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Creators have been an integral part of the gaming industry since the early days of YouTube and Twitch. Until recently, programmers and creators usually worked together, but operated separately. Now that line is blurring – instead of promoting someone else’s product, game developers are increasingly developing their own games.
Michael Bell, also known as Bellular, made this leap from YouTuber to developer. The first title of his eponymous studio – The Pale Beyond – was released on February 24, 2023. In the game, players must lead the crew of a doomed polar expedition to safety and manage resources along the way. Think Oregon Trail in the Arctic with its rich cast of characters.
Throughout the development of the game, Bellular balanced its roles as both creator and developer. The Pale Beyond is a key early example for developers who are considering making a leap into game development.
Bell began his YouTube career in late 2011, primarily covering Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft news and lore. He built his channel by studying game design in university, eventually starting an extra one channels to discuss news from the broader industry. During this time, Bell met Thomas Hislop, creative director of Bellular Studios.
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As they neared graduation in 2016, the couple decided to team up and open their own studio. Gaming jobs are relatively rare in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the two are from, so they took matters into their own hands to avoid going the more corporate route. Bell would serve as managing director and lead the team’s YouTube operations while Hislop focused more on development. Currently, Bellular Studios continues to use this dual-engine approach.
“Michael [Bell]Following on YouTube showed us that there was a real opportunity to create a game studio where we could hit above our weight with direct access to the community,” Hislop told GamesBeat.
“We were ineffectively burning through acceleration programs and financial grants, gaining skills along the way. By 2017 or 2018, the YouTube channel had grown and I started growing our team,” added Bell. “YouTube started making a significant amount of money for us, which helped us reduce the risk of our game.
COVID was a major turning point for the team. He removed the interference. At GamesCom, the team introduced The Pale Beyond Fellow Traveler, who then published the game.
Benefits of content creation for development
The YouTube team was instrumental in successfully launching Bellular Studios’ first project: The Pale Beyond. The team had an easier time marketing the game than many independent studios because they had an experienced content development team. Hislop pointed to the trailer as an example where the YouTube team was invaluable.
There were also less obvious examples where the YouTube team supported development. “Having people close to the project who are not completely in the trenches has been extremely useful. They know games so their input was really useful as a counterpoint during development,” confirmed Hislop.
Bellular Studios still plans to use the YouTube team for The Pale Beyond. The team is working on a document detailing the game development process. In addition to improving the team’s skills, Bell and Hislop found the document a fun (and useful) exercise to help the team stand out in future business conversations.
While the team behind the cameras have been instrumental in reducing project risk, providing feedback, and marketing the game, the value of the Bellulara community is invaluable. At the beginning of the process, the team used a talent recruitment platform. Later, community members took part in a closed test using Testify.
“If we’re going to go through this process again, I think we just want to do more and do it sooner,” Hislop said. The band initially feared that fans would just sing praises, but this was unfounded. In fact, in addition to supporting the project, fans have provided quality feedback.
One of the reasons the band decided to make a documentary was to deepen their relationship with their fans. “I think it’s healthy to close the distance between us and the people who end up spending their hard-earned money on our game. We have to respect that,” Hislop said. “I’ve worked in customer service before and that direct authenticity is valuable to us as designers and developers, but also as a company and a studio.”
“People are fed up with faceless corporations,” added Bell. “I think there’s a lot of value in seeing and understanding how something you like is made. It can add another level of cultural enrichment to the overall experience.”
Bell pointed to both Final Fantasy XIV’s Live Letters and Star Citizen Live as examples of developers who cultivate an authentic style of presentation. For him, fans don’t need or want as much polish as some triple-five studios believe.
Paving the way
The Pale Beyond is basically about leadership. The irony of this did not escape Bell and Hislop’s attention. However, neither has embarked on this quest to lead the charge against developer-driven game studios.
“The niche didn’t exist when we started. It suddenly gets blown up when we’re done, which is just the nature of how long it takes,” Hislop said. “I’m glad more and more people have an honest view of the development process in their communities.”
Both Dr. Disrespect’s Midnight Society and Dunkey’s Bigmode have cemented the trend of creators becoming game developers and publishers. While neither of them have released their projects, fans are eagerly awaiting these ventures. This move fits in with the general trend of creators setting up related companies and using their platform as integrated marketing.
One of the reasons The Pale Beyond is a useful case study is the team’s transparency about the title’s performance. In the video, Bell said the game sold nearly 6,100 copies on its first day, grossing just under $110,000. According to one analysis, from day one on sale, The Pale Beyond was comfortably among the top 20% of the best-selling games on Steam. Both the team and Fellow Traveler confirmed that they are satisfied with the results.
Please note that Bellular Studios has not sought to partner with other content creators to promote the game. The only major developer to promote the title was Asmongold, whom Bell knows through their shared history as a World of Warcraft celebrity. In his video, Asmongold emphasized how valuable The Pale Beyond could serve other developers who want to create games as a proof of concept.
While neither Bell nor Hislop feel particularly comfortable promoting themselves this way, the duo admit that networking with other creators and developers can help grow their future efforts.
“The reason why some games have become so sticky is because they are more than just a fun game. They have cultural capital. The modern audience lives in a more connected but also isolated world. There is a desire for community,” said Bell. “People don’t just want to play the game. They want community. The companies that will go the extra mile are the ones that can capitalize on that… Creators are another way to get this cultural capital.”
Pale Beyond has launched, but Bellular Studios is still hard at work. Bug fixes and quality of life improvements are the most important. As a result, the team is still deciding what to do next, be it DLC or another game.
The couple is more focused on taking a step back and looking at the big picture. It’s clear that both Bell and Hislop have taken leadership themes to heart and are looking to improve their organizational chart.
“We failed to take full advantage of transforming the gaming team and the YouTube team into a synergistic organization. You quickly realize that you need people who see the big picture,” said Bell. “Now we’re in a position where we can properly plan and structure the organization to take advantage of everything it has.”
Both admit that they want someone to bridge the gap between the game development teams and the YouTube teams. In fact, the document was one of the first opportunities for many employees to come into direct contact. The goal is to allow for community involvement beforehand, be it testing or promotion. In particular, the team wants to leverage their Patreon community more effectively in the development process.
While developer-driven games are just getting started, future projects can learn from the early examples of The Pale Beyond and Bellular Studios.
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