Lack of transparency is one of the ugliest trends in game development. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes even legally required, but the standard of not talking about what’s going on with development can’t help but hurt old studios and new kids alike. There are a lot of pitfalls in this industry. It’s a shame to see people falling into the same ones again and again.
There are people out there setting up Kickstarters who have no idea what they’re doing or how they’ll allocate the money. Sometimes these people get nothing – or sometimes they get hundreds of thousands of dollars. When these teams fail, their follow-ups tend to be face-saving PR statements or grave silence, depending on which is more fiscally advisable. And thus, the way is cleared for another generation of well-intentioned misappropriations.
When we at Pyrodactyl Games launched our Kickstarter last June, we promised that we’d give our backers and the general public a frank postmortem. Now, we never did get in over our heads. We made mistakes, and to some extent I think you can argue we were in over our heads to begin with, but we managed to deliver a game we’re proud of. But we saw a lot of ways this project could have gone south, and part of what we’re here to accomplish is to make sure future teams deliver as well. This report comes from thirteen months in the trenches; it is based on experience.
But this post isn’t just for indie devs, and it’s not just for our backers: it’s for anyone who considers backing a game in the future. Before you support a project, it’s important that you know what money does for indies and what making a game with a small studio looks like. This is something that even the press sometimes doesn’t understand, if some of the questions we’ve gotten are any indication.
First warning: the content that follows may come off a little bittersweet. That’s just what things are like for indie developers. Know before I continue that we are all personally, deeply, humbly grateful for each and every person who took a chance and backed Unrest. We loved making Unrest, we are all incredibly proud of it, and that we hope it will succeed. I don’t know if I’ve ever worked on something I thought was so wonderful, different and rule-breaking. I’m deeply grateful to the people who made it possible.
Next warning: I am going to be talking about things that are almost always considered taboo. I will discuss my salary. I will discuss the salaries of other team members. I will discuss what my work situation was like and how we stand to fare in the future. I will do this because practically no-one else does, and it’s a gaping hole in the discussion.
But first—let’s talk about the biggest mistake you can make.
A lot of people (even members of the press) assume that independent studios have a lot more freedom than big studios. That’s true and not true, but the major assumption is that small indie teams are free-wheeling democracies that get by on goodwill and mutual trust. Again; that’s true and not true.
The real question is: did we have contracts, deadlines, lawyers, chains of command—all the stuff the squares in Triple-A need?
Yes. Just cheap versions, whenever applicable.
Arvind, our team lead, was very smart about this. The fact is that our team knew each other, liked each other, worked beautifully with each other. I promise you without hesitation that we didn’t need any of the contracts, hard deadlines, soft deadlines, or formal/semi-formal hierarchies of direction that outlined our workload. We would have done it all perfectly anyway.
But we had all those things. We set up a system that would in extremis function exactly as coldly, efficiently, impersonally, and legally as the most cartoonish games-mill dev studio in world history.
Our freedom in being scrappy, independent underdogs was not that we didn’t have contracts and deadlines and chains of command; our freedom was the ability to fudge, overlook, or slacken these bonds by mutual consent when it was good for the development process. That’s one thing you can get away with when you have a personal and informal relationship with every member of your team that you can’t get away with when you’re running a big studio.
It was one of our greatest strengths, and we made damn sure it couldn’t possible become a weakness. If somebody had fallen asleep at the wheel—or worse, taken the money and run—we would have been able to tighten those bonds at a moment’s notice. Our team lead was far from a domineering iron-fisted dictator, but with the contracts we signed and the systems in place he could have been any second if he’d needed to be. And I’m sincerely glad about that.
Valve is famous for structuring its company as a level playing field that lets people pursue projects driven purely by the need to create, without infrastructure or deadlines or executive meddling. That’s great; we all want to work in an environment like that. But as a friendly message to the Kickstarter developers of the world: you are not Valve. You don’t have an endless stream of cash, endless leisure, a huge team that can cover any sudden holes, and all the chances in the world to get something right. You have nothing but your small team and other peoples’ money, and before you write one line of code, you need to cover your backs.
Pyrodactyl Games’ pre-Kickstarter budget was driven mostly by profits from its last game, the “sleeper hit” Will Fight for Food. What constitutes a “sleeper hit” for an indie developer like Arvind? About US $1000. That should set the tone for this section.
All told, our starting funds for making the game amounted to $1500. That was $500 dollars for me, the writer, $800 for Mikk, the artist, and $200 for Arvind—the boss, the lead developer, the guy who was going to be spending all day of pretty much every day working on the game. We were buckled down for about two months of working on the game with that budget. So monthly salaries, adjusted for cash on hand:
How did we get by on that much? We didn’t, really. I was a student, Mikk was taking in other work, Arvind lives in a place with low cost of living, and we were all just…not making very much. We worked on the game because we thought it needed to exist and because we hoped it’d do well and give us more money for next time. In other words, we were 99% of independent developers out there.
We knew our current vision would probably take longer than two months, and we knew we were all going to keep working on it until it was done (in fact we were contractually obligated to, which, full disclosure, might have been a problem if the lead developer had been anybody but Arvind and anything but fair). Those were things that would be true no matter how much money we had.
When we got it in our heads to do a Kickstarter, we knew we weren’t going to get hundreds of thousands—you needed trust or at least recognition to do that well. So we set a goal for what we though we could achieve, which was about $3000. With $3000 we could pay for a little extra art and justify continuing to work for a few more months. We thought we’d be lucky to get that much. Some team members quietly “knew” we’d crash and burn.
When we ended up with over $35,000—well, that was a surprise, to say the least. I don’t think any of us could have expected to do that well. It was a pretty great day for the team when we crossed the finish line, and a great headline for when the game would eventually release.
What it was not was a miracle. I am going to be very honest about where that money went and what it was capable of. Maybe even a little more honest than people would like.
A little more than $5,000 was eaten up by Kickstarter fees, Amazon fees, wire transfers, and international taxes (to all individuals planning a Kickstarter: for the love of God, check whether your gains will be flagged as taxable income). The rest went to fund the next thirteen months of development, which was what we felt we needed to deliver the game we promised—the game backers paid for. Which meant paying existing team members and freelancers. But since we now had a magnificent pile of cash, that wouldn’t be a problem— right?
Before the Kickstarter, I was making about $250 a month and was on board for around two months of work. After the Kickstarter, we adjusted our schedule to make the best game we could—and by my final math, for the thirteen months of post-Kickstarter development, I was making $230 a month. Before taxes.
By the time this period of development began I was no longer a student. I spent a lot of time looking for work that would accommodate my script-writing duties. By that, I don’t mean, “gave me lots and lots of time to sit in a breezy studio writing prose,” I mean legally allowed me to write for games at all.
Which discounted a surprising number of positions in unrelated industries. At least one tech writing job I made it to phone interviews with told me side work for any kind of writing-related industry was a no-go. From what I’m told, it’s similar for most programmers—you’re a freelancer or you’re salaried, and you can’t be both.
So where did I end up working to supplement my $230 a month—which, incidentally, I agreed (out of mutual necessity) to be paid after the game’s completion?
I was a sales associate at a home improvement store. For those unfamiliar with English professional terminology, sales associates are the ground-level employees that do stocking, customer service, and cleaning. It wasn’t a bad job. Tiring, since my department handled all the stuff that wasn’t quite heavy enough to justify using a power loader, but not bad. I worked an average of 20-30 hours a week and wrote the game on my days off or before going to a shift. Writing after a shift turned out to be pretty impossible.
My schedule at the store was pretty much wholly out of my hands if I wanted to get any hours. Sometimes, I’d have four or five days straight where the shifts were murderous and I couldn’t get any decent game-writing done at all. I started working much harder when I did have the chance.
I left that job towards the end of Unrest’s development due to the health of a family member and the demands of finishing the game. And now that our magnum opus has swept onto the indie scene like the majestic jewel-spangled dream ship it is—I’ll be reapplying to that same home improvement store. Because even though I get a very generous percentage of all sales (10% of our cut), sales are by no means guaranteed. Chances aren’t bad I’ll be writing my next game in between shifts as well.
What am I getting at here? It’s not “feel sorry for me,” because I’m sure a lot of you are in similar or worse situations. What I’m trying to communicate is that even when you’re a “Kickstarter success,” these are the circumstances under which indie games are developed. It’s a constant tension between scraping up what free time you can to make your game and needing to release it as soon as possible, so you can actually get paid and see a return on your investment. We make do on small budgets because we are untested and untried—rightfully, nobody has faith in us, so nobody’s going to pay us to do what we do.
Every time we release a game, we pray it does well enough that we can afford to make another. And here’s the really hard, ugly truth that applies to almost all indie devs, even the ones that did “well” on Kickstarter: when you get down to the simple, honest mathematics, the same developer cannot make the same game in twelve months on an independent budget that he could have with a publisher’s money. I wrote Unrest in between shifts loading and unloading bags of river rocks. I am more proud of Unrest’s script than I have been of any other work I’ve done in my entire life, public or private, professional or amateur—but if you’re asking me if I could have done more if I’d spent my life-sustaining river-rock time writing the game instead, the only possible answer is, “Yes.” To give any other response would be delusional.
So as a member of a team that only asked for $3,000, what do I think when I see teams of established, trusted professionals asking for hundreds of thousands for a similar-sized team to make a game in the same window of time? Frankly, I think “good for them and good for their customers.” Our unknowns-making-a-cool-game Kickstarter yielded far more than we could have ever asked for—and it was about half of a professional salary for one person for one year when we had five team members and thirteen months to spread it across.
Absolutely, positively be angry when a team of game developers takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of your money and delivers nothing in return. But don’t be angry they asked that much in the first place. Believe me when I say that if we all would if we could, and assuming the game gets made, it would be the best thing for everybody.
It’s not romantic, but it’s true. Money is a powerful tool for making games better; it buys the time to make them and to make them better. Don’t be afraid of giving it to developers; just make sure they’re not going to waste it. Make sure up-front that actual legal processes are in place to make sure the team doesn’t dissolve and the cash doesn’t flap away to the four winds. That’s the best thing you, and they, can do to secure the investment.
Q: Would you do a Kickstarter again? Would you prefer a publisher had picked you up?
A: Let me put it like this. If it’s a choice between getting [X] amount of dollars from Kickstarter or [X] from a publisher– close call, but I think Kickstarter wins.
The advantages of a publisher are things that some people might take for granted—things like QA testing, proofreading, getting reviewers to notice you exist, and getting you on Steam might seem trivial if you haven’t actually tried to do all those things while juggling game development duties and part-time work, but be assured they’re not. So if we’re assuming those are included along with the [X] amount of money, and not charged up-front out of sales (which in our experience, they usually are for devs like us), then those are valuable services.
But Kickstarter gives you freedom—well, as much freedom as you can afford, anyway—and that’s a rare thing in any creative industry. So for indie devs just starting out, I’d say Kickstarter is a more favorable master.
The problem comes when a publisher offers more money than a Kickstarter could. Like, if for some reason a publisher had offered us a huge load of money and hadn’t demanded changes to our fundamental creative vision? Perversely, that would have given us more freedom than having no boss at all. Economic freedom cannot be discounted. The leisure to make more significant changes and implement more sprawling plans is something most starving indie devs with the steadily-depressing-low-down-mind-messing-working-at-the-carwash-blues just don’t have.
Now, would I do a Kickstarter for a different game tomorrow? Yes, probably. Even with a game selling copies and driving up revenue, I would go to Kickstarter for whatever we could get. Like I said: money makes games better. I know this team can deliver on backer promises, so any windfalls we can pick up mean fewer shifts with my old friends the river-rocks and more making games.
Q: Why didn’t you just use the money to develop Unrest full-time for a few months instead of part-time for thirteen?
A: A lot of reasons. For one thing, several members of the team really did have to work pretty much non-stop. They got paid a little more—but not a lot more. It helped that rent is lower in some parts of the world than others. For another thing, let’s say the whole team’s schedule revolved around my “ideal” scenario, where I get paid enough that I can spend eight hours a day writing the game and still cover my rent and the game gets launched the moment I personally finish. I’m groovy for the (generously) two months my salary would last for. Now the game is released, all of our money is spent, we have no guarantee of making enough to pay anybody’s salary after that, I have no part-time work to fall back on, and…what was the point? If it was “during the two months I was salaried, I had a modest apartment,” great. Now it’s month three and I’ve got a lease and no salary. Even if doing otherwise were realistic, slow and steady’s the only sustainable way to develop a game.
Q: Why did you make such an ambitious game in the first place? Why not just use the money you made to make something like in your original plan and take the windfall as salary?
A: Because that wouldn’t be fair to the people who backed the game. We secured our additional funding by promising more. We have no regrets about doing that, and certainly no regrets about how Unrest turned out.
Q: You sound ungrateful. Are you ungrateful?
A: Of course not. This was a great project to work on and I’m glad to have been part of it. I knew exactly what I was getting into, I have no regrets, and—I cannot stress this enough—I think the game we’ve made is fantastic.
Q: Would you have done anything differently?
A: Nothing significant, no. We pretty much did the best we could have. Make sure your team is solid and will be there tomorrow and you’ll have no regrets.
Q: Do you hope Unrest does well enough that Pyrodactyl has the money to do this full-time?
A: I really, really do. I want that because writing for games is one of the most rewarding things there is to do, and I’d like to do it every day instead of chipping away at a project between shifts. I want that because our team has done so well even under all of our burdens, and I know that without them, we could make something really amazing. I want to see the game Pyrodactyl makes after thirteen months of full-time, professional work—especially after all the lessons we learned during Unrest’s development. And not least, I want the game to succeed because I think it deserves to. I think more people need to know a game like this can be made. I think it does something no other game does, and I don’t just want it to succeed—I want it to soar.
Q: Would you be so kind as to shamelessly link to the store page of your videogame?
A: Only since you asked.