“I am going to be a game developer, even if it kills me.”
-Chris Aardappel, Technical Agent, Intergalactic Crime Prevention Unit
A little over a year ago I left a stable job [at Oasis creator Mind Control Software] to start my own development shop. This risk fraught path was, at best, a leap of faith. About five years ago I experienced the worst; I had to close the doors of my first start-up. So I was well aware of the stakes. However, my desire for creative expression both in product development and in business operations was something I couldn’t hold in check. I had an excellent relationship with my previous employer and had done a lot to help grow his business so I was able to leave on good terms and with some of the tools I needed to get up and running.
Starting my new endeavor I had several things going for me. Over the previous year I established many strong relationships within the casual games business community and shipped a couple of games in that space. I created several game concepts, designs, and prototypes that the owner of the old company did not intend to use and he gifted them to me when I left. To make that even more exciting I was granted license to use the company’s proprietary 2D game engine. I was also allowed to take home some office furniture that was unused. This included several desks, white boards, book shelves, and filing cabinets which nicely outfitted the 350 square foot office in my home.
An engineer left the company shortly after I did and wanted a small project to work on as a portfolio piece. We had worked together on two previous titles and he had experience with the engine so we set to work right away on one of the game concepts. It seemed that fate was with me because at about the same time an artist friend called me to let me know he was going to leave his job and ask if I had any leads. Within a month of starting I had an office set up, a complete game design, an artist, and an experienced engineer working on a stable platform.
Each of us had a little money to live off of but not enough to comfortably self-fund development of our first game, so I began to look for funding. I called most of the publishers in the space, had a bunch of meetings, and…nobody threw money at us. The game we were working on was a solid design, but not terribly original and so every single company I pitched said, “I would love to distribute this game but am not interested in funding it at this time.”
A few months into the project we still didn’t have any money. The artist had to delay his start date so he wasn’t working full-time and the engineer hit some hurdles that stunted our technical progress. It was a demoralizing time. It was unclear how long it would take before the artist was really available. I took a part-time contract helping a friend at a mobile games company, and the engineer took a full-time job. The only saving grace was that the engineer had permission from his new company to moonlight with us as long as the work did not compete with their console business.
The artist was eventually able to start full-time, but technical progress had slowed to a snail's pace, so I hired an additional engineer. I turned my business development focus away from funding for our existing work and started picking up work-for-hire gigs. By the six month mark we had settled into a steady routine of contract work, with our original development occurring in the background. By the nine month mark we had a suite of playable prototypes that I was able to shop to publishing partners while we paid the rent with our work-fore-hire contracts.
The work-for-hire business was brutal for us at best. Trying to compete with overseas bids was difficult, and we didn’t have the freedom to turn away bad deals. Over time we found ourselves deeper and deeper into unhealthy relationships. Things got so bad that I counseled my team to circulate their resumes “just in case.”
Of the prototypes I was shopping, there was one title that garnered uniformly positive responses. Nobody had offered terms, but I was consistently asked to come back for follow-up pitches. I got a lot of “this looks really good, but we would like to see more of X,” and so we would tweak our pitch and come back. Finally, seven days before our one year anniversary, we signed a deal with a publisher for an original game.
Unless you are an industry rock star or win the karma lottery, it simply takes A LONG TIME to put a deal together. Three months of savings does not buy you enough time to develop a pitchable prototype and shop it around for funding. Even if your pitch is ready, everything takes longer than you expect. We met with our current publisher at least six times before we shook hands and agreed to make a game together.
The first game we began to build was a solid design, but not very original. It was a typical iterative improvement on an established mechanic; not a knockoff, but not groundbreaking. It would be a good third or fourth release to generate revenue, but not a knock-your-socks-off debut. When setting up a new shop your first title will define you. We wasted many months on a title that, ultimately, we decided would not serve us well as our initial commercial release.
When money didn’t immediately start pouring in, we began to explore various contingency plans. We built additional prototypes, created more pitches, and generally attempted to be all things to all potential partners. Had we kept our focus on our initial game we would have shipped it long before we actually got an original title funded. In our case this was probably okay, because that title was a poor first choice, but the lesson holds true anyway: start with laser beam focus and establish yourself, then diversify.
I have a friend who likes to say, “The only thing you get from doing work-for-hire projects is older.” He's only half right. The best case scenario for this type of work is that you keep your roof up and get a little experience. That isn’t a very good prize when you risk time, money, and potential legal issues. It would be grossly inaccurate to say that all work-for-hire is bad, but it is critically important to mitigate as much risk as possible. Make very careful partner choices and invest in the relationship cautiously.