How does an indie studio come together -- and ship games together -- if they're not located in the same city? Emeric Thoa, former Ubisoft developer and current creative director of The Game Bakers, explains what tech and techniques can make it work.
The last time I had a second of free time was over the Christmas holidays and I used that free time to write a paper about our experience making Squids and the realities of budget and profitability for an iPhone game. I wrote this postmortem because when I started as an indie, I would have loved to have such information, and I felt it was useful to share with other developers.
I was amazed by the attention it got, and I was very pleased to read all the nice comments about the article. And for those who asked: no, it didn't have a visible impact on Squids' sales, but it generated 24k unique visitors to our website in three days, which made the article more visible on Google and made the information more available to the industry, and that's always a good thing.
There's something else I would have loved to know more about before diving into indie game development: the tools and best practices for running a virtual indie game studio. By "virtual", I mean a game development studio that doesn't have an office.
This is a situation shared by many indies: you start your project from home and don't have the budget for renting an office, or maybe you're a programmer and you have an artist buddy who lives in a different place.
Lack of an office might have been a problem in 1995, but it shouldn't prevent you from making games anymore. The problem nowadays is that there are so many ways to do it, the idea of running a virtual studio can be overwhelming.
One thing I love about indie development is that it's not only about having people play our games, but also about developers freely exchanging ideas about our work and methods. So here is a bit of information about how we've tackled this issue at The Game Bakers, how we are organized, what tools we're using at the moment, and how much this stuff costs us.
When I think of a "real" game studio, I think of a traditional office with an open space shared by the development team. I call The Game Bakers a "virtual studio" because we are spread out around the world. The team works together all day, but remotely from different cities, countries, and even different continents.
When I was working at Ubisoft, of course I was working in real offices, but I also had a lot of experience working remotely with other studios. Splinter Cell Double Agent was made by three teams spread across three continents; Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter was made by four teams in the U.S., France, and China.
When we started The Game Bakers, we wanted to make smaller games with a smaller team than we had at Ubisoft, but we also wanted to create high quality games with good production values, like the console games we had worked on. One of the cornerstones of this ambition was to rely on a network of talented people whom we had worked with before on console games, but who were now spread out all across the world. (Even our initial members in France were not living close to each other.)
Working with these talented people we already knew and liked would guarantee better efficiency, higher quality, smoother communication, and it would make our work more fun on a daily basis. To set up a structure that would work for day-to-day operations, we had to draw upon our past experiences with remote collaboration.
Here is our team for Squids and Squids Wild West.
The core team is made up of six people spread out in six cities, in two different countries. The total team is 19 people, five countries, and almost as many workplaces as people on the team.
The core team, working full time on the games, includes:
UI, story, audio, modeling, and PR were handled by part time coworkers. Most of the team is freelance contractors. Working with contractors instead of employees is convenient in that it saves a bit of money for the studio, but it's very uncertain, as anyone could leave the team at anytime. That's a huge risk for a project where everyone is responsible of a key aspect of the game. One way to reduce this risk is to keep the projects short (shorter than a year). Being extra nice to them also doesn't hurt. Managing trust is a much more important task in a virtual studio with distant contractors than in an office where everyone is an employee.
Even if you forget the part time people and just consider the core players, this is pretty big for an indie team, and a bit of work and effort is required to keep everyone moving in the same direction. The key word here is communication.