This is a series I’m publishing about the business of video games for the intrepid souls who dare to be founders and CEOs of their own game development studios. I salute you. With the number of years I have worked in the video game industry in retail, at xbox, and at Strategic Alternatives, I felt it might be useful to share some tips from my perspective for what makes game developers successful. Some of these tips may be obvious, some less so. But obviousness does not make the doing easy. I hope that this series will be useful to you. If so let me know - it’ll make my day. - Rhys Dekle
So here you are, you’ve joined together with like-minded people and formed a game studio. Congratulations! But the hard part isn’t done, it’s just begun. Maybe you are bootstrapping and making your own game or maybe you are pitching to make a game paid for by someone else or making ends meet by doing work-for-hire for someone else. Regardless of your circumstances, there is one thing that anyone who is the CEO of a game studio must keep in mind as a singular mantra – Always Make Great Games. Always.
You are, after all, a game studio, aren’t you? Making games that others love to play is what you are supposed to do. What is the purpose of making average games or mediocre games? No one sets out to make games that aren’t the best, but the truth is that few studios truly dedicate themselves to quality in every product. The truth is, they often get tired and sacrifice quality to get the project over with. And that is what you must not allow yourself to do. Because failure to make great games will doom your studio to years of toil and suffering in the video game industry. You’ll wonder why no one wants to fund you or hire you or distribute your product.
The fact is that your market value as a studio today and tomorrow is based on your revenue potential to some other party. But to realize your studio’s full revenue potential, you will probably need to make deals with other parties first – publishers, distributors, platforms, and investors. And they will judge you on the quality of your past work. Most likely they will judge you on the quality of the last thing you worked on. Did your last game do four stars, garner awards or have a 90+ Metacritic? You must be a good studio – a safe bet. The game industry is a hit driven industry and most games do not end up making enough profit to sustain a studio. Not all games that are high quality make a lot of revenue, it is no guarantee of financial success. But quality is a precondition for financial success. The parties you deal with already know that. They fear the risk and uncertainty that come with investing in games – as they should. So, it makes sense that when they select a studio to work with in any capacity, proven quality is going to be the first criteria they look for. Because the smart publisher or investor is not going to bet on someone who does not have a track record of high-quality work if they don’t have to.
I’d also like to say a word about polish because it is so important and not enough people bring this up. The most valuable ten percent of every game development budget in my experience, is polish. That last month or two where you are making the game feel good and look good for the player. Polish is what can determine whether you have a merely good game – or a GREAT game. When you draw up your budgets and your development plan – do whatever you can do to retain the resources to polish your game. The universe is against you doing so. If the publisher doesn’t squeeze you with timelines or milestones or you haven’t overspent because of scope creep or inefficiency or unexpected mistakes in the development process it will be the exception not the rule to preserve that last ten percent of your budget for polish.
This mantra of Always Make Great Games is not just for original IP. I mean this for all your work-for-hire projects too – everything your studio does. Quality must be your calling card. Because the only other way to compete is cost. And long term, when industry conditions shift (and they always shift), the players who compete on cost will lose out to others who do the same bad work more cheaply than they. Let that not be you. Obsess about quality first and then your costs. It’ll make you different in the long term. And it could make you valuable one day.