Learning From Indie Studio Successes
I put on the indie entrepreneur hat for the second installment of my series of articles on the future of everything. This time around, "everything" is the indie studio. In the first part, "everything" were "games" as a whole. Take a grain of salt and carefully apply it to my very personal opinions.
Part 2: The New Game Studio
There has been a disturbing number of success stories in independent gaming in the last years. First there was 2D Boy with World of Goo, then Jonathan Blow's Braid came along, then Rovio introduced the whole world to Angry Birds and at last, Mojang made Minecraft - or the other way around. What do all these success stories have in common? They all (except of Minecraft, where it's a bit more complicated) had about the same budgets. Each of them uses a custom engine. All of these games came to many platforms, or are in the process of doing so, extending their shelve life infinitely as they hop from marketplace to marketplace. Plus there's one more thing they have in common: The studios that made those games still own the IP's of the games.
Be A Fighter
If you want to go down the Rovio route, there are a couple of things you can learn from them. One of the most important ones is: Make tons of games. They were in the business for 6 years when they released Angry Birds, having released more than 50 - mostly mobile - titles. They dared to launch their own IP when the time was right for new IP's, i.e. when the App Store was still young. Also, they kept their IP and just sold the distribution rights for the first Angry Birds game to Chillingo. Rovio had their tool chain and in-house tech in place. Once they struck gold, they immediately started building a community around their game, creating a loyal customer base. They were quick in switching the product to a service - and a brand, drip-feeding their newly created community with fresh content and monetizing their brand by launching spin-offs and selling merchandise. They wisely used their money to bring Angry Birds to each and any platform that pops up, lest an impostor grabs a marketplace with a clone. I'm also quite sure that they were quick in setting up a legal department, but I don't know that for sure.
In short, these are the lessons you can learn from Rovio, or 2D Boy, or Mojang, for that matter:
- Keep control over your IP*
- Build your own tech (based on open platforms)
- Create your own community
- Get agile & hop from platform to platform**
- Have a lawyer
Don't take this list as a recipe for success, though. There've been tons of studios that ticked all the boxes and failed. It's more a list that tells what most successful indie studios have in common.
Be A Publisher
Mojang is another interesting case. They built their fortune on something that started off as a clone but quickly got into its own and grew far beyond any inspiration. Mojang shares a lot of properties with Rovio. They own their IP, use their own tech, and are experts in creating a community. Mojang recently announced the first third-party game they're going to publish, Cobalt, which is an interesting road to go down once you've outgrown the single-IP stage of a new company. Turning into a publisher might not be the right direction for every independent game producer out there, but if you've got the community, the marketing power, and the understanding of the production process for a game, you might as well publish other indies.
Build A World
What Mojang and Rovio have in common is that they have a deep understanding of what constitutes their brands. I'd love to see them as not regarding their brands as "brands" but as "worlds" they are building for their players. They know what constitutes the unique style of their game worlds, from the graphical language to the gameplay. And they quickly and convincingly translate that knowledge into new products, be they marketing give-aways or spin-offs. While Rovio walks the Disney road without too much controversy, Mojang has certainly built a strong studio identity. Mojang proves every day that growth does not mean that you've got to compromise your values. And that's also part of the world they're building.
In my next, and last, article of this short series on the future of game development, I'm going to look at the future game. See you in two weeks.
* Kellee Santiago of thatgamescompany keeps reminding me that it is not about who owns an IP, but about who has control over an IP.
** Or strike an excellent deal with a big platform holder and grow from there. Depends on your IP, your studio, and your connections.