Seattle Indies Spotlight: Daily Magic Productions

Daily Magic Productions is an indie studio that partners with both publishers and other developers to ship over 22 titles across PC, mobile, tabletop and lately, VR. Today we spoke to their founder and CEO, Marianna Vallejo, and their Production Assistant, Nicole Jekich, on their pipelines, the unique challenges their studio faces, and what it takes to stay open in the indie business for 8 years.

So, tell us a little bit about yourselves!

My name is Marianna – I founded Daily Magic in 2009. I started the company because I saw a game called Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst, and I got super excited that the mystery genre was entering casual games. I was excited to make a game like that, and that’s how we got started with our first game, Dark Dimensions: City of Fog. We got into a partnership with Big Fish Games, made a second game, then a third, and now it’s been almost 25 games with them.

Before Daily Magic, I worked at Realore Studios – they were doing a lot of time management type of games. After that I went to work for Bitrix, this very old-school software company. I was so bored with that I just wanted to go back to games, and my former colleagues were like, “Yeah, let’s do something together.” So I quit that job and started my studio.

Hi! I’m Nicole Jekich. I’m kind of like the greenhorn here at Daily Magic. I got hired on about two years ago, at first helping manage our Seattle office, just making sure things are going smoothly. Bills, payments, the more boring stuff that you have to do as an indie studio. More recently last year, I upgraded to production assistant, so now I do a lot more of the marketing, copywriting, editing, and critiquing before things get published or posted. I also do a lot of other random tasks to help keep the company moving smoothly.

I came here in 2006 to study animation at the Art Institute, and about halfway through the program they introduced game design to the school. And since college is the time of experimentation, I started getting into roleplaying games, tabletop games, and did a bunch of freelance stuff in tabletop which led me to finding Daily Magic. This industry is kind of incestuous (laughs). If you’re making games, especially in Seattle, you end up running into a lot of the same companies. In this case, I got to run into Marianna.

It’s really exciting to all of a sudden be a part of making games. In college it was something I always aspired to, so it’s nice to transition from this idea of what it’s like to be there working on it.

If you’re making games, especially in Seattle, you end up running into a lot of the same companies.

What are you currently working on, and how’s development on that going?

Right now we have a few projects in development. We just launched Sender Unknown: The Woods, which was written by Lisa Brunette, a published Young Adult mystery writer, and then we’re going to think about the next Sender Unknown game. We’ve also released a new horror mystery adventure hidden object game, called Harrowed Halls: Hell’s Thistle.

We have some mobile free-to-play games on the way — Royal Legacy — it’s a match-3 battle type of game, another match-3, and a bubble shooter game… that one’s live, but with mobile free-to-play games, development keeps going, and it can go for years just adding more levels.

That’s one thing I think is kinda interesting, is that we have — is it 5 — 6? — games in development. That’s a thing that’s really impressive to studios, is how many projects we can keep going.

Yeah, including the VR game, it’s 6 total. We can actually go up to 9, but it’s important that each game have at least 4 people on the team.

Whoa – that’s very cool. What are some of the challenges of managing 6 games at once?

When you have a diverse portfolio of games, it gets hard. It’s much easier when you have one genre you’re working on, and everyone is super familiar with that. When you have different games, it’s hard because the visions start conflicting.

For mobile games, there’s lots of science and math, even more than creativity – we had to learn stats, analytics, how to read life-time value, all from scratch. Mystery games are much easier — we’re all fans of horror and mystery, those games just fly.

With mobile free-to-play games, development keeps going, and it can go for years just adding more levels.

You kind of have an established formula after years. With the different mobile games, the challenge is making sure they don’t start crossing over and confusing them, since they all have different themes and audiences, and making sure they all have their own voice. Since I’m new-ish, another challenge is basically understanding how fast these guys move and how to jump in at different parts of the production as-needed for the different teams.

What does an average day at work look like for both of you?

Average day is pretty much come in, look at task list. Marianna and I have a couple of brief minutes where we talk about things like fires that need to be put out or anything that needs to be done immediately.

After that, it’s the routine of setting up connections. Because of my background of being in the gaming community and around Seattle, I tend to run into a lot of community events and connecting with influencers and things like that. A lot of my day is finding more of those people that would interested in networking or showing our games at conventions, things like that.

I have task-driven days and vision days. On vision days, I just think about things, research articles, watch videos, play other people’s games. I wish I had more time for those (laughs). But there’s a long list of things to do — I have notebooks like this, and I’ll finish them and keep buying new ones. I’ve been doing this for years.

I also keep a lot of my tasks in notebooks, but we also as a team we use a lot of tools online as well to stay connected, like Basecamp, Skype, Google Drive and Docs… a lot of emails (laughs). Our engineering tasks are in JIRA.

Your studio has done work across a whole variety of platforms and genres! Out of all of them, what’s your favorite to develop on or to see people play?

I really enjoy doing mobile text adventure games like Sender Unknown. It’s super cool to see reviews and reactions to it. It’s so accessible because everyone has a phone, and they can download your game and let you know what they think immediately.

I really enjoy Royal Legacy, because I like the RPG element of being able to build up heroes and customize them. That one’s going through its last little bit of getting a publisher and stuff like that, so we’ve been focusing on Sender Unknown, which I like because it’s so choice-driven, like an interactive novel. I like those kinds of games, like what Bioware does, that have choices that change up the ending or characters.

I’ve been demoing a lot of our VR game — The Witching Tower — at conventions, and that one’s definitely been my favorite of all of them. What’s brought me the most joy is seeing the lightbulb when people realize how to finish a certain puzzle in-game. It’s cool watching live-action people in a headset going through different steps and having this genuine reaction of surprise or excitement, from veterans of VR to kids who’ve never done this before.

We’re familiar with the genre, but a lot of people are skeptical that VR will make money.

VR of course, is fascinating. It’s so great how much opportunity there is for it, and it’s definitely something that we want to make, but the hurdle is really finding the funding and getting it to the different platforms. The demo is as far as we got with our own funding. We’re familiar with the genre, but a lot of people are skeptical that VR will make money.

It’s difficult because you have to rethink everything like the price point. We have games that go to Collecter’s Editions or special versions — how do we translate that into VR? For puzzle-driven games, how do we make the puzzle replayable?

We have plenty of ideas and options of how we would do that, but you can only get so far with ideas before you realize, “Aw, I need the money.” (laughs)

How has your experience partnering with other publishers and developers such as Big Fish?

Big Fish specifically was amazing. They’re not just taking your game and publishing on their portal — they invest a lot of time with you. We were working with their producers for many years, and that’s how we learned how to make valuable products that people would actually play, how to collect data from players, and how to make the game not frustrating.

They basically helped us exist, and gain all that experience, and it’s been awesome. We love working with publishers because they usually have much more information about players than we do. Things like how to run a newsletter, how to see where your players are clicking. And if they also give you money that’s even better (laughs).

Being independent is also pretty cool, Sender Unknown is completely self-funded and self-published. We went with our idea, took some risks, and everyone was scared — we’ve never published anything by ourselves. Now, seeing how everyone’s reacting to it, and knowing we’re solely responsible for fixing the game and communicating with players… it’s a great feeling.

What advice would you give to other indies looking to pitch or establish partnerships with studios and labels?

You need a vision of what you want to do. Don’t just say it’s going to be awesome, no one is going to buy it. Get your act together, be very clear in your game, and believe in it — if you don’t believe in it, everyone’s going to notice. From my latest personal experience in pitching our game, if you’re humble you come across as not confident.

In the end, they also need to know what you want from them. With our partnerships, we want in-depth tools for knowing what our players want and how they act. We also want partners with an existing audience. Funding is also one of our goals, but it might not be yours. You have to be very clear and honest with yourself with what you actually want with that partnership.

You should also research the partner a lot so you know how to approach them. For example, “this is what we have, and we think you might want it because of X project you did previously, or based on relationships that we have had with similar publishers”. Being clear and cutting right to the point is something I’ve learned from Marianna and some of the producers. If they’re a good partner they’ll tell you what they expect in return, and it should be clear in terms of the contracts laid out what you’re both getting.

You need a vision of what you want to do. Don’t just say it’s going to be awesome, no one is going to buy it.

What are your plans for your next project?

Oooh… what is coming down the pipeline? (laughs) I focus so much on the ones that are about to release that I often get surprised.

Episodic text games are becoming popular, and I want to do something like that, but more from a horror angle. And of course, VR, The Witching Tower, is an ongoing conversation.

We have another concept in the pipeline, an underwater game. You play as a diver detective looking for very unique artifacts. You get hired to find them, and go to a sunk station. The people at the station died many years ago and transformed into monsters — you have to fight them and find the treasure you’re looking for.

We often find a lot of inspiration from ghost stories, hauntings, stories, and so forth. A few months ago I found this journal at an antique store, with pictures, newspaper clippings, and notes from 1938. The theme of America from 30s and 40s, with its diner scenery, is fascinating to me, and I want to do a game that’s all about small-town tales.

Daily Magic has been around for 8 years, which is incredibly impressive for our industry. What advice would you have for indie devs for staying afloat and profitable for the long haul?

I have advice, but it’s a little boring (laughs). Last year, I applied for a small business administration education program through SCORE. I did a few months — I’d never had this education before.

They taught you how to do cash flow projection, how to do onboarding, but it applies to any business, even if it’s the smallest indie. It’s an organization, it should still follow some structure. Realizing it early will help you.

Going online or any local college should have classes on business administration. Just learning the basics of business won’t take much time. Another even better resource is Washington Interactive Network — they had a bootcamp that was actually really helpful. They meet with you individually to talk about your specific challenges, have a lot of good mentors, and connect you to other resources and game companies.

What’s nice about the business mentors and workshops is that it cuts away the fluff of games to, “You have a product: it’s your game. You have a studio: you need to keep it afloat”. You can basically take that information and figure out a way to apply it to yourself.

You have a product: it’s your game. You have a studio: you need to keep it afloat.