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'Why should indie developers be a jack of all trades?'

Talenthouse Media Foundry's Mike Gamble discusses the challenges small studios face in plugging their skills gaps

Listen to any discussion about the differences between working at a larger, established studio and a small indie team, and you can almost guarantee someone will use the phrase "wear many hats" regarding the latter.

It makes sense, to an extent. When you don't have dozens or even hundreds of people on your team, the workload involved in making every aspect of a game function (not to mention keeping the lights on in your business) is likely to be shared among your colleagues.

But with more and more opportunities emerging for freelancers online, it is perhaps becoming more practical to hire or commission those who are skilled in the areas in which you might be lacking.

"Just because you're a really good games developer, coder or artist, that doesn't mean you should be good at the other stuff"

"The thing to remember is just because you're a really good games developer, coder or artist, that doesn't mean you should be good at the other stuff," says Mike Gamble, Talenthouse Media Foundry's head of strategy for the games industry.

"In fact, why should you be? If you're a skilled games developer, there's no reason you should know the ins and outs of business. But it's kind of expected that as an independent developer you're a jack of all trades, you are handling everything. Some developers grapple with that and do it, but if they didn't have to, it would free up [their time]."

Gamble joined Talenthouse earlier this year after spending more than a decade at Unreal Engine creator Epic Games. As he reflects on his time there, he comments on "the amount of indies I saw with beautiful titles that have just disappeared off the face of the Earth because they've got no-one committed to marketing, business development and so on."

Gamble is now working on one potential solution in building Talenthouse Media Foundry. Formed in 2009, Talenthouse has built up an online community of freelancers and brands in various other businesses, enabling the former to find commissions and the latter to find the talent they need for certain projects.

Media Foundry is the new spin-off that focuses on professionals working in the games space, largely due to Gamble's experience, although it will expand out to connect folks from other entertainment industries as well.

"The same challenges that face indie game developers also face independent filmmakers, musicians, board game creators -- the whole of the entertainment industry suffers from this same bunch of problems at the independent end," he says.

"If you're an independent creator of a game and you want to be able to take that to film or other media and exploit your IP, it's actually tricky -- because you don't know what you don't know."

Mike

Mike Gamble, Talenthouse Media Foundry

The aim is to enable developers to find the extra talent they need, particularly on a temporary or freelance basis, without the need to seek a larger publisher -- and thus lock themselves into a deal they might not want yet -- in order to secure extra resources.

"Are we saying, 'Publisher bad, developer good'? No. What we can do is find independent game developers -- around one to 50 people, because the bigger the studio, the harder it is to get this to work -- and provide them with things they don't have in-house, things like marketing, business development and basically supplement their studio with the things they could get by going to a publisher, taking on freelancers or building a bigger organisation.

"If we can provide them with this bunch of skills they don't have, that puts them in a better position to decide whether they want to self-publish or go with a publisher. It also makes it a more equitable discussion with the publishers because of the quality of the product. They don't have to take a deal that's not ideal or beneficial solely to keep the doors open and continue developing the game."

Recognising the gaps in your own skillset is often difficult for anyone, but perhaps moreso for developers.

"Games developers are stubborn buggers," says Gamble. "Sometimes it's hard to get them to recognise they're not good at something."

But it can be just as challenging to find ways to plug those gaps. For years, developers and freelancers alike were often somewhat reliant on major events -- GDC, for example -- to network and forge new connections that could assist with their next project. With events around the world cancelled and most people subject to lockdown measures, the ability to meet new people and those from other markets has been more limited.

That said, Gamble praises developers' adaptability in the rise of other online communities and platforms since the virus began to spread.

"Games people are still really well placed to take advantage of their skills outside of the industry"

"It's initially been harder because of the lack of events, but developers and freelancers are smart people. There's been a rise in the number of virtual teams and the amount of remote working within established teams. Ultimately, I don't think the indie developer has been particularly impacted. Small and indie developers largely work remotely anyway, so what it's done is it's created much tighter communities where people are talking to each other and able to find one another virtually.

"Because we've all lived online for 18 months, it's adapt or die. While everyone welcomes a physical event, actually the horizons are much wider now and there are channels to talk to people that didn't exist socially as well as on a more professional basis. Which is brilliant on the one hand but a bit worrying on the other because we're getting more disconnected physically even though we're more connected digitally."

The lines are also increasingly blurring between the work of games developers (and freelancers in this space) and that of certain disciplines in other forms of entertainment, particularly film and TV. Both Unreal Engine and Unity are now used beyond more than just video games, with real-time technology highly coveted by producers of film, TV and even companies in the automotive industry.

This, Gamble says, is creating new opportunities for skilled games professionals: "So the core skills of building assets for within those engines, or even programming and using the engines themselves, now go well beyond the games industry. Games people are still really well placed to take advantage of their skills outside of the industry, rather more than film people that are just getting into real-time technology, who would have struggled to get into games a few years ago.

"The real-time technology at the base means a lot of the assets that are used in games could be used for film sets, even if it's just pre-vis[ualisation]. Or vice versa, if you're building virtual sets in Unreal or Unity, those assets are emmantly usable in the early stages of games development. As the engines get smarter about level of detail and crunching sizes of meshes and textures down, that becomes all the more easier. There was a time you would never in a million years have got a CAD model of a car into a real-time engine; they just weren't built in a way to do that. But Unreal and Unity are providing the tools to do that as part of the package."

That crossover and the use of freelancers brings to mind previous discussions about games adopting a more film-like model, where skilled contractors are brought in solely for their part of the project and then free to move onto something else, rather than employed directly by the studio. It's something studios like Slingshot Cartel have attempted to model, so is the shift towards this way of working inevitable for games -- particularly at the indie level?

"It's been talked about for a long time," Gamble concludes. "I don't think it's inevitable -- there are teams that do that now very successfully, so the model is proven to work, but it's more about supplementing skills."

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