The Voxel Agents: Year One RetrospectiveBy Simon Joslin
[In this article, creative director and co-founder of Australian indie studio The Voxel Agents -- the Train Conductor series for iPhone and iPad -- takes a look back at the team's first year in operation, sharing facts, figures, and important lessons learned about functioning as an indie in 2010.]
Being independent is a hot topic because there's never been a better time to be creating fresh, original games with complete creative freedom. This retrospective traces the pitfalls and triumphs of The Voxel Agents' first year as an independent studio. The transparency of the article is intended to benefit the community of "indies", many of whom are also in their early stages.
This retrospective focuses on the oft ignored (but terribly important!) business side that fosters the creative environment and provides the studio the long term stability to continue functioning. It aims to expose the realities of being truly independent and the difficulties of having to do everything. It focuses particularly on what has worked and what has not paid off.
* All dollar values are listed in Australian Dollars (AUD), except where specified.
The First 12 Months
From April 2009 to April 2010, things did not go as we predicted.
- Set up as an Australian company equally owned by three full-time co-founders
- Each co-founder invested $4000 each (for a total of $12k), not including labor in-kind
- Released two iPhone games
- Dolphin Hero $0.99 USD
- Train Conductor $1.99 USD
- Ended the year with a small profit from 28,600 sales
- $38,000 revenue from sales
- $27,800 expenses
- The team grew from three co-founders to an in-house team of seven
- At month seven: two internship artists and an internship coder joined the team (part-time)
- At month 12: an experienced full-time artist joined the team
- Several contractors were enlisted for various roles
The Story of the Voxel Agents
Matt Clark, Tom Killen and I, Simon Joslin, started the The Voxel Agents in early 2009. We are friends from university and we always wanted to start a studio, but we felt it would be wise to gain experience first. Matt cut his teeth on code at Pandemic Studios, Tom at Hoodlum Active, and myself as a game designer at Halfbrick Studios. We finally reformed after winning the 48 Hour Game Making Competition (as SIF90) for the second year running. It was time to go full-time indie!
We believed the App Store was a very unique platform and its potential for us was greater than any previous. Innovation on the platform had only just begun, the big companies were yet to arrive, and consumer expectations were primed for games of the size we excelled at making. We felt that, in 2009, it was definitely the best place to get started.
We set out to develop short, sharp, and gameplay-focused titles. Development began hastily, and within six weeks we had Dolphin Hero finished and out the door. Never again would we make a game so quickly! We hadn't given much thought to who would play Dolphin Hero; we just made it. This was a big mistake. Dolphin Hero earned just $300 in its first 6 months on the App Store, but we persevered.
We came to our senses for the second game and spent two days brainstorming ideas, and two weeks prototyping the six best ideas. A winner quickly emerged, and Train Conductor was born. We developed Train Conductor between July and December 2009. Two artist interns from a local games college joined us two days a week for 12 weeks. Art quality improved well beyond what we achieved with Dolphin Hero and the end result was top notch.
We attempted a few relatively simple marketing strategies; announcing the game with a teaser video, releasing a trailer at launch, sending out press releases at multiple stages, releasing wallpapers, blogging about it, posting on forums, spreading the word to train enthusiasts, sending out preview copies (only one small website actually took us up on that) and various other attempts.
Train Conductor was a success! Our first cherub ever totaled $12,000! Additionally we were getting local press and online traction, so while it was working, we kept feeding it. We also began to receive the attention of the local industry and government agencies that help exporters. Suddenly we were sending a delegate to promote the game to press at GDC. We expanded, hiring a full-time artist and upgrading our interns to part-timers on contract. Things were looking good.
Players were loving Train Conductor, and they wanted more. We had so many ideas of where we could take it and we decided to develop the game further. We dedicated the last three months of our first Voxel Agents year to developing Train Conductor levels set in the USA.
However, after months of work and just days into our second year as a company, we realized that the new content had advanced beyond the original gameplay and it was being held back by the design decisions of the original game. It was a tough choice but we knew it was best to drastically expand, polish and eventually release the new content as Train Conductor 2: USA.
Train Conductor 2: USA launched in July 2010, which is month 16 in the Voxel Agents timeline. TC2: USA outsold TC in just six weeks. Together, they have generated $76,000 in the first six months of Year Two. We are proud to have also shipped two major content updates for both of the Train Conductor games.
Here is a quick summary of the lessons we learnt in the first 12 months.
You'll Be Busy
You can not anticipate how much there is to do as an indie! In January 2010 (month nine in the Voxel Agent timeline) we took stock of all the chores required to keep the company running, and were very shocked to find out just how much there is to do. So take note, because this is some of what you will be doing.
Many of the "other" roles are list below. Some of the roles are shared, some can be split further. We each took on more than one "other" role.
What We Thought We'd Be Doing
What We Were Actually Doing
Beyond this, we now have a monthly meeting to ensure the jobs are getting done and to revise the assignment of roles as we get familiar with them. It was incredibly helpful to assign responsibility for tasks. When someone is responsible, things get done. If it doesn't get done, the role goes to someone else. Role assignment prevents tasks from becoming a distraction to the rest of team and it also takes the burden off those who self-sacrifice.
I don't think we'll ever find the perfect model, but we are getting closer to one that works for us. It's something we'll never stop trying to improve.
Another Reason It Takes So Long
Production is difficult and it's easy for it go awry. Our biggest issue is that we don't have a producer -- a single person responsible for ensuring production stays on track. No one in our studio has that mindset or desire. We've experimented with many different variations on Scrum and we now have a bastardized model that vaguely works. Keep an eye on your production and give some good thought as to how you will keep production moving fast.
You'll Finish Less, But Achieve More
Left: What we expected to release in the first 12 months. Right: What we actually shipped in 12 months.
We estimated we'd ship four games on two different platforms in one year. The mistake was that we didn't account time for those other tasks.
The Achievements Are So Sweet
It's time to appreciate what we have achieved in the first twelve months (April 2009 - April 2010):
- Two games to be proud of :)
- 28,600 Train Conductors
- One year of indie FREEDOM!!
- 237 Twitter followers
- 98 Facebook fans
- $1700 donated to MSF help the victims of the Haitian Earthquake
- Found an excellent full-time artist, and part-timers for various roles
- Made contacts with the media, including quite a few big players
- Made connections with government
- Received interest from developer sites: Gamasutra, gamedev.net, IGDA Melbourne etc.
- Created two iPhone engines and some in-house tools
- Received regular requests for contract tenders
- Rated four stars in iTunes
- Some reviews make it all worthwhile: "Unmistakably addictive and delicately designed" - DIYGamer.com
The recently revised achievements at 18 months are even more exciting!
Keep It Cheap and Play It Long
Left: Projected Income vs. Expenses. Right: Real (Actual) Income vs. Expenses
It was no surprise to our mentors that our projections were light years from reality! Initially we estimated we would make $225,000 in the first year, and while we believe that's possible for a new studio, it's also extremely difficult to achieve. We remained lean and focused on the long term goal of developing and publishing our own original IP. It worked, but the payoff wasn't as big as anticipated.
What's It Worth?
If we had paid ourselves market rates, the first year of running The Voxel Agents would have cost a mind blowing $229,850!!
As shown in the chart above we did not have a single month where the real income was greater than the "market rates" expenses! It would have been impossible to pay ourselves at industry rates. We hope that other indies can achieve this, but for most cases prepare for the long term.
The real cost of running The Voxel Agents is a different story. By spending very little and by covering our own living expenses via external income, we were able to keep the company afloat. See the following graph of our real monthly breakeven and bank balance. It has a humble bank balance increase towards the end with the success of Train Conductor! Yay!
Year One Expenses
We rented an office from day one, because making games is a collaborative process. Our creativity is enabled by working together and inspiring each other. We were expecting to spend the majority on office space, but it's all the other costs that are a surprise!
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
Ever wondered why the marketing team on your game's credits is bigger than your dev team? It turns out the games don't sell unless you market them. Stop the presses!
Coming from working at bigger studios, we were largely sheltered from the publishing side of game development. We would work on titles for months (or years!) and then the publisher gives you a big list of names of people you've never met to be added to the game credits.
What did these people do? They haven't been slaving over this game all this time! Why should their names be next to yours in the credits!? Turns out there is a lot more to making games than just the "making" part.
What we thought the marketing team did
Now we know what
The first game that we release generated a meager $300 in six months of sales. By contrast, our second title made $20,000 in its first month. In hindsight the difference is obvious; a considered approach to marketing from day one.
Where Game Design Meets Marketing
The importance of marketing has been a continual lesson for us. Marketing is important from day one, and it's not something you leave until launch. With each project we learnt new things about marketing.
Dolphin Hero suffered because it:
- Has no clear target audience
- Has a non-immediate gameplay concept -- that is, it takes more than 10 seconds to grasp
- Lacks marketable features. You would have a lot of trouble selling a game based purely on "great gameplay mechanics", it needs something more compelling to inspire the purchase.
Train Conductor benefitted from:
- A familiar and approachable gameplay concept that's similar to existing games
- Simple mechanics and a widely understood theme. It's immediately obvious what to do.
- Having a variety of gorgeous and fun content, also giving much better screenshots
- Very very addictive "one more time" gameplay
- Love and polish to each and every aspect of the game
And it's available for 99 cents on the App Store right now!
Random Statistics From The First 12 Months
- Shared offices leased: 3
- Overtime hours worked per person per week: 20 (estimated)
- Coffees drank: 1200
- First press coverage: Bark Mag (a local arts magazine)
- Game reviews received: 46
- Prototypes made: 14
- Game design documents: 0
- Game Engines written from scratch: 2 (ObjC and C++)
- Youths negatively affected by Voxel Agents games: 0
- Friends forced to buy our games: 60
- Trees planted (via GreenFleet, for offsetting our carbon emissions): 37
- Tweets: 210
- Blog posts: 20
- Google docs created: 171
We are so pleasantly surprised by how much enjoyment comes from making games independently. We encourage every single creative developer out there to take the chance on it. You'll never look back.
What Went Right
- Experimenting with marketing -- you never know what will work
- Focusing on quality. The love and polish that we put into our games shines through and it established us as a player in the iPhone marketplace
- Forming relationships and asking for assistance wherever possible
- Targeting niches was a very successful tactic. Making an Australia-themed game as an Australian studio helped to push us up in the local charts
What Went Wrong
- Even though we tried to scope small, we still ended up making games bigger than we should have. Each release teaches us so much. We feel not releasing more often was a mistake
- Developing art-heavy games without an artist was really tough. We should have made art through generative processes
- Inefficient production and an under appreciation of our time. It really shows -- only two iPhone games in a whole year!? Just because our time is free doesn't mean it's not valuable!
Suggestions for Indies Beginning In 2010
Every studio is different. You must develop your own plan. Hopefully these suggestions can help inform your plan.
- Make games that you love making
- Invest all of the company's money and effort into establishing itself, try not to withdraw funds for survival until the company can truly sustain itself
- Invest in marketing and strategize how you will stand out; make it a part of everything you do
- Find whatever grants, government, and association support you can utilize
- Get to know the press. They are very friendly. Learn to know what makes a story. Give them a story and they will run it
- Prototype and make tiny games. Record metrics of how players are playing, then iterate quickly
- Build social features into every game
- Dedicate at least 30 percent of your time to marketing from day one
- Use Unity. No sane indie developer in 2010 would make their own engine! 2009 was a different time, OK? Geez!
What We’ve Achieved So Far in Year 2
In the six months since April 2010, we have:
- Released Train Conductor 2: USA as a fully fledged sequel onto the App Store
- It outsold the original within six weeks!
- Tripled the first twelve months revenue in half the time -- generated $76,000 revenue from April to September 2010.
- Raised the star ratings of our games on iTunes with each update!
- Begun to make better use of outsourcing; especially for trailers and PR
- Greatly improved our production methodology
- Begun to build social and viral features that allow the games to propogate themselves
- Promoted the games in a variety of ways including -- but not limiting ourselves to -- indie dev competitions
- Won the NEIS National "Best New Business" Award
- Listed in Apple's "Highly Addicted Games" promotion. Featured regularly within "What's Hot", "Staff Picks" and "New & Noteworthy" in more than 25 countries
- A member on the board of The Game Developers Association of Australia
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