5 Indie Game Studio Killers to Avoid, and Why We Did Them Anyway.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you, incorporate at your own peril.
Have you ever thought of just getting up one day and starting a game studio with 5 of your buds? Well we actually did that and let me tell you, these last 6 years have been the essence of a dungeon crawl — Battling through new levels, collecting *some* loot and getting kicked right back to the start. We have been talking about sharing our journey from green, 20-something, fresh college-grads to semi-successful game studio owners but we needed to get to a point where it doesn’t seem like a light breeze could blow all this away. There are things we did that could be considered disruptive or plain stupid, depending on who you ask, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what it takes to live this kind of dream.
1. We decided to start a studio with our friends.
If you’ve never read a business book, they all say the same thing: Don’t start a company with anyone you consider a close friend. Just company percentage allocation conversations alone will rip the strongest friendships to shreds. We did read these books and decided to start a company of 6 friends, yes that is 6 founders.
This means that there are a half dozen voices in every important decision we make as a company, every project we take on, every person we hire, every time we want to order a new set of branded coasters. It also means that there are 6 people trying their absolute best to build something wonderful together, for each other. Diversity in opinions and interests within our team can cause some paralysis, but that ultimately leads to a stronger product. It was not easy in the early years and we continue to work on the balance between our personal and professional relationships but we firmly believe that each of us is an integral part of this studio’s success.
“Even if you are part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences, almost everything, collectively.”
— Sebastian Junger | Tribe
If you want understand how a motley crew style partnership could work, read Tribe by Sebastian Junger. We used to say we were a “family” but realized, after reading this book, that families come with many eccentricities that you don’t get to choose. We now identify as a “tribe” that chooses to stay together and work together for the common good. This is the sort-of business book we would recommend.
2. Every member of our founding team is an artist.
Did we mention we all met because most of us were animation majors in college? This includes the entire executive team that doodles, models, animates and crafts sweet effects. It can sometimes be hard to justify that your company is made up of artists who learned how to strategize, project manage and structure organizational finances for the sole purpose of making more art but it has been a foundational part of our company values — We try to put creativity and visual splendor in every game we make and we will always value artists.
3. We maintain a (mostly) flat hierarchy.
Ok, ok so we were very inspired by Valve, by Half-life and all their games, by their work building Steam, an accessible platform for game publishers and by their approach to organizational structures, or the lack there-of. Over the years we have come to realize that there are important aspects to hierarchies that should be kept, like designated responsibility and providing guidance, but there is also value in empowering agency. For us it means that everyone in the company has the license to give direction to anyone, founder or otherwise, if they have a good reason for it.
It also leads to another important value — All Voices Heard. We’ve settled on hierarchies for decision making, but programmers shouldn’t be afraid of voicing their opinions to artists and artists shouldn’t be afraid of providing their input to designers, and so on. There are still department leads and C-level executives but we try to maintain as flat of a power structure as possible.
4. We don’t share the same taste in games.
“like Marc and I have major differences on what makes a game fun, but we’ve grown to appreciate and find a balance between the two.”
— Jen Re | Well Told Founder
We all like different games, we all grew up with different games and have conflicting opinions about what makes a game fun. Surprisingly, it helps us not just make games that we personally like, but rather helps us understand that there are a lot of different players and play styles we should cater to. We can’t just settle on one thing, 6 founders with different opinions keeps us all honest and open-minded. We also all love the game Golf-it, so that seems to be the great equalizer.
5. We actually try to put studio culture first.
The original reason we started a company was because we wanted to create a communal space where we could make games we love with people we love. We will be the first to admit that we don’t always get it right. Having 6 headstrong founders and a growing staff leads to a workspace that can sometimes be difficult, chaotic or stressful. We are working on it knowing that it will never be ideal. However, there is nothing quite like waking up every day and working towards the lofty goal of creating a studio culture that is fun, thoughtful, artistic, lighthearted and inclusive.
This is a cautionary tale, don’t do what we did if you can help it. If you do choose to embark on this kind of journey, just know that it wasn’t just the 6 founders that got us here. Well Told Entertainment has been a labor of passion from so many people that worked and supported us, with little reward, for years to keep the dream alive. We are eternally grateful and so stoked to continue making games with our talented tribe.
To learn more, visit our website at welltold.io