There had to be more opportunities for my guys. And if we weren't going to find them in the commercial scene maybe the budding indie community needed artists and programmers.
Our local IGDA chapter in Sydney was a small haven for indies, artists, and engineers interested in making games for players instead of shareholders. Founders Dan Graf, Malcolm Ryan, and Chris Lee introduced us to Game Jam and created a support network of creatives all keen to donate their time to improving the discussion of game development.
But these designers weren't starting companies of their own yet. What studios we did have in Australia were struggling to stay afloat in a post-financial crisis economy, abandoned by overseas publishers, and confronted with all the disruptive effects of digital distribution. No one was in a position to hire anyone.
We needed people creating sustainable companies in Sydney and developing their own original IP. As much as third party publishers and investors can help some studios take on bigger projects -- it was exactly that kind of artificial growth that leads to overextended budgets and mass layoffs around Australia. No, we had to be making games on our own if we were going to have any hope for long-term sustainability.
Step 2: Pick the Right Metrics to Measure Success By. It's so tempting to say "we'll have a bigger game development scene when we have more game developers!" Just because people are making games doesn't mean that a) they're bringing in enough cash flow to hire anyone (let alone pay rent) or b) they're going to be around next year to keep making games! What will it look like when you're successful? The metrics you use to track your progress needs to match the result you're after.
Our Metrics: We didn't need more game designers; we had those in spades. We needed more folks going indie. We'd know we were succeeding when more developers were self-publishing, getting their first paying customers (without investor/publisher help!) and growing sustainably (i.e. only when they need to, and can afford to).
Oh man, I had no idea where to even start! Managing people, developing pipelines, and coaching creatives -- that's what I was good at. But helping people go indie? I'd never done that before. I didn't know what resources people needed, or if they even wanted help!
These were some pretty big assumptions I needed to test: first, that folks wanted help at all (maybe Sydney just wasn't interested in going indie? Who knows!) Second, that this was a problem we could solve AT ALL. Third, that we could find a way to solve that problem in a scalable way (not dependent on any one person or group of people for it to be effective).
The only way to figure this stuff out was to get involved and start volunteering my time to help folks in all the little ways I could. This would give me an opportunity to get to know the wider community in Sydney, and the environment they were making games in, and get a feel for what needed changing.
Step 3: Volunteer first; identify which problems need solving. Before waltzing in to right wrongs and change the world, you need to help out with the day-to-day stuff. Work with folks who are already donating time and money into organizing events for the community. They'll appreciate the help; you'll get to know the community better and develop a much better understanding of what's missing.
What I did: The first event I volunteered for was Game Jam 2011, and I did everything I could to help folks that weekend. From laying cable, interviewing teams, updating the website, playing artist/coder matchmaker, to making sure people took breaks and had water -- you name it, I did it.
In addition to that, I started doing pro bono coaching with designers all around Sydney, helping with anything from consulting on game ideas to identifying opportunities for startups. I got to know a good chunk of the development scene this way, and it became very clear that our game designers had all the passion and dedication to start studios of their own -- they just had no idea where to start, and didn't have confidence that folks wanted to play their games. Those were the problems I needed to solve before any change was going to happen.
We needed examples -- folks sustainably making great games to inspire us and give us an idea of what actually matters (and what really doesn't). I started researching the development and business models behind games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, Minecraft, Limbo and more recently Bastion and Spelunky. I wanted to know what those developers were doing right, and what core principles we could adopt.
Follow the threads of their stories back far enough and you'll find that a) there's no "went to uni, got a degree, got a job and lived happily ever after" mythos happening there and b) they only have two real things in common:
This theory emerged: if we can create a culture fully focused on developing and fleshing out original ideas (as opposed to regurgitating the same old game mechanics and genre tropes) as well as encourage an open exchange of knowledge and techniques between developers, then maybe it'll be easier for folks to go indie and make better games sustainably.
This was the second of Rhy's videos showcasing the event, done shortly after GDC 2012.
Step 4. Study what folks are already doing to solve that problem. Look for bright spots -- places where people are already achieving the results you're after. What are they doing? What do they have in common? Most problems are already being addressed somewhere effectively. Your job isn't to design a totally new solution; it's to start with what already works well and improve the experience for your community.
My Research Methods: I knew finding these bright spots would be a bigger job than I could do on my own, so I hired a couple of awesome research assistants (thank you Sunu and Navin!) and between us we started mining the internet for data on all successful indie games published since 2008 (post-GFC world). After reading through everything we found, I emailed people directly with the questions I hadn't been able to answer in previous interviews and articles. Finally, over many cups of coffee and late nights sifting through all that data, patterns of success started to emerge -- commonalities we could use as a guide in our startups. I started indiebits.com to collect, collate and distribute what I'd learned and then began work on the next major hurdle.