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3 indie leaders share tips on keeping your small studio afloat without a hit

Today at GDC three captains of indie-stry (Anemone Hug's Chris Langmuir, Temple Gate's Theresa Duringer, and Kitfox's Tanya x. Short) shared real talk about how to keep your small indie studio alive.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 19, 2019

10 Min Read

Launching and running your own independent studio can be incredibly hard, even when your first game is a breakout hit. So when you don't (yet) have that hit to build on, what should you do?

Don't give up! There are a number of small, successful indie studios out there who don't have the benefit of a big hit to carry them, but are still bringing in money and making games they're excited about.

Today at GDC 2019, leaders from three such studios (each of which has been in business for years, employs 5-10 full-timers, and claims no breakout hits) took the stage to share what they've learned and (hopefully) help make your path to indie success slightly smoother.

"Have an entire year's worth of runway before you begin"

First up was Anemone Hug Interactive creative director Christopher Langmuir, who quickly offered some insight into the intricacies of taking contracting work, and how you can do it effectively without going out of business or wishing you would. 

According to Langmuir, Anemone Hug was founded in 2015, has seen roughly 4x revenue growth every year, employs 10 people, and devotes half of employee time to its own original projects. He believes a key selling point for the studio is its ability to offer full-time employment, which encourages people who would typically be excluded by the requirements of a contractor position to apply.

“Some people need a stable job, no matter how talented or driven they are,” he said. “If you can offer people a permanent job at your studio, it’s going to give you access to a much deeper well of talent.”

He then jumped into some quick-fire tips for starting your own indie studio without crashing and burning, starting with a simple (if tricky) one: Have enough money upfront to run your studio for at least a year.

“Have an entire year's worth of runway before you begin," said Langmuir. "Even if you don’t make a single dollar in the first year, you should be okay. Try to plan around this."

“Two, if you're currently employed, get credit now," he continued. "This seemed super obvious to me in retrospect, but: if you have a stable job it’s much easier to get credit than if you’ve just started a studio that hasn't released any games."

Third, Langmuir recommends you get yourself a mentor who can guide you through the tricky steps of launching your studio and keeping it going without a big hit.

So how do you go about getting client work to keep your studio afloat while you try to launch your own original games?

“There’s no magic wand, no secret trick, no secret directory you can visit online,” said Langmuir. “It’s hard to get client work, and it’s hard to do client work.”

To make it a bit easier, Langmuir suggests you always be open and proactive about meeting new people. “You don’t know what you’re going to need before you need it. These people are going to be your future clients, they’re going to help you ship games, they’re going to help you get money. Netwrking helps you meet more people, and people matter.”

Second, try to grow your team and offer unique value -- try to give clients a solution that’s unique to your studio, rather than just labor that could come from anywhere.

Also, “always try to target the people who are just a bit bigger than you” to hit them up for work, then use the fruits of your labor to expand and pitch companies that are just a bit bigger than before; in this way you can (hopefully) climb the ladder of game companies and make a name for yourself in the industry.

Finally, don’t just focus on game companies! Langmuir recommends that you chase games-adjacent and non-games clients right out the gate. 

Plus, he advises that you fight for attribution on the projects you work on as soon as you can, and as often as you can, because credits are key to building your studio’s rep -- and they’re hard to get.

And if you’re also spending time and resources on your own original projects (and why wouldn’t you?), Langmuir advises you be aware of burning out creatively. Nicking a bit of advice from fellow indie Gwen Frey, he also cautions that you shouldn’t assume spending half of your resources on a project will get it done in twice the time it would normally take -- it often takes three times as long.

"Identify one thing: Who has too much money and not enough video games?"

Next, Temple Gate Games’ CEO Theresa Duringer took the stage to offer her own insight into how you can keep your young studio afloat by making deals with platform holders and working on others’ IP.

“What do you do if your game is somewhere in between [a big hit and a total flop]?” Duringer said, explaining that this was the situation she ran into with her first game, Cannon Brawl; it was born out of a game dev contest and wound up generating lifetime revenues of $362k on Steam (~33k units sold) for a dev team of two people. 

It was enough, but not exactly an industry-shaking success, and Duringer said that when it had run its course, she wound up getting involved in another game dev contest, this time offered by Oculus when it was hungry for games to release on its then-new hardware.

“It can be helpful to identify one thing: who has too much money and not enough video games?” Duringer advised.

Temple Gate went on to release the fruits of that labor, the chill Gear VR game Bazaar, in 2015. It wound up selling much less than the studio had hoped, in part because Duringer believes the number of people playing games on Gear VR headsets just wasn't large enough at that point.

“Never develop for speculative hardware," she concluded. "...Except if there's money."

And while “Bazaar had absolutely abysmal sales," according to Duringer "it put us on the map as a studio capable of VR development.”

That led to Temple Gate picking up a job adapting the popular engine-building card game Race For The Galaxy for VR, which went well enough that the studio now has a proven reputation for effectively adapting tabletop games to VR -- and a number of contracts to do just that for other peoples' games.

Duringer acknowledges this kind of contract work with others' IP can be very hard to land if you're a new studio, which is why you've got to get crafty about who to approach.

“Nobody wants to risk their evergreen IP on a new developer, so it can be hard to get that first one going,” she said. “But if you can approach an IP holder whose door isn’t being knocked down...that’s how we got some top-tier board game IPs for our company.”

And once you get one successful game using a high-profile IP, Duringer suggests you can swing from project ot project using others’ big IP, in much the same way that Temple Gate has made a name for itself as a studio that can effectively adapt board games into VR.

Duringer encouraged small teams to stick to a specific genre in order to more quickly build expertise, contacts, and rep

Working with others' IP is also a good way to help ensure your game has an established audience at launch, freeing you from the task of trying to build a community from the ground up.

“There’s a big mistake I made with [artillery/RTS hybrid] Cannon Brawl, which was that it didn’t really have a genre when it came out,” added Duringer. “So we had to do the work of not only building the game, but building the community around it. Board games come with their own built-in community, so they’re much easier.”

Finally, Duringer suggested you think of your small size as a major asset, one that you can leverage in negotiations with potential business partners if you position yourself as a small, agile team that can get things done.

“Your superpower as an indie studio is that you are a unit of people who work really well together, especially on small projects," Duringer said. "So you can do significant work on a project in the same time it takes a PM at a big company to even sign off on said project.”

“The point of all this is that you as an indie studio can do what you want,” she concluded .”But if you don’t win the lottery with that, you’re not out of the game. You just have to balance out your workload with some safer bets.”

"We get our money from everywhere we can"

Kitfox Games captain Tanya X. Short closed out the session by taking the stage to share the studio’s strategy for success (or at least survival): “We want to make some of the best games in the world, and to do that we have to be happy. And to be happy, we have to survive.”

Kitfox has had a fair bit of success with crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, and while Short was quick to say they aren't a great way to solely support your studio’s efforts, they can really help you build up communities around your game.

Short also says the company has benefited from trimming salaries in order to do its own publishing and marketing, both because the studio learned a ton and also because there’s no concern someone might play a Kitfox game, then drift away to other (non-Kitfox) games in the publisher’s catalog.

Instead, it seems like Short takes "player drift" into account in a lot of Kitfox's business strategy; she notes that while Kitfox works hard to release a diverse array of games, they all grow from the same seed of systems-driven role-playing games.

“System-driven RPGs are the core of what our audience expects from us,” she said. “So we expect our audience will look for that core in all of our games.”

But if you look over Kitfox's game catalog you'll see a wide variety of themes and subjects, from ancient occult worlds to planets teeming with alien wildlife to a small village full of dark secrets. They're all under one publisher page on Steam (Kitfox even sells a bundle), and they're all promoted on Kitfox's main feeds, rather than each getting their own dedicated Twitter/Facebook/Discord channels.

“We’ve centralized this as a strategy because even though Random Gamer #5 doesn’t really care about Kitfox, they’re more likely to move on with us to the next game if they bond with us as a ‘brand’”, Short said, with a slight groan. “But also if they get to know us as people.”

In closing, Short echoed her fellow speakers' reassurances that you don't need a big, breakout success to keep your studio going. Many indie studios survive for years on contract work and investments (from accelerators, grants, and the like) before they ever release a big hit. 

"For our first million dollars, game sales were only 50 percent of that,” Short said. The rest (see [the unfortunately blurry] slide above) came from investments (~25 percent) and work-for-hire (~16 percent), and Short claimed that people she’d spoken to at a handful of other game companies in Montreal shared similar stories.

“We get our money from everywhere we can," she concluded. "We stuff it into our bank vault, and at the end of the year we look and see if we can pay ourselves just a little bit more." 

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