By: Garret Romaine
When 1047 Games* set up their game Splitgate* for demonstration in the Intel booth at the Game Developer Conference (GDC) in 2019, they had high hopes and a big dream. Cofounder Ian Proulx had nurtured the title, a novel take on the first-person shooter (FPS), for several years. The world would now take a serious look, and he and fellow-founder Nicholas Bagamian would get an answer to their question: Would their free-to-play FPS title succeed where so many other indie shooters had failed?
The response was immediate. Splitgate (which premiered under its working title, Splitgate: Arena Warfare) was named one of the best indie games of GDC 2019 by PC Games*, who hailed the "tight, precise gunplay" and called it a "fast, fluid multiplayer shooter." Fresh from their success, Proulx and Bagamian started raising money, building awareness, tackling technical challenges, and putting in long, long hours in order to perfect the title. They also sought to build on their relationship with Intel.
Figure 1. Splitgate has been hailed as a “fast, fluid multiplayer shooter” with portals that spice up the action even more.
Proulx is quick to point out that Intel's assistance was a major factor in the team’s success. He credits Intel’s booth at GDC as a key early support, introducing the 1047 Games duo to influential streamers and key industry contacts. They later achieved Runs Great on Intel® technology certification, which provided insights into maintaining their frame rate as they expanded from PC to console play. They next joined the Intel® Game Dev Boost program and gained vital early marketing, expanding their reach and providing much-needed credibility when they truly needed it.
"I don't think it was one specific thing that Intel did that helped us," Proulx says. "I think it was a lot of different things. Partnering with Intel definitely helps in a lot of ways," he added. Something clicked. Splitgate has seen over 13 million downloads as of November 2021, and 1047 Games is now referred to as a unicorn—a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a startup company with a value of over $1 billion.
From Dorm Room to Board Room
1047 Games is named after the address from where it all began: Proulx and Bagamian’s dorm at Stanford University. It’s at Stanford that Proulx says he first thought to combine portals with the first-person shooter perspective. Proulx had been playing computer games from the age of seven, and grew to favor action, tactics, and firepower. Valve’s mega-selling 2007 title Portal*, which involved puzzles and teleporting, also left a big impression on him.
Consider the influence of that title (Portal is widely acclaimed as the most innovative release that year) with the untold hours Proulx spent playing Halo* 2, and you have the seeds of the idea that would crystallize once Proulx was at college.
Figure 2. Splitgate definitely has some of the look and feel of a classic Halo*-style FPS title.
"I loved those games growing up, and I wanted something that captured that old-school Halo feeling," Proulx says. But he didn’t actually start out thinking in terms of a "Halo with portals" hybrid. Once Proulx knew he wanted to play with the FPS format, he reached out to his friend Nick Bagamian, whom he describes as "the best engineer I know," and suggested they build the game together. Showing off the concept to friends on campus, the pair conducted periodic tests every few weeks for feedback, with the conversations often centering on the basic gameplay. Should the style emphasize aiming down the sights with quick kills, like Call of Duty? Or should it feel like Quake, bunny-hopping over the map rapidly, with loads of extra health? And which style would benefit from portals?
Eventually they settled on the middle ground, which is where Halo sits. "If you think of Call of Duty, if you added portals to that, it wouldn’t really make sense," Proulx says. "Why would I portal behind you, when I could just shoot you as soon as I see you?" And Quake was the opposite: Why portal to get close, when a player has so much health they could just get away? Once decided on approach, they focused on free-to-play, but steered away from the then-popular Battle Royale genre, favoring player-versus-player arena action.
After graduating from Stanford with master’s degrees in 2017, Proulx and Bagamian began working in earnest. For the first six months, Proulx (chief executive officer of 1047 Games) and Bagamian (chief technical officer) coded like crazy, just two indies with a passion. Proulx was responsible for the portals and the first eight maps, but they both did whatever was needed. Toiling without funding from the basement of Proulx’s boyhood home, the pair eventually gained enough interest from Intel to secure a place at the GDC 2019 booth.
Figure 3. The maps in Splitgate have come a long way since the original release, with clever design and ample use of color.
Things happened quickly after that. "People really loved what we had, so we were able to raise a little money in a 'pre-seed' round," Proulx recalls. 1047 Game’s booth demonstration drew attention from noted Twitch* streamers, including Jon Sandman, and with their gaming and educational pedigrees plus credibility from Intel, the duo had enough momentum to tee up a soft launch for May 2019.
"We figured we were going to have to learn a lot, so let's do a soft launch," Proulx notes. The plan was to roll out the title, get feedback and experience, and then begin a big marketing push later. Instead, they got a big, heavy dose of reality. "We definitely expected to do better than we did," he remembers ruefully. "Pretty instantly, the numbers dropped, and that was just really disappointing." The main take-away was sobering. "Having a fun game is not enough. There's just so much that goes into free-to-play, and that goes into running a successful game," he laughs.
For the next two years, Proulx fundraised just about nonstop. He spent more time making presentations than writing code, and during those countless hours in front of venture capitalists and angel investors, he missed the technical side.
Overcoming Early Challenges with Help from Intel
It took time to get investors to commit. "Nobody would give us money," Proulx recalls of those dark days after the 2019 soft launch. He and Bagamian made numerous improvements, expanding the maps, and improving the playability metrics. Their reviews improved, and they thought they had a better case to make, but their story wasn’t resonating. And with fewer players queuing up for a match, it took too long to get into a game. When players did find a partner, the matches tended to be too lopsided.
Eyeing a move to consoles, the team started planning a port to Sony* PlayStation* and Xbox*. A big part of that growth into new hardware was going to be performance, so they circled back to their Intel contacts for inspiration. "It was very important that we could run at a steady 60 frames per second (fps) on an Xbox One* and a PlayStation 4*, which is harder than you would think," Proulx explains. "If we could get the game to where we're hitting 30 fps on those integrated GPUs, we’d already be halfway there to hit our goals on the consoles."
Figure 4. Players can fire through portals for extra strategy and complexity.
Intel’s Game Dev contacts convinced Proulx to sign up for the Runs Great on Intel technology certification. It’s a self-service, guided journey that ends with a playable game on Intel technology. Developers get quality assurance testing, as well as guidance from experts who understand how stressed indie teams are to release a problem-free game. Without the time or money to test every scenario on every platform, developers instead receive targeted advice on time-management priorities and comprehensive testing methodologies to get good coverage and reduce bug escapes.
What Proulx appreciated was the opportunity to focus on a goal. "It really gave us something to strive for, a target in terms of performance," he says. The first time they ran the tests, they hit 35-40 fps on an Xbox One. So achieving 60 fps wouldn’t be overwhelming, he believed. Like many others, Proulx credits Intel’s work with Epic Games* to optimize the Unreal Engine*. It released him from having to overthink balancing CPU versus GPU workloads, or managing threads.
One secret weapon Proulx relied on was the Stanford curriculum he and Bagamian mastered. "We really do pride ourselves on writing beautiful code," he says. "Nick is obsessed. I can’t count the number of times he's refactored things because he just can't stand hacky code."
Proulx says 1047 Games did a good job "from the get-go" making sure that every line of code is well optimized and well documented. If something doesn’t run smoothly, it gets a lot of attention. "Good code is easier to iterate on," he says. "That work pays off."
Once the title gained certification, and met the relevant criteria, the Intel Game Dev Boost program kicked in. In the Get Big part of the program, selected titles are eligible to be included in various Intel marketing promotions, such as social amplification, partner promotions, email campaigns, event demonstrations, game bundles, and more.
That was a welcome accelerant for a company focused on fundraising and coding. "We didn't have enough money to really move the marketing needle," Proulx says. "You have to be scrappy and figure out anything you can do to get eyeballs on the game. There's not some secret sauce; it's do everything you can because you never know. Intel really helped with that," he adds.
The game continued to attract attention as a free-to-play title on Steam*, but the console launch was deemed crucial. To augment their beta program before the console release in summer 2021, the Intel Game Dev Boost program soon began pumping out social media content, generating sponsored articles, helping with skins giveaways, and more. The title started gaining traction, and soon went from fewer than a thousand people playing at any given time, to over 10,000 users waiting in line for a match. "Intel’s a huge brand and has a lot of reach," Proulx said. "We weren’t ready for exponential growth."
Figure 5. Releasing new skins has helped keep the game fresh.
Proulx likes to tell his team that they don’t have to be Fortnite* overnight, referring to the runaway blockbuster FPS released by Epic Games. But a funny thing happened to that advice—Splitgate topped Fortnite in July 2021 as the most popular free-to-play download for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5*. By late July 2021, the team actually had to briefly take the game offline—they couldn’t accommodate more than 65,000 simultaneous users. Even exhaustive forays into the Amazon Web Services* code didn’t help immediately.
So now they had a different problem—they were too popular. "The servers are toppling over every other day. Why would we possibly want more players?" Proulx recalls asking himself. They had hundreds of thousands of players across PlayStation, Xbox and PC, more downloading every day, and he had a very different pitch for the investor community. Now his calls were returned, and his emails were answered promptly, with venture capital and angel investors quickly coming to the rescue.
Get Back to Your Roots
Proulx raised $6.5 million in May 2021, then $11 million in July, and a whopping $100 million in October. But for a developer used to coding, designing, and, most of all, playing the game, it was a big context-switch. Between fundraising marathons, he confided to one of his investors that he was so busy he could hardly find the time to play the game he loved.
The investor was shocked. "What do you mean you’re not playing the game? You have to play your game every day!" Proulx recalls them saying.
The guidance resonated, and, as he dug in for a spirited match, his mood brightened. "That advice was spot-on. If all you're doing is working the business side of a game, you need to be able to take a step back. You have to continue to play your game, just to be a part of it once again."
With fully stable funding, revenues pouring in through in-game purchases and seasonal-pass models, and a new foray into esports, the future looks bright. Proulx spends much of his time nowadays assembling a top-tier team, including stops back on campus at Stanford. For the foreseeable future, Proulx is all in on Splitgate, balancing recruiting with all his other chores, and he doesn’t talk about any other plans.
As for his future collaborations with Intel, Proulx is anxious to try out some of the Intel® Optimization tools, such as Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers and Intel® VTune™ Profiler. He looks forward to experimenting with the new Intel® Arc™ Discrete Graphics video cards, and 12th generation Intel® Core™ processors with hybrid architecture. But as 1047 Games’ CEO, he’s well aware that marketing is going to be key, and right now, he’s driving that himself until a new hire is in place.
"I'm sure we'll do more with the Intel team in the future. Intel gave us the credibility jump-start we needed, at a really crucial time. Intel has been great, and we would definitely love to do more with them."
Join the Intel Game Dev Boost program and get access to technical support, performance tools, and a marketing boost. Intel helps you optimize your game to get Runs Great on Intel technology certified. Spread the word about your title in various Intel marketing promotions, such as social amplification, partner promotions, email campaigns, event demonstrations, game bundles, and more. Join the Intel Game Dev Program today.
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