This time I bring you yet another interview with a game developer, The Stonebot Studio, a studio from El Salvador with a very interesting story. The Stonebot Studio began as a group of people working on mobile games, and evolved into a company making games for the PC and consoles. For this article I spoke to Alessandro Biollo, the man in charge of business development for The Stonebot Studio.
Can you tell us how The Stonebot Studio came to be?
Well, it’s a very long story. At first, Stonebot (that’s how we call The Stonebot Studio) wasn’t really Stonebot. It was a group of people called Bitkingo, and the idea was to bring together people involved in programming and art, to make retro-style games at that point, Bitkingo was not a company per se, but rather a group under another company. Then that evolved further more to the Stonebot Studio, that started making seasonal games, casual games for mobiles and game development outsourcing, one of the games they made was Runaldo, a soccer game for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. During that time, the name Stonebot came up, thanks to a funny story that happened one day during an animation pitch competition. It turns out people in the pitch didn’t even know where El Salvador was, nor that there were people making animations in the country. Then, the joke came up that “we can also make robots, even if we have to use stones” and that’s the origin of the name.
In 2013, the team won the Pixels Awards grant from the government, and they used that money to make Stereo Aereo, rhythm-shooting game for mobiles, that combines guitar hero with shooting space ships.
How was the experience working with Stereo Aereo?
I joined the team during the production of Stereo Aereo, and my job was to look for business opportunities for the game. At that time, the focus was still on making a mobile game, but a publisher interested in the game said it could be a very good PC game.
We had to change all the programing behind the game to make it work on a keyboard or controller, and we also worked on improving the overall game quality (graphics, gameplay, enemy types and behaviors, more levels, etc.) using the resources we had, because at that point we had ran out of the money we won from government grant.
It was all well until the reviews came out, and we learned there were problems on gameplay caused by the transition. For example, on mobiles you could just swipe to change lanes in the game, but on PC that had to be done with buttons and the movement was too slow and that caused gameplay issues.
And what about the release? How did the game do?
Even if it was a good step as a company, it was not a good step moneywise because, even if we had a publisher, it wasn’t a big impact. The problem is many publishers won’t give you money, just marketing, and, in many cases, it’s “organic growth” marketing where they will do different activities hoping something “sticks” and makes the game viral and, they will only do more aggressive marketing if the game reaches certain internal metrics, you don’t know about. You never know how much work they are doing, or what they are doing because they keep that under wraps. And the same goes for mobile publishers. Many of them grab 10 or 20 games a month, just to add them to their portfolio because it looks good, but they only “throw the games into the ocean” hoping they will do good and reach the metrics they want. This is heartbreaking because developers put all their heart and soul into making a game, just for a publisher to send the game to die.
So, you can imagine Stereo Aereo didn’t do well. It was a complete failure. The publisher didn’t do much or what we were expecting from a publisher, I would say. Imagine this, their strategy was “let’s hope one of the big gaming websites like PC Gamer, Kotaku or IGN pick the game and give it a glowing review, so the game goes viral and we get lots of sales”. But that never happened, so their reaction was pretty much “luck was not in our favor.”
At that point we had a meeting with the publisher, and we asked them to revert the rights back to us, and then I began to work on community building and looking for other opportunities, and, thanks to that, we got Stereo Aereo on PlayStation and Xbox. On consoles we managed to sell five times more than on PC, but even with that we were not able to break even. Still, we are proud of Stereo Aereo because it was the first game from El Salvador to come out on PlayStation and Xbox.
So, there’s been a learning experience thanks to Stereo Aereo.
Definitely. We learned a lot about development, the mobile and PC market, and the business side of things. We had an internal meeting where we tried to detect all the mistakes we made, and how to move forward. Since Clan is devoted to digital marketing, during the meeting they weighted on the work (or lack of) done by the publisher and we also realized we had to be very clever with marketing, and figure out how to do it ourselves because having a publisher was not the be and end of everything, although publishers do help sometimes.
Thanks to this experience, we also decided our next game would not be a mobile game anymore because competition in the mobile market is really hard. A lot of people say I think mobile games are not worth it, and that’s not true. Mobile games can be very profitable, but the competition is very fierce so you need a lot of resources to do something. It’s not like your game can be the next Among Us, for example.
Tell me about The Last Friend and how it came up?
The Last Friend is a beat-them-up tower defense game about rescuing dogs in a post-apocalyptic world. In Stonebot, when it’s time to make a game, they always do this small contest, where teams of two or three people will come up with ideas, and then everyone votes for the ideas they like the most. In this case, a team came up with the idea of a beat-them-up and another one came up with the idea of a tower defense. In the end, the team decided to merge both ideas into one.
The plot came up because a lot of team members like dogs, and they wanted to make this game with 80’s cartoon style graphics in a Mad Max world. They worked a lot so they could make all the ideas work, and the same with the gameplay until they reached something that made sense.
How different has been the work on The Last Friend compared to previous games?
Previous experiences made us change the approach and plans for The Last Friend. For example, at first, it was a mobile game but we decided to make it into a PC game, and we made the game specifically aiming at the Nintendo Switch because we saw the potential of that console. We already had a demo, but we decided to change it, and we had to redesign a lot of things. For example, originally the beat-them-up and tower defense mechanics worked independently and you had to jump from one mode to another. We also made changes to how involved the dogs are in the game, among other things.
We had various offers from publishers, but we passed on many of them either because they sounded similar to the one we had for Stereo Aereo, or because they had very ugly terms in their contracts (like very penalizing contract breaches that could be very easily triggered based on “the discretion” of the publisher. Besides, we were clear this time we needed a publisher that really did clear marketing work, and that was willing to invest money on the game.
In the end, went for a publisher called Skystone Games. On a side note, the president of Skystone Games is David Brevik, the designer of the original Diablo game. We’ve been very happy working with them, because they are really invested in the game, to the point they even give us ideas to change or improve the gameplay and whole experience.
What kind of new things you have learned after working on The Last Friend?
We’ve learned a lot of things. For example, our idea of a prototype was wrong. We usually made prototypes into something that looked nice enough to be shown to investors or publishers, but now we work on simpler prototypes using primitives like cubes or cylinders. That way, we can implement new features a lot quicker based on player input that can improve the game. We’ve also learned to know when to listen to feedback and when to not listen to it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good input you can get from players, that helps you improve the game.
We also learned a lot about digital marketing and community outreach. Since our first publisher didn’t do that work for us, we had to learn to do it for ourselves, and now we have learned a lot more, and we have learned it’s best to have someone focused on that. Our plan now is to promote on social networks from day one, so gamers see we are working on something, and do as much noise as possible. We have learned to be very creative to reach gamers and influencers.
Something very interesting happened to us when we went to Twitch Con in 2018. We met streamers that were just getting started at that point, and we began working with them. Now, they’re more of a medium-sized streamers, and they work with a network of bigger streamers. They like to stream The Last Friend because they really like the game. There are a lot of other things I could say, but that alone would be another, even longer interview just to cover that!
And last question, when can gamers get their hands on The Last Friend?
The Last Friend is releasing on PC this September 30th, and then we will launch on Nintendo Switch a few weeks later. And finally, PlayStation and Xbox early next year.
I would like to thank Alessandro Biollo to take some time for this interview and I wish Stonebot the best!
Get The Last Friend on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/944430/The_Last_Friend/
The Stonebot Studio: http://games.thestonebot.com/