In an intensely practical Indie Games Summit talk at GDC Austin, Certain Affinity (Age Of Booty) production manager Jennifer Bullard talked about the realities of game business for a mid-sized independent developer, spanning business to relationships and beyond.
Bullard works at the Austin-based developer that has created both original IP (downloadable PSN/XBLA title Age Of Booty) and notable contract/publisher work such as Call Of Duty: World At War's map packs.
She based her talk around practicalities, starting with the importance for independent developers to have some "recognition and admission that you're running a company".
She particularly pinpointed the need for mid-sized indies to carefully balance that contracted work with original IP, stressing: "[Making] IP has a lot of great reward associated with it... this is something you want to do if you want to remain financially independent."
But it's work for hire that's "going to keep you employed", despite the fact that you're at the "whims and mercies of publishers". But for contracted work, you can succeed if you "give them what they need".
Building on experience from multiple projects and companies, Bullard explained that one of the keys to give your indie game studio stability is to work with multiple funding partners. She stressed an obvious, but vital thing: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
She touched on the 'myth of the long term relationship' to underscore this, explaining: "Publishers will come and go... sometimes they're interested and sometimes they're not, and these factors have nothing to do with you."
Another vital thing is to shine a light on is your profile as a developer -- not simply letting your latest project be the only thing that defines you. Bullard said: "Build a reputation for something that you want to be known for", suggesting that if you're known for being excellent at a particular style of game, it'll help set the agenda for the kind of jobs you get and how you are perceived in the industry.
It's very important to have money in the bank, too, Bullard stresses. "If you've got some extra money... sock it away". It'll be very important for times that you don't have a project, are working on your own IP, and so on. She recommended keeping 6 months run rate in the bank for just these situations.
Bullard said that 80% or more of your spend is your people in your independent game company, and group dynamics and team-building is incredibly important. If you can get the company to work together smoothly, then your projects will go so much easier.
The Certain Affinity manager ended by discussing the recession, retail game downturn, industry layoffs, and the opportunities that it has created for independent contractors and developers. She commented: "The people who are surviving in this industry are going to be stronger for it", but there are some definite possibilities created on the downturn.
She commented in closing: "A lot of publishers have cut too deep and now they have to contract out", and also said there's a place for original IP, even from external developers: "[The publishers] have recognized that entertainment cannot be solely sequel-based."