Advice on how we run our Indie Games Studio.

We just released our first multi-platform indie game Idioctopus and work is well underway on our next project. People have been asking about our studio, BadgerHammer, and how we make it work. So here we go. Warts and all.

It’s not all about games

To help you understand our current situation, I want to talk about how we got here.

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Me and NickH met over 20 years ago on our first day starting a degree in Fine Arts. NickH was building giant mechanical contraptions and I was making comedy shorts about Bomb Disposal. Together, we played old records in an empty basement bar, made a band and mucked about on a 486 bodging the editor in Micro Machines to make other kinds of games.

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Like every other student on the planet, we were sessioning the hell out of Tekken and playing so much GoldenEye that I was seeing target reticles over real life security cameras.

After Uni we moved to Brighton and enjoyed about a year of unemployment benefits. We had infinite free time other than having to sign on every 2 weeks. We didn’t waste (that much of) it. We made loads of short films. We learned about design and how to program HTML and Flash by taking notes from books and magazines in Borders Bookstore. We also played every single PS1 game that came out that year by taking advantage of the “No Questions Asked” return policy at GAME. Seriously, we paid for one game at the start of the year with a bag of change and endlessly swapped it up for a new one.

The dawn of the internet

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So around this time the internet suddenly became a really big deal. There were no graduates with internet skillsets coming for at least three years and agencies were gagging for generalists who could jump on that kinda stuff straight away. Luckily for us, we more or less had the skills, but more importantly, we could jump on that kinda stuff right away.

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Simultaneously, we both landed jobs at top London advertising and digital agencies around the corner from each other. Now, this is important for what comes later. We learnt from the best in the business. They ran us through the mill, set us loose on top brands and taught us to understand the importance of a quality end product, deadlines and hard work. Without these 18 months being raised by wolves, busting our balls, commuting to London nothing else that follows would be possible.

From long shots to living the dream

British trains aren’t known for their punctuality and living a 14 hour day before you can start your real life takes its toll. We both took some time out to travel and see what else was out there.

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A brief period of mixed freelance work followed, but our advertising experience and connections lead to a 3 year stint handling all the online advertising for a start-up called Betfair. This was our studio in its first incarnation. We had a spare room in our shared house that we used as an office. At this time our roles were reversed, I was the programmer and Nick H the designer. Funny how things work out.

Eventually, we convinced them to make a promotional web game for the Rugby World Cup. See where we’re going? We were still making our own games at this point. Idioctopus included (no joke). Lots of these never saw the light of day and that’s going to have to be an article of its own.

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Anyway, back to the story. The rugby game got us some work making web games for Nickelodeon and LEGO. From here the blue chip web game work started flooding in, ending with a 5 year stint working exclusively for LEGO. One of my childhood dreams ticked off! So here we were making games for a living.

Wait you had it all! What happened?

Let me explain. We may have been working for these big boys. In fact, doing ALL the work. But we were an outsourced resource to a bigger studio who took all the credit and a fairly big portion of the cash. As the environment changed, we moved with it, like we did before and continue to. I was getting offered a lot of animation jobs and it turns out the workload vs pay on that kinda work is much better than games. Nick H started a family and needed a secure full-time wage.

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After all that history here’s what you’ve been waiting to hear! Our indie “studio”, probably like most of you out there, is just two guys doing what we love for a hobby in our spare time. I do everything you can see, and NickH makes all the magic happen under the hood.

We do the best job we can and hope that, just maybe, we could end up making enough money to bankroll the next project. I use the free time between irregular freelance jobs and NickH has a regular half day off per week. It’s kinda like being in a band. We dedicate a few hours a week to make an entertainment product that we hope people will enjoy and see the value of paying their hard earned wages into. Most likely, even our close friends will ask for a free guest list.

Getting to the goddamn point!

So here’s what I wanted you to take away from this:

Work with someone you trust.

NickH has been my best friend for 20 years. He’s the only person I speak to pretty much every day (other than my wife). Find collaborators you can rely on. If you’re working with strangers. Pay them! Otherwise, someone will end up letting you down when paid work comes their way or there’ll be an argument about effort vs revenue share. Time to call legal… wait we can’t afford lawyers!

Make a perfect team.

Me and NickH are practically psychic.  Even though we’ve spent the last 10 years working across time zones, our workflow is through the roof, honed by 20 years of collaborating. We both have knowledge and experience of both sides of games production. We understand the value of each other’s contributions and the time and effort that they take. We also understand that life stuff can get in the way of game making sometimes.

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Make a perfect team. The Revenge

We each have a very specific skill set. Over the years we both discovered the part of the job we loved. For me animation and illustration. For him coding and problem-solving. Find people who bring something to the table that isn’t already there. If your team is too big, step back and reassess. It’s harsh (I know you’re all mates too), but do you really need 3 character designers? Who’s doing your marketing? I’m sure as hell not doing it again!

Present yourself professionally

We’re professionals, we even made games professionally for a while. Right now it’s a hobby, but that doesn’t mean we have to act like amateurs. You might be working out of your mum’s spare room but no one knows that. Present yourself as a pro and get treated that way. Don’t tell lies to big yourself up tho! Seriously, you’ll get caught out.

Understand your limits

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We’re two guys, very part time. Level design, testing, all of this stuff takes a lot more time than you think (if you want to do it well). If you’re a one man hobbyist, maybe you should think twice before you make your dream epic MMOJRPG. Maybe start with something a little smaller that will help you make the systems that you’ll need later for making that monster with your lottery millions.

Keep doing it!

Maybe you’re surprised we’re like the rest of you. Yes, making games is our hobby. Sure, we’d love for it to be our career. But until that happens we’re going to carry on doing it anyway, we’re going to try to do it well and we hope you enjoy what we make!

Nick Gripton is an animator, illustrator, art director & the visual half of the BadgerHammer indie games team.