How I run my indie studio (part 1)

In the first of this series of posts I explain many of the decisions I made managing my indie studio.

I was going to title this post “how to run an indie studio” but then I realized that I can’t possibly speak to that. I’ve only been running Lioncode Games for a little bit, and everyone’s circumstances are different. So I’ll just talk about my own experience.

First, let’s talk about money

Whether we like it or not, we need money to run a business and to eat. So where does the money come from?

I’m self-funding Mech Armada‘s development, out of my own savings.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I could start my own studio while also supporting a family and living in expensive Vancouver, BC thanks to, at least in part, my privilege. As a white male I could find a job as a game programmer and make a decent salary for years, so I could build up some savings. That gave me the runway I needed to start.

Regardless, and I’m sure you realize this, but making games is expensive. Even small indie titles can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. I don’t have that kind of savings and even if I did I wouldn’t be comfortable gambling it all on making a game, which is as far as you can get from guaranteed financial success. In a world where technology has become very accessible, financing is the number 1 reason preventing more people from starting their own studios.

So games are expensive, but where does the money go? There are costs like equipment, licenses, cloud services, etc. but during production most of the money goes to salaries, especially if you work from your own home. So that’s a hint to solve the first problem: how to make the game with the amount of money I had at hand.

Army of one

To be perfectly honest, I would have preferred to start my studio with some partners. I’ll talk about the dynamics of working mostly alone in a future post, but for now, let’s say that financially, it doesn’t get much better than not having to pay any employees. I still have to support myself, and that’s an expense that can’t be ignored (you should take a look a my mortgage), but it’s a known quantity and it’s relatively easy to predict how much I spend on a monthly basis.

The problem of course is that I can’t do everything myself.

My background is as a programmer so I knew I’d be writing all the code myself. And not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty fast. In practice this means I can get things done quickly, especially compared with the time it takes to steer the giant AAA ships. Technology tends to be a major reason for games to be delayed and my experience and the fact I’m using a well-established engine like Unreal Engine 4 definitely gives me an advantage that I’m happy to leverage.

Although I don’t have nearly as much professional experience, I consider myself a game designer second. Specifically a systems designer – please don’t ask me to design levels, you won’t like what you see. So I decided early on that I’d also be responsible for all design, and would try to compensate for my weakness in level design by making a systemic game that relies more on emergent interactions than on a content treadmill.

That leaves art and sound. This is a huge amount of content, including 3D models and textures, rigging and animation, visual effects, UI, music, sound effects and more. For now let’s say that I relied on freelancers to help with some of this content, as I don’t have the skill to create it to the level of quality that it deserves.

It takes a village

At first, finding freelancers scared me, because I was used to the studios I worked at having everything done in-house by staff. One obvious advantage of working from home is that the freelancers can be from anywhere in the world, which makes their work more affordable, as their cost of living varies greatly (damn you, Vancouver). I tried networking to find people to work with, with mixed results. I often had better luck looking at a portfolio on ArtStation and contacting the artist than going with a friend’s recommendation. This is counterintuitive to me and I’m still trying to puzzle it out.

A game changer for me was to find Fiverr. I know some people don’t think very highly of Fiverr and I understand their reasons. I don’t want to exploit people, and I’d never try to force someone to lower their prices. At the same time, I can’t afford top-tier anything for my first project. I hope that one day the studio will make good money and I can share the wealth with the people I work with, but that day is not today.

Today, I find Fiverr serves my needs and, in fact, my experience has been very positive. I can go there and look at people’s work and select someone who is going to be a good fit. Everything is structured so you know what you’re getting and when. The quality has been surprisingly consistent, while the cost has been surprisingly affordable. And people are nice! I’m sure everyone’s circumstances are different. Maybe some people are just starting and this is a good way to get experience and get paid. Maybe some people are doing it on the side to earn some extra income.

A quick story to illustrate the point. When I started, I found a music composer through a friend recommendation. He was very experienced, and I was excited as I wanted the music to be of high quality. Sadly, after working with him for a few months it became clear that his work wasn’t up to par, and he was overcharging me. I turned to Fiverr and was able to find someone who would produce music much more quickly, at a fraction of the cost and of superior quality. In a couple of weeks I was further ahead than after all the time spent with the first composer.

Excerpt from the Mech Armada main theme, by Andrew Rycots

In the next episode…

Armed with a strategy to reduce staffing costs, the next problem to solve is time. As in, how long does it take to make the game, and can I eat while that is happening? I’ll discuss my approach next week in part 2.

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