We’ve had a couple of great iDevBlogADay articles recently from Owen and Frederic about life as a solo indie developer and as a part-time indie developer. I decided for this weeks article to give the perspective of an indie studio and a few considerations versus being a solo (or group of remote partners) based developer.
First up a history lesson!
FDL started in July 2005 as two of us in a small rented office in the centre of Bradford, we started up with our own funds and some work-for-hire projects we were in discussions about. The goal was to build up enough funds and our own technology platform to then grow the company and develop our own games. Bear in mind the development world was a little different then without quite the digital distribution opportunities!
The work-for-hire side of things went on quite a lot longer than we wanted which is a story I hear a lot from both smaller and larger versions of developers like us, once you have money coming in and a good group of guys in the office you get into a cycle based around the (traditionally safe) contract work.
We got to work on a lot of different platforms and technologies however which was great experience for us as a company, covering PS2, PSP, PS3, Wii, DS, Symbian, PC and more as well as working on full MMO systems (front and backend), various interesting procedural techniques and game genres from FPS and racers to puzzle games.
Updating things to modern day we have a large office with 5 full-time programmers (we outsource all other work to mainly local contractors), lots of funky development kit (and some very comfy Aerons) just across the road from that first office we started in. Our work right now though has shifted a lot more to be based around our own projects or revenue share deals with other independent developers. We’re still working on some very cool work-for-hire projects across various platforms, our own work is generally mobile but will be moving across to other platforms very shortly.
So five and a half years later we’re getting to be where we wanted to be generating our own games and IP!
Issues / Considerations
A couple of things to discuss then, I’ll probably expand a bit further on this in a part 2 at some point but these are the things that immediately sprung to mind!
- We’ve got a great team in the office which gives everyone an opportunity to work on every area of each project, communication is quite simple in such a small team and we don’t have to consider the difficulties of being a remote team. The big issue with having full-time staff is of course the running cost, this is why getting into a cycle on contract work is so easy, having gaps between projects when profit margins on a previous contract have been eroded mean that you’re burning into cash reserves. Of course there is a trade off between this and being a solo producer / manager who hires contractors as needed in terms of cost but you lose the ability to build up an actual ‘team’. We’re attempting to grow our core team carefully and still work with external programmers as needed for projects. Costs of staff aren’t just salaries but also perks (free drinks, beers, meals, conference trips, games etc..) plus time for management to make sure things are ok with everyone.
- Offices are expensive, yes there are deals that you can get in some areas and if you don’t need a huge amount of space you can be a bit more careful. With the way we sometimes need to expand and in terms of providing plenty of room per person our office costs are quite high. We also took on an office immediately when we started the company, this is completely at odds with a modern indie studio who would likely be remote / work from coffee shops / one persons house and then when they get their first success (either in sales or contract) get an office. Rent/Rates are one thing but insurance, cleaning and in particular gas and electric costs that would be a shock to people setting up in an office I imagine!
- Development kits
- This is one of the advantages of being an actual established studio with an office, things are becoming a bit more flexible now but we do actually have a secure location to store equipment and the more restrictive hardware manufacturers don’t have issues giving us approval where they would have concerns over people working from home.
- Management overhead
- Paperwork.. Owen mentioned this in his ‘Indie Challenges’ post but a small company with employees is even worse, not to mention accounts and more complex legal matters. The best advise is of course to ensure you use professionals to help with all of this. Personally I still get more involved with all this kind of thing than I should but it is quite satisfying to understand the processes before delegating them too much!
- Larger / more projects
- To cover the burnrate of staff and offices larger projects (or a larger number of projects) are required to pay for it. This requires further management time and introduces extra risks for the company (in terms of projects going wrong or being cancelled due to circumstances out of your control or not). I’m not necessarily talking about contract work here, the ambitions of all of your products needs to be higher than it would be as a solo or remote working developer.
- On the flip side to this of course this does mean that you can be involved in some really interesting big projects that you and the team can get your teeth into.
Things we’ve been enjoying this week
- Commit message random generator
- Investigating CUDA certainly something I want to play with a bit more soon, added h.264 encode/decode in the latest version.