After three-and-a-half years of making weirdly unique social games like Fingle and Bounden, Game Oven closed doors in April 2015. I wrote this article to look at Game Oven’s closure from two perspectives: being a company (the dry bits, Part I) and being a team (the soft bits, Part II). I talk about our studio's costs, our game sales and other incomes, and the role of community to our business, while Bojan and I reflect together on the frustrations we had with each other over the past three-and-a-half years.
In case you didn’t know Game Oven…
Game Oven was founded by Bojan Endrovski (@furiouspixels) and Adriaan de Jongh (@AdriaandeJongh), who were later joined by Eline Muijres (@ElineMuijres). Bojan made Game Oven’s multi-platform game engine (now open sourced) and coded the largest chucks of our games. I (Adriaan) was mainly responsible for game design, prototyping, all business related stuff, a bit of the programming, production, and before Eline joined us, also marketing and administration. With an office in the Dutch Game Garden in Utrecht, the Netherlands, we made Fingle, Planet Challenge (work-for-hire), Bam fu, Friendstrap, Bounden and Jelly Reef.
Game Oven from left to right: Adriaan, Bojan, and Eline.
Game Oven was best known for Fingle, a Twister-like finger rubbing game on the iPad. Fingle was the reason Game Oven started in the first place: we had the game but needed a legal entity to put it on the App Store. (Fun fact: Fingle’s idea came from watching people play the student version of Jelly Reef, which was the project where Bojan and Adriaan met, but which also became the last Game Oven game!)
After Fingle, we made: Planet Challenge (as contracting work), a game to teach kids something about our solar system; Bam fu, a game about punching each other in the face (for real); Friendstrap, a game about being stuck to awkward conversations; Bounden, a mobile dancing game for two people with choreography by the Dutch National Ballet; and Jelly Reef, a game in which you swipe the screen to create a current along your fingers and save jellyfish from harm.
PART I: being a company
Company setup and structure
Game Oven was set up as a BV, which is the Dutch equivalent of an LLC. Setting up a BV is expensive and administration costs along the way are much higher than alternative Dutch structures (such as sole proprietor or VOF), but both our dads had convinced us we could use the experience, so we went along with it.
Our business plan was to make enough games that would collectively bring in enough money to cover the costs of the company, and ‘hope’ for a hit somewhere along the way.
Game Oven employed:
- 1 game designer
- 1 game developer
- 1 marketing person (starting halfway through)
- (1 art or developer intern, most of the time)
The biggest challenge to our initial designer + developer setup was balancing idea creation / prototyping for games and marketing / doing business for our games. We hired Eline with the promise to overcome that challenge, but when it got real hot in the oven, we still found ourselves helping out with marketing and business to eventually come to face our initial problems: we were perfectly able to balance the development of our games with the time we had to put in other roles, but coming up with game ideas and selling our games seemed impossible to do at the same time. It was always one or the other.
As an example of a different setup: other Dutch studio Vlambeer clearly separates the producer / marketing / business guy from the game ideas / prototyping / game making guy. The non-overlap in roles allows game ideation to be disconnected from the long stretch that marketing and business can be, so at least one mind can be free and wander around, making weird experiments and test crazy ideas. It seems like prototyping and actual game development are much easier to mix.
On the other hand, Game Oven’s designer + coder setup made up for a super quick iterative process. Our most extreme example was when we were playtesting Bounden every other day, playing a new and improved, sometimes radically different version of the game with external playtesters every time.
Aside from our in-house roles and skills, Game Oven always required at least a number of contractors for every project:
- 1 or 2 full-time artists
- 1 music composer
- 1 sound designer
- 1 film maker
- 1 localization company
- (1 additional developer)
- (1 choreographer?!?!)
Hiring contractors is more expensive than having people with their skills in-house. Fortunately for us, Bojan comes from Macedonia where the average wage is about one-third of the average Dutch wage. He knew a lot of people there whose portfolio was excellent, and for every game we made (except Friendstrap) we saved a lot of money by hiring someone from Macedonia. Still our contractors were a huge expense to our company, and we naturally asked ourselves why we didn’t just hire people for the skills we needed to make our games. So let’s talk about why we didn’t.
Studio and project costs
One person earning a minimum wage in the Netherlands costs the company around €1800 per month (in Euros, not Dollars!) including taxes and administration fees. With three employees, rent, software, administration, and all sorts of little things, Game Oven cost about €6500 per month.
We think it's not cool sharing how much our collaborators asked of us, but the following overview can give you a sense of the costs of each project. Note that usually our collaborators for art worked full time with us while all others did part time:
- Fingle: 5 studio months* + 3 collaborators (for art, music, video)
- Planet Challenge: 3 studio months + 4 contractors (for art, design, code, music)
- Bam fu: 6 studio months + 4 contractors (art, music, localization, video)
- Friendstrap: 2 studio months + 2 contractors (code, video)
- Bounden: 6 studio months + 8 contractors (art, music, code, dance, video, localization)
- Jelly Reef: 9 studio months + 5 contractors (art, code, sounds, localization, video)
* Game Oven didn't pay / didn't exist yet during the first three development months of Fingle.
If you are really paying attention, you would have also noticed that all studio time listed above doesn’t add up to the 3.5 years Game Oven existed. In-between projects, we looked for new concepts, prototyped, maintained the engine & our previous games, and did some contracting work here and there. But more importantly, this in-between ‘creative downtime’ was still ‘studio uptime’ and costs the studio as much as working on a project!
You can imagine what (extra) pressure this put on our creativity. How can you have peace-of-mind when you know you’re burning money every day you don’t find ‘the next big thing’? This is one of the reasons we decided to close Game Oven: being responsible for the upkeep of the studio AND being creative is damn difficult, and we couldn’t find a way.
Understanding why and how much Game Oven cost, we can now take a look at Game Oven’s income.
|Game + platform||Release date||End date||Days||Downloads||Sales total||Average
|Fingle Free iOS||12/13/2012||4/30/2015||868||767,000||€12,866||€14.82|
|Bam fu iOS||5/23/2013||4/30/2015||707||128,000||€3,935||€5.57|
|Bam fu Free iOS||5/23/2013||4/30/2015||707||266,000||€637||€0.90|
|Bam fu Android||5/23/2013||4/30/2015||707||1,066,000||€1,330||€1.88|
|App Sales total||11/18/2011||4/30/2015||1259||2,549,000||€155,431||€123.46|
Three small notes on the overview above: the sales numbers presented above are excluding the platform's cut, so it's the money we actually received. Also, we did not include Jelly Reef as it was released only four days before Game Oven closed doors, and comparing the numbers of a four day old game to the number of much older games didn't make much sense. (For those curious: it made about €6k during its first two weeks.) And in case you were wondering why Bam fu was downloaded so much: it's free and was heavily featured worldwide in Google Play.
Compared to other apps on mobile stores, these number are not amazing, but they are definitely not bad either. We can only speculate what drove our games' sales, but we figured that a few generalizations about our games would be in place here: Game Oven’s games were unique, potentially appealing to non-gamers, and using phone features in unique ways, but we were constrained by our games working specifically on mobile platforms, which already has a lots of competition, and on which local multiplayer is a niche. We had a preference towards the premium game business model in which every sale comes down to doing marketing well.
(Fun fact: Another constraint to selling our games were Apple's and Google's rules regarding real people or pictures of Apple or Google's devices in the store's screenshots or videos, which was a HUGE pain to the marketing campaign for any of our games. Imagine trying to show someone the fun of Fingle or Bounden or Friendstrap using only screen captures!!)
Something else we found was that many of our players didn't pay for our games.
|Fingle + Fingle Free*||1,036,000||1,434,738||28%||8,426,363||CH (35%) US (11%)|
|Bam fu iOS||128,000||152,299||16%||726,214||CH (44%) UK (8%)|
|Bam fu Free iOS||266,000||271,573||-||1,358,214||RU (34%) TR (17%)|
|Bam fu Android||1,066,000||1,084,197||-||3,499,791||TR (13%) RU (13%)|
|Friendstrap iOS||8,100||7,480||-||30,915||US (41%) NL (10%)|
|Friendstrap Android||24,500||24,761||-||83,916||US (19%) TR (10%)|
|Bounden iOS||17,500||68,977||75%||173,617||CH (64%) RU (12%)|
|Bounden Android||2,900||170,223||98%||373,640||CH (80%) US (3%)|
|Total||2,549,000||3,214,248||35%*||14,672,670||CH (23%) RU (12%)
TR (6%) US (6%)
Two notes: Fingle and Fingle Free's data are merged because we never implemented separate tracking ID's (and only for Fingle we used Flurry, which can't segment based on game name like Google Analytics can.) Also, the overall piracy percentage of 35% only applies to premium games and doesn't include the downloads of our barely pirated free-to-download games.
Most of our Chinese, Russian and Turkish players pirated our premium games. We can only speculate what drove these illegal downloads. One reason must be the ease at which you can install Android apps outside of official stores. Also, Google Play doesn't sell Bounden in China, so Chinese players looking to play Bounden would have to find it somewhere else anyhow. Another reason could have something to do with payment methods for mobile stores. But most surprising is the amount of illegal installs of Bounden on iOS: China either has a huge jailbreaking community, or something else is happening there that I have no idea of. You tell me.
I think of piracy as an automated marketing tool: many extra people enjoyed our games that didn't necessarily pay for it, but might convince others around them about its value who in turn might pay for it. But another way of looking at piracy is as a missed opportunity to make money. In the end, what we made off our sales wasn’t enough to cover the costs of our studio AND pay our collaborators. We didn't take any anti-piracy measures, but instead hunted for additional sources of income:
- We made Planet Challenge and a Fingle rip-off as contracting work, but mostly earned on follow-up work (localization & maintaining).
- The Dutch Gamefund granted us €35k to make Bounden + €5k for booths at GDC San Francisco, GDC Europe & Gamescom, and SXSW.
- AppCampus (Microsoft + Aalto University) granted us €52k to make Jelly Reef exclusively available on WP8 for three months.
- Bounden was part of Humble Bundle Mobile 11 and made about €12k.
- Bounden won a Cinekid Award worth €7.5k!
- WBSO subsidies (some Dutch subsidized research thing?) saved us thousands of euros on salary taxes, and was handled by a no-cure-no-pay company taking 30% of the saved money. Honestly, we have no idea how much we actually saved, but their invoices kept coming so… ?!?!
- Dutch Game Garden occasionally helped us cover costs from lawyers.
- Adriaan did some simple consultancy here and there, bringing in around 6k in total over the last 3.5 years.
Bounden won the Cinekid award for €7,000!
With these additional sources of income, we were easily able to cover the costs of our studio. We even had enough funds to do another project! Game Oven's income wasn't the main reason we closed the studio, but rather the pressure of our monthly burn rate.
How we think we survived
We believe that a large part of our game sales (but also our other incomes) are due to features by Apple and the game developer community.
Making truly unique games leads to invitations to conferences, festivals and award shows, that lead to making more friends in the games industry, that leads to more friends taking you along to private parties with distribution platforms, that lead to more prominent features in app stores.
If you didn’t think making and having friends around the world is already super fun and rewarding (which it totally is!!!), there is also a ‘commercial’ reason to invest time, money, and friendship into national & international game developer communities. But not in an evil way: you will never have to ask for help if you are willing to help right back. Communities rely on every single individual making investments, including yourself. If you’re not in that kind of community yet, making those investments first could feel scary or like a waste of time, but knowing that people can later make a difference makes every small investment worth it.
Our investments in international friends have been worth it so much up to a point that we’ve stopped caring about the commercial value of our network. It’s like having friends, except it is having friends. Because to have a friend is to be a friend. And there is really, really no evil in that. Members of the game developer community took us to parties, introduced us to other developers or distribution platforms contacts, or gave us advice we just really needed to hear - not because we asked for it, but because we care about those people too. We have spoken out loud about other people’s games because we know how important those games are for them. We playtested, and gave advice. We flew over, hung out, relaxed, and paid for the drinks. We took steps into their direction, and they took steps into ours. It’s beautiful, really, and it doesn’t make it very surprising that so many people want to be part of the international game developer community.
The Indie MEGABOOTH crew at PAX East 2014.
Beside that, our gut feeling tells us that a huge part of the audience for Fingle and Bounden is game developers! Obviously, people close to us and people with similar interests wouldn’t think twice putting down $2 to support us. But beside that small group of people, there is a larger group of developers looking to expand their horizon and definition of what a game is. So letting all our international friends know that our games are out wasn’t just ‘a thing we did for some guaranteed sales’ - no, game developers are our driving marketing force, our community managers! Whenever someone is making a dancing game, developers we’ve reached out to will be the first to tell that someone to check out Bounden! Or when someone asks on Twitter for local multiplayer games, some friends of ours might recommend Fingle!
A critical note on the Dutch game industry
The community I talk about barely exists in the Netherlands. Game Oven made huge investments in Bam fu, and arguably Friendstrap, with false hopes that in our opinion could have been shattered much sooner. A bigger community of more easily approachable, honest, and critical people could have made a difference. We don't blame anyone else but ourselves for making our unsuccessful games, but at the very least a critical community could have set our expectations right and prevent us from investing even more.
For that reason, I announced a game designer meetup called playdev.club last week, where Dutch game designers can come together to play and talk about each others work-in-progress games and prototypes. If you live in the Netherlands or Belgium, don't hesitate to bring your own prototype!
PART II: being a team
As founders, Bojan and I had some struggles during our 3,5 years of working together. They might be presented here as if they were really straightforward, but we went through months of reflection to understand what happened and why we were occasionally frustrated with each other.
Struggle: different ‘deep’ motivations
Adriaan's motivation to make games has always been different from Bojan’s motivation to make games. Adriaan has a thing for truly social games while Bojan doesn’t necessarily. As an example, Bojan really, really didn't like Friendstrap, while Adriaan considers it one of his best working concepts ever. And as Bojan became father after Bounden, money and being sustainable became even more important motivators to him.
Going to the toilet together during a 24 hour livestream of Friendstrap.
Before Jelly Reef, Bojan hadn’t been able to motivate or convince Adriaan to work on any of his game ideas, mainly because Adriaan looked for a social component that Bojan’s ideas never focused on. To Adriaan it felt like Bojan never understood what he wanted to accomplish with his games or that his games didn’t have a bigger vision, and for Bojan it felt like Adriaan never took his ideas seriously. The kind of frustration this caused was very difficult to deal with for both of us.
Struggle: undefined roles
The biggest struggle we faced resulted from never strictly defining our roles. Bojan didn’t want to narrowly define our roles as he wanted to have a say in business and marketing and design as well, on top of being the technical lead - having a say in all aspects of running a game studio was why he wanted to be a founder in the first place. It’s very reasonable, but unfortunately resulted in a few pretty bad scenarios.
After the underwhelming launch of Bam fu, Adriaan decided that Game Oven’s next production was going to be Friendstrap, which Bojan didn’t feel anything for. As Bojan didn’t have any prototypes for potential projects that Adriaan was motivated to work on, Bojan felt like he had no say in whether Friendstrap should be made or not, but Bojan did feel responsible for it as much as Adriaan did. In hindsight, it is easy to say for Bojan that he was right, that we shouldn’t have spent 2 months making Friendstrap, but back then, Adriaan just took the best decision he could and didn’t see any better alternatives. In the end, defining roles comes down to trust and letting go of things you too feel responsible for.
One long argument we had was about a timer in Bounden. Bojan took on the challenge of making a clear visual representation of a timer to tell players of their progress in a dance. While Bojan was making it, however, Adriaan came to realize that the information that the timer would convey wasn’t as relevant to the broader picture of the game, so Adriaan discarded the idea of the timer while Bojan was getting closer and closer to a good design of a timer. As Adriaan thought the timer no longer fitted in the larger idea of the game, he vetoed it out of the game and replaced it with something more simple conveying different information. At this point, it felt to Bojan as if Adriaan only wanted to include his own designs, while Adriaan was only trying to model a coherent player experience for Bounden.
In hindsight, Adriaan was often not able to communicate his bigger vision fully to Bojan. And what complicated matters were that the execution of that vision changed constantly, sometimes radically.
Bounden’s selection screen
An example of a radical change in execution was the sequence selection screen in Bounden, initially proposed by Bojan. It didn’t fit in Adriaan's larger vision of Bounden and was killed on arrival. But after Adriaan found it necessary to include some sort of selection screen after a couple of playtests, the idea was resurrected. To Adriaan, he resurrect it in a different context with new information he didn’t have before. But to Bojan it felt like Adriaan only wanted to include ideas that he came up with himself. Ugh.
Another super difficult scenario was Jelly Reef in its entirety. With our conflicts in mind, Adriaan wanted Bojan to be the creative owner of Jelly Reef. In contrast to previous projects, Adriaan did not intervene at all when Bojan went through getting funding, prototyping, and defining the project’s vision. However, when Bounden was finished and we started the working on Jelly Reef, there was no idea for a structure of the game. And so we went back and forth a lot, with a lot of arguing about