You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.
If you haven’t done so already, I ask that you check out the At the Gates Kickstarter page. Our goal is to innovate and take strategy gaming to the next level, but this campaign will be our sole source of funding for development. And hint, hint: the more successful ATG is the more articles you’ll have to read in the future!
To those of you who have already contributed and helped us reach our funding goal, I offer my most sincere thanks!
Many people have thought about starting their own company. Pretty much every 2am infomercial tells you to do it (all you need is their book!). But what does this actually involve? Today I’ll be shedding some light on how I built my own little indie studio.
I should note ahead of time that a few months ago the tally of companies I’ve founded was a big fat zero. So if you happen to be a legal/financial/something else expert, I apologize in advance if something I say that makes you cringe.
So how do you actually set up a company?
In the most basic sense, it’s actually fairly simple. You just have to fill out a couple papers and mail or fax them in to the state, then wait for a note to come back saying that, congratulations, you’re now the proud owner of a new company! Of course, there’s plenty more to deal with down the road, but just getting the ball rolling is not a huge endeavor.
I chose to incorporate at the beginning of 2013 instead of in December, as that way I would avoid paying fees for a company that did no business during the year. But that meant my timetable was fairly cramped, and the one quirk that I did run into during incorporation was in getting the process expedited.
The details for how this work vary based on where you live, but for Michigan I had to sign up for an online account – and to do that I had to fax in some paperwork. I’ve never had to send a fax in order to do something on a website before, but apparently this isn’t out-of-the-ordinary.
Well, like most people I don’t actually own a fax machine. In fact, I don’t even have a phone line. My accountant was kind enough to send and receive a few faxes for me, but later on I decided to use an online faxing service instead so that I didn’t have to bug him so much.
An important decision when starting a company is what type you choose to incorporate as. There are three to pick from: C-Corps, S-Corps and LLCs. I won’t go into too many details (I don’t fully understand them myself), but I will give a quick overview just so you know what goes into the decision. C-Corps are almost never used for small companies, as they require a fair bit of red tape and you’re basically taxed twice.
So my choice was between an S-Corp and an LLC. S-Corps also have some managerial overhead (that my accountant will be taking care of, fortunately), but its basic advantage over LLCs is that as an individual owner you’re likely pay a bit less in taxes. The benefit LLCs provide is that they’re easier to manage and more flexible in terms of ownership possibilities and investment. As the full owner of Conifer this wasn’t a perk that was of much value to me, so I went with an S-Corp.
Protecting Against Pests
Every company needs legal representation of some sort. The reality with civil law is that companies will do what they think they can get away with. This is why you see large companies sending cease-and-desist letters to indies, or threatening them lawsuits. Sometimes they do have legal grounds for this, but there are others when it’s simply a bluff where they know the recipient doesn’t have the financial or legal means to fight in a protracted legal battle.
Given this, as a small company you need every shield you can find to help ward off this threat. One of the first things I did once I decided to found Conifer was to file trademarks for my company and game. Any time you create something it is “informally” trademarked and protected for your use. But should someone come knocking the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate past use.
If another company has a formally-registered trademark that is somewhat similar to what you’ve been working on, they might give you a call. They might do this either because they think they can make some money, or simply to protect the buffer around their own intellectual property. Companies have no incentive to be nice to competitors, be they pretend, potential or real.
Trademarks must be actively defended, as failure to do so opens holes in one’s own legal defense. If you let the little indie use something similar, why can’t a much larger company do the same? There’s a reason why Coke, Kleenex and Xerox are so adamant that the word “brand” is included wherever possible.
Formally registering your trademarks is another means of planting your flag and ward off potential trouble down the road.
This can be somewhat expensive, but the costs for not doing so can be much, much higher. Do you really want to risk your company and lifestyle to save a few thousand dollars? Depending on your situation this may not be a big deal, but it’s definitely not one I’m willing to take.
I’m not a big fan of the way civil law works, but it is what it is, and if you’re going to jump into the pool you have to play the game like everyone else.
Finding Good Gardeners
I’m convinced that the most important thing for an entrepreneur to remember is that you’re going to need help along the way. Even if you’re capable of wearing all of the hats required in starting and running a company, you still need external contacts in order to succeed. You might not have partners or employees, but everyone has clients. If you’re 100% responsible for every sale you ever make then you’re going to be working 24/7 and probably still end up poor.
Thankfully, I’ve built up a solid network of talented friends and acquaintances over the years. I know my accountant from my days back in Maryland. My attorney is a friend’s mother who just happened to specialize in trademark and IP law. My PR rep is a good friend who used to be a part of the gaming media, and helped me out far more than he was obligated.
AtG’s music was composed by the same talented individual who helped score Civ 5 and Fallen Enchantress. On the art side, an acquaintance Kay met through DeviantArt provided the watercolor paintings used for the landscape and leaders. Another from the same site is working on the unit animations.
Had I not had connections with these individuals it certainly would have still been possible to get the work done. But confidently knowing that these folks could deliver exactly what we needed was a huge help.
This is especially important when your contractors are working remotely, and sometimes even on completely different continents. The person who did the watercolor paintings lives in Poland and we actually only exchanged a few emails while the two used in this Kickstarter campaign were being created.
Had I chosen the wrong individual for this work it could have been a disaster. But she was always timely, open to feedback – oh, and extremely talented to boot. Choosing someone blind would have added significant risk to the project and stress to my life.
And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the generous help of my friends Kay and Jonathan. They have put hundreds of hours into AtG simply because they wanted to help me out and see the project succeed. That is far more valuable than anything even the best angel investor can provide.
I know there are some people who do put everything on their shoulders and make it work, but these are rare exceptions. Had I tried to do this myself there literally would not have been enough hours in the day to manage it all. Working hard is very much part of the plan, but I don’t want to still have to put in 100-hour weeks ten years from now.
With several months of work into the game and the the ball rolling on many other fronts, it was time to start focusing my attention on the announcement and Kickstarter campaign.
I started drafting the Kickstarter page about a month and a half in advance. I wanted as much time as possible to edit, get feedback and rewrite as necessary. Between planning, writing, creating screenshots, doing layout, etc. I probably put a total of around 50-60 hours of work just into the creation of the page.
Along the way I received detailed feedback from around a dozen people. This was crucial, as any time you’re too close to something it becomes impossible to see some of the flaws. Two major shifts in direction were made due to feedback. In many ways, it’s a lot like game design.
Deciding on what reward tiers to offer was a bit of a challenge. My original thinking was to provide physical rewards like many other campaigns. But I heard from several people who advised me against this approach, and after crunching the numbers on the time and money it would cost us I came to agree. Physical knick-knacks are cool, but if it costs us the equivalent of 3-4 months of development resources is that really good for anyone?
I wanted rewards that were related to the game and also scalable. Jonathan came up with the idea for allowing people to put their stamp on the game through the naming of features. The reward I was most excited about was access to the design docs. After all, how often can you get such an in-depth look behind the curtain of a game’s development?
In the end I was pretty happy with our tiers, although it’s clear now that the higher-end ones don’t offer the value people expect from the pricetag. This is probably something we’ll go back to the drawing board on with our next project, but we’ll see how things play out on Kickstarter over the next couple years.
The next step was to find ways to drum up interest in AtG. Nowhere was my past network of connections more helpful than here. I don’t envy those who start off as indies and have to start from scratch. Why should anyone think your little game is going to amount to anything, anyways? Journalists are paid based on how many people view their work. If your project isn’t interesting enough the ad money stops coming in and people start losing their jobs. So you really have to do a good job at making your case for why your endeavor is more interesting than all of those other ones out there.
Thanks to my experience with the Civ franchise, quite a few folks not just knew of me but also actually cared about what I was up to. In fact, several individuals were extremely excited to hear about what I was doing. I’m proud of my work and enjoy showing it off, but this is very humbling. Like most developers, I make games mainly because I enjoy doing so, and the fact that there are also people out there who think what you’re doing is a big deal always comes as a bit of a surprise.
Ultimately I was able to line up roughly a dozen interviews and features on major gaming sites, and there’s no way to undervalue the impact this had on the success of our campaign.
I also have a number of good friends who are involved with podcasts, and they graciously agreed to let me come on and shill my wares. However, after about fifteen podcasts and Skype/phone interviews over the course of four days I’d pretty much lost my voice entirely. I was looking and sounding pretty ragged at this point, but we weren’t quite done yet.
The Coming Storm
The last major challenge was to create the movies. Good video work can be quite expensive, but fortunately Kay is well-versed in this, so I wasn’t too concerned about tackling it entirely ourselves. We decided to film on a Sunday about a week and a half out.
We had the scripts ready, everyone was prepped, and… our camera didn’t turn on. It hadn’t been used in a while so we plugged it in in case the battery just needed a charge. After an hour, there were still no signs of life.
A trip to Best Buy and a grand later we had a new Canon Rebel, a tripod and a lot less daylight to work with. We shot about an hour of footage in total which ended up being consolidated down to the 3 minutes you see in our official video. But when I reviewed what we’d recorded the next day I discovered that the quality was horrible. The red couch was basically “flickering” as though someone had put a digital fuzz filter on it. Uh oh.
We played around with the camera and discovered that we’d been using the wrong settings. After fiddling with it for a bit we managed to get the settings in a place where the video quality was significantly better. And so we marched back to the couch and did it all over again. That was not a happy evening, let me tell you.
We had the “live” part of the video done, but I knew this wasn’t enough. I’m personally not a fan of Kickstarter campaigns which are nothing but a few paragraphs and some concept art, and I know I’m not alone. To avoid this perception I wanted a longer video showing off the game proving that it exists, is a real thing and well on its way to completion.
I used FRAPS to capture video in-game, and then began stitching everything together in iMovie. It took a day but everything was coming together. However, I ran into yet another problem.
I exported the finished announcement video, and to my horror I discovered the video quality was bad. Abysmal. Okay, maybe I just needed to fiddle with some settings. Two hours of Internet research later I discovered the depressing truth: in spite of what the settings claim, iMovie can’t actually export in HD. No matter what I plugged into the program it was always going to come out looking like crud.
After a moment of panic I did some more digging, and learned that Final Cut Pro, Apple’s premium movie editing software, could load in an iMovie project and, you know, actually produce video that looks nice. Oh, and it has a 30-day free trial! It wouldn’t be a seamless transition (I needed to re-encode the source files), but 8 hours later I had a new movie in crystal-clear HD.
So, yeah, video. Maybe next time I will just pay someone to do all of this?
As frustrating as the video saga had been, it would not be the biggest challenge we faced.
A Harsh Winter
Thanks to my research, I knew that before you can launch a Kickstarter campaign you needed an Amazon Payments Business account. This caused me some headaches as the process for getting approval was… not as smooth as I would have liked. I suspect the problem was caused by Conifer being such a new company. I officially incorporated on January 7th, I opened bank accounts for it a day later and a couple days after that I got the ball rolling with Amazon.
The typical process is that you sign up for an account on the website like pretty much everything else. You feed it your bank account number, your tax ID and usually it comes back and tells you “congrats, you’re ready to go!”
Unfortunately, I instead received a message saying that my company information could not be verified. In fact, I would have to fax in (really?) a copy of the letter I received from the IRS and a bank account statement. Wait… the company is a few days old, I don’t have a bank account statement yet! I called and found out that I could send in a different document as long as it contained the same information. Alright, that’s fine then. I faxed in the information and waited.
After a week passed I called again, but unfortunately the service department has no direct contact with the fax receiving department. They had some suggestions for me but couldn’t provide any concrete help. I faxed in my information again. Still no word.
Time was starting to run out. I couldn’t even submit the Kickstarter page for approval until I had a verified Amazon Payments account. At this point I entered “I will this will get done” mode and started calling Amazon every day.
With just over a week left until the announcement date I, at last, received an email saying that everything had been approved. I breathed a sigh of relief and submitted the Kickstarter page as fast as I could.
I never had any idea how important faxes still are when it comes to legal paperwork. Apparently email = completely untrustworthy and phone line = completely trustworthy. I don’t quite understand it myself, but I’m just glad that I won’t need to be sending many more faxes in the future.
I wasn’t out of the woods yet though, as there was always the chance that Kickstarter could reject the project and torpedo everything. I had no idea how long the approval process usually takes, nor is there any way to get in contact with a human directly. So I just had to hope that a week was enough.
Three days later I received that email I’d been waiting for. We were good to go!
All that was left was to hit the launch button and wait for everything to come together. For the final four days I had nightmares about accidentally clicking on the launch button prematurely and everything I’d prepared unraveling in a deluge of angry email. Every time the Kickstarter page was open and I was making edits I cautiously kept my cursor far away from the dreaded button. Except for when I wanted to preview the page, as that button was directly next to it. Let me tell you, I was sweating bullets every time.
At roughly 10am on February 6th I clicked the big green button. Oh, a confirmation screen… how nice. Well, at least for the next project I’ll know I can’t kick things off accidentally. I clicked “yes” and we were live!
I then activated the websites, videos, etc. posted the announcement on my website and Twitter. I popped the cork on the champagne I’d bought for the special occasion.
Now I could finally sit back and relax, right? Haha, oh Jon…
The End of the Beginning
The response to AtG was immediate and huge. It was incredibly exciting to see the contribution number rise every few seconds and my inboxes fill up with supportive messages and questions. As with the reaction when I told some of the gaming press about my new endeavor, it was very humbling to hear from people that are so excited about the game.
However, after a few days it all got to be overwhelming more in the “exhausted” sense than the “excited.” For a couple weeks I was receiving around 100 direct messages per day, each of which I responded to personally.
On top of responding to hundreds of messages, I’d also planned on writing and posting updates every couple days for the duration of the campaign. As you’ve all figured out by now I’m sure, I’m not exactly the most concise writer, and all of these messages and articles take quite a while to put together.
Well, so much for relaxing. In reality, most of the Kickstarter campaign was nearly as busy as the 14-hour days I was putting in prior to it. However, I firmly believe that being involved with your community is one of the most important parts of running a business. People remember whether you ignored them or responded politely. Well, I certainly do at least. And so I went back to spending my evenings and weekends at the keyboard.
After a few weeks things started to calm down to a more manageable level, and I was able to kick back a bit and get back to trying to beat Spelunky (finally did it on try #998!).
We’re now in the final few days of the Kickstarter campaign. It’s been an incredible process and one I’ll never forget. I gotta say though, I am looking forward to actually relaxing for a week or two. After that it’s time to get back to business and work on the game itself again. I’ve received a ton of great suggestions that I can’t wait to start hammering on.
In a few days I’ll be posting the roadmap outlining what’s next for AtG. Before that I have a couple other fun updates planned, so stay tuned!
If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to AtG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forum, and become a member of our growing community!