Jason Li started his studio two years ago. At the time he was the only member, but quickly other talents joined up, as bees drawn to honey. Thus, one became more, and today Initory Studios consist of a team of ten people. This team works well together, in a structured manner that Jason likens to the 4-2-3-1 formation of a football team. In line with this analogy, Li seem to be both forward and coach somehow: everyone in the team contribute to the design and production, while also Li coordinate the projects as a whole. This formation hasn’t been without its losses and changes though.
The company used to have a neat 1:1 ratio of boys and girls. Two of the girls quit to enroll at university programs in game design in Japan and the U.S. respectively. Today boys have taken their places. I need to ask if Li have a different experience from working with girls and boys.
“It is a toiling job to finish extra work all the time. In that regard boys are pretty good. But diversity is important. The Chinese indie community is very female friendly I think.” In the end it’s not a matter of girls or boys, Li continues to explain. What makes a mature team is the very important qualities of experience, creativity and passion. Regarding the last of these, passion, Li had an extra focus when replenishing the lines of his development crew. He didn’t want risk hiring someone who would leave them within a year or two.
The struggle is real in indie game development. The financial aspect is significant, especially if you’re a parent with kids to support, like Jason. Getting funding is not an easy task, and just like other chinese developers have told me, Jason points out that this is especially true in China. Back in 2016, the aspect of commercial pressure created its share of anxiety, mainly because of the competition with big, commercial companies. At that time, he also used to overlook such things as game awards on the assumption that he could not do well enough.
Last year, however, Jason returned to a more “indie” type of mindset, balancing both the artistic values of indie and commercial goals of a healthy business. This has resulted in the company having a two directions, which includes both making indie games at low cost, with a focus on individual expression, and making console games at a higher cost, and of higher quality. Their game Sleeping Gardila is an example of the later, being a VR action game that required a lot of emphasize on quality in relation to interaction and technical execution. The team’s ambition was to tailor the game differently for different consoles, but with the rapid changes of hardware it is simply too difficult to keep up.
As for the studio’s indie focus, it allows them to also work on projects that might ask less in terms of cost, but more in terms of creativity. “Being indie allows for creativity”, he explains. “Working for a big company does not allow everyone to fulfill their specific ideas. For myself, I wanted to do something that focused on new technology and innovation.”
However, Jason points out that being a big company doesn’t exclude the possibility of your products being true indie games: “The purpose of making indie games is to satisfy the developer’s need for personal expression. The purpose of commercial game companies, however, is to satisfy market needs. Therefore, games made by for example Blizzard should also be considered indie games, because there are no similar products to their games at the point of their release. Their games will contain a lot of innovative gameplay, like WOW and Heartstone Legend.”
At the moment, Initory Studios are doing a collaboration with a Swedish team Might and Delight. The game they are collaboratively developing is Shelter Generations, in which you face the challenges of the great wild through the journey of a lynx and her cubs. The game has a very unique art style and an apparent charm.
“Want to take a look for yourself?”
I try not to look dumb as the Nintendo Switch is handed to me, since I am simultaneously struck by the realization that I have never ever played a game on Switch before. Soon I get the lynx running through the aesthetically interesting environment however. It’s a unique take on both open-world and platforming combined into one arty game. If you don’t own a switch, check out Shelter and Shelter 2 on Steam!