Brigador took five years to create. It’s a mech game with a great retro-chic look, a standout soundtrack, and fully desctructible everything. The developers jokingly call it a “Kool-Aid Man simulator.” On Steam, it has a 94 per cent positive rating. Despite all that, it flopped.
In the wake of a small handful of reviews and dismal sales, the game’s lead developer, Hugh Monahan, described his team’s trials and tribulations in a lengthy Imgur post. It was titled, “Happy cake day, 5 years of game dev will kill you.” Cheery!
In it, he lamented the stress of creating a game while crammed in a small house with his whole team, the struggle to gain visibility despite a big (for an indie) marketing push, and made note of his own physical and mental decline. “The stress of that situation 5 years on, plus shipping the game has reduced me from a guy who boxed at university to a 30lb heavier idiot who had to see a doctor for what I discovered were panic attacks,” Monahan wrote. “Also following bloodwork being done, the doctor was perplexed by how low my Vitamin D levels were until I explained to him that I literally never go outside anymore. He also asked if I had a stressful job, so I laughed.”
The post garnered a fair amount of attention both positive and negative. Some people commiserated. Others called out the Brigador team for launching their game right before E3, designating successful indies “Specials” without giving them credit for the work and good fortune that got them there, and making some unwise development decisions.
Now that the dust has settled, I decided to check in on Hugh and his brother Jack to see where things are at and how they’re picking up the pieces after their indie Titanic sank.
Kotaku: Going into all of this, what were you expecting? How much had you prepared? What was your financial situation like? How were you expecting the game to do?
Hugh Monahan: Originally, it was just three of us. My brother didn’t actually enter into development until late 2012. When we started, I was pretty much fresh out of university, I was about a year out from university. I was working as a substitute teacher and doing freelance illustrations. It was basically the two guys, two programmers had money saved up from internships at companies like Mythic.
For me personally, in the early days, I was able to support myself with part-time work or freelance. Then basically we just got our family to give us the cushion that we needed. If you don’t have a parachute, that completely changes how you’re able to operate. The ground rule for us as a team was that, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it our way and we’re going to make a game. We didn’t want to do this kind of like, spend part time working on commissioned games for other studios, and then earn up money when we could, and then spend that on direct debt cycles for our game. I’m not trying to denigrate that. That is a very sensible way to handle things, and it’s how I know a lot of studios are able to balance their working capital.
For us, the idea was if I’m going to make games, I want to make my game. We all felt that way. If we were going to do it, it was like, OK, we were going to bet the farm. We’re going to do it our way, and then it either works out or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we’ll go our separate ways and we’ll figure something else out. One of the boons was living in Illinois, where the cost of living is very low. Then add on to that us living together and turning our living room into an office, our burn rate was exceedingly low.
That allowed us to operate for a long basis, especially when we were only part time at first, without really haemorrhaging money. Then my brother Jack, with him, he had a lot of money that he had managed to save up from his freelance work and from his previous gigs. He basically removed himself entirely from the equation, other than financially at least.
We basically had as large of a reserve as we could manage and we minimised that burn rate. Then it was, I’m going to be honest, there were times when it was really, really shitty. When you’ve got three dudes in a two bedroom apartment for years at a time pulling days 12 hours or longer, that’s tough. It’s not the fun like social network hacker house, like, “Whoa man, let’s get drunk and program.” We had some fun times, but it was much more just nose to the grindstone, like we’ve got to get this done. When we needed to draw on it, my family was fortunately there.
Brigador never would have been made if we weren’t able to devote full-time to it. Or rather, it would have been a much, much tinier thing.
Kotaku: You made an Imgur post that gained a lot of traction about the struggles you ended up facing while creating and releasing Brigador. Why did you decide to make that post? Was it a heat of the moment thing, or was it a calculated effort to get a little publicity?
Hugh Monahan: It was a little bit of everything. You guys on the site covered previously, back in February, I wrote a Steam post about the game’s price, and that one got a lot of traction. That was basically a second early access launch for us. That was when I realised that for us, at least for Brigador as game, visibility was just one of the major bottlenecks. I knew that there was a chance to kind of reach out to people by writing something like that.
This has basically been my first real project. I did some kind of hobbyist level game dev for about a year and a half prior to starting Stellar Jockeys. The combination of this being a first project as well as being based out of Champaign, Illinois, the volition is there but there’s not really any other indies. The closest places would be Chicago and St. Louis.
When we had started back in 2011, even those communities weren’t nearly as active as they are now. For a long time, we were basically developing almost entirely in isolation. It was just hard to get this kind of information. It was the same kind of thing with the price post that I wrote. It was a combination of, I guess, venting some of that frustration. We’d been struggling so long to try and get this thing out there, and we think we’ve got something good, but there hasn’t been a commensurate response to it, but also to help other developers really just to maybe be able to see the iceberg in the distance so that that’s something that you can maybe prepare a little bit more for.
Especially with the launch, we all were under a lot of stress just getting the game out. What I didn’t expect was that probably the first week and a half post-launch were just as difficult as that large period of time. I was doing 16 hour days for a good couple of weeks prior to the actual launch itself.
The problem with going out after the launch, I had nothing left in the tank to do a lot of this marketing and support and follow through with people that is just as important, if not more, than the launch itself.
Jack Monahan: We worked really hard and, in fact, we made a call there. We said, you know, we need to make sure that this game is actually really in shape to launch before it got to the press. It did mean that we missed our press window. You don’t need to be told just how important that is because you’ve got that stream headed your way too as a journalist. You’re expected to write about things and it just keeps coming. There’s just always more game.
For us, yeah, a lot of that kind of understanding the post is, we had not the best launch window, but we were just about to lose one of our coders. We really couldn’t push the launch of the game after E3. We had this little window before E3 and it’s like, well, this is going to be it. We launched and just a lot of silence. Hugh was realising that due to prior interactions with people, did people find out about our game? They get to play the game for a while, they really like it. We’re sitting at a 94% positive rating on Steam and that’s a really proud thing, but you can’t do much with it unless people know about the game.
Kotaku: Yeah, I think a lot of people looked at your post and said, “Well of course their game didn’t get much attention. They launched way too close to E3. What a silly thing to do.” Your Early Access timing wasn’t great, either. You definitely got dinged for that.
Jack Monahan: Yeah, from my perspective, I think the really humbling lesson is that, I’ve been working in the industry in various capacities for about 10 years, longer than my brother. Is that it’s easy to have this little voice in the back of your head that, you see some of these difficult stories come out in the press and say, oh, well, that’s tough. That’s tough, but their game really isn’t that good. When my game comes out, it’s going to be brilliant and everyone’s going to see that it’s brilliant. Without really second guessing that, everyone’s got that little voice in their heads. It’s like, oh man, I can’t believe my friend Steve moved out to Hollywood and didn’t become Brad Pitt, but that’s still going to happen to me, so I’m not worried.
That’s one of those things that is just you constantly have to combat is that hard work may not save you. A very good game may not save you. Hard work, and a good game, and a couple lucky breaks, it’s still not enough. The current state, I wake up and say, hey, at least I’m not trying to develop a mobile game. It’s something like 300 games per day are released on the app store for Apple.
On Steam though, it’s a more manageable six or seven a day. That’s still six or seven a day. It’s very interesting, interesting is a weird way to put it, it’s terrifying to watch your game. You’ve got that popular new releases board, which is not the popular board, which is usually fairly unchanging by the same hits. Your popular new releases board is kind of like, each little game gets its little life vest made out of paper, like wax paper, and everyone’s like, “Yay, we’re floating!” It’s like, you’re not floating. You just got a little bit of air still left in you.
Hugh Monahan: You just haven’t drowned yet. Once that life jacket dissolves, you just sink to the bottom.
One thing I would add to that is just that, and if I gave this impression with either of the posts, I didn’t mean to, I never meant to say that we didn’t make mistakes. I kind of had that as an assumption with writing the piece. Again, this was our first project. Not even just talking about the release itself. We took five years to ship a game and we wrote our own engine, for all intents and purposes, that’s suicide. If you could assume that people on Imgur and Reddit would actually read like a 15-page post, then I actually would have fully articulated all of the circumstances going into it and why we made this decision.
You don’t have that kind of bandwidth. A lot of that kind of explaining had to get cut. One of the biggest things that I realised was just that I made the mistake of assuming that scaling up the size of a game would also scale up the coverage of it. That was a completely wrong assumption and one that actually we suffered a lot for because so much of it is just about becoming a known quantity, establishing a reputation for yourself, establishing your studio.
Kotaku: It’s always interesting to see what catches on. It comes from all sorts of places. Sometimes it’s just a zeitgeist thing. Stardew Valley is a good example of that. That game was in development for many years, came out, and immediately became a top seller. Everybody was talking about it. Turns out, it was a thing nobody knew they wanted.
Hugh Monahan: Right, which seems absurd to think about the equivalent in other mediums, especially like music. Music is so ephemeral, but imagine trying to come up with a cool, hip album that takes four or five years. It ends up with a Chinese Democracy, Guns ‘N’ Roses style. It ends up an absurd artefact, instantly dated. Yet that’s how a lot of games are made.
Kotaku: Yeah. Although I think there’s also the example of the like small-time artists who’s been working on a collection of songs for years and years. They finally release it, and that’s just what people wanted at the time.
Hugh Monahan: That’s true. No, that’s true.
Kotaku: I’ve seen the music comparison come up a lot recently in relation to indie games. It’s becoming like indie music. Anybody can make it, so don’t assume you’re gonna hit it big, because there’s a good chance you won’t, even if you made something really good. The caveat being that a lot of indie developers don’t seem to view it that way yet. They go all-in on their game and don’t cushion themselves against potential failure.
Hugh Monahan: I think in some ways, yes, but I think it’s already something you see in the indie space. That if you treat it that way, you are necessarily hemmed in quite a bit with the kind of games that you can produce, which is going to create, you already see it with a lot of games. Raise your hand if you’re going to play another side-scrolling platformer.
It’s just really tough, but there’s a reason. There’s totally reasons. Once you start checking the boxes, saying, okay, I can’t spend too much time on this, time’s money, money is time. I can’t do this full-time. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that. I’ve been learning how to do this on my own. Suddenly, all the things you think are like, well, that’s a little crowded in the indie sphere, suddenly you end up doing a game just like that because unless you’re willing to kind of put something else into it, you just end up, it’s another stone in the pond.
The thing I would say is that, while from a lot of judgement standpoints, making an engine doesn’t make sense. Just in that there are tools available that can mitigate a lot of the time required to develop a game.
The counter to that is, first of all, we started this in 2011. Unreal and Unity were in very, very different states back when we started. It wasn’t like the environment is as it is now. The other thing is that people, I don’t think people realize just how much the engine that you use influences the game you’ll end up making. Not just from a structural standpoint, but also from a performative as well.
When we started, there were these sort of two core goals with the game. One was that kind of destructibility be this fundamental aspect of the game. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is one of my favourite games. I liked a lot, but there was frustrations with that. Any quest, like mission critical component would have been stuffed in like a big resistant box. It’s like, oh, the terrain is deformable and self-destructible so long as it doesn’t actually matter that much. We wanted to build a game from the ground up where it’s like, no, no, this is the fundamental component of the game.
The other part was just, we wanted to try and build something that was legitimately different from the market of games currently being fielded. A side effect of that is that our iteration time, our design time was much, much longer. I’m really proud of what we ended up doing, but I think a lot of people, both developers and consumers, don’t realize that outside of getting lucky and something just clicking immediately, when you actually want to build something different, you are dramatically increasing your iteration time.
If people want something different, it’s one of the common complaints about games. Why are people making the same game over and over again? Why haven’t things moved forward? Because that’s actually really expensive and takes a long time. It’s much less of a known quantity.
Kotaku: Thanks to things like Kickstarter, developer blogs and diaries, and the like, I think a lot of people believe they understand game development. As a result, like, they feel a sense of authority when saying, “That game shouldn’t cost so much” or what have you. But I think it’s actually a Dunning-Kruger sort of situation. People know a little, but they believe they know it all.
Hugh Monahan: I think part of it is just doing a better job of actually documenting these processes, like Two Player Productions did in their Double Fine documentary. I tried to blog Brigador’s development, but it ended up being too much to juggle.
One of the, I think it was very succinctly put, David Wolinsky, he does the Don’t Die interview series, he talked with Warren Spector and actually asked him almost this exact question. Why aren’t games being better documented or read? Why aren’t people more informed about it? He just very succinctly said, “Because it’s not as sexy as movies.” We don’t have stars talking about their acting process and stuff. I think, to a limited degree, we can try to make it more like that.
Kotaku: The gaming industry is creating personalities, now, though. They’re filling that gap. You’ve got Twitch and YouTube and stuff, and all these people are kind of, in their own way, becoming the faces of games they didn’t necessarily have any involvement in the creation of. They’re the stars, the drama, the gossip.
Jack Monahan: Yes. I actually really enjoy that, but I would make the crucial distinction between playing and kind of presenting the game versus the one building the game. To circle back to Hugh’s post about getting visibility, a lot of the responses were about what people kind of have in their head about, what do you do when you’ve got your game out there and you need to get it out to more people? One of the most common refrains is, “Oh, you know, just send your game key out to a popular YouTube user. How hard could it be?” It’s actually pretty hard because, again, we’re all still figuring this out.
Hugh Monahan: The way I look at Youtube and Twitch is that it’s almost more like finding a form of patronage. It’s one thing, like one-off streams or videos, like we just had one person review the game, and that video has like 20,000 views right now. It gave us a nice little uptick. Ezekiel_III streamed the game. For about four hours we were in there. We were chatting with about 600 people on the stream. Those were great but those were basically kind of one-off. Within a week, the impact of that is almost entirely diminished once again.
Kotaku: Right, because what is the brand that they’re building? They’re building their personal brand. They’re not necessarily there to support your game. I’ve seen some of the discussion recently, at least in indie circles, kind of shift to, well, what can we as a community do to compensate for this?
Hugh Monahan: I see indie communities as a kind of scaffold for which you can build your game around. Not every game is going to be super popular or even readily lend itself to that kind of viral word of mouth sort of thing. I think a really good example is Duskers. That’s a game that, on paper, should not be successful. I love the game. I think it’s fabulous, but it’s actually done way better than I expected it to. I think a large component of that is that, on the developer as well as media side, people have embraced it. That kind of gave it enough legs to get picked up more. In a slightly different universe, I think that’s a game that would have just immediately gotten buried. Enough people were talking about it that you got that kind of ball rolling.
Part of it’s just becoming part of a community. That is the best thing, I think, that we are able to do for each other, where it’s like you share contacts, you share kind of your war stories. The irony there is that by the time I was properly getting integrated into some of those communities, I had already learned a majority, or not a majority, but like I had already learned a lot of the lessons the hard way that I could have benefited from just from talking with people.
But that’s kinda how it goes, right? You don’t just let any random arsehole just come into your circle and be like, “Oh, I’m an indie dev. I’ve written a couple lines of java code. Welcome me into the fold.” There’s this weird kind of, you’ve got to get far enough to show that you’re serious in order to be integrated into that community or in order to have that kind of viability. Then from there, you can start getting those responses.
Something that I think we could do, hopefully do a little better job with, is this kind of active mentorship. I’m not entirely sure how you would structure that, but Warren Spector did that lecture series at the University of Austin. I don’t even know if those videos are up any more, but he did like 12 hour long lectures. I remember watching those at university and my mind, cue the shot from Requiem for a Dream of people expanding. I think we need to do a better job, from like an institutional standpoint, showing, providing this kind of mentorship because it’s impossible to have just one on one all the time.
Kotaku: At this point, how are you doing? I know that in the Imgur post, things seemed pretty grim. The game wasn’t selling well, and also you mentioned some health stuff like gaining weight and anxiety attacks. What about now?
Jack Monahan: I’m not entirely sure Hugh can see where he’s at because he’s still in the thick of it, so I’ll start the answer for him. He’s still not giving himself a chance to recuperate. Thankfully, I’m have a family. I have two small children. That has been a sort of natural limiter on all of these activities. I still ended up, the week of release, I still ended up pulling two 24 hour days. Which is very, very different thing when you’re living at home with your two children. For the most part, it just ended up being the kind of thing where I’ve got to work smarter not harder, but at the end of the day, I’ve still got to get some amount of sleep because I have to help my wife out with this kids. I can’t just throw this all at her.
There can be a civilising component to having a significant other. Hugh doesn’t have that, and he doesn’t have the distance and experience that comes from having worked on other games that weren’t amazing.
You hear stories like the one from the creator of Stanley Parable. People really raked him over the coals for that. It just goes to show that it’s something like postpartum depression a lot of these guys go through, because you bet the farm on these games, and even when it does really, really well, it can feel really strange negative after that is gone. If you’ve identified yourself with this thing and then that thing is gone, well, who are you now?
It’s still been hard for me as well, and we’re still learning lessons. I’m at least in a situation where I’m able to pace myself a little bit more. Hugh still needs a lot of time to, he just needs down time. He’s been living cooped up with these other guys. I live with my family. That’s relaxing for me.
Hugh Monahan: I’m not saying Brigador is perfect. There’s a lot of issues and a lot of stuff that either can never be fixed or I just need time and I do plan on addressing. When people have those criticisms, that is not something I have trouble with, but I have genuine issues with when someone, when these kind of off the cuff 10 second judgements of something when it’s coming from a completely uninformed position. It’s endemic to internet culture, right? You look at a YouTube video for five seconds and it’s like, “eh”. That kind of knee jerk gut reaction to things. It’s very hard as a developer to not take that on the nose or to want to immediately address and respond to those things.
The other thing is that for five years, I’ve been doing exactly what I want to do. I absolutely love my job. The only downside is that, a) I’m not making any money doing it and b) I’m doing too much. As much as I love game development, it would be nice if my average workday was more like 8 to 10 hours, 5 to 6 days a week, as opposed to the like 12 to 16, 6 to 7. You can only run that hard for so long.
I’ve had some fruitful conversations with some other developers along those similar lines, where it does become a diminishing returns. There are side effects. That post might have been a touch melodramatic, but everything I said in it is true. I boxed at university. I’m no Adonis, but I was a guy in shape. That was something that I kind of prided myself on. It’s been very frustrating when you could go from that into not being that. There’s just no energy at the end of the day. You do what you can.
Kotaku: In your post, you advised people to stay away from indie game development right now. It was a pretty sweeping conclusion, all things considered. Do you think you went overboard there, or at least that what you said might have lacked some qualifiers in regards to other people’s situations and your own mistakes?
Jack Monahan: I think Hugh might be a little salty about it, but I think it’s absolutely worth saying. In order to make games, you already have to fight through so many different kinds of things, different obstacles that other professions don’t.
If someone telling you no is going to stop you, then no is, in fact, the full answer. I’ll let Hugh answer for himself, but I think that’s still absolutely the message. Just because we made a go of it. We had a lot of reserves. We had a lot of coming at it with this. It still was much, I mean we expected it to be hard, but it was harder for us than we expected.
I’m talking with my wife. She’s put a lot on hold for what she wanted to do with our lives, talking about getting a house and these other kinds of things that we expect to do at our age. I don’t know if another project, another game project is going to be something I’m going to do or if I’m going to do contract work. I genuinely don’t know what my future holds right now. If you want a stable future, if you want these other kinds of things, this is probably not the industry at this level.
I would say that we actually had a lot more runway than the vast majority of people going into independent development. We were extraordinarily fortunate. Again, admittedly, we made a lot of mistakes. There’s also this component of like, we were present in this kind of landscape for two years. Multiple trailers, working with the PR agency, we did Early Access, got really good feedback, and I’m glad we did it, although I would have done it differently knowing what I know now.
I don’t even know how these guys manage it living in like Chicago or LA or Seattle. I’ve got probably half the living expenses that they do and we don’t have an office. There’s all these other things that we’re not having to deal with. That’s one of the reasons why we had the long runway we were able to have.
I don’t want this to turn into the whole indiepocalypse thing. I’m very well versed with that conversation. The one thing I would add to that is, I think a lot of that conversation circles around there not being a market for games. I would counter, I’d say I think the market is there. The problem is visibility and awareness on a consumer standpoint. Part of it is just you’re competing with triple-A games on discount from a couple years ago, but as well as just simply knowing about the game. That’s something that we knew based on these previous spikes from my post and from what coverage we did get.
Visibility is directly related to our sales at this point. If you can’t gain that traction, it’s not a trivial thing. It’s not just like, oh, make sure you write a good email to press guys and have a nice header. It’s the extraordinary amount of work involved, honestly, sometimes I kind of despair for where things can go just because there’s so much required of you to penetrate that market if you’re not, if you don’t catch, if you’re not part of the outliers.
Again, maybe I’m completely wrong in this, but I think there’s the risk of what people, what potentially great designers are trying to come into the market right now are either just going to flounder completely or burn out within five years and never actually make it, or matriculate to the point where they’re a Warren Spector or a Richard Garriott. Because you can’t survive. It’s so much harder to reach viability right now.
But while we made some mistakes, who’s dressing down the Stardew Valley guy for spending five years on his game? No one’s arguing that he shouldn’t have spent five years on that game because it was a huge hit. You can’t a priori go back and say, well, OK, here’s your plan. You can spend five years if it’s going to be a big hit. Well, we don’t know that starting out, so do we spend the five years or not?
The other takeaway I would suggest—and this is from a wider perspective before I did indie—is that you should get as many lessons as you can. I would say definitely treat your peers like classmates and kind of help bring each other up, because that has been one constant throughout my career in the industry.
Kotaku: How important do you think it is to accept that, on some level, luck will always be a component of success or failure, no matter how much the stars align otherwise?
Jack Monahan: Yep, that’s definitely important. At the end of the day, the thing you make is not you. It’s wonderful to put yourself into it, but it also really hurts when that thing doesn’t do well. At the end of the day, if you can say, I’m proud of this thing that I did and I’m going to make some more, and hope for the best, that’s all you can do.
Hugh Monahan: If I do end up stepping away from games, what I can say is that I put it on the line for Brigador and I’m, ultimately, extremely proud of the game that we made. I don’t feel like I left anything, I guess I would have liked to have kept on working on it, but ultimately, the thing that we ended up building and shipping is something that I put it all on the field.
I would say that we have, rightly so, gotten some criticism for, again, why did you do this huge thing? Or, five years on a project is silly. Hearing that one from a lot of other developers as well actually, but it’s like I don’t want to piddle around with these sort of half measure games for several years, for like a decade, to get up the steam to build my magnum opus. Then suddenly realize that I don’t know what that is any more and I’m already married with a couple kids and all these other things.
It’s like, no, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right and I’m going to build the thing I want to build. You know what? If it doesn’t take, fine. I can step away and be proud of what I made and maybe I’ll come back in 5, 10 years. At least I did this one thing.