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Crunching the numbers behind an indie game studio
Crunching the numbers behind an indie game studio
July 31, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

"In three years, I personally went from having $20,000 in savings to $35,000 in debt."
- Guillaume Boucher-Vidal, founder of independent studio Nine Dots

What does it cost to get an independent studio off the ground? In a candid new post over at Polygon, the founder of small, independent studio Nine Dots -- which is currently developing GoD Factory: Wingmen with publisher Bandai Namco -- breaks down his costs and relates his experiences of working from home, working without pay, and giving up a stable job to chase his dream of developing games.

Though the publisher deal has let Boucher-Vidal pay his team of seven developers a salary, his worries aren't over: "Every month scares me as I watch our funds melt at an alarming rate," Boucher-Vidal writes.

He estimates his costs honestly, taking into account the fact that he didn't pay the team salaries at first: "I had to spend roughly $80,000 over three years to get the business going until its first significant source of income. Had I been able to pay for salaries during the first three years, it would have cost me about $700,000 more."

"I've been told that any entrepreneur should expect to spend anywhere between two and five years before knowing if your business will really take off and I do believe it's true," Boucher-Vidal writes.

The full post gives a complete breakdown of what Boucher-Vidal has invested into starting up Nine Dots so far, and it's well worth reading.

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Robert Carter
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Thank you for sharing! It is always useful to have a window into other developers methods. I hope you find success with your new title!

A couple of questions about the budget though, as an "example budget" I found a few things odd:
* Why is a keyboard and mouse listed for $20 each? You can easily get a Mouse/Keyboard combo for $15 or less on Amazon.

* $1800 in software costs: Your non artists can probably land below this, as there are not always cases for Unity Pro, plus many other options are cheaper (Box2D, Unreal engine 4, etc.). If you are doing a 2D game the entire Adobe CC is much cheaper than either Max or Maya at about 300 per year for all programs, less if you are a student.

* Accountant is probably not a needed cost at your company's start, really until you have some money coming in there are not many reasons to get one, unless you think you can write off more than 3k with their help.

* 800 each for PCs: Im not sure I agree with this. You can pack some power into a PC if you build it yourself for much cheaper than this. If you dont need to spend more than 100 on the graphics card you can easily build a workable PC for 500 or less. Mac Mini can also be a good option in this way. Saving even 100 on each PC can go a very long way!

* Unless you live in Arizona, Texas or the like, Air Conditioning is a luxury not a requirement. I worked in an air conditionless room for a year and a half to make some games. California may be fine most of the year, but all summer long it gets to 100+ in LA. Fans are cheaper, and when you need to penny pinch work just fine as long as you have water to drink!

I only nit-pick these in your example startup budget because I over spent on things when I started up too. I quickly found that there is tremendous value at taking a second or third look at the budget and seeing where you can shave a little off, at least until your first game launches. Being able to differentiate between want you need and just what you are just used to can be a VERY important skill in a startup being funded out of a limited pocket.

Thank you again for sharing, was a very insightful read!

Alan Barton
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@"other options are cheaper (Box2D, Unreal engine 4, etc.)." & "Saving even 100 on each PC"

Try saving 100 on your already low spec PC and then try running the UE4 editor on it. :) ... I know, as I have a cheap laptop and UE4 runs very badly on it.

Same with a cheap mouse. I've got one of them and its broke quickly (intermittent buttons).

Same with software, why spend anything, you can use Gimp and Blender (I do), but you'll find some won't get along without the tools they know and even then, they will have to get up to speed on other tools, which costs time and so therefore also money.

There are definitely diminishing returns the more you try to economise and soon it becomes counter productive.

Plus even if you can economise, its a small difference because by far the biggest cost is simply the money to survive each month and that's hard to cut too low for long. People have to live and they need rent and food etc.. and even sporadic costs add up, like shoes and other clothes as they ware-out etc..). Then multiply all these costs, by multiple people on the team. You'll soon get to start-up costs in the 100k+ range.

Its hard to get started. You can try to do another job while you work on your game, but then you'll have employers force you to sign contracts that say everything you do and think of in your own time belongs to them. Its completely ridiculous, as someone on their own can't compete with the content creation ability of a company full of artists, but that's the unfairness embedded in this industry.

So its very hard to start up a company and its even hard to have just a 2nd source of income.

Robert Carter
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"I have a cheap laptop..."

Thats your problem right there. Laptops are much more expensive than PCs power for power. For the same price as your laptop I could build a much stronger PC. And I have run Unreal 4 on a $500 PC, it slugs along at times but it gets the job done. Ram is dirt cheap these days and video cards can go far for 100$. CPU was the only expensive piece, and I used an old 1990s computer case (freebie) that I cut up and modified for air flow as the case.
"Same with a cheap mouse. I've got one of them and its broke quickly (intermittent buttons)."

I have a $15 logiteck mouse/keyboard combo that Ive been using for 3 years, daily. Even survived furious clicking on FPS games and the like. Not sure what to tell you.
As for people "taking time getting up to speed with unfamiliar programs" thats the nature of the business. I once worked with a company that refused to move away from Unreal 3 because it was "what they knew" despite it being a horrible idea financially and the engine not being as well suited for the game they wanted to make. They went bankrupt after a year and a half of development with nothing to show, due in large part to counting on Epics support for their platform, which Epic pulled without warning.

If you cannot adapt and learn new programs and methods quickly, you will have a hard time in the game industry
"There are definitely diminishing returns the more you try to economise and soon it becomes counter productive."

Yes, there are corners you dont cut. But defining what those corners are is important. Yes, quality hardware is essential, but you can get a quality K/M combo for less than half what he stated, and thats a huge deal.

I do live buy the motto of "pay twice as much, buy half as many" when it comes to my development tools, but you would be surprised how often you find you really didnt need this big shiny program. Case in point: Go back in time two to three years and many people didnt think Unity was a "real game engine" and insisted that you should pay absurd amounts and lifetime royalties for Unreal Engine. I know, I was there arguing for unity, and I was right.
"So its very hard to start up a company."

I know. I did. I did while working elsewhere, and had additional contracts pushed at me from my employer. I then left and started an indie company with coworkers, and then another one with other friends, all out of pocket.

Ive been there and I know how hard it is. Thats why Im saying its important to identify your needs. If your making a AAA style game sure, youll need Maya/Max and some powerful PCs and all that jazz. But you better have the budget to back it or you will fail (See: Yogsventures)

I didnt have that budget like that. I had less than 10k to my name and near ten times that in student loan debt. I fit my studio and my games to my budget, and it allowed me to keep going.

Alan Barton
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I did adapt to use Gimp and Blender and I'm happy I did, but my point still stands. Cost cutting will only get you so far and it will still only make a small dent in your overall costs, because by a huge margin, living costs are our biggest costs.

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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I'd agree with some of your observations, but I'd say that AC may be a luxury for non-work hours, but it's definitely a necessity while working. Most people have trouble focusing and tend to linger on their discomfort instead of their work when a room is sweltering hot while they're trying to work. Many people can't handle heat as well as others. Also, having a room with a high temp runs the risk of overheating your hardware. I know where you're trying to go with this (from a frugal standpoint), but I definitely disagree here.

Nicholas Larimer
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I'm not really adding much to the conversation, here. But if you're like me, and have only been able to 'adapt' to GIMP, then I'd recommend you switch it out for Krita Studio. It's a far more feature-complete PS replacement than gimp, in my opinion.

Alexandre Lautie
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- You can have a cheap mouse and a cheap keyboard, and have arms problem after 1 year/12H every day of using them.
After a few years of work in front of a computer, you will understand why some company spend 1000$ for a chair...
One of my friend can't work anymore with a computer, because she didn't have a good setup at her workplace. And his arm can't heal anymore...
You feel the effect of cheap mouse after several years. Don't make this mistake.
- Software cost: you have to take the market access, person who work with you like etc...
If someone don't like the tool you are using, his motivation will drop, and you will loose a lot more than the few hundred of dollar you have spared.
- Account: try to do it yourself, and you will spend days to understand papers. It will also not let you focus on making a game. Also if you have a good account, you will spend less in taxes, and probably pay him with the taxes you have legally not paid!
- Mac mini don't have a screen. And making some low entry PC, is also a really bad idea.
Every time the computer compile for a too long time or if a picture manipulation take too long-> it will increase the level of frustration and/or give the opportunity to go to Facebook/gmail etc... -> reduce the productivity.

- Air conditionny increase productivity. Every big firm know that. They have study the subject. They don't spend thousand of dollars for nothing.

Your most expensif ressource are Human. Each time you make him less confortable, and spend his time on unecessary task, you loose money.

Also another side effect is if you give him a cheap setup, he will fill cheap too...
You really want to refuse your top notch artist the 20$ mouse for a 15$ dollar mouse/keyboard. Really ?

Why big firm give you good tool, air conditionning etc.. they are not stupid, they want to give money to their share holder, and don't spend on unecessary things. But they know that it's a good investement. Of course if you don't have the budget, you just can't do this investement. But if you have that's just stupid not to.

And remember one thing: making a good game is not enough in our industry, you need to make a hit. Do you really want to take any chance that the 100$ you spare on a computer, may not give enough confort for your artist to move from a good to a top game ?

PS: I don't say you need to buy an alienware computer either.
PS2: But a dual screen is a standard in the game industry.

I think Guillaume Boucher did a good job with his budget.

Ian Morrison
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It can be startling how expensive indie development is, especially once you factor in opportunity cost. The numbers in the article aren't the lower bound (nor the upper bound, for that matter) but the costs add up frighteningly quickly.

Sergio Petrucci
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It is nice to save 20 bucks on keyboards, 20 on a/c, but at the end of the day: 1) some best people don't want to use not-so-best hardware and software and 2) all of these savings are 0.5 day of his team of 7 people overall spending, might be ok, but a tiny factor in his success/failure.

Kevin Fishburne
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The good news about being that much in debt is that after a short while you'll find no one is willing to lend you any more money and the bleeding has slowed to only interest accrual. During the next phase, and YMMV, a sort of "peace" descends upon you as you accept the fact that you are officially poor; that a man coming to turn off your gas, electricity and water is quite normal, and despite that momentary quickening of your pulse you take comfort in the knowledge that somehow you will find a way to keep everything turned on. After all, you have a game to make. And when you're programming away, witnessing the birth of that new feature and refining it into early adulthood, nothing else really matters. It takes a massive pair or a head full of foolishness to put yourself into that situation. Who's to say which we have? I suppose ultimately it is the man who turns off the electricity.