How Xsolla Funding Club helped Happy Juice deliver its vision for Lost in Play

You’re playing catch with your sibling, running after them in the street in front of your house. For everyone around you, the pavement is just concrete, the trees are just trees, and you’re just a child.

But for you and your sibling, the road beyond the pavement is most definitely lava. The trees are hollow and a little terrifying, and gnomes surely live in them. And you’re not a child; you’re a terrible monster roaring around.

What happens in a child’s imagination is the exact feeling that developer Happy Juice tried to capture with Lost in Play – and it did so very successfully.

With the support of Joystick Ventures and Xsolla Funding Club, the title was released on Nintendo Switch and PC in 2022 and on mobile last year. Lost in Play won the iPad Game of the Year award in 2023 and was nominated against industry powerhouses, including Mario + Rabbids and Disney Dreamlight Valley, for Family Game of the Year at the 2023 DICE Awards.

But Lost in Play was only made by Happy Juice co-founders Yuval Markovich, Oren Rubin, and Alon Simon. And the successful launch and the positive reactions were the consecration of years of work.

“All three of us came from a background in animation [and] have been working in the games industry for a long time,” says Markovich, who formerly founded and ran mobile games company Nitako Games. In contrast, Rubin and Simon previously worked together on 2018’s point-and-click adventure The Office Quest. “When we opened the studio, we talked about our strengths and what we liked when playing games. We all grew up playing adventure games and loving cartoons, so that’s what we brought into the game: to get a more cinematic feeling in story-based and puzzle-based gameplay.

“We all have young children and love playing games with them. But it’s hard to find games that are not violent, that are nice, not too scary, and that I would enjoy myself playing with them and not just be [bored],” he laughs.

So they set out to create exactly that: a game they could play with their children but would still be enticing to an adult player. Lost in Play is a point-and-click adventure with engaging puzzles peppered throughout.

“Overall, [the idea] was about kids playing make-believe games and getting immersed in that feeling, and we thought it would be cool to make a game that tries to capture that feeling and make you remember how it was like to play yourself as a child,” Markovich continues.

“We thought it would be cool to make a game that tries to capture that feeling and make you remember how it was like to play yourself as a child”

That informed every aspect of the game, from the camera work to the animation style to the setting and the decision to make it without dialogue.

“[Because] we wanted to capture the feeling of you playing with your sibling as a child, we wanted to put [players] in a nostalgic type of landscape. Because our skills are in cartoons and working on 3D cartoons, it fits right in, and we could make everything look more cinematic. For example, the camera constantly shakes a bit to [carry across] feelings, so when the character is stressed, it shakes more. It’s small stuff you take from making TV shows into games.

“In terms of the animation style and look, we were really inspired by Gravity Falls, Hilda, and Over the Garden Wall. Also, a lot of stuff that we used to watch as children like Marco [known as 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in many territories], a Japanese anime about an Italian boy who is trying to find his mother.”

With these inspirations in mind, this required a lot of work. Markovich was initially reluctant to join the project, remembering how hard it can be to make indie games. Once the team got started, they thought it’d take about half a year, he recalls. It ended up taking over three years.

“We had a lot of challenges [because] we wanted to make a high-quality game. But we’re a small team, so achieving that quality took us a while. The type of animation we’re doing for this game is almost frame-by-frame, so it takes a lot of time.

“And there’s the whole story aspect, which took us a long time to solve. We wanted it to feel like two siblings playing a game, so it was not too scripted, not like a hero arc or a Hollywood-like structure. We tried to make things evolve from one thing to the other, so you need a structure to keep people engaged and a certain level of interest. So, there was a lot of playing between those lines, trying to fit it into a structure on the one hand and remaining free on the other hand.

“We also have over 30 mini-games, most of which are unique and new. So you have to invent them, test them, see people have fun playing them, and have them understand the rules. Everything is communicated nonverbally, so you have to explain stuff visually, and you cannot go too deep in the explanation; you have to keep it simple.”

Initial funding for the game came from the co-founders’ pockets. Markovich worked on the game part-time while still doing some work-for-hire until they had a working prototype. They then tried to talk to first-party publishers and got close to getting a deal, but it fell through during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a hard time,” Markovich recalls. “We all have a lot of experience, but it was our first game as a company, so we didn’t have a big track record before that.”

So the team had to find a plan B and posted more tidbits from the game online, hoping to gain traction that way. And it worked, ultimately grabbing the attention of Justin Berenbaum, VP of strategic planning at Xsolla and general manager of the Xsolla Funding Club, which helps connect investors and game creators and provides access to resources and networking opportunities.

Berenbaum helped Happy Juice refine its pitch and find interest from funds. He eventually connected the team with Ivan Carrillo, managing partner at Joystick Ventures, an investment fund Berenbaum is also a principal.

“The main thing working with Xsolla Funding Club and Joystick Ventures gave us is transparency. Everything was out in the open, and all the decisions were made together”

“We started talking to Joystick Ventures, and we had another deal that was also [lined up], so we were in a good place. But we had a really good talk with Ivan and with Justin, and we connected, which is important. Because, at the end of the day, you do a deal with people. And the deal they offered was fair and good for us.”

Happy Juice hadn’t been published on console and Steam before, so Joystick invested in the game and provided publishing support, held weekly meetings to discuss the studio’s strategy, and more.

“We didn’t have much experience, which also gave us confidence. We didn’t know what we were doing with publishing, but we had people who did! So it helped. And we also needed them to connect with first parties, PR agencies, strategy agencies, whatever was needed.”

Markovich highlights that this solves an issue many indies might have: you don’t exactly know what you might need until someone points it out to you and helps you with it.

“The main thing working with Xsolla Funding Club and Joystick Ventures gave us is transparency. Everything was out in the open, and all the decisions were made together, so we felt in control and had a lot of knowledge of how things were going. And even if things didn’t go as planned, it was okay because we understood the process.

“And also, throughout the game’s development, when something came up, a disagreement or whatever, it was always done in a friendly [way]. Like I’m not talking to somebody who only cares about money and the bottom line of profit. We’re people, and we deal with people. That’s the most important thing.”

Xsolla Funding Club and Joystick Ventures were also present at the crucial moment of the game’s launch, with Happy Juice living a worst-case scenario as Steam didn’t notify players who had wishlisted the game that it was out.

“We communicate awesomely with [Xsolla Funding Club and Joystick] all the time. We’re partners. And when this happened, they, of course, reached out to everybody they knew on Steam to try and solve things and get a response because they are connected.

“We had a lot of promotions from Steam afterward – I don’t know [whether] it’s related, but we did get some love from the platform,” Markovich laughs.

Happy Juice Games’ founders Alan Simon, Oren Rubin, and Yuval Markovich

Xsolla Funding Club and Joystick also helped Happy Juice find a mobile publisher (Snapbreak) and strike a deal with SuperRare for a physical release and some Lost in Play merch.

“They helped with everything,” Markovich continues. “We are trying to find new markets [and] we had a weekly meeting, which is now bi-weekly, to talk with Joystick to try and see new opportunities, chat about sales, etc. We’re in constant communication, and it’s a really good relationship. I don’t take it for granted.”

Happy Juice is now hard at work making a prototype for its next game and developing a PlayStation port of Lost in Play.

“We have a new game prototype, which isn’t [related to] Lost in Play. It’s not in the genre, but close to the genre. We tried to take what we loved about [Lost in Play]. It’s something we’d like to be able to play with our families, but it’s very early on.”

Looking ahead, Markovich is hoping the studio can keep making games they love to play.

“We don’t want to grow too big as a studio; we love staying small and being creative,” he concludes.

You can purchase Lost in Play on the App Store, Google Play, Steam, and Nintendo Switch. If you’re a developer searching for publishers or investors, consider joining the Xsolla Funding Club matchmaking platform. It’s a great way to secure funding and build strong relationships with reliable partners.