Sometimes it’s important to believe in yourself and go after what you want. That’s what Paul Pepera decided to do a few years ago, and he doesn’t regret it.
“It paid off,” he says.
Paul was a simple 3D artist working for Oculus when he decided it was time for a dramatic career change. He had previous experience working for Microsoft and Valve, huge video game and tech companies that most artists would dream of joining one day. But Paul always wanted to start his own company, and when he saw an opportunity to do so, he jumped on it.
Of course it took courage to give up a job that gave him security and long-term perspectives, for what at the time was only an “art project”. In fact, Paul and his partners had been working on the upcoming game Astroneer for quite some time, but not fully realizing its potential and therefore not really investing more than their free time on it.
Astroneer is a space-based sandbox adventure game where the player is tasked with colonizing planets, creating structures and mining resources. It wasn’t long before they realized that this game deserved their full attention. But how do you start your own company? Where do you get the money from? What should your first steps be?
They had no idea.
“I never went to business school,” confesses Paul. “In fact, there wasn’t much business planning involved when we first started System Era Softworks. I’m the kind of person who likes to dive in and doesn’t do much research, which is why we figured out the vast majority of things along the way!”
When asked if he would have rather known all the difficulties he would encounter before, Paul laughs and says, “I probably would have been discouraged if i knew how hard it was!”
For the first year and a half that he spent working on Astroneer, neither Paul nor his other 3 partners received a salary. He cashed out his savings with no guarantee of success.
“This industry is volatile,” he explains. “There are many good games out there that haven’t sold well. We made reasonable predictions, but there was a chance we might just lose all our money.”
The team at System Era Softworks wanted to retain full creative control of their game, so ended up sacrificing revenues by deciding not to partner with a publisher.
“However, we released an early access version of Astroneer in December 2016,” continues Paul. “This helped us get some feedback on the game and also fund the rest of the work.”
One mistake they made was thinking their goals were achievable with a small team.
“We were very ignorant on what we could actually achieve in our estimated time frame,” Paul reveals. “We’re likely be working on this game for another year at least.”
Only about 15% of the final vision has been completed so far. Paul says that in his experience the last 10% of a game requires 90% of the effort. To bring their vision forward, the team at System Era Sotfworks is looking to hire between 15 and 20 people to work on Astroneer this year, and expand their skillset.
“I never considered myself an animator but I found myself rigging on this game. We all did what was needed, but not necessarily the things we were best at,” says Paul.
About going from working for others to being an entrepreneur, he believes that “there’s no right way of doing it. But if you believe in your project and have some knowledge of how the industry works, it’s worth giving it a try.”
*Update: this interview was conducted on March 17, 2017. Paul Pepera suddenly passed away ten days later. We decided to share it as a tribute to the incredible artist that he was, hoping his story will keep inspiring generations of artists to come.