Pocket Gamer Connects London returns on 22nd-23rd January 2024, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Of course, this also means the return of our flagship Very Big Indie Pitch, the popular pitching competition that's been providing developers with insight, feedback, and prizes for years. It's also great fun! In fact, only recently, the team spoke with the organiser Sophia Aubrey Drake for her memories and tips.
What better way to celebrate ten years of Pocket Gamer Connects than by reconnecting with some of our most successful developers? In this ongoing series, we’ll learn more about where they are now, what they gained from their pitching experiences, and what advice they have for anyone heading to London for The Very Big Indie Pitch in 2024.
First up, we're catching up with Jeroen Janssen from Happy Volcano, winner of our first-ever PC edition of The Big Indie Pitch and one of our runner-ups at the Big Indie Awards 2017, to learn more about their past, present and future.
Sophia Aubrey Drake: Please introduce yourself and the team.
Jeroen Janssen: I'm the CEO of Happy Volcano. We are a smallish Indie game studio from Belgium. We've worked on games such as You Suck At Parking and The Almost Gone, and even before that, a small mobile game called Lava Fever. We're about 20 people right now, 10 in Belgium and another 10 spread over all over the world, mostly remote. Right now, we're working on two new games that we’re very excited about.
You’ve been part of the pitch on numerous occasions. You not only won the first-ever PC Edition of The Big Indie Pitch but were one of our runner-ups at The Big Indie Awards 2017 in Shenzhen, China. What first made you want to be a part of the pitch?
At the time we first attended the Pitch in Brighton during Develop, we were still fairly unknown as a studio. So we thought that being a part of any award would be good for us because that helps give you pedigree and a reputation. It also helps with things like marketing, as you have a good chance of being featured on Pocket Gamer, which also helps with Google links and all of that stuff. So any awards are good, and we were really trying to be part of events and competitions where possible.
When I saw there was a Big Indie Pitch during Develop:Brighton 2017, which we were attending anyway, I thought it was a great opportunity. We hadn’t applied in advance, but I managed to sign up on the day. I remember being very nervous because I had no experience in pitching back then. However, going to these different tables and only having five minutes to pitch our game to various sets of experienced judges, really taught me a lot.
This first experience helped me hone the pitching basics and learn how to hold a pitch. From one table to the next table, I was able to update my pitch and make it a little bit stronger based on what the previous set of judges had said. This ability to adapt and grow quickly was another valuable skill I gained during my first pitch.
To this day, I still use all of these skills and take the same approach to pitching. When I pitch our games, say at Gamescom or GDC, typically, we’ll have 30 or 40 meetings in a week. I approach each meeting as a mini-pitch and a chance to learn how to improve for the next meeting, with some of my biggest meetings reserved for later in the schedule to ensure that the pitch has been extensively honed and tested. So yeah, the pitch taught me a valuable life skill, too, I guess!
This ability to adapt and grow quickly was another really valuable skill I gained during my first pitchJeroen Janssen, Happy Volcano
What was the most challenging aspect? Was there anything you weren’t expecting?
Aside from actually having to pitch? I’m naturally very introverted, or at least I was back then. Back then, we had only just started our studio, and I was very shy. Then you’re thrown to the wolves, and you just have to dive into it.
I say you’re thrown to the wolves, but I wasn’t expecting how nice and friendly the judges are. They really try to put you at ease, especially when they see that you’re nervous. They also ask good questions. They start with simple questions and then go to the hard questions once you are settled in. They have been a joy to pitch to.
What happened with The Almost Gone and You Suck At Parking following the pitch? Did your experience as a part of The Big Indie Pitch impact your development and subsequent release?
The judges give you feedback not only on your pitch but also on your game, and it’s good because they come from very different backgrounds. They’re journalists, publishers, scouts, experienced developers, etc. This really helped us, both as a studio and when it came to our games.
What happened? Well, The Almost Gone got signed by Playdigious, which we were really really happy about, and it’s out now on PC, mobile and Nintendo Switch. We got lots of amazing feedback. We did find that people either really love the game, or don’t understand it, and that’s fine (based on the feedback and reviews, most people are in the love category). Overall, we were really happy with everything because it was the game that got us going as a studio and showed that we could make a quality game.
You Suck At Parking was a rollercoaster ride, albeit a good rollercoaster ride. We started with the game as a single-player game, like a sort of action racing game, and this is the version we pitched at The Big Indie Pitch. Then we showed it to Hiro Capital, and they liked the game. So they they made an investment in us, which obviously gave us a little money to make the game bigger. And so we changed it from a single-player game to a multiplayer game, with whole seasons and continued post-release content.
However, when this all came about, the single-player version was basically done. So adding the multiplayer version after we thought we were finished, porting it to all of the consoles and adding a physical release was a lot of work. Honestly, it was really hard to do all of that. But it was a valuable experience, and now we’re in a better position to do that again. Yeah, it was some tough times and very stressful, but in the end, we released You Suck At Parking on all major platforms to a really good reception. We’re really proud of it.
You’ve grown, learned a lot, taken on more challenges and released some successful games. What would you consider your biggest change as a team since the Big Indie Pitch?
The biggest change has to be our growth in terms of personnel and our skills. After we got the investment we were given the possibility to hire more senior people. Before this, we were a very junior team. I would even include us founders in that, too, as we had no previous experience in games because we had come from advertising.
So, we had a very junior team. Though I must stress it was a very good team, and I’m really proud of them. Luckily, every member of that team is still with us, though they’re obviously not juniors anymore.
But the investment, alongside our growing reputation, gave us the ability and the money to bring in more people who are more senior and have more experience, which, of course, brings something else into the studio. Bringing in more senior, experienced people also helps your junior people learn faster because now they have a wealth of knowledge and support backing them up. This shift in the structure of our team is definitely the biggest change we’ve experienced over the last couple of years.
The games industry is constantly evolving. How hard is it to survive as an indie developer? How have you dealt with all the changes since you were a part of The Big Indie Pitch?
It’s really really hard right now. Surviving your first game is the hardest part. Of course, surviving your second or third game isn’t exactly easy, but things get easier with each release. So it does get better, but it’s tough right now, especially starting up a company. There is still a lot of money, but you have to work hard for it.
For example, the investment we got wasn’t easy, but it was a lot easier compared to now. Right now, valuations are very low, and the due diligence is very high. It also takes a lot longer to get from A to Z, and that’s true for both equity investment and publishers and platforms as well. Platforms have always been slower because they’re so big, but it takes a long time nowadays to get the money that you need to make your game. I think that’s a big challenge that we have right now.
Is there any advice you would give to indie developers based on your experience?
That’s a tough question. Despite being relatively small, we’re so far away from when we started Happy Volcano, and how things were in the world back then. Things are so different right now.
If I had to start a company by bootstrapping it without any money, I would probably do the same that we did back then and start after hours with a very tightly scoped game, focusing on just getting it out there as soon as possible. I feel this is good advice. Focus on making a tightly-scoped quality game and release it as soon as you can. This game can then act as a showcase for you and your development moving forward. It shouldn’t be an RPG with over 10,000 hours of playtime, as there’s a good chance you won’t be able to finish it. Make a small game showing your love for the business and your talent, and work your way up. That’s what we did, and it’s what I would do today if I had to do it all over again.
Focus on making a tightly scoped quality game and release it as soon as you can. This game can then act as a sort of showcase for youJeroen Janssen, Happy Volcano
How important is attending conferences, competitions and networking opportunities for independent developers? What advice would you give developers considering attending events?
It’s everything. Building a network of peers, especially other studios, is so important. We’ve got a really good network here in Belgium. Yes, it’s small, but we all know each other well, and there’s no competition because everybody is developing different games. So, we constantly learn from each other and offer help wherever we can.
Developing this kind of network is so important, and I think conferences are a major part of that. For example, during the pandemic, thanks to all of the digital conferences, we were still able to connect and speak to people to make these important connections. In many ways, it was a lot easier for some developers. Now, it’s a bit harder because you have to travel, and that’s not for everybody. You have to have the means and the time to do it. However, even going to local conventions and getting yourself out there is so important.
Through growing our network, we’ve now got to the point where if I want to show our latest game to publishers, there’s a good chance I have a contact, and if I don’t, I likely know someone who does. This not only helps speed the process up and ensure that we get seen but also improves the feedback we get back from publishers.
What is your studio currently working on? Is there anything you can share with us?
As I alluded to in the first question, we do currently have two games in development that we hope to be able to reveal more about soon, as we’re really excited about them both. However, what is interesting that I can share is that we are working on both of these games simultaneously as we want to release one game per year and become a multi-project studio.
This is another big change for us, one that shows our growth as a studio. As you know, making games is really hard and really long. You work for two or three years on a game, relying on the revenue from your previous games, which does rapidly reduce after launch. So, having a release every year would mean that we can generate consistent revenue every year, and that could help us grow the studio even faster.
Want to show off your exciting new game? All details for Very Big Indie Pitch at Pocket Gamer Connects London 2024, including how to enter, can be found on our upcoming events page on BigIndiePitch.com.
If you just want to attend the conference, then tickets for Pocket Gamer Connects London 2024 (22-23 January) can be found on the Pocket Gamer Connects Website, with mid-term discounts still currently available.