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Thomas Steinke, ex triple A developer and one of the Xbox's most successful Indie developers. Offers lessons he has learned from going indie.

Thomas Steinke, Blogger

January 19, 2014

11 Min Read

My name is Thomas Steinke, I am the owner of DigitalDNA Games, the highest grossing Xbox Independent developer and author of the all-time best selling Xbox Indie game CastleMiner Z at over 2M unit sales. During our time on XBLIG we sold over 5M games and grossed somewhere north of $9M.

You may have heard of my games but many people don’t know that I (and the highly talented people that I have the fortune of working with) have spent many years in the AAA industry before we became an Indie studio. Having been fortunate to have been one of the more successful Indies, and having the opportunity to do this full time for some time now, it is interesting to me to contrast my time as an Independent developer with my time as a triple A dev.

Before I dive into this I want to spend some time talking about the triple-A industry because I don’t think a lot of people outside of it, and honestly a lot of people inside of it really understand what is going on. I tend to be critical of the industry because I feel that the triple-A industry as it stands is essentially chasing down an unsustainable business model. One where exploding costs and increased risk is driving everyone but the biggest players and the highest profile titles out of the business, giving customers less choices and less creative titles. This is primarily why the indie movement born out of our new publisher-less world has become to so popular. They are delivering the products that a AAA studio no longer can.

I started working in the AAA industry in the late 1990’s. At that time the cost to develop a blockbuster game was about 5 to 10 million dollars and had teams around the size of 10-20 people. Now developing the titles that you are used to seeing can cost upwards of 100-200 million dollars a have teams of hundreds of people often working across different continents. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that production cost are usually a minority of the costs in bringing a triple-A game to market. The costs to secure distribution, advertise, etc can easily outpace production cost by a factor of 2 or more. Given this scenario and the huge amounts of money involved is easy to see why we have titles today that are essentially the exact same games every year with incrementally better graphics and features. When a publisher is plopping down $100m in marketing money, it is hard to make a compelling argument why xyz feature isn’t important enough to include in a game. However, at some point the titles that will able to afford to take these kind of risks will decrease and the $50 pay to play price point will just simply not work. Developers are forced into a cycle of making the same game year after year, with more features and detail for lower and lower costs.

If you contrast this with the mobile or casual industry where you have much simpler mobile games i.e. Candy Crush, which can pull in a million dollars a day on a project that has essentially a small fraction of the risk; you start to see a much healthier business model and understand why so many people are “Going Indie” in the past few years. From our own experience as an example, we spent about $20k making the CastleMiner games, which returned around $5m alone. Compared to most industries that expect 6-10% margin on products, being a small indie studio is an amazing business.

For the sake of brevity I am really going to concentrate on production in the article instead of business, I have written a lot of business centric articles that you can check out. An article contrasting the Indie business to the triple-A business could easily stand alone. So without further ado, the list…

A Clear Vision Is Essential

I cannot stress this enough. I have seen this problem in many of the triple-A studio’s I have worked in/with. To make something that is beautiful and functional there needs to be a clear vision of what you are making from the beginning, and someone needs to own that vision. This also means that there is buy off of everyone on board, that there is a vision holder. This seems pretty obvious to people on the outside that may not appreciate how hard it is to make a multi-million dollar game, with a nervous publisher breathing down you neck. But ultimately if you plan to paint the Sistine Chapel, build a bridge or write a great novel, heading off in a direction without knowing where you are going is a very bad idea.

I really think this is the reason why games such as the Super Mario, or Zelda games became such master pieces of game development. You had a celebrity designer that had a clear vision that everyone could implicitly trust.

Here we spend a long time talking and understanding what the vision of the game is, before we start making anything. When we do, there is virtually no friction because we can all shoot off in different directions getting stuff done and know we will end up in the same place without a lot of cross talk.

Delivery is everything

This point always makes me think of this old clip from Waynes World.

Delivery, meaning the way you present your idea is almost unilaterally more important than how novel or creative an idea is. Often you notice a pattern where someone has a great idea but the person that implements the idea the second of third time get notoriety for it. Delivery is the reason for this. A so-so idea executed extraordinarily well has a great chance at succeeding, a good idea executed poorly will almost always fail.

A lot of time in the triple-A industry games are referred to in terms of differentiators which are often completely unappreciated by the customer but sound great on paper or in a pitch to a publisher. What is hard to appreciate is sometimes the most important differentiator is that it is just done better. For this reason as an Indie we are VERY deliberate as to where we pick our battles, only picking features that are truly important to our target market. Which is a direct lead-in to my next point.

Focus Only On What Is Important

With such a great track record of repeated successful titles, the most common question that I get is “What is your formula?” Really it is very simple. Pick a target market that you know well. Understand what they are interested in or what excites them. Then come up with a title that focuses on ONLY those things eliminating as much “noise” as possible. By doing this we are able to make products very cheaply that our fans love. In addition, the things that ARE important we can spend lots of energy focusing on.

Make Things Cost Effectively (Without Cutting Corners)

This one is really fascinating to me being on both sides of the spectrum. The analogy I often give is building a house. The indie approach would be to spend a great deal of time finding prefabricated materials and a building plan that they could modify slightly to fit their needs, that could come close to what they were looking for. Shop at outlets with appliances that had dents and dings, hire a good contractor to help put it together with the help of some friends and family with the compensation of a free home cooked meal. In contrast, the AAA way would be to find the world’s best blacksmith to start making screws and nails, while we build a plant in China to start mining raw materials like the copper we will need to make the wires that will go in the walls. You get the point. In the end they would get the exact house they were looking for (hopefully), but it would also be about 1000x more expensive than the house next door. Although the industry has changed a lot over the years with the use of middleware for engineering, they have changed very little when it comes to content creation. The rage nowadays is to send content creation overseas to less developed countries that are simply willing to do the same work for less. Again a solution that is time limited in nature.

There are so many great resources out there these days for game development, if you are willing to make some compromises, either on vision, consistency or licensing.

Take music for example. I think good music is and extremely important tool is setting tone and emotion in games. In every AAA game I have worked on we either had a sound person author the music we needed or licensed very old very well-known songs as a compromise. Your sound guy may be great but it is unlikely that he is going to be able to come up with original tracks that are A+ quality of every different style of music. There are tons of great indie composers out there in just about every genre why not just take advantage of that.

There are studios that go as far as hiring A-List music celebs for games. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of money. Again going back to my point about focus and noise, people aren’t going to buy a game because it contains a track from a famous musician, unless for some reason that is what the game is specifically about.

Everyone Needs To Be Fully Invested

Going back to the idea of the vision holder. People have to understand (and feel like) they are making and contributing to a piece of art, not a widget. This gets harder and harder as teams get bigger and bigger. There comes this idea that the success of the product is someone else’s responsibility. Engineering defers to design, design defers to marketing, and marketing defers to management or a publisher that points back to production. It is hard to blame anyone when the ultimate success of a product is just a star on your resume as you find a new job, when your team faces the inevitable reduction in force which comes at the end of most projects regardless of success.

In the early days of the industry we were promised royalties on successful titles, which were highly motivating. However after years of exchanging stories with other developers it seemed that royalty checks always seemed to magically be almost exactly the amount of one paycheck. Regardless, many companies offer different compensation as a motivator. You could no doubt find tons of corporate studies on the effectiveness of these.

Early on, working with creative people I noticed a particular pattern. People that were interested in and loved what they were doing would iterate and improve their work until they hit a magical threshold of frustration where the reward of getting better results was no longer worth the frustration of the process. One artist I once knew referred to this phenomenon as the “f*** it factor”. The trick is to raise that bar by making sure that peoples efforts really make a difference in final product and rewarding them as such.

Everyone Needs To Be Well Rounded

I am personally fascinated with every part of game development. Although I am trained and worked in the industry as an engineer, I have been 3D modeling since I was a teen. I am a musician, playing instruments since before I can remember. I have taken many art classes over the years just because of pure interest, as well as business, economics and finance. I have also worked on the business side of things at companies large and small, and have a love for business and marketing that parallels my love for making games.  I love the industry, not just a part of it, but it as a whole, precisely because it is this magical place where you can tie all of these very interesting disciplines together.

Even early on, this afforded me some really interesting experiences. For instance, I could truly understand challenges that the people around me were having, even if they were not of my same discipline. Allowing me to see solutions and identify challenges that were not apparent to other people. This alone has allowed my company to become such a highly efficient operation.

As teams get larger and larger, people become more and more specialized. When this happens it is very difficult to see and understand the challenges around you. Encouraging people to reach outside their disciplines is something that ultimately is necessary to make a contiguous piece of art, which is a game.

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