The Big Indie Pitch, a regular event run by the makers of PocketGamer.biz, sees indie developers engage in a rapid-fire pitching competition for fame and those sweet promotional packages.
The event gives indies four minutes to pitch their games to a panel of press, publishers, and industry pundits, each receiving invaluable feedback, before the judges pick three winners.
The indie view
The Big Indie Pitch is getting bigger and bigger as we bring it across the world. We've sat down with a number of past BIP contestants to offer their views on the event, its attendees, and the games on show.
Today, we're speaking to Samson Gabriels from We Are Rising, who created and pitched SumPop Online, at The Digital Big Indie Pitch #17 in July 2022 and walked away with the second-place prize.
Sophia Aubrey Drake: Tell us a little about yourself and your indie studio - who is on the team, and what are their inspirations?
Samson Gabriels: I am Samson Gabriels, director and software developer at We Are Rising Interactive. We are currently a one-man team although we have been a 3 man team in the past and during the game’s inception. We are British-born guys who met at university in our Games Design & Programming course but we started We Are Rising Interactive a few years later in 2013.
I have always had an interest in learning and experimenting with technology in general from as early as primary school, but I also had an interest in gaming from a young age. This has led me to where I am today where I am developing multiple kinds of things from games, apps, software, and websites. I also have pretty good experience creating 3D assets, areas, and characters from scratch with 3D modelling software. I do like trying new kinds of creative software tools but mainly to accomplish goals and tasks. As of late, that has mainly been towards making great experiences and bringing some of my ideas to life.
It's a free online social maths game, aimed at all ages, and it can be played with your friendsSamson Gabriels
We had a graphics designer & 3D artist who was responsible for dealing with our visual side of things in games including character creation and user interface elements. He has always had a passion for art in general which he combined with his interest in gaming when he took on the same course as I did at university and went on to enter a competition as part of a team to create a game in just a few weeks. Naturally, he was the artist of the team.
We also had another developer who had mostly the same responsibilities as me as a developer which is writing actual code. He is also good at playing the guitar which he used for writing some music. He likes trying out new ideas and seeing what is possible when it comes to new ideas and concepts. He and I share lots of programming code ideas with each other and have learned a lot from one another.
We have since worked on a number of game and app projects together but we have only one other game that we finished called Curry Goat Revenge which was released for iOS, Android and Windows Phone/Store. We’ve had to pivot back and forth between software and app and game projects for financial reasons.
Tell us about SumPop Online, which you pitched at the competition.
SumPop Online is a free online social maths game that is aimed at all ages and can be played with your friends and other players worldwide. It has a very unique play style where you are given a target number as well as numbers and signs that you are to use to create the target number. Signs and numbers can be used to create new numbers and can be moved around the canvas to help organize your thoughts.
When progressing through the challenges, It starts off easy with challenges that anyone above the age of 3 is able to play but it gradually gets more and more difficult. If you’re comfortable with the difficulty you reach, you can carry on playing with dynamically generated challenges for your preferred difficulty thanks to our endless engine.
You also get to play against your friends by creating groups where everyone gets the same challenges and time to complete them. Whoever gets the fastest score wins a point in that group and others can try again on the next challenge. Each group has a difficulty set by the admin/creator of the group. After the point is awarded, a new challenge can be created. Groups can last forever.
SumPop Online is available for iOS, Android and in your web browser
What do you think are the most unique and interesting aspects of SumPop Online that gamers may never have seen before?
I think the game has a number of things that gamers may have never seen before, for example, the gesture-based gameplay controls are very unique and provoke thinking ahead with numbers. Moreover, the endless engine we have produced in single and multiplayer which becomes a community where players compete online (family/friends and other players) makes this a very unique package that just doesn't exist today. Finally, there are the aesthetic choices, which are a mix of 3D, 2D and polygonal background which has a very solid identity and unique look compared to most hyper-casual games where they would mostly borrow from each other.
However, more than these, the main thing is that you get to play with friends and many others online. There isn’t anything like a game where you get to increase your social interactions with an interactive challenging experience.
It's simply addictive. The combination we have employed here with the gesture/drag-drop controls as well as the gameplay loop makes the player want more. In our experiments and play testing with other people, they wouldn’t let go of it. Combine that with the online experience and it's just hard to let go of.
It stimulates the brain. The challenges get more diverse and open up many ways the player can completeSamson Gabriels
It stimulates the brain. The challenges get more diverse and open up many ways the player can complete each one especially as the player progresses through the game. The player can drag numbers around to visually organize their thoughts while they think about how to complete the challenge.
And the game can be picked up at any time and played in quick bursts making this a very casual experience. You can open the app, play a few minutes here and there and be back to your usual busy life.
SumPop Online is a social maths game. What made you choose to make this type of game, and what do you think you bring to it that may not have been seen before?
It started when we had to change our strategy for the company where we needed to start working on smaller games projects. This was during the time when games like Words With Friends and Draw Something had already taken off. When looking into the kind of game I would develop next, I figured that rather than going the word game route, we would instead look into the number side of things. So from there, we had a look at other kinds of math games, actual games and not quickly thrown-together apps with hardly any inspiration or visual draw. We then found a much older game called Math Blaster which is a much older game designed for keyboard and mouse and old computers from the 90s but had some form of number-to-number dragging which caught our eyes.
We drew inspiration from other kinds of apps and games including Draw Something with the online aspect and even (not so much a game) WhatsApp where we drew inspiration from individual groups and sent/received/read concept which has been used to design the online games element of SumPop Online.
Combining all these ideas, we have pushed for something that is very unique, a social math game experience with a nice modern design compared to most other games you might see today, especially with the number-dragging mechanic.
How did you come to choose the platforms that you would develop SumPop Online for?
This was a fair no-brainer step. When we first started this project way back in 2014, we had a lot of expenses to pay for and so we knew we had to make money as fast as possible. So we developed for iOS and Android but also Windows Phone as during this time, this platform had around 10% of the mobile market. So as an indie studio, it made perfect sense to target as many players as feasibly possible and this was easy due to us using Unity3D.
Today, we are only targeting iOS, Android, and your web browser. We also have an amazon kindle version planned as we recognize many parents tend to purchase this low-cost tablet for their children. The web browser may seem like a strange thing to target if we intend to also monetize the game but this is mainly to reach those sitting at a desk with a browser version via their computers. This will also increase audiences and engagement. Monetization is not an issue on the browser and allows for a larger cut of the pie as we bypass the cut device platforms take by using other payment processing services.
If we see any reasonable opportunities to develop for other platforms, we will consider them.
Looking at the studio a little more now. How hard is it to survive as an Indie developer?
This varies greatly. When I first started out solo back in 2010 right after getting my university degree in computer games, there was no real business plan or business partner. Even starting a business was not even considered as it seemed to be quite a daunting idea full of complicated tasks to do. All I really wanted to do is create the cool gaming experiences I kept dreaming about. To this day, I still have them saved in my old notes as well as work actually done from all those years ago. So with such grand ideas combined with being solo, even the fact I was living with my parents would not have enabled me to survive long with that game idea and strategy.
For us, it has been quite challenging to survive especially when we were a team of three as we would have to think ahead of where we would be in a few months' time vs how well our projects are progressing and make some radical decisions accordingly. If the project we were working on was too big and had no hope of finishing it within our chosen deadline, we would potentially have to cut our losses and go back to the drawing board to see how we can adjust. In our case, we decided to work on two smaller games while working on a software and app project for a client. This allowed us to remain focused on our main goal as a game studio, to make some great (smaller) games but keep us financially afloat with some contract work. This specific strategy was only possible with our current team of three where we could essentially divide and conquer.
We eventually partnered up with a non-game development company that wanted to get into games and created a new company together. This allowed us to carry on working on more projects with them without the financial issues we were facing. Long story short, we ended up parting ways with them and got jobs as our responsibilities to provide for our families grew. Fast forward to today and We Are Rising Interactive is now mostly a 1 man team but with the same objective, even after all these years. This was no longer a full-time venture after 2016 but I was able to navigate around my now busy life as a married man with two kids, a mortgage, and a car (don’t get me started on driving lessons and tests) and carry on the initial vision I always had, to make awesome digital experiences for others to enjoy.
As long as I had the financial side of life sorted out, I was able to keep going and keep my eyes on the future and the potential we have as a company.
Are there any tips and advice you would give to an independent developer out there who is just starting out?
The top tip I have to give is to remain focused. It can be very easy to pivot and find other ideas to work on whether it be within the same project or a different project altogether but the real danger is that you as an indie developer are on borrowed limited time. The market has been moving very fast over the past decade during the great growth within the mobile market so the main project and/or task needs to remain the priority to ensure its complete while the respective market you target is fresh otherwise you can find that you have the right project but for the (now) wrong market as consumer move onto newer trends or other interests. Another reason to remain focused is that you are on borrowed time the more responsibilities you already have outside of your work as an indie developer. Time can run out very easily as other responsibilities start to creep in or as you start to run out of finances you may have set aside for building your business especially if you have ongoing business expenses however big or small.
Also, if you are in a small indie team (2-6 people), there is no tangible reason to have an office, especially in a post-2020 world. I would have given the same tip even if we had not been forced into a remote working mindset as I now strongly feel this is essential money down the drain that could have been used to perhaps buy targeted advertising or pay for necessary equipment and digital assets. We now have good access to a large variety of online meeting and screen-sharing tools which empowers us to collaborate on projects remotely. Some might say that they have no way to be productive at home but if it's just the case that you get distracted easily, you should ask yourself just how much you want your indie projects to succeed. One thing that helped me in the past was to imagine what the potential outcome is months or years in the future if I carry on at the same (potentially slowed/distracted pace) and if its the best outcome, and then imagine I was in that time period now and wishing I had a time machine, then I used that time machine and then ended up in the present.
Choose your business partners carefully. Some will seek to take advantage of you but there are some genuine gems out thereSamson Gabriels
Lastly, keep your eyes on the goal and never lose sight of it. There may be hard times when you are less motivated or are struggling to overcome a hurdle. During those times, remember where you could be, and how successful your project can be. You should certainly take breaks, which is absolutely necessary but ensure you take time to think about where you are at and evaluate how you’re doing and how you can improve, whether it's related to your current task or the project in general. You may find that taking a step back to look at things from a perspective helps more than you may realize. It can clear your mind and allow you to re-evaluate things and adjust accordingly, which in itself can motivate you further.
I’ll keep these last tips as short as possible, choose your business partners carefully. Some will seek to take advantage of you (speaking from experience) but there are some genuine gems out there who you will find to be the perfect matches. I have found that those who I have worked with and know the longest are very good options as you have already built that trust.
Lastly, if you think of an idea that no one has ever done before or no one asked you to do, then do it. Chances are that you may well have a winner in your hands. I will point you to a part of the Xbox documentary where one of the Xbox teams wasn't asked to do something but they did it to demonstrate their idea more effectively - This is how you stand out.
How did you find your experience pitching as a part of the Big Indie Pitch?
This was for sure one of the most scariest yet exciting times I’ve had. To build on the tips I just gave, all that was asked of the developers pitching their idea was to have some kind of presentation or pitch deck and to screen share alongside a demonstration of the game. But with my current tech experience, I wanted to take this further. This was not simply a PowerPoint presentation but a visual experience for the judges and journalists that both demonstrated the game effectively and complimented my pitch as smoothly as possible with visual queues and headers. And no not as a simple PowerPoint presentation, my camera feed and presentation quite literally became one and looked like a well-produced YouTube video with the camera sliding left and right except it was all live. No one asked me to do this, but I did it anyway in an effort to not only pitch as effectively as possible but to stand out. As I had not done this before, my heart was pounding as there was every possibility that something could go wrong which I couldn't afford with only 5 minutes of pitching available to me.
What do you feel you have gained from the experience, and what do you still hope to gain?
Worries aside, I was able to learn each time I pitched and that gave me comfort and confidence in SumPop Online and the pitch itself. The whole experience along with coming 2nd gave me a huge confidence boost and opened me up to possibly pitching in more areas in the future in an effort to get investment. It also allowed me to learn from journalists what they liked and disliked as well as gain recommendations from them as to what I could do to improve or take things further.
And having demonstrated the game multiple times in the big indie pitch without restarting the game shone a light on some imperfections such as bugs or other user interface-related elements that needed fixing. It's interesting what simply showing other people your project can do for finding test results, even if they didn’t even directly interact with it.
What are your hopes for this game in the future, and do you have any plans for any future projects?
We have a number of features planned for release later this year including Global Challenges where you can play against other players worldwide on the same challenge for the day. We also plan to add Titles that can be earned and assigned to your profile. Think of them like achievements that allow you to display that impossible-to-get or unique title whenever your profile is viewed. Our next set of goals includes google sign-in, a friends list, implementation of in-app purchases, amazon fire tablet support (for those young uns out there), localization, push notifications, and much more.
We want SumPop Online to be evergreen. We don’t see it becoming some kind of esport but we won’t rule out any possibilitiesSamson Gabriels
We intend to expand on the younger market (3+) in phase 2 which is a version of the game aimed at parents and guardians allowing them to create bespoke challenges for those they’re in charge of. We’ve seen how attractive it is in a learning environment and can see many ways we can add features for parents and/or guardians.
Once we have completed all the current plans for SumPop Online, there are more ideas on the back burner that we would like to implement but this will mostly depend on the game’s current momentum vs other projects. We have been working on a media streaming platform where media houses, podcasters, and all kinds of creators can create their own branded apps for their clients and viewers to use. This would contain any audio and video they want to make available either free or paid or even in bundles with a mix of both.
But we will keep our eyes open for feedback for both projects but ultimately we want SumPop Online to be evergreen where it's always played by all kinds of audiences. We don’t see SumPop Online becoming some kind of e-sport but if the viral successful game Wordle is any indication, we won’t rule out any possibilities, as wild as it sounds.
I look forward to a bright future where we are able to exceed our expectations and grow at a tangible pace.
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