Howdy howdy howdy! Ben from Hogrocket here. If you’re a regular reader of the Hogrocket blog you might have possibly seen Indie Dev Day.

Here’s the elevator pitch for the presentation:

Launching Hogrocket: How to Create Your Own Indie Games Studio

  • Starting a new company from scratch can be tough, especially in today‚Äôs hyper competitive world of digital games. Join Hogrocket Co-Founder Ben Ward as he shares his experiences, from initial announcement right through to the launch of their first game. An essential session for those thinking of making the jump to indie themselves.

Got it? Good. Now let’s get started shall we?

As you know, Hogrocket is a brand new company. We registered the business in Feb 2011, and announced ourselves to the world a little less than a month later. Since then we’ve not only built a brand and community, but also built and shipped our first game: Tiny Invaders. I think we’ve made pretty good progress considering we knew one third of half of bugger all about business before we started this venture. Hopefully by sharing some of our experiences and lessons learned we’ll be able to help out other people who are in a similar situation…

So, who are we? The core Hogrocket team is formed of three chaps, each of which previously worked at AAA console developer Bizarre Creations. We were lucky enough to work on a whole bunch of brilliant games, including the Project Gotham Racing series, The Club, Geometry Wars, Blur, James Bond 007: Blood Stone, and others. Brilliant times, and an honour to work with such a fantastic team.

Unfortunately, Bizarre was closed down by parent company Activision at the start of this year. This resulted in over 200 redundancies, and a exodus of talent away from the UK. We have colleagues all over the world now, but relatively few chose to stay in Liverpool. However, the three of us did exactly that, choosing to start a new company and have a bash at this “indie thing”.

The three of us covered a wide variety of disciplines at Bizarre. Pete was Senior Level Designer, and so had a broad view of the design and production process and all the experience this brings. Steve was a Senior Programmer, and able to turn his hand to almost any technical task. I was what they call Studio Communications Manager, meaning that I had experience working with publishers, the press, and community building. I was also lead of the Web Dev team, meaning that I can find my way around the technology side of things too.

This spread of knowledge was absolutely vital for us, as we had made the decision to self-publish our titles. Being a developer is one thing, but handling both development and publishing duties is quite another. Having this broad range of skills was essential to bring our plans to fruition.

So why start Hogrocket now? Well, it was a good time for the three of us considering we were out on our bums with a bit of redundancy money in our pocket. However, truth be told I’d been thinking about this for quite some time before that closure of Bizarre. The last couple of years have been a brilliant time to start-up this kind of business, and there are opportunities all over the place.

The games industry itself is changing at a rapid pace. This isn’t just due to the introduction of new platforms: iPhone, Facebook, etc. – although that certainly helps! A major factor in this change is because of the shift to digital distribution. Games are becoming cheaper to manufacture, which means that more people can do it. If more people can do it, you’ll get a more varied set of titles which take more risk. If they take more risk then new ideas get born quicker. This cost reduction is good for everybody, from consumers through to developers.

These new platforms I mentioned earlier are also just plain cheaper to develop for. The cost of making an XBLA or PSN game will be in the thousands before you’ve even begun. You need to buy dev kits, office space to keep them in, submission and certification fees, etc. Not only that, but you need a lot of people to work on the game for it to be competitive on those platforms. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Limbo had 15 guys or so working on it. That’s the level of investment you need to make a success on XBLA or PSN…

In contrast, being competitive on iOS or Android will cost you $100 for a Apple developer contract (or nowt for Android), and the price of a phone (which you probably have in your pocket already). With a bit of time and effort, almost anybody can be competitive. In fact, many of the most successful games have been made by one-man-bands or micro-teams.

Not only that, but these platforms are really exciting to work on! Touch screens are an interesting new challenge for us (we come from the console world where touch screens don’t exist yet!). The fact that they are always connected to the net is an interesting thing we can take advantage of. Everything is digitally distributed, and the freemium business model is a really interesting challenge too. There’s a lot of really cool stuff for game designers to play with right now, so it’s a really exciting time to be working on these new platforms.

As I mentioned earlier, we’d chosen to self-publish at Hogrocket. There are several reasons for that. Firstly, as we’re digitally distributed we are actually able to publish our own stuff in the first place. Taking this route is now an option, whereas if we were selling at retail it probably wouldn’t be.

The reason that digital distribution is so much cheaper than selling at retail isn’t just down to the fact that you don’t need to print discs and manuals. There is a whole lot of other “hidden” costs in selling to retail. I spent a lot of my time at Bizarre preparing for retailer meetings and presentations, and we had to allocate quite a bit of our time to creating screenshots, trailers, etc. for these behind-closed-doors events. Our publishers have to hire account managers to build relationships with the key retailers, and these chaps and chapettes spend all day every day convincing buyers to pick up our product. It’s a huge process, and is expensive both in terms of money and time spent.

Don’t get me wrong – you still need to spend time maintaining certain relationships in the digital world too if you want to be successful. However, it’s a fraction of the time and effort required to sell at retail.

Another great reason for self-publishing is because it lets us define our own messaging. We get to decide what Hogrocket stands for, and everything we do and say can reinforce that fact. If we want to change pricing, change our messaging, update the game with some “edgier” content, or whatever, then we can do that. We don’t need to ask permission or gain approval from a third party. Owning the entire process, from game design right through to post-sale customer support, is key for us.

As you can tell, we did a lot of homework before we started writing any code. The planning for Hogrocket was a big task, and we devoted a lot of resources into it. That’s really the first lesson to be learned from all this: “Respect the business side – do your research and know what you’re getting yourselves into”.

Don’t think that simply making a good game will be enough. It won’t. If you want to self-publish, you’ve got an awful lot of work ahead of you. If you want to run your own business then you’d better get your head around the fine details. The best advice I can give is if you don’t have the knowledge you’ll need, either change your plans or partner up with somebody who does. Don’t go in blind, otherwise you’ll get burned.

Stay tuned for part 2!