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The Voxel Agents: Year One Retrospective

September 29, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this article, creative director and co-founder of Australian indie studio The Voxel Agents -- the Train Conductor series for iPhone and iPad -- takes a look back at the team's first year in operation, sharing facts, figures, and important lessons learned about functioning as an indie in 2010.]

Being independent is a hot topic because there's never been a better time to be creating fresh, original games with complete creative freedom. This retrospective traces the pitfalls and triumphs of The Voxel Agents' first year as an independent studio. The transparency of the article is intended to benefit the community of "indies", many of whom are also in their early stages.

This retrospective focuses on the oft ignored (but terribly important!) business side that fosters the creative environment and provides the studio the long term stability to continue functioning. It aims to expose the realities of being truly independent and the difficulties of having to do everything. It focuses particularly on what has worked and what has not paid off.

* All dollar values are listed in Australian Dollars (AUD), except where specified.

The First 12 Months

From April 2009 to April 2010, things did not go as we predicted.

  • Set up as an Australian company equally owned by three full-time co-founders
  • Each co-founder invested $4000 each (for a total of $12k), not including labor in-kind
  • Released two iPhone games 
    • Dolphin Hero $0.99 USD
    • Train Conductor $1.99 USD
  • Ended the year with a small profit from 28,600 sales
    • $38,000 revenue from sales
    • $27,800 expenses
  • The team grew from three co-founders to an in-house team of seven
    • At month seven: two internship artists and an internship coder joined the team (part-time)
    • At month 12: an experienced full-time artist joined the team
    • Several contractors were enlisted for various roles

The Story of the Voxel Agents

Matt Clark, Tom Killen and I, Simon Joslin, started the The Voxel Agents in early 2009. We are friends from university and we always wanted to start a studio, but we felt it would be wise to gain experience first. Matt cut his teeth on code at Pandemic Studios, Tom at Hoodlum Active, and myself as a game designer at Halfbrick Studios. We finally reformed after winning the 48 Hour Game Making Competition (as SIF90) for the second year running. It was time to go full-time indie!

We believed the App Store was a very unique platform and its potential for us was greater than any previous. Innovation on the platform had only just begun, the big companies were yet to arrive, and consumer expectations were primed for games of the size we excelled at making. We felt that, in 2009, it was definitely the best place to get started.

We set out to develop short, sharp, and gameplay-focused titles. Development began hastily, and within six weeks we had Dolphin Hero finished and out the door. Never again would we make a game so quickly! We hadn't given much thought to who would play Dolphin Hero; we just made it. This was a big mistake. Dolphin Hero earned just $300 in its first 6 months on the App Store, but we persevered.

We came to our senses for the second game and spent two days brainstorming ideas, and two weeks prototyping the six best ideas. A winner quickly emerged, and Train Conductor was born. We developed Train Conductor between July and December 2009. Two artist interns from a local games college joined us two days a week for 12 weeks. Art quality improved well beyond what we achieved with Dolphin Hero and the end result was top notch.

We attempted a few relatively simple marketing strategies; announcing the game with a teaser video, releasing a trailer at launch, sending out press releases at multiple stages, releasing wallpapers, blogging about it, posting on forums, spreading the word to train enthusiasts, sending out preview copies (only one small website actually took us up on that) and various other attempts.

Train Conductor was a success! Our first cherub ever totaled $12,000! Additionally we were getting local press and online traction, so while it was working, we kept feeding it. We also began to receive the attention of the local industry and government agencies that help exporters. Suddenly we were sending a delegate to promote the game to press at GDC. We expanded, hiring a full-time artist and upgrading our interns to part-timers on contract. Things were looking good.

Players were loving Train Conductor, and they wanted more. We had so many ideas of where we could take it and we decided to develop the game further. We dedicated the last three months of our first Voxel Agents year to developing Train Conductor levels set in the USA.

However, after months of work and just days into our second year as a company, we realized that the new content had advanced beyond the original gameplay and it was being held back by the design decisions of the original game. It was a tough choice but we knew it was best to drastically expand, polish and eventually release the new content as Train Conductor 2: USA.

Train Conductor 2: USA launched in July 2010, which is month 16 in the Voxel Agents timeline. TC2: USA outsold TC in just six weeks. Together, they have generated $76,000 in the first six months of Year Two. We are proud to have also shipped two major content updates for both of the Train Conductor games.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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BobbyK Richardson
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thanks for sharing your experience Mr. Joslin, it's always helpful to hear how other indies are doing in this marketplace. Hopefully the mobile market will get even bigger and healthier, I've stayed away from it because the market is just not there yet. You can make bank if you're throwing out new games every 2-3 months, but otherwise there's just not enough buyers out there unless you can be the next Angry Birds.

Mark Venturelli
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Great stuff! Good to see that the problems are the same even though we are each on one side of the world. Good luck on your future work!

Yilmaz Kiymaz
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I found most of the points in your article very relevant and useful. Your pie-charts alone will help us tremendously. Thank you and keep up the good work.

Simon Fraser
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I like your advice: "Use Unity." Very straightforward! :)

Thanks for sharing this. As a student of game design in my final year, I find a lot of inspiration from stories like this. And it's always refreshing when a company is willing to give hard numbers about thier revenue, costs, etc.

Mark Laframboise
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Would it be possible for you to expand on the following: "by covering our own living expenses via external income"? Was it mostly previous savings or did any of you work secondary jobs as well?

Jamie Armstrong
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Very interesting, thanks very much for this.

Christer Kaitila
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Thank you for a wonderfully revealing and not-so-encouraging (but honest) article. One question: How did you stay alive, pay the rent, feed your families? The numbers don't add up: were you burning savings or did you have "day jobs" or do contract work? I'd be grateful if you would be kind enough to fill in the missing financial details ("external income"). P.S. Your games rock! Congratulations on your success and wishing you much more in the future.

Megan Fox
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Congrats on the game releases! I'm also curious about the staying-alive part, though. It's sounding a bit like you spent nearly a year not quite sure how to run the business profitably, lived off savings (or maybe contract work), and are only now just getting to where you could make ends meet? It also seems like you hired the new people on very prematurely, if you still couldn't pay yourselves?

Saul Gonzalez
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While the article has great advice for aspiring developers, it seems a little duplicitous to refer to your studio as a real company when the whole enterprise rests on full-time free labor. While you address the fact with the "with wages" chart, it would be more illustrative to write off subsistence salaries for yourselves (not necesarily market rates, it is perfectly reasonable to take a pay cut in order to be independent) as company expenses and see how far you are from sustainability. It's common for companies to be quite in the red for the first couple years, but there's no path to profitability outlined in the article.

Simon Joslin
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Thank you for the feedback everyone. And thanks especially for the encouragement.

It took 18 months for us to live off the business - we're only just doing that now. I think others will be able to do it faster and we're hoping this retrospective can help.

We had to find a variety of income sources to survive the first 18 months. We received support from an Australia government program that helps new business owners. It only provides $250 a week, which isn't enough to meet rent + bills + food etc, so we were also working some contract jobs and drawing from savings. If we didn't have assistance we would've taken on contract jobs within the company (and there have been plenty of offers). We, the co-founders, are now paying ourselves $300 a week to survive and the artists are paid more reasonably.

@Simon Fraser: The caveat to suggesting Unity is that we haven't seriously sunk our teeth into it, but from our point of view its the best choice out there.

@Megan Fox: Hiring people before we were financially secure was definitely risky. However in retrospect it was probably the best investment we made. With talented artists we have been able to make better games, focus more on our specialties and walk away much happier with the results.

Rebecca Fernandez
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Hey guys, well done! I'm hoping that my team can have similar success. We won the 48 hour comp last year and are about to start up our own company. So far we have been really struggling with the marketing and business side of things. Also the idea of surviving on less than $300 a week scares me a little...

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Thanks for sharing this Simon, with faith and work everything is possible! Wish you the best in the future =)

Skip McGee
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Thanks for sharing Simon. If you had to do it again, would you still rent space? It seems like you could save a tremendous amount by working remotely.

Saul Gonzalez
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@Simon Joslin: Thanks a lot for the update. I wasn't sure what were you guys aiming for with the company, but it seems you're doing really well.

brett forsyth
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just great to see an aussie, as well as a local melbourne company doing so well. congratz guys

Shannon Gilleland
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Good morning Voxel. Thanks for taking the time out to give us such an informative and naked view of your operations in the last 18 months. It's refreshing to have such information available to us especially since we're starting on the same path as you guys did 18 months ago. Look forward to seeing what you guys come up with next... Keep up the good work!