The Voxel Agents: Year One Retrospective

By 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.

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.

Major Lessons

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):

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!!

(Click image for full size.)

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!

(Click image for full size.)

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 marketing team does

Market Research
Product Promotion
Website Design and SEO
Press Releases and Press Liaison
Strategising and Positioning
Social Media Management
and so much more

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:

Train Conductor benefitted from:

And it's available for 99 cents on the App Store right now!

Random Statistics From The First 12 Months

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.

(Quick) Postmortem

What Went Right

What Went Wrong

Suggestions for Indies Beginning In 2010

Every studio is different. You must develop your own plan. Hopefully these suggestions can help inform your plan.

What We’ve Achieved So Far in Year 2

In the six months since April 2010, we have:

Return to the full version of this article
Copyright © UBM Tech, All rights reserved