Staying Alive: How some indies are setting their studios up for survival

Whether you’re trying to design a hot new roguelike, figure out the next iteration of match-3, or craft an artistically unique game development experience, you may have a concern lurking in the back of your mind: “Will this help our studio survive?”

This is amajor question that many developers have talked to Gamasutra about over the years. It’s a question without a fundamental universal answer. What works for one studio, in one region, will never work for another. But before any studio in the world can think about bringing home blockbuster bank and buying everyone Teslas, it needs to solve that survival equation. 

We took time at Sweden Games Conference this year to ask a handful of developers how they’re thinking about making companies sustainable, and ensuring they can survive shipping their passion projects. 

One developer who’s keenly aware of what it’s taken to keep different kinds of companies afloat is Ragnar Tornquist, CEO and lead designer at Red Thread Games, a studio that saw great success with the Kickstarter for Dreamfall Chapters, but has worked hard to keep its doors open to make more narrative games like Draugen

The primary reason Tornquist has become concerned with studio survival is that the conditions Red Thread was founded under have drastically changed. Kickstarter has grown to be a more viable platform for tabletop than digital games. Steam has become a more crowded marketplace. And in his words, it’s not enough to “make a good game” anymore. 

“There needs to be so much more around it,” said Tornquist. “You need to be profiled, you need front-page treatment, you need a huge marketing budget, you need to have some meme-able thing in the game, you need to be an unnamed Goose, you need to have something that jumps out and captures people’s imaginations, and it’s hard to plan for that.”

With the industry changing around Red Thread, Tornquist admitted that the studio had to lay off a number of employees in advance of Draugen‘s launch to ensure it could keep its doors open. Tornquist frequently referred back to a spreadsheet that helps him chart out Red Thread’s viability, and he works to communicate it to the team as best he can.

“We have meetings where we look at this and say ‘look guys, everything is fine for the next six months, in seven months there’s going to be a struggle,'” he said as one example. “‘It’s good that you guys understand that, trust me I’m going to take care of that, I’m going to work on a daily basis to address this, and in a couple of months that equation’s going to look different.'”

“If people are informed, and they feel their job is predictable–not safe, because I think being an indie developer, safety is often hard to come by, but [predictability], that’s important. Having that openness in your company is important.”

Having survived one major transition, Tornquist explained that Red Thread Games is aiming to keep its doors open by shifting its model toward the newer subscription services that are emerging–services like Apple Arcade and Xbox GamePass, which have begun to pay developers for exclusive titles. 

But Tornquist says it’s unwise for the company to just hang its hat on any one prospective client. “If you spend three to six months making a demo for a specific service, and that service doesn’t want the game, then you’re going to have to turn that around and find somebody else to do it,” he explained. “The way we’re thinking, is we’re looking at all these opportunities, and we’re trying to hit as many of them as possible while doing what is our core competence, which is making story-driven games we can publish ourselves.”

While Tornquist and Red Thread Games have been fighting the good fight for years now, many newer studios have been trying to find their own niches in the interim. For instance, Mike Cox, marketing director of Crows Crows Crows, explained that part of his job description was to make the young company “sustainable.” Cox described the rise of Crows as a response to the changing game market that Tornquist previously described. 

While he spent much of the conference hammering at marketing techniques indies can use effectively he says the purpose of all his toolbox, beyond the thrills of profit, is to enable the Crows team to keep doing what they do best. 

For Crows Crows Crows, Cox described a data-driven process built on the back of his work helping Kickstarters connect with audiences before launching. One strategy that’s worked well for Crows has been a newsletter-marketing technique built on the back of Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, a short free-to-play game released in 2015.

After players finished that game, they could sign up for a newsletter that became the foundation of how Cox gathers data and markets Crows’ games to a dedicated audience for newer games like Accounting, made with the help of Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland. 

Cox sees this strategy–along with a focus on achieving key placements in different storefronts–as a response to indie marketing strategies he learned about in his early days in the games business. Cox spoke about how since storefronts like Steam have evolved and allowed more devs onto the platform, developers can’t expect to just “have a great game” and have that be enough.

“From the outside I understand how someone would look into the company and think ‘oh it’s the prestige that’s carrying this, or the prestige fueling this, or Justin Roiland was on this project so it boosts it to the stratosphere,'” Cox said. “It doesn’t actually work like that.”

So now Cox, like many other developers, works to analyze the audience that’s grown around different Crows games and constantly serve them content that will keep them coming back. But just as Cox built his strategy in response to an increasingly unsuccessful strategy from the start of the indie era, he’s aware that one day the whole market could shift against him still.  

“It’s scary!” he admitted. “To be honest it’s the same fact for anyone who works in data, there’s a phrase called ‘drinking your own kool-aid,’ that idea that you become so enthralled with the way you’re thinking about the world that it blinds you and you can’t see any other way. You start going ‘oh this can’t be going wrong, it’s the data,’ and you’re constantly just reaffirming your own beliefs.”

“Part of it is that, if you get far enough ahead, and you’re building sustainably, that it can’t crumble quite easily. It’s almost funny, [surviving means] not that you’re getting better and adapting, it’s that you’ve built so much of a sustainable mass behind you, you’re screwing up but you’re being forgiven by all the effort you invested in the past.”

Elsewhere, Flamebait Games, the makers of Passpartout: The Starving Artist, have been trying to build a sustainable foundation to turn their student-founded company into one that will exist for a longer period of time.

CEO and lead designer Mattias Lindblat explained that while the studio did benefit from the social safety net provided by his home country of Sweden, there wasn’t any guarantee the company would be around after a few years if Passpartout didn’t net some kind of traction. 

“We started out actually everyone having side jobs, some people worked at a factory…basically, I was actually preparing the company to start doing outsourcing to build funds in the company prior to the Passpartout release,” said Lindblat. “If Passpartout had performed poorly or tanked, we would move on to try and secure funding through other means, through publishers, or investors, or those kinds of things. Which is especially tricky if you’re a newly graduated student and your track record is looking poor.”

Lindblat credited his team’s ability to iterate fast and try out new ideas as a key driver for how they were able to ship Passpartout and build the foundation for their next game Forge and Fight. But in particular, he says the studio is trying to think hard about why Passpartout succeeded, which Lindblat credited as the game’s “shareability.” 

Explaining this, Lindblat said that Passpartout largely succeeded because the game’s narrative structure served to help players create their own “dumb” MS Paint-style images and share stories about how well they did in the game. To Lindblat, shareability is a useful strategy for developers to help players spread the word about their game while having a good time. 

For the benefit of other developers, he tried to explain his studio’s philosophy as such. “I think the strongest form of sharing is something you created. If you focus your shareability to be focused around moments like ‘oh this cool moment when someone backstabbed this person’ and you have a share thing for that, if you have anything pre-built, it’s valid to be shared once. But if you have a game that’s a creative system where people can produce different types of stuff, you can generate a lot of fun situations, that’s when I think shareability becomes really interesting.” 

Flamebait Games wasn’t the only student-formed studio on hand with a foundational interest in “sharing.” Hanna Fogelberg, chief communications officer for Landfall Games, explained that part of the reason their company was able to grow was that its founder, Wilhelm Nylund, was able to build interest in his games early on by sharing prototypes on Reddit.

“It’s become integral to our design process when we make the games, that we show it to people and we see how they react, then we change the game accordingly,” Fogelberg explained. “We have a very open development type of thing going on. “

From there, Fogelberg explained, Landfall Games’ goal for survival has been to ship successful games while keeping the team as compact as possible. “We’re…realizing that we don’t want to become a huge company,” Forgelberg explained. “We want to stay around 13-15 people and keep doing the games we want to do now,” which include titles like Clustertruck and Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (and its spinoff, Totally Accurate Battlegrounds). 

To that end, Fogelberg says the company’s goal now, instead of expanding and expanding, is to fund other developers–both as a means to help their friends, but also to create revenue opportunities for the company. “Even if our next games fails, we’ll have sustainable income having helped other developers and get money from that,” she said.

Elsewhere, Valiant Game Studio is a younger studio than Landfall or Flamebait trying to figure out how to lay the foundation for survivability in the long run. Co-founded by Anna Jenelius and Laura Bularca (who also helped organize the Swedish Game Conference), the two have been working to lay groundwork for the long-term existence of the studio.

As a game studio, the pair not only have published the episodic RPG Pendula Swing, but they’ve also added a number of other services to their business, including the branding service Brindie, publishing smaller projects like the card game Zestara, and more. 

Part of the company’s survival then is load management. Bularca explains that like Tornquist, they rely on a spreadsheet telling them how long they have to “exist,” but also a process for maintaining morale and providing moral support for each other. “I think we’re just trying to be there for each other,” said Jenelius. “I’m especially trying to check in with Laura like ‘are you okay, you aren’t doing too much I hope?'”

According to Jenelius, making Pendula Swing an episodic game was also a decision made to support the company’s smaller stature. “We needed to have a way for people not just to give us money but to play the game and help us develop it, to make sure we’re building a good thing,” she explained. 

It’s a halfway point between Early Access and a full release, one that’s helped Valiant Game Studio self-publish Pendula Swing and fix bugs they couldn’t have caught if they’d shipped as a premium project. Bularca explained that even though the game brings in about 6 percent of the company’s revenue, it’s still proved useful for its long-term survival, since it both helps them learn more about the game-making process they can use to help other developers, and create a library of code and assets they can re-use on future projects. 

“I think a lot of small startups tend to work on a feature or asset and say ‘it’s not good enough, I’m throwing it away,'” Bularca said. “I don’t think you should throw it away! It’s good work that you spend a lot of time on, and time is money, and maybe it will be a moment in your life when you can pick it up, polish it, and reuse it in a different way.”

Admittedly, many of the developers interviewed for this story benefit from the social safety nets and socialist funding structures of their home nations, something each of the interviewed developers brought up in different capacities. Tornquist explained how Red Thread was able to apply for state funding, Lindblat and Bularca expressed relief that Sweden’s social services would help them if their companies collapsed. 

But it’s Tornquist’s belief that sharing survival stories is a key part of how developers can deal with the hard times. “There’s a lot of articles about success stories and things like that, and then there’s articles that are postmortems of studios,” he pointed out, “but very few articles about just getting along, surviving, because that’s what 90 percent of us do!”

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