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"The mission of an indie team should be survive to its first game"

Gamera CEO Alberto Belli says sustainable business must come first

Even as an industry with such a foundation on agility, there's little room in games for those without a long term plan, so when ex-footballer, journalist and publisher Alberto Belli founded Gamera Interactive in May, he knew that establishing a sustainable company had to come before anything else. Six months down the line, with the company's first game now announced as Xbox One exclusive Unit 4, Belli feels like his company is on the right route, and he's confident that he knows where the pitfalls lie for a young company.

"Game development is all about reliability," he tells me. "We have a few projects in mind that aren't dream projects, but things that could work, based on the strong market analysis we made in advance. Indie developers suffer from an enthusiastic way of approaching development that usually comes from a total lack of experience in how the industry really works when it comes to bringing a product to shelves (digital or not).

"The mission of an indie team should be survive to its first game and make a sustainable business in the long term to improve quality of the products step-by-step, putting a creative factory in place to stay in the long term. There is no one in Italy with our skills and expertise and it's not because we're pitching the idea of a new studio. Making a start-up, it's easy stuff. Making a game development studio is not for everyone and we've a personal track record that allow us to be among the few able to do this in the right way."

"Coming up with a good idea is not a problem. Making games is not a problem. Building-up a production-wise pipeline is the thing that comes first. A company has to pay bills at the end of the month"

Unit 4 isn't a throwaway game for Gamera, but Belli says it's not the sort of scale of project he wants to be working on eventually. Instead, it's a stepping stone to building a reputation and establishing proper practice, fuelling the growth of creative ambition.

"The idea for the long term is to work on games with dev cycles of 18-24 months, working on smaller side projects like this one. Unit 4 was just one of the few pitches we had and we decided to go on with this to start the positioning of the studio. The long term plan is to build up a top level game development studio, working on original intellectual properties in order to create PC and console games for top tier partners such as the platform holders.

"This vision is strictly connected to the positioning of the studio itself. As I said, it's all about reliability: If you want to build up a long term plan you have to be reliable and you need a masterplan, including forecasts, economics and so on. Usually small teams/new teams simply start without the long term in mind but focus on 'the game they want to play.' I think that a better starting point is 'what players would like to play'. Players are not designers or artists but people that don't care about a lot of things that are often given a lot of time during the dev cycle without real need.

"For example: I'm convinced that a development studio is a place where everyone has to be creative. But creativity has to be 'guided' to be useful. Coming up with a good idea is not a problem. Making games is not a problem. Building-up a production-wise pipeline is the thing that comes first. A company has to pay bills at the end of the month, the payroll exists and creating sustainable business is the key to staying viable and having the chance to risk more with the next project, ideally arriving one day at being able to do 'the game we want to play' without thinking about numbers, market analysis and so on. The point is that we're a company first of all, not a group of guys in a garage with unlimited time, coming back to their parents for the night. That's the positioning I would like to have, staying humble and following a step-by-step plan to expand the company and the business."

"People without any expertise still go around saying 'if you have a good idea, go on with your passion', which is the most dangerous thing you can say to a young person approaching the game industry"

Knowing your limits might seem like relatively obvious advice, but Belli says that they're words of wisdom he's encountered all too rarely in his native country of Italy, where he feels the relatively nascent industry lacks enough voices of authority. That's an issue he wants to address with another arm of the company, Gamera Consulting, where he hopes to be able to bring some of his experience to bear and help Italian indies establish the foundations of a healthier industry.

"I'm fighting for this in Italy, because we are still missing a real dev industry here," he says. "We just have a few events where people without any expertise still go around saying 'if you have a good idea, go on with your passion', which is the most dangerous thing you can say to a young person approaching the game industry. My point is: if you want to get advice on how to move on, check 'who did what' first. And study. And move abroad to understand how it works for real. This is just part of the problem, of course. We put in place Gamera Consulting for exactly this reason: Indies have no idea of how a contract works. For example they don't know the difference between advances or minimum guaranteed, they don't know about ROI, they don't understand that 'my IP' means nothing if you are not on the market with a game that sold a lot of copies."

Latest comments (12)

Antonio Moro Creative Director, Vae Victis2 years ago
This article must be read by anyone approaching game dev.
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Nick Parker Consultant 2 years ago
Yup; development is a business not a hobby. Most indies fail beyond the first game as there is no cashflow to support a second.
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Michael Brown Video Game Critic & Reviewer 2 years ago
This article needs to be read by some established devs who to this day struggle with the concept of budgeting and project management.
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Show all comments (12)
Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.2 years ago
Hmh. This advice assumes the first game is successful enough to fund the production of the second game. How often does that really happen to new indie teams these days? If the key people of team are veterans of the industry the chances may go up, but it'll still be very difficult.

My advice would be to survive long enough to have a catalog of games that yield enough revenue to exceed your burn rate. That's the moment you can say you've survived. For a while.
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Alberto Belli Founder & CEO, Gamera Interactive2 years ago
@Jaakko Maaniemi: This advice assumes that a long term plan exists, first of all. And a long term plan of course is not only "we are hopefully going to sell a lot to reach the break even and exceed the burn rate". There are a plenty of options to gather money in advance. And all these things are corporate-related. It's about companies, not about products
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Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.2 years ago
@Akberto Belli: Yes, exactly. I totally agree the long term plan must be there right from the start. But I think these days the long term plan can't be up to the point when revenue from the first release starts to come in. That's more like medium term plan really.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
I'm similarly of the opinion you need to have enough runway for 5 or 6 flops before you're sustainable. And by sustainable, I mean consistently breaking even with the occasional hit to balance out the occasional flops. Then you can start to think about how to traverse that no-man's land between small studio and AAA (assuming you even want to).

Anything else is just a recipe for a work-for-hire studio, and actually there's nothing wrong with that. Your longer projects are the work-for-hire, and the shorter side projects, your own IP. Just this idea of "make a small game, make enough money from that to make a slightly bigger game, and so on". Everyone would love it if that was a repeatable business model, but it's just not realistic.
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I think with one release it's almost as hard to make enough money to cover costs as it is to have a hit that makes you extra. That is to say, the rarity of either outcome makes both risky to bank on as part of a business plan, although "enough money" varies with team size of course. As far as we've seen, there aren't that many non-hits that manage to earn enough income to run studios. The exceptions are tiny teams, or teams with multiple games bringing in small amounts.

I'd like to see figures on all this though, I'm just guessing my ass off from personal experience.
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Tom Hunt Game Developer, neocade2 years ago
<yawn>

Do consulting work on the side ; don't quit your day job. Pretty standard advice.

Wake me when the game is out and there are reviews.

Lots of folks talk a big talk leading up to release. That's part of the game, right? Nothing wrong with self-promotion, I suppose; except here, he seems to be promoting his consulting business, and also happens to be making games on the side - which a lot of indies already do.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Hunt on 4th October 2016 7:05pm

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Alberto Belli Founder & CEO, Gamera Interactive2 years ago
@Tom Hunt: don't know what you read but i'm simply "promoting" good plans and scheduling. We not make games for fun and "consulting" is just a side business we decided to put in place for (a few number of selected) indie teams. And we decided to do that because there are a lot of young devs that are totally blind on what business is. To recap: there is no consulting business at all, it's just about "saving" some (a couple per year) interesting projects if we see potentials in these (and a good advice is always "no chance to do what you think to do" to a 18 years old coder that think to release Baldur's Gate III working with a friend in the spare time). This happens if there is room in our pipeline, being a full time development studio ;)
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The definition of what a professional studio is has been deliberately blurred by the greedy, volume first, platform holders. Many of us play sports or dance for pleasure but we know we are not professionals and importantly neither do the sport or dancing industries treat us as professionals. The moneyed part of the industry blatantly just wants brands and not name studios in any case, so even if you get a big hit your next title will be thrown straight back into the huge soup of amateurish, me too rubbish, unless of course it is a sequel. My advice to most start ups is unless you have got anything special to offer then do the industry a favour and don't bother. I am personally furious that the lack of negotiation skills of 10,000s of newbie studios have successfully managed to devalue the average advance paid by a publisher for a new IP game to almost zero. From 1986 - 1995 we saw advances rise from 5,000 to 1 million per game for a brand new IP that was barely at first playable. Then we had the blackhole of 1995 - 2005 when no publishers signed up original IP.... and then from 2005 onwards we have had this terrible anti publishing model forced on the industry by the investment community and a plethora of accountants as game publisher CEOs. So in response to this article. If you cannot perform the activity of making games full time and finance your life from the income during that time then it is not your job and you are not a professional... so if you would kindly step aside and allow the professionals, whose game you admire, to actually make a living without having the value of their profession reduced to zero by the likes of you. And publishers if you want a great game that takes a team of 6 or more over a year to build you cannot expect to just split the money 50/50 and pay no advances... this shows that you have zero belief in the title (ie your projection of sales is nothing)... before you worry about advancing money to developers you should consider the value of the work they have put into the game before signing.... do you really trust the judgement and professionalism of a team that would offer to give you a year's worth of their work for nothing. To be clear offering marketing support etc is great but it does not get around this one basic problem.. if you pay 0 as an advance against a game on a 50/50 rev share then it means your sales projections are 0... which developer in its right mind would choose you given that kind of deal... it sure as hell isn't the kind of deal that you would take back to your own boss for approval.
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Alberto Belli Founder & CEO, Gamera Interactive2 years ago
@Jon Hare: standing ovation
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