When Ben Wander left Visceral in 2015 to make his own independent games, three of his friends at the studio joked with him that when he made it big, he should hire them.
"It was actually a really hard and introspective decision to leave," Wander tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"I just knew that I wanted to do my own stuff and make my own games -- like the creativity to do something different and something that AAA can't do because they're big, right? They need games that sell millions upon millions of copies in order to fund their development teams and keep their shareholders happy, and I wanted to make stuff that might not sell quite as much as a Battlefield, but it's still fun for a certain group of people."
Wander went to work on narrative mystery A Case of Distrust, but as that game was wrapping up, Visceral shut down, leaving his friends Zach Mumbach, Fred Gareau, and Chee Fong looking for new work. The timing was just right for them to reconnect and form The Wandering Band, an independent studio consisting of just the four of them, now working on city-building sim game Airborne Kingdom.
The team didn't come into Wandering Band with an idea for a game already in mind. Rather, they spent some time brainstorming what their studio's brand would become, and what they themselves wanted to personally contribute with their unique skills. The team collectively liked city builders, and wanted to make something with beautiful environments that was happy and relaxing. Early on, this manifested in a bartending hotel idea, but eventually led to a city builder in the sky.
However, Mumbach says that one prerequisite for the kind of game they want to make both now and in the future has manifested itself as tightly intertwined with the kind of studio culture they are creating.
"We're going to make games that we can essentially make on laptops, so that we can work from wherever we want," he says. "The whole idea is if Fred wants to go down to Peru for three months, cool. Fred can go to Peru for three months. So we were already built to work remotely. But the one thing about the pandemic that slowed us down is that our business plan is twice a year, we all get together somewhere and work together for a week or two. So we have these summits to build teamwork and all that.
"But this idea that we can travel and work from wherever and that we're all remote but at least twice a year, we come together and are a team working together and then go off and do whatever we want is, if I were to say anything, the backbone of what the studio is. Hence the 'Wandering' Band."
"If you have a studio that has, say, 200 people in house, you just can't make something like Airborne Kingdom"Ben Wander
Wander and Mumbach both frequently bring up the dramatic differences between their time in AAA development and what they are doing now. Wander affirms that he's not trying to drag AAA
-- in fact, making Battlefield Hardline with his friends was "the most fun he ever had making a video game up until Airborne Kingdom," he says.
But he also doesn't think a game like Airborne Kingdom would ever be possible at a AAA studio.
"If you have a studio that has, say, 200 people in-house, you just can't make something like Airborne Kingdom. It's not going to feed 200, 300 people. It just won't. It doesn't have that massive appeal that can sell like 10, 20 million copies or something. But I think it lets us be a little more free because it doesn't have to. We have the freedom to be more creative, because it doesn't have to be the sort of mainstream thing that sells millions upon millions to keep The Wandering Band afloat."
Mumbach adds, "At Visceral before we did Battlefield, we did the Dead Space games. The first Dead Space game was critically acclaimed. People had this idea, wanted to make a game, we made the game and it was really well-received. It sold, I don't know, a couple million units. And that basically let us break even. Then they greenlit a sequel. And the idea was that we were going to put out a sequel that needed to sell six, seven, eight million before it started making money. It didn't.
"So then they were like, 'Let's do a third game.' And then you have marketing going, 'You have to make a co-op game because co-op Gears of War is selling and you guys are a third-person shooter and we can start getting these Gears of War fans.' So it went from this idea of being an engineer in space and it's a horror game, and it turned into trying to make a game by a formula. That didn't work on Dead Space 3, we sold four million units or whatever, which like, if Airborne Kingdom sold four million units, I wouldn't know what to do. But we were sitting there feeling like failures because four million people bought a game we made.
"When you start making a game for that many people, it becomes vanilla. Airborne Kingdom is for people that like city builders, but it's more of a specific game and we don't have to make decisions to get mass appeal. We can just make the best game we can and know that if this resonates with a couple hundred-thousand people, we're good."
It's important to note the figures Mumbach cites are not official numbers. PR advised GamesIndustry.biz after the interview that official sales were never disclosed to his team. Instead, these are ballpark numbers offered as an example to highlight the differences between AAA sales in the millions and the much smaller expectations for indie teams.
Mumbach also notes that another major difference for him specifically as a producer is that while his job is still a lot of work, the mental load is easier. He compares switching from being on a huge team at EA to a team of four plus occasional contractors to running with ankle weights on, and then taking them off. Even though everyone is doing more work because there are so few of them, he says, the scale of what needs to be done is easier to understand, and it's easier to solve problems or target issues due to ease of communication.
And Wander says that striking out on his own, as well as just taking time and gaining experience in the industry, gave him the opportunity to reevaluate how he, as an individual, wants to work, and how he can do his best work.
"I did a lot of self-reflection to figure out where my burnout meter was, and the answer was to work less, not more"Ben Wander
"When I was at EA in my 20s, it was a different mentality, probably born out of ignorance, but I was like, 'The longer I stay at work, the better this thing is going to be,'" he says. "And I think working on my own game got me to reevaluate. When it's just me and nobody else, I'm like, 'What's the best way to work?' I did a lot of self-reflection and self-experimentation to figure out where my burnout meter was, and where my exhaustion level was, and the answer was to work less, not more. I get better work done in certain scenarios, working certain ways."
Wander's realizations, as well as the desires of the rest of the team, have resulted in a relatively loose day-to-day structure for The Wandering Band. No one signs anyone else up for work, Mumbach says, but everyone agrees on what needs to get done and volunteers for what they feel they can reasonably do. If there are issues, they talk them out, and make decisions together about whether someone else on the team can pick up the slack, or if they need to hire a contractor to do it. And, he adds, they always keep contractor parameters specific, and well-defined.
All this, Mumbach continues, keeps The Wandering Band from ever having to crunch.
"In AAA, when you're crunching, you're crunching because of some amount of work or some date that you're not even connected to. These companies are well-run companies. But the guy on the floor, me, feels it's arbitrary. I'm here til midnight every night because someone said this game is going to come out on this day. But that wasn't based on the work. It was based on someone going, 'This seems good, we have a hole in the calendar here. Let's fill this quarter, we've got to get this income. We don't have that at all [with The Wandering Band]."
Wander adds, "To be fair, what Zach's describing, I don't think is scalable, right? It's important that we're small, it's important that we know each other and it's important that we trust each other. I don't want this team to get to like 30 people, let alone hundreds of people. We want to be hiring contractors and have a core team that stays really, really small throughout the lifetime of this company. Because I think that the best way I found to make these games is when I just trust everybody that I'm working with."
"The idea that everybody is invested means...your incentive to get this done is that you own a piece of this thing, and the better your part is, the better the total will be"Zach Mumbach
What they describe sounds a bit like a worker co-op, but the team says their structure isn't exactly that -- they haven't fully researched what a co-op entails and aren't calling themselves that. But all four founders do have an equal share in the company, generally make decisions together, and they pay contractors a set amount for their work -- no residuals.
"No, I like the idea," Mumbach says after a moment of discussing this. "We've talked about this, the idea that we could bring people on as contractors and pay them a salary. It's hard to say. We all had to take a hit on this thing. To ask someone else to do that... let's say Airborne Kingdom comes out, and we're doing another game. And we ask someone else to join in and be the fifth person, and we split equally, and they get 20%. Well, that's great, two years later, but what is that person going to do up until then? So we pay people.
"We've worked at EA, but we don't necessarily understand how all the nitty-gritty parts of this business work, to be perfectly honest. There are all these things in publishing and sales that we're going to start to understand. Like, what does it really mean when stores take a percentage cut? How do taxes work? If we go to consoles, how does that work?
"I would love a future where when we sign contractors for a salary, and there's a thing in their contract that says when the game comes out, they get X percentage of the game for the rest of their life. As long as the game is selling, even if you go off and do something else, you're part of this game. We just have to get the business part of it figured out.
"Personally, the co-op thing is like my dream. The idea that everybody is invested means... your incentive to get this done is not because I'm paying you a paycheck and I'm your boss. Your incentive to get this done is that you own a piece of this thing, and it's going to go out there and the better your part is, the better the total will be, the more money it will generate, the more money you will earn on the back end, and the better you'll feel about being a part of a good game."