For indie developers, the dream is typically to remain independent. Create your first game, ship it on your own, sell loads of copies, and become the next success story. It might be unrealistic, but who among us hasn’t had unrealistic dreams? The folks at Biting Mascot know that better than anyone.
You can be forgiven for never having heard of Biting Mascot, a group of young indie developers in Finland led by Serafima Jolkkonen and Toni Aaltonen. Their game, a whimsical 3D platformer called Captain’s Tail, never got the chance to be the huge hit they’d hoped it would be–not yet, anyway.
After releasing an outstanding demo for the title in 2018, things were looking up for the team. They were finding success in their search for financial backing and had grown a cult following from what they’d shown of the game thus far. Yet despite a solid demo, a college-educated group of young developers, and talks with established publishers, Captain’s Tail never saw the light of day.
The team at Biting Mascot chose to walk away instead.
This Captain’s Tail
In 2018, the young developers were newly minted graduates of Kajaani University of Applied Sciences, a school that was dubbed the best university of applied sciences in the country by Finnish newspaper Talouselämä in 2011.
“Our school was very practice-oriented and we started having project courses from the very first year and in total we had about eight project courses during our studies,” said Toni Aaltonen. Aaltonen was part of what would become Biting Mascot from the start. Later officially credited as Lead Designer on Captain’s Tail, their work included a little bit of everything.
The other half of this early iteration of Biting Mascot was Serafima Jolkkonen. Jolkkonen would become Lead Producer of the Captain’s Tail project, getting the project started and pulling the team together. “When we started to play with the idea of becoming a more permanent and established group of developers, our cutesy pirate corgi was constantly on the table,” says Jolkkonen.
That “cutesy pirate corgi” was the protagonist not of Captain’s Tail, but Land of the Scurvy Dog.
Land of the Scurvy Dog
Captain’s Tail began life as Land of the Scurvy Dog in 2016, a prototype made while the team studied at Kajaani University. They uploaded this early build of the game to their Itch.io page (which is still up and playable today). This was the project that first brought the crew that would become Biting Mascot together.
Jolkkonen describes the group: “There were six of us when we formed the team: me, Toni, two graphic artists and two programmers. We figured this would be a team with which we could get the demo done, and were hoping that eventually we could expand the team size to accommodate a larger scale project.”
“I think we were about five projects in when our group more or less solidified into what later became Biting Mascot,” Aaltonen said. “Serafima and I were together in almost every student project and we sort of ‘iterated’ on different people and stuck with those that we found good chemistry with. Early on we learned that working with like-minded people is a lot more productive and efficient than trying to work with more difficult people, no matter how skilled they are.”
From University Project to Full Game
After university, the team began brainstorming game ideas and expanding them into prototypes. To keep themselves afloat, they took on contract work from outside studios. This is a common practice in indie circles–doing animation, design, or narrative work on other games, films, commercials, or software to earn extra income while working on their own projects.
Struggling to find the right idea, they looked back to their college days for inspiration. What they found was a scurvy dog waiting for his return to glory.
“The prototype was not, however, without its flaws…,” says Jolkkonen, reflecting on their college project. “Camera, controls, and the feel were all a bit ‘off.’ Still, people seemed to like it when they played it, and we thought there was potential. […] So, we decided to go for it. Looking back at the comparison between Land of the Scurvy Dog and Captain’s Tail, the effort everyone put into improving and working hard really does show.”
The transition from Land of the Scurvy Dog to Captain’s Tail was not an easy one. The original prototype needed more than a fresh coat of paint and a bow in its hair. Instead, Biting Mascot would need to start from scratch on a new build.
“We had simply learned so much between the two projects that we were on a whole new skill level – it was faster to make things again from the ground up,” says Jolkkonen. “Well, that, and we changed the engine from UE4 to Unity, so there wasn’t that much we could have used either way.”
It was hard work starting over, but it meant getting to fix the flaws, remove what didn’t work, and iterate on what did. It was also a great way to measure how far the team had come in a short amount of time.
Full Steam Ahead
In November 2018, two years after the initial university project, a demo for Captain’s Tail hit Steam like a sledgehammer. It took six months of working full-time to complete three levels, but the work shows.
Captain’s Tail is a 3D collect-a-thon platformer inspired by games like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. But what separates it from other indie 3D platformers is its emphasis on speed and movement. You can get a good head of steam going by holding down sprint and running straight through the three open levels to the end. Levels were designed with speed in mind, offering multiple routes and secret areas hiding golden dog bones.
There are also multiple methods of movement. Walking gives you more control, sprinting makes you faster, and running up or across walls gives you a shortcut or lets you get into a hidden area. Though a simple spin attack is the only attack available, there’s also a throwing mechanic where you can throw coconuts and bombs at other targets.
The demo lacks a story, but it makes up for it in how complete it otherwise feels. Jolkkonen said they were planning a lot more too, like traveling in a pirate ship, exploring different islands, gathering a crew, and blasting yourself out of a cannon, Sea of Thieves style.
The More Things Change
The demo for Captain’s Tail is an improvement on Land of the Scurvy Dog in every regard. Running on all fours (how sprinting works in this game) is no longer a toggle, the clunky sword combat is gone in favor of a simple spin attack, the controls are more responsive, the levels more open, and the camera isn’t quite as heavy and difficult to maneuver. The 2D perspective shifts a la Crash Bandicoot are also gone, and enemies react to the player rather than walking back and forth on pre-defined paths. Captain’s Tail certainly looks and sounds better than the original prototype as well.
Above all, this demo represents a proof of concept. This is what Biting Mascot used to pitch the idea of Captain’s Tail to prospective publishers. As for why the demo was ever released to the public, it goes back to Biting Mascot’s plan of attracting investors.
Says Jolkkonen: “We figured, ‘hey, rather than us painting a picture, how about you just test what we have done, and see if you like it?’ We were also hoping that if there would be enough downloads, we could use those numbers as a gauge of potential interest from the customer base.”
Has Biting Mascot Shivered Their Last Timber?
Things were looking good for the Finnish team. They had university degrees, years of experience despite their youth, and a solid prototype under their belt that had already garnered a small following. They had even drawn interest from potential publishers; or at least, they made it to the meeting stage.
“I had to go face-to-face with their representative and be the sexiest offer out of the hundreds of offers they get every day,” says Toni Aaltonen. On top of design work, Aaltonen eventually found themself in charge of pitching the game to prospective investors. It was stressful work, though it wasn’t a total loss. “Luckily a lot of the publishers and funders we met with were really nice and understood our position and some of them even wanted to continue discussions about the project, if I recall correctly.”
Despite this, not long after releasing the demo, something stunning happened. Biting Mascot broke up. The then six-person team mutually agreed to part ways, find new jobs within the industry, and leave the IP in the hands of Serafima.
What happened? The same thing that derails every hopeful independent creator: a lack of financing.
“I also became responsible for our event visibility and financial contacts,” Aaltonen said. “What this means in layman’s terms is that I skipped around game conferences trying to make contacts and find possible financiers/publishers for our projects. […] I remember us having concerns about these things, the unique selling point was definitely one that kept me up many nights.”
Standing Out From the Crowd
Captain’s Tail was doing well for itself, attracting interesting from just about everyone the team spoke to. But nobody invested in it.
“Sure, there were people interested,” Jolkkonen told us, “and the test rounds we held at different events, locations and targets always brought a smile to the faces of our testers. I think half of our team has been recognized in one or more of their interviews as ‘oh, you were the people who worked on that corgi game!’ Captain’s Tail is a good demo, but it was still missing ‘That Something’ that would have given us green light on the development.”
The special sauce. The one thing that makes every game unique that publishers salivate over, the thing they can hold up and say “This is just like that other game, BUT!…” Toni Aaltonen agrees Captain’s Tail was missing that something, but that there was another reason they couldn’t find financing.
“I think the bigger issue was finding a publisher to suit our project scope and… well, the project itself. Like for example, we found some publishers who had published other games with a similar feel to Captain’s Tail, but their budgets were usually a lot larger and making smaller budget deals just isn’t their thing. […] A publisher who has mostly specialized in small first-person shooters or F2P mobile games wouldn’t be the optimal business partner; we’d both be shooting ourselves in our metaphorical legs. And this is just how it is. Every publisher has their niche, their thing that they specialize in. We just had a tough time finding one for us who would also fit our scope.”
What About Crowdfunding?
If you’re wondering why Biting Mascot didn’t go the route of crowdfunding, there’s a good reason for that.
Jolkkonen tells us that while they did consider it, it wasn’t viable due to laws in Finland. “We didn’t feel like we had the expertise to make sure we could have taken into accord every aspect of it. There are some circumstances under which crowdfunding is actually illegal in Finland if you don’t have a permit for it, and there aren’t so many precedents as of yet.
“So, while we did have some connections that would have been willing to help us out, it would have been a large number of hours to just check in with the legal side of it. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do crowdfunding in Finland – just that the impression I got while reading up on it was that you want to be pretty sure about what you are doing.”
Without the promise of financing or outside investment other than freelance work, Biting Mascot faced three options, the way Serafima Jolkkonen saw it:
1. Continue working on the game for five more months and try to find financing again.
2. Accept more contract work to fund Captain’s Tail, doubling the amount of time it would take and “risking everyone getting fed up with the project that just stretches and stretches,” as she puts it.
3. Agree upon who retains IP rights in case anyone somehow found funding in the future, and go their separate ways.
“I think we budgeted that we could’ve gone on even six months still with our current funds at the time and still keep looking for a financier/publisher for Captain’s Tail,” said Aaltonen. “I think it was more about us asking ourselves if our current skills have what it takes to make us stand out in the brutal industry and if this is the kind of stress we want to live with right now.”
Realistically, this is the same dilemma every indie developer faces when they fail to receive funding. In my years of covering indie games and speaking to indie developers, the vast majority of them take options one or two. Biting Mascot is the first group of indie developers I’ve spoken to that willing opted for three.
Not A Decision Taken Lightly
Jolkkonen said it wasn’t a fast or easy decision to come too, but after speaking with the team, it was something they all agreed had to be done.
“Biting Mascot had been a passionate development team,” she said, “but it had also become a group of friends. In the end, we decided that the years and projects we had spent together had given us a lot, and since we didn’t have a clear idea what exactly we were missing with Captain’s Tail, the best option seemed to be just to say a bittersweet ‘Bye, for now.’”
“It was a thing we discussed for a looong time and in December 2018 we made the final decision that it’s best if we split the pot, put Captain’s Tail in the freezer and see if there’s other work for us,” said Aaltonen. “It was a bittersweet decision that I think none of us wanted to make. In a short few years, the team had become like a second family to a lot of us, me included.”
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Throughout the independent gaming scene we’ve all seen stories of developers toiling away on their project for years, sometimes making little progress. When I wrote for Cliqist, I spoke to two such developers: Leonard Molar, working on Rival Threads, and James Hand, working on Lobodestroyo. Both had dedicated years of their lives, gathered teams, moved locations, and spent countless dollars on their games, but to date neither of them even have a release date let alone a finished product.
Those are only two stories, and the list of games with long, difficult, and expensive development cycles is endless with the likes of Stardew Valley, Titanic: Honor and Glory, Blue Omen, Pepper Grinder, and countless others. All those developers took option one or two, continuing to work on their games with their own money and hoping to either find publishers or drown themselves in contract work to self-publish.
These developers slave away for years, working long shifts while not having any idea if they’ll ever finish their game let alone whether they’ll actually make any money from it–or worse.
“There could have also been a negative scenario where people would have burned out, we would have ended up in serious arguments, and we would have left Biting Mascot with burned bridges, rather than as friends and colleagues. I think that might have driven some of us out from the whole gaming industry as well, and that would have been bad in every possible way.”
Where Are They Now?
Neither Serafima Jolkkonen nor Toni Aaltonen regret their decision to walk away from Biting Mascot, and they tell me the rest of the team (who declined to be interviewed) share those sentiments.
“Everyone at Biting Mascot got employed the very next year following our decision,” Serafima said. “Most of us proceeded to work at game companies or related ones. Susanna [Raunio, an artist] pursued a job in graphic design outside the games industry, and I received a financial grant to support my writing pursuits through 2019, then went back to school to turn my Bachelor’s Degree into a Master’s. And as for Helmi [Kinnunin, another artist], she landed an internship recently at a mobile game company, so things are looking up for her too!”
Two other programmers on the game also landed gigs at Next Games. Composer Landon Walter, who worked as a contractor on Captain’s Tail, would go on to compose music for Tower Princess, Evil is Eternal, and several other indie games.
Toni Aaltonen has a new job as well, working as a level designer for an unannounced project at Housemarque. “I’m sure that the experience I got during my time at Biting Mascot still played a big part in the recruitment process,” they said. “It still helps me in my daily work, it has been invaluable.”
Captain’s Tail’s Lasting Legacy
Even if Captain’s Tail was never finished, a lot of good has come of the project. Friendships were made. Careers were born. Knowledge was gained. It’s the same story for every group of developers. The postponement or cancellation of a game is never the end of the story because the work that went into it will always be with those who put in that work, formed those bonds, and learned through doing.
Because of Captain’s Tail, all six of the core members of Biting Mascot have stable jobs in the industry; some of them are even working on upcoming AAA games and achieving a dream they had for years. In the end, that’s worth more than one troubled project.
“There isn’t a non-cheesy way of saying this,” reminisced Jolkkonen, “but folks of Biting Mascot were some of the most talented individuals I’ve had the honor to work with. I was proud of them every single day and made sure that everybody knew it. Sure, none of us were perfect, myself definitely included…but we all gave it our all, everyone wanted to improve, and everyone worked hard each day.”