Steven Alexander has faced a lot.
Twelve years ago he had just returned to school after some time trying his hand at a musical career, touring northeastern New York. At that time he fell repeatedly ill and on New Year’s Eve of 2002 he was taken to the hospital.
“I got dragged to the hospital ER where they told me my kidneys had failed and I would need to start dialysis immediately,” he explained during our interview. “So this completely changed my world.”
About then he and his soon-to-be business partner Shawn Mills, from Australia, got the idea to start making video games. To that end, they started Infamous Adventures, a studio inspired by the work of Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest series and Lori Ann and Corey Cole’s Quest for Glory. There was just one problem; neither of them knew the first damn thing about making video games.
So, they looked to the past to pave the way for their future. The same Sierra adventures that had inspired them in younger days would be their trial run. They began remaking those same games to practice development, starting with King’s Quest 3.
By the time they started work on Space Quest 2, they weren’t sure if Alexander was going to make it to the end.
“I had given my wife all my passwords for everything so she could give it to the team and maybe they could finish without me,” he shared. “I didn’t know how long I was going to be able to hang on.”
Infamous Adventures King’s Quest III remake
They carried on working regardless, and maintained hope of one day creating their own game starring their own roguish character as a foil to the clean-cut, cartoonish heroes of the past. They wanted to create Quest for Infamy.
Eventually, Alexander was able to receive a kidney transplant. The operation helped give the team hope of finally realizing their dream. They ran with it.
Even with newfound hope, organs and a seven-person team, Infamous Quests (as Infamous Adventures is now known) still needed cash. Kickstarter was just starting to become a viable platform at the time, but the team had little to offer by way of proof-of-concept. They were playing on their own nostalgia, of course, and doubtless others would want a new game in the Sierra style, too, but they still needed something to show. So, they went into crunch developing a demo of Quest for Infamy.
“We worked [on the demo] from February of 2012 right up until we released the Kickstarter in June.”
The Kickstarter was a success. “We raised about $65,000 between Kickstarter and PayPal,” Alexander said.
They didn’t ask for much compared to some projects — just $25,000 — but demolished their own expectations regardless. This was during the $3 million post-coital glow of what would later become Double Fine’s Broken Age, when a video and a design document could get you past the self-publishing velvet rope. Infamous Quests didn’t do that. They put in the time and effort to get a viable taste of their product out to the fans before asking for money.
Even with that money (three times what they asked for) the pair needed help. They weren’t too big to admit it, either. In fact, size was the main concern. Alexander and Mills had next to zero experience. They weren’t prepared for the secondary problems that come with releasing a game.
Alexander opined “Being an independent development studio is hard enough but trying to manage your own distribution and marketing… I could use the help. Having a publisher to take some weight off your shoulders and allow us to focus more on producing the game and completing it – that’s the role [publishers] are filling now.”
According to Alexander, a publisher can provide the sort of support that indie developers need. They can still remain “indie” as we’ve come to think of it, but publishers help save developer and resources better spent on actual development.
Phoenix Online Publishing is a new publisher designed specifically with that in mind. The publisher’s announcement states that they are “dedicated to bringing indie titles with rich storytelling and atmosphere in every genre from role-playing to strategy to adventure to market…”
It makes sense. Phoenix Online Publishing started as Phoenix Online Studios, the company behind The Silver Lining, a fan-made-turned-official sequel to the King’s Quest franchise to which Quest for Infamy owes so much. They’ve been through what Alexander and Mills have and hopefully know how best to accommodate them and others like them.
They also have a history of specializing in the sort of throwback games Alexander’s team harkens to. That’s not to say that he doesn’t like modern games – far from it.
“I can absolutely go out and enjoy a big triple-A game like Bioshock or something and then boot up my Atari emulator and play Pitfall until my eyes bleed.” It’s a matter of finding the balance between the two, and sharing what those games from the past represent, that interests the Infamous Quests.
“It’s really kind of funny how anytime something gets better it also kind of loses something… generationally, you know?” he posited. “We can bring the aesthetics of stuff that we liked when we were growing up into the 21st century and share them… See it all again for the first time! And maybe some of you are seeing it for the first time.”
The crowdfunding campaign still gave Infamous Quests a degree of autonomy – one that’s necessary for both parties, as neither is large enough to simply shovel money on a game – but a publisher can help keep the developers doing what matters to them.
That, according to Alexander, is making games.
“We make adventure games. Which, compared to what else is out there, is definitely a niche market,” Alexander explained. “Knowing your audience and knowing who they are is of utmost importance. Especially when you’re an indie company – that’s all you have.”
Games from smaller teams with smaller goals also mean lower prices. It’s been the nature of the games industry for a while now that downloadable indie games are cheaper than triple-A, big budget blockbusters. But Alexander is alright with that.
“I like that I can offer my game for less to people because I’m not spending all of my money on bullshit, as they say,” he laughed. “I’m passing the savings onto who’s important to me, and who’s important to me is the gamer.”
Like his game itself, this pricing model represents a nod to the culture surrounding games of its era.
“You know, I remember when I was a kid and buying a Nintendo game was a big deal. I had to mow a lot of lawns. And I was a fat kid! I hated it!”
Infamous Quests and Phoenix Online Publishing are young companies. With that youth they have the opportunity to take a lot of risks to push the future of storytelling in games by looking to our past to do it. However, in this new, hybridized publishing system that blends the best of both crowdfunding and traditional business, a lot can go very wrong. Backers can get frustrated; publishers can get antsy; plans can fail.
Steven and the gang have been through a lot. They’re in for a whole lot more.