So, you want to establish your own pizza plac... Oh, wait, game dev studio?
Mario Leśniewski looks at the challenges of starting up a games studio – through the metaphor of making pizza
The games industry is full of dreamers, but way too many times have I seen those dreams shattered, including my own.
People perceive the games industry as something cool and fun while also being a good business opportunity – and they are mostly right.
I've met many people attracted to the idea of either working in the industry or funding their own company, more often so while the business was in a booming state, but it still happens now and will likely happen more once the recession is over. But the market is more competitive than ever. So, what are essential aspects both newcomers and veterans should be aware of while building their studio?
I challenged myself to make this article more digestible to people who come from other industries and decided to use the more familiar metaphor of running your own restaurant, in particular a pizza parlor. Why pizza? Simply because almost everyone loves pizza and a lot of people tend to think it's a simple business. Restaurants are also creative businesses and a pizza might seem like a simple recipe but there's a lot of hidden complexity to it – just like running your own studio.
Be aware of the industry
It's very unlikely to have a great pizzeria if you haven't tried many pizzas before and you do not understand what makes a great pizza… great. And I mean really understand.
The business is evolving rapidly so even if you know a lot about the game industry and consider yourself a veteran, it's healthy to assume that you don't and ask yourself a lot of questions!
Those questions could be:
- People love that other parlor's pizza… Is it the dough, or maybe a way they serve it and always deliver it fresh? Or maybe it's the ingredients and the way they mix them? Same with games… Why is a certain game a hit? Is it a genre or maybe the way the dev team executed it? Maybe it's state of the art lighting or a fresh take on a proven formula? Or maybe fun, interesting lore and cute characters. Maybe all of that. Is your team capable of such execution? If not, what does our team need to be on that level and is it feasible/viable for your business?
- When modern pizza was initially invented, no one would have even thought about putting pineapple on a pizza. Recipes change, and so does what people want. How has players' taste evolved? Do they want the same games now as a few years ago?
- I want my pizza place in this sweet hip district where only cool kids are and serve that one pizza they seem to love at the moment because it went viral! But do people need one more pizza parlor there or is it already crowded? Similarly, how many games like this are created each year, how many succeeded and how many failed? Is there maybe space for a more specific genre? Are we better at something or maybe we can offer something others lack? How many indie game dev studios close after releasing their first game? Spoiler alert: a lot! Are you ready for this?
- Making pizza takes only three minutes in a special industry oven, right? Wrong! The whole process takes much longer, even at a professional level. How are games really made? What is the technology and pipeline? What people do you need and how long does it take until a game is finally made and plays nicely? Spoiler alert again: a long time! Are you ready for this?
This list could go on, and I hardly imagine being able to establish and run a healthy game development business without such industry know-how. It's not to say it's absolutely impossible, you can invest a lot of your time and learn as you go (in a painful way) or hire big guns (in a costly way) that will fill the gap.
But understanding the market has one great additional perk. It will minimize tensions between you and the team. It will also contribute to better investing time, money and effort.
Reality check for a newcomer: Am I really aware of the industry or do I have someone on my team who is?
Reality check for a veteran: Do I really understand why certain recent games are successful? What is that exciting thing that we can realistically offer to players? Is it not too crowded already?
Give it time to grow
There are pizza places that rest their dough for two hours, but a real pizza gem needs 16 hours for the dough to rest. It's the same with the dev team. People need to learn their trade or simply adjust to work and communicate with each other, find the most efficient pipelines, and so on.
This might sound devastating, but according to industry expert Chris Zukowski, most indie studios (over 75%) release only one game. Why? We need to believe in what we do, but we also need to be realistic and have some contingency plans that we can apply when things do not go according to our plan.
Everybody knows that a great pizza needs quality ingredients, but many think that you can make games with inexperienced teams
Chances of your first indie game becoming a big success are statistically very low. So maybe instead of making one big three-year development game you should make one game each year or even one game each six months and roll that dice more often? Not everything is a lottery in game dev, but I don't believe you can always engineer the success of your first indie game.
It is better to be prepared for a worse case scenario and plan how to make another game if the first one doesn't break even. This way you'll gain that precious publishing experience and expand your games portfolio while giving your team an unprecedented opportunity to learn and grow.
Reality check for a newcomer or veteran: Is my studio's future secured beyond my first/next project, so my team, experience and games portfolio can grow? Will I have a chance to publish again? Is my team overwhelmed by a feeling that the studio's existence depends on the success of our game? Does the scope of our current project render the possibility to make another one if it does not succeed financially?
Have your full attention to the business
This one will be short, but crucial. If you want to make a really great pizza (and this is the kind of mindset that the dev team needs) don't serve Belgian fries cause it's "an opportunity."
I have seen studios trying to do games among other projects, or trying to make every-most-popular-genre-that-exists-right-now and it almost never works out. Why? Because game dev is an absurdly complex thing that mixes many – sometimes non-complementary – skills and trades that require a lot of attention, experience and care about details.
If you can't devote your whole attention to game development (or your niche), have somebody in your place that can do it and let them know they have your full trust, responsibility and resources.
Reality check for a newcomer or veteran: What is actually my business model? Premium indie games, work-for-hire, rapid iterations and smaller games, current trends fast follow? Can I spare my full attention to the business? If not, do I have somebody who can? Do they feel like they have my full trust, responsibility and resources (super important when scaling your studio)?
Mindfully choose the ingredients
Everybody knows that for a great pizza you need quality ingredients, but many think that you can make games with inexperienced teams. It is not sound to assume that you will make quality games without a proper team in place. Hiring industry talent is super hard (and expensive), and even more so if you're a new studio without an established reputation and portfolio.
The dough is the foundation of any great pizza. But dough is not made of... dough, duh! It requires quality ingredients like flour, water, yeasts, salt… It's the same with your core team.
So remember, you should not base your whole studio solely on one talented individual. It will create painful tensions within the team resulting from setting unrealistic expectations and lack of understanding of common goals. You need a team of professionals with kind attitudes, various experiences and talents.
They will give your studio and products essential knowledge, craft, processes, pace and vibe. They will support and help each other in difficult personal or development situations.
And there is one more crucial ingredient that almost everybody forgets about: time! It will not happen overnight.
Of course, you're gonna need people on a different skill level, you have to invest in talented industry newcomers and shape your studio's DNA with them. But make no mistake, the recipe is 80/20 where 20% stands for juniors, not the other way round. When you fund a studio, big money comes into play. You don't want to risk it and bet on luck. Bet on the right people.
If you struggle to find your "perfect team," just adapt and scale down. Instead of hiring talents and building big games that will burn all your funding, you better think about how you can use your team's experience to make something more modest but still delicious. It's better to start serving a fantastic margherita than an undercooked half raw pizza with ten ingredients that nobody will like. And you will ship more and learn more as you go.
Reality check for a newcomer: Do I have a strong and well balanced core team? If not, maybe we have to scale down our expectations and production.
Reality check for a veteran: Is my team happy? Is the chemistry among the core team good? Is our seniority level high enough to make everyone work comfortably? If any of those is a no: who do we need, or who needs to be replaced to make it happen? Maybe we have to scale down our expectations and production?
Set the mood
We all like to go to those charming, cozy places where service is friendly and a cheerful owner greets you at the entrance showing that they are fully invested and caring about their business. In the same way, you have to set the right mood and values in your studio.
Sometimes when you read a review of a great game it says that you can feel that a lot of heart was put in making this game. There's a Polish saying that "fish starts to rot from its head" meaning that management is often a source of a problem. You should be an inspiration for the team.
Making money is important and essential to the game business, but it cannot be your only driver
Making money is important and essential to the game business, but it cannot be your only driver. Sooner or later developers (and players) will feel that and turn their back on you.
Games are art, and great games, just like great art, need heart. Show your team that you care about their work and express your passion for games. Treat your team in a kind and professional manner. Let them feel your trust and their agency. They will appreciate that and it will be reflected in your products.
Reality check for a newcomer: What are the values that I want my studio to share? Do I have genuine passion for games and an attitude to set the right mood at my studio, do I maybe need someone who better fits this role?
Reality check for a veteran: Do I need to update our values? Is my team happy with me or can I improve something?
Setting up a new – or running an existing – studio is not a piece of cake but it is one of the most rewarding experiences that one may be tasked with. The above list is not complete by any means but I hope that the lessons it provides and a right mindset will help you navigate the stormy waters of our beloved industry.
Mario Leśniewski is head of studio at Kool2Play. With a decade of experience as designer and producer developing mobile and PC games, he's mostly focused on helping teams achieving their goals. You can reach out to him on Linkedin.