Seattle Indies Spotlight: House of How

House of How is an eastside indie studio currently working on upcoming VR bullet hell Spartaga, releasing on Steam on Aug 28, 2017. Today we talked to Russ McMackin, its founder, with 8 years of experience at Microsoft Game Studios under his belt, Peter Zetterberg, their head of business development, with over 20 years in publishing and other roles, and Max Schreiber, their first college hire. The team spoke on their experiences going from triple-A to self-funded indie, their unique studio setup, and their thoughts on the indie game and VR market.

So, tell us a little bit about yourselves!

Russ
I’ve been making games since I was a kid. I started at Microsoft at bing.com as an intern in college, and then switched to games as fast as I could. While there, I took advantage of my intern status and looked up the design directors that I could find in the public Microsoft address book, and started cold calling them.

They were really nice, some of them were really supportive. A lot of design is mentorship-based, so they all got into the industry because they had someone that took them under their wing — and they did that for me too. In the evenings after my day job at Microsoft, I started going over to the games building and working with them on projects that they needed more muscle for. Eventually they liked me enough that when one of those projects ended, they returned the favor and got me a job under Ken Lobb (currently Creative Director at Microsoft Games Studio) doing incubational work. Then I joined the Gears of War team, did a bunch of Kinect stuff after that, and joined Hololens for five years ending up as a project lead.

At the end of that, I felt like I had all the friends and experience I really wanted before I took the leap of starting my own game studio. So I left Microsoft about a year ago to found House of How on the principles of strong core game mechanics in new tech — which for now means VR. We’re also looking at doing Switch and audio-based interactive books and all sorts of other stuff.

Max
My name is Max, and I have a much shorter background than Russ. I just graduated University of Washington last year with a degree in Human-Computer Interaction. Most of my background was software and mobile application design. I eventually saw that I didn’t want to go into that, and did my capstone in VR gaming, which is how I met Russ. After graduating, I contacted him about a mentorship, just like how he got into the industry, and now I’m here designing and developing games at House of How!

Peter
I’m Peter Zetterberg, I have no higher education — no fancy background at all, just working for many years in the games industry. I’m from Sweden, and in the early 90’s there was no games industry in Sweden, so I started a game studio from nowhere. We had to pick our talent from what we called the demo scene — a bunch of boys and girls who play around with technology. I ran that studio for ten years, and moved on to being a publisher. I’ve been in Microsoft for ten years.

My job for House of How is to run the business development and build up relationships between House of How and Nintendo, Sony, and ID@XBOX licensing for example. I help build momentum for the studio so Russ can focus on making a game and the creative aspect of running the studio. I take care of all the dirty work (laughs).

What are you working on, and how’s progress on it going?

Russ
We’re working on Spartaga, a VR bullet hell with Tron-like art. There’s a lot of horror, shooter, or funny experience games in VR right now that’re great and I’m really glad they exist, but there’s also not a lot of games with really strong gameplay mechanics. We wanted to make something that you can play for hours and hours and really feel like you’re mastering something.

So we went from games like Geometry Wars and and other twin-stick shooters or bullet hells and tried to adapt that into VR as best as we could. You control the ship attached to your hand/controller, and you have lots of enemies spawning around you while you can look wherever you want. As enemies spawn you use your hand to dodge out of the way as enemies charge at you or fire their bullets, and of course you shoot back.

We wanted to make something that you can play for hours and hours and really feel like you’re mastering something.

We started Spartaga about a year ago. I knew coming out of Hololens I really wanted to do something in VR. So we tried to find something we could do in 4 months and then totally blew out of that (laughs).

Peter
That I could have warned him about, if I was here earlier (laughs). My first game should’ve taken eight months, it took two years.

What was it like going from AAA at Microsoft to a single digit indie team?

Russ
It’s a lot less money (laughs). And a lot fewer people – I’m used to having a big marketing team for example where they’d say, “Give us a bunch of screenshots and clips for videos,” and it was just handled. As we’re getting close to shipping our VR game, I probably only code an hour a day now, but I’m still crunching — I never thought the non-dev work was going to take so much time. That’s been the biggest change for me – just the difference in resources.

Peter
I love my day job at Microsoft, but it’s so refreshing to come back and work at House of How. It’s kind of stepping back into why I started a game studio back in 1993. It’s a small team, we want the same thing, it takes a quick conversation to make a decision rather than being in a crowded space with a lot of stakeholders. Here we can make immediate decisions and get on with it — it’s a fun contrast to the more corporate world I’m in from 9-5.

When you have your own studio and you own it and you work with your friends, you’re only accountable for yourself and the people that you hired. Once you’re in a more corporate environment, your responsibility and accountability shifts. In ’97, my studio took on investors, and from being in a team of a bunch of guys making games, we became accountable to a board of directors and shareholders that wanted to have a plan to reach critical mass and eventually do an IPO. It’s all about this sense of true freedom that you have when you’re a small studio.

Russ
Yeah, that’s another part of being indie now — we can be much more productive in terms of work being done because we don’t have to go through bigger processes anymore, but we also have much fewer smart people looking over our shoulders. So it’s both good and bad. I definitely like what we’re doing right now better just because I don’t have to wear long pants all the time (laughs).

It’s all about this sense of true freedom that you have when you’re a small studio.

What does an average day at work look like at House of How?

Russ
For context, we work out of my house — it’s part of the House of How name. The “How” part is the craft and mechanics and gameplay. The “House” part is just that — a House or a family. I always wanted a very very strong friend group of people building together.

It didn’t necessarily have to be that we share a house, but we do — as in, Max lives upstairs and we have another artist that’s just starting this week and she’s moving into one of the rooms also. So it’s quite literally a house of developers that live together — if someone’s cooking dinner we can just wander in and talk about cool design stuff we want to do. It gives us a lot more iteration and communication than any other team set-up ever would.

Max
It’s very nice — it’s like instant communication almost all the time. If you ever have an idea, you just immediately bounce it off of someone and that discourse that makes it an even better idea.

Russ
We bought this house on purpose a little bit too large in hopes that this House of How thing would work out. So we built it with extra bedrooms and extra storage space, always hoping for this plan to happen. And we’re glad it did, or we’d have an arbitrarily high mortgage for no reason (laughs).

We play games together all the time too, it’s a really good environment / friends / family feel, to be able to know everyone that well. It’s great to have everything within reach to make ourselves really efficient, and of course it’s great to not have commutes.

How would you describe the current state of the video game industry for indies? How about VR/AR?

Peter
In general, it’s interesting to see how the big game developers steer the course for the rest of the industry, and I see that there’s a big shift. Indie has become its own industry, and publishers and platform holders take them very seriously. Whatever platform you’re on, you need the indies because it’s about authenticity. Indies are incredibly important, and they weren’t really about 6-8 years ago — they were more of an afterthought or a subculture. I think they drive a lot of innovation in the business for sure.

The indie can build games and iterate on ideas in 3-6 months and actually have something that you can play. I think it’s a reaction to the old ways – people have gone from the old formula of long development times and multi-million dollar budgets, and it’s refreshing to see games done in 3-6 months. They might not be perfect, but they’re charming and they’re fairly cheap to buy.

Indie has become its own industry, and publishers and platform holders take them very seriously.

Russ
In terms of VR/AR, I think indies are the step that the industry needs right now. There’s been a lot of early investments into VR , not just for hardware but for gaming studios in general, and they’ve kind of hit a saturation point where they weren’t making money back. Even though it’s true that VR sales are hockey-sticking up, that’s more in mobile.

But between PSVR, Oculus, and Vive, there’s probably only 2.5 million devices out there. The consumers that have them are buying stuff, but it’s still not a giant market, so it’s going to be a little while before the really big game companies make bigger software investments. So I think they need indies like us to prove that the gameplay is there.

What do you think is the hardest part of working in indie games? What advice would you give to people starting their own companies?

Russ
One of the harder ones for me was the relative lack of uncertainty of what I’m doing. Was it the right the decision to live off of savings and hope that we make it? I miss the bigger knowledge-base that a team of 30 people had that helped me do the right thing.

For advice? Be as cheap as you can. Not in a way that hurts the product but just even in your own lifestyle. I wish I was a lot more frugal the last 10 years at Microsoft, because I would have appreciated having those savings. I think you can definitely make a living making indie games, but it’s about controlling costs. It’s okay if you do just OK in the marketplace as long as you’re sustainable. If you’re sustainable, you can keep on making more and more titles and have more chances at making it big.

You guys have a lot of background in business and publishing, and we’d love your expertise. What are some tips you have for indies that might help them with a more successful launch?

Peter
So I think it starts earlier than that, for any business or craftsmanship. You need to be really good at one thing. A lot of studios, I notice, try to do too many things. Find what you’re most passionate about and what you really, really want to work on, and then make sure not to dilute the idea too much. Really stick to it and become as good as you can get doing one thing really well.

Russ
Yeah, you’re not going to be the best at everything with the few resources you have. You’re not going to be the best at art and audio and gameplay and controls — and that’s okay, because you’re not trying to compete with Halo and be the best in every category. So pick the one thing that you’re really going to be passionate about, that people are going to buy the game off of, that you can talk about at shows.

Peter
To sum up, I think the best advice to be successful is to have a firm platform of expertise in a genre or type of technology and not try too many things in the beginning.

Find what you’re most passionate about and what you really, really want to work on, and then make sure not to dilute the idea too much.

Russ
When planning for the game’s launch, I would advise looking broad before you look really deeply. There’s a lot of places that you can reach for both marketing and distribution that you wouldn’t normally think of. Having a larger and more broad background in the games industry helped me see the kinds of things that are possible that people usually don’t catalog in advice columns. For example, one of the things we recently did for Spartaga was partnering with a well-known ambient electronica artist from Sweden. It got us in front of their 70,000 Facebook followers, a new market, and links on articles, because it made for a cool headline. Of course, we also love their music and it’s a great fit, but it’s a great opportunity in general.

There’s also a lot of interesting distribution programs. Hardware manufacturers — Intel, nVidia, Razer — all have programs. Part of it is them wanting to help give back to the industry, part of it might be collecting demographic data or helping make their hardware better, but part of it is also making them look cool. And don’t forget Humble, itch.io, etc. It’s not just Steam, even if that’s most of it.

And if you know there’s been an indie game that you really like that’s been really popular, just go search for them to see where they popped up and why. Like any other marketing plan, it’s finding where your users are. Think about it really hard and do your research.

House of How’s most lively and adorable roommates:
Firecat (2), Thundercat (2), Snowdog (1.5), and Sunbird (1)!
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