When the Supergiant Games team started out to make Bastion, the two founders had quit their jobs, had a bit of money, and an idea to make a game.
"We had a lot of worries in that first year," said Amir Rao, studio director of Supergiant and a former Electronic Arts LA staffer, at his talk during the Independent Games Summit at GDC China in Shanghai. "You look at that game and you wonder 'what kind of game is that going to be?'"
To keep lean, the team constrained the game to team skills. "If we didn't have someone that could do fancy particle effects, we just didn't do it," he said. "We're not a democracy. If there's an art issue, the art director solves it."
The only time they fight is when somebody doesn't own the part of the game, like UI. The team targeted everything it did toward events, such as GDC and PAX, while living off savings. "We paid ourselves basically nothing, in order to keep it going," he added.
Within the first year they kept most of the money. "You need to wait to spend the money until you actually pull the trigger," he said.
Though the team had tried to show the game to people at GDC 2010, it didn't really make a great impression at that time. They kept working on it until it was ready for prime time.
Supergiant Games decided to debut the game at the PAX 10, showing it to fans before publishers. "If they were excited about it, then we'd have something to show publishers," he reasoned. After the game was nominated for two IGF awards during GDC 2011 and won some accolades, Warner Bros. got interested, and wound up publishing it.
The main benefit of having a publisher was advertisement, getting a banner at E3, and the ability to get through certification easily. "It's important to note that they did not give us any money," he said. "They certainly paid for things, but it was one of those things early on where we decided we weren't going to take money."
The game wound up selling over 350,000 copies across Steam and Xbox Live Arcade to date, mostly at full price. Interestingly, the soundtrack had two million track plays, and sold 30,000 copies, at a price that was nearly as much as the game. "I think the lesson here for us is if you do own [your own IP] make sure you can actually do something with it," says Rao.
There were people that liked Bastion enough to spend $15 on it, which is the price of the game, but there are people who like it enough to spend $30, on both the game and the soundtrack - and there are those who'd be willing to spend even more, so you should give those people the opportunity to do that. Keeping your IP lets you do that; "A lot of times, if you give up your IP, the publishers aren't willing to do anything else with it," he says.
Now, Supergiant Games has a fair amount of money, and is ready for its next project. But the team won't be taking its success likely. "Our temptation is to minimize our risk," he said, mentioning that it'd be easiest to go out and get a publisher-funded project. "But the truth is that's not really the best way to go. You're only as good as your next game."