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The secrets to scrappiness: Fighting to survive as an indie studio

The secrets to scrappiness: Fighting to survive as an indie studio

September 21, 2015 | By Tanya X. Short

September 21, 2015 | By Tanya X. Short
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing



Tanya X Short is director of Canadian independent studio Kitfox Games, developers of Shattered Planet and the upcoming Moon Hunters. She's a frequent blogger on Gamasutra.

When we were starting Kitfox and talking to business mentors, we would often receive a lot of conflicting advice. Expert after expert would come in to our studio, look at us or our game, and tell us the exact opposite of what the previous expert said: Go big, go small, aim for quality, fail faster, target an audience, follow your heart, measure retention, think out of the box, and so on and so forth. This eventually inspired 50 Steps to Indie Success.

The Anti-Advice

We survived the ordeal, and continued to ask for advice anyway, even knowing most of it would just be used to fuel confirmation bias. We took some, ignored others, and always appreciated their kindness and gratitude.

We were able to find our inner scrappiness because I started noticing exactly one thing most everyone said. Whether they were in mobile or PC, casual or hardcore, venture capital-funded or starving artist, they all said some variation of:

“Well, you can’t succeed the way I did. That door’s closed now.”

At first, that seemed discouraging, like anti-advice. “Whatever you do, you can’t do what helped me.” But it was actually a pattern, demonstrating that the ones that survived found and took advantage of something before it became a success story. Nobody had done it before. And then it paid off.*

Kitfox has become a studio all about this kind of scrappiness. Efficiency, speed, bravery, flexibility. I could go into detail about our production tools (Kanbanery.com is kinda cool) and tech solutions and IM programs and attitudes on working from home, but... do those really matter, year on year? No.

What matters is why we do the things we do. What matters to us, and how we make our decisions.

So here we go, one studio's practice of scrappiness, as I like to call it.

* Presumably, for each success, 100 others pounced on something and took advantage and it didn’t pay off. I know.

Why "Scrappy"?

To "scrap" means to fight. To claw and kick and scavenge your way to victory, against odds.

As an indie dev, you are David to the world’s many Goliaths, taking a risk because you must. Because just existing is a risk.

There are many ways to increase that risk! Some are under your control and some aren't:

  • Be inexperienced
  • Be a hermit
  • Don’t have savings or other resources to fall back on
  • Tell yourself you’re an imposter
  • Burn yourself out
  • Don’t make a business plan
  • Etcetera

We picked the name Kitfox Games mostly because it’s an appealing animal from where I grew up in southern California (think fennec fox, but Mojave instead of Sahara), but also partly because it is the very picture of an underdog. It’s an adorable little fox making its way in a pretty intense ecosystem.


"Kit Fox", photo by Mark Chappell

A good game isn’t good enough. There are more and more and more games for sale. And in my opinion, more and more of them are good. Whether it’s Steam, PS4, or the App Store, there are more games coming out per month than ever before. Games are easier to make than ever before, and little companies like Kitfox are creating higher-quality games than would be possible for them even five years ago. It’s exciting to me creatively, but it’s terrifying financially.

So, we turn to scrappiness to give us an edge in a crowded space, to help us have extreme flexibility, speed, and therefore survivability.

We’re small, we’re brave, and we’re dedicated to surviving. The competition is strong, but we’re stronger. I’m doing what I can now, today, to make sure that in five or ten years, we’re still here, and thriving. As an aside, if that means I find my definition of "scrappiness" isn't working for me in the future, naturally that means I'll have to change it. 

To ensure our company survives, just in the past year and a half, I’ve helped Kitfox secure multiple kinds of funding. Not only did we ship Shattered Planet on schedule, with high reviews and across all target platforms, but we have received help from venture capitalists, Kickstarter, work-for-hire, and government grants. Not to jinx anything, but due all of our careful striving, Kitfox is financially secure after two years, even if Moon Hunters performs quite under expectations. All of my scrappy discipline has worked fairly well, at least this far, so I hope you can benefit from it too.

What It Really Means to be Scrappy

1. Know your priorities. If you’re a team, everyone should agree to what those are. Scrappiness is knowing what you’re fighting for.
 

Some want to innovate in the art form. Others want a high Steam review score. Many want to sell a million copies. All of us would be thoroughly pleased if all of those things happened, of course, and none are necessarily mutually exclusive. But in the end, if only through their actions, every studio chooses what kind of “success” to pursue.

Whatever resources you do have (free rent, savings, infinite cupcakes, etc) will probably change your priorities, but continuing to exist is often a good one to have towards the top.

Kitfox’s priorities currently* look something like this:

  • Pre-requisite: Earn enough for Kitfox to continue existing (a basic wage)
  • Realistic Goal: Create games we can be proud of/interested in
  • Optimistic Goal: Create games players can love deeply
  • Ideal World: Earn enough money for a decent living (a comfortable wage)
  • That’d-be-nice: Create critically acclaimed games

Our mission statement as a company, is quite different: "Create infinitely intriguing worlds." But we can’t create those worlds if we run out of cash completely. We need to sell at least enough to eat and pay rent and make more games... and we’ve accepted that any commercial compromises for accessibility, marketability, or innovation may mean we get a lower Metacritic or fewer trophies. For us, that’s okay. For you, it might not be. We know what we’re fighting for, and you should, too.

* Fun Fact: we actually had different priorities while developing our first game. We consciously decided we wouldn't try to make Shattered Planet profitable. We knew it would likely mean we would depend on funding from other sources, but it was a risk we took willingly in order to establish respect with and trust from our community. And, indeed, most of the reason I had to chase venture capital and work-for-hire and government loans is because... surprise! Shattered Planet didn't actually produce enough cash to pay us even a basic wage while developing most of Moon Hunters. But we did achieve our goals, such as they were (good game, happy fans).

2. Don’t compare yourself to anyone or anything else. Scrappiness is striving to improve your personal best.

Fundamental Attribution Error says that everything good is due to my virtue, and everything bad is due to the world’s unfairness.

Imposter’s Syndrome says that everything good is due to misunderstanding, and everything bad is due to my incompetence.

Neither is accurate, and both will hold you back.


It's okay that we're all different!

Scrappiness is the understanding that hard work can sway probability, but never guarantee anything. The world does not owe you success, even if you work yourself to death. Nobody owes you anything, and how hard you work won’t change that. You can work for 80 years, put your heart and soul in, and fail. Many do.

If you want advice, wealth, connections, introductions, fame, or favors, you’ll have to earn it and be lucky. The most common assumption error I see is the mental arithmetic adding up all the hours or years spent and wondering why so-and-so succeeded where you didn’t -- as if there’s any relation between one person’s efforts and another’s. Every creator has different advantages, disadvantages, challenges, and opportunities.

When we started the Moon Hunters Kickstarter, we asked for $45,000 because it’s what we felt we could achieve without endangering the game’s quality. We knew that other pixel-art RPG Kickstarters had achieved more, but we didn’t compare ourselves to them. When the campaign closed at $178,000, it was an enormous victory for us -- it was an unmitigated, wild success, even though it was “less successful” than some similar campaigns. And, even with such a great success in our pocket, we had to be honest and admit that luck was a huge factor, in addition to our hard work.

To be clear, I absolutely support learning from others. Admire their achievements and study their mistakes. There's lots of wisdom and knowledge to soak up out there. Especially from mistakes. But at no time should you feel these reflect on your own work, for good or ill.

Psychological independence from others’ achievements is important because as soon as you start feeling entitled, you start losing your scrappy edge -- you stop assuming the worst and factoring only on your independently available resources. You get lazy and the competition overcomes you. I don’t (and don’t care to) know much about Steve Jobs, but someone once quoted him as saying “Stay hungry,” and that’s what it means to me. Scrappiness is self-reliant and measures success only against itself.

3. Make decisions quickly. Studios with hundreds of employees need meetings and communication pipelines. We don't!

At Kitfox, we achieve peak efficiency by formally designating decision-makers for each project. Whenever the going gets murky, it’s someone’s job to settle disagreements or answer questions in a particular realm (art, design, programming, business, scheduling, etc). This makes our meetings frequent and often less than five minutes long.


Stop talking and get the work done! Photo: Paul Bratescu

It’s also their responsibility to take feedback and in the end, they are accountable when things go wrong, too. They have no excuses, and nobody else to blame. This often means it's in our own best interest to write documentation and comment our code, so we can remember the finer points of why we made that dumb decision three months ago.

Even aside from speed, personal accountability is important for two reasons:

  • They can take personal pride in successes in that area of the game
  • They can recognize and admit when they personally made a mistake

You might think it adds performance pressure, but that pressure is relieved by knowing that any mistake made is less likely to be repeated, and the whole team will work better as a result. Nobody's expected to be perfect, but as stated in point #2, we are all expected to actively pursue doing our best work.

While we were working on Shattered Planet and hemming and hawing over a particular feature design, Randy Smith from Tiger Style Games told me: “Your primary advantage over larger teams is speed. Decide quickly. You don’t even need to be right all the time. If you’re just right about as often as a committee, and faster, you’ll be ahead.”

Scrappiness is maximizing your speed. Caution is for studios with more to lose.

4. Increase your visibility. This stacks the odds for new doors opening.

As you work to improve your personal best, be loud about it! Sing out joyfully, like a bird into the dawn. Share your knowledge and increase your profile, both as a creator and as a company. Be visible! Be valuable! Be trustworthy!

You already have skills and interests -- but you’re going to gain more as you go! I started out as an English major, so it was natural for me to write articles like this one. Maybe you’re a talented programmer and should be sharing your code on GitHub, or maybe you can share your musical stylings and collaborate with other composers, or any number of other ways to put yourself out there and make a personal connection.


Don't have any skills? Get some!

Ask yourself how you can help more people.

In answering that question, remember you’re not entitled to anyone’s attention, and making friends takes time. Be patient, be generous, share with an open heart. It may be difficult for some personalities to be visible, especially if you don’t enjoy social media or public scrutiny -- and let’s be honest, most of us don’t.

The longer you can stand it, though, the more opportunities have a chance of finding you. Stand on the clifftops of game development, as a beacon for like-minded souls.

Writing our Kickstarter postmortem has resulted in many emails from new campaign hosts or Square Enix Collective hopefuls, asking for advice or feedback -- which I happily give, as best I can. Now I have a handful of new acquaintances across the world, and if/when I run into them at GDC, we’ll have war stories to share. Who knows what collaborations they might have up their sleeves... In the meantime, I now have a wider network, which has intrinsic value anyhow.

An Aside on Double-Edged Visibility

This is the part where I acknowledge that being visible is more dangerous for some developers than others. Developers that don't fit the pre-existing mental image of a developer often suffer abuse and harassment for the exact same visibility that is so crucial to success for others.

Whether you're too young, too old, too girly, too black, too queer, too fat, too thin, too religious, too weird, too normal, too sensitive, too outspoken... there is a serious danger in being too cavalier in advising all devs to be brave in proportion to their obscurity. Harassment is real.

As always, preserve your personal safety.

But.

I believe in you.

Whoever you are, I believe in your unique voice, and the contributions you have to offer our art and industry. And only you can know your vulnerabilities, and what you're willing to risk. Maybe you're stronger than you think.

If you need to start somewhere safe, look to other indie devs. Confide. Exchange. Share. As you gain friends and allies (you know, actual allies, the kind that appear to flank the enemy in battle), you can step up visibility to match your increased support network.

It's not fair. But stay scrappy, for as long as you can take care of yourself.

5. Go on the hunt for new opportunities. Calculate the risk:reward and cost:value, then leap through as many open doors as you can afford.


If you can afford to fail, take the plunge! Photo: Larry Gambon

If I just sat around waiting for new opportunities to be handed to me, Moon Hunters might never have been part of the Square Enix Collective. We certainly weren’t invited.

I didn’t know Phil Elliott, or anyone else involved with the program, even though as it turned out, one of the other chosen pilot games was also from Montreal. I just saw the announcement of the initiative on Gamasutra and clicked on a link to send an email to the director, asking if I could pitch. It seemed like a shot in the dark, but I figured taking a few minutes to write an email couldn’t hurt. Besides, they probably wouldn’t reply.

I felt a bit vulnerable and silly, sending a query to a well-established stranger who had no reason to bother with my request.

But … I received a response! And yes, they were still taking pitches for a week or so. I was ecstatic!

There was only one problem. I didn’t have a pitch.

In fact, I was in the middle of trying to push my current game (Shattered Planet) into feature complete, and the schedule was tight. Was I really going to take the time to create a whole new game concept for this initiative? My team was dubious. So I sat down and I analyzed the situation:

The risks were low. They weren’t asking for any money or ownership, and even if they were utter sleazebags and stole the game idea and ran with it… well, ideas are cheap. I can make more. And if we really fell in love with the stolen idea, I’m sure we could change important details and act on our idea faster than a megacorp could keep up with anyway.

The costs were low. A few days of concept document writing is nothing. Xin (our artist) can slap together a mockup in a couple of hours, and he already had a bunch of paintings in his portfolio we could re-purpose for supplementary concepts.

The potential reward, on the other hand, was mysterious. We couldn’t be sure what value it had, if any, since the Square Enix Collective didn’t exist yet, and they didn’t exactly guarantee a million hits. But as a small, scrappy company, we knew we could use all the visibility we could get, so even a small nudge from such a big fanbase would be a blessing. Plus, even if they didn’t select the idea for their program, we’d still be ahead by having a new game concept to move forward with -- the effort wouldn’t be wasted.

So we jumped in! Even with the stress of finishing Shattered Planet, even not knowing what exactly we’d get out of it, we took the few days and threw together the idea for Moon Hunters. They took it, and hooray! It paid off. But even in the alternate universe where they didn’t, it would be a good example of an opportunity hunted down.

Similarly, whenever possible, I try to meet up with folks who might have interesting projects or opportunities. When I hear about literally anything occurring in the world, my first thought is whether there’s anything Kitfox can do with it. Our identity is malleable, our time needed to change direction is instantaneous. Scrappy means poking your little fox nose into every nook and cranny… and there’s lots out there to be found!

6. Respect is paramount. Between the team members, and of the fans. Even if you’re a one-person team, scrappiness is knowing you’re not in this alone.

In order for those quick decisions from point #3 to actually stick, every member of the team must respect the expertise of the others. Even if we disagree (respectfully), we trust that the other person is taking the decision seriously, and believes it will be for the betterment of the game. We let each other make mistakes, and learn together.


Photo by thrumyeye

We also respect each others’ time. Because we believe we are each valuable individuals with rich lives and want to invest in our long-term health, we adopt processes that minimize crunch (i.e. extended overtime). Don’t get me wrong -- we do some overtime! We even occasionally do (non-mandatory) game jams over a weekend here or there. Small, voluntary bursts of extra creative energy are healthy and fun!

But weeks of imposed long hours are the opposite of healthy, and pave the road to burnout.

At a small company, none of us are replaceable cogs. We can't afford to let each other burn out. We are each essential, and our ability to work at top efficiency for years at a time is crucial to keeping our scrappy edge. If you’re a one-person team, recognize the people in your life that help support you and keep you sane during this mad endeavour -- appreciate them. Respect them.  

I feel so strongly against devs “choosing” to burn themselves out (sometimes even feeling pressured to do so) that I made this public pledge and petition. Feel free to use it if you also want to respect yourself and your team-members and recognize when extended overtime is failure!

But even looking beyond the development process, we have to respect our fans and stay transparent. Because we’re competing with a thousand other studios and games, and we don’t have millions of marketing dollars, all we have to stand out is the game and ourselves. So it’s important that we talk to our fans like humans, and that we take every chance to show that we respect and appreciate their support.

Summary

It's easy to say "stay flexible," but what does that really mean? For us, boiled down to its bare bones, scrappy flexibility means:

  • Know your priorities
  • Strive for your personal best
  • Make decisions quickly
  • Increase visibility
  • Actively hunt for new opportunities
  • Nurture respect

These are working for us so far! But right now, Kitfox is in a different situation than it was a year ago, or two years ago. We have different obstacles and advantages that have come and gone. In a year from now, we'll be somewhere new again, with new problems to solve.

More to the point, your situation is not the same as ours ever was.

I hope by sharing our high-level strategy, I've given you something to think about, a new way to understand your own priorities and choices. I would be stunned if my practises made sense to take wholesale and apply brute-force with no alteration to fit your team, your project, your culture.

Not every small team needs to be scrappy. It's just one virtue in a kaleidoscope of strengths and superpowers, each of us adapted to carve a unique niche in the ecosystem.

But if speed and flexibility are what you seek, I have found each one of those six habits has given us an advantage in the fight to survive. May they serve you well.



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