Weekly jams help Old City's Cipher Prime Studios develop online games

Will Stallwood at a jam at Cipher Prime's office. Shot 6/27 Jane M. Von Bergen
Will Stallwood at a jam at Cipher Prime's office. Shot 6/27 Jane M. Von Bergen
Posted: July 11, 2012

What about Cipher Prime's business operation seems normal?

Is it normal to do what the video game company's cofounders did on a recent Wednesday when they invited their competitors to their office, plied them with rum and then collaborated on product development? (Would financiers get together and show off their cool credit swaps?)

Would Campbell Soup Co. find it normal to describe a new curried cauliflower soup online and then ask for donations to underwrite its recipe testing? Probably not, but that's how Cipher Prime Studios Inc. raised $71,000 recently to build a new version of its first big hit game, "Auditorium."

Cipher Prime, located in Old City, is a Philadelphia example of what is very normal in the world of independent game design.

"We're all helping each other," said Cipher Prime cofounder Dain Saint.

Which is why, at 10 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Cipher Prime's cofounder Will Stallwood appeared at the door of his company's loft-space, brandishing a bottle of Myers's Original Dark rum — fuel for the next couple of hours of game building. Five hours had already gone by since the start of Wednesday night's jam, as it is called.

"It's just kind of a free-for-all," explained Jake O'Brien, of South Philadelphia. Ordinarily O'Brien, who has his own company, Flyclops L.L.C., would be considered a competitor to Stallwood and Saint, both 28.

Most Wednesday nights, Cipher Prime hosts a jam at its offices on Chestnut Street — and jam is the operative word, since the 20 people packed into the two rooms were squeezed in so tightly that maneuvering through the tangle of players, laptops and power cords required the grace of a ballerina.

The event is a lot like a music jam, except it's a gathering of geeks rather than musicians, with the improvising all about software instead of music. The goal for a lot of these jams lately has been to share knowledge of a game design software platform called "Unity."

The good news is that "Unity" has lots of features that are useful to game designers; the bad news is that it's so complex that it's hard for one person to master it.

Instead of going crazy reading the manual, the jam crew is helping each other learn the software by using it to create a practice game they call "Smash My Brothers," which Saint and Stallwood described as an online version of the playground game "King of the Hill." Whether "Smash My Brothers" will have any commercial success is unknown, but that's not the point.

For Saint and Stallwood, collaborating to master "Unity" is vital, since they plan to use it to create a new game that builds on the bones of the game that got them started in the business in 2008.

Stallwood and Saint, who each live in South Philadelphia, met early in 2008 when one of their friends moved into the dorm room the other vacated. The two hit it off and talked, in a desultory way, about starting a business.

As it turned out, six months later, Stallwood had just filed the paperwork to begin his own business when Saint called him. They started a web design firm. Nothing shows off web bells and whistles like a video game, so Stallwood and Saint created "Auditorium," releasing it by the end of the year.

To pay for the development of the game and the start of their business, they attached a "donate" button to the game online. Soon, they were receiving thousands of dollars a week from fans of the game. The support sent them a message: Forget web design. Switch to game development.

"Auditorium" was followed by "Pulse" and "Fractal." On June 15, Cipher Prime released its newest game, "Splice." Games are available through Cipher Prime's website or via online game stores, particularly Steam.

Cipher Prime's games are different from what's known in the trade as SHMUP games, which roughly translates to Shoot ‘Em Up.

In "Auditorium," for example, nobody dies. Instead, gamers use the controls to translate streams of light into music. As the light patterns become more complex and beautiful, so does the music, until an entire composition is audible.

To finance an updated version, "Auditorium Duet," Cipher Prime turned to Kickstarter, which describes itself as a funding platform for creative projects. Entrepreneurs or artists with ideas write an online proposal and seek donors who contribute online — usually in return for some perks, including, in this case, a free game.

By the time Cipher Prime posted its proposal on Kickstarter, the first version of "Auditorium" had been out more than three years. Did it have enough of a fan base, Saint and Stallwood wondered, to warrant a sequel?

"We wanted to de-risk the project," Stallwood said.

Stallwood said they estimated that it would take six months of work to develop the game, even as it costs them about $30,000 a month to rent their space and pay themselves and their staff.

"If we could raise half the money we needed, if we reached that goal, then we'd know the people wanted it," Stallwood said.

They asked for $60,000 and by the end of this past March, they had raised $71,061, from 2,037 backers, with most contributions in the $30 to $50 range and one backer contributing $2,000.

"When we passed that threshold," Saint said, "it was extremely gratifying to see people come up and support us."

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her Jobbing blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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