After four years "intentionally in stealth mode," Secret Society Games wants to raise its public profile, and it's concerned with how exactly it wants to present itself to the world.
Until late last week, the studio's website offered very little information about what it actually does, simply mentioning a handful of team members and some of their past AAA experience. As for its current work, there wasn't much more beyond a statement that it is "focused on co-development and original IP projects."
Last week, Secret Society announced the appointment of Andreea Enache as its new chief business officer. Enache arrives from Blind Squirrel Games, a co-development studio that recently began developing games for itself. It's clear her work with Secret Society will be informed from her experiences at Blind Squirrel over the past half-dozen years.
"We are committed to developing our own games," Enache tells GamesIndustry.biz about Secret Society. "And to get there, we have been doing what other similar independent studios tend to do, but with a bit of a twist -- we've grown slowly, hand-picked every single team member, and carefully selected co-development projects that our team was not only passionate about, but were also a great fit for our skill set and level of expertise."
Secret Society worked on Amazon Games' New World, and is also collaborating with the company on other unannounced projects. Beyond that, it has a dedicated group within the company working on its own IP on a self-funded basis.
"The slow, conscious growth has allowed us to be debt-free and profitable, while building a culture of trust and mutual respect," Enache says.
While Enache acknowledges the short-term financial stability afforded by co-development, she says over-reliance on it can catch up to a studio in the long run.
"Work for hire, as a funding model, can require making short-term compromises to the long-term strategy in order to continue to fund internal development," she says. "My role is to make sure we are taking on the right projects in order to reach our goals.
"In my opinion, the upside of original IP far exceeds these risks; owning IP positively impacts your valuation (in a world of aggressive M&A activity, it's a significant consideration). Also, even if the IP ends up not being a commercial success, making the games your team wants to make is an incredible retention tool."
And like any other part of the industry, the market for co-development studios is constantly evolving.
"More demand for content equals more stability for developers, especially outsourcers... demand for external support is higher than ever before"
"Some developers have morphed from having very specific profiles (art support, QA, etc.) into full-service agencies such as Virtuos, Keywords or Amber Studio," Enache says, "while others have become more and more specialized in more critical areas of support -- and historically not outsourced as much -- such as design and engineering. The former category allows large AAA titles to mitigate risk and potentially reduce budget by allowing them to tap into thousands of resources on a global level without scaling staff internally.
"The latter is what SSG identifies with. We think of ourselves as 'special forces' that can step in and lead the creative and engineering process with extremely seasoned talent."
Regardless of which focus a co-development studio embraces, Enache sees the market booming.
"More demand for content equals more stability for developers, especially outsourcers," Enache says. "One of the results of consolidations and these massive acquisitions we've been witnessing is that certain publishers or IP holders have had their external resources taken away, and have also seen developers leaving and starting their own studios.
"This means demand for external support is higher than ever before. The work-for-hire market was traditionally full of ups and downs, ebbs and flows. One year you're on a hiring spree, the next you have to downsize. I haven't seen that happen in the past couple of years. It feels like we're now constantly playing catch up on the hiring front. There's been no shortage of work -- in fact, there's plenty of it to go around and the biggest issue is being constantly resource constrained."
"The competition [in the work-for-hire market] is now more around attracting and retaining talent than securing work"
As strong as the demand for co-development studios is right now, she expects it to grow further still.
"The ongoing hunger for more and more content, the challenge to retain talent, and the scarcity of competent independent game studios after the last few years of acquisitions have turned the co-development market into a sellers' market," Enache says.
Enache says that's also led to studios able to command higher rates than they add in the past, at least for North American studios.
"Interestingly enough, the competition is now more around attracting and retaining talent than securing work."
In her role as chief business officer, Enache will also be responsible for exploring other avenues for expansion for Secret Society Games.
"Since we are looking to stay a small- to-midsize studio, there is an opportunity for us to partner with other development studios that could augment our own team and help us to realize our vision," she says.
"We are keen on exploring various business models in partnerships, as well as identifying opportunities where our highly specialized team (specifically in design and engineering) could take a lead role in the further development of an established franchise or other parties' original IP.
"What we do know (and have known from the beginning) is that we could never accomplish any of this without a real investment in and commitment to our people. Building and sustaining a culture of trust and empowerment, one that celebrates diversity and promotes a thoughtful, compassionate and progressive approach to everything we do, are truly the elements that define the biggest opportunity we have in front of us. The rest, we believe, will follow."
"Work for hire, as a funding model, can require making short-term compromises to the long-term strategy in order to continue to fund internal development"