Interview: Indiegogo success means a brighter future for Skullgirls

Every developer hopes that its first game will be successful. Few prepare for a complete mess.

That’s been the unfortunate reality for Reverge Labs and its team of Skullgirls creators. After suffering layoffs, they formed their own studio at Lab Zero Games, where they're continuing to focus on the female-centric 2D fighting game. They’ve endured one tough break after another, but now, the group may have finally found success.

We asked Peter Bartholow, the chief executive and producer with the current Indigogo campaign holders — who have amassed more than $300,000 of their $150,000 target crowdfunding goal with roughly three weeks remaining — what this means for their future and everything that’s been put on hold, including the Xbox Live Arcade patch.

GameZone: It seems like you’ve had a rough time with Skullgirls since release — legal battles with [Skullgirls IP owner/publisher] Autumn Games, with layoffs and the formation of your new studio, with patches — and delayed patches — a delayed PC release, etc. Does this feel like a victory for you, a sign that you haven’t been hanging on in vain? What has this last year been like for you?

Peter Bartholow: I’d say the feeling is one of vindication. As a team, we’ve definitely struggled since we were laid off, but we never gave up on the game. So seeing that the community never gave up on us despite the myriad difficulties we faced is both vindicating and humbling.

GZ: I imagine fans are happy. And given the outpouring of support, they definitely love Skullgirls. How is your community different than other those of other fighting games? How would you describe these fans?

Bartholow: I’m not sure there’s really a scientific explanation for what’s going on here — we certainly didn’t expect things to turn out this well. But we’ve worked very hard to cultivate a strong connection and communication with the Skullgirls community and directly incorporate their feedback into the game whenever possible.

My favorite example of this is at Evo 2011, when [design director] MikeZ first unveiled [the character] Parasoul. This was the first time the public got to try her out, and they just weren’t feeling it. So that night he went back up to his hotel room and completely reimplemented her based on the feedback he’d gotten and brought her down for testing the next day. The feedback was markedly improved, and that’s basically the character that’s in the game today.

So being as small as we are means that we’re able to listen and do things that larger studios can’t, and the community has really responded to that.

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GZ: Speaking of patches, how is the XBLA patch coming along? Are you still trying to make that a possibility despite the file size?

Bartholow: The file size issue has been resolved thanks to some clever coding by Mike and the help of Microsoft’s developer support. The current hang-up is a bureaucratic one, and hopefully we’ll have a breakthrough on that shortly.

And for people concerned about this happening again on the next Xbox 360 patch, the one containing Squigly, don’t worry — these issues shouldn’t arise again now that we’ve worked them out once.

GZ: Where do you stand with Autumn Games, currently? What kind of future do you hope to have with them, if at all?

Bartholow: We have a pretty good relationship with Autumn Games, and I think the team would be happy to work with them again once they resolve the legal issues that are draining their capital.

While their legal and financial situation has been frustrating, creatively they’re everything you could want in a publisher. The freedom they gave us was is pretty much unheard of in a developer/publisher relationship: they trusted us to do what was right for the game and let us handle all of our own promotion and communication. And the freedom to interact with the community is probably the singular reason why our Indiegogo campaign is doing as well as it is.

GZ: I was surprised to hear that with Indiegogo, you get paid as soon as you’re funded.  With Kickstarter, there’s a 14-day wait. You have a lot of time left on the campaign, so how often does the excess money reach you? Or is it that you get paid the target amount, and then you get what’s left over after it ends?

Bartholow: Yeah, once you reach your initial funding goal, they start transferring the money into your company’s PayPal account immediately. After that, it continues to trickle in, with a short delay. So just about every dollar you see in the current total is already sitting in our account, and that means that we can get to work immediately.

GZ: Are there any other benefits over Kickstarter?

Bartholow: Indiegogo takes a smaller cut than Kickstarter does. That’s what initially attracted us to them, and it’s a pretty significant advantage if you’re trying to get your costs as low as possible.

And related to the immediate payment is a big value for the customers — if you fund your project quickly like we did, you’re able to get to work and put that back into your campaign to keep driving it. So before the campaign is over 23 days from now, everyone should see real progress on Squigly, Big Band, and the Casino stage we just unveiled.

Not only will that make people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, it should also help drive more contributions.

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GZ: If enough money comes in, you could be introducing three new characters. With those additions, would you be happy with the total size of the roster, or do you want to go bigger?

Bartholow: You’ve seen the line-up of mysterious character silhouettes — we’d love to get every one of those characters into a Skullgirls game at some point in the future. [Creative/art director Alex Ahad] has a ridiculously involved canonical story planned out that we’d like to execute someday, and those are most of the characters needed to execute it up to Skullgirls 3 or so.

GZ: Why propose a male character, Big Band?

Bartholow: The title of the game is Skullgirls, so naturally people are thrown by the inclusion of male characters. But the title is referencing the boss characters, not the fact that the core roster is all women.

Alex has always had plans for male characters to come into play; they just didn’t feature prominently in the first story arc. But we’re skipping around a bit because there’s a lot of demand for male characters in the community, and Big Band was our most requested one.

GZ: Is there room for a Skullgirls 2 in your future, or would you want to move on to something new? Given your experience with this game, is there anything you would do differently to avoid similar hardship?

Bartholow: We’ve been pitching other projects to publishers, but I think the team would be pretty content to work on Skullgirls for quite some time.

With some luck, this could be the end of the game’s troubles and a rare opportunity to relaunch the game and keep building on it from there.

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