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Internal Indies

Are there lessons from indie development that can be utilized in a larger, established studio setting? In order to answer this question, Blitz Game Studios started a simple experiment: inviting five senior developers to form a team with complete creative freedom.

May 29, 2013

11 Min Read

Author: by Steve Stopps

Established game dev studios could learn a thing or two from the indie revolution. Here's how one studio set up its own internal "indie" group (from Game Developer's May issue).

Someone far more clever than me once said, "Creative endeavors are abandoned, not finished." Anyone who has worked on a large game knows that game development can often be filled with both conflict and compromise. I've worked on my share of commissioned games, and I know that these projects are tough. Big games are expensive to make, and that raises the already high stakes for everyone involved -- which, in turn, makes everyone involved far more risk-averse. Were the stakes substantially lower, most devs would want to take on more creatively ambitious projects, with no boundaries or restrictions getting in the way of making what we want to make.

In other words, we'd want to be indies -- but without the terrifying risk of failure. So, six months ago, I asked this question: Are there lessons from indie development that can be utilized in a larger, established studio setting? In order to answer this question, we set out a simple studio experiment. We changed our contracts of employment, invited five of the most senior developers to form a new team, and gave that team complete creative freedom.

Changing the Contract

The first step was a relatively small but significant change to our contracts, so that people could develop their own projects in their own time and retain the IP themselves -- that is, own their own game designs. Our aim was to free our staff to be more creative and for both them and the company to potentially profit from that. The reason many companies seek to control their developers' IP is an understandable fear that some of them will go on to make great games and leave the studio to pursue their own projects full time -- and in fact, this has already happened to some degree to us.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: If you work for a reasonably large-sized studio, there will be people who are working on cool stuff on their own time whether their contracts allow it or not, because people who make games are inherently creative. They can't stop themselves. We just formalized this and turned it into a positive.

We found that this risk is worth it; when developers feel like they own their work, they feel more creative and more motivated to develop new skills. For example, one of the programmers on our team learned new shader techniques on his own time, while another learned a lot about Facebook integration through developing their own game. Our current game directly benefited from the new skills and knowledge gained through outside-of-work creativity, as will future games developed by the team.

Building a New Team

By chance, a small number of our most senior developers had finished their company projects and had around eight weeks before their next projects began. As in many studios, people between projects are often asked to undertake research into various areas, and this group had been tasked with learning more about the mobile market. They decided to do this in a more practical, hands-on sense than the company had initially envisioned -- that is, they wanted to make a game to prove out the issues about which they were learning. Because they were some of our most senior devs and we trusted their abilities, we gave them free rein to make a game in that eight weeks. They repaid this trust with a completed game, Kumo Lumo, which has since been published by Chillingo and received over one million downloads just 10 days after launch.

The Goals for Kumo Lumo

This team was very commercially minded during the whole process; they not only wanted to make a game that had its own voice and personality, but also create something that would help us understand the mobile market much better. They also wanted to learn as many practical lessons about the process as possible. 

Their research showed that the majority of money spent on iOS comes from men ages 25-34 (70 percent more than any other group). Having looked at the games that were selling, they quickly realized that this did not necessarily mean the game had to be traditionally hardcore. Also, the rise of freemium games over the past year was clearly a key area our studio needed to learn more about, so they decided that monetization should be part of the game design from the outset.

Since the team had limited time and resources, they knew that the game had to be simple in design and execution to secure the best chance of success. Their focus on this simplicity ruled out many early game concepts. For example, they had a great puzzle-game idea based on the paper toy movement, but quickly realized they had neither the time nor expertise required for this concept. To appeal to App Store shoppers bombarded by options, the visual direction of the game was as important as the gameplay. Put simply: Screenshots sell your game, the gameplay keeps people playing.

Finally, the team knew from the studio's previous experience that a game lives or dies by PR and marketing. Once you've made a good game, people need to know that it exists. These days, that means finding ways of engaging directly with the audience. Consequently, they decided to do their own social marketing alongside development, so that they could learn about this process, too.

Designing Kumo Lumo

The design process was simple. The design lead presented several concepts, all as one-sheet visual designs. They were assessed on suitability for the audience, possibility for monetization, scope for visual appeal, and feasibility of delivery. In the end, the team chose the design shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Kumo Lumo one-sheet design

Once the team had decided on a design, the art team explored many potential visual treatments before choosing one that was both appropriate for the audience, felt suited to mobile, but also had an individual identity. For inspiration, they looked to the sticker bomb/street art movement. This process was part research and part instinct. The team started by identifying a large addressable market on iOS, then researched what this audience liked and didn't like. In parallel they looked at the art direction of many of the best-selling mobile games. Finally, they struck a careful balance between what they thought the audience would like, what seemed to sell on mobile, and something unique that would stand out on the App Store.

Some of the early concepts skewed too young, or were too niche, or looked too much like something that had been done before. It took lots of iteration before the team settled on a direction that felt right.

Kumo Lumo first concept

Sticker bomb branding sheet.

The result was Kumo Lumo. By the end of the first week, the team had its trademarks and copyright checked, URLs secured, T-shirts and mugs ordered. Eight weeks later the team had a fully formed game ready for its first submission to Apple. In addition, during the same period, they had created and maintained a blog at kumolumo.com, and engaged with various forms of social media to drive traffic and create interest. 

Devs on Marketing

Of course, part of being an independent developer isn't just making what you want to make -- it's being able to sell it, too. Indie devs are responsible for their own marketing and PR, so we handed that responsibility off to the team as well. Here's what they learned:

Marketing is harder than it looks. Developers frequently make disparaging remarks about the "dark arts" of marketing, but having been there and tried it ourselves, it is really more difficult than we initially thought.

Twitter is massively useful -- if you make it personal. Remember that social media really is all about human interaction. Using bots to add users to your Twitter account isn't useful; it increases your followers but does not necessarily help your engagement with people. Click-throughs count, and bots won't help you with that. The team members who carefully curated their followers and built personal relationships with people got much better engagement. This certainly takes time, but is well worth it. But what do we mean when we say it was worth it? I don't believe we generated many direct sales from our work on Twitter, but it did enable us to create a real buzz around the game, which was picked up by many key players. This sense of buzz added a lot of credibility to our early press outreach.

Analytics are important. By using tools like Google Analytics and link-tracking services such as bit.ly, the team could understand which activity was generating the most hits to our blog. Once you find that out, just do more of it. For example, some forums picked up on our "undercover development" angle. There was some real strength of feeling, and this in turn generated traffic and interest in our game. So we helped stoke this controversy a little.

Facebook is massive. No, really. It sounds obvious, but the team was so excited by Twitter and Pinterest that they didn't do anything to promote the Facebook page. However, Facebook still generated more traffic than pretty much all the other activity put together, and was still our second-biggest driver of traffic

Journalists need stories. They have space to fill with interesting and engaging content. Therefore, if you make your story interesting, you are more likely to get their attention. Think about their readership, and what they might find interesting. For us, we created our story around our "undercover development." At the point of starting the project, it was true: Our bosses knew we were doing something iOS related, but had no idea what. So we played on this to create a more interesting story. A large studio moving into iOS development isn't unique or interesting -- a rogue element within a studio developing their own game has much more of an edge.

Keep up the momentum. Our team activity had to stop for three months when we moved into contract negotiation with a publisher, which ultimately undid much of their hard work in building an audience. I am sure there are people out there who believed for a while that Kumo Lumo was vaporware.

Luck, Skill, and Timing

After about eight weeks, the game was made and the marketing was in progress. The team unveiled the game to the executives, who had not been previously involved. The team presented everything they had learned, which was warmly received.

This is when some luck, good timing, and the team's excellent decisions paid off: The game was finished just before one of our regular American business trips. Our business development executives set up a meeting with Chillingo, and they agreed that we would show them Kumo Lumo. Chillingo really liked it! They understood the visual direction and the style of game and felt it had great commercial promise. Of course, they had some feedback on how to make the game better, and this is what the team has been working on for the past few months.

We have often been asked why we used a publisher when we could have self-published. For us the answer was simple. We felt that we had met a partner who was as passionate about the game as we were and who wanted to share with us their vast knowledge and experience; it just seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. It's been a real joy working with them.

Making a Note Here: Huge Success

We would consider the results of our indie experiment a success; we learned that giving people autonomy, creative freedom, and trust is motivating, and motivating and trusting experienced and knowledgeable developers delivers great results. Also, we learned that social media marketing is worthwhile, but only if you do it the right way -- no shortcuts! And probably more than anything, trust your vision. Make the game you believe in, and make it fun! If you take nothing more from indie games, take this: An original idea and a purity of vision will make your game feel fresh and alive.

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