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Don't think of going indie as romantic, says Outlast dev

Philippe Morin explains why the studio he expected to take 3-4 months to set up needed a year and a half to find funding

It's fitting that the story of the studio behind a game called Outlast would be one of persistence and endurance. In a talk next Tuesday at the 2013 Montreal International Game Summit, Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin will give developers some hard-earned wisdom on how to go about setting up their own studios. As the developer recently told GamesIndustry International, it took a fair bit longer than he expected.

"I remember telling my wife I'll quit my job and within three or four months we'll know if it works out or not," Morin said. "And it took a year and a half."

Morin had been dreaming about starting his own company for a while, and had even made some attempts to do so, but things didn't come together until an original game he and his fellow Red Barrels co-founders had been working on at EA was cancelled a year into development. Other projects within EA at the time either had core teams already in place, or simply weren't up their alley, so the developers left the publisher in January of 2011.

"I remember telling my wife I'll quit my job and within three or four months we'll know if it works out or not. And it took a year and a half."

Philippe Morin

At the time, the plan was to spend a couple months putting together a trailer for a new project and then shop it around to publishers. The Red Barrels team had AAA pedigree and an offered distribution agreement from Valve to have their game carried on Steam, but Morin said the traditional publishers still seemed like the most natural source of funding at first.

"Some people are able to do their project without any salaries for a year or two years," Morin said. "In our cases, maybe it's because we're a bit older with families and kids, but whatever option we were going to choose had to allow us to give ourselves salaries and also give salaries to employees."

The publisher route didn't work out, leaving Morin looking for alternate funding options. One of the things Morin will discuss in his talk is when developers should turn down deals, even if they don't seem to have that much leverage. For example, he had an angel investor interested in the company, but that money was contingent on Red Barrels also receiving support from the Canada Media Fund (CMF), a government program offering investments for homegrown media projects. The team turned down the angel investor, reasoning that it could always go for the CMF money first, and then come back to the investor for help if that turned out to be insufficient.

When Red Barrels was formed, Morin wasn't even aware of the CMF, and if he had it all to do over again, this is where he'd have made the most significant changes. The CMF only accepts submissions twice a year, and Morin first heard about it too soon before the deadline to put together a proper application.

"When we got the answer on the first submission from the CMF, that was probably our lowest point."

Philippe Morin

Time is a scarce resource for indie start-ups, but Red Barrel waited out the six months until the next application window and made a request for the CMF to fund Outlast--which was turned down.

"When we got the answer on the first submission from the CMF, that was probably our lowest point," Morin said. "When they gave us the answer, it was simply, 'Nope, you don't get it.'"

After a couple weeks, Morin discovered the rejection had been made not because of anything wrong with Outlast, but because of technical issues with the submission, because the team didn't have everything on the business end of the operation nailed down. The CMF requires that its contribution not exceed 75 percent of a project's total budget, so to get $1 million from the fund, Morin and his co-founders had to scrounge up more than $300,000 from their savings and families. Combined with a Valve distribution agreement, it was enough to earn the grant money--on the next submission, six more months down the road.

When asked if he would have any hesitation about fronting that $300,000 if he had it all to do again, Morin said none at all. It would have been his first option if he knew then what he knows now, adding that he could have started up the company in just six months instead of a year and a half. Besides, the personal investment has already paid off since Outlast's September launch.

"You have to stop thinking about [going indie] in a romantic way. You have to be able to analyze all the aspects."

Philippe Morin

"We made our money back," Morin said. "Now it's more a question of how much buffer we're going to have for the next game. Currently we're working on a PS4 version and the DLC."

Despite a few missteps early on, things have turned out well for Red Barrels. Outlast is selling well and getting good exposure (including an enthusiastic endorsement on Conan O'Brien), and Morin said he has no regrets. But he knows his story isn't especially common, and there are plenty of newly independent developers who hurt themselves simply out of ignorance when it comes to the sort of legal and financial stewardship other people handled for them at big publishers.

"You have to stop thinking about it in a romantic way," Morin said of going indie. "You have to be able to analyze all the aspects. I've heard stories of some studios closing not because the game they were working on wasn't good, but because they just could not go through the process of managing the company and making sure the budget was spent wisely. And if you're unable to do it yourself, you better get somebody on the team who's able to."

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Latest comments (12)

John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management7 years ago
Anyone thinking of doing a start up, read that last paragraph very, very carefully. Very sound advice.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 7 years ago
Even if you start it in a romantic way, the romantic part goes out pretty quickly. That is why I think it's better to start while you still have a job and learn the ins and outs of doing things efficient and fast, and only when the production skills are good enough you can think of going full indie.
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Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software7 years ago
After just reading the header I thought "Ok, just don't go indie if you need funding", which after reading the article is probably still sound advice. If you want to be truly indie, be self-sufficient as well. that being said, I see a lot of companies popping up that business wise have no clue what they are doing. Same problem I have with crowdfunding: managing that money is not something you "simply do", even Tim Schafer made a mess of that one. Luckily I also know of several traditional publishers that have made a shift and are openly advicing indie studios and helping with marketing instead of being the financer and publisher. I applaud that initiative.
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Show all comments (12)
Yep, been there and got the T-Shirt. Years back we set up a console based studio in 6 months with private investment and a publishing deal. This time, it took longer... about a year and a half :0) Like the Outcast guys, we were not aware of all the options and also learned to say no. The strength we had was that all the guys that started were absolutely unfaltering in their aim to succeed. Not to say there weren't nervous moments. Just a belief in carving our own future rather than falling foul in someone else's. Now we're on Steam and mobile and have our major release to come. Nomad Games UK.
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James Ingrams Writer 7 years ago
In of itself it's not romantic, but compared with how AAA companies work, it's downright soppy!
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James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd7 years ago
When I originally founded a small dev studio with some ex-colleagues it took over a year (unpaid) to get a project signed, then you have the hard work of getting further contracts in while you try and complete the current one to a high standard. It certainly isn't romantic, and it is very hard work. It's very gratifying doing stuff yourself, but be under no illusion you just "start something" and the money comes rolling in. Its far harder than working for someone else... however the benefits can be greater of course.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
The current indie game movement is fantastic. An explosion in creativity and in enterprise. The best thing to ever happen to the game industry. And phenomenal rewarding to be a part of.

But the very low barriers to entry mean that the competition out there is immense. It is a Darwinian jungle with survival of the fittest. Most will fail. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try.

To succeed needs a wide range of skills including:
1) Identifying a concept that really will work in the market.
2) Executing the development of that concept in a way that is compelling and gives value to the gamer.
3) Post launch support. This is gaming as a service.
4) Project management. Having the right people do the right thing at the right time.
5) Financial management. Paying the wages. Not running out of money.
6) Marketing. In the very full meaning of the term. The strategic function of matching an organisation's core competences to consumer demand.

The most important, by far, is marketing. If you don't realise this then you will fail.
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Kevin Corti Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Odobo7 years ago
I said about a year ago that founding an indie games developer is the new 'being in a band'. A dose of reality is needed if you want to be able to pay the bills. Building a business is very hard work and requires enormous sacrifices at times. Too many public sector initiatives gloss over this when they are encouraging people to start up on their own. The flip side is that when it is good, it is very good and the satisfaction is quite unlike anything you get as an employee.
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"6) Marketing. The most important, by far, is marketing. If you don't realise this then you will fail."

To be fair Fireproof have yet to realise that and one year on, if we're failing I'm jolly looking forward to going bankrupt.

Doing well in entertainment is a lot bigger and scarier than doing well in marketing. I think all of the things Bruce listed are important but anyone who tells you that delivering a transporting game experience - ie. one of the best it's possible to get - for your audience isn't the primary unit of success is selling something, or doesn't play games, but either way has forgotten much of what makes gaming special for our players.

Let's remember we are all in entertainment and in this arena the intangible matters - that soft squishy human stuff that enables small visions to go over on a mass scale. It's a truer form of communication than marketing which for all its power is about creating a false buzz in imitation of the real thing. That's why it costs so damn much - it's horrendously inefficient.

But even where it works, all the evidence points out that you have next to zero chances of survival if your game isn't world class at *something*. The industry can't sell you that intangible ability, so the Industry doesn't talk up that solid reality. But financial models, Marketing, Analytics WE GOT THAT SHIT WHOLESALE FRIEND, THIS WAY TO SUCCESS.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend7 years ago
I started ChaosTrend 5 years ago with no experience in running a business, no development skills outside modding and with 3 other people who had just graduated. Hell, I was a mechanic and a builder by trade before I got a programming degree, talk about a career change. :D

Really, we should have crashed and burned after our first game, but we didn't because I went about it the correct way. I knew I would be running a business and didn't let the romantic allure which was present cloud my judgement; I ran the budget extremely well, I made sure that we always had contract work to cover development costs and pay the team and assigned a percentage of that revenue into new projects whist keeping some back for the inevitable dry periods. Yes, everyone has dry weeks...months or even years!

5 years and 6 games later, we are no millionaires, but we are an independent studio with no debt and our own technology (game engine) so when we do get the game that makes decent money we will all benefit.

Of course many will likely fail and many do, but just as long as you go into business understanding that you are running a business and not some fun free for all, then with extreme hard work and sacrifice you can make it something to be proud of.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 8th November 2013 4:46pm

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Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software7 years ago
In regards to my experiences in the indie market - although Bruce's list makes perfect sense, it also reflects what turns you in to the next regular corporate developer, not an indie. The most important thing would be his 4) and I would stretch that to "community interaction". Fez didn;t have marketing, Minecraft didn't have marketing, Spelunky didn't have marketing, Terraria didn't have marketing. They had no concept, no project management...they just made what they wanted to make and a lot of people liked it, and then they kept supporting it and updating it. Iterations not based on your own design philosophy but based on your community.

Bruce's list comes in to play really only after that initial and often unexpected do you keep going, how do you follow up. Will you always be that one-game indie (like Rovio, with all due respect they should try something else than another Angry Birds), will you quit (like Fish), or will you become a new Westwood studios that in their prime dominated the charts and churned out amazing quality games in multiple genres like RTS (Dune II, Command & Conquer, Red Alert), Click & Point adventure (Kyrandia), RPG (Lands of Lore, Nox), and even movie tie-ins like Lion King and Blade Runner. How do you follow up to a game like Limbo (that would have been completely unafordable if everyone would have gotten paid), or a game like Minecraft. That is the challenge for indies - and it is the follow-up that usually takes the romance away.
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Sasha Yelesin Student 7 years ago
When game devs are starving artists, how can people say games aren't art?

Really interesting article by the way. You don't often get to hear the back story behind the games you play. Even though I haven't played Outlast, what I've seen was very impressive and I'm glad these guys are having success doing what they love to do.
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