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Finding Victory In Video Games

In the middle of a long brick-walled office, Samarth Chandola sits behind a desk. A guitar lays on top, next to a picture – the frame reads “In Loving Memory.” It's a picture of himself.

Almost a year ago, Chandola was living another life. The 2013 B.C. provincial election campaigns were underway, and he was working as campaign organizer for NDP false creek candidate Matt Toner. They worked out of a brick-walled office in the heart of the Downtown Eastside overlooking Hastings Street, barely a block away from busy Victory Square. His duties consisted of managing staff, booking events, working under constant deadlines, and achieving victory.

Toner didn't get elected. But Chandola still works out of the same room. The picture on his desk reads “In Loving Memory,” but now there's a neon sign hanging on the wall across from him. It says “Victory.”

The office is now the home of Victory Square Games, a video game development studio Chandola created that makes games for mobile devices. “Victory Square Games was born out of the ashes of the once mighty, now crumbled Vancouver game industry,” Chandola says. He is wiry and restless, and his hurried speech seems to trip over itself in places. “I saw a plethora of young, brilliant and hard working talent around me, but not opportunities to offer them what they deserved. So I founded VSG and inadvertently took on that mantle of opportunity creator.”

Though Chandola still works out of the same office, the campaign posters have been replaced with tea-stained world maps, and the Rolodexes of political contacts have been replaced with action figures. But some things remain the same. The dumpster behind the building still gets broken into. And Chandola is still trying to achieve victory for an all-new start-up.

Video game development may seem a far cry from the world of politics, but when Chandola talks about everything else he's done, politics seems the least likely. Chandola grew up in New Delhi, and found an early love of story-telling. The young Chandola was a playwright, and spent time touring around India. He also made films, and his short film Tumbling After recently won Best Short at the British Horror Film Festival. When he was 19 he launched a youth magazine, and after a few years he left for Berlin to obtain a bachelors in literature and philosophy. In 2011 he went to Vancouver Film School to learn entertainment business management, and graduated last December.

Getting into games wasn't a random act. The once-booming Vancouver games industry took major hits over the last few years, losing major studios like Radical, Rockstar, and Capcom due to a growing lack of incentive to develop in B.C.. But in the wake of what seemed like a terrible collapse, the leftover talent began forming small indie studios that have been quietly creating a burgeoning movement in the city. Now, it seems, would be as good a time as any to open a game studio.

If Chandola's history is any indication, he's always looking for an opportunity to try something new, and making video games has always been a dream. He believes that now is the perfect time to get into the industry, but he's not just doing it because he can. Chandola is a lifelong gamer. “I played every single Civilization game. Probably put in more that three thousand hours of my life into that franchise. All-nighters are still pretty common.” Aside from Civilization's large-scale strategy warfare, Chandola admits that his other love is games that tell stories. “I play a lot of story-based adventure games as well – the Broken Sword series, the Ace Attorney series on the Nintendo DS, old school classics like Grim Fandango and Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle – interactive storytelling and strategy, those were the two genres I kept going back and forth like a ping-pong ball.”

It is fitting then that one of Victory Square's newest game projects is a political strategy game currently in development called GovernMental. The lineage is clear, and Chandola's experience on the political front lines meant he knew how to extract interesting game mechanics. “It's war,” he says. “Thirty days before the election there's a campaign race going on. All parties are campaigning in full swing; they're trying to influence voters left, right, and centre. This is the stuff strategy games are made of.” Chandola recalls his days managing a real election campaign, days spent staring at a map, plotting out the areas to send canvassers, colour-coding regions his candidate controlled, and trying to plan the best way to make a move on the opponent. “If this was a computer game I could be doing substantially better than what I was doing in real life.”

But GovernMental is still just a glint in the company's eye. Before that project there were others, and before those, there was a young company that needed funding. Extensive experience with Civilization and inspirational neon signs aren't what get game companies off the ground.

Shafin Tejani is one of the more unusual people in the Victory Square office. He currently sits at a desk across from Chandola, and on it is all manner of things that have nothing to do with video games. Tejani runs the investment group Victory Square Labs, and owns the office that Chandola runs Victory Square Games out of. The similar name is no coincidence. Tejani had been an entrepreneur since he was 15, but since starting a family two years ago, he decided that taking on traditional ventures was too risky, and so he formed Victory Square Labs in order to approach investment in a different way, providing start-ups with seed capital and mentoring.

He met Chandola during Toner's political campaign. Tejani let them use the office for six weeks, and during that time he and Chandola got to know each other well. Tejani was impressed. “[Chandola] had run a specific game bundle program that helped raise, I think it was around $85,000 in either one or four days,” Tejani says. His speech is less hurried than Chandola's, and he talks with a precision and confidence that belies the volatility of funding a start-up. “I got to see the kind of hours he was putting in. I don't always invest in an idea necessarily, a lot of times my decision is weighted on the entrepreneur themselves. One of the biggest things about Chandola was that I believed in him.”

Tejani and Chandola began a close business relationship, and Chandola decided to start a company that did for games what Victory Square Labs did for start-ups. It was only fitting that he take the name.

But the focus for now at least, is on the company's own projects. “In the immediate six months I see us releasing four of our own projects,” Chandola says. It's easy to guess what one of those is just by looking around the office.

Hanging off every cork board and sitting on every shelf is a menagerie of paper creatures – what the team refer to as “boximals” – cardboard boxes with animal faces and animal feet. They are scattered around the office, some being used as pencil holders, others as staple bins, but all of them are cute. The boximals are the stars of Victory Square's first game franchise, a series of mobile education games for early childhood starring the titular creatures. The first game, called Boximals ABCs, is done and waiting to clear certification to be released on mobile devices.

Despite the adorable creatures hanging off of every surface, the office is hard at work. Over in one corner is Tejani, taking a phone call, and scattered about are five or six desks of employees modelling, coding, and designing one of the company's seven ongoing projects. Game art covers the walls and whiteboards. There are boximals and political magnates, and other characters both recognizable and completely new. Victory Square is only four months old, and so it's safe to say they're not exactly a household name yet. But while few people outside of the studio have ever heard of a boximal, there is one Victory Square game that many more people, all over the globe, have heard of.

In one piece of concept art, a mustachioed man puffs a pipe on a foggy London street. Another man dons a deerstalker hat. One could imagine him handling a violin with some mastery. Perhaps the game that Chandola's young company has received the most attention for is this: a point-and-click adventure game in the style of the old classics, called Elementary, My Dear Holmes!

In Holmes, the player assumes the role of Dr. John Watson, sidekick to the great Sherlock Holmes, as he tries to prove that he is every bit the detective as his old partner, if not more. “Elementary was actually started last year as a side project, never actually on a full-time basis, but something that maybe a couple weekends here and there we would put some time into,” Chandola says. That all changed when Chandola heard about Ouya's Free the Games Fund. “That was actually the trigger,” he says. “I was like 'all right, let's do this, we'll put our eggs in this basket and we'll take the chance.'”

What happened next thrust Victory Square's name onto the front page of every gaming news source.

It started with a console called the Ouya. The Ouya is a little cube, about the size of a plug-in air freshener, that hooks up to a TV and plays downloadable Android games. It used the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to get funded, and was touted as an open system that would be easy for both developers and users to do with what they wanted.

Though the console had only been out for about as long as Victory Square had been a company, it hadn't exactly met with a warm reception. A poorly received controller, badly designed user interface, and low return-on-investment for developers meant nobody was buying the console, and nobody was making games for it either.

Ouya knew it needed to incentivize its device to developers fast, and so launched the Free the Games Fund, in which Ouya pledged to match the profits of any Kickstarter campaign for an independently developed video game, provided the developers promised to release the game as a six month timed exclusive on the Ouya console. “I remember thinking it might be exactly what we need to get Elementary, My Dear Holmes! off the ground,” says Chandola.

Victory Square launched a Kickstarter campaign for Holmes that, despite not including any actual gameplay footage, became very popular very fast, and was shared all over the web and written about on gaming news sites. Chandola attributes the swift popularity to a live-action pitch video the studio posted on their Kickstarter page that featured Chandola stealing money, carrying firewood, and tossing bombs out windows while explaining the concept behind the game. The video received more than ten thousand views and saw a high conversion rate from those who viewed the pitch to those who donated money.

While Victory Square was finding early success on the road to getting funded by Ouya, they weren't the only ones on it. A company called MogoTXT had launched a Kickstarter a few days earlier using the Free the Games Fund for Gridiron Thunder, a football simulation game.

The game came under scrutiny for a series of suspicious transactions – incredibly high donations coming from a very small pool of backers. Since Kickstarter campaigns are funded by consumers, not investors, most donations are between $10 and $20, but Gridiron Thunder raised $171,009 from a pool of only 183 total backers. That's an average of $934.48 per backer – eight individual accounts actually donated a staggering $10,000 each.

Despite the campaign getting funded, it turned into a media disaster for the company, with most of the internet convinced the company funded the game with their own money – known in the Kickstarter community as astroturfing.

With time to spare, Holmes reached its funding goal on Kickstarter. And then, people started noticing some suspicious activity happening on the studio's Kickstarter page. A series of accounts began popping up, all donating a single dollar. “At that point in time we started getting a lot of negative comments on our board saying that we were doing some creative accounting on our end.” In the wake of the Gridiron Thunder controversy, people were quick to interpret the suspicious donations as Victory Square trying to game the system.

The studio reached out to Kickstarter, who told them to ignore what was going on. So Chandola kept working. The studio continued to market their game. They hit their goal, and celebrated by releasing a new video, adding a stretch goal to the project, and offering an incentive where backers would be entered into a raffle for the chance to win a next-generation console. Unbeknownst to Chandola, the raffle was against Kickstarter's terms of service, and after Kickstarter notified the studio, Chandola removed the offer. And then, a week before their funding period was supposed to end, Kickstarter permanently suspended their account.

Elementary, My Dear Holmes! was once again on the front page of every gaming news outlet on the web, but this time, nobody was happy. The community was convinced this was just another Ouya failure, another developer trying to game an exploitable system that got caught. Holmes became the new poster child for corrupt game development.

Chandola has a hunch that it's all just an unfortunate misunderstanding. “A lot of people draw associations between the controversy that happened and us getting axed,” he says. Chandola says it was shortly after receiving the letter from Kickstarter explaining that the company had breached the terms of service with their console raffle that the Kickstarter was suspended. “It was really tragic for us that we violated the terms of agreement at that point in time.”

With that, Victory Square's first 15 minutes were up. But Victory Square isn't convinced the negative publicity was all bad. “We definitely found ourselves on the cover of every gaming site right there,” Chandola says, laughing. “And it also makes for a very interesting conversation starter when somebody comes up to the studio.”

Victory Square isn't done with Holmes. With the help of Tejani and Victory Square Labs, the studio was able to secure private funding, and continues to work on Holmes. “It's past pre-production, it is in dev right now,” Chandola says, sounding excited. “We increased our scope, our scripts have become lengthier; our depths have become deeper.”

In the face of an uncertain industry, the studio has still been able to grow fast despite some setbacks. Recently, they became one of three companies in B.C. to get funding from the Canada Media Fund for their Boximals Studios subsidiary, and also managed to land a contract with Microsoft Canada to develop 10 games for the Windows 8 platform and hire more people.

For a studio that hasn't even been around for six months, Victory Square has seen an impressive amount of ups and downs. But inside, it's business as usual. Chandola is looking over new artwork for GovernMental. In three hours he'll be ready to present a script for Holmes. A picture of a slightly younger Chandola, with much less hair and an eager grin, sits on his desk, framed by the words “In Loving Memory.”

On the wall in front of him, a red neon sign glows brightly. “Victory,” it reads.

 

 

About The Author: Garin Fahlman (Contributing Writer)

 

 

Bio: I've been playing video games ever since I found a Sega Genesis in a trash can when I was a boy along with a copy of Super Hang-On. That game was literally garbage but here I am a decade later, feverishly downloading games from eastern Europe like a lunatic, so something must have clicked. I live in Vancouver, where I like to write stories about indie games and the people behind them. I hope to give you interesting stories about fascinating people.

@GarinFahlman : garin@shogungamer.com