Blind Squirrel Games celebrated a milestone earlier this month when it launched its first original title in the free-to-play team-based shooter Drifters Loot the Galaxy.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Blind Squirrel CEO and founder Brad Hendricks says creating new IP was the initial idea when the studio was founded 11 years ago, but there was a good reason to put it off so long.
"In the back of my head, I wanted to be a studio putting out some really great IP, but I also realized it was a small studio," Hendricks says. "I didn't have the draw. I didn't have the pedigree like some of these guys who come out of really big studios where they can start a company and get funded immediately and bring in great talent."
So Hendricks says he started Blind Squirrel with a work-for-hire strategy, building the studio around a talented engineering department and relying on that to land work at first, gradually building its capabilities in art, production, QA, and design to match.
Over the years, Blind Squirrel has made a name for itself with high-profile remasters of other developers' big titles. It made BioShock: The Collection, Borderlands: Game of the Year Enhanced Edition, and next month's Mass Effect Legendary Edition.
Even if this sort of work-for-hire is something of a means to an end by funding the studio's ambitions for original work, Hendricks says Blind Squirrel isn't exactly in a hurry to move past work-for-hire entirely. In fact, the studio has found some ways to combine the benefits of the two.
"Some of the projects we're signing right now are more in line with our vision of creating original IP. Mind you, it might not necessarily be our IP..."
"Some of the projects we're signing right now are more in line with our vision of creating original IP," Hendricks says. "Mind you, it might not necessarily be our IP, but we're doing ground-up development for a couple of really exciting projects I can't talk about."
It wouldn't be the first time Blind Squirrel's ambitions for original creations intersected with its work-for-hire assignments. In fact, Drifters Loot the Galaxy has its origins in the studio's work on Disney Infinity, when the publisher asked a variety of studios to work on new modes for the franchise.
"We put something together and they loved it, but they were still struggling with the interoperability of characters in Star Wars playing against characters in Marvel," Hendricks says. "There was a lot of internal in-fighting going on with that."
Blind Squirrel had proposed a take on team-based hero shooters like Overwatch that would have mixed the various Disney Infinity brands -- Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney -- and that seemed to be a non-starter for the company despite positive feedback around the idea.
Hendricks says Blind Squirrel loved the idea too much to let it die there, so it hired designers specifically to work on it and began pitching versions of the game around. When they didn't find any takers, they decided to make it their first original project, and started from scratch.
"This is a real passion project for us," Hendricks says. "We know we're going against Blizzard and Riot and a lot of these behemoths. The reason a lot of publishers wouldn't pick us up is because they said, 'You're going against the biggest boys on the block, and you're just some no-name little studio.' But we were so passionate about what we did we said, 'Screw it, we're going to do it anyway.'"
Apparently not satisfied with the difficulty level of making its first original game, Blind Squirrel also made Drifters Loot the Galaxy its first excursion into running a free-to-play title (although it did chip in with some work-for-hire on Trion Worlds' free-to-play game Trove, unrelated to the game's monetization and live service aspects.)
"The reason a lot of publishers wouldn't pick us up is because they said, 'You're going against the biggest boys on the block, and you're just some no-name little studio'"
"That was a big risk and I won't deny it, but we were smart about how we hired and brought in key individuals who have been doing this for a while," Hendricks says, noting the company hired technical, design, and product management people with free-to-play experience to help fill in knowledge gaps.
Blind Squirrel was able to self-fund some of this expansion, but the company also went to the investment community to raise about half of what Drifters has cost to make. The studio clearly has a lot riding on Drifters.
As we browsed the Blind Squirrel website in preparation for this interview, we noticed its commitment to a healthy work-life balance at the studio, and a clear statement that "crunch culture is toxic." We ask Hendricks if that commitment is any easier to keep when the studio is working on an original IP it's this invested in versus a work-for-hire project.
"Oh yeah, because I don't have somebody standing over me with a hammer," Hendricks says. "I am the hammer, so we try to avoid crunch and when it's our projects we can dictate the schedule."
Hendricks says people had only recently started crunching on Drifters in anticipation of the launch, and that they had not been asked to do so.
"With work-for-hire, typically we're engaged and it's 'Hey, you've got nine months to finish this AAA remaster' and we're like, 'Well, we need 18.' But they're like, 'Well, we're doing the next version of it and we want to make sure we come out before that version.' And well, why didn't you engage us eight months ago? 'Oh, we just thought of it. It's a marketing idea.' A lot of times we'll even turn that down because the sheer volume of effort that has to go in is just too much."
"A lot of [publishers who use work-for-hire studios] are acknowledging crunch is a situation they don't want to create not only for us, but because it gives them a bad rep, too"
Even so, Hendricks has seen attitudes around crunch changing over time. When he used to tell publishers they weren't giving a reasonable amount of time for what they were asking, they used to say the answer was to work harder.
"A lot of what we're seeing now is publishers looking at it and saying, 'Instead of you working yourself to the bone, let's just start cutting some things out so we can meet our deadline,'" Hendricks says. "A lot of them are acknowledging crunch is a situation they don't want to create not only for us, but because it gives them a bad rep, too. People would leave here and say, 'Oh yeah, those guys worked us to the bone.' I see things evolving, albeit a little slowly."
The performance of Drifters may determine whether Blind Squirrel will be in the work-for-hire game long enough to see publisher positions evolve completely, but in the near- to mid-term, Blind Squirrel will look to more evenly balance its work-for-hire contracts with original projects, both in quantity and the size of the risks being taken.
"We're not going to be doing the level of project we're doing now because Drifters is a big, big project and a lot of money," Hendricks says of the company's original work. "I think we're going to play more in the 12 to 18-month dev cycles and not do these two-to-three year projects internally."