In 2012, Marguerite Dibble started Vermont-based Birnam Wood Games. The plan was to focus on making the best games possible, trusting that with a quality product, the rest of the pieces would fall into place.
As the company finished its debut game, Pathogen, it appeared like that plan might just work. Birnam Wood found a publisher for the game. It got plenty of coverage from the gaming press. It received great reviews. Apple featured it on the App Store for its launch day. But there was one problem.
"The game had a price point on it, so even with everything going just right, the revenue we generated from the game was nowhere near enough to run a company with four people for a year, which is what it had taken us to make the game and probably would take us to make another one," Dibble said.
"[A]n indie is someone who's focused on the product they're creating: an original, novel game... A startup is about creating a business model."
Next week, Dibble is speaking at the Montreal International Game Summit about how to make it as an indie studio, and how Birnam Wood found a second life as Game Theory. Earlier this week, she spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about what she'd learned from the process, starting with the difference between launching an indie studio and launching a startup.
"I've come to perceive that difference as being that an indie is someone who's focused on the product they're creating: an original, novel game," Dibble said. "It's a product-centric [approach]. A startup is about creating a business model."
After the disappointment of Pathogen, Dibble rethought her original approach to Birnam Wood, and came to a disheartening conclusion.
"If we wanted to continue making our own titles and relying on them for revenue, then we'd have to start doing things that show better revenue returns, like freemium titles and in-app purchasing," Dibble said. "We'd have to start aggressively treating our games as something we'd need to make a living from."
Dibble didn't like the idea of putting those constraints and that sort of pressure on her passion projects, so she found an alternative. Birnam Wood had been doing some work-for-hire and consultancy on the side while it tried to get Pathogen out the door. It wasn't necessarily glamorous work, but it paid well enough, and much more reliably than making original games. So, the studio rebranded as Game Theory and refocused, growing its side businesses until they became a fundamental pillar of the company. Now they offer a game developer's perspective for non-game projects, from the Vermontivate! sustainable living educational initiative to the iOS fitness app 8bitfit.
If that sounds like gamification, that's because it basically is. Dibble even uses the word on the Game Theory website for search engine optimization reasons, but it's one she's trying to redefine after it got a bit of a bad reputation.
"There's this weird thing going on where people don't want to act like money has anything to do with game development...It sort of breaks the taboo of making art for art's sake, which I think is kind of stupid."
"The energy around gamification a couple years ago felt a lot like manipulative marketing," Dibble said. "It was around the same time when Zynga was doing a whole ton of slightly manipulative game design. The difference between what we're trying to do and what led to gamification falling off is that we're just trying to make stuff that's legitimately fun. It's not about quick little tricks you can throw on a system to improve it; it's about genuinely understanding why people will enjoy something, and why they can get a fun, rewarding, engaging experience from what you're doing."
Regardless of what the focus of a new company is, or whether a developer gets into it wanting to launch an indie or a startup, Dibble said the hardest part is always the same.
"Money," Dibble said, unequivocally. "Things cost money. Your time costs money, and people have to survive. There's this weird thing going on where people don't want to act like money has anything to do with game development. I don't know if I'm the only one who feels this way, but I feel people just don't want to associate making games with making money. It sort of breaks the taboo of making art for art's sake, which I think is kind of stupid... Everyone needs to survive, and it's silly for game designers to feel like they don't deserve to make enough money to have a family and be comfortable, to have a nice, happy, contented life."
It's an attitude Dibble says the industry propagates. But even though the idea of developers undervaluing themselves and their work would benefit employers the most, it's one that's sometimes furthered by the people it hurts the most.
"There's this cliché of the starving artist indie developer, these people who are tortured and are suffering for their art and they can't afford to feed themselves but they're making this game," Dibble said. "It's just sort of a romanticized image that I think might make indie developers feel it's something they should aspire to."
"Anyone who starts a company has an immense responsibility to the people who work for them."
Giving up comfort in order to achieve a dream is something worth celebrating and romanticizing to a certain extent, Dibble said, but too often it gets treated as an ideal. And that's when it begins to have negative effects.
"What we should be looking at is people who can have lives they're happy with, people who have a really positive existence and are able to be contented with the work they produce and the way it's produced," Dibble said.
Having developers value themselves more might make payroll at smaller studios like Game Theory more expensive, but Dibble said a fairly compensated staff that doesn't worry so much about finances will produce better, more creative work. And the reasons for taking good care of her employees go far beyond best practices and good business sense.
"Anyone who starts a company has an immense responsibility to the people who work for them," Dibble said. "I want to make sure my employees can have a comfortable life, that they don't have to feel afraid about their next rent check, that they can have families, that they can have a great quality of life. I think that's really, really valuable. As someone who started the company, who runs it and makes sure it continues running, that's totally my responsibility."