Making games is just part of the equation at successful independent game studios. Being an indie creator means wearing many different hats: entrepreneur, community manager, accountant, salesperson, and more.
During August’s focus on indie innovation, we hosted a roundtable on The business of being an indie featuring three successful indie creators: Xalavier Nelson Jr. (Strange Scaffold), Yves Hohler (Broken Arms Games), and Réjon Taylor-Foster (Soft Not Weak). They joined Unity’s Antonia Forster to talk about everything from securing project funding, to pitching games to journalists and publishers, to building a solid community prior to launch.
Today on the Unity Blog, Réjon Taylor-Foster and Yves Hohler are back to share more tips on how they built their businesses, from preproduction to launch.
Let’s start with one of the biggest obstacles for an indie: funding. Once you knew that you wanted to open a studio, how did you approach it financially? Did you find an investor/publisher or was it all self-funded?
Réjon Taylor-Foster: Soft Not Weak initially started off partially self-funded and partially funded by grants we received in the early days of Spirit Swap: Lofi Beats to Match-3 To‘s development. Crowdfunding was always the plan, so it was our top priority in regards to funding development.
Yves Hohler: In the beginning, Broken Arms Games started as an unofficial team and not a company. All three of us had nine-to-five jobs, and we worked on our games and some B2B advert games in Adobe Flash in the evenings and on weekends. We were trying to create and launch mobile games as quickly as possible so we could start generating cash flow to reinvest into our unofficial company. We wanted to try to go further however we could, whether it was localization, hiring a graphic artist, and so on.
When our income began to grow, we started to work on games by day, while working in bars and restaurants in the evenings. Besides taking bare-minimum salaries, we reinvested all of the money. It took a lot of discipline, which is a really important quality and skill for starting a video game development company.
Yves, as a studio that didn’t have access to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, what would you recommend to studios in a similar situation?
Yves: Besides self-funding with our own money, time, and assets, we reached out to family and friends to gauge their interest in participating. At the onset of any entrepreneurial journey, it’s very important to be completely honest with yourself and ask the following questions:
There is also another kind of investment that is super effective, but not frequently mentioned: trying to find a mentor. A mentor can help you avoid early pitfalls that are detrimental to your growth and can help you save a good bit of money.
Another important aspect to consider when launching a studio is team size and hiring needs. How many people were on the team at the beginning? How did this number grow and how many were there when you shipped your first game?
Réjon: Internally, we are four folks at Soft Not Weak, but we periodically hire specialized contractors at different phases of development. We’ve worked with around 23 people so far and they’ve all contributed invaluable expertise (like music composition, concept art, and animation) that makes Spirit Swap: Lofi Beats to Match-3 To as polished as it is today. It’s our first game together as Soft Not Weak.
Yves: We started as three team members, and within a short period of time, grew to six. We have been a team of six for the past 10 years, and only recently have we begun to build out the team further. When it comes to the perfect team size, there is no magic formula. It really depends on the studio. The available tools and technology make it possible for teams of all sizes to create beautiful and profitable games.
Once you’ve got your funding and hiring strategies mapped out, it’s time to dive deep into conceptualization. How do you validate ideas at the onset of development?
Réjon: Between each of us at Soft Not Weak, our approach is different, but it revolves around constant iteration, battle-testing concepts, and asking as many questions as possible.
Yves: Once you have launched a game, or more, the best thing to do is an honest postmortem of what worked and what didn’t. This will help you improve over time and keep learning.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen young developers focus on improving their games independently without confronting the market, which, in my opinion, can slow their growth. It’s important to release your project into the wild and not worry about attaining perfection at the beginning. Growth, knowledge, and instinct come with time and experience.
Now onto prototyping. What business factors do you take into account during prototyping?
Yves: Prototyping can be an extreme luxury to a small indie team, so we treat it like that.
It’s a luxury because having time to try stuff out that could potentially be thrown away means having money to throw away. On the other hand, it’s necessary because it’s fundamental to the team and business growth. Prototyping should only be done for a specific feature that will make an impact on gameplay and the end product.
Réjon: We had a unique prototype, as it also served as a demo and (pseudo) vertical slice for our Kickstarter campaign. As we honed in on the feel and mechanics of the game and how our systems tied together, we were thinking about:
During production, what are the main economic factors that you take into account to move forward?
Réjon: The fact that we need money and capitalism makes everything horrible? Haha, nah, but burn rate is king. Two factors always at the forefront of our minds are: How much money do we currently have, and what does the rest of our runway look like? The only way to know what pitfalls are coming in our production is to compare where we are with where we’re going.
Yves: The main economic factor to keep an eye out for during production is the budget. In theory, game development could go on forever, as reaching perfection is a utopian idea, so the biggest factor to determine the end of production is the end of budget. It’s brutal, but in many cases, this is the truth.
Let’s talk about shipping a game. From a business perspective, when is a game ready to launch?
Yves: When there’s enough hype surrounding the game. In a perfect world, you should launch a game only when the studio and/or game have a big enough fan base to expect a successful release.
There are some mistakes we see over and over again, like launching a game the same day it’s announced. If you don’t have a big marketing campaign or a special spotlight during a big showcase, in the case of a Steam launch for example, you need to give the platform time to know that you exist so that it can understand the game’s target player and help promote the game to potential customers. It takes time for the algorithm to understand your game and your target.
Réjon: Again, the business perspective is all about money: Are we out of money? We need to launch. Conversely, if throwing money at something isn’t necessarily making it any better, it’s also time to launch. From a personal perspective, though? I always try to think of if we’d be proud of what we put out. We can work on the game forever, but if we’re at a point where we’re proud of our work, that’s a huge green flag to ship it.
We all know that once a game launches, there’s still a lot of work to be done. What is your best practice or tip to help the game succeed post-launch?
Yves: In today’s landscape, launching an indie game is more of a marathon than a sprint (as my business partner Elisa Farinetti echoed during a GDC talk last March). After the initial launch, you need to be on top of the platforms that host your game and work with them to get maximum exposure. Growing sales is in everyone’s best interest, so be sure to make a solid plan for discounts – begin the discount process slowly and then increase over time.
On top of that, if you get good traction initially, keep updating the game as long as it is profitable. Players will become fans over time and will advocate for you. Word of mouth is a great way to build awareness and sales.
Réjon: While Spirit Swap hasn’t launched yet, some tips from previous launches (specifically on the marketing side) include: Following up with players and influencers, retweeting their fan art, engaging with their comments, and sharing their videos. Allow folks to feel pride over being part of the celebration. Encouraging folks to leave a review on Steam also helps.
Access The business of being an indie roundtable on-demand and follow Soft Not Weak, Broken Arms Games, and Strange Scaffold on Twitter for more insights.
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|Disclaimer: The information and opinions contained in these interviews are those of the interviewees and are provided here for informational purposes only. Unity and its affiliates assume no liability for any inaccurate, delayed, or incomplete information, nor for any actions taken in reliance thereon. The information contained about each individual and company has been supplied by such individual or company without verification by us.|