Running an Indie Studio, PR and TIGA
It has been a very interesting and busy few weeks recently with more ups and downs than a Rollercoaster.
I’m updating a piece I wrote several weeks ago but never published, in what I’d say was one of the worse periods in my career to date. So this is basically a big post about Icon and a bit of a rant too!
Running a game studio is an incredible thing; I love doing it and can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else. It is bloody tough at times though. Let me start with an overview of Icon and details of what we’ve done recently.
Icon has a core team of three people, comprising of two programmers and myself (I handle art, audio and game design). We also use freelance artists and programmers from time to time as we need to.
Since 2010 we have developed and self-published 10 games over 17 different SKUs and have 4 other titles at an advance stage of development. So that’s 14 games over 21 SKUs.
So a lot of titles for a small studio, which I am extremely proud of - especially given the size and financial restrictions/limitations we face.
We have developed our own game development engine - which we call ICON/TECH. This allows for a single program to be developed on any platform (our usual base platform is PC) and then ported and compiled on any other platform that is supported.
This is one big on-going R&D project, and is probably our single biggest development cost as it is ever evolving to support new features and platforms. However, right now given the incredible amount of hassle and unpredictability maintaining your own cross-platform engine can be, I am looking at other options for the future to remove some of the risk of development – particularly for other platforms like iOS, HTML5, Android, etc. We are currently exploring Unity, Monkey Coder, Game Salad and other game development IDEs, particularly for smaller casual titles.
Our recent move to Vita has been very stressful indeed and has taken so much longer than we anticipated getting things up to the level of performance we needed. With the very limited resources we have, at times it feels like we are biting off more than we can chew.
One plan we have now though, which if we can do it would be a huge time saver long term, is to move to a script based engine with more built-in editors for stuff like GUIs. This way we won’t have to deal with multiple versions of the same ‘game specific’ code that we do now. We should have done this long ago, but as ever time and resources stop us. It would also allow the art/design team to do a lot more of a project without needing coder input.
Our ‘Base’ Game Projects
We now have a number of ‘base’ game projects we can use as the foundation to create new titles. In general these save a lot of time and allow us to prototype quickly – we just need to fold some of the code completely into the engine. If we do this we don’t then have so many elements unique to each game project.
Right now we have the following base projects - Air Hockey, Ball Rolling/Balance (Monkey Ball/Marble Madness style), Board Games (such as Battleships, Connect 4, Hangman, Draughts), Bowling, Breakout/Arkanoid, Crazy Golf, Darts, Motor Racing (with in-game track creation functionality), Pool & Snooker.
Past Quality Issues
Tough to face up to, but I have to admit some of our older titles had some flaws – primarily our WiiWare titles. We never really handled the Wii controller well, and the titles didn’t play as well as I had hoped. We took our eye off the ball and didn’t do anywhere near enough final gameplay testing and balancing. Typical excuse - too busy focusing on other projects to the detriment of the titles we were finishing off at the time.
I have always believed you need to learn from past mistakes, so I read the reviews in detail to see where we went wrong and since then with each new game we have tried to consistently improve on the quality and balancing.
As a result our recent review scores have been much stronger and I feel far happier with our output now than at any time in the past. Regardless of team size/lack of resources, extra TLC at the end of a project can make all the difference. I also love getting player feedback – and although I don’t get as much as I would like, feedback from people actually buying and playing your games is worth its weight in gold.
Vicious Financial Cycle
Every few months we run out of money. Completely and utterly broke type of running out of money. Usually the cycle is as follows:
- New product development uses our cash reserves (this includes the peripheral costs such as age ratings & translations).
- Game(s) launch
- Revenue comes in
Somewhere between B and C we run out of money – especially when we move onto a new platform such as PS Vita. The time/resources needed to complete a game for a new platform often go over budget (unforeseen technical issues, etc.). Also there are risks when publishing on a new platform – our initial iOS titles performed very badly and we lost a lot of money on those.
We do have on-going royalty revenue, which is great, but this diminishes over time the longer a product is out there – so we need to keep up a relatively high volume of output as unfortunately we’ve never had a big hit.
This is something I am trying to weigh up going forward – I have come to the conclusion that complete reliance on self-publishing revenue is just too risky. We also need a steady stream of revenue from third-party funded titles; we’ve had a couple of projects like this recently and it has been (literally) a life saver.
Marketing & PR
We have always handled marketing and PR ourselves as we have never really had the budget to pay for professionals. We aren’t massively good at it though, and I have always believed a good marketing person/team would have seen significantly higher sales for our games, particularly on iOS.
Recent experiences though have cast this into doubt. We have tried a couple of PR companies (Reverb and Indigo Pearl) and the results were far below our expectations. It may well be that our titles weren’t sexy enough to generate much interest, but the fact is the results we experienced fell short even of what we were doing ourselves, which was incredibly disappointing.
It is fair to say though our budgets were very limited, so perhaps you should only really consider professional PR if you have a good solid monthly budget of at least £2,000? We won’t be in a hurry to try again, so it is a case that we need to improve our own internal PR as much as we can.
I have been vocally pro-TIGA recently since joining, but recent experiences have changed my mind. I am struggling to really see any benefits of membership for a small studio such as ours – there aren’t enough networking events, or information/benefits given to members.
The ‘members only’ section of the TIGA site (Access online resources on the TIGA website) has pretty much nothing there, the mentoring services don’t really work, the financial discounts are minimal, the PR help is non-existent, and so on.
For me the biggest failing is there is no direct way to communicate with other members, shout about your services, chat, ask advice – in fact it is really hard to even find out who the members are, let alone get contacts. It is almost as if it is all a bit of a secret!
I would say TIGA really need to open up; with a little work it could be a brilliant organisation, but it falls down badly right now, particularly for smaller studios.
Tricky one – I am very worried about how our Vita titles will do when we finally release them, given the small numbers of Vita users out there. My gut feeling is that we may make a big loss on them.
SCEE are brilliant though – they really couldn’t be more helpful and are so far beyond Microsoft and Nintendo in terms of looking after their developers. We are working on content for PlayStation Mobile, which is exciting although a little daunting.
We are also working on some HTML5 titles, although I have no idea how you make money from HTML5!? Plus getting back into iOS and dipping our toes onto Android.
The big issue though - will we make any money? I am tired of constantly running at a loss and I must admit just lately it has seemed like there is no end in sight. We have achieved a lot, but we need more stability and personally I need less worry!
Head of Development
Icon Games Entertainment Ltd