Bring Your Hand-Drawn Characters To Life With Eric Cleckner, Founder Of Grafighters
Picture this: you’re in an extremely boring board meeting and instead of taking notes, you find yourself doodling an awesome creature in the margins of your notebook. As the chair drones on and on, your mind starts drifting and you wonder what would happen if that five-legged, eight-tongued, one-eyed monster could climb up off the page and devour your entire board.
I sat down with Cleckner to talk about how he and co-founder Dave Chenell took a random idea they had in class and turned it into a gaming website with 13,000 users, 10,000 characters uploaded, and 60,000 fights.
So, in a nutshell, what is Grafighters?
In a nutshell, Grafighters is a game that lets you bring your drawings to life and play with them.
Anything else you want to add?
No, really we like to keep the idea broad and simple. It’s just bringing your imagination to life and being able to play games. So the first iteration of that is our fighting game, where you can send doodles to battle against each other.
How does it work exactly? I don’t entirely get it.
Okay, so we’ll start with the drawing. Draw anything you want on a piece of paper. You can use our app to send a picture of it to the website. Then you go through an uploading process where you can tell the computer what the different body parts are—so you say this my character’s arm, head, the legs—and then that’s how we know how to bring your character to life and animate it.
And then it goes out into the Grafighting world to fight other characters?
Exactly. And during that uploading process when you say what the different body parts are we scan the drawing and we look to see like, if it has a really big head then you get points for intelligence.
If it has really big muscly arms you get points for strength. If you’re small and really well balanced you get points for speed.
That’s how we group your character into different categories, like “this is a toughness character” or “this is a smart character” and that determines how it’s going to fight when you send it to battle.
And what are the environments they fight in?
Right now there’s a couple different stages. There’s the Ghost Town, London Street, there’s Deep Sea Ocean and there’s also a Christmas themed level in the North Pole.
I know we’ve talked about this before, but can you tell me again what sparked the idea for Grafighters?
It was kind of just a funny idea at the time, like “my drawing would win a battle because of this or that.”
When we took our drawings home to our friends and roommates and asked which drawing would win the fight they thought it was awesome and pulled out their notebooks with drawings from class too. So everyone in the house was excited about it and arguing about whose drawings would win.
It was a really cool moment, and that’s when we realized that there was probably a lot of people who would be interested in a game where you could bring your doodles to life.
Do you think that’s why you guys are succeeding? Because it’s a pretty random idea.
Yeah! Yeah, it’s really random, but what’s cool about it is I think it’s something most people have imagined in one way or another throughout their whole life, whether you’re three years old and just scribbling with a crayon or you’re a professional illustrator. You’re probably thinking about what sort of personality your character would have or whether it breathes fire or whether it’s from some magical land. Our goal is to just bring those things to life and let you have those experiences with your drawings the way you imagined them.
So is that what gave you the confidence to put your life on hold and pursue this?
Yeah. Early on it was a lot of support from friends and family and just the fact that Dave and I had complimentary skills. I was able to design some basic interfaces for the website early on and he was able to do some programming and animation. That got us to the point where we could at least show people what our vision was.
Once we got that done it was easier to attract more people to the idea, whether it was web developers to help us develop the game or initial investors to give us the cash or to hire people to make it go faster. So the very first starting point was really crucial to us; figuring out what we knew how to do and how we could use that to get the most basic version going.
And you guys started on Kickstarter, right?
That was the first time we went looking for money. We started the idea about three years ago when we were juniors in college. That summer we spent all of our time just trying to get as far as we possibly could. We didn’t have any funding or anything and we got a basic version. Then we went to Kickstarter the next summer, right after we graduated. We were like, okay, we’ve got something, but we really need to push this a lot further. We thought $20,000 would get us to a much more robust demo of the game and that’s what we set out for with Kickstarter.
As the story goes, we failed terribly. I think we raised about $2,000 or $3,000 dollars, which was nowhere near what we were looking for. So the Kickstarter campaign failed but for us it just meant it was going to take longer to get there, to where we wanted to go. But right around Christmas time we got an email from a German investor. He was like, “Hey guys, this is really cool. Consider me father Christmas. I want to invest in this game.” We were like, “What is this? Is this spam or something?” Who is this guy “Father Christmas?” Later we realized that he just has a really good sense of humor, he’s a cool dude.
So it took a couple months but we were able to find out the financing terms and raised $200,000, which got us to where we are right now.
How did he find you guys?
He found us on Kickstarter, actually. His firm was looking to invest in some indie games in the US. They hadn’t done that before but the gaming industry is really taking off and it’s something that they really wanted to get in on so they were on Kickstarter just looking for ideas and they happened to come across ours. He also has kids, which is always helpful, because all they do is ask their kids about whether the idea is cool or not and the kids of course love it.
So yeah, that was last December. We got the funding secured in May and then we went on to hire full-time the two programmers who had been working with us on the side.
So now it’s you and Dave and two programmers?
As a young person doing this for the first time what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting this off the ground?
There are a lot of challenges and they’re all in different areas.
There’s the challenge of just building something, knowing what you need to do and figuring out how to get it done. That’s really broad and basic, obviously, but that’s always a challenge and something I think people face no matter how far into their careers they are. You see it in your head but how do you get it working?
Then the other step, probably the biggest thing is, technically, how do you get a drawing from a piece of paper, into a game, and moving the way you want it to. We tried to do an automated system that would let you just send your picture to the game and we would automatically pick out all the parts and bring it to life without you having to do anything on your own. For us, that would be ideal.
No work for the user, it gets into the game immediately, but the problem was it only worked about 1% of the time. You had to draw the characters very specifically. For us it was like, okay, do we want to tell people exactly how they have to draw their character or do we want it to be more open and creative and let people explore different options for themselves? That’s the route we went. And that whole decision process of building that took a lot of time but in the end I think the direction we went was definitely the way to go.
How many signups have you guys had?
The game has been in closed beta since November. We started with 3,000 users. Actually, when we went into closed beta we had about 1,000 and we did let some people in throughout that closed beta process. As we updated features we let a couple more people in, just to test things out. So we were at about 3,000 as of earlier this week and then the press hit (a CNN profile and a post on the block Kotaku) and in the past two days we’ve gotten another 5,000 and now we’re growing at a rate of about 100 new users per hour.
Can you handle it?
Hardly. It’s not something we prepared for and we’re learning on the fly about how to improve our systems. Honestly it’s not an ideal scenario to have all of your new users get to the website and have it be slow but it is awesome that we’ve gotten such a spike in our users and it’s just continuing to climb.
Totally. Who’s your favorite character?
Oh, good question! Um, there’s one and it’s not even a drawing, it’s just hilarious. It’s called “Standing Cat,” I think, or “Tall Cat?” I love that one. I think it’s great.
Why? What about it?
I think just the way it fights. We do encourage everyone to use drawings but the fact that it’s a picture is kind of funny. It’s just… I dunno, who doesn’t like cats? It’s perfect!
If you could have two characters fight, who would they be?
Well we got a Tweet from an ad agency yesterday about Grafighters. They’re the ones that did “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. I tried to proposition them to draw a character of the Most Interesting Man in the World and have him go fight. I think that would be awesome.
I guess the final question is what’s the next step for Grafighters? What’s the longterm plan? Where are you headed?
Next step is going to the iPhone. For us that’s going to be a really major core component of the game. We want to have characters on your phone so you can take them with you wherever you go, sort of like a Tamagachi, except you get to create your own. We really want people to think of their characters in a very loving, caring, want to nurture them kind of way. I know that’s kind of conflicting with the fighting aspect of it right now but the way we’re building out the gaming elements is you start with your character at a very basic level. We just want to grow them, develop them and teach them new skills over time.
When we come out with new games, some Grafighters will be good at racing games because they’ll be long-legged and skinny but some characters might be good to use as bowling balls because they’re really round and heavy. The idea is to have an open platform where we can develop games for these characters to be used in and other developers can develop games as well so we can let people play with their characters in all kinds of ways we can’t even imagine at this point.
So basically you’re trying to expand the world.
Yeah, we think of it as an open platform where we’re going to come up with some cool ideas for how people can play with their characters but we know that there are a lot of other developers out there who are going to have some sweet ideas too so we’re making it as easy as possible for developers to build games and users to play those games with their characters.
Any advice for other young people trying to get a business off the ground?
Build a team. I think the team is so important. Ideas are a dime a dozen but you need the right team to get them done. It’s really important to have everyone committed to the project equally. I also think someone’s passion for an idea and making it happen is also really instrumental in making it happen and getting it there. It’s really hard; it’s a massive jump between, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea,” and “Hey, I built my idea, let’s go play with it.” I think the most important step in getting there is getting the right team in place.
It seems kind of obvious, but it is really, really important.
Yeah, I think a lot of startups fail early on because everyone sees that it’s a cool idea but it’s really easy to come up with ideas and it’s really easy to like, move on to the next one.
It’s tough to stick with it so that team is really important.
Photo and Video Credits