This blog is a summary of lessons I've derived from reflecting on my time as an indie game dev studio founder.
Its been over a year since we stopped development, and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what might have went wrong.
I think founders of projects that don't work out are often embarrassed to openly discuss why. My hope is that by sharing, you can avoid some of the mistakes we made, and better your chances of being successful!
In this post I discuss What Happened, some Existential Questions, what I believe are Prerequisites to Success, and recommended First Steps as a new studio.
In 2011, I graduated university with a Bachelor of Game Design, and started a game dev studio with 7 (seven!) of my university buddies, called Ghostbox. We collectively had no industry experience, and generally very little business knowledge. We survived for about a year on Australian Government assistance (NEIS), before being lucky enough to secure investment from Right Pedal Studios, after shedding half our team members. This funded development for one more year, before we ran out of money and stopped full-time development at the end of 2013. We released 3 games over that time, Ghostbox Double Combo, Gunner Runner and Dragon Season.
Why are YOU making GAMES?
I never consciously pondered this question until after working in game development for several years. If you want to get rich, famous, have a relaxed lifestyle or just don't know what else to do, I’d suggest game development is not an ideal career path for you. Game development involves a huge amount of work, over long periods of time, often for comparatively poor pay. There are plenty of people working on games who fall into the Starving Artist category.
Starting a company requires even more determination, since you take on the total responsibility for the financial and emotional well-being of yourself, as well as a group of people you deeply care about. Similar to getting to married to the people you're starting a business with, you'll be effectively putting a huge amount at stake, and relying on other people tremendously.
What Kind of Games Is Your Team Making? Why?
If you're running a big studio making tons of money, it's ok if not everyone working with you is super passionate about the games you're making. If you're starting out in a small team however, its essential. You and your team should be able to name a handful of games you all love. Your game designer in particular needs to have a deep understanding of how & why these games work. Game development requires incredible levels of cooperation and vision sharing. If that's missing, people will lose interest, and the games you develop will suffer as a result.
Ghostbox made endless runners because they are comparatively straight forward to develop, and we were inspired by the success of games like Ski Safari and Jetpack Joyride. These are not good reasons to make a particular type of game. Ski Safari and Jetpack Joyride were very successful games, but they inspired many, many very similar games, making it very tough to stand out. I’m very proud of both Gunner Runner and Dragon Season, but I don't think we ever really had the passion for this genre of games to make something truly great.
Prerequisites To Success
Not a team of rock stars
Near the start of our game dev journey, I listened to a talk by a wise, veteran developer, who emphasised that:
(As a studio) You need a rock star team, not a team of rock stars.
I never gave this concept much thought, until very recently. At Ghostbox, we had a number of great artists and programmers, but we never had a rock star team. We sometimes struggled to work together creatively, and didn't have the trust in other people on the team to provide vision when we couldn't see it. We also didn't have a clearly defined vision of the kind of games we wanted to make, and the games we each enjoyed were very diverse.
Skills to pay the bills
Regardless of how many people in your team, you need someone to take on responsibility for each element of your games' development, as well as the business side.
You need someone to be responsible for making sure the game looks great. They need to be able to talk to programmers to turn their concepts into code. They need to be patient but persistent until they get what they want. They need to be thinking about who this game is supposed to appeal to, and making sure that is part of the art design process.
You also need a steady set of hands keeping the project from accumulating too much technical debt or massively blowing out development time. This person needs to be passionate about constantly expanding their technical knowledge. This person needs to be willing to find creative ways to to turn the crazy ideas people come up with into 60 fps on a mobile device. The better your technical person, the less limitations you have on design.
I have only met a few really good game designers in my time, but my advice for spotting one would be to look for:
- Someone who plays games obsessively
- Has a very deep understanding of at least one particular genre or type of games
- Who can communicate a vision to other people.
This is very rare, but will be the most important element in your success. Ghostbox never really had someone who fit this category, so we shared the role among the team.
You need someone to be constantly seeking out new revenue opportunities. This person should also be thinking about where your game will sit in the market as a finished product. This person should be thinking about how you are marketing your game as early as possible. This person also needs to do all the boring stuff, like business registration, paying people & tax.
Successful studios are usually have between 2 - 4 founders. Generally, founding a studio is too much work for one person, but with more than 4 you'll be less agile and able to make good decisions quickly. You'll start needing people to manage others, which is not what you want at a founder level.
A Good Network
Until you are in the industry, people talk about Networking like it is this magical, complex thing that is highly desirable but poorly understood. In reality, it usually simply means making friends with interesting people.
These interesting friends are essential in getting good advice on topics you don't know much about, allowing you to make better decisions. Much of the most useful advice I've ever received is not written down on the internet. The industry moves quickly, and attending regular meetups can be a way to keep up to date with what is going on. A network can also be a great source of support, to help you through the rough times and avoiding Founder Depression.
It's important to keep in mind when receiving advice that you should never do something because someone who has been doing this longer than you said to. If your gut is telling you otherwise, don't accept advice on face value, do your own analysis and only move forward with something if you feel confident about it. Good advice usually sounds like good advice when you hear it, so alarm bells should go off if you hear something that sounds wrong.
If you are just starting out in game development, your main goal needs to be gaining experience. I firmly believe that before you start a games company, you need to work for one. Any one.
Once you found a studio, I believe your focus needs to be on finding contract work, with your own projects being fitted in between other work. As a founder, it is your responsibility to spend all your time if necessary finding ways to bring revenue into the business. Until you have made your countless millions, this will need to be a constant focus.
The reason for this is that takes everyone a lot of time before they will make a very successful game. Most studios take many, many years before successfully releasing their own IP.
A mistake we made was going straight to making our own IP. We did some contract work, but there was very little and we didn't manage it profitably. If projects you launch aren't successful and you have no money in the bank, game over. That's it. You can't make games without money.
You can hit me up for questions or advice at dominic_drysdale (at) hotmail.com.