This article is a repost from Spitball Forums - Developer Blogs meant to give all of you aspiring clowns out there an overview of an indie start-up based on my first-hand experience from starting Broken Crown Games. This isn't a 'how to becoming a huge success' blog, but rather an overview of some basics to finding success outside of pure luck. I hope to continue the Indie Circus series in the future with more detailed breakdowns of indie responsibilities via a video blog.
As I'm sure some of you know, and many more are eager to experience, starting an indie studio is a bit like pretending you're the ring master of a circus. Just like a ring master, you likely need to wear multiple hats during your tenure as an indie owner, and unfortunately, just like the circus, you have to be there because you are passionate because it's likely you'll put in a lot of effort for only a small payout. Never the less, if this is something you are passionate about, don't let anyone talk you out of it, we circus folk love what we do, we enjoy making people happy (or scared), and the show must go on even without a promise of fame and riches.
Alright, well I take it if you're still reading, you think you're ready to run off to the circus with us, let's go over some basics before we get you fitted for those oversized clown shoes.
HAT 1 - FOUNDER
Starting your own show can be something as simple as putting a hat out on the side of the street and doing a little juggling act. There's no shame in starting small; plus that juggling talent of yours will come in handy as your show grows.
Starting small often helps you decide if this is really what you want to do for a living. Build a small iOS game, or even just build a prototype in Excel of your first game and play it with friends for a bit. Walk through the development steps, IDEA-PLANNING-PROTYPING-TESTING-POLISHING-SELLING(or sharing) a few times.
If you've already been on the street for a few months, you've already juggling flaming knives, and you're ready to take the next step, let's go find a box car that can take us to the big show.
HAT 2 - CEO
Ok, so we're ready to move off the streets and put up our own tent outside of town. What is our first step?
Well, in a small studio, corporate structure can be a little more relaxed - particularly if you go with an LLC over a Corporation when registering (which I highly suggest). However, saying 'CEO' just makes you sound more important, so sure, why not? Call yourself CEO! After all, you are the Chief Executive Officer (or you partner is), because all the big decisions have to come through you. So with that said, lets point out some of the big decisions you should look into when starting out.
COMPANY MISSION STATEMENTS
Before even considering the start up of your company, you need to have something that most of you probably already have, and that's a company mission statement. This is probably the most important aspect for a company because it gives you direction.
If you don't have this, your company might as well be named Cirque du So-Lame, rather than Cirque du Soleil, because you'll have no direction.
Though that line might have been 'so-lame', there are a lot of great developers out there with great games, but without something to make you stand out from what is quickly becoming an oversaturated marketplace - you just aren't going to make any sales.
On top of that, as a start-up you need to be careful above overextending your reach. Having a mission statement can help guide you to what your overall goals are. If your mission to make pump out quick, fancy iOS games, fine; make that your company's mission statement and do that.
The reason you have your mission statement is to stay on track, and so you don't get distracted by "Oh cool, OUYA just got funded, I should make a game for that."
NO! That's not your company's mission. Maybe once you've achieved your previous goal and have released a few games for iOS, then sure, expand your market reach to OUYA. But if you change you goals with every new shiny toy that someone puts in front you, you'll never finish a project, never publish, and in the end, your company will fail.
This is important in covering you're butt is covered should the unforeseeable happen, like your flaming knife show impales someone.
Even the tiny iOS app solo-developer should establish themselves as an LLC before making sales. Worst case, someone decides to go crazy and falsely sue you for all your worth saying you stole their title. If you have an LLC, as least your personal assets are safe, so even if you lose your business, at least you and your family are safe. There really isn't much excuse to skip filling for an LLC since depending on your location, these cost are as little as a $200, and all the information on how to set it up is easily available online!
Also if working with partners, draft an operating agreement. Too often you hear of partners going their separate ways, and a title gets lost in the shuffle. If you draft a proper agreement, both parties can be held accountable, making sure everyone is protected, and so is the game! If you decide to run the business alone, but bring on helpers, just make sure you work up something called a 'work-for-hire agreement' which will basically make the helper a contractor (paid or unpaid depending on how you set up the agreement). I would however suggest shying away from the idea of using interns - PARTICULARLY UNPAID INTERNS!
Interns always scare the children and don't spike down tents properly – it's a mess.
HAT 3 - PR Rep
So your tent is up outside of town, but no one is coming? Contact the town crier immediately!
Ah yes, the most dreaded of all hats for game developers, letting the light touch our skin and getting out there for everyone to see. There just isn't enough time to go over how important this aspect is though! Here are a few focus points from out of Broken Crown's playbook (ok, that's a sports reference and don't fit the circus theme – my bad).
Set up a website, twitter account, and forum / blog, the second you decide to go into business for yourself. (And while you're at it, make sure that site is set up with Google Analytics - more on that later, but this is a MUST)! Having a website beneficial for all the obvious reasons. People need a place to find out more about you. Think of this as your virtual circus tent, so if you don't have it, there really won't be a show. There's no way around it, a website is a must have if you want to succeed based on hard work, and not just luck.
Though twitter and blogs can take more effort (and I suck at them), these are also must have if you want to broaden your audience beyond friends and family (and lets be honest, since we are running off to the circus, we probably don't have enough friends and family to support our company).
Until I can go into further detail in a video blog, you can learn more about these things and why the are so important by checking my other blog entry 'Podcasts, tweets, and blogs - Oh My!'.
CONFERENCES & CONVENTIONS
I've read mixed reviews about these. Personally, I feel this goes back to your mission statement, and decide what is your focus? The bigger name conferences could easily bankrupt a tiny iOS based company, as they just aren't going to yield the return on investment. However, for someone like me, Broken Crown Games is looking to compete in the standalone / console market, where a single purchase can yield $10-30, compared to apps, which are looking at $0-4.99 usually. In other words, do the math!
Thus, for us, going to a conference like GDC13, our costs will be approximately $6000 after exhibit costs, as well as hotel and flights. Is that worth it?
Well, let's do the math for GDC. Usually GDC has ~20,000 attendees. In order for our team to break even, that means we have to convert roughly 600 of those 20,000 into sales assuming a 'minimum donation' to our Kickstarter. That's 3% if we are somehow able to talk to everyone. That's actually a very HIGH conversion ratio – you can usually expect around a 1% conversion ratio of an untargeted market, PLUS we probably will only talk to maybe 3-4,000 people.
So at first glance, this might not be worth it. However, we are still looking for team members and could really take advantage of their networking opportunities with the development community. And last but not least, THEY HAVE MEDIA THERE! So even if we don't get our 600 sales at GDC, hopefully we can get covered by one or two media outlets, giving us another couple hundred (or fingers cross, thousand) views, hopefully making up any lost we take on the conference itself. Therefore, we took the gamble, and booked our space for GDC13, along with MegaCon and PAX East.
Never the less, if you are an iOS based team don't rule these out. There are always local conferences, conventions, and expos that you can attend - many of which are free if you just want to attend. Just make sure you if you 'attend' and not 'exhibit', that you advertise legally! Otherwise you are burning some bridges that could be valuable later (not to mention it's just not morally right - and not fair to those that did pay to exhibit).
Time to feed the lions.
Actually, working with the press can be a fun experience, and quite often on Gamasutra you'll hear experienced developers tell you, “press are just people too” – and its true, I promise they won't bite.
Just like feeding a lion, it's all about mustering up the courage to walk up to their cage and interacting with them. If you are smart, you'll take the time to make their job easy, by putting together press kits, press releases, and actually reaching out to them. Think of your game as a hefty news steak; if you present it properly, they will be just as excited to eat it as you are to feed it to them. But if you make your news impossible to find or you try to feed them crappy news, then yeah, chances are they won't eat.
But whatever you do, DON'T POKE THE LIONS WITH A STICK. If they don't cover you, don't take offense. They are busy, hard-working people, so just thank them for their time, and try again in the future. Getting upset and poking them won't make them eat the steak, but might make them turn on you!
HAT 4 - PROJECT MANAGER / PRODUCER
First off, how are you still reading this? I'm editing my own piece and almost can't keep reading. I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to read this, I really appreciate it.
One thing you should always remember as the founder of an indie studio: no one is going to do it for you! Remember, you are the ring master of this circus so you have to keep your clowns in line! (BTW - I love my team, mainly because they aren't clowns - in fact, its like having a team of ring masters; but this even with a great team, I still have to use the following things to guide the separate aspects of my development towards a fluid, singular vision.)
Keeping your team productive is key to the completion of a game. By productive I don't just mean 'working', but also work efficiently. As the producer, you should have the holistic vision of the project, and need to use that to guide everyone else. You don't have a huge army of workers like AAA studios, so wasted man hours can really hurt your company.
I've personally found the best way to stay efficient is through the use of an extremely detailed 'to-do' document. Since this is getting long though, for more details on keeping you team organized and on task, you can see my previous post 'Indie Organization'.
Something I can't stress enough is the importance of regular, scheduled meetings. Even if you work on a daily basis with your team, schedule out an hour each week to meet, go over the past weeks progress, line up next weeks goals, and assess the team's condition with regard to long-term goals.
If you more than two people, I'd suggest making these 'developer' meetings, where everyone attends. With my team, by having everyone attend, this offers the opportunity to tackle the 'task master' responsibility. This also allows everyone to get excited about the overall progress of the game, which brings me to my next point of being a 'cheerleader' for the team.
Keeping your team working efficiently is one thing, but keeping your team happy while doing so is another. I think this may be the most important aspect for any start-up indie studio. If your team isn't happy, it's like trying to run a sad clown circus - no one wants to work there anymore, and no one wants to come see it.
Each team has to find their own motivating force. For many, its the prospect of the big payday (which honestly I'd suggest staying away from this strategy, as most teams aren't going to hit that pay day, and when that doesn't happen, the company folds, meaning you invested your time and money for nothing).
Though each company has to find there own way, here are some general suggestions from the Broken Crown start-up:
- Only bring members onto the team that share an interest in the company mission! I'll take an average programmer that will work for years free, over a great programmer that I have to offer a $50k salary just to convince to come on, only then to have them not agree with our game's direction and quit halfway through a project.
- Sounds obvious, but respect your team (show up to scheduled events, get excited about their work, and if you dislike something, do so with positive criticism!
- Finally, if you find yourself losing focus or getting down, reach out and let outsiders pick you up! This could be something as simple as getting support for parents, significant others, fellow team members, or friends - or you could pep yourself back up by doing something more complex, such as a press release or 'exclusive behind-the-scenes' update on a forum to get your fans more vocal.
Keying in on your own team's unique motivators is a necessary part of getting a game to completion. On top of that, if you can find a non-monetary reason to make your game that will make it so any payday feels like icing on the cake.
HAT 5 - GAME DEVELOPER
The last (or for most of you, probably the first) role in the ringmaster juggling act is the responsibility of personally having a hand in the creation process, whether that be creating the code, sketching the artwork, or writing the story. Though many think this is the bulk of what is required to start an indie studio, I hope though this article you can see its actually only about a quarter of the responsibilities you are signing on for if you decide to start an indie studio.
If you think you can master all that, good to hear! And let me be the first to say:
Welcome to the circus!