InnerSpace, an imaginative video game where you fly through surreal and colorful environments, just landed on most major video game platforms across the world — but it was developed primarily by seven guys that currently work out of an office in a hospital in Flower Mound.
Of the full-time employees of PolyKnight Games — two artists, two programmers, one designer, one sound guy and one person dedicated to marketing and business development — most of them met at the University of Texas at Dallas, where they went to school for game studies "in one area or another," according to co-founder and artist Steve Zapata. "We had a few larger classes where we really got to cut our teeth on making small and pretty bad student projects," he says, laughing. "By doing that, we kind of learned who was good and who wasn't."
Near the end of his junior year, Zapata started talking more seriously with fellow student Tyler Tomaseski about making independent video games "for real." They started recruiting other passionate people whom they had worked with in the past, and the growing group started playing with ideas and concepts for games. By 2014, they were working on what is now the fledgling studio's first title: InnerSpace.
The game is an exploration-focused adventure in which you fly around inside of inside-out planets. Imagine taking a flat environment and rolling it up into a sphere, keeping the surface area on the inside, and you'll have an idea of what the worlds of InnerSpace look like. A player can't worry too much about knowing which way is "up," because the "ground" is always surrounding them.
"InnerSpace started off with the space — literally the idea of an inverted planet," says Tomaseski, who references the 2003 flight game Crimson Skies as gameplay inspiration. "It turned into a flying game very quickly, but it initially started off with just the space that sounded really cool to explore and to make, as designers and artists. From there we took steps to figure out, 'OK, what would be most fun in this space?' and we decided a flying game would be really fun because you would be able to cut across the center of the sphere to kind of shortcut to anywhere in the world, and that sounded really fun."
Having a great idea for a game isn't the hard part, however. Part of the challenge in developing InnerSpace was the need to work on the game with little to no money while also trying to graduate from UTD.
"Originally, we worked out of my bedroom," says Tomaseski. "Steve literally had a desktop computer next to my bed. ... Generally we would both work in PJs. ... At one time I think we had four of us in my bedroom, and it's not a very large bedroom."
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, PolyKnight was able to take the game to shows like PAX South in San Antonio, where it could be played by the general public while still in development. It was there that it was discovered by Aspyr, a video game publisher based in Austin.
With Aspyr's help and funding, PolyKnight was able to start looking for some humble office space. They eventually settled into a previously unused corner of a rehabilitation hospital in Flower Mound where Tomaseski's mother works as a physical therapist. It's small and feels cramped even without the entire team working in it, but it fit into their budget and was in a sensible location.
They had discussed the possibility of leaving the Dallas area, but staying home made sense. "I think if we were to make a list of everywhere in the country [to plant the company], Dallas would probably be near the top if not at the top already," says Eric Brodie, who handles marketing, community management and business development for PolyKnight. In addition to Dallas' affordable cost of living (especially compared to Silicon Valley), he mentions the Dallas area's history of game development as well as its recent growth in the field of esports.
"There's also an amazing indie community here," Tomaseski adds, referencing the local developer collective Dallas Society of Play as a great benefit to the local development scene. "We actually feel connected to people that are developers in the area that are either hobbyists, or people like us that went from bedroom hobbyists to owning a studio."
The original plan for was for InnerSpace to be released on standard computer systems (PC, Mac and Linux) in one language: English. With Aspyr on board as publisher, that plan expanded drastically.
"We went from that to I think eight different languages, publishing in every major region on the planet," Zapata says. "We literally doubled the scope of the game — twice the worlds, twice the bosses." The game is also now on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch for $19.99.
"We got very, very, very lucky with how well things went with us," says Tomaseski. "I've seen so many developers make projects just as cool as ours that get no attention, get no press and make no sales. ... Game development is very hard. It's a worthwhile pursuit if you're passionate about it, but don't get into it for money."