(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
This is an exciting episode that is relevant to everyone that is interested in Indie Development. The biggest risk to any game is over-scoping and not having enough time. SomaSim founders, Matt Viglione and Robert Zubek, walk us through their process of making their first game, 1849, within a year and using the lessons learned into making their follow up dream game, Project Highrise. Priceless knowledge is shared from quitting to doing Indie, working with contractors, pricing, business development, and securing a publisher for their second game.
How it all Started
“Project Highrise was something cool to do but we were pushing it back with logistics of what we can do now”- Matt Viglione
SomaSim’s first game 1849 was the testbed for making a game in a year because “quitting your job and making an indie game by digging into our savings was a scary thought” for both Matt and Robert. However, being able to tell x amount of work is too much is the keystone for what makes a successful indie developer. Most developers that make the jump from AAA to indie “can’t do that and that’s why they are going to fail” reaffirmed by Larry.
“Players like us are out there, but they are not getting the games they want”
Before Matt quit as a Communications Director at a non-profit organization, he “had enough in his account to make something in a year, maybe pushing it two years” he said. The SomaSim founders quickly realized that usually planning projects for a year but ending up taking two years is a honest approximation by regular game development standards.
Before branching off on their own it began with a passion project “that they wanted to play but doesn’t exist yet” said Matt. “Players like us are out there, but they are not getting the games they want” he continues.
Both Matt and Robert were inspired by Sim Towers and their projects shows a strong semblance to that game. When they set out to begin production for their first game 1849, they adopted a method called, SWAG Scheduling, which is an acronym for Scientific Wild Ass Guessing. Scheduling for something unknown is challenging but the best way to overcome it is to go with “best guesses and adjust” Matt mentions. Through the SWAG method, Matt and Robert found that “writing down on the cards, limits your ideas” so that ideas can’t be bigger than your money and time budget.
“With a design point-of-view, ‘80% done’ [really means] 80% more to do.”
Although, the SomaSim cofounders are veterans and worked with many production schedules delivering big budgeted projects their whole career, indie development is a whole new challenge. Even by utilizing their ‘Wild Best Guesses’ both projects went over schedule. But to be fair, 1849 ‘only ran over a month or two.’ Which is very impressive for their first try. Project Highrise, however, was originally planned for May but later released in September because ‘with a design point-of-view, “80% done’ [really means] 80% more to do.” Matt added.
It is pretty common for creatives to have “overexposure to your own product” as mentioned by Matt and the team “ran into this issue many times and was forced to redesign things.” But usually everything averages out and it becomes a buffer for future planning.
Working with Contractors
“Best to figure out what your company needs are and don’t let contractors determine it for you.”
SomaSim as a company wanted to create an incentive for contract workers so “if the game does well, everybody wins” Robert beams proudly. At big companies this isn’t usually the model, instead we see that “at large companies there’s a lot of people contributing to the games. They are getting salaries and stuff [but] only a few companies allow employees to participate in the success in the game after it ships - and we want more of that” says Matt.
Larry agrees that the ‘common thinking in big companies in rewarding success to employees is that they worry that success will be the golden ticket for employees to leave,” in which everybody agrees ‘is a terrible way of thinking about it.’ When a employer asserts that worry, there is an instant disassociation with the project especially when there is no revenue sharing. Something that is indirectly insinuated very clearly at the beginning of these type of projects.
Despite employing contract workers to help with finishing both projects at SomaSim, the cofounders were able to keep the team small and manageable and remains to have about four full-time workers. Matt’s experience being a Communications Director for many years helped with working with contractors, which in hindsight “was necessary to keep the team small. It was extremely helpful to have this experience’ he recalls. When asked what his thoughts are when working with contractors for the first time he illustrates that it’s “best to figure out what your company needs are and don’t let contractors determine it for you” because this will vastly become “too expensive.” Starting with this initial step “will drive the decision for you,” Matt continues. He also advises to tap into your network and “start following all types of people in your network,” because “cold calls have low capture’ and ‘referrals help the most.”
Cutting Features is Adding Value
All projects comes to a point where creatives have to make a hard decision to keep or throw a key feature away during a games development cycle. With Project Highrise this happened when looking at the three pillars of design of the game. Matt had written up on how the Commercial and Office systems were going to work and were not “thinking of the Hotel design at all” for one-third of the game production. After props were made and schedules were set, the team had a hard conversation that needed to be had and the hotel system “got hacked off and saved for DLC” Matt later recounts.
It’s a lesson that most veterans comes to grip to because ‘throwing bodies at [a problem] never works out,” says Matt.
Forming a LLC
When Matt and Robert began SomaSim, they started with an accountant for tax purposes which led to other needs. They laughed as they remembered different ways to incorporate a company because “law firms encourage to hire lawyers and online services recommended online services.” The team eventually was referred to a lawyer by their accountant. Matt and Robert made a conscious decision to keep things simple and wanted just “a LLC owned by two people” because they ‘wanted to make games, not play startup.” Matt says adamantly.
Social Network Marketing
The ad and marketing landscape on social networking can be very intimidating and for the co founders, “Facebook and Twitter was terrible for a smaller company,” Robert comments. “It use to be simpler, but now the algorithm changed adaptive filtering towards paying to promote.” Brandon adds that it can be confusing when in his own experience he suspects all the impressions and engagements were made up of random people that appeared to have fake accounts.
However, during the development of Project Highrise, about two years, Youtube streaming was becoming a thing and helped the project to reach new audiences. But even that trend, “isn’t reliable for the following year” says Matt because trends tend to come and go. Their first project, 1849, benefitted from simple blogs writing about their game and in comparison Project Highrise got noticed mostly through Youtube streamers playing the game. Surprisingly, it wasn’t because of the high-profile streamers that covered all aspects of gaming, but the people who specializes in niche markets. Sim, strategy, niche Youtubers help built up the audience for Project Highrise. Robert had “no idea Youtubers were such a huge part of the community.” Although, the duo couldn’t have guessed where the market was they always made a deliberate decision to make niche games not for the mass market which helped focused where they wanted to build their community up from.
Is Steam Still Relevant?
Steam as a platform for indie games is supersaturated and the co founders had to consider early access or not for Project Highrise. With 1849, it was an easy decision because it was their first game ‘when early access was newsworthy before but now not so much’ Robert says. The team eventually decided as Robb puts it “to save the gunpowder for the full game release.”
“Throwing bodies at [a problem] never works out,”
Skipping early access on steam was a tough decision but “Steam still is the 1000 pound gorilla” Matt says. It is a platform that still needs to be respected by indie developers.
Respecting Mobile Audiences
Project Highrise was released for both PC and mobile devices but we still live in a time where PC players look down on mobile releases and dismisses the PC version of the game as a mobile port. On the flip side, mobile players discover games on the app store and ‘exist in their own ecosystem’ Robert observes. If they had known ‘they would have structured it differently to get around this” Robert adds. Using the same PR for both platforms “muddled the waters a bit,” Matt says in retrospect.
The team learned that making their dream game, Project Highrise, second was a smart decision because games “might fail for other reasons like marketing and platform differencences” says Robert.
Game Pricing and Releasing for both PC/Mobile Market
The co founders adds that indie games being underpriced can mess up the target for the rest of the community. Gamers usually have entitlement to pricing and that “discounted times are big sale spikes that might hurt your long tail sales if you priced your games too low” Matt says. Despite the tiny backlash from the PC community, Project Highrise did benefit from the mobile market and got featured on the Apple store ‘by using a business guy to talk to Apple that worked,” In summary, the team concludes that “the mobile market is scary and the lesson going forward is that mobile requires a different approach” Robert says. If they were to do it again, they would try “creating awareness first” before making their move over to mobile.