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GDC 2018: How indie game developers can grow their studios

Lewis Leong
Mar 23, 2018

The largest game industry conference in the world kicked off this week in rainy San Francisco. Thousands of game developers from across industries (mobile, console, and PC) are gathering to teach, learn, and share with one another.

One common question we get is how to grow as an indie developer, and coincidentally, there was a GDC session about just that. The packed session, led by the founder of London-based Failbetter Games, Alexis Kennedy, covered some intensely practical tips for growing an indie studio

The main takeaway? Know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and just be human.

The people behind the games

When you’re a scrappy indie dev, it’s easy to lose track of the things that really matter. While shipping out a hit game would be the logical goal, Kennedy thinks indie devs can be more successful by prioritizing three things:

  1. Safety
  2. Fun
  3. Profit

While having profit so far down the list may seem strange, it makes sense if your overall goal as an indie dev is to continue making games for a living. Safety, or job security in other words, should be your number one goal as an indie studio in order to ensure your passion for creating games continues into the future.

However, as you scale, Safety and Fun can be switched around, according to Kennedy. “As we grew, we decided to prioritize fun over safety so we could take more risks as a business,” he said.

Making the longevity of your studio a goal, you should also prioritize your employees’ futures. The people you surround yourself with, ideally, are passionate people who believe in your studio and more importantly, believe in you.

Don’t skip out on one-on-one meetings with your staff.

Having regular one-on-one meetings with your staff is an important way to take care of them. “Yes, this takes a lot of time, but the benefits outweigh the time spent,” said Kennedy. By having these meetings, you’re showing that you’re prioritizing your employees and their needs. This makes them more motivated and increases efficiency and morale.

Failbetter games takes this further by making its pay structure completely transparent. Everyone knows what everyone else makes in the company, but Failbetter also offers a base salary that ensures its employees can live comfortably in London. While this may not work for every studio, finding feasible ways of taking care of your employees will go a long way to maintain the health and growth of your business.

Finding your own way

One of the biggest temptations for an indie dev is to look at others to try to replicate their successes. But it’s important to find your own path, as what works for large studios or even other indie devs may not work for you.

An example Kennedy gave was a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Nintendo’s Super Mario games, who said, “A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” While this may apply to a big company like Nintendo, which has cash reserves, this is not a luxury for many indie devs. A delayed game could mean people lose their jobs, so it may make sense for indies to release an unfinished game to keep the lights on.

Without taking your own individual circumstances into account, it’s difficult to replicate someone else’s successes.

Another example Kennedy gave was how Rami Ismail, the founder of Vambleer (the studio behind the hit mobile game Ridiculous Fishing), told a student in Johannesburg he wouldn’t recommend dropping out of school, but some people do learn better outside of school. What Ismail didn’t realize was that South Africa has the one of the highest dropout rates in the world, contributing to the country’s 27% unemployment rate. In South Africa, dropping out of school has much higher risk than the Netherlands, where Ismail is from. Without taking your own individual circumstances into account, it’s difficult to replicate someone else’s successes.

You and your staff will fail, but that’s OK

A universal reality in every company is that you will inevitably fail, but failure shouldn’t be treated as a bad thing. Mistakes will be made, but as long as you or your staff doesn’t repeat the mistake, failure can be treated as a learning experience. “You need to give your team room to f— up and you have to give them room to fix the f—up,” said Kennedy.

“You need to give your team room to f— up.”

Perhaps more importantly, it’s important for leaders and founders to admit when they themselves fail. Although it’s likely your staff already knows about the mistake, it communicates to them that you are human and imperfect, but strive to be better. “If you can’t admit that you f—ed up, it’ll be twice as hard for your staff,” said Kennedy about leading by example.

Growing an indie studio is no easy task, but taking a human approach will give you the best chance of success. It’s far too easy to be so wrapped up in deadlines, profit goals, and the day-to-day struggle that you lose track of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Kennedy recommends constantly asking yourself this question, and always keep that in mind as you build your business.

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