At our recent Mobile Game Awards we celebrated the incredible mobile games industry and awarded 22 category winners. One such winner was for the best indie developer, with Rusty Lake being victorious on the night.
We followed up with Rusty Lake’s co-founder Robin Ras to reflect on how far the studio has come over the years and what advice he would offer to other indie developers seeking to repeat their success. We also discussed the future for Rusty Lake and what to expect next from the team.
Pocketgamer.biz: First and foremost, congratulations on your 'best indie developer' win at the PocketGamer Mobile Game Awards. What does this mean to the team?
Robin Ras: Thank you. We honestly did not expect to win. Especially after seeing we were listed among so many incredible nominees, names like Adriaan de Jongh and Bart Bonte - developers who we know and have been inspired by ever since we started our journey as Rusty Lake. This makes this award so much more significant to us. We are extremely honoured to receive this recognition, especially since it almost perfectly aligned with our studio's eight-year anniversary celebrations.
Tell us about Rusty Lake and how the studio got started.
We have to go back in time, a time before Rusty Lake when Maarten and I created dozens of news-based games to promote our own web game portals. Most of these flash games went viral really quickly because news websites picked them up. But the success of each game only lasted for a couple of days - one week maximum - and then we had to start from scratch and find the next big news item. This was, however, a great learning experience, we published well over 50 games, learned to create new gameplay variants quickly and how to re-use art for new projects. But this wasn’t something sustainable over a longer period.
We wanted to create something bigger, a universe filled with our own weird little adventure games. Our goal was to establish a surreal place with a community that would always come back to us whenever a new game in the series was released. With that vision in mind, we started Rusty Lake.
You mentioned Rusty Lakes' eight-year anniversary. What is it like looking back on those years and where you are now?
It has been quite a journey. When we launched our first games within the Rusty Lake universe (Cube Escape: Seasons and The Lake), we also transitioned from web games to mobile. A completely new platform with a lot of competition. Today our free portfolio on both Android and iOS has been downloaded over 75 million times. We never imagined reaching such a global audience that would play our games and be invested in our universe.
In our first years, we struggled to make Rusty Lake sustainable as a studio. We put all our energy and creativity into growing the universe and our community while doing our best to improve every game we made. There was only one issue, everything we published in the first year was free, with almost no ads. So only once we made our first premium games Rusty Lake Hotel and Roots, which became our own little Kickstarter projects, were we able to survive as a studio. Nowadays, we are lucky to have a big audience willing to pay for the games we develop and that provides some extra security for the investments we make in newer projects.
What would you say makes Rusty Lake different from other studios out there?
I think there are not many studios out there creating a series of games over the span of eight years, with every release contributing to its universe/narrative while also trying to keep it fresh by experimenting with new gameplay and visuals, as we did with The White Door and The Past Within. Also, we are quite unique in the way we are expanding the universe to new media, like the Paradox short film and game crossover.
Your games have a distinctive look and feel to them, what are the ideas and purpose behind your style?
It helps that almost all of our games have the same kind of gameplay mechanism: point-and-click. Plus, all the games have the same distinctive 2D art style. But that is not the only thing. In every game, we do our best to establish a special atmosphere that is iconic to Rusty Lake and its games. It is not only the weird and eerie moments with the corrupted souls, seeing some important characters like Mr. Crow, or picking up similar items you see in every game (the matches). It is also the flow and structure of each game, the soothing music from Victor Butzelaar and the background art from Johan Scherft. It is a total package which we try to achieve every time. Even when making The Past Within, our latest release, which has a lot of 3D environments and is only playable in co-op mode, we did our best to provide the distinctive Rusty Lake experience by adding all these important details.
What advice would you offer to other indie developers?
Publish your work (this can also be a demo or a small game jam project) as soon as possible so you can receive feedback early on. Then, improve your work and repeat. This way, you get more publishing/marketing experience and get to learn and experiment with more types of gameplay that you (will) enjoy making.
The same goes for the community around your project. Invest in it early on. Don’t wait to communicate with your audience just before release. Engage with them early on, get feedback on builds, set up contests, and share fan art. Make them seen and included.
Finally, could you tell us a little about what you have going on at Rusty Lake, such as your new release of Underground Blossom and any other future plans?
Our next stop is indeed Underground Blossom which has our full attention. It is a single-player adventure that tells more about one of our main characters Laura Vanderboom. It has the style and gameplay that will remind many fans of our first projects, so we are very excited to get that one released later this year.
We are also still expanding The Past Within, our first co-op adventure, to new platforms. This game will be released soon on the Nintendo Switch, our first console release ever.
And we have some exciting plans for after the Underground Blossom release, which might be bigger than anything we have done so far at Rusty Lake!