My PAX Panel Notes

Last weekend I spoke on a panel at PAX called: “I’ve Just Been F#$%ing Fired”: How To Get Back Into the Industry On Your Own Terms Through Mobile Game Development”. (I haven’t actually been fired but I know about running an Indie company.)

It was a bit last minute, someone dropped out of the Panel and I was asked to step in, and being the sort to take opportunities I did. Originally the panel was supposed to be about Mobile game development, which I have limited experience with, but I thought that my knowledge of running an Indie company would be valuable anyway.

The panel went great and was very enjoyable. My co-panellists were very knowledgeable and it was good to meet them. The audience was not massive, maybe 50 people because I think lots of people went to the PAX 10 Panel that was on at the same time instead. I wasn’t nervous at all, it was just like chatting with friends except into a microphone.

The coolest thing was that I got a free PAX pass and so I was able to visit the show for the first time and see all the latest games and attend some great panels and even go to a nerdcore concert!

Anyway, the panel had a slideshow and I made some notes beforehand about the questions on the slideshow so that I didn’t draw a blank. Either I or the other panelists mentioned all my points (because we agreed on everything) and we talked about other stuff too. Apparently the panels are recorded and I’d like to find out how to get a copy of the recording.

So here are my rough notes for those who are interested:

Intro

- Been a hobbyist game programmer since age of 8, but fell intro trap of making business software for nearly a decade.
- Finally saw the light and followed my dream to make games for a living.
- Quit my job with no real plan or savings but with a determination to succeed and a belief in myself.
- It was hard work, and money was scarce for quite a while, but it fun and rewarding learning how to make professional casual games, plus I got to sit in the garden whenever I wanted.
- Eventually my games got better and I was noticed by BFG and did some games as a contractor for them.
- Then they offered me a job in Vancouver. I took it for the experience and networking then moved my family from the UK.

Pick a Platform

- Arcade style: Investigate XLBA. Mini arcade game: iphone or Flash game (ads or licensed but not much money in it). Possibly Steam but Indie PC arcade games don’t sell that well off-Steam.
- Casual game: PC and Mac downloads via big portals (need pretty big budget to compete these days). Possibly WiiWare and even iPhone. Some casual games on XBLA.
- Why iphone? Can make very small game to get started with low budget (smaller than XBLA or Casual game) and just a couple of months of programming. Lots of tools, comprehensive language and great resources. Submit yourself to appstore + 70% of profits. BUT tons of competition and a chance of very little return.

Manage Finances

- Start saving money whilst you have a job.
- When Indie reduce all outgoings massively.
- Try to get people to work for profit share (or part pay and part %) so you don’t have to pay them. Caveat: pros want to be paid and they often do the best work.
- Learn the basics of accounting. Track expenses and sales. I expensed some consoles, games, events like this, and a plasma TV! Make a balance sheet. Hire an accountant as they save you money and will stop you getting into legal trouble. $1000 is nothing, they’ll save you that straight away. Who wants to fill out forms? Not me. Delegate it to someone who can do it faster and better. Don’t do anything illegal (on purpose or through ignorance) or it’ll bite you on the ass.
- Team up with someone with money. They may want control though.
- Get a business loan (tricky if you are new), or personal loan (pretend it’s to upgrade your house), or buy everything on credit cards if you don’t have savings (not very sensible but it sure makes you want to succeed quickly to pay them off!)
- Find an investor. Not easy. Need more than just an idea, need a prototype and a strong case to get money from publishers.
- Speculate to accumulate!

Choose Employees

- I’ve worked in a distributed team, it sounds cool, but it’s not cool. It can be done but is hard work. Tons of emails. Working in an office with other team members is way more productive and fun (if you don’t distract each other). OR at least live near each other so you can meet up often.
- Only work as a one person team if you are making a very small game and are great at art and music or plan to buy cheap art and music or use free stuff. That used to work 4 years ago but doesn’t cut it now. Working on your own will take to long as well.
- Need designer/programmer (could be separate people), artist x1 minimum, hire musician as a contractor, plus marketing or publisher. Minimum team of 2 for a casual game but 4 is better.
- Find other designers to bounce ideas off of because other team members may not know about game design.

Adjust to Change

- Roll with the punches. Rocky says something like: “It ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
- Change can often be good and present a new opportunity.
- Change is always a learning experience.
- Be open to change not rigid because when making a game you have to iterate ideas a lot and scrap many. Don’t cling onto something because you made it and it’s your baby, if the playtesters think it stinks, ditch it.
- Funding down: reduce scope. Funding up: boost scope, or finish game and make another. More eggs in more baskets is good.

Get Distributed

- A good game will NOT sell itself.
- Learn marketing and spend a lot of time and some money doing it
- OR hire a publisher (delegate so you can keep making great games, but they will take a big cut). Learn from them so you can do it yourself in the future if you want.
- For casual games, use portals.
- Find someone with a game on XBLA and see how they got it on there and seek advice or partner with them.
- App store = easy to get on. Backup with website and viral marketing.

Legal Aspects

- NDAs when showing other people ideas, but don’t be too scared and never show anyone.
- Don’t copy another game’s characters or story or graphics. Mechanics are often cloned in the casual world, but try to add something new so it stands out. Build your own brand of IP.
- Don’t make fan games, you can’t sell them unless you are extremely lucky and strike a deal with the IP holder.
- Satires of existing are legally OK, but still it may be best to come up with something totally new.
- Make sure all fonts, sound and art are totally from legal sources. Beware “free” sources. Read the small print as often it’s not legal for commercial titles.
- Don’t get bogged down in legality. Just get on with making the game!

Take Aways

- Believe in yourself
- Want to succeed
- Ready Fire Aim
- Work hard and learn as much as possible
- Seek advice
- Networking (which is why you are here right?)
- Take opportunities
- Speculate to accumulate.
- Go to my blog: www.greyaliengames.com/blog
- Keep it simple! (but not too simple)

4 Responses to “My PAX Panel Notes”

  1. Colm Says:

    A nice clean set of tips for indies looking to go fulltime, thanks for this!

  2. Joseph Burchett Says:

    Great post, just have to disagree with a part in the “Pick a Platform” when you mention about flash games. It’s true that just ads and sponsorships is not enough to live off of, but new and better was have been created to make money off of them. The most popular way right now is creating very social based games (facebook, virtual worlds) that involve micro-transactions. This is becoming a very lucrative market when it comes to flash games. Also the other way that is pretty popular is just creating games for other companies. Some companies are even going as far as to sell them as stand alone games using AIR, this is a really new area and not much info has been collected, but it’s growing.

  3. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Thanks Colm.

    Yes I totally agree Joseph, I should have mentioned that because I’ve been talking to people recently about micro-transactions in social games as the new way forward for Flash developers. Thanks for your comment.

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