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Kris and Jessica Szafranski met while working at a custom software development company in Minneapolis. He was the vice president of software development; she was in marketing.
It was a traditional boy-meets-girl, girl-rejects-boy story that ended in the two of them getting married. But along the way, Kris quit that executive job, becoming an indie developer at home in 2013.
His dream becomes a reality today with the launch of A Druid’s Duel, the $10 whimsical fantasy strategy game for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s the first from Kris’ company, Thought Shelter. It’s also the result of years of saving and strategy and compromises the couple made — and still make — on a daily basis.
Now the pair can only wait and see: Depending on how the game does, Kris will either continue to create games or go back to the world of traditional employment. It’s a story familiar to independent developers across the country — and especially to their families.
The game that carries Kris and Jessica’s hopes: A Druid’s Duel.
Kris and Jessica meet
“I was taking a tour at work. It was my first day,” Kris remembers. “It was not that big of a place. There were only maybe 30 people, so you meet everybody. I remember specifically that she did not seem interested.”
It was almost three years later before he got the nerve up to ask her on a date.
“I asked her out … kind of,” he said. “It was very casual. She turned me down, for about a day. But then we went out and got a beer after work a couple days later.”
“He said, ‘If [you don’t want to go], that’s cool, we can be awkward about it on Monday,'” Jessica remembers, chuckling. She was feeling down after a house she wanted to buy fell through, and he suckered her in with the beer.
That was a few years ago. How many is a bit difficult to pin down: a couple years, Kris thinks. Two and a half, Jessica suggests. No, three or three and a half. No, it’s been six, Kris says. “No. Nuh uh. Maybe a little over five?” Jessica replies.
Kris quits his job
What they do know is that they’d been living together for about 18 months before Kris finally took the plunge he’d been talking about, leaving the development firm on amicable terms to start Thought Shelter in May 2013.
“The idea for Druid’s Duel has been around for a long time, like a lot of people’s first games,” Kris said. “I was kind of at a place financially, and with experience … I knew how business worked. I had an opportunity, if I were going to try something like this, this would be the time to try it.
“I had never been in a company as long as I’d been there: 7 years. I like to try new things. Opportunities for smaller games — they’re much more prevalent. So after a lot of planning and saving and thinking and talking about it – [“and worrying,” Jessica adds] – and worrying, I decided to give it a shot.”
Kris has a single tattoo, he said: a Chinese character that means “leap, and the net will appear.”
“I have always read that as faith in yourself, to try things,” he said. “It’s the only thing that I’ve had permanently embedded in me, so it’s important.”
For Jessica, the jump was jarring, though she did her best to understand and support it.
“That’s something I don’t see myself ever doing,” Jessica said. “It was kind of difficult for me to really put myself in his shoes. But I know that taking risks like that is what keeps him alive.
“I had to step out of my own little world to try to understand it. It was super exciting, and I’m super proud of him for even being able to take that first step.”
She was worried about what would happen, she said, but she wasn’t about to stop him.
“I was on board,” Jessica said. “I had to talk myself into it. I knew that he wouldn’t fizzle out on the project and then become a professional TV watcher. I trust him. He’s a hard worker.”
The couple gets married and Kris gets to work
Kris gave two months of notice at his software company, starting to work on developing on the weekends. When it came time in May, he moved into a guest/storage room at the house they shared together — Jessica’s house, the one she had bought after the other had fallen through, the one they thought they might upgrade from (that was no longer an option).
That first day, he sat in the mostly empty room with his brand-new business cards and “just got to it,” he said. He had been planning and prototyping for a while, so he had something to build on. But suddenly, bills were more of a worry than they had been, and the pressure was on.
“We agreed to check-in points,” he said. “If I’m finding myself not getting anywhere for two weeks straight, then it would be my commitment to go get a job or reevaluate.”
Still, the change didn’t prevent Kris from proposing to Jessica on a trip to Italy that summer. Only after they deliberated for a bit did they decide they could still go.
“We had planned the trip before he left,” Jessica said. “One of the first things I asked was, ‘We still get to go to Europe, right?’ ”
The Alps had been on Kris’ bucket list. In the middle of the trip, on the green summer slopes of St. Moritz in Switzerland, he pulled the ring he’d been carrying around secretly for a week-and-a-half waiting for the right time, and he proposed to her next to a tiny glacial lake.
“I kind of thought it was a for sure thing. That would have been an awkward rest of the trip,” he said, laughing.
A sudden financial turn
But fortunately things went happily, and the couple settled into a routine when they returned, with Jessica going to work at the office and Kris tackling his hours at home. Then, just three months later, Jessica was laid off.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking when I lost my job and we realized we had a zero-income household. No worries there,” she said, laughing wryly. “It’s a little nerve-wracking, but both of us have always been really, really responsible with money. Kris had been squirreling away a few bucks over the years for this. [“Or something like it,” Kris said.]
“Thankfully, Kris was not the kind to slip into lazy land and not finish this. I wasn’t going to have to kick him off the couch and go get a job.”
Kris and Jessica Szafranski started shopping more generics, looking at coupons, and gave up on the idea of moving away from their current location near the airport. They’d always been fiscally responsible, and Kris had his savings to tide them over while he was developing A Druid’s Duel.
But they became ultraconscious of their spending, until Jessica finally started picking up some contract work as a project manager.
The daily routine
Kris’ schedule has been remarkably consistent for a self-directed developer. If he’s inspired, he gets up at 6 a.m. and gets to work. Most days, he starts somewhere between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., working for 8-9 hours every single day. He’ll take a break to head to the gym or to run outside.
He also started drinking coffee for the first time.
“He’s usually up and dressed and working before I can see straight in the morning,” Jessica said, “and usually still plugging away when I get home, too. He just has a really short commute, I guess. I’ve been pretty impressed with how well he’s been able to maintain that regular work schedule. It takes a lot of self-discipline.
“Once in a while, he’d kind of take a day off. [Usually for a road trip on his motorcycle, Kris noted.] I very rarely came home and found him chilling outside on the deck. So I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the fun times. ”
Every so often, he’d gather with other developers at a local donut shop for what they jokingly called “dough-velopment.”
“Sane and healthy,” he said. “I didn’t want to rely on bursts. Having been a graphic designer and other things, I know you have to work through creative process. I didn’t burn myself out by working 24/7. But there were stretches when I really wanted to get things done.”
So he’d schedule external deadlines, like a playtest, or deadlines he’d commit to with friends. At night, he’d pepper Jessica with questions or work out issues with the game aloud — striker versus stormcloud?
The couple married last June, a welcome distraction.
“It’s been a longer development cycle than I anticipated. I thought at the outset it would be two years,” he said. I pointed out that it’s been less than that. “It’s felt longer,” he said after a moment.
A Druid’s Duel hits final release
It especially feels longer now, with the game so close to release. Tomorrow, gamers will decide Kris’ fate.
“I vary from day to day,” he said. “I’m either really excited or really nervous, terrified.”
Jessica said it’s been even more intense for her. “Extend those emotions on either end. It’s been a roller coaster.”
Kris felt the pressure the moment he set a date with his publisher (Surprise Attack), getting the game in just before the Penny Arcade Expo and the Game Developers Conference.
“It was pretty aggressive. I worked some good 80 hour weeks. It started getting to the bottom of the checklist [of things he had left to do on the game.] Jess is like, ‘You know when you said you couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out? You’re at that point now.’ Today, I’m super excited.”
Jessica sent out a tweet that included emoji for all Kris’ emotions during the final few weeks: It was stuffed full of tiny faces, all with different expressions.
Two lives in the balance
So today the next chapter in Kris and Jessica’s life begins. A Druid’s Duel releases for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and the couple settles down to wait for gamers to decide what their family will be like moving forward.
“If Druid’s Duel doesn’t do well, I have some options,” Kris said. “I guess it’s determined by how awful or how awesome it turns out.”
He has goal levels of sales, he said, that correlate with three options: continuing to develop full-time, developing part-time, and “nice try.”
“I have 15 years or so in software — web and mobile development, now games – I’m not super-worried about finding some kind of gig,” he said. “There is kind of a bustling indie scene here in the Twin Cities. I’ve made friends. I’d probably look at those first. I’m a career kind of guy.”
He doesn’t see today as the end, no matter what happens.
“It’s never done. It’s a beginning,” Kris said. “There will be players to support and updates and stuff.”
Moving on to the next project will be welcome, too, he said with a laugh.
“It’ll be nice … I don’t know … I’m kind of tired of druids now.”
A Druid’s Duel is a turn-based strategy game with a quirky cartoon look, set in a Celtic world where you build up and destroy the actual board you play on by using the weather and natural powers. The original score is Celtic-classical.
Your units have animal abilities, and the board changes based on what you do. The single-player game includes more than 130 levels, and there is local and online play for four. While GamesBeat has not reviewed this, limited play suggests it’s worth a look.
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