In the current economic situation, there are obvious things -- cash flow, cash flow, and cash flow - independent developers can look to for survival. But what can they do to actually prosper? That was the focus of a panel talk at the Game Horizon Conference in Newcastle, UK.
Posing the questions was Jamil Moledina, who in his current role as Outreach director at EA wouldn't have been the obvious candidate for the post, aside for his previous tenure as director of the Game Developers Conference.
And keeping with unconventional wisdom, we're going to start in reverse order as the session ended with each of panelists giving their mantra for success. But it's a good introduction to them all, so let's kick off.
Darren Jobling, director of business development, at local racing specialist studio Eutechnyx, reckoned that one of the biggest opportunities is bringing console-quality graphics to free-to-play games. And yes, Eutechnyx does have an offering in that area. And no, it's not talking about it yet.
Andrew Oliver, co-founder and CTO of UK studio Blitz, thought keeping workforces motivated is key. "Allow people to do what they love, which is making games, and have fun while they're doing it. Remove the frustrations and blockages."
Robert Bond, a partner at legal firm Speechly Bircham -- which has represented Second Life and Eidos amongst many others -- suggested: "Be tough. Don't be afraid to enforce your rights."
Last, but never least, Epic's Mark Rein said, "You have to have a passion for what you're doing," although he mitigated that with, "We keep a year's worth of cash in the bank at all times. Every company should have a safety net."
Moledina kicked off the panel by asking whether present circumstances had changed developers' pitching process?
"I think the pitch is something publishers invent to keep developers busy," joked a half-serious Jobling. "Developers have to do more and more work upfront but you always get a 'Dear John' [rejection] at the end. What's much more important is for developers to add licensing to their arsenal. The recession means you can be much more aggressive in terms of getting licenses you wouldn't have been able to get in the good years."
Oliver half-agreed. "The problem with proactive pitches of original content is that if a publisher is having a shaky time, they will dump your game first, because they will have already paid for the licenses, and original games require more marketing."
"We help a lot of small developers through the pitching process and it's definitely taking it longer to get deals done at the moment," commented Rein.
"What's the chance of people keeping their intellectual property in these deals?" Moledina asked.
"In tough times, you have to be tough," said Bond. "It's showing up a lot of previous poor practice from the good years when people just wanted to sign the deal. But you always need things like a get-out clause in a contract. And you can retain some rights to your IP."
Jobling agreed. "It's not money that creates the thing of value. It's the idea. Never give away your IP," he said.
Typically, Rein begged to differ. "I've seen too many developers die, holding their IP in the hand," he argued. "You can get always something for giving the publisher what they want. You can have a get-back clause, but there aren't many deals that don't involve the publisher getting the IP these days."
"You can slice and dice IP in different ways in terms of platform, sequels, add-on rights," continued Bond. "You should also build in a mechanism for dealing with changes and disputes that occur during development."
Now it was Jobling's turn to disagree. "When you start looking at your contract, the relationship is over," he cautioned. "When you're making a game, you can't afford not to have an ongoing relationship."
Outsourcing has been hot topic for a number of years now. "Does that help?" queried Moledina.
"It's all about flexibility," said Oliver. Blitz outsources a lot of its art to Malaysia, while it also has external UK programming contractors. "Having staff in-house is a big fixed cost, and the speed and volume you get from outsourcing is incredible. We had to double the size of one game in development. It had taken four months to do the art, and we had to do the same amount again in one month. We couldn't have done that internally."
"But we never outsource things we can't do in-house," he added. "That would be risky."
Onto brass tacks. "How do you deal with staff morale in these times?" Moledina asked.
"We pay them shitloads of money," said Mark Rein.
Jobling was much more circumspect, but thinking along similar lines. "You have to focus on your best people because they are the people who will take you from good to great when things pick up," he said.
"You also have to be tough and realize that loyalty isn't about the length of time people have worked with you. It's about how hard people work for you every day," Jobling added ."The lowest 20 percent of your workflow will cause 80 percent of your management overheads. And remember, it's surprising, but sometimes when people are made redundant, the morale of the rest goes up."