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February 17, 2020
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Three crucial lessons from a veteran mom-and-pop game studio

by Benjamin Rivers on 12/19/19 08:41:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

It only feels like a short time ago that we published an article detailing the major lessons we learned while working on a new game and releasing new versions of previous ones last year. 

And here we are, ready to do it again! So if you’re a small studio making games, or looking to get started, keep reading for a quick summary and three important lessons we learned this year.

First up: if you don’t know us, we’re Benjamin Rivers (Inc.), a mom-and-pop game development studio that has created and self-published original titles (Home, Alone With You, Worse Than Death) on console, iOS, PC and Mac since 2012. (I, the namesake, am the “pop,” and Nancy (the smart one), is the “mom.”)

So here’s what we did this year:

Launched a new game (everywhere)

Worse Than Death key art

We released our third commercial title, Worse Than Death, on (deep breath) six platforms: the App Store in July and Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam and Humble in October. 

This new entry into what we call our “small-town horror saga” was designed as a fun, fast project that leveraged our strengths — great writing, clever production techniques, and solid design philosophies that work on multiple platforms. As you’ll see below, we learned a lot from this new endeavour.


Released seriously sweet physical editions with Limited Run Games

Alone With You - Limited Run Games releases

In the spring we partnered once again with physical publishing powerhouse Limited Run Games to release multiple editions of our second game, Alone With You, on the PlayStation 4 and Vita.

Alone With You was designed as a love-letter to the Sega CD console that blended classic 16-bit artwork with a fully realized CD soundtrack. With Limited Run Games’ like-minded love of old-school Sega charm, we created not one, but four editions of the game — a regular and deluxe edition each for PS4 and Vita. We designed the packaging, full-colour manuals and the special CD of composer Ivor Stines’ score — it was a dream come true.

Well, that’s cool, you might say, but what did we actually learn?


Lesson #1: Stand on the shoulders of giants

Press pick-up is a whole lot easier when a champion is involved

 

We don’t hide the fact that we’re a small company, and we are fortunate in that we have a lot of prior experience (design, development, marketing, production) that has made us pretty efficient and well-equipped.

But we are still small, and if someone has a choice to cover the hottest new big game or ours, which do you think they’ll choose? That’s why we always look for champions — partners who have much bigger reach than we do, and like what we do.

For you, that might be a publisher, a platform, a co-developer, or a particular press outlet. For us this year, our champions were Limited Run Games (again) and our platform partners — particularly Apple. In fact, the App Store launch of Worse Than Death invited a surprising flurry of press attention — from games media, tech websites, horror publications and even mainstream newspapers like the LA Times.

It helped that we launched with App Store features and a Game of the Day spot here in Canada, because the decision to buy or cover your game is a lot easier for a customer or press outlet when somebody they trust is recommending it. Find your champions.


Lesson #2: Sim-shipping is not always the answer

Many times we hear developers being told that they should simultaneously ship their game on as many platforms as possible to maximize interest, press attention and (subsequently, the theory goes) sales. We can’t speak for anyone else, but for us we’ve not found this to be the best approach.

Previously, our strategy was always to focus on one platform with the utmost quality in mind, then move on to the next relevant platform when timing and interest made sense. With Worse Than Death, we sort of did both — we launched first on the App Store in July, and then sim-shipped on consoles and PC in October.

If we were to do it all over again, we wouldn’t have sim-shipped that second round; we should have focused on our next biggest champion before moving on. Why? Well, take a look at this one-week unit comparison:

Worse Than Death - first week salesWorse Than Death — first week sales comparison (units)

 

As you can see, we moved way more units on iOS in one week than all other platforms combined. The reason? Focused media attention; our champion (Apple) was invested in our success, which pushed sales and timely press coverage.

These days, with over 9,000 games released per year on Steam alone, you’re either top of mind or you’re not — and if you don’t have the media clout, marketing budget, or lightning-in-a-bottle revolutionary title to get you there alone, it’s extremely difficult to cut through the noise. 

Each release of your game can be a well-orchestrated, perfectly-timed event — but when you’re managing several platforms at once with different timelines and requirements, maximizing those opportunities is tough.


Lesson #3: You gotta grow up sometime

Shin Godzilla blowing fire
Even Godzilla knows you need to adapt

 

There’s a great passage in the excellent book Masters of Doom by David Kushner, where game designer John Romero realizes he has to learn to program on the IBM PC despite his love of the Apple II, in order to stay relevant and competitive.

In a similar way, we’re finally accepting the next stage of our own growth: this year, we started working with outside developers (Giffen Interactive helped us with the Xbox launch of Worse Than Death). We can do a lot, but we're definitely at a point now where we can't do it all.

That’s why we’re learning new tools and looking to partner with another developer for our next project. Despite our experience, we know there are other programmers with incredible skills who can help us make even better games. And since we now have a stable of three titles across many platforms, there’s a lot of day-to-day maintenance we already have to manage. 

Don't ignore the signals that are telling you it's time to change.


All in all, 2019 was a ride neither of us could have predicted. We’ve never worked this hard, never output so much, never learned more, and never had the pleasure of working with as many talented, passionate people before.

We genuinely hope this article helps you with your own studio's growth, no matter what stage it's in. If it did, post a comment or hit us up on Twitter. Here's to 2020!


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