Duskers is a defiantly singular game. It’s “indie” in more of a “to hell with it, this one’s for me” kind of way rather than as a way to denote studio size or aesthetic. It’s unforgiving and, at first glance, deliberately obscure. You control drones exploring derelict starships in a galaxy that has gone dead, gathering scraps of supplies and avoiding combat at all costs. You have to meet Duskers on its own terms, because it makes few concessions.
It’s also Misfits Attic’s second game, and a passion project for designer Tim Keenan. It’s the game he started making just as he started to realize his indie dream was about to die. Duskers was how Keenan was choosing to go out, and he suspected he’d never even be able to finish it.
Then the indie community came to the rescue.
"Maybe I'm a brat,” Keenan muses over the phone. It’s the first thing he says when I ask him why he risked so much to start a game studio.
Keenan had a successful career at Dreamworks Animation, working at the intersection of art and technology. That’s the place where he says he’s happiest.
When he tries to explain in layman’s terms what he did there, he points to the details you might notice in a few of their films. The way clothing moves on characters’ bodies in Shrek, the way fire burns in How to Train Your Dragon, or the way the jungle seems alive with gentle breezes and movement in Madagascar. That’s the kind of work Keenan did. The kind of stuff that’s important, but is almost invisible to the audience watching the film.
A lot of independent developers you talk to didn’t really leave all the much behind. Even the ones who seemed to have thriving careers with major studios will usually be the first to tell you about how dysfunctional it all was, and how poorly they were treated. They leave behind job security (whatever that means in the game industry) and are usually only too happy to embrace the lower pay and greater fulfillment of indie development.
Keenan wasn’t in that boat. He had a good job where he was paid and treated well by his employer, which made it 180 degrees apart from his prior job in a mid-tier game studio. He lived in the Bay Area with his wife, had a mortgage and a nice house, and had even managed to build up quite a bit of savings.
So why put it all at risk?
“To me it's kind of like a movie, where — this is a weird analogy — but if the protagonist doesn't have a difficult decision, then that decision is sort of meaningless,” he explains. “If I were bagging groceries or something like that, and I hated my job, then becoming indie would have been [easy]. But I actually really liked my job.”
He adds, “I think what it was that I was one of 400 people making a film. And I didn't [just] want to be working on how the fire looked.”
Keenan’s desire for creative expression led him to games. Not only had he worked in development before, but it was a place where all his interests and skills aligned.
“I've always loved games, and I felt like games were this culmination of all these interesting problems,” he said. “Telling a story, making an interface that's intuitive, designing out systems that have to work together, and audio… all of these art forms layered on top of one another in this beautiful complicated thing.
Taking the leap
Keenan’s partner in Misfits Attic is his wife, Holly. They met when he was a first-year in college, though they would not become a couple until eight years later. She has her own career in the Bay Area tech community as a contractor.
Despite her role as a part of Misfits Attic, she was not enthused about his career change. A freelancer contractor in the US can have an amazing career, but the job doesn’t come with benefits like health, dental coverage, etc. For a lot of people in the United States, most complete health coverage for a family still comes as part of an employment benefit package with a big company.
Holly knew that Tim’s decision to go indie would have huge ramifications for their financial security, and could wipe out years’ worth of gains they’d made. Then, to top it off, she found out she was pregnant shortly after he’d given his notice at Dreamworks.
“We knew we were in for it. We could have backed out,” Keenan says.
He almost did. Discovering they had a child on the way made him look at the risks an entirely more sober light. After giving notice at Dreamworks, he’d been convinced to stick around long enough to collect his bonus (an unbelievably stark contrast to how Keenan had been treated when he worked at a games studio, where they liked to fire people just in time to deny them their bonus).
Now, he was wondering whether he shouldn’t rescind his notice and stay on at his job.