GamesBeat: Those people came and went as you needed them, then?
Demeter: Well, the majority of the work that went on with the game was around 2011 to 2015. I had the majority of those people there, the core members, throughout all of that period.
GamesBeat: You said you also ran out of money. You had to make do, I guess?
Demeter: Yeah, every bit of money I made from Trism went into making Trism 2.
GamesBeat: This was a pretty good seller, right? It wasn’t a small amount of money.
Demeter: It was good money. The money helped me be the man I am today. The money was there to allow me to fail into the success I have here. I know now how to make a game, how to build a team, how to have a vision, have a milestone, have a project due date. There’s nothing that teaches success like losing your own money on something, I think. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Did you feel like you were Captain Ahab at some point here?
Demeter: Well, I feel like — if you could say it was my own shadow working against me? The concept of something so successful on such a broad level going out. How was I going to compete with my own shadow? Should I be competing? It was a process of stepping out of that and realizing that a person’s career can have many visions.
GamesBeat: Did you care much about what some of your fellows were thinking about what you were doing? Your peers or some of the people who were hiring you? Did you worry that this might make them think that you were some kind of crazy?
Demeter: It’s a good question. I’ve not had trouble with employment, I’ll say that. When I relate the story, I relate it as a process of discovery, like I’ve mentioned to you. I think people, at least here in the bay area, are very understanding of going out and being an entrepreneur and walking through that maze. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it can still be a teacher.
I look for that in the people I hire. I had a gentleman I hired recently. He came from a self-starting background. He didn’t have a computer science degree, but we saw something in him. We brought him out from Hawaii, and he’s been fantastic. You could see it in him. He’s hungry for it. He’s working out great.
GamesBeat: What do you think occupied most of the time? You said you were iterating and coming up with new versions. It’s still hard to grasp 10 years on a game like Trism 2 compared to something the seven years of a Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Demeter: I could plot it out by year for you. [Laughs] I’d have to go into my Github commits. The start was, I wanted to make a game that had a single-player and a multiplayer component in it, and have the multiplayer drive the social, drive organic downloads. It would have been a sort of League of Legends meets Words with Friends. A very sticky game. This was going to award you costumes that would have been free-to-play in-awith pp purchases for the story mode.
I just beat my head against this for years, because economies and systems in these two types of games are very different. I tried to make it work, but I found that I had two different products on my hands. What I said eventually was, “Let’s just cut it down the middle and release these as two separate apps.” I couldn’t make it work. I would go over these designs and the UI and the gameplay and test it, and it wouldn’t work. I would go back again and do the systems and gameplay and UI and it wouldn’t work.
It was a good couple of years before I got the sense of what agile was, finding a [minimum viable product] MVP and iterating more quickly with good tools. I was approaching it like an indie, but what I think I really needed was an education in how agile software is developed: finding the fun first and then going for that.
GamesBeat: That testing, was it with actual players, the way people do soft launches? Or did you not get to that point?
Demeter: Soft launch is a heavy term. When I think of soft launch I think of launching in New Zealand or Canada to thousands of players. What I was doing was more putting it in the hands of people who’d played Trism. I’d do a test flight build out to them and get their feedback. But a lot of it didn’t go that far. You get a sense pretty quick of whether something is working or not. A lot of it was just eating our own dog food, in-house.
GamesBeat: Did you take any lessons from other games, other developers? Supercell has talked about this challenge of shutting down so many games that don’t work at some point.
Demeter: I love that model. That’s a very European model, I think. What I read, at any time, any person in that company has the right to make any game they think will sell. If it proves out to them, they increase their sphere of influence in the company and they recruit more people. It bubbles up more and more within the company until it becomes something that they can put out to soft launch. I think it’s fantastic.
That’s a model you see in companies with a lot of people and a lot of money. [laughs] A lot of autonomy to have that sense of, “I’m gonna go off and do this now.” I love it, but as an indie — we have one product we can work on. The features can be iterated on. I look at myself as pretty egalitarian with regard to what my people think is best. But I just couldn’t execute on that kind of scale.
GamesBeat: What you’ve wound up with is a premium-priced game. People buy it once and that’s all. How did you come to that conclusion?
Demeter: With free-to-play — this game started as free-to-play. That decision was made around the time when Candy Crush came out. Candy Crush was huge, as we all know. It looked like the inevitable race to the bottom, just in terms of putting the product in people’s hands and monetizing down the road. I wanted to do that. That’s what it was going to be.
As I got into it, what I realized I was making—the vision for the game was Bejeweled meets Zelda. Zelda is the kind of game I grew up playing. Deep, rich adventures, lots of spectacle, story, character. As I put all that stuff into this game, I realized that free-to-play players might not be ready for that. Free-to-play players are measured in terms of session time and retention. You certainly still have that within premium, but the kinds of embellishing I wanted to put into the game — we spent two years on the soundtrack alone.
I wanted to communicate up front that this is a game that stands apart from those offerings. Not to diminish them at all. I think there’s a great amount of polish that goes into those. But maybe more in a weekly event sort of way. But what I’m communicating with this price point is, this stands alone. It’s a puzzle game, but it’s for the kinds of people that grew up playing the games I did. If that means it’s not going to have as big a window at launch, I’m okay with that. I’d rather reach the people that really care about this kind of game, rather than making a huge footprint.
GamesBeat: I loved the original Trism. I didn’t necessarily see anything wrong with it. I played it for years.
Demeter: Thank you.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that you didn’t just quickly go on to a Trism 2. Was there ever a chance that that would happen, that you would just do a sequel quickly?
Demeter: Yeah, we were going to put a game out called Trismology right afterward. It was going to be an expansion on the puzzle-solving aspect of the first game. When I did that — one of the big things I liked about the first game was the levels where they had different shapes. I wanted a game that had those different level shapes.
One thing I found right away is that you can’t do sliding when you have all those different level shapes — the heart shape or the diamond shape or whatever. I realized I had to change the gameplay. With that sliding in the first game, the game was good, but it was a slot machine. You couldn’t really predict what you were going to get. Certainly a lot of players like that kind of mechanic. “I slide this thing here and oh my God, I got a billion points.” But it wasn’t skill-based in that way. You couldn’t get good at it in a way where you would know if you were making a large bonus.
The thesis I wanted to prove out was–okay, I have a game that nobody else is doing. Triangular match-three, nobody else does that. How can I make that good, make that skill-based? Anybody can make a game where it just works and you get a bonus once in a while, but if I wanted to make this something that people played competitively, I could.
Like I say, this is Trism 5. I’ve iterated on this time and time again. When you play it, it’s not swiping. It’s tapping. The way I have this gameplay — I don’t want to ruin it for you, but there is deep, deep gameplay in here. It’s entirely skill-based. It doesn’t take long to learn. You’ll learn it in 30 seconds. But there’s deep, intricate gameplay in here, and I’m really proud of that. That was my challenge to myself. However long it takes, I want to make something like that. I feel I succeeded.
GamesBeat: Is it still single-player and multiplayer, or just single-player now?
Demeter: This release, Trism 2, is campaign-only.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you have a multiplayer free-to-play game out there that you could also make? Or did you decided to only do this one?
Demeter: The story was, 20th Century Fox has helped me with this game. I came to them in the spring saying, “Look, I’d love to put this thing out. I’d love to just have a conflict waiver so I can put it out and not face legal backlash.” They took it, and after a week they said, “Steve, not only do you have our blessing, but there may be an opportunity for us to work together.” That was great. They’ve been helping me with reaching out to people like you. They’ve been helping on the biz dev side. They got me in touch with Apple for an editorial piece, QA, that kind of stuff.
Essentially, in that time, from spring until now, I said to myself, “OK, if I want to put this thing out on the 10th anniversary, what can I do?” That’s when I cut it back and I’ve just been polishing the single-player experience. The multiplayer experience, games like that look different. They work different. Right now the Clash Royale five-team experience, the way things are going — it’ll probably be like that. But that represents additional work that I just haven’t had the time to polish yet. The gameplay is all there. If you look in the code, the gameplay is all there.
GamesBeat: Maybe that extra time will pay off in yielding something a little more quickly for a follow-up?
Demeter: Yeah, I’d like to. Let me not announce anything yet. [Laughs] I’ve had not a great experience promising things to my fans, so let me hold off on any more announcements yet. Stay tuned.
GamesBeat: I guess it must make it feel like you’re making better use of the time you spent doing all that iteration.
Demeter: Yeah. I was a kid. I was young. I was brash. I set down meetings that I blew off with important people because I thought I was hot shit. I look back on the kid I was back then — I couldn’t have been any other way. I had a lot to learn. You learn through those failures.
GamesBeat: You were voted one of the most influential LGBTQ people in technology a few years ago. Did you see your orientation as somehow affecting what you created, how you went about this?
Demeter: It’s a good question. I don’t think it affected the product. The product is more a vision of the games I played as a kid. What I can say is that I’m glad to see more representation within the LGBT community coming out and succeeding in this industry, as well as in other industries. I’m glad there’s a place now where people like myself can have a platform and be seen as successes in the industry. That’s something that didn’t happen 10 years ago, and I’m really glad to see it now.
GamesBeat: It was more regional and local in the past, whereas now it seems like that representation is a broader swath of the industry.
Demeter: Yeah. I can tell you right now, with FoxNext, we’re putting out a narrative game, and the representation is a big angle. A lot of the consumer base is LGBT[Q]. It’s important to have that representation. They’re doing a great job of it here in terms of hiring and making sure that they know we’re heard, asking our opinion of things. It’s great to have that here.
GamesBeat: Have you found a kind of network for yourself in the games business around the LGBTQ community?
Demeter: Absoultely. Gordon Bellamy does a gay game professionals group. We always meet at E3 and GDC. I’m not sure if you know him or not, but he’s great. Unity does its queer game dev meetup at the Third Street location in San Francisco. There’s a bunch of resources. I’m really proud of it.
GamesBeat: Did it feel strange, when you were at a point where you were running out of money, to go back to work? Did you ever worry that you wouldn’t be able to finish this?
Demeter: Worry isn’t the right word for it. I’m a workhorse. I’m going to work to the day I die. It’s just who I am. Running different things, running different projects at the same time, having responsibilities, this was nothing new to me. It wasn’t daunting in that respect. The only condition I really had is, would the company I’m working for allow me to put it out? Would it be a conflict of interest?
I work in games. It’s who I am now. I’m very happy to have this opportunity, to be in a position where I work in games. But like I said, it was down to FoxNext saying yes or no, and they were very amenable to it. I was very happy to hear that.
GamesBeat: Do you think you also needed some kind of a creative break from it, in order to keep it going? A chance to go focus on something else for a while and come back to it?
Demeter: Yeah, absolutely. When I took this past spring to finish it up, I just took a scalpel to it. For the first time in a decade, I now had the time limit. [laughs] It puts your head in a very different place. Nothing becomes sacred at that point. Is it going to work or is it not? Let’s just make a [knife] to the code base and here it is. It was very freeing, actually.
I probably needed to let more of it go in the past, and I couldn’t, for a variety of reasons. I’d put too much time into something and I couldn’t let it go. I promised somebody something and I couldn’t let it go. Now it’s just like, here’s the vision. Here’s what this needs to be. I had a really influential guy, Charlie Cleveland. He just made Subnautica. He gave me a really good piece of advice one time. He said, “Steve, a piece of art is finished when everything extraneous is removed.” I’ve carried that with me. I had that in my head when I found this MVP.
GamesBeat: From looking at the trailer, what are people immediately going to find that’s different from the original game?
Demeter: The original game is — I wouldn’t say it’s minimalist, because it has that shine to it. But I think if flat were in back in 2008, it would have been a flat game. Dots or whatever. This game is intentionally atmospheric. You have the clouds and the skies. I wanted to make the actual puzzle screen lively to give you a sense of atmosphere. Then you carry forward the atmosphere from the puzzle back into the world. The hero pops out in the level and now has the ability to walk around in an open world, with side quests and all these kinds of things. I wanted to carry that aesthetic through. I wanted to put that aesthetic inside the levels. That way there would be a sense of synergy between that and the actual maps.
So definitely all the story is new. It’s quite an intricate story. I don’t recommend just skipping through it. It’s pretty rewarding if you read it all. It definitely adds to it. Like I say, we put years of work into the soundtrack. I know that people who use apps don’t really listen to music. They don’t have the sound on that much. But I’m proud of it, and I can’t wait for the composer to release the soundtrack on iTunes.
All the customizations — there are dozens of different possibilities for you to customize your character. These are all found in the app. You can’t buy them with real money. You have to find them. None of them are cosmetic. There are 12 different eyes that you can find. There are eight different body colors to find, 10 different costumes to find. When you mix and match them, they all affect the way you play the game differently.
For instance, like in Candy Crush, when you get done with a level, there’s an ending bonus depending on how many turns you have left. If you have a different body color, that might affect how the ending bonus works. If you have the blue body color, you get a bubble bonus. If you wear the green body color, you get a plant bonus. You score differently depending on the type of level that’s there. It’s a strategy element.
GamesBeat: Demiforce, is that a larger studio, or is that just you?
Demeter: That’s an LLC. I’m the CEO. It’s a legal company, a legal corporation, so everything flows through there.
GamesBeat: But it’s not necessarily an ongoing thing with 10 people or something like that.
Demeter: It used to be. It’s me plus all the people that made and are making Trism 2 come to fruition. We meet as we can to ensure the release. I met with them this past week just to make sure we have everything buttoned down, all the servers are load tested, we have all the websites up, everything’s hunky dory.
GamesBeat: I talked to Chris Hecker, who made SpyParty. It took him about eight years before he finally released it in April. It’s basically been him and one or two other people. I asked him, would he have gotten to this if he’d had 10 people working for two years? And said he wouldn’t, because of all the iteration and learning he had to do to get to that point.
Demeter: In my story, what happened was — I was coming out of having made a game and succeeded in a genre that became absolutely flooded, once all the Candy Crush clones came out. It’s unfortunate, because I think I really had something unique. But it’s an uphill battle. When you’re a young guy wanting to make something and you see increasing budgets and eight-figure ad campaigns going out — as an indie, what do you do? How do you position your product to make sure it reaches the right people?
I can definitely understand how people like him or myself, we end up in a position where we ask ourselves what we really have. Do I have to put something out right now? What’s the best way for this to come out?
GamesBeat: Did you ever seek investment, venture capital, thinking you could do this with a large budget?
Demeter: We’ve raised an angel round. But it wasn’t positioned in the way that. You can’t really raise money on one mobile game. Investors want a 10-year vision around a line of games.
GamesBeat: Was most of the money you put into this still your own?
Demeter: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: For the next round, are you thinking that now is the time to raise the money, or do you hope to self-finance through the success of this next game?
Demeter: I really enjoy creating these passion projects. I would be happy to continue having the opportunity to make more. In particular, I’d be overjoyed with an opportunity to make more indie games. I haven’t made up my mind how or when these games will materialize. That being said, working with Fox, perhaps in a publishing capacity, would certainly be my first preference.
I’ve run both sides of the fence. I started out 10 years ago not really knowing how game studios operate. I was an indie. I had a game success. I had very lofty ambitions for myself. I had a vision for how my company would work. I had good intentions, but I don’t think I had the right tools.
Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work in environments where I see up close how this business works and how sustainable growth-oriented businesses are able to have the benefit to do things they want to do. It’s a balance between having the vision and the creativity, but also having the discipline to know when you need to cut things, when you need to release things, when you need to crunch, when you need to put the brakes on. Having walked both of those lines, that’s the point, I think, where you’re ready. But I could be wrong.
GamesBeat: It still seems like you’re on a unique path. There aren’t many people you can follow.
Demeter: I’m lucky enough to have a couple of mentors that are fantastic. I just met with your friend Randy Breen, actually. He’s been fantastic. But I think we all come into this from pretty similar backgrounds. We all loved games as kids. Something inside us says, “I want to give back. I want to help kids have the same experiences I had.” We all have different ways we get there, but—it’s a very human field, I think.
GamesBeat: When you look back on it — you were talking about how you thought you were hot shit and you were blowing off important people. Do you think you made any particularly bad decisions in the past that stretched out the time this took? Anything that related directly to Trism 2? Or when you look back, do you think it was all just things you had to learn?
Demeter: I can think of one thing that set me back a few years. I don’t want to name names. That won’t help anybody. But let’s just say I had a meeting with the CEO of a very young company at the time. Trism had just come out. We had burgers in North Beach, but it was him and his buddy — who I didn’t know at the time, but after the meeting I realized this guy was a venture capitalist who had just come out of being an executive at one of the biggest game companies in the world. They asked me if I’d like to come on board with them and make their next game.
I thought, well, why would I need to do that? I came across as so flippant, so just — why would I need to? I have Trism. I can make games on my own, thank you very much. I just shot myself in the foot. At the time I thought I was at the height of my career. I could do anything. I had the money. They had, maybe, the lesson and the coaching. I came across looking completely arrogant to them, I think.
There’s nothing I could do to be taught anything else. I knew what I was doing. They walked away and — like I say, after I walked away I realized I’d pretty much blew it, but once I found out who these people were — that stays with you.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you would have been making their game instead of your game, though.
Demeter: No. They said to me, “Whatever you need. Let us know. We’re here for you and your vision.”
GamesBeat: Back then it might have been harder to see what the mobile game industry would become. 10 years ago, it would have been very hard to see this as a $70 billion business that becomes half of all gaming and has all these big companies in it. Thinking that big and seeing how you can fit into that, how you can use the help of big companies to get into this — it seems like it would have been crazy to think that was possible.
Demeter: You have a point. I think I knew it was going to be big, though. I think I overestimated my momentum. I thought that I could be an indie and have my corner of the pie over here. They’ll have a bigger piece of the pie, but I’ll still be able to do my thing. That may have worked out. In some universe that may have worked out. But not in this one. If I could go back I wouldn’t have been so quick to say no, regardless of who it was.
GamesBeat: At this point, are there still some things you need to make this happen? Do you feel like you need a big user acquisition budget?
Demeter: The success has already happened, in my mind. I’m putting out and I have something that’s quality. It’s a good game. It’s something people have never seen before. The financial component is TBD. I don’t have a huge ad budget. I liken this more to the indie film scene, where you certainly have movies that like Infinity War that are ad-driven and everybody knows about it, but you also have your A24s, your Annapurnas, your indie film companies that are running things differently. They’re not catering to the widest audience. They’re interested in the otaku out there. They’re interested in generating word of mouth and running on awards to garner a different sort of attention. They’re not focused on how many people they can get, but how passionate they can make the people who care. That’s the angle I want to run.
GamesBeat: As far as how big a game Trism 2 is, how would you measure it? The number of levels?
Demeter: There are hundreds of levels. You could look at it in terms of — the thing is, Candy Crush is all about the updates. Even though it’s not a public-facing metric, their metric is how regularly they add more levels. That’s a better way to gauge it. With this, it’s going to be episodic content. Even though it’s a premium product and you’re not going to have to pay for the updates, I’ll release these new worlds, new islands, every so often. Each one will have around 100 new levels.
GamesBeat: So there’s a lot of time people could spend with this, just based on what you’ve got for $2.99
Demeter: Absolutely. Like I say, it’s not really about the levels. There’s significant backtracking. It’s not required, but it’s suggested. And there are significant levels that are off-path. You can zip through it, but if you want this item over here, if you want to complete this sub-story, you go over here. It doesn’t really shake out in the same way as a freemium game.
GamesBeat: I read that you had almost 500 ideas for other games, that you jotted down in a notebook? That’s pretty amazing.
Demeter: Amazing or stressful or both. It’s been a breath of fresh air, having the ability to put this thing out and say, “Wow, now I can focus on some of those other ideas.” That’s a blessing. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
GamesBeat: Do you have to figure out what’s the best one to spend your time on now?
Demeter: I’d like to think I’ve gotten a bit better at prioritizing, hopefully. [Laughs] I think I’m the same guy as I used to be. I haven’t changed that much. I still like games that offer something new. I still like game mechanics that have never been seen before. I like games that are snappy, that show you their intent very quickly, that are intuitive. You can count on it, whatever comes out from Demiforce, it’ll have that. It’ll be refreshing and fun. It may not be an app. It might be. I don’t know. But what we’re trying to go for is games that bring you in and, right from the get-go, let you have fun.