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The Making of Everspace: From Rogue-like to Open-World Spaceship Shooter RPG


making games - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 12/2019 vom 02.10.2019

About losing everything, starting all over and being better off than ever.


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Origin of Everspace: The Galaxy on Fire series for mobile platforms.


The story of Hamburg-based independent developer Rockfish Games and its studio debut Everspace is inevitably linked to the history of Fishlabs. In 2004, Michael Schade and his best friend Christian Lohr founded Fishlabs Entertainment GmbH, best known for the popular mobile games series Galaxy on Fire with over 30 million installs worldwide. In spite of the commercial success, the two entrepreneurs had to file for bankruptcy in 2013 and even leave their studio with ...

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... empty hands after the takeover by Koch Media. In our cover story, we look at their thrilling comeback as Rockfish Games and their surprise hit Everspace, a crowdfunded rogue-like spaceship shooter for PC and consoles, which has been sold over one million units and counting. We will touch on challenges in development, but also the opportunities that the special concept offered for both the game designers and the story authors. Let us start with an extensive interview with co-founder and CEO Michael Schade, who talks openly about the turbulent beginnings of Rockfish Games.

Rockfish CEO Michael Schade spoke with Making Games in his Hamburg office.


Making Games: Everspace would probably

never have happened if you hadn’t had to file for bankruptcy with Fishlabs in 2013. What happened? From the outside, you were very successful with your premium mobile games like Galaxy on Fire.
Michael Schade: Our portfolio of 2008 scored tons of mobile gaming awards all over the world, including the Deutscher Entwicklerpreis for Blades & Magic, which introduced fluid full-body 3D combat in an RPG on mobile phones. According to Pocket Gamer Analysis, the “Metacritic for mobile games”, we had an average rating of 9.16 for the four games we released in 2008, making us the studio with the highest average games rating in the world. We still take pride in Rally Master Pro having scored a stunning score of 9.43, which made it the highest rated mobile game of 2008 worldwide.

So, in terms of quality, Fishlabs was the best studio in the world, but we almost went broke back then because mobile games were sold through network operators who kept the biggest chunk of revenues for themselves. Plus, we even had to sell our games through various middlemen who often paid us late or sometimes not at all. To make things worse, a major mobile phone manufacturer got into financial trouble in 2008 and owed us a large sum for our pre-loaded games for several months. Then, we had to take another financial blow from a US publishing deal where our entire portfolio never went live due to a takeover where the new publisher decided to launch their subpar titles instead of ours. Long story short, we were missing some €800k although we created some of the best mobile games in the world.

Unfortunately, our investors only looked at the financial side, which is somewhat understandable, but I thought at the time: “What more can we do than build topnotch titles and sign significant deals with some of the top publishers and handset manufacturers?” So, instead of funding the gap as they promised several times, Christian and I had to take some significant private financial risk to deal with the studio’s liquidity issues and keep the lights on until at least some of the payments came in.

Eventually, the launch of the iPhone saved our butts. In a tremendous team effort, we ported our game engine from J2ME to C++, beefed up the graphics of our award-winning Java mobile games and launched them on the Apple App Store. Because of the outstanding quality, we got a lot of love from Apple and most of our iOS games had been prominently featured worldwide. Thanks to a direct payout of 70%, we were doing really good for quite a while, especially with Galaxy on Fire 2 being featured by Apple over and over again. However, as devs were able to adjust pricing on the App Store at any time – unlike on Steam, where you can only have a sale every two months – staying on top of the App Store charts became a race to the bottom. When Electronic Arts adjusted their entire iOS games portfolio to 99 cents per game in December 2009, most devs followed suit and I knew that Free2Play (F2P) would become the predominant business model. The tipping point arrived in 2011: F2P mobile games in the top grossing charts grew from 1/3 to 2/3 within less than six months. Of course, our lead investor was breathing down our neck to pivot the studio at all cost ASAP, but without providing any additional funding for the transition, which we knew would be costly.

On the one side, our team wasn’t a big fan of F2P. Neither was I, but I understood we had to make the move. We didn’t dare to make the jump to premium PC and console gaming, and our investor was crystal clear where our ship was heading. However, firing our team, who had gone through very rough times with us and made Fishlabs become one of the top mobile gaming studios in the world, had never been an option. So, to make our first F2P mobile game, we had to build a second team from scratch, mostly recruited from other studios in Hamburg that were specialized in F2P browser games.

It’s probably not hard to imagine an unhealthy mix of severe friction between the two teams, being “late to the game” of F2P mobile gaming, underestimating technical challenges of making multiplayer online games and a significant lack of experience in managing a studio with insufficient funding that had grown to some 80 employees eventually led to the inevitable financial crash of Fishlabs in mid 2013

And then Christian Lohr and you were pushed out of your own company.
We managed to keep going for another five months, closely monitored by the insolvency administrator to find a buyer for the studio and secure as many jobs as possible. Because of the studio’s reputation, its award-winning games portfolio and huge fan base as well as our excellent relationship with Apple and other big players, I was very confident that we would find a good partner who understood and appreciated the value that we had created and would help us make the transition of becoming a leading studio for high-quality F2P mobile games with top-notch console experiences. We actually went through several due diligences with some of the top F2P mobile gaming publishers, but most of them passed due to the size of the studio and the broadly scattered talent of the team in premium and F2P gaming.

In the end, there were only three potential buyers left. Unfortunately, negotiations to close a deal by end of 2013 dragged on too long with the two international publishers where Christian and I would have had a future within the studio. Eventually, Koch Media came up with a time-limited binding offer that Christian and I could not match in the final bidding round for the studio assets. Consequently, within a split second we lost everything we had built for almost a decade. It was devastating, but we also knew this would not be the end for us. On the plus side, we had consolation knowing nobody else had to lose their job. Ironically, getting kicked out of our studio while everybody else was safe for the time being was actually the best thing that could have happened to us. It gave us the time to retreat, look at our options and get back into the game with an entirely different plan.

The spark to reboot as Rockfish Games?
Exactly. In 2013, a AAA publisher wanted to bring Galaxy on Fire to one of the nextgen consoles, even after we had to file for bankruptcy. But, the deal making was dragging on and meanwhile things went worse by the week at the studio, and I simply couldn’t close the deal before we hit the bottom.

I still remember when I called the publisher the day after we had lost the studio and said: “Hey, it’s us. Well, technically, it is just Christian and I. We don’t have a studio anymore, we lost the rights of all our games and the engine, we have no team; oh, and we didn’t get a single dime either. But, if you still want a top-notch spaceship shooter on console, I’ll get our core team back, guaranteed! They didn’t want to make F2P mobile games anyway. Actually, we’ve always dreamed about making top-quality console games, and we understand THIS is our chance! We’ve been creating spaceship shooters with console experience on mobile devices that received critical acclaim from millions of space game enthusiasts from all over the world. We’re the best fit to make an even better spaceship shooter on a next-gen console without the technical constraints that we had to deal with on mobile.”

Three months later, the deal was signed, we reached out to our ex-colleagues, and they jumped on-board immediately, in spite of the risk working at a small independent studio that might suddenly go out of business once again.

How hard was it for you to switch to the “big” platforms?
The publisher had a license for Unreal Engine 4, so we “had to work” with it. But that was another fortunate incident. After four weeks, we had the first playable version, which already looked great. Then we got Nukklear on board, Kirk Lenke’s team based in Hannover, because the game was supposed to be a co-op spaceship shooter. The guys had made the spaceship shooter MMO Black Prophecy, and we had no experience in multiplayer games. During development, we had to learn that in a multiplayer game, any feature takes at least twice as long to develop.

Including Nukklear, we were 24 people and had a fully functional vertical slice within nine months. Fast-paced, very accessible, looked great, everyone was happy. And although we had just signed an agreement to expand the team to 30 people for another two years of production, on the evening of the same day, the publisher called us and cancelled the project with immediate effect and no kill fee whatsoever. That was a shock, of course. Also for Nukklear, which we, unfortunately, had to part with shortly after. However, because we could make a small profit over the production time and Christian is just excellent in reducing costs when it is needed the most, we had six months runway for developing a new prototype and to find us a new deal. This was the beginning of Everspace


“Within a split second we lost everything we had built for almost a decade. It was devastating, but we also knew this would not be the end for us.”


Already in this early stage of development Everspace 2 looks great.


Was it already clear that you would do Everspace on your own and without a publisher? And that it will be a rogue-like?
No, with the help of our agency DDM, I tried to get a publisher for about three months. We pitched Everspace to pretty much every big publishing name and then some. Everyone was thrilled, but also their concerns were always the same: “We’ve never released a spaceship shooter before – and now with Elite: Dangerous, No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen, it’s going to be a marketing uphill battle, no matter how great Everspace might be, so we’re not gonna touch that, best of luck!”

We knew, of course, that Everspace would be very different from the titles mentioned and that we could build on a fan base of over 20 million players who loved Galaxy on Fire 2 but many were not excited at all about the upcoming Galaxy on Fire 3 from DeepSilver Fishlabs because it would be F2P. But we also knew we didn’t have the money for such a big project. We simply wouldn’t be able to make an open-world space shooter even if that was exactly what we would have loved to do, knowing there was an excellent opportunity for such title laying right in front of us. So we decided to combine the arcade-style space combat and the colorful sci-filook, that we as the original makers of Galaxy on Fire 1 & 2 were best known for, with a modern interpretation of rogue-like elements, which proved to be very popular in several recent indie games. However, we still needed to raise significant cash to make our vision happen, so we eventually looked into our chances of making a successful Kickstarter after we talked to Adrian Goersch from Black Forest Games and Jan Wagner from Underground Games, who both had successful Kickstarter campaigns under their belt.

How scared were you before the Kickstarter campaign?
We knew we could achieve the quality we wanted: the highly accessible space combat gameplay paired with an extraordinary audiovisual experience. Because no publisher bought into our concept, it was clear to us that there was no other option left than initiating a Kickstarter campaign and trying to reactivate our former fan base. We also hoped that there would be a decently large target group for rogue-likes, as popular indie titles like FTL, Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac had already proven. We also felt we could offer something new to them, because there had not been any rogue-likes with very high production quality and cool 3D space action before. And it worked! We collected 420,000 Euros from over 10,000 backers on Kickstarter. Many of them were huge Galaxy on Fire fans not being happy at all with where the series was heading under the new IP owner. And then there was the massive shout out from Chris Roberts to his Star Citizen community about our Kickstarter, which broad in a friendly armada of avid space pilots backing Everspace as well.

The money from Kickstarter and the extended crowdfunding via our own site, plus a time-exclusive deal with Microsoft including substantial marketing support at big gaming shows, helped us to make it all the way to Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Preview without a publisher. I have to admit, I had tremendous respect about self-publishing on PC. During our time at Fishlabs, we had an excellent relationship with Apple. We always received a big feature for Galaxy on Fire when we needed one. At Valve, I didn’t know anyone or how to get in touch with them, but I knew it would be vital for us having a direct contact. However, my worries were washed away when Everspace was prominently featured twice: on the Steam Home Page at the launch of Early Access, and at the full release nine months later.

What do you think was the reason?
Apparently, we had a high enough number of Wishlists thanks to our outstanding Greenlight campaign with 89% positive out of some 17,000 votes and the visibility of our successful Kickstarter with all its aftermath. The gaming press was writing about our unusual comeback and dedicated space game influencers, who pledged on getting closed alpha access, covered Everspace on YouTube and Twitch quite a lot.

During nine months in Early Access, we had three successful sales and we worked closely with our community to constantly improve the base game until overall reviews hit 93% at full release. In combination with over 100,000 units being sold during Early Access, I guess we ticked all the right boxes, so Everspace got another big feature at full release, clocking another 30,000 units within four weeks.

Of course, we were already super thrilled, but that was not all. Shortly after, an email from Valve came, wanting to feature Everspace in the Summer Sale the following month. We sold yet another 40,000 units. At that point, we knew we were going to be well off for the next three years if we didn’t get carried away and keep our costs in check.

Did you start the Encounters DLC then?
Yes, we had quite a list of stuff that didn’t make it into the full version, so Encounters became quite an ambitious expansion for a rogue-like indie game. The entire team worked on it for over half a year. However, the unexpected challenge was by adding a lot of new content and features we were actually changing the whole game and we had to be very careful not to break the entire balancing.


“We had quite a list of stuff that didn’t make it into the full version, so Encounters became quite an ambitious expansion for a rogue-like indie game.”


1 Rockfish Games (especially co-founder Christian Lohr) has transformed a spoiled flophouse into a nice open space studio with his craftsmanship. 2 Rockfish residents in Eimsbüttel, one of the most popular residential areas of Hamburg.



“If it goes well, you’ll immediately have people who want to put a lot of money into the company to make it big very quickly. But we don’t want to lose our family atmosphere.”


How satisfied are you with the Everspace ratings?
We spoke to people who enjoyed the challenges in playing rogue-likes, but we barely managed to appeal to people who don’t like the genre. To the contrary, a lot of fans of open-world space games saw the great trailers and thought Everspace was like a new Freelancer. But that wasn’t our game, so we got a lot of negative reviews, especially during big sales when the price was below 10 dollars and many gamers didn’t bother to read the description.

To put this into perspective: In combination with disappointed fans of open-world space games giving us their thumbs down, overall ratings dropped down to 78% after we added VR and joystick support. VR had a lot of teething troubles back then and adding HOTAS support post-launch was anything but easy. It was a tiny target group of die-hard space sim fans, but they made a lot of noise when it came to ratings. So, trying to add too many innovative features and mixing genres proved to be problematic. However, making Everspace a roguelike was still the right decision. Because without it, Rockfish Games as an independent studio wouldn’t exist today.

You literally built your studio by hand. How did that work out?
When we got the deal with the big publisher, we rented a transition studio for three months. At the same time, we searched the internet for a cheap permanent solution. Christian, who is definitely a genius in finding great deals, was looking for the most expensive offer. Why? Because that’s usually an input error. That was also the case of the rent of our new office space: A couple of thousand Euro per square meter!? And the real estate agent said on the phone: “The property has been online for nine months, you’re the first one to call.”

Christian sensed the opportunity, but when we opened the door, we saw the place was totally run down: heavily worn carpet, nicotine stained walls, just terrible! Plus, we only needed 350 square meters, but the property was 768. Who would do the renovation while we’re working on our first project? Christian immediately said: “I can do it! I’ll get some craftsmen and we’ll get it done in just three months, no problem. And for less than 50,000 euros!”

Well, we still had 100.000 Euro, the last money that we got as a loan from our families. We spent the other half on our starting equipment and began working on our first project. While I was making sure together with our team that we would keep the publisher happy, Christian teared down the new place and built it up from the ground – what a maniac!

Since the studio was far too big for our needs, we simply rent out half of it and now have a very nice new studio for up to 25 people for less the cost of an average three-room apartment in Hamburg downtown.

Everspace 2 was a big topic at gamescom, not least because of Geoff Keighley’s words of praise at gamescom: Opening Night Live. It’s no longer a rogue-like, but an open-world RPG. Quite a risk, isn’t it?
Well, Everspace 2 is a sequel with the story picking up after the events of the predecessor. Still, we asked ourselves: Should we really call it “Everspace 2”, although we’re making a huge leap from a rogue-like to an open-world RPG? It’s a completely different genre! The team, especially, was concerned. But most outlets picked up the unusual approach, and the headlines read: “Rockfish Games says goodbye and drops the rogue-like formula to create an open-world spaceship shooter with RPG elements.” Since Everspace 2 will have procedurally generated loot items, something that no other spaceship shooter out there has done before, we also went with “Freelancer meets Diablo” which resonated perfectly with both the media and our fans.

The demo of Everspace 2 already looks very polished. Why don’t you release it as Steam Early Access already, why do you do a Kickstarter campaign?
First of all, we’d like to get the community on board as soon as possible. These days, trust in the developer is more important than ever. There were quite a few games released in the last few years that didn’t turn out as promised. We want to do it precisely the other way around. At the same time we released the announcement trailer, we also published a 22 minute Let’s Play, showing that the trailer was made of in-game graphics. That’s what the game really looks like already at this early stage of development. We even decided that all Kickstarter backers, who at least pledge on a digital copy, will get the Everspace 2 demo in November, this year. Our approach is unlike most Kickstarter campaigns, where backers have to wait at least a year to get their hands on a playable version.


“If you’re doing well, you’ll soon have all sorts of people knocking on your door who wants to put a lot of money into your company and make it big very quickly.“


How did you get into game development in the first place?
Before Fishlabs, we were running the leading CGI studios for 3D visualization in Germany. However, things hadn’t been much easier back then. It actually took us quite a while to fully recover from selling our first studio to an online multi-millionaire to create a massive 3D online world only months before the internet bubble burst and we found ourselves with empty hands after ten years of hard work. Sounds familiar? Anyway, we somehow managed to get back onto our feet and started working with game engines to find a new edge by offering interactive 3D visualizations to our former clients. One thing led to another and eventually Sony Ericsson got in touch with us. They had a new line of mobile phones coming up that could render 3D graphics and were looking for developers with experience in developing “old-school” console games.

When I held this new Sony Ericsson phone in my hand and it looked at the tiny display showing PS1-style 3D graphics, I thought to myself: “We’ve seen this before, back when Christian and I studied mechanical engineering together and used to work on obscenely expensive Silicon Graphics workstations, which could display 3D wireframes fluidly and only a few years later we had flat shaded 3D graphics on regular PCs. It’s clear what’s going to happen in the next ten years: Games on mobile phones will look just as good as current console games but with a potential install base ten times larger because everyone will have a mobile phone and will be able to play console-style games on the go. If we become part of this right from the get-go and focus only on 3D mobile games, we’ll be at the forefront of this next gaming revolution.” That’s how Fishlabs came into being.

How do you see the next few years, how strong do you want to grow?
If you’re doing well, you’ll soon have all sorts of people knocking on your door who want to put a lot of money into your company and make it big very quickly. This is when you have to pay special attention to who your next partner is. Who you “go to bed with” for business, so to speak. You won’t be able to turn that around anymore once you have made that step.

Looking back, our first venture capitalists were the wrong partners, but we didn’t have much of a choice. They never understood why we develop games, what motivates us. Of course, we want to make money, but we also want to make games that fans love — the kind of games we like to play ourselves. Games that you can actually finish and look back with joy about the hours of fun you had with while you are excitedly waiting for the next sequel or expansion.

1


But financial investors have completely different goals. They are looking for investment opportunities where they can make at least 10x their initial investment to compensate to other investments that go bust. Typically, you won’t make such high returns from premium games, the kind of games our team was passionate about. To compete with the most profitable gaming companies in the world, you have to go F2P, but that only works if everyone is 100% on board with it.

So, we will be very cautious about our next moves regarding anything beyond Everspace 2. However, we would be poor entrepreneurs if we wouldn’t take a closer look if a tempting opportunity comes along our way, even if it is outside of our comfort zone. However, we will structure any investment deal quite differently, so that nobody can ever harm our studio, our family. We’re not going to lose everything all over again, that’s for sure.

You’re a pretty grassroots democratic bunch. Does that cause any problems?
We have a fantastic team that has been making great games for more than ten years together. I would never dictate them what kind of game to make, they know those details much better than I do. However, we did have several situations in the past that cost me a lot of energy. I felt that no matter how much I achieved on the sales and marketing side, it was never enough or not even recognized internally. But when I had concrete game ideas or wanted to change the general direction the team quite often just rolled eyes, and I could only convince them by pulling enough feedback from our community that wanted the same what I did.

But the team and I also disagreed on some very high-level decision where I could not bring in the community (which also can be quite counter-productive). For instance, we had very different opinions on whether to continue the story of Everspace in our next game. Uwe Wütherich, our creative director, and I were very much in favor, the rest of the team was mostly against it. Uwe and I really liked our story with all its nods to sci-fimovies like Blade Runner, Battle Star Galactica, The 6th Day or The Island, and how well it fit the rogue-like format. To me it was also obvious from a business perspective that you build a sequel on the lore and the events of the predecessor.

However, our team never really liked the clone-themed story of Everspace. They thought it was too generic and the hero to shallow and naïve – which makes perfect sense for a clone pilot if you think about it. But, they wanted to do something else, so I let everyone pitch their own ideas which I found even more generic and boring. At some point, I had enough. I pulled the CEO card and decided that we’ll continue the clone-themed story in Everspace 2, period. No surprise, that didn’t go down well with everyone, even our long-term story writer was not a fan, but we had to make a decision.

However, I learned from our coach that entitling the team first and then overruling them is never a good idea. Some team members were pretty grumpy, others just didn’t care about the story anymore. Not good, but I was convinced I made the right call. So, we hired a story consultant who had been working on AAA sci-figames to help us get everyone on board with the story.

We found the perfect fit with Joshua Rubin, who has been working on a lot of big gaming franchises: Destiny, Game of Thrones, Assassin’s Creed. Joshua’s opinion was that of course you should keep your main characters and beloved sidekicks in a sequel, so that fans can easily connect with the new story. He also liked the clone-themed story concept and saw lots of potential. It just needed to be better executed.

We’ve been working with Joshua on the story for a bit over a year now, and it has improved quite a lot. His creative talent helped immensely to eliminate the disagreements within the team. Of course, I am fully aware that great gameplay, stunning graphics, tons of content is much more important for the kind of game we’re making. However, I’ve experienced myself often enough how much an exciting story can motivate you to keep playing because you want to know where it is going, and it can also help to stand out from other games. That’s why we put so much emphasis on a captivating story… Our ultimate goal is that each and everyone in our team will be pleased and that our fans will love Everspace 2. Fingers crossed!


I’ve experienced myself often enough how much an exciting story can motivate you to keep playing because you want to know where it is going, and it can also help to stand out from other games.”


For Everspace 2 Rockfish Games uses the latest Unreal Engine with Niagara Mesh Particles and Volumetric Lighting.

MICHAEL SCHADE

Co-Founder and CEO Rockfish Games Joint entrepreneurs for more than 25 years, Michael and his long-term business partner Christian Lohr founded the independent PC and console gaming studio Rockfish Games, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, in 2014. Together with their seasoned team behind the critically acclaimed Galaxy on Fire series on board, the former mobile games veterans had a major surprise hit with Everspace, a fast-paced 3D rogue-like space shooter, on Steam, Xbox, PS4 and Switch.