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Kitfox: People are more important than projects

Co-founder Tanya X. Short says she's reconsidering putting gameplay and quality on equal footing with respect and personal development

It's not uncommon to hear developers espouse guiding principles like "gameplay first" and "committed to quality." And as Kitfox creative director and co-founder Tanya X. Short tells GamesIndustry.biz at PAX East last month, those are indeed two of the four core values upon which her company was founded.

But as the Boyfriend Dungeon studio approaches its sixth anniversary, Short says she's beginning to think the remaining two core values -- "respectful" and "always learning" -- are what she really wants the studio to focus on. While gameplay and quality are still things Short cares about achieving, she's less inclined to place them as equal priorities with the company's other two pillars.

Short says there were "a couple decision moments" that made that shift clear to her.

"If we had an incident where somebody was disrespectful, how much did that matter in the end? We had a discussion, and it actually matters a lot," she says. "The soul of what we're trying to do is to make a good place to work where people can be their best. And I don't think they can do that if people are being disrespectful and the culture becomes toxic. So that is our number one priority."

Short believes that emphasis has yielded clear benefits for Kitfox, enabling the studio to retain talent that would have been driven off by a worse working culture. She notes that developers from diverse backgrounds typically burn out faster than their less marginalized counterparts, but Kitfox literally wouldn't exist if it weren't able to retain such employees. The studio has eight people on staff at the moment, and Short says there isn't a straight white man among them.

"Even if the leadership changes its mind, changing all of your decision-making and socializing practices on the fly is very difficult"

As Kitfox weighs a revision to its core values, Short finds herself considering the difficulty involved with any change to a studio culture. In many ways, redirecting the inertia of an existing culture is harder than building a new culture from scratch.

"It's very difficult to implement after the fact," she says, adding, "It really does come from the leadership, and even if the leadership changes its mind, changing all of your decision-making and socializing practices on the fly is very difficult."

For example, Short says startup companies often burn the candle at both ends in order to get off the ground, but have trouble outgrowing that practice.

"A lot of business leaders feel [sustainable working hours] are a luxury. They feel that once you make it, then you can afford to work 9-to-5," she says. "But to me, I don't think I could even get to where it's sustainable if I didn't work 9-to-5, because I see this as running a marathon. I haven't burned out. It's been six years. I'm in my mid-30s. I don't have the 22-year-old energy to work 20 hours a day, and yet I haven't taken weeks or months off [to recover from launching or due to burnout]. Every time my game launches, I'm there on Monday and we keep working.

"Work-life balance is something that's a microcosm of all of this, of respecting your employees, trying to do right by them, and really investing in them as a long-term asset to the company rather than trying to get as much out of them immediately in panic mode and prioritizing anything but their well-being."

That prioritization could be tricky given Kitfox's packed slate of projects at the moment. The studio is still in the thick of development on Boyfriend Dungeon, but it is also publishing the Steam version of A Sharp's Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind later this year and has an unannounced game in the works. And then there's the imposing task of taking Bay 12 Games' hugely influential endless simulation game Dwarf Fortress and releasing a version of it that adds music and swaps out the original's ASCII art for more standard game graphics.

"There are more and more games every year. That's how it's always going to be for the rest of my life"

While Short says she primarily still identifies as a game designer, her role at Kitfox frequently pulls her away from that discipline. It may be on her mind given that our conversation is taking her away from her role staffing the PAX East booth for Boyfriend Dungeon, which is already taking her away from actually working on Boyfriend Dungeon for the week.

She acknowledges participation in gaming events is still an effective way for independent developers to build a fanbase and get the word out about their projects, she can't help but weigh that against the very clear cost it has on the project and the developers who handle those appearances.

"There are more and more games every year," Short says. "That's how it's always going to be for the rest of my life. So I'm looking at it and thinking, 'Is it possible to survive marketing purely on the game?' Because as much as it is an advantage to do the humanized approach, it's letting us work on the game less. And that's what we're here for. We went indie so we could actually make the games, and marketing's not letting us make the games.

If Boyfriend Dungeon performs well and the Kitfox version of Dwarf Fortress carries that game's appeal to a more mainstream audience, the simple answer would be to use the proceeds to hire more people to handle things like marketing, publishing, and live events. However, Short is thinking long term and looking for a different kind of growth.

"Honestly, I see the problem of running an indie studio as solving for people," Short says. "I think the people are more important than the projects, and if we grow too much more, I'll be less confident in my ability to care for those people. So I don't want us to grow much more in terms of headcount. But I do want us to grow in terms of ambition, the quality of games we commit to making, how comfortable everybody is and feeling like they can take risks creatively."

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