Path Of The Indie — Work During Pandemic
CEO of Rummy Games creating Saturated Outer Space proceeds to share his experience with other independent developers
For newcomers here is the first post about me and reasons why these articles might interest you.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to tell you how to make video games but I will share my experience and learning process of managing an indie team while following the path.
Strange department, this. Their motto was: “The comprehension of Infinity requires infinite time.” I did not argue with that, but then they derived an unexpected conclusion from it: “Therefore work or not, it’s all the same.”
In the interests of not increasing the entropy of the universe, they did not work.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, “Monday begins on Saturday”
How could a young indie team react to the worldwide quarantine?
In February 2020 I supposed two different things:
- Moving to the remote format with their daytime jobs team members would have more free time to devote to our project.
- The confinement blues would devour our team to freeze the project till uncertain times. All would play games to avoid anxiety and sad thoughts, instead of creating them.
The truth, as usual, lied somewhere in between. Well, we have already been working remotely from the very start and learning to work asynchronously. I’ll tell you more about our pipelines and established processes in the 11th post. Now let’s return to the pandemic.
Thanks to our acquired skills to work in such a way, the coming of “total remote” didn’t have a big impact on the project as a result. We still gather online to our weekly team calls, set the tasks in task trackers, collect the info, discuss our progress and keep creating our game as we had been doing before the quarantine.
My first thought about ‘having more free time to devote to the game’ proved to be wrong. I don’t know exactly how this freed time was spent but there was no speeding up in the development. That’s for sure. Everything paces the same as before. The world’s gone mad, everyone has their personal or job related perturbations but we try to keep that apart from our common work. As for us, we didn’t have any changes.
However, universal dismay that started to manifest in many industries has slowly been slipping into our team too. Uncertainty, social isolation, confinement at home — all that are reasons for anxiety to many. At some point, people started to miss conference calls or just disappear for a week without notice. Some admitted honestly: “I’m depressed, leave me alone, please”. Those quitted the project eventually, by the way. Partly with my own initiative. We are not forcing anyone to stay and work without a reward.
It became clear that the team’s motivation suffered and we couldn’t afford that. In times like this you have to invent something to keep the morale high. As we were at the step to start looking for investors, it was time to clarify the equity participation in the studio to show the employees “light at the end of the tunnel”. To answer the question: “What will I get in return when our project is released?”
This answer had already been written in our charter but in very vague terms. Something like “the team gets 50% from sales, in the period of 1 month following after the release”. Far from being adequately formulated, this note exists just to be taken in account in future.
So I began to prepare a proposal for the team with the system of options. I counted on raising the motivation if we clarified the terms of this part of the reward.
After a proper research in the open resources and reading articles with public access, I composed a table of criteria where the size of options for each employee correlates to:
- Founder or non-founder. Obviously, this is the most significant coefficient.
- Personal ambitions. Someone could ask for 80% or “the ring to rule them all”. Sometimes it happens and you both have to make the compromise.
- Time devoted to the project. I divided the ‘6-month period’ having a different allocated parameter each. It’s not just a “veteran status” but also a certain indicator of loyalty.
- Professional value. The skill level is very important for the final product’s quality, and it’s amplified by “irreplaceability”. If you have only one programmer then he/she has 100% value.
- Personal merits. Includes all kinds of situations from “bringing a valuable member to the team” to “creating the whole lore of the game”. Shows the contribution of each person into the project.
I created the share distribution model using these indicators. Keeping in mind, of course, the shares of future investors. I’m not giving the exact coefficients because that can vary for different teams. All you need is a reasonable balance.
I presented this system to the team. With the simple rules for future success scenarios it became more obvious to them why they were working on our game. Now this system is included in our welcome task for all newcomers who have to read and sign the agreement. It exists only in the form of comments in Confluence but it’s already a big step from “verbal agreements”.
Did it boost our morale? Yes, evidently. At least, from about 20 employees in the beginning of the pandemic we grew up to 30 at the end of the summer. 2 out of 3 people left were actually hired by other companies, and only one stayed for the reason of “being really sad”.
Someone could think that an indie team doesn’t need such expansion. They might be right but we have our own path and we’re fine with our numbers. We learned to live with it getting additional benefits. And our motivation system implies that every one who stays with us till the moment we get financed will get a priority to be hired as well as an option in stakes. That will be distributed in accordance with this system. If the future investor wouldn’t like it… well, that’s what negotiation table was invented for.
This part covers the time from February 2020 to July 2020.
The moral of the story:
Confinement and remote work is not a big deal for indie. It’s possible for an indie team to work at home. It could be effective enough.
The main risk here is the time but it’s not a critical obstacle for young people passionate about creating games.
If you see your team getting sad, try to create a new motivating system or to update an existing one in order to raise morale.
And don’t think about “visit a bar together and have a beer”, it has to be something more profound and fundamental.