An example of one of the characters in Onipunks' CWars.
A passion for classic video games brought two entrepreneurs together, and now a work of their own delivers both a look back and a taste of the future, Eric Jou reports.
In a homey three-bedroom apartment in the northern outskirts of Beijing, three programmers type code on dual-monitored computers. An artist dabbles at a digital masterpiece magnified by the computer screen, and on the sidelines, creative director Zhou Lu listens to the latest change in the music.
In this apartment is Onipunks Studios, an independent video-game developer on the verge of shipping its first game. However, unlike traditional developers, whether indies or mainstream, Onipunks crowd-sourced with KickStarter.com to finance its debut.
The brainchild of Beijing-born Zhou and artist Mu Fei, Onipunks began life as Zhou's graduate-school project while he was studying in Paris.
"My professor, instead of giving a final, had the class apply the use of artificial intelligence," says Zhou. "So for my project, I made a game."
Through his final project, Zhou reached out to artists back home in Beijing for help and eventually was linked to his soon-to-be artistic director Mu Fei. After the project was finished, Zhou shelved the product and went on to find work in the France-based company Ankama Games.
"Most people burn out in the industry after a few years, but for me it was a matter of months," says Zhou, who soon left to pursue computer-programming work in Canada. Meanwhile, Mu was working on his own projects back in art school, as a 3-D contractor for animation companies and commercials.
But before long, Zhou decided that gaming was where he wanted to be after all, and he reconnected with Mu. The duo decided to take what they loved about video games and make something that they would enjoy. The result was their first game, Crystalides.
"We went with a sci-fi theme. I preferred sci-fi－I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing, martial-arts fantasies and the like," says Mu. They rounded out their team by hiring a programmer and a musician－the latter turned out to be a childhood friend of Mu.
As Crystalides progressed, the little-known duo failed to get media attention for the project despite winning independent developer awards. During this time, Zhou was still working full time in Canada.
When the opportunity for C-Wars came about, Zhou had quit his job in Canada to pursue the game-development dream. Mu also devoted his time to working on C-Wars.
Both young men grew up in Beijing playing video games. Zhou was a PC gamer, recalling such games as Tapper and QBert, whereas Mu was a console gamer whose favorite game as a child was Super Mario Bros.
Their passion and history playing video games led to the art direction for Crystalides, and the selling point to their new game C-Wars. Work on Crystalides had progressed to a point where the game was playable, so Onipunks picked out the best part of the game and expanded on it. They used and extrapolated on a retro pixel-art style, where each image is made up of blocks built upon blocks.
Learning from the problems of Cyrstalides, Zhou turned to a site that was exploding online, KickStarter.com. That popular crowd-sourcing website allows developers, inventors and the like to circumvent traditional forms of fund-raising in favor of asking the masses for money.
Unlike in traditional means of investing, a Kickstarter's intellectual property and other rights are retained by the creator and the backers only receive "rewards", such as T-shirts and posters, based on how much money they put into a project, not shares or dividends.
With the game direction set, the KickStarter was launched in April of 2013. The team set a funding goal of $30,000 just to finish the game, and stretch goals to add features to the game if the stretch goals were met.
The relatively unknown team from China, with a demonstrated concept and retro-style art, brought in more than $95,000, enough money to put their games onto consoles.
Video game consoles had been banned for legitimate sales in the country since 2000, until a recent suspension of the ban earlier this month. Despite the ban, Zhou and Mu were still avid gamers. Zhou says his first fond console experience was on the original Sony PlayStation, whereas Mu points to the Nintendo GameCube, which he purchased with his own money. "The thing was perfect," he says. "It had Nintendo games (such as Mario, Zelda and StarFox) and a little handle to take it around."
With the KickStarter success, the duo had a golden opportunity: to create a game for Nintendo and Sony. While they were effectively only "porting", or making their game playable on a console, they were still able to attain licenses to develop for consoles.
Developers looking to make games for consoles require special console hardware that they can test and write the games on. This hardware is called a development kit and to normally obtain one, one requires a license.
"When we reached our stretch goals for PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, we were ecstatic!" says Zhou. "Mu was excited because our game would actually show up on a Nintendo system, whereas I was blown away by the fact that we would show up on PlayStation."
Zhou explains that Onipunks chose to use KickStarter because it would attract international attention. In 2013, KickStarter launched many high-profile video-game projects such as the Ouya. Zhou says that a lot of the people who support KickStarters are gamers, developers and media people and that really helped attract money to their kick-off.
The duo credits much of their success to the art style of their game.
"We're lovers of retro games, particularly games that invoke nostalgia," says Zhou. "A lot of people say our game looks like Fire Emblem and Super Robot Wars, and we tell them that they're correct. We want them to see these games, we want them to feel these games, because we want to bring them back to a time when they had fun playing these games of old."