The Story of Oliver Joyce and Swords and Sandals Spartacus
The Story of Oliver Joyce and Swords and Sandals Spartacus
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Who are you and tell us about Swords and Sandals!
I’m Oliver Joyce. I run my own (solo) games business, Whiskeybarrel Studios and have been working professionally as a game dev for about sixteen years now.
I’m best known as the creator of the indie gladiator game series Swords and Sandals, which to date comprises of 5 core games and 5 spinoffs and remakes.
The latest, Swords and Sandals Spartacus is an action game that tells the story of the legendary slave rebellion led by the famous gladiator of the same name.
Spartacus hasn’t launched yet but I’m aiming to get it up on Steam around Christmas this year.
What does a typical day look like for you at work?
Honestly, a typical day is a blur. I work from home on the games which I find a true joy, I love the ambience and quiet. I drop my son off at daycare at 8am, race home and then churn out code until 4pm. There are never enough hours in the day. Once my son goes to bed, my wife and I will have dinner and spend some time together, then from maybe 9pm until 11pm I work some more on the game – not every night of course, that’s how burnout happens! Most weekends I don’t touch the game, it’s important to recharge.
Like many solo game devs, I tend to work on many things at once. An hour of level design, tweak a few sprites, hunt down a few bugs etc. I tend to plan out my day while in the shower, the aspects of the game I want to tackle.
Do you have any partners or employees?
I work with a business partner in New York, eGames. They handle the marketing / customer service side of the projects and also hold the rights to the Swords and Sandals IP.
What type of games do you make?
In my career I’ve made hundreds of smaller games of all genres but the Swords and Sandals series is primarily a role playing game series. I’ve heard from many people RPGs are amongst the most complicated games to make but I feel like I know the genre so well they are much easier than, say, a physics puzzler.
Walk us through the process of creating Swords and Sandals.
Most of the games I make take around a year to build. I’m finding that despite the further along in my career I get and the more I hone my craft, this time frame doesn’t shift too much – I can just pack more content and polish into that year.
I’ve been building games since I was maybe 8 or 9. Way back in the 1980s I was given my dad’s old PC ( no hard disk, just floppy drives!) and I started coding up Choose Your Own Adventure style text adventures, learning to code from a book on BASIC. These were magical days, you’d type out each line one by one, then hope it worked. Eventually you’d get the confidence to edit the original game and make it your own. From that early age I was hooked and made little games all through my teenage years.
I’ve been working professionally making games for about 16 years – mainly smaller Flash games and mobile games, some client work and so on. About 6 years ago I set out on my own, founding Whiskeybarrel Studios in order to make more significant games. All up, I think I’ve made over a hundred games of varying sizes and scopes.
Where did you get the word out about Swords and Sandals?
Primarily social media. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Discord are all useful to varying degrees. The other Swords and Sandals games will promote the game on their main menu when Spartacus goes live.
Interestingly, the major boost for previous games has come through YouTubers doing ‘lets play’ videos. The games have a large presence particularly in Eastern Europe and with each of these videos the games sell more and word of mouth spreads – particularly more than any particular promotion I could do myself just because of the huge subscriber base of these YouTubers.
What are some of the most effective ways that you attract people to Swords and Sandals?
Personally, I am not that well known. I have a few thousand followers on Twitter and about 5k Facebook fans for Whiskeybarrel Studios, but the Swords and Sandals brand itself is a lot more popular.
I’ve never done crowdfunding, though it’s something I am considering for the next game in the series, Swords and Sandals VI , a game I think will be the biggest and most ambitious project I’ve done so far.
My business partner at eGames runs weekly ad campaigns for the game through Twitter, AdWords, Facebook, Reddit. They have proven to be fairly effective in translating to consistent sales for the game.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Richard Garriott (creator of Ultima)’s book Explore / Create , Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design and Scott Rogers’ Level Up! , three books that I constantly find myself reading and re-reading for inspiration and advice. Reddit’s gameDev subreddit is also another hugely useful source of ideas and knowhow.
Primarily I follow and engage with other game devs via Twitter, but Gamasutra is also a great resource for game developers. I am a member of IGDA Sydney and follow a few YouTube channels but more just to keep an eye on industry trends than for any real inspiration.
I think the greatest thing about the wealth of information out there is that no matter where you are in your game dev career, chances are someone else has been in a similar situation and has documented it. You can learn so much from others successes ( and failures ) just through following other game developers and their journeys.
My wife has been a constant source of support and inspiration over these years, encouraging me to keep working on the games even when I felt a bit hopeless about it all. I have a few close friends who are also game developers, Silas Rowe of Smashtastic Cricket fame and John Stejskal, developer of Blood and Mead. I talk to them on a regular basis about their projects and their lives.
What’s been the biggest business challenge you’ve overcome?
For me it was starting out on my own after working for the one games company for nearly a decade. I didn’t have the rights to Swords and Sandals, nobody really knew who I was, so I really had to work hard to make a name for myself.
I had to hustle for a few years with freelance jobs, building up a new social media presence, releasing new games of varying sizes, letting the world know that I was the creator of Swords and Sandals etc. I was fortunate that the old company ended up selling the rights to S&S to eGames, and I was able to do a deal with them to revitalise the series once again.
The biggest lesson of my career. Never give up your IP. Not for any reason, unless it’s Disney offering you a billion dollars (and even then!) . When I was a young and naive developer I sat back and did nothing when the company I worked for at the time decided to trademark the games and game world I’d created.
The major issue was I’d come up with these games long before I even started there, and when Ieft, I had no rights to the Swords and Sandals name, or anything I’d created – even though these were games and concepts, characters and places I’d been working on since I was a kid. A similar thing happened to Richard Garriott with Origin and EA, (on a much bigger scale – eg he can’t ever make any new games called Ultima, for example.)
I vowed never to make the same mistake again. It’s all worked out fairly well now with a business partner who is excited about the series, but I will never again allow any new IP to get out of my hands.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or game creators?
As I mentioned above, never give up your IP. Number one rule. Some other advice I might give off the top of my head would be to don’t follow the trends. If there’s a game that’s taking the world by storm, don’t instantly think “I should make my own version of that” because that’s what a thousand other devs are thinking at that exact same moment! Look for niche and untapped markets where possible.
The other (well trodden) bit of advice is to start small, make simple game loops but add an interesting meta game around your game. If you have a little endless runner, add upgrades and unlockables between each play, earned by collecting coins or whatever etc. It’s the meta game that keeps people returning!
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I feel like the main thing I’d do differently in my career would be to go out on my own a lot earlier – it took me until my mid thirties to find the courage to go full indie.
I’ve never looked back, never been happier and never been in more control of my own destiny.
How are things today and what are your plans for the future of Whiskeybarrel Studios?
What’s your monthly revenue?
I can’t say exactly, but it’s enough to sustain me and my business partner – not quite enough to hire other developers or artists on a permanent basis yet but it is something I’m aiming towards. The margins are fair but not amazing yet – a lot of hours goes into games. We have a good back catalog of games that have a remarkably consistent ‘tail’ when it comes to sustained sales. I feel like if I can produce a game every year.
Where do the majority of sales come from?
Steam, by a factor of about 5 to 1. Apple and Google Play sales are consistent but never reach the heights of the big Steam sales where the games sell really well.
Are there any other metrics you can share?
The mobile games have had about 2 million downloads in total since the first one was launched in 2016. We’ve had over 50,000 downloads on Steam but the price for each game is obviously higher so it’s more lucrative.
Are you launching any other games?
As I mentioned earlier there are 10 games for sale in the Swords and Sandals series both on mobile and on PC. I’m aiming to get started on the next one, S&S VI, right after Spartacus launches. No rest in this business!
Are there any causes or charities that your business supports?
Nothing in particular – as a solo developer and private citizen I give to charities at my discretion but there’s no official tie in with a charity as a business yet. Hopefully when the business grows enough to support me full time and others, it can be something I will consider!