How to Run an Indie Studio Without a Surprise Hit

Notes on a series of 3 micro-talks

  • How to get client work and balance it against your own IP development (Christopher Langmuir of Anemone Hug Interactive)
    • Anemone Hug has had 4x revenue groth every year (since 2015)
    • 50% of all hours company-wide on internal IP development
    • Can’t hide from the business stuff
      • You’re going to need that stuff in place when you ship a game
    • Having client work allows you to hire people with real employment agreements
    • Before you start your studio
      • Have at least a year of runway (you’ll need it)
      • Get credit now while you’re still employed (you’ll need it)
      • Get a mentor (you’ll need advice tailored to your context from someone who’s gone through the growing pains you’ll go through)
    • Getting client work
      • There’s no magic directory that you can go to to find clients
      • It’s hard to get and it’s ahrd to do it
      • Always be networking (“go wide”)
      • Grow your team—provide solutions, not labor (don’t do single-contributor contracts)
        • Provide something like ports, or systems, etc.
      • Climb the ladder (“go narrow”)—first get work from orgs that are a little bit bigger than you, not AAA studios
      • Get games-adjacent and non-games clients
        • Not an obvious substitute to in-house development
      • Get attribution for your studio—start the negotiation with getting attribution on par with the company hiring you
      • Deliver on time & on budget
    • Balancing against internal IP development
      • Be wary of business burning you out creatively
      • Don’t assume 50% work means you’ll get it done in twice the time… it’s more like 3x or more
        • See Gwen Frey’s “3 Steps for Founding a Successful Indie Studio”
      • Find people that can wear multiple hats (need them for client work)
      • Protect your team from sales thrash—don’t expose your team to contracts you’re trying to get
  • Hardware & IP partnerships as keys to running a studio without a surprise hit (Theresa Duringer of Temple Gates)
    • Most indie games aren’t household names
    • If you have something in between a total hit and a total flop, what do you do?
      • Cannon Brawl averaged paying back 2 people about $70k/year for time invested
      • Where to go from here?
    • Ask yourself: who has too much money and not enough video games?
      • Not VCs!
      • Speculative hardware seems like a good idea (VR now, previously PS Vita, etc.)
        • Developing for a new medium means no users!
        • Never, never!
        • …except if there’s money!
          • When there’s an arms race between platform owners, you can actually get grants from the platforms or VC funding to make their platform look good
          • Other companies like airlines, TV shows that want to expand into the new platform
          • If you’ve put in the time to learn this new platform, it puts you in the running for winning contracts
          • Try to keep these “research” projects under 6 months
        • …except if there’s IP
          • Nobody wants to risk their evergreen IP on a new platform
          • Use uncontested platforms to get good IP
          • This is how Temple Gates got a bunch of board game IP; they then used that as a stepping stone to more board games
        • Your superpower as an indie studio is that you’re a team that works well on small projects
    • Once you’ve found a genre, stick to it
      • Gets you a reputation
      • Lets you reuse tools
    • “Who has too much money and not enough video games”
      • Their answer was board gamers
    • Take advantage of being nimble through lots of small projects (small risks)
  • A more traditional idea of what it means to be indie (Tanya X Short of Kitfox Games; @tanyaxshort)
    • Craftsmanship, lifestyle, and sustainability as the studio’s goal
    • How to make each game better than the last (both in terms of the game itself and how they “feel”)
    • Kickstarter
      • Can’t sustain a studio on it
      • But it does fit the strategy of being opportunistic
        • Diversification as risk management (“take more shots”)
    • Start with a core, build outward from there
      • All their games are systems-driven RPG
    • Multiplier: central community hub to move people between games
      • One shared social media, not one per game
      • Lets people “bond” with “the brand,” but also with the individuals
    • Multiplier: self-publishing: there’s one place to find all their games (no other games competing with them)
      • No distractions
    • Funnel to become a superfan:
      • Like/follow
      • Newsletter
      • Purchase
      • Fanart
      • Cosplay
    • Revenue sources
      • Steam
      • Other PC store sales
      • Console games
      • Merchandising
      • Grants
      • etc.
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