Interview: indie developer Cipher Prime

We chat with the Philly-based studio about the trials and tribulations of indie game development.

Erik Norrisby Erik Norris


While the rest of Philadelphia goes about their daily routine, indie game makers Will Stallwood and Dain Saint are crafting the next mind-bending puzzler. For those of you unaware of these co-founders of Cipher Prime, they’re responsible for Auditorium, Fractal, Pulse: Volume One, and the upcoming Splice. While it seems most gamers have experienced these titles on iOS devices, some are also available on the PSN, PC, Mac, and Steam. At their core, these games meld together original instrumental music, visual fireworks, and challenging gameplay.

As a member of CraveOnline’s gaming staff, all of whom reside within an hour of Philadelphia, visiting Cipher Prime is of special significance. Not just because it increases the likelihood of chatting with Phillies’ fans; but, because supporting local development is an important new paradigm in modern gaming. Thanks to the power of the web (and developer-friendly marketplaces like Steam), video games don’t need to just rest in the hands of the monolith corporations we despise (and love).   

cipher_prime_officesWalking up to the office of indie game developer Cipher Prime isn’t much different from visiting your hip city-living cousin’s atmospheric loft. Nestled in one of the coolest (and oldest) sections of Philadelphia, Cipher Prime is making some of the coolest puzzle games of a generation. Yet, despite the explosion of indie development nationwide, aren’t exactly finding it easy to get into the hands of gamers. “Why” isn’t the question that needs to be answered; instead, it’s “how” that leads the way. Let’s take a glimpse into the challenges of indie development through the eyes of this small team of designers.

CraveOnline: What has your experience been like being in Philadelphia? 

Andrei Marks: Really awesome. Considering the small market size, we can be big fish in a little pond. But then we also miss out on networking and connections to the industry. But, otherwise, we really enjoy the people who do work on games here. We do like having our names associated with Philadelphia. 

How long did it take to pull the original Auditorium together?

Will Stallwood: Eight months. Two weeks to prototype. Three months to first demo. Eight months to make the game and one month to launch. 

How big is your team?

Marks: We’ve been at four [people] for three fourths of a year.  We also have interns that come in… this past semester we had an intern from Drexel.  [The number of interns] really depends on our project load. We don’t want to just have people here hanging out. They’re unpaid… I started out the same way. 

How did you know when Auditorium was done?

Will Stallwood: Dain and I racked up quite a bit of credit card debt. See, we’re completely self-funded and never took Venture Captial. That’s the reason why we’re working on our Kickstarter right now to get funds for [Auditorium] Duets. 

Did that idea of using Kickstarter come from another game company, somewhere else…

Stallwood: We knew other Kickstarters were happening – this was before the big [Tim] Schafer thing happened. We were planning this for months. Actually, I was a little upset about the Tim Schafer thing.  At the time no one was asking for big money at the time. We came up with the idea from other artists and what they were doing. 

Are you happy with the Kickstarter results so far?

Stallwood: No, not at all. Not remotely. It has nothing to do with Kickstarter and everything to do with the press not doing stories. Only one news outlet has picked us up. We’re trying but the more time we spend trying to fix that problem the less time we are making games and that’s what we’re good at. 

On an average day, is everyone working on the same project?

Marks: So, we have Splice. We also have a few other games… a game called Echo, a small iPhone game that came out of a game jam. Will has two other games that he’s working on as personal projects, this game called Intake and another we don’t have a name for. Generally, we have games that we should all be working on. In between the actual technical projects and the business side projects there’s lots of stuff to split up.

How much of the day is spent working on games versus the other stuff that comes with it?

Marks: For me, I spend 3/4s of the time not doing game stuff. Will and Dain do more game stuff generally. It depends on the week. It’s a substantial amount of time spent not doing game [design or development]. 

You guys were a part of the Indie Love Bundle

Stallwood: I think we really paved the territory (in 2010)… we did really well on that Bundle and the Summer of Love Bundle we did after it. 

And that was a good experience?

Stallwood: Yeah, I really liked it… it was cool, it was our first time working with other developers. Bundles have been good to us. BUT, I think they’re a really bad means to an end. You’re undervaluing your products in such a way. It keeps hammering in people’s head that our games aren’t worth the money we spent making them. These bundles might be good for the consumer, but in the long run are the death of our industry. 

cipher_prime_work_for_foodAre you looking to put make games for consoles (Auditorium was ported to the PSN)?

Stallwood & Marks: (Auditorium on the PSN) was part of a publishing deal. We can’t afford it on our own. The development tool we use supports it but the licenses… well, if the game was completely finished, the licensing fee would be about $90,000 per platform just to get the game on the marketplace. That doesn’t even guarantee that they’ll market your game or put it in the spotlight (Editor's note: the price can go even higher if the game needs quality assurance testing.)

What lessons would you pass along to young/new developers out there?

Stallwood: Don’t take publishing deals.

Dain Saint: Start your company. There’s never going to be a good time to start your company. 

Marks: Wait, I thought our advice was to have $20,000 per person. [laughs]

Stallwood: Be prepared to not make games. If you want to own a business you should prepared to never make games again. If you want to make games, then there’s nothing stopping you. But, if your objective is to sell a game, be prepared to not make games. Surviving off of making games is hard. We’re having a hard time and everyone else we know is having a hard time. Except for a small handful.

There you have it folks, a nice, frank chat with the makers of Auditorium and (hopefully) Auditorium: Duets. Please check out their Kickstarter page for Auditorium: Duets and give what you can. At just $1 you’ll get a copy of Fractal (a game I’ve fallen in love with).

Finally, I had a chance to check out their next game Splice and had a blast trying to figure out the puzzles. Fans of tough puzzle games should add this game to their to-do list very soon. Adios and show support for the indies out there!