Trails of a Graduate Start-Up Studio - Develop Conference 2012

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This lecture discusses the journey of White Paper Games from their conception post University and the challenges that they have faced whilst developing their first title ETHER such as funding and …

This lecture discusses the journey of White Paper Games from their conception post University and the challenges that they have faced whilst developing their first title ETHER such as funding and finance, marketing, management, design and development. Through this the lecture will high light ways to overcome these challenges, discuss ways that other students and graduates can start up their own development studio, what the benefits are of starting your own studio and how White Paper Games are planning and preparing for the future in order to achieve success as a graduate start-up studio.

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  • Hello everyone – Hope you are all having a great time here at Develops Indie Dev Day. Introduction: My name is Benjamin Hill and I am the Creative Director of White Paper Games a small start-up Indie dev studio. I am also an academic holding the position of Lecturer on the BA (hons) in Games Design at Futureworks: The Manchester School of Media.
  • So what I want to talk to you guys about today really revolves around starting up an independent business from scratch. As a graduate start-up studio ourselves I thought it would be beneficial to reflect on some of the key challenges such as management, finance and marketing that we have faced since White Paper Games conception in mid-2011 – challenges that I refer to as the Trials of a Graduate Start-Up Studio.
  • So a quick intro:White Paper Games was founded by myself and Pete Bottomley about 9 months ago after we completed our MA in Games Design, and we primarily formed, not because of difficulty of getting a job in the industry… …but because we really wanted to create something interesting, something people would enjoy that we had control over creatively, something personal that would inspire and create fun. As starting point we kind of decided that we wanted…
  • Something that we feel is encapsulated in our mission statement “Unfolding New Ways to Play”.
  • On our journey from company creation to our current development position there were many challenges that we faced as individuals and as a company, yet I feel that there were 5 key areas that I wish I had known a little bit more about when we started-out and today I want to look at these 5 areas from our perspective before giving our advice. These areas are: All of which we feel we have overcome in our journey to create our first title.
  • But before I begin, I would like to show you guys a little bit of our game in progress Ether. I really feel its important to show that you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. This is what we have achieved so far as a studio. So all these challenges have been overcome to produce this work in progress. Hopefully it is inspiring to some students, graduates and other indies out there.
  • In order to create our current work in progress all of the trials mentioned needed to be overcome to varying degrees. What I am going to talk about now are the specific challenges that we faced before I give advice on how to overcome those challenges.
  • Challenge No.1: Development - Development is obviously something that effects us all, or we wouldn’t be called Indie Devs. But its also one of the most stressful and emotional journeys to go through when you are pushing to get a personal game off the floor. Here is a graph of our motivation and optimizim as a studio and as individuals whilst developing Ether. The start of the blue line is when we decided to make the game and the end is where we are now with game footage.Its funny you kinda of start off and are like ‘YES – we are going to make the best game in the world and we can do it at home and answer to nobody’ your motivation and optimizim just increases as the concepts and designs of the game are being made. You then hit a point where the motvation starts to dip when you realise that actually you have to make this game now, the really fun part is over. We then realised in our pipe-line that we needed more help to get the game to the standard we wanted! This was our all-time low. We didn’t know if we could find anyone to help and we didn’t have enough money to pay anyone. Luckily we found some guys as passionate as we are and now our motivation is again high because we just showed you some gameplay footage! Basically our development pipe-line was up and down, due to unforeseen circumstances and we just had to keep going.
  • With this is mind we have some key pieces of advice that we think are really important to know. The best thing that we ever did was talk to other devs. We learnt so much about development processes that had and had not worked from just emailing or approaching other devs to discuss our concerns with. Make sure you plan ahead. The worst thing we found was just jumping in and not planning what needed to be done by when, something that took us a while to get to grips with. Find out how long you should be on specific areas of your development process. Don’t Give Up! If you make a mistake it does not mean you have failed. It is just an opportunity to learn and do it again and get it right. We really feel that as a small developer less documentation and more iterative prototyping and testing is a quicker and more secure way to build a game. Most of our designs are sketches on paper and stuck to our walls with a small concept document with our key mechanics, audience and narrative in. We learnt how to make better games by doing and testing not by creating documents and blindly building. Plus for us, its saved us time.
  • Challenge No.2: Our next challenge is Team Communication. We had some pretty tricky problems that we just hadn’t foreseen with communicating.For example I would get up in the morning, head to my office (in my kitchen) and decided to log into Skype so I can contact the other 5 of my team through the internet. This is great, and more often than not works fine. Yet sometimes people would be on at different times, there internet may cut out, they may not reply to important messages…a whole host of problems would occur that we couldn’t rectify immediately…slowing development down. This could be hugely frustrating at times until we did something about it and put a management foot down! We didn’t really need a studio at the time, but we did need to communicate better.
  • With those problems in mind we did some stuff that really helped us. Here is our advice on the matter. Organize regular meet-ups. As a team we organized 2 set meet-ups each week, one digital through Skype on a Monday and one Physical on a Friday. We set our tasks on the Monday so we know what each individual is up to and then on the Friday we review those tasks and discuss any issues that we may have had during the week. Digital filing systems really aided us in sharing work with each other. Especially when we started building the game in engine. We used Dropbox which is pretty good when you start out but we do recommend an SVN server if you can set one up for security over changes in the work. Make sure that when you set a task you are structuring it properly in relation to other things that need to be done. There is nothing worse when one team member needs to do task B but another team member hasn’t completed task A yet. Make sure that you are actually managing what tasks are being done and when they need to be done by. Having your own studio office is a dream, and an expensive one at that. If you are struggling with working from home over the net consider getting a developer house share where you live and work together. It can be intense but can also help increase the amount of development work done!
  • Challenge No.3 : Finance.So we want to make a game that is cool and personal and we would love to make money from tha game to make more. But we need to have money in order to make the game to make more money. Bit of a catch 22 right?! Well it doesn’t really have to be. When we decided to form White Paper Games we decided to self fund. All members of the team worked part-time in order to earn a living and we all worked from home. We are now moving to a new phase of our game and we have acknowledged that self-funding is going to be very difficulty if we are going to get this game built. Luckily there are a whole range of different sources to fund your game from the Prototype Fund, Indie Fund, Local Business Funding and other new funding methods such as Alpha and Crowd Funding. They are not easy to obtain and require a lot of hard work but if you are serious and believe you have a great idea worth selling you should apply to everything that you can and hopefully you will get the finance needed to make your game.
  • Our key pieces of advice on Finance are as follows: If you really want to do it and can get a part-time job to still pay the bills and you are willing to take a financial hit, self-funding is a realistic way of getting started. It ain’t comfortable but its how we got started. There are lots of different funding routes out there, some require lengthy application processes, others require game demos, others just require a hard amount of work. Do not be afraid about applying for funding, but do think about what funding method is right for you and your game. Getting a solid game demo prepared showcasing your USP’s is a great way to show your skills and ideas first hand. Sit down and think about how you could prepare yourself to pitch your game idea and consider competitions and events that you could showcase your game demo at. Sit down and figure out how much money you would need in order to complete your game and decided on your business model. How is your game going to get from you to your consumers.
  • Marketing is a challenge that everyone will face when trying to get their game noticed. It is also a challenge that you can be the most pro-active about and is one that we feel we have overcome quite well. Our first key idea was that we needed to get our there and show our faces, get involved with certain events and so on. We also used social media to our full advantage from standard social forums such as Facebook, Twitter, Google plus and Youtube through to game orientated sites such as IndieDb and Epic Forums in order to talk about us and Ether. Let people know what we were up to, write up development diaries discussing our progress and feelings. We attended as many different events as we could afford and got involved with our local gaming community – co-hosting Game Dev north and attending NWIndies meet-ups and mini-conferences.
  • Marketing is so important as without people knowing what your game is how are they going to buy it? Our advice for marketing is as follows: Use all the social media channels that you can and use them on a daily basis. The more you talk about your work and give yourselves a personality in the games industry the more likely people are to take notice of what you are doing. We try our best to do video dev diaries about our work and our studio. He helps put a face to the company and allows us to be truly honest about what we are trying to achieve as a studio. If you are already here at Develop you are on the right track. But there are plenty more events out there! Getting involved with our local gaming community has been one of the best things that we have done. Get out there, attend local meet-ups, get involved and make yourself known. Making friends with the games press is a daunting thing but something that can really aid your game getting publicity. The press want to know about your game, let them know about who you are first.
  • Challenge No5. Starting a BusinessWhen we decided that we were going to start up our own studio we were doing it because we wanted to put our skills to good use and make video games. Realistically though as a founder you are not just going to be making games, you are going to be running a business and this is the very first hurdle you are going to face when you make that jump. You are going to be faced with questions like ‘What is your business plan?’ and ‘Have you done your cash flow forecast?’ questions that when you have never done business before go right over your head, as they did ours. We had never had to think about business before, we only had to think about how to design quality games, how to structure a level or ways we needed to feedback to players, not whether we should be a limited company or a partnership? Or what our mission statement is? Luckily, as graduates of the University of Central Lancashire we had the great opportunity to use a specific programme in place called ‘Northern Lights’ which supplied students and graduates of the university with a solid group of seminars tackling business areas like ‘Business Plans’, ‘Tax’, ‘Marketing’ and ‘Cash Flow’ that really aided us when filling our relevant paper work. There are however other great sources for this help nationwide from the governments Business Link and the Princes Trust.
  • Our advice on Starting Your own Business are as follows: Do not be afraid to ask for help from other professionals, business advice agencies or your friends and family. Although we are not massive fans of large paper work its important to get your business plan done in a clear manner. If you are to be successful you need to know exactly what you are aiming for as a studio. Your company name and logo are going to represent YOU. Make sure it gives off the right representation. This is pretty self explanatory, where do you want your company to be doing in 5 years time. Think about the future, not just the present.
  • So, there are the 5 challenges that we have overcome as a studio and 5 challenges that I hope are a little bit easier to overcome with the advice given today. But there is one final hurdle to answer before you should start up a game development studio.These challenges are not the only ones that we have to face, we also have to face ourselves. This is a life changing decision to make, and you had to make sure that your skills and motivation are up to scratch. Is this right for you?
  • I feel that there are 3 questions that everyone needs to ask themselves before they make the jump to indie development. Would you prefer a secure salary, or do you want to have creative freedom and business control?Do you think you have the commitment to see the studio through the good times and the bad?Can you balance development and business together? All three of these questions, if answered truthfully, will help you make the right choice.
  • So this brings me towards the end of this talk. I wish I had a bit more time to talk about our experiences and processes as there are quite a few more challenges that we have faced along the way, they just didn’t make the cut for today. Starting your own studio is a daunting and scary affair. From a graduate position you may very well have no idea where to start or how to approach it, you may struggle to finance or harbour any type of following, or managing your development maybe stressful and difficult. Yet hopefully with the advice given today you will have a some ideas on the challenges that you may face and some advice on how to tackle those challenges. Going Indie is one of the best decisions I have ever made, but it isn’t easy. I get total freedom over my designs and ideas but I don’t get a solid wage and security. We made a decision over what we thought was more important and that decision is completely up to you. If you have the passion and the drive to succeed, you have the skills to match the passion and thirst for a challenge, starting up your own game development studio is the best choice that you can make. It is only you who can tell yourself that you are a game developer or designer, that you want to create great gaming content. To finish this lecture I have a quote byJesse Schell from his excellent book ‘The Art of Games Design’. “Just go on pretending, doing the things that you think a game designer would do, and before long, to your surprise, you will find that you are one.”
  • Thank you… any questions?

Transcript

  • 1. Trials of a Graduate Start-Up StudioThe Challenges of Going it Alone as a Fresh Faced Developer and How to Combat Them
  • 2. Unfolding New Ways To Play
  • 3. “To create games that will inspire a sense of wonder and awe throughplay, exploration and emotional stories.”
  • 4. Trials of a Graduate Start-Up Studio1. Development2. Team Communication3. Finance4. Marketing5. Starting a Business
  • 5. The Trials
  • 6. 1. Development Dev Pipe-Line Conception Design Implementation 120 100 We have Game Footage To Show! Yay! 80 60 Momentum 40 20 0 We have more help! 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9Lets make a game Conception and Design We need more Finished Full Realisation that Hands on help. You have to make this!
  • 7. 1. Development• Approach Other Developers• Plan Ahead• Don’t Give Up!• Less Documentation more Iteration.
  • 8. 2. Team Communication OJ James NJ Pete
  • 9. 2. Team Communication• Organise Regular Meet-Ups.• Digital Filing Systems.• Structured Tasks.• Consider House Shares.
  • 10. 3. Finance
  • 11. 3. Finance• Self-Fund to Get Started.• Apply for as Much Funding as Possible.• Prepare Yourself to Pitch.• Plan how much money you need and your Business Model.
  • 12. 4. Marketing
  • 13. 4. Marketing• Use All The Social Media Channels You Can.• Be Open and Talk About You, Your Game and Your Journey.• Attend as Many Events As Possible.• Get Involved with Your Local Developer Community!• Don’t be Afraid To Approach and Talk to the Games Press
  • 14. 5. Starting a Business
  • 15. 5. Starting a Business• Reach Out For Advice!• Make Sure You Have a Clear Business Plan.• Put Thought Into Your Company Name and Logo.• What Are Your Company Goals?
  • 16. Is this right for you?
  • 17. Is this right for you?• Is this the right decision for your career?• Can you commit to see this through?• Do you possess the skills to develop a game and run a business?
  • 18. Trials of a Graduate Start-Up StudioCONCLUSION
  • 19. Unfolding New Ways To Play Thank You Any Questions? CONTACT www.whitepapergames.com www.ether-game.com ben.hill@whitepapergames.com @benni_hill @whitepapergames