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Indie development doesn't need to be like this

Indie development doesn’t need to be like this

So here I am; 6 weeks into being ‘Mr Evil 27 Games Limited’.

I have to confess; being a one-person indie games development studio is almost as unnerving as it is exciting but then I do have “Wisdom Comes To Those That Stray” on my arm and I know from experience that trying something unconventional in your professional life doesn’t always end in ‘success’ but it does always end in useful experience and learning.

I’ve founded/co-founded three previous games/digital start-ups over the last 15 years and in a way they were all ‘indies’ in that we were largely in control of our own destiny (within fiscal limits of course) and developed our own games/tech/services which we then choose how we would commercialize. This time it is different though. This time I am (currently) alone, adopting my own commercial strategy, working on my own game concepts, designing 100% of the game mechanics and UI, defining the business model and IAP items/prices, cutting my own code, doing my own concept art and at the same time doing the bulk of the business admin, networking and social media marketing.

All of that take some hours! I’ve always worked long hours (typically 50 or so hours a week with SoshiGames and PIXELearning) but I’ve found myself largely in my office from just after 8am to gone midnight most days now. The interesting thing is that this doesn’t in anyway feel onerous, in fact I feel more energized and upbeat than at pretty much anytime in the last decade. I don’t think that is unique and in fact I think this is the very reason that so many games professionals opt for and embrace the indie route as an alternative to taking a ‘sensible’ role at an established studio. ‘Indie’ = creative/professional freedom. It shares much with the punk ethic; I’m sticking to what I believe in, my values and ideal irrespective of what ‘the system’ or convention may dictate.

That ‘freedom’ comes with costs; the aforementioned hours, lower/sporadic income, uncertain outcomes/risk etc, and it does not  (read: ‘should not’!) equate to “I’m doing this so I can sit in my bedroom pretending to work making games that only I want to play”. Going indie needs to be approached in a considered, researched and professional manner. You may want to focus on bringing your ideas to reality but nonetheless you need to put time and effort into the commercial aspects of your business. You need to be prepared to do (or find someone who can do) the accounts and other business admin (deal with Companies House, HMRC etc), craft and execute a commercial strategy (what are you selling to who for how much and how?) and you need to force yourself out of your ‘pit’ to go network often.

I come into contact with a lot of young/small games, digital media and technology start-ups, many of whom are founded/staffed by raw graduates. Many mistakes will be made (I’m sure I’ve made them all and will make many more myself) but you can reduce the number of and impact of these mistakes if you are sensible. Here’s a few I would recommend for indie games start-ups:

Have a clear focus: Here’s mine; EVIL27 Games will develop it’s own games for a casual-core audience that are optimized for  tablet devices and which (ultimately) enable players to create, share and recommend user-generated content through social networks. Having a focus doesn’t mean you have to plan to do one thing and one thing only. It’s about knowing what your end goal is, how you plan to reach it and also knowing what you won’t be doing.

Get the balance right: I’m not talking about ‘work-life balance’ (not that this isn’t important!) but rather the balance between the competing draws on your time by the needs of the business and the product (e.g. your game). You may be thinking “we’re nothing without a game”, and in a sense you are right of course, but you won’t get to finish that game and achieve your commercial goals, whatever they may be, without creating a sound foundation for the business. That means managing the cash (and acquiring it), it means filing all the regulatory information on time and it means making sure that there is indeed a ‘business’ at all, not just you and a bunch of friends having fun making games. It’s hard to stay on track with the game development if you are constantly distracted by other things so I personally have adopted a ‘week on/week off’ approach where I spend one week doing all the business admin, sales, finance, marketing, networking etc in order to earn the right to spend a week doing nothing but making the game. If you are professional, organised and manage your time well you may find that the business side only needs maybe 2-3 days – you just earned a few days bonus! Level up!

Set achievable goals: don’t go into this expecting or even hoping that you will create the next App Store or STEAM sensation. If that does happen then you were most probably very lucky (as well as very good!). If you plan for that ultra-big success outcome, you will almost certainly fail. Instead make sure that you have achievable goals on a practical timescale and that you have the financial resources/income to control that. To illustrate this here’s my 2013 goals:

  • Build & release game 1 (a 2D iOS/Android puzzle game ). Commercial goals: get company known, master app development and submission process plus learn how to get the best out of 3rd party advertising and promotion services. Hopefully: start building a player community. Will it have ways to derive revenue? Of course. Do I plan for any revenue? No.
  • Build & release game #2 (a point & click adventure game with a novel approach to freemium). Commercial goals: get to meaningful revenue generation e.g. it pays some of the (still carefully managed) bills, further enhances the company’s reputation/awareness and increases the contactable player base/community.
  • Have commenced development on game#3 (a RTS game with a mobile-friendly approach to ‘modding’ as a central feature): Commercial goals: Position the company with a clear USP (‘mobile modding) and market positioning (mid-core/tablet devices), be on course to hit cashflow and revenue forecasts for year 2.

Network often: I’m not a natural networker. I’m not shy as such but I’m not at my most comfortable in crowds with strangers at professional/commercial events. Does that sound like you? Time to get over it! Force yourself to find and go to industry and related events on a frequent basis. I recommend seeing what events TIGA/UKIE are doing, looking ahead to games conferences (see www.games.confs.com), checking out local university/science park events and general digital, technology exhibitions. Birmingham Science Park Aston, for example, regularly run games and technology events. They are usually free or very cheap. Also, do regular searches on Eventbrite.com and Meetup.com – search for ‘games’ etc and see what comes up. Go along able to say clearly what you are doing, what your company/game is about and why you are doing it. Maybe think about things you may need (concept art, audio, help with QA etc?). I personally aim to go to at least one event per week. If there aren’t any formal events scheduled, then maybe try to arrange to get out and meet another company or game developer. Share ideas. See what they think about what you are doing. See if you can help each other. What goes around comes around, especially in the insular games industry!

Frequent sense-checks: take (regular) time to sit back and examine what you have done and what you are planning to do. A good game needs constant re-visiting, testing, optimizing and, most likely, 90% of the ideas thrown out. So does a business. It’s about refinement; finding what works on perfecting that essence. A game that is packed with every feature you can think of is most likely a bad game. A new/young business that tries to do everything for all people is most likely doomed to failure. You may be one person at home with a PC but if you say you are an indie game developer then you are also a business and you need to accept and embrace that. A business doesn’t make a product or service that there isn’t a decent chance that someone will pay money for. You may not be able to guarantee that but you had better be bloody sure that you have done everything you can to maximize the likelihood of that happening.

Your motivation to ‘go Indie’ may be to make the games you want to make because, ultimately, that is what you enjoy but that doesn’t release you from the reality that you need to do the ‘business stuff’ as well. Being professional is not about ‘selling out’. Look at it this way, even if you hate that aspect, doing it (well) earns you the right to make your game….and the one after that!

Kevin Corti
‘Chief Evil Officer
@kevcorti / @evil27games

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Leamington Spa (aka ‘Silicon Spa’) plays host to TIGA’s Game Dev Night next week (20th February).  Featured speakers include David Fullick & Dan Griffiths from Monster & Monster, creators of Autumn Walk and Winter Walk on iOS/Android.

The event is free to members and non-member developers…..and there is FREE food and drinks!

Event details at: http://www.tiga.org/events/tiga-gamedev-night-leamington-spa

If you work in the games industry (or are a student hoping to do so) and live in the vicinity of Leamington then make sure you follow Silicon Spa Games on Twitter – @siliconspagames

 

A lack of work experience is a major challenge to anyone wanting to get into the games industry right now. Most employers want people with a few years prior experience and, quite often, a number of published titles to their credit.

That is a big problem for a raw graduate or college finisher. The cream of the crop (the top 5%) will always land roles on the strength of their grades, the quality of their portfolio and their ability sell themselves but what about the other 95%? I know people that sent out over a hundred CVs/enquiries but hardly got any responses back. I have to ask, however, to what extent does a lack of experience hinder someone from fulfilling a productive role within the games industry? Should we not attempt to bring more of these passionate and committed young people into our industry rather then turning them away?

I have, over the last decade or so, probably employed 50+ people in various technical and creative roles in the five games and digital media businesses I’ve been involved in. Those roles were a mix of full-time, part-time, temporary, freelance and lengthy paid placements.

The vast majority of these people had little or no prior paid employment history in the industry. This was mainly a result of me being a start-up addict and nearly always attempting to get stuff done with little or no resources. I’d be lying if I claimed that better things couldn’t have been achieved and in a more timely manner with more experienced team members, but nonetheless, as a four times company founder, I am quite satisfied and in some cases very proud with what was achieved.

In an age when every start-up is being told to ‘bootstrap’, to get minimum viable product (MVP) to market and customer/market validation before taking in any funding, the supply of inexperienced, yet highly motivated, talent is, I believe, being wrongly over-looked. More than this, from an industry-level and societal standpoint, we’re being grossly unfair to a large number of people who we’re enticing to undertake expensive degree courses, then failing to provide them a chance to show what they can do.

The paradox is this; if one looks at the output that student and graduate teams are achieving through initiatives such as GamerCamp, DareToBeDigital, Digipen, the many degree courses and numerous game jams, it is clear that these inexperienced individuals are actually quite capable of achieving some  pretty impressive things. I attended a mobile games ‘meet em up’ at Birmingham Science Park Aston last year and was, quite frankly, blown away by a series of presentations from students and recent graduates. I’m certain that this is happening all ten time up and down the country.

Yet still, when it comes to building up internal teams, established studios usually take a conscious decision to filter out these people. This is, to a certain extent, a product of it being an employers’ market right now when it comes to graduate and junior roles. Yet almost every games studio has open positions for mid-level and senior roles and the industry is growing – albeit painfully – very quickly. Those more senior roles won’t find candidates if the conveyor belt of talent is restricted because no studios hire raw graduates. Those dejected graduates that get turned away from the games sector will find roles in marketing, web and other creative or technical roles. That is our loss.

I know how hard it is for a small/young games studio to carry inexperienced team members or to find resources (people, cash or time) to develop them, but I believe if the willingness is there from employers (it is from employees!) then it can be both practical and beneficial to bring raw graduates into a team.

When we needed to build a MVP of MusicFestivals Game at SoshiGames in 2011 without any meaningful cash, we turned to ‘free-sourcing’ the game. The proposition was this; if graduates were willing to commit some time, we would commit to providing them with an environment in which they can learn and gain useful industry experience. We had, I would estimate, something like forty people involved in the project over the course of 18months. Some gave one day a week. Some gave 40 hours a week for six months or more. I won’t pretend it was easy and that there were not challenges, however SoshiGames got it’s MVP and the volunteers got their much needed experience. Several of the volunteers were given full time employment once funding was secured and many others got jobs within a short time of leaving us.

Recruiting the ‘free-sourced’ team was done in an extremely ad-hoc manner. There was no single route to finding potential candidates. We approached colleges, universities, alumni groups, placed adverts, plastered info all over the internet and social networks, put up posters and mentioned it in conference sessions and TV/radio adverts. It was hard work but it proved worthwhile for everyone concerned.

I’d like to see an attitudinal change amongst games studios with regards to hiring more juniors. I’d also like to see some services designed to better connect graduates with studios. If this happened it would only be a good thing for the UK games industry.

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