Your Studio’s Next Game Is More Important Than You Think

How do your games (current and future) fit into your long-term studio strategy? What even IS a studio strategy?

This is part of a series on indie studio management, written by the Captain of Kitfox Games, Tanya X. Short. This is the first of the series. Follow the Kitfox Medium publication to see them all when they come.

Most indie studios don’t survive to ship a second game. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not because their first game doesn’t sell well — plenty of surviving studios had disappointing sales for their first game. Kitfox is one. Studios close because they didn’t adequately plan for disappointment and strategise around how to survive it.

So, what’s your next game going to be, after you finish this one?

Why that game?

Have you started working out the design problems? Doing market research?

Why not?

I know your current game is probably consuming all of your time and energy, but hear me out. Not planning and greenlighting your next game is hugely risky, and relies on you building your train track just as you need it. That kind of seat-of-your-pants decision-making can lead you to realize only belatedly that your tracks are going in the wrong direction.

Typical indie production, from the game dev documentary Wallace & Gromit

So here’s the literally million-dollar question: how do your games (current and future) fit into your long-term strategy?

On Priorities

Most studios probably already have a good idea of what their current game is. Though, if we can digress for a moment, fewer have a strong idea of why they’re making that game, other than it “seems cool”. Since it’s probably even more important than worrying about your next game, I highly recommend taking a moment to decide what your actual concrete goals for your projects are, even if it’s just for the experience, or you’re hoping for money, or prestige, or both.

Would you rather get a rave review in the New Yorker? Or sell more copies?

Would you rather have a loyal band of superfans? Or win a prize at the Independent Games Festival?

Would you rather have a 99% user review rating on Steam? Or get invited to speak at the Game Developer’s Conference?

Obviously it’d be nice to have all these things, but placing them in order of priority can clarify what you’re trying to do, especially if you have a team that should all be on the same page. Maybe you won’t achieve all your goals, but at least you can have a guiding light in dark times… and you can always change your goals later, if/when you decide others would suit you better.

How much effort should you put into improving this person’s communication skills?

So, if you haven’t yet, double-check that the game you’re making actually achieves those goals, whatever they are. If you’re looking for prestige, does it have the elements that might let it earn that? If you’re looking for high reviews, does your game deliver on what your marketing promises (and are those promises appealing)?

Of course, high sales is perhaps one of the hardest goals to pursue, as even the less ambitious among us want to break even. The basic sales questions I ask myself are:

  • Does it have high-quality hooks?
  • Does it appeal to the market you think it does?
  • Does that market exist on the platform you’re developing for?

If these questions sound fancy and jargony, consider questions like: “Does Boyfriend Dungeon actually appeal to people who like RPGs and dating sims? Do people who like RPGs and dating sims exist on Steam?”

Of course, once you do answer all of these questions, you’ll want to verify your answers. For us, we made various attempts to verify whether Boyfriend Dungeon was appealing, with increased effort & risk as we went, including (but not limited to):

  • Practicing the pitch on colleagues & strangers
  • Pitching it to publishers to gauge interest
  • Announcing it with a trailer very early in development
  • Running a Kickstarter
  • Showing it at events & paying attention to comments/reactions
From TwitchCon 2018. Read more about our shoestring-budget booth designs here.

All of these helped us assess whether we were likely to accomplish our goals, with increasing confidence.

The Next Game

Okay, so you know why you’re making the game you’re making, and you’re confident it’s helping you move towards achieving your goals. Great!

But.. what about the next game?

  • What do you hope your studio will achieve in 5 or 10 years?
  • How do you intend to get to that eventual goalpost? What resources and expertise will you need?
  • How does your next game fit into that trajectory?

Knowing these goals also helps you assess which funding sources are a good fit for you. Venture capitalists might not be a good fit for a lifestyle company happy to be an indie darling; government grants might not be a good fit for a studio that wants to make the next Fortnite. It’s tempting to just take money wherever you can, but you’ll find much more satisfaction and pride if you manage to align the games you make with where you want to end up.

“But I’m Too Busy!”

You’re never too busy for something truly important. If your house were burning down, you wouldn’t be too busy to run outside, right?

Many new studios make the mistake of not thinking about the next game at all until the current one’s finished. Then, even if that one sells well (and it usually doesn’t) many feel ‘stuck’ immediately after and there’s a long period of uncertainty and potentially directionless prototyping before the team can get back into a good pace of production.

If you were to have a good idea or even a prototype of what you wanted to make next, the team could come back from their break after launch ready to hit the ground running, excited and eager to be back in the studio for the fresh new project.

“But what if this game wildly succeeds?” Then you can always set aside the next game until this one calms down.

“But what if this game fails?” Then you can quickly move on to the next thing.

“But I don’t even know if we can FINISH this one!” It will be harder to finish without motivation and something to be excited about after.

“I don’t want to get distracted! I’m too stressed out already!” This is the hardest one, and does come down somewhat to personal inclination, but I would recommend taking a breath and reconsidering what is Urgent with what is Important, a la Eisenhower:

Indies (all humans, really) tend to fixate on the urgent, but the non-urgent Important is… well.. still important.

Having a one-game-track-mind is probably more efficient in the short-term, and it’s difficult to split your focus in the stressful time near launch. Your current game certainly is both urgent and important.

But to me, the pain of a split focus is far outweighed by the huge risk I’d be taking in not knowing what the next game is. After all, if my current game doesn’t sell well, I could be in a situation where I am burning through salaries without any revenue coming in nor any idea what to even pitch to potential funding sources.

In other words, by not planning ahead to the next game, I could be risking the studio’s survival.

There are other, less concrete benefits to already knowing what’s coming next:

  • If an unexpected opportunity appears, such as a new platform launching or a new investment fund opening or a new high-paying client job, you’ll have something in your back pocket to pitch.
  • Toying with a concept in the back of your mind over a period of months, even just during the shower, helps grow and mature the idea by looking at it from different angles, which is difficult if not impossible to replicate in a shorter burst of attention while pressure is on.
  • When your launch emotionally and mentally exhausts you (which they generally do, even if they go well), you’ll be prepared. Making big high-pressure decisions and solving large creative problems (like “what’s the next game?”) is extremely difficult in the launch and post-launch mindset, if not impossible.
  • If you have a team that will carry on to the next game, their morale will be higher, during the difficult task of finishing/launching this game, because there’s a clear light at the end of the tunnel.

Without a somewhat defined future game, your team-mates also might feel that this one is ‘all or nothing’ — that if it fails, they should look for a new job. Nobody should feel that kind of pressure while trying to launch a game!

The main dangers of prepping your next game are:

  • You get too wrapped up in that one, and fail to finish your current one properly, either because your resources are overextended or you just ship it too early
  • You sign a business contract promising to start the next one, making assumptions about when you’ll be done with your current one

Both are avoidable, but worth keeping an eye on. If you want more information on how these kinds of mistakes happen, I’ve been very transparent about how I encountered both of them via Moon Hunters:

Yep, the Next Game did in fact cause some troubles. Learn from my mistakes!

In summary, if you can’t find the bandwidth to plan the next project, then at the very least, definitely communicate to your team honestly about how and why they don’t need to worry about launch sales, because you’re prioritising the stability of company revenue. Because you’re doing that, right? Right.

Sometimes I tell people they should pick their next game according to their long-term strategy for their studio. And while that’s true, that doesn’t mean you have to sit down and chart a 10-year course and milestones. The most sensible strategies are often formed in-the-moment, reactively, through deciding which opportunities to take and which to pass on, all the while keeping your goals (for yourself, for your game, for your studio) in mind.

Creating a Strategy

When we started Kitfox, we were introduced to a few industry mentors, and I would ask them how they got their start. They would tell a story of some kind, but they would always end with, “…but you can’t do it that way anymore, that door has closed.” They had taken advantage of available opportunities, and those weren’t available anymore.

A good strategy is one that helps you maximise your good fortune, by preparing for (and, eventually, pouncing on) the opportunities that suit your strengths. You could flail after every opportunity, but you’ll waste a lot of time and energy that way. Plus, you won’t even know which ones to even look for until you know what you are trying to accomplish. Some people like to go all-in and make a SWOT analysis, but the trick with those is to re-visit the O quadrant constantly, and be on the lookout for new ones all the time.

To me, strategy isn’t a rigid list of steps to follow. It’s flexible optimising of your behaviours as you go, planning with hopes for an eventual best, while bracing for the probable worst.

For example, if a console offers you money to be exclusive to the next version of their hardware, do you take it? Why or why not? Does the amount of money offered change your answer? What if they promise to give you center-stage at their next PR event?

If you find out your favorite YouTuber is looking to do voice acting, do you make a role for them? Why or why not?

I’m going to describe the Kitfox strategy shortly, and how it came to be, but please don’t take this to mean you should follow our steps, or take anyone else’s strategy as yours. We developed it to suit our needs, so they won’t suit yours. As my friend and colleague Saleem Dabbous of KO_OP Mode said, “Learn lessons from folks sure. Don’t be close minded to change. But copying people for some perceived notion of success? Get out of here. I do the work that I do to find my own expression. Don’t lose that in yourself if you can help it.”

The Kitfox Strategy

Seven years after we started working together, Kitfox has become a specialist in self-published system-driven RPGs (of our own IP), and we’ve become a respected micropublisher.

We ended up with this strategy because of a fairly specific set of opportunities we successfully pursued (many of which, of course, are no longer possible or no longer valuable to exploit):

  • Execution Labs (RIP): Kitfox only exists because Execution Labs offered 6 months of initial funding, plus business mentorship & training in 2013. Through them, we met folks at Valve, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
  • Square Enix Collective: we cold-pitched Moon Hunters to an anonymous inbox based on a Gamasutra article in 2013, and became included in their inaugural cohort of games in 2014
  • Steam Greenlight: when the idea of ‘anyone’ publishing on Steam was new and weird, we put Shattered Planet through the Steam Greenlight process and got in as early as we could in 2014
  • Business Development Bank of Canada: I made a pitch deck targeting venture capitalists and convinced them Kitfox was an up-and-coming startup to invest a small amount of money in 2014
  • Canada Media Fund: we received CMF moneys twice, when both games were just scrappy prototypes, in 2014 (for Moon Hunters) and 2016 (for Lucifer Within Us)
  • Kickstarter: we ran two Kickstarters, in 2014 (for Moon Hunters) and in 2018 (for Boyfriend Dungeon)
  • Nintendo Switch launch: we ported Moon Hunters over to Switch as soon as possible to take advantage of the new console, in 2016
  • Quebec game development tax credits: we keep timesheets and task tracking in such a way to qualify for as much tax credits as possible
  • Festivals: our games have won various awards at festivals, including PAX, FIG, and BitSummit, which might be meaningless by themselves, but which we try to leverage for attention from press, funding sources, etc.
Our BitSummit awards, plus a cute fox, because of course.

It’s much harder to remember the opportunities we tried to take advantage of and failed, even though there’s so many, just because they tend to have less emotional investment, but here’s a few:

  • We were rejected by Indie Megabooth the first time we applied
  • We’ve been rejected from Day of the Devs several times
  • We were rejected by the Canada Media Fund the first time we applied
  • We became slowly more and more exhausted by attending PAX and other physical events, until we were completely unable to attend Gamescom 2019 in person, even though our game was accepted by the Indie Game Arena (and went on to even win two awards somehow?)
  • Boyfriend Dungeon was rejected by various publishers
  • After being introduced by a mutual friend, various prominent game developers, journalists, and publishers simply… never replied to emails

Developing Your Strategy

Soon I’ll follow this article with one detailing how to assess your team strengths and weaknesses, and various other questions to ask yourself while founding a studio, but until then, suffice to say that even if your goals are the same as ours, your path will be different. The opportunities that come your way will be different; the ones you choose to follow will be different; the outcomes from those opportunities will leave you with different advantages.

Each studio that survives tends to develop a completely different strategy, accounting for their own strengths and weaknesses. Either by intention or by following their own personal path of least resistance, they come to specialize in a development process (a game every month, remote work) or a genre (3d shooters, mobile word-games) or a funding type (government grants, venture capital) or a monetization strategy (microtransations, subscription).

Each of those choices implies a different focus, towards a different goal, with different pros and cons.

For more detailed strategy comparisons and advice, see a GDC 2018 talk comparing Kitfox and Clever Endeavour’s paths to their first $1m.

Your strategy would ideally include:

  • how will you make games, taking the best advantage of your studio’s strengths and minimize damage from your weaknesses? where will you work? what is your process? who is your team?
  • what kinds of games do you want to make? Will there be any common factors between your games? How is this all supported by what markets your games target?
  • how will you make enough money to survive? If you’re making premium games, how many copies will you need to sell, at a minimum?
  • what is your Plan B, if you don’t make as much as your pessimistic plan? Is there any possibility this game might not be completed and launch at all? Could you survive that? What if a key employee fell sick or left?
  • what is your Plan C, if Plan B doesn’t work?

To be clear, Plan B or Plan C might compromise on some of your goals, if you value studio survival above all else. When we were short on cash after the launch of Shattered Planet, despite the fact that our goals were to create our own IP, we took money from various sources, including a bit of client work to make a browser game for a Cartoon Network IP (an IP I love, but still). I’m glad we did, because doing so helped us survive long enough to create Moon Hunters.

When forming a strategy, it’s also important to check in with any co-founders or co-owners and ensure their goals and tolerance for risk match yours, or at least align with your expectations. If you’re trying to win awards and they’re trying to maximise sales, both of you will get frustrated at some point. Likewise, if you’re single and have a large amount of savings, but one of your co-founders has just had triplets and a divorce, you might disagree about how risky your strategy can be.

Summary

Let’s take a look at the question again: “How do your games (current and future) fit into your long-term strategy?”

At time of writing, I can say for Kitfox: “Boyfriend Dungeon expands our existing community of inclusive RPG fans, and appeals to dating sim fans as well. I currently plan for that team’s next game to be [REDACTED], in order to have deeper simulation elements, capitalising on our knowledge of systemic design, and explore our collective fascination with [REDACTED].”

I hope we can start concepting and prototyping on this game while Boyfriend Dungeon is in beta, so that pre-production is nearly complete by the time people are recovered. This semi-certainty of our team’s next project helps me know that even if Boyfriend Dungeon has surprising sales (low or high), my next steps as studio head will be clearer, even if I change my mind later. New opportunities might arise, and besides, I have a few other marketable game concepts in my back pocket to develop as a plan B and C, if this one proves unworkable for some reason.

Gotta always be ready to spring into action!

It helps that I know our strengths lie in designing system-driven RPGs and self-publishing/community-building, while our weaknesses are mostly to do with client work, graphics programming, and network code. As we go, I can adjust more easily and effectively with this knowledge.

A long-term strategy, as a way to prepare for opportunities as they arise, is what separates a group of people making a game from a game studio. It’s the best way to maximize your chances of being able to make more than one game, with a collective identity that’s larger than yourself. It’s a challenge, when making games is already so difficult, but it’s worth taking on. I hope this article helps you stay courageous and determined in the struggles to come.

--

--

--

Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games. Biz dev, leadership, marketing, community management, art, game design, and more.

Recommended from Medium

What did you think about Teslagrad — Cheats&Hack

Why I’m still pulled back to Grand Theft Auto V

Protect‌ ‌your‌ ‌game‌ ‌and‌ ‌players‌ ‌on‌ ‌Google‌ ‌Play‌ ‌

Solar Bear Free Mint

Identifying themes for your game by looking inward

Partnership Announcement: VersaGames X Single Finance

(that really) Boils My Piss

GameStation IDO — BetSwirl Pool Details

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kitfox Games

Kitfox Games

Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com

More from Medium

My First Fortnite Solo Win

Automating Work for Twitch Streamers

A list of tasks a streamer has to do to run different parts of their community experience like doing fan giveaways and moderating a Discord server

Nobody is Going To Win!