Q&A: Bit.Trip Business: Indie studio life in 2013
Running an indie studio in today's ever-changing game industry is not easy. Gamasutra speaks to Gaijin Games co-founders Alex Neuse and Mike Roush to find out how they handle it.
Gaijin Games built its name on the Bit.Trip franchise -- a collection of six games for WiiWare, a platform that went largely ignored by the indie community after its launch. Now, the developer -- which has offices in San Francisco and which has grown to eight full-time staff in-house -- is soon to launch Bit.Trip Presents... Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC. Gamasutra recently sat down with co-founders Alex Neuse and Mike Roush to find out more about the growing studio and what it means to be an indie console developer in these tumultuous times of platform shifts and market changes. Do you do all of your development in-house? Do you use contractors? Do you farm anything out? Roush: Everyone is Gaijin Games. We farm very little out. We do do some contracting. But they're contracting with people that are exclusive to the company. For example, our animator, she has a family, so she does part-time. Everyone else is all Gaijin games members. Neuse: Except for the composer. He's a full-on contractor. Yeah, all of the full-time development staff is Gaijin. Why do you do it that way? Roush: Instead of shipping it offshore? Well, or Tiger Style, for example, they completely contract everything. They have a core couple of people, and they contract bits and pieces. Roush: I think it's because we want to know what we can expect from these people. And I think if we know each other well, we know what to expect. I also think having a little close family is important to us. We want to take care of each other and watch each other grow. And if we were just to contract people and get the work done... For me, that wouldn't feel very honest.Neuse: And also, when we started Gaijin Games, we started it to make a company -- not only to make a game or two. It kind of goes back to what Mike said. We wanted to grow this family of people who would work together on multiple projects and grow together. That's why, I think. And so far we've really enjoyed it. We're working better, certainly with each other, and all the people we've hired, the longer we've worked with them. Roush: Plus, Alex and I are really interested in making a place for people to be as creative as they can. And if the people were just kind of shuffling through, it wouldn't feel right. Neuse: It just doesn't feel right to us, I guess. You told me you've learned a lot over the course of developing the original Bit.Trip series. Do you think that because these games are smaller and less elaborate than a triple-A game, you can do these learn cycles faster? Neuse: Oh yeah. Oh, definitely. So the original Bit.Trip series, from start to finish, six games, that was about three years' time. And at LucasArts I worked on one single project for three years... getting your postmortem after three and a half years of working on one full project, and that's when you reflect? Instead of every three months you reflect on a full product? I think that there's a lot of rapid learning you can do as an indie making smaller downloadable games than massive triple-A titles. Definitely. It's true -- I think, anyway -- because you can just get very far, and learn again, and execute again. Neuse: And you know what else we can do, if we're smart about it, is we can take risks that other companies wouldn't take. For instance, we released a game called Lilt Line, which you may or may not remember. It was primarily because we simply wanted to. The main reason -- it wasn't a money grab, it wasn't a business decision. It was an emotional decision -- we want to make this game. Maybe it will do well, maybe it won't, but we're still going to do it. And there's a freedom to that. But at the same time, you're a small company. Is it risky to make decisions like that? Roush: We really rarely make decisions thinking about the financial aspect first. Obviously, we do have to think about that, especially now that we're bigger. How big is bigger? Roush: We're ten people with contractors. Neuse: We're eight full time. Roush: Now we do have to think about the financial aspect a little more. But I would say, I think I can speak for Alex with this one, too. I would never make a Zynga-style game -- I would never do that. The goal is to make a good game. Neuse: And a game that we feel passionately about. Roush: I think there is a risk there. It's a hard question, because there is a risk there if we make a dumb game. I don't think we're going to make a dumb game. Something super experimental, for a team like ours, now, I think would be a little risky. On the flipside, I think what we'd make would sell well enough... Neuse: Sell well enough to justify that investment. It's an interesting time to see what kind of battles indies are going to have to fight, platform-wise, as we start to move into the next generation. Roush: It's a weird thing. I'm seeing a lot of people -- especially with Retro City Rampage... The only way to survive right now is to get it onto a couple of platforms. [Ed. Note: Vblank's Retro City Rampage was initially exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.] There's no longer an advantage to exclusivity? Neuse: There is definitely not an advantage to exclusivity to us. And we were thinking about that kind of thing during Runner 2 development. And we were thinking of exclusive features for Wii U with the GamePad, and locking those features out of other systems. But as we started thinking about it and talking to some of our developer friends, some of our fans, and just people in general, we realized that it basically just shits on people. So you've got the Wii people, who are stoked. And probably Nintendo who is stoked. And then you've got all the other people who feel jilted. And then it's like, do we start having exclusive features on Sony, as well, that are different? And all of the sudden you're making six different games, and nobody is winning. And you're not Namco and putting Yoda in your Soulcalibur games -- which was rad, by the way. So the time for exclusivity, for indies, especially, it's like, forget that. Roush: On the flipside, I wouldn't mind being exclusive to Nintendo. Neuse: If the game only came out on one console. The advantage is if you made a game that could only work on the Wii U, for example. Neuse: And disadvantage. Roush: But for instance, with the original Bit.Trip series, being on WiiWare, more often than not we were called the darlings of WiiWare because we put a lot of games on there. There's something to be said. I know we couldn't have made the games as fast as we did. I think the advantage there was that, being exclusive to WiiWare, we were able to build a fan base, a dedicated fan base, a fan base that was looking forward to the next episode. Neuse: And many of them looking forward to what our company does next -- a company fan base. You built your name on it. Roush: And I don't think we'd be where we are today if we hadn't jumped on it. Neuse: That's interesting to think about, because since it was easier to develop for one platform, it was easier to get more content out, faster, and then build the name of our studio and our franchise. And there's something very valuable in that. I wish that it would make financial sense to be exclusive to one platform. Roush: We'd put more care and love into it. Neuse: We'd put more care and love into it; we'd optimize it for that platform. But the bummer at the end of the day is that you're just limiting your market. You're limiting your potential to survive. Neuse: You're limiting your potential to grow, too. Like we started out talking about, we wanted to make a company, not just make a game or two. Having money in the bank to invest in the company is just very important to us. So we need to maximize that. So then, let's say when we have trillions of dollars in the bank (laughs) we can explore some new ideas. Roush: The money for us just means we get to make better video games. Neuse: And be more creative.