KING Art Games from Bremen have been in the industry for about 17 years now and, over this time, have gained a lot of experience about how the industry works. Jan Theysen, one of the studio founders, provides 10 tips for long-term success.
Author: Jan Theysen from KING Art Games
When I was asked, for the purpose of this article, how to survive as an independent game developer for 17 years, my first thought was: »How on earth should I know?«
What worked for us, might not work for someone else. Times change. A decisive competitive advantage ten or just five years ago, may be irrelevant today … or are there actually some timeless tips that may not guarantee success, but maybe make it more likely? Let’s give it a try.
1. It’s a business
Reason number one why small developers go bankrupt is the lack of a strong leader in the team with a business background. Somebody to take care of finances and contracts. Somebody who keeps an eye on budgets and schedules and knows how to push them through, even if there is resistance. Many of the successful developers have at least one founder with expertise in this area. Game development is a business, and if there’s nobody on the team with the required know-how, stop reading and do something about it. Right now. My co-founder Marc is our business man, and I’m pretty sure that without him, KING Art may have had a few more quick successes – but would have also gone bankrupt four or five times.
2. Don’t do what others
are successful with
This sounds like some horrible advice, but it hopefully makes sense at second glance: If a game is really successful, the temptation is big to do something similar. When »World of Warcraft« broke records, one MMO after the other emerged practically overnight. How many people tried to copy »Minecraft« or »Clash of Clans«? And who remembers the popular »Flappy Bird« clone no. 131? Exactly. Nobody. Because most copies aren’t successful. First of all, there’s the original game, so why play a copy? Second, there isn’t only one copy, but a lot of them which have to share the remaining players among them. And third, those copycats are usually too late to the party: The ship has sailed by the time they have completed their game. And fourth of all, there are others who can clone better and at lower prices. And fifth… Oh well, enough for now. Instead of jumping at every new trend or »doing what everyone else does«, we think it’s a better strategy to either make »timeless« games or to develop games for a target group which hasn’t been served in a while. After all, target groups which are too small for AAA publishers don’t just cease to exist.
3. Keep a sober view
Release parties aside, it’s important to keep a sober view. In a hype-driven industry it’s sometimes hard to assess chances and risks objectively. But it’s inevitable if you don’t want to get on the wrong track financially. Those who have the financial means, can try out a lot of things at once, gain experience and invest more in those areas that proved solid. But as a small developer with limited means you have to think twice before making an investment. It’s also important to not only look at the potential benefits, but above all to think through a potential negative scenario as well: What will happen to us, in case we fail? And also: Will we lose out at all if we’re not on board from the beginning? A current example for this is VR. Apart from the fact that there were and are good reasons not to believe in a breakthrough in the coming years, we never fully understood what benefits it should bring to be a part of it from the start. The install base is very small, tools have to be developed and experience needs to be gained first. So why engage in it early? Why not wait and see how things will develop and possibly jump onto the bandwagon later? Admittedly, this is highly unromantic (after all, which developer wouldn’t want to be a pioneer of innovation and dance on the cutting edge of a new technology?), but rationally speaking, it is still the only right decision (see »Stupid Money«).
4. Work on several projects at once
Those who have already witnessed the bankruptcy of a publisher know how problematic it can be to be dependent on individual partners. Since we try to use appropriate language here, we can’t possibly comment on insolvency administrators or the insolvency process in general. But it’s easy to imagine for everyone how hell breaks loose when a developer’s only source of income becomes insolvent and the new, unwanted business partner shows little interest in regulating things. We learned our lessons from this and have three internal teams today working on three different projects for three different partners. Should one of the partners be facing problems, it’s not necessarily that big a drama yet. Besides, we work in various genres on various platforms and for various target groups. The chance that all markets we’re active in are ailing at the same time, is quite small. Since we’re using the same technologies and tools for all projects, we can quite easily shift resources within the company, if necessary. And since we start and complete developments on a regular basis, experiences we make from one project immediately benefit other current projects. A high throughput of games ensures a fast progress of the team, its tools and the workflows.
5. Think about the marketing
In our industry, you don’t earn money by developing games, but by selling games. No matter how well the development process is optimized … the smoothest development is worth nothing if the game doesn’t sell. In the last few years, it has become more and more important for developers, too, to think about the market, target groups, social media, PR and advertising. Visibility is the biggest challenge these days. It’s simply no longer enough »just« to make a good game. Assigning all these tasks to a publisher and hoping for the best isn’t a good idea. Publishers don’t have a magic wand either to give them insight into the soul of the players.
At the end of the day, they don’t know your target group as well as you do – and they certainly don’t know your game as well as you do. They don’t run around all day with your game in their mind like you hopefully do. That’s why we would recommend to take action yourselves. Talk to your publisher and get involved. Maybe you can take over the community work. Present marketing ideas. Take part in trade shows. We made the experience that both players and the press alike appreciate when developers speak for their game themselves and show their enthusiasm about it. Authenticity is often more important than professionality. And good publishers appreciate developers who get involved in the marketing process.
6. Find good partners and make sure to keep them
We are proud of having cooperated only with a rather small number of different companies over the years. For almost every partner we developed several games, for some even half a dozen or more. For us, this means that both sides were happy with the partnership.
Regularly entering new partnerships – including new contracts, new structures and production processes – may be the right way if you want to make it quickly to the top.
However, once you slip and need a helping hand, it’s better to have a long-term partner by your side. In the daily work, too, one should not underestimate the saving potential resulting from established processes and direct lines on a business level. So, our motto has always been to look for mid- and long-term partners instead of picking the next best one if you hit a rough patch or somebody offers a little more money. The basis for a long-term partnership is mutual respect (which involves being honest and, if necessary, clear words) and a decent contract (see »Contracts«). The basic rule is: Life is a lot easier if both parties pull in the same direction.
7. Keep an eye on the costs
If a developer or publisher survived the first few years and still hits rough times, it’s mostly because they became too confident and took too big a risk financially. Markets change and developments get delayed. And is any game ever doing as well as one had hoped for? Those who make too optimistic plans will quickly get into trouble. Best-case scenarios should be a nice surprise, not part of the planning. Business has to go on, even if things are not going well. High costs in the games industry are mostly caused by a large headcount. Therefore, we try to work »as much as possible« with external freelancers and external teams and only start hiring people when we’re very sure that we can employ them on a mid- and long-term basis. The other big topics are realistic planning, good controlling and efficiency. As a German developer, you simply have higher costs than others, so tasks need to be completed faster while retaining the same level of quality. This is where having experience, tools and, above all, an established team pays off.
8. Build a team for the long run
Bremen isn’t exactly the center of global game development, and we’re neither Blizzard nor Naughty Dog, who can offer a great name, top projects and high salaries. So, how do you get experienced talents to work for your company long-term and for a reasonable salary? You »raise« them yourself. Almost everybody who works for us did an internship first and proved to us that they would be beneficial for the team in the mid-term. Mind you, they »only« showed their potential; we’re not expecting young talents to already have the know-how that we’re eventually looking for. But as long as they have the skills and the will to learn for the rest of their career, we’re happy to teach them what they need to know.
This takes time and money. But after all, we don’t hire someone just to fire them again after one or two years. We bind good workers to us for the long-term by giving them challenging tasks they can grow with, and by possibly using them in areas they’re interested in. This approach means that we can’t quickly upscale our team. It takes every employee a few years to get where we want to have them. But the result are competent and loyal employees who work together more efficiently than any team put together on a »hire & fire« mentality could ever do.
9. Develop cross-project technologies
kAPE is a state-chart engine which can be used to script logic for story-driven games. We developed kAPE 2007 for »Black Mirror 2« and then used the tool for »The Book of Unwritten Tales 1 + 2«, »The Critter Chronicles«, »The Raven« and »The Dwarves«. This means, we used the same technology for almost ten years, while constantly improving it.
Whenever we can, we prefer to tackle a problem »properly« rather than »quick & dirty«. Often, this means building a solid technical solution once – and then again after the first solution ends up in the trash and we know how to actually do it. We’re constantly working to improve these tools, technologies and workflows across all projects. When a solution has become obsolete (like kAPE for a current project), we develop it again based on the experience we gained previously. Everyone in the company knows the tools, and everyone can provide their feedback to the respective developers (who either sit in the teams or work on several projects). So, we never start a project from scratch, but already have a number of proven components to work with. And, of course, we can use our tools quite efficiently since our employees often have long-term experience with them.
10. Be lucky
KING Art will celebrate its 17th anniversary this year, and in the first ten years, we were on the brink of bankruptcy a few times. We also had a bit of luck to always make it back. You can do your job properly, you can be flexible and you can improve your chances for a positive outcome – and so you should –, but nobody can be successful without occasionally having luck, chance, or whatever you may call it, come to your aid. If you keep that in mind, it will improve your awareness of those who »made it« as well as those who didn’t make it. Sometimes, the simple difference is to »be lucky« or not. We wish everybody who tries to make it in our difficult, but great industry, the former. Your KING Art Team.
About the Author
is Game Director at KING Art Games
Jan is Game Director and one of the co-founders of KING Art Games, having worked on all of the studio’s projects, like »The Book of Unwritten Tales 2«, »The Dwarves« and »Battle Worlds: Kronos«. He plays on all platforms that he can lay his hands on, from PC to console to mobile.