Blood, Sweat, Tears, and a Company: What it Takes to Make a Game

By Michael Dehen [10.18.07]

 Do you think you have the next hit video game that will sell millions of copies? That you can make video games better than the current ones on the market? Have you ever thought about or taken into consideration the blood, sweat, and tears involved in not only making your own game, but starting your own company to get it made?

Last September I wrote and developed a video game that I fell in love with, and started researching how to get it made or sell the intellectual property. After further schooling and research, no publisher I could find was looking to buy an IP or license it to develop either -- it's too high a risk. They're looking for other companies to invest in, potentially by the millions, to make sure the game gets made on time and within budget, and that the risk on investment isn't too great. So I decided to start my own game company, Faramix Enterprises LLC, because I realized that starting a real company was the only viable way to get my video game on the market.

What I want to share with others is a true sense of what it takes to start a company and make a game. Beyond what you read in the postmortems of games from established studios, building a game and starting a company require deep personal sacrifices.

Video Game Content and Coordination
Creating a video game is a long and difficult process, and there are certain steps that one must follow in a particular order. For example, the designs and storyline have to be created before an artist can get an idea of what to draw. Before artists draw character sketches, they need to know about the characters, such as their height, weight, and personalities. Even though the characters might be left up to the artists' imagination, the artists need a basic outline to build from.

Once the art is done, it has to be sent to a modeler and texture artist so they can create, texture, and rig the models. Even after modeling, rigging, and animating, the models have to be placed and told what to do. When will the different animations take place? Are there triggers to certain events that will call on the model? Are there animation segments that are called between animations so it's smooth? All these steps make up just a small segment of the entire game development process, so you can only imagine the amount of time and effort it takes to create a full-scale triple-A game.

We've been working hard on a demo that was scheduled to take two months to build, which is a short time for a technical demo to get completed. But with extremely tight coordination, we managed to hit our goal with minor technical difficulties. Currently, everyone at Faramix works together online because we don't have a physical office yet to accommodate us all since it requires money we don't have yet. Coordinating a video game project is hard enough in one studio; doing it all online takes substantially more tender loving care.

Images used under the expressed permission from Faramix Enterprises LLC. All work copyright and trademarked 2007 by Faramix Enterprises. Do not duplicate, copy, or reproduce without prior written permission.

As of now, we have a few weeks left before having some in-person meetings with publishers. We're using this time to make small changes to improve what we've already completed -- so the work is never done. Even for a small demo, it took extremely tight coordination to finish in time. While I was writing out the designs and flow of the level, we had already started working on the music composition, menu layout, and controls. I finished the level designs in a few days and moved on to working with the environment artist to get the designs visually mapped out. We also finished concept drawings so the object and environment modelers knew the color schemes of textures and the different sizes of objects.

Within the first month of building the demo, we had the environment and objects modeled, but not yet textured, and our first official build was run through, testing the menu system and finalizing the GUI. We spent all of September texturing environments and objects, and putting the pieces of the demo together. This included placing objects, setting triggers, creating AI paths and spawns, developing the background skybox, and even lighting the scenes. Granted this is a simplified version of every detail we completed and the timeline, but it should give you a basic idea of how much there is to do.

 Company Formation and Struggles
I partnered up with a classmate, Nathan Follmer, in the Game and Simulation Programming program at Devry University online. We talked for almost a month until officially signing contracts that I drew up for us to work together. Since publishers don't typically speak to the general public on a personal basis, we decided to officially incorporate Faramix Enterprises LLC so that we could approach them as a legitimate company.

At company formation, I had two years previous experience in entrepreneurship and had already been working on writing and designing the video game, End. Nathan began by developing a web site and would later work on models and programming. We started this game project as a way to get some experience before we graduated college, and our goal was, essentially, to be bought out by a publisher and brought into an existing company or merged with another development studio and be set up with video game jobs. But our plans changed after just the first few months of starting up Faramix Enterprises.

I'm the creator of the storyline and gameplay for End. I designed and wrote the backbone that it was built on top of. This is my dream and my life, and now I share my dream with others on the team, and it has become our game.

Our game wasn't going to get developed or funded (and never would) unless we did it ourselves. Publishers supply funding, marketing, CD creation, packaging, and retail distribution, while developers create the game itself. It's rare for a publisher to be a developer, and for big-budget games, it's almost unheard of for a developer to work without a publisher.

Images used under the expressed permission from Faramix Enterprises LLC. All work copyright and trademarked 2007 by Faramix Enterprises. Do not duplicate, copy, or reproduce without prior written permission.

We made the mistake of submitting our company and game title for review too early. We spent a hard three months after our first publisher encounter fleshing out more ideas, developing more artwork and most importantly, finishing the demo, before even thinking about approaching other publishers. Based on this experience, I do not recommend talking to publishers or starting up conversation with one until extensive work has been completed on the company, the game, and the game assets. For the company, these include budgets, headcount, layouts, physical office location, and researching how similar companies have been successful or unsuccessful. For the game title, these include working on the storyline, music, characters, environments, models, animations, and especially a technical demo. The more work done to show the entire video game and how the company structure is setup, the more helpful it will be in terms of securing any type of funding.

With any project, there are going to be those who say "You'll never make it," "You suck," "Your game sucks," and "I can do better than you." That has been one of the hardest parts of this endeavor -- reading criticisms about the company and the game. This will always happen, even with the next big hit on the market. Look at any video game out there, such as BioShock or Gears of War. (We've licensed Unreal Engine 3, so I'm making comparisons to other games built with it.) Those two titles are amazing games in every detail. They had incredible teams working on them and proper budgets. Yet, how many forum postings are there that call BioShock a horrible piece of work, or that Gears of War didn't deserve a Game of the Year award in 2006? Even the best games will invariably have its jeerers who want to flame about it.

One word of advice I can give is to lower your head and fight through the negative feedback. If you believe you have the next big hit and have the time to devote to getting it made, then strive for it, and be smart about your decisions. Would it be great to have millions of dollars of funding right now? Of course. Am I going to give another company controlling shares of the company to get the funding simply because someone else has money? No. We'll wait and make a decision that fits our needs, not one that gets us what we want at too high a cost or one that risks us losing ownership of our intellectual property. Don't get caught up in money. Having an investor throw $100,000 at you may seem awesome, but what if they want 10 percent ownership and you still need another $1.9 million to get the job done? At that rate, you'd be giving up more ownership than exists by the time you reached your 2 million goal.

In my own struggles, both financial and personal, I owe a special thank you to my brother. I will never forget the night I talked to him about the issue. Early on, before I paid more than a thousand dollars to file for company incorporation, I was scraping the money barrel a bit. Did I really want to get a loan for the company and risk losing money? What if all the work would get us nowhere? Was I willing to risk the thing that I most wanted to accomplish? There was one night when I couldn't sleep. My brother and I were up late talking. He told me, "It doesn't matter if you fail in the end because Mom and Dad will be proud of you either way for trying."

Ever since that night, I haven't worried about failure. We have a strong IP and the strong technological backbone of Unreal Engine 3.

 Research and Sacrifice
I can't stress this enough, but anyone who wants to make an original game or start up their own game company has to do some outside research. In addition to all my school books for DeVry, I've read numerous books each numbering from 300 to 500 pages. They've varied in topic from game development, to storyline writing, to game production, to profiles of companies and people, how they started and what they did right and wrong.

A new business requires constant attention, like an infant. The people behind that business must have the ability to learn new and useful tools all the time. Even with a vast knowledge base, there will always be more to learn.

In addition to giving up many hours to reading, starting a game development company and working on a game title takes an enormous amount of other sacrifices. Working on Faramix, there are too many examples of personal sacrifice, from every member of the team, to name them all. But speaking from my own situation, as the founder of the company, I have the most to lose.

My father was recently elected President of the Minnesota Medical Association, and I almost turned down the inaugural dinner and events in his honor simply because I would have to travel out of state and lose a few days of work to do so. In fact, I'm in Minnesota now, writing this article ... on "vacation." I can't remember the last time I had a day off, or even a few hours, including weekends. I'm constantly getting emails or instant messages, or searching the internet and making calls on behalf of the company.

In the beginning, I worked part-time as a food server to pay the bills, but I eventually had to quit my job. Between school and running the company, I eventually didn't have time for a part-time job. I don't normally have time to see my friends more than once a week -- twice if I'm lucky. Even when I am hanging out with my friends and trying to relax, I get email on my phone. So I'm constantly reading and responding to emails or taking business calls. I've managed to squeeze in a few dates, but I don't have the time to devote to a relationship until I can delegate more of my duties to other employees, which takes money.

A Typical Day
Ever since work began on the company and game details, an average day consists of waking up around 11 a.m., having gone to bed around 6 a.m., seven days a week. I work from the moment I wake up until the time I sleep, and long nights of rest are rare. During the week, a 12- or 16-hour day is very common. On weekends when other businesses are closed, my hours are closer to eight a day. If I'm not working on details of the company or game, I'm finishing homework. And if I run out of work to do, I find it. I search forums, web sites, magazines, and write to different contacts trying to get information, funding, advice -- anything.

A typical day is hard to categorize. It changes and evolves. In the early days of the company, I was trying to establish exactly what the company was going to be while waiting for our official incorporation to be processed and returned. I considered different policies we might include, the company's structure, points of contact, departments, contracts such as NDAs, and a web site address.

While working on the company details, I was also working full scale on the game itself, mostly writing character backstories and thinking about how they would be incorporated into the storyline. While working on those details, I had to expand the basic storyline twists into a per chapter or level basis. Which events would take place where? How will the player accomplish her goal? How will the player's goal vary based on user preferences and play style? Which characters will need to be completed by which stages of development? All these details needed to be not just ideas, but finalized plans.

In my opinion, lack of dedication is one of the main reasons most indie companies fail. Creating a video game from scratch is a long and difficult process. With many triple-A titles resulting from a two- or three-year development cycle, it requires dedication and quite often many hours of logged overtime.

Working on your own indie company is a 24/7 job. There are no weekends or nine-to-five days, as most of the workload you will be completing by yourself to get the company established. You'll work on the game itself while also juggling in time for networking and research -- and "research" doesn't mean playing 15 hours of Halo 3 each day, but actually reading up on other companies and playing games for a reasonable amount of time to not only see what's on the market now, but also pay attention to the details of the ones that are successful.

You've got to be dedicated to your project and your company even through the toughest times, when all hope seems lost and all sources of funding seem dry. At the same time, you also have to be smart enough to know when to let the dream die, or when to just put it on hold for a few years.

Do you still think you have the next big hit? If it's your dream to make millions of dollars selling your awesome idea, then I wish you the best of luck. You have two choices: 1) start your own company and dedicate your time to its development, or 2) get a job with another company and, after a few month of working their and gaining some credibility, pitch it internally (in which case you probably have no hope of owning the IP).

Think your choices through, protect yourself, and stay dedicated and professional. Accomplishing your goal or failing, it will be a learning experience nonetheless. Research every aspect of not only video game development, but the developer-publisher relationship and the business side of development from start to finish.

Michael Dehen is President and CEO of Faramix Enterprises LLC. He welcomes email at [email protected]. When he can spare a few minutes, he can often be found on Xbox Live under the gamer tag FME Broadway.

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