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[Flash developer Tim Cooper explains how he transitioned from building web content for clients into a full-fledged game development studio, revealing hard data and hard truths about the change from working in one environment to striking out with his own games.]
Team Cooper is a digital studio that specializes in the development of Flash games and interactive micro-sites. Whilst the majority of our business is work for hire under NDA, we also build our own games under the name of Robot / Lizard Productions.
Before the summer of 2008 Team Cooper was effectively a one man operation (Just myself, with my wife Emma as company secretary), but in the time since then we have grown to six full-time employees making browser-based games for a variety of clients.
It's been just over a year now since we released our first "proper" Flash game (Beastie Burgers) and while some may not consider it to be particularly remarkable, it has been pivotal in the growth and direction of our company.
Over the past years I have read a lot on other people's blogs (and Gamasutra articles of course) about their successes (and occasionally failures) in the Flash game development world, so I thought it only fair that I share our experiences too.
I have struggled somewhat with how much I should reveal in terms of numbers (building Beasties was not a directly profitable experience, after all.) But the game profits do not tell the whole story.
I'll start with a bit of background as to my motivations for wanting the company to move into game development, and then go on to talk about the development process and where it has led us.
I've always loved making games. As a child I spent a lot of my time on my Sinclair Spectrum writing my own games in BASIC and I have even earlier memories of coloring in board games I had devised and drawn up on the insides of old cereal boxes.
Unfortunately, at some point over my teenage years, I lost sight of that, and by the time I had been through secondary school and university I had almost forgotten about it. My first real job was at a company called ACT e-learning. It was there that I was first introduced to the Flash platform, and my passion for making games was re-ignited.
I was hired as a multimedia developer, which meant building all sorts of web-based content, but every now and then we would get to build a minigame in Flash. I loved that part of the job; I loved programming in Flash and working with other creative people, although I didn't realize at the time how much of a good thing that was.
Unfortunately, ACT went out of business, I was made redundant, and I ended up taking a job doing PHP development. I only have one good thing to say about that job: it taught me just how much you can really hate a job, and I learned the value of doing something you genuinely enjoy. For that reason I left and became a freelance Flash developer.
After spending two years as a freelance developer, I had worked on a variety of projects and business had picked up enough for me to hire a junior developer, Kyle. Despite going for a variety of game-based contracts, the type of work we were actually getting was all very similar to the jobs we had already done.
Some of it was quite interesting and technically challenging, but it wasn't really where we wanted to be. I realized that if we really wanted to get hired to make games, we'd need to make (and finish) a decent game as a portfolio piece to give potential clients a taste of what we were capable of.
Back then, we usually had some spare time between each client job, time which we could afford to spend experimenting and trying things out. At the beginning of the project, we had no real commercial aspirations for the game; I just wanted to build something fun, so we got stuck in.
So many genres of game to choose from, and I decided to build a cooking game. I don't really know why, and I think everybody thought I had gone completely mad. I'd had the idea for a burger-building game back when I used to work at ACT, but I'd never got past the prototype phase. As it was the "best" idea we had at the time, we decided to run with that.
We could have made a shoot 'em up, or a tower defense game, but these are just so common. I wanted to make something a little out of the ordinary, but keep it a mouse only affair to appeal to the online casual player. Sure, there are plenty of burger flipping Flash games out there -- just not as many.
Because we had no real development plan, we blasted ahead with development -- blindly. I had drawn up some quick sketches to give an idea of the kind of functionality I wanted, but that was about it.
We would build a little bit at a time around our client work, which in some ways was quite good because it meant that we had a break from it and could take a step back to assess how things were going. But in other ways this was bad, as maintaining momentum is difficult when you keep starting and stopping on a project.