You’ve probably already heard of BonusXP, the Dallas mobile game development studio behind Stranger Things: The Game, but the company is so much more than that. A diverse team in Dallas, Texas is responsible for side-scrolling shooters, action-RPGs, matching games, and more.
We spoke with CEO and cofounder Dave Pottinger about what made BonusXP the perfect studio to take such a wide variety of genres and art styles while remaining a true indie studio.
When Pottinger and his cofounders Jason Sallenbach and John Evanson created the company, mobile was on the rise, but still growing. “We were tiny at that point,” Pottinger explained, “So we figured it was a good match.”
The team all had previous mobile experience at other publishers, but beyond that, Pottinger says the team wanted to do something new. With a number of PC and console titles under their belts, including Age of Empires, Halo Wars, Orcs Must Die, and more, the BonusXP team felt mobile would give them a chance to make something new.
“A big reason BonusXP exists is so that our teams can work on new, interesting titles,” explained Pottinger.
New and interesting have certainly been working out for the company. “We recently passed five and a half years of existence as a self-funded, mid-size studio,” Pottinger explained. “We’ve been through every bit of the startup roller coaster,” he continued. “I guess we’re doing enough things right because we’re still here.”
“And we’re growing!” Pottinger added, “In fact, we’re looking for more programmers and artists right now.”
The studio has a number of titles under its belt, including Monster Crew, Cavemania, The Incorruptibles, and Hero Academy 2 (launching in early 2018) in partnership with another independent Dallas-based game studio, Robot Entertainment.
With the experience working for larger studios, Pottinger says the company had to slightly adjust how they approached finances. “It was easy to fight the good fight when we didn’t have to pay the bills,” he explained that sentiment let the teams push off large titles until they were complete. “When we needed more time for a game’s features to bake, we demanded we slip the game. It was driven purely by the game.”
Pottinger admits that was a bit naive, but initially, BonusXP’s development pendulum swung too far. “I think we got cautious when we had to pay the bills too,” he said. “We kept everything under-budget, which was good, but sometime we should have done the painful thing and extended development to finish the vision or polish it a bit more,” he said.
If you happen to be in the midst of making a brand new self-funded title “don’t compromise your vision,” Pottinger said.
After a couple of games, BonusXP decided to seek out partners to help ease some of the ‘ship-to-eat’ pressures and provide additional input. “Those partners have also helped with funding some of the projects, as well as taking on some of the roles we were ill-equipped to handle,” Pottinger explained. “The additional perspective helped immensely too.”
“Ironically, I think we’ve done a better job maintaining our vision now that we have partners,” Pottinger laughed.
Stranger Things Have Happened
Having released Stranger Things: The Game, BonusXP leveraged some of the expertise the team as a whole has on working with licensed properties like Halo and Hero Academy to really dive into Stranger Things: The Game as fans of the show and not just a licensed game producer.
“I think everyone worries that it can be difficult to work with someone else’s franchise,” Pottinger said. “I’m sure there are plenty of touchy situations, but that wasn’t the case with Stranger Things.”
“Even though you didn’t originate the world, you have to really embrace the IP and treat it like your own,” Pottinger explained. “You’re getting to play with someone else’s baby. Treat it like a privilege.”
Working with Netflix, Pottinger said, was a dream. “There’s nothing I would change about our relationship,” he said. Netflix and the Duffers (the creators and showrunners of Stranger Things) gave BonusXP the freedom they hoped for, but also provided terrific feedback, he explained.
Pottinger’s experience with the Duffers and licensed properties, in general, leads to some sage advice for other developers. “Love what you’re doing. Make something that you, as a fan, enjoy,” he said, “If you can’t muster that excitement, you should do something else.”
A major gaming company making its home in North Texas might seem strange to outsiders, but Pottinger and team couldn’t have chosen a better area to build BonusXP. The area is full of great programming talent.
“Our studio averages something over 14 years of industry experience,” Pottinger explained. With experience of his own at Ensemble Studios, Robot Entertainment, and Zynga, he’s emblematic of the breadth and depth of the company.
“Many of them have been ‘around the block’ in the game industry,” he continued, “They’re looking for a place that offers more than just their day job.”
Dallas was known in the ‘80s and ‘90s as the Silicon Prairie. Finance money (Despite stereotypes, nearby Fort Worth is the cattle town) brought technology investment and gaming grew hand in hand with that investment. Aside from a strong history and centuries of cumulative experience, the area is even growing new talents, rather than importing it from the coasts. Dallas’ Southern Methodist University even operates The Guildhall, a graduate-level training program specifically for game developers.
We could wax poetic about it, but suffice to say there’s a good chance at least one major title you’ve played on PC, console, and mobile has North Texas DNA.
With this extensive pool of talent and experience to draw from, BonusXP has kept growing as its titles have continued to see success after success. “We said we’d never get bigger than 30,” Pottinger explained. The company now has 31 employees. “That’s clearly out the window.”
Pottinger explained the company is split into three teams, which is also more than Pottinger said they ever planned. “While we’ve violated our magic plan, I think we did it for the right reasons,” he explained, “We’re excited about the opportunities, and fortunately we’re in a position to step up and do them.”
Growing to Make Great Games
With such an experienced team at BonusXP, Pottinger says there’s a huge culture of teamwork, but also one of responsibility. “We expect team members to carry tasks from start to finish,” he explained, “We spend a lot of time and effort ensuring everyone has a chance to be involved.”
“Even beyond that,” Pottinger continued, “We work on games because our teams are excited about them; we involve them heavily in the choice to do a new title.” The BonusXP team playtests their titles every single day, and Pottinger says the whole studio is involved in how the company makes decisions and iterates on titles.
“Everyone is expected to juggle many disparate needs,” he explained, “That’s not something we could pull off without a senior group of developers.”
To ensure equal voices are heard and experience is respected, the company has a flat structure, Pottinger explained. Other than a director each for game, tech, and art teams, everyone else at the company is on a single level. “How we run the studio and our staff are paramount, and ideally, those are the pieces that endure while we work across a wide variety of games,” Pottinger said.
The type of internal responsibility BonusXP’s structure and development process requires doesn’t grow on trees, and from the beginning, Pottinger says the company has focused on hiring the best fit for the team, rather than just the best candidate for an individual position.
“We’ll pass on hiring someone who is individually awesome in favor of hiring the better team player”, he explained. While growth has continued at a modest three to four employees per year, Pottinger explained, that growth comes from being excited about adding someone to the team, rather than just to fill headcount. “We never hire because we have an opening,” he said, “We hire when we find a candidate the studio is excited about.”
Pottinger and the BonusXP team are genuinely passionate about this method of game company management. On the day the company released the Stranger Things game, he published a blog entry on how BonusXP is run and how they make games.
The team likes to keep up to date on titles from other studios too. “We’ve got a lot of folks looking forward to Super Mario Odyssey and Star Wars: Battlefront II,” Pottinger said. “Some people have a backlog including Shadow of War, and South Park.” Then there’s one Pottinger says they can’t forget to look forward to — “The new Hearthstone expansion.”
Upon visiting BonusXP’s website, a visitor might be struck by the incredible variety in art styles, from the serious fantasy comic book style of The Incorruptibles to the 8-bit pixel art of Stranger things and everything in between, the company has clearly made strides to try new things with each title, which is no small feat.
“Each of our games has started with a team discussion along the line of ‘Okay, what should we do now?’” Pottinger said. “We get better results when we’re working on projects that have grassroots momentum.”
While Pottinger says the company’s three directors might apply some fiscal sanity to those choices, they still veer towards ideas that excite the company and the whole team. “We’re looking for ideas that excite us, ideas we haven’t seen before,” he said.
When it comes to the varied art styles, BonusXP’s flat structure really comes to its own.
“For any given game asset, we usually start with the concept,” Pottinger said. “The concept team works with our art director, Jason. They iterate and then share with the studio when they’re ready.” Sometimes, he said, the art team has iterated so thoroughly that the assets can be sent straight to production.
This iterative process remains consistent whether they need a design for something specific to fill a need one title might have or a more open idea. “Sometimes we ask the concept team to just go and draw something cool to serve as inspiration,” Pottinger said.
“We explicitly want to do different things,” he continued. “Stranger Things: The Game is pixel art. Hero Academy 2 is a full 3D effort with a big, fun style,” he said. “Another prototype we’re working on, Rumble, has a very high-end and detailed art style.”
Pottinger said it’s important that those styles and design choices extend all the way through the company, from the art department into design. “The levels, writing, and art content need to work together to create a cohesive, believable world,” he explained.
BonusXP approaches growth and user acquisition from a fundamental “make great games first” place.
“As our games have gotten larger and more polished, we’ve gone all-in on heavy UA,” Pottinger said, “but some titles like Stranger Things obviously take care of themselves.” Other titles, Pottinger said, have run the gamut from dedicated user acquisition to leveraging user reviews, word of mouth, and features from Apple, Google, and Amazon, but one thing remains consistent — quality.
“It sounds trite, but our initial strategy is to make a game we’d want to play,” Pottinger said. “If we start there and get that right, then our retention is good. If our retention is good, we build on that.”
“Our incredibly complex plan for retention begins with making a deep game that keeps people coming back,” he said, underselling the well-crafted nature of BonusXP’s games. Even then, Pottinger explained, there’s a balance that has to be struck.
“I think we made some mistakes initially when making our runner, Monster Crew and our match-3 (Cavemania) too complex and too far out there,” he confessed. “We didn’t strike the best balance between what was fun for us and what was fun for the average player.”
This refinement and self-reflection has definitely moved BonusXP’s projects forward and influenced the projects the teams work on. “Our penchant for creating new gameplay and deep, strategic choices fits better in a larger game,” Pottinger explained.
Pottinger says it’s exciting to work on something so ambitious. “We’re working with Robot Entertainment to build a robust meta-system that sits on top of the solid, core gameplay,” he explained. “With any meta-system, we’re looking to give players a reason to come back. We always want them to find and do new things.”
This addiction to creating strong core gameplay loops has directly informed the company’s monetization strategy.
“We’re not interested in making revenue engines that don’t have interesting gameplay,” Pottinger said. “We start with a game that players inherently love and then give them ways to invest in that hobby,” Pottinger said it’s a core belief at the company that purchases should come from player desire rather than a requirement forced by a pay-wall.
The most common mistake Pottinger says he sees with regard to monetization involves mismatched gameplay and monetization. “People build a game to be played by a certain type of player, but then apply a monetization plan that doesn’t jibe with those players,” he explained.
If for example, a developer builds a hardcore came and then applies monetization systems designed for casual games, that’s not a good idea said, Pottinger. “It’s tough to be objective and realize that your monetization plan doesn’t fit your game,” he said. “There are shops and individual consultants to help with that. If you’re not sure, get some advice.”
The founders at BonusXP and many of their team have a wealth of experience to draw from in making games, and through the learning experiences of being independent, Pottinger has amassed a positive outlook on the process, with sage wisdom for others following in BonusXP’s footsteps.
“It’s valuable to learn things by doing them yourself,” he said, “but it can be expensive.” If a developer has the means to publish a game by themselves; “By all means, do it!” he said. “You’ll build more value in your studio and be one hundred percent in control of your creative destiny.”
Realistically though, most places don’t have enough money to do that, he said.
Getting the game out the door and onto the app storefronts is just the start of the process as well. “You shouldn’t spend all this time and effort developing a game only to drop the ball during launch,” he said.
“That’s when you should double down on your idea,” he explained passionately. He explained that developers should have enough money available after a game is launched for user acquisition, ads, marketing, and so forth. The company poked a bit of fun at itself on this front with its hilarious ad for The Incorruptibles.
“You need to have the knowledge and contacts to get the title in front of users,” he said. “If you release strategy is summarized by ‘Get a kickass feature,’ then you need a new plan.”
Keep in Touch with BonusXP
From Pottinger on down, the team at BonusXP is no stranger to social media.
On official channels, you can keep up with the company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Google Plus where the company posts updates, interacts with fans, and generally shows off what they love doing most – making games.
The BonusXP team blog is also a treasure trove of excellent content. Various employees contribute everything from art and game design philosophies, to personal news and more. It’s a rare glimpse into the whole team that one doesn’t usually see from a studio, even a small one, and a great reminder that our favorite games are made by a diverse and wide range of people.
A huge swathe of the BonusXP team also has their own public-facing Twitter accounts.
- Dave Pottinger — @dcpottinger
- John Evanson — @jevanson
- Andy Cotnam — @Cotnam
- Nick Resa — @REZNIQ
- Austin Chalk — @AustinChalk
- Andrea Werntz — @AndyaGarciaH
- Alex Swaim — @phoenixashes
- Jacob Naasz — @Samaflange
- Russell Brown — @pickscrape
- Clare Valesh — @clarist
- Bobby Frye — @modernmodron
- Graham Somers — @BXPThunder
The BonusXP team is also no stranger to a good team building activity! Over the summer, the team had a Chopped-inspired cooking contest at Tre Cooking Concepts, run by Tre Wilcox of Top Chef fame.
What’s in the pipeline for the three talented teams at BonusXP?
“We’ve just released Stranger Things, so we can cross ‘Zelda-like adventure game’ off the bucket list,” Pottinger laughed. “We’ve got a deep PvP game going with Hero Academy 2. The art styles there couldn’t be more different, which is fantastic for broadening our studio and giving our teams new things to tackle.”
“We’ve recently started a new prototype with a wholly different art style, too,” he continued. “Individually, each of those games is huge for a studio our size, but we’re pulling them all off at once. That’s stressful.”
Pottinger paused, “But damn, it’s also a wild, exhilarating ride.”
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