With indie developers finding it increasingly difficult to gain exposure in the mobile game space, Swiss developer Blindflug Studios has found recent success with its fast-paced strategy game, First Strike. Since then however, the indie studio has crafted one more title and is currently working on the twin-stick shooter that is Airheart – “a dieselpunk action game about a young woman, who flies her airplane and catches skyfish among beautiful sky islands. Amelias biggest dream is to reach the stratosphere and to bring down the legendary Skywhale, which promises riches and fame for a lifetime.”
I spoke to Moritz Zumbuhl (President and Co-Founder of Blindflug Studios) and quizzed him about his game, his studio, and the development scene within Switzerland as a whole. Enjoy!
How many people does Blindflug Studios consist of?
Currently, we are four full-time employees. And we work with several other freelancers and work for hire people from my other company, an advertising agency, also in Zurich…
How long has Blindflug Studios been going for?
We started working on our first game, and released First Strike, a game about nuclear war, about two and a half years ago in April 2014. And we officially founded the company then. But we have been working together now for five years. We started at the advertising agency I told you about, doing games, and then we separated the game studio.
So First Strike is the first title. Cloud Chasers, I assume, is the second title?
And Airheart is the third?
The third title.
In terms of the experience that you’ve gained over the three titles, what would you say is the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned?
The most valuable lesson that we’ve learned will probably be that it’s really important that you get feedback as fast as possible from the players, so make the best possible build of the game. So with First Strike, we really went out with the smallest possible game. We got a lot of reactions and good feedback. We sold like 225,000 copies of First Strike, and then we continued to develop and shape other features. Same with Cloud Chasers. We had a phenomenal reception from the press, but players didn’t like it that much. We had good ratings, but somehow it wasn’t appealing. So we stopped working on that and continued with the next title with Airheart.
The other thing is we really benefited from having a message. So we do fun games, beautiful games about serious topics. We want to make games with a message about something that we care about. So in terms of First Strike, it’s probably the only game you cannot win when you play it because you cannot win a nuclear war. With Cloud Chasers, we started that in 2014 and it was about refugees. It was not like 2015 when the crisis really broke out. And with Airheart, it’s kind of the same. It’s a game about fishing. So if you fish too much, the game will change. So for us, it was quite good to have something which has a USP. I mean, we are not the only ones who are doing games about serious topics, but it really helped us to get our message out.
Airheart is a side story or a pseudo-sequel to Cloud Chasers. But you mentioned that Cloud Chasers was a financial disappointment despite the critical acclaim it received. Despite the financial disappointment, why choose to continue on in the same universe?
Because we first had idea for Airheart, and then we created Cloud Chasers. We knew that we wanted to tell the story of this little girl. And we knew of what mechanics to use. We were always sure about making Airheart, and that’s why we wanted to do it. And we also know that it is another game. You don’t have to play Cloud Chasers to like Airheart. You can just play Airheart and you will have a great amount of fun.
First Strike and Cloud Chasers were both mobile games. That’s correct?
That’s correct. We are currently porting First Strike to desktop. Yeah, we will create the new version of First Strike called First Strike: Final Hour. And that will include a lot of new content, a lot of new features. We will release that pretty soon, and it will be the desktop version.
What difficulties have you had in transitioning from mobile to desktop environments in terms of development?
I guess the biggest challenge is that people expect more content. And they should expect more content. The other thing is you can do a lot more with the graphics cards and the hardware. You really just need to find your own style. And in mobile, you’re really limited in both of these things. The other thing is in mobile, I guess the market now is really closed for really small indies. And also, in terms of business, we only do premium games. We never did free-to-play games. And if you don’t have a really well-known and well-established brand… I mean we had feature listings from Apple everywhere on Cloud Chasers and that didn’t help either. So I guess mobile is quite a bit harder in marketing than desktop. Also, I think a lot of indies are not doing desktop games right now. So it actually was not that hard, until now, for us to transit to desktop. But we will see. I mean marketing as everything. And we will see if this works for us. I’m not sure, but I’m very positive.
Airheart is a rogue-like twin-stick shooter. What was the inspiration for the title in terms of gameplay mechanics?
It’s a mixture of a lot. I’m not sure if it’s something that is truly unique. Nuclear Throne, for sure, was an inspiration for this kind of “go faster, go faster, go further, go further, go further”…
Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer?
Yes. And because we want to mix that with the thing where you can go back. You can go home. You can craft your stuff. We were absolutely sure we wanted to create the universe where we can expand, where we can kind of continue the development with the community. That’s why there is an unlimited possibility for levels. There’s an unlimited possibility for wings, for engines, for airplanes, for guns etc.
Unlike most other stin-stick shooters, the guns have a recoil element. Generally, in twin-stick shooters, guns don’t have recoil. You can carry on shooting in the direction or whatever… What made you decide to implement a recoil element to your guns?
So we have five different airplanes. There are ones that are very strong. You have some that are very fast. You have some that are very lightweight. So what this adds to the game is that since you’re a player, you fly around, and you have other opponents and drones that can stand still. You can use the recoil to kind of play the game a little bit otherwise. So if you use the recoil with the light plane, you can almost stand still. And then you can kind of change and shoot in the back and then go away. So that’s really a game style feature. And it gives you another way to play the game, and not just only fly around.
Blindflug Studios is based in Switzerland. What’s the development environment like in Switzerland? How supportive is the development community there?
We are at the beginning of building an industry in Switzerland. We have many great talents from university, and we get a lot of support from the government now. But the honest answer however is that there is almost no one who has really made it from only one title. So we really have to build everything from scratch. But it’s also very, very interesting. There is a movement, and everybody helps each other. We know each other. We travel to all the places around the world. And there is really a lot of spirit to help. And I guess we had some successes… First Strike was important. We have a lot of talent. We have a very strong tradition in design. But one problem is we have really high living costs. Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in the world. So you really have to have some money to survive in Switzerland. That’s probably one of the more problematic things. Also, we have to pay quite high wages for game developers. I mean I like to pay good salaries. That’s not the point. But the cost of living is just enormous…
And obviously, given how few indie developers “make it”, that will have an impact in terms of the amount of talent that comes forward…
We are very open with our numbers. You can check the First Strike blog. We distribute all the numbers we have. Just to give you an idea, this may sound stupid now for a lot of people on this planet, but we made like 600,000 CHF with First Strike. And that’s not a lot of money. You cannot survive with 600,000 CHF for two years in Switzerland with four people.
I mean taxes are very, very, very low. But living costs are so high. A normal flat in Zurich costs between 2000 and 4000 Swiss francs or $2500 and $4000 U.S. dollars. So you have to be really quick and really good. And I guess it will be very hard to build a great team, a big team. So we will have to see what we do later in the stage of the company.