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Creators have been integral to the gaming industry since the early days of YouTube and Twitch. Until recently, developers and creators typically worked with each other but operated separately. Now, that line is blurring — instead of promoting someone else’s product, gaming creators are increasingly developing their own games.
Michael Bell, also known as Bellular, has made this leap from YouTuber to developer. His eponymous studio’s first title — The Pale Beyond — launched on February 24th, 2023. The game challenges players to lead the crew of a doomed polar expedition to safety and manage their resources along the way. Think Oregon Trail in the arctic with a rich cast of characters.
Throughout the game’s development, Bellular has balanced his role as both a creator and a developer. The Pale Beyond serves as a crucial early example for creators who are considering taking a leap into game development.
Bell began his YouTube career in late 2011, primarily covering news and lore of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft. He built his channel while studying game design in university, eventually launching additional channels to cover news about the wider industry. During this time, Bell met Thomas Hislop, Bellular Studios’ creative director.
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As they neared graduation in 2016, the pair chose to join forces and launch their own studio. Gaming jobs are relatively rare in Belfast, Northern Ireland where the two are from, so they took matters into their own hands lest they take a more corporate route. Bell would serve as managing director and lead the team’s YouTube operations, while Hislop focused more on development. Today, Bellular Studios continues to use this dual engine approach.
“Michael [Bell]’s following on YouTube showed us that there was a real opportunity to create a game studio where we could punch above our weight by having direct access to the community,” Hislop said in an interview with GamesBeat.
“We inefficiently burned through accelerator programs and funding grants as we learned skills along the way. By 2017 or 2018, the YouTube channel had grown that I started to scale our team size,” Bell added. “YouTube started earning us a meaningful enough amount of money where it helped to de-risk our game.
COVID was a major turning point for the team. It removed distractions. During GamesCom, the team pitched The Pale Beyond to Fellow Traveler, who went on to publish the game.
Benefits of content creation for development
The YouTube team was critical to successfully launching Bellular Studios first project: The Pale Beyond. The team had an easier time marketing the game than many indie studios because they had an experienced content creation team in-house. Hislop pointed to the trailer as an example where the YouTube team was invaluable.
There were also less obvious examples where the YouTube team supported development. “Having people close to the project who aren’t completely in the trenches was extremely useful. They’re games literate, so their input was really useful to have as a counterpoint during development,” Hislop confirmed.
Bellular Studios still has plans to leverage the YouTube team for The Pale Beyond. The team is producing a documentary detailing the game’s development process. In addition to leveling up the team’s skills, Bell and Hislop viewed the documentary as a fun (and useful) exercise to help differentiate the team in future business conversations.
While the team behind the cameras played a critical role in de-risking the project, providing feedback and marketing the game, the value of Bellular’s community cannot be understated. Early in the process, the team used the platform for recruiting talent. Later on, members of the community participated in a closed test using Testify.
“If we’re to go through the process again, I think we just want to do more of it and do it earlier,” Hislop said. The team were initially concerned that fans would just sing their praises, but this was unfounded. In fact, fans provided high quality feedback in addition to their support of the project.
Part of the reason the team went ahead with the documentary was to deepen their relationship with fans. “I think its healthy for there to be less distance between us and the people that ultimately are spending their hard earned money on our game. We have to respect that,” said Hislop. “I’ve worked in customer service before, and that direct authenticity is valuable to us as designers and developers, but also as a business and a studio.”
“People are sick and tired of faceless corporations,” added Bell. “I think there’s strong value in seeing and understanding how the thing you like is made. It can add a different level of cultural enrichment to the overall experience.”
Bell pointed to both Final Fantasy XIV’s Live Letters and Star Citizen Live as example of developers that are cultivating an authentic presentation style. To him, fans don’t need or want as much polish as some triple-A studios believe.
Paving the way
The Pale Beyond is fundamentally about leadership. The irony of this was not lost on Bell and Hislop. However, neither set out on this expedition to lead the charge on creator-driven game studios.
“The niche didn’t exist when we started. It’s suddenly blown up just as we finished, which is just the nature of how long these things take,” said Hislop. “I’m just excited to see more people have that honest view of the development process with their communities.”
Both Dr. Disrespect’s Midnight Society and Dunkey’s Bigmode have solidified the trend of creators becoming game developers and publishers. While neither have released their projects, fans are eagerly anticipating these ventures. This move fits into the general trend of creators launching related businesses and using their platform as integrated marketing.
Part of the reason why The Pale Beyond is a useful case study is the team’s transparency about the title’s performance. In a video, Bell shared that the game sold nearly 6,100 units its first day, earning just below $110,000 in revenue. These day one sales alone put The Pale Beyond comfortably in the top 20% of best selling games on Steam according to one analysis. Both the team and Fellow Traveler confirmed they were happy with the results.
Keep in mind, Bellular Studios didn’t go out of their way to work with other content creators to promote the game. The only major creator to promote the title was Asmongold, who Bell knows through their shared history as World of Warcraft personalities. In his video, Asmongold highlighted how valuable The Pale Beyond would serve to other creators looking to create games as a proof of concept.
While neither Bell nor Hislop feel particularly comfortable promoting themselves in this way, the duo acknowledge that networking with other creators and developers could help grow their future efforts.
“The reason that certain games managed to get so sticky is that they are more than just a fun game. They have cultural capital. The modern audience is living in a more connected yet also isolated world. There’s a desire for community,” said Bell. “People don’t want to just play a game. They want a community. The companies that are going to do the best are the ones that can tap into that … creators are another way of capturing that cultural capital.”
The Pale Beyond has launched, but Bellular Studios is still hard at work. Bug fixes and quality of life improvements are top of mind. As a result, the team is still deciding what’s next, be it DLC or another game.
The pair are more focused on taking a step back and looking at the big picture. It’s clear that both Bell and Hislop have taken the themes of leadership to heart and are looking for opportunities to refine their org chart.
“We haven’t really fully tapped into turning the gaming team and the YouTube team into a synergistic organization. You quickly realize that you need people who are looking at the big picture,” said Bell. “Now we’re in a situation where we can actually plan out and structure the organization to leverage everything that it’s got.”
Both acknowledge they want someone to bridge the gap between the game development and YouTube teams. In fact, the documentary was one of the first opportunities for many staff to engage with each other directly. The goal is to allow for earlier community involvement, be it testing or promotion. In particular, the team wants to use their Patreon community more effectively in the development process.
While creator-led games are just getting started, prospective projects can learn from both The Pale Beyond and Bellular Studios’ early example.
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