KO_OP is an artist run & owned game studio

Some of our guiding principles

With the upcoming release of our first commercial game (GNOG for PS4, VR, Steam, & iOS) I wanted to write something about who we are as game makers. It might be weird for us to put this out ~3 years after we first formed our studio, but it was only with enough time and consideration that we knew enough about ourselves that we were able to put together this list.

If you’re already making games, a lot of this might sound obvious or common. But for many of those getting started, we think there’s value in sharing our guidelines, especially for those who want to approach commercial game making from a different perspective. I also want to stress that these are guidelines, not firm unchangeable rules.

On structure

  • Cooperative Model — The core team at KO_OP are equal partners and owners of the studio, regardless of financial investment. All business decisions are made democratically (1 person 1 vote structure).
  • Artist Run — We prioritize the needs of the artist, that is, anyone who is creatively involved in the game-making process. That doesn’t mean that we make irresponsible business decisions; rather, our decisions are informed from a perspective that values the creators and their craft. This is mostly easy when you’re an artist-run co-op.
  • Financial Independence — We don’t take money from sources where the repayment terms would destroy our ability to be creative (like some bank loans for example). We have benefited from a few funding bodies that allow us more freedom, like Sony’s Pub Fund. We also support our development through contract work when it makes sense.
  • Sustainability, not growth — Our max team size is currently capped at 8. New employees means new potential owners, so it forces slow growth. A smaller team means better chances at financial sustainability.
  • Support people — We started KOLAB, a very modest fund for artists that inspire us. Importantly our fund has no mandatory repayment or recoupment terms/splits. The first game out of that fund was Paloma Dawkins & Kyler Kelly’s Gardenarium. The second KOLAB was Orchids to Dusk by Pol. While we don’t have a ton of money to get by with, we’re lucky enough to pull in contract work from time to time, and we think it’s extremely valuable to give back to those making experimental and non-commercial games. We also hope this inspires other people to start funds of their own.
Orchids to Dusk by Pol Clarissou and Marskye
The launch trailer for Paloma & Kyler’s Gardenarium

On Form

  • We believe in exploring aesthetics — This is based on who we are and what drives our collective style. Art and sound have to be on equal footing. KO_OP has to be a space where we can explore and experiment with mood and atmosphere as much as we might with mechanics.
Some of my favourite screenshots from KO_OP artists Sam Boucher & GP Lackey
  • Don’t outsource audio — Audio is not an afterthought. We work with sound people we’ve built relationships with. This means that all of our games incorporate sound design in important ways.
  • Undirected play is undervalued — Particularly in non-sandbox games. There’s an opportunity for us to explore here. We also really want to make games that adults will love, but are totally accessible to kids.
  • Embrace the Non-Gaming world — Most KO_OP members came from industries unrelated to games (like medical, academic, & print). This means that our learning curve is steeper and our struggle for sustainability is harder. But it also means that we see things differently, come up with new designs, and generally make games unlike most of what’s out there.
  • Build a production model — There is very little accessible material on how to structure production for small teams making games, so we’ve had to learn by trial and error. We use a combination of Slack, Pivotal, Trello, and Google Spreadsheets to manage production. This video from Double Fine producer Anthony Vaughn was helpful in figuring out a system that works for us:

On Failure

  • Our biggest failure: We are a predominantly cis male team. We want that to change with our next project. Supporting people through KOLAB is one of the ways we hope to combat this problem in the meantime.
  • The games that we eventually release are made up of a series of failures that are overcome to create a whole. It can be brutal but maintaining perspective on failure as a healthy element in the creation process is critical.

On the Future

  • Don’t plan too far ahead — you’ll get distracted.

In the end all these things should be challenged and be revisited, but for now they’ve given us important perspective on how to approach game making and sustainability.

Learn more about KO_OP
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