Talking at GDC Austin's Indie Games Summit on Tuesday, NinjaBee's Brent Fox discussed the history of the company, which was set up as a brand for original IP in 2001, and has made Xbox Live Arcade games such as Clonin' Clyde, A Band Of Bugs and A Kingdom For Keflings, talking in human terms about creating a stable indie game company.
The Utah-based independent company is not your typical indie bedroom one-person startup. Fox noted that, being game industry veterans -- a combined age of 127 for the three owners, and a lot of the employees have kids -- they need greater stability.
He explained that, in their quest to make a stable indie company, NinjaBee does things differently to their early years. The firm now runs with a slightly larger team and company size -- to allow them to switch employees and not have all their eggs in one basket.
Another key part of this is switching up original IP and contracting. Why do contract projects for publishers? Fox notes that, firstly, it'll support the original IP indie projects, and it allows NinjaBee to build their internal game engine and tech along the way.
Along the way, the company can build relationships with publishers such as Microsoft -- it helped get things like Avatars into their indie projects like Keflings. And it helps with exposure for your developer brand. (NinjaBee has worked on the Doritos: Dash Of Destruction advergame and the in-Dashboard dunk tank mini-game for Xbox Live.)
Fox also discussed some key negotiation basics for getting funding - either for your contract projects or indie publishing deals. Firstly, he suggested asking the publisher or funder how much money they are willing to offer -- surprisingly, many of them will tell you. He also noted that you can't count on royalties for contracted work, so you should be careful about presuming that exists.
As regards to projects being discussed versus being funded, Fox said that perhaps 10% of the negotiations they enter into with publishers actually pan out. So they need to have at least 10 discussions going on at once for one title to be signed. Having an Excel spreadsheet with basic man month specifics in it really helps work out actual development costs.
Fox said that if you're doing contract work, rates from $5k to $12k per man month is fair for working on games, with the low end being outsourcing-style development, the high-end being the top AAA 'big game' contractors, and NinjaBee being somewhere in between. As for development costs for many console downloadable games such as Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, it can span from $250,000 to $1 million.
The NinjaBee art director added that "million dollar [development cost] games are starting to be common on Xbox Live Arcade", and in fact, some multi-million dollar games are starting to hit and be popular -- "it's not going away." But a good rough way of looking at $10 XBLA games if a publisher is going to help you fund it is that there needs to be $5 profit for each game. So if you're asking for a $250,000 budget, the publisher will need to sell 50,000 copies to break even; for a $500,000 budget, they would need to sell 100,000 copies.
Concluding, Fox covered Xbox Live Arcade, by far the most successful area in its portfolio. He quipped, in starting: "The first thing to know about Microsoft is that everything changes." Continuing, he said: "We've had games that we've submitted [and have been rejected]", and a couple of months later, under new management, they've been approved.
But overall, Fox revealed that their titles have largely done well on XBLA. Outpost Kaloki did very well, Cloning Clyde did "a little better", but SRPG Band Of Bugs just didn't do that well for NinjaBee -- not even making costs back for investors. However, the Avatar-featuring A Kingdom For Keflings was a major hit for them and continues to sell extremely well.
Notably, Fox believes that being on the Top 20 title on Xbox Live Arcade makes "a huge difference" to sales -- so XBLA is getting much more hit driven as a result. He commented that making DLC for XBLA titles is questionable for purely financial reasons, since "it never makes money in and of itself". But it's worth it mainly to promote the game itself.
Going forward, while also exploring WiiWare, iPhone, and doing more PC games, NinjaBee intends to continue with original IP Xbox Live Arcade titles -- often with exotic monikers to help establish a catchy, unmistakable IP name for the firm.