Pole sat down with executive producer at and industry veteran Dan “Dante” Thronström for a chat about why it’s great working with startups, why it’s important to have a business plan even early on and why you shouldn’t be afraid of investors. Amplifier Game Invest
So, Dante, what’s your background and how did you come into this business?
I started playing games on an C64 and when I was around maybe ten years old, I got into programming and I still do that for fun sometimes. But back in the 90’s, when I considered career options, there wasn’t really a game industry in Sweden, so I started studying 3D graphics and was aiming for a job in the tech industry. This was around the millennium and suddenly the whole industry just crashed so I moved to Skövde where they, as one of the first colleges in the country, had just started offering degrees in game design. Basically, I have a background in programming, graphics and game design. I studied in Skövde for three years and during that time I realized, working with people and managing projects was really good fun because I got to be involved in all aspects of a project. So, I’ve never really worked as a game designer. Instead I’ve functioned as a project manager or a producer for the last 15 years. First job was at Lockpick Entertainment, one of the first indie companies in Sweden.
And you were right out of school then?
No, this was actually when I still was in school. Some of my college friends, one of them
at Pole, had started this company but after a few years I moved back to my hometown Stockholm and started working at Grin. At Grin I was in charge of their biggest project and worked with about 60 developers but then the 2008 financial crisis hit, and Grin went bankrupt. All the studios in Stockholm were making cutbacks so suddenly there were no jobs available. Linus Anderberg
Okay, so that’s when you started working in Nottingham?
Exactly. I joined a studio called Crytek UK which was owned by German game developer Crytek but after about a year I returned to Stockholm and was headhunted to Avalanche. That’s where I met Max and Mats from Pole. I stayed at Avalanche for about five or six years and worked on projects such as Mad Max and their Hunter series.
When did you start working at Amplifier Game Invest?
In 2016. When I was growing up, we were the first generation of gamers and we didn’t have anybody to show us the way. That’s why I’ve always talked at schools and events, I want to give back to the community by sharing my experiences. At Amplifier Game Invest, we invest in game industry startups. I’ve always had a soft spot for small enterprises, so it feels great to actually help people build something.
And how does it work? You give them a pile of cash and collect your share further down the road?
Most of the time investors only offer money, but we don’t operate that way. Of course, we have money and the money we provide can guarantee financial stability but the four of us working here also offer our knowledge. We coach our startups. We help them develop their business and their studio and set them up with experienced partners. For instance, Pole has worked with two of our studios. In a few months Palindrome Interactive from Skövde releases a game where Pole designed the sound and Pole’s also done sound recordings for Kavalri Games. Early on, I talked to Max about this, helping our startups setting up fruitful, long-term partnerships. But of course, in the end it’s always up to the studio who they partner with.
What’s the best part of your job?
I get to meet a lot of creative people but the coolest part about what we do is that we help people’s dreams come true, and that’s really empowering. Startups in the game industry are not your average tech startup. These guys are not entrepreneurs. They are artists and craftsmen who want to produce amazing games and we try to give them a solid business structure so they can focus on developing those games. But we always stress that an excellent game is not enough to make it. The whole product needs to be excellent if it’s going to sell. This can be hard to grasp and in way we are looking for people who are aware of their shortcomings in knowledge and understand that they need help in that department.
So, they need to be able to take advice?
The money is the easy part, but there needs to be an understanding that one can not only develop “games”. You need to understand that these are also products that needs to be marketed and sold. This is the business, but many that we meet have not really thought about it like that. We tell people they shouldn’t develop in a vacuum. Some just sit down and start coding on a new game, but eventually that game must find its way to people’s hands and that is why you need to run this as a business from the very first step. We teach our studios how to make a budget, how to market a product and that there are choices you can make while designing that will affect the sales of the game. We also teach them how to negotiate with publishers and support them at important business meetings. The goal is to transfer knowledge from us to them. We have a long-term commitment and consider them to be partner studios rather than investments.
How long do you usually work with startups?
We don’t have an exit plan. We invest in companies because we think they are going to be profitable in the long run and when that happens, we get a share of the profit. Palindrome Interactive is our oldest partnership and we signed with them four years back. They have a contract with a publisher now and are doing great, so we have pretty much taken a step back. They have to be able to do their own thing, and they are doing great. The other week we started a new studio, River End Games in Gothenburg. They were already working on a great game and wanted to focus on that. So in that case we said: We can start the company and help to manage it, so you can focus on making games. It’s a pretty unique thing.
When you invest in a startup, what are you looking for?
First, we need to sit down and get to know each other. My dad has always told me that business is done between people, not between companies. And I find that to be true so it has to be somebody you feel you can work with. We are also looking for passion and people who are willing to go the extra mile to deliver. Last but not least, we need something concrete to evaluate and merely an idea is not enough since one of the hardest parts in building a successful business is turning words into action. So usually we ask for a demo. The demo is kind of a live resume which makes it possible for us to make a deeper analysis and spot if there is a potential in the partnership. But the demo doesn’t have to be perfect. Most of the startups we meet are diamonds in the rough. Our job is to make them shine.
The startups you take on, what phase are they usually in?
It varies. Some of them are not even companies when they contact us. They’ve been doing this on their spare time and want to take the next step. Then there are companies that have been around for a while but feel that they need a push to get to the next level and they require other forms of support from us. No day is like the other here. Sometimes we talk to people who just graduated and sometimes we talk to people who’s been in the business longer than I. One of the founders of Fall Damage, which is one of the studios we work with, was also one of the founders of DICE.
Studios wanting to partner up with an investor, do you have any advice for them?
People tend to focus on the games they want to develop, but I think it’s more important to show potential investors what your plans are businesswise. Try to make a budget, put together a presentation of the company, show them where you’re aiming. In short, make a business plan. It doesn’t have to be according to the templates, just make it roughly right. We know how to make a budget, so don’t worry if yours isn’t top notch. It’s more interesting, and important, to know where you want your company to be in five years’ time. Second, don’t be afraid to contact an investor. I visit a lot of events and sit there in my T-shirt and not a shirt and tie, explaining how this really works. Sometimes I get the feeling people are afraid of investors, but we are not dangerous, we are not aiming to take over your company. On the contrary, we want to help businesses grow. But it’s a long process. Many of the companies I end up working with is the result of a long-time relationship. Sometimes they are not quite ready for a partnership the first time we meet, but eventually they might be. And if you get turned down, don’t despair. Instead, ask for feedback, ask how you can improve your case and your business plan. There is a lot you can learn from a turn down.
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