where a small team of student teachers pitched their idea for an ambitious new game to other student coders.
“A month or two we had a meeting where we invited everybody we thought was really bright and would potentially fit the team,” he says.
“That was around seven people. Then we bought t-shirts for them and everything that we needed to feel like part of a team.
“Then we offered them those t-shirts if they wanted to be part of the team, and every single person wanted to join us after a two or three hour presentation.
“And so we moved into a classroom.”
The developers didn’t just move their equipment into the classroom, they moved in. And with them they brought in their beds, fridges, microwaves, everything they’d need to make the classroom their new home.
The team had raised concerns that traveling into the university to work on the game was taking too much time away from development, and so the decision was soon made to take advantage of the unused classroom during the summer.
The original plan was to develop the game non-stop for two months in the classroom, but when no one questioned their presence, believing the room was in use for educational purposes, the team continued to live their and work for another five months.
But this didn’t last.
Kicked out and homeless
“People started to ask too many questions of who exactly has this room. And then at some point realised nobody has actually rented it and someone was just sitting there using it,” he explains.
“Then some authority people came down and just realised that no one has rented it and we all had to move out immediately.
“In the meantime we had skipped our apartments so we had nowhere to live.”
Developers were given 30 hours to leave and find a new place to live and continue working on a game they had already ploughed countless hours into.
That determination led the team to Google what Kabbelgaard says was “the cheapest place in Denmark”, but big enough to fit ten permanent people and as many as four other employees who would travel in.
To help afford the $350 a month rent each of them had to pay and to fund development, the studio successfully applied for government funding to the sum of $20,000, enabling them to buy eight computers so they could work on Forced.
Kabbelgaard describes their time the isolated home away from Copenhagen’s vibrant nightlife as like a “hardcore bootcamp”.
“You had nothing else to do but make a game,” he states.
But despite finding the cheapest place to live, the young developers still began running out of money as all their efforts when into game development, rather than part-time jobs.
After one year in their new home, to combat their dwindling funds they launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter of $40,000 to keep the dream alive.
“It was extremely emotional,” says Kabbelgaard of their turbulent experience throughout the campaign.
“In three or four first days we managed to get 25 per cent of what we needed and we thought ‘okay this is going to be easy and we’ll get way beyond what we need by the end’. But after that it totally stagnated, and we only got a few purchases each day. We thought this is going to end badly.
“Then seven days before it closed we tried all kinds of stuff, like live streaming, and we made community sites where people could get links that directed to our site, so we kind of gamified that people could promote the Kickstarter. But that also went horribly wrong because people spammed it all over the place. We got unpopular we had to remove that again.
“So finally we made an image that described our journey. And that just spread like wildfire on the web, and then we were funded overnight.”
By the end of the campaign, BetaDwarf managed to accrue more than $65,000 from nearly 2,000 backers, ensuring after nearly two years of development, they could yet again continue working on Forced.
And thanks to its funding success, the team uprooted and moved into Copenhagen, where half of the team still lives now, enabling them to socialise with friends and family on a more regular basis.
Funds running dry
But despite the ever-growing list of positives, they soon realised it was tougher to get on Steam than they had anticipated, and had miscalculated development costs.
“Basically our game was ready half a year ago but it was not as polished. So we needed to polish it a lot because nobody wanted to accept it,” he says.
“We also talked with Microsoft but they thought it wasn’t polished enough. But they thought it was cool, and so did Steam.”
BetaDwarf was then left with a key decision to make, and one that would shape the future of the studio and its ambitions. The team could drop the game – although Kabbelgaard insists the team was determined to complete the title no matter what – to work with an investor or take a risk and get a bank loan.
“We had an investor who was interested, but basically it would cost us a lot of money and we were so close to the goal that we just thought, after three years, we didn’t really want to give it away,” he explains.
As a result, the team plumped for a bank loan of $200,000, giving them four extra months to finish the game. But after a lukewarm reception to their Steam Early Access release, the team began to feel the nerves as the prospect of potential failure loomed after nearly three years of determination to develop the title.
“The scenario would have been, if it didn’t sell well, we’d have to disband the whole team, which would be horrible,” he says.
“We would need to find other jobs. Having spent three years on it, and going out with something that wouldn’t be popular, that would be a pretty nasty scenario.”
The moment of truth
The stage was then set for the full release: How would the world react? Would three years of development be met with apathy amongst Steam users? How would they pay back the $200,000 bank loan?
Within days of going live on Steam, Kabbelgaard describes Forced sales as “insane”.
In fact, he says, during its first few days the title even outsold WB Games Montreal’s big release, Batman: Arkham Origins.
And since its launch on October 24th, the game has now sold 110,000 copies, ensuring a future for the studio and its staff who had so much effort into the game. Finally, the young team’s wildest dreams had come true. Their game was finished, released and was a success.
But Kabbelgaard is pragmatic, and says the 12-man team is expensive to run, and realises they must quickly plan to ensure BetaDwarf survives yet another year.
“We have to save quite a lot. But we’re being really productive, so we’re already making new game content and we’ll soon be releasing new, awesome stuff, because the team is really productive and they’re quite talented, which we weren’t when we started out because we were students and we didn’t really know how to make games. So it is a different story now.”
The developers at BetaDwarf are now at work on a sequel to Forced, which he says will appear on Steam Early Access in the near future, featuring a new, continuous experience rather than a straight campaign. But unlike the previous three years, BetaDwarf is now budgeting against the funds it has, rather than risking another bank loan.
“We’re feeling pretty confident about the future, but not super, over-confident,” he says. “I think it can be really good if we can get all our ports right on next-gen consoles.”
He adds: “For some odd reason since we pulled it off it’s definitely beneficial now, because it's easier to sell as it’s a cool game. But we had to endure a lot more. I think we could have made a smaller game and maybe got some money before that and made life a little easier. But I think since we were so good at enduring each other and going on this adventure of living together, I think we got use to having no money and having each other instead.
“It was pretty fun, it was like being comrades in the army.”
BetaDwarf was named as one of the top game start-ups in Europe in the latest Develop 100, which you can view here.