GRIN is a Swedish-headquartered independent European developer and was founded by Bo and Ulf Andersson in 1997. It now employs a staff of 250 in four locations: Gothenburg, Barcelona, Jakarta, and Stockholm, where the studio began.
The company's founders have generally kept a relatively low profile in the industry, to the point of rarely speaking at development conferences. That trend was broken during the Free Gaming Business conference in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
GRIN recently shipped the PC versions of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter games, and prior to that developed the original PC racing title Ballistics. It is currently working on the new Bionic Commando game for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, as well as an updated remake of the original Bionic Commando for PC, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network.
Bo and Ulf, GRIN's managing director and creative director respectively, gave what was undeniably one of the most amusing conference speeches in recent years.
The audience of regional developers heard Bo go through the bulk of the step-by-step challenges facing those who want to run companies, while creative brother Ulf occasionally chimed in with additional commentary.
“We started out in the basement, back at mom’s place," began Bo, "with the mindset of, ‘Hell, if people can do this on the Amiga, we should be in the games industry as well.’ Simple as that. We went from there to build some crazy-ass technology."
“It’s been a rough ride, we’ve been entrepreneurs all the way. We’ve had investors come in and out. We’ve seen all the ups and downs of the industry," he continued, "PlayStation 1 through 3, all the cycles, and we had to deal with all the shit that comes with building a company just from your bare hands.”
“How did we get there, and why should you think of going there?" he asked. "Because most of you are striving to get there – some of you shouldn’t, and I’m going to tell you why.”
The co-founder then delivered a warning. “Independence - a reality check. We hear it quite often: it’s great to be independent. You know, screw the publisher, be independent, be in full control over everything. It’s not always good. Independence requires stamina, endurance, and stupidness."
Know Your Customer
Bo laid down a harsh reality of game development. “Really, to get started, you’re not making a game for a gamer, you’re making a game for a publisher," he said. "And that’s how it is. They know the product, they are paying for the product, and they want you to pull through... on time.”
Ulf softened the blow: “I’d say, from a contract stance, that’s true. On the other hand, everybody knows that you’re probably going to be working with some web designer turned producer like a week ago, so you have to stick to your guns and make as good a game as possible. But always explain to the publisher what you’re doing so they have a chance to react.”
Continuing the back-and-forth routing, Bo addressed logistics: “Make sure you have a goal list. Always discuss if you’re reaching those goals during milestones, so everybody’s on the same page of what you’re trying to achieve, and then always explain - not just show - what you did: ‘Oh, look at this, we’ve created this bunny with mini-guns on it.’"
"Try to explain why you have the bunny with mini-guns in there," he said, "and how that is enabling you to reach the goal that the publisher, together with you, set in the beginning. Just to avoid all the sort of rants about, ‘Oh, it doesn’t fit the game. We don’t want a bunny, we want a gopher.’ You know, the standard stuff.”
Ulf suggested getting as close as possible to the publisher. "Know them personally. That’s how you get the big deals, and that’s how you get smoother production. One of the major things is to know your publisher’s marketing staff. These are the people you should be partying with, the people you should be calling on a daily basis almost."
You're Not A Rock Star
Continuing with the theme of remaining down to Earth, Bo implored developers not to forget their contractual and professional obligations with their publishers. “Understand your own role – not as an individual, as a company," he said.
"We’re coming to the publisher, we have this fantastic IP, we probably have the best engine in the world, don’t we?" he asked on behalf of hopeful developers everywhere. "They don’t care. They don’t care about the IP. They don’t care about the technology, really. It’s just a thing for them to make sure you’re hitting your deadline. What they care about is [whether] the money they put in is going to be five times what they can get out – oh, wait a minute, the other way around, I think."
He stressed professionalism and efficiency. "What they care about is that you have process," Bo explained. "That you have structure, that you have the organization, that you have the track record. Then they start thinking about the IP and the technology behind it. You have to understand that you are a service provider. Nothing else. When you realize that, you can sell yourself as the service provider, and not a rock star, because you’re not. Sorry. But you have to understand our role. And once you communicate that to them, the conversation will be so much smoother.”
Set Your Goals
Everybody who starts a development studio has some kind of long-term goal in mind, but Bo reminded entrepreneurs not to expect too much. “You all have this goal to move your company forward, either because you want to be creative, you want to make as much money as possible, or you want to combine the two – which is impossible.”
On the other side of the coin, you can’t operate with to vague a target either. “You have to match your size and your tactic to attain your goal. You can’t just have a goal, ‘We’re going to grow as much as possible and make as much money as possible.’ That’s not going to work. You have to take if slow. You have to say, ‘I’m going to grow to 240. It’s going to take me ten years. How do I go there?’”
The managing director related the lesson to GRIN itself. “I go in sizes, in portions. I just don’t go in a straight line. I go, ‘Okay, now our studio [consists of] 30 people, our goal is to have a profit margin of 30 percent before we move to the next step. We don’t move to the next step until we achieve that.’ And that’s key. Otherwise, you’re running as I do: too fast, straight into a wall. And then someone has to scrape you down and build you up again so you can climb over it.”
Invest Yourself Personally
He then iterated a dire warning for those who forget to take a principled stance to company growth. “You need to communicate this daily, because if you don’t communicate all this that I’ve said, you lose them to bigger firms, like us,” he noted. “’Cause we can pay more. And we lose them to EA, because they can pay even more.”
Retaining talent is key: “Take care of your core team. It’s a serious thing. We’ve had the same core team for eight years."
“You don’t have to pay them fantastic sums, but you do have to talk to their wife," he added. "I’m serious. You’re not a corporation. You’re a family, a big one. I’m trying to say, you’re the glue within the company that keeps everything together. You have to be talking to everybody. You have to put people together to talk, because they’re not going to be doing it for you. You can never hire an HR guy that does that for you.”
Entrepreneurs must be willing not only to acquaint themselves with their employees’ personal lives, but also to invest financially in the company if need be. “Always be ready, and I know this one is really difficult to follow through on, but always be ready to put your own cash into a project that you’re doing for a publisher."
“Because if you can do that, you hit your milestones much faster. You know, get away from the negotiations of, ‘Is this milestone missed, or not?’ You don’t care. We’re moving this way. ‘You can negotiate over here, I’m going this way, towards the master date.’”
Again, he tied the lesson into GRIN’s own history. “We always do that. We take a project for twenty million, for example. Maybe we put four million in a bank account and say, ‘Okay, that’s slippage, that we are going to finance this title, and that’s what we had from our last profit margin, just to protect us from a terrible situation in the negotiation with the publishers.’ They might say, ‘Okay, we can add this time, but we’re going to remove your royalty, and we want to have your engine afterwards.’ Then you’re stuck.”
Be Prepared To Fire People
Bo continued illustrating difficult realities of the job. “To be able to thrive as an independent, it’s really, really personal stuff, and the minute you get someone in the organization who starts spreading shit around - everybody knows this, right? That guy who just sits and complains, and it’s your fault. "
“These people you have to identify early, and the minute you feel like, ‘We can’t work together, there’s something wrong, and the vision and his attitude aren’t matching up,’ you have to do something about it. This is where independents screw up all the time. You don’t have the HR experience, you’re not as tough as you think. You need to be able to step in and say, ‘Okay, dude, from here on, you go that way, I go that way, thanks for trying,’ and then you move on.”
Give Some Shit Up
The tone didn’t get much lighter. “If you want to run a company and reach the goal that you do, you have to be ready to give some shit up,” Bo warned. “I’m talking friends, seeing your children grow up that much.”
“I’m not kidding you,” he stressed. “You have to be mentally solid. How you do that is [up to you]. If you’re single, that’s fine; it’s just you.”
"If you have a spouse," he said, "you have to sit down with that spouse, and have a talk about what’s involved, what the commitment is. The entire linchpin of the operation is the 'endurance of your spouse.'”
Bo ended his talk by revisiting GRIN’s first decade of operation, a long road from startup to established studio, and sharing some tips he learned along the way.
On motivation: “As an entrepreneur, you should go to your team every day, and say, ‘We’re better than everyone else!’”
On co-development projects: “You have to have real-time access to everything and have more producers than you think you need.”
On operating multiple studios: “You can’t just fly around management. You have to send tools guys, and designers, and everyone.”
On working with the Japanese: “If you don’t deliver exactly what you specified, they kill you.”
“It’s taken us seven games to actually start doing triple A,” he estimated in conclusion. “Seven long projects. I’ve fired 70 people. I’ve been in four legal battles with publishers. But I had fun along [the way], and I don’t regret any of it. But it’s a complete struggle all the time.”